NEWSLETTER 4- Brookhaven

Brookhaven, May, 2007
I last jotted down my thoughts as we arrived in Balboa, Panama. It would be my fourth passage of the Panama Canal but my first from south to north. I will not bore you all the details of checking in and out and arranging the actual canal transit. The canal is now wholly owned by Panama and obviously they are trying to maximize income. For example a new charge since I last transited is a deposit to cover the extra cost of launches and pilot should the passage take two days. In the past I have made the trip in one or two days, depending on what time the pilot showed up. As we made the transit in less than twelve hours from start to finish I will be interested to see if the charge is refunded. Yachts must carry a crew of at least four for the transit in addition to the captain and pilot. These men handle the lines to the chamber sides from each ‘corner’ of the boat. We got two British backpackers to help via the notice board at the Balboa Yacht Club bar. The YC, by the way, is finally being rebuilt after it burned down in 1998. We transited eight days after we arrived in Panama and I got my outward clearance directly for the Bahamas without stopping at Colon on the Caribbean side. The town has a terrible reputation for violence and I was mugged there myself on my second visit to Panama. Actually, we cheated slightly and sailed to the San Blas Islands after we dropped off the Brits in Colon with advice to take a bus immediately back to Balboa. The San Blas are home to Kuna Indians who make the most wonderful, colorful embroidery called ‘Molas’. We anchored in the dark but shortly after sunrise a small skiff pulled alongside with two Indians. One of them, Venencio, was the master artist and he had scores of his molas packed in water-tight containers which he spread in the cockpit. We all bought samples and after prolonged haggling Venencio departed considerably richer. After one more night in the archipelago we sailed for the Windward Passage between Haiti and Cuba and the gateway out of the Caribbean.

The Windward Passage is well named, it lies to the northeast of Panama and the wind blows from the same direction. Rather than face that trip the captains of the old Spanish galleons usually sailed far further to clear the Caribbean by heading for the Yucatan Channel between the west end of Cuba and Mexico. Not only was the wind on the nose, we found we were set to the west by a current than ran up to 2 knots. The direct distance to the Passage was about 700 nautical miles, and it took us ten days and sailing about 1,100 nm to do it. We were heartily tired of beating to windward when we finally raised the east end of Cuba. At that point the wind died and we powered into the Atlantic. Just before midnight Mickey, who was on watch, was startled by the antics of a ship that illuminated us with a powerful searchlight. It turned out to be a US Coast Guard cutter; they called on the radio and said they intended to board. Later a sturdy rubber boat drew alongside; we were all told to stay in the cockpit as four heavily armed sailors climbed aboard. After a search to make sure the boat was safe and seaworthy they inspected the safety gear, engine room and our documents. They were very polite and in the end all they could cite was a lack of a written waste management plan, it sounded very bureaucratic to me and I wasn’t aware we should have one. After they left we headed for Matthew Town on Great Inagua Island, where I hoped to pick up some fuel. No dice; when we got there everywhere was closed because it was Good Friday, you tend to lose track of the days when sailing. I was pushing to get to George Town in the Exumas by the following Sunday to meet Lew, the editor of my cruising videos, who planned to spend a week on the boat and leave from Marsh Harbour in the Abacos. This meant we would have to sail most of the way, but since leaving the Windward Passage the wind had been fickle. Suffice to say we dropped our anchor in George Town just about the same time as Lew’s plane landed, we tapped into the last few gallons to power to the anchorage inside the reef. And we couldn’t get any fuel there until Tuesday because of the Easter weekend. It gave us the chance to repair the masthead light, which had literally been shaken off by the swaying and rolling during our beat to the Passage, Lew had brought along a spare.

I planned two stops in the Exumas, at Big Farmer’s Cay and Norman Cay and then an overnight sail to Marsh Harbour. At Big Farmer Cay we anchored half a mile from the settlement. After Happy Hour we rode over in the dinghy and tied up to the dock, not knowing what to expect in the village. A very bright young lad of about nine met us when we climbed ashore. ‘Is there a restaurant?’ we asked. ‘Sure’, and he led us to a simple building with two tables outside, I think it belonged to his aunt. She made us a delicious meal of fresh fish, rice and corn for a very reasonable price. The morning dawned cloudy and windy but we left as the sky grew blacker and we were racked by squalls on the way to Norman Cay, I had been there several times before, beginning in 1969 when Edith, Colin and I returned from the Caribbean on Iona. Mickey had collapsed in his bunk but when he refused lunch I realized there was something wrong. The weather cleared up and the wind died, I started the engine as I wanted to make Norman before dark. I became increasingly concerned about Mickey, who had become incoherent and virtually comatose. Eventually I called Bahamas Air Sea Rescue for medical advice; they suggested an air ambulance meet the boat at Norman Cay. I also spoke to the manager of the restaurant/hotel facility there and discovered the dock was in poor shape but usable. I told him we would need help to get Mickey ashore, perhaps he could round up a few strong yachties. The sun was low when we got to the pass through the reef. I spoke to the pilot of the plane, which was already waiting on the runway. He told me that if the patient was comatose he would have to be accompanied to Nassau by someone off the boat. Lew volunteered to go, packed his bags and put some clothes for Mickey in a backpack. The pilot also said he would have to leave before sunset, which wasn’t far off. It was a struggle to get the boat to the dock, we touched bottom a couple of times and protruding timbers damaged the bow pulpit, but four husky yachties man-handled Mickey onto the dock and on to a waiting pick-up. The pilot kept calling on the VHF to say he was leaving, but I urged him to wait. It was a two minute ride to the airstrip; the plane was still there with one engine turning over. We loaded Mickey through the door, Lew climbed in, the other engine spun into life and they were gone. I thanked everyone for their help and offered to stand a round at the bar, but it was closed, the facility was being refurbished. Ware and I returned to the boat, cast off and anchored in the bay, then we had a well-deserved, delayed Happy Hour cocktail. Later I talked to Lew, who was still at the hospital, on the Iridium satellite phone. Mickey had been in great pain from a blocked prostate, but he had foolishly tried to alleviate the pain with nips from a bottle of rum. The next day Ware and I left for Marsh Harbour, where my daughter, Brenda, planned to join us for a couple of days to celebrate my birthday; thirty-nine again.

Brenda showed up on schedule, she had booked at a small hotel just across the street from the marina. We took the ferry to Hope Town for lunch, I had sailed there in the past but judging by the number of yachts in the harbor it has become very popular and anchoring is no longer permitted, only permanent moorings. We had a pleasant lunch at a restaurant on the water, starting off with a local specialty; conch fritters. Hope Town is very scenic with delightful twisting lanes shaded by colorful tropical trees. The houses are mostly small, immaculately maintained and the pastel colored paint reminded me of Bermuda. The red and white striped lighthouse must be the most photographed in the world. The next day we took care of food restocking for the next leg to Bermuda and then we walked to a marina on the north side of the harbor from which Edith and I with the kids had rented a charter boat more than 30 years ago. Naturally, nothing looked familiar. Brenda cooked a birthday dinner for us in the kitchen which was part of her suite at the hotel. The next day I took Brenda to the airport early in the morning and returned to the marina hoping to leave. A bad nor’easter was ravaging New England and I discovered Ware had become very concerned that we would run into the same weather near Bermuda. I could not convince him that the low would be well into the Atlantic long before we got to Bermuda, but he had already packed his gear and decided to quit that morning, so that is how I got to make a single-handed passage to Bermuda from Marsh Harbour. I already had someone already lined up to meet the boat in Bermuda for the final leg to Long Island. En route I was able to contact a friend from the local yacht club, who had sailed with me previously, to take Ware’s place, bringing the crew strength back up to three for the Gulf Stream crossing, which is sometimes rough.

The trip to Bermuda started well with brisk NW winds that backed to W so I was able to run for a while with jib poled out to starboard. After a couple of days it got noticeably cooler and I started to wear a sweater. I made the halfway mark in a little over three days but then the wind swung onto the nose. A large high had settled over Bermuda and I was in the SE quadrant with subsequent NE winds. As always on a dead beat it was frustrating sailing; the last 150 nautical miles took me 3 days, and that includes the last twelve hours under power, when the wind eventually diminished.

On arrival in Bermuda I contacted my old friend, Bernie, who has been greeting arriving yachts for as long as I can remember. He arranged a slip at a marina so that I could get the bow pulpit repaired, which had been damaged in the Bahamas in the confusion when Mickey was landed. A very competent young man, Stuart, convinced me it would be as cheap to make a new pulpit as repair the old. I went to his shop in an old building on the waterfront in St George and discovered the work he did with stainless steel was excellent. But could he do it in a couple of days? In a word; yes! He cut the old pulpit from the bowsprit to use as a pattern and two days later had a new one made. The next day the new crew, Gary and Mike, arrived for the last leg to Long Island. They helped to get the pulpit positioned when Stuart brought it down to the boat. After a couple of hours of welding the job was done. We also found a cracked bracket which supported the bowsprit, Stuart welded that too and when we bolted it back on we were ready to sail. The forecast looked good apart from the first evening, when light headwinds were predicted. From then on it looked like two days of reaching. We left in mid-afternoon after clearing customs and buying some last-minute groceries. We did indeed find a light headwind but by sunset we were under power. The wind picked up in the night from the west and we made good progress on a close reach. The wind died in the vicinity of the Gulf Stream and we completed the last day and a half to Fire island Inlet under power over a calm sea. We entered the Inlet 5 ½ days after leaving Bermuda and anchored for the night just east of the Robert Moses Bridge to await a favorable tide at the Patchogue River. When we awoke the weather was foul, with a northeast wind gusting up to 30 knots. We slogged down Great South Bay and managed to avoid all the shallow spots. Bob Lyons was waiting in the river aboard Fireplace with friends to assist if we got stuck in the mud, as happened on our last cruise. But we made it OK and tied up at Weeks Yachtyard just after lunch on 6th May, 2007, eleven months after leaving with 19, 830 nautical miles logged.

Until the next time, fair winds, Eric


The modern section of Panama City.
The Balboa Yacht Club-the temporary buildings in place since 1998.
Eric enjoys a Heineken at the Balboa Yacht Club bar.
In the Panama Canal, a freighter looms behind
A significant moment- the chamber gates open onto the Caribbean Sea.
Venencio, a Kuna Indian artist, shows off his Mola masterpieces.
Fiona anchored off an island in the San Blas archipelago.
The lighthouse at Hope Town in the Abacos, Bahamas.
Eric, single-handing to Bermuda, poses with the jib flying on the whisker pole.
Pomp and Circumstance at St Georges, Bermuda.
Stuart welding the new pulpit, Eric and Mike provide a wind break.
The last crew bound for Long Island, Mike, Gary and Eric with the new pulpit.