It’s been awhile since we have put anything up on our blog. Between the poor internet, being busy with work and a number of other excuses we could list, it’s been too long since our last post.
We have been busy spending our full-time wages on repairs and upgrades to Smitty. It will probably take several posts to get these caught up to where we are at the present.
The upgrades and repairs in this post are the result of Irma and Maria. We have found that a number of electronics have ended up toast as a result of salt spray or just increased salt in the air. Some, like the controls for our refer, went almost right away while others, like our Rogue solar controller, took months to manifest. But when you pull these items apart you can see salt and corrosion on the circuit boards and sometimes even find the area that shorted out. Our friends on land have had similar issues. If we ever end up going through another hurricane (let’s hope not!) the first thing I will do is wash down anything with a circuit board with fresh water followed by rubbing alcohol.
So lets talk about some repairs we have done. The first thing we lost after the storms was our refrigeration. We had failed to block our vent cowlings on the stern and water poured into them getting salt water all over the refrigeration compressor. The compressor its self was fine but the control module and the circuit board were toast.
Luckily I was able to salvage a control module from another boat. But that boat didn’t have the circuit boar. So I reproduced most of the function of that circuit board using wires and a terminal strip. It worked and we had refrigeration again but it wasn’t as efficient and didn’t have the diagnostic ability of the original.
When our friends Jamie and Keith on s/v Kookaburra arrived in November they brought a spare control module and circuit board with them. Jamie is a former marine refrigeration technician and an invaluable source for help in these maters. They arrived just in time as our refrigeration began acting up again just after they had settled in on their mooring in Elephant Bay.
With the spare parts in hand I began trying to get our refrigeration in proper working order. However after replacing the salvaged module and putting the new circuit board in the refer was still drawing more power then before and not staying as cold as it should. Jamie and I went through the system but couldn’t find the cause. Out came the trusty multi-meter and we started looking for issues. Sure enough we found a massive voltage drop at the compressor. With our batteries reading 12.55 volts (solar disconnected to help with the diagnostics) we were only seeing 12.35 volts at the compressor. Worse yet it would drop to under 10 volts when the compressor would kick on. This was likely trigger a voltage sensor on the compressor that is there to protect our batteries. Keeping with the multi-meter and using some 20 foot lengths of wire we eventually determined the issue was with the ground somewhere between the engine and the battery bank. We used the wire to jump the positive and negative connections to several locations around the boat to find were the voltage drop would be present and absent. For instance the voltage drop was still present when we put the wire in to feed the compressor from the battery selector switch and negative buss bar behind the electric panel but it was gone when we connected the compressor directly to the batteries. By this process of elimination we were able to determine where the voltage drop was occurring. So off I went to clean and check all of my ground connections in that run.
Several years ago I had installed a negative buss bar on the port engine bed to allow Smitty’s grounds to go to a buss bar connected to both the engine and the battery bank thus eliminating the potentially problematic “stacked” connections that come from corrosion that builds up on the block and causes more resistance in the connections. Well as it turns our I missed one connection that was on a different bolt on the block. This one was to ground the refer compressor and several other items. Once I removed this connection, cleaned up the connector with a wire brush and moved it to the negative buss bar everything was working perfect again.
Chalk one up for the multi-meter. And add a spare refrigeration module to the list of necessary spares for us to carry.
Our next area of corrosion issues was our engine instrument pod. Some of our alarm buzzers and gauges started acting funny. There were too many of them in one spot for it to be anything but the instrument pod for the engine. I took that apart and sure enough found some corrosion in the “European style connection strip” that Catalina used in the pod.
I removed the strip, cut back a few inches on the wires to eliminate any corrosion and terminated them with marine adhesive heat shrink ring terminals. I then used two 65 amp terminal strips to make the connections. The system is much more secure and resistant to corrosion.
The starting circuit was separated from the gauges on different terminal strips to allow for better spacing and easier diagnostics in the future.
Then we had a big dollar item succumb to the residual effects of Irmaria. This time it was our Rogue solar controller. This was a $400 piece of hardware that literally is irreplaceable as the company has stopped making these and is no longer in the business of making small solar controllers.
Again more corrosion then we would expect to see on an item only a few years old.
The one good thing that came out of this was that solar controller technology has come a long way since we did our research. After talking to a few cruising friends and doing some research we purchased two Victron BlueSolar MPPT 100/15 controllers (Should have bought the MPPT 75/15 but not a major difference) with the Bluetooth Dongles for programming and monitoring. (Note: Victron now makes the SmartSolar MPPT Controllers with the Bluetooth built in) We opted to go with two smaller controllers instead of the one large controller. Our array is a mix of panels; 500 watts coming from two 100 watt semiflexible panels, two 50 watt semiflexible panels and two 100 watt hard panels (more on these later). My research suggested that separating these onto different controllers would yield better results. Sure enough, these new controllers have about 15% better production than the single Rogue controller. Plus being able to monitor my panels through an app on my phone is really convenient.
The last (hopefully) item we are choking up to Irmaria is our Raritan Macerator Pump with Waste Valve. We purchased this as a Defender First sale item from Active Captain when they used to do weekly emails before the Garmin acquisition. Its more expensive but the idea of a macerator pump designed for a “clean” swap out or fix appealed to me.
Now while I am upset this failed, I am so glad I put this in. It worked exactly like advertised. I changed out to the new pump in 2 minutes with zero mess. I didn’t even have to use paper towels to cleanup the area after. And the pump failed with the holding tank 3/4 full. So this could have been ugly. But thanks to this well engineered pump it wasn’t.
So hopefully that ends the Irmaria related upgrades. We have also made a number of upgrades to the boat that where more geared towards making life on Smitty better. Oh, I lied. We also lost our windex and the directional portion of our Raymarine wind transducer from the mast head. In addition our RAM Mic for our VHF would no longer transmit. So these are some other items that got upgraded that we will discuss later as part of the electronics upgrade we did.
It’s November. And too easy to get caught up in the day to day aspects of earning a living and forget that we spent three hours in the water in just bathing suits. It’s 25 degrees in Boston today as Frank reminded us. We do prefer to live in paradise.
Its 5:30 in the morning, the four sailors and a dog sharing this condo are sitting nervously in the living room. Close at hand are our “ditch bags”, backpacks with bare necessities like a change of clothes, cash, water, protein bars, flashlights, VHF radios and a machete. It has been about 20 minutes since the condo started losing its roof. The first chunk of terra cotta tiles went in one loud crash. Now it sounds like someone is beating on the storm shutters with a sledge hammer. The front door is bowing in from the wind and pressure, you can feel it vibrating, pulsing, but we don’t want to brace anything against the door as it is the only way out if the roof gives.
ZING! There goes another section of roof, the terra cotta tiles sounding like out of tune piano keys being played as they slide against each other.
I heard the tiles smash on something across the street. I reassure myself that my ditch bag is close at hand and I put my dog’s leash on. I think the time to make a run for it may be close.
The wind outside is howling. My ears are popping from the pressure. Pressure that is forcing the water from the toilets. I have been through storms before but nothing like this. The last thing we saw on the news before the power went out was that Palmas Del Mar, Puerto Rico, the very spot where we were, was to get the northeast corner of the eye wall and receive the most destructive forces. Later we would learn that the winds topped 170 knots (about 200 miles per hour). The forecast put the pressure at 908 millibars, making Maria potentially stronger than Irma, the storm that brought us to Puerto Rico to begin this latest adventure.
In 2015, my bride, Summer our dog and myself set off to do something different. We had grown weary of our corporate jobs working in small boxes every day while spending ours commuting in and out of Boston. We had sold the house, the cars and almost everything we owned. We replaced our fancy Ridel wine glasses with tin cups. We had lived on our Catalina 310 for a few years as we payed off debt and saved some money to leave the cold northeast for someplace warmer. That quest for warmth brought us down the US east coast, through the Bahamas and settling in US Virgin Island. We now call a mooring field on the northwest side of Water Island home and work on St. Thomas.
Living in the Caribbean on a boat means you need to have a hurricane plan. Regardless of whether you carry insurance or not, you need a plan. We have insurance so our plan is also part of our insurance. Basically our plan consists of two options. First, RUN! Move the boat out of the path of the storm. Depending on timing and the storm’s path it can sometimes be possible to sail far enough out of the path to a different island or anchorage that won’t get as big of an impact from the storm. Running too late often results in serious loss of both life and boat.
The second option is to HIDE! There are two main places to hide: mangrove swamps and marinas. Both of these options have positives and negatives aspects. If done properly a boat gets pushed against the mangroves, which could result in some cosmetic damage, but the trees would act as a soft cushion to keep the boat from getting significantly damaged. The same can’t be said for hitting a concrete dock or pile. But being at a dock might allow you to get off the boat but while still being able to check and adjust lines during the storm.
Storm surge, wind direction and the changes in both as the storm passes are significant concern in finding a place to hide. However late arrivals, unprepared boaters and derelict vessels are the biggest risk to the able seaman during a storm event. Planning for this factor can be challenging and is usually best handled by hiding in a group of boaters you know will be prepared. For mangroves, go with those you know and treat the location of your hidey-holes like something you want to keep from WikiLeaks.
Some may have noticed that hauling out was not on our list. This option can be very expensive. We received quotes of $5,000 for our 31 foot boat to be on the hurricane haul out plan. Yes, just to be on list for a haul out, additional charges could apply if you actually needed to haul for a storm.
Also, sailboats stacked against each other with the masts up can topple like dominos. At least in the water the boat can heel in response to the wind. There are some places that have pits that a hauled out boat can be placed in and then secured with tie downs and fill around the hull. There are also some yards that have concrete pads with tie down anchors for strapping the boat down. But in this part of the Caribbean I was not comfortable with most of these locations. I felt they were too exposed and too low lying. We had also heard stories of the tie down anchors being old and rusted and being able to be pulled out by hand. The devastation of these storms showed that we made the correct decision in removing this option from our hurricane plan.
Staying on our mooring also wasn’t an option. Elephant Bay is a great place during the prevailing conditions. But even 20 knots of wind from the southwest can make it rolly and bouncy in the mooring field. There is a lot of rock along both sides of the West Gregory Channel and concrete from the commercial port that cause the swell to reverberate making it feel like waves are crashing on your boat from all directions. With the clocking winds from a hurricane the seas and surge in this area would be too much for the mooring or the boat to handle. Following Irma, only three of the over twenty boats that tried to ride out the storm on their moorings were left.
This was our second year living in the Virgin Islands during hurricane season. After lots of fumbling and being over anxious in our first season, experience and friends helped me develop a better weather strategy. Now I have my routine down and reliable sources for storm related information. My two primary resources are Mike’s Weather Page (www.spaghettimodels.com) and Windy (www.windy.com).
Mike’s Weather Page is a great collection of the various resource for hurricanes include links to view the major models. A quick look at the page will show you if there is a potential system worth looking at further. Diving deeper you can view the GFS, EURO and CMC models with a simple click. In addition Mike provides some great insight into what trends he is seeing in the models and how to interpret the information available on his Facebook page.
Windy, formerly WindyTY, is a graphical representation of the GFS and EURO models with some additional factors. On Windy you can look at sustained wind, gusts, precipitation and waves as well as other options. The GFS, EURO and CMC models have large time jumps (6-12 hours) in between each graphical representation, Windy helps fill that gap to get a better idea of the hourly progression of the storm. Based on the times of model updates I had cut my weather watching down to twice a day; once with coffee in the morning and once in the evening during sundowners before dinner.
On Monday, August 21st, I started to become concerned. Both the EURO and GFS models were showing a potentially strong low pressure system developing that could signal a tropical storm or hurricane. The GFS model had this system turning north before impacting the eastern Caribbean. This is the typical pattern that most storms that develop in the eastern Atlantic follow. However the EURO model was showing a high pressure system north of the Caribbean that would push this system further south and west before it turned north. I watched this development over the next couple of days. The potential storm started to become a more frequent subject among cruisers and live-aboards while enjoying the local happy hours or meeting at the dingy dock. But most were not too worried and expected the system to turn north. After all the GFS, the USA’s premiere model and the one used by NOAA, showed the system making the typical turn.
Meanwhile, the EURO continued to show this system making a direct hit on the Virgin Islands and then moving along the northern coast of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. My wife and I had decided to take this storm seriously. On Tuesday, August 29th I began making preparations. I made sure our gasoline gerry cans were full so we had fuel for the generator and dinghy engine. I topped off the diesel in our tank and gerry cans. We made a list of supplies and provisions (missing one critical item that will come up later) and began acquiring the items on our list. Part of our hurricane plan is to always have several months worth of food on the boat. Since we are on a small boat that means most of those provisions are canned or dried food. I ran our watermaker to ensure our tank was filled along with our gerry cans on deck. I also topped off our two propane tanks.
On Saturday, September 2nd we headed for Culebra as part of a two day jump to Puerto Rico’s southeast coast. The winds didn’t cooperate and we were only able to sail part of the way and ended up motoring a large portion of what should have been a downwind trip. But something was off and we were not making a good speed under motor. Part of the issue was the equatorial currents were running in reverse of their typical direction and were against us. The other part was a yet to be realized issue with Smitty. After a nice dinner and some margaritas at Zaco’s Tacos we were off early the next morning to Puerto Rico.
A friend had mentioned we check out the Yacht Club at Palmas Del Mar. It was on the way to Salinas, our original destination. Based on the topography of the area, the mountains of Puerto Rico would be between us and the soon to be named storm Irma. The storm was not forecast to hit Puerto Rico until late afternoon into the evening on Wednesday, September 6th so we figured we could checkout the yacht club and if we didn’t like it we could head to Salinas on Monday with time to prepare the boats for the storm.
On the way to Palmas Del Mar Smitty began experiencing fuel issues. Several times we dipped in RPM but then it would resume running normally, although still slower than we typically motor. At first we had attributed the slow speed to a fouled bottom. But after the dips in RPMs we knew the issue was fuel related. I went below and checked the Racor filter. Sure enough the bowl was filled with water and debris (most likely microbial growth brought on by the water). Remember that critical item I mentioned above? It was the on engine fuel filter. I forgot to check my stock and I didn’t have any new filters. I had several of the Racor filters but none of the on engine ones. I began changing fuel filters but that would only buy about two hours of motoring per filter. The wind was now on our nose, probably affected by the hurricane behind us. We limped into Palmas Del Mar before the sunset but were down to one fuel filter in our inventory.
After arriving at Yacht Club we checked the weather again. The EURO still showed the path of the storm heading directly over the Virgin Islands and then along the northern coast of Puerto Rico. Using Windy we predicted that we would be in a good wind shield thanks to the mountains. Further the strongest winds were to come from the north clocking to the west then southwest. Palmas Del Mar is exposed to the southeast but fairly well protected from all other directions. Salinas was most exposed from the southwest to south. Also, the strongest part of the hurricane is the northeast portion of the eye wall. We would be southwest of the eye, in the most favorable area of a hurricane. Given the forecasted track of the storm and the wind directions we were likely to see, we opted to stay in Palmas Del Mar for Irma. Our friend Kendra had made the run on her boat Sea Frog and decided to stay as well.
We spent the next couple of days prepping the boat. We stripped the canvas and anything else on deck. Spread out lines in different directions. We rented a hotel room with Kendra and moved many of our valuables and important things up to the hotel and we waited. In the end most of our preparations and worry would be unneeded.
In the afternoon on Wednesday, September 6th, Irma began being felt on Puerto Rico. The hotel was less than a half mile from the Yacht Club. There was satellite television and we saw some of the awful footage coming out of the eastern Caribbean and the Virgin Islands. Through Facebook we began to see pictures and observations posted by our friends. The reported damage was horrific. The islands we had come to call home were devastated. Irma was the strongest Atlantic storm in recorded history and likely one of the most damaging ever to pass through the Caribbean with winds over 230 knots (265 miles per hour).
By the late evening the majority of the storm had passed by us. I walked down to the Yacht Club and there was little to no real damage observed. I doubt we saw winds beyond 70 knots. Our run strategy had worked and we had picked a spot that was safe for our boat.
In the days following Irma we began to put our boat back together. We rented a car and went around Puerto Rico looking for fuel filters and sourcing parts to build a fuel polishing system. This took way longer than it should have because many of the parts I needed had been bought up by people with generators before the storm. About a quarter of Puerto Rico (from Fajado to San Juan) was without power. It took many stops and many fruitless attempts over two days to finally get all the parts I need. I was never able to find a replacement on engine filter. I constructed the polisher and spent several days polishing the fuel that was in the tank.
This whole time we were watching hurricane Jose. The models showed it turning north and avoiding the islands but it was still a concern. And all of our friends back in the Virgin Islands had no way to get weather reports. So we watched the weather and texting people about the storm.
With the fuel problem fixed, we put the headsail, bimini and solar panels back on. Long hot days working in record setting heat in Puerto Rico. We began collecting lists of needed supplies from friends on the islands. The requested items were things you would expect like generators, chainsaws, pressure washers, mosquito netting, etc. We also joined the group Sailors Helping formed by several cruisers in Puerto Rico and other islands to help bring relief supplies to the islands hit impacted by Irma. Sailors Helping had already been organizing donations and getting them on boats heading for the Virgin Islands. Our plan was to stuff Smitty full of supplies and sail back to St. Thomas to help our friends. We setup a rental car and then I checked the weather as I always do….
So this is where Maria came into the mix. Instead of getting almost two weeks of warning like we did with Irma, we only had five days notice. It was Friday night, September 15th. The EURO had the track going just to the south of us with landfall near Salinas. The GFS had the track going just to the north of us with landfall near Fajado. If you split the middle you would hit us dead on.
We wanted to run but where?
Based on the track, Virgin Gorda would have been a good option. Tuck in close to the island in North Gorda Sound and we would have some good elevation between us and the storm. But there was floating debris from Irma: roofs, docks, damaged boats, etc. All that made transiting that area risky and there would be no support once we arrived in the Virgins Island. No water, electricity, food, fuel or internet to get information on the storm. The rest of the Virgin Islands were out for the same reason. We didn’t want to run to Salinas or Fajado because it looked like they might get more of the storm.
It was five days out. A run to the Dominican Republic would take two days. Bonair would be three to four days. We hadn’t been out to test the motor since we polished the fuel. And Summer’s international health certificate expired on September 3rd, so we could possibly get turned away at either of those ports. In addition, Kendra is sailing solo, so a multiple day run is something she has not done and would be extremely difficult on her.
So we stayed…
We spent the next few days redoing the work we had just undone. Sails and canvas were taken off, lines were put back out and all steps were made to try and keep Smitty safe. Some how I found more places to tie lines. Including making sure our guardian Wonder Woman was well secured to face Maria.
Each successive run of the hurricane models changed the projected track. First it would go further west away from us, then it would go right over us. Then back west. This was all EURO. The GFS had it going north still with its own variations. All of the model changes gave me a bad feeling. We were still dead in the middle between the two. I felt it in my gut that we would get a direct hit.
As we walked away from Smitty to head towards our shelter for the storm I felt as confident as I could. Maria would be our seventh hurricane since owning Smitty. However, most of those were in the northeast where we typically didn’t see actual hurricane force winds in the protected harbors. The forecast now had us getting winds well over 100 knots. After seeing all of the devastation in the Virgin Islands from Irma it was really hard to have a positive feeling about what would come next.
We headed to our rented condo. We were again joined by Kendra from Sea Frog. We also invited another sailor to join us. Todd had been nicked named “Spider Man” by the other boaters in the Yacht Club. Somehow Todd had managed to get 38 lines on the Lagoon 37 to hold The Cool Change in place.
As we all settled in at the condo I opened a bottle of Cruzan Single Barrel Estate Rum and we toasted to our boats that they be strong in the face of Maria. Several more toasts followed with chants of “Fuck Maria!”
Nervous anticipation kept most of us from sleeping. By four in the morning the wind was howling and no one could sleep.
It was 8:30 in the mooring on Wednesday, September 20th, and we were about to come out of the worst of it. The roof had held for the most part; more terra cotta tiles had gone flying but the roof sheathing below had held. We had water dripping from the ceilings in several locations and it was coming under ever door including the sliders behind the storm shutters. By 10 in the morning the wind was still blowing and it was raining but it was not as fierce as before.
Todd and I ventured outside for a look. From the top floor of the condo building you could see part of the marina. Todd’s boat, The Cool Change, was perfectly center in the view between two buildings that partially obscured the Yacht Club. She was floating with her mast up. The same could not be said for other boats. We saw masts gone, boats out in the middle of the fairway barely hanging on by one or two lines and masts tipped in a way that could only result from a sunken boat. One of those tipped masts was in the area of Smitty and Sea Frog but the buildings blocked too much of the view to know if it was one of our boats.
At one in the afternoon we felt it was ok to venture out. We put on fowlies, grabbed a few supplies and started to head for the Yacht Club. Upon stepping out of the condo the seen was chaotic. Trees were down everywhere you looked. Pieces of terra cotta tiles were thrown about. The roads were impassible to cars and barely walkable in some locations. The stucco had been stripped from the buildings by the winds. All of the palm fronds had been removed from the tops of the palm trees giving them a look of a tree that had been decapitated.
Continuing to make our way we found flooded streets and more carnage. Eventually we made it to the Yacht Club and we could see that both Smitty and Sea Flog were still floating! The tipped mast was from a boat that had been next to Sea Frog.
The Yacht Club building had been pummeled with water and flooded by a storm surge that appeared to be 10 feet or more based on the damage to the building. This would have put the fixed concrete docks six feet under water during the height of the surge. A small rental car building that had been in the parking lot was completely gone and only remnants of the building would later be found in drainage ditch. One vehicle, a Hummer H2, that was left in the parking lot was pushed several parking spots over until it had come to rest against a light pole. Several boats had been dismasted. Many of the boats that didn’t remove their sails had them blow out and were shredded by the wind. Other boats had bashed against the docks or piles and some were holed. And several boats had sank in their slips. It didn’t appear that many boats escaped damage.
It was still blowing about 70-80 knots with gusts up to 100 knots. Todd and I cautiously made our way down the dock and out to our boats. The gusts were so strong that at times we had to drop to a knee and make ourselves into a tight ball to avoid being blown off the dock. We first passed Todd’s boat and there did not appear to be anything wrong or any lines broken. Next week came to Sea Frog’s former neighbor, he had broken free, smashed two piles until they toppled and sank in the fairway.
Unfortunately this caused some damage to Sea Frog. Sea Frog was tied to one of the piles that he smashed and the loss of those lines let Sea Frog rub against the dock. In addition, the tilted mast had hit Sea Frogs forestay damaging the foil to her roller furler.
Smitty appeared fine. She had lost several lines, all of which were double braided lines that appeared to have exploded in the middle of the line! We had lost six out of eight stern lines and a couple of springer lines.
We reappropriated (fancy pirate word for steal) as much line as we could find. Todd climbed aboard Sea Flog and secured several of the newly acquired lines to cleats, winches or any place he could find. Together and slowly we moved Sea Frog away from the dock. Todd would “pump” the line and when he let go I would pull in the slack and secure the line to the cleat or bollard. Inch by inch we moved Sea Frog against the wind. Eventually we had here five feet off of the dock and firmly secured by several lines. We used some of the new to us lines to add some stern lines to Smitty. We used the same technique to move Smitty further from the dock. With nothing left to do we returned to the condo to wait out the rest of the storm.
In the morning we headed back down to the Yacht Club. We started looking around at the damage and talking to the others boaters about how they faired during the storm. There were 40 boats in the Yacht Club for Maria. Of the 40, six had sunk, six had been dismasted and 25 others had some damage ranging from cosemtic gelcoat scuffs, bows missing from pounding on the dock, damaged sails and rigging and holes through the hull that put the boat at risk of sinking if quick repairs aren’t made.
Getting in the dingy and traveling out into the private docks in Palmas del Mar the damage only got worse. As the surge pushed into the canals it became concentrated and more destructive energy was present. Large Viking cabin cruisers were lifted up and but down on top of piles. Sailboats were pushed up onto docks and left resting on their rudders. Boats were sunk in tangled masses. Out riggers were bent and broken from the force of the wind. There was no pattern or reason to the damage. One boat was damaged and sunk while the boat at the next dock was untouched with canvas carelessly left up still intact.
In the end Smitty’s damaged was limited to a shorted out control module for our refrigeration. The compressor is located below a vent that was installed to allow the heat to escape. But salt water spread into the vent soaking the control module that subsequently failed.
There was a lot of luck and a lot of preparation that went into keeping Smitty safe through these storms. Its hard to say which was the bigger influence in surviving the storm. But we are proud of our tough little boat.
We were recently asked to share our experiences and a bit of our background for the blog Newly Salted. Our interview is below, but please also check out the experiences that many other cruisers have shared on their site: http://newlysalted.blogspot.com/
Stacey was born & raised in Milford, CT and grew up power-boating on Long Island Sound and the Housatonic River.
Jesse was born & raised on the South Shore of Massachusetts and grew up sailing on Buzzards Bay and fishing the Cape Cod Canal.
Summer, our dog, is an Australian Cattle dog-mix. She is now about 10 years old. We adopted her as a pup and she has been sailing with us since we got her.
Being typical “Type A” personalities, we spent most of our adult life dedicated to our careers. Jesse was a geologist and worked in the consulting industry cleaning up petroleum and chemical spills. Stacey
was an accountant and worked in public accounting firms and private investment companies. The two of us had become disenfranchised with the idea of defining ourselves by our jobs and didn’t want to wait until retirement to live life. So, we sold everything (house, cars, etc), quit the jobs, and, in September 2015, a couple days before Stacey’s 40th birthday, we sailed away. Now we are trying to fill our lives with experiences and fun.
Our sailing vessel is Smitty, our Catalina 310. We have owned her for almost seven years now, mostly cruising the coast of New England and living aboard her prior to our departure (yes – we lived aboard in Boston during the snowiest winter on record! See Blizzard of 2015 as a Liveabord ). In September 2015, we untied the lines and set sail south from Hingham, MA (Smitty’s home port – just south of Boston). We sailed all down the US East Coast (primarily via the ICW), Bahamas, Turks & Caicos, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Spanish Virgin Islands, US Virgin Islands, and British Virgin Islands.
Q & A
As you started cruising, what transitions did you find the most difficult?
Both of our jobs required us to manage various projects at the same time and still meet all deadlines. For us, the most difficult transition was to learn to slow down and enjoy life.
Is there something you wish you had bought or installed before starting out?
When we bought our boat our initial intent wasn’t to cruise on her full-time; we bought a boat that worked for what we wanted at that time. That being said, the Catalina 310 was produced to be a coastal cruiser and does not have capacity to hold a lot of water. We were ok with this fact and set sail anyway, we assumed we could get water in most locations we were going. This was correct, until we wanted to cruise in more remote areas in other countries. We have since installed a water maker.
What pieces of gear would you leave on the dock next time? Why?
Our Catalina 310 came with a microwave. We would often have microwave popcorn or heat up leftovers. Once we left our homeport dock, we very rarely stayed at marinas, therefore, we very rarely used our microwave. We learned how to make popcorn the “old-school” way (stove top) and gave away the microwave while in Puerto Rico.
What mistakes did you make as you started cruising?
I’m not sure if it was necessarily a mistake, but we spent way more money then we anticipated. We were in “vacation mode” and did not stick to a budget. Our thought was that we would likely only see some of these places only once. I am glad we enjoyed them to their fullest, but I do wish we had more of a spending plan or budget in place.
What do you find the most exciting about your cruising life?
To describe it in one word: Beauty
The locations, the people, the sailing (well, except all the “Easting” of the Mona Passage), the wild life (we still get excited when we see dolphins – especially swimming off our bow while under sail!), the color changes of the waters we have sailed, and of course the sunsets! It’s been an amazingly beautiful experience.
What do you dislike about cruising that surprised you?
I have been very surprised to see some cruisers (both US & foreign flagged vessels) having a complete disregard for the environment and ecosystems. We have seen them anchor on reefs, fishing and taking conch and lobster out of season or from no-take zones, and keeping undersized fish, conch and lobster. Even when we have gone over to let them know the rules they did not care!
What is something that you read or heard about cruising, that you didn’t find to be true?
We were told that when you slipped away from the dock you were leaving behind so many of the hassles of land life. Often we heard the term “Stuff being left to dirt dwellers”. Unfortunately, we often found that we would be on a beautiful beach, sitting around a fire with other cruisers and there would be talks of politics.; too much talk of politics. We thought that would be left on land but there seems to be lots of talk of politics at sundowners and pot lucks.
What is something that you read or head about cruising, that you found to be particularly accurate?
“Just Go – Don’t Wait!” We read and heard this often. I can tell you from experience, this is a very true statement. If you don’t set a date and just go then you won’t do it. The boat is never going to be 100% ready, there will always be more projects to complete or things that break that need to be fixed. If you wait until retirement or until the boat is done then who knows what your health or life circumstances will be in the future.
What (if anything) do you wish someone had told you before you started cruising?
I wish someone had told us that it is ok to live “outside the box of normal society”; that it is ok to live life and you don’t have to do things that are “expected of you” . We regret investing our hard-earned money into things like a house and cars – we wish we had invested those funds into cruising at an earlier age (like in our 20’s).
What are your plans now? If they do not include cruising, tell us why?
Prior to leaving to cruise, both of us got our Captains license, with the expectation that we would need to pick up some work at some point, doing something, so why not do something we love! We are currently anchored in Elephant Bay next to Water Island and St.Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, where we live on our boat and go out sailing as much as possible. Jesse is a Captain – taking guests out sailing and snorkeling daily. Stacey has been both Crew and Captain on various vessels but has most recently transitioned to an accounting-financial management position. Our current plan is to continue to enjoy this beautiful paradise, build up the cruising kitty, complete more projects, and contemplate getting a bigger boat. We are not done cruising, just on a break for a bit. But we continue to live on Smitty in the Caribbean as we explore these options.
I often get asked how I like living here in the Caribbean. I guess the best way to describe it is some days I feel like I am living a Kenny Chesney song:
Drivin’ on the left side gotta be learned. Happy hours from 3 to 6 but it never really stops. …We got Rasta religions, and parrots and pigeons, Mango and salt on a stick. Life is a lime and from time to time, I gotta go get my fix, yea. We roll with the flow, friends come and go. Usually by the edge of the dock. That’s just livin’ life on a rock.
Other days, I feel like we are just back to the same daily grind as everyone else…with the exception that we commute via our dinghy (our 10′ motor boat that gets us to and from Smitty & shore) and most of the time the weather is beautiful and warm.
When we were cruising (sailing from place to place and not formally working) every day was that fun summer song. We sailed, we strolled the beaches, we swam/snorkeled, fished, and watched the sunset while having a cold drink from the cockpit of our boat. We rolled with the flow, friends came and went.
Now, we are back to scheduled days off, working on boat projects, and trying to save money. Our time with visiting friends is more like vacation – trying to show them all the “tourist” stuff and eating/drinking out. We really are back to being liveaboards and not cruisers. We very seldom take Smitty out anymore, as it is our home and a complete pain to prepare her to be “sail ready”. Sail ready to anyone that has never sailed on a monohull means that anything that can fall over will once under sail (when the boat heels or leans over); everything must be stowed away unless you want a mess to clean up or items to be broken.
At this point, we are transitioning into summer & slow-season in the islands. There will be very little tourism which means it’s the ideal time to sail and visit all those anchorages that are normally packed. However, we do have to keep an eye out because hurricane season is acomin‘!
We are currently contemplating the future: Perhaps sail south and stretch the limited funds that we have? Stay here and continue to work the same jobs? Find somewhere else to live & work – maybe back to the states (doubtful!), Puerto Rico, St. Croix, or St. Maarten? While we consider our options, Jesse is going to go sailing for a couple of weeks – delivering a boat from St.Thomas to Florida (details to come in a separate post). So many things to think about, but on the plus side, we do live in paradise and now we have a water maker. 🙂
Wow – we are now three months into 2017 and I haven’t written a blog post yet this year! Well, let’s fix that…
I feel like we have been on a bit of a roller coaster over the past couple months. In January, we were supposed to go to St. Maarten to see family, but the winds were honkin’ with sporadic gusts that churned up the seas during the exact time we had arranged to take off from our work obligations. Unfortunately, we had to cancel the trip. We were really bummed since we were looking forward to seeing our family for so long. I know it’s pretty far out, but we are already planning to make the trip next January when they are in St. Maarten again. Since we were already off from work, we decided to play tourist on St.Thomas. We rented a car and hit the popular tourist spots and went to all the beaches that you cannot get to by public transportation, including Magen’s Bay (where we got married 15 years ago).
Also in January, the pilot for Flying Fish Seaplane Tour quit and the company could not find a replacement. Unfortunately, since there were no more seaplane tours happening, there was no longer a need for a captain to bring guests to the seaplane, so Stacey no longer has a Captain job. And, now that it is high-season, all of the Captain-Crew jobs are filled; Stacey is currently working at a jewelry store. Jesse, on the other hand, has been busy sailing the 42-foot trimaran, Tribal, just about everyday.
We haven’t been out sailing much, my dad is in the hospital, and we have been busy working, in other words, we really needed a change. We did manage to sneak in a short trip to Christmas Cove to have pizza from the pizza boat, Pizza Pi. While there, we bumped into Lauren & Brian from Nightengale Tune – we had not seen them since the Bahamas. The next day, when we got back to our mooring after the night at Christmas Cove, I thought I heard a hail on the VHF calling Smitty. Odd, since we never have our VHF on when we are home (aka on our mooring), so who would try to hail us? ”Smitty, Smitty, Smitty, this is sailing vessel Wrightaway”. I was so excited to hear Deb’s voice! We had missed Deb, Keith, & Kai since we last saw them in the Bahamas. We knew they were making their way south but we didn’t expect them to be here so soon. Their timing was the real pick-me-up that we needed!
Over the past three months we have made new friends, but we have also watched as friends sailed away. We have recently learned that Jamie & Keith on Kookaburra are leaving St.Thomas to head to Long Island Sound. We wish them all the best but we will surely miss them! And lastly, Stacey said goodbye to her phone as it dove into the deep blue sea (a new one is on it’s way). 😦
And so, the boat projects continue on (we just completed the installation of a water maker!-WooHoo!) and we try to fit in sailing and fun. We are looking forward to a fun next couple of weeks: our friend Tim will be visiting, the St.Thomas Sailing Regatta, Carnival (think Mardi Gras) and Stacey’s family visiting in May.
I write this to you as I sit in the cockpit of Smitty, enjoying my morning coffee and wearing shorts and a t-shirt (aka my pajamas). Smitty is anchored at our new Home Port in Elephant Bay just off of Water Island and St.Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. It’s warm and breezy and, for my second winter in a row, I am thoroughly enjoying not suffering through the cold and snow.
Completed our traverse of the entire Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW). We entered at the Dismal Swamp in Virginia and ended when we crossed to No Name Harbor in Key Biscayne, Florida.
Our first boat break-up: Yes, Skelton Crew of sv Hullabaloo, I’m talking about you! We miss you guys! For those that do not recall, they called it quits and took their boat back home. 😦
Lived on the boat on the hard (aka on dry land) in Indiantown, FL for a week. But at least we finally got to meet up with some sailors whose blogs we have followed for several years that inspired us to get out here now. Thanks MJ Sailing and the Cynical Sailor and His Salty Sidekick!
Our first overnight passage in open water: Florida to Bahamas Crossing.
Raised the yellow quarantine flag and sailed into our first foreign port: Bimini, Bahamas.
Our first overnight anchoring on a large body of water with no land in site on the Bahamas Bank.
February – April: Bahamas
The best sailing day ever happened as we traveled off the coast of Eleuthera; lovingly referred to as “The Day”, which included dolphins (of course). This write-up is published in the most recent issue of Cruising Outpost (our first paid article!).
We traveled extensively through the Bahamas for a several months: Swam with the pigs at Staniel Cay, left our mark on BooBoo Hill in the Exumas Land & Sea Park, harvested our first conch at Lee Stocking Island, had our first overnight visitor on sv Smitty in Georgetown, checked out the Bahamas Family Regatta, swam with turtles at Conception, swam with a wild dolphin at Red Shanks, swam Dean’s Blue Hole in Long Island, had our first beach fire on Cat Island, snorkeled, hiked, fished, and best of all, met so many great people.
May – first part of June: Turks & Caicos and Dominican Republic
We visited Turks & Caicos – where we met sv Sea Frog and sv Party of Five (thanks Barbara Hart!) and met back up with sv Last Tango and sv Odoya. All of which (except sv Odoya) we traveled with for the next few months.
We learned to play Mexican Train. I still really suck at it, but thank you to Quincy on sv Party of Five for teaching me how to play.
Responded to our first “May Day” call from another vessel: The Three Passages: Part 1 – Turks & Caicos to the Dominican Republic
After a rough passage with thunderstorms and confused seas, we arrived in Luperon, Dominican Republic on May 30. We visited Puerto Plata, where we jumped and slid off the 27 Waterfalls, and sailed to Samana, a luxurious resort where we only paid $1/ft per night.
Second part of June – July: Puerto Rico and the Spanish Virgin Islands
We made it through the Mona Passage and arrived safely in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico. The Three Passages: Part 3 – The Mona Passage
We sailed and toured southern Puerto Rico and took a car trip to San Juan.
We got to see first hand what happens to a boat that got struck by lightening. Puerto Rico
We visited the Spanish Virgin Islands: Culebra & Culebrita
August – December: British & US Virgin Islands
We have been sailing around and checking out various islands (and bars!) in the Virgin Islands since August. We were so happy to have been able to share this experience with our “L Dock” buddies (Captain Ken and sv Sunshine are officially L Dock buddies now!) that came down and chartered two boats in December.
We attended our first Full-Moon Party at Trellis Bay, BVI
We set up our new home base (recovered a mooring system that was abandoned), thanks to Jamie & Keith on sv Kookaburra. We can’t thank these two enough for all the help and guidance they have given us (and they are super fun to hang out with!). 🙂
We have officially registered Smitty Ditty (the dinghy) and Smitty in the US Virgin Islands. We officially removed Smitty from the Hingham, MA tax assessors list…I think we are now considered sea gypsies.
We have decided that St.John in the USVI is still our favorite island and we are trying to figure out a way to live and work there.
This is the first year since we have been old enough to work that we did not earn enough income to meet the requirement to file tax returns.
Jobs in paradise: trying to offset our spending and build our savings back up:
Stacey has been crew on a sailing catamaran (up to 80 guests at a time) and a power catamaran (up to 130 guests at a time). Currently, Stacey is Captain of the motor vessel that takes guests from the shore to the Sea Plane in the harbor. Bonus: Stacey got to go on a Sea Plan ride – landing on the water…this has been on her life “bucket list” since the first time that she was in St.Thomas over 20 years ago. Flying Fish Seaplane Tours
Jesse is Captain of the sailing trimaran Tribal. He takes up to 10 guests at a time sailing, snorkeling, and fishing. This boat is what racing sailors would call a “rocket ship” – it’s super fast! Jesse has gotten it up to 28 knots under sail. Tribal Day Sails
We celebrated our first Christmas in the Caribbean; complete with a boat parade and steel drum bands.
In summary, we have been to so many beautiful places and have met so many wonderful people that are now friends for life. We have had to endure storms, inconsiderate cruisers, and other challenges. We have had good days and bad days. But, in the end, it’s been an amazing journey that we absolutely do not regret. We plan to spend 2017 in the Virgin Islands, as we work to build the cruising kitty back up, however, we will sneak in some fun trips as well (like St.Marteen in January – get ready Frank we are coming for you!)
Big Hugs to our family & friends – we miss you all so much!
Happy & Health New Year to All!
Even before we left our homeport of Massachusetts, some of our boating friends were already talking about renting a boat and sailing around with us in the British Virgin Islands. At that point I was skeptical if we would make it to the Caribbean, never mind make plans with others. But a couple of months after we left, those same friends started to ask when we thought we might be in the Caribbean because they wanted to book a boat. It was so exciting to know that I would see them again but at the same time it is so hard to commit to being somewhere by a certain date when one is traveling by sailboat. But, it did all come together and on December 9th and 10th two groups of friends flew down to St.Thomas then ferried over to Tortola, BVI to get on two catamarans and sail around the British Virgin Islands with us!
Jesse and I dinghied over to the Indians to meet up with the crew of sv Bear Necessities: Pam aka Pamalama, Chris aka Big C, Chris aka Cooley, Liz, Dan aka Pants, Kerrie aka Kerrie Time, Steve, and Meaghan. It was so unreal to see our friends sailing up, it just didn’t feel real, I felt like we were watching a video of them or something. Then, watching them do a piss poor job of picking up a mooring was just comical. To be fair, although most of the crew owns boats, none have ever operated a catamaran. Before they were even all tied up I was on the boat crying and hugging everyone, still it did not seem real!
We snorkeled the Indians and then had a very short motor passage over to The Bight, where sv Smitty was already anchored. Bear Necessities picked up a mooring with 100% improvement vs the first attempt earlier that day, and we were right back into step like we were at Worlds End in Hingham, MA – floats off the back in the water, tied with dock lines so we wouldn’t lose anyone and drinks all around.
We all decided to get rinsed off and changed to head over to the 100’ Schooner, The William E. Thornton aka The Willy T, for drinks and dinner. After a while, we noticed that one of the dinghies (Bear Necessities had two dinghies for their group of eight) was still missing. They had decided to go on a trip around the anchorage when we went back to Smitty but they were now MIA. Jesse and I figured that maybe they already had gone over to the Willy T so we headed over to the Willy T, but upon arrival, their dinghy wasn’t there either. Hmmm, they must be down at the other restaurant, let’s go check. As we pull up to the dock Liz and Kerrie come running over to us and all I hear is them say “It’s Bad!” Uh Oh – what are they talking about?….
As Liz, Kerrie, Pam, Cooley, and Chris were walking the beach they saw some guys playing Jenga. This isn’t the normal table size Jenga, but the super-sized version that consists of large pieces of wood (think 2 x 4 size pieces). After they watched one of the participants use two hands, someone jokingly said “hey that’s cheating you can’t use two hands”, from here I am not exactly sure of the story, I don’t know if the guy was drunk or angry or just joking but next thing I know for sure is that a our friend got knocked in the face with this piece of wood that the Jenga player threw at the group for whatever stupid reason! The blow was hard enough to shatter the lens of his sunglasses and bring him to his knees. Due to concern that he may have a fractured skull or damage to his eye (which was already extremely swollen and black & blue and bleeding) and he likely has a concussion, the restaurant called VISAR (Virgin Island Search and Rescue) to come and pick up our friend in order to bring him to the nearest hospital, back on Tortola!
Keep in mind, this is day one, these guys have paid literally thousands of dollars to take this vacation and now it may be over, and, this particular friend is the qualified captain of sv Bear Necessities, I really can’t believe this is happening!
So, off our friend and his girlfriend went to go back to Tortola in a large RIB boat that goes something like 65 mph. Jesse dropped me off at the Willy T to tell the other half of the crew what was going on and he went to drop off the other three so they can change. At this point, no one feels like having fun, we all have that awful feeling like we just found out a friend died – everyone was just in a state of shock. Then just as I finished telling everyone what’s happening, the second group of friends gets to the Willy T and they, of course are all excited and ready to party with everyone. So, I repeat the story to the crew of sv Sunshine: Deb, Whitey, Sarah, Amanda, and Ken. Then, I’m not sure how the turn of events happened, but we all decided that our friend would be more pissed if he knew that we were sitting around not having fun because of what happened…so, we decided to do what we all do best together – DRINK!
And from that point the shenanigans ensued, there were naked jumpers from the top deck, naked body shots, board shots, dancing, tattoos (fake), and so much ass slapping! Oh, and let’s not forget about how one drunken person fell into the water three times while trying to get into the dinghy to go back to his boat (Cooley!), and not on purpose.
Meanwhile, two of friends were on Tortola. Our friend had his head x-rayed and underwent other tests and further examination is required by an eye specialist once he gets back to the states. I cannot speak highly enough about VISAR and Moorings. VISAR very quickly responded and professionally handled the situation. Moorings arranged for our friends to spend the night on a boat that was at their home base and kept the restaurant open late so they can eat and brought them back to Norman’s Island the next day.
It took a lot of convincing, and pain meds, but our friend did decide to stay in the BVI. By the end of the week he was feeling better enough to joke about his incident a little. I tried to get him to wear a Pirate eye patch but he said he wouldn’t wear one unless we found and caught a live parrot for his shoulder (epic fail). He also was joking that the VISAR crew all wore helmets but did not give “the guy with the head injury” a helmet to wear. We joked about how no one is ever going to believe this story so we might as well spin it to something that sounds just as preposterous…like telling people “It’s a Long Story that Involves a Goat, a Bottle of Tequila, and a Pitching Wedge”.
Again, this was day one of their visit, more stories to come…
After leaving Salinas, along with of sv Party of Five, sv Sea Frog, and sv Last Tango we headed east on an overnight passage to Culebra. Although there was no wind and we were, once again, making our way under power, we had flat seas and a beautiful night, that is until the motor stalled! She started right back up and we continued on our merry way, when, a few minutes later she stalled again! It is not like Smitty to act up like this, obviously something is wrong- better let the armada know we may have an issue. Again, she started right back up and again about 15 minutes later she stalled – this time we were dead in the water. Captain Jesse went down below looked over a few things and decided that a fuel filter change would do the trick to resolve our issue. We started her back up and she ran great from that point on.:) We safely arrived in Ensenada Honda, Culebra the next day.
Culebra, part of Puerto Rico but is often referred to as one of the Spanish Virgin Islands, is located 17-miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland and about 12-miles west of St.Thomas. For such a small island she packs a ton of beauty. There are several beautiful beaches, most of which have incredible snorkeling. There is only one tiny little town and the only way to get there is via boat.
Just a stones throw from Culebra, Culebrita has beautiful beaches, great snorkeling, hiking, a lighthouse, and a bubbly pool.
After a short little sail over from Culebra, we hiked to the top of Culebrita to see the Culebrita Lighthouse and, of course, to take in the breathtaking views.
Once the oldest operating lighthouse in the Caribbean, Culebrita Lighthouse was closed by the US Navy in 1975. This lighthouse served as an aid to navigation through the Virgin Passage and the Vieques Sound connecting in the Puerto Rico Light System with the Cape San Juan Light. The United States Coast Guard has replaced the lighthouse with a solar powered light beacon. Over the years, several hurricanes have damaged this structure and, currently, the lighthouse is in danger of collapsing.
Culebrita has wild goats. I thought this was a myth but Summer quickly proved us wrong.
After we went to just about every spot to snorkel and ate at Zacos Tacos at least twice (so awesome!), it was time for us to once again get a move on. It was already August and we needed to prepare for the heart of hurricane season. Next up: the Virgin Islands.