Off-piste

Just to say–we’ll be out of touch for a bit. Catch you up when we return to a land with internet access. Stay warm, y’all!

Constraints

Obviously, there are limitations to your life when you live on a boat, but they aren’t necessarily the ones you’d think. If you want, you can park somewhere with really easy access to groceries, laundry and restaurants. There are always methods to get online, if you’re invested enough. You can make choices to insure a virtually-limitless supply of fresh, hot water. There’s always a trade-off—generally involving cold, hard cash—but most limitations are flexible. Two limits that every cruiser has to contend with, however, regardless of your resources: draft and weather.

Draft is always a matter of degrees; we have friends cruising in boats that draw less than three feet, and they’re rarely stressed about entering a new harbor or finding a protected spot. Still—what we see from fellow cruisers is a process of adaptation; regardless of the amount your boat sticks down in the water, everyone is inclined to get as close to the beach as possible, so even those friends in catamarans find themselves trying to squeeze into spots that won’t quite accommodate them. You think about your depth, you analyze where you might be able to go, and then you hope not to hit any coral heads.

We were warned that cruising the Bahamas with a seven-foot draft would be impossible. Not true, people! And we had plenty of support from folks with six- to seven-foot drafts who have been cruising these grounds for years, including the illustrious Pam Wall. There have been places we haven’t been able to go; but there are so many amazing anchorages, and so little time in the world, that we haven’t begrudged the spots we’ve missed. Helpful, in a way—there are already too many places to visit, and it’s good to have some kind of limit. We’ve been a little more careful about tides, and pretty on-the-spot with the visual piloting, but so far, we haven’t run into too much difficulty about our draft here in the islands.

Heading south from Georgetown posed a problem, though. To get off the Bahama Banks, most people go through a pass called the Comer Cut. We have it on good authority that it’s possible for us to get through there; our always-helpful friends on Runaway have made that passage with their just-over-six-foot draft by leaving with high tide at Nassau, and riding the incoming tide over the pass, never seeing water more shallow than eight feet eight inches. Sounds do-able, right? But that’s four hours of white-knuckle driving in the middle of nowhere, with only a foot and a half of water under us in the best of circumstances, and no help available if we get stuck. We looked at a route that would have brought us north from Georgetown to the Galliot Cut and following a circuitous path along the backside of the banks, keeping to water charted no lower than nine feet (which, in our experience, means more like twelve), and taking two days to get to the Ragged Islands; but this route also put us far from help if we ran into trouble, and exposed us to potential weather with nowhere to hide. Most deep-draft boats head around Long Island, instead; plenty of water the whole way around, no need to stress about hitting bottom.

The challenge of going around Long Island: you need at least two days of calm weather to get around the east side of the island, where the prevailing wind and waves from the northeast come straight from Iceland without impediment. We were lucky to find a three-day window for travel, and sped around the island on lovely travel days, tucking in to the southwest side of the island well ahead of the anticipated cold front that came through Sunday.

This is a long-winded way of saying: we are where we need to be to head south, but we are now stuck in a fairly uncomfortable spot while we are held up by that second, non-negotiable limit—weather. This is no ordinary, winter-in-the-Bahamas cold front that blows through in a couple of days—the high winds currently buffeting our yacht are being held in place by a confluence of low pressure systems, and are expected to continue along for almost a week and a half. As the winds blow, the waves build, making our upcoming passage even less comfortable. We are anchored a ways from shore in this shallow bay, so the boat is bouncing around, but there’s nothing much on shore—lovely beaches, yes, but not great weather for swimming, and no place out of the wind and rain. To get to civilization, we’re looking at either a three-mile dinghy ride, one-mile hike to the main road, and thumbing a ride to get where we’re going; or a short dinghy ride to the beach, but an almost-three mile hike to the main road.

It’s fine. We’re fine. We have water, food, fuel. The boat is safe and well-anchored. But it is not comfortable. The high winds are delaying our passage south, so that when we do arrive in Cuba it will be a dash to Havana. We managed the long dinghy ride yesterday, but it was a painful upwind ride back to the boat; we’re considering the short ride, long walk, rent-a-car option in a few days, to bring the boat back to a state of order instead of the scrappiness that’s descending. Mostly, we’d like this wind to shut it; the howling wears you down in a subtle way, and the constant motion brings us exhausted to the end of the day. This stint of being captive to the boat is making us very excited for some over-land travel in Cuba.

Dean's Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas. They claim it's one of the deepest in the world, at 663 feet!

Dean’s Blue Hole, Long Island, Bahamas. They claim it’s one of the deepest in the world, at 663 feet!

Fish Hunting

I know you guys have missed me, ever curious about the trials of Michu the Boat Contortionist. Yes, in spite of paying $1200 to get the rear main seal replaced and installing an airsep, the diesel is still leaking way too much oil. In retrospect, the 180 amp alternator is overkill; but I have to admit I like fully charging the batteries in one hour of run time. The solar is working out very nicely. However: this post is not about boat systems, maintenance underway, or the persistent leak in the V berth that leaves the foot of my bed soaked after every passage.

About to kill a coconut.

About to kill a coconut.

There is a reason the hunter is an archetype, but I must admit, during my shore-based life I never really got it. I went hunting a couple of times, but never pulled the trigger on a deer; they are just too pretty. I helped a friend clean his, and it was a lot of work. I did enjoy shooting small birds the couple of times I did it, but I would never have considered myself a hunter.

Now that has all changed. Something about hunting fish has awoken my inner hunter.

I knew before we left Wisconsin that I wanted to try spearfishing. I had done it twice before; once in Florida, and another time in Cuba. Both of those times, I was lousy. I was using borrowed band-powered spearguns—they are like really long, underwater handguns. My hit rate on those trips was less then ten percent, and what I hit was disappointing; when I got to the surface everything was 25% smaller then when viewed through the dive mask. Still, in those trips, there was something to the weightless three-dimensional nature of being underwater—also the limit imposed by the length of holding one breath. In the Bahamas, triggered spearguns are illegal; you can hunt with a Hawaiian sling, which is like an underwater slingshot that shoots a three foot metal spear, or a pole spear. Previous to our departure, I spent a fair amount of time in the spearfishing section of the internet. I decided I was going to wait on buying a one-hundred-to-a-zillion dollar triggered gun until I knew what I was doing, and until I’d left the Bahamas (laws). Also, I know I miss a lot, and I didn’t want to lose a bunch of Hawaiian sling spears, which are about $40 each in the Bahamas, so I went with the lowly and simple pole spear.

Thinking relaxed thoughts

Thinking relaxed thoughts

I bought two: a three-foot fiberglass model for T, and a six-foot aluminum job with a wicked slip tip for myself. Now that I am hunting, I use them both (but we still say the small one is T’s). The pole spears have a band of surgical tubing attached to the butt end; you loop this through your hand and stretch it toward the tip of the spear, grasping the shaft of the spear. Now it is “loaded”. To fire, simply point it at your target and release your grip. The range is about the length of the spear; however, with the longer spear, the fish sees it coming and may have time to get out of the way. Closer is better.

Relaxed glide into the blue.

Relaxed glide into the blue.

Here is how it goes now. There is a new factor when considering anchorages. In addition to wind and wave protection, beauty, depth, and proximity to shore-based services, I now scan the chart for any marked coral heads, under water rocky areas, or drop-offs nearby which may have good hunting. As I drive around in the dinghy, I almost always have my mask with me; if I see a promising-looking dark spot in the water, I don the mask and stick my head under to check it out. If the family is with me, I don’t necessarily slow down; I just check it out, and make mental notes for later (nice overhang may have a grouper; school of yellow snapper near the soft coral; nice deep crack that may be hiding lobster or crab). In the Bahamas, nobody blinks an eye when you show up to a restaurant/gas station/market/church with a wet head and salt water running down the back of your neck.

Slip tip. After it punches through the fish, he can wiggle around on the stainless wire. Makes it easier to get the fist to the surface and less likely a big fish will bend the spear.

Slip tip. After it punches through the fish, he can wiggle around on the stainless wire. Makes it easier to get the fist to the surface and less likely a big fish will bend the spear.

Later, I grab my full kit and head back to the spots or go look for new ones. Ideally, I do this with a partner. Deb is not into it, so this is usually a dad from one of the other boats. My friend Miguel from Mafalda shares my passion, so we hunt a lot, but sometimes I go alone if people have other commitments (boat repairs, home schooling kids, or other family activities) or if there is no one else around. When I am by myself, I am much more conservative with bottom time and tolerance for swimming with other predators.

Dingy over to the chosen spot and drop the anchor. Wet suit on. Weight belt on (8 pounds with wet suit, 6 pounds without). Fins on. Look up, mentally relax, become conscious of my breath. Spit in mask, rinse. Mask on. Grab spear. Relax. Roll into ocean. In the mask, peripheral vision is very limited; 360-degree scan to make sure nothing big is nearby. Swim over and dive on the dinghy anchor and make sure it is well set. Another 360-degree scan. Surface and swim over hunting ground. Hang, watch all of the reef life respond to a human presence—they know what you are about. Consciously relax every muscle progressively from head to toe. Breath and hang. Identify potential targets—lobster antenna sweeping out from under a ledge, the hole where a grouper went is hiding. Identify danger—lion fish in the lobster crack, spotted moray eel near the grouper, nurse shark sitting on the bottom. If there are no barracuda, there soon will be. Deep breath. Spear held lightly, not loaded. Abandon thoughts of success. Clear ears. Dive. Glide. Hold onto a rock or hover near the bottom. Accept the lack of oxygen. Focus on the details. Let the fish acclimate to your presence. Maybe a snapper gets curious and swims by. Load the spear. No thoughts of success. Relax. Release. Contact. Ascend with a 360-degree scan. Look up, clear snorkel. Breathe. Spear up, fish out of the water, return to dinghy.

I may someday hunt with a speargun or a sling, but I will never give up the pole spear. There is an intimacy and direct attachment to the weapon that I doubt can be found elsewhere. I have to get very close to my prey, ideally less then three feet. Once the fish is shot its struggle is transmitted directly through the spear into my arm. At this time I am acutely aware that I am killing a living thing, so I give a small prayer of thanks and acknowledge the animal that is dying to provide food to my family.

Loaded spear. If I start my dive with a loaded spear I have less bottom time. My forearm is burning oxygen and my brain is excited to shoot also wasting O2.

Loaded spear. If I start my dive with a loaded spear I have less bottom time. My forearm is burning oxygen and my brain is excited to shoot also wasting O2.

After the first kill, there will be a barracuda somewhere nearby. They like to hang out 30–40 feet away, roughly circling your position; often they are between you and the sun, or directly behind your head in your six o’clock position. They look really mean, with rows of needle-sharp teeth. They are not so much interested in me as in any fish I might wound that gets away. I think of them as hungry stay dogs. Sometimes, one gets a little too close; in those cases, I point my loaded spear at him and I think loudly “I will kill you and eat you” and then they back off. I have yet to see a large, aggressive barracuda. I try to read each situation; if I feel threatened, I get out of the water. I am convinced the fish can read my intent. I try to maintain a very zen approach. As soon as I get excited about catching fish, two things happen: one, the fish know I am excited and they all swim away; and two, I burn through my held breath very fast and cannot create opportunities for a good shot.

Sharks: in my mind there are two kinds, nurse sharks and all the others. I try to choose times to hunt that are less shark-active, usually between 10am to 2pm. We have adopted a rule from some fellow cruisers, and do not generally swim after 4pm—or, as we call it, shark o’clock. Nurse sharks are really docile; I am not sure what you have to do to piss one off. I once shot over the back of one to get a large royal crab; and the shark didn’t move at all (Miguel thought I was crazy). I have seen some large reef sharks, and one medium-large bull shark. They show up after a group off us have a lot of success. I have yet to have one approach me; they have all just done drive-byes. Sometimes they go into the barracuda pattern; then I keep an eye out and swim backwards toward the dingy with my spear unloaded, holding it between me and the shark, looking around to make sure there are not more. (From what we’ve been told by park rangers, sharks pick up on the metal from the spear and stay away.) One time we saw a very large reef shark swim past us while hunting, not even a little interested in us—he was on his way someplace else. I get out of the water if the big guys show up.

When we left, I was sure my main off-the-boat physical activity was going to be kiteboarding; the thing is, I am not that good at kiteboarding (yet—don’t worry Tim, I’ll get there), so I want an onshore breeze to push me home, and that is not where we anchor. I have yet to have an easy walk to the right spot; so until I get that dialed in, I’ll have to live with spear fishing.

From Long Island, Bahamas

dsc_1803
Warm wind in the palm leaves, and I think of snow
In the distant province where things happened
That belong to another, inconceivable life.
The bright side of the planet moves towards darkness
And the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour,
And for me, now as then, it is too much.
There is too much world.
–Czeslaw Milosz
The Separate Notebooks

Camp for Cruisers

I mean, I’m not the first one to say it. Georgetown is like summer camp. Sometimes, though, camp is pretty good.

Cruising kids working the slackline and rope swing at the Chat and Chill

Cruising kids working the slackline and rope swing at the Chat and Chill

View from the anchorage

View from the anchorage

We are not anywhere near peak season here in Georgetown, so the number of boats hanging out in Elizabeth Harbor is more like 100 instead of 300. Yeah, that sounds like a lot, but it’s an enormous harbor; we’re currently nestled into the anchorage at the Monument, but we could be farther south at Volleyball Beach; beyond that at Sand Beach; anchored right outside the town, on the other side of the harbor; or tucked into one of three hurricane holes here at Stocking Island (well, maybe not the hurricane holes; it looks pretty shallow in there). And that’s just where the majority of the boats hang out; there are plenty of other spots to park.

Hiking around town, looking for rare items like eggs

Hiking around town, looking for rare items like eggs

None of the spots have a dock, however, so we’ve been shuttling back and forth to town to fill up our jerry jugs with water and diesel, and replenish the fridge. It’s about a mile to Georgetown from our current spot, and it’s been pretty windy, which has made for some wet dinghy rides. So wet, that some days we just hang out over here….and camp it up.

Library in town. Only open between 10-noon, and no one can figure out on which days...we never made it inside.

Library in town. Only open between 10-noon, and no one can figure out on which days…we never made it inside.

F works the rope swing

F works the rope swing

Tomorrow morning, for example, I’ll be heading to the lovely Lumina Point resort for free yoga, in a shady pavilion overlooking the harbor. If I really wanted to fill my day, I could go to the volleyball game; grab a three-hour lunch at the Chat and Chill; feed the stingrays at the conch shack that allow themselves to be petted; and show up for poker later at the St. Francis. There might be more going on tomorrow—I’ll have to listen to the cruisers’ net.

Confluence.

Confluence.

This is only the second time we’re really tuned in to a “net,” and we’re kind of enjoying it! Every morning at 8:00, Sue from Wind Dancer comes on to Channel 72 on the VHF radio and starts off by asking if anyone has any emergency that needs to be addressed. She follows that up with weather, usually from Chris Parker, and then lets local businesses call in with any announcements (this is where Lumina Point will remind me about yoga). Next up, if I remember correctly, is community announcements, followed by anyone needing help (lots of requests for engine assistance during that stretch); then it’s buy/sell/trade time, followed by new arrivals and departures. Anyone in the harbor can call in, give their boat name, wait to be acknowledged, and then make a request at the appropriate time; we picked up some dive weights this morning from a neighbor, just by asking on the net. At the end of the whole shebang, Sue has new arrivals stick around and gives them the rundown on garbage disposal, dinghy docks and other vitals for the area. Everyone else shifts down to 68, the de facto hailing channel for the cruising community, and finishes making arrangements with their trades or technical support. Not only have we found the net to be super-helpful, it is some fantastic voyeurism.dscf1260

Topping up the SIM card at the BTC office

Topping up the SIM card at the BTC office

A great number of boats hang out here for three months solid. Our plans have revolved around reprovisioning, more or less. We had set a lofty goal to find a new toilet seat—the hinges on the old one were barely hanging on. Accomplished!! So it’s basically like an entire bathroom renovation in there, since the toilet takes up half the space in the head. We’d also hoped for good wifi, but after struggling to upload photos at a restaurant reputed to have good internet access, we decided it was easier to buy data for the phone and tether it to the laptop. We’ve also learned how to compress the photos to a more manageable size, so as long as we’ve got cell service, we’ve got blog posts. We are clearly tech geniuses, and will be looking for jobs at Google when we return.

Sad to split up these kids.

Sad to split up these kids.

Georgetown is also, for us, a parting of the ways. As we’ve been heading south, we’ve met up with so many people heading in the same direction; but our closest cruising friends will not be following us to the Ragged Islands, or to Cuba. The Perlas are right behind us, but won’t be going to Cuba; Mafalda and Wildcat are heading east; Sapphires are off to Turks and Caicos. While it’s always possible that we may see these folks again, it’s unlikely; so we’ve had to start saying the goodbyes that are so common in the cruising life. The kids are rolling with it, but some of these boats we’ve been traveling with since South Carolina, and we’ve shared a lot together. We are faced, once again, with the end of a chapter in our journey. Looking forward to the next tale.