Posted on April 5, 2017
Crossing the sea
I admit it: I was a little nervous about our crossing from Jamaica to Panama. It was the longest passage we’ve done, and it just seemed so exposed—miles from help, if we needed it. By the time we left, though, I was ready. Here’s why:
- Multiple disaster stories. Counterintuitive, right? But we heard second-hand accounts of piracy off the coast of Nicaragua from more than one cruiser, which made us feel pretty confident of the general area to be avoided (nowhere near our intended route). We have friends who were dismasted on the way north from Panama, and comfortably made it to Providencia, so we learned that there are safe places to stop along the way. Listening to some of the problems of others made us feel like we could make appropriate plans.
- Weather patience. Once again, we waited for good weather. And waited, and waited some more. Shout out to Predict Wind, and their awesome weather modeling; we got almost exactly the winds and swell that we expected.
- The wait itself. We spent way more time in Montego Bay than we would have liked, so by the time we felt good about departure, we were READY. Food was all prepped for the entire passage, tanks topped off, bureaucratic loose ends tied up, everyone well-rested.
We set off in a pretty stiff breeze from the northeast, which sped us down the coast of Jamaica and around the western side; by the evening, the wind had died, and we were motoring. Right on cue, the wind filled in the next day in the evening, and we spent almost the entire passage on a broad-to-beam reach in 10-12 knots with flat seas. Perfect!
The only really heart-stopping moment came on the morning of the second day. We were just switching watches, around 6am, and I was down below making some coffee when we heard a huge cruuunch—like we’d just run into some bizarre coral head in the middle of the ocean. It turns out that there’s quite a bit of fishing on the Pedro Banks, just south of Jamaica, and we’d run directly over a fishing float. What are the chances? Amazingly, we didn’t wrap anything around the prop. The float was a huge wooden spear contraption, and we were able to push it down and clear the rudder. Terrible luck to have hit it, but amazing luck to get it off so easily. (And no real need for the coffee, after that.)
Not everything went exactly swimmingly. The fridge, for example, decided to kick into hyperdrive (as is often the case), and froze most of its contents; this did not improve the texture of the pasta. The sun was brutally hot, inspiring us to get a bit of canvas work done here in Panama to mitigate the effects of el sol underway. But mostly, we are really bad at sleeping.
What happens is this: Michu and I both try too hard to take care of each other. Instead of having rigid watch schedules—four hours on, four hours off—or just setting the AIS alarm and both going to bed (yes, we know people who do this), we are always trying to let the other person get some extra sleep. So maybe Michu gets six or seven hours in a row one night; but the next day, Deb is ruined. Then Michu tries to help Deb out by powering through an eight-hour watch, but is destroyed himself the next day. And repeat.
Being desperately tired is not so terrible for a two-day passage, but for five days, it was not great. I was so exhausted on the third night, my little squirrel brain could not settle down to sleep, and I became irrationally terrified that the boat was overpowered and out of control. Actually, the boat was doing great—reaching along in about 15 knots of wind, and surfing a bit down the back of the waves; in my weird, exhausted hysteria, I made us shorten sail, which made the motion of the boat through the waves much less comfortable. After that, I got some sleep; but my dear husband kept the helm for a heroic stretch, on top of being a bit seasick from the new motion, and was completely broken the next day.
The moral of our terrible sleep habits is twofold for us, I think: follow an actual watch schedule, and consider taking on extra crew for longer passages. Not that we expect to have any longer passages—our hop across the Caribbean confirmed that ocean crossings are not on the table in our near future—but having an additional body at the helm to get us through the night would have meant a well-rested crew all around.
And many things about our passage were lovely. We saw a group of whales, although they were too far away for us to identify the species. We had dolphins alongside the boat at night, darting in and out of the phosphorescence. Our only breakdown was the loss of a shackle pin on a spare jib halyard, which we later found on deck. The boat sailed beautifully. And we reached a point where we were no longer attempting to estimate our arrival—we were just carried along by the wind and the waves, knowing that we’d get there eventually.