Low Tide in the Tanks

At one little uninhabited cay, we bounced Sentijn through a narrow gulley in the fringing reef and stayed for three weeks.  We couldn’t have left if we wanted to; the tiny, twisting pass into the lagoon was closed by breaking waves most days.   We settled into a pleasant routine, taking little Dean to the beach in the morning, before the sun became strong enough to sear his fair skin to cinders.

The middle of the day–during nap time–was dedicated to small maintenance projects; mending sails and splicing lines chafed during the Atlantic crossing.  Our bottom paint had lost whatever trivial toxicity it had once possessed, and keeping the growth under control was a constant job.  The shallow white sand reflected the sun’s light onto the hull and the seagrass flourished. 

Scrubbing it off released a huge plume of ablative blue paint into the pristine water, but with our engine trouble it was imperative that Sentijn sail efficiently.  I thought back wistfully to when antifoul had vicious chemicals in it: one coat of paint was sufficient for years of sailing, and only the occasional wipe was needed.  Nowadays I put on six coats of paint, knowing that I’ll end up scrubbing it all off the hull in multicolored submarine clouds.  

The evenings were the best part of the day. We’d load the dingy with spears, masks, flippers and weights and zoom out to the fringing reef, new outboard purring.  There were lobsters the size of Jack Russel terriers wandering around, out in the open, in broad daylight, in shallow water.  Dean, by this time, knew the drill: stay in the dinghy and keep the lobsters from climbing out.  Pound-for-pound, it was a pretty fair matchup.  

There were also a pair of resident grey reef sharks and they were no dummies.  After a few repetitions, they started following our afternoon excursions with particular studied interest.  Kara worried they were waiting for little Dean to fall out of the dingy–which would not have been a very fair matchup–but they seemed content to follow the swimmers at the limits of visibility, sidling up alongside when they sensed action.  After a few prods with the spear when they got too close, the sharks and I struck up an uneasy truce; they didn’t seem very interested in lobster anyway.

In one deep corner of that lagoon, hundreds of conchs had congregated in about 15 meters of water.  I got pretty excited when we discovered this and a little over zealous on the first dive when I gathered an armload.  I couldn’t make it back to the surface with more than two or three; their chipped and beaten shells were so thick that each snail weighed about 5 kgs.

All good things must, unfortunately, come to and end and in this case it was the water supply.  We hadn’t filled Sentijn’s tanks in a few countries, or in a few months, and supply was now critical.  There was no source on this deserted, desert island so we sailed to the next nearest one but that was uninhabited as well.  And the one after that.  

Laundry was becoming critical…

Finally we made landfall at Crooked Island, which was not deserted, but there was also no water.  The municipal supply had been destroyed by a hurricane a half-decade previously and never repaired; the residents had been shipping in bottled water for years.  Gasoline was easier to find than water…even if it was chunky and cloudy and siphoned from a steel tank in the only store’s parking lot.  Our outboard seemed happy enough, though…

Abandoned lighthouse on a deserted island.

A Brief Moment of Crew

We hoisted the main.  Sentijn had always been reluctant to sail up to the anchor.  Her mast was set fairly far forward, which was excellent for blasting downwind under a big blanket of canvas.  The arrangement did not, however, encourage her to wander around at the end of her anchor-chain which would have given us a periodic slackening to work the anchor up.  She required an active helmsman for that, and I sighed contentedly as I swung the tiller and Nathaniel reeled in the anchor.  Ahh, the luxuries of being doublehanded!

It didn’t last.  We scudded out of the bay before a brisk 25-knot north easterly.  Nathaniel decorated the side of the boat almost immediately.  Dean was drugged and unconscious in the V-berth, and so far the milk was staying put.

The next two days were brisk sailing with sloppy, steep seas on the quarter.  Sentijn reached across the wind, rolling mightily as we passed first Puerto Rico, then the Dominican Republic, then Haiti.  With the eased mainsheet, the boom’s far end splattered through wave tops and water gurgled along the side decks.  With the otherwise-occupied crew, the night watches were long and lonely.

A dark variety of tern landed and spent the third night with us, huddled in the cockpit.  Dean signed that he loved it and tried to take it to his bunk.  It fluttered away half-heartedly, and Kara told Dean that it had to stay outside but, if he was good, he could check on it as often as he wanted.  That proved to be very often and by morning, it was gone.

As we skimmed the north coast of the Turks and Caicos Islands, we checked for a phone signal: success!  But there was troubling news; shortly after our departure an unforecast snowstorm and left Nathaniel’s fiance snowed under back at the farm.  She didn’t complain, but Nathaniel deduced that since the snow was armpit-deep, she was heavily pregnant, the animals in the outbuildings were hungry, and Nathainiel was meanwhile yachting in the Caribbean–between dry heaves, anyway–that he was in deep pre-marital trouble.  He couldn’t expect anything to eat except kale and eggplant chickpeas for the foreseeable future, and his bride would now require two wedding dresses rather than one.

Kara called an all-hands meeting and we decided to divert to North Caicos; there was an airport there.

~

We anchored adjacent to another superyacht marina, and the local authorities quickly lightened my wallet for the unscheduled crew-change.  By the time Nathaniel was airborne and Sentijn was back at sea I was feeling distinctly annoyed with the Caribbean.  Even a trivial overnight sail to an adjacent island triggered another fusillade of bureaucracy and government fees.  Most of the anchorages we’d visited were crowded with superyachts, and the modest sailboats were mostly week-long bareboat charters.  I expected the Bahamas to be no different.

~

We hauled Mayaguana Island above the horizon late in the evening.  There were two gaps in the reef we could use; one shallow, right on the rhumb line, and the other deep…and 15 miles out of the way.

Sentijn could never be considered shallow draft.  When she’s sitting in the yard, keel on the ground, the waterline is way over my head.  I need a ladder to paint the boot stripe, and scaffolding to reach the topsides.  Some sailors, we’d been warned, might consider her incompatible with the Bahamas, where the anchorages are atop flat, submarine limestone plateaus and average anchoring depths do not permit diving from the bowsprit.

But there’s another school of thought.  Sentijn is heavy and deep–heavy because she’s built like a tank. We tested that in the Netherlands when we ran her onto the only rockpile in the entire country, under full sail, at 5 knots; she didn’t even dent. After that, I stopped worrying about groundings.

We drove her into the shallow South pass at Mayaguana at low tide, with a following swell.  In the troughs, the depth sounder suggested panic and disaster.  I fancied I could feel a slight rumble as the keel plowed a trench through the seabed, pushing limestone rubble aside.  We anchored in the vast lagoon with a handbreadth of water under the keel with nary a superyacht in sight.

The town–the largest on the island–looked like something out of a John Wayne movie but surrounded by mangroves-fringed saltmarsh rather than desert.  The only market looked post-apocalyptic, with perfectly bare shelves just visible through dusty and cracked window panes.  The town was dead quiet: no cars, no dogs, no litter, and no people.  The only noise, aside from the trades whispering through shrubbery, was the determined rumble of two industrial-sized air conditioning units outside the church.  It didn’t look like any Caribbean island I’d ever been to.

The formalities were transparent and without guile: whoever designed the process must have been a terrible beaurocrat.  The fee was flat, and all inclusive.  The paperwork was, for once, paper-thin.  Full fishing rights were included because–let’s be honest–there was clearly nothing to eat on the island except fish, and sailors all live on boats filled with fishing gear.  I got the feeling that any other arrangement would never have occurred to a Bahamian.  The fishing regulations were a half-dozen sentences that fit on a 3×5 card and said things like “no more than ten lobster aboard at any time.” 

This began a strange period in our sail through the Caribbean.  For the entire two months that followed, I felt like we’d stepped out of time.  With our dodgy engine, I was afraid to get involved in the maze of shallows at the heart of the Bahamas.  Instead, we skipped along the Atlantic fringe, darting between tiny limestone wedges thrusting up into the open-ocean swell.  They were all uninhabited, and we didn’t see any other sailors.

The Return of the Dean

USVI Landafall

Kara and Dean were returning from California.  Dean had been to the pediatrician; he was looking good–we hadn’t killed him yet!  And furthermore, his immunizations were now fully up-to-date. Contrary to anti-vaxxer doctrine, we’d opted for the full program.  And bring on any experimental stuff, too! 

I suppose it’s fun to play with measles or hepatitis or whatever when you live in a house ten minutes from the hospital, but passing through dozens of foreign countries separated by long offshore passages makes the risk assessment excercise pretty straight-forward.

Jet Lag

Of course, my nice little quarantine bubble aboard Sentijn was shattered when Kara and Dean arrived.  He’d likely been sucking on the airplane tray tables and shoving international-airport cigarette butts up his nose.  We were all miserably feverish within a day, and wracked with chills for five.

Throughout this time, Sentijn shared the Charlotte Amile anchorage in the USVI with a constant parade of cruise ships.  I marked the days by the sound of huge propellers churning the water as they entered at dawn and departed with the sunset.  Sometimes, I’d hold the crying baby up to a porthole and we could watch a wall of white steel slide by, Little Mermaid theme music booming over the harbor.

After we’d recovered, Sentijn ran down the south coast of the U.S.V.I. and short tacked into the leeward-most anchorage in the Virgin Islands.  The local representative of the neighborhood watch, a rotund, elderly gentleman immediately chastised us for landing the dinghy 10-feet too far to the north (“Didn’t you read the sign in the parking lot?”)

DCIM\100GOPRO

Regardless, it was rumored that Kara’s little brother had been successfully guilted into crewing for the next leg.  This was something of a shock; he had a 8-and-three-quarters-month pregnant fiance back home. Leaving the lovely winter wonderland of central Oregon to battle through blistering tropical sun was, he informed me, a sacrifice he was willing to make–as a personal favor.  In addition, he would only under grave duress consider spending any time in the godforsaken sandy marine desert of the Bahamas. Further, I could not, under any circumstances, expect him to choke down even the tiniest nip from a bottle of rum.  

In short, I’d owe him–bigtime.

Crew Change

Old man at the helm, negotiating the BVI charter traffic.

Kara, Sarah, and Dean flew back to California.  My dad flew in and we prepped the boat for passage to the BVI where we hoped to re-trace the path of old Orca.  I crunched some numbers, counted on both my fingers and toes, then declared that with light air on the forecast the trip should take two days and a night, with an easy daylight arrival.

Due to miscalculation, it turned out to be two nights and a day, with a difficult night arrival.   But otherwise, wandering through the BVI was a serendipitous sojourn in which we blindly stumbled onto excellent surf not just once (which would have been very lucky), but twice (miraculous).  

Plus, as my dad was still recovering from a shoulder replacement operation and had skipped out on his physical therapy, he was grateful for the carbide paint scraper with which I presented him as a congratulatory trophy for completing his first open-ocean passage.  Participating in the campaign against paint aboard Sentijn, I assured him, would be excellent shoulder exercise.  My medical expertise guaranteed it!

We finished our wanderings in Road Town, where I had fond memories of provisioning in the lee of an overhanging mangrove clump a few years back.  This time, we found the anchorage full of hurricane Irma’s wrecks. The mangroves were still there, but there were boats lodged high in their bare, dead branches.

We anchored among a crazy forest of broken masts and dark submarine shadows; if the wind switched, we’d swing into the wrecks.  But Sentijn had scratch-indifferent topsides, and there wasn’t any damage we could do to any of these boats that hadn’t already been done.

After my dad flew out, I wandered the Virgin Islands alone.  I circulated the single hander social circles where I again found that strange breed of skipper who is either not compatible with other humans, or doesn’t care to be.  

Tucked in for a few weeks.

I met one who’d left his 35-footer ashore on blocks for the previous hurricane season.  By chance, when the boats started falling like dominoes during Hurricane Irma, the boat to his starboard fell to the right and toppled half the boatyard.  The boat to port tipped to the left and when it was all over, his was the only boat standing.

I shared my cheap Spanish wine with an Englishman who’d grown up in the BVI.  Once, he said, in the 60’s he’d watched lights dance in the sky where no lights should be.  After curiosity got the best of him, he went to investigate and discovered a crashed cargo plane packed tight with bricks of pure cocaine.

By the time I’d gotten the paint scraped off both spinnaker poles, rewired a few circuits, serviced the engine, and revarnished the cockpit, most of the Spanish wine was gone. The USVI, it was rumored, would be able replenish my store of the sailor’s staple: good-ol’-fashioned rum!

Boarded…Again

I’m sure there’s some flares around here somewhere…

Among all the white Beneteaus and Catalinas, Sentijn’s unorthodox matte grey hull seemed to attract far more than her share of police scrutiny.  We’d been careful to keep our documents in order, but the safety requirements were another kettle of fish. Depending on which country we were in, certain safety items like rocket flares and flare guns were either stringently required, or strictly prohibited.  Either way, the damn things kept expiring every few years and it was almost impossible to dispose of such ‘explosive material.’ Some countries seemed even to simultaneously prohibited carrying expired flares while forbidding the disposal of them.

Sentijn had been slowly filling since the 70’s; by the time we were boarded by an enormous Maritime Police RIB in Sint Maartin, there was a whole locker stacked full of slowly-destabilizing pyrotechnics.  Little Dean somehow kept getting ahold of them and banging them around. He seemed to like sucking on the rocket booster ends because they had knobbly plastic covers that eased his teething.  

The half-dozen Dutch officers were accessorized in every conceivable way, including long skeletal black rifles. When they came aboard, pistol butts and other odd-shaped protuberances kept catching on the standing rigging.  They attempted a thorough search, but between kevlar vests, utility belts, tactical harnesses, flotation devices, combat boots, helmets, radios and the rifles they couldn’t really fit down the companionway hatch. Leaving their equipment stacked on the foredeck didn’t really seem to be an option either.

A nice evening for a border inspection.

The presence of the soldiers and their dark equipment seemed strangely comical as they moved among little Dean’s toys.

Everything seemed in order until they realized that, although I had three dozen expired flares, I couldn’t produce the in-date flares needed for compliance with Dutch law.  Furthermore–with hardening eyes, thin lips, and arms crossed–such a dangerous expired stockpile could not be condoned.

In hindsight, I can see their point. The difference between a foreign-flagged dark-hulled boat packed with sticks of pyrotechnics sure doesn’t look all that different from a load of actual explosives. No wonder they’d left their RIB idling twenty meters away.

Sailing among the cruise ships late that month in the USVI.

They let me off with a warning after I pointed out that the liferaft’s survival kit carried the requisite number of flares–at least according to the documentation–but I was unwilling to deploy it for verification of the contents. And, as the last enforcement official stepped overboard, I presented him with an armful of ancient rocket flares for disposal.  He frowned, inspected the moldy, misshapen red cardboard tubes, adjusted his machine gun, and declined my gift.  

Too hazardous.

Misadventures in Sint Maarten

St. Martin was wrecked; damage from hurricane Irma was everywhere.  They’d really only cleared priority areas: the runway, where private jets arrived; the road between the private jet hangars and the private superyacht marina; and the dingy dock where yachties line up to buy illicit 2-stroke outboards.  

Napping

Otherwise, land as sea were strewn with wrecks and debris.  The roads were obstructed with boat and car carcasses that had been heaped into haphazard mounds by bulldozers.  When asking for directions, longtime residents would say something like “Oh, Rainbow Grocery over on Niels Street is good; try there!”  But then I realized there were no signs left on the island. The roads were marked by ankle-high angle iron shards where the wind had torn off stop signs and street markers.  The remaining buildings were single-story raw concrete bunkers blasted clean by flying sand and other debris. Tangles of rebar jutted drunkenly where roofs, rooms, or entire stories had been ripped away. I had to stick my head in the door as I walked along the street to determine the nature of each business.  

The largest marina on the island, boasting 360 degrees of land-locked protection, had been reduced to a few jagged rows of concrete nubbing with the occasional mast jutting drunkenly from the waves between.

Sarah and I (using the buddy system for added safety) wandered over to the part of town where I’d been told I could get a two-stroke outboard.  I was expecting something a little like a drug deal–maybe a guy in a black hoodie leaning against a broken-off street light. I’d give him some cash (a wad of Dutch Guilders, in fact) and he’d signal to an accomplice leaning against rusty panel van two blocks over.  The van, I knew from watching Netflix, would then pull away revealing a bundle of rags propped against a trash can. I’d go pick it up, sling it over my shoulder, and skulk back to the anchorage.

That was not exactly how the ‘deal’ went down.  Budget Marine had been transplanted directly from a suburban strip mall.  It jutted from a destroyed urban neighborhood as an off-white stucco cube showing not even the slightest hint of hurricane damage; it had clearly just landed from outer space.  Inside the embossed automatic double doors was like IKEA for yachties: air conditioned, brightly-lit, well-stocked, and staffed with employees in perfectly ironed uniforms. I pointed at an outboard roughly the size, shape, and weight of our current 3hp model, except 2-stroke, of course.  The price wasn’t much different than I’d paid in Holland, but this motor was, I realized, ten horsepower. Dean was going to love this!

It wasn’t until Sarah and I got back to Sentijn that I realized our little 25-pound inflatable was only rated for 4hp.  But, I reasoned, I preferred oversized gear because we were hard on stuff.  Our oversized anchor was secured with oversized shackles, our oversized winches were secured with oversized bolts, our oversized rigging was tensioned by oversized turnbuckles and attached to oversized chainplates with overlong welds.  Good stuff!

Daysailing. What’s daysailing again?

We clamped the new motor onto the floppy little rubber raft. I daubed a little of my Spanish fuel into the tank and gave a halfhearted pull on the start cord.  To my amazement, it started right up. Casting off, I gave the slightest twitch of the throttle and the little dinghy leapt up out of the water and was immediately blasting to windward at a speed that caused my tongue to flop out and whip around back by my earlobe.

The wind extended its tendrils beneath the bow, and I could feel us lifting off.  Scooting my weight forward had no effect, and by this time the only part of the dingy touching the water must have been a tiny slice of spinning propeller.  I had a brief vision of us flying fifty feet into the sky like one of those racing speed boats, flipping three times with debris spraying across the anchorage, and my rag-doll body skipping a hundred yards across the water before the dinghy finally broke up and landed on whatever small pieces were left of me.  

Break-in period.

I reduced from almost-no-throttle back to idle, a dangerously precise operation that didn’t actually involve any movement of the throttle control mechanism at all, but only a nearly undetectable change in grip pressure. I returned to Sentijn, chastened and scared.  I pulled the cowling off and identified a place where we could add a wire linkage to limit the throttle’s travel. After some experimentation, I determined two people plus a baby could get up on a plane with about 30% throttle and I locked it down there; we neutered that outboard.

A brush with Border Technology

Antigua sunset

I stumbled into the immigration office, winded, with a neat line of new rowing blisters along each palm.  The line was long.  

Having somewhat unintentionally ignored most of the borders in Europe, I realized it had been quite some time since I’d formally cleared a boat into or out of a country.   Who knew what sorts of technological miracles had descended from heaven since 2012?

Antigua had charged into the 21st century with an integrated electronic recreational vessel clearance and control system (IERCCS, or something) consisting of a geriatric PC running Windows 98–the kind that pauses for the hard drive to spin up whenever you try to move the mouse.  

Landfall celebration

The idea was for each skipper to enter the voyage particulars with great, exaggerated slowness (so as not to overtax the processor), lose his progress a half-dozen times due to Internet Explorer crashes (there was no save button), and then click submit (only once, damn it!)  The staff then immediately print everything out, make six copies, and do the usual stamp dance as the skipper carries the thickening pile of dead trees between four different office windows.

I entered all my information and tried to clear out for St Maartin.  After I clicked ‘submit’, the immigration lady became quite riled by my declaration that I had three crew aboard.  Baby Dean was, she lectured, much too young to be crew. In a fit of agitation, she tore up all my printouts; we had to change his status to ‘passenger’ but somehow the offending designation had propagated through sixteen different highly secure government databases and was harder to kill than a roach infestation.  I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was until I saw the bill: changing Dean’s status meant he was subject to the same departure taxes and fees as any other cruise ship passenger. As far as I could see, I’d just been hit with a $55 baby tax.

I suggested–as a joke!–that perhaps it would be easier if I left the baby with her for a few years, while I sailed over to St. Maartin?  Neither immigration lady nor Kara found me amusing.

Thats not food, Dean.

Overboard with the damned Outboard

The honeymoon period of a landfall would last a lot longer if it wasn’t for the damned paperwork.  And blowing up the dinghy. But mostly, it was this cursed outboard.

Sentijn had come with a small inflatable.  I’d tried rowing it back in the Netherlands and it was like paddling a birthday balloon.  The stubby little oars barely even reached the water. By whirling the pathetic blades in short, splashy little circles I could reduce leeward drift, but progress to windward was impossible.  Kara had been haunted by nightmares of me windmilling the oars we blew out into the North Sea while newborn Dean cried out for his bottle of milk and shivered in her arms.

So, we’d gone to the local chandlery, laid a stack of bills on the counter, and let them talk us into the latest and greatest three horse-power outboard motor.  They were thrilled.

What I hadn’t realized was that regulations had outlawed the venerable two-stroke engine for marine use both in the E.U. and U.S.  The technology had been deemed dirty and archaic. While millions of people all over the world started up their mass-produced, simple and inexpensive two-cycle leaf blowers, weed-eaters, and chainsaws, outboard motor manufacturers had been forced to take the much more complex carbureted four stroke engine–such as you might find in a Chevy Camaro–and shrink it down to three horsepower.  

The result was what I’d purchased: a wildly expensive fifty-pound monstrosity with microscopic little bits and pieces that clogged, snapped, and seized at the slightest excuse.  I’d had that carburetor apart a dozen times in a half-dozen countries since we’d bought it. I even started carrying a spare carburetor.

It seemed that the stupid little mongrel was exceptionally picky about fuel quality and age.  This was terrible; we went to all sorts of places where fuel was scarce and so the motor was constantly broken, and always in exactly the locales where it needed to be most reliable: the boonies of west-coast Ireland or on Middle-of-Nowhere Island in Scotland.  In talking to other four-stroke victims, they said that constantly exchanging old fuel for new was now a fact of life.  

A typical outboard failure location

I always asked what they did with whatever fuel they couldn’t use in a couple of weeks because, back in England, I’d called the hazmat disposal hotline.  They answered promptly and were happy to pick up my gallon of old petrol in three to six months for just three easy payments of 29.95.  

Other sailors–in an ashamed and conspiratorial whisper–confirmed that it is difficult to dispose of; there were really just four options.  The best was to give it to someone with a two-stroke outboard.  

Second, sail to a civilized harbor and find a car.  Cars are fuel-injected and burn older fuel without complaint but, unfortunately, most vehicles nowadays have secure fuel doors to prevent thieves from syphoning fuel out.  Ironically, this meant that we couldn’t ‘donate’ fuel to unattended cars in the harbor parking lot either. Rather we should strap the baby into his carrier and hike to the nearest road, flagging down traffic until we could convince someone to let us top up their tank.  A bit like reverse hitchhiking.

Searching for cars on an island off the coast of Ireland

Third was to burn it somehow, but without exploding either myself, the boat, the wife, or–most importantly, I’d been firmly instructed–the baby.  Or the forest. Or any nearby houses.

Fourth, pour it out on a hot day and let it evaporate–preferably in a parking lot so it doesn’t seep into the groundwater.  Or, in a pinch, pour it overboard at sea; it’s lighter than water and should eventually evaporate…kind of…mostly.  

One of the last things I’d done in the Canaries, just minutes before departure, was run all of the fuel out of the outboard (which was buzzing contentedly, at the time). Then, I’d stormed straight past the harbor’s fuel dock (not enough turnover) and trudged two miles into town where there was a service station. Much to the attendant’s amusement, I purchased a half-second squirt of fuel.  

Now after almost a month in a jug on deck, I tricked my little puddle of gasoline into the motor for the upwind trip to the immigration office. The damned thing wasn’t having it.  I tried all my tricks. Then I pulled the starter cord until I cried.  

I failed my way towards the customs office with my stunted little oar stubs in full row-of-shame regalia: failed outboard kicked up jauntily, cowling off, eyes downcast, back slumped, spirit broken.  As I worked my way through the anchorage, crabbing between wind shadows of the superyachts, a series of oft-patched, sun-cracked inflatables whizzed past. Their motors were well-used, the paint long gone from aluminum castings and the plastic cowlings were cracked and patched with rough epoxy.  Most had tiller extensions made of sanitary hose or PVC pipe rammed over the tiller and held in place with a rusty hose clamp. They called out troubleshooting tips. Had I forgotten to put the key in? Did you forget fuel, buddy? 

I stared back, mouth agape.  These people were flashing past like gods on chariots, hair splendidly adrift, cold beers foaming over, engines purring, and their only advice on engine trouble was putting in fuel?  How was this possible? Didn’t they pack extra spark plugs, three types of screwdriver, a socket set, and a spare carburetor or two whenever they left the mothership?

Dingy dock.

One particularly friendly couple stopped beside me to chat.  As their dinghy settled down off a plane, they glanced at my motor and I saw a slight tightening around the eyes.  It said, “Oh…no wonder.”  

What I needed to do, they instructed, was sail directly to Dutch Saint Martin where everything was duty free and laws were not so important.  Once there, I should walk to the far side of town (you’ll never make it through the lagoon in that dingy, son), and buy a two-stroke outboard.  Do it soon; don’t wait.

(Almost) All Downhill

Mysterious shape rising.

We’d run into a whale once before, and that had been a whole lot more traumatic.  This time, it was a beautiful clear day with a benign 15 knots of wind. We bumped like two distracted people on the sidewalk.  If Sentijn and the whale were speaking, the conversation probably went something like this: 

“Oh deary me; so sorry!  Didn’t see you there, mate.”  

“Nonsense, the fault was entirely mine.  A thousand apologies!”

“No trouble ‘t all.  Please, after you.”

“No, I insist: after you.”

This time, the whale was moving in the same direction, at the same speed.  It came up from deep, surfaced directly under the bow, and Sentijn lifted for a moment before she slid off and settled back.  The whale was startled, thrashed for a moment, and then paced alongside. We waved, the whale saluted with a spout, and dove. We didn’t see him again.

Sarah and I split the nightwatch, but there wasn’t any traffic and sail changes were predictable and rare, with the occasional 30-knot spells forecast by approaching thunderheads.  As we closed with the Caribbean, the evenings became increasingly squally. A reef or two in the main before nightfall was called for, and although it cost us a half knot of speed we were still logging 160+ miles a day and our position bounded across the chart in regular and healthy inch-wide increments.  

We retired the clogged fishing line as we cut through the first thick bands of Sargassum weed.  Dean found a dead flying fish on deck, baby-signed that he loved it for ever and ever, clutching it to his chest.  He was not permitted to bring it into his bunk for nap and when he woke, Kara explained that Fishy had had to go back home to his mummy, but he’d probably return in the morning.

Antigua

Antigua rose over the horizon in a grey, blustery dawn and we registered the first Caribbean traffic: an AIS target predictably labeled Club Med IV.  The approach to English Harbor was an easy run down the south coast and a friendly deepwater reach into a well marked-channel.  This time, the good holding sand was almost everywhere and soon we were swinging to the anchor, unashamedly drinking beer at dawn, and sniffing the strange scents of fresh water, woodsmoke, and wet soil.  

Finally, an easy passage: twenty good, simple, wholesome days at sea.

The jib comes off the pole for the first time in 20 days.

Outbound

With cousin Sarah aboard, we were almost back up to double-handed capacity and life felt about ten times easier.  We had a sprightly sail down to Fuerte Ventura, spent a week surfing around the base of a volcano, and then staged for final departure at the sleepy town of Gran Tarajal.  Final supplies were hastily loaded, we topped off the water tanks, and wiped down the underwater hull. The weather forecast was excellent.

It took a long time to clear the wind shadow of the Canaries, but after a day of slow progress we settled into a fast wing-and-wing run due south.  Sentijn loved it; she really wanted to go straight, and to go fast.  When the wind piped up and I started to get antsy, instead of trying to broach (as our previous boat liked to do), Sentijn just seemed to snuggle down into the water like a mother hen settling onto her eggs for the night.

Dean wasn’t seasick, but it was hard to say exactly why.  First, we’d filled him to the gills with anti-nausea medication (wonderful side effects include: drowsiness!)  Both his wrists were stacked with magic magnetic bands and acupressure actuator bracelets. We force-fed him Ayurvedic ginger tea, homeopathic ginger tincture, and plain old organic free-range sustainably-harvested shade-grown carbon-neutral dried ginger that Sarah brought from the grandmothers.  We also didn’t give him much to eat, fearing that anything we deposited might return to haunt us. Plus, the sea was small and playful.  

We started to find flying fish on deck each morning.  When the butter melted, the wind veered from north to northeast to east and the steering vane followed automatically, tracing the trade winds to the Caribbean.

Despite the lack of vomit, the baby decided that the world on deck was awfully big, indifferent, windy, and a little scary.  Instead, he’d explore every nook of the interior. It wasn’t until day 9 that he discovered the bilge sump, much to Kara’s horror.  The more she forbid him to climb down between Sentijn’s frames, the more this dark and mystical place fascinated. There was dust to play in, pipes to swing on, hoses to wrestle with, flaking toxic zinc-chromate paint to eat and–what’s this?  The high water alarm switch!

Usually, if the high water alarm sounds, we’ve got serious problems: water flooding in, sinking, perhaps the need to abandon ship and face possible death due to dehydration, exposure, starvation, etc.  It was triggered by a float switch–easily actuated by 1-year-olds crawling about in under the floorboards–that caused a screech designed to wake the dead. Dean decided that setting it off was great fun, particularly as I always sprang out of my bunk and slammed my head in the process.  

Eventually I became desensitized to it, and when Kara woke me with the alarm sounding, I thought nothing of it.  But she confirmed that, yes, this time, the boat was actually filling with water. Furthermore, the bilge pump wasn’t working.

With all hands attending an emergency conference, we determined that a) Dean had been exploring the engine bay that morning, and b) the alarm had sounded shortly after.  Suspicious! Maybe even sabotage! I shot Dean an accusing glare, and he vroom-vroomed his tractor over my foot.

After an hour of head scratching–during which the water level continued to rise–we determined that Dean had been adjusting valves on the raw water intake manifold.  Furthermore, he’d stumbled upon an improbable combination of settings that, if actuated at precisely the correct time in the boat’s roll, in exactly the right order, could not only start a dangerous back-syphon between the engine’s seawater intake and the bilge pump pickup, but also disable the primary pumps.  I calculated the odds of this to be significantly longer than the 64:1 indicated by binary valve positioning probabilities alone. I cast another suspicious, penetrating glance at Dean. He smiled back and signed that now he’d like to go on a dinghy ride to Boom Boom Beach.  

We were 1,200 miles from land.