Where is Harmonie?

We have been a bit off the map for a bit. Not because anything is wrong, but just things have been a bit boring. Since sailing from Charleston down to Florida we have mostly been working on Harmonie and working with new owners of another Amel Super Maramu bring their “new to them” boat up to top shape. It has been kind of different from what passes for our usual routine, actually “commuting” to work every day!

Last week we took a break from that and left with Harmonie and our friends Aras and Vickers (from the Amel Sharki, Fiasco) and set sail for 10 days exploring. Our destination was Dry Tortugas National Park, about 50 miles west of Key West.

The most visited part of the park is Fort Jefferson, a very well preserved fortification from the mid 19th century that defended the United States’ access to the southern sea lanes between Florida and Cuba. It was never attacked, and with over 400 of the most advanced cannons of its day, it would have been essentially impregnable to any naval weapons of the time. It was built of 16 million standard red bricks that were sourced from all over the young United States. No, I did not count, I’ll trust the word of the park ranger. You can see across the structure the color variances of the brick, and the differences in quality of the mortar used as construction progressed.

For the Birds!

One of the delights of visiting the Dry Tortugas in the spring (or fall!) is it is located near the flyway of millions of birds as they make their way north for the summer breeding season. Birds of all kinds and from all over can be found resting here before resuming their journey. This is a problem for amateur and inexperienced birders like us: You can’t use geography to help narrow down the list of birds that are possible matches to what you are seeing.

There are very few types of birds that actually live or nest here, and they are all seabirds. Everybody else is just passing through.

Lots of Good Terns.

The Dry Tortugas might not have a large variety of birds that live here, but what they lack in variety they make up for in numbers.

Just Magnificent

The most dramatic of the local nesters is the Magnificant Frigatebird. A large and graceful bird that is a bit nasty. They are famous as “kleptoparasites,” making a good part of their living by stealing food from other birds. They also are nest robbers, grabbing eggs and chicks from nests while swooping by. This includes unattended nests of other frigatebirds!

The chicks are very slow developing, they are almost 6 months old before they fledge, and rely on their mother for food for almost a full year.

And the usual suspects.

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And 1-2-3… We are there!

Modern weather forecasting and weather routing information is a real game changer for passage making sailors who take good use of it. In the “good” old days you made your best guess, and jumped out into the ocean and deal with what ever King Neptune threw at you. It is now so different.

Normal prevailing winds along the southeast coast of the US are from the southeast. Pretty much as bad as it gets if you are trying to sail from Charleston to South Florida. We waited, and waited, and watched… looking for an opportunity to “cheat.” When the models converged on a common solution and agreed, we grabbed it, and the result was a fast, fun, and most importantly, safe trip.

The winds were strong for most of the trip, 20 to 35 knots from the north or the northeast. The waves were, are times, large. But everything was coming at us from behind, so the sailing was fast and fun. We were moving through the water at over 10 knots for hours at a time. Our highest speeds, surfing down the big waves, was pushing close to 13 knots–measured both through the water and over ground! OK, it’s only for a minute, but still… bragging rights!

Our carefully planned trip was seriously disrupted and slowed down by the US Navy. We had our course set to keep west of the Gulf Stream. Just at the point where we were as close to the Gulf Stream as we were going to get we were hailed on the radio by “Warship 67” and told to turn east to avoid the live fire gunnery practice. For the next 60 miles we had to fight the north bound Gulf Stream in order to stay clear of the live fire exercises. Staying clear of naval ships firing guns with live ammunition always seems like a good idea! For what it’s worth, “Warship 67” is the USS Cole. Yes, THAT USS Cole. The guided missile destroyer that was seriously damaged in a suicide bomb attack in Yemen in 2000.

From untying our lines in Charleston, to anchor down in Hollywood, Florida was 2 day, 19 hours. Pretty good, especially considering we stopped to fish. Fishing wasn’t greatly successful, landing one amberjack before dark and building winds moved us on.

We are going to be based here in Hollywood for a week or two while we help some new Amel owners get dialed into their boat. If you are in the neighborhood, be sure to say “Hello!”

Our plans then are, hopefully, to run out to the Bahamas.

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Sailing again!

After way too long tied to the dock, Harmonie and her crew are finally ready, and our weather looks almost perfect for a trip south. We are headed to Fort Lauderdale where we will be helping introduce an Amel Super Maramu to her new owners. Kevin, one of those new owners, is along on this trip as pick-up crew.

The plan is to take on fuel here in Charleston, and then head out into the ocean with the ebb tide that begins about noon local time. We will sail southeast until we cross the Gulf Stream, then tun south. For the duration of the trip the winds are forecast to be from the north or north east, so we are expecting a fast and easy trip.

If the weather cooperates, there are a few places we hope to stop and fish.

After two or three weeks in Fort Lauderdale area, we will hopefully head over to the Bahamas for more of the remote cruising that we really enjoy.

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Wait, I Know That Boat!

The sailing world is a fairly small one. Especially when you are looking at boats that actually do sail around a lot The other day a new boat pulled in to the slip right across from us here in Charleston, South Carolina. As soon as I got a look at the graphics on the transom, my brain flipped though its internal card file and found a match.

XL was designed by Jim Antrim and was built at the Berkely Marine Center in Berkeley, California while I was working at the sailing school there. I literally had a front row seat as this boat was taking shape back in 2008. You can see pictures of the boat sailing, and under construction at Antrim’s website: http://antrimdesign.com/xl.html

XL had been brought here because her owners were planning on running her on the spring and summer racing circuit on the east coast, and Bahamas. After several years in storage, she had a new paint job, new rigging, and a general refit. She had just sailed here from Miami.

There was one small problem… there was something missing:

The mast! Apparently some piece of the new rigging failed, just as she was coming into Charleston Harbor, and the whole rig went over the side.

Fortunately, there wasn’t a lot of consequential structural damage, and nobody was hurt. With a initial delivery estimate for a new rig out well into June, it would seem their racing schedule will be significantly reduced.

We are getting ready to head to Florida, after being stuck here for too long. We are starting to watch the weather carefully, but the next week or so has a weather pattern that is resulting in wildly different forecasts. We’ll pick a day to leave once the various weather models agree on what we might encounter!

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The Latest FAD

While we were on our delivery from Charleston, SC to Antigua we had a couple days of winds that varied from very light, to none. Since this is a time for money project, rather than wait for wind, we motored along to keep the boat moving along.

We are several hundred miles off the coast, well out past the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream, in water nearly 2 miles deep, in the Saragasso Sea. It was my watch in the late morning and we are motoring along to the Southeast on a mirrow-calm sea, into the sun. Suddenly, off the port side of the boat, this strange thing slides on by a few yards away:

About 8 feet across, there is a separate small white buoy attached, and several meters of heavy chain hanging down from it. Rather disconcerting to come across and not see in the sun glare until we were practically past it. Running over it with the engine running could have been more than a bit of a problem. But, no harm done–this time.

When ever there is something like this floating on the ocean it attracts life. Lots of life.

Never let an opportunity like this pass by. The thing was the center of a huge collection of fish as far down as we could see, and then further than that. We can see gray triggerfish, almaco jacks, mahi-mahi. Even a few small sharks. Deeper down there are wahoo, and probably tuna.

We stopped and got out the one fishing rod we had, and the small collection of jigs I brought along for just such an eventuality. I tried to target the mahi-mahi I could see swarming around, but the jacks were far more aggressive in attacking the lures, so I can’t connect with the better eating fish. As much fun as they are to catch, we are not fans of jacks on the table, so a change in strategy is called for.

I drop my jib down deeper, 100 to 150 feet down. As soon as I start to retrieve it, WHAM!… Pop! A large wahoo swallows the jig, and slices it off my line with his razor shape teeth. Grumble… Tie on anther jig, and down deep I get bit, again right away. This time I manage to get the small wahoo up to the side of the boat before his teeth cut through the 300 lb test kevlar cord connecting the hook to the lure.

If we were on Harmonie I’d have the supplies I’d need to put a wire trace on the lures, reducing the chances for bite-offs, but here I don’t have what I need. Rather than throw everything I have down this rabbit hole populated by sharp-toothed critters, we decide to more on.

But wait!! What was this thing???

It certainly was functioning as a Fish Attracting Device (FAD). Yes, that is what they are called. It wasn’t immediately obvious exactly what it started life as, or where it came from. Was it hurricane debris? Discarded trash? Some odd kind of mooring buoy?

Turns out, it was born as a FAD. This style of floating fish attractor is used off the west coast of Africa. The small white buoy tied to it is a radio beacon so it can be found by the fisherman who set it out. Once the batteries in the beacon run down, the contraption is lost to its original owner, and it drifts off across the ocean, complete with its collection of fish.

Apparently, they regularly wash up on the coast of Florida.

Hopefully, the next time we come across a FAD like this we’ll be on our own boat with the fishing and photo gear in hand to have more fun with it!

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And We Are Back!

We are back to Harmonie in the City Marina in Charleston. We had a great time on the delivery, and the following days in Antigua. It is always fun introducing a new owner to the world of Amel.

Antiqua had a health protocol that was easy to comply with and seemed also to be both protective and rational. We needed a negative COVID test before we left, and needed to show a log of crew temperatures while in transit. If a local quarantine was required, they added the time at sea to your quarantine time. Other than some minor miscues on the logistics of the process, everything went very smoothly for us. They were satisfied we were low risk, and we were admitted without issue and no additional testing was required.

We did find a couple of things different from their published guidelines. On the websites they indicated that check-in could be accomplished by any member of the crew designated by the Captain. Not true. The presence of the Captain is required. It is true that having your information pre-entered into the eSeaClear online system reduces the time needed, but all they do is printout multiple copies of it in several different formats, all requiring the Captain’s signature.

According to one local source, yachting in one form or another account for about 25% of the islands GDP. We found the local chandlery to be one of the best stocked we have seen anywhere, with prices that were quite reasonable, considering the remoteness of the location. Marina berths were actually among the cheapest we have seen, significantly less then $1/ft/day. Food and miscellaneous supplies can have a limited selection, and expensive compared to stateside prices, but not insanely so.

The marina we were in was normally a hub of charter sailboat activity, but that was minimal with the travel restrictions. The slips were mostly full by the time we left with boats predominantly from Europe. Because of its location, Antigua is frequently a “first stop” on the west side of the Atlantic for boats making a west bound passage headed for either the US east coast, or the Panama Canal.

Antiqua is in a unique geographic location among the Caribbean islands. Being the furthest most NorthEast of the chain, all the other destinations are (more or less) all downwind. This makes a trip either south toward Grenada, or east toward Puerto Rico or Florida easy.

All in all, a delightful place, and one we might be headed back to on our own boat.

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And We Are Here

We arrived in St John’s Harbor last night, and dropped anchor near where the port authorities want us to wait for our health clearance. We are currently waiting for the nurse who will evaluate our COVID risk factors to come out to the boat.

We had a delightful sail yesterday down through the Leeward Islands. Perfect wind, beautiful scenery, in one of the world’s most famous cruising grounds. We topped it off with a blackfin tuna who will be gracing our table tonight as sushimi!

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The End Game

We are approaching the end of our passage. The skies over us are almost totally cloudless, but on the horizon directly ahead we can see the cumulus clouds piled up over the islands ahead. It’s a few hours yet before land while be visible, but after 10 days at sea it is good to see visual evidence of our goal. We expect to be approaching St John’s Harbour mid afternoon tomorrow. There we will clear in with the health and customs authorities, and hopefully receive clearance to proceed to the marina berth waiting for us.

We have been motoring in very light winds and a contrary 1.5 knot current for almost 24 hours. The forecasts have the wind backing a bit and strengthening to sailable levels later this afternoon.

Right now we are directly over some of the deepest waters we will likely ever sail in. The Puerto Rico Trench, with depths of 24,000 feet is some of the deepest water in the world. It’s hard to imagine that the bottom of the ocean here is almost as far below our keel as the airliner passing over head is above our heads. Our world right now is the boat, and an outside world of about 10,000 shades of blue; form the deep indigo of the ocean straight down, to the pale wash of the sunny horizon.

Wildlife’s excitement fort the day was a pod of spotted dolphin early this morning. We have had a couple of fish strikes, but nothing we managed to get landed into the boat—yet!

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And Now for Something Completely Different.

One thing about sailing far offshore, you never know what you are going to see. Most of the time, you DO know. Water. Sky. More of the same. But every once in a while, the ocean surprises.

This morning I was setting the fishing lines off the back of the boat while Karen was on watch. As the lures dropped back, in the clear water, I saw a large white shadow. “Hmmm,” I think, “How did Karen almost run over that big sheet of floating plastic and not see it?” Then I glance away, and then the shadow is gone. I see a large swirl in the water, and I am trying to process what I am seeing. Suddenly, it all resolves, when the white shadows reappear they are the flippers of a large humpback whale who is shadowing us about 100 feet astern. A few breaths, and he disappears, apparently deciding we weren’t all that interesting.

In weather news, the distant high pressure system that has been driving the trade winds we have been riding for most of the past week has been slowly approaching. It has now arrived at our location, and that means a clear sunny sky—and no wind. With a wind speed of 4 knots and a boat speed dropping below 2 knots, I finally surrender and start to burn some more dinosaur juice. If the models are correct, we’ll have about 24 so hours of motor time before our arrival in Antigua.

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Clawing Our Way East.

Last night was the most challenging time of the trip so far. Keeping the boat moving in winds that were very shifty and gusty. Over 10 minutes the wind would go from 8 knots to 25, and then back, and would shift even faster 30 degrees or more. It was slow and difficult sailing.

But today, that is all forgotten. The weather is glorious, sunny, perfect temperature, the boat is working well, and the wind is giving us a chance to scratch a few miles east. It has been hours since we have had to touch a thing on the boat, and she is sailing like on rails. If you have to beat your way to weather in the trade winds, it’s hard to pick a better platform than an Amel Super Maramu. Comfortable, dry and seakindly, she is taking good care of us.

As we near the islands, detailed decisions about course depend a lot on exactly what the weather will do, and as that gets more difficult as we start to narrow down the area we are looking at. The models agree in broad strokes, but the fine local details are quite different. All we can do is play the averages. Make our way as far east as we can, while we can. If it turns out that we need to tack our way upwind for a bit, so be it.

In normal times, we might plan on pulling into Puerto Rico for a fuel top off. We did burn a lot getting through the windless patches at the start of this trip. Now, however, that would be very problematic since it would reset our “quarantine clock” with the Antiguan health authorities, and need an additional COVID test before we could leave port in PR… all in all a huge hassle. Better to struggle with some light and contrary winds if need be.

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