Friday, December 19, 2014

Death of a Voyage

Dear friends and family,

Steve speaking. I last wrote to you from St. Martin at the northwest end of the chain of small islands that begins with Grenada. I was there for two weeks under a bridge, mainly fixing a broken mast step.

At midnight on November 19 I sailed from St. Martin for the Virgin Islands, course 300º. As clouds flew west, windows of open sky flew with them, framing ever-changing patches of stars. Thurston’s compass is unlit, and I didn’t want to ruin my night vision by keeping my headlamp lit, so I kept finding new stars to steer by, each with a different reference point on the boat, like the motor’s gas cap or the starboard oarlock. I changed star and reference point every ten minutes or so. The lights of St. Martin and Anguilla dulled and faded astern as the night progressed. The wind blew inconstantly between ten and twenty knots.

In the morning a series of rains passed over. But these rains were not the squalls that had pummelled me in the Guyanas. The wind picked up and died only marginally as they passed over. In a day alone at sea I saw only one cruise ship, like a white ghost stalking the world’s northern rim. The air was cool and damp. No longer in the tropics, I wore rain pants and a windbreaker. I frequently glanced aft. The coming waves were 6-8 feet tall, worth keeping track of. To stay awake I drank a 1.5-liter bottle of cola.

Virgin Gorda (Fat Virgin) is well-named because she is bulky, smooth, and nicely rounded. Haze hid her until only sixteen miles away, but this delayed sighting was less traumatic than in pre-GPS 1993, when I almost missed the British Virgin Islands altogether! I sailed around Virgin Gorda’s north end and slept at anchor in a bay full of chartered sailboats.

Sparkling white sails flitted here and there as I cruised down Sir Francis Drake Channel, spending nights in Tortola, St. Thomas, and Culebra. As always, in towns where waterfront is expensive and there is no public landing, I looked for a place where I could step ashore without the property owner objecting, yet that was public enough that a potential thief would fear being seen. It was usually in a quiet corner that developers hadn’t touched lately, within a few paces of a public road. This scouting is much like when we are on the road and looking for a place to sleep in our vehicle. It requires consideration of both physical characteristics and the likely reaction of unknown people.

As I continued around the south coast of Puerto Rico the water was brilliant blue where deep, jade green over shallows. I reefed so as to only occasionally surf wave fronts and maintain an average speed of around 5.5 knots. Going faster was too stressful. Ponce is the principal city on Puerto Rico’s beautiful south coast. As in 1993 I asked the Ponce Yacht Club management if I could anchor off their beach and access town through their gate. This time they weren’t as enthusiastic, but when I showed them the pages in Three Years in a 12-Foot Boat that describe my previous warm welcome they honored that precedent! As in 1993 I walked a lot because the stores are miles inland, and found white gas at the same Kmart. This was a great relief after using automotive gas in our stove for three years. An American in Puerto Rico feels comfortable because the people know the States well; you aren’t entirely a foreigner to them.

From Boquerón, at Puerto Rico’s southwest corner, I sailed halfway across the Mona Passage to Isla Mona, which stands by itself, five miles in diameter. In 1993 I didn’t linger because a cold front was due to arrive. This time I stayed a second night. It is a nature reserve, with only a small staff and sportsmen that come to hunt the goats and wild pigs that impact the native sea turtles and the Mona iguana, which exists no where else in the world. I hiked all day on trails etched through the cactus and-small-leaf scrub. The island is a plateau surrounded by cliffs, made of karst: crackling limestone full of caves and sinkholes. Only at the end of the day, my feet satisfactorily blistered, did a ranger tell me I wasn’t allowed there because I didn’t have a permit.

The second half of the Mona Passage concerned me more than the first half. For one thing I couldn’t leave at night because in order to maximize my protection I had worked my way in among some coral heads before anchoring, and I was afraid I might bump into them in the dark. For another, whereas in 1993 I sailed around the south side of Hispaniola (the island shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti), this time I wanted to go north-around in order to position myself for the Turks and Caicos, which would in turn position me for the Bahamas. The east coast of the Dominican Republic consists of capes projecting eastward into the wind, useless in terms of protection. The north coast also has few harbors. But, having read a cruising guide and studied the area with Google Earth, I saw places that might shelter a small, shallow-draft boat able to come in among corals and mangrove.

It was December 1, 2014. The sea outside Isla Mona’s lee was fierce. For only the second time during the voyage (the first time was tacking out to Mexico’s Chinchorro Bank) I left the cockpit drain open while underway because I couldn’t keep up with the bailing. (With the drain open a few gallons of water ride along in the footwell, robbing a bit of Thurston’s buoyancy, but it can’t get any worse.) I steered northwest, and in the afternoon started seeing a low coast to port. I rounded Cabo Engańo (Cape Cheat) several miles out. Here a coral reef began, paralleling the coast a mile offshore. The shallow lagoon between was exposed to wind waves but free of swell energy, it having been dissipated in huge breakers. I passed a local skiff fishing outside the reef. It was visible only when both it and I were atop waves. If either of us was in a trough it disappeared from view. The swells were about ten feet tall, but there must be a way back in or the skiff wouldn’t have come out.

On Google Earth I had identified a breaker-less pass a quarter mile wide with many boats anchored just inside. I arrived per the GPS. It looked clear so I reefed down, to take it slow, and steered into the gap. Everything looked good until the breakers were immediately to my left and right. Suddenly a roar caused me to look back. A breaker as big as those to either side was rearing up! No matter how I steered I would broach. One second I was saying, “Oh shit,” the next I was swirling underwater, blind and disoriented. My tether towed me until my belt and fanny pack strap, to which the clip was attached, both parted. Soon thereafter I broke surface. Thurston was back on her bottom. She had quickly self-righted because both masts were gone. Masts, booms, sails, and oars were floating just upwind. The wind was blowing Thurston toward the beach faster than the flotsam. We seemed to be past the critical line so I anchored (the anchor and rode had stayed in place under their cover at the bow) then swam this way and that recuperating Thurston’s parts as they floated by.

A Sea Pearl’s masts consist of a smaller upper aluminium tube lodged inside a larger lower tube. Both masts’ upper tubes had broken where they immerge from the lower tube. The main sail had a hole in it, the mizzen was shredded. My sliding-seat rowing station had worked loose from its holder and sank. The motor had spent time underwater, so it couldn’t be expected to start. All three of Thurston’s modes of propulsion were gone.

As I pulled the last piece of mast and sail aboard an open boat drew up. They were two Dominican Navy guys come to rescue me. I could have paddled ashore but it was easier to go along. I couldn’t pull the anchor up, it having snagged on a coral head, so I tied a buoy to its rode for later retrieval. (I subsequently returned to that spot per my GPS, which survived the capsize, but couldn’t find the buoy.) The corals, orange-ish columns in the turbid, turquoise water, rose almost to the surface. This was not a pass! The Navy guys, afraid of another breaker, quickly towed me to the anchorage, where I dropped my remaining hook. 

The other boats were for the tourist trade: marlin-fishing boats, “pirate” barges, glass-bottom excursions, etc.
I started putting things in order. Thurston had performed as designed. No water had entered the cabin. Her 24 tanks and bins, which ballast her, had shifted to starboard a couple inches, riding up and over the “blobs” intended to hold them laterally, but they had not come loose. The floorboards (3/16” aluminium) had bulged upward but their edges were still trapped under the port and starboard “ledges.” Judiciously hammering, I got everything back into place. Smaller objects had travelled in circumferential paths. Evidently the breaker slammed her starboard-side-down then rolled her 360º. Her mast heads may have hit bottom on the way.

 The satellite photos one accesses through Google Earth are a weak guide because they capture only a point in time with no information as to swell height, tidal state, or wind condition where and when the photo was taken. These factors may be more or less conducive to breakers when you arrive. In this case they were more conducive.

I should have studied the “pass” more, cruising back and forth at a safe distance. I would have seen the occasional breakers and known I had to keep to sea that night, an unpleasant prospect but better than capsizing. Protected water is like the Sirens of Odyssey fame, luring the sailor onto the rocks. He so craves rest he succumbs to wishful thinking and relaxes his vigilance. I had capsized due to waves in Squeak a few times during my 1990-93 voyage, but never in one these bone-crushers. I had came close, and had nightmares about them, but until now could only wonder what it would be like. I lost the rig only because I was sailing at the time. If I had rolled up the sails and motored in the masts would not have broken (but the motor might have ingested more water).

I was angry at myself. To fix Thurston would cost plenty and further delay my reunion with Ginny and George. Thurston was old and of little market value, so she could be considered totalled. We planned to sell her when I got back anyway because she is too small now. Better to sell her for whatever I could get.
I felt relief that I might soon be back with my family, and that I could say adios to this difficult coast. But I paled at the thought of not finishing the voyage, and of leaving Thurston behind after the thousands of hours of work we had put into her.

The anchorage was rough, but I had to stay put for a day and a half until officials cleared me in. Then I anchored closer and swam ashore. I walked in both directions looking for things lost in the capsize, like my cockpit cushion and water bottle, but too much time had passed. Dozens of swarthy men in jump-suits were clearing seaweed off the beach. This coast is a huge tourism complex! They call it Punta Cana after a minor point whose name has a better connotation than Cabo Engańo. For twelve miles the beautiful beach is strung with fine hotels. Millions of vacationers visit annually from all over the world.

My immediate beach supported a large community of Dominican and Haitian tourism laborers. They were excursion organizers, gift shop hawkers, and masseuses. One guy trained manta rays at a nearby aquarium. Another took people up in a flying boat. All day long they said, “Hello my friend!” to the people passing by in swim suits and tried to herd them this way or that. Inland there was no town in the conventional sense, just scattered commercial strips and malls.

Word of my plight got around. A mechanic fixed my motor for free. The clerk at a pharmacy gave me free wi-fi. The landlady for several shops gave me a space under a stairway to put my stuff and sleep. It was close to Thurston so I could keep an eye on her. When the space became full of my stuff I slept upstairs on a massage table or in my tent on the sand.

I let it be known that Thurston was for sale for $1000. A fishing-charter crewmember known as Tio (Uncle) immediately wanted her. Tio was of mixed African and Hindu blood, barrel-chested, with greying hair tied tightly into a bun on the top of his head. His posture was erect, his face sharp, almost fierce. He got along well with everyone yet kept aloof. Having lived in Brooklyn he spoke English, often finishing a statement with the words, “You know what I’m a-sayin’?”. Dedicated to his work and family, he also laughed a lot and appreciated a good adventure. He wanted to restore Thurston and not change a thing. He would use her personally, not as a tourism venture.

 It took a week for papers to be drawn up and for Tio to get the majority of the money together. The lawyer will give him the title when he wires me the rest. Meanwhile a Naval Intelligence agent smelling strongly of corruption periodically reminded me that I must report to him before I left the country. His organization had already extracted money for the privilege of searching Thurston for drugs, and they wanted another crack at me after I had received payment for the boat. Tio and I thwarted him by keeping it a secret. I bought a ticket on-line and in the coming days pretended to not know when I would be leaving. The locals were friendly but too inquisitive.

During five years we had accumulated a lot of stuff considering how small Thurston is. I decided what to keep and how to ship it. On my last swim out to Thurston I cried and patted her affectionately. “You’re a f**king good boat,” I said, “A f**king good boat!” And so she is. What other vessel could have taken us all those places? Her every detail was honed to perfection in the rough-and-tumble of ultra-light voyage.
On December 14, 2014, almost exactly five years after we departed from Pine Island, Florida I stepped off a plane at Sea-Tac airport and hugged my family. George grinning wide in disbelief. The next day I went to Goodwill, bought a belt, and threw away the rope I’d been using to hold my pants up. I am no longer a shipwrecked sailor.

Steve Ladd