Panama Bound

Whew! Long time, no write! Ed and I have been burning the candle at both ends. Since last I wrote, we wrapped our second round of major boat work and dashed south from the Chesapeake Bay to Florida for round three of major boat work. We ended up making our jump to Florida in basically three steps.

Leg one opened up a nice, big weather window to sail south through the Chesapeake, and around Cape Hatteras with calm wind and seas (which is the only way to do Hatteras in my opinion). We had originally intended to make Charleston, SC, but ended up stopping short in Beaufort, NC, because we had a few hiccups with our recent upgrades on the evening we rounded Hatteras. We finished our battery, solar, and navionics upgrades literally the day before we had our weather window south, despite my begging the work crews to not run it up to the last minute. The weather in the few days leading up to our departure was also completely atrocious which made it harder for the work crews to plow through the remaining work quickly. I think a few short cuts were made, and a couple of important pieces got overlooked which reared their ugly heads as we rounded Cape Hatteras on our second night. We had new chargers put on our engines which allows the alternators to put out higher amperage to charge our house battery bank as back up to our solar panels. There was one wire that didn’t get hooked up correctly, so the alternators weren’t charging anything while we were underway. We had enough light on the solar panels, so this wasn’t an issue for the house bank, but the engine start batteries weren’t getting charged, and we eventually depleted them. Ed was able to jumper the house bank to the start batteries and keep our engines running (yes, they require the batteries to run), but this happened just before the sun went down so we ended up pretty depleted on power by the following morning. About three hours later, we then ran into an issue with our “autopilot” not steering the boat any more. Ed was able to quickly figure out the cause, and get it fixed fairly quickly. The work crew who installed our new autopilot drive unit forgot to put lock tight on the nut that basically holds the whole thing together. We are capable of hand steering, but having to do that on a multi-night passage with a two-person crew is a really quick way to get fatigued. Autohelm units are essential when running a small crew or single handing. With all our gremlins that came up, we decided pulling into the next closest port would be the smart thing to do, and that was Beaufort, NC. Once we got anchored just before noon the following day, we rested for a bit, and then Ed got the alternator charging units hooked up properly and got the nut on the autohelm secured properly. By this time, the next cold front was arriving, so we hunkered down for the next few days to wait for the next weather window. Boy, that storm was a doozy.

In any case, we had a nice, but cold, stay in Beaufort, but it was time to continue south for warmer weather. I figured we had our next window open long enough for us to make it to Fernandina Beach, FL. If for some reason it closed in sooner, we had plenty of other good places to duck in along the way. We had a very uneventful trip on leg two which made us very happy. We picked up our new sail bag (the old one had torn) that we had ordered while we were in Brunswick. The fabric was back ordered, so they were not able to deliver it before we left Brunswick, but we told them we would just pick it up on our way back south. We spent a few days in Fernandina Beach getting the new sail bag installed, and then it was time to head south again. We overnighted to Stuart, where we had hoped to catch up with friends, but we had to leave early the following morning to make Fort Lauderdale before weather closed in. We ended up anchoring in Fort Lauderdale for three days before our slip became open, got our boat nestled in and headed off to CA to visit family for Thanksgiving. We figured three weeks would be ample time to make that trip, but because of the early delay in Beaufort, we were struggling to make our date to Florida.

What’s the saying? The worst piece of equipment you can have on a boat is a calendar.

After returning from CA by way of Annapolis to pick up our car, we dug into round three of boat work. We needed new windows, and we elected to upgrade and rehab the galley and salon. The windows were all leaking, and the galley was pretty worn out from years of abuse in charter. We had a few delays because of holidays and Covid, but we finally wrapped up in early February with our boat looking like new!!

We had originally intended to make our way south to Panama via Mexico, but given how late we ended up leaving, we figured going via the Bahamas would be the better choice. We’ve mostly been camped out in George Town, Exuma for the last few months, hosting family, and we are soon making our passage to Panama! We have crew coming to help us sail this leg because it will be a minimum of seven days which is a long time to run a two person watch schedule. They are arriving in about a week when Natalie leaves to return to London. I intend to write daily posts via our satellite tracker while we are underway so you can follow along!

We are excited for our crew to arrive on May 2, and then we head to Panama with the next weather window!

Ed feeding the “pet” sting rays at Chat ‘n’ Chill

Happy First Anniversary Serenity!

Today marks a major milestone for Ed and me: it’s been one year since we officially became owners of our live-aboard sailboat.  When we jumped into this adventure, we committed to cruising for at least one year before making any decisions on whether to continue on or sell the boat and return to land life.  We are more excited than ever to sail on for the foreseeable future!  That said, we certainly had plenty of days where one or both of us wanted to throw in the towel. 

Other than posting a few photos, I have put our website and blog on the backburner since returning from the Bahamas.  We had two of our kids with us for the summer, Ian and Michael, and it was important to devote our limited time with them to just be a family together.  We have also been feverishly plowing through many projects to make our sailboat a true, live-aboard home.  I, quite frankly, haven’t had the bandwidth available lately to maintain a writing practice.  Things are starting to wind down a bit before we head south for the winter and dig into the last of our big projects for the time being.

Ed and I will both make some more detailed write-ups of all our project-doing as we clear our plate and tie up loose ends.  I think that it is important to recap our first year of cruising…what went well, what didn’t, what we have learned, and how have we grown.  I think it’s also important to take that reflection and carry forward our hard-earned knowledge and experience as we settle into the long-haul of our amazing opportunity to sail the world.

Things that went well for us

I think my favorite benefit from cruising so far has been the people we’ve met and friends we’ve made along the way.  Our “neighborhood” is essentially the whole of Earth as we sailors meander across her oceans.  The sailing life seems to attract a certain kind of personality, and it is a personality that Ed and I gel with very well.  We have made, and will continue to make, friends in exotic places, and even though we all eventually go our separate ways, they will be lifelong friends for us that we will eventually stumble into in some far-off island in another ocean.  I’ve grown to enjoy the fluidity of socializing that is unique to the sailing community even though I found it tough to navigate at first. 

Another thing that went well for us is Ed and I both brought complimentary skills to sailing and fulltime cruising.  I think at this point either one of us could attend to most anything that comes up on the boat, but each of us has certain tasks that we are more comfortable with.  At the beginning, that was not the case.  I think it has likely been our biggest key to success—neither one of us can really do this without the other.  We have a shared sense of responsibility for our safety and our joy, and that has forced us to always work together even when we disagree or just flat-out don’t want to.  Ed is certainly the more experienced sailor, but my life in aviation gave me a tremendous head start into becoming one myself.  We’ve noticed that couples (with or without kids) where one person doesn’t come equipped to share responsibility of the many needed tasks that come with operating/sailing a boat just don’t seem to be as successful.

I think a third thing that we did right was to jump into this life completely.  We sold or gave away EVERYTHING.  Eliminating the temptation to just go back to where we started meant that bailing out would be harder in most cases than working to solve or get through our issues.  And issues come up for everything: boat maintenance, relationship, self-care, acquiring parts/supplies, sailing/moving the boat, WEATHER, the list goes on.  There are times when issues stack on each other, and those times are the opposite of fun or even comfortable.  We’ve had a few moments where even attending to basic physiological needs was an uphill battle.  Having that easy reset button or security blanket at arm’s reach makes it too tempting to quit before giving yourself a chance to learn better how to deal with the crappy stuff, and also offset it with the amazing stuff.  Sometimes in life you must cross the Rubicon to truly realize the full benefit of a goal, desire, or dream.

Things that we could have done better (and are still working on doing better)

Exercising patience is probably the biggest thing that both Ed and I don’t do well.  We have gotten into so many situations that didn’t go well because we inflicted it upon ourselves due to our impatient nature.  Sailing, and living aboard a boat generally, is so very good at brightly illuminating every little instance where slowing down was necessary but not exercised.    Living on and sailing a boat requires patience for EVERYTHING: weather, sea conditions, boat work/projects, cooking, getting supplies, getting off the boat, interacting with one another, etc.  We stressed ourselves out many times trying to adhere to self-inflicted timelines.  We’ve had some arguments when one or the other of us was “slowed down” (perceived…usually not in reality) by the other and just start barking orders because of results-oriented desires.  We’ve had some ugly fights when either one of us neglected to take time to really listen to the other’s struggles.  We’ve also had some ugly fights when either one of us used the other as an emotional lightening rod rather than taking time to sort out emotions and discuss with compassion and calm.  We are doing better at slowing down and not inflicting artificial timelines on ourselves, but we are still working to be more natural at being patient.

I think the other big thing that we did poorly at the beginning was not really defining our mission, and taking time to figure out what each of us was desiring to get out of the experience.  I’m quite certain that I was the much larger offender on this one.  I think Ed was looking to recoup some of his happy memories of sailing from his youth and also share it with others.  I started out with, “cool, sounds fun” and really didn’t give it much thought beyond that.  In my mind we were going to warmer climates, with beautiful seas and beaches.  We were also going to get to meet lots of new people and cultures in new places.  I also knew there would be lots of hard work and sucky moments…I wasn’t so deluded as to think it would be all rainbows and ponies. 

I made the HUGE mistake of approaching living on our sailboat as thinking the main point is to sail her.  This is so far from the truth.  I will first say there are a small number of folks out there where that is the first priority, but it is quite rare among live-aboards.  The ratio of living on the boat on anchor or docked is so much greater than the time she is actually being operated as a vessel.  I also got the idea in my head that motoring versus sailing was cheating.  After a few months of torturing ourselves trying to be “real sailors” (ok, we are…but…), I had to really reassess what we actually have a sailboat for.  First, and foremost, Serenity is our home…she is not transportation (in the usual sense of the word).  We just happen to have a home that we can move around on the water.  She also has two ways she can produce thrust: sails and engines.  Sailing is great fun when the conditions are right, it is hard work and not very fun (and can become unsafe) when the conditions are wrong.  Good sailing conditions don’t happen with great regularity.  Sometimes we just want to get from point A to point B and have a comfortable ride.  Instead of waiting for, or trying to force the issue in getting a good sailing weather window, we have no issue with being a motorboat.  The only time we will ever need to be pickier about our weather windows is doing longer crossings where it’s impractical (or impossible) to carry enough fuel for the trip.  The wind must be some of our fuel for longer distances. 

I think the final big thing we screwed up was not prioritizing getting toys before we set off on our first trip.  We sailed off with a great, seaworthy boat, and found ourselves with little to do in some places because we showed up with little else to keep us entertained.  I would liken it to going camping and only bringing a tent, sleeping bag/mat, and food/water.  Good campers also bring games, bikes, canoes, climbing gear, or whatever the location calls for in terms of recreation.  I think it loops back into our myopic mistake in thinking that sailing IS the activity. Occasionally it is, but not usually.

Looking to the future

A common saying with the cruising life is, “plans are written in sand at low tide.”  We are beginning to settle in living with this paradigm and even enjoying it on a certain level.  When we first set off, we had intended to cross over to Europe this coming summer.  We have abandoned that plan largely because of Covid.  We figured things would be normalizing by now, but it appears this is going to drag out for a year or two longer.  We will circle over to the Mediterranean at a later date when international travel is less cumbersome.  As of today, our plan is to head south to Florida in a couple of weeks or so (have to pick those weather windows carefully), where we will have the last (for now) of our major boat work completed.  That work should be done around early January, and then we will head south to the Keys and out to the Dry Tortugas for a bit.  We then want to head to Mexico and Belize (if Covid allows) for most of the winter and spring.  We then plan on getting to Panama for hurricane season.  Beyond that, it really depends on the state of the pandemic as to what we do next. 

The summer and early fall has been a whirlwind of activity, and we are ready to wrap up our time in Annapolis for destinations south!

Everybody’s got a little captain in them. Beaufort, NC

We are back in the USA!

And reflections on our first trip.
Juvenile Blue Land Crab–They turn a light, ruddy blue color as adults.

We finished our time in the Abacos just a couple of weeks ago. Ed and I island-hopped our way up the Abaco cays for about a week after we left Hope Town, and then it was time for us to leave. We got treated to some very calm weather for a couple of days at Manjack Cay, and took advantage of the calm sea conditions to try our hand at spearfishing with our buddy boat. They managed to spear a hog fish, and I got close, but realized too late that the elastic band was too stiff for me to cock the spear far enough to shoot it (Hawaiian sling spears are the only kind allowed). I will get a lighter spear that I can use and practice with it before I try to spearfish again. That said, it was fun, and we can’t wait to try again when we return next season!

Our spearfishing adventure certainly matched the theme of nearly every activity and outing we did while in the Bahamas. The usual set up was that one (typically me) or both of us was trying something we hadn’t done before, we had some equipment but maybe not exactly what we needed, and we typically went into it without a lot of of research or instruction. There is something to be said for flying by the seat of one’s pants and leaping before looking, but I think I found myself getting more and more frustrated at “not knowing how to do anything” every single time we went off to do something new. Being constantly in learning mode can get pretty old, pretty fast.

I had not anticipated this aspect of cruising. I knew I’d be learning a lot of new skills, having a lot of new experiences, and having a lot of new surroundings. I don’t think I appreciated or understood how much having nothing but “newness” can grind you down emotionally. I also don’t know if there is a good way to describe what it’s like unless you’ve experienced it. I found myself eager to return to the U.S. just to have a little bit of a return to some familiarity (although I’ve never lived in Georgia, soooo….), and start getting some more boat work done to make our boat our home. I think we were also getting worn down by the end because how we were living was a step, maybe two, above camping. It’s fine for a while, but it’s certainly not our long term version of happiness. We were both getting pretty cranky at stuff that usually wouldn’t make us cranky toward the end.

I think I would have done a couple of things differently if I got to do it over again.

  1. We should have prioritized the fun aspect of things more than we did. We were so focused on getting the boat refitted more for sailing purposes (and seaworthiness is important) that we spent no time or resources into getting toys or learning how to do the usual activities of the Bahamas. We realized our mistake pretty quickly when we sometimes sat on the boat with little else to do (activity-wise) than snorkel or dinghy over to the beach (assuming there was one) in hopes of finding a trail to hike on. Even for something as simple as hiking, we didn’t even bring good footwear for that!! The boat did come with a paddle board, but we didn’t even bother to inspect it (it was cracked so we got rid of it), and the boat also came with scuba equipment, but neither one of us knew how to scuba dive (we did FINALLY get our certification done after a couple months). I didn’t even think to get an underwater camera even though I wanted to take a lot of pictures and document our experience.
  2. I wish we would have been much more proactive in buddying up with some other boats, and maybe trying to seek out a mentor boat. We spent So. Much. Energy. on reinventing the wheel on so much stuff. We are both pretty capable individuals, and we also knew we could get to, from, and around the Bahamas on our own safely (mostly). But…just because we could, doesn’t mean we should have. Ed and I do get a sense of accomplishment from being able to figure out most anything tossed our way, but we didn’t go into the cruising life to try and be like Bear Grylls or Survivorman. We also weren’t aiming to do “The Amazing Race–sailing Bahamas edition.” I think we got a little bit caught up in trying to prove to ourselves, each other, and those we met along the way that we might be new to a lot, but not THAT new. I wish I could go back and tell myself, “you have nothing to prove to anyone–including yourself. Find some people to work with and bounce ideas off of so you can HAVE FUN!” We eventually did meet and buddy up with some boats, but we needlessly drained ourselves before doing so.

Even though we operated quite “clunkily” at the start, we now have gathered a lot of information that will make our next season so much more enjoyable. We will also have time between now and the end of hurricane season to improve our boat, get more toys, and work on some more skills to really make use of, and enjoy, all the natural resources in the Bahamas and beyond. For now, we are taking a bit of time to spend with family and do a little binging on the abundance of…well…everything that the U.S. offers. Next week we will start digging into our boat projects which is mostly what the next blog entries will be about!

Happy almost summer, get your Covid vaccine if you haven’t already, and get out there with your friends and family!

Hello from Atlanta, GA!

Hope is Alive in Hope Town

Hello from the Abacos! Ed and I were hoping to be making our way back to the U.S. by now, but the weather has other ideas. Looking at the forecast, we have at least one more week to wait before a window opens up. Typically, May brings milder weather, lighter wind, and flatter seas, but we have to wait out yet another cold front before we set sail back across the Gulf Stream. We might have been able to jump across had we left about five days ago, but we just didn’t feel like chancing a situation of racing bad weather again. The previous window also had a high chance of thunderstorms and squalls…mostly at night…another bit of weather we weren’t interested in dealing with on the open ocean. We are eager to return to the U.S., get our vaccines, and start in on our next boat projects, but sailing is often a waiting game. At least we get to hang around somewhere amazing!

Hope Town was our second stop as we work our way up the Abaco chain in preparation to return to the U.S. We will likely make the final jump from Grand Cay, which is on the northwest end of the Abaco chain, but we are enjoying hopping our way through the islands as we meander north. Ed and I were not entirely sure what state we would find Hope Town in. We had reports from other cruisers that some businesses were open, including some restaurants, but we really had no idea what state we would find Elbow Cay in otherwise. Hurricane Dorian utterly wiped out this section of the Abacos in September of 2019. Seventy people died in the Bahamas including 60 in the Abacos. Amazingly, there was not one death in Hope Town even though Dorian was one of the worst hurricanes to hit the Caribbean since record keeping began. The stories of survival are horrendous. Given the level of destruction, we were surprised to see just how much of the island had been rebuilt. However, Hope Town also had plenty of reminders at just how devastating Dorian was.

Although many buildings have been abandoned or razed, many more have been, and are being, rebuilt. We happened to arrive just prior to the Hope Town School finishing construction, and Ed and I, along with some cruiser friends, lent our hands with installing the final touches for the school.

We were so happy we could help (and also enjoy air conditioning for a day)! The following morning we were treated to an open ceremony that included a junkanoo-like parade put on by the students. I took some video but unfortunately cannot post it here. Keep your eyes out on my social media accounts!

The Hope Town School students giving us a photo op with their beautiful costumes.

The rebuilding of the school was largely funded by very gracious donors, and the island still has a long way to go to recover. Check out for more info. Hope Town United also happened to have a fundraiser fishing tournament while we were there, so a bunch of us cruisers bought tickets to the Cinco de Mayo charity dinner the next day. I kind of suspect we all collectively were happy to have a night off from galley duty! It was a really fun party (and rumor has it that Michael Jordan was a participant in this fishing tournament), and I think it marked the first time any of us had attended an event like this since before Covid hit. We were careful not to get too peoply, and the event was outdoors with plenty of space.

Ed passing out celebratory tequila shots. Tequila was donated by Michael Jordan (and was delicious)!
If I take pictures, I don’t have to dance (ok…I danced a little…badly).

Of course, no visit to Hope Town is complete without visits to the Hope Town Lighthouse and Vernon’s grocery. I know, it sounds weird that a grocery store is on the “must see” list…. Vernon Malone is a mainstay of the island. The Malones were some of the first settlers on Elbow Cay. More importantly, Vernon bakes bread and key lime pie (sometimes a few other selections), and these recipes have been in his family for generations. They are DELICIOUS. I spent waaaay too much money on bread and pie, and also ate too much. Actually, calories from Vernon’s baked goods don’t count–I regret nothing. I have also discovered Vernon’s bread makes the best grilled cheese I’ve ever made. I also had to laugh when Ed and I made our first errand to Vernon’s. WARNING–tangent story! Before Ed and I met, he was a regular visitor to Hope Town, and the Abacos in general. This also means he was a fairly regular patron of Vernon’s grocery. Ed also really likes the bread, and apparently used to buy it in bulk to bring home with him. We walked in, and Ed greeted Vernon, “I don’t know if you remember me, but I and my family used to visit here a lot many years ago. It’s good to see you again!”

We were wearing masks (Covid…) and Vernon said, “I can’t tell who you are.” Ed briefly pulled down his mask to show his face, and Vernon exclaimed, “oh yes, I remember you, you’re the bread man!” Apparently, because of Ed’s bread buying habit, Vernon had bestowed that nickname upon Ed. Vernon also told us that another regular visitor was known as the turkey man, because he’d always order a turkey, and not at Thanksgiving, which Vernon found particularly odd. I must say, that if I become a regular visitor, I will be known as the pie woman. If I had the freezer space, I would have loaded up on key lime pie.

Pie-gasm on a plate.

We worked off some of the pie calories with a trip to the Hope Town Lighthouse. As far as I am aware, it is the last kerosene operated lighthouse in the world. Yes, they still use kerosene. The lighthouse received quite the wind-blasting from Dorian, but other than needing a refresh on paint (and a few other maintenance items), it largely survived intact.

We had so many highlights on our week-long stay in Hope Town, but I think the best day we had was our trip to Pelican Cay Land and Sea Park. It was a bit far for us to take the dinghy, so we rented a small motorboat with our buddies on Santosha to make the trip. The reef there is beautiful and full of fish and other sea creatures. I, once again, found myself lamenting at my lack of underwater camera. The reef was full of various kinds of parrot fish, anglefish, grunts, and blue tang (among other reef fish). The parrot fish have very developed teeth that look human. The sound of all the fish munching on the coral is just incredible to listen to. We also saw many spotted eagle rays. Typically, rays are lone hunters, but we happened to find a group of four that swam in a diamond formation. I had loads of fun just following them in the water (which is quite a workout…they are fast swimmers). We also saw many loggerhead turtles. One was quite friendly and let me swim right next to it. While it was super cool to be just inches away from a sea creature, I’m quite certain it has developed this behavior because other visitors feed the sea creatures in the park (even though they shouldn’t). I think the funniest thing I got to observe was a parrot fish chasing some other reef fish (I couldn’t tell what it was), except that the parrot fish stopped literally every foot to take a bite of coral before continuing the chase. It really is fun to just float and watch all the reef creatures go about their business.

We made a quick stop a Tahiti Beach, on the south end of Elbow Cay, on our way back, and we were treated to a floating bar!! It’s like a food cart, except on a boat!

The Thirsty ‘Cuda at Tahiti Beach

We so enjoyed our visit to Hope Town. We were bummed to move on, but we know we will be back again soon, and we can’t wait to see all the progress they’ll make at rebuilding!

Little Harbour, Abaco

Serenity moored in the harbor–taken from the beach at Pete’s Pub

It’s been a while since my last update! We wrapped up our time in the Exumas just a few days ago and made our way north to the Abacos as we must make our way back to the States in a couple of weeks. Although many areas of the Exumas have a cell signal, most of it is either too weak or too slow to upload photos here. In any case, most of the cool stuff we’ve seen and done has been underwater, and I do not yet possess a proper camera for that. At a later date, I will recap some of the highlights of our Bahamas trip with reflections on the experience, lessons learned, and the like.

After a tiring couple of days and not so cooperative weather, we finally made it to the Abacos last Sunday. We made a quick stop a bit west of Spanish Wells, Eleuthera, while we waited for favorable weather to cross over to the Abacos. Unfortunately, because of COVID, we could not disembark in Eleuthera without having to clear out to other islands with a negative PCR test. We had wanted to visit Spanish Wells, but decided the COVID requirements were not worth the hassle. We stayed two nights in a fairly protected anchorage, but it did get a little rolly our last evening there. We set out early Sunday morning with a nice south wind, but we had to motor-sail with the genoa because the wind was a bit on the light side. The seas were also fairly tame, but I found the motion difficult because we had swell from the east (prevailing direction in the Atlantic at this latitude), but waves from the south because of the wind direction. Having swell and waves at 90 degrees to each other equals a confused sea state and a good formula for misery for those of us who are prone to motion sickness. My medication helps, but does not totally eliminate symptoms.

Early afternoon saw us entering the Little Harbour cut at low tide. We had to anchor outside of Little Harbour and wait for the tide to come in as the entrance is quite shallow. Ed and I were eager to get off the boat, so we took the dinghy in to see if a mooring ball was available and also that it was in good shape. We had about three hours to kill before the water would be deep enough for Serenity, so we had a seat at Pete’s Pub and had a nice, cold beverage. It was a welcome rest to be on a non-moving surface after having a few rolly days on the boat. It just seems to be a motion my body refuses to adapt to, and I’ve been thinking long and hard at long term adjustments or tweaks we might have to make so that I’m not regularly miserable. There are many ways to cruise and voyage, and a “salty” version is likely not going to work for us.

By late afternoon we finally got Serenity into the harbor and tied to a mooring. We headed back over to Pete’s for dinner and finally had some time to marvel at the hamlet that is Little Harbour. It has quite the history and story. Rather than taking up a huge amount of space rehashing it here, I’ll provide a link to an old newspaper article that tells the story quite well.

Monday morning saw most of the visiting boats leaving, and we mostly had the harbor to ourselves. We later found out because the pub is closed Monday through Wednesday…bummer for us. Friends, and our temporary buddy boat, dinghied over to check out the community and we joined them for the afternoon. They had set up a tour of the bronze foundry that was created by the Johnston family many years ago, and we were happy to join them! The foundry is the only one in the Bahamas, and Randolph Johnston, son Pete, and the rest of the crew are known world-wide for their bronze sculptures. Randolph has since passed away, but Richard, who now effectively runs the foundry, had studied under Randolph since the mid ’80’s. Pete’s Pub also has a gallery and gift shop where many of the works are on display. A few are also around town.

The foundry tour has been one of my favorite things I’ve done in the Bahamas so far. Richard, who was once Randolph Johnston’s apprentice, gave us the tour. His French accent was a bit thick at times, but he is highly skilled at the process of bronze sculpting and explained it in such incredible detail. I had no idea the intricacies of the physics, chemistry, and artistry involved.

We also got a little story in how Richard stumbled into Little Harbour and found himself settling in there. Richard started out life as a welder, he built himself a boat (which is still moored in the harbor) and embarked on his own sailing adventure. By the time he got to Little Harbour, he had run out of money and asked Ran Johnston if he could work at the foundry. Ran evidently declined at first, but upon discovering Richard had actually built his boat (which is made out of aluminum) he reconsidered. Richard came and went at first, as he was still sailing, but eventually returned permanently and has lived there ever since. I always find it so interesting how some people end up on the path that they do. Serendipity seems to be a main factor in so many people’s lives.

The community of Little Harbour is equally fascinating. The town is not served by any utilities. All of the homes harvest rain water and store it in large cisterns, most homes are run on solar and batteries, although there are some diesel generators around. I’m not entirely sure how sewage is dealt with…I’m assuming septic of some sort. There is a cell tower close enough to get internet which is really nice. Most of the houses, and the town generally, are quite thoughtfully and artistically done. It really is quite a contrast of island living from the Exumas. Most settlements in the Exumas are quite poor, and the construction of the buildings reflect that fact. I found Pete’s Pub most interesting of all. It’s essentially built like a ground level fort or tree house. It’s open air and the floor is the beach. The only indoor space is the small kitchen. The pub is almost this actualized structure that a preteen boy would dream up as the ultimate clubhouse. Except that this one has been “adulted” with the addition of a bar.

The following day we decided to explore around a bit. We visited the cave where the Johnston’s first “lived,” hiked up to the old light house, and just wandered around town.

This morning we left Little Harbour and sailed a bit north to Tiloo Cay to spend the night. We will spend the next few days exploring Hope Town and Elbow Cay. We know the community has been devastated by Dorian, but from a few reports we have received they have rebuilt a lot and are open for business! Happy Spring to all, and we will be back in the USA soon!

Enjoying our Stay in George Town

A view of Serenity at anchor from the monument.

Hello from Elizabeth Harbour near George Town, Exuma! Ed and I have been anchored here for nearly three weeks which marks the longest stay we’ve had anywhere on the boat. The scenery and community are awesome, but we are itching to move along to something else as soon as the weather allows…hopefully next week.

Elizabeth Harbour is the busiest anchorage we have visited so far, although the numbers are quite tame this year because of COVID. Ordinarily, there are about 300-400 boats anchored in various locations in the harbor, but the official count as of today is 125. Having lots of boat neighbors has both its benefits and downsides. Ed and I have been enjoying getting to know the cruisers here and making new friends. We’ve had many a happy hour with fellow cruisers with a nice sundowner (or two) and sometimes playing cards. Everyday there is some activity to do if you like–beach volleyball probably being the most popular. Other cruisers host water aerobics, yoga, beach church on Sunday, and other various kinds of afternoon get-togethers. Getting into town is fairly convenient as well, if it isn’t too windy, and there are lots of stores to get necessaries, and lots of restaurants to get some good food and drinks! Some of the places are kind of touristy or resort-y, but it’s nice to take a break from prepping and cooking meals sometimes.

We’ve visited a number of restaurants in the area, but so far our favorite has been the Driftwood Café across from the Peace and Plenty Hotel. We have gone for breakfast and lunch and it’s kind of a European and Bahamian fusion sort of a place. They even have an espresso machine, so I got to treat myself to a fancy coffee! We’ve also been pleasantly surprised at how well stocked the local grocery store is, and it also has a really good variety of goods considering how far out in the boonies we are. Some items are quite expensive, such as snacks, cereal, and certain condiments, but I’ve found most of the fresh produce to be pretty reasonably priced considering the journey it has to take to get here.

Ed and I have also done a bit of hiking on the many trails around Stocking Island which is where we have been anchored next to. It’s a very short dinghy ride to shore (we only have a 4.5 ft. draught so we can pull in close), and sometimes it’s just bouncy enough that we need to take a break off the boat. The island has a good bit of elevation in some areas and the views are breath taking.

Stocking Island also has many geologically fascinating features. We encountered stromatolite fossils at low tide and fossilized mangrove roots. Open-ocean stromatolite fossils are quite rare today, but we were treated to Stocking Island’s many formations at low tide. Here, and a few places in Australia are the only two places on Earth that have open-ocean stromatolite fossils. Walking the beaches on the Exuma sound side of Stocking Island is actually quite the geological time-warp.

Stromatolites are the oldest fossils on earth–about 3.5 billion (yes, say it with a Carl Sagan voice) years old. They are fossilized reef formations of Earth’s early, single-celled life forms. Stromatolite is derived from Greek meaning “layered rock.” They do look sort of sandstone-esque. Pictures to come next time we head out there. At low tide the stromatolite formations make really cool tide pools. We also found a lot of areas that looked like fossilized mangrove roots. It was quite the challenge to walk about them because of the uneven terrain, but it’s not everyday that one gets to see petrified wood. At first I wasn’t sure why the rocks appeared as they did, but once I had a chance to look at them closely you could tell they were fossilized mangrove. Interestingly, they were higher up in elevation, so plenty of evidence in plain view that sea levels were higher in a previous epoch (mangrove always grows at the water level).

Ed and I have also taken some time to go snorkeling around the anchorage, and also on some of the reefs out on the sound when the wind is calm. It’s a lot of fun to view all the little sea creatures in their habitat. We even see the occasional sea turtle, ray, and dolphin.

I also had my first scuba lesson a couple of days ago. I was a little nervous about it…I have a thing about relying on equipment to survive underwater…I can’t even do the submarine ride at Disneyland. It was a lot of fun though, and my good swimming ability made it fairly easy for me to learn how to manage myself underwater with a lot of stuff attached to you. We are headed out on Friday morning to go scuba dive on some reef nearby before the weather turns south. I don’t think I’ll ever do deep water type scuba stuff (again, with my hang-up), but it’ll be nice to be able to check out a lot of underwater habitats close to the surface without having to come up for air all the time.

Ed and I have about a month left on our cruising permit, so we will start working our way north toward the Abacos and hopefully get to make a lot of interesting stops along the way! We will keep you posted with our travels!

I Learned About Sailing from That.

We got incredibly lucky. Ed and I almost got to the end of an error chain that could have very likely ended in his death. I apologize up front for starting with an austere tone, but we just learned some VERY important lessons that I am morally obligated to share with as many people as will listen. Given our backgrounds in aviation and his in engineering we should have known better than to make certain decisions that we did. We f*cked up, and we got lucky–plain and simple.

The shackle pin that was the final failure point in a string of mistakes.

Pictured above is the shackle pin that attaches the head of the mainsail to the block that the halyard goes through to hoist the sail. The main halyard also does double duty as person-lifter when work must be done up the mast. I had hoisted Ed up the mast to try and troubleshoot an anchor light problem just minutes before the pin broke. We neglected to inspect its condition before using it when we had every reason in the world to have done so.

The title of this blog is a nod to a popular column in Flying magazine called “I Learned About Flying from That.” The column has long been a popular feature in Flying where pilots submit their stories of their lessons learned from poor decisions that almost ended catastrophically…the lucky ones. Unfortunately, many of those who are unlucky victims of the error chain never get to share their story. Some of the stories are truly amazing accounts of pilots narrowly escaping a giant pickle, some are more mundane, and some are “head-slappers” due to inexperience. Thankfully, aviation now has a culture where pilots (and other aviation professionals) are encouraged to share their mistakes and lessons learned. I have not yet encountered this same culture in sailing/boating, but I am also a newcomer to the activity. Perhaps it is because sailing is more forgiving of mistakes than flying? I don’t know.

In any accident there is almost never (maybe actually never) any singular event that goes wrong that creates the accident. There is always a series of failures, mistakes, or missed opportunities for correction that when linked together end in an accident. Sometimes plain, dumb luck is the last thing that saves you. Sometimes it’s a brilliant save by someone at the end. When we humans do it right, a systemic stop-gap breaks the error chain before it gets going too far.

Our error chain started almost two weeks ago with our sail from Black Point to Elizabeth Harbour (where we are currently located). It also started with something banal in the form of a couple of simple assumptions that led to a simple miscommunication. We had, essentially, two sailing legs on our last trip with a small section that had to be piloted under power in between. On our first leg, which was kind of on the short side, I thought that we might get away with making adequate speed sailing with the genoa only since the main sail can be a bit of a pain to deal with. We unfurled the genoa, but it became obvious that we were not going to make the cut we had to navigate through at slack tide at the speed we were going. We then proceeded to raise the main with one reef given the wind speed. Typically, if one is going to sail both main and genoa, the main goes up first for a few reasons which aren’t relevant to this discussion. That said, it’s not a terribly difficult process to do it backwards provided the sea is calm…which it was.

My inexperience inserted the first mistakes into our error chain, and also an assumption on Ed’s part that I had a particular piece of knowledge that he really didn’t have very good reason to assume I had. When we raise or lower sails, I am nearly always at the helm, and Ed takes care of any lines that need handling that are not at the helm. As we now have an electric winch, and most lines run back to the helm, this means I actually take care of most of the mainsail tasks. Ed works as my second set of eyes at the front, takes care of clipping the cringles when we reef, and any other stuff that comes up from time to time. Steering and handling the halyard and reefing lines can sometimes feel like I am a three-legged cat in a poo burying contest. As I am still learning, this activity can be a bit task-saturating for me which leads to stress. Stress, in turn, can lead to tunnel vision. The wind noise and noise from the winch also makes verbal communication difficult. Because of this, Ed uses hand signals to communicate certain instructions. Some of the signals he uses he borrowed from his work in construction from his younger years. Before that sail, we had never actually sat down and discussed our set of hand signals. I was just sort of picking them up on the fly and through context. This is a dynamic that is ripe for expectation bias to enter the picture. I knew better because of my career in aviation, and I should have insisted that we standardize and discuss our hand signal usage.

When we raised the mainsail this time, it was also the first time we had hoisted the main directly into a reefed configuration with our new line set-up (we just had them changed before leaving Florida). I got us pointed into the wind, set the clutches on the reef lines as needed, and then started to raise the main on the electric winch. Ed uses a hand signal where he points his index finger up and moves his hand in a circle to indicate that I need to winch the halyard up. When he stops, I stop winching so he can do whatever he needs to do in the moment. When everything is in position I get a thumbs up, and then I steer us off the wind and back on course while he tidies up some line up front. This time, I went a little too far on the halyard and he inverted his signal by pointing down and moving his hand in a circle. It was the first time he had given me the signal, and because I didn’t know to look for it, all I saw was a fist spinning and in my world that meant winch the halyard up.

As I kept winching, I could hear the motor working much harder, but as I was seeing Ed’s signal to keep going (or so I thought) I deferred to his experience. My task-saturated brain defaulted to “follow directions” at the expense of other inputs that I would ordinarily know meant I needed to take a different course of action. Ed finally yelled at the top of his lungs to let out the halyard which I did immediately. The damage was done though, unbeknownst to us at the time. The rest of our trip went off without a hitch. I piloted the cut well even though the current and waves were…ahem…sporty, and we got the sails back up for leg number two with no problems. We arrived into Elizabeth Harbour, dropped the anchor, and then proceeded with other stuff we needed to do. It was at this point Ed discovered we had bent one of the halyard fairleads. My over-winching had caused damage on a part that ordinarily can take a lot of load. Ed was obviously also worried about the sheave at the top of the mast being bent and other potential damage.

My bent fairlead of shame.

We got a hold of a sail guy (for lack of a better term) when Monday came, explained what had happened, and sent lots of pictures. We received assurances that it was unlikely the fairlead would fail (provided we don’t over-winch it), and even if it did, we would still be able to handle the sail by using the winch on the mast. The sheave at the top also looked fine from below, and we figured we’d give it a better look next time work had to be done up the mast. Thankful that we wouldn’t have to worry about fixing the damage until our return to the states, we put the whole mess behind us for now thinking we had dodged a bullet by not doing worse damage.

The day to do work up the mast came today. Our anchor light (which is at the top of the mast) has been working intermittently since we bought the boat. After talking over how it behaves with some folks, we landed on the conclusion that a loose wire at the bulb was the probable culprit. Ed gathered up the tools he needed, got himself in the bosun’s chair, I gave a good look over that everything was connected and strapped properly, and hoisted him up the mast. Upon reaching the top, he realized that he couldn’t get high enough to see on top of the mast, let alone try to fix it, so I lowered him down, and we discussed how we might remedy that problem. After 20 or so minutes of brainstorming, I suggested that we rig up a strap to the chair that would allow him to put his foot into it like a step and allow him to sort of stand up on the halyard. He unscrewed the shackle to hook up the bosun’s chair again and the pin broke right in his hand. My eyes got as big as dinner plates and I probably turned a bit paler. Had that pin failed any earlier or any later Ed could have fallen. Our mast is 71 feet. Injury would be likely, and death possible depending on how far up he was.

Ed with the halyard block in his hand having just removed the broken shackle.

The shackle that was on the block was a bit on the older side and might have had some metal fatigue. Without a microscope there is no way to know for sure. It also might have already been bent a little from use; Ed recalls that the pin screwed in and out with difficulty. We no doubt exacerbated the problem when I over-winched the halyard. Neither of us even thought to inspect it. We had bent a brand new fairlead, and we didn’t think to inspect a block and a shackle that were older. Yeah…stupid. I am shaking my head at myself as I type at how dumb it sounds. Even dumber that we trusted it to hold a human. I feel both ashamed that I missed it and thankful it didn’t end badly.

Lessons Learned

I once received very good advice when I was a young aviator:

Everyone starts out with two bags. You start with a full bag of luck and an empty bag of experience. The trick is to fill your bag with experience before you empty your bag of luck.

I think this advice applies to all facets of life. We emptied our bag of luck a little bit today. I think we also filled our experience bag some too.

Things I learned through this experience:

  1. The electric winch motor is the strongest component. It will keep running even if it pulls itself off of its bolts. I think this is an unsafe design and will be exploring options to depower the motor so we cannot mechanically repeat the over-winching mistake.
  2. Hand signals are useful in a noisy environment, but are limited in what they can communicate…especially when the “speaker” and “listener” do not have a common hand signal language. If there is ANY doubt that all involved are 100% up to speed on what signals will be used and what they mean, brief it first.
  3. Headsets. Get them. Use them. They are also colloquially known as marriage savers. We were given this advice before we got the boat; we figured we’d get around to it when it was convenient. If I had it to do over again I would buy the headsets BEFORE the boat.
  4. If you bent or damaged one item that line runs through, check every single other piece of anything that the line was in contact with when the damage occurred. The obviously bent part may not actually be the weak link.
  5. Be thankful for every day you get and take care of each other!

I’m sure there some other lessons we should have learned here. Please leave them in the comments below! We are humbled by this experience, and grateful it didn’t end badly.

Hello from Monument!

Riding out the blow at Black Point

And FINALLY getting to Georgetown.
A constellation of anchor lights at Monument Beach.

The Exumas, and Bahamas in general, is a windy place. While this is awesome for living a fairly insect-free existence, weather is always a concern for moving the boat or finding a good anchorage. Monday, March 8, found us picking up anchor near Staniel Cay and moving further south to wait out a week-long blow (what cruisers call windy conditions typically brought on by cold fronts). We figured the anchorage at Black Point Settlement on Great Guana Cay would be a better place to sit it out. The sail was short, and the wind was blowing pretty good, so we just scooched on down with the Genoa only. The evening brought very gusty winds, but the bay was well protected from the east wind and the anchor held like a champ. We did make it into town a couple of times, but taking the dinghy in the windy chop meant a wet ride every time. I had planned to get a lot of linens and rugs washed during our visit (Black Point has a pretty sweet laundromat), but I abandoned that errand figuring my clean laundry would just get sprayed with salt water on the ride back.

By the end of the week, Ed and I were getting antsy for the weather to quell so we could move on. Sitting in a windy anchorage with little else to do other than boat chores and one person to talk to gets old in a hurry. Before you get too deep into reading, I’m offering a fair warning that this blog post will be more on the technical side.

Saturday, March 13, started looking like a promising day to keep travelling south. We were leaning toward making a stop at Rudder Cut Cay and then waiting for more of a westerly wind to jump over to the east side of the Exuma chain which you have to do to get to Great Exuma Cay, Georgetown’s location. As Saturday approached, and both Ed and I were desperate to interact with other people, we decided to rip off the band-aid and take on yet another upwind sail with not-so-flat water. At least I’ve finally gotten enough of a handle on my forecasting and navigation skills to know exactly what we were getting into this time! I think it actually made the sail better just knowing it wasn’t going to be great. It got me thinking a little bit about the technology available now, that wasn’t available even ten years ago, that makes it possible for a pretty inexperienced sailor to take on the critical task of getting a sailboat from point A to B…safely AND comfortably.

Thoughts on modern technology

First, I must share that I’ve really started rethinking my relationship with technology. I started out my adult life as an aviator, and with that came a transferable skill of basic concepts in navigation, weather theory, and using forecasting products. GPS and cell phones were also pretty new technology when I soloed my first airplane at the age of 17 and they really weren’t all that ubiquitous quite yet. When driving to somewhere new, the first step was breaking out the Thomas Guide (do they even make those anymore?), and if you screwed up along the way, you stopped at a gas station to ask directions. Well, aviation wasn’t all that appreciably different. We all carried paper charts and various other publications that had information about airports, radio navigation facilities, and radio frequencies. The key difference between driving and flying, however, was, and still is, is that one cannot pull off to the side of the road if lost or encountering bad weather in an airplane. For this reason, and other reasons, pilots are given much more of a formal education in navigation and weather. When I started flying there were basically three different tools for navigation, and about the same for acquiring weather products. GPS and mobile computing (i.e. cell phone data) were functionally not in this toolbox. Getting weather data involved a dial-up internet connection or calling a flight service station, and, therefore, weather reports and forecasts were all textual (not graphic) and heavily coded to keep file sizes small.

Navigation was (and still is) very much a math game, and cross-country flying (term used for anything other than flying around your local airport) was probably not the activity for you if you weren’t very good at making a graphic mental picture out of a bunch of numbers. It took me a while with a lot of study, but I finally learned how to do it, and do it well. I had learned a skill that few women ever developed, which is unfortunately is still true in many ways. It made me feel like a queen among common men. I had put in a lot of work into becoming a safe and proficient aviator, and I had learned to intuit a picture of the world around me with little more than a chart, a clock, a compass, basic aircraft instrumentation, and some math skills.

As time went on, GPS technology improved drastically, and the introduction of the smart phone changed the aviation landscape faster than you could say landscape. Every airplane now had a moving map display, radio navigation is going the way of the dinosaur, and anyone who has gotten their pilot license in 2010 or later would probably tell you they had to learn “dead reckoning” just enough to pass their checkride (pilot license test)…maybe. The Garmin GPS became the primary navigation tool followed up by sophisticated iPad apps for navigating and everything else aviation. I enjoyed and made good use of these tools. I also snickered at all the pilots who didn’t have “real” navigation skills. I called them “the children of the pink line” in honor of Garmin’s magenta-colored course to follow on their moving map display. I truly believed a pilot who was not proficient at analogue (for lack of a better term) methods of navigation was not as safe as me.

I’ve since changed my tune. We now live in a world where the necessity to actually navigate by dead reckoning alone is so statistically remote as to not really be a primary skill with which one must be proficient nowadays. Learning what it is and how it works is still a worthwhile exercise, but it is no longer a practical way to navigate in the modern world. It’s much like teaching your kids to drive a manual transmission: great if said kid has some specific purpose that requires that skill, but otherwise there just aren’t that many cars left (in the U.S.) that use that technology. I used to cringe a little bit that modern technology made it “too easy” for people to become pilots. I had to work hard to learn navigation skills to keep me safe, why should modern technology present navigation wrapped neatly in box with a pretty bow on top? Old, salty sailors, no doubt, view a sailor like me the same way. I suppose it’s the natural evolution of aging…KiDs ThEsE dAyS hAvE nO iDeA hOw EaSy ThEy HaVe It!

Yep…this is correct. And it’s a good thing in a lot of ways. In the case of sailing and cruising I think one of the most important consequences of better technology is that it makes it accessible to more people. Generally speaking, technology allows (but doesn’t guarantee) more people to experience many things in life that without the technology would not be possible. It can foster understanding and communication across different cultures. And yes, I realize the opposite is also true. Looking optimistically though, people who are way smarter than me found a way to share the magic of sailing by making it possible to learn without the huge time investment of learning how to do a number of tasks that a bunch of zeros and ones can take care of.

With that said, I don’t find it terribly necessary to learn celestial navigation, how to use a sextant, how to use an SSB radio, or those “older” navigation tools…boat doesn’t even have the equipment for it. I can still lean on the earlier more rudimentary methods of navigation in a pinch, but no one in their right mind would embark on a crossing without a modern chart plotter, back ups on a couple of tablets and phones, a satellite communication device, a subscription to a sailing weather forecasting app, emergency beacon, etc. Think about it: if you were to board a commercial flight and the pilot said he was going to get you to your destination using only paper charts, a compass, and a watch, you’d look at him or her sideways and think, “what the hell is wrong with using GPS?!” and probably get right back off that plane. The fact is, we have so much redundancy of being able to rely on modern technology that if we find ourselves needing to navigate by paper, compass, and watch alone, we have bigger problems than navigation. I still get paper charts, I still prefer them for the planning stage of things, but it is necessary in the 21st century to use a chart plotter and have GPS sources to get access to the data needed to carry out the mission.

This brings me to my next point. Navigation essentially has two main components when planning: plotting the route and determining the weather. Both of these obviously work hand in hand, and it is a bit artificial to separate them as stand-alone elements, but the weather forecasting tools available to the “everyman” has made a significant technological leap in the last decade…more so than the actual navigation tools in my opinion. This topic could go on for ages if I discuss both in their entirety, so I will focus on the products I’ve learned to rely on for getting the weather information I need to make safe sailing decisions. Perhaps weather theory and route planning I’ll leave for another time.

Learning the ins and outs of modern-day forecasting

Weather forecasting, on the grand scheme of things and as we know it, is new…less than 100 years old. Heck, the ability to even measure and record the weather in any kind of meaningful way is only a few hundred years old at best. The best we humans could do for millennia, when it came to planning around weather, was understand the seasonal nature of it. Farming required us to know when to plant, and that’s really the best we could do in trying to forecast the weather.

Sailing ships have been with us in some capacity since around 5,000 BCE. Because of limitations in navigation (the ability to determine one’s longitude), it wasn’t until the late 1400’s that sailboats were able to navigate when very far from land. These early ocean crossers no doubt ran into all kinds of awful weather and rough seas. Many were lost. Keeping boats out of bad weather was essential for trade. Through experience, mariners developed a seasonal sense of where and when one was likely to encounter adverse weather such as hurricanes. Mariners also relied on various rules of thumb, such as red sky at night sailors’ delight…. As navigation technology improved so did the ability to measure the weather. The anemometer, thermometer, and barometer were all invented fairly contemporaneously. At least sailors had a few tools to observe the weather and land on some short-range conclusions of what was coming next. It would not have been enough to avoid it though.

The invention of the telegraph was really the first essential leap in weather forecasting–the ability to communicate weather data instantly over great distances. This worked great for land, but it wasn’t until the invention of radio telegraphy about 50 years later that sailboats and steamboats could get this data at sea.

The 19th century ushered in an era of weather data collection and transmission, and the advent of the 20th century saw the beginnings of trying to make sense of, or model, the weather. Upper atmosphere observing became possible in the 1920s with the invention of weather balloons, or radiosondes. Attempts at numerical data forecasting began around the same time. Mathematicians were able to develop the equations needed to produce a forecast model, but the complexity of the atmosphere required very large numbers of calculations to be made. Without computers, it was impossible for humans to process the data fast enough to make a forecast.

The invention of the computer, and then its explosive growth in computing power finally made modern numerical forecasting possible. The first forecasts became available in the 1950s but were only accurate out to roughly 24 hours. The 1970s and early 1980s saw the creation of the first global forecast models, and improvements in computing power and data processing have made them more accurate and have allowed for longer range forecasts.

Getting the data and forecasts on demand and in graphical format is a very recent development that has come with the invention of the smart phone.

One of the more popular sailing weather apps is called Predict Wind which purchases (or gets for free) a variety of weather forecast models and then displays the data graphically in a very user-friendly format. Currently, Predict Wind has four global models available (minus their proprietary models which are based on data from the list below), along with a few regional models.

The global models:

  1. ECMWF or “the European model”: European Centre for Medium-Range Forecasts
  2. GFS: Global Forecast System
  3. Spire
  4. UKMO: United Kingdom Meteorological Office

All four have very sophisticated methods data collection and processing, but they do differ, and some perform more accurately for certain things than others. Learning what those are has been my latest learning task. I have noticed that many folks regard the ECMWF as “better,” and most folks tend to operate with the idea that as long as the models agree with each other (forecasting the same thing) that’s good enough to rely on. I am of the opinion that operating that simply is a good way to miss a good weather window or fall into a trap of disregarding one data set at the preference of another.

My first task has been understanding, in general terms (this woman is no mathematician), how these models are made. I have found, so far, there are a few broad questions to get answers to first. 1. What data are being input? 2. What assumptions does the model make? 3. What resolution and update frequency does the model offer? These seem to be where the larger differences lie between the models.

With the first question, the ECMWF, GFS, and UKMO appear to all have great similarity on the data that are input. Spire, which is relatively new, appears to input some different data than the other three. Spire uses a technology called radio occultation to gather data for its model. As I understand it, the other three models gather this data as well, but on a much smaller scale. Radio occultation, in simple terms, is like a satellite version of radar or sonar. The satellite network shoots a radio signal through the atmosphere at different angles, and a great deal of information can be gathered based on how the signal bounces back. Essentially, the satellites are using refraction at a lower frequency…a sort of radio rainbow. Spire does also source data from other places, but its heavy reliance on forecasting with space-based weather data give this model an edge over the others when it comes to off-shore (I’m talking really in the middle of the ocean) wind direction and speed. This model is not one I rely on very heavily while coastal cruising, but knowing its strength, I will likely heed this model more heavily when on ocean crossings.

Question two is still going to require more research on my part. First, I don’t yet know how Spire and UKMO make their assumptions. For this question, I will just compare the GFS and ECMWF. One of the biggest differences between ECMWF and GFS (so far as I understand it) is that GFS models use a hydrostatic model, and ECMWF is a nonhydrostatic model. As I am not a meteorologist I am not able to really give a good primer on what that all exactly means, but the important part of the difference is that a hydrostatic model does not account for how terrain affects weather, but a nonhydrostatic (dynamic) model will. The computing power required to create a global forecast with a nonhydrostatic model far exceeds the computing power required for a hydrostatic model. That said, the nonhydrostatic assumption tends to be more accurate in coastal areas and also predicting how convective activity will affect weather. As most cruisers tend to stick to more tropical areas and coastal cruising, this is likely why most will tell you that the ECMWF is “better.” It is…for the kind of sailing they are typically engaged in.

Question three is also a question that I need to educate myself on more, but it is fairly easy to tell that resolution refers to the size of a grid square, and update frequency…well…how often does the model send an update and at what intervals does it show change? Both the Spire and UKMO show a 25km resolution at best. On an ocean crossing, this is a pretty decent resolution to work with; in coastal areas it’s a bit broad and doesn’t always capture the nuances in weather that terrain can produce. ECMWF produces an 8km resolution, and GFS 22km. UKMO and GFS have a six-hour update frequency, and ECMWF has a 12-hour update frequency. Although the ECMWF has a tighter resolution, there is something to be said about getting quicker updates. If for some reason there was erroneous data input, or there is rapid change, a quicker update frequency can correct itself faster. The GFS, while it tends to be less accurate than its European counterpart, can also “fix itself” faster than the ECMWF. This makes the GFS and UKMO useful to see how things might be changing in time that the ECMWF does not do as well.

The take-away I’ve landed on so far with weather forecasting models is that having multiple models to review is quite helpful to see where the differences are and also how disparate they are. When the models agree, there is more certainty in the forecast, but that isn’t always enough. Learning WHY the models sometimes disagree is just as important. It’s also important to understand which models have which kind of reliability and also HOW to compare them and use them together.

I am still on a learning curve of marine weather and navigation, and in some ways a learning curve of what kind of modern tools I need to focus on learning to become a good navigator and sailor. The tools and information I might have had to learn 20 years ago are different than those I have to learn now. My old, salty sailor friends: you had a bigger time investment than I might have now, but I am doing my due diligence to get the job done right.

Staniel Cay and neighboring cays.

Ed chillin’ with one of the famous swimming pigs.

Hello family and friends! Our next stop along our southerly stroll in the Exumas was Staniel Cay…sort of. We actually anchored a little bit north as we primarily had west winds to contend with for the week, and Staniel Cay is exposed to the west.

We anchored at the red circle most nights, but also by pig beach.

We made a short motor down from Compass Cay as the wind direction was not workable to sail and it was only six miles away. We spent our first night by pig beach at Big Major’s Cay and enjoyed our afternoon with the swimming pigs.

Ed and I found this batch of pigs interesting in that they seemed half domesticated and half wild. They aren’t farm pigs in the way you’d think of pigs raised as livestock, but they do behave comfortably around humans. They are also hairier than a domestic pig, and a few of them even have the beginnings of tusks which is a feature only wild pigs (boars) have.

We had a quiet evening on the boat, and then the wind turned westerly the following morning. We put up with the rolly water for a couple hours (Big Major’s has no westerly protection) and then hopped on our dinghy for a tour around the area just to get off the boat. We found a spot a little bit north with much flatter water and double-backed to Serenity to move her to a new anchorage. As the day went on, more boats followed suit. We watched the die-hards get rocked and bobbed for the rest of the week.

As Ed and I had just had our anniversary, we also treated ourselves to a nice dinner out at Fowl Cay which is right next to Big Major’s and is separated by a 50-foot channel. The cay is privately owned and has been built over the years as a nice swanky resort. When they have space available, they will take dinner reservations for non-guests. Lucky for us space is available everywhere because of COVID, and we had a stunning four-course prix fix meal to celebrate our anniversary together. It was also the first time in over a year Ed and I got to sit at a bar for a bit! It was really a delightful treat to do something “civilized” for an evening. I, of course, did not bring my camera for this activity.

We spent the next couple of days waiting out blustery wind and tending to boat chores. We met some fellow Leopard 46 owners who shared the anchorage with us, and we hosted a happy hour get-together. It was really nice to meet new friends, but they were working their way north back to the states as they just cruise during the winter. It seems social gatherings are fleeting and ever changing. I’m finding it to be a difficult adjustment to learn how to be social in a very fluid construct. I suppose it’s like writing in the sand at low tide.

As the wind calmed a bit, we made a visit to Staniel Cay Yacht Club for lunch. Jimmy Buffet has touted it as one of his top ten favorite places, so we obviously had to go check it out. We had a nice meal, and it was a cool spot. I’m sure during non-pandemic times it’s a lively place to congregate with other cruisers, but our visit was pretty chill and only a couple of tables were occupied. I also took the opportunity to restock with a few grocery items, dispose of some trash, and we had a good walk around the settlement. I also neglected to bring my camera as I’ve been having a hard time making sure it doesn’t get wet when we travel by dinghy.

We also took a snorkeling opportunity at Thunderball Grotto…yes, as in the James Bond movie. I again found myself lamenting at my lack of waterproof camera. I did bring my camera and snapped a couple of pics, but the real show is in the water where my camera could not come. The fish, coral, and other sea life are stunning, and the fish will swim right up next to your goggles. Apparently other tourists feed them and they’ve learned how to ask for food by staring you down. It would have been fun to hang out longer, but the current was starting to get pretty strong as the tide was coming back in.

The best I can offer for now is to google Thunderball Grotto and check out the many images folks have taken underwater over the years.

The end of the week came with a forecast of strong north-east wind so we pulled up anchor and had a quick sail down to Black Point which has a good harbor for waiting out east wind. As I write, we are halfway through our weeklong gusty wind conditions. Once again we are waiting on weather to pass so we can continue south without torturing ourselves. Hopefully, with winter coming to a close, the weather will start being a little kinder to us!

Compass Cay, Exumas

Compass Cay Marina at low tide.

Our weekend stay at Compass Cay Marina has been a highlight so far on our travels. After getting a little beat up with upwind sailing and rolly anchorages, it was a VERY welcomed rest. Navigating into the marina was a bit of a process, but we went in at high tide, and the series of channels from the Exuma Bank was surprisingly well marked (this is unusual in the Exumas).

The route one must take to Compass Cay Marina from the Exuma Bank.

There is a group of what appears to be four gentlemen that maintain the marina, and we received excellent assistance in getting Serenity docked. Hooking up to shore power is a daily flat fee (which is not cheap), so we elected not to as we make adequate power with our solar and battery bank. The island is powered by a diesel generator. The marina is well protected and quiet, although the amenities are a bit sparse. There are cottages throughout the island that can be rented and toilet facilities, but no showers, laundry, or fuel. RO water can be purchased at $0.50 per gallon, but there is no pump out or fuel here.

The marina appeared to have (or maybe still is) constructed a small restaurant, but we found it boarded up despite looking like fairly new construction. Perhaps it’s temporary because of the pandemic, or perhaps it was damaged in an earlier hurricane. Regardless, the crew offers a hamburger or hotdog lunch everyday at noon which can be eaten at the marina patio. The marina also has a small store with a small selection of drinks both alcoholic and non, a few snacks, and some t-shirts and other gift shop type tchotchkes. Ed and I purchased their lunch on the first day we were here. It was spendy but delicious.

The best part about the marina, and a must-see in my opinion, is the marina’s pet nurse sharks. Nurse sharks are native to tropical and subtropical shallows, are generally nocturnal, and are docile bottom feeders. Despite their laid back nature, the species has the fourth highest rate of shark bites of all shark species. This is largely due to humans being able to interact with them much easier than most other shark species. As long as you don’t provoke them, and mind your fingers and toes (they can look like a tasty snack) they are really fantastic to interact with.

I must say it is pretty amazing to have clear water that you can swim in with a bunch of marine creatures at a marina. We also saw lots of bonefish, grouper, rays, and a few other fish species I was not able to identify. At one point, while swimming with the sharks, my Burts Bees chapstick fell out of my pocket and a bonefish started nipping at it! For you fisherman out there, apparently a bright yellow chapstick tube makes good bait for a bonefish.

We also took some time to hike around the island’s many trails. We did not see all of them, but we saw some amazing sights at the locations we made it to. As we walked up the hill from the marina, I saw my first wild orchids. Having come from a colder climate, I had only seen these as house plants.

We first headed over to the east side to view the beach there. It was a windy day, and these were the biggest waves I’d seen (even though they really weren’t that big) since I last saw the Pacific Ocean.

We also saw an abandoned building on the nearby bluff and went to check it out. We later found out that it was Hester’s house, one of the original inhabitants of the island. A regular visitor also repurposed what was left of the house into a gym a few years back, but weather and likely hurricanes have left it in shambles.

We’ve seen a number of buildings in the islands that serve to remind us that Mother Nature eventually takes back what is rightfully hers.

We also hiked to the south end of the island and found the former Low Tide Airport, which we happened to catch at low tide. The flat is now littered with various bits of ocean debris, but if it were cleared could actually make a suitable runway for a bush plane. That said, it’s not a very useful airport as one would have to land, drop of or pick up payload or passengers, and get back into the air before the water returns. The pilot also only gets one daylight low tide window.

Compass Cay also makes a great staging location to go explore Pipe Creek by dinghy. At low tide the area’s many sand bars present themselves for a nice stroll. The scenery is quite breathtaking, the water is beautiful clear blue, and my camera does not do it justice.

It would have been nice to be able to explore the area some more; perhaps we will stop in again at a later date.

Our weekend at Compass Cay ended with the fuel barge docking at the marina to refill the generator tanks. It was quite a sight to see a large boat maneuvering in very close quarters.

Tropical Breeze turning in an area barely large enough. Its pilot dinghy is off to the left.

We headed out shortly after they docked having thoroughly enjoyed our stay!