02/07/2008, Isleta Marina, Fajardo
A great sense of accomplishment for us. We dropped anchor at 4 p.m. today near a small island called “Isleta Marina,” at Fajardo, on the east coast of Puerto Rico. We arrived after a seven-day sail from Bermuda. It was our first open-ocean sail with just the two of us, by ourselves.
Admittedly, we were anxious as we prepared to leave Bermuda. We were not so much concerned about our safety, as over the last couple of years, we’d prepared, prepared some more, and then some more yet. We were certainly ready. It was more a recognition that we both get seasick and feel completely miserable during the first two days at sea – or sometimes longer- of any trip, and we weren’t looking forward to that. We had the boat primed and ready to go, with hot food prepared for three days, Dramamine, ice tea, Gatorade and power bars by our side in the cockpit. In addition to the worry about seasickness, there was also a general anxiety about the wind and waves. We had picked a good window, conferred with our friend and mentor, Chris Hubbard, and gotten a green light from Herb Hildenberg, the weather “guardian angel” for cruisers. More about him in a second. Weather wasn’t to be perfect, but we knew we’d be OK. It was more a fear of the unknown: Did we read the wave heights correctly? And the direction? The wind?
In the end, we addressed our apprehension about the unknown, channeled it into hyper-preparation, and completed a challenging sail! Yay, again! Our boat, proven once again that she is a tank, has handled the sail very well. We have come out with no major problems, we are both proud to report.
I mentioned Herb Hildenberg earlier. Here’s some more information on the guru, which he certainly is. Herb is an expert on weather forecasting called on by the US Coast Guard and Navy for teaching the art of forecasting based in Ontario, Canada. As a hobby, he provides free weather forecasting and routing services for boats during crossings, primarily in the North Atlantic, and to a lesser extent in the South Atlantic and the Pacific.
Boats check in with him on the SSB every day during their passage at 19:45 GMT. Fifteen minutes later, Herb provides a 3 day forecast for all who’ve called in. It’s pretty cool listening to the roll call. “Sailing Vessel W. C. FILDS calling 200 miles due south of Jamaica.” “Sailing Vessel VANESSA calling from the Azores.” “Sailing Vessel calling from 55 W, 22 N,” which happens to be somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic. One sometimes feels quite alone during passages, but Herb’s roll call connects you with a fleet of ships sprinkled through the North Atlantic. It’s good company.
It is intimidating to check in with Herb, at least Sima thinks so. Before we did, we listened to many sailors’ stories about how he once made a lady cry because she gave him the wrong coordinates for her position, mistakenly placing her and her vessel hundreds of miles away from her previous day’s location, which given that a fast sailboat would make 120-150 miles/day average distance, was impossible. There were other stories of him yelling at people things like “if you had gone south instead of east like I told you to do yesterday, you would have avoided this storm!” But we found the complete opposite. Partly because we were super nice to him, and I think that mostly because we listened to him and followed his advice, always. One day when I was feeling particularly queasy, Sima had the courage to go down below and talk to Herb. When she was done, looking yellow and white in the face and collapsing in her cushion in the cockpit, she later told me that she was humming in her head “I talked to Herbie, and he did not yell at me” to the tune of “I shot the Sheriff, but I did not shoot the deputy.” Herb was not only extremely accurate with his predictions but he was paternalistic, telling us the score of the Superbowl, in case we had missed it, wishing us a safe watch every afternoon. Now I ask you, who else has a hobby so altruistic in nature?
The trip had a few hiccups, but nothing too bad.
(Except the *&^%! Super Bowl. I’ve gotten through shock, denial, anger, and bargaining, and am trying to ease myself towards acceptance. It is not coming readily. )
Getting the game out at sea was a real challenge. We had done research before we left, and determined that the Armed Forces Network would be carrying the game on short wave. (I was finally going to be one of those “ships at sea” that, at the beginning of each Super Bowl, they brag that they are broadcasting to.) But come game time, the blasted network was carrying a talk show! That led for much scrambling with the AM radio. We have an antenna that runs up the mast, providing pretty good reception, but couldn’t find anything at first. But then, perhaps some surrounding rain squalls had cleared out, a second run through the dial found a station in Cincinnati, Ohio, of all places, carrying the game. Sima, who has become a Pats fan, could only stay awake for the first part of the game, after a long hard day, so I curled up on watch in the cockpit, with Marv Albert (not bad) and Boomer Esiason (idiot) broadcasting. It was enjoyable way to experience the game, with a crackly radio, rolling seas, howling winds, inky blackness, and twinkling stars. It had the potential for a memorable and enjoyable night.
Except that the Giants didn’t cooperate! Drat. A loss hadn’t been in the script for the ending of this season.
Some of our hiccups during the trip, aside from the Superbowl -which is admittedly more than a hiccup as I use many not so nice words every time I think of the loss, about every 20 seconds- included an autopilot scare. At about 3 a.m. on the third day, an alarm on the auto pilot went off, flashing the message “Inoperable – Rudder Failure.” Uh oh! That’ll wake you up! And the thought of having to hand steer the rest of the way will make you forget seasickness and push you into action! After five minutes playing with the functions and meters, we determined that the failure was the result of the house batteries having run too low to support the load of the autopilot. We started up the engine, turned the auto pilot off and on, and the problem was solved.
We’re also having a problem with our “MAX-PROP” engine propeller. Its blades are supposed to fold away when sailing, creating less drag. But ours doesn’t seem to be folding, and instead spins around with a mind of its own when the boat is in neutral. This seems to be another residual problem from the work we had done this summer, and will probably have to be replaced.
All problems seem to come late at night. On another occasion, I was at the helm when a squall came through at about 1 a.m. I found that the wind started backing. I had tried to counter by steering the boat further upwind has the wind moved. But with each five degrees that I altered course, the wind seemed to change lockstep! I sailed for about 15 minutes 90 degrees of course, waiting for the wind to shift back as the squall passed. But the wind didn’t seem to be moving back. What was going on? Herb hadn’t warned us of such a permanent wind shift. I stared at the gauges and the sails. The lights finally came back on in my sleepy head, as I realized that I had been creating the wind shift by steering away from the wind rather than toward it! Returning to the original course, I was chagrined to notice that the wind played along and resumed its role of blowing straight off the beam.
We learned other lessons on this journey. Sima had made a banquet of food for the trip, including spinach pies, carrot cake, potato casserole, and some other delectable meals. The goal was to get some food ready before we left, so that we wouldn’t have to spend much time in the galley during the first couple of days, while we got our sea legs. But we made all the food too early! As we waited for our weather window to leave, and a couple of days languished into a full week, we watched the food begin to spoil. By the time we left, much of it had grown a beard, and to our great dismay was tossed overboard to feed the fish! She still feels very bummed about the food, particularly the spinach pies as they were made with dough that she carted in from Turkey, and is hence a scarce commodity on the boat. Feeding them to the fish was not in her plans!
Speaking of fish, we saw neither dolphins nor whales on this crossing. We did see lots of Sargasso weed, some frigate birds, luminant phosphorus, and flying fish. The flying fish were present everywhere along this route. They look like grasshoppers, except instead of floating with the wind from one weed to another in a meadow, they float along from wave to wave. And they really do float through the air! I always thought that they sort of made a quick jump out of the water and disappeared back in, nice and quick like. But flying fish fly! They get out of the water for seconds at a time. And we caught our first fish on this trip when one such flight, taken to avoid whatever predator of the deep was giving chase, ended on our deck. We were startled when this happened late one night, for example, hearing a thud just outside of the cockpit, followed by much flipping and flapping. The little fellow was trying to use his wings to get himself over the rub rail and back into the water. We helped him back in.
The frigate birds are welcome visitors when you’re out at sea. Four came and visited at different times during the journey -or was it the same fellow who came back each day . . . They would trail the disturbed air behind the boat for a bit to get a lift, and then try to land on the top of the mast. All tried, but none could negotiate it. Either the mast head was bobbing and weaving too much for them to get a clear shot at landing, or, as they got close, the lanolin that we’d smeared on the top-most antenna was keeping them away.
A word about the physical demands of sailing; sailing across oceans is not a very physical sport. During the medical exam I had before leaving, the doctor asked what I’d be doing for exercise over the next two years. But without looking up, answering her own question, she said, “Oh, of course, sailing!”
Ha! We play with the sails on average of once per day during a crossing in the trade winds, as this was. And because the motion of the boat makes it a bit difficult to attack projects, there’s not much that can be done down below. What does that leave to do? Sitting in the cockpit listening to books on tape, while making sure that one is well-fed and hydrated! On the other hand, we find passages exhausting, as much emotionally as physically. Perhaps it’s the general anxiety or watch-interrupted sleep, but we arrive exhausted. Passages leave us each feeling completely worn out, but also a bit doughy and out of shape. We’re both going to start swimming down here, as even getting ashore to get run in can be a challenge.
What is the great pay-off after this long journey? Well, actually, Fajardo leaves much to be desired. After catching our collective breaths, Sima and I dusted off, downloaded the dinghy, dinghy engine, and gas tank, and headed ashore. Yuck! Coastal Fajardo, at 9 p.m. at night, could give Newark or Trenton NJ a run for their collective monies (No harm intended, NJ friends. I love the Garden State – but am merely noting the obvious.). I take that back. People escape from Fajardo, PR, to go to Newark and Trenton.
The streets are pretty bad. Soon after landing, we went to a restaurant called “Rosa’s.” We’d met a woman ashore who provided the recommendation. The really dangerous part of town is “over there,” she said, waving vaguely in the direction she just told us to walk.
Did she recommend the restaurant? “Well, I’ve never eaten there, but folks come from San Juan to eat there, for the thrill of eating in the ‘dangerous part of town’ ” she said with a wry smirk. Was she serious? “You know how poor people can be. They do what they need to survive. You’ll be fine. Just don’t give anybody any trouble, and they’ll leave you alone.”
We headed down the darkened street, remembering not to give anyone any trouble. We passed a late-night, brightly lit building that looked like a run-down miniature auto showroom, but which incongruously was the setting for a late night religious gathering.
Hey, this wasn’t so bad after all. As we continued down the street, however, it darkened quickly. We passed a dog lying in the middle of the street. He moved out of the way, but his brother, a scraggly-haired poodle looking thing that appeared as if he bathed each morning in old motor oil, began to yap at us. As did several other feral dogs milling about behind a chain link fence surrounding a weeded lot. We continued. The street was lined with shanties, about 50% of which were occupied. The others were boarded up, or not boarded up, with the wind blowing through open doors and windows. A scattering of cars were parked along the side of the road, some looking like they hadn’t moved in months, missing headlights, cracked windshields, and flat tires showing that the dogs weren’t the only occupants who could lay claim to the forename “junkyard.” A group was gathered in the dark in front of one house, and several fellows raised their voices in unintelligible Spanish as we passed. We thought to respond, but figured that no response was no trouble at all.
We made it to the restaurant. It was packed! – with empty chairs and open tables. We entered, sat, and “Angel” took care of us. The meal ended up being not so bad, and the local beer hit the spot. After our meal, we returned down the street, and back to the docks, unmolested. Maybe we really had avoided the really dangerous part of town, which was somewhere “over there.”