Thursday, April 15, 2010

New photos online

Lots of new photos online. St Vincent and Grenadines, Dominica, St Maarten, BVI's and Turks and Caicos. Click here to view the photos.

Turks and Caicos

Lovely trip up to the Turks and Caicos although it took us a while to get into the rhythm of a crossing after so many weeks of lisland hopping. We kept our eyes peeled on the horizon the entire trip as Navidad Bank and the Silver Bank are a key mating ground of humpback whales and there are approximately 3000 in the area between January and March. In fact, our pilot stated that you would need to be extremely unlucky not to see whales at this time of year when crossing the banks. One small and curious whale came quite close to the boat and we saw another breeching several times. Amazing!

Our expectations of the T&C were a little different than reality. Arrived on Grand Turk and after careful analysis of the charts and our pilot book we dubiously anchored near the government dock. The surrounding area is a messy and industrial location next to absolutely stunning beaches and bright blue water. Took the dingy into shore and finally found the customs office in the back of a ramshackle warehouse in the middle of a incredible messy industrial-looking area. Everything was full of garbage and piles of broken building materials. As we stood in the cluttered little office the young and extremely informal but very friendly agent (who looked like he might be more comfortable in a garage band than a customs office) told us the mess all around was a result of Hurricane Francis (little seemed to have been done to tidy up since 2004). Taxied to the immigration and on to the grocery store. The whole island seems to be a rather sad place as the underlying natural structure of the island is gorgeous but everything looks downtrodden and broken.

On Salt Cay we found an absolute paradise beach, just as I had finished telling my parents the night before that we were tired of white sand and blue water (no we do not expect any sympathy). This, however was something special. We were the only boat that had ventured in through the reef inlet (a harrowing experience only to be attempted in bright daylight with the sun behind you so that you can clearly see the rocks). Took turns snorkelling on the reef and then continued in to the empty beach for a picnic. Seb erected a sun tent and we sat beside our own private natural pool and wandered about to marvel at the thousands of hermit crabs and colourful fish in the tide pools. This is paradise.

Carefully picked our way out of the reef the next morning after a very rolly and sleepless night and headed off towards South Caicos keeping our eyes peeled for more humpbacks.
South Caicos was an even greater surprise containing the most extreme and depressing poverty that we have seen to date. The fishermen on the wharf were very friendly and we were invited to look into the conch factory. This one room industry processes 1000 conch per day and ships them off to Miami, and this was the only industry visible on the island. Wandered around and stopped at an unmarked shop for an ice-cream and Macsen and Emma played with the local children, each amazed by the others hair. Overall, the island has stunningly beautiful nature but the streets are broken and the houses along them tumbling down, scrawny dogs sniff through piles of garbage and there is an overall mood of dejection and feeling that everyone has just given up.

The 50 nautical mile sail across the Caicos Banks is beautiful but nerve racking. Every pilot warns that this should never be done in winds higher than 15 knots and only with good daylight visibility. Understandable as in the flat waters we were travelling about 7 knots in depths of 2 meters (our draft is 1,90m). This shallow sand is speckled with coral heads that are not always exactly where the chart suggests. Fortunately, due to the incredibly clear blue of the water and the sandy bottom, the dark rocky or corally areas are easy to spot well ahead of time. It was am amazing and exhilarating experience, like sailing across a massive swimming pool. The water was so intense in colour that a white air plane flying overhead looked bright turquoise as the water was reflected off of its wings.

Arrived in Sapadillo Bay at 1330 and radioed in to the South-Side marina. Simon, the harbourmaster, gave us very detailed instructions with waypoints on how to get to an anchorage close to the marina and explained that we would have to wait until 1130 the next day to come into the marina itself with high tide. We followed the directions carefully but before long we were slogging through the sandy bottom and the depth sounder was registering depths down to 1,3m. Stukzitten. We thought back to the full moon of the evening before and realised that, of course, it was a spring tide, the highs are highest and the lows lowest. Our electronic charts were registering a deceptive (and erroneous!) 2,4 meter minimum! We threw out the anchor and Seb and I hopped into the water to look at the keel, strange to be standing next to your boat in the water. Rather than wait until morning, we waited until midnight and Simon and his wife, Charlyn very kindly talked us in through the rest of the uncharted shallows and met us at the dock. No damage done on the sandy bottom but we left a little more bottom paint than intended in the pristine waters.

The South-Side marina is located on Provo island, the most touristy (and wealthiest) island in the group. It is still, however, off the beaten track and as a result there is a tight community feel for all of the boaters that land there. Simon and Charlyn promote this feeling by holding informal gatherings to exchange stories every evening on the dock. Although tiny (and complicated to arrive) this is by far the cosiest marinas that we have stayed in. We stayed for two days to prepare for our trip to the US and felt like old friends when we left. Upon leaving the Turks and Caicos we provisioned for an indeterminate period of time. Our plan was to sail just North of the Bahamas and in towards the coast and as far north as we could until the weather forecast suggested that we head into land.

The BVIs Were a Nice Surprise

Left Sint Maarten on a clear evening with the wind behind us and headed with the Zilvermeeuw for a short overnight sail to Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands. We arrived early in the morning on March 20th and picked up a mooring buoy just next to The Baths. The Baths are a natural wonder consisting of a huge park of huge boulders some on land and some underwater. Jeroen and Seb took the dingy in with the monkeys and Babette and I swam in stopping to look and the underwater wonders among the boulders and say hello to a ray swimming through. The bay became busy with charter boats as the morning wore on but remained a spectacular spot. We found a perfect cave with a natural whirlpool bath and a great view through the boulders and relaxed there for a while, just the six of us chatting about life.

Emma and Macsen are improving their swimming skills by the day and are both able to swim from the Pjotter to the Zilvermeeuw (Macsen on Seb's back but Emma using her Nana stroke to propel her along). We stayed on our mooring buoy for two nights and marveled at the fact that no one else seemed to dare to remain in the bay overnight and wondering why we had the entire beautiful area to ourselves. We later heard that the mooring buoys are intended by the park only for use during the day. Oops, we won't make that mistake again.

On to the North Sound between Virgin Gorda and Prickly Pear Island, a huge and beautiful lagoon. We expected the BVIs to be as developed as the rest of the Caribbean. Although there are a lot of charter boats there is a surprising amount of nature and beautiful untouched islands. We took an incredibly long wet dingy ride with Jeroen and Babette and anchored the dinghies in the Eustatia sound and had a wonderful snorkel. Amongst the sea life Babette and I also spotted the remains of two old cannons. Seb and Jeroen spent the afternoons fixing our motor (again) and installing ambient lighting (LED so it takes very little energy) in our living room. Babette and I headed ashore for an internet fix at the Bitter End Yacht Club. The only way we could describe the club was as a sort of adult's Disneyland or an on-land cruise ship full of nautically named boutiques and bars and restaurants all describing the activities and acts to be enjoyed in the evening.

Last evening with the Zilvermeeuw was spent in Road Town bay in the capital of Tortula, the busiest and biggest of the BVIs. Found an anchor spot near the massive cruise ships. We had a great lobster, shrimp ad steak dinner at The Pub restaurant near the boat, a run down little place with good character and reasonable tolerance for our busy monkeys.

After a morning spent prepping the boats and getting water we had a final lunch at The Pub with Jeroen and Babette before setting sail together in the late afternoon of March 25th. Took some great pictures of the Zilvermeeuw as they sailed off into the sunset on their way to the Dominican Republic as we headed off to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Dominican Republic is the last stop on the way North where you can obtain a US visa. They plan to get their visas there, have a quick explore and then head up to the Turks and Caicos and on to the US. We hope to see them again sometime in the area of New York.

Never Underestimate the Dangers of a Butterfly Farm

On Monday, March 8th we packed up the car and headed out for a day of discovery. We took our laptop with us as there was no internet in the apartment, this laptop is our working laptop with our navigation programs, current documents that we are working on and photos and movies of our trip.

Our first stop was at the was at Pic Paradis, the highest point on the island. A short walk through the woods brought us to some spectacular views of both sides overlooking the greens of the vegetation, black of the rocks and the bright blue waters of the bays. Our drive continued to cross the border into St. Martin where we stopped at a butterfly farm seen advertised from the roadway. The farm itself was small, located on a rather remote lagoon and consisted of one large screened area the size of approximately four tennis courts but containing over 55 different sorts of butterflies. A very knowledgeable guide talked us around the farm and just as he finished, while Emma and I were busy trying to coax one of the enormous blue morphos to sit on our fingers, we heard a voice say “Who is the owner of the grey Toyota van parked outside? Your vehicle has been broken into. We've already called the police.”

The gendarmerie arrived and handled the situation surprisingly efficiently and appeared to take the case very seriously. Three of the five cars parked outside the farm were broken into, although only we had been silly enough to leave anything behind. Three bags were stolen from our car containing our bathing suits, favorite toys for the kids and of course our working laptop with some photos and films that we had not yet copied. As the rather surrealistic process continued, including fingerprinting of Seb and his Dad (for exclusionary purposes) it slowly began to dawn on us what we had lost and how horrible and violated we felt about it. On top of this we felt incredibly stupid for leaving so many valuable things in a car in a place where we knew theft was rampant. The butterfly farm just looked so innocent. And theft is a very nasty thing to have to explain to a three-and-a-half year old who has just lost her new snorkel and swimming mask.

We were all determined not to let this incident spoil our time with Opa and Omi. That evening was a little gloomy and Seb and I spent much of the following afternoon making a statement at the police station. The rest of the week we referred to the theft only sparingly and really enjoyed ourselves. We bid goodbye to Opa and Omi on March 14th and although difficult as always the goodbye was a little easier as we know we will see them again in May.

The week after Opa and Omi left we stayed in Sint Maarten to finish some small repairs and of course to fix the engine and replace the start battery. We were lucky enough to meet up with Kees and Mart from the big Pjotter in time to celebrate her 60th birthday. As we were puttering about in the lagoon one morning Emma suddenly pointed and said “Look, the Zilvermeeuw!” As Zilvermeeuw is 'seagull' in Dutch we just patted her in the head and said “Good Emma, a seagull”. Then we noticed the sailboat Zilvermeeuw disappearing around a bend. Amazing that Emma recognised Jeroen and Babette's boat more easily than we did. It was thus a good Dutch reunion and we had some very welcome help with our 'klusjes' and good company for our 'borreltjes.'

Sint Maarten and a Reunion with Opa and Omi

Sint Maarten/ St. Martin that is the smallest sea island divided between two nations, France and the Netherlands Antilles. Some say that the borders were defined in 1648, when a Frenchman and a Dutchman set out from opposite ends of the island, the Frenchman with a bottle of wine and the Dutchman with a bottle of gin and they agreed to place the border where they met in the middle. The Frenchman made it much further than the Dutchman with his gin so the island is geographically 1/3 Dutch and 2/3 French.

Rodney Bay lagoon, on the Dutch side of the island, is an enormous body of water with the biggest group of the largest super yachts that we had ever seen. Row upon row of boats of over 200 feet, mostly motor boats (at least one with a 37 foot tender with a bow thruster) but with a few spectacular sailboats in between. The whole area is overrun with an unnatural opulence that is a little stifling but it is a real boaters community and is therefore a good place to stop to meet interesting people and get any necessary work done on the boat.

Opa and Omi arrived on a morning flight from Curacao and we took a taxi out to meet them at the airport. After 10 months, it was great to see them again and they marveled at the changes to the monkeys (particularly Macsen who has become a real person during that time). They had rented an apartment and a car for the week so we headed in for a little luxury. The apartment had enormous balconies, fantastic views of the ocean, two hot tubs, a pool and most importantly unlimited running water and air conditioning so we settled in quickly. The next couple of days were spent enjoying the sun, eating good food and having a good time together.

Mishaps on the Way to Sint Maarten

“Um, where is the dingy?” was not a question I expected to ask on the evening of March 2nd. Our plan was to leave Dominica at 2030 just after putting the monkeys to bed and heading out for the 200 mile sail to Sint Maarten to meet Opa and Omi (Seb's father and his wife). The monkeys were in bed at 2000 as planned and the boat was ready. The last thing we needed to do was deflate the dingy and stow it on deck. A short inspection outside, however, revealed that the dingy was no longer tied to the boat and in the darkness was nowhere to be seen. Our first thought was to call the big Pjotters for help in the search and to call the local dive shop to see if anyone had seen it. We knew it had disappeared between the hours of 1800-2000 and were quite sure that it had drifted rather than been stolen. Kees showed up in their dingy and a man from the dive shop drove up and picked up Seb and the two boats headed off in opposite directions to begin the search. After less than 15 minutes, Kees found the dingy and after a short thank you discussion with the local fisherman who had swum out to salvage it (and a huge thank you to Kees for finding it again) we stowed it on deck and were on our way.

During my first watch (2300-0300) I noticed a strange smell in the entryway next to the engine room and opened the motor room. The smell persisted so I turned off the motor and we sailed the rest of the night. The following day Seb attempted to diagnose the problem and realized that the start battery had blown out and we were stuck sailing the rest of the way, a gloomy prospect with the winds around 5 knots. In short the 33 hours that we planned for the trip became 42. On top of the time taken we narrowly missed getting becalmed just off the start of the professional race of the Heineken regatta...potentially horribly embarrassing. On the positive side, we were able to practice anchoring under sail in the Simpson Bay and that went well. Two kind gentlemen from the IGY marina came out to tow us in (for a rather steep fee) under the cheering eyes of crowds of Heineken regatta spectators watching from the clubhouse. Needless to say we were relieved to be in our marina slip.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Out of office

We have really enjoyed the Turks & Caicos Islands and are now on our way to the US.