With most of the islands and countries around the Caribbean and N. Atlantic now revealing their plans for emerging from their closures and lock downs, it is clear that re-opening links for airline travel are last on their priority list. That makes running cruising experiences on Oh! virtually impossible. It also rules out any reasonable assurance of being welcomed in the Azores, Portugal, Spain, Gibraltar, the Madeira’s or Canary Islands over the next few months for active cruising. So my hoped for second Atlantic circuit is just not viable. It is likely this will extend for at least the next 2-3 months, or more. Therefore, Oh! is headed for the Chesapeake Bay to be hauled and stored over the summer and I will be returning to Calgary.
On May 18th at 0800 Oh!’s anchor was raised from the soft white sand bottom of the stunning bay that I had called home for the past 2 weeks. The evening before, I made a point of enjoying one last extra long swim and snorkel, an extended beach yoga session and one final long sunset paddle board around the islets and rocks, before packing everything away. As Oh! headed out of the bay I bid farewell to a pair of seabirds that had been my sole companions over the past 2 weeks. For whatever reason, these two curious birds would come by twice a day to soar effortlessly around the back of Oh!. They were so close I could watch their eyes adjust angle to keep focused on me as they floated back and forth in the breeze. Maybe the anchorage I was in is so rarely used by other yachts, that Oh! was simply the new oddity they had to keep checking out. They are beautiful birds and the white underside of their wings always reflects the colour of the sea below. On a beautiful sunny day the underside of their wings are a beautiful aqua green colour. Anyway, they came by for one last fly by as Oh! pointed her bow out of the bay. We squawked a mutual good bye and went our separate ways.
Over the past 2 months I have watched in splendid isolation as the adventure of exploring the world on a cruising sailboat was slowly strangled with ever tightening restrictions and eventually total lock downs and border closures. One by one all the normal options for extended ocean cruising disappeared. In many countries the restrictions placed on foreign yachts were so tight, you could not even swim off the back of your boat, let alone go ashore. Unfortunately, the rules in many countries appear to have been made by bureaucrats with little, or no, boating or cruising knowledge and experience; which created a great deal of uncertainty and unnecessary hardship for many cruising sailors. Fortunately for myself, I was in the semi-remote Exuma Islands during this period. Despite restrictions on movement between islands, it was a beautiful place to set the hook in an isolated bay, off a deserted island and enjoy the stunningly beautiful world around me. The Bahamian government essentially required yachts to do three things.
A. Submit their movement history since arriving in the Bahamas,
B. Submit a plan for isolating while remaining in the Bahamas during their curfew and lockdown period.
C. Submit a plan for transiting the Bahamas as you exit the country.
My experience has been that as long as your plan respected their rules and the spirit of what they were trying to achieve, it was approved. During this period I spent my time between two beautiful anchorages, depending upon the weather I needed to shelter from. There was also a single day trip to the designated provisioning point of Staniel Cay. The experience has been wonderful and I am grateful for having been fortunate to have been here in the Bahamas verses the situations many of my cruising colleagues and friends found themselves trapped in at other Caribbean countries.
For the first two weeks in May I had been waiting for news regarding the lifting of restrictions on sailing yachts that had been caught in ports all over the world. With each passing day the news was not good. Most islands and countries were remaining closed, or imposing very strict rules governing all visiting yachts. Some with lengthy quarantines ashore in hotels that would be expensive; others with lengthy quarantines and no guarantees of being cleared in after the quarantine ended, and some that would only allow yachts in that had confirmed reservations at boat yards, or expensive marinas. Others would allow yachts to stop, provision and repair, but they would not be allowed to clear in and were expected to leave as soon as weather permitted. Finally, even if I could find a country that might allow Oh! in for a longer term, or to store or haul Oh!, there was no assured way to get home to Canada, or for others to travel to Oh!.
In the end, the only viable options for Oh! during approaching 2020 hurricane season were the USA (north of Cape Hatteras), or eastern Canada. The logical first step in deciding where to go was to sail to the Chesapeake Bay where a final decision will be made to either haul out there, or move further north to Nova Scotia. The most likely scenario is to haul Oh! out somewhere in the Chesapeake Bay area and shut down for the summer.
The first leg of the passage was east around the south end of Eleuthera Island, then north to the Abaco’s and beyond. In the light southerly winds Oh! was in her element. Under full sails and clear skies she averaged 7.8 kts in just 10-12kt winds off the beam. The 34 mi crossing of Exuma Sound was an amazing sail. By 1300h Oh! was turned north and progress slowed to 4-6 kts in the light following winds. However, it was velvet smooth sailing in flat seas with no swell. A wonderful opportunity to catch a few naps to prepare for the night watches and to bake cookies between naps; after all, there can never be too many cookies onboard.
As the sun set, the sky filled with stars. The smooth seas and warm light winds made for a beautiful evening of stargazing while reclining on the trampoline. During the night, I follow a simple watch routine of 25-40 minute naps with 5 minute boat and situation checks. During solo passages I live in the galley where there are a second multifunction display, the AIS and a comfortable place to sleep. It makes it very easy to keep a look out and hear any unusual noises that seem to wake me from even the soundest sleep. My companions are my iPhone timer that ensures that regular watches are performed; as well as the various alarms that are set to notify me of approaching ships, or changes in weather, or Oh!’s course.
At the 0300 watch on May 19th the glow on the horizon of a long line of distant lightning bursts to the west were noted. There was a weather front that I needed to keep an eye on. By 0330 the subsequent check noted the bursts had grown in intensity and frequency, checking the radar revealed a long line of squalls that had formed to the west. After 15 minutes of tracking a few menacing yellow blobs with the radar, it became clear that my beautiful starlit skies, warm breeze and smooth seas were coming to and end. Weather fronts can move very fast, so despite the light 8-10 kt winds I was enjoying, a first reef was put in the mainsail and the genoa reduced. There was a slight chance the front would pass north of me, but the odds were against that. By 0415 as the reefing was completed the first light rain drops arrived; and 15-20 minutes later a wall of wind hit that packed gusts to 43kts. It all happened so fast that any attempt to further shorten the mainsail would have been very risky. Instead, the genoa was furled and I turned into the wind. With both engines running it then became a simple exercise of holding the nose at 25-30 degrees to apparent wind and riding it out. That way the lateral forces on the rig were minimal and the mainsail was not flogging. Fortunately, since there was no swell and open sea for 20 miles in all directions it was a surprisingly effective solution.
After about 15 minutes a break between two massive squall cells appeared and for the next 20-25 minutes I kept Oh! positioned in the calmer area between them until the big squalls blew past. By 0600 the front was in the rear view mirror, Oh! had received a power wash and life was back to sailing in light airs, on calm seas. I could now retrieve my iPhone from the microwave oven and resume my naps. There will likely be more squall lines to deal with on the passage north…but next time I will put in a double, or maybe even a triple reef to prepare for them.
I am now just passing the east end of the Abacos Islands and for a short period will have a cellular connection and time to get one more large scale weather download. It will also be a chance to send off some email and check the news before going truly “offshore” for the remaining 700 nmi. passage to Norfolk, Virgina.
My thoughts for next season are already starting to firm up. Rather than risk the challenges of dealing with multiple independent island states and complex rules that are evolving in the eastern Caribbean; I am considering limiting my cruising to the Bahamas. That way there is only one governing body for the hundreds of beautiful islands and deep ocean sounds to explore. A place where guests can get multi-day open ocean sailing experiences as well as a chance to experience the cruising lifestyle. The Bahamas are also served by direct flights from Canada which makes getting to Oh! much simpler for my guests.
However, first…the world needs to define its “new normal”. Whatever that may be remains to be seen.