Life on a Tilt
January 13, 2005
We've been sailing on a port tack for over a week now. The boat and its contents are leaning to starboard and gravity is encouraging everything -- including ourselves -- to move in that direction. Life on a tilt poses a few challenges. The lee cloth on our pilot berth keeps us from rolling on to the floor when we're sleeping, but we're not similarly restrained elsewhere on the boat. The head is on the port or uphill side of the boat, which means if the boat hits a particularly boisterous wave, the toilet seat can become a launching pad, sending its occupant headlong across the saloon into the navigation station. It's hard to look dignified when your face is buried in a pile of charts and your pants are wrapped around your ankles. The galley is on the starboard or downhill side of the boat. Stove duty is made more exciting by the prospect of the chef falling into the main course. Seven course meals are not in the offing.
We started out the New Year on the level. On New Year's day David decided to go for a swim. Ordinarily, this wouldn't be an unusual thing to do in the Florida Keys on a balmy winter's day. In Marathon's Boot Key harbour it was a very strange thing to do -- something only a truly desperate or suicidal soul would attempt. The water quality in Boot Key harbour has improved since we first visited Marathon in 1998, but that doesn't say much. Although the city marina now provides a convenient pump-out service, it's pretty obvious that many of the two or three hundred boats at anchor decline to use it. Let's just say the harbour is rich in nutrients.
Eileen looked at him in horror as he donned his wetsuit. "You're actually going to immerse yourself in the water out there?" she asked.
"I have to," David replied stoically. "We've been here over three weeks and I have to clean the prop and check the underside of the hull. Who knows what's down there; we could be attached to the bottom by now. If nothing else, it will mark a clean start to the year 2005.”
Eileen got out the cell phone and started looking up the local emergency services phone numbers. "It might also be the last you see of 2005."
After an hour David surfaced, flopped into the dinghy, and sped directly to the shower rooms at the city marina. He emerged looking like a boiled lobster. "We've gotta leave," he announced. "I'm not going to do THAT again." Our days on the level were numbered.
David assembled a pile of GRIB files, weather fax charts, and National Weather Service text forecasts. It seemed like conditions were about to moderate. It wasn't the perfect weather window, but it looked sufficient to get us out of Marathon. Our plan was to strike out for the northwestern Caribbean. A day of decent weather would get us as far as Key West; a day and a night would get us to the Dry Tortugas, the last bits of rock and sand sticking out into the Gulf of Mexico; and another day would get us across the Straits of Florida to the coast of Cuba. After that, the weather forecasts and our trip itinerary became less certain.
The night before we planned to leave, we had our friends Dave and Stacey on "Soggy Paws" over for dinner. They're also intending to cruise the Central American coast this winter so the evening's discussion quickly focussed on where we planned to go and how we were going to get there. It soon became apparent that there are two schools of thought on sailing from Florida to the northwestern Caribbean: the way all the cruising guides recommend; and the way we were thinking of doing it. A critical route planning consideration is the North Equatorial Current, which flows westward across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean, sweeping northwestward as it encounters the Central American coast. It strengthens as it's funnelled through the Yucatan Strait between Mexico and Cuba and then fans out into the Gulf of Mexico. Part of it is concentrated again in the Florida Straits between Florida and Cuba, where it becomes the northeastward flowing Gulf Stream. Any route from Florida to Central America means going against the flow. The trick is to pick a route that minimizes the punishment.
Around the dinner table, we all agreed that it made sense to keep north of the stream for as long as possible, following the Keys westward to the Dry Tortugas before turning south. Cutting across the current at right angles, we'd end up somewhere on the northwestern coast of Cuba, where -- if we were lucky -- we'd catch a countercurrent that would take us around Cabo San Antonio, the island's western tip. From there, conventional wisdom would have us cross the Yucatan Strait to make landfall at Isla Mujeres in Mexico. We did that hop four years ago and didn't have a great time; three or four knots of current in the middle of the Strait created some pretty ugly seas. We also didn't like the idea that after Isla Mujeres we would have to hug the Yucatan coast in order to keep out of the current on our way south. It's not a coastline you want to be hugging in the dark and we recall that the safe anchorages are widely spaced and not always easy to enter when the prevailing winds are strong. This time, we thought we'd head due south from Cabo San Antonio, keeping on the east side of the current's main axis until we reached the Bay of Honduras.
The captain of "Soggy Paws" shook his head. "That's not what the textbooks and pilot charts recommend," he said.
We argued, "If we can make the Bay Islands of Honduras without too much grief, then it's a sleigh ride all the way back north through Belize and Mexico. We'll meet you as you come down the other way and compare notes."
We left the next day. Our weather window got us past the Dry Tortugas and across the Florida Straits without incident. Two days after escaping from Marathon we closed in on the coast of Cuba. The forecasts we downloaded via the radio suggested the window was about to close. We ducked inside the fringing reef and anchored in the lee of a deserted mangrove cay. For the next three days, while it was howling outside the reef, we hopped from cay to cay in relatively calm water on the inside. We reached Cabo San Antonio at nightfall last Monday, our moment of truth.
David said, "According to the weather forecasts, we're going to have northeasterlies from now until Friday, gradually decreasing in strength. With the seas aft of the beam, that should make for a reasonably comfortable passage. If anything, we'll probably have to motor for the last day or two. I say we go for it."
In no time the Cuban coastline was disappearing behind us as we slid down the waves. David looked at the knotmeter. "Hey, we're doing better than seven knots; we'll make Roatan in the Bay Islands in no time."
"Look at the GPS," Eileen said. Our speed made good was less than five knots. "The current is a bit stronger than I expected," David mumbled.
The next day, the wind got stronger and shifted more to the east. The waves got bigger. The boat heeled over more. "I thought you said the wind was supposed to lighten," Eileen said. "Just wait," David replied as he went forward to put a reef in the mainsail.
Yesterday, the wind shifted to the southeast. Our average speed made good dropped to four knots. "What happened to those northeasterlies," Eileen said. "Maybe this is a temporary wind shift," David suggested as he furled the yankee and raised the staysail.
At dawn today, the wind was still from the southeast and hadn't abated. There were waves marching towards us the size of small bungalows. David put a second reef in the main and went below to check the morning weather forecasts. Our wind vane self-steering kept us on course, blissfully unaffected by the spray flying through the cockpit. Eileen struggled out of the bunk and lurched across the main saloon to put on her foul weather gear, which involved clinging to a grab rail, hopping around on one foot, and contorting various limbs at unnatural angles. She carefully poured herself a mug of tea from the pot swaying on the gimballed stove and went above.
A few minutes later David called up to her. "Only fifty miles to go to Roatan ... and guess what? The wind is supposed to die right down this evening and shift to the north."
Eileen had her right leg propped against the starboard cockpit coaming to keep upright. She released her grip on the binnacle long enough to take a tentative sip of tea. "Why do I find it hard to believe you?"