Anchored in the Lagoon, French side, St. Martin

Bob has been here in St. Martin for a week now and things couldn’t have been nicer. I visited St. Martin on Bob in the winter of 2008/2009 and was generally underwhelmed by it but I’m liking it much more this time around. Christmas was a refreshing change from the usual affair of the consumerist world that we live in, where the shops become more and more lavish year by year in their tacky displays of lights wasting power for the sake of faux-aesthetics, plastic motorised models of Father Christmas wobbling from side to side while blurting out a recorded ‘Ho ho ho!’ through cheap tinny speakers and a plethora of useless things advertised in shop windows that people still buy because, let’s face it, it only happens once a year so why not? Here Christmas has been beautifully well-spirited while skipping over all that peripheral gumpf for the most part. People that have never met shouting ‘Merry Christmas!’ to one another across a busy mooring field, and generally-good cheer expressed and felt by all.

I had the very good fortune to meet a gentleman and his family who are cruising on their 50ish-foot aluminium ketch. I made contact with him because I heard over the daily VHF radio net (channel 10 at 0730, hosted by the one and only ‘Shrimpy’, a wonderful Austrian gentleman who washed up here 15 years ago and never left) that he was selling a hydrovane wind vane. I’m still not entirely sure whether I will actually purchase his vane but in the meantime I’ve enjoyed many pleasant hours aboard his yacht being social, and he and his family were even kind enough to take pity on a lonely sailor and invite me to Christmas dinner with them which was superb.

It turns out that the timing of my arrival here couldn’t have been better and certainly should have been no later. The ‘Christmas winds’ are still strong. Officially they are blowing 20 to 25 knots, but there have been gusts up into the mid-30s inside the lagoon, which is very sheltered, and I spoke with the crew of a yacht yesterday who have just arrived from the Cape Verde Islands. They set out for St. Barts yesterday but turned back when they encountered winds exceeding 45 knots according to their anemometer. Bob is very happy in the lagoon. Having initially struggled to get a good set with the anchor I moved to a different spot and the anchor is now well-buried about a foot beneath the surface of the mud, which makes me very happy indeed 🙂

The lagoon itself has changed a great deal since my last visit. The Dutch side is even more developed with more superyacht marinas. A huge, modern causeway bridge now bisects the lagoon. The French side on the other hand has gone a little the other way. The French bridge is often out of service and the entry from there into the lagoon area is tricky. The last time I was here there was a well-marked channel that one could carry 8-feet through without too much trouble. Now the channel is no longer dredged so I just about made it with Bob’s 5 1/2-foot draught, and there are only two sad-looking markers very far apart that make it very difficult to stay in what’s left of the channel. Hurricane Gonzalo hit here hard last year, to the demise of (according to Shrimpy) about 100 boats on the French side in the lagoon. Their carcasses are dotted around the lagoon, and many many boats at anchor or on moorings appear to be derelict, as though the owners simply gave up and left when the mast came down in the hurricane, or they suffered some other catastrophic damage which left them floating but otherwise unserviceable. It’s a great shame, but I’m sure they will recover in time. Those businesses that were damaged or destroyed by the hurricane have been re-built and life is continuing as it always has in its lovely laid-back Franco-Caribbean way.

Work on Bob is coming along nicely. The wind vane situation, which is my biggest concern, is nearly resolved I think, and I’ve taken the time to install several new systems and improve upon others. The roller-furling system has been upgraded through the addition of some blocks to hopefully eliminate chafe on the line. It turns out that setting the storm jib that night at sea during the passage here was a very good idea, as the roller-furling line was indeed chafed through quite badly and would certainly have let go during the night in 35 knots of wind had I not struck the sail completely. I’ve also installed a cockpit shower, a new blower for the engine compartment, removed the old wind vane, taken the new anchor line on board and done a multitude of other little jobs that needed to be done. Tomorrow I will go to Phillipsburg and pick up the shipment of stuff from Florida, including a water maker (a miniature desalination plant), a new 110% working jib (a headsail), the satellite telephone that will enable me to get weather forecasts at sea and a folding propeller that should greatly improve Bob’s performance under sail. I have heard it said that having a fixed-blade propeller generates the equivalent drag of towing a bucket behind the boat. I believe it too! I’m hoping for an increase in speed of between half a knot and one knot, which is quite considerable for a boat that normally sails at between 3 and 5.5 knots. More importantly than the speed increase, this propeller should allow me to sail in winds that are lighter than those I can currently carry sail in, which will cut down on motoring time, fuel consumption and improve my sanity correspondingly.

Right, I’d best get on and do something constructive with my day! Merry Christmas to all, and a happy new year!


View of the mooring field


The new causeway bridge

Bermuda to St Martin Day 9:

The last day has been just as exciting as the last few but all in a good way. First of all, I made it! I didn’t have to abandon the plan of going to St. Maarten either which I’m distinctly pleased about. It was close. I ended up having about 5 miles of space to windward of Anguilla to play with. That’s not a lot when you consider that I started struggling to make it when I was still 200-odd miles away. A difference in course of two degrees would have meant that I missed it altogether (over 200 miles, a course difference of one degree would displace you at the other end by tan of 1 multiplied by 200, or 3.5 miles……. I think).

Last night was pretty rough again to the extent that I ended up setting the storm jib instead of the little bit of genoa that I had. I didn’t really need to as the storm jib was really too small. It was only blowing about 25 knots sustained but gusting 35 in the squalls. It was good practice though. The main thing is that the plan for setting it does work, and I learned a lot of things that can be improved upon when setting it in the future, like that I need to cut the sheets down so that they are only just long enough (I keep them permanently attached to the storm jib) and that the hanks need to be pushed up above the thick bit of dyneema where the splice is in order for it to slide up the stay without jamming. Also that the thick bit of dyneema works very well to keep the hanks down and the sail on deck until the time that I want to set it. For those who are interested, here is a description of the set up (written for sailors) in italics, as it’s the kind of information that I enjoy reading about from other sailors:

When at sea I have an inner-headstay that attaches just aft of the main headstay and about three quarters of the way up the mast. This is opposed by a set of running backstays. There is also another set of runners opposing a baby stay. These are recent additions and work very well indeed to keep the mast in column and prevent pumping in a seaway. This inner headstay is made from dyneema and is set up well in advance. With it up I can’t tack or gybe without rolling the headsail but that’s ok as it’s rare to have to do this at sea (when I’ve had wind on this passage I’ve always been on a port tack). It has a loop in the end and reaches almost to the deck at the attachment point, which is a heavy-duty block. There’s another line that runs forward to this block from the cockpit (the foreguy for the pole, since I would never have my storm jib poled out (the seas would be too great for going directly downwind once a storm jib is necessary and I wouldn’t need the inner headstay if I were flying a symmetric chute or poling out the genoa), runs through it and ties onto the loop in the dyneema with a simple sheet bend. So now I have a dyneema line coming down from the mast, tied on to another line that runs through a block and back to the cockpit. That block has a becket on it.

The storm jib hanks on to the dyneema, the sheets run aft and the tack is tied via a 3-foot pennant made from strong line to the becket in the block. At the head of the sail is a snatch block. This snatches onto the dyneema and then the spinnaker hal’yard clips onto it. So, even though the spin hal’yard is much higher up on the mast that the inner headstay attachment point the block keeps the angle of pull on the sail in line with the dyneema stay. The storm jib is wooled just like you would wool a chute (before they changed the racing rules recently to ban wooling) to stop it filling prematurely. It works really well as far as I’ve found so far. Provided the inner headstay is set up well in advance it’s very easy, and if strong winds are expected you could even set the whole thing up and have the sail just sitting on the foredeck ready to go from the start.

Anyway, I went along like that through the night only making about 3 knots but going the right way and I was able to get some good sleep. The next day was really exciting. Only 60 miles from St. Martin now so I crowded on sail (by ‘crowding on I mean that I still had 2 reefs in the main and at most half the genoa out!) and powered along through a rough but very manageable sea in an attempt to make it to St. Martin that night. I wanted to round the North Eastern tip of Anguilla before nightfall, because Anguilla is very low-lying and St. Martin is very high, so you see St. Martin first over the top of Anguilla and could easily run into Anguilla at night as you wouldn’t see it until you’re right on top of it. I do have a chart plotter but I don’t like to rely on them. I have been very led astray by GPS units in the past so I still like to take bearings on landmarks and generally do things in a very old-fashioned way, but it’s not possible to look at the chart plotter, plot on a paper chart (I still use these primarily as I find it quicker, easier and more reliable than the chart plotters), identify landmarks, take bearings and steer at the same time and by this point the tiller pilot was making some very nasty grinding noises and wandering back and forth through about 40 degrees (that tiller pilot has been absolutely amazing under the circumstances. It’s about 20 years old, uses very little power and was absolutely rock solid until I abused it the other day by trying to get it to power downwind in a heavy squall and thought I’d help it out by turning the wheel myself. Not a good idea it turns out ?).

Anyway, I made it around that tip of Anguilla about half an hour before sunset and was anchored in Marigot Bay surrounded by super yachts by 2130 having managed to retrieve the anchor from the locker (the cause of all my woes at the start of the voyage!) and shackle that onto the bow as I was hove-to briefly just outside the bay. It felt exceptionally good when that anchor hit the bottom, and miraculously the wind stayed with me despite it being from the ESE so I didn’t even have to turn on the motor. I was sure that I would have gusts and lulls at best with the high mountains of St. Martin in the way but fortunately that was not the case. Strange – I’ve experienced almost dead calm here in the Caribbean from blanketing caused by a mountain range (St. Lucia) over 40 miles to windward of me in the past, but this time the wind was beautifully consistent despite the land being in much closer proximity.

Anyway, I’m now sitting in a cafe in Marigot. It’s a Sunday so I can’t be productive and start haemorrhaging all of my money yet, but the Ti Punch is not too bad and the ground has just about stopped moving beneath my feet ?


View of Bob anchored in Marigot Bay, including very large courtesy flag and 'quarantine' flag flying before I had checked in. View of Bob anchored in Marigot Bay, including very large courtesy flag and ‘quarantine’ flag flying before I had checked in this morning.

View from Bob anchored in Marigot BayView from Bob anchored in Marigot Bay

Bermuda to St. Martin Day 8:

Well, the last day and a bit has been a roller coaster in more ways than one. It started beautifully. About 5 hours after I turned the engine off the other night a breeze sprung up out of the East. I took full advantage of it, set all sail and barreled South with all haste, as time is getting short now. It’s not necessarily that I have any reason to be there by a certain date but I told my family and friends that I expected to take between 8 and 9 days and at the moment it’s looking like 10 so they will begin to worry no doubt. This will be so so much easier once I have a satellite phone.

Anyway, barreling along that night and the following day, with the breeze building slightly and the sea state lagging behind a little so that the sea always seemed relatively calm compared to the wind. All was well until yet another gear failure hit at 3:30 in the afternoon. The welds supporting the auxiliary rudder on the brand new $4000 wind vane simply gave way at some point and the rudder disappeared into the depths of the Atlantic. That left me on my own, 250 miles from land with no means of self-steering. That’s a big problem for a sailor on his own. I hit a bit of an emotional low at that point. I’ve been working on Bob flat out for the last 8 years, pouring my heart and soul (not to mention every penny I’ve earned) into getting the boat ready for this trip. I can’t complain about the engine problems because that is the one area that I have neglected, but to suffer failure of such a vitally important brand new piece of expensive equipment really got to me. All the frustrations and loneliness of the last week came crashing down on me just before nightfall and I had a bit of a moment of self pity.

I couldn’t afford to wallow in self-pity for long though. The breeze was still building and heading me slightly. I took a reef in the main and rolled up some of the genoa, then another reef in the main and even more genoa. Heavy squalls set in with gusts well over 30 knots and heavy rain that reduced visibility such that I could barely see the bow of the boat. The seas built accordingly. In between the squalls the wind died away completely and left me wallowing in the cross sea which was just as uncomfortable as the squalls themselves.

I’d done some experimentation with using the sails to steer the boat and found that if I rolled in nearly all of the genoa and backed it to windward then I was able to get the boat to steer itself in the right direction, but with the second reef in the main this only put me along at a measly 3 knots, and by now I really, really want to get there! I needed a better solution and came up with a plan. By building a triangular wooden frame and lashing it to specific points on the cockpit coaming I was able to make a mount for the electric tiller autopilot which I had previously been using with the auxiliary rudder on the wind vane. I then set up the emergency tiller sticking out of the aft hatch and lashed a piece of wood to it with a bolt sticking out of it that was the right size to fit into the head of the tiller pilot. Miraculously it worked. I have self steering again, though for how long I’m not sure as the bit of wood is flexing and bending all over the place under the huge load from the tiller.

It’s now 11am and the wind has moderated a touch. It’s blowing about 20 knots and the squalls have abated for the most part, though I suspect they may come back this evening once the water has been heated all day by the sun. This weather is not unusual for this area and at this time of year. Squalls generally increase as one goes west in the trade wind belt across the North Atlantic, and around this time of year the trade winds strengthen. They call them the ‘Christmas Winds’ in the Caribbean. Personally I wish Christmas was a little later this year. I am struggling to make St. Maarten, though just about making it for now. If by tomorrow morning it looks like I won’t be able to lay St. Maarten then I will be forced to turn downwind and run for the British Virgin Islands as there’s no way I can beat into this wind and this sea. That would be a shame as I now have even more to get done in St. Maarten, not least of which is to have a stern conversation with Fleming, the makers of the wind vane, and based on whether they will accept any responsibility for the bad weld (they don’t have to – I actually bought the vane second hand so it’s a few years old, but it had never been installed on a boat and was still in all the original bubble wrap from the factory) either fix this one or, more likely, fork out another $4k that I can’t really afford getting a new one from a different manufacturer and then installing that one which based on my last experience will be no mean feat, especially with the boat in the water. Then there’s the engine……….. My concern is that the closer to the Caribbean I get the more influenced I will be by the North Equatorial Current, which will set me to the West at between half a knot and two knots and make it even harder to lay St. Maarten.

Oh well I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world and it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to abandon St. Maarten and run to the BVIs either. At least they have cheap rum there. Anyone fancy Christmas in the Caribbean this year? ? I could really use the company!

Broken wind vanePicture of the bit of wind vane that used to have a rudder hanging off it. You can clearly see that the weld has simply failed through having been done poorly in the first place.

Bermuda to St. Martin Day 6:

Well, its day 6 at sea and all is much as it was yesterday. The engine is still doing a wonderful job of putting us along at just under 5 knots. The breeze built a little this morning to a force 2 from just South of East, so I set the genoa and decided to wait an hour to see if it was worth going to the trouble of setting the main. After that hour it appeared to have built a little more (I even saw two whitecaps!) so I set the main, at which point it immediately died out again to nothing so I took it all in again.

I broke all the rules today and went up to the foredeck without my harness on to lie on top of the inverted dinghy (it is kept inverted on the foredeck when at sea), smoke a cigar and stare out at the water. Perhaps it’s just that it has been so calm, so I’ve been able to see the ripples, but I have seen an unusually large number of fish for this part of the ocean, which in my experience has always been a bit bare. Two days ago I witnessed a mahi mahi (also known as a dolphin fish, or a dorado depending on where you are in the world) chasing after some flying fish which was quite spectacular, and today there was something fairly large hanging around and occasionally breaking the surface, but every time I caught a glimpse of it it disappeared again before I could make a reasonable identification. Not a shark though, or a cetacean. It has been most pleasant. I’ve finished reading ‘Eleven Minutes’ by Paulo Coelho and am now re-reading Bernard Moitessier’s ‘Cape Horn: The Logical Route’.

The cumulus clouds are more numerous and are loosely organised in bands such as those that one tends to see in the Western North Atlantic in the trade wind belt, and which are often associated with rain and wind squalls. However, these are arranged East to West rather than North to South, they are less vertically-developed and there’s no rain or wind to be seen.

It’s 1450 in the afternoon and my latitude is 23 degrees and 59 minutes North, so according to the (now very very old) weather charts I should see some wind shortly. At any rate I will stick to my plan of shutting down the engine at midnight or maybe a little sooner and wait for wind to appear as surely it must! I could continue to motor for a little longer but I’d like to keep something in reserve, the engine needs a rest and my ears (and sanity, or what’s left of it!) too. If I have a quiet night of no wind and make no progress it won’t be a bad thing provided I can get some sleep with the boat rolling back and forth in the swells that are still around.

I finished the milk yesterday (so no more tea or coffee) as well as the last of the stew, which I was glad to see finished as it was made nearly two weeks ago and although it was frozen for about 5 days I was starting to become wary of it. My last tomato went with breakfast this morning and I’m down to my last two rashers of bacon. I’m in no danger of running out of food (I could go for about another month before things got sparse, but I’d be eating almost entirely Campbell’s chunky soup and noodles, and those I’d like to ration for later!) but these ‘fresh’ things are things that I’m rather fond of. Fortunately the staples are still in good supply; I’ve still got about 12 cans of beer left and at least 30 bottles of rum and other spirits. On that note, I think I’ll have a beer ?

Update at 7pm:

It’s very, very lonely out here. I’m about 350 miles from St. Maarten and I have turned off the engine, in part because I couldn’t stand to listen to it any longer but also because I thought the usual knocking sound had become a touch louder. I checked the oil as I do every time I stop the engine and was dismayed to find that it didn’t even register on the dipstick. It took nearly a gallon of oil to bring it back up to the full line which means it was basically running on no oil…….. for who knows how many hours. I only hope it’s not permanently destroyed. At any rate it looks like there’s a serious leak (there’s oil in the bilge under the engine) so that will have to be seen to at the very least in St. Martin.

So, I’m drifting at about 0.5 knots in a Southerly direction, which is somewhat comforting. That means there must be a current since the wind, when detectable, is from the East. It’s a dark night and the boat is rocking back and forth very uncomfortably in a swell that has built over the last couple of hours coming from the South East. There’s wind somewhere over there! I could do something about the rocking by setting my mainsail and sheeting it hard on the centreline, but doing that is really terrible for the sail and I think I’d rather endure the rocking than cringe at the sound of my good mainsail banging itself to pieces.

There has been one good point to all this. About 20 minutes ago I was on deck keeping an eye out for ships and heard whales blowing off the port side. There were perhaps 2 of them (hard to tell in the dark) travelling together and they came within 20 feet or so of the boat before carrying on in a Northerly direction. There may have been others further afield because I could hear a very eerie sound permeating the water and even into the air above it. At first I thought it was the wind as it kind of sounded like a low whistling like the sound of a fog horn, but I suspect that it was indeed the whales. Humpbacks perhaps on their migration route?

Ok I’m going to try to get some sleep now despite this incessant rolling. I’m exhausted. I doubt sleep will find me though.

Sun riseStill quite calm seas but a beautiful sunrise. The saying about shepherds, ‘red sky at night, shepherds delight. Red sky in morning, shepherds take warning’ is just as true for sailors. Shortly after the breeze set in and started to build and build.

Bermuda to St.Martin Day 5:

Well, it’s day 5 and I have discovered that I have power over the wind. In order to make it go away I can:

  • go below to go to sleep
  • set the main sail
  • write an optimistic entry in the log

In order to make it change direction constantly so that it requires my undivided attention I can:

  • go below to go to sleep (results vary)
  • have a beer
  • commit myself to working on something other than actively sailing the boat
  • be in contact with a ship that has requested me to ‘maintain course and speed’
  • develop an urgent need to visit the head

I feel that these are a good start, and that by developing these newfound abilities I may one day be able to do things that will bring about positive changes in the weather.

On the plus side I have not yet had to find out whether my design for the solar panel mounting on the lifelines can survive wave strikes, since I haven’t actually seen a wave in quite some time and have not at any time during this passage shipped any water whatsoever. In fact, I discovered this morning two things. First, that the cowl vent for the starboard side of the cabin top had come adrift (probably knocked off its mount by me pulling in vain on a genoa sheet while trying to make the sail….. well…… be a sail) and second that a piece of canvas that I had lashed (poorly it would seem) to the boom preventer line to prevent it chafing on the shrouds had also come adrift. Fortunately both items were simply lying on the deck exactly where they had fallen, and were both hence recoverable with no harm done.

Also on the plus side is that I have not felt the need today to take any codeine and my back is feeling much better. I have high hopes that by tomorrow it will feel fine and that by the time I reach St. Martin (some time next month if the current weather remains) I may even be able to retrieve the anchor from the locker in which it was stored (for fear of it being banged about by waves coming over the bow! As if!) and be able to use it as it was intended. In fact the whole experience has been quite beneficial in many ways as it has forced me to find ways of doing things with the minimum of effort. Since I am always a fan of doing things with a minimum of effort, I rather think that I have been neglecting a veritable plethora of ways in which I could have been more lazy in the past had I only devoted more time to thinking of ways to be lazy. I think that one can go through life being either mentally lazy or physically lazy and still be successful, but one can’t be both, and I was perhaps in danger of becoming so.

The sea is glassy and shows no signs of improving (see what I’m doing here? Reverse psychology on the weather. Here we enter the second phase of my explorations into commanding the elements). I wouldn’t normally pay much attention to weather charts that are 5 days old (usually they’re good for 3 days at best) but they do appear to have been remarkably accurate so far. Unfortunately they also show that the centre of this high pressure I’m in is due to move South at about the same rate as I’m moving, which means I might be stuck for a bit as I’ll run out of diesel before I reach any breeze if that’s the case. According to Messrs Jimmy and Ivan Cornell, who published a very pleasant-looking set of pilot charts in a beautiful book that I am fortunate to have a copy of (thanks mum and dad!) the incidence of calms in this part of the ocean in December is between 0 and 1 percent. Interestingly the incidence of gales is also 1 percent. Last time I sailed through these waters in Bob I experienced the worst weather I have ever been in, with 50-knot winds and steep waves 30 feet high from trough to peak. That was also in December. Ah well, I’ll take calms over gales any day.

There are cumulus clouds on the horizon and they look as though they have some vertical development……… dare I hope? No, they’ll undoubtedly herald headwinds I expect.

Update at 6:30pm:

Yup, they are indeed headwinds, though mercifully only a couple of knots and not impeding progress much. The amazing thing is if I look at the 5-day-old weather chart it predicted exactly this just in the tiny bit of sea that I’m in. Basically I have been too slow getting South so I’ve missed out on the decent winds that were here yesterday (although the swells still remain from them). Unfortunately it also looks like I won’t get any wind for another two days. I have altered my fuel consumption estimate to make it less conservative, and based on my new estimate I have enough fuel to motor another 150 miles, or 37.5 hours, which is pretty good I think and still fairly conservative because it leaves me with 6 gallons left in the tank. I’ve got about 450 miles to go (I’m still not quite half way) so that leaves at least 300 miles to do under sail. At the moment I’m planning on motoring until I have 12 hours of motoring time left and then whether I have any wind or not I’ll stop and wait. By that time I’ll be at about 24 degrees north latitude, which is just inside the northern limit of the trade wind belt (traditionally about 25 degrees north) and far enough South that I should be able to wait for a favourable wind while any storms that pass by should do so well to the North and not affect me at all.

That’s the plan at least. It assumes that the very old weather forecast will continue to be accurate, that my less-conservative estimate of fuel consumption isn’t too far off, that I won’t encounter any strong or even moderate headwinds and, most importantly, that the engine doesn’t blow up. Hopefully a beautiful breeze will spring up forthwith and make all of these musings so much spume on the wind! Yea right…… who am I kidding?

Even more calm seas…

Even more calm seas