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Virginia and The “Accidental Tourists”

A confession. To me, the “countryside” of North America is frankly intimidating in comparison to quaint English woodlands and footpaths.

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…how do you get out and enjoy these places without a machete, a compass, a bear gun, a tent and a wilderness guide?

Our first proper RV campsite, after setting off from our friends driveway in Georgia, was a little one with just 20 spots! Owned by the whiskery Patrick – who would wander each evening in his Frank Lloyd Wright T-shirt, glass of whisky in hand – the campsite followed a river bank in the small and homely Virginia town of Damascus.

The Blue Ridge Mountains are a wonderful and very popular part of the Appalachian Mountain chain, which runs along the eastern USA from as far south as Alabama and even pokes up into Newfoundland, Canada. It has been one of L’s ambitions to see these rolling blue-green ridges and ranges up close for many years, so now that we are no longer “at sea” it’s the perfect time to do that!

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On the Blue Ridge Parkway

But how do you get out and enjoy these places without a machete, a compass, a bear gun, a tent and a wilderness guide? Trails!! Think of them as footpaths on a massive scale, carved through forests and other wild places, some stretching for 1000’s of miles.

When I was 6 years old someone re-released the comedy version of “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia” by Laurel and Hardy (insert rude comments about my age here..) and it was the first record I ever bought.

A recent innovation is the “rail to trail” versions, whereby historic and unused rail tracks serving farmers, lumber jacks, miners etc up the mountains are converted into accessible trails and happily our campsite was smack in the middle of the 34 mile long Virginia Creeper Trail.

We loaded our Walmart $99 bike specials (yep, the beautiful bikes from the small, local bike shop went down with the boat… so Walmart it is!) onto the van trailer alongside some serious machines.

Fifteen minutes later we were dropped off near the peak at White Top to freewheel 17 miles downhill over river gorges and wooden trestle bridges, past canyons, Christmas tree farms and pastoral valleys as well as the old wooden railway stations which are converted into museums, cafes and loo stops. 1,000’s of people are deposited up the trail every week and a few hardy souls cycle uphill as well.

When I was 6 years old someone re-released the comedy version of “In the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia” by Laurel and Hardy (insert rude comments about my age here..) and it was the first record I ever bought. I sang this ditty to myself, braking all the way down while L enjoyed his own joyful and much faster trip to the bottom.

…I am pretty sure I saw a beaver munching flowers in the stream and flocks of small, swooping birds catching evening bugs which turned out to be nighthawks…

Bouyed up by this experience and several good lunches in the Damascus Diner we decided to explore the other half of the trail too and in a classic “McMahon overstretch” got carried away. We cycled 17 miles to the end of the trail at Abingdon, bought some overpriced gel saddle covers (!) and cycled the 17 miles back.

On other more restful days I am pretty sure I saw a beaver munching flowers in the stream and flocks of small, swooping birds catching evening bugs which turned out to be nighthawks, an amazing little bird which I have never seen before.

After arranging with Patrick to stay an extra 3 relaxing days it was time to get going, reminding ourselves we were supposed to be heading to Canada to exit the USA for “tourist visa refresh” purposes!

Stopping on the way for fuel takes some working out in a 36 foot long and 12 feet tall coach…turning circles, canopy heights, diesel pumps…aagh!

TruckBubba is my fave app these days and mingling with the truckers is the way to go. As we got closer to the Petro truck stop in Raphine, Virginia there was something of concern though. I was pretty sure that dawdling at 35 mph up moderate Appalachian hills was not supposed to be the performance ability of our bus. Nor that red light blinking on the dashboard whenever the gears changed.

And so it proved when we attempted to leave Petro pump 12 and the engine would not restart.

So familiar are we with disaster by this point we follow in the Jeep and stop for an ice cream sundae on the way – what the hell!

You may recall that insurance has saved our backsides once already on this blog and fortunately I had joined a roadside assistance thingy called Good Sams. Towing these great big vehicles is ridiculously expensive!

While we waited at pump 12 I explored inside where they have everything for the long haul truck driver – a shuttle bus to and fro’ from the 400 truck overnight parking lot, a medical centre, a cinema, showers, laundry, pizza place, hot lunch counter, walking sticks, enema kits, extra wide driving slippers, a pharmacy and assorted truck parts/accessories including chrome air-horns and my favourite which was a natty beige fake leather and velcro padded cover for a giant truck gear stick! Fascinating!

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The end of a sad day on the bus.

Our first tow truck took us just 500 yards round the back of Petro to the closest repair place – great we thought! Except they couldn’t fix it. We stayed the night hemmed in by huge vehicles, the hum of their generators and aircon units lulling us to sleep.

Tow truck 2 – fortunately covered by our regular RV insurance – was a 50 mile trip back in the direction we had come to a Cummins diesel engine specialist near Roanoke, Virginia.

So familiar are we with disaster by this point we follow in the Jeep and stop for an ice cream sundae on the way – what the hell!

The next week was a roller-coaster of bad news/good news from the engine people, decent cheap hotels, bad cheap hotels (picture a family with 3 Great Danes evicted into the car park. Plus Sunny Delight fake orange juice for breakfast…) and some wonderful drives along the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Left to itself it can hang down from the top of the tank like green Pacific kelp minus the tuna shoals and the surfers.

We also discovered Cracker Barrel – a southern style country restaurant, decorated with all manner of antique advertisements, photos and farm implements which they must hoover up wholesale across the country. Popular with all races and classes, we too discovered that their biscuits (warm salty scones), fried fish and pancakes are delicious. Pretty much everything else has ham in it!

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Retro fizzy pop at Cracker Barrel

So…we paid the massive bill (nearly the cost of our Jeep! *@?!) for our new fuel pump system and learned that modern low-sulphur diesel allows algae to grow INSIDE your fuel tank like some indestructible post-apocalypse creeping thing. Left to itself it can hang down from the top of the tank like green Pacific kelp minus the tuna shoals and the surfers.

Anyway…we bought an old bus, things are gonna happen.

We waved goodbye, started to move and then braked, alerted by the shouts and arm waving of the mechanics. A massive stream of oil poured out of the front now, from a cracked steering gear casing. Probably from the 1st tow truck.

We didn’t have any insurance left for a 3rd tow truck. However, the mechanics were confident that if they topped up the oil and L just kept on going the steering would “probably” make it to our 3rd garage a mile away who could fix it. I follow at a safe distance in the Jeep..

Back to cheap hotels for another week. I can say that after putting on 2 lbs in the previous week (thanks Cracker Barrel) I mastered the art of “hotel camping” with our own coffee maker, kettle, fridge full of salad and milk, snacks, a fruit bowl, books, wine and yoga mat to keep me sane.

After another large bill – hopefully we are not rebuilding this old bus one expensive component at a time –  we finally break free!

We swoop effortlessly up the Appalachian hills at a zippy 55 mph, past the spot where we broke down two weeks/$9,500 ago, heading to our next campsite in the Thousand Islands area of Ontario, Canada.

*Spoiler alert: we make it!

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An Ending and a New Beginning – part 2

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From our bedroom window

We sailed out of Edisto Island, South Carolina in early July with two things. A fridge rammed full of Kings’ Farmers Market veg. And a determination to make some proper progress north as planned. Actually three things! An Edisto Island Yacht Club burgee (small pointy flag) flying in our rigging.

 

..we confirmed the problem “techno-cologicaly” by poking a mop handle into the water off the swim ladder and hitting the sandy bottom almost immediately.

We covered a lot of water over the following days and nights and had some good experiences and some not so good. I will summarise a little…

Motoring into the enormous inlet of Winyah Bay for 3 hours of boiling hot slog to Georgetown, South Carolina.

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Winyah Bay – huge, empty, watery. A place to disappear.

SO MUCH WATER and uninhabited land in the USA. Why did they fall out with the Native American Indians again? How did they even manage to bump into them!

Georgetown – the worst lunch I’ve eaten for years…

Imagine a large supermarket on the last shopping day before Christmas. Plus everyone has been drinking. And is flinging themselves into the aisles in inflatable flamingos. Madness!

Back out to sea (3 hour slog back) and up the coast to the famous Cape Fear River, well-known to all lovers of the Gregory Peck/Robert Mitchum classic film of the same name. (Not going to contemplate the later De Niro abomination here).

Well…Cape Fear River looks nothing like the film with all its spooky and atmospheric hanging moss. All locals must know was actually filmed in Florida and Savannah, Georgia. Two more 1st’s here.

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Ships that pass in the day thankfully..

Anchored off a small sandy island away from the main drag of the busy river, we got ourselves stuck fast on a sand bar. I spent 20 minutes rationalising that the horrible uneven bumping was just wakes and cross currents but we confirmed the problem “techno-cologicaly” by poking a mop handle into the water off the swim ladder and hitting the sandy bottom almost immediately.

The next “first” was when L managed to wiggle and jiggle and churn and power us off again – a triumph! I wonder if Fleet Commander Ronnie (see Part 1) was his inspiration.

Early next morning we were off again to Beaufort, North Carolina – a real historic sailing town we were told and very pretty. We soon learned that the 4th of July is a TERRIBLE time to try to sail a large boat up the narrow inland channels of the Intracoastal Waterway. Imagine a large supermarket on the last shopping day before Christmas. Plus everyone has been drinking. And is flinging themselves into the aisles in inflatable flamingos. Madness!!

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Powerboats, swimmers, fishers and a strong smell of barbecue – 4th of July on the Cape Fear River

We flung ourselves out to the ocean as fast as we could and watched the 4th of July fireworks blooming in the night sky, marking the towns along the coast as we sailed north to our next entry point, the sober sounding Cape Lookout.

Not until the point of no return did it occur to him that he could have left me on the boat..

Beaufort was indeed a pretty town, full of old historic wooden houses, quiet streets and gracious trees. Also the home of Silent Spring writer Rachel Carson. At the quiet end of the town creek we found Carrot Island to anchor for a few nights, where we enjoyed swimming off the boat and I donned snorkel and mask to poke a sharp stick into the “speedo”, to remove whatever bloody sea critter was living in there and clogging it up!

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Our anchorage at Carrot Island in Beaufort, North Carolina

Every time you look closely at a boat you see something that is about to break. Literally every time.  That week I had spotted that the rope holding one end of the dinghy, slung 7 feet in the air for traveling, was about to unravel with very messy consequences. There is no UBER in quaint Beaufort so we had no choice but to cycle a 25 mile round trip to West Marine in neighbouring Morehead City to buy 50 feet of rope while guzzling water, juice and strawberry milkshake every 20 minutes in the boiling heat.

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Yes, that railing is definitely low enough to fall over – especially from on a bike!

I say we had no choice but actually I didn’t add much other than slowing L down. Naturally, not until the point of no return did it occur to him that he could have left me on the boat rather than join this epic trip along busy highways, two bridges and several railway embankments. Naturally.

We finally gave up and pulled into a sheltered river for one of the most beautiful and peaceful anchorages of our whole 9 months sailing.

The next morning I was befriended by an eccentric local lady named Gay, who insisted on driving me to the local Piggly Wiggly supermarket so that I could do a proper “big shop” not hampered by being on a bicycle. When we met at her garden gate she was in muddy gardening clothes. When she collected me an hour later for our trip she was dressed in an off the shoulder mini-dress and a flicked out blow-dry.

I’m pretty sure she was some kind of bored heiress and I was grateful for the kindness, the conversation and especially when she came over to tell me they had large fresh shrimp for $4/lb in the chiller!

Things got a bit industrial for a while after Beaufort and not in a chic way. We navigated further upriver past phosphate barges and cargo basins, passing under the soaring steel bridges of Morehead City which we had cycled over and fighting the wrong kind of wind all the way.

We finally gave up and pulled into a sheltered river for one of the most beautiful and peaceful anchorages of our whole 9 months sailing. A lot of sunset photos were taken from that spot!

Hoping the wind would change, we headed back east across the choppy Pamlico Sound (a huge inland body of water as big as Connecticut apparently) towards the sea for a night inside the Cape Hatteras coast. This so-called “Grand Banks” of shallow barrier islands and shoals pokes out 30 miles or more into the Atlantic and is a formidable shifting obstacle in ocean storms on a bad day, with nowhere to run back inside.

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Okracoke Harbour and its vital lighthouse for the stormy Cape Hatteras coast

Okracoke was our Grand Banks island stop, an old-fashioned little holiday island of sandy lanes, lighthouse and a very tricky harbour entry. Luckily the passing paraglider’s power-boat was there to pull us off our second sandbank in a couple of days…

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Misty dawn on the Alligator Canal

PUNGO! It’s not elegant but that’s the name of the river we traveled up next (the wind didn’t change so no sea miles for us), starting on the Alligator Canal at first light the next day. That is one looong, straight, strange waterway.  Its edges are spiked with rotting cypress stumps – not all them visible – and although beautiful in the early morning mist it took an awful lot of concentrating for over 20 miles. And praying that one of the occasional giant steel barges doesn’t come the other way in narrow bit.

After that the boat seemed to burn for a very long time.

We exited the Alligator River, queuing for the swing bridge with other boats and entering the wide open Albermarle Sound, North Carolina.

The wind is still all wrong and very uncomfortable, so we pick a new course again heading into the inappropriately named Little River. After dodging about 100 crab pot floats (one on your port! two on your starboard!) we are out of the wind and waves finally. And that’s when things get really bad.

As people say, things happen fast in these situations and one minute I was frying an omelette for tea, the next minute I was shoving a few possessions into a bag in the cockpit and climbing down into the dinghy with L, trying not to breathe in any of the smoke coming from inside the boat. He had seen smoke coming from the hull on the other side of the boat and on investigation had found that the bed was actually on fire.

After that the boat seemed to burn for a very long time. It burned to the water line, sinking in about 7 feet of river water leaving only one bow slightly visible.

Keith towed it with his awesome pick-up truck, parked it next to his house and plugged us into his water, power and air conditioning!

How fortunate we were to be out of the ocean, awake and not far from land. How fortunate also to be close to the riverside home of Keith and Heather Christiansen, who with their family, friends and neighbours called the coastguard, made us welcome, ran us around and fed us. They also distracted us with their tales of ATV off-roading trips, explaining the difference between pet ducks and hunting ducks (there is no difference!), their cute grand-kids and their prodigious vehicle collection!

We are also so grateful to Jennifer Winslow Harris and her husband who lent us their comfy camper-trailer for a week.

Keith towed it with his awesome pick-up truck, parked it next to his house and plugged us into his water, power and air conditioning! They put up with two disoriented English people hanging around getting their lives sort of organised and dealing with the insurance company for what we believe was an electrical fire started by a phone charger. We are indebted.

We next found ourselves scooped up by another pair of heroes, sailing friends Robert and Angela Kleinschmidt, who made a huge diversion to collect us on their way back from their boat to their own spacious Georgia home.

I think Rob was probably extolling the virtues of RV living (recreational vehicles, Winnebago’s etc) before I had even properly shut the car door!

Thereafter, as well a making us thoroughly at home in Georgia they invested a lot of time and energy in setting us on an exciting new path – a project which appears to be one of their favourite hobbies.

After looking at their own luxurious coach we remembered that traveling the USA in an RV had been an option before we decided on the boat. We were very excited to learn that a lovely bus would cost half the price of another catamaran!

Amazingly they also offered (we were pretty overwhelmed with the scale of the task at hand by this point) to drive to Texas with us, and apply their “licensed motor dealer” savvy to help us tour the sales lots and choose one. We found a cool place for us to stay for a few days and had a lot of fun too. How lucky were we!

“All’s well that ends well” as a well-known playwright put it.

Seven weeks after losing our boat home on Friday the 13th of July we are parked up in a small campsite in Damascus, Virginia on the edge of the green Appalachian mountains in a marvelous old 36 foot bus which is full of beautiful wood, lots of comforts and all our shiny, new things.

A new adventure and a new beginning.

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An Ending and a New Beginning – Part 1

Partly I have been a bit side tracked…partly our world went up in flames. Hence the delay in making any new blog posts – apologies!

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My last post in June 2018 left us on beautiful, wild Cumberland Island, Georgia preparing to sail to our old “happy holiday” spot of Edisto Beach, South Carolina. Which we did, attracting lots of attention as we sailed in with people waving from the beach and dodging our 39 foot catamaran through the flotillas of jay-walking kayaks very slowly.  A spot that sees few sailing yachts it seems.

But I have jumped ahead. Our trip would be 26 hours of sailing at the stately speed of 5 -6 knots, so we had plenty of time to check our progress, snooze, raise sails, drop sails, drink tea etc.

That night, I realised that my “VHF radio voice” needed to drop an octave at least. And I’m not saying please anymore.

Somehow, no matter how much time you have to prepare, something on the night shift will always catch you unawares and this time it was the hornet’s nest that is the inlet to the Savannah River with its to and fro of massive commercial ships.

The recommended routes into these major rivers extend perhaps 3 miles out to sea and are lined like aircraft landing strips with red and green lit marker buoys, to guide the large vessels. It just happened that as we were passing across the top of the channel at 1am seven ships were on their way out – or in – giving us a daredevil challenge that felt like trying to run across a motorway.

“A-ha” I hear you say – “she will call them on the VHF radio again, and all will be well!”

That night, I realised that my “VHF radio voice” needed to drop an octave at least. And I’m not saying please anymore.

None of them buggers wanted to talk to the squeaky voiced woman from sailing catamaran Pentesilea, and we just had to work our way through, waiting for them to pass by, in unfriendly radio silence.

Our destination of Edisto Beach, South Carolina sits on the USA South Eastern coast where three rivers gather to the sea out of the enormous, ACE Basin area – the Ashepoo, Combahee and the Edisto.

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The pristine maritime marshes on the edge of the ACE Basin

The flow of all that water, through 350,000 acres of undeveloped natural environment, has several interesting effects namely; waters chock full of fish life, which means bigger fish in the sea waiting to eat them, which also means skies full of fish hunting birds of all kinds.

After 150 miles at sea and an overnight trip we were stuck – unable to get on land unless we wanted to make a hot, sticky spectacle of ourselves dragging it onto the beach, amongst the beach-balls and sunbathers.

It also means the sea is pretty muddy here where it all gets washed down stream – probably good that you can’t see too much of what is in there if you want to swim! The sandbanks off the coast also get dissolved and moved constantly by all this water flow… so when the chart says you will have 15 feet of water, the depth sounder tells you you actually have 5 feet!

We crept in slowly, enjoying the feeling of returning to this much-loved place in a very different style and noticing how different it all looked from our new viewpoint.

A sign – or perhaps the reason – why the town area has very few sailing yachts visit is that the marina on the river was completely nonplussed by the idea that we wanted to park our RIB dinghy there and come ashore for a while. After 150 miles at sea and an overnight trip we were stuck – unable to get on land unless we wanted to make a hot, sticky spectacle of ourselves dragging it onto the beach, amongst the beach-balls and sunbathers.

After a small amount of over-tired hysteria I called the Edisto Island Yacht Club up the creek to see if they could help, which was the best thing I did all week.

…with 4 dozen power boats all anchored in the shallows along the sandbar like a car park, and tables piled high with sandwiches, home baking and a bright orange cocktail of dubious recipe called “monkey juice”.

Club manager Charlie – universally acknowledged to be a gem of a man – found us a shallow corner of their dock, cleared it with his Commodore and then his Fleet Commander Ronnie Henderson (yes, this is how Yacht Clubs job titles actually work!!) and we were set for a week of so much kindness, southern hospitality, new friends and a lot of fun.

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Trips back to the boat at night. Like that moonlit walk home from a good party.

Night-watch sleep-deprived as we were, it was of course good manners to scrub up and accept an invite to drinks that evening at the Club House – at least for a few hours. By the end of the night we were fully in the Edisto swing and providing some entertainment in return I hope, with our misadventures of amateur sailors in Puerto Rico and tales of storms at sea.

The next day we were easily persuaded to join the lovely Ronnie and his witty wife Paula and their friends, for their annual trip out into the ACE Basin to meet other local Yacht Clubs – mostly fishing and pleasure boating folk – on a sandbar for a beach party picnic.

When the tide came in it would all be quickly packed away as the river covered the sand bar beach up again.

Ronnie and Paula made sure we were included in everything that was happening even though we were actually just strangers who had mooched a free parking space.

The power boat trip there with Ronnie driving was hilarious and the fastest we had ever traveled on water – although the soft thud and complete stop as we hit one of those tricky moving sandbars was a surprise and the subject of much teasing that day. I think he got us off again by dissolving it from under us with the propeller…

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And then we stopped dead on a sandbar!

How wonderful to actually get way out into the vastness of these pristine marshes, wooded islands and interconnecting rivers.

The picnic was like nothing I have ever seen, with 4 dozen power boats all anchored in the shallows along the sandbar like a car park, and tables piled high with sandwiches, home baking and a bright orange cocktail of dubious recipe called “monkey juice”.

The next day was a yummy fish-fry dinner at the club and so on…and so on…these people know how to enjoy themselves!

Ronnie and Paula made sure we were included in everything that was happening even though we were actually just strangers who had mooched a free parking space.

By the time we left we had been looked after royally with a standing offer to borrow Ronnie’s own truck as a run around for doing our shopping, dinner at their home, use of Charlie’s washing machine, a gift of a Yacht Club burgee (a small pointy flag) and many lovely new friends, whom we look forward to revisiting.

We dodged the fearless/oblivious kayaks on our way back out of the river a week later, waving up at the Yacht Club windows as we headed out sea from a place we were sorry to leave.

Onwards and upwards to North Carolina!

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Edisto, the marsh and the river from our anchorage
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Cumberland Island, a Georgia wilderness

 

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Way off the beaten track on Cumberland Island

Some natural places are so unique and so distinctive, they are easily identified, especially by those that love them. The maritime forests and salt marshes of the southern Atlantic coast of the USA (the lower right hand edge in case you are struggling to visualise) are just such places.

Add to that mix wild horses, ruined mansions, a history involving some of Americas wealthiest families and access only by boat and it makes for a pretty special experience.

..fortunately we had the foresight to clean off the chain the previous day as it was encrusted in shaggy river weed and fattened into a stinky, crab infested rope 3 times its normal size!

Whilst in the comfortable, practical city of St. Augustine, Florida we ticked a significant number of boat jobs off of our big list, ate a generous amount of cake, pizza and shrimp and decided on a plan to move north up the long and varied US coast, one short trip at a time.

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Red channel marker on the Georgia ICW

The first hop in mid June would take us over the border from Florida to Georgia, a state line which runs down the middle of the St Marys river inlet. On the Florida side is the Fort Clinch State Park, on the Georgia side is the Cumberland Island National Seashore and somewhere in the middle is a massive submarine base.

As we had been looking at a fort for the past 5 weeks in St. Augustine, turning right into Cumberland Sound, Georgia was an easy choice!

We pulled up the anchor – fortunately we had the foresight to clean off the chain the previous day as it was encrusted in shaggy river weed and fattened into a stinky, crab infested rope 3 times its normal size!

We finally motored out of St. Augustine at 6 am on a still June morning, looking forward to new sights and fresh anchorages. We headed out to the clearer water 3 miles offshore, where less of the small fishing boats would be buzzing about and found ourselves once again in a dreamscape of rolling, liquid silver seas and blue skies.

Anything that pops its head up or breaks the surface is easily spotted in such tranquility and we kept a lookout for rippling shoals of tuna catching the light with their fins, curious sea turtle heads and maybe a manatee nose…who knows…

A pleasant sail with no dramas made a nice change! and After travelling inshore a few miles to Cumberland Island we put our anchor down close to the visitors ferry dock.

We had just experienced our first foray along the Intracoastal Waterway, the 3,000 mile network of linked waterways, rivers, lakes and canals that runs from Boston to Texas. Key skills are telling red from green numbered bouys, left from right (port and starboard) and counting them up or down. We did OK.

The next morning we took a walk ashore, tying up our dinghy as the ferry arrived with day visitors and the campers – hardy types prepared to battle mosquitos, racoons, heat and to bring every scrap of food with them too as there are no shops, only water taps.

There are also no paved roads on the island – roughly 14 miles long and 3 miles wide and we wandered in the peaceful shady forests of spiky Palmetto, huge live oaks dripping with hanging moss, wild passion flowers and other vines, sand dunes and sandy meadows full of flowers, spectacular long beaches, long vistas of greeney-yellow salt marsh and the grounds of a ruined mansion.

Most of the sandy lanes seemed suitable for cycling and we looked forward to freewheeling and exploring further with our bikes the next day.

My bicycle with coral coloured and flower patterned frame, two tone wheels and white wicker basket doesn’t exactly project “experienced off road cyclist” vibes. More “popping to the shops for a bunch of flowers and a baguette” vibes actually.

Our ride the next day would probably have been about half as long had we not been invited to visit one of the residents, an offer that proved hard to resist despite the heat and the extra work of trying to cycle in soft sand!

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Stunning palmetto and live oak forests. Hard cycling though!

Much of the island is designated wilderness and the park managers and locals alike are pretty keen to make sure that no hikers or campers expire while on the island through lack of water, getting lost or the intense summer heat.

As we cycled up the island we had several trucks pause to stop and check that we knew where we were and that we had enough water. My bicycle with coral coloured and flower patterned frame, two tone wheels and white wicker basket doesn’t exactly project “experienced off road cyclist” vibes. More “popping to the shops for a bunch of flowers and a baguette” vibes actually.

Oh how appearances can be deceptive!

One such enquiry from a resident with two small children and a dog in the bed of the truck sparked a conversation and an invitation to call at his house for a rest, a chat and to fill up our water bottles if we got that far up the island. He also promised a gift. Assuming that this was perhaps a rare opportunity to visit a Carnegie millionaire at home or at least someone who knew lots about this fascinating place, we were spurred on over soft sandy tracks for miles and miles…

When we arrived at said homestead, he wasn’t home! S*#t!

Fortunately his caretaker was and she filled our bottles and invited us to wait, look at the stunning views across the salt marsh and cool off in the shade.

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Wild horses grazing on the salt marsh. The view from the porch.

In a short while the truck returned and we met the owner, his wife, and several visiting cousins and assorted dogs. We enjoyed some lively company on their porch, watching a small herd of wild horses in the distance grazing on the sandy marshes.

Not a Coca-Cola heir or a Carnegie as it turns out, but a Georgia lawyer who fell in love with this special place while helping set up the land preservation and in return has a home here. Our gift is a beautiful signed picture book which he wrote about the island, its residents, history, stories and his own quite spiritual relationship with this place.

20180703_185717I have always felt there must be some resemblance between these waterbound, primeval forests and parts of Africa although I have never been there myself.

I was amazed to read later in said book that a group of African Pygmy had actually visited. While on tour in the USA as part of a show featuring their tribal dances, they were visiting a dance studio on the mainland that was owned by Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1990’s. They were persuaded to take the boat trip to Cumberland Island by a resident, where the palmetto forests were seen to havean immediate effect on the Pygmies. There is apparently a videotape of them joyously running amongst the palmettos, hugging them and waving fronds like flags, apparently reminded somehow of home. What I would give to see that video!

The cycle back was even worse frankly and if someone had come past in a truck we would have asked to throw the bikes in the back and ride with them. We made it back hot and tired and finished the day with an exhausted dip in the tea-brown waters of the river. After checking the map we realise we had done about 15 miles!

a bit of food rationing was starting kick in at this point – grapes, lettuce, milk, toms’ – not salt beef and ships biscuits exactly but still!

We finished our last evening at Cumberland Island watching a manatee (or seacow) roll awkwardly on the nearby muddy sandbank. So we phoned Clay, a delightful and knowledgeable chap at the Georgia Wildlife Service, so that he could decide if the beast was in trouble. He thought not – it had probably got beached and was too lazy to struggle off when the high tide later would float it off soon with no effort required! Phew.

Having had no shops for a few days meant that a bit of food rationing was starting kick in at this point  – grapes, lettuce, milk, toms’ – not salt beef and ships biscuits exactly, but still! We headed back out to the North Atlantic the next morning feeling peaceful and rested and ready for a little civilisation in Edisto Island, South Carolina which was a 23 hour overnight sail up the coast.

Last time we were there 3 years ago, we had arrived by plane and had a wonderful holiday. Anticipation of arriving in such a happy place by yacht this time around was running high.

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Featured

Fat and happy in St Augustine

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A short trip in my kayak to the beach by the Fort

The daily sounds of gunfire have taken some getting used to during our stay in St Augustine, Florida. And the cannons. And the pirate battles.

Which is what you get if you park your yacht in Americas’ “oldest city” founded by the Spanish in 1565 (others may dispute their claim..) in a prime spot overlooked by the old San Marcos fort.

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A couple of times a day enthusiasts wearing the blue uniforms from the War of Independence from England, load and then fire their muskets from the fort, in our general direction.

After that they mould a couple of cannon balls out of squished up Wonder-loaf, wrap them in tin foil and fire them very loudly from the big cannons on the battlements of the fort, in our general direction.

Just down the river bank at the Fountain of Youth original Spanish barracks, archaeological site and ancient spring (a bit whiffy) they are also keen to demonstrate their historic firearms and daily, surrounded by shrieking peacocks and tourists they fire their muskets with clouds of white smoke. In our general direction.

The battling pirates don’t seem to have spotted our English flag and are still firing at each other!

He agreed to adjust his course by a couple of degrees and we wished each other a good night, just like I was a proper sailor. So civilised!

Our 2 night sail from Palm Beach, Florida in May took us past Cape Canaveral with its spacey looking buildings outlined against the bald coast and we watched as a vertical con-trail plumed up from the area. On closer inspection through the binos’ it seemed to be a military plan at a funny angle, but still…

We also had the best dolphin escort to date on this trip, with three large freckled beasts enjoying crossing and recrossing our bows and making eye contact, just out of reach of my fingertips as I dangled my arms over one of the bows.

I also did another new thing!

While I tracked other vessels around us at 3am on my night watch I spotted something on a similar track to us. So I took a deep breath and called up the captain on the VHF radio to chat about the fact that we would bump into each other in about 35 minutes and what would he like to do.

He agreed to adjust his course by a couple of degrees and we wished each other a good night, just like I was a proper sailor. So civilised!

Jazzy coral for me, blue for L, we have put some serious miles on these babies with trips…

As we sailed towards the inlet in the coast that would bring us into the Matanzas and Tolomato Rivers of St Augustine we enjoyed hearing real Southern voices on the VHF radio, discussing how close they should be to the dredger. This mysterious conversation became very relevant when we realised that none of the crucial red and green markers on the inlet to show the safe way in was placed where the chart said it would be!

This dredger is a hellish machine – a giant platform, spouting water, with terrific noise, flashing lights, floating booms and cranes. It was deepening the channel that the rivers were constantly trying to silt up and moving the entry markers around as it went, like the bollards on a motorway contra-flow, except if you went the wrong side of one you would hit the bottom!

After tackling that particular challenge we could be forgiven for thinking we had taken a wrong turn and arrived in Spain or maybe Copenhagen.

With its river frontage of wooden and colourfully painted houses and shops, St Augustine is reputed to be the most European feeling city in the USA. That European feel is nicely mixed with the Southern atmosphere of old North Florida with masses of trees, shaggy hanging Spanish moss, tropical flowers, an obsession with all things boats and fishing and masses of birds.

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The view from The Bridge of Lions, which lifts open to let the pirates and other boats out throughout the day

After spending too many $ on hire cars just to get supplies in Palm Beach we decided that bicycles were the way to go – having a roomy catamaran we have the space to stow them too.

We spent a lovely couple of hours with Jim of Island Bikes, kitting out a couple of aluminium framed cruisers – the preferred bike of hipsters and cruising sailors ‘cos they have no messy gears, brake levers, wires or other stuff to snag as you try to manhandle them from the dock into the dinghy and back up onto the boat without dropping them to the bottom of the river!

Jazzy coral for me, blue for L, we have put some serious miles on these babies with trips up and down US-1 for groceries, to the Anastasia Island state beach park, the lighthouse, various boat yards and suppliers, the iconic A1A Florida highway with its shady neighbourhoods of old beach houses and ALL over the peaceful, picturesque back streets of the old town.

This town was certainly not what we were expecting from Florida. It has narrow cobbled streets of old houses and garden walls built from coquina stone – ancient compressed seashells mined by the Spanish colonial settlers.

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The old Spanish coquina stone quarry, now become a boggy meadow
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Spider lilies

This coarse and quite soft stone was formed over millions of years of the sea levels first rising and laying down banks of little shells, then falling again to expose them. As the rain water fell onto these exposed banks the chemistry gradually changed and fused them together into stone.

One of its unique properties is that it is not brittle, so a cannonball fired into a fort for example, will either bounce off the wall or plug in, to be levered out and fired back again – recycling!

The town has thriving tourist industry dating back to Henry Flagler – the originator of Florida tourism  – around the beautiful old hotels, museums,  garden squares and preserved buildings that in many USA towns would have made way for the new.

There are also a lot of nice places to eat.

The more time we spent in the extreme civilisation of St Augustine, the easier it became to stay a bit longer.

  • Can we get the steel pulpit repairs done which we had been putting off since Puerto Rico plus get the weed scrubbed off the boat bottom by a diver? Yes!
  • Can we replace that mainsail block that exploded on the way here? Yes!
  • Can L get the parts to service both of the Yanmar engines from “The Yanmar Lady”? Yes!
  • Can we go out to eat practically every day for fabulous local fish, shrimp, pizza, ice cream, flat whites, cake etcetera so putting back on half the weight we lost since we started? Yes!

The living is certainly easy here and it makes a very nice change to be indulging in a bit of “normal life” in between the usual catalogue of jobs.

What we though were pink flamingos turned out to be streaky pink and red roseate spoonbills, which sieve methodically through the muddy shallows…

Our anchorage just off the marshes and sandbanks by the fort has proved to be a beauty, with a gorgeous views of the sunset and the boat activities in the channel.

We are daringly close to the shallow sandbanks and little beach, so mostly we have it to ourselves as other yachts travel through looking at their depth sounders, decide we are a bit crazy and clear off to find a nice mooring buoy!

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Did I mention the massive crucifix? No?

Wherever you have a river flowing into the sea you also have fish breeding, which means things for birds to eat, which means a great view of the constant comings and goings of many and varied birds, catching food in their own particular way.

The undulating flight of long strings of brown pelicans individually plunking into the water; the impossibly elegant swallow-tailed kites; majestic, wide-winged osprey; tiny, acrobatic diving terns; herons, egrets and huge woodstorks on long legs at the water’s edges. What we though were pink flamingos turned out to be streaky pink and red roseate spoonbills, which sieve methodically through the muddy shallows for shrimp and small fish with their weirdly flat, spoon-shaped beaks.

Also chasing this abundance of fishies are the dolphins mooching up and down and round our boat, alerting us to their presence with their regular “pscht” noises as they come up to breathe.

There were a few days when all the local dolphin families seemed to be out together, doing laps of the bay chaperoning at least 3 marvellously uncoordinated baby dolphins which was magical. We watched the little ones poke their bodies out of the water at clumsy angles and flop over again, while trying to master that smooth dolphin arc through the water. Not as easy as it looks apparently. What a show!

With all this easy living and luxury it was time to stretch myself a bit and make friends… with the dinghy.

That afternoon I tacked fairly competently up and down by the stripey lighthouse, with Stephanie laid out horizontally across the front of the little boat for balance and Bubba snoozing in the cockpit under my feet.

Not having had a motorbike/ratty Ford Capri as a youth, the inflatable dinghy with its pull-cord starter, petrol engine and whirring propeller blades scared me I admit. The day I mastered starting it myself, heading off alone round the moored boats, under the bridge and bumped it gently onto the dinghy dock to tie up was epic for me.

Even more “normal life” stuff followed with L waving me off, such as going to the pictures, shopping, getting a haircut and going down river a bit for a (it’s never too late) sailing lesson with Stephanie.

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St Augustine lighthouse

Stephanie we met when she drifted past our boat in a small, slowly sinking, sailing dinghy along with her marvellous Tibetan Spaniel “Bubba”. After 4 coffees, 6 fags and some colourful episodes from her life, she convinced me to buy a bottle of her Neem tincture mosquito repellant and a sailing lesson later that day.

That afternoon I tacked fairly competently up and down by the stripey lighthouse, with Stephanie laid out horizontally across the front of the little boat for balance and Bubba snoozing in the cockpit under my feet.

The gracious and relaxed nature of Americans in the Southern states is a wonderful thing. They step to the side of the pavement to let you cycle past and actually apologise for being in your way. They call out “Hey, I like your bike, be safe!” from their massive trucks. They remember you and welcome you back to their cafe with a smile after a week. They laugh and joke with work colleagues as though they actually like what they do!

At some point soon we will leave this cool and beautiful little city and the many nice people we have met here to discover and enjoy the next place.

But meantime we are very happy to be stuck here.

Featured

Chop and Change

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An anchorage on the edge of the city. Palm Beach and West Palm Beach.

I’m all about the contrast me…I love the way contrast and change keep life interesting and your eyes and mind open. The wonder and privilege of travelling of course is masses of contrast and change!

..if you think you can hold your boat somewhere by dropping your anchor no one will stop you, as long as you are not in the way or doing something stupid.

We accidentally timed our arrival at the very end of March 2018 from the sleepy Bahamas into Palm Beach, Florida with an outbreak of the water-borne disease known as “boat show craziness”, but by Monday morning and after a good dose of sleep things looked better.

The amazing thing about parking your boat on its anchor is that it free.  Usually – for better or worse – if you think you can hold your boat somewhere by dropping your anchor no one will stop you, as long as you are not in the way or somewhere stupid.

This allows you to experience life in some amazing places such as Palm Beach for example, which is home to 29 billionaires. Rent free.

..we listened to disaster tales of slipped anchors, hurricanes and the time a boat was nearly scheduled for destruction by a zealous young new US Customs Officer over the matter of a Cuban pineapple.

All around our modest 39 foot catamaran were state of the art multi-million $ motor yachts perhaps 200 feet long and classically elegant, navy hulled, wooden sailing yachts.

The huge marinas on the opposite bank were aglow each night, rammed full of huge vessels pulsing with underwater LED trims, cranes for lifting their launches and jet skis and 4 decks of cabins, lounges and sun decks. My favourite had huge water level doors that slid open to reveal a cavernous lit interior, like its very own underground car park! An insurance hot spot to be sure.

Time to wash all our oldest underwear and hang it out on the boat to dry methinks.

The facilities at the Palm Beach Port Authority building (modern, shaped like a cruise ship), where we had to check in to the USA as new arrivals, was in stark contrast with the Bahamas.

However cruisers and yachties seem to be the same everywhere, so while we waited for our turn we listened to disaster tales of slipped anchors, hurricanes and the time a boat was nearly scheduled for destruction by a zealous young new US Customs Officer over the matter of a Cuban pineapple. Fortunately his Boss came back from lunch in the nick of time and she told the sailor to go back to his boat and eat the pineapple. Problem solved.

My time to leave the USA temporarily was close, with (multiple) flights booked to visit my family in the UK.  By the time I got onto the TriRail train to start my epic journey L had equipped himself with a Garmin satnav, a hire car, a working phone and the number of a local UBER lady.

When I got back to Palm Beach 2 weeks later the anchor had held and L was where I had left him! He had been very busy sorting out the new composting toilet, trying to find some Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and rescuing 6 small children and 3 women from a sinking boat on a very rough and windy Saturday.

Palm Beach is named after a shipwrecked load of coconuts that washed up and were planted adding to the mangos, bananas, royal palms and other beautiful trees lining the streets and gardens in this incredibly lush and landscaped sliver of Florida.

Our boat sat on Lake Worth, part of a long, long navigable waterway called the IntraCoastal Waterway which runs 3000 miles from Boston down to Florida and round the Gulf Coast to Texas. It is accessed at various points from the sea, lakes or other rivers and locals call it “the ditch”. At Lake Worth it sits just a mile inland from the beach, behind the long narrow finger of land that makes up the Palm Beach coast.

It was suspended off the concrete wall at a crazy angle by a rope tied to one handle which threatened to rip out altogether, while the fuel tank leaked petrol into the bottom. WTF!

It is fascinating to watch the traffic of sailing and motor yachts passing north and south up this watery passageway, waiting for the bridges to open up twice per hour if their masts require, all following their own travel plans whether near or far.

We first started noticing the facelifts in Palm Beach during lunch at Greens Pharmacy and Luncheonette in town, as well as the cars waiting for you at the crossing which went like this….Bentley, Rolls, Rolls, Porsche, Maserati, Bentley, Lexus (cheapskates..) We also noticed that rather than the multiple “good morning, good morning!” of the Bahamians the locals looked at you a little fearfully, perhaps expecting you to kidnap and ransom their King Charles Spaniel or worst of all strike up a conversation and slow down their scheduled power walk.

It is however a beautiful and historic area of old Florida and we have probably the stupidest policeman in town to thank for introducing us to the old-fashioned charm of the Palm Beach Sailing Club and their super dinghy dock facilities.

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Where to get ashore is always #1 challenge on arrival at a new place and the public boat launching ramps in the nearby park, with steps up for dinghy access, was the logical place to tie up for the day while we went ashore to do jobs and spend our tourist dollars.

On returning to the dinghy one day however we could see a big orange sticker on it. It had also been re-tied by an idiot, without regard for the fact that the water drops here about 3 feet at low tide. It was suspended off the concrete wall at a crazy angle by a rope tied to one corner handle which threatened to rip out altogether, while the fuel tank leaked petrol into the bottom. WTF!!

We phoned officer #1977 several times to find out more but he was never available – probably too busy breaking the boat speed limit in the manatee protection zones. Harrumph..

..when one on my shoulder stood up on its back legs and looked at me I practically levitated back onto the boat

L searched for alternatives and came up with the Palm Beach Sailing Club. Est. 1966 it is the kind of venerable local institution which has pot luck dinners, dark wooden floors and furniture, and pennant flags all over the ceilings. For $16 a day we had parking for our hire car, free water, WiFi and loos.

We spent our last few days with a quick day trip into the Everglades, looking out for dolphins mooching up and down the lake and kayaking the 200 metres to the shore of the beautiful North Lake Way. A popular 4 mile walk past the private docks, golf course and lush gardens this is the perfect place to get some exercise amongst the rollerbladers, dog walkers and evening fisherman.

One of the fabulous things about America is it so jam-packed full of wildlife and on our last kayak we watch as a group of guys on the narrow beach reeled in and then released a sizeable nurse shark. L’s next job that afternoon was to swim under the boat to try to get the weeds out of our clogged boat speedo!

My least favourite job a few days earlier fortunately (I know, nurse sharks are harmless but I still don’t want to meet one underwater thanks) turned out to be going for a swim and giving the hull a scrub. Suddenly, I realised that all the little brown bits of goop I was scrubbing off the boat were collecting on me…when one on my shoulder stood up on its back legs and looked at me I practically levitated back onto the boat and into a hot shower!

Our exit out of Lake Worth back along the ICW, cutting across the deep turning basin for the cruise ships, following the green and red markers along the channel and back out to sea was super simple.

As we headed north that evening towards Cape Canaveral and our next stop of historic St. Augustine we raised up the mainsail. Then the block holding the top corner of the mainsail up exploded and it all came sliding down the mast again.

Fortunately we have another sail!

And two engines!

The forecast wind direction was pretty much opposite to the reality and much slow chugging on the engines was involved in our 32 hour journey. When we had a real lull in the wind and waves though, we did something I have always imagined doing.

We took a break, stopped the boat and jumped off for a swim.

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Featured

Going Down to Nassau Town

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When we arrived in March, we were the only Union Jack red ensign flag flying boat to be seen anchored off Athol Island in view of Fort Montague, although the British historical links to Nassau are everywhere.

As the capital “city” of the Bahamas, Nassau is actually on New Providence Island – a place we were comprehensively warned about by the quiet living country folk on other islands who had found the “crazy” pace of life here just too much. Seems like everyone in the Bahamas has either worked there or has left children, parents or husbands there to earn money in the honey pot. The economic contrast with most other islands is stark.

Our expectations were pretty low having also had assorted drama queens paint a picture of endless cruise ships disgorging and rampant tourist muggings.

Turns out you can avoid all that by parking up at the quieter eastern end and not shopping at the “I went to Nassau…” rum & T-shirt shop.

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Little Fort Montague at the quieter end, the popular local beach park and some of our yachtie neighbours

Our stay was measured out not in lunches, sunsets or sightseeing but with visits to the USA Embassy.  We needed to get proper visas to enter the USA by boat and although I can reveal there is a happy ending there was a lot of pain along the way!

Step 1. Walk 2 miles each way to the Embassy expecting to fill out some forms and pop them in a box, thank you very much. Nope. Come away with a 2 web addresses, an 800 phone number and some vague instructions from the guy who is in charge of lifting the swing barrier up and down.

Meantime…

Who should we pass dinghy to dinghy on the way out of busy Nassau harbour but young David, our lobster obsessed French-Canadian friend whom we had never managed to catch up since Christmas back in Sapodilla Bay!

Armed with 3 top-tips for sightseeing in Nassau from Rock Sound friends Christopher & Robin, I joined David later that week, with his good friend Caroline and a few others – all French speakers who kindly chucked in as much English as they could manage for my benefit.

..a bloke in wellies walks out to the back of the balcony to the water where these huge sea snails are held, tied together 5 at a time so they can’t crawl away

We had a lovely wander through Nassau, taking in the historic pink painted government buildings and Bougainvillea decorated streets, the genteel Graycliffe Hotel gardens and the Watlings Rum distillery, where we drank flights of rum samplers while watching two enormous fluffy cockerels have a lovers spat on the lawns.

We ended the evening by stopping off to drink a beer and pick up Michel some fresh conch salad – one of the national dishes of the Bahamas – at the frankly scary Potters Cay area of town.

The balconies of multiple restaurant and bar shacks extend over the filthy harbour water, held up at crazy angles by rotting wooden poles, an accumulation styrofoam boxes and small mountains of discarded conch shells. “Keep Bahamas Tidy” is in its infancy as a concept and litter-phobes like me have many opportunities to face our nightmares here.

When I say “fresh” conch salad, I mean that a bloke in wellies walks out to the back of the balcony to the water where these huge sea snails are held, tied together 5 at a time so they can’t crawl away.

A quick bash with a claw hammer at a strategic spot on the shell and they are loosened. He walks back past holding something white and floppy out of Alien for approval. It is then simply skinned and chopped – no one knows how to kill these beasts other than but simply chopping them up, as they don’t appear to have a brain. Mix ceviche style with citrus juices, onions, peppers, cucumber, tomatoes etc. Voila!

Step 2. Fill out and submit two extensive online visa application forms, apply for interviews 4 days hence and search for somewhere to get passport quality photos done in Nassau.

He was prepared for an afternoon of ferrying us about with a raw cassava root to munch (full of iron), a large dog-eared Bible and an obliviousness to any other car that was impressively complete.

We knew we had met our match when our 83 year old taxi driver haggled us into a corner for our trip down island to the passport photo shop. However, considering how slowly he drove maybe his flat rate approach was a good deal!

Along the way he held back nothing in terms of advice on marriage (only for me though..), how to season and cook fish (a complicated garlicky poaching broth), staying fit and active at 83 (soup) as well as reminiscences of his time working in the USA in army supplies shipping, and as a butler in a high-end hotel. He was prepared for an afternoon of ferrying us about with a raw cassava root to munch (full of iron), a large dog-eared Bible and an obliviousness to any other car that was impressively complete.

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That stringy, sad palm thing from every office lobby doing its thing properly in its native land. Cool.

Photos done, we waited for the visa appointment date and amused ourselves doing fibreglass repairs (me), servicing bits of engines (L) exploring and having lunch at the venerable and charmingly named Poop Deck restaurant. It is named after a part on a large boat btw…

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Pretty full on flowers!

I drank a sky juice (coconut and gin), loaned my kayak to a keen 3 year old and his mum for a paddle, had my insides seriously vibrated by the sound system..

We also moved the boat to a spot closer to the shore, which happened to be right on what was to be the start line of the New Providence Regatta.

These popular regattas happen on most of the islands and were started in the 1950’s as a way to revive and maintain the traditional wooden boat building skills.

As strings of colourful pimped-up boats were towed into the bay, tested and anchored up in readiness the sound system and party atmosphere on shore ramped up the decibels.

The boats sailed off around us, narrowly missing our tethered dinghy, and headed gracefully for the course markers with quite a lot of swearing and some collisions. Half an hour later they would back for more entanglements as they went round the marker bouy, with more encouraging swearing for lap 2.

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The spectacle was watched by crowds of locals drinking and eating in the beach side park and from the water around us by the local racers in some of the fastest, pointiest, longest speed boats I have ever seen. They would arrive loaded with girls, music blasting and do a few very noisy circuits of the bay together while the sailing boats were far off.

By day 2 of the regatta on Sunday afternoon, the sound of all the jollity and deep-frying was too much so I took off in the kayak to join in. I drank a sky juice (coconut and gin), loaned my kayak to a keen 3 year old and his mum for a paddle, had my insides seriously vibrated by the sound system, ate some conch fritters and chatted to some locals who turned out to be family of the winning team!

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Champions from years past no doubt

Step 3. Walk 2 miles each way for Embassy interview. Be advised you have left out the husbands middle name thus invalidating application until you have corrected it and applied for another interview a week later. Also their website is shit.

In other news…

As a fisherman, David had mostly only two comments on what we saw. “You can eat them” and “You can’t eat them”…

The big tourist draw here is the Atlantis resort, a Disney style fantasy of pointy towers, 100’s of rooms, water parks, casinos, beaches, local musicians with dead eyes and 35 Starbucks outlets.

It also has an amazing aquarium built in the style of a lost world of Atlantis/Indiana Jones etc. Rumour has it amongst David and his French Canadian chums that if you have the balls to arrive in the Atlantis marina after 6pm in a rubber dinghy, park up next to the massive twinkly gin palaces and ask to see the fishies, they take pity and let you in. We decided to give it a try!

After a nice dinner with David and his lovely girlfriend Nadine at the Green Parrot in the harbour – just in case the rest of the night was a bust – we headed into the marina entrance feeling like burglars.

Nassau harbour is busy with dredgers, cargo ships, mailboats, tourist booze cruises, fishermen, cruising yachts, 6 marinas and a 4 lane flyover bridge heading onto Paradise Island, where the Atlantis resort is located.

It truly felt like passing through some kind of portal to another world as we put-putted into the calm of Atlantis marina, past the ornate towers, bizarre sculptures and fairy lit mega yachts.

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It’s another world!

David was confident he could handle anything with the $5 bill he had up his sleeve. Fortunately the only security guard who spotted us directed us to the dinghy dock, without the need for such high stakes bribery.

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David and Nadine

We walked through the mall and casino and I was disappointed not to feel pure oxygen being pumped through the casino – I have been sold a myth!

The aquarium was designed as an impressive underground fantasy of stone ruins, dark passageways, clanking sound effects and massive tanks full of Caribbean fish including surreal flying manta rays overhead, bottom resting nurse sharks, enormous stone-like goliath groupers and a tank of hideous green gaping moray eels that made me feel quite queasy!

As a fisherman, David had mostly only two comments on what we saw. “You can eat them” and “You can’t eat them” so when we walked through the overhead arch full of huge local lobsters he went into a bit of a dream.  A jolly good adventure!

Step 4.
Follow the well-worn route to Embassy and join the seated queue of 25 people for a 9.45am appointment. Be told that you have your dates mixed up and your appointment is tomorrow. Ooops.

Step 5. Return the next day. Funnily the lady who pointed out the errors on our original application was the same lady we had for our second appointment. After teasing us that we do all look the same she stamped our forms and passed us on to the next lady who did likewise. The stamping that is. Now all we had to do was wait to get our passports back with visas in ’em.

The bogey-man of sailing from the Bahamas to America is crossing the Gulf Stream, a warm, northwards flowing, powerful ocean river within the Atlantic, that may carry you faster towards your destination or may give you a horrible time if you try to cross it in the wrong weather.

Many other cruising yachts in Nassau were also closely watching the wind and weather forecast for a crossing and early one morning we waved David and Nadine goodbye, feeling rather glum.

Foolishly I had already bought a plane ticket for a visit to the UK from Charleston, South Carolina and as the days ticked over and other boats left we knew we were not going to make it that far north in time without too many risks. I bought another ticket, so as to start my journey further south from Miami, Florida instead.

We decided to see a bit more of historic Nassau while we waited, including some of the other forts built by the British to defend this desirable and strategically positioned Caribbean island from the French, Spanish, pirates, locals, et al!

During a lovely chat with the very pro-British lady on the entrance gate, about how to fry crabs in their own fat (who knew crabs have fat..) and some of the ups and downs in the economics of the islands between hurricanes, my Bahamas phone rang! The man at the Embassy had taken pity on us and we could collect our passports at 1pm that very Friday!

There was nothing to do but enjoy a few hours at the fort, pick up our papers and then get back to the boat to see if we could still get out of the Bahamas before sunset and on our way – literally our last opportunity before the Embassy and our 2 day weather window would close again and I would miss my Miami flight.

We steamed out of Nassau – our pleasant home for over 3 weeks – past Athol Island and up north through the Bahamian Islands chain, stopping for nothing.

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Bye bye Bahamas

Their inflatable boat, chock full of muscled, tattooed “officers” bounced off our beam as they asked questions about where we had come from, why we were travelling, could we remember our own names and whether we had brought any conch or fish with us.

When I say that we were never sure when we actually entered the Gulf Stream currents that is a very good thing. And after about 30 hours at sea we started to see the skyscrapers and condos of the Florida coast.

Unbeknownst to us, we were entering one of the busiest boating channels and major ports  in Florida on the Sunday afternoon of a massive boat show – the worst possible end to our trip.

Clearly the coastguard thought we were trying to sneak in, hidden amongst a thousand speeding jet skis and fishing boats full of a#*@holes.

Their inflatable boat, chock full of muscled, tattooed “officers” bounced off our beam as they asked questions about where we had come from, why we were travelling, could we remember our own names and whether we had brought any conch or fish with us. L concentrated on not hitting the massive red marker bouy about 15 feet away from the front of the boat.

When I replied that we did have tinned tuna I think they realised they were dealing with some pretty vanilla types and buzzed off, leaving us to struggle our way in, find a quiet-ish spot to anchor up in the greeny brown tidal waters of Lake Worth and collapse.

We had made it! How we wished we were still in the Bahamas…

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View of Paradise Island and Montague Bay, Nassau
Featured

Three Times Elated in Eleuthera

I started a day of thankfulness for (probably) the best year of my life with a large papaya wiv’ a candle stuck in it.

Sometimes sleeping on a boat is like the best kind of camping, that special feeling of almost sleeping outside and nature being very close. If you like that feeling you will know it makes you sleep very contentedly, even if you do wake in the night with the noises of animals, rain or sloshing wavelets and changing sea breezes. If you don’t like that feeling…why on earth not?!

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Pretty and peaceful Rock Sound, Eleuthera Island

We awoke in the 3 mile long, picturesque natural harbour of Rock Sound, Eleuthera on a calm and sunny day.

A bit of a landmark day for me, being not only my late February birthday but the 1 year anniversary of giving up working for a living. I started a day of thankfulness for (probably) the best year of my life with a large papaya wiv’ a little candle stuck in it.

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My birthday papaya, lovingly transported from Long Island!

Rock Sound is an old-fashioned town, well loved by cruisers for its warm welcome, decent shops, restaurants, spacious and sheltered anchoring and a selection of nice things to do. We started with a walk about, admiring the brilliant garden flowers and brightly painted colonial cottages.

An attraction called the Ocean Hole was sign posted so we followed.

Surrounded by trees and shrubs, a perfect circle of depth unknown, Ocean Hole is the local swimming hole, picnic spot and petting zoo for fish. Jacques Cousteau once tried and failed to find the entry point of its tidal waters, which have a fresh water layer on top and on the day we visited a few snorkelers were floating about exploring the rocky edges.

 

Having read a tip in the guidebook I had some cream crackers with me and a few pieces attracted a well fed shoal of mixed tropical fish. Not having got stuck into the whole snorkeling thing yet they were fascinating to watch.

Fortunately John can sense alcohol from a long way off..

Also fascinating was to hear L call over to me “Sue, we need to go, this American couple have invited us to go to the pub” (Thrust remaining crackers into hands of closest child and go before he changes his mind!)

So began one memorable afternoon and evening in the company of Candis and John.

The walk to the pub was not entirely straight forward as it involved getting directions from a taxi driver to 3 possible bar options and a lot of wandering chickens and dogs. Fortunately John can sense alcohol from a long way off and just a glimpse of a beer advert seen through a derelict fence was enough to tell him we had arrived.

The bar was dark and cavernous with a purple pool table and the kind of sturdy wrap around bar stools that will keep you upright after way too many Kaliks (the best Bahamiam beer IMHO).

After John had disarmed the jolly regulars by telling them that the taxi driver had asked them not to beat us up please, we had beers and birthday “fruit champagne”! L and I earned much kudos by being the only people who had ever heard of Echoes, the Pink Floyd album track after which John and Candis’ beautiful Catalina yacht was named.

By the end of the day we had enjoyed a gift of delicious guava “birthday cake” from Candis, had a lobster lunch and had joined with their friends for dinner at the groovy waterfront restaurant Frigates.

Well travelled Anglophiles Christopher and Robin and charming super-sailors John and Diana were great company. After (surprisingly little!) liquid encouragement John started his loving recreation of all the best bits from Monty Pythons Holy Grail and The Life of Brian in some pretty convincing British accents.

Our table resounded to his cries of “they say they’ve already got one!” and “what have the Romans ever done for us?” until we wobbled back into our dinghys and across the calmest of waters on a beautiful moonlit night after a most special day.

I fail to buy some local fish (all sold) but manage to spend $110 in the grocery shop. Stuff here in the Bahamas is very expensive

More delightful calm greeted us in the morning as we reluctantly pulled up the anchor early and motored out of the bay to make progress up the island, which was needed if I was to catch my Easter flight from the USA to the UK.

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A dream-scape of sea and sky

We motored north up the leeward West coast of Eleuthera Island, to a quick stop in historic Governor’s Harbour.

Travelling across a sparkling smooth sea with reflections of clouds and even of our boat, the pale blue horizon blended seamlessly into the sea like a dream. The rocky coast line was full of strangely eroded cliffs with shadowy overhangs and cave like holes, as well as enticing coves and beaches dotted with anchored yachts.

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A slightly too close for comfort encounter with a ferry rushing out of Governor’s Harbour from behind the sea wall did not detract from the loveliness of the scene for too long!

We managed to get ashore that afternoon for a short walk round some lush tree lined streets. I fail to buy some local fish (all sold) but manage to spend $110 in the grocery shop. Stuff here in the Bahamas is very expensive.

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Governors Harbour – it’s hot work dragging a dinghy, a bit more water would have been good!

Opening the cruisers guide book we pick another stop for the next day, the quirkily named Glass Window.

A narrow point on the island where the Atlantic and Caribbean seas are separated by just 30 feet of rock, which has a hole in it like a “window”, there can be no more vivid demonstration of the benefits of sailing on the “lee” or wind sheltered side of an island.

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Don’t go there…

The contrast between the foaming, pounding rollers flinging up mists of sea spray and hissing like the Devil through blow holes in the ground on the Atlantic side versus the gin-clear waters and peaceful beaches on the Caribbean side was stark.

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Fortunately this is the side we were anchored on! That is us and one other yacht on the darker blue bit.

We kayaked ashore and walked through a little woodland to have a good look at the amazing views on both sides – L as always skipped towards the spray-soaked cliff edges in a manner calculated to make me light headed with fear.

Also on the calm side we enjoyed our first proper little snorkle in the shallows of our anchorage off Twin Sisters beach, with some actual brightly coloured tropical reef fishies and even a small sting ray, which was staying very still camouflaged amongst the yellow brown sea grass beds.

Another spot for our “spend more time next year” list and our 3rd happy day in Eleuthera Island.

Next morning we reluctantly pull up the anchor again and head North West for New Providence Island and the reported craziness of the Bahamian capital Nassau, USA visa applications, reported crime waves, multiple marinas and massive resorts with some anxiety as to what we would find. Just how crazy it would be…