It’s early morning on Tuesday, February 6th, and I am drinking coffee. “According to Chris Parker…” my husband says as he looks at his phone. “…the gradient will be lightest…” he continues to read. And, while I am barely sentient I am thinking ‘lightest’ sounds good, and ‘gradient’ is a pretty innocuous word. He reads on, “possibly gusting to….“ and I am listening and in a happy place until I hear “…over gale force.”
Gale force? The two words stop me in my tracks. “Gusting over gale force?” I say. “What? Why are we even having this conversation?” I sit up, inspect my coffee cup before setting it firmly on the table. We’re not going; there’s no way.
I knew we were leaving Grenada, but the decision to stop in Haiti or to go directly to Great Inagua in the Bahamas had been a talking point between my husband and I for several days.
In talking with Chris Parker, the Florida-based weather router, we felt the ideal day for us to leave was Monday, February 5th. But, we were delayed by a full day and were starting to see some bad weather approaching our route.
Being a full day too late, I was thinking I am not putting my family through this, not racing across a raging Caribbean Sea. Even salty sailor Jimmy Cornell says to avoid sailing across the Caribbean Sea in the winter months.
Rick continued in a quiet measured tone. “[Chris is] using the word ‘Gale’ specifically to refer to winds between 34-47 knots. We’ve been in that kind of weather before.”
He pulls out his computer and shows me charts from PassageWeather and diagrams of waves. The waves look peaceful near Grenada and then become larger on our approach to Haiti. “Looking at this,” he says, “the waves will be between 3 and 4 meters, maybe 5 meters, for a short while, and then we’ll be in calmer waters south of Haiti.”
I was conflicted. If we stayed any longer in Grenada we might have to bypass Haiti altogether. I really wanted to see Haiti. Aphrodite is a sturdy blue water catamaran. It’s fast and safe and has been sailed by others in over 60 knots of wind – a passage described in the last few paragraphs of this magazine article.
The incoming foul weather would have kept us in Grenada for at least two weeks. My position was revisited, revised and revisited some more. Rick quietly went about his day. At 5 p.m the decision was made. I rushed to customs by taxi and we were cleared to leave Grenada.
I was pumped, and worked quickly to raise the anchor. This would to be my first ‘longish’ passage. We expected that the passage from Grenada to Haiti would be a continuous four or five night sail. Being cautious, we sailed with a third reef in the main sail. Sometimes we sailed under headsail only. Other times we sailed using only the main sail. On one occasion we dropped the sails and motored. Safety was topmost in our minds.
En route, Chris Parker had predicted over SSB radio that we were in for a “wild ride”. Three days later, as I sat jostled by waves taller than our boat, spray crashing around me and into the cockpit, I thought that perhaps sailing wasn’t for me.
While I was lamenting my state as a failed salty sailor, as well as our predicament in pounding waves, my husband assured me, “We’ll be out of this in about 30 miles, and at this speed…” For god sakes, we were going around 6 knots. That meant that we were about to endure five more hours of big waves.
We had planned for this sort of weather. Rick had rigged our Fiorentino parachute sea anchor. The sea anchor fans out and provides stability and ‘stoppage’ in rough, off-shore situations. Although the sea anchor was ready to use we didn’t come close to needing it.
The kids and I had secured cabinets, and cleaned up to prevent our belongings from flying around our boat in rough weather.
But, when our 70 lb ice cream maker threatened to jump from the galley counter, and our 12-year old, Betty, was holding it to prevent its fall, and a Melamine platter of a fresh-from-a-summer-camp-in-the-1960s vintage fell from a stack of plates and cracked, I began to do some more rearranging. A heavy 12-volt transformer had already fallen to the floor of the galley.
A Nalgene water bottle was a quick casualty. The top of the bottle cracked away from the lid. I held it up for my husband to see. “Is that thing under warranty?” he asked as he returned his gaze to the foaming sea. He is a thinker and a planner and seemed to be unfazed by the rough waves.
The waves were amazing and forceful. I felt like I was being lifted by an overly aggressive dance partner, putting his muscles on full display. Again, and again we were lifted. The waves wobbled and ripped under our boat. Being a catamaran, our boat lifted up on one side and then the other. Sitting at the helm for hours I envisioned that a swiveling plastic hula girl would be wildly entertaining. That’s what happens when I operate on a few hours of sleep.
I put my head outside for a minute and felt the waves and the wind bead together in my hair.
I will take a moment to describe how we got from calm, smooth seas to an atmosphere of awe and trepidation. On the first day, my husband sat at the helm, sleeping in bits and pieces. I baked bread. I even made a chocolate cake. We saw a tanker and altered course to pass behind it.
By day two, signs of sleep deprivation began. My husband slept during the day. While waves tossed about the boat, shuddering over the bow, my husband slept under a blanket. Water pounded over the trampolines and still he slept. Yet, at some point, he must have decided it was hot. And, perhaps he forgot he was on a sailboat in rough weather. He doesn’t remember doing this, but he seemed to have opened the hatch above his head. Perhaps a breeze fluttered across his cheek. All was well until a 10 foot wave saw an opportunity and pounced, right into the master berth.
The water temperature measured a balmy 24.9 degrees Celsius. I was watching the water temperature gauge at the helm. Surely it wasn’t that cold when salt water cascaded through the hatch and onto our bed, soaking my husband, our queen-sized mattress and all the bedding. Naturally, the water didn’t stop there.
Water fell onto the floor. Towels were used to mop up the water. Mounds of wet laundry were placed in one of our bathtubs, where the smell of wet mushrooms would fester and ferment for the remainder of our trip.
We hauled the mattress to the cockpit, and briefly discussed whether ammonia would remove the salt. I indicated that ammonia wouldn’t work as “matter could not be created or destroyed,” prompting my husband to utter “no” and something about “atoms” and “molecules”.
Meanwhile our kids were listening to this ridiculous banter, and were now convinced that their parents were raging idiots.
At this point, the rollicking games I had envisioned, the crafts, and the quiet reflective moments that I had hoped to share with my children on the passage were gone. Instead, we ate leftover bread, and fruit out of tin cans. My kids used electronic devices, computers, an iPad, cell phones, you name it.
I’m not going to make excuses or apologize. The sea was rough. I don’t own a blender, or a hand mixer, but if we did, I would have plugged those into every wall socket that we own and my kids could have used those gadgets to mix things – anything, even old crayons – as a form of distraction and entertainment.
Meanwhile, my husband was thinking about Haiti and wondered whether we might have something to offer people as gifts. We have some Canadian lapel pins. Not really thinking, I suggested I could make donuts. “Cookies would be better, I think,” he said.
Think again, mister, I thought. My inner soul-sister was awakened and said something curt about the 1950s. The subject of cookie making was dropped, and has not been revisited.
By day 4, we were seeing land. Cape Pointy Bit on the south coast of the Dominican Republic helped to ease the waves that had threatened us on the broadside. We kept sailing and were excited to have our destination within our grasp. At one point, Paul and Rick fiddled with the mainsail. Paul spotted a large shark and was thrilled.
But, as darkness fell my husband saw lights from another boat on our port side. The boat didn’t seem to waver. We sailed, and they kept pace.
In hindsight, I should have not asked whether the other boat was following us. Betty heard me talking to Rick. My words caused her concern and now this moment will be forever emblazoned on our kids’ memories as the-time-we-thought-we-saw-pirates.
We reassured our kids that everything was fine. Meanwhile, I sat in the head with our flare gun, discreetly reading about how to use our flare gun. We turned off all of our lights. We disabled our AIS system, which provides other boats with greater detail about our boat such as length, boat name, speed, GPS position, etc.
The “pirates” parallelled our course for about six hours always staying four miles off our port side. With a sufficient lack of sleep those pirates didn’t bother me at all. In the dark, I watched from the helm with a strong coffee while enjoying a delicious re-read of a Canadian novel about a barbershop. Canada’s literary landscape is so much broader than topics like dark woods and pines.
At daybreak, our pirates were definitely gone. We were in sheltered waters. We spotted bottles glinting on the surface of the water. Upon closer examination, these floating items seemed to be marking fish traps. Rick steered to avoid them.
About eight dolphins put on a good show under our bow. Karen thoroughly inspected a flying fish that had washed onto our boat.
We are now in Haiti. In talking about the passage later, my husband said that 3-4 meter waves and strong, sustained winds was a good experience.
Dammit, if I don’t think he’s right! How Rick convinced me to ride the waves off-shore to Haiti is partly a negotiation on his part, and partly my desire for adventure.
Ile a Vache, Haiti