Solo Passage a Wonderful Adventure

Saturday, December 5, 1998

About 48 hours before actually leaving for the Bahamas, I was nearly paralyzed with fear. I think I was afraid of having something break down and getting truly scared. I was also worried about weather since we had taken such beatings on the last two crossings.

One friend that I consulted said I was crazy to go alone. All of my other friends said “why not?” People do it all the time. I’ve been on this boat nearly half my life and if I don’t know what’s going on by now I never will. Another acquaintance told me he does the trip all the time for a living, delivering boats to Nassau. His advice, which was well taken and for which I am grateful was “Take it easy on yourself. Don’t push.”

Eventually, the panic died and that was the last of it. Hyland’s Calms Forte,(a highly recommended homeopathic remedy for anxiety) certainly helped. But the final boost came from two magnificent gifts from David: a massage from Cindy and a bellyful of sushi from Taisho’s. And there was the realization that I could, up to a point, stop at any time. I dropped my mooring and headed for the lee of Key Biscayne on Wednesday, Nov. 25.

What a perfect evening it was. No waves, no sounds at all, just a blessed, deep, black velvet silence. I slept well. At 6 am I headed out. The breeze was northeastish, more or less useless. About four hours out the jib went in and out a few times, it didn’t do much. Then it went out for sure and the main went up in a hurry as I shut the engine down in a near panic. One of the world‘s nicest sounds is the silence that follows shutting down the rumble of a diesel engine and hearing just the waves and the wind. One of the world’s worst sounds is having to shut the engine down because there’s a problem.

I’d been watching the oil pressure gauge do what I thought was it’s usual electronic dance up and down. Only now it wasn’t dancing. It was heading inexorably down. I’d checked the engine room regularly. Just didn’t really register that oily glimmer in the bilge, it looked fairly normal. This time instead of just looking I dropped down on the right side of the engine. Oil was pouring out of the top of the filter I’d replaced just two days ago. That’s when I shut down and tried to figure out what was going on as I’d never had the engine do anything like this before. After about an hour, six attempts with the filter on and off, starting and stopping the engine, fiddling, fussing, scalding my fingers on hot oil (painful enough to make my hands shake, but no real burns) the leak finally seemed to be stopped. Usually I carry five extra gallons of oil. This time I had 2 1/2. I topped up, had a few quarts to spare, and went on.

Everything was fine for about two hours, and then the leak started again, but it was not as bad. If the gauge went down, I added about a quart. To stop the slosh of the horrible mess I’d thrown several rolls, and then wads of toilet paper into the bilge and engine pan. The pan had developed a leak. I decided it would be wise to start scavenging oil from the bilge in case I ran out of clean oil. Turned out the toilet paper was a dreadful idea as it had disintegrated into a jelly like substance. A stocking wasn’t thin enough to strain it , it just kept the oil from flowing through at all. I broke a metal tea ball in half and tried to use that. But after straining the same quart about 7 times it was obvious that it would be a disaster to put it in the engine. So much for scavenging. But nothing was screaming at me to turn back. It was just a disgusting mess and a slow race to see if I got to Gun Cay before I ran out of oil.

Fortunately, the weather was perfect. While we were shut down trying to tighten the filter and scavenge oil, we didn’t lose too much to the Gulf Stream and actually made a little headway. Once the leak was slowed, I really just wanted to keep going, to get across. So I took the little green pills on schedule and plowed ahead, occasionally dropping down alongside the engine as it was running to make sure the leak wasn’t worse. Once I realized I would probably make it, leak and all, I sang a bit just because it felt so good to have the problem under control

After what seemed a very long time (11 1/2 hours), we slid behind Gun Cay just as the sun went down; I had 2 quarts of oil to spare. More than enough to get me into Cat Cay in the morning. Cat Cay is filled with sports fishermen and enormous gin palaces and I knew that I’d probably find oil. Parts of the day had been lovely, ALNILAM sailed beautifully close hauled in a 12-15k breeze at about 1500 rpm. The evening was beautiful, and I fell asleep hard and fast after a big dinner of macaroni and clam sauce.

During the night, I woke briefly and said to myself, ”What about the old gasket in the oil filter case?” When changing the filter earlier in the week I’d made some effort to find the old gasket, but for some reason made the foolish assumption that it had fallen into the engine pan. There was no reason for thinking that, even though I couldn’t feel the old gasket in the top of the holder. Why on earth didn’t I really go after it?

In the morning, as soon as there was light, I got out a dental pick and found the old gasket jammed up into the top of the filter housing. Right where it should have been. But the unit could not seal correctly with two gaskets. Problem solved. Was it fatigue that made me do such a sloppy installation? Was I so nervous about the crossing that I wasn’t thinking straight? What a truly stupid error. It could have been a perfect, trouble free crossing instead of a gut clencher.

At Cat Cay our good fortune held. The first person I met turned out to be a mutual acquaintance of another friend, we had even met years ago. He sold me five gallons of oil and gave me a stack of oil sorbs. I cleared customs, bought a jug of Bailey’s Irish Creme and a bottle of Joy detergent and went to work. (The Baily’s was not broached until after dinner . . . I shared some with my benefactor).

Bob, if you think I was a mess after that first oil change you saw, you should have seen me after I sopped two and a half gallons of oil out of the bilge. Did it by shoving an oil sorb into the mess, hauling it over the raw water pump to a five gallon bucket crammed into the engine hold with me, then wringing the sorb out over the bucket, shoving the sorb back into the bilge, and so on. Most of the time I was scrunched in a fetal position on one side of the engine or the other trying to reach the bilge through the tangle of hoses, fittings, belts, struts, etc. I draped oil sorbs over the belts and pulleys so they wouldn’t be contaminated. The stuff dribbled everywhere. But in about two hours I was done. Never mind Chanel # 5, Eau de Rimula 40 permeated everything. I burned incense and headed for the shower. The dock itself was covered with about a half inch of sea gull guano. (At Cat Cay, small transient sailboats do not get the big clean docks). The dogs were in heaven.

The next morning we were off at first light for what I thought would be the quick, fun downhill slide to West End. After all, the Stream would be behind us.

The trip was interminable. There was never once any sign of a northward set. There were no disasters, but no sailing either, except for perhaps four hours close hauled. Mostly, with the wind just off our starboard bow poor old ALNILAM rolled like a sow. After dodging two crossing freighters, neither of whom would answer a radio hail so I had to head east and wait for them to pass, losing more time, I finally glumly realized that it would be well after dark before we got in. This was not fun. But it wasn’t the hell of last year’s crossing either. There was no danger, the engine was fine, so I just hunkered down for the rest of the haul.

The night was glorious, with just enough moon to suggest that our course needed a bit of adjustment as I closed in on West End. I cannot say enough good things about GPS. I’d have been a basket case without it. Had uncertainty of position been added to the previous engine troubles and the unheard of length of the leg, I’d have been in sorry shape. As it was, I shot for a precise set of coordinates, found out exactly where I was just as Orion (Oriana?) came leaping over the eastern horizon in triumph, and anchored in Cross Bay about an hour later. Thirteen hours to go 70 miles. In the past we’ve done the 90 miles straight from Miami in 15 hours. I think the steady northeast wind had completely stopped the surface flow of the Gulf Stream.

From Crossing Bay to Mangrove Cay, and Mangrove to Great Sale Cay, the weather was lovely but the wind and tide were right on the nose both days. In fact, the seas were large enough on the way to Great Sale that even at 1600 RPM our speed often dropped to 2.5 knots, when, under normal circumstances, it would have been 5.5 or 6. But the legs are shorter now and since all the mechanical pieces seem to be holding together, it’s easier to enjoy being here.

And it is delightful. There is great pleasure in being the only thing around. Not another dot on the horizon. I think, though, that I am indeed a creature of flats and shallows. I like to know that wherever I am I can just drop a hook and stop for awhile. Off shore there is no respite, no stopping. I find I have a very definite threshold of motion tolerance. I’m fine up to a point, but when things really start hinking about I lose patience, get angry and start to feel rotten. Not sick, just miserable. It’s sort of sad to realize I’m probably not the true blue water type I’d like to be. But, there’s so much beauty here on the banks that it makes up for that loss. The glory I feel as I look about 360 degrees of blue and green is sufficient unto itself.

Tues. Dec. 1. Started out at 6 am, wind east on the nose. Even after I ‘turned the corner’ at Little Sale, I couldn’t sail. By 12:15 we had a nice lee under Alan’s Pensacola Cay and were no longer bashing into it. No answer from Richard at Hog Cay, and no sign of the boat. Went on to Green Turtle. Used the jib for about two hours. Got to GTC about 5 pm. Moon, temp and breeze perfect. A squall at 3 am.

Wed. Dec. 2. 8:30, Couldn’t get weather report, decided to look at Whale Cay. This is a passage where in order to get from one end of Abaco to the other you have to pass through a narrow channel out into the ocean, go around, and then come back in another channel. In “Rages,” built up after heavy Northeast winds, entire freighters have been lost here. On a calm day it is nothing. But it always demands respect. Wind about 20, and a major bash. Saw the little Norwegian cargo boat (whom we’d seen at Great Sale) coming back. Kept going. Just as I decided to turn back, there he was, heading out again. I followed him. Finally decided to really go back. Just not worth the bashing, and we were heading into it. Would have had to fall off a bit after rounding the Whale, and that would have been miserable. Why bother? So back at GTC. Fouled dink painter in prop as anchored. Fool. Saw it coming, thought it wouldn’t, it did. Water brisk. Quickly cleared the line away.Can’t think of a nicer place to be stuck. Have met lots of old friends.

Thurs. Dec. 3. Set out for Whale Cay at 6:30 am and by 9 am we were through. It was rough, but better than yesterday. There was a nasty breaking chop on top of big swells, but none of the swells were breaking. The wind, mostly east, had enough power that even if the engine had quit we could have scuttled to safety with just the working jib. I went into Baker’s Bay and said hello to Frank who has become the King of Baker’s Bay and local weather guru. He’s also a great diver and dinner included two lobster tales and freshly smoked mackeral. The view was perfect. To the north and east the rolling hills and endless beach of Guana Cay and Baker’s Bay. To the south and west the distant blue and lavender hills of Abaco, with a few small cays in the middle ground just for perspective. At night, the nearly full moon lit up the bottom and gave everything an emerald glow. If not for the fact that in a westerly this Bay is very uncomfortable, I’d have had a hard time leaving. It’s my kind of place.

But by Friday noon I was back in Marsh Harbour, caught up in the swirl of people, events and projects that make up my life here. I enjoy what I am doing, it feels right. But it also felt very right out there on the banks and up in the Bay. I feel as though I’m at home. Not only am I at peace here, but only an hour or two out from harbour, beauty and peace surround me

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