08:30 Monday January 28, 2019 ~225nm SE of Cozumel
Heading 135° towards the east end of the Gordo banks, doing about 6 kts under full headsail only with winds about 15 kts just off the port stern from the NW and large, lazy 2.5m swells that have agreed to take us towards our waypoint.
Just finished a nice long and very hot shower, now in my cabin listening to Rush and thinking about last night. Last night we encountered a storm condition that I do not know how to identify, but I will try to describe it here as clear as I am able.
We were sailing due east with the main sail in the 2nd reef, and the headsail furled deep into its 3rd reef. The swells were slight from the starboard beam and perhaps just 1.3m and were calming down. We were doing 8kts consistently, clear starry skies and all was well… but…
Earlier in the day the swells were forward of the beam on the starboard side and closer to 1.7m. These forward of the beam swells, knocked the exhaust duct flexible hose from its hole on the bottom side of the generator room about 1m above the water line. This exhaust hose is held in place by a 4 inch diameter band clamp. But there has been wear and tear on the end of the exhaust hose and while we thought we attended to it sufficiently in Puerto Aventuras, the seas decided to punch up and knock it lose.
The result is that with every wave, a small amount of salt water would find its way upwards through this 4 inch hole, 1 meter above the water-line. Perhaps a 2-3 cups of water. Per swell. This water would accumulate in the starboard bilge and the auto bilge pump would go off and clear it every 10-30 minutes depending on the rate of accumulation. Logically, the water in the bilge alarm is a very grating noise. Going off constantly does wear on your nerves.
Going forward, with lifejacket and harness I went forward to confirm this source of water. Yup. The challenge is that with taking 1.7m waves on the starboard quarter Ad Astra was bouncing quite a bit and occasionally would plow the starboard bow deep into water. It was uncomfortable to be on the forward deck, down in the generator room. I stuffed an old towel as snuggly as I could into that 4 inch hole. Satisfied, I made my way back to the flybridge. Just 30 minutes later, as the sun was setting, a large wave reached up and flicked the towel out of the hole and laughed at me.
The bilge alarms continued. The bilge pumps continued to pump. I was thinking of how I could plug that hole with confidence. After a while I came to the idea of using some hypalon fabric we have for patching the dinghy and using the band clamp from the hose to secure the hypalon in place. Discussing this with Kaiwen and Kyle they agreed it was a decent solution but veto’d the idea of me going out into the foredeck in those conditions at night. They told me to wait until the next day – today.
Living with the bilge alarms the night progressed. Then Sue Quei came screaming out of her room declaring a fire in her cabin. Fuck! A fire is one of the worst things that could happen. Rushing into her cabin there was a haze of electronics smoke but no apparent fire. Searching her room very carefully and examining every bit of electronics, I discovered that the new LED strip that I installed had a section of about 6 inches of LEDs burn out – this 12v strip of LEDs apparently couldn’t handle 13.8v from the house bank. Okay, sniffing closely confirmed that the LEDs were the source of the smoke. Simple solution – turn off the strip. Replace later with more rugged LED strips.
A hole in the boat and a fire would turn out to be small potatoes.
Sailing along under that 2nd reef in the main and the 3rd reef in the headsail on a beach reach from southern winds doing 24 kts or so and we were flying. Like I said 8 kts. I started to doze off at the flybridge while Kyle and Max alternated with watches from below in the salon. I have learned to be able to doze into a mental state between sleep and being awake. My hearing and feeling for the boat are turned on to 150%, and I close my eyes and stop thinking. It is like sleeping, I get useful rest, and I have a sense of time passing, I wake up every 15-30 minutes to check the horizon and the instruments. But it is shockingly useful form of watch-keeping. As the rest of the crew does not yet have the feel for when to adjust the sails when the winds shift slowly, or when we need to additionally reef when the breeze stiffens, I am basically on watch 24x7 in either wide awake, or this trance-like state.
It was in this trance state that I felt Ad Astra speed up. 8.5, 8.7. 9.0! I got up, went outside the bubble of our full enclosure and looked at the skies. Clear. Bright stars. The swells that have been on our starboard beam all day lowered themselves to under a meter. Without the knocking of the swells, and with just the two deeply reefed sails Ad Astra was able to accelerate to full hull speed and a little more.
9.1, 9.2, 9.3 – steady 9s. Hmmms. I was tired, but the skies were clear and the waves small and the bottom clean. With the headsail already at the 3rd reef, it will be a quick job to fully pull it in if need be.
Then as I was sitting up looking at the instruments and trying to convince myself that as was well – a tremendous force of wind came out of no where. Just like those bombs that I have read about in the books. I was looking at the instruments when Ad Astra got hit and in just 5-10 seconds she leaped past 9.5 to 10 and I saw 11 kts! Holy shit! Meanwhile it feels like the wind is pressing down on Ad Astra from above. I yell for Kyle and Max. Rain now falls in buckets and visibility is absolute zero. Cannot see the rails.
We furl the headsail inside, I would say 45-60 seconds of the event, even so, this morning I saw that we torn the edge seam of a section of the head sail as it flogged itself briefly on the way in.
With the headsail furled, somehow the storm just intensified. I could not tell which way the winds were coming from. I took it off auto-pilot and tried to feel the controls. We got spun around a few times, and I lost my sense of direction. The glass compass said we were facing west. The wind felt like it was everywhere. Really hard for me to estimate the wind. Very strong, certainly somewhere into the 40s.
I was talking out loud with the boys, trying to figure out which way I should steer. I got the engines on and tried to find a way to steer downwind, but when I tried we would end up with very uncomfortable motions against large swells and winds. I put the engines back into idle, glad to have them on, but unsure of what I want them to do. Meanwhile the bilge alarms is going off constantly now. I direct Kyle and Max below to go triage the bilges.
Thinking back to the storm books, I remembered the lying a-hull and heave-to were options in storm conditions. I try it. Feeling the helm, the wheel wants to go over hard to starboard. I let it. The main sail is still up in the 2nd reef, the conditions are too terrifying to think about going to the mast to pull it down. While the Lagoon 450 has all lines running back to the flybridge and in theory we could just release the main halyard and yank down on the downhaul, in practice you need to be facing the wind and you still sometimes need to be at the mast to get over the friction on the downhaul to pull down the sail while under some wind pressure. But now, in the dark and in a storm with the winds going all around, it was intimidating thinking about going to the mast.
But, almost magically, with the helm hard to starboard, Ad Astra spun around, and then stopped spinning and was facing due west 270°. Ad Astra calmed down, and was now doing about 1.5 kts – backwards! Facing due west, she was making a course of 115 – exactly the direction we wanted to go to the degree. During all of this the wind and rain would alternate between terrible and god-fearing, but when heave-to, Ad Astra felt actually good again.
The boys sourced the bilge problem, it was the other bilge. We have a small crack on the top side of the port roto-molded freshwater tank and have had it for the last 3 years. It is very difficult to access and for the most part it is not a source of concern. But when we over fill the tank, or in rough conditions fresh water forces itself through this crack and accumulates in the port bilge. The auto bilge sensor had become knocked loose and was stuck with its two water sensors down against the bottom of the bilge and so any amount of water was setting it off. The righted the sensor and the bilge alarms stopped.
With Ad Astra heave-to and sliding backwards to our goal, and the bilge alarms off, things were starting to feel better. Checking the time, about 45 minutes had passed in a flash.
Putting on the lifejacket and jack-line harness, I clipped myself in and went to the mast. With Ad Astra facing west and the wind coming over the port quarter, we were finally able to get the mainsail down. No apparent damage to the mainsail I could see as I pulled it in.
Now with the mainsail tucked away, we were still headed towards our target, but backwards. Without a mainsail up into the strong winds, I suspected that if I turned Ad Astra around we could surf the waves under engines.
Bringing the RPMs up to 2600 or so, I was able to power her through the swells and winds on the nose and we shifted the weather from the starboard quarter, to the port aft. Ah, going with the swells and the wind. Right away we were doing 7.5 kts surfing the waves, with both engines back into cruising 2200 RPMs. The pressure on the helm was light and I could engage the auto-pilot again.
The sails put away, bilge alarms off (surfing along with the swells doesn’t slap water up through that hole). Both engines now purring. We are headed towards our destination. Tired. Very tired. I send the boys down to their cabins to sleep.
I put on long pants, socks, a sweatshirt and my foul weather jacket and go back to the trance state up in the flybridge. This is the coldest I have ever felt on Ad Astra. A true northerner. But after all of that stress, with everything back right, it is 00:30 and I drift off into that trance.
Waking up every 30 minutes or so, I see that the skies have cleared again and the stars are out. The waves are large and from the rear, standing in the cockpit the sometimes reach the height of our solar panels when we are down in a trough. But that matters not when we are running with the waves. And they want to go the same way as we do!
Back to the trance. The hours 02:00, 03:00, 04:00, 05:00, and 06:00 all go by. The whole time I am listening and feeling the boat – and sleeping. I check the horizon occasionally. But we have not seen anyone since leaving Cozumel. We are smack in the middle of the Caribbean 200 nm from everywhere but Caymans at 150nm. We have our lights and AIS on. I am not worried about someone hitting us. I rest.
By sun up, I come down and Sue Quei is happily cooking away. I tell her about the storm, she tells me she had no idea, to her it all felt comfortable and snug in her cabin.
Kaiwen wakes up and comes up to the flybridge to relieve me.
I head down for that hot shower and some formal time in my bunk.
When I was plotting our course to Panama against the weather, I knew we would have a time when the southern winds would meet the NW winds and there would be a relatively abrupt change. I wondered what it would be like. Now, I know.
Anytime you are accelerating with small amounts of canvas out – time to get it all down!
07:00 Tuesday January 29th, 2019 SE of Cozumel, S of SW of Caymans, N of Roatan
What a difference a day makes!
I just finished watching the brightest Venus ever fade as the morning sun came up, then took a giant mug of cold coffee into a long hot shower. Ad Astra carries fairly large hot water tanks and so if the engines have been run within 48 hours you get to have a hot shower. A luxury of passage-making over being still.
Yesterday morning as I left the bridge I put up the genoa and turned off the engines. With full genoa we were doing 6+ kts, surfing down the big rollers from the northerner and healthy 18 kts from the NW.
By noon, the winds had eased and we were doing only 3.x knots and Kaiwen called me to the flybridge to do something about our speed. The skies were clear, the wind aft and the waves still from behind, but smaller. Time for the great big green gennaker. Rigging and deploying took us about 20 minutes without rushing, and once we had that big green puff machine up we were able to make the 5.5 kts that we like to see. Downwind sailing under clear blue skies!
By the dwindling afternoon we were still making 4.5 kts under the gennaker only, but now the winds had shifted about 70 degrees clockwise and were now NE. Sheeting in the gennaker for this more narrow angle of attack worked well for about 45 minutes. As the sun was getting close to setting, I felt uneasy about leaving the big sail up for the night. Conferring with first mate Kyle, we turned on the engines (with port and stbd engines alternating being fussy about starting without use of the cross-over link to the house batteries – despite the fact that both batteries are new and measuring 12.8v). With the engines on and at 2200 RPMs it was simply to furl the gennaker and turn into the wind to raise the main.
Getting a good look at the main in the remaining daylight we could see that the wind event raked our topmost batten pocket hard, the pocket that Max and I had hand sewn a year ago. But I judged it would hold, and we needed to make many more miles without using too much diesel. So up went the main back into the 2nd reef, that I like for overnight cruising when I do not have current weather information. Although the Carnival cruise ship that passed by our stern at noon shared that the weather should be stable with NE winds for the next three days, still, at night, I like that 2nd reef in the main. We survived that crazy wind event and we survived that mad passage from Honduras to Cozumel in December through a series of squalls. I like that 2nd reef.
Getting back on course, it was simple to deploy the genoa of course. We could see more clearly how the wind event from the last night completely frayed the leech line area of our genoa at the 2/3rds point of the belly. The leech line itself exposed like a worm traveling between two holes. It is too high up for me to try to stitch on sail tape, so I would have to take the sail down. To take the genoa down there is a series of steps involved in twisting apart the aluminum tubing that is the furler axle. It is at least a full-day job to take it apart, repair and put back up. We do not have time to hang around in the middle of the Caribbean for that job, so like the main the genoa goes up with this bit of damage. Max took the formal watch keeping for the entire night from about 20:00 on the 28th through 06:00 on the 29th. I did the trance thing up on the flybridge through the night waking every half hour or so to stay on top of things, but the weather was stable, light winds from the NE, Ad Astra making 5.5 kts with the stbd screw at 2200 RPMs augmenting the full genoa and the main in 2nd reef. With the one engine on, he had the luxury of being able to keep our energy hungry gaming laptop juiced all night as well as run episode after episode of The Office on another laptop. Every 10 minutes he would take a break and scan the horizon. But other than the Carnival cruise ship en-route from Grand Cayman to Roatan, we have not seen any ships since leaving the vicinity of Cozumel.
If I had opened the main to the first reef that would help with speed for sure, and I will do so in the daylight shortly. But even with the main in the first, we would have to run an engine if we wanted to keep above 5 kts with these light winds. And we do want to keep above 5 nots for two reasons: A) we really do not want to linger out at sea with poor weather information and the nearest coast being the unfriendly shoals of Honduras and Nicaragua and B) we, as a crew, just don’t really enjoy the boredom of blue-water passages. We are cruisers that want to see new places more than sailors that just want to go sailing. Panama!
We are 70 nm from the entrance to the Thunder Knoll banks – our chosen gateway to thread through the pirate waters. We will run dark tonight, no AIS, no running lights, no cabin lights. And will keep two people on watch through the night, but I love our timing to get there in the dark.
08:30 Tuesday, January 29th With Kyle’s help we rigged up the big green gennekar again, fairly quickly. But this time with Kyle raising the halyard and then me on the infinite loop, we blew a rip through the gennekar. It was my fault, I couldn’t keep the infinite loop from tangling around the furler as it un-spun. With hindsight, I think it would best if I tensioned the other side of the infinite furler around a pole to act as a second pulley. It is a big tear but I am hopeful that I can sew it up when we get to Panama.
Now we are running with full main and full genoa and the stbd still turning at 2200 rpms. Doing about 6kts.
13:00 Wednesday January 30, 2019 Calm day, blue skies and easy light N winds carried us to the Gordo banks by sunset and a short visit by dolphins. With no running or cabin lights and the instruments set to red and dim, we were a very dark boat indeed. We slipped through a dozen or so fishing boats through the night, but no one noticed us or came within 5 miles of us. Through the day we had three magnificent frigates taking long, lazy loops around and above Ad Astra between 100 and 300 feet of altitude.
The night itself was one of my best nights at sail. Warm, but not hot breezes, and clear visibility across the whole starry dome. With the boat dark and the moon not yet up and us being hundreds of miles away from any settlement – it was a very dark night indeed. The orion nebula was clearly visible to the naked eye and a bigger patch of fuzz with binoculars. Everywhere you looked the sky was so dense with stars, the milky way itself did not stand out.
The seas were very flat, and with full main and full genoa and a little engine support from port we raced across those dark waters at 6.6 kts for the night. At 02:30 a funny, almost angry orange crescent of the fading moon rose in the East and pulled behind it, Jupiter and then Venus. I could have sworn we also saw Mercury right before the dawn – will verify with the sky atlas. The watches were smoothly kept, no rain, and the clear skies held well into the morning when we got some light rain and weak whispers of a breeze. At daybreak we received a longer audience with the dolphins, and this pod looked like a larger species with generous blotches of white and no aerobatics of the smaller dark spinner dolphins.
The only worries on my mind is that both port and stbd engines are slow to start, sometimes taking 3 to 5x before getting going. The starter batteries on both are new, and verified they are charged at 12.85vdc. So I can rule out sufficient charge on the batteries and the function of the alternators. I am left thinking that there must be some corrosion in the ignition circuit – probably at the flybridge. I do not think both starters are failing, and further, when I add in the cross-over switch, each engine has a 90% chance of starting – so I think it is not the starters, but a lack of current actually flowing through the circuit to the starters.
The other worry is that it is clear to me that I should have changed the sail-drive seals when we hauled Ad Astra in the Rio Dulce. There is some seawater mixing into the sail-drive oil. I changed both sail drive oils just as we left Puerto Aventuras, and will change the oil again at Boco de Toro. But we will need to haul again somewhere near the canal and replace those seals.
The crew is in very good spirits, we all took a beating on Day 2 in the Wind Event. My spirits were especially low. But with the sunny clear skies and the calm seas – and most importantly three days of time, my spirit has healed a bit and the memory of Day 2 is fading. Max is hyper-happy, taking the longest and most watch cycles. Day or especially night, he is eager to be on watch. After the third day Kaiwen and Kyle have adjusted and as their sea sickness passed, their moods brightened. And Sue has always been happy – and cooking away a storm of food for us!
17:35 Jan 31, 2019 - San Andreas, Columbia
“How about we go to Columbia! Instead of Panama?” I announced as the sun set.
Kaiwen, Max and Kyle were not at all surprised that I am suggesting a change of plans. After five days at sea, I was feeling a bit restless and I wanted to get into the ignition system and figure out why the engines are shy to start. Plus, I have a weird OCD thing about fuel – I like my fuel tanks at 3/4s or more - and we were getting close to half on both from a lot of motor-sailing. Perhaps, most of all, I was curious about Columbia’s version of Hawaii.
San Andreas is a pleasant surprise – a bustling sprawl of 100,000 people – more than Kauai. Powder sand beaches and palm trees, scooters everywhere and very friendly people – a nice mixtures of skin tones, cultures and tongues – English, Spanish and Creole.
We used an agent to checkin – as it is required here in Columbia – but fairly reasonable price, and Felix owns a very cruiser friendly cozy marina and fuel dock as a base for our exploration. Quite a collection of characters welcomed us at Felix’s – a Rastafarian with magnificent grey dreadlocks, a short, friendly Portuguese looking character of indeterminate profession and a variety of officials and other onlookers.
We had an amazing seafood lunch, and our processed passports were hand delivered to us as we finished eating – how civilized!
Walking along the northern beach was quite a spectacular show of Columbian women dealing with the chronic fabric shortage for bathing wear.
Now it is a cool breezy afternoon, and I am enjoying an iced coffee and some WIFI with Kyle.
200 nm to go to Panama!