Monthly Archives: May 2010

National Boating Safety Week

It feels right that National Boating Safety Week falls right before Memorial Day Weekend. We love to spend the long Memorial Day weekend on our boats (with the three essentials: beer, barbecue, and buddies), but many people often overlook the real essentials: PFDs, a charged VHF radio, updated charts, etc. The confluence of National Boating Safety Week and Memorial Day weekend is also significant when you consider the grizzly statistics around boating fatalities, the vast majority of which could have been prevented by simple safety measures.

For instance, we’ve all heard this ridiculous statistic: Over two-thirds of all fatal boating accidents are by drowning, and of those victims, ninety percent were not wearing a life jacket. It’s ridiculous only because it’s so preventable! New low-profile inflatables make wearing your PFD much less comfortable than the old-school foam vests, so what’s your excuse? Another solid statistic: Ninety percent of boating fatalities occur on boats where the operator has boating safety instruction. If you haven’t already done so, consider joining an ASA certification class, or at the very least get the safety basics online with your state boating license,

This week, ASA is getting into the safe sailing spirit by hosting a Facebook and Twitter raffle for one of our brand new auto-inflatable BlueStorm PFDs. Enter your name in either site for a chance to win, and tell your friends! Most importantly, set an example on your boats this weekend. And don’t let anyone who hears the “Nature calling” to get up-close-and-personal with Mother Nature herself!

Rainstorm Gourmet

Continuing “Trekking by Sail, Exuma Islands”
I had never tasted fresh tamarind before. We cracked open the furry skins and picked out stringy strands of sweet-and-sour fruit, Mother Nature’s “Sour Patch” candy. Washed down with a Kalik Gold beer, the tamarind was our special treat for making it through the night.

We had arrived at Farmer’s Cay the previous evening, after an idyllic day of sailing, snorkeling, and hiking. As we put down our anchors, large clouds marched over the horizon, and when I looked up ten minutes later, they were on top of us. The wind freshened as we struggled to pitch our tents poorly in the shallow sand, and I pulled my bedding inside just as the sky opened up into a downpour. Meanwhile, our guides Dallas and Ian had been swiftly setting up our mobile kitchen and getting to work on dinner.

It took about seven minutes for everything to get thoroughly drenched. We were cheerful, noting that storms in the tropics are short-lived, and more cheerful when someone had the idea to drink all the liquor, to keep us warm on the inside at least. Everyone had a different strategy: some went swimming in the lukewarm shallow water to get out of the cold downpour, some donned rain gear from head to toe, and some went straight to bed without dinner. I was starving and determined to wait for that fresh fish.

The rain never let up, and the scene was so miserable after a couple of hours that I was shocked to realize that Dallas and Ian were still slaving away over dinner. I would have been satisfied with a triage-style granola bar meal, but they were committed to feeding us right. Somehow they kept the stove lit and managed to produce a steaming pot of savory rice with baked macaroni and cheese, as well as some fresh fried grouper. We ate like horses at the trough–I’m pretty sure I just skipped using a fork altogether. After that, some people crawled back into their wet tents, but a few of us were feeling reasonably good out there in the rain, with warm food and booze heating us from the inside. We took turns teaching everyone songs, but the one that stuck–and I mean STUCK for the rest of the week, tattooed on beaches, referenced in 20 Questions–was the NuGrape Song.

As we sucked on the tart tamarind fruit the following morning, with every article of clothing hung out to dry on the trees, the sun wiped away the last traces of wetness, and a breeze filtered freshness into everything. We enjoyed a day of rest and so did the boats. Some people went seashell hunting, I read my book and did yoga on a secluded stretch of beach, and Dallas took a group to Little Farmer’s Cay where they met some colorful locals and returned bearing fuzzy, sweet-and-sour gifts.

The storm had tested everyone, but it had also imbued us all with a sense of adventure, strength, and comradeship that only those sorts of situations can summon. Dallas’s remarkable commitment to providing us with a good meal, even in the worst of all situations, was a clear testament to his outstanding commitment to the flotilla experience with Out Island Explorers. There are things that no one can control–such as random lightning storms. But these guys have a gourmet grip on all the rest, and we were enormously thankful for that, rain or shine!

Bahamian Magic

Continuing “Trekking by Sail, Exuma Islands”
We slept soundly under cool pine trees, fifteen feet from the hushing surf. The next morning, after spiced omlettes and beachside mugs of coffee, we loaded up the boats and slipped back out into the blue bay, striking in the sunshine. I rode along in the Golden Fleece with Teri and Steve; they made good time across the open water, through quiet channels, and up to the sparkling white, conch-lined beach on which we dropped anchor for lunch.

Over chips and sandwiches, Dallas told us about the hidden attractions our stopover held. We would take a short hike inland to the top of the island to explore a deserted German castle, and then visit the cool cave a short distance away where the German kept his goats. I suppose fresh goat’s milk was the ultimate luxury.

The first part of the hot midday hike was along the beach through fields of conch shells, ancient grey to vibrant pink ones. When the white stones of the trail turned inland and upward, we became shaded by scrubby foliage for a few minutes before reaching a grove of lush trees flanking a deserted castle. The soft green leaves and diminutive indigo blossoms were fresh as springtime in Washington state, and they stood out in striking contrast to the stiff, hardy island foliage found elsewhere.

These trees, Dallas told us, were the “Lignum Vitae,” the national tree of the Bahamas. The one we stood beneath was over 100 years old but was only the height and girth of a maple sapling. I knew from my high school Latin courses that this name was significant, meaning “wood of life.” What a peculiarly delicate tree to stand here in the blazing heat of the Bahamas. I found out later that Lignum Vitae is one of the hardest, densest woods on earth (and will sink in water); it also, according to Arthurian legend, is the stuff that wizard Merlin’s staff was made out of. As we picked our way through the creaky dust in the cool deserted castle, I didn’t know about Merlin’s staff yet, but I sensed that this tree was magical.

When we reached the beach near the end of the hot hike, a few of us floated the rest of the way back to our anchorage in the bright blue current–shorts, hats, Cokes, and all. Then Dallas and Ian led us out to a nearby reef and showed us another kind of Bahamian magic–spearfishing. A few people tried to follow suit, but I was content to put on my snorkel and trail our guides underwater as they free-dived for grouper and triggerfish. Again and again Dallas would shove his arm inside a reef to startle out dozens of rainbow-colored fish. Quick as one of them, he would dive down, shoot, and rise holding the speared fish in one arm victoriously above the water as he swam back to the boat.

The fishes’ bodies glinted in the sun with the subtle shimmer of a gasoline-stained puddle. They gasped their last in the hot midday breeze before being laid on top of their unfortunate kin in a bright yellow bucket. The whole spearfishing dance was like watching the food chain explained in mime, acted out in the colorful, underwater silence. Dallas grew up with these species; when someone would surface and ask “what’s this orange and white one?” he’d respond “don’t shoot that one, I can’t think of a single orange fish that’s worth eating.” Orange or otherwise, I can’t imagine ever eating fish from the market again. Because this afternoon snorkling adventure turned into the fairest and freshest dinner I’ve ever tasted.


Continuing “Trekking by Sail, Exuma Islands”

At 7:30am it was warm and windless as I walked to breakfast past heavy, punch-colored blooms and lemon-blossomed trees. I had thought to grab breakfast early and then write for awhile, but soon was reminded that I was on Bahamas time by a cheerful waitress that took one and a half hours to serve my cold cereal and yogurt (unopened).

We piled our gear in a van and bumped down the road to Barraterre, where our Sea Pearls waited docilely at the dock. A warm wind began to ruffle lacy waves in the bay as everyone loaded tents, camp chairs, snorkeling gear, drybags, and icy coolers onto the fleet. I sat on the bow of Dallas’s chase boat, unable to unglue my gaze from the water.

The scene looked as if it had been conjured on canvas by a painter. Cool, dense islands floated in this expansive blue pool, a luminous, saturated, complex patchwork of hues. Lonely clusters of palm trees arched gracefully in the wind, and a colorful fish caught my eye as it flicked silently under the shaded dock. As we sailed away from the pilings, a cottonball cloud threw a shadow on the clear water, and I watched over the gunwhale when we skimmed out from underneath it and the water instantly electrified to an intense, liquid aquamarine.

For the rest of the day, with Bob Marley beating rhythms, I watched the kaleidoscope of the Exumas unfold and shapeshift around me. The baby-blue sky looks weak when it hits the royal jade color of the sea. The Sea Pearls’ bright white-and-yellow sails punctuate the horizon, sailing out of dark cerulean areas into brilliant white, across alleys of electric emerald, skirting pools of “Bombay Sapphire blue.” Enormous spotted eagle rays fly 7 feet beneath us, and purple starfish sit clearly on the bottom. As I marvel at it all, guides Ian and Dallas pick several silver fish off their line and drop them in a bucket for dinner.

As we slid up to our beach camp for the evening, the water became warm butterscotch amber in the shallows. We swam and cooled our toes in the cream-of-tartar silt on the bottom, then splashed off with fresh water from a solar shower that was warming in a pine tree. As fish crackled on the grill and the sun set over the water, the greens and blues turned purple and gray to complement a firey sunset. I had spent the entire day completely mesmerized by the color of the water. It’s clarity is unparalleled, and I’ve had trouble finding any words that approximate its stunning shades.

Later under the almost-full moon, the group turned their attention to a backwoods “surgery.” Tom had stepped on a sea urchin and had thirteen souvenirs lodged in his foot. I chuckled (perhaps under the influence of a bit of Bombay Sapphire) to realize that we’d all been baptized by the beautiful water of the Bahamas that day…but Tom had gotten himself indelibly marked.

The Sea Pearl 21

Continuing “Trekking by Sail, Exuma Islands”

Shortly after being greeted by a hot wave of tropical air on the George Town runway, I was greeted by friendly waves from Dallas and Tamara from Out Island Explorers, our guides for the flotilla. We loaded our bags into the back of their pickup and wound our way across Great Exuma to meet up with the group for dinner and debriefing. Before we dove in to conch fritters at the Palm Bay Beach Club, we gathered around Dallas in the parking lot to run our fingers over the Sea Pearl for the first time.

These boats were to be our homes for the week, carry all our gear, shelter, and food, and two to three people per boat. We exchanged nervous jokes as we sized up how small they seemed next to the wide windy Caribbean–not your regular push-button charter flotilla. The open cockpit was flanked with seating almost the entire length, and the small bow held a fluke anchor cleated in place. Two identical masts, one forward and the other aft, stood unsupported by shrouds or stays. Long lead-weighted leeboards swung off the gunwhales on either side, controlled by a simple cam-cleat arrangement on the rails.

Rigging the Sea Pearl 21 is a simple process, even in higher winds. The twin triangular sails slide over the masts via sleeves along the luff, and they furl around the rotatable masts. To “hoist” the sails, you simply attach the clew to an outhaul line on the boom; since both sails are free-footed, they’re easy to set without much effort. The outhauls tighten in jam cleats on each boom, and there are downhaul lines for luff tension. Sheets are led simply–through a ratcheting block for the mainsheets amidships, and through a fairlead and jam cleat on top of the tiller for the mizzensheets.

Over the course of the week, we would come to find out that Sea Pearls are just small enough to be tender and peppy and just large enough to divert most spray and stabilize atop the ruffled wind waves. Their shallow draft and flat bottom means they can skim right up to ankle-deep beach surf and rest comfortably on the sand during a low tide. The only drawback, Dallas told us, was that our Sea Pearls don’t want to point very high to windward… but that’s why our trip was carefully planned so that we’d essentially be running for 40 to 60 nm before taking a plane windward back to Georgetown. Slick deal.

Although Feather, HMS Biscuit, Caribe, and “The Golden Fleece” were all Sea Pearl 21s, the fleet has slight differences in personality that we would come to know over the week. Feather had crisp white sails and a sleek dark hull, salty little Caribe (the Sea Pearl that could) tested our seamanship with various technical challenges, centerboard model HMS Biscuit flew under a beautiful blue-and-white profile, and canary yellow racing sails gave us all a constant view of the Golden Fleece’s stern. Each required a slightly different response to changing conditions. But regardless of their idiosyncrasies, I can’t think of a better boat in which to probe Exuma’s sparkling Cays.

Whereas regular flotillas have a whole lot going too, there’s something unbeatable about experiencing a place “from within” so to speak. We couldn’t have gotten any closer to the sea or air of the Bahamas, skimming along the space where sun hits sea, salt soaking into our skin, sleeping with the seaweed. We swam first with the fish we would eat for dinner, got tattooed by sea urchins, and were kept awake by a full moon bright as a flashlight. Thanks to the Sea Pearl 21s, without solid cabins to keep the the sea and air and everything else out, we would get to smell, taste, and absorb Exuma.

As I turned down my hotel bed the night before our departure, a quarter-sized gecko wiggled away from the light and out of sight. I fell asleep anticipating the noises that we would hear floating around the remote night sky of the out-islands.

Trekking by Sail, Exuma Islands

Day 9

I just battled my way through customs at Miami International, dazed from an exhaustingly beautiful sailing trip with Out Island Explorers in the Exuma Islands, Bahamas. Realizing as I placed my shoes in the security tray that I still had some water in my canteen, I gulped it down before walking through the beeping arches. The rim was salted with the flavor of the Caribbean, and flour-fine sand stuck to my lips.

As we separated one by one on flights going every which way, I realized how much I’d come to enjoy the company of these people who I had never met until eight days ago. I arrived in the Bahamas ready to take some great sailing pictures and ride the warm wind, but had not expected to find the friendships that would develop over the coming week. So it wasn’t without a bit of sentimentality that I headed for my gate, humming “children in the back yard pickin’ in the sand…” (you’ll learn that one later).

As our tiny plane ascended over Georgetown a couple hours prior, I viewed in reverse the scene which had greeted me the previous week. The hot scrubby land faded as we rose to marbled fields ringed with white, set in lettuce-bright seas. The water from above was as striking as it was from any angle, a luminous, Bombay Sapphire hue, we had decided.

Reclining my seat and watching Exuma fade beneath me, the memories sharpened and stories started to take shape. The woman next to me remarked that “we create across gaps, and you always need a slight amount of distance in order to reach around an experience.” I thought, she’s right—it felt nearly impossible to put it to words when we were inside of it, but now, a sun-drenched watershed of stories collects on my desktop.

I hope you all can enjoy the trip vicariously from my posts over the coming weeks. But more than anything, I hope at the end of the day you’re curious what the slick skin of a nurse shark feels like, how high you’d be able to point a Sea Pearl into the hot breeze, or what hour-fresh grilled grouper tastes like under a flaming sunset. I dare you to read and resist it. Because I’m telling you, it’s all over once that Exuma sun wraps itself around your soul.