Hand Steering
Mr. Bill


We are fairly careful when we sail, checking various weather sources, and avoid rough weather as much as possible. We have been fortunate that the only bad storm we've experienced in 5 years of cruising was the storm off Cape Fear in November of 2010. (You can find it on this blog.) We may have (did) mess up a bit on this crossing. Our sail plan was to keep just south of the south coasts of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic before heading southwest to Panama. The winds were from the east and once underway EW suggested sailing directly southeast from south of Salinas, Puerto Rico.

Three days later I remembered why we should have stayed north. Folks often travel to the San Blas from the ABCs -- Aruba, Barbuda, and Curacao. When they do, we have frequently heard them on the weather channels discussing when to make the leap from Aruba to Cartagena. That passage along the north coasts of Venezuela and Columbia are known for rougher weather than nearby areas.

To add to that, the grib files and other reports indicated 18-22 knots of wind pretty much everywhere in this section of the Caribbean Sea. For the second day in a row, we are in 25-35 knots of wind with 9-10 foot seas. Yesterday, our route took us to 120 miles north of the Columbia/Venezuela border, where we experienced stronger seas and sustained gusts at 40 knots. Hand steering was exhausting and we were concerned about the boat. We were taking shifts slightly less than two-hours in duration. The person off watch would set the kitchen timer to maximum - 98 minutes - go to sleep and get rudely awakened by the timer. He or she would take care of a few personal and boat things, and make his or her way on deck. And the cycle would continue.

When it was time for EW to join me early this morning, I initiated discussion about how we had underestimated this coastline and had to get out of here. Sure, it was technically possible for us to continue along the coast and reach our destination in 3 days --- if nothing went wrong and if we could physically handle it. Both of us knew that was untenable. I thought the only thing we could do would be to head back northwest, in the same conditions but to where we at least only had 35 knot gusts and slightly lower seas. EW had a better idea.

We hove-to. I'll have to explain it to my land-lubber friends later. For you sailors who have never had to heave-to, it's a miracle. EW calmly outlined the steps. The jib was fully furled and we were sailing under a reefed main. We had to shorten the main some more (not easy in those conditions),and then let the jib out a little bit. We sheeted the main amidships and the jib onto the starboard side and turned the boat to port. Once we got her over, we turned the wheel back to starboard and tied her there. Calm was restored immediately. The miracle is that we novices got it right; if we had sheeted everything onto the other side of the boat, we'd be heading into the rougher waters, closer to shore. This way we are drifting along at 1.5-2 knots to the northwest, without steering the boat, without putting huge wear and tear on the boat, without exhausting ourselves. There is little traffic out here and no reefs or islands. We stand watch, clean the boat, sleep.

By tomorrow night we hope that the weather forecasts are correct and that the winds and seas have died down enough for us to steer the boat more comfortably again to the northwest. If Casey still can't handle it, we'll have to hand steer again, but it won't be as difficult. Once we reach 16 north and 77 West we'll turn southwest for the Guna Yala (formerly known as the San Blas) Islands. The whole thing may take 5 days, but who cares? We have plenty of provisions, and no tropical storms are expected for this region. We'll be out of the hurricane zone in a few days, having drinks on deck with Jaime and Keith and going over those things we did right and those we did wrong. Every lesson truly learned is a good lesson at sea.

A side note: Remember I mentioned that plane? Still not sure what country it's from, but we heard it again yesterday afternoon, and at 7:30 it buzzed very low directly over our mast. I was not pleased. We've heard it again today. Kinda feels like target practice.


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