Florida to Panama 2009

N 15° 52' W 78° 36'

Boat repairs at a minimal landfall

May 16, 2009

We left Port Antonio with mixed emotions.  There was slight regret at leaving a beautiful location where we had become confident and comfortable with the culture and our routines and where after a month we had still not done a few things (such as visit Reach Falls and walk to the lighthouse).  But it was also time to sail again, to visit new countries, and to shake off the slight sense of complacency that was descending upon us.

Having stocked up on provisions, we prepared the boats for a life of motion again.  It is amazing how much stuff has to be re-stowed on decks and in the cabins after several weeks in a very calm harbor.  We said our good-byes to the marina staff and promised to be enthusiastic ambassadors for their marina and town.  We ate a delicious evening meal at the marina restaurant and then, in the dark, hauled our dinghies out of the water onto the decks or davits.  We slept rather fitfully between the music, rain, and excited anticipation and then at 4 am on Thursday (May 14th) we slipped our lines off the moorings and gently motored out of West Harbour.  Or at least Tregoning and Sea Start started to do so but seeing no signs of life on Wind Song and failing to raise him on the VHF radio we then turned around to give Jamie a drive-by wake-up call.  As we approached, however, his voice burst forth on the radio, lights appeared in his cabin and, having reawakened after falling back to sleep after his first alarm went off, Jamie was soon on deck releasing himself from Port Antonio’s seductive grip.

On leaving the protected waters, we were quickly reminded of the complex dance of boat movements that come with into 5 – 7 ft swells and full wakefulness was thrust upon us as we unexpectedly met the navigation lights of a no-doubt weary sailboat coming straight towards us in the channel.  However, the dawn came fairly quickly and for a while, until the shrouding clouds developed, we were treated to magnificent views of the Blue and John Crow Mountains rising above the lush green coastline. We motored into the wind and waves to the southeastern tip of Jamaica and then raised the sails as we rounded the lighthouse and aimed southwest for our destination of Bajo Nuevo.

Sailing with the wind almost behind us, we furled up our jib for a squall that came upon us quickly with a brief heavy downpour and increased gusts of wind but Wind Song, who had been behind us, snatched the opportunity to gain some momentum and flew past us under full sail.  Looking at the clumps of clouds on the horizon, each that could develop into a squall that would become difficult to see in the dark, we decided to reef our mainsail for the night which set us even further back in the trio.  We passed well south of the entrance to Kingston Harbor but crossed the paths of ships heading into it.  One ship passed well behind Sea Star but closely astern of Wind Song so we turned to our left of a few minutes to make sure that it crossed well in front of us.

As night fell, the winds dropped and the wallowing in the swell became less pleasant so we allowed ourselves to head further south than our course so that the wind and wave action was more comfortable.  Eventually, we decided to motor-sail for a while to get back to our course and it was during this, around mid-night Randall heard Jamie’s slightly concerned voice on the radio reporting that his boom had just broken.  Awakened from my off-watch sleep, I joined Randall in the cockpit as we listened for further reports and discussed whether we should immediately turn towards his distant mast-head light to offer assistance.  He soon came back to report that he had been able to drop the mainsail and lash the boom down and other than some damage to his bimini things seemed to be all right and he would proceed under his jib.  Without dinghies in the water to transport us between boats, there had been little that the rest of us could have done to help unless Wind Song had become stranded or unseaworthy but it seemed to us to be reassuring to know that someone was nearby when such a dramatic failure occurred.

Knowing that Jamie would arrive at the coral reef that was our destination later in the day than intended, Randall and I continued to motor-sail so that we could join Sea Star in finding a suitable anchorage into which to guide Wind Song.  Dawn found us close to Sea Star and by midday Randall was triumphantly claiming the first sighting of landfall.  Sadly, his enthusiasm proved to be rather premature (causing him to have to pay the embarrassing penalty for a false “Land-ho”) as the masts he had seen developed into the superstructure of a large ship.  We watched with fascination as we realized that this ship that did not show up on our automatic identification system was instead marked on the chart…permanently.  It had run aground on the very reef system we were heading to and sat there looking completely normal is if still slowing cruising northward.  It would have been interesting to get a bit closer and see what sort of condition it was in but we wanted to get to our anchorage while the light was still good and it would have been quite a detour around the reef to get closer to the ship.  Neither Randall nor I had ever seen such a complete-looking wreck and it was odd to see it sitting on the horizon looking so normal and calm once we were in our anchorage.

The main part of Bajo Nuevo (a.k.a. Low Cay on some charts) is a curved semi-circle of about 2 miles of reef that is shallow enough for waves to constantly break over it.  At the northeast end, there is a tiny sand and coral island upon which is a light on a red and white metal frame mast.  This was I saw with the binoculars to qualify as the first official, confirmed “Land-Ho” and we slowly motored around the reef tip to an anchorage near the light and in the lee of the reef.  Although there was no protection from the wind (which was good for power generation) the reef cut out the swell and left us with a slight roll from the wind generated chop.  There was beautiful sandy area in which to anchor and we were glad to see Jamie’s 135% jib (meaning that it reaches way back passed the mast – 100% being the triangular area between the fore-stay and mast) appear on the horizon an hour later.

After a much-needed full night’s sleep we chatted with Jamie about the repairs that he needed to make and searched our boats for parts or tools that would be useful.  His boom had broken at the gooseneck, where the boom attaches to the mast.  He had been in the cabin with the autohelm steering when a small squall had suddenly changed the wind direction and caused an accidental jibe (when the wind changes sides from behind the boat).  An uncontrolled jibe flungs the mainsail and boom from one side of the boat to the other and is dangerous because anything or anyone in the way of the boom will be hit hard. To reduce the slamming of the boom with the swell and to reduce the likelihood of a jibe, Jamie had a preventer attached to his boom.  This was his boom vang (which normally attaches from just forward of the middle of the boom to the base of the mast) but for this purpose was attached from the boom to the middle of the side of the boat.  Unfortunately, when the wind suddenly tried to jerk the boom across the boat the stress on the boom at the point attachment of the preventer was so high that it caused a complete fracture at the boom end of the gooseneck.

The good news was that there was enough of a collar left on the gooseneck (which fitted inside his boom) so that he could re-bolt the shortened gooseneck collar into the boom.  Obviously this would not be as strong as before but did allow him to reattach the boom to the mast and raise it off the bimini.  The latter needed to be straightened out and reattached to the deck on the side where it had been torn loose.  Luckily, we had a spare fitting (one of our fittings needs replacing but we had not got around to doing it yet) so Jamie was able to make all of his repairs amazingly quickly.  He will eventually have to have the broken pieces of the gooseneck welded back together and reattached more firmly within the boom but this would have to wait until we reached an island with a large enough community to include someone with the appropriate equipment.

Once it was clear that Jamie’s repairs would be satisfactory, Randall and I went snorkeling on the reef and explored the small island.  The others followed a bit later and Jamie climbed the tower to get a wonderful view of the whole reef.  Near one coral-head, we had an interesting encounter with a group of five smooth trunkfish that seemed particularly curious about us but we otherwise concluded that the snorkeling was not particularly impressive.  Dan thus suggested that rather than spend another night at Bajo Nuevo as we had originally thought would be necessary for Jamie’s repairs, we would leave the next day for the island of Roncador which Dan and Kathy had visited previously and knew to have excellent snorkeling.  Bajo Nuevo was the perfect stopping place to let Jamie repair his boom.  It was also very cool to be at a deserted and unvegetated island in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and after the noise and lights of Port Antonio it was the perfect reminder that there are still some quiet, remote places that can be reached by boat.

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