Passage along the South American Coast
Northwest along the coast of South America, reaching the Caribbean in two weeks of sailing close hauled.
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Initially the winds were light and variable, and the squalls persisted. But during the night, as we moved away to the north, the wind began multiplying from the east-north-east. This required that we reduce sail and harden the sheets. Heeled to the port rail, Suka surged ahead throughout the long night as I maneuvered her around the occasional jangada. One small boat in particular would have met its untimely end as the hapless crew slept within, had it not been shining a kerosene lantern, albeit diminutive and merely a foot or so above deck. As our brig charged ahead into the darkness, by happenstance the trim of our steering vane had her on a collision course with this boat. The problem was that its light was so small and dangling so close to the water, that it appeared much - and I mean much - farther than it actually was. Suddenly realizing the danger I swung the wheel, and we skimmed barely past, leaving the sleepers bouncing in our wake.
The day previously had marked the official opening of the lobstering season, so not only were we dodging the random jangada, but the much more massive lobster boats. These were putting busily but erratically about, as though bereft of helmsmen - so their twisting turns were difficult to anticipate. To complicate matters, unlit lobster-trap buoys peppered the sea, and we narrowly averted running down two of those, that we knew of. Also, we were contending with the usual shipping, as well as steering clear of a few isolated off-shore oil rigs. Clearly, this was not the place to set the self-steering gear and retire belowdecks.
Off-shore oil rigs on the horizon.
Having left the intertropical convergence zone astern, we were now subject to the increasingly exuberant north-east trade winds, which apparently had dipped quite far south of late. Suka stood hard on the wind, sailing close hauled and plowing the waves, spray a'flying and green water rolling along her decks, which lay awash in rivulets of foamy brine.
A hundred fifty miles off-shore we crossed the equator, this on our 4th day from Fortaleza.
The days were ones of higher mileages for the likes of Suka: 168, 169, 135, 162, and 159. The 135 reflected a day of winds so powerful and seas so scabrous that they compelled us to reduce sail to a triple reefed mainsail and a storm jib in order to mitigate Neptune's infernal hammering. Then throughout the long week the sailing was so tumultuous that it compelled us to take turns standing hyphenated dog watches.
Clouds besmirched the sky, Suka's hatches remained closed against the infernal spray, and her crew remained largely belowdecks moldering in the stifling sauna-like heat. The ketch's motion was so violent that it began opening previously insignificant seams. Leaks appeared about the decks, ports, and topsides - all awash. As such, seawater eventually found its way into Suka's every nook and cranny, and after five days of this, most everything belowdecks was affected by the all-pervading wetness.
All through this part of the trip, the brig reached tightly to the powerful winds, sailing full and by, in order to hold on to her valuable offing from the colossal Amazon River. This is the world's most massive outflow, carrying more water than the Nile, Mississippi and the Yangtse combined. And it is well known for its propensity to disgorge large logs. So we needed to give it a very wide berth. Fortunately for us, the wind held its bearing and we managed to maintain our offing without having to tack seaward.
Suka's well-traveled mainsail now bore a multitude of patches in every size and description, many encroaching one over the top of the other. Our hand-sewn patches only ripped out along the line of stitching, so instead we had resorted to adhesive patches cut from material purchased in a sail loft. these had proven more effective, but still the old sail was stretched and worn, such that while sailing close hauled, the sail's leech now fluttered distractingly. Its leech line had long ago parted, so as an expediency I affixed a few lengths of cord to the leech cringles, and drew them aft and angling to the windward rail athwartships. These contrivances were ungainly but they at least mitigated the annoying fluttering.
“Suka logged her voyage's maximal noon run: 189 miles. Given enough wind she could move surprisingly well. Indeed, her humble skipper and mate were mighty proud of their sure-footed little brig.”
On our fifth day out, the stiff wind began veering gradually east. Day by day, then, we eased the sheets a might, and trimmed the steering vane accordingly, until on our ninth day the wind blew from abeam. By then the skies hung staunchly blue and the sun blazed upon our bare bodies. Suka's hatches lay open to admit the welcome ventilation, and her interior was beginning to dry, as were the dank spirits of her fatigued crew. So when we landed a three-foot dorado, we were ready to set upon it with restored appetites. And that day, flying only her double reefed mainsail and jib, but boosted slightly by less than half a knot current, Suka logged her voyage's maximal noon run: 189 miles. With her fixed-blade propeller and self-steering rudder dragging in the slipstream, she was no America's Cup contender, but given enough wind she could move surprisingly well. Indeed, her humble skipper and mate were mighty proud of their sure-footed little brig.
Entering the Caribbean Sea
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Wheeling round Tobago's north-east perimeter, we worried about pirates so showed no lights, and on the 26th of March we left the wide Atlantic astern and entered the Caribbean Sea. Easing the sheets free and jibing the mainsail, now wing-on-wing we commenced eagerly the downwind run to the ABC Islands of the Netherlands Antilles.
The following day, as Suka's canvas billowed to the following winds, and as we watched the island of Grenada fading serenely astern, our reveries were interrupted by an increasing rumbling aft, which signaled once again the urgent need to repair the self-steering mechanism. The play in the mounts had been growing more noticeable by the day, until now the vane's rudder was about to carry away. So for a couple of hours we both hung inverted over the taffrail, securing the wobbly mounts with wire rope clamped into place then tightened by twisting pared strands. Additionally, we rigged various safety lines to preclude losing the contrivance altogether, instrument of umbrage though it was.
Shaping a course well clear of the Aves atolls, where the yacht Cheers had struck the coral reef, we hooked the largest fish of our career by a factor of ten. Fortunately for both us, as well as for the massive tuna, it somehow disengaged itself from the lure.
On the same subject, over the airwaves Jim McCane related his having recently caught a big marlin. After he had finally managed to wrestle it near the sloop, the beast went berserk and ran its prodigious beak through Michael Stuart's plywood transom. The beak snapped off and the fish escaped, leaving an embedded souvenir guaranteed to turn a few heads at their next port of call.
A longing to stop and linger awhile had been waxing gibbous in our sea weary minds, so on the evening of March 29, as we raised the island of Bonaire upon our horizon, we discussed the pros and cons of calling in there. We happened to possess a recent magazine article about the place, in which the author indicated that Bonaire might provide a convenient and safe stop-over. It seemed a likely place to allow a short respite from the rigors of seafaring, and despite the agreeable weather and the superb conditions beckoning ever westward, we decided that after having covered the 6,500 miles from Cape Town in 52 days, perhaps a week's rest was justified. So in cracking trade winds we skirted the dark landmass to its north, and for lack of the appropriate small-scale chart, we held the island at a distance, against the possibility of fetching any extensive reefs (of which there are none, we later learned). We drifted the night, apprehensive for want of a proper chart.
First light revealed land standing some 10 miles to windward. So after setting jib and mainsail we beat hard to weather, and arrived in Bonaire's calm, off-shore waters as a mighty squall happened to be passing overhead. This dumped rain by the 55 gallon drum-fulls and bowled Suka nearly onto her rail. The black, hanging drapery of rainfall soon moved on, the wind eased, and the warming sun reappeared. So we shed foul weather clothing, untied our safety harnesses for the first time in 15 days, and hung on as Suka gleefully laid a foamy wake through the effulgent, aquamarine waters.
“There is nothing like sailing on a jolly reach in the calm waters fronting a tropical island. We had a feeling we were going to like this place.”
There is nothing like sailing on a jolly reach in the calm waters fronting a tropical island. Here were white sand beaches lined with picturesque houses - painted in typically Dutch multi-hued pastels. Fishermen bobbed in small punts; children played on the sand beaches; and the seriousness of our endeavor evaporated into the balmy Caribbean atmosphere. We had a feeling we were going to like this place.