The open ocean. No entrance fees. No crowds. Sunrises so beautiful I forget to grab my camera. There isn’t another soul for hundreds of miles in any direction. It’s all for us. The last place on earth where we are truly free. She’s unforgiving, and she’s got a sick sense of humor. But in the difficult moments—storms, wind and waves—her greatest gift is given…humility.
We were in the Western Caribbean a little longer than we should have been. Hurricane season begins June 1st. Many sailors bring their boats up the Rio Dulce as a safe place for those months. After we arrived in April, we were already seeing lots of people start to close up their boats for the season. But our plan was to weigh anchor and sail 1400 miles across the Caribbean and out of the hurricane belt within the next month. Our plan has always been to sail south east toward the Amazon River and eventually south to Argentina and Chile.
Almost every single person we told our plan to, usually older—more experienced sailors— told us exactly how foolish they thought that was. The trade winds had already started to pick up and they were blowing from the east, the direction we needed to go. I’m still pretty new to sailing, so I’m a little naive when it comes to what’s reasonable or even possible to accomplish on a sailboat. But I do know that we’re going a direction that most won’t.
It seems that most sailors will sail downwind from east to west in the Caribbean. They’ll start from the windward islands and make their way toward the Panama Canal or some other western Carib destination. The typical routes keep the wind to your beam (side) or stern (back). The challenge of our path is that it will keep the wind on our nose for a long, long time. And I like that. It feels like an expedition, not just a trip.
There is an old english saying; “gentlemen never sail to weather”, which means to sail into the wind. The reason being that it’s very rough on the boat and crew. Sailing into the wind makes the wind feel twice as strong. It heels (tilts) the boat over, making it hard to do things like cook and shit and sleep since everything on the boat is on a heavy tilt and pounding into the oncoming swell. It’s intense! By the time we anchored in Dominica, we had been living on a heel for 20 days straight.
Despite all of the naysayers, we did have one supporter of our route, Captain Gary, the original owner of CC. Even given his experience with sailing and its etiquette—Gary sailed CC around the world with his family back in late 80s and early 90s—he never once questioned our plan. He even sent us wind, weather and current updates everyday on the satellite texter. He was a godsend on this crossing. When we did make it to Dominica, he finally told us he thinks only a handful of people had ever attempted what we had. Here as a screen shot he sent of CC’s location, smack dab in the middle of some strong Caribbean currents.
We officially started the voyage in Utila, Honduras, which is a little ways east of where we had stayed in Guatemala. We filled our water tanks, and loaded up on food stuffs and snacks—enough for what we thought would take about 2 or 3 weeks. The first few days of the trip were beautiful, we had winds out of the north, which pushed us in a straight line toward our destination. Days were sunny and nights were clear with a bit of heat lighting which I hadn’t seen since my childhood in Michigan. The bioluminescence was some of the brightest I’d seen so far. The boat leaves a long thick trail of light in its wake. So amazing.
Every now and then we were trailed by a pod of about 20 dolphins. They swim right up to the boat and surf the wake of the bow, dipping and diving in synchronicity. It’s a magical experience, except for one thing. Peanut absolutely hates any sea creature that approaches the boat. He let’s out his “I’m going to rip your face off” bark whenever the dolphins get close. Once, his dog-rage brought him too close to the bow as we crashed down on a big swell and he fell right in! Our very first “man overboard” emergency. I couldn’t help but laugh though, serves him right. Luckily it was a calm enough day, and he was quickly recovered.
Despite some of Peanut’s bad habits, he is a vital part of our crew. He let’s us know when anything is getting too close to the boat, no matter what it is. He’s also an adorable morale booster, and he never gets sick of hearing our stories.
Around day 4 we started seeing big anvil head clouds in the distance, and then the rain came. When the winds start to pick up, or preferably before they pick up, we “throw a reef in”, which means to reduce the size of the sails. It’s a process that involves all 3 of us, one at the helm, one at the mast and one grinding the mainsail winch in the cockpit. It’s something we do often, many times a day and night. We started to just put reefs in before it got dark even if the winds were light, because they would inevitably pick up at some point in the night while whoever is off shift tries to sleep.
And it should be said that our autopilot still does not work. It hasn’t worked since we first left on this trip. So we rely on the self steering windvane that we call “Flem” or “Fleming” after the New Zealand company that made it. It’s a seemingly complicated system that draws no power, but will keep your boat on course. It hangs off the back of the boat with an external rudder that adjusts for swell, while it’s small wooden wing adjusts for changes in wind direction. The whole thing is connected by two small lines to the helm. It acts as the helmsman so we can go about doing our daily chores or just hang out. It works sometimes, and we praise it like a 4th crew member. But the main mechanism is old and corroded, so most of the time it “heads up” (turns into the wind) and makes the sails luff, which, I’m learning, can be a very frustrating sound on a sailboat. The sails luffing means they aren’t trimmed right and something needs to be adjusted again.
In the early morning of the 5th day, somewhere south of Jamaica, we got hit by our first gale. It was the strongest blow Brandon and Scotsman had ever sailed in, and me too, obviously. We typically reef in 15 - 20 knots of wind. We were feeling 40 knots of wind when it hit. It came on fast and all at once. I was at the helm and Brandon was filming on the bow, Scotsman was below probably cooking breakfast. Peanut’s murder bark was becoming a whimper. Brandon and I saw the wall of wind approaching at the same time and yelled “here it comes!!!”
My first thought was to keep the bow pointed into the wind while they wrestled the mainsail down. At one point it started hailing on us giving the feel of the wind more intensity. I couldn’t keep us into the wind even with the motor running so I throttled up and the motor screamed shrilly. When they finally got the sail down Brandon took over the helm and the motor died. It had been overpowered and the impeller blew out. So with “bare poles” (no sails) and no motor, we turned downwind and rode the storm. This whole experience was definitely the most exhilarating part of the crossing for me. The wind eventually calmed down enough to raise the sails back up, but the swell was still the biggest it had been so far. Maybe 10 - 13 feet. We sailed the rest of the way to Dominica without running the motor once.
The next 2 weeks mix together in my memory. They were blurry through sun scorched eyes and agonizing with damp, chapped asses. Scotsman and Brandon both typically wear watches all the time, at some point on this passage they both took them off. Time didn’t matter so much anymore. It was either light or it was dark. There wasn’t much else to count on. We didn’t see another soul, with the exception of the occasional tanker or cargo ship.
Days weren’t defined by date, but by what wildlife we saw, or the weather, or our slowly descending “distance to destination” on the GPS. When we left Utila, the distance to destination was about 1400—roughly the distance from Los Angeles to Vancouver. With all the tacking we did, we ended up sailing 2400 miles over ground—roughly the distance from Utila to Los Angeles as the crow flies.
We would take sea water showers on the bow with the hopes that we would defuse our stink for a few hours. Being naked on the bow of a boat while it sails the wrong way across the caribbean is hilarious and a lot of fun to watch. It’s nearly impossible to stand up while shampooing, so we would have to lean against the baby stay for support. Even though is seems like showering salt off with more salt is counterintuitive, we never felt more fresh and invigorated than after those showers on the bow.
The final days seemed to last forever, we kept wrongfully assuming “we’ll probably arrive tomorrow or the next day!” It took a full week longer than my first prediction. But for every extra day I feel that much prouder of us for taking the hard way, and succeeding at the challenge. As I’m writing this, Brandon just said “The 20 days we spent out there were the most spectacular of my life”.
And I have to agree. They were.
CC holds up so well when the weather hits. I haven’t been on many sailboats, but it’s easy to tell that she is well built and strong AF. She’s been through a lot more than us and and still doesn’t look a day past eighteen, though time has taken it’s toll on a few things. Her teak decks, for example, are worn thin and leak in many places near the bow. The bow acts like a big ladle, scooping up hundreds of gallons of seawater every time we dip into the swell. We had to move everything out of the drip zone and aft (back of the boat) where it can be kept mostly dry.
We ran out of propane with about a week left to Dominica. They must have under filled our tanks in Guatemala because they usually last us 2 months. Luckily we have a small electric rice cooker on board and the solar panels pump enough juice to top off the batteries everyday. It’s amazing what you can cook in a rice cooker. It seems like pretty much anything. We mostly stuck with basic things like curry quinoa or soup and potatoes. One morning we got creative and tried making pancakes, they turned out to be more like a puck-cakes, but they were delicious! We eat pretty well out here all things considered (i.e. we don’t have refrigeration or occasionally a stove or oven).
There is something so spectacular about having an entire sea to ourselves. Every sunrise and sunset lifted and fell just for us, like a reward for lasting yet another day. But as beautiful as this crossing was, it was difficult. We didn’t sleep much and were damp with salt water the entire time. Our whole world was constantly rocking back and forth from one 45 degree angle to the opposite. By the last week we were all down to wearing nothing but briefs, because the rest of our clothes were always wet and caused us to chafe. We were stinky and hairy and sweaty and sore.
But amidst the discomfort and uncertainty I learned so much about sailing. As much as I hate being told what to do, these guys were very patient with my greenhorn ways. I never had a sailing mentor like they did. Every single thing I’ve learned about sailing, I picked up from Brandon and Scotsman. I’m grateful everyday to be involved in this adventure, and it feels good to be a part of such a solid crew. When we finally saw Dominica for the first time it was such a humbling feeling! “Landho!” We all stared in silence at the faint mountain peaks as we slowly approached “the nature island.”
We sailed all the way into Portsmouth with no motor, and even dropped our anchor under sail. I think we all felt like bad asses in that moment, like true sailors who just earned their first merit badge from mother ocean. We made it boys!