Thursday, January 8, 2015

Mr Sulu! - If You Please?

We began our attempt to leave St. Martin in the wee hours of Wednesday morning but by Tuesday evening it was very clear that we wouldn't make our departure since our anchor was buried squarely under the boat in front if us, and no one was home.

Wednesday morning bright and early we made sure to connect with our neighbours and sure enough, with a little careful manoevering in close quarters we lifted the anchor and moved to the outskirts of the anchorage, with a clear sight on our departure line towards the BVI ready to try again.

Checked out, stocked up on baguette and pain chocolat for one last treat, garbage disposed of before reaching the $2 drop off fees of the BVI, we returned to the boat for a quiet afternoon since we would be up at midnight for our exit plan.

All clear to the Virgins, once that squall passes.
Farewell to Marigot Harbour.
As we reflected back on our month in St. Martin, other than the highlight of Jim's visit, we commented to each other that we had met some wonderful people who really made the visit memorable; always fun to share the experience. Not to be outdone, that afternoon a catamaran named Rafiki arrived in the anchorage, passing through just in front of us. Henry immediately commented, "We know Rafiki, or someone we know, knows Rafiki!" I scoffed as I had no memory of the boat but sure enough, Henry remembered that our friend Hugh back in Ottawa had told us to look out for his brother in the islands on this boat, and there he just happened to be! Ingrid, Robin and their two girls have been cruising the islands for three years now and are the first family we've met down here although we have heard that there are many more families with kids now than there used to be. We had a quick little visit and then yes, we really did settle down for an early evening as we were all prepped to go.

Midnight saw us back up, and off we headed with final goodbyes to Marigot. We have to go, the patisseries and French cheeses are much too enticing!

Ahead us lay the British Virgin Islands, just 83 miles away to North Sound on Virgin Gorda. The winds are forecast to heat up again and bring with them seas of 8'-12' by the weekend so this was our chance to make the jump in more reasonable conditions. Thankfully this is what we got since once we had cleared the harbour and were on a tack past the western end of Anguilla, we engaged the auto-pilot and this is where things got interesting.

As an aside, most folks we know have a name for their auto-pilot; we've often heard of Otto for example. I'm sure we're not unique but we call ours Sulu. Sulu is invaluable as the third member of our crew, especially on 14 hour passages. It especially means that while one of us is sleeping, the one on watch is really doing just that - watching: the radar, the AIS, the sails, the weather, and anything else that needs attention.

Now, however Mr. Sulu was not "at his station". As soon as we turned on the auto-pilot, it was obvious there was something wrong with the internal compass and the boat image on the chart plotter started spinning around. Asking for navigation to a waypoint or direction of wind started us into a gybe as Sulu attempted to turn the boat 180 degrees and back the way we came. Perhaps he was trying to tell us something?

We tried all manner of trouble shooting, such as we could get up to in the dark, but in the end decided to soldier on and hand steer for the trip - bad Mr. Sulu! Winds stayed in the 10 - 18 knot range declining as we went on and seas from behind on the starboard helped us along our way, so that pretty much on queue we arrived in North Sound at 3:30 in the afternoon.

Sir Richard Branson's estate on Necker Island. Definitely a playground for the rich and famous.
More of the estate, guest houses presumably?
One would think the palm trees would be prettier, I'm not convinced these are actually real.
Lots of toys but no one out playing today.
Our passage was fairly uneventful but just to liven things up, we had one encounter with a cruise ship requiring a course adjustment and tracked quite a few other close passes in the night. Our AIS is a wonderful addition showing us the position and course of other transmitting vessels, including all commercial ships. We could immediately see the collision course to the 900' behemoth and quickly took corrective action without a lot of worry about whether we were interpreting the situation correctly.

More favourable was the five-dolphin escort we received about 20 miles off Virgin Gorda. Happily this was in daylight and a most enjoyable break. Other than a few birds and flying fish we had not seen any other wildlife, although Henry does love it when I call out, "Brown boobie!". Yes, that is a very common bird down here. In daylight we did discover that Mowzer had been doing her own fishing and we had a couple of flying fish who had ended their flight on the deck.

Three of the five dolphin agreed to stick around for a photo shoot.
Their dance and synchronicity across the bows is like a choreographed dance.
Mowzer's catch.
Tired and hungry after check in, we couldn't resist happy hour and a snack at Jumbies and then off to bed we went.

Still being rather new at this, there are a few things we learned: hand steering sucks - especially in a following sea, downwind sailing is definitely smoother than upwind but both of us found the motion made us much more susceptible to a little "mal de mer" and as such it was difficult to prepare a meal and be inside the boat, and finally, if we hadn't been anxious to beat the weather we probably would have turned around to give further trouble shooting to the situation. All good things to keep in mind for the next time and definitely what we're out here for.

Friday morning update: a little molly-coddling in the form of recalibration has returned Sulu to his station ready to take on our next piloting requirements. A super calm day on the Drake Channel saw us driving in multiple circles to reset his internal compass and get him back on course. Definitely didn't want to try that manoever in the dark with 5' swells.