Growltiger Cruise Newsletter # 2 12 Jan 2006
When we last left you on 16 Sep at the end of Newsletter #1, we were happily docked at the marina in Rota, Spain, recovering our land legs after completing a successful West-to-East Atlantic crossing. Since then we have traveled far and have had our share of adventures. Hopefully without boring you with too much detail, I’ll try to bring you up to date on our travels in this newsletter. As before, it's fairly comprehensive, so read as little or as much as you might find interesting. For those who would like to see pictures, feel free to check out our website at www.sv-growltiger.com - Joan promises that she really will be updating it soon with new pictures with the assist of Webmaster Christina.
Quick summary up front – we are currently anchored in English Harbour on the island of Antigua, having just completed our second trans-Atlantic crossing. We left Rota back in September, sailed through the Pillars of Hercules to Gibraltar, journeyed into the Med along Spain’s Costa del Sol, crossed over to Smir in Morocco to explore a bit of North Africa, and then sailed back to Rota via Gibraltar to prep for our return voyage across the Atlantic. We cast off from Rota on 31 October for a storm-tossed trip to the island of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands, paused there while I made a quick trip back to the States to pick-up some hard-to-get repair parts, completed our fixes and continued on to first Gran Canaria and then Tenerife in the Canaries. We were in Santa Cruz when Tropical Storm Delta caught up to us. Our marina took heavy damage, but we came through unscathed and continued on to Mindelo in the Cape Verde Islands for a touch of Sub-Saharan Africa. Launched out of there on 15 Dec for our East-to-West Trans-Atlantic, spent Christmas afloat, and made our Caribbean landfall in Antigua just after dawn on New Year’s Day. Now, for those who might be interested in the details, the rest of the story.
Back to September, the Hospital staff at the Naval Base in Rota continued to treat us as one of their own. We made some great friends who welcomed us into their homes, helped cart us around, and provided great support. Particular thanks are in order to Gabby and Jeff Sanford and Cindy and Dave Pruschki for all their help and friendship. We also had a chance to tour around a bit, and had a particularly interesting day exploring the old city of Cadiz, which has its long history of being on the receiving side of British forays.
We departed Rota on 25 September for a day sail down past the reefs of Cape Trafalgar and anchored for the night off a beach next to the fishing village of Barbate in order to time our approach to the Strait of Gibraltar the following morning. It turns out that the Strait is a very complex body of water with multiple tidal streams running next to each other, often in opposing directions. At times a matter of feet can make the difference between racing in one direction or being pushed back in the other. Our timing worked out great and we literally surfed through the Strait, passing the old city of Tarifa, ancient castles and fortifications on a beautiful Fall day, making in excess of 10 knots over the ground at times (for our non-boating friends, that’s really fast for a sail boat like ours). Rounding into the Bay of Gibraltar with the Rock towering above you really is a neat experience (not to mention dealing with the 35 knot downdrafts you get off the mountain). You have to be really history-deaf not to feel the presence of Lord Nelson and the generations of British sailors that have proceeded you below those cliffs.
We spent about the next week enjoying the area. Walked through the sites in town, visited St Michael’s Cave inside the Rock, said hello to the Barbary Apes on top of the Rock, climbed inside the Siege Tunnels, etc.. Our visit to Gibraltar really was timely because they were busy getting ready for the celebration of the 200th Anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. It added that much more to our tours through the fortifications, museums, and pubs (pubs???). Anyway, it was a great visit. We also linked up with another "family" of fellow cruisers who were anchored between Gibraltar and La Linea on the Spanish side. Between "potlucks" on this boat or that, we started building a list of boats and families that we would run into time and again as we moved from place to place. Along the way we picked up Kresten, the blond, blue-eyed, 20-something Dane, who we first met in Portugal where he had agreed to sail with us as a deckhand to supplement the crew during our longer passages; he provided the crew support that Joan was no longer able to handle. Kresten would end up staying with us until we reached the Caribbean.
On 1 October we departed Gibraltar to start our cruise into the Med. Somewhat to our surprise, 1 October really marks the change in boating seasons in Europe – the weather starts to turn cooler with winds coming generally from the East and boats return to their home marinas for the winter. This has two big impacts – first it makes the entire West side of the Med a lee-shore (often making anchorages off beaches untenable – which in turn forces you into the protection of marinas); and the marinas are all full with no room for transients. Further, the days of sleepy fishing villages on protected bays are a thing of the past, with virtually the entire coast of Spain and France now turned into nearly identical resort complexes. The result was that our first venture into the Med was short. Had strong east winds and couldn’t find a marina with an open spot for over a 100 miles. Spent a rolly night anchored off a beach at Fuengirola and decided to retrace our wake back to the La Linea side of Gibraltar to rethink the situation.
After a number of phone calls, we were able to reserve a spot on the breakwater at Duquesa and headed back up the Costa Del Sol. Duquesa was nice, but not particularly different then a number of other places we had experienced. Nice marina surrounded by restaurants and shops and bars, all eager to separate you from your euros as rapidly as possible. After about five days, we decided a change was in order.
We had been debating the pros and cons of visiting an Islamic country for some time. Given the world situation, Joan was the voice of sanity and thought it was crazy. Yet I had lived in Morocco for three years as a kid, loved it, and had a hard time believing that the world had changed so much that we could not return with a reasonable degree of security to a place I had happily lived in for so long. We reflected on one of the primary purposes of our cruise being the opportunity to expose our kids to the different cultures of the world and the fact that so far we had been warmly received as a family by virtually every foreigner we had encountered since leaving the US. We talked to other cruisers who had recently been to North Africa, read the papers (riots were ongoing with immigrants trying to force their way into Ceutra), listened to the news, and decided to take our chances. On 8 October we departed Spain and headed for Smir on the Med coast of Morocco.
We arrived four days into Ramadan at a nice, but virtually empty marina. Since the prime season was over, we were actually able to tie-up along side the quay instead of the more usual bow-in/stern-in Med more. The staff there helped us line up a guide (Rashid) and driver (Yashine) and we headed into the nearby city of Tetouan. It was a great visit – the Morocco I remembered from 40 years ago was still very much in evidence. Narrow, winding streets, donkey carts, vendors of every imaginable product selling from tiny stalls, fresh meat hanging from the rafters of the butcher – covered by even fresher flies. An experience in contrasts – exquisite mosques and palaces guarded by well-starched troops around the corner from beggars and buildings that were new during the First Crusade. It was really the first time our kids had been outside the American/Western European world and their eyes were wide open. It was also satisfying to have them understand that we can fly the Stars and Stripes in an area that doesn’t see it very much these days.
We found that European merchants came in a poor second to their Moroccan counterparts in terms of prying money from your pockets. Our "guide" steered us to places where we knew he was getting a percentage of whatever we purchased. We hung pretty tough until we got to the "fine arts center", that turned out to look and feel a whole lot like a rug merchant. We already have a house full of finely crafted Oriental carpets and we definitely were not in the market for more, yet they were beautiful and the tea was excellent and they were so nice to the kids and . . . yes we did end up with more carpets – so much for the month’s cruising budget!
Two days later with a different guide (Jalid), we were off to visit the Berber town of Chefchaouen, high up in the Rif Mountains. The drive up was something straight out of "Raiders of the Lost Ark". It was raining for the first time in months and the Moroccan drivers were definitely out of practice. After stopping at the ruins of an ancient Roman town (Tamuda), passing herds of sheep grazing under ancient aqueducts, working our way on winding roads around about a half dozen accidents, we found ourselves in this rather amazing town clinging to the side of a mountain in which all the buildings were painted a bright blue – apparently in an attempt to ward off mosquitoes. Fascinating place, completely soaked, great lunch in a Moroccan restaurant, secret police hovering in the background to make sure that nothing happened to the Americans that might embarrass the Crown, success at warding off the rug merchants – a very satisfying trip. Back at the marina, we also met fellow US cruisers Jerry and Carolyn on Options. He’s a retired pilot, so it shows that being crazy isn’t restricted to just the ground Services.
Back to Gibraltar for a three-day visit and a mega-potluck with about 15 fellow cruising boats. Then back through the Straits, back around Trafalger, and back to Rota – which now had the feeling of "coming home". Spent the next 16 days making sure the boat was ready to head back across the Atlantic. Full round of oil and fuel filter changes, cleaned the prop, inspected everything from top to bottom, serviced winches, etc.. Found time to take some of our US hospital friends out for a day cruise into the Atlantic. Guests included Franco "Pedro" Cadena, the Spanish matador whose ranch we had visited during our first trip to Rota in September. In Spain, matadors are sort of like NFL stars, so his arrival at the marina caused something of a stir. It was a beautiful sailing day and our boat ops must have "passed muster" because Chief Sanford gave me one of his Chief’s caps – an appreciated gesture from a Navy guy to an old Army guy.
It was now the end of October and the feel of approaching winter was in the air, so we knew we needed to get moving. Everything was ready, got our last mail drop from the States, refueled, and cast off for the Canary Islands on 31 October for about an 800 mile trip. Our forecast was for a rather benign weather window with light winds initially and then a small low pressure trough to move through as we approached the islands. As expected, we spent the first two days motor-sailing. Whenever we’re motoring a lot, I routinely stop once a day to check engine fluid levels, etc.. During one such check around 2300 hrs on 2 November, I found, much to my surprise, evidence of water in the transmission fluid – apparently the oil cooler had corroded away and was allowing cooling water into the transmission – not good. After five months of cruising with virtually no major maintenance issues, we were suddenly a pure sailboat with an inoperative transmission, sailing in very light winds about 100 miles off the coast of North Africa. We got our spinnaker up at daybreak and started making reasonable progress at about 5 knots. That continued throughout the day and I was sorely tempted to leave it up at night – which as a rule we never do. Since that’s a lot of sail to have up if the winds increase, I eventually took it down around 0200 and reverted to our regular rig of headsail, main, and mizzen.
About 0400, with absolutely no warning, the wind shifted and spiked up to over 40 knots. Our "small low pressure trough" had arrived with a vengeance. Seas built as we experience our first "Force Nine - Strong Gale", but we put the wind behind us and were amazed at how well the boat handled the conditions. It was many hours before the wind let up enough for us to reef the main and get the mizzen down. While it made for tough steering duty at the helm (Christina did a particularly great job), it did have us moving like a freight train at over 8 knots sustained toward the Canaries.
We had initially planned on going to a rather remote anchorage off the Isla Graciosa, but shifted our destination to the Marina Rubicon on the south shore of Lanzarote in the expectation of better maintenance support. As we approached Lanzarote on the morning of 5 November, the auxiliary generator decided not to start, our second major maintenance failure of the trip – we were now down to charging batteries with an engine that had to be kept in neutral. Swept under the cliffs of Lanzarote and closed on the marina around 1100 hrs, using the transmission just long enough to maneuver into the marina and our slip. It was good to step ashore again after what had been one of our more interesting sails.
In sharp contrast to the Azores, the Canaries are absolutely barren volcanic islands – hardly a tree in sight. They seem almost like a direct extension of the Sahara Desert. The social organization is also in sharp contrast, with each island having its own way of doing business, to include its own customs organization. After finding some boats that were still waiting after a month for in-bound parts known to be in the possession of customs, It took me only a few days to come to the conclusion that the only sure way to get the correct replacement parts we needed (engine oil cooler and generator starter) was to return to the US, get them in hand, and bring them back to the Canaries under my control as part of my hand luggage. So started a mad dash back to Virginia. Short version is I left late Friday night, connections were terrible, Madrid was closed for weather, flights diverted, baggage handlers went on strike, returned to Lanzarote with parts in hand Wednesday night, slept in Thursday, had everything back up and running be Friday supper. Ah . . . the cruising life.
While I was making the run to the States, Joan and the kids traveled on the ferry to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria to link up with Dr Alex Bochdansky from Old Dominion University. As you may recall from our first newsletter, Christina and Joshua collected daily plankton samples during our first Atlantic crossing as part of a research project to baseline ocean conditions. That effort had grown into a major project and Old Dominion was sending a team under Dr Bochdansky on a large research vessel departing from Las Palmas to continue the effort with collections at deeper levels. Joan and the kids were given the royal treatment and a complete tour of the research vessel by captain and crew. They were also able to do a bit of a recon on Las Palmas as our next destination.
With the boat back in order, we cast off from Lanzarote and made the one day trip to Las Palmas on Gran Canaria. Found that the mail order parts for our head had either not arrived or had disappeared into the hands of others prior to our arrival. Ah . . . the cruising life. Joan managed to conjure up a Thanksgiving feast complete with turkey on the 24th. While Las Palmas was the closest thing to a city that we had seen since Europe, the marina wasn’t the greatest and we decided to move on to Santa Cruz on Tenerife, arriving there on 26 November.
Now one of the major reasons you go to the Canary Islands is to escape the winter weather patterns building in Europe and stage for an Atlantic crossing, safe from the storms that move west across the Atlantic and build into hurricanes in the Caribbean. But, as we all know, this has not been a "typical weather year". As soon as we arrived in Tenerife, word started to build about an "unusual" tropical storm that was forming in the Atlantic and potentially heading back toward the Canaries. Within 24 hours that went from potential to "look out" and we went into storm prep mode, securing the boat with additional lines and clearing the decks of unnecessary equipment.
We were on a large floating dock with about 20 finger piers, very well protected from wave action, but less so from wind. As Tropical Storm Delta approached and the winds built, we noticed that our finger pier was starting to flex. Working with our finger pier neighbors Rodney and Sue on GlenLyon, another US boat, we redirected our efforts to shoring up the finger pier with multiple lines. Short version is that as the full fury of the storm hit, with winds reported in excess of 80 knots, all but two of the finger piers collapsed, sending the nearly 40 boats attached to them into general mayhem. Our pier and one other held, and we came through the storm without a scratch. It was a memorable night – hard to believe that you can heel over more then 45 degrees when tied to a dock with multiple lines and be so noisy that you can’t make yourself heard to the person sitting next to you. It just served to reinforce our already great respect for the power of Mother Nature.
We had planned on spending more time in Tenerife, which is a lovely island, but the whole community was now into a major storm recovery mode, with most services knocked out. Further, the marina was anxious for us to leave so that they could get on with dock repairs. So on that note, we cast off on 2 December to start the nearly 900 mile trip to the Cape Verde Islands off of the coast of Senegal. We made the trip in 6 and a half days in relatively light winds. We were able to experiment with our asymmetrical spinnaker and came up with a configuration where we poled out the spinnaker using our main boom that greatly increased our downwind sailing angles. Our fishing luck also started turning for the better and Joshua started pulling in meal-sized mahi mahis on a regular basis.
We arrived in Mindelo on the island of Sao Vincente on 9 December for what would be a quick dip into the culture of Sub-Saharan Africa. Mindelo is sort of an example of a Third World success story, but its "modern infrastructure" is very thin and the population still lives very close to the belt. We anchored out in what is a very large and well protected harbor. We hired the obligatory "boat boy" to keep an eye on things and started to get a feel for the city.
Several of the boats got together for an island tour. It consisted of hiring three pick-up trucks with benches in the back. We packed in about a dozen people onto each truck and took a hair-raising ride about the island. Like the Canaries, the Cape Verdes are volcanic and largely barren of vegetation. Our trip took us up a narrow winding road to the top of a volcano as the highest point on the island – the view was sensational – as long as you didn’t step too near the edge. The villages were poor and when Joan asked some of the children what they would like – they asked for school supplies. To their beaming smiles, we quickly divested ourselves of all of our pencils and pens.
The boats that found themselves together in Mindelo quickly became the next informal Atlantic cruising rally contingent. One of the boats, Peace and Aloha, organized a radio net that would serve to keep track of everyone as we headed out across the Atlantic. We made our final preparations and departed Mindelo on 15 December for the Caribbean. Our original destination was Barbados and we laid our course accordingly. We had light winds for the first three days, then a bout of rainy skies and choppy seas, before we picked up on 21 December the sunny skies and good wind (15 to 25 knot s) more typical of "trade wind sailing". From that point on, we basically didn’t touch the engine for the next 12 days. Joshua was routinely pulling in mahi mahi, so the time from catch to consumption was getting down to minutes.
On the 23rd we were visited by a large pod of whales that stayed with us for over two hours. Their white underbellies and fins lead us to believe that they were fin or Bryde’s whales. We celebrated Christmas with a small tree in the salon and opened gifts (very limited in number and nature) in the cockpit. Joan somehow conjured up a beef tenderloin feast with all the trimmings, producing enough left-overs to have "surf and turf" (beef tenderloin and mahi mahi) for the next two nights.
While we had good wind from the 21st on, it unfortunately was from the East instead of the Northeast and settled in directly behind us – plus it was too strong to use our spinnaker. That meant that we had to gybe a lot back and forth to hold our desired course to Barbados. After awhile, we started to question why we were travelling 150 miles to make 100 miles towards our destination. We decided we were supposed to be cruisers and flexible in our plans, so we looked at what course we could easily hold and decided on 28 December to shift our landfall to Antigua. In celebration of that decision, Joshua caught the largest fish of the trip, a 42 inch mahi mahi. From that point on it was straight to Antigua. We had another whale visit on 31 December. A beautiful creature, about 35 to 40 feet long, at times less then 10 feet from the boat, rarely more than 200 feet away. He/she stayed with us for most of the afternoon. We began to wonder if the squeal emitted by our autopilot might in some way sound like whale language of enough interest to hold a whale with us for that many hours.
We started to have squalls at night during the last several nights of the trip. Naturally it was in these squally conditions that we approached Antigua on New Year’s Eve night. We had wanted to slow down so that we could make our landfall in daylight, but the wind and current were so strong and steady that it drove us forward at over seven knots no matter how much we reduced sail. So we arrived off Antigua in early morning darkness and spent the first moments of the New Year watching the lights of the island and cruising back and forth in 35 knots of wind waiting for the sun to come up. It eventually did and we sailed into English Harbour to drop our anchor in Freeman Bay off Galleon Beach at 0830 on 1 January 2006 with the second trans-Atlantic of the year under our belts.
For the last week we’ve been taking care of the wear and tear from the crossing, getting our land legs back in order, and exploring Nelson’s Dockyards and the other sights of Antigua. The general plan is that we will depart here in a few days and head south, island hopping through the Lesser Antilles, with a general goal of being in Trinidad for Carnival by mid-February. Then it will probably be back up through the islands to the Virgin Islands and on through the Bahamas in order to be back in the Chesapeake by June.
I can report, as I did at the end of the first newsletter, that so far the boat has held up extremely well and the crew is still on speaking terms with each other. Not bad for having teens locked within 50 feet of their parents for seven months. Joan has good days mixed with not so good days as she deals with her medical issues, but she's a real trooper and is hanging in there. Whether it’s hands, back or hips, it’s clear her days of sitting for hours behind a computer are definitely over, even if I have to remind her at times to leave the lifting and sail-handling to others. She does what she can and we rely upon her brain for weather forecasting and her voice for radio communications. She has now very much become the recognized "voice of Growltiger" on SSB. The use of HF Single Side Band nets has helped, reinforced by Herb Hilgenberg (Southbound II) and Commander’s Weather, to guide numerous boats across the Atlantic. Seven months into this venture, we’re more comfortable then ever with the knowledge that this is where we need to be right now.
Now that we’re back on this side of the Atlantic, we’re hoping that some of you will be able to visit. Will keep you posted on our further adventures.
Greg, Joan, Joshua, and Christina