Saturday, May 16, 2015

Say your position and nature of distress, over

We are anchored just off the beach on the west side of South Bimini, near the Bimini Sands resort and marina (map). We had a bit of excitement around here this morning, and I've been up since 4am. I've already fixed three things on the boat, but this morning's incident reminds me that we have nothing but minor problems here aboard Vector.

We enjoyed our time at Cat Cay. We had a nice dinner at the Nauticat restaurant after we arrived Tuesday, even though the tender ride ashore was a bit choppy. We enjoyed snorkeling off the swim step or just relaxing in the water on our pool noodles each day -- the water here is now a pleasant 83°. And Thursday we returned to the club for a nice lunch at the open-air bar next to the docks, plus a stop at the very nice store on the island. So nice, in fact, that no prices were visible anywhere -- we bought just four items.

Cat Cay, with the airstrip in foreground and marina in background, from our anchorage.

As pleasant as it was on the island, most of which is off limits to non-members, there was little to protect us from the easterlies and the chop they brought. We were anchored on the east side of the island, where the marina is, and only a small shoal stood between us and the entire fetch of the bank. So yesterday we opted to weigh anchor and move along.

I had plotted a route that remained on the bank, but that would have us crossing some pretty shallow spots, and it turned out to be choppier on the bank side than the strait side, so we exited to the Strait of Florida at the cut between Cat and Gun cays. We crossed only one 8' section (at mid-tide rising) and then had to negotiate something of an S-curve at the cut, but we were soon in clear blue water, hundreds of feet deep.

I had hoped to do a circle around the wreck of the Sapona, a possible snorkel site for when our friends join us, but that was on the other route, and we had to be content with seeing it from a mile and a half away.  It's quite large and easy to see even from that distance, but I could not get a good photo; you can see one if you click the link.

We turned back in just south of South Bimini, heading for an anchorage known as Nixon's Harbor. That turned out to be just as choppy as where we had been at Cat, with some swell to boot, and we turned back around and came here instead. We dropped the hook about 600' further offshore than we lie now, and enjoyed a nice dinner and a beautiful sunset over the strait. There was no chop, but a medium-period swell rocked us all evening.

Bimini is almost more a part of south Florida than a part of the Bahamas. After sunset I could see Florida's light pollution to the west, a sodium-orange glow pervading the whole western skyline. We hear the US Coast Guard in Miami here easily, and we also hear calls from TowboatUS and SeaTow in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, although we seldom hear the other end of these calls. But mostly, the waters here are full of obnoxious recreational boaters in go-fast boats who come over for an evening or a weekend.

And so it should not have surprised us that we listened to someone's loud stereo from over a half mile away all evening, and breathed wood smoke from a huge bonfire on the beach complete with loud and presumably intoxicated revelers. And, of course, we are constantly waked by express cruisers zipping by on plane. We just shrugged, figured it's Bimini, Florida, and resolved that we'd be out of here just as soon as our guests are aboard and squared away.

Louise went to bed early, and I drowned out the Friday-night noise by watching TV with my headphones on until midnight, when I turned in. It was a short sleep; just after 4am I woke to voices, and realized Louise was in the pilothouse talking on the radio. I could tell from the voices at both ends that it was not good. I scrambled upstairs, now wide awake.

Louise had heard a MAYDAY call, loud and clear as from a close-by radio. It turned out to not really be a mayday -- a code word reserved exclusively for imminent danger to life and limb, but more appropriately a Pan-Pan, which is a vessel in distress but not immediately life-threatening.

After just a couple of minutes we realized the boat on the radio was literally on the beach right in front of us, perhaps 1,500' or so. They were taking on water and trying to reach TowBoatUS, perhaps mistakenly thinking they were still stateside (see above). While we were talking to them, TowBoatUS in Fort Lauderdale, who has a very tall antenna, did manage to come back to them, and said they *might* be able to do *something* if they called back after 9am.

We copied their position and I finally asked them if they could see the remains of a bonfire on the beach, and they told me "we are the bonfire." Still I could not make out their boat, which was unlit, through the darkness. Their description of the distress made it sound like they just needed some help with pumping the boat out or maybe pulling it off the beach.

And so it was that at 4:30am we ended up splashing the tender in the dark. I donned a swim suit and my inflatable PFD, and headed over to the beach. Louise remained aboard Vector, along with my cell phone, to man the radio. I had the handheld spotlight with me, and before I even got within 500' of them I knew they were in deep trouble.

The boat was a 31' deep-vee center console with a custom tuna tower. By the time I arrived it was half-beached, heeled over perhaps 30°, with the port quarter awash. The gunwale was below the water surface, with no way to pump the boat out without first somehow lifting that corner. Not something five of us and a 25 horsepower tender were going to be able to do. These guys had figured if they could just pull it to deeper water they could even the keel and pump it out, but I'm certain it just would have sunk. I don't think a 31' Sea Vee is a self-righting, inherent-flotation boat.

The two couples on the beach didn't seem to know much about the boat at all, and I soon learned why -- it belonged to a friend and they borrowed it for a weekend in Bimini. They had planned to just spend the night on the beach or on board the boat. Most of their gear was already ashore, around the bonfire. I suggested they call the owner for advice, but they seemed reluctant to tell him what happened until they had some kind of resolution.

With no substantive way to help physically, the best we could do was to get some phone numbers off the Internet and make some calls for them. Somewhere in all the calling around and the radio traffic, the local constabulary became aware of the situation, and a few minutes later they were on scene in their boat. I wished them all luck and returned home.

How it looked in the light of day. Both engines and most of the console submerged. Boat behind them is the salvage crew.

We went back to bed, but before I could get any sleep it was dawn, and I went upstairs to check on a noise I was hearing, possibly our tender banging into the swim step. When I looked ashore I could see their boat had rolled over to 90°, sunk at the beach. Whereas both engines, and all the controls and electronics were still high and dry when I left them, now one outboard was fully submerged and the other half-under, along with all the wiring panels, electronics, controls, and lockers.

After an hour, they had it back to about where it was when I first saw it. Remains of the bonfire are to the left.

We made a pot of coffee and decided to go back to offer a ride or whatever else they needed, but before I even finished a cup, some locals in a center console had come by to help. These guys knew what they were doing and had the proper recovery tackle to right the boat and get it floated, which took them perhaps an hour. We opted to drive around scooping up flotsam that had come out of all the lockers and was starting to head out to sea. Whoever owned this boat had lots of sun block.

Just part of the giant pile of flotsam we collected.

Eventually the Bahamians towed the boat to the Bimini Sands Marina for repairs or whatever, and the group left the beach an hour or so later with all their gear, I think to a hotel room there. They'll ride back on the ferry, the same one that is bringing our friends in a few days.

Vector, as seen from the beach near the wreck. As far as I could tell, the folks in these two anchored vessels never even woke up. The calm-looking area behind the sailboat is the sheen from the wreck, which enveloped Vector a short time later.

I don't know what it costs to fix something like this, but a quick search shows the boat is worth something north of $100k. It was only under for a few hours, and if they rinse all the gear with fresh water quickly they may be able to dry and salvage some of it. I'm trying to imagine how the phone call back to the friend who loaned them the boat went. And the reason for all this? They ran the boat onto the beach instead of anchoring a few dozen feet away.

When we launched the tender last night, the nav lights didn't work, and when I got home the automatic cat litter box had quit working. And the bolts on the anchor roller were coming loose when we dropped the hook here. I fixed all three today, counting myself lucky to be plagued with minor annoyances like this on an almost daily basis. Even my "big" project earlier in the week, wherein I had to stick my arm down into the (empty) waste tank to shoot compressed air into the blocked vent line, pales in comparison. (That gambit appears to have worked and the vent is clear now.)

After all the drama was over this morning and we finished our second coffee, we ended up weighing anchor and moving 600' closer to shore. We still have some swell here but it is less than where we were. I had been reluctant to come this close yesterday in Vector because the chart shows it shallowing, but we had plenty of opportunity to sound it in the tender while we chased down over a dozen bottles of sunblock, several coozies, a bottle of Dawn, and other detritus from the wreck.

About an hour after we vacated the spot, a 164' megayacht, Ariana, dropped anchor in that exact spot and started unloading toys for their $200,000-a-week charter guests. Methinks we're in for a noisy weekend. This afternoon we'll take the tender into town for dinner and to check the place out. At least it's already in the water and has working nav lights.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Projects by the yard

And now for something completely different. It turns out that having an offline hobby has been quite useful on a boat, where connectivity is not guaranteed. So without futher ado, here is a photo essay of how I've been filling my time while Sean is fixing the black tank, chart plotter, BBQ grill, and stuffing box.

Baby quilt for a dear friend's great grandchild. I just finished this today. The last step of making a quilt is sewing on the binding, or outer edge. This is best done by hand, and is a great thing to do while trawlering slowly across a shallow Bahamian bank. My eyeballs are getting old enough that I need to do my hand sewing during day light hours.

New cockpit chair covers. Not a quilting project, but I think they turned out pretty spiffy.

Sewing machine cover. I tend to buy bird-themed fabric whenever I see it, so I used some of my bird stash. The sewing machine sits under the furthest forward portlight, and tends to get a bit of salty spray on it. Best to keep it covered, I think.

Wall hanging for salon. At this stage the background had been quilted, but not the bird panels. And of course, the binding hadn't been sewn on.

Wall hanging for guest stateroom (to cover ugly holes from previous TV installation). Look! Bird fabric. What a surprise. This is the top half; the bottom features two blue jays. I have about eight more panels of this fabric, with chickdees, finches, cardinals, etc. There is an enormous range of quality when it comes to quilting fabric content and design. I'm always looking for bird designs that are realistic (not cartoony), crisply printed, have a soft feel and aren't in bizarre colors. Not always easy to find.

Lightweight bedspread for master stateroom. This isn't quilted, but is just two layers of cotton for hot weather. The fabric is twelve squares of furoshiki, which is used in Japan to wrap gifts instead of paper. Each panel shows a black and white tuxedo cat in an outdoor setting at different times of the year/day. I like to think of them as depictions of our sweet George in cat heaven.

A gift lap quilt. The recipient is an occasional blog reader, so I won't say anything more at this point.

Hexagonal table topper for cockpit. The el cheapo table and chairs that we purchased at Home Depot back in 2013 are holding up well: the wood is sturdy and the brass hardware is not corroding. However, the "teak" finish seems to be just brown paint, and is fading and flaking, so covering it up a bit has helped. I actually prefer the back of this little quilt, and often use it upside down. The backing fabric has wrens flying through fields of chrysanthemums.

Gift lap quilt for a sick friend in Japan. There are some gorgeous blue fabrics in this, featuring butterflies, leaves, and metallic accents. It's such a pleasure to sew with quality materials.

Gift lap quilt for dear friends in California. They have very pampered, beloved cats who have claimed the quilt as their own. I love the colors and groovy patterns on this quilt, but the darn thing fought me every inch of the way because  I made a poor choice on the backing fabric. There was a lot of cursing and hurling of sewing tools during the making of this one!

Christmas table topper, featuring birds in wreaths: partridge, cardinal, jay. I really like the non-traditional turquoise in this one. The backing fabric is rainbow cats by Laurel Burch! So fun.

Gift table topper for another dear friend, made with wine themed fabric.

Christmas wall hanging, a gift for my Mom. She drapes it over the back of her love seat for a perfect fit. The bows on the packages are made from satin ribbon, so it's three dimensional.

A little Christmas themed thingy. About the size of a placemat. This small project was used to practice free motion quilting, the swirly stitching pattern on the gray background which is made by pushing the fabric manually rather than letting the sewing machine move in straight lines. There are five more coordinating panels of this fabric, so I'll probably make more next Christmas. 

Rough piecing for Christmas tree wall hanging. This was also finished using free motion quilting, but I never took a photo of the completed project.

Table topper for salon dining table. Made from beautiful hexagons of Japanese themed fabric that were a birthday gift from Stephanie and her Mom Sandy. The dark blue fabric around the outer border features dragons. For a change of pace, the back of this two-sided piece is bright, lurid, modern fabric in a wonky non-symmetic design. 

Rough piecing of pillow covers for master stateroom. Again, I never took final photos, but we use these on the bed every day. They coordinate surprisingly well with the "George in Heaven" bedspread!

Table topper for pilot house table. The soft wood of this table was getting scratched by my computer, so it needed a cover. I just love the blue fabric with the little birds on it. The back of this piece is a different bird fabric, in bright primary colors, and I flip it back and forth as the mood strikes.

"Rally Flag" lap quilt that I made for Sean. The lighter colored flags at the top are made from fabric that has pink, green and blue scooters on it. Making this little quilt is when I discovered that my husband loves bright colors. Who knew?

Rough piecing for antimacassar for Sean's leather chair.

TV cover, with octagonal medallions of Japanese fabric.

Falling leaves table topper for salon dining table and/or salon wall hanging.

Tessellating tails cat wall hanging in UCLA colors for our niece. There are four cats, but the contrast isn't great on the bottom cat. Now her sister is heading off to college, and has asked me to make pillow covers for her new dorm bedding, so that's my next project.

I also have several other gifts in progress that I'm keeping a secret for now. Since we will be having guests aboard Vector in about a week, I need to start cleaning up my sewing stuff and getting the guest room back into shape for their visit. Quilting generates an amazing amount of "spoo:" threads, batting fuzz, tiny fabric scraps, and lint. Time to break out the vacuum cleaner and get all that out of the carpet!

Bahamas, by the numbers

I am typing under way across the Great Bahama Bank. We are on a long-established route known as Larks Two Fathom Bridge, where depths have generally been two fathoms or more, but, as the chart notes, sometimes drop to around ten feet.

With a mostly unchanging forecast for the week, we opted to leave our cozy anchorage at Chub Cay yesterday morning. With wind and swell behind us, we had a very pleasant ride, right up until it was time to anchor. We diverted about a mile north of the marked route, looking for shallower water marked on the chart as the south end of the Mackie Bank.

We never did find the shallow spot; these sands change over time, and the forces here flattened it out. We ended up dropping the hook in 12' MLW, bow-in to the seas (map). Fortunately, over such a great expanse, we had wind and waves from the same direction, which meant very little roll, only pitching. But pitch we did; we let out 130' of anchor chain for the most comfortable ride, and Louise took a short video of our motion while at anchor.

While we did need to keep "one hand for the boat," it was fine, and the breeze kept us nice and cool. We did eat in the saloon rather than on deck, where the sun was too fierce and the motion a little greater. After sunset things calmed down considerably, and we had a pleasant night, waking to much calmer seas.

Things have been calmer throughout the day today, so perhaps we left just a day too early, but that is the nature of weather forecasts. I'll be just as happy to have calmer seas crossing the bar into the Cat Cay area later today; we have to go over a segment that is charted just six feet deep at low tide. We'll arrive there at mid-tide rising, so we should have at least a foot under our keel the whole time.

While I have a few moments I thought I'd share some of the numbers for the trip thus far.

Since leaving our last US port, Lake Worth, we have come 832 nautical miles in 141 engine hours. We've run the generator for 191 hours. We've burned approximately 550 gallons of diesel fuel (and about 18 gallons of gasoline in the dinghy). So far, this trip holds the record for longest period between power outlets, at 77 days, and between docks, at 50 days. We still have not used a water spigot, which is now going on 82 days and counting. That means every drop of water in our tank now is RO water we made on board.

More broadly speaking, we've now traveled more than 7,200 nautical miles (that's 2,400 leagues, for the history-minded) in Vector since we took ownership. A short while ago, Louise compiled some of our overall statistics and found we had docked the boat over 100 times and we've dropped the anchor more than 150 times.

I think we're starting to get the hang of this, and all the systems are holding up surprisingly well. This is the first extended "away from civilization" cruise we've taken, and the only major system that has become an issue is the BBQ grill. As a side note, my early concerns that the anchor might be a bit small for the boat seem unfounded, as it has steadfastly handled every situation we've thrown at it, now over 150 times. I'll need to go back through the log, but I'm pretty sure it's held us to the bottom now for a total of over a year.

Update: We are now safely anchored just off the runway at Cat Cay (map), and we've made arrangements for dinner at the Cat Cay Club's casual restaurant, the Nauticat, at their marina. The fine-dining establishment on the island is strictly members-only.

We saw no less than 7.9' crossing the bar a few miles east of here, at about mid-tide. We'd make it at anything other than dead low. Water that shallow, with a sandy bottom, makes for a spectacular view, as you can see in today's cover photo; we were tempted to stop the boat and just jump in. Instead, I'll jump in tomorrow, while we're here.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Pan fried

We are anchored off Chub Cay, in the Berry Islands (map). Chub is an oft-used stopping point on the main cruising route from south Florida to Nassau. We had seven neighbors last night, and so far another three tonight. Earlier today we were all alone in the anchorage.

The anchorage is just off the entrance channel to the Chub Cay Club marina, part of an on-again, off-again "resort" development on the island. The island is "private" and our chart/guidebook says it is not even permitted to land a tender. Nevertheless, we called ahead and asked if we could have dinner in the restaurant, and it turned out to be no problem.

The beach at Chub Cay. Unfinished "clubhouse" is to the right. The buildings to the left are private "cottages" in the development. The marina is behind all these buildings.

At first blush, from the anchorage, it all looks very high-end, backing up the claim that it's all private and exclusive. Looks can be deceiving, however. But first, we needed to get anchored, which was more of a challenge than we had expected.

We had a flat calm crossing. The route from Nassau crosses deep water where the Tongue of the Ocean meets the Northwest Providence Channel, and it can be rough enough that boats will wait here or in Nassau for days until the weather settles for the voyage. By luck of timing, we had virtually no wind, and waves of just inches the whole way across.

Unsurprisingly, then, the anchorage here was even calmer when we arrived. But with three sailboats already here and occupying the "good" spots, we had to squeeze in just at the very edge of the channel. Or so we thought, based on what our chart said the depths were closer to shore.

After getting the anchor set and the boat squared away, we splashed the tender, in anticipation of going ashore for dinner. As long as the tender was down, I did a quick run around the anchorage to sound it out.  I found depths higher than charted throughout, and plenty of room for Vector a bit closer to shore.

No sooner had I returned with the depth report than another motor yacht arrived, and dropped the hook right next to us. By the time they were set, they were sticking out into the channel by a half boat length. I should mention here that Chub Cay Marina is something of a sportfishing destination, and larger sportfishers come and go through this channel at all hours. The marina also accommodates yachts in the 150'+ range, and we found three of those berthed when we went ashore.

Fortunately, they did not encroach on the nice spot I had already picked out in the tender, and we weighed anchor and moved a hundred yards or so, leaving the newcomer by himself. The move seemed prescient when, a short while later, the marina hailed him and asked him to get his boat out of the channel.

The restaurant serves dinner from 6:30 on, and we rode over in the tender just at opening time, marveling at the enormous yachts in this remote marina, and tying up at an open T-head near the office. All around us were the trappings of hoped-for opulence that is yet to be. It reminded us a lot of Emerald Bay, where no expense was spared, right up until the money ran out entirely and things were left half-done.

For example, one might expect the restaurant to be in the luxurious-looking and seemingly brand new "club house," the one with the infinity pool and the swim-up palapa bar. But that building has never been finished and is not open; the infinity-edge on the pool is crumbling away and the water level does not reach it, and there is no bar tender nor any stock at the swim-up bar.

The restaurant was, instead, in a building that looks like it has stood unchanged since 1979, with furnishings to match, staffed by the surliest Bahamians we have yet to encounter. We're inured to Bahamian prices now, so a $100 dinner check for our simple meal was no surprise, but we've had better meals in more remote islands for half that price. In keeping with the sportfishing theme, Louise was the only female in the joint, although there were three other tables of boaters while we were there. As if to remind us that we were, indeed, in the Bahamas, the power went out in the middle of dinner.

After dinner we walked around the property, whereupon we discovered the aforementioned crumbling pool, seldom cleaned, with the abandoned palapa bar. We met a nice family there who had docked their sailboat to check in to the country; chatting with Cory, Jessica, Colby, and Payton was a high point of our shore visit. Next to the pool was an empty hot tub with a few inches of foul water at the bottom, unused and uncared-for in a long time. The most well-kept feature of the pool area was its numerous signs proclaiming the rules.

Vector as seen from the pool area.

Some day we hope to return to find the swim-up bar in full swing, the quaint Bahamian-style cottages around the marina fully sold, and the marina store fully stocked. In the meantime, it's just more evidence to support my friend John's claim that the Bahamas is a parallel universe. Still, we are glad there was still a going concern here, and we enjoyed our dinner ashore.

Now that we've crossed the "big water" (well, most of it, anyway), we can slow down a bit, and as long as we were in a nice anchorage, we thought we'd just spend another day here. We even thought we might dinghy the six miles around the island to the Berry Island Club to check it out as well. But as we returned from dinner, a swell was coming in, one which got progressively worse as the night wore on. The motion was putting me to sleep, and I went to bed early.

We awoke to more of the same, and by the time I came upstairs, all the other boats in the anchorage were leaving in a conga line. We contemplated doing so as well, but our next anchorage will be mid-bank, with even less protection. Instead, we took advantage of the newly-vacated "good" spots to move even closer to shore, which reduced the motion quite a bit. We dropped the hook in a more tolerable spot.

I spent a good part of the day getting usable charts loaded on the main plotter, an exercise I documented in my last post. And we made a bit of progress getting the boat squared away for guests. Louise has been working on remediating various rust stains around the boat, and when she was finished for the day we both jumped in for a swim. I donned mask and snorkel to check on the boat, and found all to be well.

We had taken out a steak this morning to grill for dinner, but when I went to put it on I found the grill ice cold. Hmm -- tripped breaker. I reset the breaker, and ten minutes later the grill was still cold. Not good. After lifting the grate I found the heating element broken in two. Apparently, there is a critical system for which I do not have a spare. Louise Tweeted it, and she's been getting replies along the lines of "abandon ship."

Well, there's your problem...

We made do with pan-frying the steak; we no longer have a broiler since I replaced the oven with a dishwasher. I will order a replacement element and hope that our friends can get it into the country with them on the ferry. A good part of our planned menu while they are aboard involves grilled items.

I suppose this is what I get for using a household grill rather than something "marine rated."  Still, I am very happy with our Weber and would not trade it for any of those marine grills, even if they were the same price. They're not, of course, and I can buy a new element or even a whole new Weber every two years for a looong time before I reach the cost of an electric "marine" BBQ. But, really, food on the Weber just tastes better.

I am no expert on the Bahamas, this anchorage, or, really, anything else related to boating. But sometimes just being a day ahead makes you the go-to guy, and two of the three boats that arrived in the anchorage this afternoon called me on the radio for advice. When it got rolly, we tucked well in to the shore, having already sounded it out. The water here is just 7' deep at low tide, which right now is still over a foot above datum. If we stayed here another two weeks, we'd be on the bottom. But the chart says it's just over 5' here, so it is understandable that folks would call and ask for soundings.

The two monohulls originally anchored out much closer to the channel, where we ourselves had started out, and from our deck they resembled nothing so much as metronomes, their masts scribing arcs of some 30° or more in the sky. We told them what we found with our tender soundings, they both moved up a hundred feet or more, and both are now much more comfortable. I'm still not the expert, but it felt good to be able to help out.

Tomorrow we will weigh anchor and move along.  From here we have a 75+ nautical mile journey to Cat Cay. That's more than a day for us, so we will anchor somewhere in the middle, in open water on the Bahama Bank. I expect it will be rolly, but nothing we have not seen before. The first 15nm is in deep water, part of the Northwest Channel known as "the pocket." After that we will be on the shallower waters of the bank, with some protection afforded by the Berries and Andros as we move west.

I expect we will be out of range of any cell tower tomorrow night, so this is probably the last you will hear from us until we reach Cat Cay sometime late Tuesday or so. I will try to post a map link from our Spot messenger from the bank tomorrow if I can not get on line.

Improving the chart plotter

A short digression here from my usual blather about where we are, what we're doing, and what else is broken on the boat, to talk about, umm, something broken on the boat. In this case, it is the chart display, and, technically, it's not "broken," but neither is it working properly. Those not interested in the arcane details of marine chart plotters can skip this post entirely; I wanted to write this up for anyone else who finds themselves in a similar predicament.

First some background: We have no fewer than six chart plotters on the boat, and other than the two Furuno units which are literally networked together and sharing the same chart source, no two plotters ever show the same things. For this reason we are always astounded by people in go-fast boats zooming into unknown territory with supreme confidence in their single plotter. We, on the other hand, are forever living Segal's Law: a man with two watches never knows the time.

The "main" chart plotter on the boat is a general-purpose computer running dedicated plotter software called "Polar View." There are lots of plotter software packages on the market; we like this one because it integrates the Active Captain database of hazards, anchorages, marinas, and other services, runs on both the Windows and Linux platforms, and comes with licenses for up to five computers on board. It accepts cartography in a number of standardized formats, notably the ones in which all the NOAA and USACE charts are published.

What it does not accept is anything in a vendor-proprietary format, such as C-Map from Jeppesen, BlueChart from Garmin, or a host of other proprietary formats. Mostly these formats are understood by dedicated plotter hardware, loaded on encrypted memory cards, although some proprietary charts are readable by some higher-priced plotter software packages. The proprietary chart universe is a mixed bag -- no single proprietary cartographer has claim to the universally best charts for every region of the world.

When we were getting ready for this Bahamas trip, I had to scramble to find up-to-date cartography for the region. The best I could do in a format readable by Polar View was to buy the encrypted Navionics charts, for around $200. In most of the Bahamas they've been barely acceptable, but at the very least, they show the land masses and other fixed objects in the correct positions. The bathymetry is another matter, being hopelessly out of date or just plain wrong even along popular cruising routes.

We've generally worked around this by copying waypoints from our reasonably accurate Explorer Charts, which are spiral-bound in book form, and entering them on the plotter. We then use those electronic waypoints to plot our courses from place to place. I've also copied numerous hazards such as coral heads and shoals into the plotter as waypoints, along with recommended anchorages. It's tedious, but it works.

For reasons that are unclear, the western boundary of the Navionics Bahamas chart "cells" (tiles in the chart mosaic) starts at 79°0'W. Bimini, Cat, and Gun Cays, where we are headed next, are all west of that line. This problem first bit us back in February, when we initially crossed onto the bank north of Memory Rock, but with no land masses or underwater hazards where we anchored that first night, it was not much of an issue.

Where we are headed, it will be a much greater concern. We will have to navigate intricate channels through shoals, miss a number of underwater hazards, and enter narrow channels and fairways in significant current. The NOAA charts already loaded on the plotter are based on ancient charts from before the era of GPS precision, and even the land masses are off by hundreds of yards. Having the plotter showing us driving over dry land when we are in the channel is disconcerting at best, and dangerous at worst if we have to make quick mid-stream changes of plans.

We do have an up-to-date backup, which is the latest proprietary C-Map chart, based on Explorer data, loaded on an app on my Android phone. The display is tiny and can't be used outdoors, but at least the bathymetry is mostly correct. We've had the phone out and displaying these charts each time we've navigated our way into narrow or shallow stretches throughout the trip. At just $13, these charts were a much better deal, and more accurate to boot.

That does nothing, of course, to fix the main display. I really wanted to resolve that before we cross west of 79°, and today was more or less my last chance to do so. A search for any more accurate compatible cartography has come up empty, and even a plea on some online forums for a solution yielded nothing. With nothing to lose, I decided to try to roll-my-own.

One of the formats understood by Polar View, and almost every other computer-based plotter program, is "BSB," a format for "raster" cartography, which is a fancy name for a simple image of the region in question, with coordinate information attached. A free program called imgkap can import such an image in any of several common image formats, format it for use as a BSB chart, and position it on the coordinate system based on user-entered latitude and longitude of the NW and SE corners of the image.

Step by step, here is what I did:

  1. I used my cell phone camera to snap a photo of a paper chart. A flat scanner would be a better choice, but I did not want to have to cut my chart out of its bound volume. I did my best to have the edges of the chart be square with the frame of the photo, but it's not critical, as this will be fixed in the next step. It's best to have the lens above one short end of the chart, rather than centered.
  2. I used image-manipulation software to "straighten" the lines of latitude and longitude. I used Gimp, which is a free tool available for Linux, Windows, and other platforms, but Photoshop and other tools can do the same thing. The tool you want is the "perspective" tool, which is typically used to make the edges of, say, buildings, parallel even though they converge in the photo taken from ground level. The lines on your chart photo will have the same effect. Instructions for doing this vary by software and can be found online.
  3. After getting the lines as straight and parallel as possible, I cropped the image so that each edge corresponded exactly to a specific tenth of a minute in latitude or longitude. The chart I used has a 0.1' grid, which made this easy.
  4. My charts are in "portrait" format and I did all the above manipulations "landscape" (easier on my landscape computer screen), so I next rotated the image to north-up.
  5. I saved the image in PNG format, one of several that imgkap accepts. It's easiest if this final image is saved in the same folder where the imgkap program lives.
  6. I opened a command window and ran the imgkap program, feeding it the image I created along with the coordinates of the NW and SE corners, and the name I wanted for the chart cell.
  7. I moved the cell into a folder accessible to Polar View, then added it to the chart database with the "Add Cell" button in chart manager.
  8. Once the cell was loaded, I checked for accuracy by seeing whether my waypoints, copied directly from the chart, coincided with the printed waypoint crosshairs. They were close enough for our purposes.

"Printed" chart overlaid on the plotter, with strips of other, less accurate, charts to either side. Yellow squares with white labels are my hand-loaded waypoints.

I'm very happy with the way it came out, and we'll be able to make use of the two cells I prepared this way while we are in Bimini and at Cat and Gun Cays. The process is tedious and time-consuming, so paper chart copyright holders have little to worry about -- if I could have just purchased these files I would have. And I'm glad I only needed to copy two cells, although I might need to make one for West End as well, depending on where we head next.

Friday, May 8, 2015

Two tickets to Paradise...

That would be Paradise Island, on Nassau Harbor, where we spent the past two nights at the Atlantis Resort's marina (map). At $4 per foot, this is, bar none, the most expensive dockage we've had to date. However, it includes full access to the Atlantis property and amenities.

The sprawling Atlantis resort complex, from sea as we approached. The iconic towers are center, but everything in the photo is Atlantis.

Realizing that Blossom would likely shove off from Palm Cay on Thursday morning, taking advantage of extremely favorable weather, we opted to make the full journey from where we were anchored, in north Eleuthera, all the way to Nassau in a single day on Wednesday.

When I last posted here on Tuesday, we were hunkered down for a huge storm, with high winds, driving rain, and lightning all around us. At least we were protected from heavy seas, and our anchor was well dug-in. But by dinner time, the skies had cleared, the sun came out, and we even dined on the aft deck, although the chair cushions were just a bit damp.

The weather became so pleasant that we contemplated moving the boat to Current Island to get a head start toward Nassau, but with very settled weather forecast for Wednesday we decided it was not worth saving just an hour and a half. Instead we got an early morning start Wednesday, weighing anchor at 7am, with Louise spending just a few minutes on the bow looking for corals before we were in deep water.

We did pass a couple of thunderstorm cells close aboard after leaving Eleuthera.

We kept to the bank, which is deep in the bight of Eleuthera, all the way to Douglas Cut, where we went outside into the Northeast Providence Channel just to avoid having to keep a sharp watch for coral heads in the waters east of New Providence. That had us entering Nassau Harbor through the main ship channel, where we had to be cleared to pass by Harbor Control.

At Douglas Cut we found this sand barge awash. A tug, barge, and excavator were working on it.

As I have written here before, we actually enjoy the hustle and bustle of a busy commercial port, and we enjoyed cruising up the channel and past the cruise port, where three giant cruise liners were docked when we arrived. We made great time, turning in to the marina's channel just after 3pm. By 3:15 we were tied up alongside.

Coming into the harbor, with Royal Caribbean, Norweigan, and Carnival liners in port.

The long 8+ hour run gave us a chance to fully charge our battery bank and top up the water tank. While we would have done neither of those things en route to a US marina, here in the Bahamas both power, at $0.65/kWh, and water, at upwards of $0.10/gallon, are more expensive at marinas than when we make them ourselves. So coming in with full batteries and a full water tank was prudent, even though, ironically, this is the first power outlet (and water spigot) we've seen since Florida.

We also emptied our waste en route, when we were outside the 3-mile limit, but the marina offers pumpouts included in the slip fees, so we did that, too,  this morning, in the hopes that it might clear our partially obstructed vent. By the time we checked out mid-day, we had used just 20 kWh of power for a charge of $13, and never even connected a water hose.

After we got settled in at the marina, we dressed for dinner, shuttled over to the marina office, and got a taxi across the island to Palm Cay, where Martin and Steph hosted us for dinner aboard Blossom. Steph's mom arrived earlier in the day from Myrtle Beach, and the five of us had a nice meal and enjoyed catching up. It was hard to say goodbye at the end of the evening; we've been hanging out and/or cruising with them for over a year now, and we are now heading our separate ways. It is unlikely we will see Blossom again until after her seasonal layup.

Yesterday we had a fantastic day at Atlantis. It's hard to describe this over-the-top place, but a close approximation is a cross between Bellagio and Disney World. A huge portion of the grounds is dedicated to a water park, not unlike Disney's Blizzard Beach or maybe Schlitterbahn. Still more of the grounds are sprinkled with massive marine-life exhibits, sort of a Bahamian version of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, complete with Plexiglas pedestrian tunnels underwater, through which sharks and rays can be seen swimming above. In a bizarre intersection of these two worlds, there are even a couple of water slides that incorporate Plexiglas tunnels through shark-filled aquarium tanks.

Access to the water park and aquarium exhibits is complimentary for hotel and marina guests, but costs ~$125pp for others. Among the "others" would be hundreds of cruise-ship passengers, where a day at Atlantis is apparently one of the on-board tour options. Even with all the cruise guests, the resort is now so empty that we had no wait at any of the slides or other attractions.

We spent nearly the whole day at the water park and wandering the aquarium tanks. Besides the water features, we also swam in two of perhaps a dozen or more pools. I could see how it would be easy to spend a comfortable week here. We also briefly walked through the casino and looked at the dining and night life venues, and we'd partake of those on a longer stay as well.

Our slip fees would admit as many as eight to all of these attractions, and we noted that many boats in the marina had more guests aboard. This will be a great place to return when we have family or friends aboard, where the $200+ per night dockage is getting more people into the park.

We briefly contemplated extending our stay one night, but Louise had enough walking for a while just with the one day, and neither the casino nor the over-priced eateries call us that loudly, so we opted to shove off today. We did not even eat on-property last night, opting instead to walk across the street to Anthony's Grill in the small shopping plaza on the island. The shops include a small grocery and a liquor store.

I should mention here that we opted for the "cheap seats," a set of ten slips closest to the harbor entrance that sell for $4 per foot. These slips will accommodate boats up to 65' or so in length and 20' beam, with 50' long concrete finger piers. They are a loooong way from the office, the "marina village," and the rest of the resort, although marina staff are happy to come get you in a golf cart during office hours (7a-9p). A bit closer the slips go for $4.50 per foot and can fit some larger boats, and the closest slips, some of which can accommodate 200' megayachts, sell for $7 per foot.

We got a ride to the casino/water park in the morning from the marina staff in a golf cart. Getting back at the end of the day proved to be more of a challenge, and we gave up waiting for the cart in favor of getting on one of the resort's many shuttle buses, this one heading to the "Harbourside Resort." This part of the property happens to be adjacent to our slip, and it was a short walk from their lobby to our boat. When we got off the bus we noticed they had a "grocery shuttle" every morning at 10am.

The Harbourside is Atlantis' time-share property -- every unit has a full kitchen, and the only restaurant at this property is a casual-fare open-air operation just a few feet from our slip called "The Point." We had breakfast there both days -- it's on the master POS system and we could charge it to our "room" card. There's also a large pool, but our access to that was unclear. Knowing their guests are flying in, usually without groceries, they arranged with a local tour company for this daily grocery run.

We walked over this morning at 10am, and for $7 per person we got a round-trip ride to the shopping center across the harbor in Nassau, with the nicest grocery store in all the Bahamas. The selection and freshness rivaled, say, a Publix or a Safeway stateside, albeit about half the size or less of those stores. Still, it was nice to finally see a real supermarket after nearly three months, even if prices were generally treble what you'd find in the states.

Extending our trip is pushing us to the end of our beer supply, so I also walked across the parking lot to the liquor store for a case (24 cans) of Bahamian "Kalik" beer at $44. While that sounds like a lot for what amounts to Bahamian Budweiser, less than $2 per can is a bargain here, where we typically pay $5-$6 per can or bottle when we order one in a bar (and $7 apiece at Atlantis). While there I picked up another Bahamian rum, a coconut-flavored Ole Nassau, for $14 per liter, the only bargain in all the Bahamas (in Georgetown I bought the dark version, but we've gone through a half liter already).

Wait, what county am I in?

Wandering the parking lot I found a Dairy Queen, a Dominos, a CVS, and a Mailboxes Etc., all of which reinforce the notion that Nassau is not really in the Bahamas, but more an adjunct of South Florida. Certainly the pools, fountains, and other water features at Atlantis belie the fact that we are in a desert with no fresh water, and the hotel restaurants and shops, including the sundries, rival what you'd see at Bellagio or the Wynn in Las Vegas.

Could be our next address...

Not sure if the Bahamians shop here or not.

Official checkout is 11am, and I knew the shopping shuttle would get us back after that, so we asked for a late departure. They told us we needed to be out by 1pm or pay another half-day dockage. So after we returned from the store we prepped the boat and got under way, shoving off just after noon.

It's a six-hour trip from Nassau to Chub Cay, our next stop en route to Bimini, so we came just an hour or so west of Nassau Harbor to where we are tonight, Delaport Bay (map). This area is very exposed to the Northeast Providence Channel, and would be a poor anchorage in anything but settled weather, but today things are very calm here. A bit of swell rolled us gently most of the afternoon, but it is even calmer now, and we should be out of here before it picks up again tomorrow.

While the Atlantis marina and parts of the harbor were a bit murky, we are once again in crystal-clear water, and we can see every blade of grass on the bottom some 18' below us. After a nice dinner we both jumped in for a swim, sending the 3,000 minnows that had surrounded the boat scattering in every direction. We are the only boat here, in view of perhaps a dozen resort hotels, including the upscale Baha Mar casino/hotel/condo complex, and Sandals.

Tomorrow we will chug across the Tongue of the Ocean to Chub Cay, the southernmost of the Berry Islands. Beyond that, there is no plan other than to be in Bimini in another week. We have no other schedule, and are mostly now just looking forward to seeing our good friends Mary and Mark, who so graciously hosted us at their place three years ago. We've been looking for the opportunity to return the favor ever since.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Weathering the storm

We are anchored in the bight of northern Eleuthera (map), just southeast of the Glass Window Bridge, which we can see from our deck. As I type this, we are hunkered down with the boat closed up, in perhaps 30-knot winds and driving rain. The lightning is getting closer, about a mile or so by the count, and I have my cell phone and a portable VHF radio in the microwave oven, which is powered off at the breaker, for safekeeping.

The Glass Window Bridge, from our tender. What looks like a waterfall is actually the remains of a huge wave that crashed over from the Atlantic side. You can see the cars in the photo for scale. There was a stone arch here when first discovered, but the sea claimed it, along with the first three bridges man put in its place.

We moved here yesterday, after first scoping it out in the tender, from a spot just a mile or two south of here, just north of Mutton Fish Point (map). That spot, closer to the point, was a bit more protected, but we had no WiFi signal there whatsoever, a deficiency that became something of an issue for reasons I will explain shortly.

That was a beautiful spot, just off a white sandy beach with an Airstream trailer on it. I thought it might be part of one of those kitschy hotels that are so trendy nowadays, but when I Googled it I learned it actually belongs to Lenny Kravitz, who sometimes stays in it when he is in town. Apparently it is not uncommon for him to show up at some of the local joints and start jamming. Lenny has WiFi there but it is, unsurprisingly, locked.

Our new neighbor, Lenny.

After setting the hook there, we splashed the tender and headed ashore to the public Gaulding Cay Beach just a few hundred yards north. We arrived at low spring tide, and had to lift the engine and paddle the tender the last dozen yards or so. The short access road to the beach is literally across the street from Daddy Joe's restaurant, bar, and motel.

We had an excellent dinner at Daddy Joe's in honor of our 12th anniversary, which came the following day (yesterday). We had figured to be someplace much more remote yesterday, so it made sense to celebrate with a meal out a day early. We had actually hoped to tender down to the much more upscale The Cove resort a mile and a half south, but they were unwilling to allow us to land the dinghy there for dinner.

Louise on her way in to Daddy Joe's for our anniversary dinner.

Daddy Joe's at least had WiFi, and after we were seated we learned that Sunday nights they have a Rake and Scrape band. We like Rake and Scrape, and the band started up just as we finished our meal, so we stayed for a couple of numbers. This group was not nearly as good as the ones we heard in Georgetown, however, and clearly the restaurant was not set up for dancing (at least not that early in the evening), so we left after the two songs and headed back to the beach.

Scalar on the beach, after dinner. That's Gaulding Cay in the background.

All in all it was a very nice evening, with good Bahamian food in a nice environment. The tide had come up since we landed, so no paddling required on the return trip, and we were back at Vector just as the daylight was fading. We had the whole cove to ourselves, a perfect end to the evening.  Our sunset view was a giant American Eagle in a cloud formation.

The American Eagle symbol in the sky, blocking our sunset.

Our cruise Sunday was equally delightful, along the steep rocky cliffs of the western shore of northern Eleuthera. The cliffs are periodically interrupted by small coves, which collect the passing sand onto gorgeous white beaches. Along the cliffs, the water is deep right up to the shore. In places, the shoreline is dotted with expensive homes, some of which have elaborate stair and ladder systems to access the emerald green water.

"Beach" houses with stairway access to the water.

We passed the lovely Alabaster Bay with its quaint resort shortly after leaving Governors Harbour. Further along we passed the major settlement of Alice Town and its protected harbor, Hatchet Bay, formerly a pond before a channel was blasted to it, part of a failed cattle-ranching venture. Several sailboats and a couple of smaller power boats were taking refuge there from the very storm in whose midst we now find ourselves. The harbor is tricky and unattractive, and without needing that sort of protection we continued on.

Coastal cliffs of northern Eleuthera.

Between there and here is the settlement of Gregory Town. There is a small cove with a dock there, but no protected place to anchor. In more settled weather it would make a nice stop, with provisions, a couple of restaurants, and surfer bar where Lenny sometimes makes an appearance.

We're quite happy to be here, all by ourselves, in a spot that is fairly protected from all but westerlies. In the course of this storm, which likely has some rotating component, we've swung around in a full circle, but there has never been enough west wind to roil the sea state. The lightning did get very, very close while I've been typing. But it's a beautiful spot, and we have enough WiFi sporadically to get text messages in and out.

Storm all around us, as seen on our radar set.

Returning to that subject, yesterday was a waterloo of sorts for our electronics. We joked that apparently what husbands give their wives for a 12th anniversary is tech support. The incredibly coincidental timing of multiple failures even had me wondering if there was some sort of nearby EMP.

It started with my cell phone, which suffered the exact same failure it had back in Georgetown my first week there. At least I recognized the symptoms and I knew that restoring from a whole-image backup would get it working again, albeit with a resultant hill to climb to restore all my data. But at this point, my phone was the only Internet access that we had in this spot, and, to boot, the restore process would briefly incapacitate it even as a voice phone, leaving us with only the two-way radios to communicate with the outside world.

We remembered seeing some open WiFi signals on the way in to the anchorage, and reasoned that we could move the boat a mile in one direction or the other and get on line, even if the connectivity was spotty. So we prepared to get under way, and I went to load the signal strength survey screen for our external WiFi amplifier on the helm computer. No response...

Louise allowed how she had lost access to the WiFi amp shortly before we started getting ready to weigh anchor. I spent the next three hours troubleshooting the amplifier, even taking it down from the mast and jury-rigging cables inside the cabin. I never learned what the problem was, but after much prodding I was finally able to communicate with it. I put it back on the mast and we were ready to get under way.

We never did find a truly usable WiFi signal, but this spot has just enough signal that we drift on and off line sporadically, allowing background apps to pick up our email and text messages. Today's heavy rain has all but killed the signal completely, and I am typing into a text file for upload later when we have more signal.

After we anchored I spent most of the rest of the day trying to restore my cell phone. I had made another complete, working backup in March after I got everything back to normal in Georgetown, so I did not have to go back in and completely reprogram things for the Bahamas again, as I did in that episode. But still, six weeks is a long time (image backups are very disruptive -- it's not something you do every day or even every week), and I once again had to figure out which apps and data to restore from the post-crash backup. First world yacht problems.

Somewhere in all of this, Louise's phone also started acting up. Her phone can not be made to work in the Bahamas, so she's had it in "airplane" mode since we arrived, using WiFi connectivity to send and receive text messages. Now all of a sudden her phone was telling her it was February 17th. This final coincidence is what had me wondering if we cruised into the Bahama Triangle...

Cell phones get their date and time from the cellular network, and being off that network for over two months would certainly account for her clock getting a little out of sync, but reverting to February is beyond the pale. I'm not sure what the problem there was, but Android lets you override the network time and set it manually, which is what she had to do.

All is back to normal now, except for a handful of my apps which I am sure I will discover later are out of sync. We should be able to get back on the Internet using my phone, just as soon as I take it out of the microwave. I need to do a full sync as well, but I'll go back to Daddy Joe's or some other place with good WiFi to do that rather than eat through our very expensive cellular data.

From here it is either one long day or preferably one short and one moderate day to get to New Providence. If we make it there before they leave, we will try to reconnect with Blossom at the Palm Cay Marina on the southeast corner of the island. That's probably a long shot, because the exact conditions we'll need to finish the run to New Providence -- good daylight and winds less than 20 -- are the conditions Blossom will need for their return to the Exumas, their next stop. Still I hope we'll see them one more time here in the Bahamas.

Whether or not we stop at Palm Cay, we will probably spend a couple of days in Nassau. We like the hustle and bustle of a commercial port, and as a cruiser, it's one of those places that everyone needs to do at least once. There's no place to anchor, and dinghy theft is something of an issue there, so we will probably be at a marina for a night or two, just long enough to re-provision and maybe see Atlantis or one of the other tourist traps attractions on Paradise Island.

From Nassau we will need good weather to cross the Tongue of the Ocean to the gap between the northern end of Andros and the southern end of the Berry Islands. Depending on how early we get there, we might spend a few days cruising Andros or the Berries until we need to cross the bank to Bimini. That's a two-day crossing, and we need to be at Bimini a full day before our guests arrive.

Up until a day or two ago, that pesky thing called "work" was dictating a schedule for our guests, one which had us lining up various options to get them to a major airport by the end of the month. But that work commitment evaporated and we've been informed there is now no such mandate, which opens up more options moving forward from Bimini.

The end-of-month deadline meant we'd need to head to any of Nassau, Freeport, Palm Beach, Savannah, or possibly Charleston shortly after leaving Bimini. Without that schedule, though, we are free to wait in the western part of the country until we get a nice three-day weather window, which would let us ride the Gulf Stream all the way to Virginia. We've never done that many straight days in the ocean before, but with three or four watchstanders on board (depending on motion sensitivity), it should be a piece of cake compared to our previous double-handed passages.

While that would mean once again missing trying to connect with friends in Savannah, it makes a lot more sense from both a fuel consumption and schedule standpoint to get us back to the northeast. If we can get a head start like this, we might make it all the way to Maine this year, and/or finally get a bit further up the Potomac to visit Washington, DC.