Wednesday, April 30, 2014

One last night in the Bahamas

Here we are, poised in Bimini with tomorrow's forecast looking decent for the very long fight across the Gulf Stream. Chris Parker (the cruisers' weather wonk) says there will be 10-15 kts of east south easterlies all night tomorrow night and very light seas. Sea state is a huge deal with crossing the Gulf because any wind from any direction involving north will turn the Stream into the E-ticket ride from hell. In the case of a strong cold front, the northerlies can generate seas so savage they can overwhelm Coast Guard cutters So we wanted calm seas and that's what he promised, and in the end what we seem to be getting.
 The Bimini flats under clear skies

And we wait for tomorrow, to do last minute chores (refueling, laundry, hair trim, clean the cockpit, ..) and one last beach walk. There is something amazing about the water here just 50 miles from Florida. Florida water is green and grass-bottomed, and looks like the Atlantic. Bahamas water is like gin-bottle glass over deep white sand. It will be hard to leave and hard to not be somewhat disappointed by Florida.

Not that we didn't have our issues with the Bahamas. It is absolutely a third-world country. The people are lovely when they haven't been burnt by first-world tourists and not so lovely when they have. Food is astonishingly expensive for locals and travelers alike. Sheltered harbors are rare and we certainly wished at times there was better protection.  

It was our first season cruising and there was a lot of painful learning. About cruising and seamanship and about ourselves - next time: less food and more spare parts! The wonderful places and people we have met. The open question of “what or where do we go next?”

USA thataway

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Turning for Home

We have gone as far east as we are going to go this year. That was the Glass Window Bridge between North Eleuthra and South Eleuthra. It was a natural arch a hundred years ago and was used as a bridge until the arch collapsed. The Bahamians have gone to great effort to span the gap with a series of man-made bridges, each of which gets trashed eventually by a hurricane. The current bridge is only one lane wide but very heavily built. Since there's little traffic and rebuilding the bridge is very expensive in terms of Bahamian GDP, this makes sense. Everyone just drives down the middle of the two-lane roads anyway ;) .
But that was it. We need to get back by mid-May and it takes a surprisingly long time to move 300 miles through the islands and banks of the archipelago. This is due to no easy straight lines from point A to Point B here and having to wait for the weather to cooperate. Fortunately, that is more common when going west than it is when going east. The spring trades are beginning to appear, which are 15-25 kt steady winds from the east south east. You might think that was ideal, just hop on and ride downwind, but its not that easy. Catamarans don't like going dead downwind. It is hard to get the main sail out far enough to one side to fully catch a wind from dead aft. And when you do, the is a high risk of waves pushing your stern off to the wrong side, filling the sail from the back and producing a “crash jibe”. So we have been looking for routes that will take us back at angles to these winds and avoid the continuing cold fronts that just don't want to quit. It has been quite a winter for everyone on the East Coast.

And the route that makes sense runs from Eleuthra via Current Cut Settlement (yes, the current is so fierce they named the town after it)  to Royal Island to wait for a weather window to make the big jump directly to Bimini. Since we are headed to the Keys and then up the west coast of Florida, we considered tackling the reverse of the route we took out, running directly from Marathon north east past the top of Andros to Chub. But Chub has a poor anchorage, and reversing the route means fighting our way straight back into the Gulf Stream, a fight we weren't going to win. So, from Bimini we can shoot due west to Miami or run south with “one foot on the beach” of the Bimini chain to get south without mashing into the Gulf Stream.

The beach and Cerca Trova at the anchorage for Current Settlement

Hi ho, off we go, for home and hearth and family.
Sun setting over Eleuthra, now behind us

Monday, April 21, 2014

Three Silences

Night watch 2300, standing NW broad reaching under main alone, NW Channel past Chub Cay, and three silences around me.  

First is the utter lack of the noise of civilization. No traffic, no people scolding their dogs, no sirens, nada.  Second is the silence of the sleeping off watch. No bustling about making tea, no radio work, no stowing or washing.  Third is the silence of the sea.  Certainly, there is the rush of water leaving our sterns and the rustling/creaking of the rig.  If there was someone to talk to, I would have to raise my voice a bit to be heard over it all. But there is no sound of danger. No building moan in the rigging, no breaking waves, no surf or buoy bells. A kind of silence in the noise. 

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

A strange way of living

Our strange way of life begins with the batteries, because the boat runs on batteries (ha! You thought this was a sail boat). The stove's propane valve, the lights, the watermaker, the instruments, the radios, even the wall sockets are supplied by an inverter that makes 110v AC power from the batteries' 12v DC. And they are basically plain-old lead-acid batteries but augmented with fancy stuff like sealed cases, absorbed-mat gel electrolyte and valve-regulated inter-cell transfers, etc, which makes them vrAGM batteries. Which all means that they work better and last a lot longer than the old stand-by car batteries that you had to feed with distilled water and generated hydrogen when being charged (BTW accumulating hydrogen inside a closed boat is generally not a good thing). Which means that they have to be charged in stages and are damaged if deeply discharged, and lose charge just sitting around, and letting them sit partially charged damages the internal cells, etc. Batteries are not just a gas tank that contains electrons.

Filling the batteries takes some tactical maneuvering and thinking ahead because we have only two ways to fill them when we are off the dock. The first is our diesel generator. It can produce up to 40 amps of 120v AC power. But if you get close to that, you'll pop its breaker and have to shut it down, go pull the spinnaker and fenders out of the locker it lives in, open the sound-deadening housing, then climb down inside to reset the breaker that is mounted on the generator head.  We try to avoid that. So, 40 amps AC. That feeds the battery charger's AC input, which converts it to 12-15v DC and applies that to the batteries to drive 'juice' into them. But remember that these fancy vrAGM batteries have to be charged in stages. That means when they are deeply discharged, they can accept a lot of current, so the charger can crank up the voltage and drive as much current as it can muster. Typically this means upwards of 100 amps DC. That is a lot of current. Which means that the cables running in/out of the batters are about the diameter of a garden hose. And it means the batteries get hot, remember those exploding lithium battery stories?, so there is a thermistor on the batteries that is connected to the charger to slow it down if the batteries get too hot.

Once the batteries start to fill up, their voltage comes up, and as it comes up, the charger shifts to Stage 2, called 'absorb' mode, where it down-shifts to deliver only 14.2 volts for a fixed length of time to make sure the batteries have really been filled thoroughly. Only they aren't really filled. Stage 2 kicks in at about 80% of the capacity of the battery, and will usually add about 10% to the battery. Then Stage 3, 'float' charging, begins. Float delivers about 0.5% of the battery capacity per hour and slows down as the batteries approach full charge, ie it takes a looong time to fill the batteries from their 90% state to 100%. This means that the batteries rarely get filled to 100%.

Remember that they don't like being left partially charged? And that they don't like being deeply discharged? So, to efficiently charge them, they have to be discharged, but not too deeply, and to be kept healthy they also have to be filled as much as possible at every chance.

Now, diesel engines don't like being run without a heavy load, ie they like being run with the generator head pulling hard, ie producing a lot of current. So we use it when the batteries are at their lowest state of the day, in the morning after the night's run when the fridge/freezer, anchor lights, instruments p.r.n., have been going all night without any power being produced. But the neighbors don't think much of generators waking them up in the wee hours. So we try to run it as early as is civilized, typically about 07:30. But before the sun gets high in the sky.

Because our second power source is a bank of solar panels. They are rated at 450 watts, ie nominally 38 amps at 12 volts DC. But typically they put out only about 30 amps when the sun is high over the boat and only a few amps when the sun is low, like morning and late afternoon or on cloudy days. Remember the batteries only accept a few amps in absorb and float modes? And that bulk charging can take as much juice as can be applied?

A few other factoids – the solar panels put charge directly into the batteries with their own charger/controller device, and can put out enough power to bring the bus voltage up to levels that make the generator's battery charger think that the batteries are nearly full even though they aren't. And the generator uses the batteries to run its starter, ie if they are allowed to go too low we can't start the generator. And the generator uses diesel fuel, a limited resource that requires periodic stops at fuel docks. And the batteries don't like to abruptly shift from being charged to delivering current.

Putting it all together means that, on anchor and away from the dock with clear skies and good sun in the forecast, we have to run the generator as early in the morning as we can to ensure we use it efficiently and with a good load on its engine. 100 amps DC is only about 10 amps AC (remember the generator can produce upwards of 40 amps AC?). So there's lots of available current. Which means we also run the water heater (8 amps AC), the water maker (3 amps AC), charge all our iThingees using the inverter (3 amps AC), run the microwave (20 amps AC!) and vacuum (10 amps AC), play radios, etc. Which means our mornings are pretty busy. Then we shut down the generator when absorb mode is nearly done and let the solar panels take it the rest of the way. And we hang out in the sun, go kayaking, whatever strikes us.

The end result is a life dictated by batteries. We aren't free spirits, going where we want at a whim, following the wind: your chemistry teacher was right – life is driven by chemistry; in our case, electrochemistry.

Past Halfway Around

We are pinned down in Spanish Wells by north winds preventing our further travel north. Yes, north.

We have been working north for about two weeks, having picked up friends Marty and Sue Wells at Staniel Cay, after leaving George Town for the last time on this cruise. Sue and Jennifer were roommates many moons ago at Northfield Mt Hermon. We had a great time time showing them the Exumas and at every hop the latitudes got a little bit higher. Now we are halfway through 25oN and heading for the Abacos to meet the Manta fleet for the first-ever reunion Migration of Mantas. But its a big run across big water via a tricky cut through coral and breaking seas, and we are less than willing to go bashing out under conditions that will make it harder than it has to be.

So, Spanish Wells. Turns out this is an outpost of Puritans who emigrated from Bermuda in 1648 (yes, 350 years ago) not long after our own batch arrived in Plymouth. Their ship was wrecked on arrival on the Devil's Backbone that runs along the top of Eleuthra. This is the reef that we may cross ourselves , but using GPS and good charts, and in good conditions it is not so scary. The “Eleuthran Adventurers” took refuge in a large cave with their clothes and very little food. Some help was received from England and a little from the colonies. Most settled on Spanish Wells and lived a subsistence living from 1650-1950, with power and city water only recently established. Spanish Wells is a charming town of quaint cottages and sturdy working waterfront, with a sustainable fishing and lobstering industry.

Welcome to Spanish Wells

where they work hard

at fishing and lobstering. 

The Point. 

Flowers everywhere.
The town is unique in the Bahamas in its culture and industry. Like all other Bahamians, they have had to carve a life for themselves out of these rocks and have done so with ingenuity and hard work to build a large and successful industry of commercial lobstering. They don't use traps, they use “hotels” which regenerate the populations that they are harvesting, and divers to do the harvesting of 4-8 adult bugs per hotel. GPS helps a lot in finding the hotels, roughly 15,000 of which they have planted all over Bahamian waters as far south as the Ragged Islands. Now at the end of lobster season, the town is waiting for the ships to come home. One already has come in with its string of divers' dories tagging along behind. And much of the catch goes to the Red Lobster restaurant chain.
Mother ship and her dories returning home.

Double Exposure under sail

We buddy boated too. We had been running into “Double Exposure” out of Ontario all along the way north and they had similar plans to work north. So we did the long run from Shroud Cay to Current Cut (55 miles and nearly 9 hrs) and then through the Cut up to Spanish Wells the next day as their side-kick boat. They have been doing the cruising thing for years and are now on their way up from St. Kitts to sell their boat and trade it in for a larger one. It feels great to have another boat along, and Sue and Marty were great crew! Marty is a long-time gearhead and helped with skills ranging from outboard problems to creativity in the galley, and Susan is a complete water baby. We were sad to see them go.
Sue and Marty on Pinder's water taxi to the airport. 

All in all, we are feeling like we might actually have a handle on things. This was especially apparent to me when, once we had left the Exumas. I reviewed some of those charts and found myself thinking “I know those cays, I know how to find anchorage regardless of weather.” We are getting there....