“After being delayed over two months in Isla Mujeres I felt like all we were talking about was how much we were looking forward to leaving. It’s not that we didn’t like it there but the trip around the world is long and there are many wonderful places we have yet to see, like our current trip South. We had to skip many places like Belize’s atolls and the Honduras Bay islands in order to get out of the hurricane area. The island of Providencia is 550 miles away from Isla and going there is very exciting.

If we can make enough easting we can ease into life there and not have to worry about getting stuck so to speak on the Rio or the Bay Islands with bad winds forcing us to motor long distances. The idea of sailing across the Caribbean Sea is magical. It’s what childhood dreams are made of and here we are making it happen! The night starts with the moon up the sky high and bright and as it sets the stars come out, each one brilliantly illuminated. I wish I could take a picture and show it to my loved ones so we could share in this moment of beauty.” ~ Excerpt from my (Dani) diary May 29th, 2015 about 150 miles away from Isla Mujeres, Mexico in the Caribbean Sea.

After successfully completing our longest and most difficult passage yet I wanted to reflect and share in more detail how the nearly 700 mile trip from the island of Isla Mujeres, Mexico to the island of Providencia, Colombia went…before my memories are replaced with all of the fun activities here on the island. (I apologize for the length but I feel it’s all part of the story)

The week leading up to the passage we looked intently at the weather, sometimes multiple times per day, looking for any sign that the winds might be favorable enough for us to sail straight to Providencia instead of going to Guatemala or even the Bay Islands of Honduras. June 1st and Hurricane season was fast approaching and even though Guatemala was top on the list to visit on this side of the Caribbean (and so also a top motivator for heading West and not East to the Lesser Antilles) our time with that place had passed and we wanted to make the most of our sail if we were going to sail a long while. We’ll catch up with Guatemala on the West Coast or perhaps later in life.

Preparing Sundowner for a long passage is a bit of an endeavour. We have to fill the diesel and water tanks with jerry jugs, provision the boat with supplies from the well stocked Chedraui in Isla with items like rice, beans, flour, popcorn, oatmeal, peanut butter, bread, honey, nuts, skittles (very important), apples, jicama, 30 fresh eggs and as much liquor as we could manage. Through good budgeting all of this was done within our $1,500/month budget.

I washed any laundry to prevent mold growth and then we stowed the boat. We put most bedding and extra cushions in the vberth and I covered them with a fleece blanket to protect them from salt spray. In the salon I covered the starboard side setee with a waterproof cover along with our pillows before covering them with sheets and pillow cases. Everything else was put into cabinets and securely packed. We have to do this or things will go flying around the boat as soon as we are out in the open water.

Our uniforms for the trip consisted of bathing suits for outside and well, depending, not much else inside. The jacklines were run down the sides of the boat and we pulled our life jackets and harnesses out of the hanging locker. This minimal gear was a far cry from the equipment donned when we raced at 5 knots from New Orleans to Key West in the bitter cold last Janaury. It’s been getting hotter and hotter down here as the summer months approach and this passage was by far the warmest.

The night before we left we hoisted and dismantled the dinghy and stowed the rest of the deck. I also took my first seasickness pill, 25 mg of Meclazine. I would take one every four hours for the rest of the trip. Sleep was deep and easy. I think my body knew I’d need it for the days ahead. We didn’t set any kind of arbitrary time line, like 7am bright and early, and instead went the natural route. Neither Tate nor I are very early morning people so we just woke up whenever, had coffee, checked the weather and finally took off around 2pm.

The motion of the boat increased the further away from our protected anchorage we got and as soon as we got around the tip of Isla Mujeres we were in the nice ocean swell we’ve come to love so much more than the short choppy waves of Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana. We hadn’t yet decided if we were going to hug the coast and go to the West of Cozumel before heading East. Captain Red Beard (Tate’s beard is turning red in the sun) said we should let the wind tell us where to go so we set a course as hard on the breeze as possible and it carried us almost directly East, sometimes even Northeast. We basically stayed hard on the breeze the entire trip, making for a beat.

The motion of a beat in our boat is not the most comfortable. The boat is usually heeled over to some degree and taking waves from the tack side forward quarter. Any unusual or larger waves cause the boat to lunge and lurch uncomfortably off it’s normal uncomfortable motion. This coupled with a backwind effect on the Airhead vent (filling the cabin with an unpleasant “organic” odor) and warm temperatures led to a few days of me being on the verge of seasickness even though I took medicine religiously. Tate was wearing a Scopolamine patch but after being on the bow of the boat and raising all of the sails he also was on the verge of seasickness though not as long.

The boat down below was essentially on lock down for the whole trip which means the forward hatch and all the portlights needed to stay shut to prevent water from splashing inside. This made for warm temperatures…hence the lack of a uniform. The little 747 Caframo fans though were worth their weight in gold and when off watch we situated two, one blowing on the upper body, the other on the lower body. Yep it was that warm, close to 90 degrees inside the boat during the day.

The motion of the boat down below seemed much more exaggerated than on the deck, I supposed because in the cockpit you are mostly sitting with the winds blowing through your hair while down below you are walking, on a constant angle (heeling) in a stuffy and somewhat smelly boat. When off watch each of us would get into the berth with the lee cloth raised as quickly as possible. We have a hearty supply of ear plugs onboard that make sleeping much easier. I have to say though the sounds of the boat below this time weren’t nearly as harsh as they were or as I remember during our Gulf of Mexico crossing. Maybe I’m getting more used to it or maybe the 3-4 knots we traveled this time versus the 5-6 knots we traveled back then makes the difference. The waves and the winds on this trip also weren’t as high.

Our beloved windvane Buddy steered a great course which allowed Tate and I to take longer and more natural feeling watches. We never liked the 3on/3off watch schedule we’ve always heard about and even on the Gulf Crossing our watches were 6-7 hours. This sail across the Caribbean tops them all though with most of our watches lasting 8-12 hours. Seriously a third or half the day was spent on watch while the other person had a very good rest.

It was exciting to get to man the boat all by ourselves. We had the freedom to tweak the sails/windvane to try to get the most out of our shift. When the other person would come on watch we’d share the progress or lack there of and “hand over the keys” so to speak. The conditions weren’t very bad though and this seemed doable. We really just go with the flow and do what our bodies tell us. The watch is an “active” watch that includes looking around the boat every 15 minutes, checking the course and making adjustments.

Now back to sailing being a contact sport…I’d love to say we just set the windvane like back in New Orleans and poured some drinks while she steered a straight course as hard on the breeze as possible, but that wouldn’t be true.

We actively sailed the HELL out of Sundowner to eek around the tip of Honduras eventually landing in Providencia. Each watch was filled with sail and windvane adjustments as the winds, waves and the damned Gulf Stream current conspired to force us to Roatan. It’s a very good thing we raced for a couple of years with Glenn back on SV Quest because without the knowledge of how to really get every inch out of the sails, especially in the light winds we were having I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have made it sailing alone.

Before the last 13 hours to make it straight East to Providencia we had only run the motor for 17 hours during the previous 6 days. The engine burns about 0.75 gallons an hour so for the whole trip we supposedly burned only 22.5 gallons of diesel equating to a bit over $100 dollars. It was worth it to us. We ran the motor one time when the wind completely died and we couldn’t make any progress against the current in the right direction and then again to get through a line of squalls that seriously messed up any wind that was around.

Depending on the height and frequency of the waves trying to push us West we had to adjust the sails and windvane “just so” so that the boat would pick up speed and slice through the waves rounding up into the wind when possible giving us our most efficient point of sail, even if it was off the breeze slightly. The right setting could mean the difference between 3 knots and 4.5 knots (HUGE).

Simply setting the windvane to steer as close to the breeze as possible had the boat bashing head first into the waves slowing us to a snails pace and allowing the Easterly waves to push Sundowner further off course. Then of course the winds would change and tiny adjustments would need to made again. Sometimes the sails as tight as possible worked best, sometimes a bit looser worked best. I’m sure this has a lot to do with our old and baggy sails, not to mention we are HEAVY with supplies, water and fuel. You could feel the increased weight of Sundowner trudging slowly and fatly through the water.

Most times our Main and Jib were at different angles. What seemed to work best was the main a bit tight to the center of the boat with the jib let out slightly, this allowed the jib to pick Sundowner up and over waves instead of surging heavily down into them. Halfway through we also put the Staysail up which picked up 0.5 knots or so even though it made the back edge of the jib flutter back and forth. The increased speed was worth that motion on the jib to us and we left it up for the remainder of the trip.

During the last half of the trip squalls played an important role in our sailing ability. They would build up with black clouds and lightning in the distance and like black holes would suck Sundowner towards them, many times at a very favorable angle like 110 degrees (best we could manage was 140-175) but if we allowed ourselves to be pulled full speed ahead into the center we’d find the boat overpowered, in the rain and eventually left with no wind but lots of waves once it passed overhead. After learning the way of the squalls we were able to let the sails out some and set a course off the breeze in order to skirt just around the outside and closer to our destination. These adjustments and sailing around squalls lasted many watches and was tiring for sure. Let the sails out, change the windvane, pull the sails in…wait that’s too much, let them back out. All of this of course at that sweet monohull heel.

So there were the sail adjustments and then there was the “wet factor”. After the first two days conditions on deck turned to the sea. I like to think that sailing in the open ocean puts us at one with nature, truly though it does as often the ocean over the front and side ends up in the cockpit soaking us and any cushions outside. Luckily we’ve been here before and only use waterproof pillows and such. The reclining Sport-a-Seat chairs were golden though and the best watch spot was on the low side hugging the rail, one with the boat and many times the ocean. We have little drop boards that slide down in between the gunwales and the cabin top just forward of the cockpit that keep a great deal of water from shipping back but regardless it’s a wet ride. At the end of every watch we’d wring our bathing suits out, rinse off with a rag and water before going below to the bunk.

The first few days the motion of the boat was easy enough to deal with. I found myself constantly bracing myself against this, that and whatever I could grab or put a foot on. I found out very well what the sloped floor edges in the Westsail are for. After many days of this my muscles and joints got a bit tired and I even developed a kind of tennis elbow in my left arm from bracing myself while moving about, in the head and also cooking. On the last day I was happy to be almost to our destination so I could put my body to rest. I also collected a healthy amount of bruises from being thrown around the cabin and deck as the boat jerked from side to side. It’s a good thing I have strong bones or I wouldn’t have faired as well. I hope the longer ocean crossings aren’t a constant beat.

Cooking was a bit of a challenge. I didn’t prepare any meals before we left so everything we ate needed to be prepared on spot, this lead to less than gourmet eating but it was more than sufficient. In the beginning we didn’t eat much but crackers, granola bars, oatmeal, some ramen noodles, apples, jicama and greek yogurt. Each day whenever there was any kind of a lull in the heeling I’d boil a full kettle of water and pour it precariously into our Bunn Carafe (one the the most used housewares on the boat). Mostly this was a two person operation but we managed alright without scalding ourselves too badly. This hot water was then used to make multiple cups of tea, oatmeal and also the ramen. It’s really nice to have hot water “on demand” so I highly recommend a hot water carafe of some sort.

About mid way into the trip I boiled half the eggs and made a huge tuna and egg salad which I stored in the fridge. We ate on that for 3 days and had boiled eggs left over for snacks. On the last night I cooked the rest of the eggs properly on the stove and we had a delicious creamy last supper complete with a dark and stormy, my only alcohol for the journey. Cooking the eggs required the stove to be gimballed and me to stand at a very bent angle. It’s not easy I’d say and in any worse conditions would be pretty impossible. Tate did all of the sail raising/lowering while I prepared all of the food and coffee/tea.

Three days into the trip Tate needed to switch from the patch (usefulness is gone after 3 days) to the Scopace pills we have. I continued to take Meclazine every 4 hours without issue though the medicine does make me feel a little weird and a bit more tired than usual. I had tried mid way to get my “sea legs” but I always had a twinge of seasickness lurking even with the pills so I dare not get off of them. I would say it was successful trip, neither of us got sick and we were fully functional crew members. I still very much look forward to the day when I can sail without medicine. Surely I’ll get used to it during the 30-40 day passage across the Pacific. I really hope so because I can’t imagine taking that much medicine (180-240 pills!).

Tate mostly read his Paperwhite Kindle in a ziplock and I mostly listened to my Ipod during watch time. I’m not going to lie…I really love passage taking. There is so much time to think and also rest the mind. After a while the motion of the waves and the sound of the boat sailing through them became hypnotic. I’ve never experienced anything like it but for about 8 hours on the second to last day I felt like I was in a trance. The same noise of the ocean and waves, day after day, barely changing. I felt like I was floating somewhere outside of my body. Has this every happened to anyone else? Out there on the water you are alone with Mother Nature and Neptune. The Sun rises and sets, the moon travels across the sky followed by the stars. The waves and water forever move along in an endless motion that is the ocean.

It’s absolutely incredible to see and be part of it. Nothing else in my life comes close to it except the times when I was a little girl riding on my dad’s fishing skiff for an hour or so through the marsh lands of Louisiana. The motor drowned out the ability to talk so the only thing left to do was feel the motion of the boat cutting through the water, watch the various birds fly across our path and just be there in nature.

On the 7th day of sailing we cranked the motor and motorsailed as long as we could before dropping everything to set a course straight for the majestic island of Providencia that I had heard so many people talk about over the years. Our eyes were glued on the horizon for any sight of the mountains peeking up over the horizon.
Providencia Columbia from sea

Finally Tate spotted the island and we watched it grow bigger over the next 5 hours until we could could see the details of palm trees and rock faces that made up the sides of beautiful green mountains. Clouds gathered around the peaks and the water turned lighter blue as we approached the anchorage. The sight was just as awesome as I had imagined it would be.

We had made it! A trip like this was something we dreamed about back in our early refit days. Setting out free as doves across the water in search of exotic and beautiful places. It was the fuel that kept us working on Sundowner, the fuel that fanned the fires of the future and what could possibly be, what now actually is.
Sundowner at anchor in Providencia