After a wonderful week in Culebra it was time to head back to St Thomas. Unfortunately, St Thomas is about 20nm dead upwind against the powerful Caribbean trades. We prepared the afternoon before by stowing gear and stripping the sun awnings and sail covers. We hauled Sweet Pea up and inverted her on the cabin top and snugged her down securely in her teak chocks.
Later that evening we had our friends Hürgen and Laura over from their 38’ steel ketch SV Morwenna for sundowners and enjoyable and interesting conversation. They are weighing the pros and cons of either heading to Europe or to Panama and thence out across the Pacific as they are at the point where they must decide.
A few days earlier the four of us took the ferry to Puerto Rico and rented a car together. We drove up to see the beautiful and majestic El Yunque Rain Forrest. It was a fantastic day full of great conversation, laughter, easy hiking, magnificent waterfalls, lush fauna, and good food. It’s a real treat when new friendships click so effortlessly. We hated to say goodbye.
We weighed anchor with the sun barely up over the horizon on Thursday morning 7 March. The winds were ENE about 10-12 kts. We used the little Honda outboard to maneuver the Far Reach over to the northeast side of Ensenada Honda hauling up the sails as we went. Then we switched off the engine and raised it up on the custom swing arm bracket attached to the port quarter. We beat out the narrow coral fringed channel.
The winds held to about 15 knots for the first hour or so. We slipped over Grampus Shoals, making good time under all plain sail. Then, a series of squalls rolled down on us from the east. We kept the working jib up but double reefed the main. We dropped the staysail. The squall lasted about an hour with winds in the 30 to 35 kt range.
Normally, I would have dropped the working jib and instead relied on the stays’l with the double reefed main but, with dangerous rock and coral shoals to leeward of us we needed to keep driving upwind as efficiently as possible. The Far Reach was wonderfully behaved and knifed upwind with a perfectly balanced helm in a rising chop and 5-6’ swell. She maintained a steady 6 to 6.5 kts steered by our ever reliable Cape Horn Windvane. At one point when sailing past the north side of Sail Rock we closed on a 60’-ish ketch motoring directly up wind in the squall. It was easily apparent we were overhauling her. We sailed under her stern on the favored on-shore starboard tack. About a half mile later we tacked back and crossed her bow on the off-shore tack. It’s a wonderful experience to get one of Carl Alberg’s boats dialed in and see what she can do under sail when other boats are compelled to motor.
We took in and shook reefs out many times over the next four hours. Double reefed main to single reefed main to no reefs in the main. Stays’l up then down then up and back down again. We would have 15-18 kts of wind then get blasted with 25-30 and a big wind shift. Then the squall would pass and suck all the air out with it and we would wallow for 20-30 min and the cycle would start over. We matched the sail combinations to the conditions to give the Far Reach the best horse power we could.
As we closed on the West Gregerie Channel I foolishly though I could slip between Water Island and Porpoise Rock on a close reach then beat up channel in protected waters to our mooring. But as we closed on the gap the wind just flat died from 15 kts to about 3 kts in less than a minute. We were left wallowing in a sloppy swell and drifting towards Porpoise Rocks. I got the Far Reach turned around and we drift-sailed back out into the Caribbean. While I would not characterize it as a “close call” it was a valuable reminder that engineless sailing (our 9.9 Honda would have been instantly swamped had we tried to employ it) requires constant vigilance and sound decision making.
We worked our way further east and sure enough the squall cycles continued for another round or two. Eventually, they subsided and we entered the East Gregerie Channel reaching along NW behind Hassle Island. We gybed at the top of the channel, then ran downwind. We entered the mooring field where Gayle snagged the pendant on the first attempt.
It was a great week. Culebra was fun and interesting, easily worthy of more visits. We walked, snorkeled, hiked, and met lots of people. It did not feel like the Caribbean but more like a slice of Mexico. Gayle, ever the wonderful companion, showed her sailing skills and metal in a wide variety of conditions. We are cleaning up the Far Reach, taking on water, and reprovisioning for the next adventure.