Wednesday, April 23, 2014

St. Augustine, Florida

Today we depart wonderful Palm Coast and the awesome port call we've had with the Gaffeys. Our stomachs are full of wonderful, nay, ridiculous meals, and we've enjoyed the pool, nice weather, and great community of northeastern Florida.

During the past couple weeks, we've also visited the historic town of St. Augustine and walked around the oldest town in the USA.

Since we're also close to Cape Canaveral, we were able to watch a rocket launch into space, carrying a satellite.  The launch was really neat to see, especially how quickly it climbed into the sky.

We also picked up a radio controlled helicopter toy (a drone) so we're hoping to get some great aerial footage of Navigator as we move north.

Speaking of moving north, we'll head out to sea shortly to head to Charleston, SC, which is our next stop.  The winds are light, but that's ok - we're not in a hurry to get too far north.  Even the colder nights of North Florida were a bit shocking to our Caribbean system.

We also look forward to putting Kellee's Dad to work on the trip, since he will accompany us to South Carolina - there are a couple of sailboats for sale he'd like to look at in Charleston, and we are happy to have some crew!  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Palm Coast, Florida, USA

After departing Hopetown, in the Bahamas, we spent about another week moving west, slowly, amongst the Abacos Islands, exploring beaches and anchorages along the way.

A bit sooner than we anticipated, we had a weather opportunity to get across the Gulf Stream to Florida, so we took it.  We spent two days and nights sailing from the northern Bahamas to Florida, and entered the Intracoastal Waterway just north of Cape Canaveral, Florida, at Ponce Inlet.

It was a bit sad leaving the islands behind, but time and tide wait for no man, so it was good to get across the notorious Gulf Stream with no drama.  We did one last round of celestial navigation so that Chris can finish off his video series along the way.

After that, it was a half day of motoring up the ICW to get to Palm Coast. Along the way, we hoisted the flags from all the countries we've visited from our starboard flag halyard - technically a breach of flag etiquette, but it was cool to see all the places we've been.  Shortly after, we arrived at Palm Coast Marina, where we were warmly greeted by Tom and Kathy, who quickly ushered us off our damp boat to their house - complete with pool, hot water, refrigerator, and real bed...unbeatable!

We spent a few days enjoying the relaxing compound as well as getting ready for Kellee's upcoming SCUBA instructor examination (she took the course in Grenada, but is now getting certified).  We headed down to Vero Beach for a 3 day examination, and Kellee passed with flying colors!  So congratulations to the latest PADI instructor! Quite an impressive feat.

This week we'll spend enjoying with the Gaffey's, exploring their new home, and next week it will be time to start moving up the east coast of the US - planning to arrive in Connecticut around the beginning of June, to end our trip.  Hopefully it won't be too cold as we head north - but we've broken out our cold-weather sleeping bags just in case!

Monday, March 31, 2014

Hopetown, Elbow Cay, Bahamas

After cruising 250 miles in the last couple of weeks, we have arrived at the northern end of the Bahamas chain, locally known as the Abacos Islands.  Dodging fronts and sailing in between, we have covered a lot of ground since leaving Puerto Rico and feel like we are on the home stretch.  Once we reach the mainland U.S. (sometime next week if weather allows), our pace will slow down as we cruise up the coast, but with the fronts reaching the Bahamas, the "cold" weather is already shocking our sun soaked skins.  Case in point: our primary method of showering on this whole trip has been the ever reliable, surprisingly effective and enjoyable solar shower-a dark colored plastic bag with a hose that the sun heats up for a free hot water shower, usually accompanied by a quick jump in the ocean first.  But the last week?  no way, its been chilly, or we've been sailing.

So our arrival in the picturesque village of Hopetown, first order of business was a shower, unlimited hot water, heavenly!  Next was groceries.  We walked out with fresh veggies for a mondo salad (haven't been running the cooler for almost two weeks because produce has been hard to come by), a quart of cold, fresh milk (UHT milk only goes so far), and a homemade key lime pie (because it's pie!).  Funny what you crave when you pull into civilization.

The Exumas (central Bahamas chain) was enjoyable, lots of little cays and beaches and snorkeling to explore.  Our favorite respite was a popular anchorage called Big Majors Spot, because the beachfront was home to a family of pigs.  Not just any pigs, swimming pigs!  The cruising guide offers you to take in your scraps and feed the friendly porcine, so friendly that we watched one of the behemoths try to jump in someone's john boat, we steered clear, that behavior would've scuttled us for sure.  They snorted when you fed them, squealed when you didn't and were a riot to behold.  The owners are genius, they get their pigs fed for free as a tourist activity.

The other cool spot within dinghy distance was the famed Thunderball Grotto, from the Sean Connery James Bond film of the same name.  What a cool spot.  From the outside, it looks like any other rocky cay, but duck under and through an opening and the fish swarm (including a monster barracuda and a sleepy nurse shark) and you enter shangri-la, a grotto where the sunlight shafts through holes in the ceiling of this tennis court sized cavern, and the view out the window to the coral garden beyond is utterly beautiful.  It was a jaw dropping place that totally lived up to its hype.

We waited out a front in Compass Cay, a small marina with pet nurse sharks and yummy burgers, but no showers.  The water here is unbelievably clear, and with a sand back drop on the shallows, the prettiest aquamarine.  We mentioned how we thought most of the Caribbean would be like this, small villages and pretty water, but really, most of the islands were volcanic, and steep, not a lot of shallow water.  All that shallow in the Bahamas makes for some tricky navigation, and we've had to use our skills to plot, plan and negotiate narrow passes and shallow shelves timed with some hefty current.  We tried going against the current in one pass and encountered a "rage" where the sea stacks up steep when the wind and current don't agree, so we pulled a u turn and opted to run up in the lee of the islands that day.  We also stopped in the small village at Black Point based on a recommendation from Snow Goose and were rewarded with some sweet coconut bread made by "Lorraine's Mom".  I actually had to go into her kitchen to pick it up and her whole house smelled like sweet bread.  It was delicious, only half the loaf even made it back to the boat.

All too soon, time was getting short, so we took advantage of some southerly wind to push northward, waved by Nassau as we sailed right on by and overnighted up to the Abacos.  We'll wait out this front, then spend a few days island hopping west and stage for our jump across the Gulf Stream when the weather looks good.  Then it will be time to put away the snorkel gear and pull out pants (what are those?) for our spring journey up the east coast.  I hear snow is still falling in the mid-atlantic, I sure hope it starts warming up fast!  It's going to take some adjustment being back in the States after being away for over a year.  The cruising will be different, less anchoring and more marinas, and we'll be spending more time ashore visiting the towns rather than snorkeling off the boat or walking the beach.  But, for the next week, we'll take advantage of the last of our tropical adventure and hopefully find one of those elusive sea beans we keep hearing wash up on shore here in the Bahamas.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Georgetown, Bahamas

We've been off the grid for a bit as we made lots of miles from the Turks and Caicos to the central Bahamas.  But after a couple weeks of making tracks we arrived in Georgetown today. 
A new challenge for us is dealing with variable weather…in the Caribbean the wind was almost always east. However, here, we have to deal with the cold fronts marching off the USA coastline, which makes the wind shift all over the place.  So we have to pay close attention to the forecast and make sure we get ourselves someplace safe for any violent wind that comes through.

That brought us to Rum Cay for a few days as we waited for a cold front to work it's way through.  There, we met the crews of Snow Goose and Plume, each heading south.  We traded stories and charts as we passed like ships in the night. Except it was during the day.

We also visited Conception Island, Mayaguana, and Long Island on our way to Georgetown, where we are today.  Today is a quick reprovision and water unload, and we'll set sail again tomorrow for the north.  Although we don't need a ton of groceries because we hauled in a huge Mahi Mahi yesterday…it will feed us for three days! 

Only a few more weeks and we hope to be in Florida, so we have to soak up the sun and surf while we can!  

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Providenciales, Turks and Caicos

This week we made the long trek from Puerto Rico to the Turks and Caicos Islands, our staging point for a further departure to the Bahamas next week.

We left eastern Puerto Rico on Sunday morning, and had a nice 400 mile trip to Grand Turk, which took us 4 days and 3 nights.  This trip was particularly nice because we were "off the wind" so to speak…we didn't have to bash our way to our destination, but rather we freed the sheets and had a nice, low stress ride the whole way.  That's not to say it wasn't rolly, but it was still a nice break.

There are three major reefs along the path…Navidad, Silver, and Muchoir Banks.  They are all sunken islands, territorially belonging to the Dominican Republic but geographically related more to the Bahamas and Turks & Caicos.

The Atlantic Humpback Whale uses these banks to give birth each year, and on our last day we were lucky to see a baby humpback breaching alongside it's mother.  It was pretty small (but still huge), and it looked like it was learning how to breach, which was awesome to see. We didn't get any pictures - it was too cool to just watch!

We arrived in Grand Turk, checked in, and did two dives the next day in the crystal clear waters.  The islands aren't much to look at, mostly big sand bars, but the water is really clear.  We're on kind of a schedule now, though, so we moved on quickly.  Last night, we anchored 30 miles from land on Caicos Bank (you need daylight to navigate amongst the coral heads), which was a new experience for us.

Today we arrived in Provo, the populated center of the Caicos Islands.  We'll do a couple of dives tomorrow, then spend Tuesday getting water and groceries, then we're off to the Bahamas!

This was a huge eagle ray we saw next to the boat at anchor...

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Puerto Del Rey, Puerto Rico

Tomorrow marks another milestone of this "adventure of a lifetime."  We leave the Caribbean and re-enter the fickle and feisty North Atlantic.  We say Adios! to lush tropical islands and super warm water.  We start "heading back."  Well, technically, we've been heading back since Trinidad, but with orders to  Alameda now in hand, and the last major stock up stowed below until our return to the U.S. mainland, it really feels like the end of an era.

What a ride it's been! Especially since last post - so let's get caught up.  We had a great visit with our family.  We checked into an ocean front villa for the first few days to be closer to some of the sights and because Navigator is comfy for two, and a little tight for five for a whole week.  The condo was a big hit.  Kathy, Don, and Lynn enjoyed the view, private beach and infinity pool, and Chris and I enjoyed the air conditioning, freezer, shower and full size kitchen!  We even treated all to make your own ice cream sundaes…we can't even remember the last time we had an ice cream sundae, it was awesome.

We did a hike through El Yunque rainforest, trying some photography lessons in practice and admiring the waterfalls.  The next day we just lounged around the condo, enjoying the pool and beach and dodging squalls.  We took advantage of the beach for some fun night photography that yielded some amazing pictures.

Finally, it was time to leave the oasis, so we loaded up the cooler with frozen goodies and headed into Old San Juan for the day.  Being President's Day, we were treated to free admission to the forts, so that was a pleasant surprise.  After exploring both San Cristobal and El Morro, we ventured down through the colorful streets of San Juan Viejo and settled into a tapas restaurant for lunch.  We tried all matter of local delicacies and especially enjoyed the drinks and the paella. Kathy even ate spinach. Soon after, it was time to return the car, so we drove the marina and loaded up for the next phase of adventures.

The next morning we sailed over to Cayo Icacos and did some snorkeling.  We knew it was going to be a good trip when we spotted manatees in the marina as we were heading out.  Our timing on the reef could not have been better, we were in and out before the day boats showed up and Chris even found an octopus!  After lunch we scooted down to Isla Palominos for the night and enjoyed dinner on the boat and a raucous game of "Catch Phrase," a new Navigator favorite.

The rest of the week featured more snorkeling, lots of beach exploring, turtle spotting, starry nights (complete with constellation lessons by the celestial navigation expert himself) and of course much relaxing.  Our guests enjoyed the white sand beaches instead of the white snow covering their houses back home.  The goal for the week was to take one thousand pictures and we actually exceeded that!

The weather started to deteriorate as the tail of the front from winter storm "Rex" reached all the way down here, so we headed back to the marina for the last night and enjoyed a nice dinner ashore.  It was an early morning wake up today to make the airport departure and we were saddened that such an awesome week had come so quickly to a close.

Back on the boat, we checked the weather and made our grocery list, shifting back into cruising mode.  The weather looks good for a run to Turks and Caicos starting tomorrow and we're anticipating a four day journey.  From there, we island hop through the Bahamas and plan to be in Florida by the middle of April.  We are expecting few services, so we stocked up on lots of food, water and internet downloads to hold us over.  We plan to take full advantage of the last of the tropics, soaking up the sand, sun and exploring as many reefs as time allows.

It's a major phase change for us, not only to be on the move again, but to have to pay close attention to the weather for the first time in over a year, as we will be moving north, out of the reliable trade winds and back into frontal passages from the U.S. mainland.  We're excited for the upcoming leg of our journey, but it is bittersweet because it means we are that much closer to the end of the trip.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Vieques, Puerto Rico

After our busy Coast Guard week, we took a few days to check out some locations on Vieques, Palamino, and Lobos islands, which are just east of Puerto Rico.

We were in search of good snorkeling sites for our upcoming guests, and found a couple nice spots that should do the trick.

Vieques was a great spot, although since the trade winds were howling, we had a tough time making progress to the east…but when we finally got there, the bottom was covered with turtle grass and colorful starfish.

After we got back to mainland Puerto Rico, we did a quick trip into San Juan to check out the area, and look for a bakery that we had heard good things about.  Alas the bakery is closed, but walking around town was nice for the afternoon.

This week, we'll be touring eastern Puerto Rico and some of the Spanish Virgin Islands (or "Passage Islands" depending on who you ask) with our guests from up north!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Penciled In

It’s been an exciting week for us with regards to our return to the Coast Guard.  On Sunday, we rented a car and re-provisioned the boat for the week while we have easy access to all the shopping in Puerto Rico. We also found out where we will be living and working for the next several years.

On Monday, the fun started…we drove to San Juan and met with the Coast Guard Recruiter for Puerto Rico.  We had submitted a lot of our paperwork ahead of time, so thankfully all was in order and we only had a few minor items to take care of. 

While meeting with the recruiter, he told us that we were projected for a medical exam the very next day (we had been thinking it would be next week), and that he had booked us a room in San Juan for the night (a great surprise – free hot water and a real bed!).

So we trekked over to the hotel and got settled in.  We spent the entire night (until midnight) working on our electronic security clearance paperwork.  In the best of times, the online system is a real pain in the butt…for instance you have to provide all your personal information and write down where you lived for the past 10 years, along with the names, addresses, and phone numbers of people who knew you while you were there.  Ostensibly, this is so the intelligence people can make sure that you are not a spy or have too much debt or anything. 

The hard part for us was that they also ask if you’ve completed any foreign travel in the past 7 years.  This is to ensure that you haven’t been recruited by a foreign intelligence agency or anything.  However, as you can imagine, our passports are completely full, and entering the details and dates for over 30 countries that we’ve been to was a real joy!  But despite the pain, I wouldn’t change a thing – this has been an amazing journey.

At 0340 the next day, we met down in the hotel lobby with about 50 other recruits from all the different services.  It was crazy to imagine that some of them will be soldiers, sailors, marines, coasties, aviators…some will work on submarines, or fly in crazy aircraft, or jump out of those aircraft.  A great patriotic moment, however we were definitely the oldest people there! 

After a quick breakfast, we took a bus to the medical facility (we entered through the cargo entrance), and formed up into some lines.  Apparently the medical staff had heard about our special case, because they quickly picked us out and asked us how old we were.  Kellee stuttered, so I said “I’m 33 and she is 40.”  They were not amused. 

However, the medical exam was painless – for prior service personnel, we were able to move quickly through the exam stations: hearing, vision, height/weight, medical history, blood testing, urine testing, fingerprinting etc etc.  No new thing for us. 

So with the early start, we were actually out of there by noon!  Pretty easy.  We are on standby for the next couple weeks in case anything comes up or there are papers we need to sign, but otherwise we should be good to go for returning to the service…hooray!

As I mentioned earlier, we also found out our new assignments (a completely separate process, it just happened to occur during the same week). 

The Coast Guard officer assignment process can be tricky to navigate.  In a nutshell, the Coast Guard assignment officers in Arlington, Virginia, assign officers to jobs every 2-3 years in a kind of nebulous way. 

Although we are able to ask for jobs, we get assigned to jobs based on the needs of the service.  So although I would love to remain skipper of a patrol boat for the rest of my career, the Coast Guard needs to give that opportunity to other people as well, and since we’ve recently advanced, they need to give us the experiences of working managerial positions in the greater organization. 

From the assignment officer’s perspective, it is all about grooming Coast Guard senior officers…so by the time we reach 18-20 years of service, we should have experience in a variety of Coast Guard missions, have some geographic diversity in assignments, and have a proven record of exceptional service.

The first 10 years of our careers were based on building operational experience and getting a sense of how the organization works from the deckplate level.  Even still, Kellee and I lucked out with a few more awesome jobs than most people get.  For instance the typical sea to shore duty ratio after 10 years is 4 years at sea and 6 years ashore…however we average 7 years at sea and 3 years ashore…can’t complain!

But going into this sabbatical, we knew the tide was changing. As mid-grade officers going forward, we are expected to advance our education, serve in staff positions, and eventually command larger, major cutters….no more patrol boats!

So by disappearing on sabbatical, we were able to delay the inevitable staff job that we were both (over)due for.  Nevertheless, we were still nervous about what we were going to get or if we would even be together!

So we asked for staff positions in Seattle, San Francisco, Honolulu, Boston, and Washington DC based on trying to get a diversity of experience and location under our career belts for later.  We hoped for something on the west coast, but we were ready for anything they could throw at us. I think our quoted request to the assignment officers was “Please put us together in jobs that are useful and challenging, somewhere in the Pacific Area.” That all happened in August.  Then there was a long wait….

Office assignments are made top-down.  So all the Admirals get to find out where they are going in November. Then they can influence the decisions on everyone below them.  Captains find out around Christmas, and Commanders find out in early January.  Once they were all notified, it was our turn!  So we anxiously waited a phone call or email, while we simultaneously found out some of our friends were getting assigned to this or that billet. Some of our dream picks disappeared, so we were constantly talking about the likelihood of this or that job as the power balance changed.

Finally, this week the assignment officer emailed us to set up a call.  Being a “dual-military” situation, sometimes our case is even more challenging for the assignment officers – in our first 10 years, we were assigned together for 5, and apart for 5.  So we didn’t know what to expect, especially coming off our sabbatical…would we end up with bottom of the barrel jobs? Would we end up together or 12 hours apart? 

Eventually the phone call came and we held our breath.  We were both assigned to Pacific Area command staff, in Alameda, California, just like we hoped. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Virgin Islands Encore

Being back in the British and US Virgin Islands reminds us how great a place they are…as we worked our way westward to Fajardo, Puerto Rico, we spent a majority of our time underwater, diving on the wreck of the Rhone, and snorkeling on the reefs around Tortola, Norman, Sand, and Peter Islands

The VIs have easy sailing conditions, plentiful logistics like groceries and calm anchorages, and great underwater scenery - what more could you ask for?

We've been here a total of 4 times now, and it still doesn't get old.  We calculated that we've spent about a month of our lives in the BVI and determined that it was a month well spent.

But we quickly moved through the region and on Friday ensconced ourselves on the eastern shore of Puerto Rico for the next couple weeks.  Monday starts our USCG medical exam and paperwork, and next week we should also find out where we will be stationed for the next 2-4 years.  Lots of our top choices are already off the table, so it will be interesting to see what we end up with!

We also took advantage of the plentiful marine stores in the region to stock up on some fairly priced parts and consumables that we need for the next phase of our journey.

While diving near the Rhone, we spotted this Spotted Eagle Ray cruising beneath our boat. Pretty cool.  Adios for now!

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Grenada to the Virgin Islands

We arrived today at Spanish Town, Virgin Gorda, after a 4 day passage from Grenada this week.  We had been waiting for a good weather window to make the crossing of the Caribbean, and we departed Tuesday with a favorable forecast of ENE winds of about 20 knots, diminishing over the week. 
Our first night was a little rough since the waves from last weeks winds were still present, and the winds were still diminishing a bit from 20-25 down to 15-20, so we got pretty wet with the weather on the beam the whole trip.  
However the rest of the trip was nice, still a bit rolly and rough, but the winds were for the most part steady and squall-free, so we made excellent time, arriving 12 hours sooner than we anticipated.  So we just cleared customs in the British Virgin Islands and are drying out all our clothes and rain gear from the wet crossing, before we head out for more adventuring tomorrow.  
It was pretty strange making the 4 day crossing…we didn't see any of the islands, but we were only about 100 miles offshore from all of the islands we visited in 2013 on our way south…we covered in 4 days what it took us 5 months to do last year!  However its great to be back in the BVI…we have a week to make it to Puerto Rico for our Coast Guard physicals, so we'll check out some of our favorite spots in the British, US and Spanish Virgin Islands on our way west.  

Friday, January 10, 2014

Goodbye Grenada

 We're wrapping up our month-long stop in Grenada this week, and our "capstone" event was a visit by Leah and Rob who departed the frigid USA and met us in Grenada for a week of sun and fun.

To stage for their arrival, we positioned the boat on the south coast of Grenada in Clarke's Court Bay and then Phare Bleu Bay. However along the way we discovered a problem with our anchor windlass, the device used to retrieve our heavy anchor from the bottom.  It kept slipping, so we had to recover the anchor and chain by hand, and then immediately set to fixing the windlass. After two days of man-handling the beast off the deck and prying apart 30 year old seals and clutches, we discovered pretty much everything in working order with no obviously broken parts, so we simply cleaned and lubricated everything, tightened it all the best we could, and put it back in place…it was quite a project and it now works well, so whatever magic we performed must have been sufficient.  We'll hope the gremlin does not re-appear.

 With the boat as far east as possible, once Leah and Rob arrived we did some island exploring, including the very impressive Mt. Carmel falls, the highest on the island.  Since we've been having so much rain, the falls were really falling, and the water actually hurt as you got close to the base of the falls.  Unfortunately the rain also made the trail very muddy, so we ended the hike pretty "soiled."

After a bit of relaxing in the southern portion of the island we headed out into a nasty sea (the trade winds have been kicking lately), but thankfully most of the sailing was downwind and we just had to watch for the occasional reef or breaking wave to avoid.  But eventually we brought Navigator around to the western portion of the island and the more protected bay of St. George's.

There, we did some exploring of the city, some snorkeling at the famous underwater sculpture park, and some Hobie Cat speed racing along the beautiful Grande Anse beach. Along the way Rob discovered a love of passionfruit juice and Kellee found a new puzzle game for the ipad that will keep us occupied on the long sea voyage ahead!

All too soon, the last sunset happened and our friends headed out to the airport early this morning to head back to reality…which is crazy for us, because we're kind of doing the same thing, just on a slightly longer timescale.  We should be learning our new duty station within a few weeks, and then our plans will fall into place for the return voyage and our ultimate destination.  Time flies!