Panama Canal to Ireland
March 1984 to August 1985
Transit of the Panama Canal
As already noted, we had to go into the adjacent town of Balboa to make all the administrative arrangements for transit of the Canal. As for most such efforts in Central America, this was a rather time-consuming and tiresome business. We had to deal not only with the American administrators of the Canal itself (American authorities were still running the operation at the time, although the land around had reverted to the nation of Panama) but also with the local authorities in the port of Balboa.
The Spanish explorer Vasco Nunez de Balboa was the first European to lead an expedition to have seen or reached the Pacific from the New World. Incidentally, Keats got it wrong – it was not “stout Cortez” who “with eagle eyes he stared at the Pacific, and all his men look’d at each other with a wild surmise, silent, upon a peak in Darien”, but Balboa. What lovely imagery, nevertheless. Balboa then claimed not only the Pacific for Spain but also all lands bordering the ocean.
Because the yacht club named after him was an inconveniently located and expensive rip-off we had arranged to transit as soon as possible, which was three days after we arrived. Yachts have to carry crew (four in addition to the skipper) to handle lines, and an “advisor”, a canal employee of lower status than a qualified pilot, who tells the skipper what to do. For crew we took a couple from another yacht, Americans Al and Sharon from Kealoha, with whom we did the transit all over again on their boat five days later, and an Australian girl then in her third year travelling round the world on boats.
Early on the morning of 29 March 1984 we were joined by our linehandlers and by our "advisor', Ernesto. His first question was, "who's to be my helmsman?", which was not encouraging. Soon he confirmed that although friendly enough he was a rather egocentric and touchy character. However, he did seem to know what he was doing, unlike advisors in some other yachts, as we later heard. He never stopped "instructing", though, which was very annoying: "I am the pilot in charge"; "do what I say"; I know more about yacht handling than you do"; "I don't like taking yachts anyway".
Leaving the yacht club we soon motored under the huge bridge, the Puente de las Americas, and into the first set of locks, the Miraflores. These would take us up to the level of water that would take us through the the middle of the isthmus and across the Gatun Lake, from which water from the Gatun River flows to drive the whole near-miraculous system.
The transit took a long day, during which we covered about 50 miles. The “up” locks were extremely turbulent as the water churned in through the immense lock gates, and again when the big cargo ship a few metres in front of us, with whom we shared each lock, turned its propeller to assist the locomotive tugs which run on rails alongside. For these up-locks we were tied alongside a tug which was going through with the ship, the easiest way to go. There were two sets of locks to transit here, separated by the Miraflores Lake, before we entered the Gaillard Cut through the hills, steep and relatively narrow, seeming even more so by the passing big ships.
For most of the rest of the day we were simply motoring through the gorgeous upland lake, Gatun, formed from the flooding of the Chagres river and from which all the water needed to run the locks is derived (there are no pumps in the system). Surrounded by very pretty jungle scenery and lots of little islands we used the fresh water to wash both ourselves and the decks.
Going down through the Gatun locks, at the Atlantic end of the canal, yachts were customarily placed in front of the ships, either by tying a long line to each corner of the yacht to tugs at the top of the lock walls so that one sits in the middle, or by tying to a tug. The effect is that the bow of the cargo ship loomed over us in a rather intimidatory fashion. But the descent through each lock is much less turbulent than going up, because the water under us was simply draining away each time. Ernesto again arranged things so that we were tied up in a raft of another two yachts and a tug. Then followed a channel through mangroves and finally in the early evening to the only anchorage, in those days being a big open bay known as "the flats".
The whole transit experience was memorable, at that time a highlight of the voyage, and we really felt rather privileged – the actual transit fee for yachts was around $50-$100, depending on size, while for a typical ship it was tens of thousands of dollars. [In present times it is vastly more expensive for yachts, but it still beats going round Cape Horn.]
For a couple of days we lay at "the flats" anchorage, which had been made famous by many world-girdling sailors who, in their books, had complained about rowing the long and splashy distance to the Panama Canal Yacht Club near Colon. However, when we were there outboard motors were allowed in the harbour, so this was no longer a problem. But the anchorage felt isolated and was exposed to the trade winds, which seemed strong to those of us who had been softened by so much light air on the Pacific coast, and as soon as a berth became available at the club we moved in.
The Panama Canal Yacht Club we found to be a far more welcoming facility than its counterpart at Balboa, and with lower rates for proper berths with water and power. It is in the port of Cristobal, previously in the Canal Zone, half a mile from the notorious city of Colon.
The French, after abandoning their abortive attempt to build a canal through the isthmus, left a legacy of charming French colonial buildings in Panama. Colon might once have looked like a little New Orleans and, indeed, at first sight it looked like a clean and attractive town. However, with grinding poverty and massive unemployment, it had become very run down. Gangs were roaming the streets, petty criminals whose activities were ignored; two were reputedly concentrating on transient yacht crews, and a couple of yachties were mugged during the time we were there. But both of these were disobeying one or other of the following rules: walk the streets in the daytime only, stay on the main roads, wear no jewelry and carry minimum cash. We wore our scruffiest clothes to venture forth, and tried to look cool and tough!
We asked a little old lady the way to the market one morning, and she directed us to a block further back and said to be “very careful“, with great emphasis!
The produce market was well and colourfully stocked, and Norma bottled several jars of the best meat since Mexico. Right next to it was a reasonable supermarket where several gringos had been forcefully relieved of their change in recent years, so we were pleased to see the armed guard at the checkout, and a police car outside! We returned on foot unscathed, but I then took a taxi (very cheap) to a very rough-looking area to get our gas bottle refilled.
We enjoyed the scenic train trip back across the isthmus to Balboa, where we did some final shopping and arranged Honduran and Colombian visas for the next stages of our voyaging. We took a taxi into old colonial Panama City, being nicely restored by the government. We admired the old buildings and walked the sea walls before returning to the yacht club joining our American friends Al and Sharon to crew in their Mason 43 Kealoha for their transit. We spent the night on their yacht. Also crewing for Al and Sharon were a couple with whom we were to become very friendly in the Bahamas in the following winter, Brooke and David, in Shenanigan.
Al had expressed a preference for going “centre chamber”, with long lines up from each quarter to bollards on the lock walls, and as it turned out, there were no tugs he could have tied to anyway. For the skipper this is an easier way to transit, as the only manoeuvring is to keep the yacht in the middle of the lock. But for the crew, including us this time, the line-handling was hard work. The first task was to avoid being hit by the hard ball of the "monkey's fist", thrown down from the heights of the lock wall and trailing a light line which was used to pull up our own long strong line. Then there was the need for constant tending of the lines necessary at each corner as the boat moved up or down, or was hurled sideways by the turbulence.
We made several friends at the PCYC, including Townson in “Blue Waters”, tied across the dock finger from us, with his wife and two teenage daughters. They were running the small resort on Jesusita Island in Costa Rica when we last saw them. They were cruising with a monkey, two talking parrots, a dog and a cat (which produced four kittens). It was marvellous free entertainment to watch the monkey tease the parrot, and listen to the birds chatter. The charming Cuna Indian ladies from the San Blas islands, who came to the club to sell their beautiful “molas” (traditional colourful embroidery), brought their whole families down to see this floating zoo!
Finally tearing ourselves away from this friendly floating community we sailed north from Panama, having waited a couple of days for the strong NE Caribbean winter trades to swing to the east a bit. In the end we had a pleasant close reach north to the island of Providencia, which is part of Colombia.
This almost unknown small island was once a famous pirate hangout, and was then more famous as a reputed stop on the Colombia-US drug smuggling route. At the time we had never heard of a yacht calling there, but it was described in our cruising guide to the Caribbean and looked a beautiful and interesting island. The dawning sun backlit its tall volcanic peaks as we sailed up its west side to the long entrance channel which winds through the fringing reef, and it looked to us strongly reminiscent of Lord Howe Island. But to our dismay we found we had no motive power to help us in, and a quick dive confirmed that the blades on our folding propeller had fallen off – the pivot pin had fallen out, the first mechanical or structural failure of our cruise. Even if we had dared to negotiate the tortuous channel under sail, there was no prospect of getting a replacement prop in that remote and tiny place. Backtracking to Panama lacked appeal, so we pressed on for another 300 miles or so under sail alone to Coxen’s Hole, the main settlement on the island of Roatan, in the Bay Islands of Honduras.
The Bay Islands of Honduras
This was an interesting sail navigationally under wind power, taking us as it did round a prominent but difficult corner of the western Caribbean, with the notorious Cabo Gracias a Dios at the apex of the two faces of the Mosquito Coast of Nicaragua and Honduras. Reefs and shoals extend out for 150 miles. Big ships must take a huge detour in deep sea around these rocky shallows, but small craft have two other choices: hugging the Nicaraguan coast through the Mosquito Channel or finding a way through the reefs. We chose the latter course; our satnav would bolster our celestial navigation, especially at night, and we did not fancy the real chance of being apprehended by the Nicaraguan navy or in some other way being involved in local conflicts too close to the coast. (The Mosquito Channel reportedly could even have been mined!) For some 36 hours we sailed in an average depth of 30 metres, rounding the cape about 40 miles off. Fortunately, having no propeller, we enjoyed a commanding breeze, a 20-25 knot SSE, and we made good time to Coxen’s Hole on the south side of Roatan. On approach we had to negotiate yet more offshore reefs before sailing into the bay, enclosed by a little island offshore, anchoring by ourselves off the little town.
Clearing in was fun. No officials appeared, so I went ashore to see what the formalities were, if any. Meanwhile, a muscular local man swam out to the yacht and faced an alarmed Norma, whom he informed that he was indeed the Capitan del Puerto. He returned later in uniform and drank most of our beer stocks while we fended off his attempts to impose “unofficial” fees and charges. Instead, he took the remainder of the beer home with him.
This was an almost unknown and little-visited part of the world, with the only tourists drawn from scuba divers keen to see the deep, steep drop-offs of the fringing reef, and from the few yacht charterers enticed down from the States by the CSY company. Most Americans, we were told, were out-and-out scared of “war-torn” Central America, and it didn’t look as though CSY could be making any money. They were kind enough to dig out from under a work bench a suitable but bent three bladed prop (a charterer had hit coral). I spent a morning bashing it into shape with a heavy hammer on an anvil. Back at the boat, by way of repeated free-diving with a snorkel I managed to take off the hub of the old propeller and managed to bolt on the new one. After trimming its tips to clear the hull, it worked well enough to get us all the way to Florida, where we had the job re-done professionally.
The original Indian population of the Bay Islands was decimated by Spanish slavers. Settlements by the 17th century were established by the pirates of the Caribbean, but when the centre of pirate operations shifted to the Pacific, British settlers quietly moved into many areas in and near the Gulf of Honduras, including Providence, the Mosquito Coast, Belize and the Bay Islands. The islands were formally declared a colony of Britain in 1852, under the direction of Belize, but nine years later were ceded to a disinterested Honduras. The islanders enjoyed self-management of their affairs for the next century, but recently the Honduras government has decided to “Spanishise” the islands by making Spanish a compulsory language in schools (most islanders speak English with a lilting, Caribbean-Irish-Scottish accent), sending in Spanish-speaking officials from the mainland and establishing island settlements for poverty-struck mainlanders. None of these moves seems at all popular with the islanders with whom we spoke!
Conveniently mobile again, we had time to bemoan our abandonment of plan one, which had been to clear in at the east end of the island chain and work downwind to Coxen’s Hole. The Trades blow with great force from the east here, and kick up a steep, 2-3 metre sea against which it is a hard job to beat. So we confined our exploration to several of the protected harbours in the west end of Roatan, all named by buccaneers and settlers of old. We particularly enjoyed Old French Harbour, a landlocked cove entered by a very narrow, shallow channel. Across from us was a native village of clapboard and tin houses built on stilts over marshy flats, where water is drawn from a communal well and has to be boiled before drinking. On the hillside behind was a tiny bar/hotel, named the French Harbour Yacht Club by its American owners, where we enjoyed many a cold beer as we overlooked the bay.
Shopping in French Harbour town could be a frustrating experience. After unsuccessfully asking at one shack-like store for beer, eggs and bread, we were told cheerfully “no hay nada” – we have nothing! The chemist shop (a room in the back of a restaurant) sold aspirin at 5c each. The pills subsequently proved to be so old that they were ineffective. Coxen’s Hole is in fact, the only place with reasonable supplies, a post office and a bank, and we wished we had known that before leaving there!
Here, in the back of beyond, on going ashore one morning we passed an old American yacht with an equally old sailor aboard. “How are you” he said. “You don’t happen to know the price of gold this morning, do you?” There are some unusual conversations to be heard among voyaging yachties.
The anchorages were mostly well-protected little bays, entered from the sea through narrow passes in the fringing reef and ringed by simple dwellings built out over the water. Villages are strung all along the coast, and the local people use canoes to pass from bay to bay along little channels between the reef and the shore, often wending their way among dense mangroves as they do so. The people are very poor. Per-capita income in this classic banana republic is the lowest in Central America, although the lobster fishermen who poach the Nicaragua reefs and sell their catch in Florida do quite well.
The village houses are built on stilts in an attempt to avoid what must be among the world’s most ferocious biting bugs – invisible “no-see-ums”. Most of the time the easterly trade wind, which made the waters outside the bays very rough, blew strongly enough to keep the bugs at bay on the boat – but during the calm periods, despite the use of every conceivable repellant, we got bitten until we looked like a couple of cases of chickenpox. And the risk of infection in these hot and humid conditions is very real. Gringo settlers were quick to advise us on weird and wonderful repellants, including, amazingly, a lotion from the Avon range designed for other purposes altogether.
There is excellent snorkelling and diving on the reefs along the north side of Roatan, and we were made very welcome at a friendly resort, Anthony’s Key, which caters for dive groups. The narrow winding pass into the small anchorage was deeper than it was wide, with cliff-like coral formations hiding eery grottos as shafts of sunlight lanced the clear water to its invisible depths.
It should have been an easy overnight sail with the trades from Roatan to Belize, where we had planned to enter at Punta Gorda, deep in the corner of the Gulf of Honduras. Overnight, yes; easy, no, as Belize gave notice of what was to be a long period of unsettled weather. Just as we were nearing the south end of the long barrier reef at 0300, we were hit by a vicious thunderstorm with strong winds from the west. We hove to until dawn, and then beat in past several outlying reefs and small islands (cays) to a big bay by a prominent landmark, the Seven Hills, where a collection of islands called Mangrove Cays promised good shelter.
Anchoring among tropical mangroves, which grow on outcrops of old coral, was a new experience which we had fun repeating several times off the Belize coast. The charts show no detail at all. We therefore groped carefully in through corally shallows – “eyeball navigation” – to find ourselves in among a maze of navigable channels among clumps of mangroves. There was good holding in 6-12 metres, over a sandy bottom, near the southern port of entry, Punta Gorda, deep in the Gulf of Honduras. Choosing our own Cera-sized space we enjoyed splendid protection from the shifting wind as it whistled in the rigging.
Tiny Belize, 270 by 112 kilometres, was British Honduras until gaining full independence in 1981 following settlement of its border dispute with Guatemala. A true backwater country, no cruise ships go there and it is bypassed even by the Central American Highway, Aldous Huxley wrote of it in the 1930s: “If the world had any ends, British Honduras would certainly be one of them. It is not on the way from anywhere to anywhere else. It has no strategic value. It is all but uninhabited.” But in the same book, “Beyond the Mexique Bay”, Huxley also wrote with astonishment of the coral islands of the barrier reef, which is second in length only (by a very long way) to Australia’s own. We were told that it was the longest reef in the western hemisphere!
Now, most of the 140,000 population live in crowded, low-lying Belize City towards the north end of the country. Most of the interior is trackless jungle. It fell to the British by default, because the Spanish could find nothing worth plundering, and the British claim was maintained by the presence of log-cutters after mahogany, to be sent back to the homeland for the use of furniture makers such as Chippendale. Recently the Guatemalans got uppity, but that country’s claim to Belize was settled reasonably amicably and it became fully independent from Britain a few years ago.
We thought it was a wonderful place! Perhaps because of their isolation the people are very laid back, of a Caribbean rather than a Spanish nature, speaking smiling English. Although the weather was not brilliant, as the rainy season was by then (May) nearly upon us, the sailing on clear days was lovely, as the Caribbean chop was cut down by the offshore reef. There were some scenic little coral islands on the reef, and plenty of protected anchorages among the mangroves further in. Apart from us, there were no transient cruising yachts in the country, although we saw one or two charter boats out of Sail Belize, and a few American yachtsmen have settled there for an extended period.
One such was “Charlie”, a dead ringer for “Father” in Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast (although he was offended by any such suggestion). He, his wife Bonnie and their five children – aged from three months (twins!) to nine years – had settled in the run-down remains of a deserted and remote logging settlement on the shore, “to get away from it all”. Just like “Father”, Charlie was full of plans for development, including a slipway and repair yard. To this end he was collecting loggers’ junk from the jungles, and a collection of non-functioning outboard motors. Bonnie wistfully murmured “it was fun” after leaving our boat for the last time, and the reaction of their eldest girl when we gave her some books brought tears to our eyes. (Much later we heard that their dream had faded, and Bonnie had taken the kids back to America.)
The food and fresh produce in Belize were pretty dismal, through lack of interest and inclination rather than shortage of lush land. An interesting hangover from the slave ancestry of many of the people is that working in the fields is considered demeaning, and not worthy of real men. Accordingly most of the produce is imported and expensive. How they afford it, we had no idea. That was a recurring wonder to us in Central America and we were to be constantly reminded of it in the much cheaper supermarkets of the rich United States.
On the day we were due to go into Belize City and apply to the Mexican Consulate for a new set of visas for us and for the boat, with the intention of visiting the Yucatan Peninsula and maybe some Mayan ruins, we looked at each other and asked, do we really need to go through that Mexican bureaucratic run-around all over again? All aboard said no, so although we had a look at the resort island of Cozumel as we sailed past it, we continued non-stop round the west end of Cuba and back into American waters, making landfall and a pleasant week-long stop at the Dry Tortugas group of little islands about 70 miles west of Key West. This was a rough passage, as the winter trade winds were blowing strongly against the three-knot lower end of the Gulf Stream.
Cruising yachts are not supposed to make American landfall in the Dry Tortugas because it is not a port of entry, but the friendly official accepted our plea of adverse weather and welcomed us ashore.
On the main island by the anchorage is a magnificent fort (one of the world’s great follies), built in the mid-1800’s but never completely finished. Intended to guard the straits of Florida, it was obsolete long before completion because the new rifle-barrelled cannons would have been able to blow it to bits. The tons of bricks that were ferried out with huge difficulty to the little island partly sank it, so that the underground cisterns designed to store what little rain water ever falls there cracked and let the sea in. The salty air rusted out the ironwork protecting the cannons, and washed the lime out of the bricks. Even the Pentagon could learn from this magnificent piece of planning! It was used as a prison for a while, and its most famous prisoner was recently pardoned, a little late, by President Carter. He was Dr Mudd, who was unwise enough to treat Lincoln’s assassin and, in an interesting twist of medical ethics, was jailed for his pains. There is good clear water for swimming and snorkelling around the islands, which are a sanctuary for the noddy and sooty terns. They are a popular destination for yachts-people from Florida and Louisiana, who were very hospitable and friendly to us.
And so on back to civilisation proper at Key West, the island at Florida’s tail. A splendid little place, it is in danger of suffering from an endemic American disease, condominiumitis. Like dutiful tourists we trotted round the sights, including the home of Ernest Hemingway, professional macho writer, fisherman and big game hunter. Walls through the whole house are covered by the stuffed heads of his “trophies”. After the guide had pointed out the hordes of cats wandering round the house, all of which are descended from the scores that were Hemingway’s pets, a big black man standing behind me murmured, “for a man who loved animals, he sure killed a lot of them!”
Through the Straits of Florida, still riding the Gulf Stream, we sailed directly to Fort Lauderdale, a good place for one of our periodic refurbishing and purchasing sprees for the boat. Lauderdale is good for that, but for little else – a miserable strip of beach encloses a nightmarish collection of hotels and condominiums. But a river winds attractively through the middle of the city, and we tied to the river wall at the “city docks” and got the bikes out. The bikes got a lot of use as we tracked down various bits and pieces, including a new gas stove for the galley. One piece of indulgence was a new music system, a Panasonic portable hi-fi, graphic equaliser and all, with separate speakers. This was a joy – I was never happy with the top-line, but car-type Pioneer tape player with which I replaced the original Sony in Fiji. Now we could enjoy the excellent FM stations transmitting all over the States, and by doing some tricky rewiring of the back of the Pioneer I could even have the shortwave radio playing through the system, which distinctly improved the quality of BBC and Radio Australia sound! We had spent well below budget (about $3,000 in all) during the seven months in Central America and thus felt we could justify the odd luxury.
Our final ocean passage for a long time was from Fort Lauderdale to Southport, in North Carolina. We suffered a vicious and frightening thunderstorm the first night out, but afterwards enjoyed a pleasant reach most of the way, once again aided by the Gulf Stream. The stream really has to be sailed to be appreciated. Even the slightest wind against it raises a substantial chop. Near the edge of the stream the current eddies and swirls, and at one point I dived for the chart after Norma called me up to see what I thought about a mass of white water we were about to sail into: just like a breaking bar, and enough to slosh water onto the decks in less than 10 knots of wind. All this confirmed our plan to use the Intracoastal Waterway when the time came to retrace our steps in the autumn, when we would be expecting northerly winds!
Having traversed a channel in from the sea we came to anchor in a shallow creek off the Intracoastal Waterway. The next day we spent some time getting unstuck from the mud, but then had a lovely run up the ICW to a little town called Wrightsville Beach, where we (unusually) signed in at a marina berth. The town is about three hours driving from the university town of Chapel Hill and the home of our old friends Bob and Fran Campbell. They were down the next day to pick us up and take us back to their home for a wonderful extended stay.
We did a short tour of North Carolina country with them, including a pass down the Blue Ridge Parkway. The scenery is of green, rolling hills, a few of which grow to mountains; the road itself bypasses all towns and commercial traffic on it is prohibited. The roadsides were a mass of wild shrubs, predominantly rhododendrons, and we often stopped for walks through the woodlands to waterfalls, or to look around grand mansions of the Old South. A place really has to be visited to get a sense of its history; the original English settlers made their base in North Carolina (some disappeared – the “Lost Colony”), much of the War of Independence was centred here, and it was of course the location of many battles in that most extraordinary of conflicts, the American Civil War.
We much enjoyed meeting the Americans of the South, rather to our surprise, having what I imagine are the usual prejudices about red necked would-be slave-owners. The people we had met in Florida rather reinforced such prejudices, but we were assured that they are not “real” Southerners, and that we could continue to expect the courteous and friendly hospitality to which we had become accustomed. Australians, of course, are pretty rare beasts in this neck of the woods, and this alone made us creatures of some interest.
Back aboard and continuing north we used the Intracoastal Waterway to cut off Cape Hatteras, staying “inside” all the way up to the Chesapeake. The waterway is an extraordinary combination of lakes, sounds, dredged channels through swamps, and man-made canals. It is just about deep enough for our 6′6′ draft, but the anchorages which lie off the main channel usually saw us scraping the muddy bottom. Parts of it are pretty boring, especially as we had to motor practically all the time in order to ensure making the next night’s planned anchorage, but most of it is attractively scenic, sometimes wooded, sometimes lined by magnificent southern mansions with glowing green lawns sloping down to the brown water. It was generally a lot quieter than we had expected, but by this time it was mid-summer, and off-season for ICW transit – we expected it to be much busier during the migration south in the fall.
And so, finally, and well primed by James Michener’s huge novel about the area, we reached the enormous estuary system of Chesapeake Bay, where we planned to spend the rest of the summer, and the top of which would be as far north as we expected to sail on the US east coast.
In the Chesapeake
Reaching Chesapeake Bay was exciting. Some 12 years before, on a working trip, we had driven over the huge bridge which crosses the Bay near its northern tip, and said, “one day, maybe, we’ll sail down there ….”
By the time we reached Norfolk Virginia, at the southern end of the bay, August was nearly over However, we had been told that autumn was the time for the Chesapeake: it was too hot and buggy earlier in the summer. And we had hopes of the Indian Summer enjoyed by these parts most years – balmy days and evenings. This was just what we did get as it turned out, all the way through to the end of October, when we tracked back through Norfolk on our way south.
However, sailing in the Chesapeake can be a frustrating business because airs during the season are mostly light, and the water swiftly tidal. The surrounding countryside is flat, so that we couldn’t see much of it as we sailed by, because shoals extend miles off the shore. Enjoyment of the Bay starts once the anchor is down (usually for us with the keel sweeping the bottom!). There are quiet creeks and charming towns galore, with the local people showing us unmatched hospitality wherever we went.
From Norfolk we sailed up the western shore, which throughout its southern part is fed by rivers and inlets rich with historical reminders of the original European settlement of the New World. At a marina in a creek off the York River, where the American Revolution was effectively ended by Cornwallis’ surrender to Washington, we slipped Cera for cleaning and painting. The antifouling we had applied on the beach in Costa Rica, being Mexican, had been cheap but pretty useless, and we were dragging a lot of weed. The marina was a good but not untypical example of its kind on the east coast, all of which go to all sorts of trouble to attract visiting boats. The clean yard had its own toilets and hot showers. We were welcome to use the marina swimming pool, and we used the marina’s car to take our gas bottle to be filled. Mind you, this doesn’t all come free, and by preference we practically always found somewhere good to anchor – a pleasant change from west coast hassles.
We touched the muddy bottom most days, and as it happened one of our firmest groundings was going out of the creek from the marina – so much for the new paint on the keel! Groping over such shoals at times, we slowly worked our way up to Annapolis, one of America’s (and, indeed, the world’s) sailing centres.
The little harbour off the charming town of Annapolis provides excellent anchorage, even if it is a bit crowded at times, and we made it a base for several forays into Washington DC using the commuter bus which runs the 40 miles in and out, morning and evening. At each of the major Smithsonian museums we spent a whole day, including the National Air and Space Museum and what is now called the National Museum of American History (the sort of general affairs one). Awe-inspiring collections as they are, they serve to bolster the prevailing sense of patriotism (jingoism?) said to be engendered by President Reagan, and some manifestations of this can be irritating. There is a large display centred on the Harrier vertical take-off jet fighter, for instance, where one can find no mention of the fact that it was originally designed and built by the British, but only that it was “developed” in the US of A.
It was a short sail from Annapolis to Baltimore, a major port and city, where incredible efforts have been made to rehabilitate the once run down inner harbour. We anchored in the shadow of the city’s skyscrapers, hard by the tourist attractions in Baltimore’s answer to Sydney’s Circular Quay but without the ferries.
We then came south down the Chesapeake by the eastern shore, “The Shore” made famous by Michener’s novel about the area. There are some utterly enchanting tiny towns here. Our favourites were St Michaels, which has a superb maritime museum centred on the history of the amazing variety of sailing vessels which have been used on the Bay, and Oxford, a sleepy place which was once a port of entry in earlier trading days. Many skipjacks are still oyster dredging under sail, and other “character” vessels abound. These included a well travelled replica of a “Baltimore clipper” (actually a schooner of the type used as privateers against the English) which we had previously seen in San Francisco, and a replica of the “Dove”, which brought the first settlers to these shores.
To our great joy, the Canada geese arrived in their millions before we left, no doubt like us looking rather anxiously over their shoulders at the cold weather they were fleeing. So following their timely example, we set our sights south, and plunged back into the Intracoastal Waterway for the 1,000 mile trip which would end back in Florida.
The Intracoastal Waterway
The Intracoastal Waterway extends pretty well from Maine to Mexico, but the part we dived into at Norfolk, Virginia, is the best known. The Mile Zero marker is by the anchorage off the Norfolk Naval Hospital, and we were bound for mile 1,020 or thereabouts, way down at Palm Beach, Florida. We chose to take the ICW south for two reasons: first, it had been recommended by cruising friends as an experience not to be missed, which we were certainly able to confirm; and, second, an offshore winter passage south against the Gulf Stream lacked any appeal.
The ICW is an amazing mixture of sounds, rivers, bays, creeks, swamps and man-made canals. We even peeked out to sea a few times, as we crossed major inlets, before groping back into the waterway’s shallow security. We knew our draft (two metres, 6′6″) would be a problem, and indeed it was, to some extent. The ICW is supposed to be dredged to 12 feet, but it’s impossible to keep up with the shoaling, especially where it crosses inlets and rivers or traverses miles of shallow open sound. So we were often in an anxious seven feet or so, but we only hit the bottom in the marked channel twice. The first time we went hard aground, and had to launch the dinghy to sound for the deepest water before employing our wriggle method for getting off. Hitherto undocumented, this needs a fin keel and a big rudder. The boat is screwed from side to side as the keel burrows its way through the mud. The second time, I relaxed concentration for a crucial second and we bounced off a sand bank towards which we had been pushed by a two-knot tide suddenly appearing from a side inlet. We were several times on the bottom (or as near as makes no difference) in various anchorages, most of which were in shallow creeks, but it is all mud, undamaging, and of glue-like holding power.
We motored almost the whole way down, with the exception of some good sails across the South Carolina sounds. It is certainly possible for the very determined to sail more than we did, but we only saw multihulls try. The winds are very flukey, as the ICW winds its way from creek to creek, and – more importantly from our point of view – anchorages of sufficient depth for our draft are widely enough spaced apart to make it essential to keep up a good average speed to ensure that the day’s destination could be reached during the short winter’s day.
Many of the anchorages we found to be enchanting, and most were quiet, as the worst of the fall rush had passed (we were late, as usual!). They varied from marsh-fringed creeks, to tree-lined inlets, to the dredged canal leading to a disused cement works!
Often we anchored off one of the many small, interesting towns which front the ICW. Some come particularly quickly to mind. Beaufort, in North Carolina, makes a deliberate effort to attract yachts; the anchorage is strung out along a creek opposite the town front, and wild horses graze along the sand dunes which on the other side protected us from the sea. The maritime museum holds mail and messages, and will happily lend a car for heavy provisioning trips. Pronounced Boe-fort, it is not to be confused with Beaufort (Bew-fort) in South Carolina, where lines of graceful old homes overlook the peaceful river. The biggest city on the Waterway in these parts is Charleston, a lovely city with a people and a lifestyle all of its own: measured and gracious, in keeping with the superbly maintained mansions which still exist simply because, following the Civil War, people in this major city of the Old South were so impoverished they couldn’t afford to “redevelop” by pulling anything down.
Across the lowlands of Georgia we wound our way through miles of open marshland, totally uninhabited by human life, but rich in wild bird and animal life, including deer which we twice saw swimming across the waterway in front of us. Small towns reappeared once we got to Florida: the active fishing centre of Fernandino Beach, where modern shrimping methods were developed; St Augustine, at various times under Spanish and British control before becoming part of the United States; and Titusville, with a tiny man-made harbour where Cera lay while we spent an absorbing day at the Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral.
Apart from the depths, there were a couple of other aspects of ICW travel which had worried us, but turned out to be minor problems. First, the motor yachts, which some had led us to believe would roll us dizzy with their enormous wakes – but not so, as almost without exception they slowed way down before passing with a friendly wave. And the bridges, scores of them. Again, very little problem. A few are limited to opening half-hourly, or stay closed during rush hour, but all these are listed in the available guides. All the others open on request, either by a couple of blasts on the hooter or (except in Florida) by calling the friendly and helpful operators on the VHF, whose answer would typically be: “Sure, cap; keep her coming, and we’ll have her open when you get here”.
And so, at the rate of 30-50 miles a day, we sailed from winter into spring. The first damaging winter storm to hit the south-east occurred while we were in Charleston in mid-November, and it was followed by biting northerly winds, with wind chill bringing the effective temperature to well below zero degrees C. We wrapped up with balaclava helmets, ski gloves, several sweaters under oilies, complained as we slipped on ice on the foredeck, and enjoyed the cosy heat of the saloon in the quiet evenings. But by southern Florida it was back to shirtsleeves, and on the day Norma went shelling on the ocean beach just across the sand dunes from the anchorage we felt we were back to “real” cruising.
In Palm Beach we dropped anchor at the very head of Lake Worth, and after dinghying ashore walked through the parked Rolls Royces and Cadillacs to what has to be one of the world’s ritziest supermarkets to do some final provisioning for the short leg over to Grand Bahama Island, then on down to Nassau. But first, we had to wait for a shift in the persistent easterly wind, during which time our six-month visa for the US expired. As far as the authorities know, we are still there.
Cera in the Bahamas
It’s hard to come to terms with the sheer area covered by the Bahamas, unless your knowledge of Caribbean geography is a lot better than ours used to be. Averaging 200 miles in width, the island groups extend 550 miles south-east from just off Florida to near Haiti. The number of islands depends a bit on how you define them, but by a 1864 count there were 29 of substantial size, 661 cays (from the Arawak “cairi”, small island), and 2,387 rocks. If the water level was raised 10 metres most of them would disappear; if it was lowered the same amount, a vast sand plateau would be exposed, cut by a few deep, wide sounds.
We sailed direct to Nassau, in the north central Bahamas, from Palm Beach, a 200-mile trip down one of the main shipping channels. We had arranged to spend Christmas with sailing friends in Nassau, and in any event wanted to get south as soon as possible, rather than dally in the Abaco group up north. Nassau we found to be a rather unattractive place, with plush new hotels and casinos mixing uncomfortably with decaying remnants of the country’s heritage as a British colony. It is seething with tourists, from cruise ships and the hotels, but off the tourist beat we did not find the local supermarkets as expensive as we had been warned, and at New Year’s dinner with two of the other three Australian boats in the anchorage we feasted quite cheaply at a local restaurant on turtle steaks.
Anchorage may be found almost anywhere in the harbour, which lies between the town and an off-lying tourist island (once called Hog Island, now Paradise Island!). The main problem is to find somewhere reasonably clear of the frenetic maritime activity. Speedboats, tourist launches, work boats, cruise ships and scheduled amphibian aircraft using the water as a runway all compete for space. At a popular spot, off Club Med, we found the disco music intolerable, but everywhere else was almost as noisy!
As soon as possible we set off down the Exuma chain of islands, the quietest and supposedly the most beautiful of the several groups in the Bahamas. Our first leg took us to Allan’s Cay across part of “the banks”, where we found eyeball piloting to be quite different to our experience elsewhere in the world. A few deep channels are defined by a strip of dark water, but mostly the bottom is composed of gently shelving sand, with limited contrast between the 3 metres we can move in and the 2 metres we can’t. The original Spanish explorers called the region “Baja mar”, meaning shallow water, with good reason we thought – but the water is exceptionally clear and the real dangers fairly easy to see.
The Exumas begin only a day trip from Nassau, but might as well be in another world altogether. Few of them are inhabited, and the scattered little settlements house cheerful and friendly people, fine seamen and fishermen. Some of the islands are owned by rich non-Bahamians, and many of them have been used as transit points for the smuggling of drugs into the States. Like most cruisers new to the Bahamas we wondered about security, and the extent to which drug smuggling would touch our daily lives; in practice, hardly at all is the answer. Even in the Exumas there are hundreds of yachts, so isolation is not a problem, and it is clear that the smugglers want as little to do with law-abiding yachts as the yachts want to do with them. But we did have a passing brush with them, as follows.
Among the more interesting islands we visited was one owned by a 70-year-old American oil billionaire, which he had set up as a private research establishment. The six people there are engaged in trying to persuade fish which are normally farmed in fresh water to breed in salt, and also experimenting with breeding lobsters and conch (immense shellfish, which we gather and eat ourselves, but which we think are rather over-rated) and with extracting energy from wind and sun. Together with couples from three other yachts, we dined al fresco with them on the island.
On a return visit, the research team told us of a plane which, out of fuel, had landed there. Dissatisfied with the occupants’ bona fides – the pilot and a well-dressed Colombian – they took them under citizen’s arrest at gunpoint. The authorities subsequently found 540kg of cocaine, street value over $100 million, stashed by a transponder at the end of the runway! They told us this story rather shakily, wondering if the drug kings would seek some retribution.
That very night we saw a light plane flying very low, shining spotlights. It disappeared, and Norma told me with some excitement that she had just seen it go down. The next day an unmarked, fast speedboat (typically used by drug smugglers) with three unshaven men on board asked us for directions to the nearest town, being hopelessly lost! They rushed away towards a settlement despite our warning that navigation in these waters without a chart and at night was dangerous.
We then sailed to an adjacent island, owned by an American couple with whom we had become friendly, to find them full of excitement because the plane had indeed ditched in the sea, was lying in about 20ft of water, and they were going to try to recover it. So started some real fun and games. Some young men dived and took a hose down to the cabin, we pumped it full of air with a foot pump until it floated awash, and we then towed the plane to the beach at high tide. As the water receded it revealed a very nice twin-engined Cessna, which we had all sorts of fun poking around.
The (presumed) smugglers had taken off everything they could carry, but forgot their charts, which clearly showed their route from a little airfield in Colombia! By this time the US Coastguard (an enforcement rather than rescue body, working with the Bahamian authorities in a fruitless attempt to cut down on this sort of thing) had spotted us from their jet, and sent a chopper to find out what we were doing. Whether, indeed, what we were doing was lawful I had no idea, so we stayed in the background. In fact, all seemed pleased we had found the plane, whose owner was probably untraceable. Altered numbers and other defacements showed it was stolen.
Most of the anchorages in the Bahamas are lovely, and the colours of the water truly spectacular because of their clarity and the shining white sand which lies beneath them. Norma spent hours on the beaches, adding substantially to her shell collection, and we had a busy social life because friendships quickly develop among the boats that are moving down the chain at about the same speed. Many of the Americans (forming the bulk of the yachts) are keen spear fishermen. SCUBA and triggered spear guns are forbidden, but there are plenty of lobsters for those prepared to dive for them. For ourselves, we found the water a bit cool for such activities (wet suits are necessary, really, and our rule of thumb is that if that is so, it’s too cold to swim), but we caught plenty of fish on the hook, and there are huge conch around if you are prepared to spend the time looking for them and undertaking the complicated task of extracting and cleaning them.
Contrary to the tourist literature the tropics this is not, and we spent a fair proportion of time weather-bound. Cold fronts trailing from north Atlantic storm systems regularly sweep the islands, typically with a clockwise swing from the prevailing easterly, through south-west and strengthening to the whistling “norther”. This happens about weekly, but the frequency and intensity was easing by the latter part of April.
Outboards and dinghies get a fearful amount of use in the Bahamas, because there is so much delightful exploring among scores of cays lying in shallow water, and the swift currents through the anchorages make rowing near impossible. Like many others, we had our problems: our much loved Suzuki 2-hp chewed up its bottom end after having manfully run its gears in water (rather than oil) for an unknown time, and we had to fly in from Nassau a new black box for our rarely-used Mercury 10, parts being generally unobtainable in the “out islands”.
Most of the little islands we visited were uninhabited, so there were no restrictions on walking the low hills and the long, curving beaches, which are of Australian standard, high praise indeed. Norma continued to build her shell collection, and made some highly attractive jewellery from such things, as well as turning out scads of crochet work. She also dabbling in “fish printing”, a delightful Japanese art form. We both read avidly as the winter slipped by, and I slowly extended my dismal knowledge of musical theory and history.
After this happy winter of inconsequential beachcombing in the Bahamas, we cleared out of Nassau with eager anticipation of new horizons, challenges and adventures. However, only a few hours later we were still in the Bahamas, tucked into a splendid hidey-hole at the north end of Eleuthera while the wind whistled in the rigging and thunderstorms banged and flashed overhead! From here we took a lift on a motor boat to an extraordinary place called Spanish Wells, originally settled by the “Eleutheran Adventurers” from Bermuda as part of the general movement of religious independents to the New World at the time of Cromwell. Slavery was not important to their economy, so the population of the island is white, but to hear a pretty young blonde talking in accents of pure Afro is quite a shock! There were ruins of a once grand plantation near where we lay, hidden among lush but overgrown orchards where Norma picked bags of juicy, ripe mangos. The decaying ballroom was a separate building, as was the billiard room, where the broken slates of two full-size tables lay crooked among the weeds.
Our next major destination was Bermuda, the first step across the Atlantic. In a change of plan we had decided to postpone visiting the Mediterranean for a year and would sail instead for England via Ireland, so that we would more easily seek work the following winter. The declining strength of the Australian dollar had been a painful blow to our cruising pocketbook!
From the New World to the Old
We waited the weather out for five days, then had a great sail to Bermuda, with fair winds for the whole 800 miles. It can be a dangerous landfall, and there have been hundreds of wrecks on the fringing reef, including ships within the previous year or two. Vessels are requested daily by Bermuda Radio to stay at least 30 miles clear unless making port at the group, so it was a bit alarming to experience appalling visibility as we neared the harbour at St George, not seeing anything at all until white-roofed houses loomed through the mist, eerily high on the waterfront hillside.
Bermuda is a lovely little country, a tiny group of coral islands compacted into an almost unitary mass. It is packed solid with people, everything is neat and tidy, and the buses run on time. But it is ferociously expensive, appealing to the richest of well-heeled tourists as well as to us. We spent a while in popular St George, but unlike most yachts we also anchored for a while at the attractive capital, Hamilton, and even “cruised” the group for a few days, the land-locked and flower-bedecked anchorages being deserted because practically none of the hundreds of visiting yachts take the time to do so. Bermuda is a natural crossroads for yachts, as many return to the US from the Caribbean for the summer, and others, like us, enjoy the break during a west-east crossing of the Atlantic.
Unlike the Bahamas, which have become aggressively independent, Bermuda is proud of its colonial status, and plays it up for all it’s worth, for the benefit of the well-heeled American tourists who are the main source of income. The small port town of St George has a Town Crier, for instance, who daily ducks maidens and locks other offenders in the stocks. All very ersatz, but as well done as we have seen, and good fun.
Before embarking on what was to be the longest leg of the Atlantic crossing, all the way to Ireland, we waited for some showery weather to clear, then sailed away in really very pleasant conditions, although pretty breezy for a while, which was a test for our sea legs so early in the passage. Our general strategy was to sail just south of the shortest possible route, the “great circle”, because that would take us up into the region where icebergs were to be expected (having calved off the great glaciers of Newfoundland and Greenland), and where gales associated with the depressions which regularly march across the northernmost North Atlantic would be more likely. In effect, then, we sailed a curve to the south, adding about 200 miles overall, but we were quite right to do so, because we later read that it was a bad year for icebergs, and because we had quite enough trouble from the depressions as it was, without getting too close to them!
Even at the best of times, an east-going passage of the Atlantic is hard work, because the wind constantly changes in speed and direction, although I must say that for a change the winds were generally behind us. At times we were sitting, rolling in the swell which always accompanies even the glassiest calm, and at times we were running before a full (but never really ferocious) gale. The worst weather we had was at about half way, when towards the end of the blow we were tossed sideways and knocked down by a big breaking wave, which threw all Norma’s jars out of their secure stowage in the galley, and dumped all the soil out of her plant pots! More seriously, it disabled our self-steering wind vane by bending its rudder shaft, and I had a lot of fun the next day dangling over the stern, half in the water but securely held by my safety harness, getting the vane rudder off its shaft. Fortunately we have a back-up self-steering device, an electric autopilot, which steered us fine the rest of the way but at the cost of a heavy drain on the batteries and the need to run the engine daily to recharge them.
By an unplanned fluke we left Bermuda on the same day as American friends on a similar yacht, and they sailed the same course and speed to Ireland as us. We were able to chat with them on the VHF radio (which only has a range of about 40 miles) twice a day, the sort of commitment we tend to avoid like the plague, but one which in this case we came to look forward to as a welcome break and a chance to swop experiences, especially when it was windy on the one hand or calm on the other (whichever is worse is what you’ve got at the time!).
After the gale, the skies closed in, and we had cool, dank overcast conditions for pretty well the whole of the rest of the way, as our daily position fixes on the Atlantic chart crept slowly to our destination, the port of Castletownbere, at the west end of Bantry Bay. That very last evening, by which time we were within a couple of miles of the coast and seeing nothing in the haze, the clouds lifted and in dramatic sunshine we could see Ireland for the first time – rocky, rolling hills, patches of green, and on every headland the ruins of a castle or Martello watchtower, reminders of the several Spanish and French attempts at invasion of this wild bit of coast. We had sailed about 2,860 miles in 22 days, quite a good average, but we have rarely been more pleased to arrive anywhere and embraced on the foredeck as the anchor dug in.
Castletownbere is a fishing village, where we sampled our first draft Guinness for many a long year and enjoyed the refreshing change, after months in the Bahamas and before that the United States, of being able to buy superb fresh meat at a proper butcher’s. A couple of days later we took the bus 80 miles to Cork to buy charts. This was quite a big but, we thought, rather a gloomy city. The ride took us through the hills of County Cork, with more wild scenery and tiny villages where the farmers still take milk to their co-ops in churns on little carts drawn by donkeys.
We spent the next few weeks cruising the rugged inlets of the south-west coast, where through protected anchorages swim seals and otters and the surrounding hillsides are swathed in veils of cloudy mist – “soft weather”, they call it. Not surprisingly, grass and plants of all sorts grow easily, and the array of wild flowers is a constant source of amazement. A couple we met on quiet Sherkin Island, a writer and his wife, invited us to stay the night with them at their isolated cottage, where their herbaceous and vegetable gardens made Norma very envious! Sadly, throughout this part of Ireland there are signs everywhere of the rate at which people are leaving it – crumbling stone cottages amid meandering, collapsing walls are to be seen everywhere.
A sad, downcast people, one might say, and the fearful drinking and smoking must mirror some deep discontent – yet resilient and friendly. All sorts of contradictions. Peace-loving sons of the soil? Yes, with guns at home. We were sometimes amused at the extent to which they would try to avoid political discussion, lest they risk offending us, although our opinions became increasingly republican.
The sailing between anchorages was mostly good, in the brisk prevailing sou-westerly wind. But we more often than not had to wait out gales, or for the rain to stop, and on one quite long leg we were shut in by fog, which made navigation interesting. The locals told us that this was the worst summer for at least five years, or within living memory or whatever, but an American lady who has lived here for a long time said these conditions were not really that unusual! Nevertheless, it did seem odd to say that we were looking forward to getting to the better weather we expected in England!
Ashore the walking was grand, through spectacular scenery with lovely views down to the ever-present water of the fjord-like bays. Every mile or two there was a ruined castle or abbey to clamber over, while we pondered the violence and bloodshed which has been so much a part of the history of these seemingly gentle people. Few races can have been the object of such regular and systematically brutal exploitation as the Irish, leaving a legacy of troubled times which will not pass in our lifetimes.
There were few cruising yachts around, and none bar ourselves from outside Europe that we saw. We would soon be sailing up the Channel along the English south coast, which we were told would be horrendously crowded and expensive (up to $15 a night just to anchor!) but as usual we were content to wait and see. Things are rarely as bad as they are made out to be, we have found, and life continued to be full of fascination as in early August 1985 we set sail from the Crosshaven River, near Cork, for the old country.