SOUTH to UNION ISLE, and towing a SUBMARINE
Position 12:35.58N 61:24.70W
I spent just over a fortnight in Admiralty Bay, Bequia. The first week was spent on my back, not eating, the second upright and eating all the time, so it wasn’t until the last few days that I started to take in the surroundings. Bequia is a gentle place. Port Elizabeth is a busy, thriving community many of whom are also seafarers, and boat building by eye alone still goes on along the beach. It is very popular with cruisers, I suspect because it is peaceful here, and because there is none of the usual hassling for custom. The anchorage isn’t that great - mine dragged a couple of times and had to be reset - and the moorings have been known to come adrift, but its people are friendly and it is just a very pleasant place to spend some time. I would have liked to have spent a lot more time there, however, in a hurricane Admiralty Bay would be a death trap. And as the hurricane season officially ‘starts’ on 1 June I was in the wrong place - especially as there had already been two tropical storms already before the season had even got going! So it was time to leave.
But a few days before I had been pleasantly surprised by Ed and Elizabeth on SKYLARK knocking on the hull. We had met on Brad’s beautiful LADY ANGELE in St Lucia, Brad had sailed north for Maine with the owner on board - he was a paid Skipper - and here were Ed and Elizabeth wondering if I was still alive as they’d seen no sign of it!
The following day I was invited over for a meal, and we had a very pleasant evening. It was especially good to have company. Next day they sailed south, and we agreed to meet up in Trinidad where Elizabeth was actively by internet trying to persuade the officials to allow their pet dog Lunar ashore. Dogs are not allowed ashore in Trinidad, but Elizabeth is a past master of persuasion and armed with every vaccination certificate going. They stand no chance!
Monday 4 June 2012 SAIL BEQUIA to UNION ISLAND, and we TOW A SUBMARINE
The original plan was just to check out with customs here in Bequia and sail on down to Grenada and be done with it. But this felt a bit defeatist and boring of me, so I checked to see which of the islands was the most southerly that had customs and that was Union Island. The Pilot book says it is a good island to visit, and the centre of sailing in the southern Grenadines.
Being only about 35nm, I could dispense with the pre dawn start, and also the pain of having to clear in with customs on arrival and out in Bequia, so I was relaxed about it. Or so I thought, but as I was motoring out of Admiralty Bay along the long finger of rock that juts several miles out to the west in a long low tree covered ridge, I was aware that actually, I was nervous. I wondered if this was just because, as usual, I was alone on this, or whether perhaps I was always nervous when sailing. I suspected the latter to be true. But maybe its good to be a bit nervous…keeps you alive.
Initially I was motoring slowly with the autopilot doing the work, whilst I tidied up the bow after the anchoring. Several boats overtook me and were soon miles ahead by the time I’d turned into wind to set the main and back on course with some genoa out. I was still undecided about my route, but watching the others all head directly south after clearing West Cay I decided I would take a detour to the SE to have a look at Mustique. This would mean a fairly hard port tack to offset against the west setting current, but the tide was flooding that morning which has the effect of countering the Equatorial current, so I hoped it would be ok. It was. Pinball ran nicely along the planned track on the chartplotter. Initially I was heading for a narrow gap between a small island barely two miles across called Isle a’ Quatre and a lump of rock called as usual Pigeon Island. A large number of islands seem to be so christened. It was a boisterous crossing with a Force 6 blasting us all the way, but then as we took the gap the wind dropped right back to 14kt. Provided it didn’t drop back any further we would be ok I thought, but I needn’t have worried. Moments later we were hit with a slamming blast that had PW heeled over further than I’d ever seen before. I was grateful I was in a yacht and not on one of the ubiquitous catamarans that are so popular in the Caribbean; a yacht will heel and dump the air. Catamarans can’t, so are more likely to break something important. Or turn over..
So far the seas had been mildly unpleasant, with the main swell from the east, yet another from further round to the south, and a chop on top. It didn’t improve either except briefly when we were in the lee of Mustique, and for the whole day I was feeling mildly seasick. Lunch was cheese and pickle sandwiches - normally eagerly devoured - but the seasickness took the appetite away, so it was a duty meal to keep strength up.
Three quarters of a mile off the west coast of Mustique there is an area of very shallow water called the Montezuma Shoal. Almost as if knowing, PW had gradually veered off course under the command of the Windpilot self steering as we approached the area, ensuring our safety. It was impossible to see this shoal even though it is marked with buoys supposedly, but buoyage in the Caribbean is unreliable and often not there anymore. I let it run safely down our port side, and accepted that we would not pass closer for a good look at Mustique. To stop there costs $100 - double the going rate - as it is still a very exclusive spot even though cruisers are welcomed. As long as you pay..
I was entertained by growing numbers of seabirds on this leg, some of whom would come and have a good look at PW before joining the wheeling squawking throng who’s excited cries announced the arrival of fish. Worn out by squawking and diving, they would then just alight on the water in groups and watch us slipping past.
To get to Union Island I had first to get past Mayreau and the mass of reefs known as Tobago Cays to its east. Having made some good easting against wind and current with my diversion past Mustique, it now seemed more sensible, and I hoped a little quicker, to pass to windward of the Tobago Cays and the scary sounding Worlds End Reef which sticks out even further east, rather than the more normal route passing to the west. So I set a course for a point a mile off the reefs. What was disappointing was my speed. It didn’t seem to matter how much sail I put up nor what I did with it - and I had full sail up on both masts - we never seemed to go any faster than 4 knots. It began to concern me. Was the bottom that badly fouled that it was slowing us down so much? Or had I picked up a rope or something and now towing it unseen? It felt like we were towing a submarine. I had been towing something in fact, the portaloo, which had been happily self cleansing behind on a short line for some time now, but it didn’t seem to make any difference when it was back onboard. I watched as our speed over the ground (SOG) dropped below 4 knots. The carefree approach to this nice short journey started to vapourise into concern. Now we were doing less than 3 knots, with full sail up on a beam reach with 20knots of wind. What was going on? Surely we couldn’t be against a current, as as far as I knew the currents ran east to west and we were heading south. It was now late afternoon. At this speed we would be arriving at Clifton harbour, Union Island in the dark, and the anchorage was on a reef! Doyles guide - never short of an opinion - states the following ‘advice’. ‘NEVER enter a strange harbour at night!‘ In fact the whole area was surrounded by boat sinking reefs, with an extra reef bang in the middle of the harbour just for good measure, and several small but deadly reefs on the way in past Palm Island and all at or just below sealevel. When I saw 2.5knots SOG on the instruments that did it. I started up the 40HP Yanmar and wound it up to 1500 revs. Hardly any change. 2100 revs. Now doing 3 knots. Ok, 2600 revs then - my normal cruise speed which would give a good 5 knots on its own normally, without any sails. Now we were doing a paltry 3.5 knots! I took it up to 2800 revs which gave just over 4 knots SOG, still with full sail set as well. I must be towing a big submarine! The essential piece of information that was missing from all this was our actual speed through the water. In St Lucia I had scraped the hull in the bay just by snorkelling and having a quick scrape whilst the breath held out, but in the cloud of homeless creatures suddenly liberated from the hull I failed to see that the little black thing I had attacked was in fact the plastic paddlewheel of the ships log protruding through the hull, which gives speed through the water. Since then I’d been without this useful info. If our speed through the water was in fact 6 knots, then I’d know we were in a fierce current. If it was only 4 knots with the engine at max, and all sail up, then there was something very wrong.
By my calculations, even now we would be arriving after sunset, and it gets dark here much quicker than in northern latitudes. Worlds End Reef was the turning point. To clear that we had to hold our southerly course, but once past this extensive and submarine reef we could ease off to the SW to make Palm Island. Would this make any difference?
The difference was substantial. Coming round in 10 degree alterations, the speed gradually eased up to 5 knots, then 5.5 knots. But what was amazing was that our required course to make good Palm Island was 260 deg, but our heading to achieve it was 230 degrees - meaning that our leeway was a massive 30 degrees. This then was the answer. There was indeed a fierce current running I would guess at 2 knots at least, pushing us sideways towards Palm Island and now helping with speed. I killed the engine and ran on with 5.5 knots SOG - sufficient to make the anchorage in dwindling light, just.
Unusually for an anchorage, Clifton’s is on the windward eastern end of the island and is reliant on the half mile long reef running south just to the east of the town for protection of the anchorage. Nothing else. So, with a steady easterly tradewind for the vast majority of the time, boats just anchor on the inner edge of the reef while the wind keeps the boats away from it. As last to arrive for the day, I took the most outward spot just inside the beginning of the reef, managing to find a spot of sand to drop the hook into which gives the best holding, and alongside a smart looking 45 footer which was a blaze of lights. It felt like being right out to sea which was rather odd, and it was a bit rolly but I was just grateful to be safely hooked up and going nowhere. After putting the covers on the sails, dinner was a very tasty tinned tuna with tomato, pesto, garlic, sweet corn and rice, and pint of cool water from the fridge - which always works much better at sea. The good thing about being here was there was a good steady wind to drive the windgenerator all night, so no problems with power. I marked on the chartplotter our position and overnight got up a couple of times just too check we weren’t dragging the anchor. We weren’t. Using the chartplotter is an easy and very accurate way to check on dragging. Any dragging will show up even if it’s a few metres as the track of the boat is marked all the time. Why I haven’t used this idea before Bequia I have no idea, it is the obvious answer to a well known problem.