Sunday, March 31, 2013

Rules of the road at sea

Position: 23°21'N, 84°41'W

As there are rules of the road on land, there are also rules of the road at sea.

Put simply:
1. You drive on the right.
2. When overtaking another vessel, you must give way to the vessel being overtaken.
3. When crossing the path of another vessel, you must pass behind the other vessel.

They don't apply so much at open ocean as there's usually enough space and time to keep a safe distance from other vessels. However near land or in a busy shipping area, it's important that everyone adheres to the
code to minimise the risk of collision.

The Yucatan Channel is one such busy shipping area, located between Mexico and Cuba. It is used daily by freight carriers, cargo ships and tankers travelling between North and South America, and further afield.
They have tight time schedules and are all seeking the fastest and most efficient route to get to their destination. Their high speeds (20 knots compared to Ashling's paltry 4 knots) mean that it can take a mile or
more for these huge vessels to slow down or change course. So a misunderstanding or even the indecision of one boat can disrupt or endanger many others.

As Ashling entered the Yucatan Channel yesterday, our VHF radio crackled with a conversation between two large cargo ships nearby. One ship was attempting to cross the path of the other ship, but instead of going behind it as per the rules, they were attempting to cross in front.

Ship A: "There is less than three nautical miles between us. Please alter course to starboard to pass astern of me."

Ship B: "Well you are overtaking me, yes no? So can you alter your course?"

Ship A: "We are not overtaking. You are crossing our course, and must pass astern of us as per the rules."

Ship B: "Ehhhh right now is not good for me to turn to alter course."

Cargo Ship A did not respond for a few minutes. Then a new voice announced in no uncertain terms: "This is the Captain speaking. Change your course immediately to starboard or I will report you to the nearest
maritime authority!"

If the situation wasn't so serious, it sounded like two little boys fighting in the playground and Billy threatening to tell the teacher if Bobby didn't play by the rules. After a long pause, Ship B meekly agreed to alter their course and crisis was averted.

Sailing on wee little Ashling, we are often intimidated by the size and speed of these huge, black, steel beasts so it was a comfort to hear that even the big guys get it wrong sometimes.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Back to work

Position: 19°35'N, 81°37'W – Governors Harbour, Grand Cayman

What a difference a month makes! Our first week in Grand Cayman, we couldn’t switch off. But now we’ve adapted to island-mode and it’s hard to get back to work. So much for our fears of never again adapting to life on dry land.
With another six months to go and another ocean yet to cross, there’s still plenty for us to do. The Skipper is always mulling over an issue on board or the logistics of our next passage. The First Mate is always looking out for supplies (any excuse to go shopping!) or quizzing the Skipper on the weeks and months ahead. I imagine it’s like couples who work together - we have to make a concerted effort not to talk about boat stuff on a day off. 

Having Monika on board helped with this as her holiday became our holiday too. Back in Grand Cayman she marched us off the boat every morning to sit on the beach, snorkel the reef or hit the shops. We stopped thinking and talking about the boat, and started to see the island as a real tourist does. In hindsight, we needed it as there will be plenty to keep us busy in the weeks and months ahead. 

Well rested and recharged, Monika's holiday came to an end and ours did too. She flew back to Switzerland on Saturday and after a final,relaxing weekend for us on land, it's back to 'work' to prepare for our next seaward journey – Grand Cayman to the USA.

We will be sad to leave Grand Cayman and will miss the wonderful people we have met here. This small island has been a real home away from home for the past month, due in no small part to the hospitality of our friends Cara and Justin. Their door has always been open, their guest room always ready for us when we arrived every Friday, like college-students coming home with empty stomachs and full bags of laundry.

They and their friends have made us feel so welcome, helping us to find whatever we needed and showing us the best that Cayman has to offer. It has made our stay here so very different to the other islands we have visited, where we were just another two anonymous tourists looking for information, directions and most importantly, friends. We couldn't have wished for a better experience and wonder what we'll do without them when we arrive in a new city and country next week.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Three on a boat in Little Cayman

Position: 19°39’N, 80°05’W – Little Cayman

Our unpredictable schedule makes it difficult for friends and family to meet us along our adventure but one was not to be dissuaded. It has been a reunion planned for months, with many changes along the way. First it was Hawaii, then Panama, then Cuba, even Miami but finally, last weekend, we picked up our german friend Monika at Grand Cayman airport. 

Keeping it simple at Little Cayman airport
The Skipper took her through usual safety briefing and showed her ropes. Monika listened at first and then started to ask questions, very much like the First Mate did when she was at the same early learning stage - Why do you do it that way? Have you thought of doing it another way? Would it not be better to do it this way? For the first time, it dawned on him just how and why the two of them are such good friends! By Day Two, the Skipper had resigned himself to Ashling becoming a ‘German Boat’ for the duration of Monika’s vacation. Monika also learned to preface her questions with “That’s an interesting technique”, a signal that a suggestion was on the way. With what looked like an interesting two weeks ahead, we stocked up in Georgetown and set sail for the island of Little Cayman.

Meeting the locals
Little Cayman is a little island (surprise, surprise!) located about 100 miles north-east of Grand Cayman. The 200 people living there are well outnumbered by iguanas, large prehistoric-looking lizards who sit so still in the sun that they look like statues, and then scamper away when you come close. Tourism is the main source of income for the island so everything is tailored to give visitors all they need for the perfect island holiday. The pace of life is slow and relaxed, and everyone knows everybody – five minutes after asking the lady in the dive shop for directions to the Customs Officer, he had heard we were looking for him and pulled up beside us on the road to give us a lift!  

We stayed for a few days to snorkel in the clear water, relax in the beach hammocks and take a bike ride around the island. One of the island’s proudest sites is the Booby Pond Nature Reserve. The Cayman Islands are a popular stop for thousands of migratory birds on their annual journey north. In particular Little Cayman is home to one of the largest breeding colony of red boobies - of the bird variety, no offence intended to any local sunburned ladies - in the world. The white heads of the young chicks looked like little bits of cotton wool among the trees and the skies came alive at sunset, when Mummy-birds and Daddy-birds returned with dinner, dodging the nasty frigate birds who lay in wait to steal the catch of the day. 

Happy St Patrick's Day!
Like many other ocean-going sailors, we considered a third crewmember on board for our adventure and decided against it. Apart from personality differences, another person on board means carrying more food, more water and having to generate more power. However with Monika on board over the past week, we have seen the advantages of having another person, a different perspective and a third set of hands.  We have laughed until we cried. We have learned new recipes. Even the Skipper has taken on board a few suggestions for improvements, especially for the annoying or arduous tasks that we have just got used to. Ashling may not be yet a Mercedes but after Monika’s stay on board, she’ll be a pretty good Volkswagen.

Click photo to see video

Monday, March 11, 2013

Planes, trains and automobiles in the USA

Position: 19°35’N, 81°37’W – Governors Harbour, Grand Cayman

Welcome to America
Our next destination after the Cayman Islands is the United States, one of the most complicated countries to enter by boat. In most countries, private boats can arrive without prior notice or paperwork. However for America, at the very least the crew need to have a visa before arriving. We’ve met some sailors who were turned away or heavily fined because they didn’t have this on arrival. So last week Ashling stayed in Grand Cayman while the crew flew to Miami to activate our visas.

The short trip also gave us an opportunity to arrange maintenance and repair work for Ashling when we arrive in Florida by boat in early April. Our first stop was with Philip from American Marine Coverings to see if he could design and build a dodger (aka windshield) for us. On our trip across the Atlantic, we expect to be sailing on the wind which means that we will face conditions like those on our passage from New Zealand to Tahiti. A dodger will make life much more comfortable as we should be able to sit outside in the cockpit without getting soaked by the waves.

Endurance Captains comparing notes
Within minutes of meeting Philip, we realised that he was much more than just a businessman. Originally from England, he has spent a lot of time sailing in the UK and around North America. He even has his own 44 foot yacht which happens to be the same yacht model as Ashling so we had indeed happened upon a kindred spirit. Philip was a mine of information about anything sailing-related in Florida, and recommended local boatyards, marinas and chandleries for us to visit on our short trip. He and his wife Joanna really took us under their wing, inviting us to dinner and taking us on a tour of downtown Fort Lauderdale in their smaller motorboat. It was like being in a movie, zigzagging along past beautiful houses before tying up beside the restaurant. Now that’s the way to travel.

To dinner by boat
While the big roads, big cars and big meal portions were a shock to our systems, we were bowled over by the friendliness of the people we met along the way. Jayson, a Jamaican who has been living in the USA for over 30 years, helped us buy train tickets and couldn’t believe that we had come so far in just a ‘tirty-foot bow-at’. Carlos, a 70-year old Puerto Rican, kept us company on the train from Miami to Fort Lauderdale with stories of his experience walking the Camino de Santiago de Compostela in Spain last year. And the waitresses at Grampa’s, a typical american diner in Fort Lauderdale, had us in giggles as they called us ‘Sugar’ and ‘Sweetie-pie’. Only in America.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Scratching the surface in Grand Cayman

Position: 19°18’N, 81°23’W – Georgetown, Grand Cayman

In his novel The Firm, John Grisham wrote about the mafia laundering money through the Cayman Islands. Before Enron collapsed in 2001, the corporation avoided paying millions of dollars in US taxes by channelling money through subsidiaries registered here. There has been no shortage of bad publicity about the place, with someone once describing it as “a sunny place for shady people”. So this week we ventured out around Grand Cayman to find out a bit more. 

Discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1503, the Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory in the western Caribbean. In the past they have been home to pirates (including the legendary Captain Morgan), refugees, sailors and slaves. Today the population of approximately 55,000 is made up of local Caymanians - descendents from the early English and African settlers - and a significant expatriate community from countries all around the world. 
The renowned ‘tax haven’ status of the island means that people working here don’t pay income tax and companies registered here are not liable for corporation tax. Since the first international bank opened here in the 1950s, this tax neutral environment has attracted many wealthy individuals and large corporations from all over the world. They open bank accounts or register companies here as a way to safely and legally reduce their tax bill in their home country. Overseas Ministers of Tax or Finance may consider it immoral but it is a perfectly legitimate activity and for the most part, the sources of finance arriving in Cayman are sound. Listening to the local residents, the days of flying in on a private jet with a suitcase full of cash seem to be well and truly in the past, and Caymanians are keen to correct the questionable reputation that has hovered over the islands in recent years.

While the booming financial sector is obvious in downtown Georgetown, a short drive from the CBD opens up a whole new world. Clear, blue waters and an abundant sealife make Grand Cayman a paradise for snorkelling and diving. Nowhere in the world have we seen such a superb standard of sea protection. Even in the main harbour at Georgetown which hosts up to four cruiseships a day, the pristine water is home to turtles, tarpons, tiny colourful fish and even the odd stingray.

Spotting the world beneath
Swimming with stingrays
As an island nation, the sea has always been important to Caymanians, so much so that their country motto is “He hath founded it upon the seas”. Most Caymanian families have a seafaring history, with their forefathers earning a living making boats, fishing or working on merchant ships. 

A memorial in central Georgetown...
...dedicated to Caymanians lost at sea

Remains of the Cali
The sea has brought food, people and development but it has also brought tragedy through storms and shipwrecks. On our trip around the island this week, we dived down to see the wreck of the Cali, a 200ft long cargo ship that sank in Georgetown harbour in the 1960s. We floated above the skeleton of what was once a mighty ocean-going vessel, its steel ribs radiating up from the hull like a huge ribcage splayed open along the sandy ocean floor, its heart and soul ripped out long ago by the power of the ocean. It’s a tragedy for any boat to go down and as boatowners especially, it’s a scary sight to see a boat below the water instead of on it.