In recent days, while the rest of the world has been making its final sprint preparing for Christmas, there has been one fervent desire expressed aboard our 35-foot Althea—getting out of the boatyard. The wrenches have all been put through their paces, as have all of our hammers and sanders. The epoxy has flowed like eggnog and this final week before the holidays can best be summed up as a nonstop cacophony of power tools and tortured Christmas carols while we labor in that purgatory of boat ownership—the holiday haulout.
Just about anywhere else on the planet would be a better place to spend time than up on the hard, especially with the holidays at hand. And balancing seasonal weather patterns and calendar festivities with the required maintenance that an ocean-going vessel demands, along with the time, energy, and money such a project claims is something easier said than done. Nonetheless, we welcome the holiday, our first on board since returning to the wandering life of cruisers.
So far, our trip south has brought plenty of cruising bounty, yielding so many experiences that can’t receive the treatment they deserve in such a short space, but let me try to update you nonetheless. We left Charleston Harbor in light winds, but with a favorable forecast for northerly breezes. There were many last-minute good-byes on the dock and several of our friends escorted us out to the jetties on their boats. One by one they turned back. As we cleared the jetties we swung a right turn following our initial plan to head to our first layover, Daytona, FL. Motoring out onto a flat sea, we were glad to finally be underway, even if it was under diesel power with the main flogging overhead. Dolphins leapt, sea birds soared, schools of fish swarmed, and life began to settle into the familiar cycles of an offshore passage. The sun set, the stars emerged, the moon rose, more stars came out, and a ship passed in the distance.
Then the wind rose from its zephyrs into a steady breeze from the north and we shut the engine down. With the windvane steering, the boat started to reel off the miles. A couple hours later, the wind started blowing like it was officially open for business. With Laurie steering, I clipped into my harness and scrambled forward to put in two reefs and douse the jib. Down below things started flying around the cabin. Unattended coffee cups became airborne, as did anything else not in its right place including the cat box, a box of important papers, and one or two other items. Good speed for a cruising sailboat is usually a compromise. You may be getting to your destination faster, but your quality of life will more than likely suffer in the interim. Life became bouncy, but we were seeing a steady seven knots of boat speed, and occasionally eight, on the GPS, surfing down steep waves generated by a north wind against the south-flowing Gulf Stream. In the morning we poled out a small jib for a more balanced ride. The conditions weren’t really remarkable, just a taste of what Mother Nature can muster if she’s in the mood.
The surroundings brought to light some shortcomings in our preparations as well as some victories. While the electric autopilot that we thought was fixed flashed the error message ‘actuator failure’ (whatever that means) and the head intake valve relayed its own error message as water flowed out in volumes, the new rigging received a thorough testing but proved itself worthy by performing flawlessly. The crew work wasn’t bad either, a new seasickness remedy seemed to work (Triptone) and even the cat appeared to discover her sea legs again.
Rather than endure a good two-and-a-half days of bouncing—we weren’t in a hurry after all—we opted to head inshore and steered for St. Mary’s Sound and southern Georgia’s Cumberland Island. Although we were prepared to sail farther south if necessary, we picked up the outer marker around sunset. Feeling confident in our position and riding a favorable tide, we ventured through the cross swell and into the sanctuary of the jetties in the fading light, winding our way up the channel in the dark and anchored for the night. Cumberland Island presented an odd, eclectic, and wonderful assortment of things that you couldn’t schedule if you tried—the kind of delights you experience only when cruising.
From our anchorage we watched wild horses come down to the water’s edge in the early morning to eat moss off the rocks on the beach at low tide. Throughout the day we watched tractor tugs escort nuclear submarines in and out the channel, and whatever your outlook regarding weapons of mass destruction, it was decidedly something you don’t see everyday. Ashore, armadillos scurried among tall oaks and the shell-laden, wind whipped beaches were deserted. As we toured the anchorage by sailing dinghy, a neighboring boat alerted us to the launch of the space shuttle, some 120 miles away, capping off a spectacular evening.
Though this is our third Christmas spent cruising, that doesn’t make it easier to resolve the emphasis on family that the holiday brings. We spent our first Christmas on board anchored at a deserted island off the coast of northern Mexico. While we lacked a yuletide tree, our families gave us plenty of gifts, which were stowed aboard waiting for the big day. We conveniently caught a yellow fin tuna that day, and even though no one else was around, we put on our holiday best and gathered around a heavily decorated houseplant that was nearly obscured by presents.
Our second cruising Christmas was spent farther south, off Costa Rica. There our Christmas tree was a different variety—one drawn on a piece of paper, hung on the wall, and suitably decorated. Since then the early days of December usually find us visiting Christmas tree vendors looking for the right scraps to decorate down below.
|"I’ve felt a little like the St. Nick of boat repair, squeezing into impossibly small spaces and emerging grease and grime-ridden from them, having bestowed the gift of renewed life on most of those areas."|
So far, Christmas 2001 has yet to truly define itself. The pull of family remains strong, and there are plans afoot for us to join friends and family in the British Virgin Islands a few short months from now. To that end we’ve constructed a different kind of holiday list. So far the prelude has had more sandpaper than most Christmases traditionally have (unless you’re an elf) and our final preparations have been about all that we can focus on. We’ve pulled the prop, disconnected the coupling and packing gland, pulled the shaft, replaced the cutlass bearing as well as removed the rudder shoe and fabricated a new lower rudder bearing from epoxy and graphite. We’ve also sanded the bottom and put on two new coats of paint, taken the steering apart and put it back together, and buffed and waxed the topsides. We also devoted to full days to maintaining our sailing dinghy. Throughout, I’ve felt a little like the St. Nick of boat repair, squeezing into impossibly small spaces and emerging grease and grime-ridden from them, having bestowed the gift of longer life on those areas of Althea. It seems enough to cause any rational mortal to question exactly what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
The reason is not exactly that it’s worth it—it certainly is—but the payoff for this effort isn’t immediate. Time in the boatyard is an investment intended to buy you more time that you can spend afloat. And as we spend these December days readying ourselves for what lies ahead, the spectrum of life slowly expands and, unfolds, and we know that the magical pace of discovering the world and its people on a boat borne by the wind will begin again.
Christmas will pass; New Year’s will come. The trade winds will blow, and we have every intention to be there to sail on them, hopping from one Caribbean island to another. Here’s hoping your holidays find you surrounded by the ones you love, and that the sailing in your neck of the woods is frequent and good.
Here's wishing all everyone in the sailing community a very happy holiday season. — SailNet's Editorial Staff