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Old 12-23-2003
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Tom Wood is on a distinguished road
A Christmas at Sea


After 12 months of idyllic Caribbean cruising, it was time to head north for home.
Like most cruisers, we found that winding down from the stresses of the working world stateside had taken more than a year. Shifting to Island Time and learning to smell the frangipani along the way had occupied the 12 previous months as Cirrus II wended her way through the Caribbean to Trinidad. At last we had arrived—we now traveled at a pace that was in tune with the beat of the islands. But our Caribbean sojourn had nearly run out, and it was time to return home.

We knew from previous hard experience that December is no time for a small boat to be wandering around the North Atlantic. The Christmas Winds can be vicious in the Caribbean and winter cold fronts often sweep as far south as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. We planned for a Christmas celebration in George Town, Exumas, in the central Bahamas, fantasizing about all the stateside goodies we'd treat ourselves to on our arrival. Still, we dawdled along, nearly oblivious to the passage of the seasons in the land of endless summer.

There was, after all, the four-boat raft-up in Culebra for Thanksgiving dinner. Not only had we committed to three cruising friends by SSB radio for this Caribbean gam, but we were excited at the prospect of seeing these old friends. This gala led to another SSB invitation to see even more of last year's buddies in Salinas, Puerto Rico, the following week, so the whole party moved to the west. The weather was outstanding, the downwind sailing was stunning, and the celebration of the passage of a tropical fall continued.


The crew of Cirrus II occupied themselves with potluck dinners, the company of fellow cruisers, and the quaffing of local rum.
From Salinas, the growing group rounded Cabo Rojo to settle in the village of Boqueron. Potluck dinners on the beach and quaffing the leftover St. Croix rum with toasts at the nightly Green Flash vigil ate up more time. By the middle of December it was obvious that we were going to have to hurry if we were to live out our dream of celebrating Christmas in George Town, nearly 700 miles away.

So we bustled with water and fuel, propane and foodstuffs, getting back into the swing of the twice-daily weather report from the HF radio's computer-generated voice. Finally, a smooth, five-day forecast came through on December 17 and we threaded our way through the reefs west of Boqueron the following morning. The first day's crossing north and west to the sight of the Dominican Republic's mountains was relatively tame by the standards of the infamous Mona Passage. By the second night we were headed to pass along the southern reefs of the Caicos Islands—right on schedule for a six-day passage to George Town. We'd be drinking Budweiser and watching CNN at the Two Turtles Inn by December 24.

But on the third morning, December 20, all hell broke loose. The 0500 weather forecast monologue on the SSB intoned a death-knell on our Christmas plans—a deepening low was forming just north of us and a gale was expected before nightfall.

A quick scan of the charts showed only one possible harbor of refuge we could reach in time—the small, remote village of Cockburn Harbour on the island of South Caicos, 50 miles north of us in the Turks Passage. We altered course, adding a little iron genoa muscle to Cirrus II's full sail area, and rushed into a headlong race to beat the storm to our destination.


There's nothing quite like the safety of a secure anchorage when the weather begins to turn sour.
We arrived in mid-afternoon along with the first blasts of wind, anchoring well off the town dock in a baffling swirl of outriding gusts. With three storm anchors down in shallow water, we hailed the Caicos authorities on the VHF, to convey that we would come to clear in the next morning. But they were on the radio with a tanker out in the Caicos Passage that we had just traversed—the ship reported making one knot into a 50-knot headwind. We were elated at surviving this close call.

The elation didn't last, however. The evening forecast called for the wind and seas to last three days, increasing for the first two. It was obvious that we would not make George Town for our Christmas celebration.

For three days, we played walking-message tag with a busy Caicos Immigration officer who tried very hard to avoid us. We finally trapped him in the back shelves of Cockburn Harbour's one grocery store and demanded that he take $20 to stamp our passports. And for three days the wind whipped the sand and dirt along the abandoned salt pans and lonely streets of the town. We found some excellent homemade bread, the best conch fritters we ever tasted, and a little local history to soften the blows, but our dejection deepened with the low-pressure system.

The wind died at last on the 23rd and the seas subsided the day after, allowing us out of this excellent storm refuge to continue the second half of our trip. And when the wind died, it did a great job—there wasn't a whisper on the water. We motored along in a leftover slop around the north side of the Caicos Banks, but even it died away by the time we reached the north coast of Mayaguana. By sunset, the water was so calm we could identify plastic bottles floating on the water over a mile away, making our progress seem ever so slow as the faithful Yanmar pushed Cirrus II to the northwest.

Our dinner of passage fare seemed a pale reflection of the shoreside Christmas Eve feast we had planned at the Two Turtles. Then the familiar four-hour watches kicked in, and sleeping was easy in the absolute calm. When Kathy woke me for my regular 0400 watch, I found that even my anticipated morning cup of coffee couldn't cut through the chill in the air and in my soul.

Christmas morning, I huddled under the dodger with my chin on my chest, watching the log tick over one mile every 12 minutes, thinking of parents and children, friends and family, who were just preparing to wake up to a day of gaiety and festivities. And we would miss it all, stuck out here in this black void where even Christmas couldn't penetrate the loneliness. The drone of the Yanmar, an occasional hum from the autopilot, and the dim glow of the compass light were my only companions.


The author and his first mate hadn't planned to be en route Christmas Eve, but the vignettes Mother Nature offered them were a fitting consolation.
As I tipped up the last dregs in my cup, I saw a flash of light low on the water just at the starboard edge of the dodger. "Might be a ship in the distance—I'd better take a look," I thought. Moving to the starboard rail, though, I discovered not a ship, but a star—a very bright star. The air was so clear, the water so calm, that I was seeing a star—or was it a planet—just revolving above the eastern horizon? It blazed a rainbow of colors, pulsing with intense flashes of light, fading away only to explode again in a fresh burst of glory.

Standing in awe of that single star, my gaze began to wander around the rest of the sky. It was crystal—nearly translucent. Without a trace of a moon, the stars seemed fathomless in their depth and yet so near that I felt I could touch them. The mirrored surface of the water doubled their number, and Cirrus II was literally plowing her way through a black world punctuated above and below by millions of points of light.

And then I noticed that the boat was creating her own points of light, trailing a wide swath of phosphorescence in her wake, adding to the sparkle of a fresh new day with a joy and fervor that I had never seen before. Leaning against the backstay, I realized for the first time how quiet it was—so silent a night that I swear the hum of the wheels that turn the earth could be heard.

Gently, I woke Kathy before the sun could rise to spoil the effect and she joined me on the aft deck to marvel at a morning like no other. And so it was that we spent our first Christmas at sea, and accepted a Christmas gift that has been the best we will ever receive—Peace on Earth.

Merry Christmas to all from the SailNet staff!

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