15 September 2015

French Guiana

Mooring field of about six boats in St Laurent. 
This "island" beside Milly was actually a wreck well disguised as lush jungle.
On the tenth day of our sail from Fernando de Noronja, the wind died and we figured we would just be able to make anchorage if we motored.  Argh!  Motoring is not for us and we are reluctant to use those diesel-consuming, noisy things at anytime but….an anchorage sounded pretty good.  Otherwise, we would’ve had to sail around at the mouth of the River Maroni until dawn the following day.  Motoring, it was!
Unfortunately, the Maroni River had the same silty cafe au lait look as the River Plate reportedly hiding such creatures as caimans - only quick dips for me.  Peter languished a few moments longer.  It was incredibly hot in harbour and we couldn't make water in this thick stuff so water use was very limited and dips were, if not cleansing, at least cooling.

We were headed to St Laurent de Maroni, a town built by the French as a transportation centre and prison for their convicts from 1858 and finally closed in 1946.  The prison, of Papillon fame, still stands.
The jungle is so thick it looks like the trees are moving into the river for lack of room on shore.

First dwelling sighted when motoring upriver.

The Maroni River borders French Guiana and Surinam.  St Laurent is about 12 NM up river.  The river is full of sandbars and the channel markers did not match our chart so our progress past the occasional local fishing boat was slow.  We reached the mooring field at dusk in huge wind and even bigger current. After a few attempts with Peter at the helm, trying hard to keep the boat steady while I desperately tried to grab the mooring ball, a couple rowed over in their tiny, tippy tender, against wind and current from their monohull moored close enough that I’m sure they wanted Milly safely secured and quickly.  Their progress was painfully slow but they kindly persevered, picked up our line, tied it to the ball, picked up our second line and lead it back to me at the bow, all in violent wind and current.  Sounds straightforward but it took awhile of sweat, shouting, near capsize, muscle and, I’m sure, some choice language - they were Israeli so their language although loud was entirely private.  We were very grateful for their help!

Next day saw us checking into the marina - the guy in charge drove us to customs and then to immigration.  Officials were friendly and the bureaucracy minimal.  We were done in about 30 minutes - compared to Brazil where we tramped back and forth and back and forth to offices some distance apart, this was a snap.

City Hall
We spent our time in St Laurent checking out the town - colonial French with a very different feel from our other experiences in South America.  The grocery store was full of expensive French imports - we celebrated the cheese.  The market held twice a week was amazing!  Festive, colourful and complete with new fruit and veggies - I bought too many after our Israeli cruiser friend gave me an orienting tour.  So great to hear the names and how to use all the produce after our lack lustre understanding of Portuguese in Brazil.

Dragon fruit.  Sweet, delicious innards and gorgeous colour.
Tannia - creamier taste and firmer consistency than potato
My purchases. After a ten day passage when we ran out of fresh produce, a market twice a week was a treat! 
We toured the prison, went for a jungle hike, checked out the festivities at an annual fair and Ms St Laurent beauty pageant and took the dinghy up a nearby creek, all with the cruisers on two other boats.  The pageant started at 10:00 p.m. and continued until 7:00 a.m. - we managed until about 11:00.  Tables at the show went for 120 euros - we elected to stand.  Having companionship during the day and joining each other on our boats in the evening was fantastic and gave us a taste of the cruising community we had sorely missed in Brazil.
A moving statue - you could sense the hopelessness.

Our enthusiastic tour guide points out the two tone wall.  The lower black "paint" was purposefully made to come of if leaned against on clothing or skin.  The prisoners were punished severely if any black was found on them.  Even in their cells they were not allowed to lean and their "beds" were folded into the wall all day.  No rest allowed!

In the long barracks room where the prisoners lay side by side on two 30 meter concrete ledges.  Their legs were shackled to a long steel pole that ran the length of the ledges.  This photo is of the less than hygienic, single toilet in the room.

The disciplinary section of the prison looks quite attractive but there were no trees, hence, no shade, in this exceedingly hot climate.

Peter samples the bed in the isolation cell.  Note the pillow is wood, the black wall and the foot shackle.  The weight of the iron shackle on his shin left an indentation that lasted  several hours - and he was only imprisoned for 5 minutes!

Papillon signed his cell floor.  I wonder what he got as punishment for doing that!

We hope to return to French Guiana and check out Surinam and Guiana during some later hurricane season.  They are well south of the hurricane box.  Nature on land is a highlight of each.  We saw parrots, toucans, turtles, a myriad of colourful butterflies - an incredibly beautiful blue one is renowned in French Guiana.  We sampled fantastic homemade local fruit ice cream right out of the cooks kitchen.
Local restaurant - boat and all - with seats on/in the water

Young boys gave us a jumping and swimming show while we dinghied by their Amer-Indian village.

Amer-Indian village.  The fishing boats were long and narrow and tucked right into the mangroves along the river banks, disappearing into the foliage.

Up the creek with Tanya, our cruising friend.

Phenomenal foliage!

In Salvador, Brazil, we noticed a few macho young men walking around with small birds in cages.  What was this, we wondered?  In French Guiana, many, always men, walked with their birds.  One morning we came across a gathering of guys, isolated but sitting around a parking lot with their birds.  The birds were tiny and looked nothing special - brown, no distinguishing features.  We stopped to look at two and were asked to move along by the owner.  Apparently, we were distracting the bird from it's mission.  We found out that these guys keep their birds with them at all times - even at work.  The bird above was enjoying a ride on a motorcycle.  They compete with their songbirds - the one with the longest and most varied song wins.

The festival at night.  This was a major 4 day event which began at 7:00 a.m. and ended at 7:00 a.m. each day. The partiers were dressed up - the hair styles were amazing.  Tanya and I got a tour with explanations by the hairdresser at a fair booth.  An art that takes hours.  (Peter did not take a picture of the beauty pageant - it wasn't his thing)

After about a week we headed on our last long voyage to Tobago in the Caribbean Sea.  Amazing to have come this far!
On our way!

11 September 2015

Life on Passage - Night Watch

From setting sail for our first passage on February 20th to arriving in beautiful Tobago in the Caribbean we have sailed 5,953 NM or 11,025 km.  Several day sails, five one-nighters, one two-nights, two three-nights, two four-nights, one six-night, one seven-night and one ten-night passages made up those miles.  (I just realized that I count in nights, not days - hmmm, says something about what makes the impression on me, I guess.)

Actually, we both really enjoy the night sailing.  On many nights, the stars are stupendous, the moon is good company, the bioluminescence is sparkling, the sounds are mostly soothing, the air is warm, the podcasts are entertaining and…the sleep is short, fitful and interrupted.
Relaxing at the helm
 Sometimes it’s not all wonderful.  There are squalls to run with, dark, cloudy nights when the horizon is difficult to see, huge ships that, no matter how big the ocean, always seem to be coming right at us, fishing boats with what looks like Christmas tree lights flashing in all different colours so impossible to figure out which way they are headed, wind that gusts or dies and/or changes direction constantly, and rocking and rolling motion that keeps the one-hand-for-the-boat rule a must.

A day in the life?  Here goes.  Before we weigh anchor, we prep all sails and lines, secure inside areas so that stuff doesn’t take flight on waves, close all portlights and hatches so errant waves don’t soak us.  (We tend to keep our bedroom hatch open.  Only once has a wave rudely awakened Peter by sneaking up for a visit at night. I was soaked at the helm, too, but that was a little more acceptable.) We try to weigh anchor early in the morning so that Peter’s chance of actually sleeping at 8:00 p.m. is higher.  
Peter takes a sea shower.  Sailing is hot work!

The first two or three days we spend adjusting our sleep-wake cycles.  I tend to feel a little seasick for a day or two.  Our dinners are all premade and lunches are simple crackers and påleg - Norwegian for spreads, cheese etc. I try to nap or rest during the first two afternoons.  

By the third day we are into the swing of things and have, over the many passages, found a routine that seems to work.

We have chosen a 3.5 hour watch schedule, timed from when the one going to bed says good-night.  There are about 20 minutes or so change over time which isn’t counted in the sleep time.  At about 6 p.m. or so we decide on the sail plan that will hopefully last the night.  We are conservative with this, often choosing a safe plan as opposed to a fast one.  This also means the noise of whooshing through waves and a rushing wake is a bit quieter for the person in bed who’s head is close to the transom and, hence, the noise.  Peter goes to bed first - between 7 and 8 p.m.  I wake him after 3.5 hours rounding up to the closest half hour. During my first night watch, I have a cup of tea first thing so that need to pee doesn’t wake me up prematurely during my first sleep - the things you have to think about!  I do the days dishes which have been sitting safely in the sink.   Then I exercise a bit - a routine with exercise bands, an 8 minute ab routine and other stuff.  Then I sit at the helm and listen to a podcast.  A key to this is very slow movement between activities so that time is more likely to be filled easily. We do not turn on lights during watch as it ruins night vision.  Instead, we wear headlamps with a red light.  (It’s hard to see the grim on dishes in red light and tea looks very weak no matter how long it has steeped.) This schedule of events is uninterrupted on an exceptionally quiet night.  During the dish washing or exercise, I look at the radar screen and check the horizon at least every ten minutes, usually more often.  We have a rule that neither of us can leave the cockpit unless the other is on deck to avoid the nightmare of coming on deck and finding the other person is missing, who knows when, who knows where.  Awful beyond words - so we have rules and stick to them.
Small wooden fishing boats don't show up on radar until they are very close by so keeping a sharp eye on the horizon is a must.
On a busy shipping night or during squalls which often happen on my first watch in the early evening, this languid routine goes to hell in a handbasket.  My eyes are glued to the instruments, chart, true wind direction and speed, apparent wind speed and direction, heading, radar, AIS signals, speed over ground and, most important, the horizon for lights and the sky for blacker than the sky clouds - trying to evade or manage ships, fishing vessels or squalls. My favourite instrument is radar.  Wouldn’t leave port without it - you can see fishing boats, ships and squalls in all kinds of weather and judge their direction of movement.  I adjust sails or nudge the autopilot back and forth.  My tendency is to react - especially to huge ships or squalls - too quickly.  The worst is when they show up on the screen at the same time!  I talk to myself quite a bit and plan what I will to do if need be.  Time goes by quickly and a little tensely.
A small ship - even in the huge ocean, they often seem to end up right beside us.  Milly's magnetism, I guess.
Close to the end of my first watch, I prepare for bed and then wake Peter.  After a few minutes, Peter arrives, bleary eyed but always happy (or mostly happy).  We both find the first sleep period less restful - going to sleep takes awhile, sleep is more fitful and rousing oneself out of bed after seemingly just falling asleep is tortuous.  

I fill Peter in as to what’s going on and head to bed and sleep, I hope.  On his watch Peter does more sail adjustments and enjoys multiple podcasts while managing the boat. He always reports that all is well and he seems calm as a cucumber (I think I get all the foul weather and wayward ships.)  Peter wakes me after 3.5 hours and heads to bed.  For this watch, I let him sleep as long as he likes which may be 4 hours.  I see the dawn, say good-night to the moon, make us breakfast, eat, and read for an hour or so.  It’s really a lovely, quiet time - most mornings - when the slow onset of daylight gives me a welcome energy boost, although my eyelids are feeling a bit heavy by this time.  When Peter gets up, we try to adjust sails for the day, choosing a plan that is faster.  I then go to bed and sleep as long as I like.  Problem is that the sun heats up the bedroom like an oven so I wake up slightly drugged.  Meanwhile, Peter is managing the small floating city by taking care of all the systems - water, power, communications (weather updates), navigation, rigging check etc. etc.  We eat lunch together and talk about the podcasts we had listened to, watch flying fish and the great, big, blue, beautiful sea with it’s very entertaining waves.  Peter tinkers and fixes and adjusts anything that needs it.  We eat dinner around 5:00 before the sun goes down…or at least that is the plan.  However, when unexpected boat things happen, it’s usually around sundown so we are often chasing the light.


Almost at the equator...
Crossing the equator for the first time - We toasted the gods/godesses of the sea and offered them some great ginger liquor in the hopes of soothing their rolling waves.  We broke our rule of no alcohol on passage by having a few sips ourselves.  We did not dress up as Neptune but instead threw a message in a bottle overboard - this will be Milly’s tradition. 
just passed the equator.  Moving too fast to catch complete set of "0's"

Flying fish visits.  The first time this happened on a dark night, I was at the helm and heard a slap, flap.  Any new sound is suspect and it’s amazing how our ears zone in on the slightest change.  Well, this sound was not slight and needed investigation.  I stood up and felt a warm, wet flapping against my legs.  A startled but muffled squeal - didn’t want to wake the captain - and a quick snatch and throw, hoping the poor, little wanderer would survive.  
In daylight, one fish flew into a pail in our companionway, a good 11 feet from the side of the boat and under a hardtop.  A three pointer, for sure!  Each morning we woke up to a few sad guys that had landed on an unexpected island during the night.
No flying fish photos but this row of little birds rested on our bow at dusk and stuck around for a ride.  The waves would bounce them off, they would fly around the boat and hover above the lifeline trying to perch.  If unsuccessful, they'd fly around again for another attempt.

Handling a major squall by myself.  Just before Peter’s early bedtime, I had watched as he sailed the boat downwind, keeping the angle of the sail in a safe zone by toggling the autopilot - preventing accidental gybes but decreasing apparent wind by sailing as deep an angle as possible.  And, as can be depended on, it seems, within an hour of his hitting the hay, I enjoyed two high wind squalls and was able to manage with aplomb.  Great feeling.  Although I was tense for sure, I felt calm and in control - talking to yourself can do wonders.  Over the months of cruising, I have become much more confident and comfortable handling the conditions thrown at us.
Tobago in sight.  But it's almost sunset.

A visit from dolphins just at dusk.  We could just see them under the water at the bow but we could hear them blowing.  Really magical!   It’s awesome whenever dolphins come to visit.  They play very close to the bow, dipping, jumping, swerving, crisscrossing - amazing!
Land ho! is exciting as is getting underway.  Dropping anchor, tidying up, sitting on a quiet boat and falling into bed is always fantastic!  A great sense of accomplishment and gratitude to Milly and her crew!
Sunset and impending dark and not even close to anchoring.  This meant an extra night at sea, tacking back and forth outside the harbour.  Oh well.