(phonetic, like maya-GWA-nah)
It took 6 days. We left Georgetown the morning of my 23rd birthday, and arrived Monday the 19th in Abrahams Bay. The DR is now within our sights. Dangling just out of reach. The three of us considered it actually, just pushing on. It wouldn’t have been so bad for Joel and I. We wouldn’t even have needed to anchor if we didn’t want to, the two of us could spell each other off and go straight through the night. 48 miles to Turks and Caicos from Abrahams Bay. Another 50 miles to cross the Caicos Bank, then 78 miles from Sand Key to Luperon. Piece of Cake. What’s that, roughly 180 miles not counting anchorage? With our guaranteed steady little clip of 4.5 kts, that’s looking at just 40 hours.
Or, so it seemed Sterling expected us to be thinking. Looking toward the South, licking our chops, with the final destination (for now) just over that next horizon. But we wouldn’t dream of separating, not now. Not after everything we’ve been through since Miami. Which feels more like 2 years than 2 months ago, to be honest.
Sterling couldn’t make that kind of all-out push. Especially now, without a mast, without even a chance to rest up since the nightmare of losing that mast. We would’ve been racing the clock against oncoming weather. And Sterling’s mind wasn’t as focused as usual. I don’t mean from injuries sustained as the top half of his mast came crashing down on top of him – he seemed sharp enough after that, or close enough to his usual self. I mean he was distracted, as anyone would be when supplied with the suffocating sort of news that their mother is dying. I imagine it to be bewildering and terrifying, a despairing lostness that we all have maybe had tastes of as children when we might wander too far from mom’s shopping cart while exploring Costco.
But the completeness of the loss that accompanies death is total and final. And mother, mom, momma.. She is your connection to this world, your link to being. Without her you would be nothing, an unrealized form lost and floating in the cosmos. And so when it comes to pass that you are in fact without her, surely this is how it must feel. A ship with no compass, lost at sea and forgotten the way home.
The winds were supposed to pick up the next few days and increase intensity by the weekend. A cold front was pushing down from the North. If we left Wednesday we could be fairly certain of making it to Luperon by Friday night, definitely before Saturday, but that was betting on nothing about Tuesday’s forecast changing before the weekend. And it was supposed to get rough by the weekend. Big wind means big waves, and given enough open sea big waves only build. Remember, according to Sterling, we are in big boy country now.
We’ve gone hundreds of miles through the Bahamas, so what, that’s the kiddie pool. Islands all around, shallow banks, calm water. Approaching the Mona is jumping into the deep end from the high dive, no floaties, no fuckin around. The Mona is where 3 oceans meet, The Gulf, the Carib, and the Atlantic. Currents come together, temperatures mix, things can get funky. You throw a little wind into that mix and things will get extra funky.
Bottom line, we decided not to push it. Instead Sterling bought a plane ticket back home to Louisiana from here, Mayaguana. And we parked it in Abrahams Bay until… well, until now.
What’s happened since Georgetown? Wellll let me tell ya.
Like I said, we left on my birthday. It was time to get moving and I was excited having never spent a birthday at sea before. No presents, hardly any fan fare except for one solo serenade of “Happy Birthday” by Joel, no cake and no candles. Instead, I blew out a match that had been stuck into a prepackaged banana-marshmallow moon pie (thoughtfully given to me by Sterling), and I wished for more birthdays like that one. Simple, with fair winds.
We left Georgetown from the South cut of Elizabeth Harbor. Sailing into deep water for just half a day, before back to navigating shallows – the close quarters of Comer Channel. We almost missed it. An error of miscommunication; we were headed directly across the banks to the west shore of Long Island, long after Sterling had made his U-turn toward Comer. A bit of head scratching and frustration experienced by Joel after some confusing radio transmissions, but we got it figured out. Despite the more circuitous route we’d taken Chak Matay, We Don’t Neaux anchored beside us at exactly the same time. In fact, after the whole day of traveling we were just 13 miles away from Georgetown as the crow flies. We’d drawn a fishhook with our paths across the map. East all morning toward Long Island, then South for a bit before turning West to enter the Comer Channel – headed back the way we just came – and finally turning North to anchor on the South side of Hog Cay Cut.
But this would make all the difference. From the south side of the islands we would be in calmer water and shave precious time off the next crossing.
From Hog Cay we made for South Point, Long Island. A great day for sailing, the wind off our beam, we covered 45 miles in no time. Looking back there was hardly anything noteworthy about the fourteenth of March. A day of ease, with clear skies and steady breeze. Every sailor’s dream – no? But this was the calm before the storm. The next day – with Crooked Island in our sights – was truly as if from a dream, or rather, every sailor’s nightmare.
Episode 39 says it all. We’ve relived it so many times through the film it’s hard to say what remains in my head as untarnished memory, and what I remember due to unbiased video. But for sure I didn’t even realize he had the camera on for most of it. Didn’t know he was recording while I suggested maybe he should take it off his head for the jump. It never occurred to me to think about whether any of this was being documented. It was enough to live it. Being so fully immersed in the hectic present, I couldn’t think about anything else.
But Joel remembered to get the camera rolling, and good thing he did, because those were probably some of the craziest moments of our lives. Not the craziest moment of Sterling’s life mind you, just Joel and I’s, and we were only witnesses.
The winds were stronger that day and the seas were rougher. We were beyond the protection of Long Island. A straight shot, 35 nautical miles needed to be completed by 5pm – when some even stronger winds and rain were due to roll in. We left with 12 hours to make it and would have done it in 7. We were booking it, even with the reefed jib. As fast as we were going, Sterling was miles ahead flying full sails. We were doing 6 kts pretty steadily so he was 7 at least, flirting with 8 for sure.
When he called us on the radio the first time, we could barely see him, way out in front of us.
He was in distress. He said his forestay had failed, he was slightly injured, but working to get his sails down.. He was basically dead in the water with the engine idling so he could scramble around the deck. We came up on him fast, jib already pulled in, but with the main still up we flew right by. Fighting sails that flapped freely and violently in the wind, Sterling wore a raincoat but no life preserver. Unsure of what else to do, we turned around and started doing circles. We weren’t helping much, but we couldn’t just leave. If nothing else, I figured it was enough to hang around and pull him out of the water if he fell off his boat..?
We circled and we circled.
Helpless but to watch his tenacious fight. For what could have been 15 minutes or an hour, I don’t know, he pulled lines and sails and fought to secure the mast. His remaining rigging sashayed through the air making jumprope-like loops, after the mast swayed drunkenly forward and then backward. It was sickening to watch.
But, eventually, he seemed to have a handle on it. He wrestled with the forestay foever, rigged it to a come-along and attached it to the bowpulpit. Then grabbed a halyard to stretch back from the top of the mast toward the port stern, securing it somehow. Another halyard to the starboard side, where he sat at the helm holding the line tight with his body weight. The three point system seemed to work.
After circling his boat a dozen or more times, he put her in gear and we were able to keep moving. 10 nautical miles of uncharted depths still separated us from Crooked Island. There was no point in turning back now, just make it to the closest anchorage. Pray we could make it.
Sterling did not look well. We knew he had to be crippled with exhaustion after all it took to get the sails pulled and the mast secured. And still after all that, every ounce of his strength had to stay physically concentrated on holding that mast upright with a halyard.
We stayed close, close enough to throw a tennis ball over onto his deck. Not sure what we could do but wanting to be near should we need to react somehow. And we made progress. The mast seemed to have been tied down pretty well in Sterling’s desperate haste. Together we crossed seven more miles of ocean, close and attentive.
Sterling did not look well. He kept bowing his head as if he were saying a prayer or was slumping in and out of consciousness. His arm was wrapped around the right halyard/rigging, holding it tightly.
As the miles ticked by I started allowing myself to hope, was daring to think that we might make it in. Not just make it before the weather turned ugly, but make it in period. That’s when it happened. As if in slow motion.
“Oh fuck.” Softly, in disbelief.
The mast swayed too far. It was unattached. I could tell by now the safe arc it would make within its secured position, and this lean was much too far. The come-along/forestay combo couldn’t hold. The mast gave one perilous nod towards the bow, and when the rolling waves turned the hull back the other way, the top half of the mast followed. It snapped like a dry spaghetti noodle and came falling backwards on top of Sterling. Or where he had been. We couldn’t see him anymore beneath the pile of aluminum and wires.
I got on the radio and tried to make contact, had to find out if he was alright. From our perspective he had either been squished like a bug, or somehow had managed to dive out of sight.
He didn’t answer right away. I kept trying. And in the meantime we resumed our circling. Eventually he got to the radio and confirmed he was able to dive out of the way, he was shaken and a bit bruised, but otherwise okay. He sounded tired. Not scared, no panic, just really tired.
When he came up next he finally had a life preserver on. The mast had slid off the helm and halfway into the water. It had snagged on something to keep it mostly on deck, but was dragging all of the halyards and wires in the water behind the boat. Now that there seemed to be no saving the mast, we couldn’t figure out why he was trying to secure it to the deck. But found out later he couldn’t actually remove it, and then a bit later, low and behold, he might still be able to reuse the mast.
Sterling shouted over to us, “I might need some help!”
Joel had been a bit frantic, debating this entire time what he could possibly do to help alleviate this horrible predicament. Short of jumping from our boat to Sterling’s, nothing else came to mind. We were totally unhelpful. Damage control but stuck on our own island, we could react only if things got way worse. Like if Sterling fell off his boat we could rescue him from the water.
But when he asked for help Joel was ready. He was ready to jump. But I wasn’t; wasn’t ready for Joel to jump, I mean.
I would take the lead from Sterling, and if he really needed help he would get it. But jump from boat to boat?
I mean, c’mon. Joel was still recovering from a serious concussion and looking to tease fate once again. I wasn’t worried at all about myself having to sail Chak the rest of the way and drop anchor on my own, as Joel seemed to be. I was way more concerned with the nearly impossible logistics of positioning two boats side by side in the middle of the ocean, close enough so that a human could perform a one-step leap between the two vessels with the greatest likelihood of success.
Sterling seemed to agree that this was nuts. When he saw us on the approach, lifelines pulled down, Joel crouched and ready, he called it off, “DON’T TRY.”
Joel was hopelessly frustrated, “What do you want me to do!? I’m ready to jump, Sterling.” But he stayed on our boat and we made yet another circle. But the next time we came around, Sterling wasn’t really in a position to argue. He was out cold, having over exerted himself trying to yank the mast up from the water. His heart couldn’t keep up and it sat him down for timeout. He was sprawled out on the bow.
We were beside ourselves. And I knew there wasn’t an option anymore. Sterling could not make it in on his own. Hell, I was pretty worried the next wave would roll him off the bow and into the water before we could come around again.
Total focus, we came up from behind on Sterling’s port side. In our omniscient hindsight, we’ve considered it would’ve been better to approached on the leeward side and perhaps with the main down. But in the moment this made the most sense, and that’s all you can do, make the most reasonable split-second decisions in the moment itself.
As we approached, I stayed further away than Joel could jump for as long as I dared. I knew that as I turned, the bow would get further away as the stern of our boat got proportionately closer to Sterling’s. Second, to the thought of Joel not making the jump and being crushed in the water between the hulls of two boats, my biggest fear was crashing the boats into one another and somehow making the fallen mast situation even worse.
“Wait, one second, just one more second.” I called to him.
He was so amped up, I doubt he even heard me. I’m sure the flood of adrenaline coursing through his body sounded like the rush of a distant waterfall in his ears. We acted at the same moment, before I could even say, “Now!” He jumped and I spun the wheel away from Sterling’s boat. I looked up just long enough to know he made it. Then, breathed one sigh of relief before turning to look down at the space between our two boats. My sigh of relief caught in my throat and stuck. We were way close. Like just a few feet, and still getting closer. I revved the engine even more than I normally would have dared, and cranked the wheel to the left, even though it wouldn’t turn any further.
The waves had been coming in sets of threes, then a bit more calm, a sort of lull would follow. This was the timing I had been aiming for with the jump. But we made it on the tail end of the lull, and the first wave of the set hit just as Joel’s foot left Chak’s deck. Chak dipped and We Don’t Neaux rose. He barely made it. And after he did, we came within a foot of the boats colliding as the wave pushed our keel toward Sterling’s boat.
Somehow, I managed to pull away. Somehow, he made the jump. Somehow, both boats and all three of us made it safely to Landrail Point, Crooked Island.
Another lesson from this day was one in irony, and watching your wishes. I think the saying goes, “Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it.” All morning I had been preoccupied, brooding and a bit moody. My moodiness usually shows itself in silence and stiffness. I was caught up in my own mind, a dangerous, intoxicating place to be while the thoughts there are of the questioning kind. My favorite question? Why.
I’m the 8 year old who never stopped pestering her parents, “but, why Dad?why?” “Because I’m the Dad and I said so, damnit!” To this day the questions of motive, of purpose, of what’s the point? – echo frequently throughout my brain. I’ve learned that “why” never has an answer that satisfies. But I can’t stop thinking it.
Forget the fact that most why questions, in fact THE why question, is totally unanswerable, I would still entertain the question. On this morning I wanted to know why I wanted this life. Did I really want this life? I knew that I loved Joel, I would do anything for him, but why did I love him? Why pick him?
I thought I loved sailing and living on a boat, but I still felt the pains of homesickness. What was wrong with me? Why wasn’t I totally stoked about living out what I thought had been my dream?
Joel could tell something was up. Probably because I wouldn’t look at him. Ashamed at myself for my thoughts, I felt he would know them if he looked too long in my eyes. He asked what was on my mind. Sometimes I don’t really know what’s on my mind, and I honestly answer, “I don’t know.” But this time I did know, “I don’t want to say right now.”
He knew. How could he not, the only thing I wouldn’t want to tell him about would be my own doubts.
At the same time I questioned, I hated myself for it. A beautiful sunrise unfolded before me. Awe-inspiring, sometimes creepily mysterious, deep, salty waters surrounded the boat and went further than I could see, spanning distances and volumes I can’t even comprehend. The wind propelled us along effortlessly in the exact direction of our choosing; the ingenious invention of arranging canvas, in a specific shape about a pole and floating base, so as to create propulsion across the water – even into a headwind. I could see that nearly everything around me was worthy of wonder. Yet I appreciated none of it. I was too far gone, too lost in the world of confusion and self-indulgent pity existing in my own mind to take notice of any other world.
Frustrated, I bemoaned to myself. “Why can’t I just be in the moment?!”
As if on cue, the universe responded. Sterling called on the radio. It was a cruel joke, but timed flawlessly. So you wanna be in the moment do ya? Well, here ya go. I dare you to be anywhere but totally in the now on this one!!
A few days were spent on Crooked Island. It turned out to be the island I most enjoyed up to that point. Maybe it’s the lack of other tourists and cruisers. Making us feel less like tourists ourselves, more like visitors or welcome guests. Though we did make great friends with other boaters while there. Maybe it’s that things get a bit more real after Georgetown. After the crazy day it took to get there, the island felt like a welcome refuge. Maybe it’s that we scored a record coconut haul. The vibes in that place were good, that’s all I know.
We met up with Fritz, a friend of Sterling’s met seven years ago there in Landrail Point. A bit of a legend himself, Fritz is living half the year at his self built homestead on Crooked Island. He’s a writer and a sailor, telling his story through “10 Years Behind the Mast” and three other novels. He picked us up with his wife and another gal in a little utility truck, perfect for hauling stuff and getting around the island. Bigger and heavier duty than a golf cart, but smaller than a traditional vehicle. We were able to fill up diesel jugs this way and make a run for groceries. So clutch.
Poor Fritz got a real scare from Mancha though. She didn’t realize it was his ute truck and he was our friend, she only knew he was messing around in the groceries she was guarding! While her bark is worse than her bite, she does manage to get you with a little bite for good measure. No blood, no skin tearing at all, but all of a sudden your hand is in an angry dog’s mouth so a fresh pair of underwear is definitely needed. Grimace and apology follow, but tough to discipline a good pup forbdoing her job just a little too well. Fritz gave her a wide berth after that.
The next day we were hunting down coconuts. Sterling just refuses to sit still. I swear, “rest” isn’t a vocabulary word he’s familiar with.
But, it was crazy cool. Turned out to be the biggest coconut haul yet! I feel like I keep saying that..
We walked the beach all afternoon. A beautiful one which switches between sandy spots and smooth rocky ledges, lots of colorful shells and sea glass, even some interesting junk to be found, you can’t ask a beach for much more than that.
A French couple, Francois and Kathy – aboard Ystafelle, were pulling their skiff up onto the beach when we got back to Sterling’s dinghy. We exchanged names and stories, the ‘Who What Where and How’ of us each coming to be here. Then, we made plans for going to dinner later, after sundown.
Gibson’s Restaurant. Run by Willy. Open most days, but closed from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday. It was Saturday night and we were the first to walk in, 30 minutes after the sun dipped below the horizon. Not realizing this settlement adheres to the Seventh Day Adventist tradition, we had been on shore ready for dinner at 6pm. After walking over to Gibson’s and seeing that they wouldn’t be open for dinner until 8,, we figured oh well, we’ll just wander around with a cold beer. Silly us, hadn’t put two and two together that not only would a beer be very difficult to come by, no one would be able to sell it until nightfall. And yet, we still found beers. Word of mouth, a chance conversation, lead us to a residence. The guy who lived inside, we were told, would sell us beers. We knocked on the door. Some commotion inside but it didn’t open.
“Hello? We were told we could get beers here.”
The door opened and he said they wouldn’t be cold but we could have our pick, Heineken, Kalik, Sands..
Then, much to our delight, Willy had a few cold beers to sell us with dinner as well. It was a surprise birthday dinner! A surprise for us because we didn’t realize it was a birthday dinner. Francois (S/V Ystafelle) and Mari (S/V C-Lover) both were born on St. Patrick’s Day. Sterling, Joel, and I were fortunate enough to join both couples for a memorable celebration. I still don’t know if Willy had been informed ahead of time, or if she was celebrating someone else’s birthday and it was a serendipitous coincidence. I do know that she served carrot cake, and carrot cake is my favorite. So I reasoned it was still my birthday week and must be partly my birthday dinner too.
Then, we left. Crooked Island was a happy little blip. The weather was right and we were closing in on the homestretch, so we pushed on. We traveled to the east side of Acklins Island group and anchored at Attwood Harbor before moving on to Mayaguana early the very next morning.
That night in Attwood we shared an evening meal with the C-Lover crew. BBQ ribs, what a treat. We met the C-Lovers in Crooked Island and would travel with them as far as Mayaguana before they moved on, taking advantage of the weather. I’ve noticed that the solitary nature of traveling by boat makes the friendships you find along the way that much more meaningful. Perhaps it takes separation to really appreciate togetherness, just like it takes too much sun to really value the rain.
A 17 hour sail. 3am departure from Attwood Harbor, scooted right past Plana Cays, and finally nosed into the west end of Mayaguana around 8pm. The next morning we finished the remaining 3 miles across to the main anchorage near Abrahams Bay settlement.
Today is 3/31, the last day of March. A full 3 months since I arrived in Marathon, and nearly 2 months spent at sea traveling on the whims of the weather. Exactly 10 days now spent in Mayaguana, it looks like this stop of the Bahamas – the very last island – will be the most time spent in any one place. Sterling is due to arrive on the Monday flight and from there I expect we will be out with the next good window. On to Turks and Caicos, and then, finally to Luperon.
As much as I look forward to what comes after, I am surprisingly in no hurry to leave Mayaguana. This place is special.