Our Caribbean Vacation: Ordeal or Adventure?

(above photo credit:Andrew Bennett, via Flikr)

The sky is gray and the temperature drops into the seventies, feeling cool in the normally hot, steamy mid-eighties of late June in the Caribbean.

We’re in Fajardo on the eastern edge of Puerto Rico at the start of a sailing vacation.

As I steer the catamaran from behind the shelter of the marina breakwater, the seas grow and the wind sprays salt water, stinging my eyes and cheeks.  My glasses are useless, too wet to see through.  My shirt soaks and sticks to my chest.

The author at the helm of the Lagoon 400 Catamaran Caicu on the Vieques Sound. (Photo credit: Laura Ward)

How is this happening? I ask myself.  I checked the weather this morning – winds were forecasted for high teens to low 20s.  In the excitement to get on with my first Caribbean charter in nine years, I hadn’t re-checked the weather.

We are starting our vacation in a tropical thunderstorm.

The wind builds to the mid-thirties.  The forty foot, 16,000 lb. yacht is hobby-horsing like a toy.  Our 65′ mast whips back and forth.  A wave pattern develops.  Three or four car-sized crashing waves and then a much larger trough – crash.  Repeat.

I glance at the anemometer: 40 knots (46 mph).

On this boat the helm is up high, above the hard bimini that the rest of the crew is sheltering under.  Almost everyone else is new to sailing in open water.  The three kids are already crying.  (Laura tells me our child is “hysterical.”)  The adults look worried.

I feel bad for everyone.  They’ve traveled all this way from Texas to be hit by scary, ugly weather right out of the gate.

I yell for the crew to repeat anything they say — the wind is too loud to hear them.

My wife, Laura, asks if we should turn back.  It’s a possibility but for now I focus on keeping the bows into the wind, goosing the twin diesels and cranking the wheel to keep from being pushed sideways.  I know that if I allow the tall, wide hull to turn broadside to the wind things will get even uglier.  So I focus on two things:  keep the boat headed into the wind and keep the crew safe (from falling overboard, hitting their heads, banging a knee).  The two seven-year-olds are in their ocean harnesses.

Seawater weighs 63 lbs. per cubic foot.  Fifteen to thirty thousand pounds are crashing into our boat every few seconds.

I’m getting worried.  Our crew is inexperienced and this is a fast-hitting, severe storm.  Mostly I want to know what’s coming – is it getting worse?  From the helm I ask Scott (the other dad in our group) to grab the handheld VHF radio.  Then on second thought I decide to use the cell phone.  This is very unusual to me — calling from a boat on the cell — but things have changed and the charter company tells me during the briefing that the cell phone is just fine to reach them.  So I ask Scott to call the charter duty captain and ask for a forecast update.

In a couple minutes, Scott comes back to the cockpit.  “Graham says, ‘Come back.'”  I’m a little surprised, but at the moment it seems the best move.  It’s not far back to the safety of the marina.

I whip the wheel around and goose the port engine.  I do this to spin the cat around quickly, minimizing time spent sideways to the wind and waves.  The new course is quieter and calmer.  The waves are lifting the stern, but the boat is more stable.  In a few minutes we are back inside the heavy marina breakwater, tied up at the dock.

I have learned two valuable lessons:  mother nature is always in charge and always recheck the weather before leaving the dock.

After we are settled, the kids are smiling again and the first beers have been cracked, Ziggy from the charter company is on the boat checking things over.  The air conditioner pumps need to be bled because of the hard ride.  Ziggy saw our mast pitching back and forth in Vieques Sound, so he knows the boat needs some attention.  We are all chatting, relieved.

Ziggy emerges from below, looks at me and asks:  “What’s the difference between an ordeal and an adventure?”  I say “ten knots,” thinking I’m clever.

His answer is better:  “Attitude.”


Our crew of seven ended up having a wonderful time in the Spanish Virgin Islands.  The kids, being resilient as kids are, fell in love with the islands.  We left again later that day after the storm had passed (and a thorough weather check).  On our five-day charter we snorkeled reefs, hiked to a natural “jacuzzi” on Culebrita, saw sea turtles, cooked out on the boat, enjoyed several deserted beaches with crystal blue waters.  We ate great seafood at The Dinghy Dock in Dewey on Culebra.

We can’t wait to do it again.

Anna (left) and her best bud sailing the big cat.  (Photo credit:  Laura Ward)
Anna (left) and her best bud sailing the big cat. (Photo credit: Laura Ward)
The Dinghy Dock restaurant in Dewey on Culebra.  (Photo Credit:  Laura Ward)
The Dinghy Dock restaurant in Dewey on Culebra. (Photo Credit: Laura Ward)
Snorkel stop at Cayo Luis Peña (Photo credit: Laura Ward)
A sign evoking the laid back attitude found in Puerto Rico
A sign evoking the laid back attitude found in Puerto Rico (Photo credit:  Laura Ward)
Playa Tortuga on Culebrita. Rumor is this boat caught fire. (Photo Credit: Laura Ward)
Anchored at Cayo Luis Peña (photo credit: Scott Rosen)

Cats, Wheels and Fighting Cancer: Southwest International Boat Show

“At least it’s closer than Oakland [Calif.],” my brother said.  The show is in two days and he’s trying to convince me to go.

So we drove to Kemah, Texas on Sunday morning for the Southwest International Boat Show.   I’m glad he pressed.  It turned out better than we expected.  Heck I even met Bob Bitchin, one-time bodyguard, sailing legend and founder of Latitudes & Attitudes magazine.  (That magazine is now defunct, but Bob has a new publication, Cruising Outpost.)

Here are my highlights from the show.

Kevin at the settee of the Lagoon 450 catamaran. This boat is bigger than some of my early apartments. (photo credit: Steve Ward)

Even Keeled
The Beneteau/Lagoon dealer was on hand with their new models (The Yacht Sales Company, Kemah, TX).

The Lagoon 450 catamaran was such a hit we had to wait in line to board.  I was eager to see the 450 because I’ll be sailing the similar 400 with friends this summer in the Caribbean.  When I stepped on the bridgedeck and looked over the wheel the boat felt really huge – I mean expansive.  I sailed a Leopard 45 cat ten years ago, but I forgot how big they feel.  With 24 feet of beam the boat is nearly as wide as my boat is long.  I’m glad we’re renting the smaller 400 this June!

Me at the helm of the Lagoon 450 cruising catamaran. (photo credit: Kevin Ward)

Aboard the 450 a salesperson told me this tale:  He was on this boat in a freeze breeze.  When the wind gusted over 30 he set his coffee down and jumped up to put in a reef (note: a reef reduces the amount of a sail making the boat more manageable in high winds).  After he finished the reef he thought darn, I’ll have to clean that coffee off the galley sole.  But his mug was right there waiting for him – not a drop had spilled.  Now that is a stable boat!

Down below, this boat is a waterborne apartment.  The starboard hull is an “owner’s suite” with a queen-size berth aft,  full-size head forward and a sitting area in the middle.  Two cabins share the port hull.  The galley and saloon look big enough to entertain a crew of ten.

I can’t wait to sail the 400 in June.  Maybe we’ll upgrade to this yacht next year!  (www.theyachtsalescompany.com)

Torqeedo 4.0 with battery bank.  (photo credit:  Torqeedo)

Electric Conversion?
showed their line of battery-powered outboards.  Electric motors are compelling:  quiet, reliable power with no messy fuel or smelly exhaust.  For sailboats it’s more realistic than ever to replace petroleum with electricity.

I’d love to replace my cranky outboard with a Torqeedo, but like most new innovations they are still expensive.  (John Steinbeck – yes that Steinbeck – wrote a hilarious piece on the perils of outboards which you can read here.)  To replace mine with an electric outboard, I’d spend around $4,000 – much more than the $700 used Honda I have on my 25′ Hunter.  Besides, the batteries weigh around 400 lbs which is a lot of extra weight for my mid-sized boat.

I expect prices and battery weight to come down in time.  (www.torqeedo.com/en)

Steering on the Side
The Marlow-Hunter 31 has a new approach to an old steering problem.  Some background.  Most steering wheels are in the center of the cockpit, which is natural but not ideal for a few reasons.  For one, in the middle you have to crane your neck to see around the sails.  Second, the steerer’s weight belongs on the high side to offset heeling.  Finally, in my opinion, it’s more comfortable on the high side.  All of that means a wheel in the center is a pain.

Marlow-Hunter 31 with pivoting steering. (photo credit: Steve Ward)

Some larger boats — starting around 35 feet — have two wheels to address this problem.  That adds weight and complexity.  Some builders even put redundant navigation instruments on each side.  That’s even more weight, expense and  things that can break.

Hunter’s solution is a wheel that pivots to either side.  See the photo nearby.  [The photo may be confusing because the wheel is folded behind that red sign.]  Hats off to Hunter for a cool design.  I’d love to try this one out someday.  (http://marlow-hunter.com/)

Icy Breeze cooler/air conditioner. (photo credit: Icy Breeze, http://www.icybreeze.com)

Cooler Squared
Taking the prize for Quirky but Ingenious was the portable “air conditioner” from IcyBreeze.  It’s built just like a regular cooler, but it’s really a combo AC/cooler.  It uses a closed radiator system to blow air cooled by the ice inside.  It runs up to six hours on a battery charge.  (www.icybreeze.com)

Leukemia Cup Regatta
Of the 160+ exhibitors, this booth caught my eye and tugged at my heart.  As an acquaintance said to me the other day, “there’s too much cancer.”  And he’s right of course.  But there’s hope.  From The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society:

In the 1960’s a child’s chance of surviving leukemia was 3%; today 90% can expect to survive into adulthood.

My niece Alli just went through a terrifying experience with leukemia.  Thankfully she is in remission and doing fantastic after the six month ordeal.

The nice ladies at the booth told me all about the regatta and how it helps fund research for a cure of the blood cancers.  The Texas Gulf Coast chapter has raised $2.8 million since 1998.  This year the regatta is June 26-28 at the Houston Yacht Club on Trinity Bay (near Clear Lake, TX).  I can’t make the race this year, but I’ll be sending a check to support this worthy cause.  (http://www.leukemiacup.org/txg/)

See you at the show next year.


Bob Bitchin and Steve at the Cruising Outpost booth. (photo credit: Kevin Ward)