Thursday, June 23, 2011

Elizabeth's 4th Birthday

My baby girl is 4 years old!  Absolutely amazing.  She is such a smart and loving child of God!  Grandmom Maron and Grandpa Steve came out for Elizabeth's party.  They so wanted to be there and what a party it was! 22 adults and 11 kids in our little "cottage" of a house.  Thank goodness that the rain held off (the thunder literally started the minute the last guests departed) so that we could be outside the entire evening.

The kids (and adults too) had such a fun time.  The party theme was Princess Bug Party as that is what Elizabeth wanted.  It was perfect as there were a few little boys at the party who would have felt a bit left out if it was just a Princess party (although Andrew would not have cared - he gets to dance to princess music every night and his sister puts barrettes in his hair).

The kids had a fun time playing all kinds of bug games.  We played pin the ladybug on the leaf and then went on a bug hunt.  Dad hid a bunch of plastic bugs in the park behind our house and the kids had a blast trying to find them.  We then had a butterfly pinata.  As you can see, there are strings on the pinata so that you pull the strings instead of hitting it with a baseball bat.  Some say weak, I say, 4 years old!  The kids had a fun time!

 We usually like to make birthday cakes of various shapes and sizes but this year I was feeling a little bit overwhelmed and decided to buy a store - cake.  And was it worth it.  I would have to say that it was the prettiest and yummiest bug cake I've ever seen and tasted in my whole life.

 As usual, looking for "friends" in the dirt.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

St Vincent and the Grenadines Sailing - Part 2

We left off in the Tobago Keys, one of our favorite places in the Grenadines.  We had a fantastic spot in the anchorage, great holding ground, spectacular beaches and uninhabited islands to explore, fantastic snorkeling and a steady breeze keeping us cool at night.  It just doesn't get much better than this!

 One of our days spent in the Tobago Keys we went for a little hike up to the top of one of the islands early in the morning to beat the heat.

On our way up to the top of the island we were greeted by this big iguana sunning himself on a tree.  The views are great on top of the islands and it makes for a fun hike up.

We had a bit of the Barracuda left in the ice box and decided to grill it up for lunch when we first arrived in the Keys.  We had a bit of fresh bread some juicy ripe mangos - combined with the spectacular setting this made for an incredible lunch.  We seasoned the barracuda with a little salt, pepper, and lime juice and threw it on the hot grill.  It has to be some of the best fish i've ever had - its a perfect texture for grilling, nice mild white fish that stays juicy but doesn't fall apart - similar to some good fresh mahi.

Sunset is always a one of our favorite times of the day in the Caribbean.  Its a refreshing relief from the blistering sun and heat.  Its also the time for sun-downers which for whatever reason always seem to be some combination of fun, interesting, relaxing and refreshing all at once in the Grenadines - weather ashore or at anchor... 

During our chart brief on our first day we ran into one of Kate's college classmates AC, her husband, sister and her sister husband.  We met up at Mustique briefly but unfortunately they were all a bit green after a rough ride down in the swell and light wind followed by a rolly night in the anchorage.  We were just getting up for breakfast when we looked out and saw them high tailing it out of there - most likely looking for a calm anchorage for the next night... I will admit, going to Mustique for the first night is probably not the best choice if you haven't slept on a boat any time recently...  Fortunately we all met up again in the Tobago Keys where we had them over for drinks one evening.
  We also managed to have them take out picture - Thanks again!
After two days in the Tobago Keys we were out of fresh fish, the fresh fruit was almost gone and the rest of our food stores were running low as well.  Worst of all we were out of rum punch and ice and of course the refrigerator really didn't seem to work...  It was time to re-supply!  Being in the Keys we waited until the sun was well overhead before pulling up the anchor to make sure we could see the water depths a bit better.  After a morning swim and some breakfast we hauled up the anchor and set out for Union Island - the closest place to resupply.
Union Island is an odd place.  Its the only place in the southern Grenadines to resupply but the second you get into the harbor you are instantly wish you had more options....  First you are harassed by the locals who try to sell you a mooring for the night that you wouldn't trust your dingy to let alone a 40' yacht.  Then you read in the guide book that there is good holding ground for anchoring inside the harbor but the second you get there you see the harbor is packed with boats and there is little room to anchor in reasonably shallow water.  Then you  realize that ever place that you could possibly anchor neccesitates that the wind stay out of the east - which it does do most of the time, but if it were to shift to the north or south - your boat would end up on the reef - of course.  So after setting the anchor and climbing in the dingy to go ashore you are left thinking - 'I just pray that the wind doesn't shift' followed by 'wow I'm really glad thats not my boat sitting out there...' Then once you reach the dingy dock you are harassed instantly by some guy who wants you to pay him to take your one bag trash to the dumpster which is only about 500 feet from the dingy dock that you must pass by to get into town...  Of course once we find the one bank on the island we quickly find out that the ATM is broken... Not sure if it was just us but it was just not the most inviting place.  If they were smart the local government would set up and maintain quality moorings that are free for day use and police the boat boys that are pestering the visiting yachts.  Then I would set up a nice dingy dock right in the middle of the down town making it easy to replenish your boat.. They would be a lot more successful this way as it would attract all the boaters passing through to stop in to stock up.

On Mustique we were convinced to buy a soursop - a delicious fruit that just breaks appart in your hand and has a unique sour yet smooth flavor that is very juicy.  We were a little skeptical at first but it was simply spectacular!  While on Union we made a point of stocking up again on one of these as well as mangos, limes, bananas, papayas, and pinapple.  Right down town there are a bunch of fruit stands with a great selection.  We also stopped at the grocery store and a little french food store that had a nice variety of tasty food.  We stocked up on meat and cheese, a few bottles of Ting (tastes like Squirt but not as sweet) imported from Grenada, and Kates favorite, the freshly made yogurt - this time we got it in key lime.  It was probably the best yogurt I have ever tasted!  Worried our boat might run off without us in the busy harbor we headed back to the dingy dock, stocked up on ice and headed back to the boat to get it all situated and ready to sail.  It was only 1:00PM with plenty of sunlight left in the day.  The only question - where to go?

One of our favorite places from our last trip was Petite St. Vincent (PSV) which is a private island / high end resort with some of the most amazing beaches in the Caribbean and an elegant restaurant for the gusts that serves up an over the top expensive dinner but a reasonable lunch buffet spread that was incredibly fulfuiling on our last trip.  As it turned out PSV was under new ownership and was being renovated with a lot of construction.  Because of this we opted out of visiting this time around. Listening to a bunch of construction during the inevitable afternoon nap just didn't sound appealing and there was varying news that the hotel / restaurant was closed due to the construction...  Hopefully next time we can visit!  Considering out options we  decided what the heck - its a great day for a sail and pizza on the beach does sound very nice and relaxing...  So off we went back to Mustique!

We had a great sail to Mustique, light-ish winds and a close reach with light swell made it a comfortable sail.  Unfortunately our fishing lines kept picking up sea weed that was floating on the surface which made for a couple of anticlimactic false alarms.  Upon arrival we went strait the mooring ball and once secured it was in for a refreshing dip followed by cocktails, dinner, and early to bed having of course missed out afternoon nap.  We went in first thing in the morning and headed to Sweetie Pie's french bakery for some pastries.  Its something we rarely get at home but taste so good when on vacation...  We then found our taxi driver and headed right back to Maceroni beach.

By this time we had really hit the vacation stride - napping, reading, lazing about with the occasional dip in the surf to cool down.  I found a fantastic little spot under the mangrove tree in the shade to read where it felt about 10 degrees cooler with a nice steady breeze.  

Lunch time came around and it was hard to pass up pizza and beer delivered to you on the beach!

In the morning we were off again to Canuan.  We decided this time against visiting Bequia as it is just too busy of an island.  I think if we were living aboard and cruising full time Bequia would be much more attractive.  It has everything one needs to resupply as well as a number of places that supply parts and such for the boat.  For us it is just too busy and you get the feel that vacation is over a little prematurely.  This being the case we opted for Canuan - an island that we had never really visited previously. 
After releasing the mooring we were off for another great sail!

 Its only about a 3 hour sail from Mustique to Canouan and as luck would have it we managed to land another blackfin tuna on the way!  We had to take turns landing him as we was hooked in the mouth at first but when we tried to land him the hook in the mouth came out leaving only the trailer hook that had him hooked in the side making it a real challenge to fight but we tag teamed it well. 

After our last barracuda catch Kate offered to clean the next fish so after a couple whacks on the noggin with the winch handle the tuna was adequately subdued and Kate went to it like a pro. 

 Kate did a great job filleting her first fish!  What a way to start!

We arrived in Canuan in the early afternoon.  Of course we had the anchor from hell on this boat so setting it was prooving to be a real challenge.  The usual method of just drop it over the side with a mile of chain routine didn't work - it simply wouldn't dig in and would instead drag across the bottom.  This forced manual anchor setting consisting of me diving over the side while the weight of the chain was holding the boat in place.  Then I'd swim out to the anchor and have Kate put the boat into reverse in an attempt to dig the thing in.  Once the slack came out of the chain I would dive down and push the nose of the anchor into the sand and sure enough the boat would do the rest.  If I didn't go down and force the nose in, the anchor would just slide across the bottom ever so nicely with no signs of stopping...  what a pain.  This constantly left me wondering 'so what would happen if the wind shifted say 90 degrees or even 180 degrees?  I'm confidant that if the wind really came up and shifted like that we would just drift away to sea or more likely right onto a reef or if we were lucky just a beach...  fortunately in the Caribbean the trade winds are pretty steady out of the east and the wind never shifted....
Canouan is a really odd place.  Its beautiful, don't get me wrong, but its odd.  Half the island is a gated high-end resort with a golf course which just the idea of a golf course here feels really out of place... we didn't visit the resort but we did visit the other half of the island which has a little town with not much in it.  A few local restaurants, stores, and plenty of goats and chickens, but that is about it  .  Walking through town we were approached by one of the local islanders who insisted on being our "tour guide" even though all we were looking for was a place to get some lunch.  He was either very drunk from the night before, it was Carnival after all, or he wasn't all there.  After following him a ways with several of the other locals suggesting he wasn't totally with it, we unfortunately found out that it was the later.  He did eventually lead us to a place on the beach called "Mangroves" which served up some really great conch fritters and a decent inexpensive lunch.  Our guide wan't very welcome there and insisted we pay him for his help which Kate did only making the situation worse... Eventually he was convinced rather forcibly by some of the locals and we were left in peace on a beautiful beach with our lunch.
We had a wonderful Tuna dinner (we ate an entire tuna between the 2 of us!) and had a great sunset view!
This year we chartered "Winter's Gate" - a 2005 Jeanneau 40.3.  She was a pretty good boat with no issues this time around like we had last time.  Most everything on the boat worked - at least all of the important stuff like the depth finder, engine, sails, windlass, and steering.
We ended up putting her to the test on our last day.  In the Caribbean the weather is deceivingly predictable with partly cloudy skies, a steady breeze out of the east and consistent warm temperatures.  We had weather like this for the last 9 days so why would this last day be any different???  Of course the best weather indicator is to look up in the sky to see what it is doing now, and look in the direction the wind is blowing from to see what it is going to do.  In our case we were tucked in a large anchorage behind some good sized mountains making forecasting difficult if not impossible but then again why would anything be different today that it was for the last 9 days???  

We had around 30 miles that we had to sail and if we were going to make our plane we had to get there before the charter company closed.  You sailors reading this see the obvious flaw in our logic...  Sure enough, just after sticking the bow out past the lee of the island we were slammed with a squall.  The course we needed to go put us right into the 25-30 knot wind and driving rain and with two reefs in the main and barely a shred of jib up we were over powered!  The swell had risen to 12 feet + and we had to make a choice - give it a try because we needed to make our plane and risk it, or head back and wait it out hoping we would still have enough daylight to make it back in time...  We got out the foul weather gear and turned back in to the protection of the island choosing the safer course of action.  4 other boats headed out at the same time, all turning back just as we did.  After getting the sails tamed I headed down below to do review the charts and consider our options.  Further review suggested another option - instead of heading directly to St. Vincent we could sail further west to Bequia on a beam reach, duck behind Bequia hiding in its wind and wave shadow and get into position to make a run at St. Vincent.  From the norther tip of Bequia the sail to St. Vincent is only about an hour and a half and would now be a close reach instead of a beat - more comfortable sailing with respect to the wind and waves!  

I went up and briefed Kate on the plan and we agreed to give it a try.  Turning back around we headed back out, set the sails again with a double reef and about half of the jib and gave it a try.  By now the weather had subsided a little but the swell was still pretty big and it was still raining making it an uncomfortable sail to say the least.  We couldn't see any of the islands we were heading for but fortunately had good charts, a GPS and a compass.  I charted the course and after a couple of hours we could start to make out Bequia and St. Vincent off the bow... what a relief!

I took the helm through the heavy wind as the auto pilot couldn't keep up but once things subsided a little Kate took over and gave me a break.  You can see Canouan in the background off the stern in the picture above.  We were sailing at a pretty good pace and after about 4 hours we had reached Bequia and were safely in the lee of the island much to our relief.  Heading up the western side of Bequia we furled in the jib and motor sailed nearly dead into the wind in the calm water to make some headway against the wind and swell.  If we had plently of time and if it was a bit nicer out we would have gladly sailed it tacking up the coast but we just didn't have the time or desire to be screwing around in these conditions - we just wanted to get back to St. Vincent to check the boat back in, take a long afternoon nap on the mooring, and eat a delicious dinner at the Driftwood...  After motor sailing to the norther tip of the island we fell off the wind, unfurled the jib and had a nice sail from Bequia to St. Vincent.  We made it just in time, the charter company was only open for another hour, just enough time for them to get most of the check-in done (only 8 gallons of diesel used in 10 days!) and get us out on a mooring for the night.  What a relief! 

We took a nice nap - fully exhausted from the day's white knuckled adventure and woke up just in time for a sunset swim and even a shave on the swim deck!
We took the opportunity to get all dressed up nice and went ashore to the Drifftwood restaurant located right at the charter company's facility and had the most wonderful pizza and pasta.  They make their own noodles and the bolonaise was by far the best i have ever had!!!  Of course we ran into Randy again and his girlfriend.  Randy made us some of his special rum punch - it was so good we had 3 a piece!  Fortunately there are no laws in St. Vincent about operating a dingy while under the influence of rum punch...  It was a wonderful and memorable meal to top off a rather exciting day.
The next day we said good bye to Winter's Gate and our friends at the charter company and headed to the airport looking forward to seeing our family again - only once we arrived we found that there were no flights back to Puerto Rico.  The travel agency screwed up in a big way.  After 2 hours on the phone with the travel agency at the airport, indoors with no breeze and no air conditioning we finally had a plan to get us home, only it wasn't until the next day and it was going to cost us $1000 for new tickets home until we could get everything sorted out with her management.  At this point we were stuck and had to get back to our kids and jobs.  We agreed to spend the money since we were left without any other options found a hotel for the night on the beach, had some lunch, a long nap, dinner, back to bed, and then up early for our flights home.  St. Lucia, Antigua, Puerto Rico, Atlanta, and then finally home... we made it.  The next day I received a call at work that the travel agency realized our big travel debacle was their fault and reimbursed us the $1k for the new tickets home - thank goodness!

We had an amazing trip and can't wait to do it again!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Sailing St. Vincent and the Grenadines - Part 1

Its been 2 years now since we have done a sailing trip accompanied by two years of day dreaming about going back and doing it again.  In the middle of our long cold winter we unilaterally decided a Caribbean sailing trip was a must this year.  And so it was... book the boat, use miles for tickets, double check Grandma and Grandpa's schedule for the kids and we are off.  Of course its never that easy...  26 hours, 2 US states, 1 US territory, 4 countries, 3 trips through security in Antigua alone, and 4 planes later we arrived - miraculously with all of our baggage - I'm still in disbelief.

The thing about St Vincent and the Grenadines though is that what you pay for in inconvenience you are rewarded for in unspoiled beauty and culture.  This is the real Caribbean - not the Florida Keys, not the Virgin Islands, not Cancun or Cozumel - this is the real deal where Bananas are the largest source of revenue - not tourism, there are no all inclusive resorts, or even fast food, and you pay more not less for processed food at the grocery because it has to be imported.

After a quick taxi ride we finally made it to the charter company which has some very nice rooms and a fantastic restaurant overlooking the charter fleet on moorings and the island of Bequia to the south.  A great dinner in the ocean air and some of Randy's fantastic Rum punch (best in the Grenadines - we tried them all) quickly melted away all of the travel stresses.

Our experience has been that trying to get up and get the charter started quickly doesn't ever work out and we have been stressed out and frustrated by it all in the past.  This go around we embraced "island time" and took it easy, slept in, had a nice breakfast, did the chart brief, checked out the boat, did the grocery shopping (Phyllis the taxi driver took good care of us taking us to all the best stores and local fruit stands) got the boat packed and ready to go - only to find that the depth finder doesn't work.  Fortunately they were able to repair it and we were on our way to the enchanted island of Mustique.

This year we tried something new while sailing - fishing.  I scoured the internet and was able to find a couple reasonably priced, 2-piece deep sea rods that could handle 50lb test line, bought some lures and a cheap fillet knife, and brought along some home made rod holders.  To our amazement about an hour into our sail and the reel starts buzzing away with a hookup.

Fishing from the sailboat took a bit of forethought however - once you hook up - what next?  Its a 40' sailboat in 10' swells and 15knots of wind with two very large sails up - maneuvering is out of the question.  With only 40lb line on the reels we had to be sure to slow the boat down so we didn't break our catch off, but if you stop the boat the fish could get tangled up in the keel, rudder, or prop, so the boat has to keep going forward - only slowly.  Fortunately we had discussed what would happen if we actually caught something and put our plan into action... Kate took the fish and kept the drag loose and line tight while i slowed the boat.  Set the autopilot, release the Jib sheet and furl it in, and let off some main sheet as well.  We were still moving forward enough to keep pressure on the fish but no too much that we couldn't fight the fish.  Kate worked the fish hard and made some headway but handed it over to me for the last bit to ensure we did't loose it under the boat or around the dingy.  We were elated to find we had hooked into a nice black fin tuna - Fresh grilled tuna for dinner!  A couple of whacks on the head with that winch handle and I was off to work making some nice tuna fillets!

Now back on course with Mustique just off our port bow, fillets in the ice box and deck finally clean we hook up two more fish - both barracudas!  What a first day!

Mustique is one of our favorite islands in the Caribbean, it is simply spectacular!  It is a private island with bunch of villas on it, a couple restaurants and a little village with a grocery store, French bakery, and a fruit stand It is home to one of the most incredible beaches in the world, Macaroni Beach.  Two years ago when we visited Mistique, we made it a quick overnight.  The anchorage isn't the most protected and a bit rolly for your first night aboard and we were anxious to check out all of the other Grenadine islands.  This year we took a more "island time" approach, as noted previously and decided to stay an extra day and explore the island.

As it turns out that Tuna provided more fresh fish than we could eat.  Of course we didn't want any of it to go to waste so we took half of it ashore hoping to give it away.  The taxi driver sitting at the end of the dingy dock couldn't believe we were offering it to him and was so happy to get it he offered us a free ride to the beach we were headed to!  Who knew you could barter for taxi rides with fresh fish!?

We decided to spend the day on the famous Macaroni beach playing in the waves, reading a book, and a little exploring. 

After a long day on the beach our faithful taxi driver picked us up and we headed back to the boat, cleaned up and headed to Basil's Bar on the waterfront for a delicious lobster dinner - by far the best lobster that I have ever had!

The next morning it was time to head south.  Of course sailing means fishing and sure enough right out of Mustique we quickly land this little barracuda which we decided was just about the right size for the two of us for dinner!

Our next destination was Salt Whistle Bay and the little island of Mayreau.  Salt Whistle Bay has to be one of the best anchorages in the Caribbean with a setting straight out of a post card, a great breeze at night and a perfectly calm and quiet anchorage - couldn't ask for a better place to take a long afternoon nap!
After our last trip here we knew we had to make a little hike up into the village for sundowners at the one and only Dennis' Hideaway.  Dennis is quite a character, i'd classify him as the local "personality" who operates a little guest house, bar and restaurant.  The last time we were there we also met the bartender / waitress and Kenta who was extremely enjoyable to talk to and made some fantastic rum punches!  It was fun to see her again and as expected we had a memorable night with Dennis, Kenta, the young woman from Poland who is apparently Dennis's girlfriend, and a couple from Germany who were starting their second circumnavigation... 
   We had some delicious conch and had drinks until the money we brought ran out - Dennis was nice enough to buy us a round once our funds dried up!  What a guy!  In the morning we hiked up to the little church on top of the hill before weighing anchor and heading of to the near by Tobago Keys.

It wouldn't be hard to spend all 10 days of the trip here in the Tobago Keys.  Here a large horse shoe shaped reef protects four small uninhabited islands and provides yet another spectacular anchorage.  The Tobago Keys are a marine park with tons of marine life.  Sea turtles are everywhere, the snorkeling is great with lots to see.  This time around we saw both a reef shark and a nurse shark, lots of eels, lobsters, and of course thousands of colorful fish.  One night I even saw an eagle ray while looking over the side with a headlamp on! What a surprise!

Swimming with sharks... now we have done a lot of diving with sharks in the past, mostly nurse sharks that are harmless to humans but also with reef sharks which are the real deal.  When I'm diving with sharks I'm always a little on edge but when we came up on a reef shark while snorkeling in 6' deep water Kate and I were very uncomfortable.. not sure why really but we both had the same feeling of being out of our element and a little exposed...  Of course once it saw us it left rather quickly leading me to think it was just as afraid of us as we were of it.  Either way it was a very interesting and memorable experience.

More to come!!!