12 May 2017

Authorized to Navigate

12 May 2017 — Black Rock Harbor, Exumas

I think I mentioned previously that our insurance company insisted that we be ‘checked out’ by an independent, professional captain before we were authorized to ‘navigate’ on our own. The checklist itself covered fairly rudimentary skills — skills that surely I would have after sailing for decades, single-handing the Blue Moon from Steinhatchee, FL to Huntington, NY, crewing with Eric Forsyth a thousand miles down the coast of Brazil and across the Caribbean, not to mention crewing and then commanding Petronella 1100 miles from Martinique to George Town, but still, I worried. It would be a real pain if I flunked on some technicality and we were stuck in the Bahamas, unable to move the boat ourselves, with hurricane season bearing down on us.

However, the checkout process went very smoothly and we received authority from our insurance company to set sail on Tuesday. Huge relief, followed immediately by a new anxiety: could I actually sail Petronella on my own, with Helena as mate, of course? She seemed bigger than ever, now that John and Gill (the previous owners) were gone. I felt confident, but what if something went wrong?

When we received word, Petronella was in the Emerald Bay Marina on Great Exuma Island, just north of George Town. Our plan was to depart the marina, then sail about 30 miles up the coast (on the ocean side) to the Galliot Cut, between Cave Cay and Big Galliot Cay — one of the easiest ‘cuts’ leading from the ocean onto the Exuma bank. But ‘easiest’ doesn’t mean ‘easy’, unless the conditions were favorable. The conditions I was looking for were: light winds from the east so there wouldn’t be a sea breaking across the cut; a rising tide which is always a good idea when navigating shallow water; and the morning sun at our back to make it easy to ‘read’ the bottom. 

The weather and tide forecast for Thursday (yesterday) looked perfect, so we got the boat ready the night before, so we could leave at first light. 

To get out of the marina slip, I needed to back Petronella out of her slip, then turn 90 degrees to starboard, and then motor out and around the fuel dock, and then through the narrow inlet leading to the ocean. 

I’d steered her into the slip just a few days previously, and found the maneuver fairly easy, so how hard could it be to reverse her out?

I have had lots of experience backing the long-keeled Blue Moon out of slips, but the 40-foot Petronella was a whole different problem. I’d practice turning her in place, back in the BVIs, to prepare for just this scenario. Now it was time to try out my boat handling skills for real. With no one around to take over the helm if things went wrong. 

I must admit I lost a bit of sleep thinking through the maneuver, over and over again.

Worrying never helps, but thinking and planing does. With the sun just over the horizon — and no one up in the marina to watch and call out helpful suggestions — we slipped our spring lines and backed smoothly out of the slip. I executed the 90 degree turn to port without a hitch, and just like that, we were on our way. Petronella may be a heavy-displacement, long-keel boat, but she handles like a dream. I can only repeat my original assessment: she handles much easier than the 23-foot Blue Moon. 

‘Nimble’ is the word that spring to mind. 

Once a couple miles offshore, we set all four working sails and headed north on a broad reach with the wind blowing force 4 (11-16 knots). We hooked up George, the auto-pilot, then sat back to enjoy the sail. The remnants of the Trade Winds blew so steady that I never touched the sails or adjusted the auto pilot all morning. 

There were quite a few yachts heading up and down the coast with us, but only one catamaran came close enough to require attention. Since we were on starboard tack, and he on port tack, it was up to him to keep clear of us, and he did, so even that encounter didn’t require us to touch the tiller. 

After noon, the wind decreased to force 3 (7-10 knots), slowing our progress, and as the afternoon progressed, it gradually died away to force 2 (4-6 knots). This is the kind of wind that would have left the Blue Moon rolling in place, but I was very pleased to see Petronella making 2 knots with just over 4 knots apparent wind. This was a new experience for me, since I’ve always owned fairly heavy boats that were more or less useless in such winds. It was so enjoyable, that I wanted to sail the whole way, even if we did arrive a bit late. 

By the time we entered the Galliot Cut, it was 3pm and the sun was decidedly in our eyes. Not ideal for sailing on the bank, but the wind was light and the tide was rising. We passed through the narrow cut without incident, and went on ‘visual navigation rules’ with Helena in the bow with her polarized sun glasses. She guided us through the shallow water to our anchorage behind Big Galliot Key. We dropped anchor in about 3 meters of water — plenty for our 1.6 meter draft even if the tide went out a meter, which is what I expected.

And that was that: our first independent voyage complete without a hitch. A big ‘phew’ at the end of the day, and a terrific boost to my self-confidence. We launched the dinghy and motored to our own perfect, private beach for a swim. A fabulous day!

Our own private beach

Next Up: Heading North

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