Sunday, December 27, 2009

December 19-27 - Our Week Long Stay in Providencial

We have been at South Side Marina for over a week. On the 19th Chris (Kristi's son) and Ana (his fiancee) flew in from Miami to join us for a week. The following day, Diane and Kristi arrived. Knowing that six adults would be a tight fit on Lahaina Roads, I had checked into the availability of nearby hotel rooms. For the most part, Caicos caters to the "all inclusive" vacationers, making rooms very expensive. The typical room at one of these ocean front resorts starts at $400 per person per night and goes up from there. Naturally, that was out of the question.

Simon, the marina manager, came up with the solution. Unfortunately, his mother in England had passed away. He and his wife were leaving for England on the day Diane and Kristi were arriving. So when he offered me his 46' motor sailor for $50 a day, I jumped at it. With a 15'x15' aft stateroom, hot shower, full galley, TV and more, Diane and I would be very comfortable and yet remain close to Lahaina Roads.

A little about the islands. There are eight major islands in the Turks & Caicos chain. The Caicos Islands are comprised of West Caicos, Providenciales, North Caicos, Middle Caicos, East Caicos and South Caicos. The Turks Islands are Grand Turk (the capital) and Salt Cay. The marina where we're staying is on Providenciales.

Like so many Bahamian islands, also the Turks and Caicos believe that Columbus first made landfall on their islands. Generally, however, Ponce de Leon is given the credit for first sighting the islands. When listening to what language people speak, one can really understand the impact that the various powers have had on the T&C. For centuries, starting in the 1500's, the islands passed from Spanish, to French, and then to British control. The result is that you hear dialects with Spanish and French influence. But generally people speak English and we find them to be very friendly and polite people.
Also like the Bahamas, salt mining became the dominant industry in the T&C's after they were colonized in the 1600's. The reason the salt collectors were drawn here was because of the shallow waters. Good for them, but bad for sailing around the islands for us. Even with the number of islands, cays and the extensive barrier reef, they don't offer much in the way of cruising grounds and anchorages for visiting yachts. With Chris and Ana only with us for a week, and with the weather forecast including a mid-week storm, it didn't look like we could give Chris and Ana much of a taste of the island group. With that in mind, we decided to rent a car for the week. With the car we explored various areas of the island, but never got to any of the others.

On one of the days, we drove to the far north western part of the island, where we figured there would be some good snorkeling beaches and perhaps find surfing waves for Chris. The beach was rugged, with a little too much wind to snorkel. However, the barrier reef came in close to the beach with the surf breaking nearby. Chris was able to catch some waves, but the sets were confused and the area was pretty shallow. It wasn't long when he was back. But the beach combing was good. Lots of interesting looking shells and tide pools.

With Simon and Sharlyn gone, another cruising couple helped run the marina. Jack and Linda are a retired couple from Maryland and cruise with their dog, Skipper on New Attitude. Each evening at 5pm, the cruisers get together for happy hour under the marina's palapa. We've all been enjoying it so much that the happy "hour" has turned into two hours. On Christmas Eve, after an early happy hour and dinner, the eight of us headed to a beach restaurant called the Conch Shack. They had advertised it to be a night of "live" music. When we got there we found out that it was one guy with a guitar and a karaoke machine playing reggae music and other rock standards. Rum punch was the drink of the evening.

On another occasion we had lunch at the Conch Shack. The food we ordered consisted of a variety of conch dishes, including curries, soups and fried conch. It was very tasty but probably didn't help my cholesterol..

Christmas day was pretty uneventful. It's an odd feeling being in a tropical climate, walking around in shorts during Christmas. During the day we ventured out in the car and explored other local beaches. In the late afternoon, the six of us had a pot-luck dinner with Jack, Linda, Bob and Susie. It turned out wonderfully. We had turkey, ham, salad, potatoes, brownies, pie and ice cream.
There are a number of lakes in Provenciales. One near the marina is called Flamingo Lake. We had questioned some locals about flamingos, but they didn't seem to know about them. One day, as we were heading out of the marina, we spotted a group of flamingos standing near the shoreline. Fortunately, we were able to get close and observe these graceful pink birds for some time. One of them appeared to be doing a dance - it was hilarious to watch. Every so often, they would bury their heads underwater to dine on the algae, small insects and small shrimp that were probably present in the water. Apparently, these foods are rich in beta-carotene, which is what tints the flamingos' feathers pink. Seeing these wild flamingos was definitely a highlight of our stay.

Tonight is our last happy hour with our friends at South Side Marina. The time to depart is upon us. Chris and Ana are flying out today and we are making final preparations to leave early tomorrow morning. This includes calling for Customs & Immigration, topping fuel and water, last minute shopping and getting things put away on the boat. We first will sail to Long Cay and the following day sail to Big Sand Cay. There we'll await a good weather window for the ninety mile sail to the Dominican Republic.

We wish you all a happy holiday season and a very happy and healthy New Year.

Friday, December 18, 2009

December 4 - Stocking Island

We're anchored off of a sparkling white sandy beach, on the other side of the bay from Georgetown off of Stocking Island. There are several other cruising boats anchored near us. On the island there is a small resort (St. Francis) and a bar where cruisers congregate and play beach volleyball. Apparently, in March of each year, hundreds of boats converge on this area and remain here for a month or more. I'm glad we're here now with just a few cruising boats.

A couple of things I've not mentioned before - on one of our sails, we had play full dolphins swim along with us. They acted as if they spotted us and decided to come over and get some action from our bow waves. They swam with us for a several minutes, surfacing every few seconds along the bow. We've also had flying fish that hit the boat at night. In the morning, we find them dead on deck. Although they are tasty, we've not yet taken the opportunity to pan-fry them with a little olive oil and garlic. During the day, we see flying fish sail around in groups as the boat approaches. They skip along like they're having a lot of fun.

December 5 - Georgetown to Calabash Bay, Long Island and on to Rum Cay

Aside from the GPS as an aid to navigation, there are a couple of other game changers aboard that makes today's cruising different from when Diane and I were cruising in the 1980's. One of those things is our access to email through the SSB (single side band) radio. Although it is limited to text only and only ninety minutes per week, Sailmail is very convenient and simple to use. But instead of the excitement Diane and I looked forward to at each port (as we would go to the post office and ask for any general delivery mail under our name), we now can get daily mail sent to us. It's great, but a little of the magic is gone forever. (Not that I'd go back to that, though.)

Along the same lines as the email system, another nuance we have is a personal weather forecast. Dave signed up with the marine weather forecaster, Chris Parker. Each morning, Chris discusses all the weather patterns from the south east coast of the U.S. to the far south eastern Caribbean. Then, as a paying customer, or as he calls them "sponsored vessels", you can request advise on what the weather (wind and seas) will be doing according to your own personal itinerary. It appears to be a popular service and Chris seems to do a good job..This too has a big impact on today's cruising versus cruising years ago.

Getting back to sailing. We left our Stockton Island anchorage in the afternoon, after getting a few more supplies, including a couple of six packs of Kalik, the Bahamian beer. We motored inside the reef for about an hour and left through the southern pass into the ocean. Lots of reefs and shoals all around us as we exited. A bit spooky, but we kept a good eye out and were right on the mark with the GPS. We headed to Long Island. This Long Island has no high rises and is worlds away from Wall Street.

Since we had left a little late, we needed to keep up a good pace. With the jib up, we motored sailed at 6.5-7 knots. We got to our anchorage in Calabash Bay right at sundown - something that we prefer to avoid because it's more difficult to see coral heads and shoals when the sun is that low. It's best to maneuver in unknown anchorages with the sun behind you or above you. But we got in safely and anchored in about 20 feet of water.

We've been using screens around the boat because of mosquitoes and worse yet - no-see-ems. These nasty little bugs can't be seen or felt until a day or two later. I woke up with 30-40 little welts on my legs and arms. And were really itchy!!! I suppose that there's always room to complain, even in paradise.

We left Calabash Bay in Long Island at sunrise. The sun's glow silhouetted against the sprigly-looking vegetation on the stretch of beach to the east of us. There was little wind and the swells became more pronounced as we rounded Cape Santa Maria and headed for Rum Cay. The swells were long and low, creating a gentle roiling motion, that could have easily lulled me to sleep. About half way to Rum Cay, we saw Conception Island off to our port side. It would have made an interesting stopover because reportedly it has been kept pristine as a marine sanctuary. But also Rum Cay is reported to have good snorkeling and diving with a more secure anchorage and a small settlement.

We arrived in Rum Cay later that afternoon and first decided to go snorkeling. The water was a crystal clear blue and warm - very inviting. We took the dinghy to the reef and snorkeled back with the dinghy in tow. Good exercise. We saw a variety of tropical fish among the elk horn coral, including parrot, clown, puffer, and various others. They mostly hovered around the big coral heads. Unfortunately again we were unsuccessful in finding good sized conch shells. I found one medium sized one, but we put it back.

We took a quick look at the village of Port Nelson but weren't overly impressed. Only a hundred people reportedly live on the island, so it is a very small community. The Sumner Point Marina was at the east end, but it too looked forlorn. We resorted to the most logical strategy - we headed back to the boat, had a round of cocktails, fixed dinner and relaxed for the evening.

December 7 - Rum Cay Back to Long Island (Clarence Town)

The wind freshened during the night. We put out a little more anchor rode and went back to sleep. In the morning we were awakened to rain. It turned out to be a series of squalls going through the area. In a while the weather subsided and we pulled up anchor. We headed for the southeast end of Long Island, to the small town of Clarence Town.

Due to the direction we were headed (SE), we typically had the wind and sea on the nose. Unfortunately, to make any headway under those conditions one needs to motor sail. This has often been the case. Had we started out with a boat in Trinidad, we could have sailed with the wind and seas all the way to Florida. The words we now use to describe our sail are "clawing, slugging it out, getting pounded" just to name a few.

Christopher Columbus left his tracks on a number of these islands. On December 5, 1942 he discovered the island of Hispaniola (today the Dominican Republic and Haiti). Here in the Bahamas, several islands also tout of being a place where Columbus left footprints. But some vie for the distinction of actually being the first place he stepped ashore. Of course with that comes numerous legends, claims and counter claims. San Salvador, Egg and Samana are among those islands claiming to the honor. We bypassed San Salvador and Egg Island and have yet to go to Samana. Long Island simply claims itself as one of the islands Columbus visited.

We noticed on the charts, that we are now officially into the Tropic of Cancer - 23 degrees and 27 minutes north of the equator. The significance of that is that we are now officially in the tropical belt. It feels like it. The temperature has been ranging in the low 90's with a fair amount of humidity. At night the temperature is not much different. I sleep in what I wear all day - a bathing suit and no covers.

We arrived in Clarence Town, Long Island at 4:30 pm. It looked like a nice place but all we wanted to do was go for a swim to cool off and feel refreshed. We didn't want to go through the burdensome drill of getting the dinghy off into the water and setting up the outboard. After all, the plan was to leave first thing in the morning for Crooked Island.

After the swim, we had a glass of wine and watched the sunset, while planning for the next day's adventure.

December 8 - Gordon's Beach, Long Island

Today is Meredith's 27th birthday. Wow, these kids sure grow up fast!!!. We're at an anchorage in the southern part of Long Island called Gordons Beach. Our day started out with the objective of making the western end of Crooked Island. But once out at sea off of Clarence Town, it became quite apparent that we weren't going to be able to make the southeastern course. The seas were relatively high and the wind was a steady at 15+ knots with gusts up to 25 knots.

We looked at the charts, reviewed our options and decided to go south along the coast of Long Island. Good decision. By mid-afternoon, we were anchored in 15 feet of sand, at a beautiful beach, albeit, a bit rolly. But the wind was blowing offshore, making the Gorgon's Beach anchorage a relatively safe one.

We got the dinghy out and set towards shore to explore the deserted beach. We were the only sailboat in the anchorage. Probably the most interesting find on the beach was the remains of a wooden vessel. Strewn around too, were lots of shredded clothing articles and shoes. We ventured a guess that the boat had been carrying the clothes to give to local poor Bahamians. Unfortunately, it never got to them.

After getting back to the boat, we swam around to cool off. I found two good sized conch shells that we brought aboard. They were beautiful but looked different from the ones we normally saw. They had more browns and shell was shaped more flat at the opening (ear). We worked hard at getting the muscle out of one of the shells. But all we managed to do was to create a smelly, ooze of goo. Something seemed amiss. Unfortunately, we ended up throwing them back into the sea. (A few days later we talked to a Bahamian and told him of our experience. He said "Oh, those are either the King or Queen Conch - they're not eatable and can be poisonous.) Pheeww!!! Sometimes it's good not to be too persistent!

Later, Dave worked on an anchoring technique that is supposed to mitigate the actions of the swells when they come from a different direction than the wind. By attaching another line to the anchor line and running it back to the stern of the boat, the idea is to point the boat into the oncoming swells instead of the wind. It worked a little, but I think that Lahaina Roads has too much freeboard causing her to sail around a bit at anchor. There was no way to keep her solely positioned into the swells. We had to put up with the rocking and rolling.

December 9 - From Long we go Crooked

We knew we had a rough sail ahead of us from Long to Crooked Island, so we got up at 6am to prepare. Crooked was directly east and into the wind and seas. The seas are not particularly huge (perhaps 6-8 feet on average). But when you're fighting both wind and sea, you only make marginal headway and it's a continual pounding as the boat launches into each swell then dips the bow into the following one. It's tiresome.

As we got under way from the anchorage and rounded South Point, the southern reef of Long Island, we decided that we'd head further south before attempting an eastern tack. After several miles southward, we made the tack eastward. Incidentally, this again is all motor sailing. We couldn't make much headway at all, if wasn't for the iron spinnaker (engine) pushing us through these confused seas. Columbus was smarter - when he was sailing through this area, he was going the other way towards Florida!

We got to Landrail Point, in Crooked Island at 3:30pm. We anchored and went through the dinghy drill (into the water, lift motor into it, gas tank setup, oars, etc). We took a surprisingly fun walk around the Landrail settlement. We were greeted by a young fellow, Randy, who worked at the local resort as a bonefish guide. As we walked, everyone stopped to say hello and asks how we were doing. Very friendly folks. We met at elderly lady, Marina, who had lived on Crooked for 47 years. She had a small restaurant, Gibsons, with one big table in the center. No customers, but she didn't seem worried.

A little about bonefish. Fishing for bonefish is popular here in Landrail. The fish are not meant to be eaten - they are a favorite of fly fishermen to catch and release. The word is that they are much feistier than trout, giving a good fight from the moment they take the bait to the very end. Sportsfishermen fly into Landrail and go bonefish fishing. That's the deal.

December 10 - Crooked Island to Atwood Harbor, Ackin

The next morning, we were underway to Ackin Island by 7:30 a.m. From the looks of the chart, Acklin and Crooked Island at one time probably were one island. But today they are separate. We sailed along the northern coast of each of the islands moving eastward. It wasn't easy. With 15-20 knot winds and 8 foot seas on the nose, it was our usual fight for every inch of ground.

By 3:30pm though, we were snug in Atwood Harbor. It was simple to get into the harbor. Once in, it looked very protected from all seas but from the north. A big plus of the anchorage was that it was smooth with no swells. We were tucked in behind the reef.

Once anchored, I got out my snorkeling gear and set out to look for conch shells. If any place had a chance of having conch, this remote place would have them. I swam to shore, keeping a look out for them. Nothing! The water was a bit murky but visibility was not bad. I was getting close to shore and had nearly given up on looking for conch when I ran into a bunch of them. They weren't the real big ones, but certainly of eatable size.

I walked all around the beach and then swam back to the boat. Dave had been working on a fuel line from one of the tanks to see why no fuel was coming out of it. But it looked clean. I drew his attention to the fact that I had spotted conch shells near shore. That looked a lot more interesting than fuel lines, so we got the dinghy in the water and headed to the spot. We ended up picking up only two of the larger conch shells and set about to get the muscle out. From what I recalled 30 years ago, from the outside of the shell, you count one and a quarter turns inward and with a screw driver, hammer a slit wide enough to get a butter knife into it. If done correctly, the muscle then slips out of the shell.

It did take us a few tries. But eventually we got the muscle to come out of the shell. We took our "bounty" back to the boat and later cooked the conch with garlic and added that to a ready-made mac & cheese. Together with a salad and a fine box of cabernet savignon, that was dinner. Tasty!

December 10 and 11 - West Plana to Mayaguana

We left Atwood Harbor at our leisure in the morning. Our next sail was a short twenty mile hop to West Plana Island. We made a few tacks and by 2pm approached the white sandy beach of West Plana and anchored in about 15 feet. Our plan was to stay long enough to have dinner and a short rest, then at 11pm leave for Mayaguana. The strategy would get us into there early in the morning, within the weather window of decent wind. After that, the weather report bore news of thirty knot winds with potentially higher gusts, all coming from where we wanted to go - naturally!

All went according to plan. After brewing a fresh pot of coffee, we pulled up anchor at 11pm. We hoisted the mainsail and didn't bother with the jib. We were going to motorsail and point as high as we could to get our easting. As we rounded Devil's Point in Mayaguana, we noticed the wind and seas pick up. Soon we were punching into to strong seas and winds over 21 knots. Some of the oncoming seas would bring the boat to a near stand-still as the bow unleashed a torrid of spray. It took over an hour to make it inside the reef. We approached with caution, since the charts reported several coral heads and rocks. Although the GPS is very useful in these areas, visual piloting rules (VPR) apply - that means someone keeping a lookout from the bow (since we have no crow's nest) for shoals, rocks and coral heads.

Mayaguana is our twelfth and last Bahamas island. Abraham's is not a typical anchorage. The barrier reef is nearly a mile from the land. With it blowing nearly 25 knots (from the sea), it actually is better to go to tuck in right behind the reef. So here we are - it looks like in the middle of nowhere, anchored near breakers (on the other side of the reef), with land visible far away towards shore. But we're in only twelve feet of crystal clear aquamarine colored water.

We were having a beer, when we spotted a small boat fishing. It turned out, what they were really doing was diving for conch. After a while they came near to us and so we flagged them down. We ended up buying six cleaned conch for $10. Probably too much, but as blustery as it was, snorkeling far from the boat was not in the making and we wanted a conch dinner. The conch ended up being plenty for two nights.
The clanging halyards forewarn us of a squall's approach as they hit the mast with an ever quickening beat. And that's good information. But we found an even better alarm in the GPS. It can warns us if the anchor is dragging. All we need to do is set a warning such that if the boat moves more than one tenth of a nautical mile from our anchored spot, the alarm sounds. That's really good information and hopefully would be loud enough to awaken us in the middle of the night. Having found out in Marsh Harbor that our anchoring technique was not flawless, this function likely would have helped.

December 15 - Stuck in Lodi...Bahamas Style

We have yet to make the move towards the Turks and Caycos. Perhaps tomorrow. Strong winds, squalls and seas continue to keep us hemmed in at Mayaguana. Yesterday, we got a brief respite from the wind, allowing us the opportunity to take a long, wet and bumpy dinghy ride to the settlement at the eastern end of the bay. There wasn't much there but a customs and immigration office, a grocery store and some houses. At the small grocery store we bought a few bananas and oranges (from California). But on the way back to the dinghy, we got lucky and met some fishermen cleaning fish, conch and lobster. We successfully negotiated for a couple of nice lobster tails. Dinner was very tasty indeed.

December 16 - I think we can make a run for it!

In the morning we listened to Chris Parker, the weather guru. Sounds like we can make a run for the Caicos. The plan that we have is to leave here before noon and get to the eastern part of Mayaguana. There, we anchor for the evening, have dinner and rest (not unlike the West Plana trip). Late at night, we then sail off for Caicos.

But as the scene unfolds....We pull up anchor and motor towards the channel to get out of Abraham's Bay and guess what - the RPM's on the engine slows up right in the middle of the channel. Dejavu! Dave jumps down the companion way to check the engine. This time it was an easy fix - the cable for the throttle got loose and caused the problem.

Off we went. We were another twenty minutes out when the engine suddenly died. Again, Dave went down below to check - keep in mind that when he's working around the engine, the boat is rocking back and forth. And the engine's surfaces are smoldering hot! A wrong move and you quickly smell roasted flesh!

This time, the reason that the engine stopped was due to no fuel coming out of the main tank. The familiar problem again was haunting us. Dave switched to one of the other two tanks we had and the engine roarred back to life.

We motor sailed to the eastern end of Mayaguana. But by the time we neared the anchorage, we had changed our minds about anchoring for a few hours. We decided to keep on sailing towards the Caicos, Not to arrive at night, the plan was to slow the boat down by putting up less sail. Altough the technique worked to a point, it didn't slow us up enough because the winds increased from a mild 12-14 to a brisk 20 knots.

To counter our fast progress we tacked northeastward for a few hours. Sailing NNE also resulted in a better point of sail to Provo (Caicos). We even managed to get some shuteye on the way. In the morning we were near the entrance of what's called the Sandborne Pass.

December 17 - South Side Marina

It still took us a couple of hours to navigate through the channel in the Caicos and into the harbor area. Once there, we called for Customs and Immigration on the VHF channel 16. They didn't answer. Who did answer was the marina further east. In a very proper British accent, a gentleman by the name of Simon, listed the available options on how to reach customs and immigration (including where to anchor, how to go ashore with the dinghy, and how to find their office). He also gave us another alternative - we could come in and dock at the marina. He would then call for the Customs and Immigration people to clear us in from the marina. That was all too tempting. We went for it.

Simon was superb. After we told him that we would like to come to the South Side Marina, he gave us very detailed waypoints and specific direction around the local buoys to the marina. Not long afterwards, we were docked at the marina.

Simon and his wife, Charlyn, are truly welcoming people. They run the marina for the owner, Bob, and are former cruisers (still living on their boat). They took us all around the island - shopping, banking, airport, wine store, marine parts store etc. In the evening the cruisers met at the main dock for happy hour. It was a nice way to finish off the day.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

The Departure

We had to wait until slack tide to get out of the slip safely. When it arrived we said our good byes to a few of the live-aboards nearby who Dave knew. Of course we also got a few more words of advice (everyone always has some input on which route to take sourthward). We then cast off the dock lines and shoved away from the dock. I think Dave had been dreaming of this very moment, and here it was. We stopped at the fuel dock to top the tanks and waited for about an hour for the tide to go down another foot or so, to safely get us under the bridge. It was 1pm. We were off.

We followed the channel markers out of the Charleston harbor area, past Fort Sumptner and outward past all the buoys (nearly 14 miles of channel) then adjusted our (port)tack for an easterly course. The seas were pretty rough and the wind was blowing steadily at 15-18 knots. After a couple of hours of the rocking motion we all began to feel a bit queasy. Needless to say, towards the evening none of us had much interest in eating. As the night went on, the wind started to blow harder - up to 25 knots. We decided to take the main to the second reef point but had a problem with the outhaul. We decided just to take the main down and only fly the reefed jib. We were more comfortable and were still able to make 6.5 knots.

The wind blew strongly all through the night. We had a good run and made good time. For the rest of the day, the sea remained confused and choppy, making for an uncomfortable ride. But as the day went on we adjusted and got more at ease. We fixed the problem with the main's second reef point and turned on the generator. The Monitor windvane kept us well on course and the boat felt like she could easily handle the weather and seas. One very useful piece of equipment that Dave had installed was the dodger and full skirt around the cockpit. It kept the warmth in and the seas out of the cockpit..

Day Two and Three
The second day out was rough. The fact that we hadn't fully gotten our sealegs together with stormier weather was a double wammie. But we made good progress with the strong easterly wind and steep seas. In the evening the wind turned to a southern direction (right where we wanted to go) and increased its intensity. We were a bit unsettled but headed the boat west, towards the Florida coast. What we didn't want to do was go so far towards land that we met up with the Gulf Stream that runs directly north. Near midnight, the seas got even bigger, the wind piped up and then it began to rain. No, it was pouring! We were surrounded by thunder and lightning shows - something that makes mariners unsettled because in the ocean, lightning looks to strike at things higher up. In this case, the mast of the boat is the highest thing around.

Rather than sailing too far west to Florida, we turned the engine on motored directly into the oncoming swells and wind. It was a rough ride and a lot on the boat got wet (inside and out). None of us got much sleep during the night. We all just cat napped. After a few hours of motoring, a warning system that Dave had installed, notified us that the fuel filter was getting dirty. Luckily, he had installed a back up filter system so he just had to flip a switch to use the other filter. Very handy but likewise we knew that all the pounding that the boat was doing was stirring up the particulates on the bottom of the fuel tank. It would be only a matter of time before the warning system would signal a problem with the second filter.

And that it did. But luckily, soon afterwards, the wind died down and started to come around from the SW. We now were able to make more mileage southward, all-be-it slowly. With the wind shift, the weather improved leaving only an occasional lightning strike nearby accompanied with the sound of thunder.
After all we'd been through, one would think that the third day would bring us some nice and steady winds from the NE, allowing us to sail smoothly to the Bahamas. But the weather wouldn't hear of it. Indeed we were able to sail for a short while towards our destination. But in the end, the seas flattened and the wind died down. After Dave replaced the fuel filters we started motoring again, which we continued to for the rest of the day. We were able to dry a few things out, get some rest and have food. We were starting to get our sealegs.

Under starry skies, we motored for the rest of the night, We took our one hour shifts, allowing each of us to catch up on lost sleep in two hour increments. The one hour shifts seemed to work well for us. The night was uneventful and by morning we found ourselves just 180 miles from Eleuthera.

Day Four

For breakfast we had coffee, English muffins and bananas. Afterwards, Dave set out to do some chores on the boat (including, again, changing the oil filters, calking some leaky areas on the deck and fixing an indicator light).I think he enjoys staying busy. Marty provided assistance, while I started perusing the books and charts of the Bahamas, specifically on the islands of Abaco and Eleuthera. One of the things one needs to keep in mind when arriving at an island by yacht is arrival time. We don't go into a harbor at night. So if we arrive too late in the afternoon or early evening, we might as well have slowed up on our last day out to ensure a morning or early afternoon arrival. With that in mind, I looked at the island of Abacos as another possible suitable point of entry that was a little closer to Eleuthera. The strategy will give us a couple of different entry options when we get close.

The weather in the afternoon stayed calm. We sailed for a few hours but had to succumb to more motoring when the little wind we had, became a light little puff. We had a light lunch of crackers, smoked sardines and herring, and relaxed. A little later we put out a trolling line, in hopes of catching something for dinner.

Day? What Day?
By now, we've gotten into the cruising mindset. I've lost track of what day it is. To catch up on my log - we were unsuccessful in catching anything for dinner or breakfast for that matter. The night was calm. We mostly ghosted along sailing at 4-5 knots, with a very comfortable mid-70's temperature. But by early morning, the weather picked up and it of course was right on the nose again. Marty had been philanthropic in nature and had taken two hour shifts to our one hour shifts in the night. I guess for some reason, he felt too well rested.

We started to see the lights of Great Abaco (norhtern Bahama island) in the early morning. It was a lee shore, so we wanted to give it a lot of room by staying far off. Our intent was to skirt around Abaco and continue to Eleuthera. But as we continued and morning came along we realized that Eleuthera was too far to make it by night fall. So we made a quick decision to fall off and pull into Marsh Harbor, Abaco.

We sailed towards the channel entrance called "Man O War". As we approached the entrance, we could see breaking waves on either side. No markers. All we had to go on was GPS coordinates and then a magnetic bearing. We set the course to the entrance and followed it in, with me steering and Dave as a lookout for any coral heads that might be ahead. But all went smoothly. We entered the channel and proceeded to Marsh Harbor about 2-3 miles further.

After setting anchor, we hoisted the yellow quarantine flag and had a beer (not necessarily in that order). We then got the inflatable dinghy out and proceeded to find Customs and Immigration to pay the obligatory $300 entry fee, which covers the boat and a fishing license for an entire year. Too bad we'll only be here for a few weeks. I must comment to say that the local bureaucrats at both offices were very friendly and accommodating. Afterwards, we walked to the downtown area of Marsh Harbor. Although it is the "big city" of the Abacos with a secure harbor, the downtown area is comprised of ramshakle non-descript group of strip malls. A bit of a disappointment. But there were some nice waterfront restaurants and bars. We went to one called "Snappas" and had some drinks and dinner. Marty treated.

That night we turned in early. But soon afterwards, the wind started picking up. Then the rain came. When we were in our warm bunks, Dave happened to look outside to notice that we had moved position. He went out on deck to find our anchor was dragging and that we were rapidly approaching boats docked at the Harbour View Marina. We quickly started the engine, maneuvered the boat away from the marina, while picking up anchor. The wind was strong and the rain was heavy. With no moon to assist us, it was difficult to see exactly where we were. But we managed to get situated away from other boats and reset the anchor, this time putting out lots rogue. The Chinese fire drill was over. We were soaking wet, tired and ready for bed.

We awoke on Thanksgiving Day to much fairer weather. After breakfast, we mostly worked on the boat. My big task was to unclog the forward head, a truly crappy job - but I had happened to be the last to use it when it failed! After taking everything apart, I found that the problem was a thruhull fitting that had gotten really clogged with shell-like matter, making a 1 1/2 inch pipe have an inside diameter of about 1/4 of an inch. No wonder nothing was getting through! I cleaned it up and things worked a lot better.

Other tasks worked on were drying cushions, changing oil filters (again), and general boat clean up. Later on we took the dinghy to the Harbour View Marina to see if we could get a shower. As we opened the door, we were greeted by a lady behind the counter. She took one look at us and smilingly said "I know what your here for - it's $3 per person for a shower!". We all laughed. She said " And you can't just get one shower and split it with the three of you!" I said, "Don't worry, we're friends, but not that good of friends." Hilarious.

Wow, did we ever feel better after a good shower. We headed back to the boat and eventually got to making our Thanksgiving feast. It turned out pretty well. We had bought a turkey breast loaf, and fixed gravy, brown rice, cranberry sauce and salad with it. Marty and Dave had margaritas while I sipped on my box wine. Hhmmmm...

November 28,

We pulled up anchor at 9:30am and headed towards the Shell fuel dock to fill up the tanks with diesel and water. We were underway soon out of Marsh Harbour. Our plan was to head south in the reef (the protected area from the swells outside). Basically it was an exercise in navigation, with setting waypoints on the GPS and following them to the tee. If you vary much outside of the course, there are shoals. Not much room for error. Overall, things went smoothly and we got to the area where we wanted to position ourselves for the run to Eleuthera next day. We anchored in about 15 feet from a white, sandy beach off of Lynyard Cay - we could see the breakers breaking on the other side of the reef. But where we were it was calm.

A comment about using GPS waypoints - this type of navigation is so different from when Diane and I cruised thirty years ago from 1980-82. Back then we used celestial navigation with a sextant to get to an island. Once there, we had to pilot ourselves through the inner reefs using available charts and local navigational markers. Sometimes I'd climb up the steps on the mast to check for coral reefs. Today, we plug in positions into the GPS and head towards them. There are even photos on the GPS that show the channels and harbors from a bird's eye view. It's all quite different. Dave is more at ease with the system since it closely resembles what he uses on the plane.

Getting back to the cruising story - after setting the anchor, we got the dinghy in the water and went to the white, sandy beach. Good beach combing area, although sad to say, it was littered with plastic trash. After a while I went snorkeling, searching for conch shells for dinner. But all I found were dead ones that already had been eaten. You can tell if they've been eaten by the slit they have near the top. That's how you remove the muscle inside the shell. While on my escapade, I gave Marty and Dave had a scare because they had continued beach combing and afterwards didn't see that I had ended up back at the boat. When they couldn't spot me, they went looking for me. My bad. I should not have gone off snorkeling without telling one of them my plan.

Sunset was beautiful. With a beer, we opened a couple of cans of smoked sardines and herring with Jacob's crackers. Delicious! A perfect way to start the evening.

November 29

We got up before sunrise to get ready for the passage to Eleuthera. It was about 50 miles and we needed to get there before sundown to safely traverse the pass. We also didn't want to leave to early from our anchorage because we needed to go through an unfamiliar pass to get to open waters. Another way we could have made the passage was to go through through the pass before sunset, sail in the night and make landfall the following morning. But the way we chose to do it, afforded us some play time on Lynyard Cay, snorkeling and a good night's rest.

Once outside of the pass, we headed on a southern course towards the tip of Eleuthera, to the small town of Spanish Wells.

Spanish Wells lies on St George's Cay which is a stone's throw from Eleuthera. It gets its name from the early explorers who found fresh water there. The community dates back to the 17th century when Eleutheran adventurers left England for religious freedom. After picking up a mooring and securing the boat, we headed to shore. It seemed like an attractive enough town with small cottages and neat gardens. But it was Sunday - nothing was open. As we walked, we continually saw the same people over and over driving golf carts around the few streets. That appeared to be Sunday's entertainment.

After walking for an hour or so, we did find one restaurant that had just opened for the evening. We went in to check the menu. The prices were a bit steep and we noticed that no beer was listed under beverages. We asked the young woman behind the counter if they served beer. She answered, with the most dreaded two words to a sailor. "This is a DRY ISLAND." We thanked her and left.

November 30

In the morning, we left Spanish Wells through the southern pass into the bay. We headed towards the Current Cut, a narrow pass that opens into another bay. In that it's a narrow pass we had to time going through it since it drains in either direction depending on the tide. Waiting for slack time, we anchored off to the east of the cut and went ashore to check out the Current (island) Settlement. There wasn't much there but a sparsely stocked grocery store. We had managed to find the only other island in the chain that was dry. We chuckled (only because we knew we had beer on the boat!). We returned to the boat and went snorkeling. We looked for conch shells but only found a dead one. At least it was in very good shape.

By 1pm, the tide was slack so we proceeded through the narrow Current Cut. There was still some current left, but we managed to go through it with only a small bump on a shallow sand bank on the other side. We then set a course for Hatchet Bay (Eleuthera).

When approaching Hatchet Bay all you see is high, limestone cliffs. It's hard to spot the narrow gap (cut) until you're almost upon it. We had no problems getting through the pass and into Hatchet Bay. This anchorage is known as the "Home of the Country's Safest Harbor." We could see why. It's a little circular harbor surrounded by a hilly terrain, with Alice Town on the east side. A quaint anchorage.

We picked up one of the free, government-owned moorings and took a walk into town. A few bars and a small grocery store and some churches. We had a rum and coke at one of the primitive bars and watched some locals playing dominoes. They were fun to watch. They were a lively group and each would loudly slap down each domino piece with gusto. After our drink we went back to the boat and had dinner. But at around 9pm we heard a lot of loud drumming coming from town. So we decided to investigate. We took the dinghy back in and found a group of about fifteen men parading down the narrow street banging on various drums. Definitely a good beat. We could feel the vibrations of the drums as they passed. Further on, we spotted a half dozen brass musicians practicing Christmas music. They needed more practice.

December 1
We left through the narrow cut out of Hatchet Bay at 10am, after having coffee and cereal. We headed towards the southern channel, known as Davis Channel and onward to Georgetown,

After sailing most of the day in clear blue water within the confines of the Eleuthera reef, we came to the pass that led to deep water. We had started the engine to give us more maneuverability in the narrow pass and taken down some sail. As we got in the middle of the channel the engine sputtered and died. Of all the luck. Fortunately, the wind was from abaft and the channel lhad a few dog legs that could be maneuvered under our sail heading. Dave went below to check on the cause and we discussed a coiuple of emergency options in case things didn't fare well. For example, we coulld put the inflatible dinghy in the water with the outboard, tie it along the boat and use it to get some steerage. We also could anchor quickly.

This was going to be an overnight trip since Georgetown was about 80 miles away.

But all was going well under sail. A short time later, Dave determined that the engine had sucked in air due to lack of fuel to one of the fuel filters. This meant having to bleed the air out of the fuel line - a task that's not a lot of fun even at the dock. But a short time later, Dave had the engine running again. We were now out of the channel and plugged in our new waypoint to Georgetown on the island of Great Exuma.

Night was coming and the wind was freshening up. We decided to reef the main to the second reefing point and also reefed the jib. Good move. Within an hour it was blowing 20 knots with seas building. We had a spinach lasagna for dinner with a small glass of wine and at 9pm started our hourly shifts.During the night, the wind got up to just under 30 knots with confused seas of 4-6 feet. It wouldn't have been a bad ride had it not been that our heading was directly into the wind and seas. So we continued to motor sail.

We sailed all night, taking our shifts, and by morning we were about 25 miles from our destination. Having the wind and seas against us had really hindered our progress throughout the night.

We got into Georgetown at 2pm after getting through the pass and making our way inside the reef. The wind continued to blow the entire way, even as we maneuvered the boat into the marina slip.

After getting settled in the three of us headed into town for dinner. We ended up at a waterfront place called Peace and Plenty. They served a very tasty dinner of conch shell chowder and pan-fried snapper. At $28 per plate, it wasn't cheap! The band started to play as we left. Musically, they weren't too bad. But their lead singer had a monotone voice.

December 3

Today was Marty's day of departure. He was taking a plane from here to Miami and from there back to SLO. We stopped at the grocery and hardware store for some supplies.

I'm updating the blog in this hole-in-the-wall place called J&K's Electronics. It looks like a place in the barrios, with bright greens and yellows, bare wood desk along the wall, with some old computers. But if you bring your own, you can sign on to their wireless. Seems to work well.

Later this afternoon, Dave and I will take Lahaina Roads to an anchorage near the outside reefs so we can go snorkeling. We'll be there for a couple of nights. That's all for now.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sailing Southbound

A Caribbean Sailing Adventure on Lahaina Roads

I've been retired now for six months and I can state unconditionally that retirement suits me just fine. No time lines, no schedules and I'm my own boss - well, okay there is Diane. Since retiring I've kept busy by traveling, sailing, keeping in shape, taking a yoga class and learning to play golf (well, actually all I've done is learn to hit balls at a driving range).

Soon after retiring my long-time friend from college, Dave Allmen, called to tell me he had bought a sailboat on the East Coast and wondered whether I'd be interested in sailing the Caribbean together. Since this was not going to be a mere one or two week cruise, but rather one that took several months, I discussed it over with Diane. The opportunity was too good to pass up,

Actually, you might say that this sailing trip has been a long time in the making. Dave and I were college roommates back in the early 70's sailing on our 25 foot Columbia Challenger in Southern California. On our outings to Catalina we'd talk and dream of cruising the world. Now, nearly forty years later, we're taking aim at the goal by sailing around the Caribbean. Not bad.

Dave bought Lahaina Roads in Charleston, SC and since then, has been busy equipping it for several months. She's a Whitby 42, built in Ontario, Canada. She's a solid, well built, roomy, center-cockpit ketch.

The current plan is to leave Charleston on Saturday, Nov 21 and head SSE through the Bahamas towards the Virgin Islands. On the first leg, a Central Coast friend of mine, Marty Hawke, will be joining us for the sail. Marty's one of these people who still works for a living and thus has to adhere to schedules. He needs to fly back on Dec. 4. But, having another shipmate aboard will make it easier on night time watches.

The boat is now provisioned with food, water and (more importantly) beer and wine. Dave's neighbors here at the marina are giving him and his crew a send-off party Friday night. Part of departure planning is to know when it's slack tide, so we can make our way safely out of the marina and under a bridge. So far this year, three boats didn't do their homework in planning the right time to pass under the bridge resulting in a dismasting. We really want to avoid that predicament.

Saturday, August 8, 2009


Berlin - where to begin!

When we arrived in Berlin, Erika's friends, Gabi and Gert, were there to meet us at the train station. The station is composed of a glass canopy and is many levels deep with a huge shopping center running through it. From the start you get the feeling that Berlin is big.

After we got settled into our hotel, the Metropolitan, the five of us took a walk to the Kurfurstendamm, a broad and elegant boulevard and one of the main arteries running through Berlin. We took a quick peek at the bombed remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial church and the adjoining new church designed by architect Egon Eiermann. From the outside, the new church looks simple and boxy with a myriad of glass panels. But on the inside, you notice a very impressive array of dark blue glass panels back-lit from the outside sun light. To make it even more interesting, the cross that hangs inside, is from the Coventry Cathedral, an English city that was destroyed by the Germans in WWII.

After our quick neighborhood tour, we had dinner at a local restaurant. Gert went on to divulge that he planned a tour for us the following day. Incredibly, he had mapped it out, timed it by driving it and taken pictures of each of the sights we were going to see. Of course, in the plan, he also had worked in appropriate eating and drinking breaks.

The tour started promptly at noon. It was a dizzying day as Gert drove us criss-cross from one end of Berlin to the other. At each eating and drinking stop, Gert reviewed what we had seen (photos included) and on a map, showed us where we had been and where we were going. Gert's intent was to give us a glimpse of all the main sights and then in the following days we could go back to visit the specific ones we found most interesting.

We saw nearly all the main sights, including the complex that hosted the 1936 Olympics, the Bundes Parliament, the German Chancellor's residence, the Jewish Memorial Park, the Brandenburg Gate, the museum island (Bode Museum and many others), the East Berlin Radio Tower, the Old Synagogue, the Stumble Stones (a memorial to the Jewish families taken from their homes), the Rathause (city hall of Berlin), the Jewish Museum (each Jewish building in the city has two police officers on duty 24x7), Turkish neighborhood and lots more. We also drove along a boulevard in the eastern area showing how they've engineered new facades on the old gloomy Iron Curtain buildings to spruce them up. What a difference it had made!

Berlin was a city in the midst of East Germany (DDR). Furthermore, the city was divided into two main sections - the Russian and the Western section. The Western Section was further divided into the American, British and French sector. When we got to Check Point Charlie, that point really became clear with all the historic signage related to the fact that you "leaving the American Sector" when you crossed that line.

We drove by what used to be a building that housed the SS and their torture chambers. What was sad to hear was how Gert described it "the building that was a big version of Guantanamo." Gert is a very pro-western, pro-American individual. Hi comment simply reflected the reality of how the world views Guantanamo and what the US has done there. Very unfortunate.

As you walk around Berlin, on some roads you can spot a line of cobble stones. The stones represent where the wall once stood. In some areas they left the wall in tact and have allowed artists to paint murals on it. It's a very unique and somewhat haunting sight, knowing how many people died trying to jump the wall to the west. Interestingly enough, at the time the wall was being built, the DDR said it was to keep out the West Germans. How funny!

One of the observations I made of Germans is how tolerant and civil they are to each other. For example, in the train we were on there was a woman who sat next to me. Her two small kids were across the aisle. In trying to keep them amused, she was often stooped over in the aile, which also was being blocked by someone's huge suitcase. In the US, the train conductor would have told them all to find their seats, and that for safety reasons the luggage would need to be stowed away. Not here. Everyone, including the conductors would laboreously weave around all the obsticles, not saying a word. Another example was when Gert was chaufering us around Berlin. He often would slow down and sometimes even stop to show us a sight and talk about it. No one ever honked their horn or flipped him off, which for sure would have happened in the US. They just drove around him.

On one of the days, we took a walk through one of the neighborhoods that Erika had lived in and ended up in a large nature reserve. We were actually on the lookout for a place to have a drink, when we ran into a small lake and many people sunbathing, mostly all in their birthday suits. It was a sight to see because it was a field of high grasses. It looked more like the African Serengetti with naked human animals instead of lions and tigers lounging around. I resisted taking a photo, respecting people's privacy - but it was hard.

The concept of the Wall (Maur in German) is ever present in the minds and hearts of the Germans. People still think in terms of Oesie and Wesie (Eastener and Westener). Billions of Euros have poured into East Berlin and the rest of the east. West Germany had to absorb the huge cost during this time of change. This remains a source of frustration. To make matters worse, there are a number of East Germans who now insist that things were better back in the old Iron Curtain days. Part of that is due to the thousands of jobs that were lost in the reunification. But also I think that some of those who lost their jobs were people who liked the old, less competitive society, one in which you had a job for life no matter how well you performed.

Another interesting point was the number of building that were duplicated. When the wall was put up around Berlin, the western part of the city lost several important buildings such as the opera hall, some important museums as well as radio towers and other structures. So the West proceeded to build new ones. Now after reunification, they have two of those structures.

Yet with all that, the eastern part of Berlin is today the "happening" place. A lot of the younger people prefer the new stores, restaurants, buildings and night clubs in the east.

On our last full day in Berlin Gabi drove us to a place where we boarded a boat to Potsdam. It took about an hour, going through narrow channels and lakes. past castles and sailboats. It was a warm day, so it was perfect to be out on the water with a little wind in our face. When we got to Potsdam we found our way to what it's best known for - the Sanssouci Palace. It was the summer residence of Frederick II, the Great. It's an average looking palace, as far as palaces go and that was intentional. Freddy wanted a place to relax without worries - that's why it's called "sans souci".

It was a great opportunity to get a tour of Berlin from Berliners. We got great insights into German life as well as life in Berlin. Some of the things that surprised us was how the level of social support systems have decreased in scope and real terms. For example, although everyone has health insurance, the ones who can afford it, buy extra private insurance for a number of things that are not covered. Welfare programs as well as pension systems have been scaled back while some programs have been partly privatized. Seeing beggars on the street is now relatively common.

On Monday morning, we finished packing, had breakfast and checked out. Gert was his normal, punctual self and showed up at 9:50am to take us to the train station. It was Amsterdam for Diane and I while Erika was heading home to Bernau.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Bernau to Prague

We were in Bernau with my cousin Erika for three days, mostly catching up on some R&R - traveling is not a restful activity. Did I mention that German pastry is delicious? We particularly like it because it often is not sweet. When we went into town, we always bought a pastry - we managed to have some every day. The apple strudel is great.

On one of the days, the three of us made one trip to an Austrian Alpine lake of Wahlsee. The lake is tucked in between rugged and craggy mountain peaks, some peaks with lingering snow. Since the lake wasn't too large, we walked around it and at the finish, rewarded ourselves with a tasty locally-caught grilled fish.

Early on the fourth morning, the three of us took off for Prague. We had a quick change of trains in Munich. One of the things you have to watch out for when getting on a train is that not all cars of a train necessarily go the same city. For Prague, only the last four cars were set to go. It's good to pay attention to these small details.

We had heard that in Prague, you have to watch for pickpockets, street money changers and unscrupulous taxi drivers. After arriving in Prague, we quickly encountered the first of those - a taxi driver. He asked us what hotel we were going to and after telling him, he said it would cost fifty Euros! Yet it was less than a mile away. But it turned out to be a mistake to walk to our hotel near the Charles Bridge, instead of figuring out the tram system. What seemed to be so near took us nearly an hour to walk because of all the narrow, winding cobble stoned streets, some with dead ends and some curving a half-circle back in the wrong direction. The streets were crowded with tourists.

But we finally found Hotel Certovka and were pleasantly surprised - it was a very nice, centrally located hotel on the west side of the Vltava River (German's called it the Moldau) near the end of the Charles Bridge. After getting settled in, most definitely the first order of the day was to find a half liter of some good Czech beer.

Prague (or Praha) is divided into different sections mostly by the Vltava River. There's Old Town, New Town, Lesser Town and the Prague Castle area. Prague was settled by Slavs and Germans back in the 7th to 8th centuries. But the city didn't really start evolving until the 12th century. Our hotel, being that it's on the northwest side of the river, is in the Castle area. It's surrounded by historic, narrow, winding cobble stoned streets with lots of cafes, bars and small shops.

We saw most of the major sights including the Prague Castle complex and Wenceslas Square, where in 1989 there were rallies held there that made it the epicenter of what became to be known as the Velvet Revolution. We also visited the St. Nicholas cathedral, and of course the Charles Bridge which we looked out on from our hotel room. Although we didn't go into the Old Jewish Quarter museum, we did walk around the area and saw the old and the new synagogues and the macabre-looking cemetery, with the headstones all askew. From what we read, it described the cemetery having as many as 12 layers of buried bodies. This was mostly due because over time, the Jews were confined to a smaller and smaller area. The cemetery was quite a sight to see.

The astronomical clock is a well known sight in the city's square. Although it attracts lots of visitors each timer it rings, we were not that impressed. But the legend is intriguing. Supposedly, after the clock maker finished his masterpiece, he was made blind by the city's elders so that he could not replicate the design elsewhere. As a means to revenge that act, he later threw himself into the giant clock's mechanism, killing him and breaking the clock. It took over hundred years before someone came along who figured out how to fix the clock.

The Prague Castle is an exceedingly huge complex built (and re-built) over time dating back to the 12th century. It sits majestically on a hill overlooking the Vltava River. It dominates the entire city of Prague. In essence, the castle is a city within a city of which its most impressive building is the Gothic cathedral, which for centuries was the spiritual center of the country. The shear size, height, beauty and scope of the cathedral is comparable to (or may exceed) the Notredame Cathedral in Paris. The other highlight in the Castle area complex is a small street named Golden Lane. It's made up of a row of tiny houses where the king's 24 marksmen lived. Today, the houses are souvenir shops - but you get the idea.

Prague has numerous narrow streets. We tried to take different routes each time, partly to avoid the crowds and partly to discover different sections. You'd get a completely different perspective just a few streets away from the main thoroughfare. Plus, we'd continually run into new and unusual sights, tucked in behind an alleyway.

We did a little bit of wine tasting, but unfortunately, the best place I found to taste wine, was the one we happened upon on our last evening in Prague. We tasted some excellent whites, including a Muller Thurgau, a Chardonnay and an Pinot Blanc. With the reds, I was really impressed with a Pinot Noir from the Morava region with hints of red cherry and a spicy white pepper. It was a big pinot with 14% alcohol. I also tasted their house red, that was inexpensive but was very tasty. An interesting comment that the winebar owner made, as I was tasting, was that Czech wine makers need luck with the weather to make their wines. The impact of the weather is such that it's difficult for them to make a consistently good wine each year.

Other memorable sightseeing was a walk to one of the islands on the Vltava River, a ride on the funicular up to hill overlooking Prague, and hunting up what's called the John Lennon Wall. Apparently, he was not liked by the authorities back in the Communist era, and thus the music of the Beatles was prohibited. The wall is not really that impressive but it is colorful and has lots of lyrics of Lennon songs.

We spent four nights in Prague. It gave us a good feel for the city but it also gave us the impression that we needed much more time to see it all. It was now time to board a train to Berlin.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Budapest - Part II

On one of the days in Budapest, we took a boat ride to one of the small towns on the Danube "Bend" called Szentendre. It lies up-current from Budapest and takes 1 1/2 hours to get there by boat. On the way up, there are excellent views of Budapest and we got a good look at Margaret Island as well. But once outside of Budapest, it got pretty rural with trees, mangroves and other green foliage coming right down to the water and an occasional house.

Szentendre is a small town that didn't take us long to see. It dates back to medieval times (like so many places around here). It has small cobblestoned streets with a number of old churches. I mentioned to Diane that parts of it looked like Greece or Italy on the Med. Some of it is a bit touristy. But as we wandered from one side of town to the other you do get the distinct feeling that this is the real thing. In fact this is where early Budapest settlers fled to, while escaping the Turks. We ended up at the top of the hill at an ancient Catholic church, overlooking the town. We stayed for a few hours having a beer and a Croque Monsieur at a local pub. We then took the boat back, which only took an hour since, this time, we were going with the current.

The places we've visited on this trip are all steeped in ancient history. A number of places date back to Celtic and Roman days. Empires seemingly came and went. Even today, the Hungarians talk about before and after the "regime change" of 1989. Also of interest is the Hungarian language. Usually, we try to learn a few words and phrases before arriving in a new country. But it was really difficult for us to do that in Hungary. The language is called Magyar. It originated on the eastern side of the Ural mountains. Along with Finnish and Estonian, it's one of Europe's few representatives of the Finno-Ugric family of languages. This makes it really difficult for the average traveler like us. For example, the word "Hello" is Jonapot (pronounced yohnapoht). What the heck do you relate that to when trying to remember it? Or how about the word for "cheers"? It's "agha-she-gadra". After a couple of beers that sure doesn't roll off your tongue!

On our last day in Budapest, our schedule was an easy one: in the morning visit the central market, in the afternoon go to one of the Turkish baths that BP is so well known for and in the evening go wine tasting. How can you beat that kind of a day? The central market is indoor and very large. The lower level has a huge variety of foods while the second level has clothing, souvenirs and restaurants. I was tempted to buy some hand-made knives from a family who had been making knives for generations. Diane looked over the numerous leather purses. We walked around and shopped for a couple of hours, buying a few trinkets. Later we lunched on a cabbage roll (very Hungarian), salad and a beer. All the food looked delicious. It's too bad we weren't feeling more hungry.

After the market we headed for the baths. The Szechenyi Bath is a public bath. But since it was further away for us we opted for the private, more opulent baths at the Gellert Hotel. From the market, we just had to cross the Danube to get to the Gellert Hotel. At first it was a bit confusing figuring out how to order your ticket because of all the different combination of things to do (baths, pools, saunas, thermal pools, mud baths, massages). We just ordered the basic plan (about $16) so we could use the various pools and thermal pools. Once inside, we found our way to the coed locker room and got a cabin (basically a large locker that we both can stand in to change). For the locker room help we had envisioned a surly man or woman hold-out from the Iron Curtain days. But instead we got a very accommodating, surly-looking woman who, actually, was quite friendly and helpful.

The coed pools were great. Very ornate tile and ceramic work (i.e. lion figures spitting out water into the pools). We enjoyed going from one pool to another and eventually had to split up to enter the thermal pools because they were unisex. Apparently some folks choose to go in the buff. The men I saw, mostly wore a bathing suit. Some wore a small apron around the waist to hide their manly hood. Very modest, indeed. Diane said that she saw a couple of older women sans suits who should have worn full body suits.

A few hours of jumping around from pool to pool and we were ready to split and go back to the hotel. We were mush.

In the evening we went to a small wine bar on the Pest side that we had heard offered wine tasting on Tuesday evenings featuring a wine maker. It was a warm and cozy looking bar with lots of wine bottles displayed on oak-walled shelves. Surprisingly, the wine maker was a good looking brunette from the Villanyi area, in the very south of Hungary, 30 km. from the Croatian border. We were served two wonderful dry and subtle Roses, a Pinot Noir, a Kadorke (Hungarian red varietal), a Merlot and three Bordeaux blends. All the wines were well crafted wines, some that were 14% alcohol. The Pinot didn't have much aroma but it was a well balanced wine with a good finish. None of the wines was cheap, with prices ranging from $8 to over $40.

While walking the streets of Budapest, I noticed lots of interesting billboards advertising upcoming international talent such as BB King, Tom Jones, Leonard Cohen and others.

The following day we got off to an early star, checked out of our hotel and were at the hydrofoil boat dock by 7:30am. We hadn't seen all of Budapest, but we'd made a dent in it.

The hydrofoil boat ride to Vienna was okay, but nothing exceptional. Next time, we'll definitely take the train or fly. There are a few towns of interest, a couple of locks that we had to go through that were fun, but mostly it was a hot and uneventful boat ride. When we got to Vienna, we hustled to the underground Metro and found our way to the main train station (actually one of three main train stations - but we had done our homework and knew where to go).

Shortly, we were on our way back to Bernau, Germany. It was a pretty new and fast train that had a GPS screen in each car displaying our position and speed (200kph on straight parts).

Monday, July 20, 2009

Budapest - Part I

We got to Budapest after a long and hot train ride from Zagreb, arriving about 4:30pm. The scenery from the train was mostly rural. A significant part of it went along a huge Hungarian lake - Lake Balaton. Apparently, this is the place where Hungarians go to relax in the summer. It is also an important wine region that produces good reds and whites as well.

We got to our hotel (Charles Hotel) by bus from the train station. We kept our eye out for pick-pockets having heard that they hang around the train station. But it seemed okay. Apparently, the government has improved security around the railway station.

After checking into our hotel, we decided to try out their restaurant. Per recommendations of our waiter, we had two Hungarian dishes - a Goulash and a paprika stewed veal with gnocchi. Quite tasty but a bit salty.

The following day we put our hiking shoes on and walked all around. We started out on the Buda side of the city by seeing the Buda Castle and its caves. These are a labyrinth of caves about 1200 meters long, in limestone, dating back a half million years when they were naturally created through water flows. The caves were used in medieval times to as current as in the days of the Cold War. Very cool and at times eerie, but it was nice to get cooled off from the heat outside.

That night we went to a concert by the Danube Symphony Orchestra at a beautiful Duna Concert hall. The orchestra played lively Hungarian and Romanian folk dance music and works by Haydn, Liszt, Berlioz, Brams and Strauss. One of the orchestra members played a cimbalom, a traditional Hungarian instrument that's played like a zylophone and sounds a bit like a piano. It was a really good show with some of the music definitely having that vibrant Gypsy feel to it.

Budapest has lots of bridges. One morning we started off rather late, but again we managed to do quite a bit of walking on both sides of Buda and Pest. We criss-crossed the Chain Bridge and one other one and saw the St. Stephen's Basilica, the Opera House, the Fisherrman's Bastion (a Romanesque looking castle with a great panoramic view of Pest, and other sights.

We went to a very nice wine cellar and bought two wines that are distinctly Hungarian: a white Vorcsoki Furmint and a red Egri Bikaver. We opened them that night. Both were very good. Another day we got a chance to just taste some Hungarian wines. We found a small restaurant on the Pest side, Klassz, that was willing to give us small tastes of some of Hungarian's better reds. Unfortunately, there aren't many opportunities to just sample wines of the region - usually you need to get the entire glass or bottle. But this place helped us out. At the end, the manager didn't even charge us for the tasting. We told him that he needed to develop this type venue for wine lovers.

Overall, we're really enjoying Budapest. We find the Hungarians to be very friendly and helpful. Many speak excellent English.

I'll post this as Part I - since we're staying in Budapest for five days.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Zagreb, Croatia

We arrived in Zagreb in the early evening. After finding a couple of hostels with no vacancies, we decided to check into a 3-star hotel for $110 a night - not usually our style, but it was getting late and we were tired of looking.

After getting settled in, we walked along a beautiful series of parks and buildings about one kilometer long towards the main square in town (Trg Jelacica). Past that there are dozens of outside bars and restaurants. It seems that people here really enjoy sitting at an outside cafe/bar with a beer, a coffee or what ever - often it is a couple of young women. There seem to be many more women around than men.

The following day we called a youth hostel run by an Austrian lady. It was a tram ride away from the central city, but was quiet and inexpensive.

Zagreb is full of squares, parks, historic buildings, monuments, museums and churches. Architectually, it is a beautiful city that wreaks of history. The old part of the city has a cathedral with two tall splindly spires that looks very similar to St. Stephan's Cathedral in Vienna. One of the more interesting places we ran into on a covered street corner had a distinct religious feel to it, with candles burning and people praying at a small prayer area - it turned out that it was a site that the Virgin Mary had been spotted. We actually met an Israely couple who are touring the world with the primary goal of visiting and documenting the sites where the Virgin Mary has been seen.

We found a wine shop that turned out to be the area's oldest wine cellar. The man running it was friendly and gave us a taste (more like two glasses) of some Malvacia produced on the Istra peninsula. Very nice, dry, good balance, with a hint of grapefruit. We ended up buying a bottle of it and a bottle of Palvec, a zinfandel clone, that we didn't get to taste. But he assured us that it was a good, full-bodied red.

The Dolac market is right in the center of town and is very colorful, with a myriad of bright red umbrellas, many varieties of fruits and cheeses and souvenier shops. One floor beneath the market contains all the meats, more cheeses and fish.

On of the more unusual places we visited was the Mirogoj Cemetary. It sort of reminded us of the Pere Lachaise Cemetary in Paris, where the likes of Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, and Jim Morrison are burried. The entrance to the cemetary is quite grandeouse, looking more like a castle than anything else. The main mausoleum has some very ornate graves. Most of the headstones have the word Obitelj on it followed by the family name. It seemed that the word was related to "obituary". But we later found out that it is the word for "family".

This is our second time in Croatia and we have yet to make it to Dubrovnik and to Plitvice Lakes National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site. From the photos I've seen, it is full of waterfalls and turquoise lakes, many that are interconnected. I suppose we'll be saving this for the next time.

A couple of things we noticed in Zagreb is that graffiti artists have tagged every available wall in the city with the exception of some government buildings. It just seems to be an accepted form of expression. The other thing we've noticed (and not just in Croatia) is that half the people smoke. The evil tobacco companies have really done their marketing job extremely well here.

In the morning we got a tram to the train station and found our way to the train to our next stop - Budapest.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Maribor, Slovenia

We took an early morning bus out of Bled to Ljubljana and then a train to Maribor, the eastern part of Slovenia. What's nice about Slovenia is that the distances are not that great, so most train and bus rides last only one or two hours. Maribor is on the Drava River. There's nothing much special about Maribor. We came here to taste some of the wines they make in this region.

After touring the city, we opted for renting a car because there were no available winery tours. It's pretty much a do-it-on-your-own sort of a thing. In the morning we got our car and headed off to a place called Jeruzalem - these people are very religious about their wines. We drove about an hour in a pretty flat area. Then the terrain turned into lush green hills, Jeruzalem lies about 200 meters above sea level and has about 20 wineries.

After talking to a woman at a local "vinotek" (and tasting some of the area's white wines),she suggested the Puklavec guest house/farm/winery. It didn't take us long to find it. Puklavec sits on a knoll and has a 360 degree view of the valley. With fruit trees and a view of rows of grape vines, it's quite the place. Blusch, the wine maker, makes Chardonay, Muskat Otonel, Sauvignon (Blanc), Rose Modri Pinot (a wonderful rose from Pinot grapes) and a wine that is only produced here called Sipon. Sipon got its name from the days of Napoleon. As the legend goes, the wine and its grape had no name until Napoleon had a taste. After drinking it he repeatedly said "Se Bon!". So the wine makers began to call the wine Sipon (pronounced shi-pon). Another wine Blusch make is ice wine, but only if it freezes.
In the evening we had a farm-like dinner served family style. It was simple but tasted delicious. Even Diane could not resist eating some of the home-made sausage. Needless to say, the meal was acompanied by plenty of wine. After dinner, Blusch took us to his cellar where I got to taste some barrel samples. One of the wines he was aging was a Chardonay. It had a nicel crispyness to it with a touch of carmel and honey. Very tasty. He told me that he and hiis family grow about 60,000 vines on 15 hectares. From that he makes and produces about 5000 cases of wine. He figures that each vine he has produces one bottle of wine.

The following day, we got up and had a hearty breakfast and drove back to Maribor, where we got on a train to Zagreb.