Holing up In Coxen Hole

West End, Roatan, as mellow a pot-holed one-road little tourist town as it is, is no place to be in a strong westerly wind, like the one that is coming with the latest ‘strong, fast-moving’ cold front. This one is ‘closing down the East Coast from Philadelphia to Boston’ says Armed Forces Radio.

The reef at West End is too deep to afford protection. The marine park protects its turtle grass by requesting visitors to use their moorings, but some of them are not well-installed. So each of the dozen or so boats moved out this morning. But no one else came to Coxen Hole, other than the one already here.

I wonder why not? Might have something to do with a cruising guide reference to a ‘seedy eyesore of a town…dusty…unremarkable…not recommended…if you leave your boat unattended you will be robbed.’ Not sure if I need an attendant to leave the boat, or if the boat will be robbed, or what.

I’m guessing none of this is really true. Blanket comments like these, both in praise and in condemnation, need a lot of seasoning. Sometimes you meet nicer people and have a better time in the unexpected places. So here we are, tucked in snugly across the small bay from the main street, waiting for the wind to come.

Coxen Hole, named for a 17th century ‘mariner’/pirate captain, is the ‘big city’ business and political center of Roatan, indeed of all the Bay Islands. Yachts need to clear in and out here, but generally come by taxi from somewhere else to do it.
Cruise ships are coming here too, but most of the passengers are whisked away to ‘snorkel-scursions’ ‘beach days’ ‘island tours’ ‘zip-line canopy tours’ etc.

We’d have preferred anchoring on the north side of the harbor, but there looks to be shipping activity there. Good thing we left it clear. The New Star had a hard time getting his anchor up, even with his 7-man ‘windlass’ and he got quite a bit closer to us before breaking free.

The heralded screaming cold front, which did in fact carry a good forty knots at times, blew all night long, but thanks to our 33-kg Rocna and lots of scope, we maintained our position about 75 feet from the end of the airport runway, and from a pile of half-built block houses and half-collapsing wooden houses on the waterfront.

We’ve been to Coxen Hole by bus, and found it worthy of further study. Tomorrow my attendant and I will go ashore, and see if we can’t prove the naysayers wrong.

Space Shuttle

track of Endeavor 02212010What a thrill! Last night, purely by chance, we happened to see in the western sky the space shuttle Endeavor as it was descending towards its landing at the Kennedy Space Center less than a quarter hour later. Under a filling crescent moon it drew a fast, bold, unwavering golden line across the clear dark sky as it passed stage left to stage right in probably less than a minute.

Jaded as we 21st-centenarians are, we theorized only a ‘military jet’ would be so fast, and so high as to be lit hours after sunset. But the moments of mystery and wonder were attenuated. Someone in the anchorage knew the details right away and broadcast them on the VHF: Endeavor returning home after a two-week flight to the International Space Station. Ordinary con-trails in the sky are starting to give me the creeps, but I’m glad I saw this.

Also aloft, perhaps, is our long-awaited new Beta 43 engine, which is scheduled to arrive in Miami, by air (incongruous, eh?), on Tuesday. There are still a number of hoops and hurdles to be negotiated before we meet face-to-fanbelt, but we are more than ready to get this project moving, and completed.

Now: Night Watch, Memoir of a Passage

Suzanne Knecht may not be quite typical of the cruisers we’re meeting in the Western Caribbean these days – heaven forbid that any of us be typical of anything!

There are several similarities, though. She’s a middle-aged woman who cruised in large part to be supportive of her lawyer husband. They bought their boat – a Moody 42 center cockpit – new, and had it professionally outfitted. They departed as part of a fleet cruise, although they were the only ones who actually finished on schedule. A friend served as full-time crew, and they had regular visitors too. The entire circumnavigation took just two years. Suzanne missed her grandchildren and her dog. And when she got back to San Francisco, she said, only partly in jest: “We’ve done it, and now I never have to sail under this bridge again.”

Suzanne’s book is a little light on some details; she’s more interested in people and places than on how the boat accomplishes its chores. I imagine her perched upon a flying carpet, well separated from the nuts and bolts of the enabling mechanism. Night Watch was just a tool; for Blue and Dot, who built D’Vara from the ground up, the connection was more intimate.

The Moody of course has an auxiliary diesel engine, which could easily be twenty times the horsepower of D’Vara’s. Night Watch carried 85 gallons of diesel, so the motoring range at a guess would be maybe 5-600 miles, and they never ran out.

This 1992 vessel has a watermaker, solar panels, and Autohelm self-steering linked to a Global Positioning System. It’s got two showers and two heads equipped with pressure water and a hot water heater. The galley, like D’Vara’s has a fridge; also Night Watch has a freezer, maybe even a microwave and stuff like blenders and mixers. Maybe it’s even got a generator. All the conveniences of home, other than space, you might say. Convenience-wise, I’d say D’Vara was more like camping, or living in the back of a VW camper.

I’ll bet there’s an ‘most-weather’ plastic-windowed enclosure over Night Watch‘s center cockpit, making for a relatively high and dry watch station. Aboard D’Vara standing a watch likely meant out in the open, hands on the tiller time. I’d assume that the sail inventory and running rigging is complete and entirely synthetic; in two years nothing rotted or frayed or even showed signs of wear, at least that Suzanne mentioned. Probably nothing needed replacing underway and I don’t think anyone went up the mast either, at least in an emergency.

As a travelogue, having circumnavigated along the same basic route, and come to many of the same conclusions about certain destinations myself, I found Suzanne’s book interesting reading. Reading it, you can tell her book is self-published, but decently done. Thankfully, her personality is more savory than sugar; she’s not a whiner but also not afraid to glare. She’s the kind of woman I’d make a beeline to chat with if I saw her at a cocktail party, to enjoy her sharp and pertinent observations, and the others too!

Compare/contrast: The Bradfields aboard D’Vara worked long and hard to get safely through the dreaded Torres Straits at the top of Australia. They were intimidated and hampered by uncertain tides and currents, squalls, missing sextant sights.Night Watch, on the other hand, arrived there at night, yet decided to continue on through in the dark of night, rather than wait for daylight visibility.

Suzanne, acting as navigator, marked up a chart with courses and bearings, then entered waypoints into the GPS to double-check her calculations. The GPS set the route that the Autohelm then steered in the dark night through the barely awash sandbars, rocks, wrecks and myriad other hazards that have brought these waters their dire reputation. Of the four people standing watches that night, two never touched the wheel. It was an intense night, but I’ll bet Dot could tell Suzanne something further about intensity.

Possibly, unspoken in the background, was the thought that if Night Watch did get in trouble, they could enlist some of their technology(the liferaft for one!). They could call for help, search, rescue, pickup – and get it- from the Australian Coast Guard or other shipping. Dot and Blue would have been on their own, and knew it, which may have clarified their minds thoroughly.

Parenthetically I’ll add that aboard Galivant, we have a GPS, which gets our (presumably) exact position from satellites. And we have an Autohelm (an electrical arm attached to a compass brain which steers the boat on the set course while motoring). We also have a (Monitor brand)windvane, which steers when the sails are up and drawing, responding to keep the boat in its same relationship to the wind, rather than mindlessly toeing the same straight line despite changing conditions as the Autohelm does. We do not allow the two latter to speak to the GPS: “the Cabots speak only to the Lowells and the Lowells speak only to God”.

The idea that a machine would be in charge throughout the difficult Torres Straits passage gives me the chills. But to be fair, these steering devices, the electrical Autohelm and the mechanical windvane, are probably more reliable and accurate than most people at the helm, including me. In fact, the helmsperson is perhaps more free to look around, check bearings, etc. And the GPS may be a better calculator than a person. It’s a bit of a snob thing, and I should get over it! Or never fly again. Actual humans were involved in actually checking the data, and undistractable machines did what we think they do best.

Would the Bradfields have been pleased to make their passages aboard the Moody with its electronics and luxurious accommodation? Perhaps, is my guess, especially if they weren’t paying the bills! But not necessarily. They were totally involved, had what they wanted, and the satisfaction of working as a well-oiled unit. Would Suzanne be a happy camper on D’Vara? Not for long.

What exactly is gained or lost when the emphasis shifts to comfort and a tick-mark on the bucket list? In the intervening 40-odd years, perhaps some of us have lost the knack of divining our way by the hairs on our neck, the clouds in the sky and the swirling tea-leaves of the ocean, not to mention the Pub. 249 tables, the jerry jug and the sculling oar. Living and travelling on a sailboat these days is easier and more comfortable. When “the fleet” gathers, the talk is mainly of obtaining and maintaining creature comforts and technological assistance.

Something is gained, but something is lost. I can’t quite say what either of those things might be. Is it biased to say that people who know less can accomplish more now? That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Still, I admire more the people who worked harder to do what I am doing today, even while I don’t necessarily want to work that hard. I do think all this reliance on machines and electronics can dumb the people behind them down, at least in the skills that used to be important. Just another of life’s little compromises.

Then: Road to the Sea

I sometimes make fun of the yachting writers, especially of yore, for their insistence on describing every single tack, gybe, windshift and sail change. I’d rather hear about the places they saw, the people they met, and particularly in this case, the person they sailed with! But books about sea voyages,the ones by the Hiscocks, Joshua Slocum, Miles and Beryl Smeeton, etc. are what nurtured my interest in the cruising life,

Two books I’ve read recently illustrate just how times have changed in the last fifty-odd years. They both remind me that I could be blown back to the Stone Age at any moment and should/oughta brush up on my dead reckoning skills. I see that Doug holds an open ‘Celestial Navigation’ as his nap approaches. Ah, intent is a start, but will we persevere?

The “Then” version is Road to the Sea, published in 1964. S.E.(Blue) Bradfield was an Australian in his 30s who spent 2 1/2 years building a 30′ jarrah-wood wishbone ketch in his parents’ backyard near Perth. On their shakedown/breakdown cruise in 1958 Blue, with his wife Dot, (who had never left sheltered waters in a yacht), barely missed several reefs, ran into a tropical cyclone on a lee shore, hand-steered and changed sails constantly, climbed the mast after lost halyards, fell on beam ends and flooded the cabin, and generally had quite a time of it, all before leaving Australian waters.

D’Vara‘s Egyptian cotton sails blew out a year later, but were reckoned to have lived a full life. There was an engine, (several eventually, since each had major problems), a 3 hp air-cooled gasoline engine, with a 5 gallon fuel tank. There was a paraffin (kerosene) stove and fridge. Dot cooked up fish and chips, date tarts, and other dainties, hand-steered, and seems to have done everything else too, except maybe engine work, mast climbing and celestial navigation. Other than the occasional sly remark, though, she’s only crew in this book.

Two eighteen gallon water tanks, but the boat was often too salty to catch extra rainwater. Stowage for spare canvas and ropes. Three months’ worth of flour and sugar, rice and spaghetti. Greased eggs and painted tin cans. A collapsible dinghy that had to be bolted together. Trade goods, like safety razors, sticks of tobacco, even old toothbrushes, in exchange for fruit, yams, lobsters, chickens on the ‘hoof’.

For navigation, there was a sextant (which had to be checked before each outing), pocket watch, lead-line and taffrail log, paper, pencil (and eraser). Half (well, I exaggerate) the book is about climatic conditions disrupting sights and the uncertainties of dead reckoning in inclement weather. Reading the gory navigational details of their passage through the reef- and current- encumbered Torres Straits at the top of Australia made ME anxious and weary! I’m pretty sure it would have been easy to sell Blue, and Dot, a satellite navigator, at pretty much any price, had such an instrument been available then.

While they often had to hand-steer, they eventually worked out a generally satisfactory sail and tiller-lashing self-steering balance.

Blue and Dot stopped to work en route, but pass over these interludes discreetly. No doubt he was thrilled to sell his book, which despite all that discussion of wind direction, is nicely written, gracefully told account. Also, it’s a cultural window into its era: believe it or not, bureaucracy in Belize or Mexico, for example, is downright streamlined compared to the colonial bureaucracy of the 1950s. The Bradfields were also forced to stay ashore under armed guard for arriving in Indonesia without the right piece of paper.

When they arrived in England in 1963, via the Red Sea and French canals, they went to work again. I know from Google that they eventually headed back towards Australia via the Caribbean and Panama Canal, and wrote another book.
map Indian Ocean
med map
“Our way of life is best and we can’t wait to get back to it”, is where this book ends, or should. Blue also announced, via the end notes on the cover, that Dot was a “‘fair dinkum’ sailor who has proved herself capable of looking after D’Vara under most conditions. She can also cook.”

Mr Canute

It used to be that Doug reminded people of Crocodile Dundee, at least while he was wearing his straw Shady Brady. After maybe 10 years of regular use, that hat is decorating the head of a mule somewhere, perhaps. Doug’s current brimmed hat has mesh crown sides and a tight stitched cloth brim. Maybe that’s why he now looks like a man known in Bonaccatown, Guanaja, Bay Islands, as Mr. Canute.

His real name was Mr. Norman Knudsen, and we learned more about him from a pair of men sitting in plastic chairs in front of a hardware store on the main sidewalk/drag. “Hello, Mr. Canute”, they said. “Good day” replied Doug, not sure what they had said or (in the Bay Islands it’s a reasonable question) which language they were speaking. “Mr. Canute?”

They said that Mr Canute built a house out behind Dunbar Rock. He was an American from New Orleans, who had come to Guanaja for many years, and he liked white bread and beer. Turns out that Doug even walks down the street like Mr.Canute. “The younger Mr. Canute, of course.”
On the other side of the bay, in the little German bar behind the containers on the beach, I started to tell this story by mentioning Mr. Canute, and the first thing the German and a local customer said was “As soon as I saw him coming in the door, I thought that was Mr. Canute.”

Unfortunately, at least for the real Mr. Canute, he’s dead. His wife or daughter still comes down to the house, but isn’t there now. Still, it’s interesting, especially in such a small place, to be mistaken for a popular, or at least known, character. Makes me wonder how often it happens unbeknownst to us, and how Mr. Canute would feel about his white-bread-and-beer legacy. At least he’s fondly remembered.

Or so I thought. Next night, at a party, someone asked me if I was with the man who looked like Mr. Canute. Yes, I am, I said. What can you tell me about him?
Oh he was a real pirate.
Do tell, I said, come sit with me.
My informant was an inebriated German, so he submitted to my grilling about the life and times of Mr. Canute.
‘Maybe it was in the 1960s when Mr. Canute came to Guanaja. At that time you could stake out land for cattle-grazing simply by driving stakes in the ground and registering it with the municipality. Nobody cared what you did. You could buy acres and acres for $500. Mr. Canute took lots of land. Then he started selling the land. The buyers started having problems with the papers, but Mr. Canute had the money. But all this it is okay with the locals, because they are pirates too!”
UPDATE: another story about Mr. Canute, told to me by a diver who’s been here since the 1970s. “Mr Canute was one of the early sat(uration) divers on the oil rigs. There were a couple of them around here back then, and one day I heard a conversation between two of them. He said “I met you at a bouray in New Orleans a couple years ago. In fact, I’m the one who won your Cadillac in that poker game.”
For an update about the dangers of containers, as mentioned in the Kersti post of ?Dec. 1, check this link: