Monday, December 22, 2008

Dry Tortugas Update

Dry Tortugas, USA

December 22, 2008

N 24 37'29.1", W 082 52'15.5"

Greetings from the southernmost waters of the United States of America. We arrived safely after a 49 hour trip from Isla Mujeres, Mexico and are now anchored in the Dry Tortugas at Garden Key in the shadow of magnificent Fort Jefferson. (Look this up on Google and learn more!) During our approach to the anchorage Amy spontaneously began jumping up and down chanting, "U.S.A., U.S.A." and Marshall kept saying "Yeah! They speak English here."

It appears we picked our weather window well as we only experienced one brief episode of the "washing machine" effect of the gulf and even that was mild and short lived. We had the wind and waves on our nose the entire way forcing us to motor sail all but a couple hours of the trip. Not to worry however, as the light winds and small seas made for a pleasant ride aboard Mima. Even though we didn't get to enjoy the serenity of true sailing, Susan had always said that she would literally pay for this kind of crossing of the Gulf ahead of time versus potentially having a really rough ride like so many we had heard about from other people.

Marshall started the trip feeling a little "off" and ended up throwing up 4 times over the first 24 hours. He never complained once and always commented that beside the bad taste throwing up wasn't so bad because afterwards you feel better. Amy on the other hand could hang upside down eating sauerkraut through a hurricane and never get sick. I have told her it appears her stomach was made to be at sea. Who knows maybe she will sail again someday.

Enroute we were graced by the presence of a giant sea turtle. We only got to see it for a brief time but the immense size of this archaic leviathan was something to behold. We also had our best fishing day yet. The best fishing was within30 miles of Isla Mujeres and we hooked 8 Tuna and 1 Mackerel as well as what Marshall calls a few "no see-ums." Day two was not as productive as we only caught 2 Tuna and 1 King Mackerel. The King Mackerel was caught as we were pulling into Fort Jefferson and is our largest fish yet at 45 inches in length and weighing in over 25 pounds. We handed out generous portions to our cruising buddies on s/v Side by Side, to another boat in the anchorage and tried to give some to the park ranger but evidently they cannot take gifts. That is a lousy commentary on the times is it not. Oh well more for us and we have already invited new friends on s/v Summer Wind over tonight for grilled Mackerel medallions marinated in a sweet chili soy marinade. I just wish the park rangers could join us.

We spent the afternoon exploring the fort and then enjoying the sun on board. The other boat in the anchorage said they had a nurse shark hanging out under it so Sue, Amy and I decided to snorkel over and take a look. Imagine our surprise when we got there and discovered it was not a nurse shark but a giant Goliath Grouper. Not until swimming down next to it do you realize that the fish is as long as you are and the fish's girth is mammoth. I am no expert at guessing fish weight but if I weigh 165 pounds this fish was easily over 200 pounds. He was not too concerned by our presence, why should he be, and allowed us to view him quite closely. What a thrill and this is easily the largest fish we have ever seen in the wild. The day before they said there were four of these so called nurse sharks under the boat and we are hoping they all return tomorrow.

While I was preparing some of our tuna for dinner, seared with a black sesame seed and pepper crust, Marshall baited a hook with some scraps and quickly had a nice jack on the line. We let him go and as we were finishing dinner preparations Marshall yelled "shark" not that big of a deal really as we have had nurse sharks near the boat when we had scraps off fish, but when his second outburst was, "Hammerhead Shark" suffice it to say it cleared out the boat with all of us on deck and Amy and I scrambling to get our snorkel gear on. We jumped in the dinghy and stuck our heads in the water and Amy got to see a Hammerhead Shark underwater. Wow what a cool creature and one I have longed to see since our first trips to Baja in the early 90's. With all the excitement of the hammerhead we missed an evening check in with our friends the Johnsons on s/v Side by Side who had continued on to Florida to meet family for Christmas. We know they will forgive us and understand when they hear Amy and I were trying to see a Hammerhead Shark. Sorry Johnsons, the next fish dinner is on us and Sue says next time she will set a timer so as not to miss a check in. We hope that they made it safely to Ft. Meyers before the cold front hit full force and hope to see them while we are in Florida for a month or so.

Well, another boring couple of days at sea come to a close. After 49 hours of sailing we safely anchored in a beautiful spot. Having set a new daily fish record, caught our largest fish to date, seen our largest turtle so far, swam with our largest fish yet, and seen a Hammerhead Shark we savored our seared tuna, watched half a movie and went soundly to sleep.

We like this spot and think we may stay and celebrate Christmas here and then sail on to Florida. One of my fond memories from childhood is snorkeling with my dad and brothers on Christmas morning in Jamaica. Amy knows the story and asked if we could do the same. As you wake up Christmas morning to your family traditions we will be loading into the dinghy to snorkel and we will pause and say a prayer for each of you and your families.

Celebrate with us the birth of our savior well this Christmas,

The 4Wheelers

Monday, December 15, 2008

A Sailors Christmas Tale

A Sailor's Christmas Tale

T'was the nite before Christmas and all through the boat not a sailor was stirring though tempests they blow…

The past year has been a wild and wonderful ride. Having never sailed before we jumped into our new life on January 7, 2008 with both feet and boy have we gotten wet. We have experienced much and in the process learned a great deal about the world we live in and ourselves. The reality of living on board a cruising sailboat is a far cry from the romantic images often portrayed at the end of a Hollywood movie or that seen in a Hallmark greeting card. Yet, the people we have met, the places we have visited, and the lessons we have learned living on the sea, we would not exchange.

At this Christmas season I am struck by the similarity of the Christmas message and the journey we have been on this past year. Like the simple message of Christmas the things we are learning to enjoy most are the very simplest. I am learning that what I desire most is not bigger and faster "stuff" but slower and deeper relationships. Sure we miss home on occasion and all the conveniences it provides but our conversations around the dinner table almost always focus on who we miss not what we miss. Not to say that I haven't longed for a big juicy Banzai Burger on occasion, even conch and lobster get old after a while, but mostly we miss each of you.

From the smell of jungle blossoms carried out to sea on the wind, being escorted by a pod of dolphins, diving with turtles, or sunrises and sunsets painted daily for us by our heavenly father, these are the things we are beginning to see with new eyes. Joseph Conrad wrote, "Everything can be found at sea, according to the spirit of your quest." We are learning that the sea is a hard task master. Not an unfair or vindictive teacher but one who is clearly unrelenting and yet consistent. We came to sea not in an attempt to take a prolonged vacation from life but in hopes of reconnecting with each other and life at a more basic and meaningful level.

Today as we wait for a weather window to sail the 550 plus miles from Belize up to Mexico and then across the Gulf of Mexico just north of Cuba to Key West Florida we wanted to pause and say thanks at this Christmas Season. Thanks for sailing along with us on this journey. Your thoughts, prayers and e-mails have meant the world to us over the last year and have made many days feel like Christmas for us.

Our prayer for all of us this Christmas, among all the fun and festivities of the season, is that we each take time to see each other with new eyes. Eyes that see ourselves and our world through the loving and grace filled multicolored lens of Christmas.

Merry Christmas,

Mark, Susan, Amy & Marshall

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tale of Two Islas - Part One

The Tale of Two Islas

"It was the worst of times, it was the best of times, it was the age of wisdom…" Originally penned by Charles Dickens in The Tale of Two Cities, no words could more accurately describe our last day sailing in Belize and our first day in Mexico.

We arrived with great anticipation at Lighthouse Reef excited to see this often spoke of and widely proclaimed natural wonder. One of three atolls in Belize and home to the Blue Hole it was the final atoll for us to visit and we had heard so many good things about the water clarity, healthy coral and abundant sea life. After a lazy 3 hour sail from the Turneffe Island Atoll we anchored in the lee of Long Cay and along with s/v Side by Side and s/v Siren's Song we began exploring this magical place.

Before we had even dropped the hook we could see the water was crystal clear and abundant coral life assured us we were in a healthy reef system. We spent the next few days diving and snorkeling the reef. We have seen many turtles on our trip but Lighthouse afforded us the opportunity to see a giant, mature Loggerhead Turtle. Although protected, and harvesting is clearly illegal, large adults are not commonly seen and this was a real treat to swim with a gentle giant. Lighthouse was to be our last stop in Belize before heading toward Isla Mujeres, Mexico to stage for our crossing to Florida. Belize has been a wonderful chapter for us and we lamented leaving.

During the winter season the majority of wind comes out of the North. We needed to head 250 miles almost due North and when an unusual weather window presented us with 15-20 knot winds out of the southeast we chose to take advantage of the favorable winds and prepared to head north. We arose to clear skies and a beautiful sunrise. We took advantage of the good light and all headed out for one more snorkel along the reef wall. It was in fact on this snorkel that we were visited by the afore mentioned Hawksbill Turtle along with a big hogfish, a few marauding mackerel and barracuda and 1000's of reef fish. Marshall even managed to shoot a couple of nice fish for dinner.

An early lunch of grilled Hogfish, one of my favorite fish, and we weighed anchor on what can only be described as our idea of a perfect sailing day. The sun was out and we had a steady 15 knots of wind on a starboard run and the seas were flat. We hooked up with a large barracuda within the first 10 minutes and Marshall and I got excited about our fishing prospects. With a little help from a favorable current we spent the day averaging over 8 knots all while reading, working on our tans, and Marshall and I serenading the fish with our fish song. You know the one, sing along with us "I want a ten pound tuna, I want a ten pound tuna, I want a ten pound tuna, it will be sushi for my tummy". Alright it may be a little corny but hey what can we say, it works.

It was simply the best of times. As we all sat watching a spectacular sunset Amy commented, "I think God has fun painting sunsets". I could not agree more and this was one of his more inspired works. As we sat watching the sunset and discussing whether this thing mariners call a "green flash" really occurs or is it just the result of an overactive or tired imagination at sea, both our fishing lines were hammered. This created a real dilemma for me. I wanted to watch the sunset but our fish song had worked once again and Marshall and I began working on our lines. We had one Blackfin Tuna on board (this is when you sing the "sushi for my tummy" line) and we all paused to watch as the sun vanished below the horizon.

Then it happened, at the instant when the sun finally sank into the liquid abyss we were treated by an intense burst of green light. We all seemed to yell in concert, "I saw the green flash, I saw the green flash." I guess I have to apologize for making fun of this imagined event by others. While lamenting the fact we did not capture the green flash on film we were reminded by line screaming from Marshall's reel… we still had work to do. After another five minutes we had our second Blackfin Tuna on board and after securing our tackle we all got back to the business of enjoying the close to a perfect day at sea.

The kids take watch during the day but mom and dad cover at night and with the kids in bed we settled into our night routine. The sea state changed around midnight and we began to encounter much lumpier seas. It made rest difficult between our night watches but as the sun rose we still had averaged over 8 knots in 15-20 knots of wind with the sails reefed. Based on our current rate of sail we were a full 8-10 hours ahead of schedule and realized we would make Isla Mujeres in the middle of the following night instead of around noon. We decided to tuck into Cozumel and after tying to a mooring ball we realized we had just had our best 24 hours of sailing ever. Averaging almost 8 knots even with 2 fishing interruptions and a sail change we had covered just less than 200 miles. Dinner was fresh tuna sashimi and as we retold our green flash fishing story, sang a few bars of our fish song, and watched the cruise ships come and go we were reminded once again… It had been the best of days. We went to bed tired but wondering what would tomorrow bring?

To be continued……

Live Slow, Sail Fast, Love Well

The 4Wheelers

Friday, December 12, 2008

Tale of Two Islas - Part Two

The Tale of Two Islas-Part Two

"It was the worst of times, it was the best of times, it was the age of wisdom…" Originally penned by Charles Dickens in The Tale of Two Cities, no words could more accurately describe our last day sailing in Belize and our first day in Mexico.

"Calling all stations, calling all stations, this is the sailing vessel Side by Side over."….. "Calling all stations, calling all stations, this is the sailing vessel Side by Side we have been dismasted, repeat we have been dismasted over."

As the sun rose gently over the horizon and a new day dawned in Cozumel we enjoyed a cup of coffee on board after a peaceful night of rest. We were excited about continuing on to Isla Mujeres, our final destination before heading to Florida. We untied from our mooring ball and with the morning sun still coloring the sky and warming the air we slowly made our way along the coast of Cozumel enjoying the waterfront scenery. As we rounded the point of the island and headed across the channel towards Cancun we lamented not being able to spend more time and explore this famous resort island and it's waters.

With our sails set we settled in for what was to be an easy 45-50 mile day sail. Shortly after entering the channel we realized that this often turbulent and current tormented piece of water was to be kind to us today, and we were loving being on a sailboat. As I scanned the horizon I realized that a ship in front of us looked to be a U.S. Coast Guard Cutter. As we got closer the distinctive orange stripe of the Coast Guard came into view. It was shortly after 7:00 a.m. and I decided to hail the Cutter.

After the appropriate introductions were made and we identified ourselves as a U.S. flagged sailing vessel the radio officer changed his tone from all business to as if he was talking with a neighbor. We wished the captain and crew of the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Confidence a Merry Christmas and told them about our time with Commander Crabbs on the Coast Guard Cutter Thetis in Bocas Del Toro, Panama last May. Like our prior experience seeing the Coast Guard it was great to see "Old Glory" flown over such a beautiful vessel and I must be candid here and say that when the professional mariners of the U.S. Coast Guard call me "captain" on the radio it makes this wanna be sailor puff out his chest a little. They blew a greeting on their ship's horn and we both continued on our way.

As I strutted around the cockpit referring to myself as "Captain" and teasing the kids we tuned the SSB radio in for our prearranged daily check in with our sailing partners on s/v Side by Side. We had left Lighthouse Reef ahead of them and were out of VHF range necessitating communication via SSB radio which is the marine equivalent of a Ham Radio. As Susan established contact she looked out into the cockpit and said, "Side by Side has been dismasted." I slumped into my seat at the helm and with tears running down my face prayed that everyone was safe as Susan learned the complete story.

The prior evening around midnight while sailing in 15-20 knots of wind with a reef in the main sail under very mild conditions a thunderous bang was followed by the mast crashing onto their catamaran and then into the water. Thankfully they had been on a beam reach and the mast and boom, along with the sail and rigging, mostly ended up in the water on their port side. To a sailor, few events at sea are more terrifying than being dismasted. Normally the result of violent weather, but in this case it was a manufacturing defect in the rigging. As Marc and Angie attempted to calm the kids and assess the situation and their alternatives Marc did the single best thing. With bolt cutters in hand, the stainless steel rigging and lines were cut and the entire mast, boom, sails, rigging and other miscellaneous equipment sank into 2000 feet of water. Many sailboats have been "holed through" by a captain trying to "keep" his mast and rigging when a rogue wave turned the mast into a battering ram and drove itself through the hull.

It had gone from the best of days to the worst of days. Had we heard of a dismasting on another yacht we would have been concerned, but we have been sailing with Side by Side for the last 8 months and they have become like extended family to us. Their safety is as important to us as our own. We also understand the additional responsibility they feel regarding their concern for their kids. Using their engines they were able to safely make it to Isla Mujeres, and suffice it to say, dinner was our treat onboard Mima, complete with homemade brownies.

I am sure all of us have experienced those days when the range of personal emotions rivals the very best of roller coasters. As Susan reminded me of Dickens words and as I have considered the events of those two days I have been most struck by the less often quoted third component of Dickens sentence, "it was the age of wisdom." We are well served, it seems, reflecting on both the good and bad days life brings our way as much can be learned and wisdom gained from them both.

This life at sea, however, has the effect of instilling a different kind of wisdom. Perhaps it is a less cluttered and simpler wisdom: a wisdom that places great value and gain in making the simple and less convoluted choice. In the case of Side by Side your single concern becomes the safety of your ship and crew. You cut the rigging and lines and remove permanently the thing that with one rogue wave or event could sink the boat. It is not about insurance, saving the rigging, or the cost; it is about doing and making the single best choice. Robert Kurson in his book, Shadow Divers, describes the challenges of deep water diving and when faced with a danger or unplanned event states, "Fix the first problem fully and calmly before you even think about the second problem."

My father always told me, "Mark, when your priorities are straight decision making is easy." Perhaps that is the land based equivalent. The safety of ship and crew come first. All other considerations are topics for discussion at the yacht club. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, and we are learning it has been a time where we have grown wiser.

Live Slow, Sail Fast, Love Well

The 4Wheelers

Note: S/V Side By Side was able to successfully motor to Ft. Meyers in time to be with family for Christmas. Their catamaran is currently under repairs and their hope is to be able to leave for the Bahamas in 4-6 weeks.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Thanksgiving-A Bird of a Different Feather

Thanksgiving – A Bird of a Different Feather

Thanksgiving has always been one of my favorite holidays. I cherish the traditions and time with family and friends that Thanksgiving provides. In recent years we have had the privilege of spending time with dear friends and loved ones and have begun to create a few traditions of our own. I usually fry a turkey and along with oyster stuffing, gravy, homemade ginger Grand Marnier cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie no one goes hungry.

Another new tradition we have is to go around the dinner table and share something that we are most thankful for over the last year. This year Amy beat us to the punch by composing the note below to a few family and friends and with her permission I have reprinted it here;

Happy Thanksgiving!!!!! What are you thankful for? I'm thankful for friends, family, animals and a wonderful world that God gave us to enjoy.

We are at Glover's Reef, Belize, one of the four atolls in the Northern Hemisphere. Two days ago we went on two fun scuba dives. On the first one we went to a wall. Imagine thirty feet to two thousand feet. That's what we were experiencing. We saw massive hogfish and grouper that could have eaten me for lunch. The coral was beautiful. The arches and caves where fascinating. Also the sponges where so delicate yet gigantic, they glowed pink, purple, orange, blue, green, white, and even fuchsia. After forty minutes under the surface we went to have lunch and then take another dive. The second dive wasn't the best. My dad couldn't equalize his ears so he swam at the surface and acted as our compass, lol. But the thing that made that dive memorable was that we saw a mother and baby dolphin and the baby was suckling.

Then only yesterday we went kayak surfing. Basically you ride waves in a special kayak and fall flat on your face. It was great fun until you caught a wave then like in surfing you needed to turn your kayak away from the way the wave is pulling you. If you don't, like I said you are flat on your face. Then you have five seconds to get to your kayak and flip it over jump in and face the next wave head on. Which if you let go of the oar was pretty impossible. But when you caught a wave it was a blast. But in the end the wave owns you. If you're an adrenaline junkie you should try this!!!

Thanks for keeping in touch!!! Amy

It was a fabulous day for us but definitely a bird of a different feather. Susan and I started the day early by going snorkeling. We were looking for conch and fortune shined on us as we found 9 very large conchs. While cleaning them back on board Mima Marshall started fishing with bits of conch scraps and 9 fish later he finally quit. That's right 9 fish; two grouper, three grunts, two snapper and two porgy…all catch and release since we were inside the "no take zone". In between helping get fish off the hook for Marshall I made conch ceviche, and by lunch we had already had one of those amazing days you go cruising for.

We relaxed in the sun reading all afternoon trying to get ready for our "traditional" thanksgiving celebration. The island we are anchored off has two destination resorts located on it. One is a dive center called Off the Wall and the other a kayak adventure resort. Cully, the owner of Slickrock Adventures is a world class kayaker and was our patient and capable surf kayak instructor. He had invited us to join him and his good friends Ed and Audrey Snyder and his staff for a traditional thanksgiving meal complete with turkey, stuffing and cranberries. We eagerly accepted the invitation and brought with us a couple of pumpkin pies.

By 6:00 p.m. we were enjoying a wonderful meal compliments of Ed and Audrey who own Eddie McStiff's restaurant in Moab, Utah. We ate, played speed scrabble and even went searching for giant land crabs. Susan and I were both missing the idea of having turkey and we are so grateful for the invitation and hope to entertain Cully, Ed and Audrey in Idaho in the future.

We all went to bed tired but reminded once again of all we have to be thankful for; faith, family and friends. We trust your thanksgiving was blessed and even if it was a bird of different feather like ours you were able to enjoy the day and this wonderful season of the year.

Thankful for all our many blessings, the 4Wheelers

P.s. We have had a few people ask us if we ever get bored. We always laugh and tell them, "We do not have time to get bored there is too much to do". Oh, I forgot to tell you I did some wakeboarding as well.