A bit late getting this post up, a few happy distractions at home including the birth of our baby girl and a big move into the mountains. Updates next post!
The “Mahina” Expedition
In December, I had the wonderful opportunity to serve as crew sailing across the Caribbean Sea under the guidance of John and Amanda Neal. We sailed from Antigua to Panama over the course of two weeks. We made landfalls in Montserrat, Columbia, throughout the San Blas archipelago, and Portobelo before entering Colon, the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal.
John and Amanda Neal
John and Amanda have sailed around the world many times over. They have explored most cursing grounds from Australia to Africa, Antarctica to Svalbard and the Mediterranean. They have been featured on countless covers of sailing magazines, written books, and are recognized as a few of the best sailors in the world. They invite sailors (for a fee of course) to learn passage-making skills on their own Hallberg Rassy 46 as they sail around the world. What a life- right!
The ocean crossing is designed as a learning expedition to help novices (like me) gain offshore passage making skills, including mastering seamanship, navigation, and heavy weather tactics. John also helps with boat purchasing decisions which will be very helpful when the time comes. Additionally, the course also provides a certificate documenting training which will also help qualify when we purchase offshore boat insurance. The sail also logs a few more weeks of sea time which will credit towards my coast guard captain application. But above all else, I just want to keep my family and friends safe on the water. It was important for me to learn from the best rather than going out and volunteering on an ocean crossing with a questionably experienced captain.
The Boat “Mahina Tiare”
The Marina Tiare is a 46 foot Hallberg Rassy. Built on the Swedish island of Orust, Hallberg Rassys are well-known for their stablity and safety at sea. Lauren and I visited Orust last summer and toured the Hallberg Rassy factory.
During our visit, I learned that John and Amanda are well-known to the boat builders on the island. Mahina Tiare had also been featured on the Hallberg Rassy website and pictures of her sailing in open ocean are highlighted on two months of this years Hallberg Rassy calendar.
I had the pleasure of sailing with…
Brian and Tammi– They have plans to purchase a boat and sail 3-6 months a year, island hopping throughout the Caribbean. Brian is an ear, nose and throat surgeon. Tammi an accomplished accountant. Before Brian pursued a career in medicine he piloted fighter jets for the US Air-force. Lots of amazing stories!
Karen and Linwood– Retired engineers and both ex-Navy. Lin served on a submarine during his navy days. Needless to say, Lin never had a problem with sea sickness during our crossing like the rest of us. Karen and Lin are boat owners who are looking to sail up and down the east coast in retirement. They have a dog named Moose!
Ken, an orthopedic trauma surgeon from Alaska. A great sailor and humanitarian. He just completed a crossing from the US east coast to the Caribbean with another crew.
Education at Sea
All our sailing was done without the use of autopilot, John thought it was particularly important to gain endurance on the helm and learn to anticipate the ship movements under heavy seas. We took turns on watch and on the helm throughout day and night. I was on the helm 10-12am, 4-6pm 12-2am, 4-6am.
Life at sea was exciting but this was defiantly not a pleasure cruise! Teaching was nearly continuous. Absolutely no alcohol underway, not even coffee as dehydration at sea could get very serious quickly. We were required to drink and document at least 3-4 L water daily. In addition to sailing (trimming sails, reefing sails, plotting navigation, cleaning, watch duties, helm duties, and trying to occasionally sleep) John had written an expedition companion for his students to read. He and Amanda held practical lecturers at least 4 hours a day and we were tested on the content.
Lectures included a range of topics including -Safety Systems, Boat Systems, On Deck Procedures, Storm Sailing Techniques, Meteorology, Navigation, Communication at Sea, and Anchoring Techniques. It was all pretty incredible and very organized.
While underway, we also learned all kinds practical skills such as sail repair, marine diesel maintenance, safety techniques, provisioning for long distance passage-making, even how to tow a generator under sail. Every day we worked on learning a new knots. We plotted our own course across the Caribbean and kept detailed hourly position logs and notable weather changes.
John and Amanda had their students handle all operations and boat handeling while underway.
Sailing, then learning about sailing, then learning about boat systems, day in day out as we crossed the Caribbean is just about as good as it gets. I loved watching the sun rise up over the water every morning on while on the helm.
Typically, swells are significant and winds brisk when sailing the Christmas trades across the Caribbean. We had average conditions. Healthy 20 knot winds with swells occasionally 10-12 feet. The crossing required constant sail reefing but we never faced conditions that required sea anchors or advanced heavy weather tactics. The swells were large enough that we all suffered a good amount of time dealing with sea sickness. All part of the experience!
Land HO! Not all ocean sailing!
The crossing was very eventful. As we sailed west out of Antigua, we enjoyed landfalls off the island of Montserrat, the city of Santa Marta-Columbia, multiple anchorages throughout the San Blas Island, the city of Porobelo- Panama, and the city of Colon-the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. The variety presented unique and exciting sailing challenges all of which contributed to learning.
Antigua —> The Island of Montserrat
After a day sail west off the island of Antigua, we arrived at the island of Montserrat were we anchored overnight.
The island of Montserrat is gorgeous, but half of the island is decimated from a fairly recent volcanic eruption and is still off-limits to visitors. John and Amanda were able to get in contact with a guide service who took us around the island to explore the ruins.
Montserrat –> Santa Marta, Columbia
Colombian law allows visiting vessels to stop for up to 72 hours without clearing customs. Great news for us, but unfortunately this resulted in no official stamp on my passport. We secured our boat in the new beautiful new IGY Marina for the night.
Santa Marta is the oldest city in Latin America, very few tourist and most visitors were Columbian. This provided a fantastic cultural experience. We all enjoyed a dinner at Donde Chucho, a nearby fish restaurant. I took an early AM run through the city giving my legs a good stretch after a week on the water.
We also visited a sailing family in the marina. Jon, Mia and their six year old son Teo (From Norway). Our captain John helped them select their boat a years ago and they are now sailing around the world as a family. They just returned from an eco-lodge out in the Amazon. I had the privilege of reading Teo’s travel journal. I loved his illustrations and descriptions of all the exciting animals he came across during their side trip to the Amazon. He was so excited to tell his story. What a worldly education!
John and Amanda seemed to have friends at every Anchorage!
Santa Marta –> San Blas Islands (Swimming Pool Anchorage near Caliber Island, East Hollades Cays)
290 miles and 3 days later, we made landfall in the San Blas. The San Blas consists of approximately 400 beautiful islands, home to the Kuta Indians. An epic sailing paradise!
Coral reefs at every turn, most charts are unreliable in the San Blas so all navigation required a keen lookout at all times.
Caliber Island–> Mormake Tupe
Mormake Tupe is also known as Isla Maquina. When we visited the island John paid regards to the village chief by offering a small bag or rice. We then toured the village and purchased “molas” (hand made fabric art) from the Kuna seamstresses. John and Amanda provided donated reading glasses to the villagers.
Access to the village is extremely restricted, it is only because of John and Amanda’s special relationships with the locals we were allowed the privilege to visit the small island village.
Mormake Tupe–>Gaigar Anchorage
We Anchored overnight at Gaigar Anchorage, which was well protected from wind by mangrove trees.
Gaigar Anchorage–> Bread Man Anchorage
A short day stop at a semi-exposed anchorage, off and island with no name that is occupied by a “bread man”. We of course enjoyed fresh kuna bread before heading towards Yansandar Island as we made our way west.
Bread Man Anchorage–> Yansadar Island in Cayos Chichime
We anchored overnight off the shore of Yansadar Island, a tiny one hut island. The family living on the island paddled out to greet us. John and Amanda gave them rice, onions and apples.
We were invited ashore for a visit where we explored the island.
Yansadar Island –> Portobelo, Panama
After a full day of 20+ knot downwind sailing off the coast of the beautiful Panamanian isthmus, we arrived in Portobelo, Panama.
Portobelo is a deep natural harbor. Legend has it that Christopher Columbus originally named the port meaning “Beautiful Port” It was established during the Spanish colonial period and the ruins of the Spanish colonial fortifications are one of the first things we noticed when entering the bay. The other thing we noticed was the twenty or so shipwrecks thought the harbor. I could not believe it, the whole place had a creepy wasteland, end of the road feel to it. It turns out the a hurricane swept through the area and most of the boats moored in the harbor were destroyed. Nevertheless, very beautiful and we enjoyed a charming visit.
Portobelo –> Colon, the Atlantic Entrance to the Panama Canal
After exploring Portobelo, we sailed to Colon, the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal. Lots of ships on the water!
We completed our crossing in Colon. Brian and Tammy attempted to join another boat as crew to pass though the canal. The rest of us said our goodbyes and headed back to celebrate Christmas. John and Amanda took a week off in Panama before a new group of students joined up with the Mahina Tiare. John and Amanda are continuing their expedition west where they plan to sail to Hawaii, then down to French Polynesia for a few years. We all plan to keep in touch and hopefully cross each other on the water sometime soon.
It was an honor to be part of the Mahina Tiare crew and to meet so many wonderful people. I look forward to more sailing adventures with my family and friends in the near future.