Saturday, November 26, 2011

Solstice Ashore

We're back in San Francisco, not still in Houston. Actually, we've been back since the end of June, but we've been incredibly busy with no time for a last blog entry.

I started work at a new job on July 5th (technical writer at SilkRoad technology working on the HeartBeat product), and we immediately started looking for a place in the city. We had thought we would rent first, but rent is so high that it made sense to buy after all, and we closed on our loft in San Francisco's Mission District on my birthday at the end of August. With the art that our friends in Berkeley stored for us and the bits of furniture that family in Oregon stored, supplemented by contributions of more furniture and shopping at Ikea, Craigslist, Urban Ore, etc., we now have a very comfortable home. John gets the credit for it since he's been in charge of the home front while I've worked on deadline. We've already had two visits from friends we met while we were out cruising, and we hope more will find time to see us in San Francisco.

View from the top of the stairs

Living room


John's office (behind the bookcase wall)

Loft bedroom & Shirlee's office

View from balcony to street

Solstice arrived safely at Berkeley Marine Center in June too, thanks to our trucker, Wayne Harris of Riverside Marine Transport Inc. Solstice was his third Sceptre, so he knew exactly what was needed. We enjoyed the drive cross country in our new-to-us Hyundai Elantra and didn't worry about the boat at all. The highlight of that trip was driving through Yosemite. Oddly, we'd never been before, and it was every bit as spectacular as everyone says (though John did remind me that Tracy Arm in Alaska was pretty awesome too).

Solstice having the mast pulled

Loading her on the truck

Ready to ride

Solstice spent all summer on the hard at Berkeley Marine Center getting new bottom paint, a new boot stripe, refurnished propeller, and all new rod rigging. Much of the time was just waiting for the rods to arrive from Denmark. If you've been following along, you may remember that after we reached Barbados we received an alert from the builder that we were in danger of dismasting if we met certain conditions. It was likely that we met those conditions, but it was impossible to tell without taking the rig apart. The riggers in Houston and Berkeley both said we'd been sailing on borrowed time, and we could see the problem for ourselves too, once it was exposed. Anyway, that's now sorted, and Solstice is back in the water, at home again at Emery Cove Yacht Harbor. We still have a bit to do before we take her sailing, even around the bay, but we'll get it done soon, I hope.

We finally finished counting the miles (nautical miles) and came up with 26,100. That's port-to-port miles in a straight line and doesn't include necessary detours around capes and islands and the fact that sailboats don't go in a straight line. Just think if we'd actually sailed around the world! (The circumference is 21,600 nautical miles — I looked it up — but you can't do that in a straight line either.)

We had been saying that we visited 23 countries, not counting the U.S. Recounting this morning, it turns out it was actually 30. (I have no idea what ones we forgot to count before.) Here's the list:





Costa Rica



Cayman Islands








United Kingdom






Cape Verde Islands



St. Vincent & the Grenadines

St. Lucia


Antigua & Barbuda

Sint Maarten


It was a grand adventure, and we're both very glad that we did it when we did. We're keeping Solstice and plan to go cruising again someday. I say that this time we'll keep our land home, but among the many things we learned sailing is the fact that plans change. I'm already looking forward to traveling again, even if we have to fly to do it.

Our website is still a work in progress. We haven't finished posting photos of places and friends yet. But this puts an end to this blog, at least for now. Thanks for following along.

Shirlee Smith & John Forbes

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Wrapping up

We've been in the Houston area (Seabrook) for 2½ weeks now. We arrived the day after the previous blog post. I came up for my 6-9 a.m. watch that morning to find that the lovely blue water of the gulf had turned brown and our speed had dropped below 3 knots. We went from thinking that we'd be early to hoping that we'd make it before dark. Most of the day was spent in the Houston Ship Channel, which is long and not very wide with shallow water on both sides. It definitely isn't the most scenic area we've visited, but we knew it wouldn't be. At first the flatness was kind of interesting. As far as we could see the highest spots were man-made: buildings or jetties or bridges and overpasses. The traffic was mostly tankers and barges with a few pleasure craft in the mix. We could have seen for miles, but visibility was very poor. The air looked like a thinner version of the water, and we heard on the radio that Houston had an air quality advisory in effect. Oh, and it was really hot: 103° F and not a dry heat.

As we approached Galveston, I tried to use my cell phone to call Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) to find out about checking in, but I couldn't connect. When we could see the buildings from town, I tried again, but still no luck. Fortunately, I'd downloaded the full user guide for the global calling service, and from that I learned that I probably just needed to select a network, but that I'd have to check my phone's user guide to find out how to do that. I knew where that was too, but by the time I'd gotten out the computer and started it up to read the first guide and then found what I needed in the second one, we were past the turning for Galveston and in no mood to turn around. The last time we had cleared into the U.S. mainland (at Key West), they had simply had us come to the office and hadn't looked at the boat at all, so we didn't expect a problem, but we called CBP right away when we were docked. After trying several numbers and being given other numbers to try (it was after 5 o'clock and office hours had ended), I reached an officer in Galveston who told me that I had been supposed to call and then come into Galveston with the boat because they definitely wanted to see it. After I explained, the officer said he would come to us, and he did. His inspection was cursory, and he didn't even ask very many questions as he filled out his paperwork, so in the end, it was painless, and we were officially back in the U.S.

The first week we didn't do much except go to movies in the afternoon to try to escape the heat for awhile. We were at Seabrook Shipyard Marina on the repair yard dock, so we were able to meet the riggers from Stix-n-Rig'n who would pull our mast, and we scheduled that for last Monday (the 13th) thinking that the truck would be here on the 15th. We soon learned, though, that the truck would be delayed, so we rescheduled the haul-out for Monday, the 20th. That meant that we could delay taking the boat apart until after the mast was pulled.

Once the rigging was off, we moved to a motel because without a boom to support our sunshade, it was totally unbearable on the boat. We've spent the past week working on the boat in the mornings and hanging out in air-conditioned comfort in the motel in the afternoon. The exception was an afternoon spent at Space Center Houston. Now we're ready unless the trucker says there's something more we need to remove. He called yesterday and said he'd be here today, so we're waiting for his call.

The people here have been exceptionally nice to us, and we're favorably impressed with that aspect of Houston. There's also a good classical radio station and decent restaurants. We've had some excellent Mexican food and Indian food too. The weather, however, continues to be miserable with record-setting heat, and we're looking forward to leaving tomorrow.

This is pretty much the end of the voyage and blog. The mast, boom, and bow pulpit are literally wrapped up. Solstice continues from here on a truck. When we're back in San Francisco, we plan to live on land and use the boat for recreation, at least for a few years. Then we'll see. We'd like to go cruising again someday, and that's why we're keeping the boat. I'll put together a post soon with the statistics of our voyage. We've never kept track of the miles we've sailed, so I'll have to figure that out.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Dodging ships and drilling platforms

So far, we've had a lot of variety on this leg of our voyage: from Isla Mujeres to Galveston. We started out sailing along nicely and averaging 5.5 knots. One night the wind and waves kicked up, and we had to put in a couple of reefs in the dark, very dark. The next day the wind dropped off, and we found ourselves motor-sailing at faster than 8 knots for several hours thanks to a strong current in our favor. Until yesterday evening we saw few ships. About the time we saw our first off-shore oil platform, the shipping traffic increased dramatically. I had four on my 6 to 9 p.m. watch. John had eight from 9 to midnight, and I had four again from midnight to 3 a.m. Thanks to AIS, we can tell how close they're going to get, and when they're close enough, we can see their names. I sometimes call them; John doesn't. Last night I called when I had one coming from in front and one from behind. I just tell them that we're a sailing yacht under sail, that I intend to hold our course, and confirm that they see us. They take care of the rest. Last night the two ships worked it out between themselves in Spanish. Muchas gracias, senors!

We're using both electronic and paper charts (thanks to Cindy and Dick Metler), and we need the combination. Neither is exactly right as far as where there are platforms, so the radar is always on too. For weather forecasts we're using National Weather Service forecasts and grib files. Neither of these is exactly right either, but we had to give up on Herb because we couldn't hear him any longer. Once you're out here, the weather is what it is, but it's nice to have something to look forward to. As it turned out, we had a good window, and we've had the engine off most of the time. It's on again now because it looks like we'll make it to Seabrook tomorrow (Thursday) if we keep our speed up.

We've seen lots of dolphins and seaweed, but no oil spills (in case you were wondering about that).

All is well aboard Solstice.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Back in Isla Mujeres

We made it! It took nearly as long as our Atlantic crossing from Cape Verde to Barbados, but we finally arrived at El Milagro Marina on Isla Mujeres, Mexico, yesterday morning. Whew! We made another fuel stop at Grand Cayman, just to be sure we could make it across the channel to Isla Mujeres. It's a good thing we did because we had to run the engine the whole time. It was that or go so slowly that we would lose another day. It was our most expensive fuel stop ever at $7.19 USD/US gallon. The wind that Herb told us would develop closer to Mexico never really did, and then we lost Herb to poor propagation.

We're staying here until Friday, fixing things and resting, before continuing on to Galveston. I'm researching as much as I can about our stop in Texas since it's pretty much another foreign land to us. We've also had a lot of advice from fellow SSCA Commodore Gus Wilson, who we met in Horta in 2008. He's got us all hooked up with other cruisers in the Kemah area. And thanks to Cindy Metler, we even have paper charts again. Woohoo!

Here's a link to our blog post from our previous visit here.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Adventures in re-fueling

Our chart said this place (Port Morant/Bowden Harbour) had fuel. Of course, it also said that there was a resort/marina here. Our free cruising guide said that the coast guard had taken over the facilities of the now-defunct marina, but that we could tie to the dock for free. It didn't say anything about fuel, but it only mentioned fuel once in the whole document anyway.

So we came into the Coast Guard Station at Port Morant/Bowden very early yesterday morning. To us it was 6:40. In Jamaica time it was actually 5:40. The cruising guide said this is a port of entry, but that the officials have to be called. That is true. The Coast Guard also let us stay here for free, but they don't recommend it. The station is at the end of a dirt road at least a half hour by car from the town of Morant Bay, which is where the gas stations are. It does have good wireless Internet at a very inexpensive rate if you can get to town to get the pre-paid card. (One of the two places listed as a source for the cards has had a fire and is no longer open.)

The Coast Guard guys have been awesome in helping us. They called Immigration, Customs, and Quarantine for us and organized our re-fueling via pick-up truck taxi with a 200-liter barrel borrowed from the Coast Guard plus a couple of our jerry cans. And four or five guys to help. Before dark we had re-fueled and could enjoy our Internet.

Re-fueling crew. This station had a fuel hose filter clog while they were serving us, so our crew had to find other station to finish filling our containers.

Then this morning we discovered that the Quarantine officer had apparently walked off with our entry and exit document from Customs. We need that exit document to get into any other country except the U.S. So after a couple of phone calls, we're now waiting for the Quarantine guy to come back with our exit document. In his defense, I suspect we're the only sailboat he's ever had to deal with here, and the form probably wasn't familiar to him. He also kept our official boat document, but I noticed that one before he left the premises and traded him for a copy. I wish I'd noticed that we were also missing the exit document. Oh, well, it's all part of the adventure, and we still don't have much wind, so we aren't going anywhere quickly anyway.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Sailing to a schedule

We avoided it as long as we could, but that's what we're doing now. More accurately, we're motoring to try to keep our schedule. Since we broke the jib halyard and tore the jib, we've been behind. One or two weeks in Antigua would have been plenty, but with waiting for repairs, it was closer to three. We skipped the islands in between in order to say good-bye to Liat and Assaf at Sint Maarten and then hurried on to St. John to see the Parkers and the Peoples. The need for electrical repairs then sent us hurrying off to Puerto Rico.

PR was fun, but it was mostly getting stuff fixed. We had our high-output alternator rebuilt in San Juan, so that meant two trips from Fajardo to San Juan, which turned into three when it wasn't ready when it was supposed to be. We also got a new regulator for our generator there. Then John installed everything, changed the oil, and we made time for a couple of other side trips in addition to provisioning. We made a special trip to go to Old San Juan and another to follow Anthony Bourdain's path into the mountains for whole spitted pig at Lechonera Los Pinos. The trip to the mountains also let us see some of the south coast of the island since we missed the unmarked turn-off for the scenic route through the mountains and ended up going around. It was all scenic, and PR is on our list of places to revisit. In fact, I don't know why more people don't make it a destination in itself.

We left PR a day earlier than planned because there was no good wind in the forecast, which means that we have to motor and go slow. We do have a need to be in Texas to get the boat on a truck to the West Coast, hopefully by June 15th, and that's what's driving the schedule. It's a surprisingly long way from Fajardo, PR, to Isla Mujeres, Mexico (1,270 nm), and we can't motor the whole way without stopping for fuel. So we'll stop briefly in Jamaica just to refuel. So far we've been out almost four whole days, and we've only been able to turn the motor off for 8 hours. We were very pleased to get those 8 hours of sailing because they weren't forecast either. We're talking with Herb of South Bound II again daily and getting other weather sources over the SSB radio. Maybe later in the week we'll get some favorable winds and be able to sail again.

Right now we're south of Haiti about 30 hours out from our refueling stop at Bowden Harbour on the east end of Jamaica. All is well aboard Solstice.


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Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Visiting friends on St. John

When we first set out on our voyage, we promised our friends Blake and Terri Parker that we would visit them at their new home on St. John when we were in the Caribbean. We made it just in time this week since they're planning a move back to Iowa. They have a new granddaughter there, and Terri has a new job, so we were lucky to catch them. We got to see their house, which they're keeping, and they gave us a tour of the island.

Other friends were also visiting St. John when we were there. We met Dave and Helen on Jammin (from Oregon) on the way to the 2007 Baja Ha-Ha. They've been in Mexico and the western Caribbean while we were in Europe, and now they're headed to Trinidad for the hurricane season. They waited for us at St. John (our only “for sure” stop), and we anchored next to them in Round Bay. It's a really nice anchorage, and we had it all to ourselves.

This morning we said good-bye to everyone as Jammin headed for Virgin Gorda and the Parkers continued with their regular lives. We only went a few miles today, to Water Island near St. Thomas, but tomorrow we'll get up early and go to Puerto Rico.