Breaking Things: Grand Cayman to Belize

Sad to see Kenny and Jenna leave, but excited to have Erica and Wes, just one week later, we prepared Alembic for the three day voyage to Belize. Easy, right? A three day sail and 6 days to do it. Well, not so easy this week. Winds were blowing above 30 knots and kicking up huge seas. Alembic can handle these conditions, but Bill and I prefer a mellower ride. So we waited. And waited.

Breaking seas near the reefs

Wednesday was Bill’s birthday, so we celebrated by bracing ourselves for an exciting exit out of the tranquil North Sound of Grand Cayman and into the unknown. Three days would bring us to Saturday, the day Erica and Wes would hop on a flight in Colorado to join us for a blissful week in the sunshine; we had zero extra time. Remembering Kenny and Jenna’s experience at the airport, where they were asked “which hotel are you staying at?” and their reply was “a sailboat named Alembic”. The authorities would not clear them at the airport if Alembic had not already cleared through customs. Luckily, we had accomplished our clearing a few days prior to their arrival. We were worried that when asked, the authorities would find no cleared boat named Alembic in Belize, and send our darlings back home to Colorado. And clearing through Customs, Immigration, Agriculture and the Port Authority in Belize could take all day, and was closed on weekends!! We were pushing for Friday arrival. No pressure. None at all…
Mountainous seas and 30 knots of wind

You know how you’re oblivious to stormy weather if you are hunkered down in a windowless basement or hanging out at the mall? Well, that’s how it feels when you are tucked into a creek, off a sound, with glorious sunshine overhead. The weather is delightful, with a steady 15 knot breeze to keep you from getting too sweaty hot. Our weatherman was not wrong. Unfortunately. He told us of the 25 to 35 knot winds, with 15 foot seas, just outside of the North Sound entrance. But, not to worry, the winds were subsiding, and the waves would settle also, probably in the next day or two… We didn’t have another day or two!! So off we went.

The biggest waves we’ve ever seen greeted us as we exited the sound. The entrance buoys were leaping up against their chains with the huge swells. As soon as we rounded the corner, with deep Caribbean blue to our right, and gorgeous reefs to our left, we were committed. As those 15 foot swells came steaming in to meet the reefs, they stacked up to be super steep and pointy waves, less than a boat length apart. This means that Alembic was either going straight down, or straight up a wave, with no space in between to regain her momentum.

Our progress forward was slowed down to a crawl. Revving our beloved engine up to 2500 rpm (usually we cruise at 1600-1800), we found traction. Never has this engine let us down. Thanking previous owners yet again for re-engining Alembic with a 100 hp turbo Yanmar (most Whitby 42’s have 45-65hp) we punched through some pretty awesome mountains of water, sending walls of saltwater over the bow to bulldoze the dodger. Alembic repeatedly shook off the water with a booming shuttering shake as if to say “Give me some more!”.

flying fish kept landing on our deck

Soon, we were able to turn the corner on the island and head southwest, allowing the northwest swells to kick us in the rear, a much more pleasant angle than on the bow. Now the waves seemed to be raising us up and pushing us along our way. We loosened our grip on whatever we clung to and settled into our cockpit positions, bracing our feet against rigid surfaces so the rolls wouldn’t cause us to somersault across the boat. This was much more pleasant than hanging on with both hands and both feet for every soaking crash.

Unfortunately, Alembic was not so pleased with the downwind run as we were. Once we cleared Grand Cayman, the swells rolled in from the southeast, while the winds continued to howl from the northeast at 25 to 30 knots. This gave us a twisting corkscrew kind of motion for every wave. Preventers on our sails helped keep the booms somewhat in place, but there was no preventing the banging and slatting when the boat lifted and spilled the wind. Seven failures happened as a result of this crazy banging.

Mainsail snagging behind the top shroud

First, the mainsail kept snagging behind the top spreader and getting stuck there, hung up by the stiff upper batten. I was sure that we would tear the sail as we yanked and twisted it from down below to free it. Somehow it never ripped. Next, Bill noticed that the main mast was shifting and twisting with the largest of waves.
One of the 14 wedges fell through into the bilge
He removed some of the woodwork in our cabin below to see that one of the wedges that keeps the mast in place where it goes through the deck had fallen into the bilge. This required some major effort to reinstall it while underway. Third, a loud snapping sound developed in the cabin near the aft bulkhead door.
Sleeping on the floor! His head was right next to the snapping sound
A tab that holds the bulkhead to the hull probably snapped. We will have to look into this later. For now, it is just incredibly annoying as it snaps with every wave, making sleep nearly impossible.

This list is long! Fourth, we both heard a very loud pop from behind us as we stood in the cockpit. Being pitch dark, we couldn’t find the source, but daylight revealed the origin: a collar for the life raft had popped.

Upper band is intact. Lower band now has a rope. Note the bird on the lifeline!
Luckily, the huge life raft didn’t explode out of its tiny enclosure like a Jack-in-the-Box! Bill tied a safety line in its place to contain the beast. Fifth, another very loud BANG! The extension line to the whisker pole broke.
The whisker pole fully extended before it broke
Here is the partially furled genoa and the shortened whisker pole
What a stupid design. The pole holds the genoa out so we can capture the most wind possible without the sail collapsing. This part is excellent. And the idea that the pole telescopes is also helpful, as we roll up that sail to make it many different sizes. The stupid part is that there is a skinny line that you pull, to make the pole longer. This leaves a tremendous load on a tiny line. Well, it broke, leaving us with only one possible size pole: the shortest. UGH. Bill’s great idea of making it adjustable with through bolts is perfect, but we did’t have the supplies onboard to fix it underway. And the sixth failure was the scariest. The gooseneck broke.
Bill is repairing the gooseneck
Actually, a bolt broke, which caused the track that holds the gooseneck to separate from the mast. We had to drop the mainsail. Now we were stuck with a much-too-small genoa and mizzen. Luckily, we still had a lot of wind, and we carried on Jib and Jigger (term for just these two sails).
Catching a mahi mahi just before entering Belize!

Many say that the seventh one is a charm. Well, this was no charm. Saltwater dripping down on our Single Side Band radio (SSB) is not welcome. This is one rugged installation. It has taken saltwater across the top before and seems to be unfazed. Again, we packed towels around the beloved source of most offshore communications. Soon, Alembic was decorated with hanging wet towels.

Those wet towels were soon put to a second use as we sopped up a black, silvery, sooty mess in the cockpit and around the aft companionway. Those huge waves earlier in the trip had given our boat a thorough wash-down, including funneling water through our boom, cleaning years worth of aluminum corrosion. Aluminum is a funny metal. It reacts to saltwater slightly, creating a surface oxide, which actually protects it from further reactions. Well, we washed out the inside of our boom. Stuffing towels into the aft end was the only way we could stop the black drips.

So many dolphins crowded under our bow
The dolphins gave us quite a show

Gladden Spit was a most welcome sight! Dolphins greeted us as we entered through one of the openings of the 560 miles of Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System. We felt like we were home. Maybe it was the relief of ending this crazy journey, maybe it was because we sailed here last year, and most likely, it was because our baby girl, now a brilliant strong woman, was about to arrive and join us for a week. We played with the dolphins, watched as black clouds skirted by us just a mile north, rinsed off in the light sprinkles, and headed into Placentia to anchor.
Arriving in Placentia harbor

This marvelous quiet anchorage, with friendly cruisers who are willing to share tools, was the perfect spot to fix all of our broken pieces. Alembic was back in fine working order just in time for a delightful, failure-free week with Erica and Wes!

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