Author Archives: Shane Dennis

Flight of Fancy

Panama. Hot, steamy, and a good place to evaluate where our voyage was going to take us. Leaping off from Panama meant committing to another five months at sea as we crossed the Pacific.

It was starting to become clear Franklin was finding life on a small boat frustrating and a little lonely and we wondered whether it was a good idea to keep him on the boat for the time necessary to get to Australia. I personally, could not imagine spending thirty days at sea on a boat with a frustrated child. We wondered whether it might have been a good idea to have a second child immediately after Franklin so he would have had a sibling to bounce off.

We had a second problem, Ruby and Darla were due to meet us somewhere on June 27th for a month. We were not sure whether we could get somewhere where the flights were inexpensive enough for us to pay for them. And then when they came we could come up with an affordable plan to accommodate them.

We talked about flying Mary and Franklin or Shane and Franklin to Australia to wait while the other parent completed the crossing. We talked about flying Franklin to one of his Grandmothers while we completed the crossing.

Our finances were tight. In order to harden the boat for the crossing we felt we needed a backup autopilot (preferably a no-power wind vane) and we wanted to replace the standing rigging that we had not yet replaced.  If we flew Franklin and one parent to Australia we would not be able to afford these improvements.

We examined all our options, and in the end we could not envision a good, safe plan to get Sea Change across the Pacific this year. In the end, we mothballed Sea Change II and put her on the hard in the secure yard at Shelter Bay Marina in Panama. A very difficult decision but the right one for us.

We bought plane tickets to Sydney and arrived in early May where we are staying with my brother. Franklin is a much happier little boy, and looks forward eagerly to go to preschool on Wednesdays and Fridays. Mary and I both have work and our finances are turning around. Ruby and Darla are due to fly in on June 27th and we have a plan to accommodate them.

What is the future of Sea Change II? We have put her on the market. If we are offered about 2/3 of the price we would get in the US, we will sell her. If she does not sell this year then we will ship her to Sydney or have her delivered. We must have a sailboat and Sea Change II would be a great boat for Sydney Harbor and surrounds.

Do we see ourselves making another sailing voyage? We both yearn for the sea, but neither of wants do it one a small boat with a small child. For now we are going to enjoy the absolutely fabulous sailing grounds around Sydney on weekends and holidays. Next time we go voyaging we will follow the more traditional path and wait until our children are independent and then join the many other aging sailors on the high seas.

Fort Sherman

Battery Baird, at Fort Sherman.

Battery Baird, at Fort Sherman.

It is a bit of a fib to say we are in Colon. Shelter Bay Marina is located in an abandoned US military base, still know as “Fort Sherman” by the locals. Colon is about thirty minutes by car. The route crosses the Gatun Lock so there is often a long delay as ships lock through.

A view  of the  fort from above.

A view of the fort from above.

Fort Sherman was built at the same time as the Panama Canal, and used by the US to secure the canal. The base was abandoned by US in 1999, and immediately stripped bare by the Panamanians. Shells of US military housing remain, along with both newer and older military installations. The roads through the base now serve as convenient nature trails for visitors to Shelter Bay Marina.

Mary in the brig - "cell 6".

Mary in the brig – “cell 6″.

In Panama, we needed to make up our minds: whether to remain in the Americas for another year, or cross the Pacific this season. A trip to Colon, and a few walks along Fort Sherman’s roads sealed the deal. We like Colon. We like Panama. Panama has it’s own intrinsic culture that is not tourist dominated. The Panamanian jungle is exotic and interesting. We have seen Howling monkeys, Capuchin monkeys, and some oversize rabbity looking thing we do not know the name of. We are able to just scrape enough money to pay our bills.

Mary & Shane in  the rainforest, looking for howler monkeys.

Mary & Shane in the rainforest, looking for howler monkeys.

Shelter Bay Marina is an easy place to stay. At only $24/night for a boat our size staying at least 16 days, $10/week for Internet and $1 happy hours beers we can afford to stay here indefinitely. It is also a great place from which to fly the US, so I will be flying to Minnesota to visit Ruby and Darla, Harvey and Diane, Mark and the SpEd Forms crew, and pick up some parts.

We found some!  Can you spot the monkeys?

We found some! Can you spot the monkeys?

After I return, we will get the boat ready and start making our way to the San Blas Islands and then to Cartagena, Columbia. Our plan is to put the boat on the hard (ie: pull the boat out of the water) do some maintenance on the hull and put Franklin in a Columbian preschool for a few months. We have heard great things about Cartagena and Columbia, and look forward to visiting.

A close up of an interesting tree trunk.

A close up of an interesting tree trunk.

After Cartagena, who knows? Our plans are written in sand.

Our own little monkey, exploring Panama.

Our own little monkey, exploring Panama.


Another breath taking sunset over the Caribbean Sea.

Passage to Panama

The storm brewing over Jamaica.  Glad we were able to outrun it.

The storm brewing over Jamaica. Glad we were able to outrun it.


We had a little hitchhiker. He stayed the night in our produce hammock.

We had a little hitchhiker. He stayed the night in our produce hammock.

The Caribbean Sea is notorious for strong trade winds and steep seas. The trade winds peak from January to March and gradually dissipate from March onwards.  We watched weather patterns in the Caribbean for two weeks before leaving and left Port Antonio as a strong system dissipated on March 20th.

The first thirty miles of the passage took us against the wind and current along the north eastern coast of Jamaica. We motor sailed into the wind and current and then found more favorable conditions as we turned south towards Panama. As night fell the first night, we found ourselves becalmed with strong thunderstorms forming over Jamaica, so we motored again during the night to get a safe distance away from them.

Around midnight, we turned off the engine again, and enjoyed a spectacular lightning show over the island of Jamaica from a safe distance. Becalmed again, a north setting current pushed us eight miles northeast until the wind finally rose enough at dawn. At dawn we raised our full sails and picked up speed as we made for our next waypoint, 50 miles east of the Rancador Bank.

Jamaican produce for the passage.

Jamaican produce for the passage.

If you look at a chart of the Caribbean, you might wonder why we headed towards the Rancador Bank. The Rancador Bank adds about 80 nautical miles to the passage to Panama. However, pilot charts and a study of weather suggested a high likelihood of gale forces winds along the rhumb line to Panama. They also suggested more northerly winds and favorable currents closer the Central America.

Sea Change II is a heavy cruising sailboat which prefers stronger winds, but there was no reason to subject to 30 to 35 knot winds if not necessary. Strong sustained winds make it more likely things on the boat will break and leave less room for error on the part of the crew.

From Monday morning, wind and seas built steadily from light and variable to 20 to 30 kts off the stern quarter by the time we turn south of the the Rancador Bank.  Big, steep, following seas and some current pushed along at up to an impressive 9 kts at times (the nominal hull speed, or maximum speed, of our boat is just under 7 kts).

The steep seas also took a toll on the crew as we adjusted to the motion of the boat. I usually take one Dramamine on the first day of the passage and that usually “cures” me on sea sickness for the remainder of the trip. On this passage, I took four Dramamine over the roughest two days to keep sea sickness at bay. We have always cooked on passage, but we found it much more difficult on this passage. We resolved to bring more easy to prepare comfort foods.

The longer passage also gave us a better opportunity than our shorter passages to learn the ideal watch schedule for us. Remember, we need to maintain a sharp watch all the time which means somebody must always be awake and alert. By the end of the sail we were finding long shifts during the day and evening, followed by 4 hour on, 4 hours off shifts over night. Mary tends to sleep better in the morning and I tended to sleep better in the afternoon.

Another hitchhiker didn't fare so well....  This little flying fish was already dead by the time we found him in the morning.

Another hitchhiker didn’t fare so well…. This little flying fish was already dead by the time we found him in the morning.

We had also been wondering how Franklin would handle his longest passage yet. We found he handled the passage best (perhaps because he was getting plenty of sleep!) and was happy snuggled in his lee cloth during the bumpy times , watching movies, reading books and playing computer games. Mary also found the time and energy to read books to Franklin and snuggle him during the day.

For this passage, there was no question who the stronger crew member was. Mary. She was generally less affected by sea sickness and/or had a stronger will to overcome it. When I first took Mary sailing more than five years ago, no doubt who was the “better” and more experienced sailor. I think on this passage it became abundantly clear we are now increasingly equal in skill. It sure is good to have a competent crew mate. Even nicer to have one so gorgeous and smart.


With the 5 to 30 knots off our quarter for the remainder of our sail we enjoyed an almost perfect trade wind sail from the about 50 nm south of Jamaica to 50 nm east of Panama. During one 26 hour period we made 160 nm, quite impressive for a 34 ft boat with a 26 ft waterline.

Early Friday morning the winds tured light and variable as we approached Panama so we turned on the motor and used the remainder of our diesel to motor into Colon.

Entering Colon harbour we were surrounded by anchored ships and a a procession of ships entering and leaving Colon Harbor. AIS, a technology we have our our boat to track the movement of ships, was never more useful as it helped identify how fast ships were moving and if they posed a danger to us.

We entered Shelter Island Marina around 10:30am on Friday morning after a fantastic sail.







Port Antonio, Recap

@ Errol Flynn Marina

@ Errol Flynn Marina

We spent three weeks in Port Antonio, Jamaica. One week getting our act together and then another two weeks waiting for a good weather window to cross to Panama. Port Antonio is a pretty spot, a perfectly protected harbour with a backdrop of lush, tropical mountains.

The Jamaican customs, immigration, police and quarantine officers are also friendly, professional and efficient. Checking in cost nothing and took less than a day.

Port Antonio Marina (AKA Errol Flynn Marina) is a good value stop. Marina manager Paul Dadd does a great job. Dockhand “Flower” is darn good at his job. Boatyard manager George is helpful and informative. Marsha does a great job keeping the facilities sparkling. With good staff, Internet and clean facilities at a $1/foot it was easy to justify staying at the marina while we caught up on maintenance and work. The marina has an affordable Cuban run poolside bar – the $2.50 beers and $4 hamburgers added to our enjoyment and waistlines! We went to Cuba after all.

John (The Hulk) and Rudy, a husband and wife team, polished our stainless steel, scrubbed our topsides and rinsed our hull for less than US$100. Visiting boaters who need the same service can call them on 1 876 429 3007 or email Presley is another friendly local who is willing to help boaters out with Jamaican courtesy flags, manual labor, propane refills and other services. Presley’s phone number is 572 3959.

Port Antonio has a reputation for being relatively hassle free compared to other Jamaican towns. Most vendors were respectful after we firmly said “No”, but some were annoying persistent. Three vendors to avoid in Port Antonio include Clive the Banana Man; Randal, fixer and pimp; the CD Man and the Lemon Grass man. No you did not suddenly become more likable, attractive and charismatic the minute you stepped foot in Jamaica!

Highlights of our stay in Jamaica? The poolside bar where Franklin started really swimming, good Jamaican patties, trying out real Jamaican jerk in Boston Bay, Reach Falls with Andre and Christine, wonderfully fresh fruit and vegetables, friendly people and the generally friendly and helpful staff at the Port Antonio Marina. Thanks Jamaica. Yeah Mon.


Tracking our passage on Twitter

On Sunday we leave for our longest non-stop passage of this trip so far. A 615  nautical mile (1139Km for you landlubbers) passage from the north coast of Jamaica to Colon, Panama. During the passage we will be sending our GPS position out via Twitter with a short message every day. Thanks Iridium!

The Twitter account to follow is @shanedennis1971.

To see our location on a map, go to Google Maps and enter or copy and paste the GPS coordinates from the Twitter feed into the search field. To try it, put the following GPS coordinates into the Google Maps search field:
N 18 10.842′ W 76 27.197′
and then click “Enter”. You will see our current location in Port Antonio, Jamaica.


Caught a cold (front) to Jamaica

Our last day in The Bahamas- Matthew Town, Great Inagua.

Our last day in The Bahamas- Matthew Town, Great Inagua.

After our months long slog against the prevailing winds down the east coast of North America our sail to Jamaica from Georgetown was ideallic. We caught the tail end of a cold front out of Georgetown.

In the Bahamas cold fronts are sailing opportunities because during the passing of a front winds clock from their prevailing south easterly set to the south, then southwest, west, northwest, north, northeast and east before blowing from the southeast again.

As we left Georgetown we caught the tail end of a strong northwesterly sailing north east to the top of Long Island. The wind turned to the north with perfect timing as we rounded the north end of Long Island, then to the north east as we sailed through the far Bahamas and finally to the east as we sailed through the Windward Passage.

The just about perfect timing of the front allowed us to sail in the same tack (wind blowing on the same side of the boat) for more than three hundred miles at five to seven knots. It was not until we were a hundred miles from Jamaica that the wind died as it

Jamaica, view from about 10 miles out.

Land Ho!  Jamaica, view from about 10 miles out.

to do there in protected in three sides from Hispaniola, Jamaica and Cuba.

The sailing could not have been better. The week at sea has also given Mary and I time to work out our passage schedule. We keep a constant watch, which means some one needs to be awake 24/7 while we are at sea. We also have some ideas about cabin arrangements that we hope will make long passages easier.

Little Birdy

Our little Jamaican Welcome Swallow.

Our little Jamaican Welcome Swallow.

It wasn’t until I stood up to scan the dark horizon that we noticed each other, sixty miles North of Jamaica, in the early morning. He flew away and circled the boat and then, exhausted, landed back on the cabin top. I wonder what he thought of me, on this strange little rolly island. He probably wondered how I came to be here too. Safe at last floating to a destination unknown upon the wavy sea.

Herd Mentality

An evening stroll on the beach, Stocking Island, Atlantic side, (Georgetown).

An evening stroll on the beach, Stocking Island, Atlantic side, (Georgetown).

A view of (one little part of) an anchorage near Georgetown.

A view of (one little part of) an anchorage near Georgetown.

If there is anything that defines Georgetown as a sailing destination it is herd mentality. Don’t get me wrong Georgetown is a great cruising destination, with well protected anchorages, good holding, half a dozen beaches and organized activities for young and old alike. There is good reason almost four hundred sailboats joined us there. Sailors tend to be independent types and non-conformers so there must be a draw.

But by the end of our month long stay we were itchig to go. As it happened the weather window looked good for our run to Jamaica also coincided with the Long Island Rally, an organized event where about sixty sailboats head to neighboring Long Island for a few days.

Usually I fastidiously study tide and wind patterns before leaving or entering any unfamiliar entrance. But with sixty other boats, countless meetings and weather delays these things must have been considered by organizers, right?

After we weighed anchor at 7am, Mary suggested we raise the main. “Let’s motor a little first, eat our porridge and charge the batteries”, said I. With porridge in tummies I started to look around for an opportunity to raise the main. But by this time we were in a narrow channel, surrounded by sixty other sailboats. Who would have guessed it?

Later, I would watch jealously out of the side of my eyes as our friends on Fata Morgana sailed passed us, while Franklin puked in a bucket, green water came across our beam and our belongings were rearranged in our cabin. And I would wonder why a fifty catamaran chose a seemingly crazy moment to slip between us and another monohull.

Lesson learned. The herd does not always know best. Study every entrance, don’t get accidentally caught in other people’s races and raise that main early for goodness sake.

Indecision might be our problem but we are not sure

As a popular cruiser sailing saying goes, “Our plans are written in sand.”

While waiting for our supplies to arrive from the US and doing subsequent boat maintenance in Georgetown we have had plenty of time to think about where we want to go next.

Our first impulse was to head south through the Windward Passage to Cuba and then south to Port Antoni, Jamaica before sailing south to Cartegena, Columbia.  However the more we heard about Cuba the less interested we were in going there. We have a keen sense of fairness, and from everything we learned about Cuba from other sailors and our research, fairness does not prevail in Cuba. We also talked to and read accounts from other sailors who had sailed from Port Antonia to Cartegena and in short, no one we talked to had a good sail. The path is slightly into the prevailing trades and there is a three quarter knot west setting current which forces slower boats like ours into a close reach against trades that strengthen to 25-30 knots off Columbia.

We then turned our attention to the route along the south coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic. We figured we would get a better sailing approach for Cartegena if we left from the east coast of Hispaniola. However, after searching extensively for cruising guides we were not able to find enough information about this route.  There appeared to be some viable stops along the west coast of Haiti but we learned there was a real risk of piracy and/or violent crime at those ports.  The south coast of Haiti also did not look very promising, with a beat into very reliable easterly trades. One remote cape in particular, the aptly names Cabo Beata, looked particularly difficult to round against the trades.

Our bookshelves hold a plethora of  information on the traditional “Thorny Path”. We have no less than four detailed cruising guides and complete charts through to Grenada. The Thorny Path takes sailors through the Turks and Caicos, along the North coast of the Dominican Republic to Puerto Rico and eventually the Eastern Caribbean. However not only did this route look like an unappetizing bash against the trades, but we already find ourselves tired of the tourist dominated economy of the Bahamas and can’t see ourselves enjoying doing the traditional Eastern Caribbean sailing route which includes many economies dominated by Western tourists.

We turned our attention back to that big island on the south end of the Windward Passage. Jamaica. During our research into possible routes we learned about Port Antonio, Jamaica, a tourist port on the Northeast coast of Jamaica.  Jamaica sounded neat with it’s own indigenous culture that has not yet been overwhelmed by Western tourists.  Port Antonio seems also to have a boat maintenance facility we can make use of.

And then after Jamaica what next? A turn towards Jamaica means we are turning our back on the Eastern Caribbean. In the end, perhaps we just are not interested right now in a tour of beautiful islands with tourist dominated economies. Well not in the Caribbean, at least. The truth is we want to get to the Pacific sooner rather than later. Perhaps we are more “voyaging” than “cruising” sailors. So after Jamaica we will head directly south, via some very pretty but less visited islands and atolls to Panama. We hope to get through the Panama Canal and then evaluate whether we are ready to cross the Pacific this year.

So that is the plan. We leave when the weather allows… but we reserve the right to change our mind, because after all our plans are written in sand.

Georgetown, Exumas

N 23 32.05
W 75 45.53

We are anchored off Volleyball Beach after cruise through the Exumas with stops at Allen’s Cay, Norman’s Cay, Shroud Cay, Black Point, Staniel Cay Farmers Cay and Galliots Cut. The Exumas exceed our expectations and must be one of the more lovely cruising areas of the world. Pretty anchorages, friendly towns, crystal clear water, good snorkeling… the only thing missing was a good Internet connection, necessary for me to continue to work.

Here in Georgetown we join about three hundred other cruising boats. For most this is the final stop on their journey south before they start heading North again for the northern summer.  For others, like us, Georgetown is the last place to resupply and recover for quite some time. We will stay here until our mail comes which will include some parts including a marine head (toilet)  rebuild kit (yippee), some replacement running rigging and some zinc anodes not available here in the Bahamas.

It is time to catch up on our affairs. But first, tonight our friends Blair and Edith on “It’s a Kind of Magic” have kindly offered to watch Franklin while we have a small night out.