Summer in the meadow

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I was looking forward to seeing the bluebird chicks fledge this year. Last year, we left for the summer just as they were ready to fly. This year I’ll see them, I thought. I was wrong. Although a pair of bluebirds checked out the nesting boxes in our meadow, in the end it was a pair of tree swallows who moved into the middle box, chasing all other comers away.

It was fun watching them build their nest in the box I had carefully cleared out for the bluebirds, one beakful of grass, one twig at a time. Then eggs were laid, apparently, and the long, patient incubation period began. The parents would take turns sitting on the nest and soaring around over the meadow snatching bugs out of the air. Swallows are such accomplished fliers. The little ones did fledge, finally, and suddenly the tree swallows were gone. House wrens moved into the boxes, and we got to watch them fledge one or two broods before they too flew off.

But there was another treat in store for us. In early May I heard sandhill cranes flying overhead.

“Just passing through,” I told Chris.

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And I thought they had, until one morning in June I heard them in the meadow next to us. I raced out of Meadowlark in my pyjamas (not a sight you ever want to see) with my binoculars slung around my neck, climbed a big rock in the fenceline between our field and the neighbours, and there were two long, skinny necks rising above the grass, calling wildly to the parents, who were circling overhead, calling back to them, trying to coax them into flight, perhaps? It didn’t work. The young birds slunk over the crest of the hill and out of sight as soon as they spotted me.

“They do nest here!” I told Chris. Turns out they are no longer in decline—in fact their population is stable and increasing. I hope this pair comes back next spring. Sandhill cranes like to nest in marshy wetlands, and goodness knows we have lots of that.

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We have spent the summer working on our own nest box, Meadowlark, the boat we’re building in the meadow on our farm south of Owen Sound. You would hardly recognize it now. Remember the picture from last winter?? Plywood floors, plastic vapour barrier on the walls? Here’s what it looks like now.

Sure, the bedroom, which is behind the wall you see, isn’t finished yet. Maybe next year. Chris has moved on to another project.

He’s building a woodshed/garden shed down at Brenda’s cabin, and if you think this means whapping up some two-by-four studding and slapping on a roof, you don’t know Chris. He started by cutting down trees.

Then he milled them into 6 x 6-inch timbers using a chain saw.

After that, he put up posts and beams then recruited some help building the walls.

He’s made great progress, but the project is on hold for now because we leave for England in a couple of days to hike across the country. The narrow part of the country—we’re walking the path along Hadrian’s Wall, ran from the banks of the River Tyne near the North Sea to the Solway Firth on the Irish Sea, a distance of 120kms. Which is a bit of a stretch for me—there will be a couple 30km days—but it’s just a stroll between pubs for Chris. With his new drone hovering along behind him. He’s out in the meadow training it right now.

Keeping a sharp eye out for awkward young Sandhill cranes flying overhead.

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It’s a Grand thing!

DCIM100MEDIADJI_0010.JPGThe only thing a writer likes better than writing is being published.

I’m thrilled to announce that an article I wrote on sailing in Cape Breton is featured in the May/June 2018 issue of Grand magazine. Here’s a link to the story online:

http://www.grandmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/MJGRAND18-cape-breton.pdf

Chris’s photography is awesome. What a difference a drone makes! This photo of us sailing in Bras d’Or Lake with our spinnaker up was our first attempt at “droning” while underway. Chris launched the drone from the aft deck without incident, then took some incredible footage while I kept an eye on the helm. Of course the wind began to gust and build as soon as the drone was in the air. Chris brought it back and tried to land it on the now lurching and rolling deck. No luck.

“You’re going to have to catch it,” he said.

What??

“Just stand in the scupper, hang onto the handle on top of the bimini, and reach out as far as you can. I’ll bring it to you.”

All I could think of was the pitcher who had to leave a big game because his hand wouldn’t stop dripping blood–the result of a drone injury. I put on a leather glove.

In the end, it was easy to catch the drone, and now we have a new, smaller drone that will be even easier to catch (don’t ask what happened to the first one….) So you can look forward to more great photography, here and in print.

Hope you enjoy the article. It’s some of our best work.

Loft apartment

IMG_1640It all happened very quickly. Or at least that’s how it seems. It took us a few days to travel up the intracoastal waterway to Titusville then there we were, back on the mooring ball we had left just three short months ago. A couple of days bobbing in the river then just as the sun was rising, we motored into Westland Marina and our date with the travel lift.

Now we’ve had the boat lifted out of the water in a lot of places but never has it been handled this professionally. Dave, the travel lift guy, asked all the right questions beforehand—how much does your boat weigh, is it a full keel, where exactly is the prop—then when we arrived, he inspected the rigging carefully, took a couple of measurements, and decided that we could leave the backstay up but we needed to back into the travel lift.

Like most full-keel boats, ours doesn’t back up straight. At all. So Chris rigged some lines and we hand-bombed it around, something we’ve done many times. The yard workers were very impressed.

Then straps under and up in the air it went. Boats should not be up in the air. Especially 20-ton steel boats. I try not to watch, but of course I can’t help myself. As the travel lift drove away, the well we’d been lifted out of filled with manatees.

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“They love the well,” Angie, a yard worker, told me. “They always hang out here.”

One, two, three, then more, nosing around, loafing in the sun. One fell asleep lying on its back, floating just beneath the surface. Another swam over to a leaking tap to get a drink of fresh water.

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They drink salt water, Angie explained. They can filter the salt out somehow, but it’s so much easier to drink fresh water when they can get it.

And now we’re on the hard, nestled in among palm trees. Preparing the boat to spend the summer in Florida is a new experience for us. No need to put antifreeze in the engine and hoses, but we do have to install a dehumidifier, plug all the through-hulls so creatures don’t climb into the boat, and cover it with some kind of netting so we don’t come back to a boat slick with bird droppings.

The derelict boat beside us, which has been here for at least fifteen years, has a resident osprey at the top of its mast. We find fish (well, what’s left of them anyway, after the osprey is done with them)—on the ground around the boat, and a half-grown black kitten has taken up residence next door, peeking out at us through the missing windows. Oh well, at least he’ll keep the rodent population down. And the snakes, I hope.

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Today we finish packing then remove the canvas covers and everything else above deck that could blow away in a hurricane, install heavy-duty strapping which the yard workers will secure to “mafia blocks,” as they call the heavy concrete anchors they use here. And tomorrow we’ll leave our boat, which is now really a loft apartment in Titusville, and head to our other boat, the one in the meadow, just in time for the bluebirds to come back.

Run for it!

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We started watching for a weather window to cross the Gulf Stream a couple of weeks ago. Our crossing to the Bahamas was perfect; we wanted our return trip to be just as gentle. But the weather was anything but settled—big bands of squalls were spinning off the coast of Florida each afternoon, intensifying over the Gulf Stream. Not good. And conditions were going to deteriorate over the next week.

Then suddenly we saw an opening: a 48-hour period without squalls and with gentle winds from the south. Maybe a bit too gentle. We knew we’d have to motor all the way across but if we didn’t leave then, we’d be pinned down in the Bahamas for who knows how long. So we decided to make a run for it.

Now Monark is a slow boat at the best of times—6 knots is about our top speed; under motor, we’re lucky if we can hold 4—but we couldn’t get it above 3 knots as we motorsailed west through the Northeast Providence Channel. Turns out that a current runs through the channel, which we never really noticed before. Clearly it was against us. But by late afternoon it had reversed and we were making a steady 4 to 5 knots.

The night sail was incredibly beautiful. The moon was almost full but the sky was full of witchy clouds which would drift in front of it, then clear again. Not that we had much time to watch the moon. So much ship traffic! Rarely were we tracking fewer than a dozen ships on the AIS–cruise ships, oil tankers, cargo ships. No other sailboats, curiously, though we could hear them chattering on the radio from time to time, bored I think—where are you now? and where are you?

Around midnight we left the Northeast Providence Channel and headed out into the strait between the Bahamas and Florida. Suddenly the cruise ships bound for Miami were crossing our bow, leaving a respectful distance though, so no problem. The 1,000-foot cargo ship heading straight for us was more of a problem. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen both the port and starboard running lights of a big ship.

Chris grabbed the mike and hailed the captain.

“This is the sailboat Monark, off your bow. I just wanted to make sure you saw us.”

A long pause.

“Yes, I see you.” Had he seen us before we called? “I’ll alter course to pass your stern.”

Slowly the green light disappeared leaving only the red light visible. We watched as an enormous boat, empty so riding high, passed behind us. Not very far behind us, but far enough.

Then we entered the Gulf Stream and the winds picked up. We spanked along at 6 knots much of the night—with the engine running. We wanted to get across the Gulf Stream as quickly as possible. And as it turns out, every minute gained was a good thing. And I mean every minute. They were wrong about the 48 squall-free hours.

By noon the next day we were out the other side of the Gulf Stream and pretty much on target for Lake Worth Inlet, a bit earlier than we’d expected, in fact. We had to stand off, waiting for the current flowing out of the inlet to slow a little, but around 2:30 the skies to the south of us started to darken and we decided to make a run for it.

We had no problem with the current, but being bounced around by the wake from all the power boats running for shelter was a challenge. What’s going on, we wondered. Then we switched our phone on and it emitted a loud siren sound and flashed a big red alert—TORNADO WATCH. Yes, watch, not warning. We ran for the safety of the anchorage, which was a couple miles in, at our top speed under motor…which isn’t very fast at all. By the time we got there, we were the only boat moving on the waterway. We dropped the hook and closed up the canvas, and then the squall was on us.

The torrential rains weren’t the problem—it was kind of nice getting the salt washed off the boat. But the wall of wind that hit us was stronger than anything we’d ever experienced, greater even than the 60-knot winds we survived in the big gale in the North Atlantic. The boat lurched to port and heeled so far the rail was almost in the water. We had to brace ourselves to keep from falling over. Of course the anchor, which had barely set, couldn’t withstand that kind of force and started to drag. Chris started the engine and turned us into the wind, enough to take the sideways pressure off the poor Rocna, which immediately reset.

Fortunately, it was over as quickly as it came up—the wind, anyway. The tornado watch was lifted but the heavy rain continued for some time. We sat in the cockpit getting drenched as water found its way in every seam and opening, dribbled in, actually.

When it was over, the temperature had dropped 10 degrees and the air was crisp and clear, the smothering humidity of the afternoon completely gone. Most of it was in our cockpit, I think.

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Over the past couple of days, the weather out in the ocean has deteriorated as predicted, big winds from the northeast and huge seas, rip currents along the coast. So now we’re motoring peacefully, tediously north in the intracoastal waterway.

But I’ll tell you one thing: we keep a close eye on the sky in the late afternoons.

Weiner soup

white cay (1)We don’t really mind being stuck here, in one of the prettiest anchorages in the Bahamas. We’re the only boat tucked behind White Cay in The Berry Islands, pretty much where we started this winterlude, waiting for the squally weather to settle down and the winds to calm before we move on. We can look out past the coral reef and check the sea state each morning. Still looks a bit rough out there. One more day.

But our provisions are running a little low. Fresh food is hard to find in these islands. Really hard. Unless you’re lucky enough to be near a settlement when the mail boat comes in. Even then meat is scarce and the produce is in pretty rough shape, travel worn and wilting fast in the heat. Much of it comes from the United States—Romaine hearts from California, what are clearly the “B” oranges from Florida. But a huge amount of it comes from Leamington, Ontario, the tomato capital of Canada. Also, obviously, the greenhouse capital. Not many tomatoes, peppers, and cucumbers being grown in Ontario in April.

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I think longingly of last summer, as we sailed the Bras d’Or Lakes, truly the land of plenty when it comes to provisions. I worked happily at perfecting my recipe for pot en pot, inspired by a scrumptious meal we had in Îsles de la Madeline. It’s essentially chunks of seafood swimming in a creamy sauce and topped with flakey pastry.

Most of the essential ingredients were easy to come by—a fish truck came to St. Peter’s Inlet every Tuesday, selling bags of fresh scallops, beautiful pieces of halibut, fresh shrimp. No lobster, though. The season had closed. And lobster is what makes pot en pot so special.

Ah hah, I thought when we arrived in the Bahamas. Chris will be able to spear us a big juicy lobster.

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I was wrong. The seafood cupboard is bare here, some say a result of the hurricane but given the number of boats crowding into the anchorages, I’d say overfishing is the real cause. Chris has tried diligently, but apart from the fish head he caught on the way here, the only thing he’s landed is a barracuda—a nasty, skinny fish with razor-sharp teeth. After carefully extracting his hook (I’m happy to report that he still has all his fingers) he threw it back in.

Oh wait—he’s also caught an impressive amount of Sargasso weed. And a plastic grocery bag.

We’ve seen more sharks than fish here—way more. Nurse sharks loaf on the bottom near docks where the local fishermen come in to clean their catch (how do they find fish?) Along with enormous rays, and needlefish, for some reason. And the occasional sea turtle. Don’t worry. I didn’t even think of turtle soup.

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We even had a family of lemon sharks take up residence under our boat in Black Point Settlement, a sure sign that we had stayed too long. I first noticed them when I tossed an apple core over the side and a large, strange looking “fish” darted out from under out keel to check it out.

“Look at this, Chris.” I tossed some carrot peelings over the side and not one but three lemon sharks swam out to investigate. For the record, sharks do not like apple cores or carrot peelings.

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Nurse sharks milling around, waiting for handouts from the fishermen.

Now that we’re on our way back to Florida where we’ll store the boat for the summer—we’re heading home to work on Meadowlark, our other “boat”—I’ve stopped looking for fresh provisions and we’re trying to use up our canned goods. Last night I made corn chowder with our last potato, our second-last onion, and a can of niblets corn.

“This needs something,” Chris said, spooning up the thin, mean soup.

Yes, I thought. Some carrots or celery.

“Maybe some fish,” he suggested, reaching for his tackle box.

We’re definitely having weiner soup tonight.

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Weiner soup. It’s more delicious than it looks. Yes, those are toasted hot dog buns on the side.

Close encounter

The Exumas are everything we had remembered. Pristine beaches. Impossibly blue water. Sunny all the time. We decided to take the afternoon off. (What does an afternoon on look like, you might wonder. Pretty much the same.)

We put on our bathing suits, loaded up Chris’s spear fishing gear, and headed to shore. I was going to do some swimming, he was going to hunt—which means snorkeling along the reef and looking for anything big enough to impale on a sharp, six-foot piece of steel. You can see why I prefer swimming.

We anchored the dinghy in about four feet of water, halfway between the reef and the beach. He headed for the reef and I set off at a leisurely pace along the beach, front stroke, side stroke, back stroke, then just loafing in the warm water. Mmmm. This is nice.

After a while, I swam to the beach and stood up, looked around for Chris. Oh there he is, swimming towards a coral head just a little ways beyond where the dinghy is bobbing in the water.

Hmm, I don’t remember passing two coral heads. The big one is shaped like a shark.

And it’s moving.

“Chris!” I shouted. He of course couldn’t hear me. I watched in horror as he and a huge shark converged on the coral head. He saw it just in time and turned toward shore, swimming calmly but quickly towards the beach.

We stood together in the surf and watched it work its way around the coral head then slowly back to the reef.

“When did you notice it?” I asked him.

“I was looking at little silver fishes with a pretty blue stripe on them, swimming around the coral head. Then I was looking into a great big eye. He was huge, bigger than me, at least six feet long. It looked like a bull shark to me.”

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We Googled “bull shark” when we got back to the boat and found a picture. Yep. That’s what it was. They’re pretty common in the Bahamas, one of three deadly sharks to look out for—bull sharks have a reputation for being unpredictable and aggressive and are responsible for the majority of fatal incidents.

But don’t worry—there are things you can do to prevent a shark attack. Avoid swimming near cuts, where the ocean flows onto and off of the Bahama Bank with the tides (we were right beside a cut.) Avoid wearing a brightly coloured bathing suit, especially one that is “yum-yum-yellow” (Chris was wearing his yellow bathing suit.) If you see a shark, leave the water as calmly and quickly as possible. (Chris has that one nailed.)

If it looks like the shark is going to attack, there are things you can do: Fold your non-dominate arm into a V-shape with your wrist facing toward your bicep to protect your arteries and aim your elbow directly at the shark. That way if the shark bites your arm, it will be biting across two bones.

Very sensible and reassuring advice.

Oh and here’s the best way to prevent shark attacks: Throw your husband’s spear fishing gear overboard the next time you’re in deep water.

Eyelash in the ocean

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It shouldn’t, but it always amazes me that we can set out into the ocean, nothing but blue horizon ahead of us, and somehow make landfall exactly where we had intended.

This time we were aiming for a particularly small target—just a little eyelash of land in the Bahamas, if you can call a string of tiny islands that. The Berry Islands are somewhere between Nassau and Freeport, too tiny to even see unless you zoom way in on the chart plotter. And to get there from Florida, a journey of about 130 miles, you have to cross the Gulf Stream.

We had gentle winds from the south when we set out, so gentle that we put all our sails up: the main, the genoa, a staysail hanked onto the forestay (yeah, hanked: that’s what you do when you don’t bend a sail, you hank it on.) Chris loves having all the sails up, he watches the wind shift, fiddles with them. Like a big kid flying a kite. Three kites. Three really big kites. It’s almost enough activity for him…

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We hit the Gulf Stream just a few miles offshore—hit isn’t quite right: we noticed we were in it because the water changed colour, a different blue, don’t quite know how to describe it, and clumps of Sargasso weed started drifting by. And we started drifting too.

The Gulf Stream is actually a river, 20- to 30-miles wide off the coast of Florida and flowing northward at up to 5 knots in the centre. In the light winds, we were only holding 4 to 5 knots, many of them sideways. The bow was pointing east but the boat was moving north, just a little at first then more and more as the current grew stronger.

At one point, a big ship appeared off our port bow. Fine, we thought, and it would have been if we were moving forward, but we were actually drifting right towards him: we were on a collision course. Chris realized it in time to turn our bow north and run with the current, passing harmlessly behind him. It was a weird experience.

By the time we came out of the Gulf Stream, our path on the chart plotter was a long, smooth arc running west to east. After that it went back to a straight line and it was clear sailing through the night, with a full moon all the way. We saw dozens of other ships: oil tankers and cruise ships for the most part, a handful of sailboats, some work boats plying the waters between Nassau and Freeport. And just after dawn, The Berry Islands appeared on the horizon.

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Yes I know, we have a chart plotter to keep us on course, but still, with the vagaries of wind and current, not to mention unexpected course changes to avoid other ships, it still surprises me when we end out where we had hoped to. By noon, we were entering the narrow cut—and I mean narrow—into Great Harbour Cay marina.

We spent several days in the marina after clearing in, waiting for huge swells out in ocean to subside, and I mean huge—up to 24 feet in the Atlantic, a paltry 12 feet between The Berry Islands and Nassau, the aftermath of a winter storm that ravaged the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada.

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It was an interesting place, Great Harbour Cay, once a playground of the rich and famous drawn by the beautiful beaches and a championship 18-hole golf course. According to the locals, Cary Grant danced the night away in the magnificent multi-story clubhouse. Brigitte Bardot graced the beaches with her beauty. Jack Nicklaus had a house on a hilltop along the back nine.

The golf course closed after pretty much draining the aquifer beneath the island and the club house fell to ruin, but the beaches are still stunning, miles of white sand in a sheltered crescent bay. We walked them every day, looking out over the ocean to see if the swell was subsiding, sometimes stopping for lunch at The Beach Club, a tiny open-air restaurant in the dunes.

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After three days the swells began to subside a little so we made a very rolly dash to a reasonably sheltered anchorage at White Cay, about 30 miles south along the string of islands. There we stayed for another three nights waiting out some big winds, which we weathered very well, our anchor having wrapped itself securely around a big rock.

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Once we’d untangled it, we enjoyed a very pleasant sail to the southernmost tip of The Berry Island, and tucked ourselves in between Frazer’s Hog Cay and Cockroach Cay. We dinghied to a narrow strip of beach and walked the road on Frazer’s Hog (and never a pig in sight) but decided not to go ashore on Cockroach Cay.

Monday night a massive cold front rolled over us with winds up to 30 knots in the squalls, but we weathered it well, our anchor firmly set in sand. By morning, the skies were clear, it was sunny, and a steady west wind had set in. Perfect weather for crossing to Nassau. So we did.

smaller fish head

On the way, Chris managed to catch a fish head–well, he probably had the whole fish on at one time, but something made short work of it before he could reel it in. Next he caught an impressive-sized hunk of Sargasso weed. I told him that if he caught an onion and a couple of carrots, I could make a nice soup for dinner.

We’re in Nassau now, about to set out to explore the Exumas, another chain of islands in the Bahamas, these considerably longer than an eyelash. Cel signal might be sketchy, so you may not hear from us for a while. But know that we’ll be thinking of you as we swim in the clear waters, walk the sandy beaches, and enjoy a glass of prosecco on the foredeck as we watch the sun go down.