Not every voyage goes as planned—sometimes the toughest decision calls for staying at the dock and knowing when it’s time to flee the Caribbean’s siren song.
In April the winter trades begin to subside. Low-pressure systems rambling across the continental U.S. toward the Caribbean are not yet a concern for mariners. Intermittent showers cool the nights and wash away the dust.
A buzz of activity percolates in boatyards from Antigua to the Virgin Islands as cruisers prepare to head northwest to Florida, north for Bermuda, or across the Atlantic to Europe. The constant chorus of crowing roosters and the fragrant scent of burning palms are a reminder that this isn’t Ft. Lauderdale. Names on the chart such as Mona Passage, Puerto Rico Trench, Tongue of the Ocean, and Windward Passage ignite an inner wanderlust.
I’m in St. Thomas to deliver a weathered Grand Banks 42 Motoryacht 1,200 miles to West Palm Beach, Florida where she’ll undergo a refit at Rybovich. Admittedly, describing this boat as “weathered” is akin to describing Fallujah as kind of a rough neighborhood.
Arawak spent the last seven years anchored in a Jersey Bay mangrove on the eastern end of St. Thomas where she was forced to take in vagrants and misfits who checked out from society years ago. Live-aboard squatters deposited a trail of tears from stem to stern consisting of worn, pungent clothes, rusted canned goods, empty beer bottles, and the odd flip-flop or two.
Oh yeah, there are several teak- and wiring-eating rats, too.
It’s a sad way for a grand lady to enter her golden years. She served her masters well during a tough 15-year bareboat charter career (which was 10 years too long). Arawak did everything she was asked to do. She shook off novice boaters who trampled over her teak decks like Clydesdales, gritted her teeth as one charterer bounced her bum across Johnson Reef, and another crashed her bow into the bulkhead in Spanish Town. But it was hosting rail-thin burnouts who smoked weed from homemade aluminum-foil pipes that rang the death knell for this once elegant lady.
Arawak needs to be saved.
It’s Good Friday and I’m hopeful we’ve removed the last rat carcass. I’ve thrown away all the remaining squatter debris, pausing a few times, scratching my head in bewilderment at the eclectic collection of rubbish: Why are there baby clothes in the engine room? I file that one away and focus on the tasks ahead. Arawak is at least out of the mangroves and stretching her lines at a slip at Compass Point Marina, hopefully beginning to remember what it’s like to be a yacht, instead of a homeless shelter.
Last October, two months into the project, we realized that a DIY refit of this magnitude was going to be damn near impossible to undertake in the Virgin Islands (see Project Details on page 73). The boatyards in St. Thomas are multiples more expensive than yards in the States. Managers suspect that every boat hoisted on their Travelift will be abandoned in the corner of their yard, extending the rows of shattered cruising dreams. Can’t say I blame them. Most yard owners also excercise the supply-and-demand formula, and know haul-out options are limited. It’s a drain on the budget.
Furthermore, marine supplies are priced a minimum of 25 percent more at local chandleries. And we soon discover that shipping items into St. Thomas is a monumental hassle. (Our toilets—a key component to any refit—are held in customs for five days.) Nope, in order to kick this project into high gear, we need to get the boat back to the States and in an environment where we have tactical control—just as soon as we finish the next task—repowering with two shiny new 220-horsepower Yanmar diesels.
Soon enough, I discover this journey is not going to be as easy as the previous 26 deliveries I’ve completed between the Caribbean and the East Coast. Arnie Hammerman, my good friend, this magazine’s publisher, a hell of a skilled mariner, and a willing participant in this fool’s errand, sensed the challenge as soon as he laid eyes on Arawak’s stained topsides and shabby state. No matter how much I try to prepare him for the scene that waits for us on the dock in St. Thomas, I know my disclaimer-laced description will not paint an accurate picture in his mind.
“But she’ll be safe. I promise you, we won’t leave unless she’s seaworthy,” I said, trying to be frank with a sprinkle of optimism while standing on the finger pier.
“Yeah. Let’s go talk about that,” he replied, casting me a glance that undeniably cried bullshit to my optimism.
We retreated to the key nucleus of any seagoing journey—the bar.
The Dive Bar, tucked into a corner of Compass Point Marina, may be the most appropriately named drinking establishment I’ve ever been to—and I love it. In short order, the local patrons offer opinions—some helpful, some not—and advice. After a few days Arnie and I realize we’re not voyaging to Florida as planned and conclude each happy hour visit with, “We’ll see you tomorrow.” And we do. Again and again.
The days repeat. We awake with a thick layer of bug spray coating our skins, which doesn’t do much to abate the onslaught of mosquitoes that swarm over Arnie and me at night. Then it’s off to work: scrub the interior, install new equipment, clean bilges, and hover above Tommy McCoy and son Jacob while they methodically go through the new Yanmars trying to get them to operate.
Tommy purchased Arawak new in 1996 and then, after a few setbacks during the financial crisis, when folks just stopped coming to charter, especially older boats, things just kind of got put on pause. But now he’s once again fully engaged and excited about the work ahead.
Our best guess is something happened to the engines’ CPUs in shipping. When the port one finally starts, there are high-fives all around. The starboard proves more difficult. Tommy systematically goes through each component, coached by extremely knowledgeable and patient experts from Mastry, Yanmar, and Mack Boring.
Then at last! The starboard engine purrs to life, yet the transmissions on both engines do not engage. (Our consultants at the Dive Bar have some ideas.) While we wait for new parts to arrive from Georgia, Tommy decides we need to keep checking items off our list if we ever want to really depart for West Palm—although by now I begin to accept that I will most likely succumb to malaria and chicken dengue fever, never to leave St. Thomas.
A plan bobs to the surface. Since we’re unable to place the engines into gear, we will tow Arawak with a 14-foot Livingston dinghy into the yard to change the props. Due to the higher revs of the Yanmars, compared to the original 210-horsepower Caterpillar 3208s, new props with a different pitch are necessary. I’m skeptical that towing a 34,000-pound Grand Banks to the yard with a small tender is going to work. My raised eyebrow and silence alert Tommy. He tries to assuage my anxiety.
“Ah hell, what’s the worst that can happen? Not like we’ll have much speed,” Tommy’s pragmatic outlook delivered in a bellowing southern drawl convinces me. And also, of course, I’m anxious to see some progress, any progress.
Tommy possesses an innate sense of wind and current and before we even depart the slip, he can see in his mind’s eye our landing 1,000 yards downstream. He arrived in St. Thomas 30 years ago on a Buccaneer 27 sailboat and lived on various boats with his wife and kids before moving ashore. For a man who has worked so hard in the marine industry, and faced a fair amount of challenges, I’m amazed how much he still loves being on the water.
We arrive at Independent Boatyard and are easily guided into the slings. The yard manager agrees to short haul us during lunch, only after he lays his eyes on our new props and determines that we’re just making a pit stop. He gives us the thumbs up and in less than an hour we have two new wheels installed and begin our journey back to the slip, only this time aided by another tender pushing our stern and bow when needed, tugboat-style.
Back at Compass Point the work continues. The interior is completely cleaned. Every drawer is scrubbed and we place Bounce fabric-softener sheets in each one to freshen things up. We hook up the propane range. Put in a new freshwater pump. Patch the large aft window where the engines came through with a piece of Plexiglas. (New windows will be installed in the States.) Arnie registers the ACR EPIRB and our PLBs, and begins to set up the satphone and weather charts. Jacob and his older brother Brian tackle the outside, cleaning the teak, hull, and deck house. Soon enough, Arawak begins to resemble a cruising yacht again. There is hope.
Rod holders are rigged, thoughts of mahi-mahi tugging on our lines stir the wanderlust bottled up after more than a week on the dock. I lay out the charts and begin to consider our course options.
My usual plan when cruising from St. Thomas to Florida is to depart St. Thomas in the morning and head to San Juan. I top off fuel there and make one last inspection. Then from San Juan Harbor, I head to the northeast side of the Silver Banks, then around the northern side of the Turks and Caicos and into Provo. This leg is just under 48 hours depending on how much I push the throttles.
After clearing customs and topping off, it’s off to George Town, Exumas, which takes about a day and a half. Then customs and more fuel, and up the Exuma Sound to cut through at Big Farmer’s, across the Yellow Bank and up the Tongue of the Ocean, across Bahamas Bank and direct to Florida.
“I get all that, George,” said Tommy. “But I just want us to take our time. Check and recheck the engines at each stop. Make sure everything is going alright.”
He’s right, of course. The smart play would be to stay coastal as much as we can. This means cruising west along the shores of Puerto Rico, across the Mona Passage and along the Dominican Republic, making stops on the way. Then if the boat, and more precisely, her new engines, are running without issues, we could head slightly west of north to the Turks and Caicos.
Arnie agrees with Tommy’s slow and easy approach, but we are both thinking the same thing. We are already a week delayed because of the engine issues. Without proper sea trials, the best option is the coastal alternative. However, this means a 7- to 10-day delivery will evolve into a 14-day journey. Our window is closing.
On Easter Sunday, while my wife and family send pictures of a holiday dinner in Maine, I sit in the saloon munching stale corn chips and room-temperature salsa. I look around, picking at bug-bite scabs on my arm, reminiscing about hot showers and indoor plumbing. I came here to escape to sea. Yet I am on the edge of getting sucked into the rhythm of St. Thomas, and more alarmingly, the Dive Bar. Tommy pops his head through the saloon window—upbeat and matter of fact as always.
“FedEx can’t deliver those parts until Tuesday afternoon,” he says.
That’s it. Tuesday means Wednesday and there are no guarantees that these new parts will solve our problems. I learned long ago, after getting my ass kicked by Hurricane Lenny, the storm that took an unexpected turn from west back to the east, not to force a journey.
I need to get home and regroup, and maybe return when we are farther along. It’s the first time, in an entire lifetime, that I’ve not been able to get a delivery off the dock. I call the airline. There’s a flight in three hours to Boston.
“Twelve-hundred and five dollars additional.”
“I’ll take it!” I shoot back without hesitation.
Once on the plane, I review open dates on my calendar. Come hell or high water, at some point in the near future, I’ll be standing on Arawak’s weathered teak decks, sliding through the deep blue of the Atlantic headed toward Florida. Tommy and Jacob are anxious. So is Arnie. More importantly, I’m confident the grand old lady is ready for a new beginning.
This article originally appeared in the June 2015 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.