On Sunday, February 14, 2010, I joined Captain Michael from the Caribbean Sailing School & Club on board Bébé (41’ Beneteau). He was conducting the practical component of the ASA 104 class, where students go on a night sail. The students were two young couples—Kim and Brian from Rhode Island, and Eugenia and Gerd from New York. I had done this night sail on a full moon night previously. This night there was a new moon (no moon), and on a pitch-black canvas, we sailed into Palomino Island.
We left Sunbay Marina at about 4:30 p.m. The students were busy working on the navigation to the island, without GPS. With the aid of navigation instruments (a good chart of the area, parallel rulers, dividers, pencil, eraser, magnifying glass, calculator, timer), they calculated our route, tracks, estimated time for tacks, compass degrees, and all taking into consideration the sailboat speed, wind direction and currents, while avoiding coral reefs and sunken vessels. Their calculations were very accurate. They would take turns navigating and helming.
At about 8:30 p.m., we approached Palomino. At that point Gerd and Eugenia went forward with a boat hook and flashlights to search for a mooring and warn the helmsperson (me) of any dangers, such as approaching vessels without lights. It was so dark it was impossible to see where the water ended and the land started. As we made our approach, a dinghy without lights, not even a flashlight, passed by us. There were a few lights on the southern part of the island. There were also three anchor lights from moored sailing vessels, and a few lit motorboats. They were like dots of light on a black canvas. I felt so blind behind the helm, begging for someone to light up a mooring that I could see and aim to. Though apprehensive, I never felt fear. I had confidence in the team’s knowledge and work.
Finally, we saw a mooring to our starboard side, not far from one of the moored sailing vessels. I followed the directions of those at the bow pulpit holding the light on the mooring and with the boat hook ready to grab the mooring line. Capt. Michael shone a powerful hand-held spotlight on the mooring for the aid of those at the bow and behind the helm. It was a beautiful sight to see that white mooring ball floating in the water. After securing the mooring, Brian and Kim took charge of the BBQ, and we grilled fish, veggies, Polish sausages and hamburgers. We toasted to our accomplishment, teamwork, talked a lot of sail talk and readied ourselves for a well deserved rest and relaxation. We drifted to our cabins and berths under Orion’s watchful eye, peaceful seas and 78º F. Who could ask for anything more?
On Monday morning, February 15, 2010, Gerd and Eugenia treated us to a breakfast of scrambled eggs with veggies, mango salsa and biscuits. As they finished their cooking, Capt. Michael moved Bébé to a mooring closer to the beach. After breakfast, there was swimming, boat bottom scraping, cleaning up, and planning the day’s circumnavigation of Palomino. Small sea creatures and plants love the Caribbean as much as the larger creatures, and bottom cleaning sessions must happen much more often than up north.
Circumnavigating Palomino Island was a special treat for me. I had never seen the other side of the island. It was like visiting the other side of the moon. As we passed Palominito Island on the south, avoiding the extended shoal, we turned north, making sure to leave red nun #2 to our port side. We aimed at the house in Cayo Lobos. This white house is the only construction on the island and it is claimed to belong to Ricky Martin. We sailed past it and towards Las Cabezas de San Juan on the northeast corridor of the Puerto Rico mainland. The big island was covered in a white mist from the Montserrat volcano ashes.The students practiced man overboard with a tack and heave maneuver. It is a simple and effective move that practically brings your sailboat to a stop next to the “victim,” in this case a roped boat fender. We returned to Sunbay Marina at about 4:30 p.m. with the ebb tide. Two of the students were reluctantly flying back to snowy New York that evening. The other two were staying for more lessons before returning to their home state. I drove back home to San Juan, midst Montserrat volcano grey-white ashy skies. Somewhere up above Orion was watching.