Slugs & Shackles

Another note from the island…

Things didn’t go as planned.  I am solo sailing in 23 knot winds when I notice that the traveler for my main sheet is not working properly.  The line won’t feed through, which stops me from letting out the mainsail enough for a safe downwind run.  I finally notice that the tailing end of the topping lift (the line that holds the boom up) is jammed in the traveler, prohibiting the main sheet from feeding out.  Not a good thing.  While steering the tiller with one hand, I lean over and with several tugs loosen the topping lift line out of the block pulley where it was jammed. We are sailing well again.

I’m now approaching the offshore island of Klein Bonaire.  With these winds, I don’t want to get too close to shore in case something goes south.  That’s a little trick I learned from Capt. Dave while sailing the Grenadines two decades ago.  Thanks for instant recall.  So about 100 yards offshore, I perform a controlled jibe.  It’s like tacking except rather than moving the bow through the wind, one moves the stern of the boat.  It is infinitely trickier, but what the hell.  I do the jibe, the boom quickly shifts to starboard and then I release the jib (the foresail) so that it too moves leeward.  Well done. I am now heading toward Punt Vierkant on Bonaire.  I look up to check the shape of the main and I gape like an openmouthed tarpon.  The top 2/3rds of the mainsail, rather than being tight against the mast, is blowing out a couple of feet away.  Suddenly, there is trouble in paradise.  I sail Padilanti close hauled and try to figure out what went wrong.  I’ve never have seen this before.  I look back up.  It’s a problem with either the slugs or the shackles.  Slugs fit into a vertical slot in the mast.  Shackles clip the mainsail to the slugs, keeping the main next to the mast.  I look down to the deck.  I see broken pieces from 5 of 8 slugs.

Broken slugs.

Old plastic.  With this wind and 20 years of use after the mast, the slugs just could not take the wind force anymore. They snapped. What to do?  This is not something I can immediately repair while on the water.  I look back up and the mainsail is flagging badly and will soon damage itself.  I point the boat into the wind and drop the main.  I limp home with only the foresail and finally get back to the dock before the sun goes down.  Where the hell is the chilled rum?

The next day I take an undamaged slug and shackle from my boat to Budget Marine, the only chandlery on the island.  I am not surprised that the store doesn’t have the parts I need.  That is what usually happens.  But the clerk, Renee, looks up the mother store in Sint Maarten on the computer only to discover that they don’t have these parts in their inventory either.  “You can better try ordering these from the States,” says Renee.  “Who knows when we will get them in.”

And that is what I do.  I check E-bay and order 8 slugs and 8 shackles.  I’m going to replace the whole lot. I own an old boat and it’s preferrable to get all new parts before another mishap. In the meantime, it dawns on me that I’m stranded on a sandbar.  It will be at least three weeks, probably four, until the parts get here.  I contemplate being grounded for that long.  All I can say is aaaargh.  After all, sailing is my addiction uh, passion.  How will I pass the time?  I glance up to my kayak strung up toward the ceiling in my garage.  I tricked it out a couple of months ago with a sail.  I’ll be back on the water tomorrow.  Slugs & shackles?  I patiently await your arrival.

I’ll Have A Boat Bottom!

Another note from dah island, mon.

Two recent events in my little universe sent me down a slippery slope to discovery.  The first was rather mundane, a trip to the grocery store.  Several times during this visit I carelessly veered off my shopping list. I was drawn to a sweet-smelling aroma coming from a mound of fresh pineapples just shipped in from the Dominican Republic. They were golden, aromatic and ready to eat.  Yum.  I picked out a 2-pounder and tossed it in the cart.  Next, I found myself wandering among the soft beverages rows.  I’m not a soda drinker but I thought a can of ginger beer might be nice.  Instead, I found agua de coco, coconut water which can put a serious dent into a hot tropical afternoon. Yes.

The other event was event more humdrum.  Every three months I have to take our two boats from dock to an offshore mooring and clean their bottoms.  They attract barnacles, algae, crabs and crusty critters that are all detrimental to the boats’ performance and fiberglass.  It is quite a process.  I start by schlepping 40 pounds of dive gear to the dock.  I bring a metal scraper to knock of the barnacles, scrub pads for the algae, and a dive knife for the stubborn bastards.  It’s an exhausting hour-plus effort working mostly upside down.  I do one boat a day.  The only redeeming value of this labor is that once complete, I float down forty feet to check out the reef below. The last time I was greeted by two French Angelfish and five curios barracudas.

Returning home yesterday after two days of boat bottom cleaning, I was knackered.  My knuckles were scraped raw from hitting the crusty hull buildup.  I had stings on my face and hands from underwater beasts that were furious for being evicted from their homes.  My entire body felt pummeled.  Thoughts drifted to an exotic elixir to restore my mojo.  It was then that the sweet smell of pineapple wafting through the air drew me to the kitchen.  The can of Conchita coconut water was chillin’ in the frig and I remembered an unopened bottle of Mount Gay Black Barrel rum that I had stashed in the cabinet months ago.  Hmmm. It was time to get creative.

Now I’m not a fan of fruity tropical drinks and have little knowledge of them.  Give me a good rum, a slice of lime and some bubbly water and I’m happy as a clam in the mud.  So, I contacted our son for advice. He was a bar manager in London for a few years and became a quite a talented mixologist.  “Put the pineapple in a blender and blend.  Dilute with coco water and blend again with the rum.  Maybe you want to add a pinch of cinnamon.”  I did just that and poured the mix over ice.  It was fantastic and not milky sweet like a piña colada.  The mellow yellow concoction  delivered the distinctive flavor of each ingredient.  I was feeling better already.  I wrote our son back for a name suggestion.  “Well, since we are in the thick of a pandemic, how about a Piña Corona?”  Clever boy.

But this drink was inspired by my underwater toil over the weekend—drudgery at sea.  I prefer to simply call it a Boat Bottom.  Try ordering one next time you can go to your favorite watering hole.  My bet is that you will stump the bartender.

To Build A Reef

photo-Lorenzo Mittiga

An aquatic island note…

I was ready to get back in the game and volunteer again.  That is one of the many nice benefits about not having to work anymore.  I finally have the time to contribute to a good cause and maybe make a bit of a difference.  This time I chose the Reef Renewal Foundation Bonaire.  Their mission is to protect and restore the reefs of the island by using innovative techniques to propagate corals.  

Why is this important?  There are a number of reasons.  Coral reefs make up a mere 1% of ocean environments but supply habitat for 25% of marine life.  Check out any healthy reef and you will find it teaming with fish.  Worldwide, reefs support over 4000 fish species and offer homes to 80,000+ species of sea life.  Bottom line- reefs are integrally important for the stability of ocean ecosystems.

But before I could begin, the Reef Renewal Foundation requires that volunteers take a 2-day dive course that mixes above-water lectures and demonstrations with underwater work.  I chose to do my course at Wanna Dive, one of the smaller dive shops on Bonaire but one that always does a top- notch job with a friendly staff.  My instructor, Linda, explained a number of things about corals, some of which I was unaware.  Corals are living animals, not plants, that are made up of polyps, soft-bodied organisms which secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard, protective limestone skeleton base.  They have a symbiotic relationship with algae where the corals offer shelter and compounds needed for photosynthesis. In return, the algae produce oxygen and sugar for the polyps.  It’s the ultimate underwater “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” scenario.   

the nursery ‘tree’

Linda led me 20-feet under to a ‘nursery’, a set of four PVC plastic ‘trees’ with fragments of elkhorn and staghorn corals hanging from the branches.  These two coral types were chosen since they are fast growing, offer great habitat for reef fish and are considered an endangered species in need of protection.  The first task was to clean the tree of excessive algae growth, remove invasive fire coral crusting on the plastic and inspect the corals for predators such as snails.  I was also instructed on how to prune the larger pieces of coral growing on the trees.  We clipped off small bits with pliers and let them float down to the sand.  Then we looped fishing line around the corals and hung them back on the tree branches that had space.  These smaller pieces then begin their growth and the cycle repeats. 

Out-planting elkhorn coral

My favorite procedure is out-planting, taking larger elkhorn corals from the trees and making a mini colony on the rocky sea bottom.  This involves excavating an area of rock with a hammer to make a relatively flat surface base for the coral.  Then small balls of underwater epoxy clay are fixed to the rock and the coral in pressed into place.  It takes quite of bit of trial and error to find the right spot.  Often when excavating rock, dots of orange sponge will appear. These inhibit corals from attaching well and a new location needs to be found.  I discovered quickly that hammering underwater is a humbling, slow-motion endeavor. 

So that is what it is like to build a reef.  Yesterday, Linda and I out-planted 15 elkhorn corals in 63 minutes.  I glanced around to see earlier out-plantings that are now thriving.  I looked back to my newly placed colony of six corals.  Already pinky finger-sized fish of brilliant blue and striking yellow darted among the baby elkhorn.  As famed British naturalist David Attenborough once said, I can mention many moments that were unforgettable and revelatory. But the most single revelatory three minutes was the first time I put on scuba gear and dived on a coral reef.  I totally agree with him.  And for me that feeling of wonderment never ends.