Sunday, February 19, 2023

Tales from Margaritaville at Sea

We booked a Margaritaville at Sea cruise to celebrate Linda’s birthday. They were offering a “Heroes Sail Free” package that looked enticing, and it was a short getaway for us to enjoy my first cruise, and Linda’s first in a while. Since we’ve spent lots of time in the Bahamas, excursions in Freeport didn’t interest us as much as just getting away and relaxing on the ship. The promotions appear to be quite fluid; for example, right now they advertise ocean view available on promotion whereas we paid $25 each to upgrade. The travel blogs talk about the ship and go into more detail, but since we’ve been asked about it, and since we haven’t blogged in... ages, here’s our chance to put up some content! Anyway, here’s what we paid in Feb 2023 and some commentary:

  • “Hero” sailing free with paid passenger in same cabin, upgrade to ocean view:                      $25
  • Paid passenger on 3 day, 2 night cruise          $123
(board day 1 around noon, depart day 3 at 9, so about 45 hours total)
  • Taxes and port fees for two:                           $177
  • Fixed stateroom steward gratuities for two:      $60
  • Fuel surcharge:                                              $48
  • Valet (mandatory) parking (plus gratuity):        $44

 We booked the “License To Chill” package, which included a $150 spa credit, 10 drink credits, 1 breakfast and dinner at the steakhouse, onboard wifi for 2, and some other stuff including a concierge. At $300, we felt this was a good deal. The concierge service turned out to be more valuable than I thought, as it got us private seating while waiting to board, including pastries and juice/water, and priority boarding. The priority debarking had us meet in the lounge, where we finally took advantage of our free “premium” coffee at the coffee shop, and then the concierge escorted us to debark while the loudspeaker was calling individual floors to assemble, and the lobby was packed with people. We even got a special line for getting through customs! The package included reserved seating for the evening shows in the theatre, which I thought would be good because of the short time between dinner seatings and show times, but it did not appear to be necessary based on the number of open seats when we arrived.

Our room was more than adequate, with a comfy bed that we could walk around on three sides, more than we have at home 😉. It was nice to be able to see out the ocean view window during the times we were in the cabin, easy to tell we didn’t exactly make it to Freeport when advertised since we couldn’t see land yet. There was some crusty salt spray on the window, but I guess they’re harder to clean than balcony doors, and I suppose fire hosing the exterior of the ship as guests, and luggage, and supplies are being loaded wouldn’t go over very well.

Beer ran between $7.50 and $9 plus 18% gratuity, Linda’s prosecco was $9 to $12, so if the drink credits weren’t included, it probably would have been a wash since the 10 credits on their own sell for $99, likely aimed at the margarita or mixed drink consumers.

We had one breakfast and both lunches at the buffet, which had a good selection and was well run. Dinner at the JWB steakhouse was very good, with a perfectly cooked filet. Linda’s fish had a small bone which she didn’t detect while chewing; that caused a bit of a stir for a while until she got it down. We wound up with a second dessert when they found out it was her birthday and brought out a birthday dessert, after we had already had dessert! As if that wasn’t enough sugar, there was another “Happy Birthday” dessert waiting for us when we returned to our stateroom!

Despite our intentions, our JWB steak house dinner reservations at 6:30 didn’t allow us to attend the early comedy show at the theatre, so we attended the late “adult” comedy show which was pretty vulgar and not our cup of tea. Our second dinner at the Fins restaurant was at the 6:00 seating. As this restaurant is open to all cruise guests who don’t opt for the buffet, service was a bit slower and the menu not as good, but it was still a tasty meal and we finished in time for the Tales from Margaritaville ship show which we really enjoyed, definitely the highlight of the cruise.

There wasn’t as much live music available as I would have thought. We caught some nice jazz prior to dinner the second night, and later recognized the musician as the lead in the Tales from Margaritaville show. There’s a sing-along piano bar, but the hours were limited. The house band that played by the pool was ok, mostly music that some younger guests were singing and fist pumping to, but the primarily older clientele like us chatted, read their books, or went on about their business.

After disembarking, we met my sister Lindy (birth day twin to Linda) and husband Rich, as well as nephew Conor and his girlfriend Dorina for lunch, then drove down to Ft Lauderdale to take in the evening light/music show at the Hollywood Guitar Hotel (Hard Rock Casino), which was fun, albeit short. Linda made a few bucks at the slots, but the gaming tables were too rich for my blood, so after a few drinks and dinner at the Hard Rock Café, we called it a night.

We hit Joe’s Café, quickly becoming our go-to spot for breakfast in Ft Lauderdale, prior to the drive back to Troubadour, patiently awaiting our return.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Sailing: Grenada to Key West - Our Story

Arriving Curacao

We owe you, our readers, the story of our passage from Grenada to Key West, Florida which began October 10, 2018 with arrival in Key West on November 11. I was waiting for it to be published online (publishing rules ask that you not publish something that has been posted on a blog). It was published in the February 2020 issue of Southwinds Magazine.  

By Linda (and Chris)

   Google "Sailing the south coast of Cuba" and you will get a number of hits pertaining to "cruising Cuba's south coast" as well as a few hits for Cuba cruising guides.
   But if you wanted to sail south of Cuba to Florida without stopping you won't find many suggested guidelines, routes, or even blogs from people who've written about their experience.
Chris and I sailed the eastern Caribbean islands to Grenada in 2012. Flash forward six years and we were ready to sail home to the United States: specifically, Key West.
   The "when do we go?" was easy - after hurricane season - and a Thanksgiving family reunion became our “target” date.
   The "which way do we go?" was a little trickier. We chose to go west, because we had already sailed the eastern Caribbean. The tricky part was determining which way around that big island getting in the way of a direct route from Curacao: Cuba.
   Most people when they leave Grenada either go back north through the eastern Caribbean islands or go west to the ABC's with plans to eventually transit the Panama Canal.

Goodbye, Grenada.

The not-so common route
   Our plan was to go west to Bonaire and Curacao, make a rest stop in Jamaica, then transit through the Windward Passage around Cuba and NW to Key West.
   With downwind long distance sailing experience during a two week delivery of a new 38 foot Beneteau from Tortola to Belize in December 2017, we were confident in our route planning. Many have sailed Grenada to Bonaire, although usually beginning in Martinique to stock up on wines and delicacies, and to stay well off the coast of Venezuela and it’s out islands.
   We had no plans to go that far north for this transit (about 160 miles) so we began in Grenada and sailed 30 miles north to Union Island to stage for our passage. Forecasts called for light winds and low seas which resonated with how we planned to make our passage. Unlike our trip south to Grenada where we meandered and enjoyed the many Caribbean islands, on this trip we planned to stay in marinas long enough to rest, sight-see and re-provision (food, water, fuel), and if needed take care of repairs.

Actual route.

Weather considerations
   Some sailors might like strong winds for their trips to conserve fuel, however, Troubadour’s 120 gallon fuel capacity made this trip manageable even if we had to power or motor sail each leg. When it came to weather planning we followed our guidelines that we set eight years ago when we left Florida for the Caribbean: add 5-10 kts to every wind forecast and 3 ft to every wave forecast.  What surprised us more than anything on this trip was the remarkable accuracy of the forecasts from all our sources: Marine Weather Center (Chris Parker), NHC Offshore Waters Forecasts, Windy, Windfinder, and Garmin's inReach® which allowed us to receive marine weather forecasts directly on the device when we needed.

Friend, Tim, joins us for the first part of the passage.

Crew and watches
   Although friends were hoping to join us as crew, the realities of their lives combined with the uncertainty of sailing passage times, got in the way for many. But, friend and sailor, Tim, was able to join us for the first leg of our trip, Grenada to Bonaire.  After we said goodbye to him in Bonaire, we were on our own for the remainder of the passages.
   Night watches are easier on the crew when there are more people to share. Chris and I do best taking naps during the day if needed and having four hour shifts at night - 8 pm to midnight - Chris, midnight to 4am - Linda, and 4am to 8am-Chris.
   With an AIS transponder aboard, monitoring ship traffic day and night was easier, especially the few times when we needed to contact ships to confirm intentions or ask for course adjustments.
   While sailing downwind on a beam or broad reach is very enjoyable, it can be hard on the boat, especially in light winds as the sails luff and slap and the boom bounces and bangs even with a preventer. At times the noise concerned us enough that we chose to power and have a slightly less smooth ride instead of motor sail.

Be Ever Vigilant
   My motto from previous (especially downwind) sailing experiences is “Be Ever Vigilant” - meaning that although the passage may seem pleasant and calm as your music is playing and you’re enjoying reading a novel – something slightly sinister might be happening with your sails or rigging, below decks, or even at the bow. Therefore, just being attentive to sounds that are new or different from all other sounds of sailing, is a good practice to get into because these sounds usually mean something needs to be checked.
   As long as the weather remained calm a daily inspection of rigging, lines, shackles, tie downs, anchors, sails, stack pack, lazy jacks, reefing lines, etc. on decks, as well as dinghy tie davits and dinghy pressure to ensure the tie down straps remained tight, helped to ease any concerns about potential problems and gave us opportunities to do any repairs or adjustments before nightfall.

Our passages from Grenada to Key West (All distances are in nautical miles.)
Grenada to Bonaire
   It’s usually a day sail from Grenada to Carriacou. On Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018, we slipped our mooring in Mount Hartman Bay, topped off diesel, gas and water at Secret Harbour Marina and opted to sail as far as Moliniere Point (8.6 nm) on Grenada’s southwest coast where we stayed for the night to enjoy snorkeling and the views of St. George’s. Leaving early the next morning we had a nice sail along Grenada’s leeward coast into Tyrell Bay, Carriacou (34 nm). We cleared customs and immigration the next morning and had gentle motor passage to Chatham Bay, Union Island (9.6 nm) where we raised the yellow flag to stage for our passage to Bonaire the next day.
   Weather was calling for light winds backing NE to SE as well as light seas, so we began reaching northwest until we could jibe over on a rhumb line for Bonaire. We arrived in three days, 443.4 miles, and averaged 6 kts in calm seas.
   We docked at Harbour Village Marina for our week-long stay in Bonaire where we rented dive tanks from Wanna Dive, an easy dinghy ride from the marina, and dined at various restaurants - our favorite being Yanni’s Arepas at Coco Beach.
   Harbour Village Marina had nice enough amenities, including onsite fuel, but we opted to wait to get fuel in Curacao, our next stop. The marina did not have on site laundry, but they did have a service that would pick up and return in two days. Again, we opted to wait understanding at the time that these services would be available at Curacao Marine. To clear in and out with customs and immigration was efficient. We walked for about ½ hour along the shore walkway with pretty views of crystal clear water, Klein Bonaire, moored boats, storefronts, homes and restaurants.

The best part of Curacao was meeting our dear friends, Patricia & Ricardo, of S/V Blues, whom we met in Grenada.
Bonaire to Curacao
   Next stop a downwind motor sail in very calm conditions to Curacao Marine - eight hours, 44.9 miles. We planned a few days at Curacao Marine to do laundry and fill water and fuel tanks. Upon arrival we learned that contrary to the advertisement in a sailing magazine, Curacao Marine did not have fuel on site. Nor, did they have on site laundry. Just as in Bonaire, the marina offered a drop off service with return in 1-2 days. A nice benefit of this marina is that they have cars to rent or will arrange a rental for you. If we would have known about the fuel we could have topped our diesel in Bonaire.  On our departure we backtracked about 6 miles to Curacao Yacht Club at Spanish Waters to top off our fuel.
   As we learned from other sailors, finding and getting to customs and immigration in Curacao is a lesson in patience, as well as good exercise. Each location is across the St. Anna Bay inlet from the other: customs in Punda and immigration in Otrabanda, thus requiring, if walking, a picturesque trek across the floating Queen Emma Bridge. Two stops, nice officials. Slow process.

Curacao to Jamaica
   To or surprise the passage to Jamaica proved to be faster than we expected at four days and 590.3 miles to Errol Flynn Marina at Port Antonio on the island’s northeast coast. We sailed on a beam to broad reach under sunny skies; average speed 6.2 kts, winds 10 – 12 kts, with 2-4 ft ocean swells. Port Antonio is located in a calm protected bay; the marina staff is helpful and friendly. We chose this location due to previous experience there and outstanding customer service. Quarantine, customs, immigration and police all came to the boat to clear us in. We were asked to remain on our boat until then. When we were ready to check out we were required to give 24-hour notice to the marina office so they could make arrangements for our clearance to leave the country.

Arriving to Port Antonio, Jamaica, after 4 days.
   Errol Flynn Marina includes laundry, tourist office, restaurant bar and pool. The town of Port Antonio is a short walk for groceries, banking, local produce, vendor markets, and fresh fish.
Fuel is at the boatyard dock nearby. While in Jamaica we toured Craighton Estate, one of the Blue Mountain coffee plantations, and indulged in a river raft cruise at the Rafter's Rest (Rio Grande Rafting).

Jamaica to Key West south of Cuba 

   Originally when looking at the forecasts we expected to beat upwind through the Windward Passage before falling off to the northwest to sail along the coast of Cuba to Key West.  Strong contrary winds and a closing weather window in Florida due to a strong northerly in the forecast forced a change in that route. We fell off immediately upon leaving Port Antonio, choosing to sail past the Cayman Islands on Cuba’s south side. The conditions for the first three days of the trip varied from light winds and seas that called for motor sailing to reaching in 8-10 of wind with lightly rolling seas.
   Once we reached Cape San Antonio, the cape which forms the western extremity of the Guanahacabibes Peninsula as well as the western extremity of Cuba, we entered the shipping lane and transited on the shoulder of the traffic separation scheme or TSS. (A Traffic Separation Scheme is an area in the sea where navigation of ships is regulated. It is meant to create lanes in the water and ships in a specific lane are all going in (roughly) the same direction.) AIS proved to be quite helpful here as we did hail a ship to query his route and intentions at night.

   After rounding the western cape we began a 36 hour beat to windward. This was the only windward sailing of our trip and we motored throughout. The winds were 14 -18 kts on the bow and the seas were made up of rolling ocean swells 3-5 feet, sometimes more. Thankfully, the seas calmed once we closed Key West, however the pounding overnight passage didn’t allow for much sleep.
   Despite those conditions we arrived at Boca Chica Marina at the Naval Air Station Key West, on the morning of Sunday, November 11 - 793.5 miles and 5 days from Jamaica. 
  Boca Chica will be our new home for the foreseeable future. 

  In total we travelled 1,924.3 miles. We spent 4 ½ weeks traveling from when we left Grenada; and, with stops, 14 days total were at sea.

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