Cruising Southern Latitudes on a Grand Banks 46

St. Thomas

By George Sass Jr.

It was the early spring of 2002. The trades bellowed from the east, cascading down the steep hills of St. Thomas and straining the lines aboard Ocean’s Apart, a Grand Banks 46. Weighed down by sea bags and gear, I lurched along the dock at the Yacht Haven Marina, taking breaks every few hundred yards. There was a hint of excitement as I caught sight of my old friend, who seemed displeased tied to the concrete pier.

I removed my shoes and stepped onboard. The simple comfort of her weathered teak decks under my bare feet erased all the stress of travel, work and daily life. This Grand Banks 46 and I would have plenty of time to get reacquainted voyaging from the Virgin Islands to Fort Lauderdale where she was being listed for sale by Grand Banks yacht consultant, Steve Fithian.

Three years earlier, I had met Ocean’s Apart in Hollywood, Florida, and helped deliver her to St. Thomas. As a lifelong sailor, this initial journey showed me there was an alternative to slugging to windward on a sailboat, soaked to the bone with battered hands and salt-sore skin, sleeping in a muggy, hot cabin strapped in with lee cloths. Instead, we landed an abundance of fish, maintained a respectable 10 knots and stayed ahead of bad weather. Sleep came easily, our minds and bodies lulled by the yacht’s gentle motion and air-conditioned cabin. The washer and dryer prevented us from looking like boat bums, and the watermaker kept everyone, including the boat, fresh.

Since that initial trip, I had delivered more than two dozen Grand Banks yacts between Florida and the Virgin Islands, in both calm and extreme weather. Each time, I was amazed at the near absence of mid-size cruising powerboats venturing beyond the Bahamas toward the Caribbean. Cruising in southern latitudes on a well-equipped Grand Banks is tough to beat.

Now, after stowing my gear, I checked the systems aboard Ocean’s Apart and headed to the airport to pick up my crew. Tom was an accomplished and methodical bluewater sailor who at that time taught offshore sailing classes in Connecticut. His time aboard powerboats was limited, but he could read a windshift or weather pattern like an ancient mariner. Steve had been running powerboats for almost 30 years and, after a successful career as a yacht broker selling a lot of Grand Banks, he was looking forward to getting back on the water.

HEADING OUT

Undertaking this trip by power on a boat like a Grand Banks means a different checklist for provisioning and getting under way, whether you’re used to similar trips by sail or shorter trips by power.

I estimated our journey would take seven to 10 days and planned appropriate provisions, including an extra week for reserve. We walked to the Pueblo market across the street from the marina in downtown Charlotte Amalie, and Tom shot me a curious look when I grabbed two shopping carts on our way into the store. More familiar with stacking stores in bilges and sock drawers, Tom quickly caught on to my blitzkrieg assault on each aisle, filling the carts until the wheels bent.

Meats. Vegetables. Fresh fruit. Canned goods. Heineken. Ice cream. Thanks to our two refrigerators and deep freeze on the down-galley Grand Banks 46, we could have provisioned for months. After stowing our small convenience store, we secured our loose items, unpacked our bags, located the life preservers, checked the EPIRB and flares, reviewed our charts and re-checked systems. Staying true to my belts-and-suspenders approach while cruising offshore, I had purchased enough oil for two and a half changes. We checked the dual Racor fuel filters and changed them where necessary. (When preparing to cruise off the beaten track, it’s a good idea to buy a good supply of filters in case you pick up suspect diesel.) We topped off the coolant and checked the battery level, then reviewed the strainers and seacocks. Steve, among other things, is an ace mechanic. I soon stepped aside in the engine room while he went through the space in detail.

On several occasions during the trip, we would be about 200 miles from land. Ocean’s Apart was not equipped with a life raft, so I provisioned the RIB with water, non-perishable food, a handheld GPS and VHF, flares, a first-aid kit, warm clothing and some tools. The tender was secured upright on deck-mounted chocks, and I lashed a good-size blade on the stanchion in case we had to leave in a hurry.

The key on a trip of this type is being ready for things you have not encountered in your more familiar cruising grounds. We felt prepared as we settled into our berths late Saturday night.

DAY ONE

Clearing customs Sunday was easier than expected, allowing us to cast off our lines by 9:30 a.m. The Cat 320-horsepower 3208Ts on the Grand Banks 46 purred and wafted diesel in the early morning breeze while the burning sun heated the air to a comfortable 85 degrees. We were not too concerned with the forecast for 20- to 25-knot winds and 8- to 10-foot seas. The ride would surely be uncomfortable, but not dangerous.

Tom was less comfortable with the forecast. He was likely recalling personal experience with Caribbean weather as an accomplished sailor, and his concerns were confirmed as we turned the corner. A 37-foot sailboat was bashing its way to windward with spray assaulting the dodger where the crew huddled. We motored by, blasting the best of J.J. Cale on the stereo, applying sunblock and watching the sailboat from our dry bridge. We set a course to Puerto Rico. The following seas pushed us forward at 12 knots, occasionally carrying our stern off the front of a wave. The 15-year-old, weak autopilot and sea conditions meant we had to hand-steer for a spell. Except for the generator failing, we had no other problems during the first day.

The Grand Banks 46 motored past Puerto Rico. No bulkheads murmured, no decks creaked, no rigging clanged. The only noise was the purr of the Cats and the blue water pushing away from the bow stem. Late in the afternoon, Tom popped his head up from a chart. To nobody in particular, he whispered, “Wow, this thing is like a tank.”

Just before sundown, with San Juan to our beam and no issues with the boat, we decided it was safe to turn toward the northern side of Silver Banks. Our next stop would be Provo in the Turks and Caicos.

DAY TWO

I arrived on the bridge at 4 a.m. to relieve Steve of the watch. These early morning hours are my favorite time on the water. There is still a slight chill in the air, and anticipating sunlight brings the same feeling I had as a 4-year-old waiting for Santa Claus. Gradually, the sky becomes lighter. The tops of waves, at night a distant, gurgling groan creeping up behind you, suddenly have faces. The assortment of flying fish that found your craft mid-flight become visible. Over the eastern horizon, a line of crisp light begins to rise, bringing on a new day and giving a burst of energy to a tired crew.

“Boy, I need to do this more often!” Steve said.

By morning, we began to settle into a routine, releasing the anxiety of the departure and forgetting the burdens of shore-side life. Our world on the Grand Banks 46 was simple: shower, clean the interior, steer, cook, eat, sleep, navigate and check the engines. There were no sails to change or reef, no winches to grind.

DAY THREE

We approached Provo, bumping the engines up to 2,400 rpm to clean out the injectors. We blazed toward the entrance and looked for the hard-to-find sticks marking the break in the reef. On a rough day, the channel is easier to spot thanks to the breakers on both sides, although the wind will often blow the markers horizontal.

We arrived exactly at our waypoint and proceeded toward the mark. Our fatigue showed during a long discussion about the entrance, and we called the dockmaster at Turtle Cove. She offered a guide, so we checked our egos at the chart table and took the helping hand.

A new landfall always rejuvenates the soul for at least two reasons: the sense of satisfaction in having gotten the boat there, and the excitement of being in a new place. Customs officers were delayed looking for the correct paperwork, but could not have been more accommodating. They allowed us to go for lunch at the marina. The marina called on the VHF to inquire about their estimated time of arrival. “Anytime soon,” came the reply.

DAY FOUR 

We departed Provo around 11 a.m. and headed toward the Exuma chain in the Bahamas. I always look forward to getting back to sea and maintaining perpetual motion. The senses are heightened, and the simple routine breeds pure contentment. Steve seconded the notion that night. “I don’t even know what day it is,” he bellowed, “and I don’t care.”

We cruised north of Mayaguana and Long Island, cranking the throttles back to 1,500 rpm and maintaining about 9.5 knots while heading toward Staniel Cay. The rumbling of the engines was soothing. The sound of the water parting at the bow provided the necessary harmony. Being onboard lets the mind grow more acute, more aware of the surroundings. I wondered how many perfectly cast golden sunsets I had missed while battling rush-hour traffic.

DAYS FIVE AND SIX

The sun was no longer warming our little ship. Skies turned black as a front moved over the Bahamas. We increased our speed after checking fuel consumption, then navigated Big Rock Cut in a squall and tied up at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club.

Around sunset, a flock of dinghies swarmed in from the anchorages around Staniel Cay for cocktails and dinner at the club. We joined the guests, primarily sailors, at the bar and swapped sea stories. The conversation seemed to be dominated by weather and how it would affect schedules, instead of what a perfect place we were in and how fortunate we were to be there.

We, on the other hand, delayed our departure a day to enjoy Staniel Cay. After diving in the cave at Thunderball and exploring the island, we made plans to return. The forecast called for north winds and 9-foot seas in the Gulf Stream. It would be uncomfortable but shouldn’t be a problem for the Grand Banks 46.

DAY SEVEN

We departed around 10 a.m. and made our way across the shallow Exuma Bank, heading for the northern tip of the Tongue of the Ocean. As the sun set, the lights of Nassau cast a warm glow over the otherwise dark sea. Several hours later, we passed into the Bahamas Banks in the dark, something most yachtsmen, no matter their stripes, should try to avoid.

After seven days on board, we became intimate with the yacht’s motion and characteristics. The plate sliding across the galley counter was met automatically by the hand, without the body breaking stride. The once cumbersome climb to the flying bridge became a fluid, singular motion.

Thankfully, 9-foot seas never materialized. I awoke to take my last watch and found bright skies and calm seas. We entered the last 50 miles of our journey to Fort Lauderdale.

We arrived at the dock at the Lauderdale Marina, eight days after boarding in St. Thomas. The early days of looking for switches and handholds, of learning the boat’s quirks, were long gone. There was a twinge of sadness at the thought of putting the yacht away. The Grand Banks 46 had become home.

All of us were already talking about future adventures over dinner before we had even left Lauderdale.