Monday, July 29, 2013

Trip to Visit "Will the Wizard"

I have lived in Seattle for most of my life, but I still delight in riding the ferries across Puget Sound. The only negative is the horrendous traffic in Seattle, which seems to get worse every time we return. We decided to drive our car from Sammamish to Eastgate and park in the Park and Ride lot, then walk the short distance to I-5 and catch an express bus to downtown Seattle.  In less than 15 minutes we were walking down toward the ferry from downtown.

While we've ridden on public transport all over the world, we have rarely done it in Seattle. A young woman at the bus stop shared an iPhone app for the Metro bus system that showed your location and exactly when the bus would arrive. Pretty cool. I now also had my Senior Pass that lets me ride the bus for 75 cents. Such a deal.

Sailors like the wind in their face.

It was one of those rare crystal clear, hot summer days in Seattle and the waterfront smelled of salt and the sea. We were allowed on the ferry after the Washington State Patrol anti-terrorist police determined we were not Al Qaeda operatives. The ride was wonderful and brought back fond memories of our sailboat trips to Blake Island and Blakely Harbor on Bainbridge Island.

Our friends Patsy and Steve Larson met us at the ferry on the Bainbridge side and drove us to W-H Autopilots, just down the road. Our autopilot had some hiccups at times and we wanted the factory gurus to look it over. We met with Will Hamm, (the W and H in W-H Autopilots) who casually mentioned that just about every 20-year-old autopilot in the world seemed to have died that week, not a good sign for us getting a quick repair. He promised he'd do his best and as a boater himself, he truly understood the importance of things working correctly "out there."

We then drove out to Patsy and Steve's incredible new house on Port Madison bay. For Meryl and I, who have been living in a 440 square foot space for the last two years, Patsy's immaculate house with not a thing out of place was almost culture shock for us. They did a fantastic job of designing their dream house to be highly functional, but it was as much a piece of art as a dwelling.

We enjoyed a wonderful brunch out on the deck and shared stories about our kids and grandkids. It was hard to leave but Patsy had a busy work schedule that day and we appreciated the time she set aside for us.

Approaching Seattle on the ferry I remembered back to the 70s when Meryl and I first moved to Seattle. The skyline then was nothing like today. In someways I like the pre-Microsoft Seattle better. It was a kinder, gentler, more outdoorsy Seattle with less emphasis on how expensive a car you drive or how big your Mac-Mansion is. Being from Seattle meant something and I could always pick out Seattleites around the work when we traveled by their courtesy, politeness, slight reserve, and their REI fiber pile jackets.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

We're Going to the Zoo; How about You?

One of the classic Sunday outings in Seattle is going to the Woodland Park Zoo. It's grown tremendously since Meryl and I went there when we were students at the University of Washington and often later with our kids Christa and Brad.

So, what's going through her mind?
We gathered up the clan and set off early on a Sunday morning. Quinn immediately wanted to see the bronze monkeys at the entrance and Brody spotted a tractor he had to drive.

Brody never met a tractor he didn't fall in love with.
There was a neat underground burrow of some type and we lost the kids in that as Brad prowled the top looking though holes in the roof. They should have called it "Be a Gopher for a Day."

You could just tell both the infants, Conner and Bennett, were just hankering to get out and run through all the neat stuff with their older siblings.

For the adults just keeping up with Quinn and Brody was a full day's work. My favorite part is where we got lost and Quinn took the map and walked off trying to figure out where we were.

What a great day with the family. Only wish we could be together more often.

"Boy, I wish I could read."

A girl on a mission.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Life at the Lake

While living in Hong Kong has it advantages, Christa does miss her many friends in the US. So every summer she has rented a house or houses in the US and uses them as base camps for visiting with friends and family.

This year she stayed in New York, Greenwich, Maine, Crested Butte, Seattle (Lake Sammamish) and Suncadia (in the mountains just outside of Seattle). We feel very blessed that Christa invites us to stay with her at various times to get reacquainted with the kids and her and Nash. For me it was great just to have time sitting around playing Grandpa to my incredible grand kids. Added to everything else was the fact that Seattle was enjoying one of the best summers on record. You can't beat Seattle when the weather is good.

Just chillin' with the grand kids.
The three loves of my life.

Conner gets some tummy time with Uncle Brad.

With Christa limited in her ability to do things, Meryl and I got double duty with the kids, which was great fun. Our son Brad and his family came down several times and soon everyone was in the hot tub (As a kid it was hard to ever get Brad out of the water, rather a hot tub, Lake Sammamish, or one of the local rivers.)

We alternated time between naps (the kids and us), kayaking trips down the lake, and long walks on the Lake Sammamish Trail that ran right behind the house. What a great way to spend a Seattle summer.

Like all cruisers, we did spend a lot of time tracking down sailboat parts, provisions, and going to various medical appointments during our time home.

I spent a lot of time talking with Don, the very friendly neighbor who owned the yellow lake house Christa was renting. One thing led to another and it turned out Don's dad had built a Thunderbird sailboat (the same type we owned for 20 years) in his garage. An even greater coincidence was that Don was childhood friends with an old sailing buddy of ours, Rod Johnson. Don brought over family photo albums showing his family and the Johnson's sharing Christmas holidays together. One very sad note, Don's wife had just been moved home from hospice and died the day we moved in, so it was a very difficult time for he and his family.

On a lighter note, one of my goals was getting my new grandson, Conner, to learn how to go down stairs. His dad, Nash, did a great job teaching him to go up, but going down was kind of crash and burn. Since the rental house had a nice spot with just three stairs, Conner and I worked and worked on his technique. He was great once he got going; the trick was teaching him to turn backwards before going down. He was very determined, however, and eventually got the hang of it. I loved the way he kept looking up at me as if to say "So how am I doing, Grandpa?"

Hope I still have an arm left when you are big enough to catch a football. Good times, little guy.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Conner's BBQ Bash at the Berry's

When we return home to Seattle we typically plan a BBQ at the Berry's home, which they so graciously offer each summer.  We like to get the family together once we arrive and invite a number of our friends. It's a good excuse to have a party and easier to see everyone without driving all over the city.

One reaction common to cruisers returning to the US is how overwhelmed I was as I went grocery shopping for the BBQ.  As I walked down the aisles of the massive Fred Meyer store in Sammamish I was reminded of the unbelievable variety of foods available in the US.  One whole aisle is devoted to chips and crackers alone!  It was difficult just buying some taco chips as they had way too many brands to choose from.  I was like a kid in a candy store wanting to buy everything. My shopping cart ended up with a few extra items not on the list that we hadn't been able to buy since we left Seattle.  It really struck me as odd at the same time ... do we really need to have every single possible item at our finger tips? Within an hour I had all I needed and was putting things away in the refrigerator at the Berry's house.  The same task would have taken at least a half the day out cruising and would have involved one or two small bags.

On BBQ day we were blessed with another beautiful summer afternoon and the Berry's lovely home was ready with lots of space for the kids to play and for everyone to relax and visit.  We fired up the grill and Jim & Chris cooked up some delicious mesquite chicken, and along with a couple salads, some garlic bread, watermelon, and cookies & cake for dessert, we had a feast.

Do American's realize how good they have it?

Good move Brody.

Conner and Quinn with their "Funcle" Brad.

Christa trying to keep Conner engaged and on the blanket.

Jim and Maryann chatting with Tryg.
It was wonderful to see friends we hadn't seen in ages and hear what they were up to.  The grand kids had birthdays coming up so there were a few gifts floating around.  The little ones all got new "Happy Hiker T-shirts" from the Berry's to continue the hiking tradition going back over 35years.  Quinn received a fairy tale book with a magical wand and was enchanted with the noise it made (not everyone else was after a hour of the twinkly noise).  I don't think those batteries will last long.  Also, thank you Lisa Van Kampen for the "sweet gifts" for all the ladies.

Quinn and the Princess lived happily ever after.

A great time was had by all.  The kids were a  continual source of  entertainment as they invented "fun things to do."  We just had to make sure they didn't get hurt or hurt one another… no small task!  Thank you again Berry's for sharing your home with us.  You are the greatest!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Flying to the Rescue of our Daughter

Meryl and I were sitting around our home away from home, Jim and Chris Berry's house in Sammamish, saying "You know Meryl, we just don't travel on airplanes enough." Just then an emergency email came saying our daughter was in a bit of a jam. A friend said Christa had taken a fall on her mountain bike in Colorado (did I ever say we raised a tomboy?) and had mangled her wrist.  She was in surgery but was due out in a couple of hours.  Given the fact she has a two-and-one-half-year-old and a 9-month-old and was scheduled to travel to Seattle the next day, we felt she may need a bit of help.

After a few telephone calls Meryl and I found ourselves back at SeaTac Airport ("weren't we just here?") hoping on a plane to Denver and connecting through to Gunnison. A friend of Christa's left his car at the airport and soon we were driving north through some of the most beautiful mountain scenery in the world.

Christa had rented a house at Crested Butte for a week of fun and sun with her high school friends and some friends from grad school. Unfortunately the grad school friends couldn't make it, but she still had her high school friends. Only problem was two of them were scheduled to fly out the day we arrived.

Meryl, Quinn, Conner, and Christa with the broken wing.

We arrived around 5 pm to find Christa laying on the front lawn playing with Quinn and Conner, except her wrist, which was fresh from surgery with six screws and a stainless steel plate, was propped up at a funny angle.  As you can imagine the next several hours were a blur as we helped her feed the kids, get packed up (no small task given the amount of luggage she travels with during her summer visits) for the trip back to Seattle, and get the house back in order. I'm always amazed at how well Christa can function no matter what the adversity in her life.

The next morning we all squished into two cars and drove to the airport in Gunnison. Now you might imagine a tiny Colorado airport would be considerate of a young mother with a broken wrist and two toddlers, but no. Christa got the security checkup of a lifetime. I swear if two Middle Eastern types with a package marked "bomb" walked up they would let them straight through ("we don't profile), but a mother with two young kids?  They tested her water, they tested her milk, they tested her sealed containers of baby food (they were 4.1 oz rather than the allowed 4 oz), and so on. They wiped down the stroller and car seat with bomb detection cloths. We almost missed our flight.

Notice the cute purple headphones?

The only issue when we boarded the flight (which Christa warned me about) was Quinn's proclivity for a window seat. Since I wanted to watch the mountains as we flew out, I thought she might let me sit in my assigned seat. Apparently not. To add insult to injury she played with her iPad the whole way home. Meryl was flying on a pass and couldn't get on the Seattle flight so I went ahead with Christa to help with the kids and luggage.

Once back in Seattle we reversed the whole process at SeaTac Airport (weren't we just here?). I was reprimanded by a traffic cop for the huge pile of luggage I had carefully positioned near the curb so we could make a quick exit. Apparently he considered it unattended luggage. I said I'm standing right here, but I have to watch two little kids (while waiting for Christa to arrive with the rental car). My rapidly deteriorating attitude was "If you want to move, move it yourself." A family nearby lent me their two teenage sons to move the bags back about six feet back in hope of avoiding an altercation. (Oh, it's moments like this that make me feel so glad to be back in the US.)

There's still more coming.

We finally made it down to Lake Sammamish where Christa had rented a small lake cottage for a week. We reversed the process of moving the 47 bags across the trail and down a flight of stairs to the cottage. It was a wonderful little house right on the lake with kayaks, sailboat, hot tub, and a walking trail in the backyard. Only problem is Christa couldn't do any of these activities because of her wrist. Bummer.

Cottage on Lake Sammamish just down the lake from where we lived when Christa was in high school.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

A Day at the Farm

What better weekend activity than a day at the farm, in this case, Remlinger Farms near Carnation, WA.  We had a great day following Brody around going from one event to the next. He sure loves anything mechanical. Bennett had a great day also, but spent most of it sleeping.

Pictures best tell the story:

Friday, July 19, 2013

Yes Chuck Berry, We are Back in the USA

Rather than simply getting on an airplane and flying direct to Seattle, we figured a more complicated way of getting home. After touching down in Houston and getting the de rigueur chocolate milkshake, cheeseburger and fries at Rubys, we turned left instead of right and flew to Tampa where our friends Annie and Tryg picked us, and our four boxes, and somehow squished everything into their new Acura. We had planned on spending several days with them, but they had to leave in two days to go to a funeral in Wisconsin. Tryg was in the process of selling his business and we had to get all our junk out of his warehouse.

Being back in Tampa brought back fond memories of when I stayed with Annie and Tryg while I outfitted Flying Cloud over a six-month period. Once in the warehouse we found our pallet and quickly made decisions about what went back to Seattle and what would be given away to locals. The next morning we all went to the airport, us heading to Houston/Seattle and Annie and Tryg to Wisconsin.
Touching down at Sea-Tac Airport is always a joy, except we're usually wiped out from a 12 to 14-hour flight from somewhere. United Airlines did a great job getting us there, and amazingly all our boxes made it in one piece.

We basically had a month at home, but we had a lot to accomplish in the month: visiting with our son and his family, visiting with our daughter and grandkids, visiting with whole family, visiting with friends, and getting a zillion boat parts/provisions to take back to Trinidad.

Meryl with our sweet new grandson, Bennett Levi Conner.

We spent Friday the 18th getting to see our new grandson, Bennett, and his older brother Brody at our son's house in Sammamish. It was wonderful to just hang out and go for a walk where Brody got to live his dream playing on some heavy equipment.

So good to be back with family.

Brody in heaven pretending to be driving a "dig dig."

Daughter-in-law Ashley with Bennett, Brody, son Brad, and Maya the Wonder Dog.

Putting the Boat to Bed

Trinidad has somewhat of a rough and tumble reputation among cruisers. Most cruisers opt to spend hurricane season in the more laid-back environs of Grenada and save Trinidad for haul outs and repairs. After a long discussion with a 14-year Caribbean cruiser, he suggested we sail to Trinidad and haul the boat out rather then leave it in Grenada. His reasoning was “Yes, Grenada is rarely hit by hurricanes, but Hurricane Ivan in 2004 destroyed the marina where you are planning to stay. Do you want to relax and not worry when you visit your grandchildren in Seattle?” Good logic.

Route from Prickly Bay, Grenada to Chaguaramas, Trinidad.
We left Grenada around 5:00 pm on July 11th for the overnight trip to Trinidad, plotting a course to sail between two large offshore oil rigs and allowing enough “easting” to compensate for a strong easterly current. The trip was enjoyable, with a nice 12-knot breeze on the beam and gentle seas. There was one exception, however.

At about 2:00 am we were transiting the area between the two oil platforms. They are lit up like Christmas trees and very easy to spot. The problem was all the boat traffic in the area: service boats running back and forth between the oil platforms, shipping traffic from South America, and unmarked buoys for the oil rigs. Trying to make sense of all this, with the myriad of lights ahead of us and the multiple dots on the radar screen, was not easy. I also tend to be a little drowsy at 2:00 am. All of a sudden something caught my eye that didn’t make sense (not hard at this age). I thought I saw a glimmer of a red light coming towards us (not good, this means you are on a collision course and the other boat has right-of-way). I thought of waking Meryl, but I still wasn’t sure of what I was seeing. You also tend to be on edge since there was a piracy incident in this area several years ago and two cruisers were murdered. All of a sudden the red light became brighter and I realized the vessel was approaching us at high speed. Trying to think of which way to turn to avoid a collision, I yelled at Meryl to come up and help out. Next thing I know a huge white searchlight had blinded me and our VHF radio crackled to life. I could now see the outline of a large 60-ft. Navy-type vessel circling us and decide it would be a good idea to answer their radio call. After playing twenty questions (they were very professional, but I still didn’t know who I was talking to), they welcomed us to Trinidad and went on their way. We later learned it was most likely the Trinidad Coast Guard doing drug interdiction work, although locals told us they are far more concerned with weapons being smuggled into the country. It was a little tough to relax after that incident, but fortunately the rest of the trip was fairly benign.

Approaching the headlands of Trinidad after the all night crossing from Grenada.

We rounded the southeastern point of Trinidad and passed through a narrow channel into the large bay of Chaguaramas. Once a sleepy fishing village, the port is dominated by five large shipyards that cater to both large commercial vessels and yachts/powerboats. We had an appointment to haul out at Peakes Yachting Services and made arrangements to tie up at their dock prior to the haul out.

Getting into the dock was a bit of an issue, however. The wind was blowing fairly strongly on our beam and we had to go the backside of the dock with little room between the dock and shoreline, then somehow reverse the boat and back into a narrow slip while Meryl caught a buoy forward to tie off a line that would prevent us from backing into the dock (this is called a Med moor and is very common docking method in Europe) and I kept us from hitting the boats on either side. The problem is our boat will not back up to the right (because of the rotation of the prop) so we had to frantically hail a passing dingy to act as a tug boat to straighten the boat up has we reversed in. It wasn’t pretty, but we did eventually get tied up.

The marina offers five days free moorage if you are hauling out and we intended to take advantage of the offer. Trinidad is very hot and humid in the summer, so having access to dock power meant we could run our small air conditioner, which is just strong enough to make the cabin tenable at night.

Eric, the incredible Dutchman, who rescued Meryl's favorite glasses from the depths of Chaguaramas Harbor.

We did have one mini disaster before the haul out. Meryl was standing on the back of the boat looking down at the water when her glasses slipped off her head and fell “in de magi.” These were the first pair of expensive glasses she’d owned ($400) so we weren’t going to lose them without a fight. Normally I would have dove down for them, but I was still recovering from a bad cold and very congested. One thing we’ve learned while cruising: you lose no honor by asking for help when you need it. We got on the 8:00 am Cruisers Radio Net the next morning and asked for help; we immediately had three offers from cruising boats. We dingied over and picked up Dutch-born Eric off the sailing vessel Gabber, a 30-ft. steel boat he and his wife Ernie had sailed over from the Med.  

Eric was a certified dive instructor and at 6’ 1” and tussled blonde hair, he certainly looked the part. The water off the end of our transom was around 27 feet deep and he first tried free diving, but with no luck. I got out my SNUBA rig and after another 15 minutes of searching he popped out of the water with Meryl’s glasses in hand. He had found them under a piece of paper after searching for over 40 minutes. Naturally he wouldn’t accept any money (cruisers rarely do for helping) so we gave him and Ernie all of our perishable food since we wouldn’t have refrigeration while hauled out.

We spent the next several days getting the boat ready for the haul out and packing for our trip home. Leaving the boat in the tropics requires a lot of preparation, including: wiping the entire interior of the boat down with a mixture of vinegar and water to prevent mildew, sealing the heads, removing all perishable food from the boat and sealing the rest in plastic containers, sealing all openings into the boat, storing the outboard down below, securing anything lose with ropes and cable locks, etc. I also had to remove the autopilot system to take it back to Seattle for repair. This should have been easy but the cables to the control head would not pass through the holes at the base of the binnacle, so that involved several hours of fidgeting to get them thru. It’s never easy.

Maneuvering a 44 ft. sailboat with a 6 ft draft backwards into the second slip from the left was a challenge.

On the morning of the haul out we had to move the boat from the inside dock around to the haul-out dock. Sounds easy, but we managed to include some drama in even that simple process. Getting the boat to make a tight left turn is difficult since our prop naturally pushes the bow to the right. We did all the math and figured a way to use our spring lines to force the bow around. After much planning I pushed the throttle forward and to my horror the steering wheel wouldn’t turn. I immediately knew what the problem was but it didn’t prevent us from sidling up to the boat to our left. Luckily we both had fenders out, but I had to rush down below and disengage the autopilot from the rudder. I had assumed this would happen when I removed the unit but there was still one more mechanical piece that had to be removed. We finally got the boat moving forward around our neighbor boat and kept trying to turn hard to the left to avoid the shallower waters near the beach. We still managed to bump along several rocks (low tide) on the bottom as we rounded the end of the dock, but thankfully everything went smoothly after that.

Peakes Yacht Services has a huge Travelift capable of lifting large fishing boats.

Getting our bottom pressure washed in preparation for new bottom paint.

They really pack the boats in at Peakes. Unfortunately we couldn't use our AC, refrigeration, or toilets once on the hard.
After the boat was safely secured on jack stands in the yard, we went down to see if there was any damage to our neighbor boat. They were gone for the day so I jumped on board and luckily the only thing broken was one of their lifelines that our outboard motor had snagged. I latter went back and talked to the older Austrian couple on the boat and explained what happened, telling them I’d arranged with a rigger to fix the damage at my expense. To my amazement he refused, saying it was a bad swage fitting and he should have fixed it long ago. Amazing.

The only other incident was that our bilge pump decided to die, so I hired a local guy to look at it. In all the instructions for leaving your boat in a yard, the number one recommendation is to make sure your bilge pump is in top working order in case the torrential rains somehow enter the boat and fill it like a bathtub. Mine was off the job and collecting unemployment. It was 14 years old and it needed to be replaced anyway. It’s located in an almost inaccessible part of the bilge and I couldn’t even reach it without removing the engine. I had them design a stainless steel pole that allowed us to pull the pump up for servicing and repair. Should have been designed that way originally.

We ended up staying in a basic hotel room the boatyard had the night before we left. The boat didn’t have AC when it was in the yard so we really looked forward to some air-conditioning and a nice cool shower before our flight to Seattle the next day.

After nearly two years of cruising we've gotten a better feel for what needs to be on the boat and what doesn't, and in the "what doesn't" category were heavy blankets, fiberpile jackets, and any clothing made of cotton. We managed to fill up four large boxers with junk off the boat. Getting all this stuff off the boat (now 15 ft up in the air) and across the yard to our hotel was a challenge. Getting it on the airplane was going to be another challenge.

"You want to check all that to Seattle?"
Up at 4:00 am for the one-hour drive to the Port-of-Spain airport. Luckily the flight had empty seats and soon we were soaring above Trinidad for the four-hour flight to Houston and enjoying a long deserved rest on the airplane.  

Looking down at the boatyard as we flew over Meryl and I both took a collective breath of relief after a hectic five days. After a one-hour layover at Houston we were on our way home to Seattle to reconnect with family and friends.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Life in Prickly Bay

Life in Prickly Bay is good. The morning radio net keeps everyone informed about local events such as Yoga at Secret Harbor, Tai Chi on the beach, Mexican Train dominoes at the Tiki Hut and so on. We enjoyed going to two-for-one pizza night at Prickly Bay Marina, and getting up early to watch the European Formula One Races on the big screen with Jack and Marce on Escape Velocity.

After the Bahamas it's so nice to have normal grocery stores for provisioning.

We got a local SIM card for our iPhone so we had some semblance of being in touch with the rest of the world, did shopping trips to the IGA Supermarket in Spice Island Mall, and enjoyed frozen yogurt on rare occasions.

The high-end Port Louis Marina in St. George's.

In St. George's we explored the posh Port Louis Marina where our friends on Distant Shores were staying, wandered around the various shops, and stopped for delicious baked goods at the British-run Merry Baker.

Just "liming" with friends on the 4th of July.

The Fourth of July was not a big deal here, so we ended up on the beach with the crew from Field Trip and an Australian boat who had less interest in the holiday and more on the party. Locals would have described us as "liming," a local term for just hanging out and doing not much of anything.

When we sailed down from Carriacou it seemed that our genoa was beginning to show it's age. We took it off the boat and into the local sailmaker who wanted $1000 just to repair the leach line area.  Instead we got quotes for a new genoa and settled on using a local rep for Neil Pryde Sails who now builds their sails in the Philippines. We got a fairly good quality sail for one-third the price charged by the top end sailmakers in Seattle. We figured we could replace it three times for the same price.

The problem, however, was we still needed to sail from Grenada to Trinidad for our haul out, a passage of about 80 miles. I had been deathly sick for the previous three days, not getting up out of the sauna we call our bed until I realized time had come to leave for Trini. We had left some buffer time in our departure date but Tropical Storm Chantal pushed the date back about one week, and it was now time to go.

The Queen of the SailRite.
We hauled out Meryl's SailRite industrial sewing machine and set up shop on the top of the life raft on the foredeck. Although I was still wiped out from being sick, I helped Meryl wrestle the huge genoa around the deck and feed it into the throat of the machine while she guided the stitching. With some new size 20 needles Meryl did an incredible job sewing a 8 ft. patch along the leach of the sail which proved good enough to get us to Trinidad. We figured we paid for the machine in that single repair job. Trinidad here we come.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Turtle Named Natasha

Last night we had the thrill of a lifetime. We hired a guide, Cutty, who drove us about one hour north of Prickly Bay up the east coast of Grenada to Levera Beach. The ride itself was interesting as we got to see parts of Grenada not normally seen by tourists: the little roadside bars illuminated with a single fluorescent bulb serving cold Caribs to the locals, locals sitting on a neighbors porch enjoying the cool of the night, and kids still playing on the side streets. We drove through the little town of Grenville with groups of Grenadians just standing out by the street talking or small groups of men huddled around a card table playing a raucous game of dominoes.

A naturalist tells us a male leatherback turtle can weigh up to 2000 lbs.
About 9:00 pm we arrived at a small building that serves as the reception area for park headquarters where a naturalist gave an introductory talk about the leatherback turtles and instructed us in the rules of the road of turtle watching:
  • wear black clothing, the baby turtles can imprint on light colored objects when they are born, 
  • walk in single file along the beach, 
  • use only a red filtered flashlight, 
  • no flash photography, 
  • and most important, be patient. Turtles are not in a big hurry. 

From the park headquarters we drove a short distance to a parking area and gathered our gear for the short walk to the beach. Since there was no moon this night, we had to walk carefully with only the starlight to guide us. We shuffled our way through sandy paths with killer loops of vine that seemed to grab my foot at every opportunity.

We arrived at the “waiting area,” an old fishing dory laying on its side with a piece of plywood thrown up for a seating area. We were lucky since there was a light offshore breeze blowing; we’d heard of other people huddled behind the boat in 20-knot winds. After about 40 minutes we got word from one of the turtle researchers down the beach that they had found a female laying her eggs.

Following the naturalist, the group of 10 of us quickly walked along the upper beach area, carefully watching for any baby turtles that may have just emerged from their nests. We saw several distinctive tracks, but no babies. We could see small red specks from the researcher’s flashlights that marked the location of the turtle.

As we approached and our eyes got accustomed to the darkness we could make out a large, blurry form on the beach just above us. As some red flashlights illuminated the area the sheer immensity of the female turtle became apparent; she was about the size of a small kid’s swimming pool.

We were at the rear of the turtle and three researchers were lying on the ground, with two of them holding the turtle’s left rear flipper out of the way and the third, with her head literally in the hole, was counting the eggs as they dropped from the mother. About the size of tennis balls, with a very rubbery feel, the females lay up to 100 eggs per nesting.

After things calmed down a little I had a chance to talk with the lead researcher who educated me about the “ways of the turtle.” The turtles have a range of thousands of miles around the world, but always come back to the same beach where they were born. In most turtle species the females become fecund at around twenty years old, but new research is leaning towards the leatherbacks having babies at a younger age. The females are impregnated by the male turtles at sea and hold the sperm in a special reservoir in their body, and groups of eggs are then fertilized over the breeding season that runs from April to August. Using this method the females can deposit eggs on the beach many times during the season.

Each night from one to thirty females emerge from the ocean at Levera Beach and slowly lumber their way up the soft sand to about the high water mark. They then position themselves with their head away from the ocean (uphill) and slowly start digging a hole alternatively using their two back flippers, tunneling down about two to three feet and about one foot in diameter. They then lower their rear into the hole and slowly start dropping the eggs, again anywhere from 20 to 100 at a time.

During the egg laying process they are in a trance-like state and you easily approach them, feel their leathery carapace, and stare into their watery eyes. After one or two hours when all their eggs are laid, they slowly start to pack sand into the hole with their rear flippers and then begin to moving large amounts of sand into the area using their huge front flippers. The researcher cautioned me not to be behind her when that process started. “They can throw sand thirty feet in the air and you don’t want to get it into your eyes.”

Once the nest is covered, the turtle slowly starts turning around using her front flippers to pull and her back flippers to push her 700-pound body back towards the sea. Our turtle measured a little over five feet long, but the researcher said the males can get up to 2000 pounds.

He mentioned that while leatherbacks are doing well in the Caribbean, their numbers have decreased over 90% in the Pacific Ocean, mainly due to fishing, poaching, and a decrease in shoreline habitat to lay their eggs. When we were in Cumberland Island in Georgia, the researchers clearly marked the nest and then put metal netting over it to prevent wild pigs from eating the eggs. In Grenada it’s just the opposite. In the morning volunteers come down to the beach and carefully camouflage the nest to prevent people from digging up the eggs to use as food. As a researcher said, “If your family is starving, a turtle nest can provide lots of protein for a long time.”

When the female is done laying her eggs researchers triangulate the location of the nest so they can watch the nest during the 55-day incubation period. An amazing fact: Out off every 1000 eggs laid, only one baby turtle makes it to adulthood in the ocean. The researcher described the turtles leaving the nest as a very Darwinian process: “The top ones start kind of corkscrewing their way up through the sand, with the lower one climbing out on the backs of others. The poor last turtle left has no one to climb over and usually doesn’t make it out of the nest unless a volunteer is there to help.

For the ones who do make it out of the nest there are still lots of predators between the nest and the ocean, and many more in the ocean as they swim away to begin their new lives. As we watched the female slowing make her way through the soft sand to the harder sand at the water’s edge and finally into the first wavelets of ocean water, we couldn’t help but be amazed by a process that hasn’t changed since prehistoric times.

As we walked back single file along the beach we came upon another smaller female laying her eggs. A researcher turned to Michael, Sara and Mark’s 5-year-old, whom they fondly called Einstein, and said, “We need a name for this turtle.” Michael and Elizabeth, his 7-year-old sister huddled and came up with the name Natasha. Natasha will be tagged by researchers and entered into the logbook to be tracked wherever she goes around the world. As we quietly walked back to the car all of us realized we’d just experienced something very special, and gained a new appreciation for fragility of life and the dwindling numbers of the endangered leatherback turtles worldwide.