Isbjorn Upwind: Making Miracles in Culebra

There is a strange disconnect between listening to dark, brooding Scandinavian electronic music and sitting in a tropical anchorage surrounded by turquoise water, green palm trees and golden sand. I’m listening to Robyn & Royksopp as I write, a collaboration between Swedish pop queen Robyn and Norwegian electronic gurus Royksopp. This particular song, ‘Monument,’ is often played over the PA system as you board a flight on Norwegian Airlines. Super moody. But I like writing with loud music on in my headphones – it creates a sort of sensory deprivation that somehow lets me focus more on putting the words down. Anyway.

Today magic was witnessed onboard Isbjorn – we made water! From salt came fresh! Ever since the end of the Caribbean 1500 rally we’d debated the need for a water maker or some other means of adding to the tankage. Over the 8-day passage, the six-man crew used the fresh water exceedingly sparingly, only taking one shower each during the trip, washing dishes in saltwater and otherwise being stingy. Alas, the 90-gallon capacity in Isbjorn’s tanks still wasn’t enough, and by the last day Paul Exner had dipped into the emergency bottles and spare jerry cans, in which we carried ten extra gallons. The boat’s capacity would be fine on shorter trips, especially in cooler, northern climes. But we’ve got three trans-Atlantic passages coming up in the next two years, one of which will be 3,000 miles in the tropics, so 90 gallons certainly wasn’t going to cut it.

Aboard Arcturus, we only carried 35 gallons in one central tank in the keel. During our 23-day Atlantic crossing, we resorted to catching rainwater in the bunt of the reefed mainsail, managing to make landfall in Ireland with a full tank. If it were just Mia and I sailing on Isbjorn, we’d probably do the same. But with six people aboard for most of our long passages, rainwater’s just too unreliable. And as I get older, I like being salty even less. It’s almost blasphemy to my former purist self, but dammit I like to rinse off in fresh water!

Ex-Patriot came with an older Spectra watermaker already installed, a Catalina 300 model from about 2003. Not knowing anything about watermakers, I was afraid of it, so never even bothered to turn the breaker switch on on the electrical panel. As we used the boat more and more as Isbjorn, I became less and less confident that the watermaker would work at all – lots of stuff onboard, it turned out, had been maintained on a ‘deferred’ schedule, so all sorts of stuff needed replacing. The chances that the watermaker would be the lone exception seemed doubtful.

As I started researching alternatives (thinking like I often do that it’d be better to spend money on new than waste money on obsolete), I got to thinking that maybe it was worth firing up the old Spectra and seeing if it was serviceable. My friend Lee on the Tayana 37 Satori had built a homemade watermaker from parts he bought on eBay. The engine-driven unit he created puts out 36 gallons per hour, and he’s thrilled with it. This inspired me, but Lee’s got more time and more resources (like his dad’s machine shop) than I do to build something like that from scratch.

So I got in touch with Specta’s tech guys who told me that if the unit was put away properly it should just ‘work’ after a good purge of the chemicals in the membrane used for long-term storage. I might have to replace the filters (standard maintenance) and clean the membrane, but it should still work. He sent me instructions on how to get it working and tested, and assured me that it was still a viable system – Spectra still has all the parts needed for this model despite it’s age. So what the heck?!

This morning on anchor in gorgeous Isla Culebrita (a small island just east of the larger Culebra – we finally made it here after two long, upwind daysails from San Juan, in much better weather than our aborted night mission last week), I decided to give the watermaker a go.

Before firing it up, I dove into the bilge and lockers and traced all the plumbing so I knew what was what, which tank was getting the fresh product water (Isbjorn has four water tanks totaling ~96 gallons, including the isolated bladder tank aft). It all seemed fairly straightforward and, amazingly, pretty well installed (save for a couple of electrical connections hanging in mid-air – I can fix those later).

I flipped the breaker on the electrical panel and low and behold the watermaker’s control unit came to life. Following the instructions very carefully on re-commissioning following winterization, I punched a few keys on the control panel, opened the pressure-relief valve on the high-pressure pump and started the 20-minute purge sequence. Immediately water started flying around everywhere – a simple quick-release fitting was uncoupled, probably from the last winterization. I snapped it back on, and the system started working. I had a funny feeling that this actually might work…

A timer counted down the purging process as the system ran raw water through the membrane to flush out the pickling chemicals. The tension mounted as the timer ran down. An alarm beeped and the panel told us to shut the pressure valve again and continue under the ‘auto run’ program, which we did. Another timer counted down the ten-minute process of actually making water, but dumping it overboard so as to ensure the salinity content is acceptable before filling the tanks. All this happened automatically, and I just hoped that all the tiny little sensors were reading properly.

As that timer counted down to zero and the system switched into actual water-making mode without any faults, leaks or problems, I became giddy! I traced the product water line to it’s terminus at tank #2, popped off the quick-release fitting and saw with my own two eyes fresh, clear, cool water pouring out of the hose. It mattered not that it was suddenly spilling over the top of the tank and onto the cabin sole – it was fresh water! As if by magic, out of thin air! (‘No Andy, it’s made from saltwater, not thin air,’ Mia reminded me). I spilled some into a clean cup, had a swig, and voila – fresh water!

I plugged the product water line back into the tank and watched the gauge on tank #2 slowly increase as we dumped pure, fresh water into it. What a start to the day!


Afterwards Mia and I swam the 1,000 meters or so into the beach here at Culebrita, a perfect horsehoe-shaped bank of pure white sand (and had freshwater showers afterwards! Ha!). Even the bottom is clean – while the east and west sides of the small bay are lined with nasty reefs that kick up big breaking waves on either side of the harbor entrance, the head of the bay leading to the beach is perfectly clean, making it easy to wade ashore. A very gentle ground swell (this bay is open to the north) plopped ashore, making the soothing sound of breaking waves as we nodded off to sleep last night.

We’d packed the camera inside it’s small Pelican case, put that in a Ziploc and put the whole thing in a drybag that I tied around my ankle for the swim to shore and got some really cool photos back out towards the boat over the blue-green water. There are only 3 or 4 other boats here.


Getting here was a bit of a mission, of course. After the botched night-ops sail last week, we spent two more days in San Juan, back at the hotel lobby taking advantage of the Internet and getting some more work done. There was a change in the weather in the forecast, and on Monday afternoon, sitting in that lobby and gazing out over the Atlantic, we could actually see it. The whitecaps ceased offshore and the squalls were replaced by puffy fair-weather cumulous. ‘Time to go,’ I said to Mia.

We weighed anchor at 0630 on Tuesday morning, planning to daysail our way to Culebra against the easterly Trades and westward-setting North Equatorial Current. Offshore it was much more pleasant that a few nights previously. With the small jib and full mainsail, we made 6-7 knots upwind, with spray flying around but no green water on deck.

It was nearly sunset by the time we rounded Cabo San Juan, the eastern-most tip of mainland Puerto Rico, and tacked our way between La Cucarachas rocks and Cayo Icacos. Icacos is the first, from west to east, of a string of tiny islets that terminate ten miles to the east of Cabo San Juan and create a sort of channel between Culebra and mainland Puerto Rico. They provide some protection from the northerly swell, but make navigating, especially at night, a bit tricky, as the passages between them are narrow and filled with breakers.

We never got that far that first day, stopping instead at Isla Palominos, a small resort island just east of Fajardo that is frequented by ferries and day-trippers on the weekend. Being that it was Tuesday though, we shared the anchorage with only two other boats and swam to shore the following morning for a walk around the resort. We’d tried anchoring in the lee of the deserted Icacos, which looks very inviting, but the hook wouldn’t dig into the hard bottom, and we didn’t dare sneak into the sandy section just off the beach, as the water depths read only 8 feet at low tide. Isbjorn draws 8 feet, but a smaller boat would have found an awesome anchorage in a deserted locale, the classic ‘desert island’ spot. Alas, if only we had Arcturus… 

I find myself missing that boat. I love the new boat, but Arcturus is nostalgic for me now with it’s small, easily handled sails, simple systems and everything shiny and new after all the work we put into it. We back to square 1 now with Isbjorn, fixing all the broken stuff, slowly cleaning very dirty things, fiddling with this and that and trying to maintain the systems that do work. I’ve been chatting with Chuck at Chesapeake Sailmakers about getting our new sails for next spring, to the tune of $20,000 for main and genoa. Sheesh! Arcturus’ new sails cost only about $6,000 for all three of them! We’re beyond that now I guess, but I know it’s going to be hard going back to Sweden next June, launching and rigging Arcturus then officially handing her over to Neil, her proud new owner.

Anyhow, after our brief stop at Palominos, we hoisted sail again and sailed off the hook (ha, I can still do it, despite the bigger boat!), tacking towards Culebra. The plan was to try and duck into Bahia Flemenco to anchor off what’s considered one of the world’s 10-best beaches. After a long tack offshore north of Culebra, we tacked again, aiming right for the Bay, trying to get nice and close to get a look at it before committing to go in or not. It’s completely open to the north and is a haven for surfers when there is a big ground swell, and not a place for yachts when that happens, but Don Street assured us it’s a great spot when there is no ground swell running, and furthermore, we’d have the place to ourselves because of the trick entrance. It looked inviting, but in the end we bailed and tacked offshore again only a few hundred meters from the entrance to the Bay.

From there it was a dead beat up the narrow channel between Culebra to the south and Cayo Norte opposite as we made for Isla Culebrita and the picturesque little bay tucked into the north side. ‘How come every time we tack you’re at the helm!?’ asked Mia as she cranked the jib in and adjusted the traveler on the mainsail after yet another tack. We switched places from then, and just in time for her. We short-tacked up the only half-mile-wide channel in perfect conditions – flat water in the lee of the islands and 15 knots of wind blowing from the southeast. The channel is steep-too on both sides, so we held on until the very last second, then threw the wheel hard over and brought the boat around to the other side (I always reenact that scene from Braveheart during these close-quarters maneuvers…’Hold…hoooold…hooooold…HOOOOOOOOLD!...NOW!). As we neared the shoreline on each tack, the strong scent of flowers wafted over the boat.

Once we cleared Cayo Botella on the last tack, we stood out a little longer than necessary to line up for the last board into the small bay on Culebrita. Reefs protect the entrance both to the east and west, and large breakers pile up on the western shore, which we needed to hug in order to avoid a 9-foot spot jutting out from the eastern headland. Isbjorn had a bone in her teeth as we charged towards the idyllic anchorage, congratulating ourselves on our by-chance happening upon this place, then hurried to get the jib furled so we’d slow down a bit. We only fired up the engine for the last few hundred meters as we nosed into the Bay and dropped the hook in 20 feet of water. So what if it’s a bigger boat – I can still sail! 

All told, it was a 20-mile day as the crow flies. Upwind, we sailed an actual 29 miles, tacking a total of 16 times, including 9 times through the channel by Cayo Norte alone. My shoulders were tired from grinding winches by the time we anchored, but it was a successful shakedown for Mia and I, proving that even though she’s vastly bigger in all directions, Isbjorn is still just a sailboat, and an effing awesome one at that, and that we can easily double-hand her, even entirely under sail.

Once inside the reefs, the bay opens up into a perfectly round, perfectly sheltered and utterly empty lagoon. Aside from the old stone lighthouse at the top of the hill, there are no structures ashore, no signs of life other than the herd of goats climbing on the rocks and the cacti growing out of them. I wondered aloud to Mia today how these places form in nature, such a perfect place to safely anchor a boat that also delight the senses so much. It’s uncanny.

This bay is filled, filled with sea turtles. Every few minutes another one pops it’s head up for a breath of fresh air. This is exciting, but after a while is so commonplace that you tend to almost not notice it. The beach is a nesting ground for the turtles and there are strict rules about when you can be ashore and what you can and can’t do (no fires, no camping, etc).

As I write, we’re getting ready to weigh anchor again and sail downwind for a touch and into Ensenada Honda and the eponymous town of Culebra. We decided that we’ll come back here in a few weeks’ time with Mia’s parents, who are coming over from Sweden for Christmas and a vacation on the boat. Tomorrow is another workday, so we’ve got to find Internet somewhere. Then it’s upwind again and back to the BVI where we’re hoping to meet my old Woodwind pal Tiffany, who’s on a charter with her family. Can’t wait!