Anchored

If we haven’t told you yet, this may come as a surprise.  We are done cruising.  It took a life time of dreaming, years of hard work and saving of funds, years of searching for the right boat, prepping that boat, summoning the courage to quit careers, sell the house, cars, etc. to finally throw off the dock lines and sail off to daily adventures.   But it only took a moment for the feeling to wash over us that it was time to stop and head back to solid ground.   IMG_0766

No momentous event or necessity caused us to make this decision, it truly just was time to stop.  And miraculously enough we both felt the same way.   And much like a British TV series, which seem to end before going stale, we wanted to go out on a high note with joyful memories and no regrets.

Of course we will always retain the lifelong friends we made and the life lessons we learned – from the irrelevantly practical (opening a coconut with a machete) to the metaphysical (a single human is insignificant in the face of nature’s immensity) to the sublime (that dolphins swimming alongside the boat as you and your dog admire them is a joy that never gets old).

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Into every life a little rain must fall

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However, it became clear that we are simply ready for the next chapter.   For right now we only know the setting of this chapter and not the plot. We’ve bought a house in the little hamlet of Orient on the North Fork of Long Island, NY and will be figuring it out from there.

Land cruiser

From cruiser to Land Cruiser

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Where is the jib sheet on this thing?

We spent several weeks cleaning the boat and getting it ready for sale and then had our last “overnight passage” as we drove our new-to-us land cruiser and a U-haul trailer from Florida to our new home.

For now, we are reconnecting with old friends and learning a new house.  Its funny how much time it takes to leave the dock, but how quickly you fall back into land life. However, we’ve promised ourselves to hold onto our wanderlust and although we won’t be traveling on Neko, we are anxious to explore other forms of travel and to not let the carnival stop just yet.

So we’ll put this blog on hiatus for a while.  But first we’d like to thank all our family and friends, especially our cruising family, for the support, encouragement and camaraderie so generously bestowed on us these past 4 years.   And we hope for new stewards to sail Neko far and wide because she wants to go, go, go and not sit at the dock.P1070385

A Road Less Traveled

Duncan town on Ragged Island in the Jumentos islands of the Bahamas is a toehold of a community at the end of a long string of small uninhabited Bahamian islands. Its closer to Cuba than other Bahamian civilization. They say these islands are so remote that boaters should not go there unless they are truly self-sufficient and able to make any needed repairs themselves. So, in other words, it sounded perfect to us. We shot over from Great Inagua to the west, another remote island with a small population hanging on. However, when we got to Duncan town, it made Matthew Town on Inagua seem like a great metropolis by comparison. Duncan town consists of several sleepy streets with far more goats wandering around than people.

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Hello, is there anybody out there

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sleepy streets of Duncantown

The locals living here are supplied by the mail boat that comes once a week, bringing mail but also all the other supplies that are needed to survive. So there is generally no surplus for cruisers and reports were that the small grocery in the town rarely had anything extra to sell. When we asked a local man flying a kite (why not?) where the store was, we experienced the true generosity of the Bahamian people.

Duncan Town school master

Duncan Town school headmaster and kite flyer

The kite man asked us what we needed and we told him: eggs, lettuce, tomato, anything fresh since we hadn’t shopped since we left Puerto Rico 2 weeks earlier. He ran inside his little house where we thought he was going to call the store owner to see if she had anything, but a few minutes later emerged with a bag containing a dozen eggs, a head of lettuce and a few tomatoes. We were astounded that he would part with his own precious supplies but even more stunned when he refused any payment for them. We could not accept that and when we found out he was the schoolmaster of the island, we insisted on making a small donation for school supplies to acknowledge his generosity.

Duncan Town school

Duncan Town K-12 has all of 8 students

We left him to go back to his kite and wandered back to the boat marveling at the spirit of the people of the Bahamas who maintain their grace despite an always-harsh existence plagued by hurricanes, crushing heat, sparse water supplies, high prices and little opportunity for advancement. We can all learn something from the character that is ingrained in these people.

We moved on from Ragged Island and started making our way north up through the island chain back to civilization. Imagine one perfect little tropical island after another, each with gin clear water, white sandy beaches backed by palm trees and mangroves, without any sign of recent human activity.

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Dolphin leading the way

This is an area ruled by goats, sharks, turtles, sting rays and more fish than you can count. It is not fished out like the rest of the Bahamas.

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Neko only boat for miles

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Cruisers leave their mark at this “yacht club”

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Neko was here

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Gorgeous Raccoon Cay

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Barry the Barracuda joined us for a snorkel

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This late in the season you can have your pick of islands to yourself. If one other boat is too much company for you, just pick up anchor and move to the next one. But keep an eye on the weather because there is not much protection out here. After a couple weeks we were down to eating canned food and pasta, so it was time to get back to human civilization.

So we made it back to Long Island, no not THAT Long Island – there’s another one in the Bahamas. Sadly this one is still recovering from direct hits from recent hurricanes.  But they have great spirit and keep plugging along.

 

Church destroyed by hurricane

Church destroyed by hurricane

You quickly realize the far islands of the Bahamas are the forgotten step children to Papa Nassau and get more support from one another and foreign countries than their own government.  It’s a sad state of affairs, but we are all up to our eyeballs in politics, so let’s move on.   Salt Pond is a cheerful little place where everyone knows each other. The owner of the car rental place was off on another island so someone put us in touch with old Mr. Pinders, a farmer with a spare car he rented to us. Its that kind of place.

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We used his car to check out the blue hole – one of the deepest blue holes yet discovered, it descends to over 600 feet just off the beach. Its a round hole in the sand that goes down into the blue depths. We just happened to be there at the time when the world’s top free divers were there practicing for an upcoming meet. It was a strange scene for a top sporting event – very quiet as these athletes get into a zen-like state before diving for minutes at a time on a single breath. This competition aimed at the deepest dive, and the holder of the world record, a Russian who dove deeper than 400 feet, was there scoping out the location. On a casual dive, we heard the coach tick off 4+ minutes during which he dove down 300 feet and back up again.

Blue Hole

You can see why they call it the Blue Hole

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professional free divers practicing

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down

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up

After that, a crawl through an ancient cave used by the Lucayan indians in 500AD didn’t seem so brave.  But the Hamilton caves have been in Leonard Cartwright’s family for generations and were used by locals for hurricane protection before the local schools were built strong enough to withstand the massive storms that so often ravage these islands.

Mr. Cartwright showed us through the largest cave system in the Bahamas complete with indian graffiti, 3 species of bats and stalagmites and stalactites that had taken thousands of years to build. An amazing geological artifact that he is rightly proud to curate.

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Mr Cartwright showing us the way

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stalactites grow from the top down

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stalagmites grow from the ground up

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Thanks Pete for this lovely shot

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These guys were not happy with the flash light waking them up

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Bats, bats and more bats

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the way out

The Bahamas has many, many islands that are not touched by tourism and too remote for casual visitors, yet they are beautiful and populated by generous and happy people. It was our privilege to pass through them.

In The Pink

Over the last year and a half we’ve benefited from the close proximity of the islands of the Caribbean, enjoying day sails to get from one to the next.  So it took a moment to put our muti-day passage routine back in action, but with full sails (well, actually quite reefed sails), full moon and full Ipods our 3 day journey zipped by without incident. We were greeted by the familiar crystal clear waters of the Bahamas as we pulled into the southernmost island of the chain, Great Inagua.

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Great Inagua Lighthouse, just a stones throw from Cuba (55 miles away)

Although the third largest island of the Bahamas its population is just at 1000 and it is no surprise they all know one another and notice a new face.  We had not walked ten feet down the road towards customs/immigration when the first of three people stopped to offer us a ride.    We politely declined because after 70 hours at sea, we desperately needed to stretch our legs.  The friendliness didn’t stop there, as the officials could not have been more welcoming.  We were thrilled to be the first official boat for their newest customs agent, Francis.

This was Francis’ first day and we were honored Neko was her first official vessel.

Great Inagua may only have 1000 human residents but it is home to roughly 60,0000 flamingos and 140 species of native and migratory birds.  They work in rare harmony with the main industry on the island-salt.

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spoon bill also pink

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sea birds

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Merlin

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Baby flamingos are born white and slowly turn pink the more shrimp they eat

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Sorry so far away, but that distant line of pink is hundreds of flamingos

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No, he isn’t plastic

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Elegant flyers

The Morton Salt Company operations cover over 300,000 acres of the island and produce about a million pounds of salt per year.

We anchored in Man o War bay – the only boat for miles around – and booked a tour out to the salt flats and were taken by the beauty of these elegant birds in this other worldly landscape.  Morton floods the flats with seawater and allows the sun and wind to evaporate the water which produces concentrated brine, which in turn grows algae which brine shrimp eat.  And who loves brine shrimp?  You guessed it – our pink pals the flamingos. The shrimp diet is what gives them their pink hue.  The birds help remove some of the impurities and the salt is harvested and ground into different sizes depending on the use , e.g. table salt, de-icing salt, etc.  Man and nature working together is a lovely thing.  DSC_0871

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The roadway between the flats, looks like winter

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Water evaporating, leaving the salt for processing.

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Harvesting the salt

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Salt mounds, beyond the flats

Who knew salt could be so interesting?   Maybe we can officially call ourselves old salts now 😉  We loved our time in Inagua.  It has been a long time since we’ve been in a place where we were the only humans for miles around.  We took long walks on the beaches and snorkeled pristine coral teeming with fish.  So far, its good to be back in the Bahamas.

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Man O War Bay, Great Inagua

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There was once a community here, but abandoned  in 1970s when the few remaining residence moved to Matthew Town

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Neko all by herself

Tiny Jewel

Well it is time to say goodbye to the Caribbean.  We have spent the last 2 seasons sailing down to Grenada and back up to Puerto Rico visiting as many islands as possible and returning to the ones we loved.  To rest on a cliché, we may have saved the best for last. The tiny island of Culebrita is a small uninhabited gem just east of Culebra in the Spanish Virgin Islands.

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Sea turtles keep you company in the anchorage

We’d skipped it on the way down as the anchorage can be rolly when a north swell arrives, but this time we lucked out with calm seas that allowed us not one but two visits to this little slice of heaven.

Soft white sand beaches

Soft white sand beaches of Culebrita

The only way to get there is by boat.  So if you can swing it, go during the week when you may just have the place to yourself, apart from the sea turtles, goats and hermit crabs.

No Drone Zone

No Drone Zone

Pete in Culebrita

Goat skull

Goat Skull

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The white sand beaches are soft as baby powder and the snorkeling and hike to the abandoned 1880 light house would make for a complete visit.

1880s light house

Our pals on Nightingale Tune only made this place better

But in addition to those, do make the effort to scramble over the rocks in the northwestern corner of the bay where you’ll be rewarded with natural pools formed by the volcanic rock.  Nature has perfectly placed the rocks to allow the pools to flood but also to keep them calm enough for a soak, swim and snorkel.  It is like the Baths in the Virgin Islands but, like those NEVER are, here you can have these little gems to yourself.

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exploring the pools

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Taking the plunge

Wave selfie

Wave selfie

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Ah, you can’t rub your eyes with sunglasses on

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Culebrita is definitely on our top 10 list, maybe top 5!

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I could have stayed here forever

 

Friends Afloat

We love sharing our somewhat strange lifestyle with friends.  While it’s clearly a vacation from their normal lives, it’s also a break from the cruising routine for us.  We were recently privileged to welcome Phil and Holly, our neighbors from Orient, NY aboard Neko.

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Orient comes to L’Orient

We had a lovely tour of St. Barths and a circumnavigation of St. Martin, experiencing both the Dutch and French sides of the island.  They were GENIUS to buy travel insurance because the week they first planned to visit we were pinned down in the lagoon due to extreme winds and squalls.  They were able to push their trip back a week and we were all blessed with clear sunny skies.  These two are the king and queen of chill, which makes them a pleasure to have as guests.  It was a joy to catch up with them and the goings on back east.

Next up were Dave and Eileen for a long weekend in the BVI’s.  Flexible travelers make the best cruising guests, and these two are masters at last minute bookings.  It was fantastic to give them a short respite from the long NYC winter and work grind.  We got in some spectacular snorkeling and sailing during their quick visit.  After 20+ years of knowing Dave we only  just learned about his obsession with coiling lines.  A trait that is always welcomed on Neko.  With both, it was of course always a party with great meals and good wine.

Along with the joy of land visitors we had reunions with long lost cruising pals.

We met Mike and Robin from s/v Mermaid back on the Pacific side of Mexico, we haven’t seen them since Panama 2014.  And of course our comrades Charlotte & James on m/y Pegasus can’t get rid of us 😉   What a treat to all be together again in St Martin.

And we were delighted to run into m/y Tropical Blend & s/v Symbiosis and spend a day exploring the island of Anegada together.

Our latest buddy boat is s/v Nightingale Tune. We’ve been together on and off all season and are so proud of them for adopting not 1 BUT 2 island dogs.  Fur friends are always welcome on Neko.

Finally, we were excited to catch up with Torben and Judy from s/v Tivoli.  They had just finished a transatlantic sail from the Canaries to the BVI’s and we were there to welcome them to their first landfall in three weeks.

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Tivoli arriving in Virgin Gorda looking fresh as daisies after 3 weeks transAtlantic crossing.

If you are a regular reader of our blog, you will see that Torben and Judy were with us for our first significant trip on Neko – sailing her from San Francisco to Los Angeles.  They taught us so much in that weeklong trip that we consider them our cruising godparents.  It was 4 years since we had last seen them, but the time melted away instantly into perfect camaraderie.

It is wonderful to catch up with friends old and new and to share our salt water life with them, even if it’s just for a short time.

Double Dutch

Saba and St. Eustatius, aka Statia, are two large rocks passing as islands in the Netherlands Antilles.  Sandwiched between St Martin & St. Kitts, many bypass these island because of their questionable and often times rolly anchorages, both of which have a decidedly “industrial” feel.  However, don’t judge a book by its cover should be the motto of these Dutch islands – and we would hate to see them not get their share of cruisers because of the marginal anchorages and homely surroundings that greet you. Sounds great doesn’t it 😉   But I (Mary) got a bee in my bonnet that we had to go to them because we’d read the scuba diving was some of the best in the Caribbean.   So we waited and waited and finally got calm weather to visit these Dutch delights and we are thankful we did.

oil barges Statia

oil barges Statia

The less than green side of Saba

The less than green side of Saba

OK landlubbers, the next couple paragraphs are for our fellow cruisers to help them enjoy a stop in these islands. You see, the anchorages are exposed to ocean swell that wraps around the island (remember they are essentially just rocks in the ocean) and can make boats at anchor or mooring roll gunwale to gunwale.  While we were at Statia we saw two monohulls come in only to spend one miserable night and leave at first light, not getting to explore the cute little island.  It doesn’t have to be like that.  We spent three days in Statia and another three in Saba and it was not bad at all.  You just have to RIG YOUR GROUND TACKLE TO PUT THE BOAT’S BOW INTO THE SWELL.

Neko the only cruising boat in the harbor

Neko the only cruising boat in Oranje Baai, Statia

There are two ways you can do this:  First, like us – put a bridle on your anchor.  It works just as well on the moorings in the harbor.  Put one line to the bow and another to the stern.  Adjust the lines so the wind catches you broadsides and the swell comes at your bow.  It makes for more windage but you should have ground tackle that can handle it.  The other method is to pick out a mooring and motor out in the direction the swell is coming from.  Drop your anchor and back down and the wind will push you seaward from the mooring.  Take a line from your stern to the mooring and adjust to hold your bow into the swell.  This method has the benefit of keeping you in this attitude even if the wind dies. But either way, COME ON PEOPLE, give it a try.  In Saba, you also have the option of going to another side of the island to avoid the swell.  It’s got anchorages and moorings on the west and south side, so you can pick the location with the least swell.

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statia-anchor

A little more work than just tossing the hook as we all are accustomed to, but it is worth it.  Both islands have excellent diving.  On Statia, we went on dives with Golden Rock Dive Center to two wreck sites.  One consisted of two trading ships that went down in the harbor in the 1700’s, leaving today only two giant anchors and a line of coral where the ships once lay.  The other could not have been more different.  The Chien Tong sunk in 2004 and is largely intact.  It was eery to swim in and around it and see how the ocean life is slowly taking it over.  We hiked up the picture perfect volcano cone – it looks like they could have filmed King Kong here.  We inspected the ruins of warehouses and offices and other dockside structures built in the 18th century when Statia was a leading trading island, hosting dozens of ships at a time in its rolly anchorage.  

On land, Statia offers a charming and sleepy town with historic fort, hikes and some of the most literate goats we’ve met.  These guys were hanging out on the steps to the library waiting for it to open.  

Goats waiting for the library to open. Reading or eating the books is the question.

To help you on your next appearance on Jeopardy (you’ll have to split your winnings with us), note that Statia’s was the first government to officially recognize the United States as an independent nation by firing a signal cannon to recognize a ship from the newly declared republic entering its harbor.  

Next stop Saba

Next stop Saba

The other nearby Dutch island is Saba.  We were there during one of the rare calm spells, so we didn’t have to employ any special anchoring techniques, but the diving on Saba was just as unique.  The water is clear as … well, water and the sea life abundant and not afraid of divers.  There were more living huge corals than we’d seen in a long time.  Ben and Kato at Saba Divers run a great shop, and are highly recommended.

Saba’s two main towns are called “Bottom” (its at the bottom of a hill) and “Windwardside” (its on the windward side of the island).  Saba’s pioneers were apparently very literal people, or perhaps they didn’t have time to dream up fanciful names for their towns.  But what the towns lack in naming creativity, they make up in abundance in cuteness.  Imagine winding little stone paths, with gingerbread cottages and knee high white picket fences.  There was even a tame neighborhood rabbit living in the well-tended cemetery.  The red roof ordinance was in effect here, as most of the buildings sported clean red roofs, lending the town an appealing uniformity.

Red roof ordinance

Red roof ordinance

Stone pathways lead you through the village.

Stone pathways lead you through the village.

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Luckily Sabans moved their customs house to the more easily accessible Fort Bay. Until the 1940s everyone and everything entered Saba up “The Ladder”.  Walking waist deep in the breaking waves, up 800 steep steps to the customs house perched high above the rough seas.  Royals, commoners, medicine, furniture, food, etc. all used this route.  Think about that next time you are complaining about the wait at customs and immigrations.

The Ladder consists of 800 steep stairs up to the old customs house. Until the 1940s everyone and everything entered Saba this way.

The Ladder consists of 800 steep stairs up to the old customs house.

The road up from the harbor is a twisty set of hair-raising switchbacks leaning over the cliff, with a tiny stone guard rail that wouldn’t stop a runaway ten speed.

The long and winding road.

The long and winding road.

Mrs. Lollipop, our cab driver said they were all safe drivers on the island, but when Mary pressed she would not confirm that no locals had a drink before setting out on the road.  Indeed, when she picked us up after our dinner, she popped out of a bar to hop in her car.  The drive down was safe and slow, though, as she told us about her kids all scattered across the islands and America.  It was just as well, because a big swell was due the next day which would make our location uncomfortable.  So we battened down the hatches and set off on a quick overnight trip to the British Virgin Islands, and our planned meetup with friends.

Going With The Pyroclastic Flow

Sometimes we have to remember to get off the boat for more than going to the grocery store or hunting boat parts. For me at least, if I don’t make the effort to find out what is unique about an island, time can just slip away obsessing over the boat “to do” list and waiting for weather windows.

Our recent stop in Montserrat was the perfect reminder of why we make the effort to travel at slow speeds to remote locations. You don’t go to Montserrat to idle away the time on your boat watching sunsets and fixing things – the anchorage is much too rolly for that. Perhaps it is old Neptune’s gentle kick in the ass to get off the boat and explore and meet the locals.

Our new pal who talked up a storm. We loved ever second.

Our new pal who talked up a storm. We loved ever second.

It’s a small island set off by itself with a marginal anchorage so it does not get a lot of boat traffic.  When we were there only a handful of other boats came and went.  But that is part of its charm.

Most of the islands in the Caribbean are volcanic in origin and several of them bear the scars of human suffering at the hands of the volcano. But none present the modern day tussle between man and mountain as does the beautiful green island of Montserrat.

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Perfect view of Soufrière from the Montserrat Volcano Observatory

The Soufrière Hills Volcano on Montserrat lurched back to life in 1995 after about 400 years of slumber, and continued to erupt on a periodic basis for the next 20 or so years.  It still rumbles and spews in its high redoubt.  No glowing basalt flowing down the sides like the dramatic ones in Hawaii, Soufrière brought showers of ash and pyroclastic flows of mud, rock and ash to the inhabitants of its capital town Plymouth.

Photo illustrating how high the ash and mud was. Just the top of St. Patrick’s church steeple peeking out with church buried below.

29 people are said to have died in the eruptions.  The volcano caused massive disruption among the populace, many of whom had to abandon their homes and take temporary shelter in schools, churches and wherever could be arranged.

All residents now live North of the red line.

“Temporary” stretched into years as the volcano refused to go back to sleep and the daily activity and commerce moved to Little Bay on the northern side of the island.  The island had 11,000 inhabitants before the eruption and only about 3,000 now.  Many fled the hardships of life on the island.

Local guide Joe Phillip

Joe Phillip is a lifelong resident of Montserrat.  He offers a tour of the areas devastated by the eruption accompanied by his story of surviving the aftermath.  Joe had a lovely house in the danger zone that he abandoned when the volcano erupted.  Realizing life in the shelters would be cheek by jowl with only a cot as personal space, he commandeered a classroom in an abandoned school and made it his home for two years.  He snuck back to his old home and brought back appliances to furnish his new quarters.

At a low point and about to leave the island, he made a commitment to his island home and decided to stay, despite perhaps disappointing his wife.  When he could he bought a small plot of land and built a new house.  Joe took us on an emotional tour through his old town and showed us his and his neighbors’ houses under a foot of ash and being reclaimed by the jungle.  It is only a matter of time before the jungle wipes this once-thriving little town completely away as if it never existed.

Soon the trees will completely cover these homes.

Soon the trees will completely cover these homes.

can you see the house in there?

can you see the house in there?

Sir George Martin's famous AIR recording studio. Once recording Paul McCartney, Rush, The Police, Duran Duran, Black Sabbath and many more is now almost completely covered by trees

Sir George Martin’s famous AIR recording studio. Once recording Paul McCartney, Rush, The Police, Duran Duran, Black Sabbath and many more is now almost completely covered by trees

We went into an abandoned condo on the outskirts of Plymouth to view the devastation of the capital city of Plymouth.  It is buried some 30 feet deep – not by ash as some think, but by the mud that washed down from the denuded hills after rains.  It is sealed off and no one is allowed in without government permission and a police accompaniment.  It is a stark, lifeless place that feels like a Planet of the Apes movie set.

But Montserratians are a happy bunch and have taken it all in stride, even making lemonade out of lemons or should I say cement out of rocks.  Realizing that volcanic sand makes for better cement than salty beach sand, Montserratians have started several businesses to mine, refine and ship the valuable black sand.

breaking up large volcanic rocks to produce and sell cement.

breaking up large volcanic rocks to produce and sell cement.

We were greeted by smiles and wishes that we enjoy their island everywhere we went.  The food and drink are great, and we especially enjoyed a big lunch at Pont’s Place, where he decorates his outdoor dining area with all sorts of things he finds on land and at the shore.  It’s a delightful spot overlooking the sea.

interior of Pont’s Point restaurant decorated with flotsam and jetsam

Pont's Point

There is a spring on the island where it is said if you drink from it you must return to Montserrat.  We gladly sipped some hoping its magic is real.