The Log of Moira
These are mostly Susan’s remarks. Larry’s notes are indicated thus <Larry: blah blah blah.>.
This year’s trip was to the Abacos, which are the northern islands of the Bahamas. <Larry: the Abacos are sometimes called the “Family Islands” or the “Out Islands.”> The central islands (Nassau, Eleuthera, Andros and the Exumas) are next season’s goal. The southern islands (Cat Island, Crooked Island, the Jumentos, Great Inagua Island and the Turks and Caicos) may be on our agenda next season as well; they are all pristine, isolated and more challenging to reach.
We chose to visit the Abacos because they are close to where we were then in Florida, and we expected them to be a good, gentle introduction to the Bahamas. We hoped to be able to do the Abacos justice in our planned two month visit <Larry: though, for the record, we scarcely scratched the surface of even this restricted geography>. Going on to the Exumas would have been pushing too hard, at least in the two months we had allocated ourselves. The Abacos reminded me of Florida in the late fifties. They are indeed in another country but they do not seem foreign. I suspect this is why they are so popular to visitors.
You might think that getting to the Bahamas from Florida would be no problem. Well, not so fast! After all, the Gulf Stream runs between Florida and the Bahamas. The West End of the Grand Bahama Island, where we planned landfall, is about 55 straight-line nautical miles from Palm Beach, where we waited to cross. Remembering that we average 5 knots when traveling by sail, I planned 11 hours for the trip. <Larry: Then there’s the effect of the Gulf Stream, with its strong south-to-north current, on the distance one must travel. While the straight-line distance is about 55nm, the intended track from Palm Beach to West End was at right angles to the current, setting us about 20nm to the north, which meant we had to ‘crab’ into the current, which simultaneously increased the distance we effectively had to travel from the straight-line 55nm to something closer to 60nm, and slowed us down from 5.5 knots to maybe 5.0 knots.> We had had the assistance of the Gulf Stream when coming north from the Yucatán to Key West <Larry: technically, it’s the Yucatán Current at that point> but crossing the Stream at right angles would be different. Unless the crossing takes place in summer, when daylight is longer than in winter, to be comfortable of an arrival in daylight hours a crossing to the Bahamas requires some night sailing, either leaving in the evening to arrive at dawn, or getting up at 3am to start a crossing at 3:30am.
We chose a 3am departure, looking for an arrival in late afternoon.
The Palm Beach Sailing Club had been our temporary home for several months and a gracious host to our dinghy, Loose End. We enjoyed their club house with its internet and showers and bar. <Larry: Their dinghy dock provided a literal pied à terre, a contact point with the shore for our many shopping expeditions. One afternoon I volunteered to help the Club’s race committee, which was hosting a regional Laser (performance dinghy) sailing championship. It was quite an education.>
It was a beautiful early morning in March for our crossing and we started out with enthusiasm, somewhat wary as we had never crossed the Gulf Stream before.
So, in the dark, we hauled up the anchor and headed out from Lake Worth. We motored about 100 yards before the engine died and the boat stopped suddenly with a lurching movement, like running aground. Larry went into reverse but knew right away that we were not aground. After looking around as best we could in the dark it was soon obvious that we had motored into an abandoned mooring buoy whose pennant had wrapped itself around the prop shaft so well that our prop cutters could not release us. Realizing that we would need a diver to release us we anchored and I went to sleep. <Larry: Given that we were precariously attached to a mooring of unknown strength, very close to the edge of one of the channels through Lake Worth, with no functioning engine, and perilously close to some barges and dredging equipment, all I could do was drop an anchor underfoot and stand watch.> Larry stood watch berating himself for something that would have been hard to avoid. In the morning, the captain listened to his first mate who suggested we call TowBoat/US, where we had an insurance policy against the costs associated with grounding. While not a grounding, it was a similar problem. It turns out that our policy included an hour of a diver’s time, which was promptly arranged for, and soon we were free of the mooring line and, with a functioning engine, headed back to our anchorage, only slightly the worse for wear. By now it was 9am and time for morning tea and coffee.
<Larry: As with our engine’s false-alarm (oil pressure) in the Rio Dulce, this episode caused us to miss the back end of a timing “window.”> Several weeks later we tried again. The key to a successful crossing of the Gulf Stream is weather and timing. We prefer sailing to motoring because a sailing boat should sail, after all, and we prefer the quiet of sailing to the racket and consumption of motoring. But to cross safely, mild weather is required. This means that winds from the south or west under15 knots are fine, but any easterly winds mean no sailing, and northerly winds need to be under 10 knots. Stronger wind from the north creates a situation where wind out of the north opposing the northerly flowing Gulf Stream, turning the 30-odd mile width of the Gulf Stream between Florida and the Bahamas into a region of steep, short, dangerous waves with big waves and rough conditions, miserable at best and lethal at worst. To improve the odds of the right conditions, wait in Lake Worth, listening to the weather forecast every morning, until the right conditions come about. During the period from March to May, about every ten days or so something acceptable comes along. However, we had been advised that during the winter months, a wait in Lake Worth for a “good weather” window can take a month or more. Patience is necessary. <Larry: But there worse places to be “stuck” than Palm Beach, or for that matter, the Rio Dulce.>
On our second try, we picked weather that had a northerly component to it but very light. This worked for us, requiring us to motor initially, but allowed us to be sailing by mid-morning. Thanks to the Gulf Stream’s push we averaged more like 7 knots over the ride across doing upwards of 8.5 knots <Larry: that’s “speed over the ground”, not “speed made good”> in the midst of the Stream.. Even though our intended landfall at West End, Grand Bahamas Island was due east of Lake Worth, we actually had to point the bow somewhat south of east to get there. <Larry: Effectively, one sails an “S” shaped course, adding maybe 10-12% to the straight-line distance. One starts off sailing south of the desired course, in anticipation of being set north of it by the current, and finally having to claw one’s way back to the course-line. If one tried to sail a straight-line course, one would be set well north of the course-line, and have to fight back uphill at the far end of things. You can see the effect of the Stream on our track in the chartlet to the left. Our bow was pointed south of east the whole way from Palm Beach to West End.> Because of our early departure, and in spite of the sideways push of the Gulf Stream, we got to West End by early afternoon, exhilarated and thankful that things had gone smoothly this time.
I expected to notice something different about the ocean waters as we came upon the Gulf Stream but the water was no bluer nor was the swell or wave action different (in the conditions we had). But suddenly the boat was going faster. At first there was a gradual increase in speed, then at the center of the Stream, 2 – 3 knots were suddenly added to our speed and we were going faster than ever before. It is like one of those moving sidewalks at an airport. Get on it and you are moving fast. <Larry: Now imagine walking on one of those moving sidewalks, but at right angles to its axis! We were indeed going faster over the ground, even though we were going not quite in the direction we wanted to go, nor in the direction the bow was pointing.> It was exhilarating during the day but a little unnerving at night. I expected to see something different but it was just not so.
We had been warned that there might be a large amount of commercial traffic going north with the help of the Gulf Stream. There were several shrimp boats out, which is usual off the coast of Florida, but other than one or two freighters, one tug and barge, and one ocean liner lit up like a Christmas tree, we did not see anything to be wary of. Our early experiences in Long Beach, California, with its constant progression of big ships, had gotten us used to commercial traffic. Florida’s traffic seemed minor to us, but maybe we got lucky.
Within the archipelagos of the Bahamas, the islands sit on several shallow banks, and the water depth between the islands typically ranges from 7 feet to 35 feet. The Bahamas Banks provide a protective sailing environment: 25 knot winds will not give you big waves, because of the shallow water and (usually) limited fetch (distance over which the waves can grow as they travel). As a result the sailing is wonderful and movement between the islands is easy even with brisk winds. <Larry: One of the paradoxes of the Banks is that, though they are very shallow, the depths generally change slowly rather than abruptly. Confusingly, the northern archipelago surrounds the Little Bahama Bank, which lies just north of Grand Bahama Island and the Great Abaco Island, while the Great Bahama Bank is well to the south, in a separate archipelago.>
As you approach the Bahamas from Florida, you go suddenly from depths of 2,000 feet to 12 feet. Of course, you need to enter the shallow Banks with care, at locations that provide the necessary depth, and, if entering from the east, in gaps between the reefs that line the islands on the Atlantic Ocean side. The island harbors tend to be on the Banks side of the islands rather than the side facing the ocean. A tremendous amount of water enters and leaves the banks with each tidal cycle. While this gives the Banks very clear waters, it requires that the cruiser pay attention to the current, that can reach 2-3 knots. Many of the island harbors have shallow entry channels that would keep us out at low tide with our 6 foot draft, but watching one’s timing to take advantage of the 2-3 foot tides allowed us to enter.
There is no all-weather protected anchorage at West End <Larry: though there’s a decent anchorage/roadstead there when winds are from the east> so we pulled in to the Old Bahama Bay Club marina, which was pleasant and easy to navigate for a first landing in the Bahamas. The entrance to the marina was easy to see in the morning and is marked with buoys, unusual in the Bahamas. Bahamian Customs and Immigration were on site. We had no trouble getting 120 days on our visa from Immigration, and Customs had no interest in the “ship’s stores.” You need to have $300 US available (for a boat in the 40 foot range) for the officials. This covers all the fees and a fishing license for a 120 day stay.
There was a decent restaurant at the marina, so we could try conch, peas and beans, a classic dish of the Bahamas, and get an introduction to Bahamian “Sands” beer.
Each of the Cays in the Abacos, Spanish Cay, Man o’War, Green Turtle, Hope Town (Elbow Cay), and so on, has an individual character expressed in the houses, businesses and festivals. Each of the Cays had its own character shaped by history, industry and economics.
Boats with a draft over 5 feet must choose their spot to continue east from West End onto the Little Bahama Bank, as much of the rim of the Bank is too shallow to allow entrance. So we exited from the marina and headed north in the Atlantic to Memory Rock, where the rim of the Bank dips a little bit, allowing an easier entrance to the Bank. <Larry: We never saw less than 9 feet in our transit over the rim, but note the depths (in feet) on the chartlet, which shows our track from West End, Mangrove, Great Sale, and Hawksbill, to Spanish Cay.> From there we spent one night at Mangrove Cay, uninhabited and with no services, but the anchorage broke up the trip from West End to Great Sale. <Larry: We felt our way over the shallow water toward Mangrove Cay, and finally dropped the hook in a spot that my First Mate considered “way far out” from the Cay. A while later, a smaller boat anchored even further out. Weeks later, we met up with the crew of the other boat, and they said, “Oh yes, you were the guys that were anchored really close to the Cay.” Perceptions are funny things.>
We were amazed by the dearth of marine and bird life on the Banks surrounding the Abacos. It was unusual to see porpoises, and sport fishermen don’t waste their time fishing on the Banks. It was unusual to see bird life. The Little Bahama Bank are a marine desert, in contrast to the reefs between the islands and the ocean. There, fish and bird life is abundant. We have been told by fishermen that watching birds is the key to finding fish: where the birds are, the fish are. The reputation of the Bahamas as a great fishing paradise seems to come from the waters extending beyond the reefs and into the Atlantic Ocean. <Larry: These observations apply to the Little Bahama Bank. The Grand Bahama Bank to the south may be a different story.>
Great Sale Cay is uninhabited, with no services, but with a large natural harbor that offers good protection from northerly, easterly, and south easterly winds but it is open to southerly and south westerly winds. Holding in the anchorage is good and the anchorage, though shallow, is large. At the edges of the harbor, mangroves provide home to fish, sand sharks, and large rays.
Not willing to be rushed and go large distances each day, we found Hawksbill Cay to be a restful anchorage after Great Sale. You can go ashore here (we did not) but the town is reported to be poor and offer few services to cruisers. <Larry: One must tippie-toe in to the anchorage area, as coral-looking shallows are on each side of the approach.>
The next day, we went on to Spanish Cay, staying in the marina for two nights. Fortunately there was a breeze. Without the breeze, no-see-ums infest this island, so beware. On our boat with the fans on we were comfortable and not bothered too greatly. We did have screens on every hatch and port, though! But I found it impossible to sit by the marina’s pool because of the no-see-ums and the lack of breeze there. I quickly retreated to the air-conditioned bar to read. The restaurant was good and the staff of the marina were helpful and pleasant. The marina has a small store where you can get veggies, fruit, fresh bread, junk food and booze. Next time I would anchor out, and use the restaurant and store from the dinghy.
We were not bothered by no-see-ums or mosquitoes in any other area of the Abacos. We generally had a good breeze, which helps to reduce the bug problem. We did notice sand flies on the beach at Spanish Cay, so we stayed only a short time to explore. During our stay in the Abacos, we acquired some folk knowledge about getting rid of flies. Remarkably, Bahamian flies congregate heavily in restaurants above servings of conch! The Bahamians light a canister of Sterno on the table when conch is served. The Sterno smell seems to keep flies away. <Larry: If Sterno is not available, they smear a puddle of hot sauce into a saucer, which seems to have some beneficial effect.>
The individuality of the Abacos was strong on the outer Cays. The difference in personality from one Cay to another was remarkable. Several of the larger Cays had festivals during our stay. There was generally good anchoring to the west of many Cays, and in some cases, an interior harbor provided good protection from northerlies, swell and waves. To enter these harbors, mostly small except for Marsh Harbor, one must watch the tides. Most entries are too shallow at low water for a 6 foot draft. But with rising tide close to high tide access is not hard. Once inside, find a spot that accommodates your draft and the tide for a fine anchorage.
<Larry: One of our favorite anchorages was at Manjack (or Nunjack) Cay, which has a reasonably well-protected bight on its west side. There’s a shallow gap between Manjack Cay and the Crab Cay to its north. The gap is passable by dinghy, and leads out to a rocky beach on the Ocean side of the Cay where one can watch the surf thundering on the offshore reef.>
Another favorite of ours was Green Turtle Cay. We anchored in White Sound in the north end of the Cay with no problems. Go well inside the harbor to get out of the path of boats entering the anchorage from the narrow pass. There is a lagoon off one side of the anchorage that, on an ebb, drains into the anchorage, creating a rugged current <Larry: which in turn creates fun pinwheeling conditions for anchored boats when one has wind-against-current>. Good restaurants are available at both marinas in White Sound, at the Bluff House (where we had dinner one evening) and at the Green Turtle Inn. Shopping is available mostly at Plymouth, on the south side of the Cay, a long walk or a short ride by dinghy or a rented golf cart. Plymouth can be reached by dinghy on a calm day from White Sound, and there is a dinghy dock close to the historic downtown.
Curry’s Market offers a reasonable selection, with much good frozen fish and other meats. Curry’s Market is owned by a member of the Lowe family, who also owns a wholesale fish warehouse at the entry to Plymouth, and supplies the fish to Curry’s. Ask for the lobster, which may be fresh in season and always available frozen. The warehouse is interesting to see inside. There was a vast amount of fish frozen and ready for shipment to the States. Seeing it helps to understand the amount of seafood that these islands export. Even though wholesale export is his primary business, the owner was friendly, talkative, and more than willing to sell me a filleted halibut and four frozen lobster tails, both of which were delicious.
We attended a “Roots” festival on Green Turtle Cay, which celebrated the history of the Bahamas, and highlighted the Junkanoo festival, a New Orleans “Mardi Gras” type of parade with emphasis on the culture of the descendants of the slaves of the exiled Loyalists (see below). The small historic downtown is charming and quaint, with two museums worth seeing: the Captain Roland Roberts house, with a display on reefs and geography of the Bahamas; and the Albert Lowe museum, with its history of the Lowe family and the family’s role in the history of the Bahamas. Also make an effort to visit Vert’s Model Ship Shoppe, full of elaborate model ships, built mostly by the owner.
To get to Marsh Harbour requires some patience. If one is proceeding southward on the Sea of Abaco from Green Turtle Cay toward Great Guana Cay, a shoal blocks the path, and one must briefly exit the sheltered Sea of Abaco and enter the Atlantic Ocean. Southbound, you exit of the Sea of Abaco through Whale Cay Pass, one the many passes between the Sea of Abaco and the Ocean, detour around uninhabited Whale Cay, and duck back into the Sea of Abaco a couple of miles later through Loggerhead Pass. Usually the passes are an easy sail, and the waters are gentle and mild. But there are occasions when they are affected by swells generated by northers that affect the islands every few days in the winter, or even by storms hundreds of miles away. These conditions can cause what is referred to in the islands as the “rage”: long, a deep-water swell, scarcely noticeable in water 4,000 feet deep, suddenly encounters the shallow water of the Bank, heaps up, and breaks in a pass that may be 12’ deep at low water. During an ebb, with water from the Banks squeezing out of a narrow pass into the teeth of an easterly wind, the situation becomes even more violent, making the opening unusable to craft no matter what their size.
Case in point: a cruise-ship terminal was built on Great Guana Cay, just south of Loggerhead Pass. The cruise ships stopped coming when they realized that conditions caused by the “rage” could be so bad that they would be blocked out of (or into) the harbor for days at a time, and so they could not maintain a published schedule. The conditions, when bad, were too dangerous for these large ships—imagine what could happen to a mid-sized sailboat! Reliable reports on conditions are critical to a successful passage.
<Larry: Because a rage may be caused by weather that happened a thousand miles away, keeping an eye on local weather conditions is not definitive. It is helpful to have a report of open-ocean swell height and direction, but even then, there can be surprises. And it doesn’t take a full rage to make one sorry one tried one of passes. It would be so nice if there were webcams mounted on Whale Cay to provide a real-time view of conditions in the passes. Perhaps someday.
We were told of a sailboat called Rule 62 that had crossed the Atlantic in 2010 as part of a Rally. Because of some unknown problem on board, they tried to shoot the North Bar Channel off Lynyard Cay in the wrong conditions. The boat got sideways in the pass, ran up on the reef, and sank, with some loss of life. Another story tells of a wreck in 2002 during a weeklong charter in (locally) beautiful conditions, again with loss of life.>
We went through the pass twice without problems, in mild conditions, by choosing our opportunities with care.
While Green Turtle Cay’s main industry is tourism, nearby Man o’ War Cay has made boat building its industry. Where Green Turtle Cay has a variety of housing, with the high end housing for rentals (an extensive part of that market), Man o’ War is a place on the islands where real people live and do real work. Most of the housing is well-built, small and middle class. Color is used to brighten and individualize the houses. <Larry: Man o’ War Cay has a strong Anglican history. There is no booze for sale on the island. Houses are relatively plain, with little of the gingerbread adornment found on the other Cays, and colors are restrained, tending to white.> The whole island looks to be a pleasant place for year-round living. The locally-built Albury 18 to 25 foot runabout boats are found throughout the Abacos.
Man o’ War Cay had a “Sojer” (founder’s) Day festival celebrating the history of the Cay and showing off for the tourists about 20 historical buildings and houses representing life in the mid-1800’s. The festival allowed Bahamian cooks to show off their best offerings. I tried without success to extract the recipe for the best-looking conch fritters, but I was told that the recipe was a family secret. The thought of the fritters still makes my mouth water!
<Larry: One especially pleasant happening at Man o’ War Cay was an encounter with another Valiant—the V40 Tamure. We spent a pleasant couple of hours with circumnavigators Scott and Kitty Kuhner, swapping stories, and we wish them well.>
Marsh Harbour <Larry: note the British spelling> on Great Abaco Island is different from the small, more exotic outer Cays. Marsh Harbour offers a large, safe anchorage <Larry: though the water gets skinny in spots> with several marinas as well. We enjoyed the anchorage with its good protection from northers and easy provisioning. Access to shore was easy, with a dinghy dock close the center of the town. Marsh does not offer charm, history or museums. It is the commercial center for the Abacos and does a god job of offering good restaurants and lots of shopping, including hardware stores and several marine stores. The large grocery store, Maxwell’s, offers a wide variety of food with many familiar products. Our favorite restaurant was Curly Tails, located on the harbor’s edge, and offering good food and a pleasant retreat from the sun and heat of the day. The atmosphere of the commercial areas is of several strip malls tied together. The roads are paved but often sidewalks are forgotten. The strip malls line the main streets, some parallel to the street and some perpendicular to it. This is not an area that focuses on planning or gives much thought to the niceties of zoning. But there are lots of options for shopping and most times, what we looked for, we could find. Mid-size freighters arrive in the harbor daily, delivering goods from Florida, the major supplier of the Islands. <Larry: Goods are transshipped here to smaller vessels, many similar to WWII LCT’s, for delivery to the smaller Cays.> The harbor was a busy place, with the commercial ships coming and going as well as the cruising boats. At any one time there were easily 20 to 30 boats in the harbor. We were there near the end of the season, and in mid-December or January, at the height of the season, we have heard that there are often 50-60 or more boats in the harbor.
We hired a car to visit the areas outside of Marsh Harbour. <Larry: The experience highlighted another point of uniqueness of the Bahamas. They drive on the left side of the road, after the fashion of the British Commonwealth, but their cars are imported—mostly used—from the US, and have a right-handed configuration.> Heading north and west on Great Abaco Island, we visited Treasure Cay <Larry: which isn’t a Cay> scouting for a good anchorage that would entice us to leave Marsh Harbour. Treasure Cay seems to be a planned community that did not quite make it. Though rumored to be lovely, we did not find the areas to support the rumors. The landscaping was haphazard and untended. There was little in the way of shopping, and what was there was presented poorly. We did not find Treasure Cay to be a charming resort area, though you would think it would be so with the advertisements it produces. It was very much a disappointment. The anchorage areas inside the network of canals appeared to be shallow and restricted. If you are a power boat or a catamaran, Treasure Cay might be fine. We did not see any reason to sail there but we will await new rumors. North of Treasure Cay the arid, dusty landscape continued. We drove through areas that brush fires had burned and were burning, the smoke of which was so visible from Marsh Harbour.
We spent time on our drive looking for a famous “blue hole” shown on several maps of the area but never did find it. Blue holes are vertical caverns filled with sea water with flooded underground passages to the sea. Blue holes are a major attraction for experienced divers but first you have to find them! We did see the first signs of rural poverty outside of Treasure Cay, in the form of a black community composed of mostly small shacks in poor repair without any amenities. I suspect much of the work force for Treasure Cay lives there.
Man o’ Cay and Green Turtle Cay contrast with Hope Town, on Elbow Cay. Like Green Turtle Cay, Hope Town is built on tourism, which it serves with great aplomb. But though the town is charming and lovely with its varied, elegant housing, I kept asking Larry “Does anyone really live here, year-round?” Of the housing we saw in our rides around the Cay on a rented golf cart, half of the housing appeared to be for rent, and the remainder was for sale. If you want a house in the Bahamas now seems to be the time to buy. We were amazed at the number of houses for sale. My supposition is that the Bahamas are not competing well in the global real-estate economy. There may be a glut of housing for rental to tourists, or for sale to those who desire a nice second house in an exotic location. The Bahamas are no longer exotic, and travel is almost as easy to Bali and such destinations as to the Bahamas.
The red and white ring-striped lighthouse of Elbow Cay still offers light to seamen with its kerosene-fueled light. <Larry: A local lighthouse-preservation group took up a collection to save the light from being converted to electricity. Pallets of 5-gallon Jerry Jugs filled with kerosene are stacked at the lighthouse’s landing.> The local churches play carillon bells in the early evening hours and on Sunday morning. Conch horns sound at sunset, a charming custom we first met in Marsh Harbour. The harbor offers only moorings, no anchoring, though anchorage is available outside the harbor in about 7-9 feet of water. Inside of the harbor, you pick up a mooring on a first come, first served basis and wait for someone to collect the $20 per night rental. Hope Town has many amenities: museums, good grocery stores, fresh fish, easy dinghy access to the shore, and good snorkeling tours.
During our stay in Hope Town we took advantage of a marvelous snorkeling tour run by Froggies dive shop, to the coral gardens off of Lynyard Cay. <Larry: The coral reef is nourished by currents flowing through a gap in the barrier islands.> We looked into snorkeling over the ocean reefs with a guide outside of Guana Cay or Man o’ War Cay, but we felt that the swell at the time was too much to allow for good snorkeling.
From Hope Town we sailed to Little Harbour, about the last anchorage in the eastern Abacos. From Little Harbour many take off to Eleuthera and the Exumas, about a 45 mile sail south. Little Harbour is little… if your draft is 6 feet like ours. We would not try to enter even at high tide, as it is very shallow inside of the harbor. Instead, we anchored in a spacious area on the west side of Lynyard Cay, where we found about 25 boats anchored. We visited Little Harbour by dinghy, which was a well worth the trip. Little Harbour was the work place and home to Randolph Johnson, a famous sculptor for 40 years. Now, his son carries on his work, turning out sculpture and painting, and running a good grog shop called Pete’s Harbour Bar. He offers foundry tours <Larry: the foundry is where the bronze sculptures are cast> on most days, good food and (by our standards) expensive art.
Great Guana Cay twice provided us with a pleasant overnight anchorage. The main anchorage, in the middle of the west side of the island, is exposed from the southwest around to the northwest, but was fine for the conditions we had. It would make a reasonable stop after transiting the Whale Pass/Loggerhead Pass. There is a proper harbor just south of there at Fishers Bay, which we didn’t try because of the depths and relatively constricted quarters within the harbor. <Larry: There was an easy dinghy ride from the anchorage in to the (somewhat ramshackle) dock provided by Grabbers restaurant. There’s another harbor and marina at the north end of the island, at Baker’s Bay, the site of the defunct cruise ship operation mentioned above and the new development mentioned in the next paragraph.>
We explored the island with the help of a golf cart rented from a local grocery store. At one end of the island in the vicinity of Baker’s Bay, a fine resort is being built, but it appears that the full list of amenities advertised will take some time to arrive. Upscale housing is found all over the rest of the island but serious shopping would require a trip to Marsh Harbour. If you like relative isolation with pleasant surroundings, this might be the place for you.
Great Guana does have a couple of good bars/restaurants. At the dinghy dock for the anchorage is the abovementioned Grabbers, which we did not try, but which looked pleasant. Right on the beach on the ocean side is Nippers. The food is good, the drinks cold, the bar hop friendly and the ocean there right in front of you. The bar and restaurant advertises that you can dive or snorkel and then come for a drink and whatever else but we found the surf way too rough to consider snorkeling. Nonetheless it is was fun to be there and the ocean was beautiful. Nippers is also a frequent concert venue for the “Barefoot Man,” a well-known folk/rock/comedy artist who gives concerts in the Caribbean to rave reviews. He changed the schedule of his concerts in the Bahamas to March from early January because he found the weather in January too cold for him! <Larry: So as it happened, one of his concerts happened while we were in the Bahamas. Based upon the advertising for the concert, we decided that the event sounded a little too much like a “Ft. Lauderdale Spring Break” event, and gave it a pass.> We did not make the concert but we bought a CD when we were there and enjoyed the music.
For our crossing and during our two month stay in the Bahamas we listened to weather reports given each morning given over SSB radio at 6:30am by Chris Parker, a private weather forecaster. We had an annual contract with him that allowed us to seek his advice on travel plans to the Bahamas and within the Bahamas <Larry: just listening-in is free>. While Larry is a proficient weather forecaster himself, verifying weather information with the likes of Parker seemed prudent given that we were just learning about the Bahamas. We found Parker’s information reliable most of the time.
While most of our weather in the Bahamas was mild and pleasant, with temperatures around the high 70’s or low 80’s, the winds can change quickly. Throughout the winter and spring, the normal wind pattern calls for light winds from the east. However, several times a week a cold front spills off the North American continent, causing the normally easterly flowing winds to veer to the south and south west and on around to the north. Depending on the strength of the front, thunderstorms/squalls can come as a part of this process, along with cooler air, maybe to the low 70’s.
The thunderstorms/squalls can be hazardous. When we were anchored in Marsh Harbour, the sailors’ crossroads in the Abacos, Parker began warning of an approaching front with squalls. We listened to the approaching warnings for several days, not particularly concerned, because the Marsh Harbour anchorage has excellent holding in thick mud. But on the afternoon for which heavy winds were predicted, along came 50 knots of wind in a torrential downpour that lasted for a very long 15 minutes, and then subsided quickly. Remarkably, no one dragged anchor in the harbor. Some captains (like mine) were standing watch by the wheel with the engine in gear to ease the load on the anchor, and to be ready to react quickly if our anchor started to drag, or if someone upwind started to drag down upon us. The winds were so fierce that the water was whipped into the air, leaving us with no visibility at all, and left us just hoping that no one was dragging down on us. <Larry: In a tightly-packed anchorage, the trick is to stay in one place. Our Raymarine RADAR has a “man overboard” tool, which I used with some success to keep Moira “on station” during the whiteout.> We were suitably impressed.
The sailing on the Little Bahama Bank reminding us of the sailing in Belize, and we enjoyed the very clear water. As in Belize, reading the waters to determine depth and to avoid coral heads was vital to our successful trip among the Bahamas. Our previous experience in Belize helped us. <Larry: It had been a couple of years since Belize, the last time we’d done any serious eyeball navigation, and we were rusty.> But after a week or so we were comfortable sailing in these waters.
While radar and GPS got us from place to place in the islands, watching the waters and seeing the various colors of the water allowed us avoid dangers. Different colors of water indicate different depths, and the location of coral heads. Deep water is a deep, almost blueberry, color while extremely shallow water is light and almost white. I often stood on top of our dinghy, watching the colors of the water and helping to direct us away from shallow water, shoals that change without notice, and occasional coral heads. The Little Bahama Bank is fairly clear of coral heads, as most of the coral formations are along the Atlantic side of the Bahamas, but shallow areas do exist and come up quickly if you are not watching carefully.
Geography creates the extraordinary features of the Bahamas. Only 50 or so nautical miles from Florida at their nearest point, the Cays (pronounced ‘keys’) of the Bahamas stretch in a band more than 700 miles long, oriented southeast to northwest.
The northern group of Cays, the Abacos, consists of two large islands (Grand Bahama and Great Abaco), and dozens of small Cays, perched on the Little Bahama Bank. Few—perhaps 20—of the Abacos Cays are inhabited. The Cays are not large (one can easily walk around or across most of them) and do not sit high above the water. <Larry: A geographic feature 60’ above the water will be called “Mount So-and-So.”>
In the 1800s the Bahamas were logged heavily, and the forests have never recovered. You do not see the lush green Pintons of St. Lucia here. Rather, these islands are low, dry, and arid, with brush interlaced with scrubby pine trees. There are frequent brush fires which are allowed to smolder and burn themselves out. Around the resorts, the landscaping is elaborate but not extensive.
So it is not the islands of the Abacos themselves that are attractive but the waters surrounding them. The Cays are surrounded by reefs and numerous coral heads on one side and the shallow banks on the other. The reefs provide excellent fishing and diving, while the shallow waters provide for excellent trade-wind sailing conditions protected from the swells and large waves of the ocean.
The Little Bahama Bank (to the north) and the Grand Bahama Bank (to the south) are separated by deep Northwest Channel and the Tongue-of-the-Ocean, which can feature open-ocean conditions magnified by strong currents, where careful watch of the weather and sailing conditions are required.
Historically, the Bahamas are important to North Americans. Columbus first saw the New World somewhere in the southern part of the Bahamas. Subsequent Spanish occupation destroyed the small local population through slavery and disease. Various attempts at colonization occurred over the next two hundred years, but pirates seemed to thrive the most, attacking the Spanish ships heading for Hispaniola and Spain from bases in the Bahamas. Early settlers enhanced their income by becoming “wreckers”: when ships ended up on the reefs around the islands, either by nature or the mischief of those on land, the settlers would salvage the goods and hardware of the ships, usually helping the passengers to shore, but sometimes not.
After the American Revolution, British Loyalists from North America emigrated to these islands, trying unsuccessfully to recreate the plantation life of the South. Though I was a history major in college I had never given much thought to the fate of the Loyalists. Many of them returned to England and some emigrated to Canada, but I was unaware that many of them tried to recreate their lives in the Bahamas, so close to the United States. The struggles of the Loyalists over the next two hundred years are well told in Wind from the Carolinas by Robert Wilder. Today, there are memorials in the Abacos to the Loyalists, honoring their brave struggles and memorializing their history. Descendants of Loyalist families with names like Lowe and Albury remain in the Islands today. <Larry: Green Turtle Cay has a “Loyalist Road.”>
<Larry: Another historical link between the Bahamas and the United States is in the occasional smuggling industry. During the US Civil War, blockade-runners would dash from ports in the Bahamas to Confederate ports. In more recent years, drug smuggling was a lucrative pastime. <Larry: We were told by locals that the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s “ruined” the youth of the Out Islands, who saw drug smugglers making hundreds of thousands of dollars for a single run to Miami. Now, with the drug trade largely shut down, they ask themselves why they should work for mere dollars a hour, and can find no motivating answer.>
The national electrical utility seems to have difficulty keeping up a reliable supply, especially during the summer with the added demands of air conditioning. The newspapers were full of complaints against the local electric company, with a picture of eight or ten protestors pointing out that stable electricity would increase tourism, and contrite executives promising to “get it right.” With tourism the biggest industry, I was surprised there were not more protestors.
Water is at a premium. Most marinas have a separate charge for water, usually 25-50 cents a gallon. <Larry: The water is mostly produced by RO (reverse osmosis), with its attendant energy (oil) costs, though on a few islands rain water makes its way into an aquifer, from which wells pump it out>.
The people of the Abacos were pleasant and helpful. Race relations seem to be calm, with intermarriage common. The CIA reports per capita income of $31,000, much higher than we are used to seeing in Central and South America. We saw little evidence of severe poverty in the Abacos, though certainly prosperity is unevenly shared. The people we met seemed happy, content, and mostly willing to piece together several jobs to get along.
The Bahamas use American and Bahamian money interchangeably with their dollar tied to the American dollar. They have been independent from Britain since 1973 but remain a part of the Commonwealth. Their dollar pictures Queen Elizabeth. During a festival we attended on Green Turtle Cay, the opening ceremonies started with the Star Spangled Banner, followed by the National Anthem of the Bahamas.
The Abacos are very pleasant. They are neither elegant nor rustic. We found it easy to buy food we needed. In Marsh Harbour, the big supermarket, Maxwell’s, provided everything that could be found in Florida, and at a reasonable price. Marsh Harbour had three wine and liquor stores, which sold Californian, Chilean and Argentinean wines in the ten dollar-a-bottle range. Bahamian beer is very good and readily available. The smaller Cays in the Abacos have smaller markets, with ample merchandise. Fresh fish was available in Marsh Harbour in two stores, one close to the dinghy dock and one reachable by dinghy at the other side of the harbor. In West End we were once approached by a fisherman offering fresh lobster, but after that, during the two months we were in the Bahamas, we were never approached by fisherman to offer fresh fish. It appeared that they were easily able to sell their catch to the hotels and restaurants, so that offering it to cruisers was not necessary. We missed the amenity of boatside fish, which we had become used to in Central America and the Yucatán Peninsula. Oh well, economic progress looks different every where you go.
For the record, getting boat parts in the Bahamas was not easy. Parts were expensive and subject to steep import duty. So stock up on boat parts: bring everything you may need. We brought our own food stuffs, paper goods and frozen foods from the States, which turned out to be a convenience for us but not the necessity that we had been led to expect. But then, we were only in the Abacos; apparently in the Exumas and further Out Islands, one must Bring Your Own.
Our departure from the Bahamas was the reverse of our arrival. We decided to explore some of the northern Abacos Cays that we had bypassed on the way in. The water gets shallow here and there, but we did anchor in Allens-Pensacola Cay, which was beautiful and easy to enter, but it was very difficult to get the anchor to hold. <Larry: Allens-Pensacola Cay used to be two separate Cays: Allens Cay and Pensacola Cay. The passage between them was filled in by a hurricane, and they now seem to be more-or-less permanently one.> We did finally get anchored after half-a-dozen tries, sort of, but we were glad that no blow came through, because we knew that the anchor’s hold was precarious. The next day we headed over to Great Sale Cay, and began to watch weather reports carefully for a good time to head for Florida.
We had actually stayed in the Bahamas for only 60 days, but no refund on the $300 entry fee is offered, it being a “per entry” rather than “per day” fee. On the other hand, no check out from Immigration is required. While they require one to check in upon arrival, unlike many countries they do not offer nor require a zarpe (permission to depart).
When we got a good forecast, we were off. Because we would be going somewhat northbound (actually, northwest), the Gulf Stream would help our speed instead of hurting it. During our passage we saw speeds of 10 knots over the ground, which for our boat is extraordinary! We were trying for St. Mary’s Inlet which is at the very north end of Florida, just before Georgia. While the condition report before we started was acceptable, passage conditions were rougher than we expected. Conditions on the way over were rough with a heavy swell, stormy, with strong winds and a disturbed, rough sea. No fun at all but the strong current of the Gulf Stream and good reefing kept us moving quickly toward Florida. After some mutual consultation, we agreed that the conditions were poor enough that we diverted to Port Canaveral. I was very glad to see land and have us heading into the Port Canaveral Channel.
We arrived in Florida at the end of April, which we learned is the season of the “love bug” in Florida. <Larry: Alert! Urban Legend Alert!> These bugs were introduced into the environment many years ago, with the intent of having them eat other annoying bugs. <Larry: End Urban Legend Alert> Instead, they do not eat any bugs and are exploding into the bug population of Florida so much that there is a thick cloud of “love bugs” whenever one leaves the house. These bugs are everywhere. Then after about two weeks of harassing everyone in Florida they disappear. They do not bite or carry disease but are disgusting in their sheer numbers. We will not come to Florida again during this time of year! Fortunately, by the time we headed for Georgia the bugs had mostly disappeared.
After several days of rest and some delightful days in Georgia enjoying the wonders of Cumberland Island we headed through the ICW, passing through South and North Carolina until we reached Beaufort <Larry: pronounced “BOW-fort,” not “BEW-fert”>, North Carolina. Moira is now at Bock Marine for several months on the hard, getting much-needed repairs and maintenance after ten years of wear and tear. Larry is busy replacing water tanks and the holding tank, as well as supervising the exterior repairs being done by the expert marine yard staff. We have set up housekeeping in a rented house in the charming historical district of Beaufort. We will be here through July, then spend a month relaxing in Maine, and come back to Beaufort in September to finish our chores and go sailing again!
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