The following was written in installments for distribution to an email group involving my brand of boat. You'll find a good deal of sailor-talk which, if you're not a convert, may be impenetrable. Feel free to ignore.
Thus far, the tale is only partly told. Three segments are planned: Getting There, Being There, Leaving There. This is the first; the others will follow in the fullness of time. [If you're interested, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org & I'll put you on the distribution list for future installments.]
In the meantime, enjoy!
For those who weren't around or don't recall, I left Fort Walton Beach on 4 April with plans for a 1-2 month cruise to the Bahamas, Ursa Minor's first extra-continental sailing and my first time in the Bahamas. My 26 yr old son, Will; the Hippie Chick (23 yr old daughter/stepdaughter of two old friends); and Dog, my 40 pound Chow, made up the crew. Ursa Minor had just undergone a 10 year refit and I, belonging as I do to the burgeoning class of the partially employed, wasn't working. The time seemed right.
The weather gods did their bit by supplying an extraordinarily ugly April, with fronts penetrating uncommonly far south uncommonly often. With two novice sailors on board, it seemed wise to wait for optimum weather prospects, a wait that didn't end until 1 May. Since we had trailed the rig to Ft. Lauderdale and were staying with my daughter, there were no real ill effects. As with all traveling-by-sail, "schedule" would, in any case, rapidly become a foreign concept.
I should digress here for a moment and reassure those who have been wondering, that, yes, we were indeed setting off with three adults and a dog on a 19 foot West Wight Potter sloop - provisioned for a month, watered for two weeks, and with the clear intent of living aboard (exclusively) until our return. I had to edit my normal spare parts and tools inventory to make everything fit, but we were still relatively self-sufficient. Power tools included 3 headsails, a spinnaker, the main (w/ 2 reefs available), and a brand new 5 hp Honda outboard with gas for about 130 miles of (ugh) powering. We carried an 8 foot dinghy rolled in a bag, with oar power only ... at that point. What a packing job!
Best odds are that Ursa displaced around 2700 pounds with all that gronk, and the crew, on board. When launched at the marina in Homestead, she floated just to her (recently raised) painted waterline, about 4 inches deeper than the published number. In the event, the added mass proved nothing but beneficial, since a lot of it (two big batteries, extra ground tackle, fuel, and 130 cans of food & beverages) was carried low. As I had noticed previously when loaded for a cruise, stability is significantly enhanced and, in this extreme case, the usable wind range for a given headsail is extended upward by as much as 50 percent. All to the good ... if you have confidence that the standing rigging can handle the extra strain.
But enough natter. Here's a rough chronology:
5/1 - 5/2: HOMESTEAD TO BIMINI, 62 nautical miles, 16 hours
We departed Homestead hurriedly in late afternoon so as to make the Atlantic by dark. We cleared the last mark at the Caesar's Creek inlet (dead southern end of Biscayne Bay) at about 19:30, as the sun touched the horizon -but only at the expense of motorsailing the Bay passage, as the 10-15 knot SE/SSE breeze was on the nose and we had no time to tack! An inauspicious start, especially when combined, in the first of several such instances, with our flaunting the "dare not leave port on Friday" dictum.
The aforementioned breeze and a mere 1-3 foot swell on the Gulfstream made for lovely sailing on a moderately close reach ... for the first 5 hours, at the end of which the wind dropped to zero and the sea turned to a millpond, literally not even a ripple. With a good enough arm, you could have skipped a stone the 30 miles to the Banks! All apparent progress stopped, though we were firmly in the grip of the Gulfstream and the GPS showed us proceeding NNE at a stately 2.5 knots or so! Rather than retarget for Bermuda, the Captain decided to let the Honda do the work - which it did, with a great deal of grace and only a mainsail for company, for the remaining two-thirds of the crossing. A completely unexpected way to achieve a peaceful, novice-kindly crossing!
5/2 - 5/9 BIMINI
Turns out the reluctance of cruisers to start a passage on Friday is probably an analog of the urban myth rather than an interesting ancient superstition. I hypothesize that it arises from the fact that if one departs the Fort West Palmiami megalopolis by sail on Friday, one arrives at Bimini on Saturday ... gaining the company of way too many powerboats, which scooted right over on Friday night and thus occupy most available slips.
So the question arose: Is $45 a night at the Bimini Big Game Club (honest, that's the name) a reasonable price to pay for not having to inflate the dinghy and re-roll it for the next - supposedly imminent - passage?
The answer - and more about Bimini - next time. This little exercise shows signs of being lengthy, so I'll have to parcel it out in bits.
***************************** end part 1*****************************
First off, allow me to thank all of you who have offered the kind words, encouragement, and prods to get on with it. Now I'll be "guilt tripped" (self-induced, of course ... how else?) into finishing in perhaps a bit more sprightly fashion than I would have otherwise.
Because I'm forbidden to climb up into the boat -not to mention too lazy to go to a storage room for my ladder - neither the narrative nor navigational logbooks are available at this instant. I shall thus, in the absence of firm data, go back to nattering for a bit. We'll return to the chronology and Bimini soon.
Up front here, I think a bit of geographical orientation may be in order. If you'd like to do this the easy way, crank up your favorite browser and take a look at the maps at http://www.interknowledge.com:80/bahamas/bshome01.htm and linked pages.
The area of interest is the northern Bahamas only: Bimini, Grand Bahama Island, the Little and Grand Bahama Banks, the Berry Islands, Little and Great Abaco Islands, and the Cays on the Atlantic side of the Abacos. This roughly rectangular, cardinal-point-aligned segment is bordered on the west by the Gulfstream (approximately 60 miles closest-approach to the mainland at Ft. Lauderdale), on the east and north by the Atlantic, and on the south by Andros Island, New Providence Island (Nassau), the Northeast Providence Channel, Tongue of the Ocean, and the rest of the Grand Bahama Banks. Dimensions of this notional area are about 110 statute miles north-south and 150 statute miles east-west. If one were to cut out a 40 by 40 mile square from the NW corner and a 15 by 15 mile square from the NE corner, the extent of the non-Gulfstream, passage portions of our cruise is very roughly represented by the resulting perimeter, with the starting and ending point (Bimini) located near the SW corner.
There, that should be confusing enough. Perhaps the following map showing our actual course can help.
Click here for a detailed map.
Before going on, I should also address what turned out to be a topic of continuing interest throughout the adventure, to wit the questions: "You've done WHAT??" or "HOW long?" Regardless that I'd initially approached the idea with caution, I found it surprising that SO many folks, including a high percentage of "accomplished" boaters, were incredulous at the idea of crossing the Gulfstream in a 19 foot sailboat, much less one with three people and a dog aboard. So there you have the two concerns: safety and comfort. One objective, one subjective ... and one overwhelmingly more important than the other.
The issue of safety arose primarily with respect to our crossing of the Gulfstream, which bears a fearsome reputation for whipping up destructive seas at short notice. I by no means want to denigrate this rep; even if you've never seen it, your imagination should be sufficient: a twenty to thirty mile wide chunk of deep water moving north at 3 plus knots can make for the steepest and highest of seas in anything approximating a contrary wind - not to mention in a 25 knot Norther! [Well, that was quite a sentence. Did I miss a punctuation mark?]
Anyway, I decided ahead of time that a lot of the fuss could (?) be coming from "weekend" (i.e., time restrained) boaters, who forced their crossings to meet a schedule. Taken together with the fact that the area from the Banks to S. Florida may be the most heavily patrolled bit of water anywhere [wait'll you hear about our midnight rendezvous (es ... that's plural, folks) with the Coast Guard on the way home!], I convinced myself that safety need not be a significant issue. I sprang for an EPIRB (and a life jacket for Dog) to guard against loss of life in the extreme, but extremely unlikely, event and vowed to research and watch the weather for a few months. Since there seemed to be no necessity to sail in conditions even approaching those which I knew - from bitter experience - that Ursa Minor could weather, I felt pretty good about the safety thing. Besides, the ten year refit had included a careful inspection of the hull/deck joint, standing rigging, and various structural parts. We were as ready as - and incrementally wiser than - we'd ever been.
As an aside here, I'll need to break an implied rule of narrative chronology - i.e., to reveal things only as they were revealed to me by the passage of time. The point: My initial theory, confirmed by reality, is that safety need not be an issue if one picks one's time to venture forth. In other words: WAIT FOR WEATHER. You'll not stay altogether out of trouble, but you'll surely minimize your exposure to potential discomfort or disaster.
It worked for me.
As to comfort, the only real issue would be crowding. I could visualize how we could do it - we had enough volume and carrying capacity. The crew was young and I'm reasonably flexible for my age; we could probably handle the needed contortions. Dog was controllable and already considered both crewmembers to be pack members in good standing. As to the psychological aspects: ????????? The odds seemed good and "you never know 'til you try."
So, while we all enjoyed the notoriety generated by our circumstances, I for one was not as impressed with our "intrepidness" (foolhardiness to some) as others seemed to be.
5/2 - 5/9 BIMINI - reprise
But, finally, back to Bimini. Here's a bit of what the Bahamas government Web page has to say:
"Despite the fact that Bimini is the Bahamian island closest to the United States, sitting only 48 miles east of Miami, it's [sic] easy way of life is reminiscent of the past. The island is draped with a slightly remote, put-your-feet-up-and-dream atmosphere that is characteristic of the Out Islands."
Until you're rousted by the wild dog pack (some familiar breeds and the rest "potcakes" - a Bahamian term for the ubiquitous pseudo-breed that resembles nothing so much as a devolution back to the prototypical African wild dog). They had to bounty shoot 40 or so a few years ago.
"Bimini began as a rendezvous for rum runners and wreckers who plundered the ships that ran aground on reefs. Today, the wrecks of Spanish galleons make for fascinating dive sites along with black coral, exotic fish and a mysterious stone formation that some say is the lost continent of Atlantis.
"Alice Town, the "commercial centre" of Bimini, consists of a single quiet road called the King's Highway, lined with a few small necessity shops, a half dozen local restaurants and an equal number of funky, down home bars."
Four of which are open only rarely and unpredictably.
"During fishing tournaments and other high times, the street can get a little bit wild, but it's usually just you strolling down the King's Highway, savoring the aroma of baking bread and the company of the pelicans."
... and the music of the T-shirt hawkers.
"Nightlife is usually laid back. The most energy-consuming thing going on outdoors is usually bar hopping between the Compleat Angler (live music several nights a week) and the End of the World.
"During tournaments, the whole island lives and breathes angling; it's difficult to find someone to talk to who won't, at the very least, pepper his or her conversation with fishing terms and wonder idly where they're biting. Fishing in Bimini is absolutely unparalleled for the size and variety of the catch. Sailfish, tuna, wahoo: in fact over 50 world records have been set in these waters, the inspiration for Ernest Hemingway's Islands In The Stream. All ocean fisherman worth their salt must fish Bimini at least once a lifetime."
Regarding the last paragraph: believe it! If they'll talk to you at all - the raghanger/stinkpotter mutual disdain society is alive and prospering - they may also bore you to tears talking about fishing and, even more so, how fast and luxurious their boats are. On the positive side, given the tidal current which prevails in Bimini "Harbor" their miscues trying to dock and undock (the latter in both senses: "leave the dock" and "knock the dock down") make for interesting entertainment. The average level of seamanship is distressingly low. [sigh]
OK, OK, I confess: I do bear a bit of a grudge toward Bimini and its horde of weekend powerboaters. But then that's the result of events during the second visit, on the way home, and it's tasteless of me to reflect it here. In the fullness of time ...
So, on Saturday morning we arrive at the gates of Bimini - rather precisely, thanks to the wonders of GPS - to find no slips available at 3 of the 4 accessible marinas. The fourth, the Bimini Big Game Club, flaunts that most dreaded of policies: a minimum charge regardless of boat size. Fortunately, this was the only time we ran afoul of such a practice.
Anyway, the question reiterated: Is $45 a night at the Bimini Big Game Club ... a reasonable price to pay ...?
Answer: Damn straight. It's [gulp] only money.
Fiddle, I'm out of time again. Really, I promise to get to Bimini & onward tomorrow.
***************************** end part 2*****************************
Now that I've retrieved the logs, here are the real stats on the first passage from Caesar's Creek to Bimini Range: dist, 55 nmi direct (as-the-crow...); time:, 14.5 hours; vmg, 3.8 kn; vavg, 4.7 kn motor, 3.7 kn sail (implies 63 nmi); power, motorsail w/ full main, 9.5 hours; full main & genoa, 5 hours.
I suspect the actual distance was greater even than 63 nmi, which was derived from GPS positions recorded at hourly intervals; we had to detour around a few reefs early on. The wind, while it lasted, was in the 10 knot range, cycling from SE to SSW. Average steered course was probably about 120 degrees, to make a true course of 69 degrees. I really don't have a good handle on instantaneous over-the-water numbers; the knotlog packed up after 9.4 miles, never to tick again.
Things were so calm I allowed myself a 4 hour nap while the Honda putted and the autopilot steered. Son Will was taking care of the navigation anyway, and 6 years in the Navy - though mostly spent 300' under the Pacific - had prepared him more than adequately to take the watch on a motorboat.
Reaction: So that was the Gulfstream, eh? Overall, this had to be one of the bigger non-events of the decade - and, no doubt doubly dangerous to the extent it contributes to overconfidence. An extraordinarily easy crossing, nonetheless, even if a bit philosophically sullied by excess motoring time. I started then to suspect that this would be the pattern for the big passages: if not making decent time (say > 2 kn vmg), consider using the Honda to get along before the weather deteriorates. This may seem obvious to those of you in your right minds, but it was a bit of a leap for me.
My insanity (and the source of a lot of the fun I have with sailing) is of the purist variety. I normally resist using the engine unless absolutely unavoidable. [As evidence of the extent of my affliction, note that the Yamaha 4 which powered Ursa Minor for the previous 10 years (about 300 out-of-port days) had only 187 hours of service, whereas the Honda 5 that was new for this cruise returned with almost 90 hours on the clock.]
In retrospect, I'm glad I opted for pragmatism; the crew tended to grow restless while bobbing around waiting for wind. Both safety and comfort were served by my conversion.
But back to business. We're tied up at the Bimini Gig Game Club. As Captain I must now kiss the quarantine flag, do an arcane dance step, and take everyone's papers ashore to check us in. The prescribed order is Customs then Immigration, but I added a second trip to Customs, as though I needed the exercise. [As an exemplar of my feelings toward Dog, I'd tried to present her papers at Immigration rather than Customs.]
Bimini reminds me a bit of a 70's version of Roadtown, gone seedy. The crew hasn't seen anything like it before. Most of the physical plant has seen better days, but a lot of that is covered up by bright, fresh paint. A large harbor-front building is vacant and falling in on itself, yet there is a new multi-story hotel and commercial building slowly growing just down the street. "Island time" and "no problem, mon" are refreshingly evident, especially when coming from the modern rush of Fort West Palmiami, but everything from conch to crack is readily available on the street. Streets are empty 5 days a week, and crawling with inebriates the other two days. The locals - mostly Black Bahamians here - are friendly.
We all liked Bimini ... this time through. We stayed for a week.
All well and good, but the purpose of this stop is to rest up from the "arduous" crossing. To charge the batteries (at $10 per day for electricity) and replenish the water (at 45 cents the gallon), but mostly to wait for weather for the next leg, another deep water passage up the edge of the Gulfstream and across the Northwest Providence Channel to the Freeport area on Grand Bahama Island. Longer and only a little less potentially hazardous than the Gulfstream crossing.
The norther we came across ahead of does blow through while we're in Bimini, a low odds occurrence. As noted earlier, they rarely get this far south this late. Since the "harbor" at Bimini is open to the north, at least to winds, the 25 knot breeze made for some exciting 2 - 3 foot seas through the marina. My compulsive, routine use of seven docklines proves fortuitous in this case; we come through unscathed.
While waiting out the weather, we played at being tourists. Tried most of the "half-dozen local restaurants," the highlight being the Peppered Grouper at the restaurant on the grounds of the Big Game Club. It's in the running for best fish dish ever.
At a couple of the "equal number of pubs," the Nav Officer discovered the Bahamian national bar game, which involves swinging a small ring suspended by string from the ceiling so as to leave it on a hook on the wall. He got sharked out of a couple of dollars in quarters, in the interests of learning the rules I somewhat fatuously assume. [To his karmic credit, he practiced for the rest of the cruise and humbled them on the way back through.]
At either end of our stay, we met two separate crews from ComPaq 23's, initially a pair of very young men (The Hippie Chick liked that!) enroute Marathon to the Berry's and later a mid-twenties singlehander going the other way. The remarkable part is the effect our presence had on both; they had independently expected to be, and in one case had experienced being, the smallest boat around - and had apparently set some stock in the distinction. We tried not to be smug in the face of such disappointment, a necessity if we weren't to take ourselves too seriously.
Eventually, we found some weather that seemed reasonable and started the next passage, on a Friday again.
5/9 - 5/10 BIMINI TO LUCAYA
The stats from Bimini Range to Bell Channel, Grand Bahama Island: dist, 60 nmi direct, 65 nmi charted route, 78 nmi actual; time, 23 hours; vmg, 2.9 kn; vavg, 3.3 kn (4.6 motor, 2.7 sail); power, motorsail w/ full main,8.5 hour; full main & genoa, 4.5 hours.
NOAA promised 10-15 kn veering E to SE to S, darn near ideal for a roughly NNE route, so we struck out midday and cleared the Bimini Range at 1330. The E wind lasted an hour or so and then started to swing ... in the wrong direction of course. In the fullness of time, it backed to NE and, much later, died out. Regardless, we were off, with 60 plus nautical miles to go and the wind well forward! Three foot, fairly regular seas made for good sailing in the upper range of the full main and genoa sailplan. Everybody hand steered for a while, OJT for the crew and a pleasure to all.
Progress was pretty good so long as we kept to a northerly course, with the edge of the Gulfstream helping us along, but deteriorated quickly when we turned NE to angle across the Northwest Providence Channel. With a speed over the water of 5 kn or so, if the compass showed a normal tacking angle, the GPS reported the reality as 135 degrees! Although this is surely not an optimum way to get anywhere, we persevered (purist, remember?) until about 0400, when the wind died off to less than 5 kn. Clearly time to motorsail on in, which we did.
[Based on some later data, here's how I explain the wide tacking angle. To start, the WWP19 will tack through about 90 degrees in fine conditions but will be pinching. For best progress, a 100 degree tacking angle is usual. Then there's the 12 to 15 degrees of leeway inherent to the beast - sorry, I don't like to admit it either, but that's how the numbers have always worked out. Add another 20 degrees for the current we were taking on the nose, and there it is: a 135 degree tacking angle.]
Successfully navigating the shoals south of Grand Bahama Island via Bell Channel, we were tied up at the Lucayan Marina before 1400. The cruising guide gave it credit for the best showers and laundry facilities in the Bahamas, and I think they were right. New docks, poolside bar/restaurant, water and electricity free, no minimum charge -- hard to go wrong. A great place to celebrate the end of the deep water passages ... the end, at least, until we start back.
Also part of the package was a free shuttle across the channel to the Port Lucaya Marketplace, a large, new commercial complex (sort of like Baltimore's Harborplace writ small) associated with the Port Lucaya Marina.
If Bimini is the houseparty version of the Bahamas, Port Lucaya is the Disney World version. Obviously, we're still too close to the mainland to see reality.
Port Lucaya and some real cruising next time.
***************************** end part 3 *****************************
The Lucayan Marina resembles nothing so much as an immaculately groomed country club. Wonderful place to sit beside the pool and have 2 or 4 Kaliks while contemplating the next step. We all liked it a lot. So we stayed a week.
The Lucaya area is a suburb of Freeport, second largest city in the Bahamas and the largest in the north, and is located on the generally forbidding south coast of Grand Bahama Island. On one side of the harbor is our marina and on the other side is "town." There's a casino, a straw market, a bazillion shops/boutiques, and the Port Lucaya Marketplace. Our marina runs hourly free shuttles to the other side.
The Marketplace is a commercial development housing yet more shops with a liberal leavening of pubs and restaurants. All are grouped around an open plaza where a band plays almost every night. [It was West Indian music, but what the heck, I'm sure even old Walt D. didn't get all the details right. Besides, "rake & scrape" - the only indigenous music form I found - probably wouldn't sell.] The whole mishmash borders the docks of the Port Lucaya Marina, where multi-megabuck poweryachts abound.
A real zoo, wall to wall overdressed tourists (but then what does that make us? - underdressed tourists, I suppose), but fun in the ways such places can be. The street drug of choice seemed to be powder cocaine. For good food and drink, we recommend the spot on the corner that used to be a Pusser's Pub. Sit on the porch so as not to miss any of the human drama in the passing crowds. Bring money.
Dog and I pretty much stayed on our side of the channel, where everyone seemed bemused that some of the resident yachts had dinghies larger than Ursa Minor. The staff was really tickled; turns out that they do have a minimum charge but failed to apply it to us. Not only that, they rounded down the boat length, so we paid for 18' ($13.50 per day, electricity and water included). For a country club!
But we were left at poolside, drinking Kalik and attempting to plan. Of some importance is the previously menmtioned milestone: we are now through with deepwater passages for a good long while. Blessedly, this means unpack, inflate, and henceforth tow the dinghy. Since it had been inhabiting all of the cabin sole space to port alongside the keel trunk, displacing the things that should live there, this should relieve some crowding. In the event, it did help ... but not enough.
Which makes for a decent segue to the issue of comfort and crowding. As things turned out, we just had too much STUFF for it all to have a permanent home. All the provisions and boat things were stowed, but those pesky personal duffels (clothes, toiletries, CDs, books, ...) kept popping up in the wrong place. In the event, and for the entire time three were aboard - yes, we'll start shedding crew eventually - those things moved into a bunk during the day, thus clearing access to the galley, and were piled in front of the galley (again, the cabin sole space to port alongside the keel trunk) at night. Access forward was thus to starboard only, but that's normally true anyway; three buckets, 5 gallons of water and 2.5 gal of dry dog food use that sole space in virtually all of Ursa's packing configurations.
The goal was to keep two bunks and all three seats clear at all times, which we usually almost achieved. Stuff was sometimes a bit jumbled after 10 or 20 hours of sailing but that was easily set aright. We used both sides of the V berth and the port quarter berth for sleeping. There was a 12v fan for each bunk (tense deliberate, all three were both brand new and soon to fail), so heat wasn't a problem. Except for the need to move duffels twice daily, we really did pretty well! [gloat, gloat]
But then, except for one rainy day in Bimini, the four of us had been together in the cabin only for sleeping. The next few legs in the journey would be altogether different and should test our tolerance for close coexistence, a neat segue back to ...
Planning. OK, no more deep water for a while. The dinghy's on its leash, we're repacked, and the Little Bahama Banks are next. Our goal is the eastern edge of the Banks, past Grand Bahama and Little Abaco Islands, where we'll turn south for the Hub of the Abacos. Unfortunately, Grand Bahama Island is the southern border of the Banks, and we're on the southern side of Grand Bahama Island!
The conventional next step would be to head back west into the edge of the Gulfstream, sail north past West End (eponymously linked to its location), and enter the Little Bahama Banks from the west. Compared to going overland, that's about 40 nmi out of the way. Too bad we don't have wheels.
What we do have is the Grand Lucayan Waterway. This (decade or so old?) public works project is a canal cutting through Grand Bahama Island north-south, the southern terminus being just a few miles east down the coast. But what do we know about it? Darn near all sources agree that there's one bridge, but the clearance is variously listed (or rumored to be) in the range 26.5 to 27.5 ft. Hmmm, we carry 26 ft 3 inches - I think. The southern approach is about 6 ft deep, and the waterway itself has a control depth of 10 ft; no problem, mon. But the northern end is charted at only 4 ft and may be less. Hmmm, we draw 3 ft 10 inches right now - I think. No one I can find has ever used it (why???). The kindly dockmaster recommends we not try but cannot explain why. And so on.
On balance, good sense said take the conservative approach: go the long way, avoid the unknown, tolerate one more overnight into and out of the Gulfstream. So we took the Grand Lucayan Waterway.
Overall, this next part promised to be more like cruising: anchor at night and sail by day. Nonetheless, it was part of the "getting there." We have roughly 90 nmi to cover before we'll see port again, and there's not much to see in between, just endless expanses of 1-2 fathom water with only the occasional outcropping, be it key, cay, reef, or rock. Sounds like fun, even more so in that we will lose NOAA VHF broadcasts when we turn east and will have absolutely no idea what the weather gods are up to. Fortunately, the marina subscribed to a local (Freeport) weather service, which covered the areas of interest in detail with daily short and long term forecasts. I studied them until it seemed normalcy (mild E/SE trade winds, no penetrating cold fronts) had returned and we lit out.
We left on Friday, of course.
***************************** end part 4 *****************************
5/16 PORT LUCAYA TO MANGROVE CAY The stats from Bell Channel to Mangrove Cay: dist, 32 nmi time; 8.5 hours; vavg, 3.8 kn; power, motor (waterway) - 2 hours, motorsail w/ full main - 6.5 hours.
The ticklish part of the first leg is the timing. We want to hit the bridge near low tide and the shallows near high tide, a desire somewhat complicated by the fact that they're only about two miles apart. Also, we have to hit them early enough in the day that we can get on to an anchorage at Mangrove Cay before dark.
[Repeat now the mantra of cruising guide authors: NEVER SAIL THE BANKS AT NIGHT.] Well ... maybe.
Oh yeah, there are no tidal stations near either end of the waterway, so currents are impossible to predict and tides are really unknown.
What the heck, leave at noon and hope the 1530 high tide at this end bears some resemblance to the other end. So we did.
We motorsailed down the coast into a very light SE breeze. The waterway entrance was almost where it was supposed to be, close enough anyway that we found it with only a little stumbling around. Onward into the unknown!
We dumped all the sail to maximize visibility and motored into the narrow, rock-lined entrance. Just a little way in, it became obvious that we were going with a not-insignificant current. Let's see ... that should mean high tide there is later than high tide here ... good show!
As we penetrate further, it starts to seem as though this should be named "The Potentially Grand Lucayan Waterway." What we are seeing is a 150-ft-wide, rock-and-concrete-lined canal. The 10 ft depth is a bit optimistic, but 8 ft is the least we see. The southern end is characterized by a score or so 100 ft wide side and side-side canals, lacking only buildings to be a Ft.Lauderdale knock-off. But there are no buildings, no people.
No boats either. We're apparently it for the PGLW this day. All we see on the way through are two hotel/condo shells, one structurally complete but not finished inside and the other a bit more advanced. While the latter may have even done business for a few months, it's clear that nothing has happened at either site for at least 5 years, maybe twice that. These are not little baby husks these, either; we're talking 8-10 story buildings! To cut the bleakness a little, we also saw three or four truly large - nay, magnificent - houses under construction at widely separated sites back in the scrub. No activity, but something had been happening recently.
What we were looking for was the bridge.
As it happened, the bridge found us. While I was admiring my new mast-top anchor light, wondering if I'd have it much longer, we crept around a bend into sight of the bridge. Then ... the canal narrowed, the current picked up, I put the outboard in neutral, and we swept ever faster onward! All in about the time it takes to say it.
Well, now must be time to implement "the plan!"
Step 1A: ease over to the side and study the situation, or Step 1B: whip around and power away to gain time.
Whoops, too late for either. Sideways is not the way to be right now!
Step 2: creep under the center of the bridge powered by the current but retarded by reverse engine thrust. [I've done this a time or two before; it's easier than it sounds.]
Well, we're in the center all right, let's go for it. Slip that big old 5 hp into reverse and flog it!
And here we find one of the things I really, really, really don't like about the Honda: it has a throttle stop at maybe 20% off idle which is effective in neutral ... and reverse. I can't get enough gas into the damned thing to whoa us down!
So we go under the bridge utterly unable to retreat and not knowing if we clear, thrashing like a sternwheeler. Nav watches carefully and reports that we have perhaps a foot of clearance going in, which good news is immediately supplemented by the observation that the bloody bridge is apparently canted and we're rapidly losing that foot!
We cleared by at least 4 inches, yet again saved from my stupidity by Dame Fortune. Sure hope I won't later regret having used up this little bit of luck.
On the Dover Sound (northern) end, we do indeed see 4' water a long way out. The channel out is quite narrow; I wouldn't enjoy traversing it in cruddy visibility. Nonetheless, we manage to get out past the one fathom line without plowing up any bottom.
The rest of the trip, a long N and NNE reach in almost no wind, is uneventful. Weather's warm and the sky is overcast. We motorsail with full main and genoa and reach Mangrove Cay just at dark, anchoring with no problems ("mon") on one hook. We have perhaps a half dozen neighbors, half power and half sail, all large but none too close.
After a bit of putting the ship in shape, I took the offensive in undeclared psychological warfare and whipped up a three course dinner, served in relative elegance on the convertible hatchcover-cum-dining-table (a grand idea but one I rarely use). The menu was a bit odd even for camping-out food - I don't think I've mentioned that Hippie Chick is a vegetarian, adding a bit of a challenge to provisioning. We had shells & cheese, baby green peas, and boiled potatoes. Canned fruit for dessert. This was just to demonstrate to the crew that it could be done, you understand. I had hopes of not having to do it ever again if they could be trained. Doing the dishes or whipping up a batch of one-pot "people chow" is more my speed.
And now it's time to rest for tomorrow's turn east - once more into the prevailing winds.
***************************** end part 5 *****************************
In addition to being the first night at anchor, Mangrove Cay bears the distinction of being just about as far north as we want to go. Now it's time to concentrate on gaining easting, a challenge given the easterlies that are supposed to prevail. We've been engaged in this struggle since the beginning, with mediocre results - we're now 110 nmi north and 85 nmi east of our starting point. Time to get serious; we have perhaps 70 nmi of easting to gain before we can relax and start thinking we're "there." The definition is a little arbitrary at this point; it was supposed to represent the point at which we reached the east side of Great Abaco Island and could slow down, stay wherever we liked as long as we liked, and be finished with any protracted periods of upwind sailing. Trouble was, except for the upwind thing, I was having trouble seeing how this differed from what we had been doing to this point. Oh well, it was a goal, something to keep us moving.
5/17 MANGROVE CAY TO GREAT SALE CAY
The stats: from Mangrove Cay to Great Sale Cay: dist, 21 nmi; time, 5 hours; vmg, 4 kn; power motorsail w/ full main & genoa,4 hours; full main & genoa,1 hour.
A quote from the log that day: "Mostly motorsailing. Blasted wind still sporadically unavailable and on the nose. Weather sucks: light rain, overcast."
And that pretty much says it all. I doubt the wind ever exceeded 5 kn, but mostly there wasn't any. Just to make the day memorable, though, I perpetrated Major Stupidity #2 (the first, of course, being the bridge fiasco): the hour of sailing (slowly) was due to my inability to start the Honda. After having had the plug out a couple of times and eventually diagnosing a lack of spark, I noticed the deadman clip dangling where I had left it after killing the engine the night before! No harm done, except to my in any case ample self esteem, and the crew gained the experience of sailing off the anchor and making windward progress in very light breezes. [But maybe my brain is so ossified that I can't learn fast enough. The Yamaha didn't have such a switch, and I couldn't seem to integrate the silly thing into my habit patterns. To worry? I think not; just try to be more careful.]
We anchor, once again to one hook, on the leeward side of Great Sale Cay at about 1700. The drizzle has abated, so Nav magnanimously volunteers to take Dog ashore. [Dog is a Chow. Chows are stubborn. Dog will not - WILL NOT - use the boat as a potty.] It'd only been 30 hours or less, but I'm sure she appreciated the gesture.
His trip ashore - a goodly distance, perhaps 3/4 mile, in an oar-powered inflatable - provided one of the best visuals so far. It seems that after getting ashore, and allowing Dog to empty her main liquid waste tank, they were headed for a patch of grass for the next step when they were assaulted by a roaring horde of mosquitoes. It's his story, and a funny one, but I won't spoil his fun by repeating it. Suffice to say that he likened it to a similar, highly dramatic scene in The African Queen! I was tickled by what I saw through the binoculars: a yellow gnome (foul weather top on, up, & fully battened - peaked hood and all) with a prancing furry thing, rowing so fast his arms were a blur. Very cartoon-like.
Hippie Chick and I let him off KP for the day by way of recompense. We also killed the couple of dozen flying bloodsuckers they'd brought back with them.
We held a crew conference and confirmed that our next stop should indeed be in Foxtown on Little Abaco Island. We'd been reserving the right to turn NE and go to Walker's Cay, the northernmost of the Abaco Cays, but it seemed too much trouble. The place is just too close to the mainland, a mere 3-4 hours in a 25 knot sportsfishermen, and is second only to Bimini as a destination for weekenders. We're in the way of escaping from the South Florida mindset, not being reminded of same!
Back at the anchorage, we went to bed, perchance to dream up some wind.
5/18 GREAT SALE CAY TO FOXTOWN
The stats from Great Sale Cay to : Foxtown (Little Abaco Island): dist, 29 nmi; time, 9.5 hours; vmg, 3 kn; powe, full main & genoa,4 hours; 1 reef main & genoa, 3 hours; 1 reef main & lapper, 2.5 hours.
Finally, some wind! The day turns up sunny with winds slowly increasing from 8 to 20 kn from the E/SE. Seas are quite moderate (1 - 2 ft, 3 ft late), not having had time to build up much despite the shallowness of the water. Sure, we're heading dead into the wind and tacking angles still aren't looking great on the GPS, but who cares? We're flying!
Slowly reducing sail as the wind picks up, we stay in power sailing mode all day: most times above 5 kn, near the theoretical 5.25 kn hull speed, with protracted periods of 6 kn or a tad more. I'd sail this little boat around the world if only we could be guaranteed all days would be even an approximation of this one!
The two gear changes involve first reefing the main, then swapping the genoa for the lapper. The last step was by way of an experiment; in recent years, I've been using the genoa with a double reefed main as the next reduction. Sure enough, I renew my dislike of the lapper (mine, not necessarily everyone's). It's a terribly difficult sail to trim well, perhaps because it's cut too flat? Carrying the genoa with a second reef in the main is a far better approach. [Very balanced, very tolerant, especially for windward work. Not to mention that it's achievable without going to the foredeck in 18 or 20 kn of breeze.] The center of effort of the genoa is so far aft, in fact, that handing the main and using the genoa alone is often a good next gear.
After a wonderful, but very tiring, day of sailing we arrived off Foxtown just before sunset.
***************************** end part 6 *****************************
Foxtown is the westernmost water's edge settlement on the northern shore of Little Abaco Island. It has no real harbor, just a 1 mile chunk of roadstead open up to Hawksbill Cay, which runs east-west offshore. The eastern end is partially protected by extreme shallows. Onshore waters sport four large rocks about 300 yards offshore, behind which you have to look carefully to find even 4 ft of water.
We snuck up to the one commercial establishment, Foxtown Shell, carefully following cruising guide hints but in a bit of a hurry so as to beat full dark back to the shore of Hawksbill Cay, where we planned to anchor. Had we not needed ice to rescue some perishables in the cooler, this would probably have been left to morning. Nonetheless, we picked up much needed gasoline and a 5-gallon-bucket-shaped ice cube and anchored (one hook again) just at dark. We'd seen one adult and 8 children. The children did the business.
The wind dropped back to 10 kn or less after dark, so we found ourselves yet again in a fairly comfortable anchorage.
Upon the morning, we decide it's been too much of a strain the last few days, what with managing to get underway by the crack of 1100 each day. Besides, it's time for someone else to do the cooking, and there did seem to be a restaurant associated with Foxtown Shell. Truth is, we're all tired; making miles in a tiny boat day after day is hard work! So, declare a day of rest. We've ice, gas, plenty of battery power, and ample water. There's Kalik ashore and the wind out there is back at 20 kn. Good day to hide.
Waiting until the tide gets closer to high, we penetrate the four rock barrier at a point opposite the town dock and find a hole about 30 ft off the end of the dock that promises almost 5 ft of water at low tide. To get there, of course, we had to plow a 30 or 40 ft, 4-inch-deep furrow in the bottom, but we made it. I'd taken the bolt out of the keel in anticipation of this, so no harm was done, except that my latest keel trunk seal job was a bit damaged.
[That pesky keel seal had been giving trouble ever since Caesar's Creek. During the refit, I'd stripped the old insulation and reinstalled new, apparently poorly. Though I thought I'd found a foolproof solution 6 years ago, I seemed now unable to duplicate it. We'd taken on about a gallon during the Gulfstream crossing (sailing portion only), so I'd attempted to redo part of the job in Bimini. I redid it again in Spanish Cay and yet again in Marsh Harbor, with mixed results. More later.]
The hole we'd found was not large and was quite close to a monster rock, so a Bahamian moor seemed in order. We dropped the main anchor to keep us off the rock, and I set a second from the dinghy at 180 degrees to the first. The latter action was experimental in both nature and equipment. Though I'd used multiple anchors many times before, the included angle was more often 60-90 degrees than 180, satisfying an altogether different need. Also, I used a previously untried anchor for the second set. All of which, I suppose, amply introduces the topic of:
From the beginning, Ursa Minor has sported a 7 lb Danforth Hi Tensile anchor mounted on the bow pulpit. The rode for this "bower" anchor is 150 fet of 5/16 inch nylon, initially with 6 ft of 1/4 inch chain but now carrying 28 ft, the additional chain having been added a few years ago to deal with very thin mud in the Chesapeake. The rode runs through the ventilator to the rode locker, with the bitter end shackled to the belowdecks strap provided for that purpose. This rig, given enough rode and set carefully, has not failed me - at least since the extra chain was added.
Second anchor is a 4 pound Danforth lookalike with 150 ft of 1/4-inch nylon, black in color just for variety. At the beginning of the trip it carried 6 ft of 1/4-inch chain, to which we added 20 ft while in New Plymouth. The whole mess is stored in a Sunbrella bag, usually kept at the aft end of the cockpit sole, handy for emergencies. Third and fourth anchors are 8 pound folding grapnels, new for this cruise, one with 150 ft of 5/16-inch nylon and 6 ft of 1/4-inch chain, the other with 100 ftof 1/4-inch nylon and no chain. We ended up using the latter as a dinghy anchor.
The chain equipped grapnel was the anchor I experimentally set in Foxtown. It held well to relatively light loading, but I remain unconvinced of its utility, except perhaps as a lunch hook or rock pick. The Danforths, on the other hand, have always been wonderful, if a bit difficult to set through grass. Surprisingly, the little, low-tech model holds almost as well as the larger, high-tech version. Either, however, requires a lot of rode for ultimate holding, and I'm not comfortable with their resetting ability. This is not a problem in expansive, non-tidal anchorages - unfortunately not at all typical of the Hub of the Abacos. Two anchors down was to be pretty much the rule for the rest of the cruise.
Finally, we had to this point used a nylon "turtle" connected between the boweye and the main rode, in a partially successful attempt to curb the WWP19's desire to sail vigorously about one anchor. Using the turtle with two anchors, however, would have been inviting some wonderful tangles, so it ultimately didn't see much use.
For the next trip, I'm looking to install a 20 lb CQR on a bow roller. Based upon observations during the cruise - not influenced by the inevitable discussions of anchors which pop up whenever two or more sailors gather for more than a few minutes - I've become a believer. They really do seem to hold best on minimal scope, set well, and reset dependably. I'm confident Ursa Minor will handle the extra weight at the bow.
But back to Foxtown. We dinghy to the town dock and walk back down to Foxtown Shell, where we have much food and a Kalik or six. We're the only customers. Overall, Foxtown looks pretty shabby. Many of the twenty or so houses are abandoned, and not too many folks are around. While walking Dog, we do have a genial conversation with the town drunk and his potcake. A peaceful place.
[I realize I've been tossing around an undefined term. Kalik is the Bahamian beer. Good stuff but not exported. At roughly $30 the case, it is a dollar or two cheaper than any of the imports.]
What else? Oh, yeah, fishing. Although I carry a medium weight spinning outfit, I seldom fish - the product of overexposure during a misspent youth. Nav, however, is not similarly burned out and began in Foxtown what was to be a usually successful habit of angling for dinner. We even had shark for a few days much later on.
To me, the interesting part of this first experiment was not so much the initial catch (a good sized corn husk) as the equipment used. I jest with you not when I say he was proudly (or was that whimsically?) extracting good performance from - are you ready for this? - a 100% genuine PoPeel Pocket Fisherman! Americana at its best.
But enough fun in Foxtown. Come morning, the wind has abated a bit and we're certainly well rested; time to move on. The cruising guide says there's a marina at Spanish Cay, and we're getting a bit low on water - we're about to start using the 5 gallon reserve I prefer to maintain for the unexpected - so we redefine Spanish Cay as "there" and set off, clearing the harbor at 1000.
***************************** end part 7 *****************************
5/20 FOXTOWN TO SPANISH CAY
The stats: from Foxtown to Spanish Cay: dist, 5 nmi; time, 4 hours; vmg, 3.8 kn; power, full main & genoa, 4 hours
Seas out on the Bank, while still good sized - perhaps 4 ft- are not as short as they were becoming during waxing winds two days ago. The wind is lovely at 15 kn or so, and our course allows one long starboard tack to Spanish Cay. Another great sailing experience - offering more OJT for the crew and attitude maintenance for all.
Upon arrival off Spanish Cay, we're bitten by yet another thing I dislike about the new Honda: if one allows it to stall after running for more than 10 seconds but less than a minute or two, immediate restart is damn near impossible - regardless of the measures adopted. The only thing I haven't tried is starting fluid, without which a wait of at least 15 minutes is required. Near as I can tell, the engine's state of tune is correct, but I've ordered the shop manual to aid further investigation. The problem gains extra significance because keeping the engine running for that first minute is no simple task; a delicate, frequently changing balance of choke and throttle is required. Easy to screw up, especially while sailing. [Despite its problems, I do like the Honda. I just don't like it $1600 worth more than its predecessor.]
We reach back and forth while I tear things apart and reassemble them, success coming only after the natural waiting period. As we enter the seawall-enclosed docking area, we note that we've the only mast in the place. Not a good sign! Regardless, we tie up at modern, well-kept docks and take a first tour.
Spanish Cay is a private island with a handful of homes - and a bunch of now reputedly not-to-be-sold building lots - in addition to the marina and a few associated condos. As it turns out, cruising guide claims aside, the whole thing had closed down a year before and had been open under new ownership for only three months. One kitchen, a small open-air bar, and an open patio for dining was about the size of the facilities, although there was a lot of indoor space as yet unrenewed. Along with decent showers/restrooms and free, middle-of-the-night use of laundry facilities, this was enough. The island itself is beautiful, the wild areas wild and the civilized areas well maintained. There's even an airstrip. The bar has DSS satellite TV, of importance to me only because of The Weather Channel but eagerly greeted by my Gen-X crew. Hippie Chick needed late-night movies, and Nav was, unbeknownst to me, badly in need of a Headline News fix.
When we arrived we were the only sailboat around, and the denizens of the dock were standoffish at best. We thawed a few of the more outgoing at dinner, however, and a half dozen other sailors arrived the second day, altering the social climate for the better. By the third day, we were old hands and the staff had adopted us - an oft seen social advantage of traveling in such a (comparatively) tiny boat.
We all liked Spanish Cay. So we stayed a week.
The marina had an additional asset of merit: one of the best cooks in the Western world. The food was horrendously expensive and worth every farthing. It took just about a week to cycle through everything on the menu, no doubt influencing our length of stay.
Just as determinative in another way was the $1600 bill I was presented with when we left. Since only about $150 of that was for dockage, I began to think that we maybe had too many mouths aboard. But that's later...
... although it does bring Hippie Chick to mind. As implied earlier, HC is a friend of the family. I've known her since her pre-teen days. She's young, slight of build, and generally good company. Her wardrobe would do justice to any Earth Mother from the sixties. She's a diehard Janis Joplin fan. Born too late, I suppose.
Her presence aboard, while welcome, is a bit of a mystery; I can't recall exactly how it came about. Nonetheless, the social dynamics of our floating microcosm are improved by her presence: A & B can commiserate over the flaws of C, A & C can talk bad about B, ... but you get the idea. Altogether a more stable arrangement if the participants exercise restraint - which presupposes that all live within shouting distance of sanity. More simply stated, in the words of the Navigation Officer, "She'll keep Dad and I from killing each other in the first two weeks." ["Bermuda Triangle Claims Crew of Microyacht. Dog With Bloated Bladder Found Alone At Helm."]
Now that I think of it, Dog would not be alone at the helm. There's an as-yet-unmentioned crewmember who's going to be quite sore at me for forgetting him; he's been around since the beginning. I apologize to Aqua Pooh, "the bear with the twisted smile and the eyes that have seen too much." He's been First Mate on Ursa Minor since 1987; he's seen it all. [In all but the worst weather, he sits on the windward side of the cabin roof, his legs tucked under the aftmost loop of the handrail. Our usual tacking drill consists of: "Ready about ... Hard alee ... Pooh to windward."] For this cruise, Pooh sported a new sailor suit custom tailored for him by the All Purpose Broad, the multi-talented feminine member of a couple of good friends in Fort Walton Beach. [APB taught me how to sew before I did up my Sailrite spinnaker.]
But back to Hippie Chick. Her physical characteristic of most note to non-crewmembers was her "do" - a very respectable set (?) of dreadlocks. ["Hey, lookit, mon. White chick wit dreads!"] Crew was most taken by her ability to eat as much as Nav, Dog, and me combined, no hyperbole. She smokes hand rolled cigarettes, the cause of more than a few quizzical looks. I've heard HC described as naive, but I prefer to think of her as having a somewhat tenuous connection to reality. Which brings us back to the point.
Hippie Chick distinguished herself as a quick-thinking, public spirited individual during our stay at Spanish Cay.
Film at 11.
***************************** end part 8 *****************************
It was Memorial Day on Spanish Cay. Midmorning I was out riding through the jungle in a mini-pickup, on an ad-hoc tour with the caretaker of one of the estates. Nav and the Hippie Chick were hanging around the bar, watching Dog in my absence. The marina was fairly crowded for a change, mostly with holiday weekend powerboaters overflowing from the overbooked facilities at Walker's Cay.
Of a sudden, news of a shark attack washed over the island. I first heard over the VHF in the truck, as we were summoned back to the marina: A boat was coming into the dock with a shark bite victim from nearby Powell's Cay. I'm told the crowd was abuzz. Dog was restive, perhaps from the excitement but more likely due to the local overpopulation of cats.
[Whoops. Broke the mood there, didn't I?]
Anyway, the boat arrived bearing the luckiest man in the Abacos that day. He'd lost a goodly chunk of upper arm, with some forearm & shoulder in the bargain. Nonetheless, a lucky man; the things he needed were around. As they docked, his girlfriend, an emergency room nurse in real life, was tying things off with dental floss. He was immediately in the care of a charming young lady we'd met the night before, an emergency room physician by trade. She had with her a clinic-in-a-sack and could immediately hang an IV and deshock him, lest he die.
The part about Hippie Chick is secondhand; I was out back with Dog gathering splint material. It seems that as the victim was offloaded, there was an immediate need for a host of different things. The crowd stood around, jealously holding their possessions and volunteering nothing ... but not our Hippie Chick! Suffice to say that Dog's water bowl, our fresh-from-the-freezer ice bucket, one of our beach towels, and HC's blouse (!) all played a part in the medical rescue. They must really drill them in quick thinking at space cadet school; we were proud.
Anyway, the guy made it, due apparently in great measure to quick work on the dock and the presence of the IV supplies. No thanks are due to the US medical community or the forces of Truth, Justice, and the American Way.
While the drama on the dock was unfolding, a less noble set of events was occurring in the marina office - as later related interminably by a participant. Leaving out the bombast, it went something like this: - call the US Coast Guard. They ask if have tried the XYZ medical air rescue service in Ft. West Palmiami; they (the Coast Guard) can't come unless ... yadda, yadda - call XYZ. OK. They need a policy number. Well, then, how about a credit card number. Oh yeah, we need the name of an admitting physician. How long? Well, it'll take at least two hours to get a doctor to the plane, it's a holiday, you know ... [Meanwhile, for all we know, the poor chap is bleeding to death.] - load the victim into a private plane that had arrived that morning - flown by yet two more physicians - and take him to West Palm.
A lucky man.
He turned out to be, dare I say it, a doctor (DVM). [You getting the idea about who can afford to be out here in real boats?] He'd been spearfishing with SCUBA gear, made a strike, and failed to get it out of the water fast enough. He was swimming back to the boat underwater, with the spear over his shoulder, when a shark, coveting his fish, grabbed it and anything else in the way. [Repeat now the spearfisher's mantra: GET THE BLOODY FISH OUT OF THE WATER.] Upon regaining consciousness, he was contrite. Nonetheless, he got away with it and can still use his arm. A very lucky man.
The whole thing ended up being featured nationally on the NBC Evening News a day later, complete with film of his arrival. They got it all wrong, of course, as did the newspaper account I saw some time later. [Have you noticed that? In my 52 years I've had knowledge of, or been directly involved in, a statistically significant number of newsworthy events or issues. In no case has media coverage been without serious flaws and at least one glaring error - usually more. Makes a man wonder about the rest of the things they report.]
While not newsworthy, we did have a bit more excitement at Spanish Cay. The occasion was a violent squall that blew through the marina at 0300 one morning, bringing 40-50 knot winds and 4+ foot seas through the only opening in the seawall. All our lines held (nine of them this time), but for a while that night the bull riding machines had nothing on Ursa Minor. Had this thing struck when the place was crowded, there would have been hull damage aplenty, as skill at tying and fendering seems to vary inversely with hull size. Back at Great Sale Cay, the same squall line had blown a 50' powerboat ashore, holing it on the rocks. Correlating later accounts, it appears there were boats dragging all over the northern Abacos that night.
So we frittered away a week in paradise, only to be interrupted by afternoon squalls on the day we'd intended to leave. With that my earlier statement is belied. We stayed eight days. For $1600.
The next leg was short, as they all would be until the voyage home: just down to Green Turtle Cay. For days before our departure, the twice daily launch trips to Cooperstown, across the sound on Great Abaco Island, returned with wet passengers and tales of a vicious chop on the inside. It seems a "rage" was running on the outside, fouling the passes to the Atlantic and chopping up the waters behind the reefs and cays. We let that delay us for a few days.
Studying the waters of the sound through binoculars, I just couldn't see anything terribly threatening. A smattering of boats were making their way north and south, with more or less motion depending upon their type and size. What the heck, let's go!
***************************** end part 9 *****************************
5/20 SPANISH CAY TO GREEN TURTLE CAY
The stats: from: Spanish Cay to Black Sound, Green Turtle Cay: dist,15 nmi; time, 3.5 hours; vmg, 4.3 kn; power, full main & genoa, 3.5 hours.
Here we go again! More exhilarating sailing, hull speed & more on one long port close reach. The wind varies around 15 kn, gusting to the absolute high limit for full main and genoa, and the 1'-3' chop is indeed a tad rough. Regardless, we neither pound nor take spray in the cockpit. On the way out we pass the marina launch, a 25' go-fast, returning from Cooperstown, all aboard in foul weather gear despite the cloudless skies. Among the passengers is a couple we'd just met but with whom we would spend much time in other ports. They later told us that they were being pounded badly but we, lounging in shirtsleeves, seemed very comfortable ... and Ursa Minor looked comfortably shippy. Score one more for the growing reputation of the 19' boat. Sometimes it just doesn't do to be in a hurry.
By this point in the journey, we've experienced enough variety in wind and sea conditions to be able to conclude that the dinghy tows well. Its drag does not seem to significantly affect speed, and it's pretty passive once the correct painter length is found. In very light winds - which we don't do for long periods anyway - it must be towed from the center rather than from the starboard stern quarter so as to not create helm offset, but that's about it for handicaps.
As you may infer, we entered the adventure not really knowing much about the dinghy. Although I'd had it for a couple of years, it had never been used. In point of fact, I've never used a dinghy with Ursa Minor, instead taking the parent vessel into dinghy docks or, rarely, beaches. In the event, the change of technique was all to the good. A dinghy is really required for Bahamas cruising.
Just for the record, the dinghy in question is a BOAT/US Seaworthy 8.3' inflatable. While smaller than most you see "out there" - in tube size if not in length - it did a fine job for us. It rowed adequately and, later, performed as well with outboard power. It's inexpensive, tough, no longer available ... and made in Croatia, no less. It's major flaw was my fault: It held on tenaciously to grass and barnacle growth. I'll surely research anti-fouling techniques before the next cruise!
Before we get too far into the Abacos, defined as "there" remember, here're some more words from official sources:
"The Abacos are a sailing universe. Somewhere in the long necklace of pale-sanded islands and often uninhabited cays, flung out over 120 miles, you're sure to find the ideal private spot for some chilled champagne and a good book. Sheltered harbours create a haven for yachtsmen, and the slumber-struck 18th century villages and historic museums recall a tranquil past.
"The major islands of this small archipelago are Great and Little Abaco, with the off-lying cays of Elbow Cay, Man-O-War Cay, Green Turtle Cay, Guana Cay, Stranger's Cay, Umbrella Cay and Walker's Cay.
"The Abacos have a long history of providing refuge from hectic life in the States. It was at Carleton Point, Abaco's first settlement, that 600 Loyalist refugees fleeing the newly-independent United States settled in 1783, and Grand Cay was once a favorite retreat of former US president Richard Nixon.
"If you're not cruising there's still plenty to do. You can visit the Pelican Cay National Park, an underwater preserve; or the Abaco National Park, a 20,000 acre site in southern Abaco encompassing the nesting area and habitat of the Abaco Parrot."
Yeah, yeah. Now the part about Green Turtle Cay:
"Or spend a quiet afternoon at the Albert Lowe Museum, a restored 150-year-old mansion that now houses exhibits on local history. In the Memorial Sculpture Gardens, busts of some 30 Bahamians, representing different Bahamian islands, stand in an elegant, tranquil garden setting.
"There are relatively few green turtles remaining on Green Turtle Cay, but they are bred here on farms and considered food. On occasion, boiled turtle or turtle stew, will appear on restaurant menus. Be aware when purchasing items made from turtle shell that they may have to be left behind, as it is illegal to import these products into many countries."
Been there, ate that, decided against getting the T-shirt.
5/21 - 6/12 GREEN TURTLE CAY
Back in the real world, we manage to get into Black Sound on Green Turtle Cay without going aground, no mean feat given the lack of marks ... a brand new set of which went in a few days after we arrived. We tied up at The Other Shore Club, a massively informal marina located about a dirt road half mile over the hill and through the woods from New Plymouth, AKA "town." Our dockmaster was the head man of the renowned local band.
New Plymouth, now this is more like it! The settlement itself does not depend upon cruising boats for existence; it's been around a good long time. Not to say that visitors, most from cruising boats but a few in by air and ferry from Treasure Cay on Great Abaco Island, don't support a few good restaurants and pubs ... and, bless us, bakeries. Also a couple of small hardware stores, similar groceries, and one bank, the latter open Tuesday and Thursday from 0800 to 1300 come shine or shine (they bring the money in from Marsh Harbor by boat). [Speaking of money, don't worry about currency conversion should you visit; the Abacos run quite well on a mix of US and Bahamian currency, equal in value by law.]
***************************** end part 10 *****************************
New Plymouth is a fine little town. While it purportedly has been larger - they had a church in the early part of this century that held 1200 folks, compared to a total population of maybe 500 now - there are no overt signs of neglect. The "streets" are clean, the buildings well maintained and brightly painted. The two high-tone marina/resorts in White Sound, the Green Turtle Club and the Bluff House, provide additional opportunities for play, but best are the in-town pubs, particularly Miss Emily's Blue Bee Bar. Population is mixed black and white Bahamians, perhaps two-thirds, one-third. All are delightful, and "island time" is a healthy and well-entrenched concept.
About the only negative comment I can offer about New Plymouth is that it was impossible to find conch salad on a regular basis. Speaking of conch, you may have by now inferred that Bahamians eat nothing else. You'd be closer to right than you may imagine. Conch salad, conch fritters, cracked conch, conchburgers, conch chowder, steamed conch, conch pizza (!), ...
Conch salad is the lost but long sought food of the gods. At its heart, it's a North American version of ceviche, made with conch. Better yet, a recipe:
Step 1: steal a conch.
Whoops, no, that's an old punchline.
For real, do this: Kill a conch and dig it from its shell, an art in itself. Skin & trim. Dice enough of the following to loosely fill a 16 ounce container: conch, hard tomato, soft tomato, onion, green pepper, hot pepper. Proportions are at preparer's whim, but I like roughly 25%, 20%, 20%, 20%, 10%, 5%. Sprinkle on some salt. Squeeze on the juice of a lime or two. Add a generous dollop of fresh orange juice and, truly optional, a dash or two of vinegar. Mix & wait a few minutes - if you can. Eat and be transported. Not only that, but the stuff is GOOD for you.
If your local grocer is out of conch [:-)], try it with lobster or shrimp or ... . I did manage to get some conch here at home by querying my friends at the local sushi place, but frozen is just not as good as fresh. No surprise there, I guess.
Conch is, of course, a large shell-creature classified as endangered in US waters but abounding in the Bahamas. It's best known for its shell, invariably the one used as a horn by those prone to such things. As to the animal inside, the conch-beastie's outstanding characteristic is that you have to beat the blinking bejabbers out of it before cooking. When subsequently deep fried with a light batter, it's cracked conch - monstrously good goo in its own right. And so on.
Anyway, we're at Green Turtle Cay, not doing much of any consequence, but continuing to eat and drink well. Hippie Chick, with her by then legendary appetite, was starting to flesh out a bit. Will and I, on the other hand, were shedding weight at a moderate rate. [Conch inspired, perhaps?] We only worried over whether or not I'd have enough cash to get us through until the bank next opened up. A hard life indeed.
Life at The Other Shore Club was good, though it was there that Hippie Chick met the Bahamas Defense Force and Dog met ducks and potcakes.
***************************** end part 11 *****************************
In point of fact, the Other Shore Club is quite a place. We chose it sight unseen based upon the cruising guides' intimations of informality. Management, into the second generation of the founding family, keeps things up but is not overwhelmed with expansionist ambitions. The docks will accommodate perhaps 15 vessels in a pinch, and there are a handful of moorings just off the docks in Black Sound. They do have fuel, which I'd like to think will keep the new marina down the way from driving them into unprofitability.
The grounds, including a small saltwater pool, straddle the peninsula separating Black Sound from Settlement Creek, the shallow water basin which serves as New Plymouth's harbor. The moderately overgrown landscaping features hibiscus in profusion, providing broken cover for herds of chickens and ducks. The docks were frequently covered by the sleeping forms of the five or seven resident canines, most of whom belonged to two generations of shaggy dogs - decidedly not potcakes. They could be found shambling about most anywhere, most anytime. Unless Dog was there.
Actually, it wasn't too bad. Dog established her peace with the canine group by facing down all but the matriarch, who told her in no uncertain terms that even a new, pushy dog should not mess with Old Mama. They stepped lightly about one another for the rest of the stay, no damage done. [I should probably mention that Dog was never left free to run, instead having to drag around a human at the end of her 50' painter. A sad thing to do, but necessary.]
Showing that a tiny bit of maturity must come even to a Chow, Dog also established a truce with the chickens and ducks - squirrels and, especially, cats being her preferred excuse for hysteria. The terms of the agreement were that she would ignore them unless they came within lunging distance - i.e., within a range where she thought she could catch them before running out of painter. This critical distance is always changing based on terrain and the amount of rope not in hand, making mental as well as physical exercise of "taking the dog for a drag."
Sadly, the Dog/fowl pact went by the wayside "the day Dog discovered that ducks have feet." This happened one morning while it was still cool enough for everyone to feel frisky. By the inexplicable mechanism that drives such things, Dog decided that she was going to be a scent-hound on that day. [Normally, she's a sight hunter, resorting to scent tracking only for such things as tracing a backtrack after she's run a squirrel up a tree. Why backwards I've never understood.]
Anyway, she hit the dirt and found something that must have smelled really fascinating. She put her nose to the ground and cast back and forth in a frenzied fashion, rapidly following a trail which almost, before she looked up, led her full tilt up a duck's butt! After discovering that the great smell came from duck feet, she gave the owners honorary cat status. The duck alarm went off frequently thereafter, sometimes even interrupting my afternoon nap in the hammock-beneath-the-trees.
Walking with Dog to town was also usually a bit of an adventure, as we had to get past two bunches of potcakes in the hundred yard suburban belt. These were potcakes-with-collars, not wild, but they wanted to protect their territory nonetheless. Dog, being more than a bit dim when it comes to matters of relative size and numbers, rarely submits to intimidating canine protocol, so we had the makings of a good old fashioned daily dog fight. However, after discovering that the potcakes could be held out of range by the human command voice, I taught it to Nav. We thereafter took turns on point, chasing away the potcakes before hostilities could occur.
The hibiscus on the grounds proved to be of unusual interest to Hippie Chick. Throughout the journey, she had been collecting recipes and techniques for dreadlock enhancement. [Simple neglect is apparently not efficient enough.] The basic technique seemed to be to soak your head in a bucket of something and then rinse the stuff out hours (or was that days?) later. By this point, five ingredients had been identified, to be used singly or in combination and all moderately strange. I recall that coconut water was one, but three others escape me. The last ingredient was hibiscus blossom mush, so we had a bucketful of blossoms hanging around "aging" for days on end. Thank goodness she never got around to using them!
During our lengthy stay on Green Turtle Cay, we had two days of good solid rain, the first prolonged wet spell of the cruise. This was the cause of great local rejoicing and thus beyond our begrudging range. Most of their cisterns were bottoming out, and one resort had had to barge in water the week before, so the downpour was well received. Fortunately, all of the crew did not have to stay on Ursa Minor the whole time; the porch of the house at the end of the dock was rainproof and offered a good place to read, although liberal use of mosquito repellent was wise. [Strangely, the bugs didn't bother us aboard, though we were only 15 yards from the mangroves. At this point in the journey, in fact, we had not found it necessary to even contemplate digging the screens out of storage.]
The weather had prompted a change from our cockpit awning (the ripstop-on-a-stick thing that came as original equipment) to the rain rig: a blue poly tarp used boom-tent fashion over the companionway and the foremost 80% of the cockpit. This allowed Dog to use the cockpit seats if she wished, relieving the crowding below when all four of us were loafing aboard. A severe complication to getting on & off the dock - which, as usual, ranged from 4' to 1' above deck level depending on the tide - but not one making it impossible, even with Dog under one arm.
On the still-a-tad-damp morning after the deluge, I was on the aforementioned porch reading a novel from the marina's trading library. Hippie Chick was in the showers located around the back of the building. Dog and Nav were still sleeping. As I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a rapping, as of valve guides gently tapping ... sorry Edgar; I couldn't resist. It's such a beautiful beat.
What I saw was an outboard driven RIB with three members of the Bahamas Defense Force aboard. I never did find out where their cutter was anchored, but they looked fresh. They also looked large, dark, and intimidating: navy blue coveralls with lots of leather belts and truncheons and guns and radios and ... . Big dudes.
One of their number stationed himself at the end of the dock, while the other two looked over the boats tied on the outside. The tide was low, so I don't think they even knew Ursa Minor was there, as we were tied on the inside, snuggled up to the stern of a 40 ft trawler. All one could see was our mast, and not even that from center dock. They chose two powerboats to board and went about their business: presumably to look for illegal shellfish, drugs, weapons, or lack of papers. Whatever, they seemed to be doing a thorough job. As I sat there on the porch, about 30 ft from the land guard (we'd nodded to one another when he arrived), Hippie Chick came around the building heading for the boat. They exchanged hellos, and the officer, studying her carefully from stem to stern, asked which boat she was on. She said 'twas the little one out there on the inside. He said, "OK. We'll be boarding you next. Have a good morning." Oh, goody. [I didn't think to notice if HC was smoking one of her handrolls or not, but the man's thoughts were clear.] I was torn between amusement at the thought of them trying to search Ursa and dismay at the thought of the mess that would result.
***************************** end part 12 *****************************
The mess that could result from a Bahamas Defense Force boarding/search of Ursa Minor was, at least in my imagination, not limited to disarrangement. I could envision lots of time spent justifying my pill collection (vitamins and prescriptions and analgesics), or the rolling papers, or ... . Jeez, we even had some oregano!
In the fullness of time, the BDF boys finishing rummaging through the powerboats, climbed into their rubber ducky, and putted around to Ursa. Nav and HC were aboard, while Dog and I sat on the dock, grinning and fanning ourselves with the envelope containing the ship's papers. Ursa, as usual, looked like a bum boat (or do I mean to say cruising boat), with things hanging all over her and only a foot or so of the cockpit available for boarding - I'll show you a picture later.
So the officers studied the boat, counted the crew, failed to find a place to tie their dinghy, and allowed as how they weren't going to board us after all. But they might be back later. The look on their faces as they left was really kind of comical. And that was the first and last we saw of the Bahamas Defense Force.
For Hippie Chick fans, I'm sorry to say that Green Turtle Cay was the end of her participation. We'd been international for five weeks and away from home for more than two months, the original notional estimates of time required for the whole trip. Money was hemorrhaging from my coffers; the crew needed trimming. So we made an air reservation from Marsh Harbor and, upon failing to get there in time, sent HC off on the ferry to Treasure Cay. From there, she taxied to Marsh Harbor, stayed overnight to sample the town, and flew out on 7 June. She's now home in Memphis.
In addition to gaining living room in Green Turtle Cay, those of us remaining gained cruising time when we were relieved of a commitment to get home in time to help some friends sail their (huge) boat from New England to the Annapolis area in mid-July. Now hurricane season was the only time limiting factor; the sane man would get back to the mainland before mid-July, when the odds of a blow start going up fast. Oh well, a bridge to cross later.
***************************** end part 13 - whence came a several-month delay 'til after Christmas *****************************
Now that we're all past the stress induced by our unfortunate societal tendency to squash the joy of giving into one period, a return to the Bahamas seems in order.
When last heard from, Nav and I were in New Plymouth after Hippie Chick's regrettable but necessary departure, using a series of weak excuses to delay leaving. Ultimately, we seized upon the departure of the K's, the couple we had met on Spanish Cay, as a good enough reason to move on. They had been staying at the Bluff House in White Sound, 15 minutes away by dinghy but an adventurous, 30 minute trip over jungle trails by motor vehicle. We'd made the trip twice in "Taxi 14," a fine Suzuki hybrid of microvan, pedicab, and mountain goat.
12 JUNE NEW PLYMOUTH TO BAKER'S BAY
The stats from Green Turtle Cay to Baker's Bay, Great Guana Cay: dist,12 nmi; time, 5 hours; vmg, 2.2 kn; power, motorsail w/ full main, 1.5 hours; full main & genoa, 3.5 hours.
The K's girded their loins and motored their Island Packet 41 out of White Sound on the first high tide of Thursday, 12 June. We followed from Black Sound at midday, abandoning the motor as soon as possible even though the wind was quite light, flickering around in the 3-4 knot range. Since we only had 12 nmi to go, and all day in which to do it, I thought we could afford a dose of purism.
While short, the route to Baker's Bay - our intended anchorage - led around Whale Cay in a detour of a mile or so into the Atlantic, the much ballyhooed Whale Cay Passage. Actually, Ursa could have snuck around the inside, but hearing the K's tales on the VHF of a rolly passage, we decided to try the Atlantic on for size. The weather was gorgeous, and the big waters didn't look all that rough. Besides, it'd be nice to know how we compare to an Island Packet 41!
As it worked out, Ursa Minor took the 2'-3' ocean swell far more gracefully than the big boat, primarily because we had some sail up. [Due to the light wind and an opposing current, we'd had to resume motoring to turn and get out past Whale Cay, but we'd left the mainsail set.] The Island Packet was motoring without sail, with nothing external to steady her on the roll axis. Score one for technique ... and beware of unwarranted overconfidence that may accrue.
As it turned out, 'twould have been wiser to forgo the purism, skip Baker's Bay, and get to Great Guana Settlement directly. But I wanted to see the abandoned facilities ashore where the Big Red Boat used to bring passengers (they stopped because the Whale Cay Passage was too rough too often), calling it "Treasure Island" or some such. Bad idea.
We motored into Baker's Bay an hour before dark, in the midst of a medium squall. The water was all chopped up, so we anchored in 12' of water, a bit further out than four other boats. Since swinging room was not an issue and the bottom was sand, we set only the main anchor but veered 130' of rode and tied in the turtle. Good idea.
That night we paid the penalty for not getting any firsthand weather reports for weeks, when the wind behind the afternoon squalls backed 150 degrees and picked up to 10-15 kn. Now we're on a lee shore, and that blasted wind has a 4-5 nmi fetch across the Sea of Abaco. Four foot seas all night long; what a ride!
We pitched and rolled like some crazy thing. On the VHF Cruiser's Net the next morning, one of our neighbors (our handhelds were still out of range) reported that he'd never seen such activity as our anchor light exhibited.
Surprisingly, though I started to turn a tad green about the gills until the rain stopped and I could sit in the cockpit for a while, both Nav and I slept like babies - aside from my normal awaken-every-two-hours anchor check. Wedged-in babies, but babies nonetheless.
We didn't go ashore the next morning, as a binocular scan revealed little left to visit, aside from some dry dolphin pens and a decrepit wharf. Instead, we took advantage of the wind that made the night so active to sail briskly on down the coast to the Great Guana Settlement.
6/13 BAKER'S BAY TO GREAT GUANA CAY
The stats from: Baker's Bay to W Settlement Harbor, Great Guana Cay: dist, 4 nmi; time, 1 hour; vavg, 4 kn; powe, single reefed main & genoa, 1 hour.
Come to think of it, had we not gone to Baker's Bay, we'd have missed a chance to yet again leave on Friday - this time on Friday the thirteenth, no less. There was no apparent effect; we had a short but lovely sail close on starboard with genoa and the first reef in the main.
The main harbor at the Great Guana Cay Settlement is wide open to the west and thus useless to us. The other possible anchorage is on the WNW side of the spit that forms one side of the main harbor. Unfortunately, the deeper portions of this area are also open to the west. We end up sneaking into waters where only catamarans normally go, sort of hidden behind a small rock rather grandly called Delia's Cay. Prospecting for a while, we manage to find a small hole in her close lee, offering 6-7 ft at low water. This is nominally sufficient if only we can stay over it.
Setting the Danforths at about a 120 degree angle to one another, each on 90' of rode, we eventually get secured such that we should stay over the hole for winds from south through west to north. Land is close by on the other side, limiting the danger from easterly blows.
The rather extraordinary care we took with anchoring was no doubt due to the previous night's experience. Since Ursa would stay here by herself for hours on end - we intended to hang around at least through Sunday to catch the wild boar roast at Nipper's - I felt the effort to be justified. Damned good thing as it turned out.
I was in the water for most of the anchoring process, where I learned that that silly throttle stop in reverse kept the Honda from being able to even lift all the chain off the bottom, much less set an anchor. I did most of it by hand. Henceforth we'd set anchors from the stern, with the Honda in forward gear.
***************************** end part 14 *****************************
6/13-6/16 THE SETTLEMENT AT GREAT GUANA CAY
There's not a whole lot to this settlement. The Guana Beach Resort has rooms for landlubbers and a freshwater pool, with dining around the latter. Over the hill and through the woods lies Nipper's, a must-see bar perched on the dunes overlooking the Atlantic. Their view is breathtaking, day or night, and the snorkeling off the beach is good. Aside from Tom's T-Shirts, that's about it for the commercial aspects of Great Guana Settlement, unless you count the occasional opportunity to purchase the world's best home-pickled onions from the civic inebriate.
I doubt more than a hundred or two people live at the Settlement permanently, but the anchorage we're in is quite busy, averaging perhaps 15 boats with a high daily turnover. Plenty of grist to keep the food, drink, and entertainment mills turning, especially since maybe half of the vessels carry high-rolling charterers from Hopetown or Marsh Harbor. Interestingly, about half of the charter vessels are large catamarans; those doctors do like their comfort!
A decent ferry service links Great Guana, Hopetown, and Man of War with Marsh Harbor. The circumscribed area, with some additions to the south for fantastic reef "diving" and alfresco pub visits, is the justly famous cruising ground often referred to as the "The Hub of the Abacos." If you put stock in names, we've really made it now; we're "there."
Not a moment too soon.
Someday we hope to get the rest of this story...[ed]