Monday, August 20, 2018

The Bahamas

Manjack Cay
Ruthie and I had taken refuge at the Charleston Harbor Marina as a strong southeast wind had made virtually all of the anchoring spots untenable, its stratospheric rates notwithstanding.  The wind veered to the northwest making ideal conditions for our passage to the Bahamas except for crossing the Gulf Stream – the river of warm water in the Atlantic Ocean that flows from the Caribbean Sea (not the Gulf of Mexico) up the east coast of the United States at a rate of about four miles per hour and about four billion cubic feet of water per second.  Despite the many eddies and counter-currents, the Gulf Stream flows north and when it meets a wind that has any northerly components, it can develop steep, dangerous seas that must be avoided, especially for a small sailboat.

We had subscribed to Chris Parker’s weather forecasting service, it’s available both on line and over our single sideband marine radio, and we had been talking with Chris daily about when a ‘weather window’ would open for us.  After several days of hunkering down, Chris advised us to leave the next day, giving us specific coordinates for crossing the Gulf Stream.  With a modicum of anxiety, we cast off our dock lines and headed out into the Atlantic, placing a high degree of confidence that Chris knew what he was talking about.  As it turned out, it was an easy 370-mile sail, if a little cold, with no significant seas and we wound up having to heave to off the entrance to Spanish Cay to wait for daylight to enter.

It didn’t take us long to discover that we had the wrong anchor for the Bahamas.  The weed-covered sand bottom was almost impenetrable to our 30-kilo Bruce anchor.  After several attempts, I dove into the water with my face mask on to see what was happening while Ruthie tried to back Rutea down and I could see our anchor skipping across the sea bed, refusing to set.  Ultimately, we were forced to tandem anchor – using two Bruce anchors, one shackled to the other with 50 feet of 3/8ths chain.  Even though neither of these anchors would properly set, we knew it would take a substantial wind to cause us to drag with both of them out there.

New Plymouth on Green Turtle Cay
Most countries require that visiting yachts (or vessels of any kind) clear into the country within a short period of time after arrival but since the wind had picked up again, we chose to stay in the protected Crab Cay until the wind had lightened.  Once it did and we made our way south, we were confronted with a long parade of sailboats heading north and west, leaving the hurricane-prone Bahamas for the relative safety of the USA.  We cleared Bahamian Customs and Immigration at one small office in Green Turtle Cay and after paying our US$300 for a cruising permit, we were official.
Marsh Harbor, Great Abaco Island
Of the roughly 700 islands that make up the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, the Abacos Islands in the northwest part of the archipelago, the Exumas in the central part and Great Inagua Island at the southeast extreme, only a small percentage are inhabited and many islands are privately owned (Johnny Depp owns one as does Nicholas Cage).  We made our way to Marsh Harbor on Great Abaco Island where we rendezvoused with our good friend, Christie, who had recently sold her bed and breakfast on the Oregon coast.  Freed from the 7/24 demands of being a hotelier, Christie was eager for warmth and downtime, although she arrived at the dinghy dock in the midst of a tropical downpour that had reduced visibility to just a few feet.

We found the charts for the Bahamas to be very accurate but the gin-colored water made depth perception difficult and we had to rely on our depth sounders as much of the water is extremely shallow.  We never really got used to just having twelve inches of water beneath our keel but we still delighted in sailing in such delightful conditions, clear skies, gentle beam reaches and warm water.  Catching a twenty-pound dorado (mahi mahi) on our way from Great Abaco Island to Harbour Island, about 50 miles, made for some delicious sashimi, ceviche and fish tacos.

Hog Cay
Our guide book said that Warderick Wells Cay was not to be missed, however, as it is a marine reserve, you must pick up a mooring and anchoring is not allowed.  As we were advised, we called the reserve headquarters as we approached on the VHF radio and were told that there was no vacancy on any of the inside moorings but we could take the mooring in between Warderick Wells Cay and Hog Cay.  As we approached the mooring, our collective breaths were taken away with the spectacular beauty of the place:  Only one mooring in the crystal-clear water between the two cays and it was ours.  What we didn’t know at the time was that the current screamed through there reaching its peak velocity four times a day.  The mooring was well-built but the load on our mooring line was tremendous.  It felt like we were underway even though we were attached to a mooring.  After two nights, a vacancy became available on the ‘inside’ and we moved over.  While making a payment to the reserve headquarters, we ran into Pete, on the 54-foot catamaran, Downtime.  We had met Pete seven years before when we were crossing the Pacific.  Small world, big ocean.

Many of the people who cruise on sailboats prefer the isolation that can be had while others thrive on being part of the cruising community.  Ruthie and I fall somewhere in the middle.  So many of our most rewarding friendships have developed through our contacts in the cruising community and we feel our lives are richer for it.  What struck both of us was that there wasn’t much of a community among the cruisers until we got to Georgetown, where hundreds of cruising boats gathered.  The town itself was a little sleepy and dusty without much evidence of any unique Bahamian culture but we were able to find some fabulous jerked chicken.

Roseate Spoonbill - Juvenile
Our last stop in the Bahamas was at Great Inagua Island, which is just 50 miles from Cuba.  Morton Salt has a huge operation there and is the largest employer on the island.  They have flooded huge areas as evaporating ponds, which has attracted a wide array of wildlife, mostly birds.  Our guide book mentioned a guide who would drive you around and we contacted him but he referred us to his niece, Tara, whose primary occupation was being a school teacher.  Being a tour guide pays much better than being a school teacher so Tara played hooky for a day and drove us around the island.  Her knowledge of the birds and where to find them was astounding and she was able to spot birds that none of the rest of us could have ever seen.  She drove us into town, introduced us to people and we had a fabulous take-out lunch which we ate by the water’s edge.  It’s about 470 miles from the northwestern tip the Bahama archipelago to Great Inagua Island at the southeastern corner but it was here that we had our most memorable stay.
Matthew Town, Great Inagua Island
Mining Salt

Burrowing Owl