"The Elephants are marching!" reported my husband, Denis, after he reconnoitered the situation from a third floor vantage point at Fort Lauderdale Beach. This condition, specifically the giant square waves, meant we stayed in port another day.
A prudent sailor waits and watches for a weather window to cross the Gulf Stream,a powerful "river"in the Florida Straits. This "river in the ocean"flows north at a rate of three knots or more,day and night,through every season.The narrowest point between Miami and Bimini is 44 miles wide and 2,500 feet deep.
Winds out of the north at 10-15 knots counteract with the Gulf Stream's fast current, often resulting in steep waves and treacherous conditions. Screaming northers with 20 knots or more can create truly impossible situations. The Gulf Stream commands respect.
On To Nassau
Our window opened December 27. To use the current in our favor, we motored south to Miami Beach before turning into the Stream. Adjusting our course as needed we pointed Teka III, our 52-foot Knight and Carver passagemaker, toward Great Isaac Rock Lighthouse on the Bahama side.Around sunset we passed the Lighthouse and watched the GPS creep up from our usual 7.5 knots to 9.1 knots, assisted by current in the Northwest Providence Channel. Highly decorated cruise ships passed us going in each direction.
We arrived in Nassau Harbour about 0900, 26 hours after leaving Fort Lauderdale's breakwater. Immigration and Customs completed all necessary clearance paperwork at the marina, and we paid $100 for a 180-day cruising permit for the Bahamas.
After purchasing some fresh conch from a friendly fisherman, a local man on the dock offered his family's recipe for conch salad. Our Bahamian visit began in earnest.
Witnessing New Year's Eve Junkano became the highlight of our time in Nassau. Junkanoo, a Caribbean Mardi Gras, developed as a celebration during the pre-emancipation days when slaves were allowed special Christmastime holidays. Two Junkanoo parades are held now-once on the day after Christmas and again on New Year's Eve. The clamor of bells, whistles, musical instruments, and goombay drums coming down the street creates an electric feeling in the crowd. The people sway with the music and everyone cheers loudly for their favorite group. Awards are given for best music, costumes, and dance.
First Taste Of Bahama Cruising
After we gathered supplies, finished chores, and studied charts, we cast off from the dock. Two miles past Porgy Rocks, we set our course to pass between the Yellow and White Banks enroute to the Exumas.
The Spanish named the Bahamas, the "gran bahamar," meaning the great shallow seas. We were to experience what it took to successfully navigate these waters.
First, we had to learn how to read the water, keeping in mind that Teka III draws 6 feet. While good charts are essential, serious visual navigation is still vital. If the chart and the visual don't match, believe your eyes-sand does move around. With good light we could easily see when dark blue water changed to green ahead of our boat, indicating shallow water. The depth sounder soon confirmed the message.
To pass safely through reefs, bars, and other questionable places, I wore polarized sunglasses and talked to my husband via two-way radio from a vantage point outside the pilothouse. We always try to use sunlight to our advantage, whether it is behind us or overhead. I watched diligently for trouble, especially dark shapes that might indicate coral heads near the surface, aware that at times cloud reflections make the water look dark and suspicious.
We traversed between the Banks with a minimum depth of about ten feet. This first experience kept my eyes busy and my tension high.
We arrived at Allan's Cays (pronounced "keys"). It is a very beautiful and famous place, known for its population of iguanas. The anchorage was very crowded when we arrived, with all the good sandy anchoring spots already occupied. The only place left large enough for us was in the channel. Three attempts at anchoring failed, so we gave up and went to the next cay.
Alas, the sun at 1600 appeared dead ahead of us. It made reading the water unusually hard, since we had to detour around a large rocky patch before turning into Highbourn Cay. To insure safe passage, we retreated on a westerly course before making the turn south and eventually into the open roadstead anchorage on Highbourn's western side.
The next day we took the dinghy back to Allan's Cay. The iguanas moved out of the bush down to the shoreline to greet us. Right after we beached, a second dinghy pulled up to the beach beside us. A French Canadian couple got out offering lettuce and cookies as treats. At one point, the man had an iguana taking the lettuce right out of his hand.
An Eye On The Weather
Weather savvy is crucial for water travel in the Bahamas. Each morning on single sideband radio, Bahama Air-Sea Rescue Association (BASRA) in Nassau relayed weather forecasts from NOAA in Florida and the Nassau Met Office. That, along with information garnered from our onboard weather fax, indicated winds were shifting with the approach of a strong cold front. We would need to find shelter before the front's arrival the next day.
We chose Norman's Cay anchorage, about two and a half hours south. The anchorage lay in a passage between several cays and has good wind protection from almost any direction.
Before the front's arrival, we went ashore and saw some of Norman's history. Decaying resort buildings, broken-up roads, a derelict dock, and a cargo plane rusting away in the harbor are silent tributes to the drug smuggling bonanza days. In the '70s and '80s, Norman's claim to fame came from smuggling Medellin cartel cocaine plus marijuana from South America and Jamaica. Cruising boats were routinely chased away by gun-toting guards, but DEA agents disguised as broken-down boaters set up surveillance, eventually arresting pilots, confiscating shipments, and choking off the operation in 1983. The kingpin, Carlos Lehder, remains behind bars in the U.S.
Our gale arrived on day two at Norman's. The winds howled, registering 30/40 knots for 48 hours. Most boats put out two anchors, Bahama style, and all posted a vigilant anchor watch. Early in the storm, a trawler near us started dragging, but the skipper managed to reset anchors, and everyone collectively breathed again.
We wondered who would be next. Watching the wind gauge during the night hours became more dramatic than daytime. By sunset everyone was focused on maintaining position, and staying in contact on the VHF. Our 75- pound CQR anchor with all chain rode had been buried in a four-foot-high sand ridge (which we confirmed by diving on it). During the night it dropped off the ridge, sliding us back one whole boat length before it reset. We adjusted our eyeball position accordingly.
Two dramas unfolded during our gale: one right at the anchorage, the other several miles away. About 0200 during the night, a frantic voice on the VHF shouted, "A catamaran is loose in the anchorage!"
We saw it like a ghost ship slipping along the shoreline. Spotlights came on from other boats. Life surfaced on the deck of the cat as its engine was started. Slowly the crew moved back to reset their anchor.
Unfortunately, dropping anchor crea ted havoc. The current apparently allowed the anchor line to drift between the hulls and foul the propeller, stopping the engine. Now helpless, the cat rapidly drifted back out of the anchorage, heading for a grounding somewhere along the rocky shore.
We all watched the shadowy figure drift by. Luckily, it bypassed rocks and grounded hard on a sand bar. There it stayed until high tide the next day, when the crew could free the line, float back off the sand bar, and motor back to safety in the anchorage.
The other drama involved a mailboat with 15 people on board. Mailboats are used throughout the Bahamas to move supplies, mail, and people between islands and cays. This particular vessel got into trouble on the Yellow Bank enroute to Nassau.
BASR immediately sent the Lady Pearl to assist. A USCG helicopter joined in the rescue, along with a Bahamian Navy boat and a private cruiser from Highbourn. The mailboat sank, but everyone was able to get into liferafts and were soon picked up. It must have been a very scary experience in a storm during the black of night- praying help was on its way, but not knowing when or if it would arrive.
When the wind blew itself out, we experienced the effect of strong current in boats riding on "Bahamian moorings," setting two anchors from a vessel's bow so the boat stays moreor- less in one spot when the current changes direction. The technique is very important in crowded, shallow anchorages such as found in the Bahamas.
While the winds blow, all bows point into it. But now, with far less wind, the three-knot current had us all waltzing around each other. It was spooky in the pre-dawn.
Later that morning we motored down to Shroud Cay and anchored in an open roadstead again. Three German flagged vessels shared this rolly anchorage for the night.
On the rising tide we took the dinghy through the island's mangrove swamp to the Exuma Sound side, then hiked up a 50-foot hill to Driftwood Camp. This camp had been Ernest Scholte's hermit homestead in the 1960s. Then the DEA took it over to observe air traffic around Norman's. It is a great lookout place. Today, cruisers take mementos from their boats to leave at the top of the hill, reminding me of a place Robinson Crusoe would like.
We spent one evening anchored at Emerald Rock, followed by three at South Anchorage. The South Anchorage has a history of pirates. This well-positioned cove was so perfect, it could hide even large pirate ships with 12-foot draft, waiting for Spanish galleons to sail by. Edward Teach, Blackbeard, and Calico Jack Rackham all used this cove.
Two famous women pirates, Mary Read and Anne Bonney, sailed with Calico Jack, and three islands just south of this anchorage salute these infamous buccaneers-Read, Bonney, and Teach. They were named after the pirates.
On shore within South Anchorage, a trail leads to an opening in the bush called "Pirates' Lair." One can stand there and imagine a group of swashbucklers spreading out on their mats to rest, smoke, eat, and even count their treasure from a recent raid. A freshwater well still stands in the clearing, and tall cabbage palms, not indigenous to the Bahamas, and grass usually found in Louisiana, grow here. Perhaps they originated from seeds rubbed off the pirates' mats.
Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park is a very special place, and not to be missed. Created by Parliament in 1959, and supervised by The Bahamas National Trust, it is one of 12 National Parks in the Bahamas. The park encompasses 176 square miles, with boundaries extending 23 miles north to south and four miles wide to the west and east.
Within the park, nothing can be removed, either living or dead. Warden Ray Darville strictly enforces this policy, while coordinating scientific research, handling public relations, and maintaining the park's facilities. Along with the Bahamian Defense Force, he also patrols the park for drug-trafficking or smuggling.
Offenders are not tolerated, and yacht crews pay stiff fines or can even have their boats confiscated. As a result, the park's policy results in an abundance of marine life.
At the park's Warderick Wells are 21 mooring buoys in a narrow, horseshoe-shaped channel. Once on a buoy, it's yours until you leave. Anchoring is not allowed here.
Warderick Wells Cay has many trails where visiting boaters can stretch their legs. One trail leads to the remains of the Loyalists' encampment-Tories loyal to the Crown during the American Revolution, who came to escape persecution.
Boo Boo Hill, overlooking the anchorage, is also reported to be the burial site for a boatload of missionaries wrecked off the coast here. Today, boaters climb the hill for a spectacular view, and leave markers with their boat names as mementos.
They can snorkeling right inside the mooring area. Two small mooring buoys have been placed for dinghy use, although some elect to do a "dinghy float" instead. They swim over the reef with one hand holding onto the dinghy for safety in the current.
Other snorkeling/diving spots include Brad's Reef and Danger Reef, just a dinghy ride away in calm water. A huge grouper lives at Danger Reef, and divers have fed him enough that he now greets new faces with an inquisitive look.
Another front came through while we were there. It had less wind but lots of rain. We used a PVC pipe to collect more than 100 gallons of rainwater from our upper boat deck, which went right into our water tanks. Collecting rainwater keeps the water issue under control. Although we have a watermaker, we saved about eight hours of running our engine by collecting those 100 gallons. (It also costs about 60 cents/gallon to purchase water in the Bahamas.)
After a week on the buoy, we decided to move on toward Staniel Cay and make arrangements to see the Super Bowl. The Staniel Cay Yacht Club dock was our home for two nights.
Our first grounding occurred on the way in, with the sun in our face, making visibility poor. Teka III came to a sudden stop on sand, missing the slightly deeper area by a hundred feet or so. No damage was done except to our pride, given the show for folks on the dock and anchored nearby. Within an hour, however, the tide rose enough to allow us to maneuver out of our predicament.
Once properly tied up, we checked out the two small grocery stores, The Pink Store and Isles General. Stores in the Bahamas have very limited stocks since everything must be brought in by boat. Fresh vegetables are mostly nonexistent, unless the mailboat has just been there.
That evening we joined several boating friends at Happy People Marina for a BBQ dinner and to enjoy the Super Bowl on their satellite television. It was an exciting game, and no one left early.
The next morning at low tide, many dinghies gathered at Thunderball Grotto (of James Bond fame). Complete with mask and flippers, more than 25 people swam toward the cave opening and went inside. The cave seemed smaller than the one in the movie, but was still impressive. It had several holes in the roof, sending shafts of light down through the cave.
Sergeant Majors were the most prominent fish, and very used to swimmers feeding them bread. The fish swam close and even nibbled fingers extended out to touch them. Within 20 minutes or so, everyone had enough and returned to their dinghies.
To truly enjoy the experience inside Thunderball Grotto, we invited others over for an evening showing of Thunderball. Downing pasta and popcorn, all of us enjoyed this early 007 adventure, and recognizing scenery from Nassau to Staniel Cay.
We soon backtracked to a beautiful anchorage at Cambridge Cay in the southern end of Exuma Park. The Seaquarium and Rocky Dundas caves offered more chances to snorkel, and it seemed we had our own aquarium right off the swim platform, as a four-foot barracuda showed up every morning and hid in the dinghy's shadow, apparently hoping for a possible handout. We found Cambridge one of the best anchorages, with good protection, moderate currents, and delightful beaches all around.
In The Garden Of Eden
At Black Point we met Willie Rolle at his "Garden of Eden." The man has spent years collecting driftwood and making sculptures to capture one's imagination. He has ballerinas dancing, dolphins jumping, a monkey shaving, a woman thinking, and others. Among the driftwood pieces and surrounding his small home is a garden. In the Bahamas they call it "pothole farming." Any depression in the coral rock is ripe for planting a mango tree or okra plant or tomato bush. The depression catches rainwater or dishwater and the rock holds the heat for nourishment.
Willie told us his grandfather had been a rum runner during Prohibition. Between 1920/1933, fast powerboats ran rum from Bimini and Grand Bahama over to Florida, while large schooners sailed to Rum Row off New York/New Jersey with their cargo. Willie claims that, as a small boy, he accompanied his grandfather on some of these stealthy trips.
We wanted to spend more time in the Black Point Settlement, but another front threatened. We needed protection once again from the coming northwest wind.
Just 14 miles south, we entered the cut between Big Farmer's Cay and Little Farmer's Cay, anchoring in the middle between them. Although we traveled mostly among sailboats, an interesting powerboat shared this anchorage with us.
Fare Thee Well, a St. Pierre dory designed as a trawler, hailed from Kingston, Ontario. Where Teka III draws six feet, this boat's draft was only 18 inches. This makes it perhaps the ideal trawler for cruising the Bahamas.
Five and a half weeks after leaving Nassau, we arrived at George Town, a winter destination for many cruisers. Year after year, some come in November and stay until Spring.
Eileen Quinn, a Canadian songwriter and cruiser, writes songs reflecting boaters' lives. She calls it, "Music for sailors and normal people."
Her song, Tarpit Harbour, captures some of the George Town phenomenon. In it she sings:
"Tarpit Harbour has sucked down my anchor and with it my will to be free. There's some that goes sailing. I seem to go anchoring, stuck in the muck this side of the sea." (from the 1997 CD No Significant Features available through eileenquinn.com or 1-800-448-6369).
Every year cruisers in George Town set up a regatta for the beginning of March. Plenty of planning goes into this festival, with boats coming from afar for the event.
By the time we arrived, the boat count had climbed to 389. One week later, official count topped 447. Fortunately, Elizabeth Harbour has room for all, from Hamburger Beach to Volleyball Beach, to Sand Dollar Beach along Stocking Island to anchorages in Red Shanks, and right off the town at Regatta Point, Kidd Cove, or Peace and Plenty Hotel.
George Town, established in August 1792, has much to offer cruisers. It's a place to have mail forwarded, replenish supplies, and get repairs. It also offers a variety of restaurants; the diving and scenery are superb; and there are beach parties and scheduled social events.
The dinghy dock at Exuma Market is packed all day long-with sometimes as many as 100 small tenders rafted to the dock.
Passage into Lake Victoria and the dock takes you under a stone bridge through a narrow channel. At times nurse sharks share this channel with the dinghy traffic. Speaking of sharks, a hammerhead visited several boats within the harbor during our first week, but then left. We also saw large manta rays swimming lazily through the anchorage.
Each morning the cruisers' net offered the latest on regatta events: how to sign up, where to show up for picnic table building in the park, scheduled times for softball and volleyball games; and notification of faxes received as well as a mail call. Another interesting service was known as "Boaters' General," in which people could ask for assistance or information, request sharing a cab to the airport, and report lost or found items. Local merchants and community news were also included in the morning net. A "Thought for the Day" concluded the program.
With so much going on, the week we spent waiting for our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter to arrive went by quickly. Along with taking care of regular business, we worked on our auxiliary motor problem, and attended a couple of interesting seminars. The first one, presented by an ex-merchant marine officer, who described how to play an active role when encountering large ships in such confined waters, and the second, presented by author Bruce Van Sant, gave hints on cruising south of the Bahamas. We also attended an Eileen Quinn concert, and participated in some of the social events.
Conception Island...Then North
When the family arrived, we took advantage of a weather window and made our way out the south end of Elizabeth Harbor, to Conception Island, 40 miles east. It's a beautiful place, and has another land park. Fishing is permitted and the beach is outstanding.
The island is only three miles long and two miles wide, surrounded by shoals and reefs. Christopher Columbus is reported to have stopped here in 1492. It was here we saw more tropical birds than we had seen all along our trip.
Early one morning we saw many red-billed tropical birds on their morning feed, swooping along with their long tails fanning out behind. We also saw a kingfisher and a very large oystercatcher on our ride up the mangrove creek. Once we landed on shore, a large conch shell marched along, making neat little tracks across the sand. Later, turtles swam ahead, behind, and beneath our dinghy, and barracuda and reef sharks lurked in the shallows hoping for an easy meal.
Unfortunately, snorkeling around Conception was not up to our expectations, as the reefs had been damaged by Hurricane Floyd. Many of the sand-covered coral heads will take years to recover. Not only was the coral damaged, but we saw fewer fish, although we caught two mahimahi between Conception and the Exuma chain.
From Conception, we made our way back north to Nassau via Black Point, Cambridge, Warderick Wells, and Highbourn. Our family guests departed us once we reached Nassau, and we set our sights on Eleuthera.
We only stayed one night in Eleuthera, anchoring at Royal Island. We found only an abandoned estate house to beckon us ashore, which we put off until the next morning.
As it turned out, we left the anchorage without even putting the dinghy in the water, because of favorable weather with southerly winds arrived to help us crossing over to the Abacos to the north. Our passage was good, although the seven-foot southeast seas put our paravane stabilizers to work. Once we arrived in the waters off North Bar Channel, we were a bit concerned about entering the bar since it faced southeast. However the waves seemed to flatten as we approached land and we encountered only a minor swell-an easy, smooth entrance.
Sandy Cay, just inside that channel, had been recommended as a "must" for snorkeling. We anchored behind it and rolled from the swell almost all night. In the morning we headed to the beach, snorkel gear in tow.
Ashore, we found uprooted trees, a wrecked dinghy way up off the shore, exposed coral rock where sand should have been, and hundreds of smashed shells-all a result of Hurricane Floyd. There once had been four mooring buoys for dinghies at the snorkel reef, but they were gone.
With the weather closing in and choppy water on the reef, we ultimately elected not to go snorkeling. Since that time, however, another boater told us the reef is still okay.
Marsh Harbor is the crowded center of cruising in the Abacos. There were more than 50 boats anchored in this well-protected, but small harbor. In contrast to shore facilities in the Exumas, those in the Abacos are much more like the U.S. There are restaurants, stores, marinas, and repair facilities, and the offshore islands of Man-O-War, Elbow Cay, and Green Turtle Cay are settled with descendants of the Loyalists.
Instead of taking our vessel across to Hopetown, with its marginal depths and limited anchorage, we elected to use the local ferry. From Man-O-War one ferry took us back to Marsh Harbor and then another completed our journey to Hopetown on Elbow Cay. We explored Hopetown's village and the magnificent lighthouse built by the British in 1864. A proud symbol of Bahama's maritime heritage, it is one of the last three oil-burning, hand-wound lighthouses in the world. A lighthouse keeper must climb 101 steps to the top every two hours to hand crank the weights operating the beacon. But what a view from the top!
Hopetown's beaches were also devastated by the hurricane's fury. Work continues today to move sand back up the island's slope and homes are being mended, at least those that survived the wind, rain, and sea surge.
A sign at the checkout counter in Vernon's grocery says, "I've talked enough about the hurricane." Mother Nature is working to restore the island's beauty, and we saw bougainvilleas blooming in grand style.
We then pushed on to Baker's Bay for a day. It's situated at the north end of Great Guana Cay, and is known for its beaches. Cruise ships had once set up a recreational site here, known as Treasure Island. The abandoned buildings, and especially the outdoor theater, show that the island was once intended to be a grand place. But it has been left to deteriorate since the early 1990s, although the well-marked channel is used today by boaters negotiating entrance into the sometimes-nasty Whale Cay passage.
At Green Turtle's New Plymouth Village we stopped only long enough to visit the Albert Lowe Museum. The local guide, Neil Roberts, talked about the early Loyalists settlers, his family's history there, the hurricane that devastated the area in 1932, Princess Margaret's visit after the War, and the first "mobile home" in the Bahamas. The house he now lives in used to be located near the point. Walking the narrow streets past neat clapboard and brick homes, we felt we were back in old New England.
Heading BackAcross The Stream
We next traveled north and west to a small anchorage at Crab Cay at the top of Great Abaco Island, and Great Sale Cay brought us 42 miles farther west the next day. There we spent a blowy, blustery night before heading west to Memory Rock and south to West End, where we needed to be ready for the next favorable weather to again cross the Florida Straits.
Amazingly, that opportunity came the very next morning. We wanted a nice, southerly wind, and that's exactly what we found. Starting off as a southeast wind at 15/20 knots, it clocked around to the southwest and decreased to 10 knots before we reached Lake Worth Inlet. Wave heights actually decreased in the Gulf Stream.
The Lure Of The Bahamas
In 97 days, we traveled 1,574 NM, and spent 83 days in the Bahamas. We traced the Exuma chain; briefly toured the Abacos; checked out Conception Island; and spent time in Nassau.
We found that in the Exumas, powerboats comprised about 10/20 percent of the cruising vessels.
The lure of the Bahamas is its closeness to the U.S. They truly are tropical islands within reasonable reach. Their bright sunshine, clear water, and beaches where you can squeeze white sand between your toes, invite you to lose those winter blues.
People are friendly. There's no language problem. U.S. dollars are interchangeable with local currency. Crime, once out of Nassau, is very low.
Along with an up-close-and-personal geography lesson, the crew of Teka III experienced the "gran bahamar" sensation (getting used to 1/2 fathoms of water below the keel).
And there's also the possibility of witnessing green flashes at sunset. We saw three.