Friends. It gave me goose bumps to see the view stretched out behind Growler 's transom. There were trawlers of all shapes and sizes in single file, traveling at 7 knots while closely spaced behind each other. Many of us had a similar thought that day: that this was a most unusual sight.
We were lined up for good reason, as we were threading our way through Indian Cut, just outside West End, Grand Bahamas, headed for Great Sale Cay. Depth in these parts is just 6 feet, not good for deep-draft sailboats but certainly adequate for our band of trawlers, so we'd decided to take the shortcut rather than the traditional 15-mile detour around Memory Rocks.
It was Day 5 of our two-week adventure that had begun in lovely West Palm Beach, Florida, the last day of May. The collective group of couples and families, almost 70 people strong, came together for two days of seminars, get-to-knowyou cocktails and last minute provisioning made easy by our location at Palm Harbor Marina, right on the ICW.
The first days of the event were a blur for me, as we attended several talks by local experts about crossing the Gulf Stream, cruising the Bahamas and dealing with ship issues from fuel to medical. It was a lot of information, and my own list of must-have items kept growing. I'd driven down with a rental car from Annapolis, so I became one of the taxi drivers for boat crews needing trips to BoatU.S. for supplies or provisions at the excellent Publix and Winn-Dixie supermarkets within a couple of miles of the marina.
Almost all of the participants of the Pokie Run had some experience as boat owners, but few had ever crossed the Gulf Stream on their own boats to cruise the wonderland that is the Bahamas. So there was an underlying sense of uncertainty and anxiety in the air, which was precisely the reason for our hard work in planning the event. Those of us sponsoring the Pokie Run would do everything possible to make the trip a success, and we all shared a tremendous sense of responsibility for ensuring a safe and fun experience. It was a difficult order-with many factors out of our control, notably the weather-but one to which we were committed.
Sponsors included PMM, of course, as well as Cruising Coast and Islands, Mainship, Camano Marine, Rhumb Line Yacht Sales, Mastry Engine Center, Deere Power Systems, BoatU.S. and Florida Yacht Charters. The people attending the Pokie Run came from as far away as Maryland, but most came from around Florida and nearby Georgia.
The boats of our fleet assembled at Palm Harbor included a half-dozen Camano 31-footers, an Albin 43, an Atlantic 36, an Atlas Acadia 32, a speedy 44-foot Midnight Lace, a 1970 47-foot Chris Craft Commander, a Duffy 35 lobster yacht, three Mainship trawlers, two Nordic tugs, a Nova Sundeck 42, a Marine Trader 34, a PDQ 32 cat, a Krogen 42, Tollycraft 44, Universal 44 motoryacht, a Highstar 47, Bayliner 47, a Silverton 42 Convertible, two Grand Banks and our new Zimmerman 36, Growler. It was quite a diverse fleet, and the cruising speeds were just as varied, from 7 knots for the displacement boats to 25 knots for the speedy motoryachts. Yet it was soon clear that we all had much in common, and the trawler lifestyle clearly transcends the choice of boats.
While still in West Palm, the feeling of "have we thought of everything?" and "what will it be like?" could be seen on all of the faces. Again, it was soon obvious that no one had to feel alone with the uncertainty. During one trip to BoatU.S., five people crammed into the rental car with me for a quick trip for supplies. One fellow commented out loud on the way back that the piece of gear he had just purchased would require a hack saw to fit on his boat, and he didn't think he had brought a saw on the trip. Five voices said in unison, "I have one you can borrow!" This was exactly the kind of developing camaraderie of the Pokie Run participants, which began even before leaving the docks. It was wonderful.
Seminar speakers included Pam Wall of West Marine, Capt. Patti Moore of Sea Sense, Jason Kennedy of Nobeltec and key representatives from John Deere, Yanmar, Volvo Penta, ESI and the Bahamas Department of Tourism.
Our plan was to split the groups into three speed ranges to keep everyone together in manageable numbers. The 8-knot boats would travel together, the middle group would shoot for 11.5 knots and the faster boats would stick together above 13 knots. And all would keep in VHF communications during the entire two weeks.
We timed the departure so that the slow boats got under way first, staggering the boats through busy West Palm Beach after coordinating bridge openings with the bridge tenders. The orderly parade of trawlers leaving the marina was quite a sight, something we would see many times and never grow tired of.
The crossing of the Gulf Stream began at once, as its western edge is literally off the beach, and the calm prediction for the day gave us a wonderful sendoff in good weather. Tom and Mel Neale were already at West End aboard Chez Nous, their Gulfstar motorsailer, to greet us as we entered the Bahamas. To provide as much experienced support as possible, we got Tom to cross over to Florida and join us as one of the leaders for the 60-mile offshore passage.
The crossing was a big success, although one boat's mechanical problem caused an injury that was swiftly dealt with by a Pokie Run team leader. The owners of that trawler decided to return to West Palm.
Growler led the faster boats, and we had several special folks along to share the experience with. Jerry and Wendy Taylor are well-known delivery captains, and they had brought Growler down from Annapolis for the event. Given their years of cruising these waters on their own Grand Banks and countless deliveries on many different craft, we could not have asked for better guides.
Jason Kennedy of Nobeltec also came along to make his first-time crossing. An amazingly enthusiastic techie who loves working on electronics and computers, Jason spent several days on many of the boats in the fleet tweaking the navigation equipment for the owners. He never tired of working on this gear, no matter what the problem or what the brand. And he enjoys going out on boats whenever he can. He is a sharp fellow.
The Stream did not rise up in anger for our band of boats, and Growler led the way into West End's Old Bahamas Bay just after noon. Mel Neale was there with camera in hand to greet the boats as they arrived and to help each crew get situated. The friendly marina staff expected us, and over the next couple of hours both sail and sportfish crews were staring at the unrelenting arrival of trawler after trawler, all announcing they were with the Pokie Run. By late afternoon all boats had made the trip, and the docks were filled with elated people who had just done something new on their own boats. The dinner that evening, sponsored by Rhumb Line Yachts and Camano Marine, celebrated the success of the most difficult leg of the trip, and the relief and growing confidence was noticeable. In just 24 hours, everyone's mood had changed from nervous restraint to bubbly elation. And it just grew from there.
The itinerary of the Pokie Run was packed with new destinations, as we wanted to give everyone a taste of Bahamas cruising in a reasonable timeframe. There would not be enough time to see or do everything each island had to offer, but each person got a flavor of the adventure that awaits, and can return when time is less of an issue.
As it was, we ventured from West End to Great Sale Cay, then to Spanish Cay, Green Turtle Cay and Great Guana Cay, ending our eastbound trek in Marsh Harbour in the Abacos. Boats were free to follow this itinerary or do their own thing, and several days saw the fleet spread among three or four locations. Aboard Growler, Seaworthy, Acadia, Love Affair and Chez Nous, for instance, we anchored in Bakers Bay instead of heading to the other end of Great Guana Cay for the famous Sunday pig roast. We enjoyed a terrific day of swimming, snorkeling and walking the ruins of Disney's ill-fated theme site, and finished the evening with a barbecue aboard Seaworthy, with Tom and Mel on Jim and Lori's Grand Banks 42. It was a most memorable evening among friends. After a round of drinks on the flybridge, Tom got us howling like coyotes at the full moon rising above the still anchorage.
Most boats stayed in marinas at the end of each day, although anchorages were carefully chosen to provide the flexibility of each person's mood. And each marina did its best to accommodate 30 boats at once, no mean feat on the face of it. We eventually learned that these facilities routinely host fishing tournaments, so swarms of even more sportfishing machines assemble regularly. Some days involved a ride around the island in a rented golf cart, while other days saw everyone on their dinghies, heading in all directions in search of secluded snorkeling hideaways. Because I am married to a semiprofessional urban shopper, my time was also spent roaming small villages for shopping opportunities.
I would be hard pressed to name my favorite marina and cay, as each had its own charm and friendly staff. I would have liked to stay longer at each facility, a sentiment shared by all.
It was exciting to see people on each boat slowly unwind, as we learned a bit more each day how to cruise Bahamas style. Time seemed to slow down, people stopped hurrying about and quality time was split between snorkeling, exploring in the dinghy, walking the streets or relaxing on a boat.
Laurene's provisioning style proved successful aboard Growler: hors d'oeuvres and drinks for six, followed by dinner out at a nearby restaurant. It was a winning approach on this vacation, allowing us and our friends to try conch in its many variations, grouper, lobster and all sorts of new seafood medleys created by the local chefs. Food was outstanding on this trip, which I did not expect, as was the local Kalik beer and strong rum drinks not quite as powerful as the daily thunderstorms.
Every morning Mel Neale shared weather information with us, as Chez Nous has a full complement of communications equipment. We followed a tropical wave as it swirled into life at the other end of the Caribbean, but our forecasted weather held throughout the event. We were blessed with sunny skies and light winds.
I had brought some new technology on Growler to give me a chance to use systems side by side. Nobeltec's latest Visual Series 7.0 came aboard, along with its new Passport Bahamas charts. Based on the well-liked Explorer Charts, the cartography is actually more accurate than other charting options, as the entire area was recently reviewed and photographed from the air. It was great to have an aerial photo overlaid on a chart, seeing the actual location of a piling or jetty rather than what had been scribed on paper charts years before GPS.
Our Furuno NavNet chart plotter uses C-Map's NT+ cards, and I had the latest copies of those cards for this trip as well. The brilliant screen of Furuno's 10-inch display and the detail of the C-Map cartography made navigation easy for this trip, although the accuracy was better using the Nobeltec charting. Unfortunately, viewing a laptop screen in such intense sunlight isn't nearly as convenient as the Furuno, and I'll be looking for a daylight-viewable screen this fall at the shows. And of course we followed our progress using the Explorer Chartbook by Sara and Monty Lewis, from which the Nobeltec charting is based.
Overall I give C-Map and Nobeltec high marks for their products. I used all three chart types (NT+, paper charts and Passport) continuously for three weeks and found each has its positive elements, even if no one product was perfect all the time.
In Marsh Harbour, our friend Pete Trogdon flew out to join us for the return trip. Pete is an avid diver and spent hours in the water whenever he could get off the boat. He was keen to pack as much of the Bahamas experience as possible into the few days he would be with us. And Pete accepted Laurene's strict provisioning agenda without complaint, which made for several delightful evenings of dry martinis, conch fritters and filet mignon for a change from fresh seafood. It was all very civilized.
Our last official affair was our farewell dinner party, hosted by Mainship, at the Abaco Beach Resort. Mainship's Chip Shea, Rhumb Line's Dick and Carol Tuschick and Laurene distributed raffle gifts, and Pete gave the group a little test of navigation knowledge to celebrate the 75th anniversary of his company, Weems & Plath. Tom Neale sang a Janis Joplin song with lyrics he wrote about getting someone to buy him a trawler. The three speed groups each had named themselves by now: the slow Turtles, the Hokie Pokies and the Scouts for the faster boats. Each group gave a little performance for the audience, and it was an evening of laughter and fun among tanned and relaxed cruisers. We would start our treks back to Florida over the next couple of days, but the lingering group camaraderie was precious.
On the return leg, several small groups of trawlers banded together to travel their own style. We ran from Marsh Harbour to Spanish Cay, then on to West End directly. That gave us an extra day in Old Bahamas Bay for a bus trip with others to Freeport and Port Lucaya, another shopping opportunity Laurene chose over a day of snorkeling. I go with the flow. It's all about balance.
Over a two-day period the fleet made its way back across the Gulf Stream to Florida, all jumping off from West End. One group went back to West Palm Beach, others chose Stuart and a third group headed north to Ft. Pierce, taking advantage of the northward push of the Stream. From the voices heard on the VHF over those last couple of days, everyone had gained enough confidence that all were considered seasoned cruisers returning from a paradise vacation.
To say that the Pokie Run was a success is a decided understatement. All of the participants enjoyed themselves while learning valuable lessons about how to cruise among the tropical islands. Some long-term friendships also developed, a natural result of this wonderful lifestyle.
Thanks to everyone for a wonderful time with many new friends. Let's do it again!