Bahamas Bound

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Back in Brunswick there was the predictable list of jobs to get us ready to go, the last minute ordering of items forgotten or recently failed, and shopping, shopping, shopping!  We'd been warned that supplies could be scarce in parts of the Bahamas and we already knew that to be the case in Cuba, so we planned to leave crammed to the gunnels with everything from toilet paper to tinned chicken (Sounds yummy doesn't it?).  And with rapidly expiring US visas, all of this was being done against the clock.  Six weeks of course sounds plenty to do the bit of shopping and travel not much more than 250 miles south to Palm Beach, which was really the first viable jumping off point for the Bahamas, but experience had taught us that no matter how much time you have it's never enough!  The life-raft had to be serviced, it failed, a new one was purchased.  A new SSB tuner was delivered.  The sprayhood needed a new window.  The windlass control needed repair/remake.

There was also the car to sort out.  We had agreed with the insurance company that we'd delay repairs until the end of our trip.  Barry took the car to the repair shop for an initial assessment - they couldn't be sure until they started pulling things off, but the manager thought it was a 50:50 chance the car would be written off.  We agreed to take the car in just before we left.  If it was repaired the manager would deliver it back to the marina and Sherri would look after it for us.  If it was totalled, we'd deal with it by phone/email on our way down the road.

On the 3rd of November we left Brunswick on what, for the greater part, would be a mirror image of our trip north except we'd try to do a bit more on the outside if the weather played ball - which of course for the most part it didn't.  The cold fronts were becoming regular.

We stopped for a couple of nights in St Augustine where we had lunch again at the Old City Inn, this time in the company of Jan & Jean on Selene who had been neighbours in Brunswick and for whom this was also a favourite restaurant.  It was here that we received the call from USAA (the loony driver's insurance company) that the car was considered a total loss.  They offered a few hundred dollars more than we paid for it.  I was so gobsmacked I forgot to negotiate and just simpered thank you like a cretin.  Still, it has to go down as the cheapest car rental in the history of the world.  We'll have to find another car when we get back, but we now have insurance and our Florida plates sorted out (number plates here stay with the driver, not the car) so everything should be a lot simpler.

We also stayed again at Titusville.  Nikki & Phil on Ajaya were still here so lunch with them was enjoyed, plus an absolute drenching in torrential rain. 

This time though, flushed with our success in the ICW, we decided rather than jumping out at Cape Canaveral, to continue south to Fort Pierce on the inside.  It was on this trip we discovered that the United States (in spite of having sent men to the moon and back from just a few miles away from here) has yet to invent the tape measure!  You will remember that each fixed bridge on the ICW is supposed to be built to 65ft (at high water??) and that Samarang is exactly 64ft to the top of her lightning conductor - measured anally several times by Barry!  Well, each bridge south of Canaveral showed 64 feet on its tide gauge.  But the height transpired not to be even quite 64 and our lightning conductor scratched its initial on the bottom of every one.  Sometimes we clipped by more than 6 inches.  Booing, Booing, Booing - as we hit the cross members.  We could vary the time signature by changing the boat speed, though by now each transit was taking place at less than snail pace anyway.  Additionally, sometimes we were seeing a six inch discrepancy between the tide gauges at each side of the bridge which didn't further raise our confidence levels.

Then a full day and a half south of Canaveral in the ICW we reached the Wabasso bridge - 62ft reads the gauge.  We are screwed.  At 64ft we play timpani.  At 62 (if it is even 62) we take off our navigation lights at the very least.  Waiting won't help, there is no tide here, the Canaveral lock and the lack of any sizeable inlet sees to that (actually the pilot says there's 3 inches!)  We have no option but to turn around and start clawing our way back.  The afternoon wind has now increased and we motor the rest of the day into a 20knot head wind.  The following afternoon, three days after passing it going south, we're heading east through the Canaveral barge canal and the lock before refuelling and tying up at Canaveral Yacht Club for the night.

Canaveral Yacht Club is charming and we'd have quite liked to stay for a couple of days, but time and tide (plus in this case the weather and US immigration) wait for no man, so first light sees us heading out of the Canaveral channel, destination Fort Pierce.  Fort Pierce has not improved since our last visit.  Still too much current to anchor and this time we have 20 plus knots on the beam as we try to reverse into the slip.  We abort, twice, and finally settle for going in forward to a slightly more protected slip.  God know how we'll get out tomorrow.  We just have time ashore to visit the supermarket for more hardtack and dried meat to squeeze into a few recently discovered corners.  Ashore again to collect one of the worst take-away pizzas we have every eaten.  Then up at first light, when the wind has mercifully reduced a bit, to take the tide out and south to Palm Beach.

Or is that Lake Worth?  The place does seem to have an identity crisis, but I guess either name will do.  Our Plan A is to anchor in the north basin about 4 miles from the entrance.  It's better protected and we're expecting some bad weather, but it does involve a bridge.  We go to check it out - 61ft reads the gauge!  So back to the anchorage just south of the entrance, in front of the ship yard, where we've been before.  There's a 6ft tidal range here and it's high water, so we know we could get through at low water, just not now.  We anchor and settle down for the night.  The forecast squalls come through, our anchor alarms go off.  We're dragging in the soft mud so we have to get the anchor up and re-lay it.  Always an uplifting experience in the middle of the night in howling wind and pissing rain - and when else do anchors ever drag??

Now we had been prevaricating for some time about buying a new anchor.  Our existing BŁgle had done excellent service, but in some of the poor holding conditions, like the thin sand over rock so common in Belize, we'd dragged a few times and in the Bahamas we'd be subjected to strong cold fronts with winds from changing directions and quite likely the same kind of holding.  Maybe we should have a bigger anchor and more importantly one of the new format anchors, of which Rocna is generally considered the best.  Obviously if we were going to buy a new anchor we should have done it before we left Brunswick, but it's always easy to put off spending $1000, isn't it?  However, last night's excitement had convinced us that $1000 would be well spent if it avoided just one more nocturnal anchor re-laying experience. 

The question now was could we get our hands on one?  Barry rang the Palm Beach West Marine - "Do you happen to have a Rocna 33?"   "I do, in fact I have two."  He confirmed the price, just as per their web site.  Result!  "Put my name on it, we'll be there in two days to collect it."  Amazing how happy having found a way to get rid of a $1000 made us feel.

To complete this transaction we would need to berth in a marina close to West Marine and that in turn would mean negotiating that bridge, but all accomplished without problems and the marina even transpired to have a free taxi service to both West Marine and Publix.  Everything was actually falling into place.  Next stop West Marine, "You have a Rocna 33 reserved for me."  And off went the associate (that's what shop assistants are called apparently).  A few minutes later he re-appears with what is clearly a Rocna anchor jauntily slung over his shoulder.  Something wrong with this picture.  Of course you could put a 33Kg anchor over your shoulder, but unless this was an episode of World's Strongest Man you wouldn't choose to.  On inspection we find it's actually labelled in very big bright blue letters - Rocna 15.  "That's right" said the associate "The Rocna 15, it weighs 33lbs."  They don't have a Rocna 33 or anything close!  

Our sense of humour is wearing thin about now, but we take a deep breath and talk to the Manager (who is called the manager).  He checks inventory in nearby stores.  There's one in Melbourne (not Australia) and better still his wife is in Melbourne and can bring it back with her.  Except, when he calls the store they can't find it and ultimately it transpires that it was sold via their wholesale division that morning and has not yet been taken off the inventory.  There isn't another one to be had and it's Friday afternoon so there's no way of getting another one shipped in until some time next week and we must leave the marina on Sunday to get back under that bridge at low water, and Palm beach early Monday to take the only foreseeable weather window to sail to the Bahamas.  Now what!

So, to Publix to spend money on more food for cramming into more recently discovered corners and then back to the marina.  Once back aboard Barry decides a bit of self-help is required and he starts calling West Marine stores.  If the inventory system was wrong about having one, it could equally be wrong about not having one!  After a long wait on the phone to the Fort Lauderdale branch the associate comes back "Did you want the Rocna Supreme or would any Rocna do?"  he asks.  "What do you mean?  What have you got?"   "We've got a Rocna Vulcan 33" he says.  The Vulcan is Rocna's new anchor.  "They shipped us one over for the Lauderdale Boat Show and then we put it in store.  It's still in it's bubble wrap if you want it."  "Hold it for me, I need to make another call."  I explain the situation and then I'm on the phone to Damon (he's not actually always called manager).  "Nothing I can do." he says "All the drivers are finished now for the weekend and have done their miles."  Sense of humour almost completely gone now.  If necessary we will hire a car and drive down and get it.  It's only 40 miles, but I haven't quite given up on Damon yet.  "Listen,  we're only in the marina spending $100 per night because your guys told me you had the anchor.  I could just as easily have gone to Ft Lauderdale.  It's not my mistake it's West Marine's mistake.  Why don't you drive down and get it?  Or why not send one of your associates?  Maybe the one who made the error.  I can go with you if you like."  Stunned silence, then "Give me half an hour or so."

Twenty minutes later Damon's back.  "The anchor will be with you by 4.00pm tomorrow."  Result!  Well done Damon.   Nothing like a little persistence!  And so it was that we sailed out of the Palm Beach inlet on the morning of the 24th of November, destination Bahamas, with quite possibly the only Rocna Vulcan in the United States - proudly strapped to our bow!  It had better work!

50 miles NE in a SE wind would put us on a very comfortable beam reach, but with the gulf stream lifting us north at 2 to 3 knots we'll need to be hard on the wind to compensate.   We'll leave the Palm Beach inlet to arrive at the Little Bahama Bank just after sunset and then carry on, in only 3-4 metres of water, until we reach Grand Cay.  Screaming along at between 6 and 7 knots with not much more than a metre of water under the keel in total darkness is not good for the nerves, but this is the Bahamas and there would be times ahead when that metre would seem like luxury.  We wouldn't stop at Grand Cay immediately even though it was to be our Port of Entry.  It had no protection from southerly wind so we would anchor on the other side of Double Breasted Cay.  It wasn't shown as an anchorage, but it offered protection and we had our new anchor.  This would only be a temporary stop as a strong cold front would come through within the next 24 hours, clocking the wind through SW to NW and N and we would need to be ready to move into the lee of Grand Cay as that happened.  Not our normal style of anchoring and not very restful, but again, this is the Bahamas.  Obviously though, we lived to tell the tale and a couple of days later when the wind and sea have settled down enough we're in the dinghy bouncing into Little Grand Cay to legalise our presence in the Bahamas.
I don't know what image you carry in your head of the Bahamas.  If it's a playground for the rich and famous, cruise ships, casinos, golden beaches, sipping Daiquiris by the pool, etc then if you ever arrive at Grand Cay you'll be sure you've got off at the wrong stop.  The community at Little Grand Cay is a few dozen pastel houses strung along the rocky shore of a shallow bay.  It's clean and tidy with a very big water tower and a very small gene pool.  It is a point of entry because the equally small island next door has an airstrip, the customs office there blew down in last winter's storms and the lady, who fulfils the role of both customs and immigration, is now based here and ferries between the two islands on the rare occasion that there's a plane arrival.  Everyone is very friendly.  The village priest promises to find us a Bahamas flag.  It will be delivered to us at the BaTelCo shop by the village policeman, his son, in an hour - did I mention the small gene pool?

It never does arrive (and we're not really surprised) even though we spend the rest of the day at the BaTelCo shop trying to organise Bahamian sim cards for our cellphones.  When we arrive at the BaTelCo shop it is closed - actually shop is too grand a word.  In the house opposite a lady sells bread and cake from a room at the front of her house.  We ask there.  She phones BaTelCo lady - no reply.  "Try at the store" she says.  The store has been lifted straight from the set of The League of Gentlemen - "There's nothing for you here!"   The store lady also calls BTC lady - no reply.  So she resorts to the old way.  She steps outside the store and shouts at the top of her voice "Rachel, you've got customers!"  She turns back to us "You go and stand over there, she'll be along directly, as soon as she finishes serving a client in the bar."  A few minutes later we're following a very large black lady into the BTC "shop".  For the next several hours sim cards will move from our phones to her phones and back again like a fairground Find the Lady game.  There will be many, many phone calls to "The Lady in Nassau"  plus a return trip to the boat for Barry.  On returning Rachel has morphed into Nicola and the process grinds on - we do at one point have to seek sustenance from the cake lady.  She seems to be expecting us.

It's taking so long partly because neither of the two BTC ladies seem to have a clue what they're doing, and partly because most of the population of the island appears to have chosen today to visit the shop.  Though it turns out, as one of the locals tells me,  "It hasn't been open for a few days".  Maybe it takes a special kind of white man's magic to make the doors open - I don't know.  Anyway, it's now late afternoon and although we have voice working we still haven't been able to connect to the internet.   "The system's very slow, it will probably update overnight and then everything will be OK" says Nicola.  I'm pretty sceptical, but losing the will to live, so she gives us her phone number and we agree to speak tomorrow. 

The following morning we're on route to Old Yankee Cay and by some miracle one of the data sims is now working, the other not.  Thinking back over yesterday, I'm almost certain that "The Lady in Nassau" was contacted one more time to do one more thing to the working sim.  I call Nicola.  From the bleeping and whirring sounds in the background she is now on a life support machine, perhaps yesterday was too much for her, but she does agree to contact "The Lady in Nassau"  who "is very busy" -  one more time and - Bingo!  The trick from here on will be trying to be in range of a BaTelCo tower.

We continue SE, always with one eye on the weather, the other on the depth.  There are very few anchorages here that offer all round protection for a boat of our draught and the cold fronts which regularly peel off the US continent during the winter can clock the wind from SE to SW to NW and NE in less than a day and they're often accompanied by vicious squalls.  Rather than hunkering down in a sheltered bay to let this all blow through, which would be our normal strategy, here we have to settle for trying to find two anchorages close together which we can move between as the wind veers - and if this relocation is not required in the middle of the night we consider ourselves very fortunate.

Most islands are deserted (only 30 out of 700 are inhabited) and when the sun is out there there are turquoise seas, sandy beaches and palm trees - just like in the brochure!  Others like Green Turtle have become gently touristified, but not so much so that everyone doesn't still say Good Morning to you in the street.  And then there's No Name Cay  just a couple of wild pigs and a string of piglets.  But we weren't at No Name Cay just to see the pig, this was the launch pad for our next small step down the chain.  Most travelling through the Bahamas is done in the protection of the strings of islands and reefs that protect the Bahama Banks from the Atlantic Ocean, but occasionally it's necessary to step outside - either to move from one archipelago to another or (as in this case) because the inside route is too shallow. 

There are a number of these passes and while any entry to the ocean anywhere needs to be treated with care, those in The Bahamas can be even more problematic.  3,000 miles of Atlantic Ocean, 3 miles deep, reaches The Bahamas and tries to squeeze through those passes onto a bank no more than 25 metres deep and often much shallower.  It doesn't take much wind to turn the passes into maelstroms.  The locals call them Rages! 

Whale Cay Pass (The Whale) was one of these and we were waiting for glassy conditions to make a quick hop out and back in again to continue our trip south towards Marsh Harbour.  


We slid out in flat calm the following morning and even so there was a decent roll.  Wouldn't want to even think about being here in any sort of weather.  A few more hops and enforced dives for shelter and we arrived in Marsh Harbour, the largest town in the Abacos - large of course is a relative term.  Marsh harbour boasts a high street that might be a scant mile long, a couple of hardware stores, a handful of restaurants around the waterfront and most important of all - a decent sized supermarket.  We'd been told by American cruisers that it was just like Walmart, but in reality it was nowhere near as unpleasant as that.  Time to refill all those corners we'd started to eat into.  If this was to be the norm, we were carrying far too many provisions!

After Marsh Harbour it's south again to Little Harbour, which is as far as we can get in the Abacos.  Actually we can't quite get into Little Harbour, but we can get close enough to dinghy there.  The bay has an interesting history.   Randolph Johnson a struggling artist arrived, in what was then a deserted bay, aboard his sailing boat in 1951 with his family.  Living in a cave, he proceeded to build a house and, each piece shipped in by sail, a foundry in which to cast his bronzes.  His son Pete keeps the foundry in operation, his daughter runs the gallery and they have the harbour's only restaurant.  

The following evening we're on our way again, out through another of those cuts/passes and overnight to the next archipelago south.  Goodbye Abacos.  Hello Eleuthera.

We sail south in company with Makani with John and Kathi on board.  Well, sort of in company.  We started off together, but needless to say, the weather is not quite as forecast and a slow overnight close reach to arrive just after dawn, becomes a rip roaring ride that will get us there too early.  We reduce sail.  The wind dies.  The sail becomes a motor-sail, then a motor, both yachts head off in different directions trying to make the best of what they've been dealt and are soon lost to sight - in spite of which we end up anchoring in the bay at Royal Island within a few minutes of each other.

We're at Royal Island, which offers close to all round protection, to sit out an impending strong cold front, which in turn means that this will be where we will spend Christmas.  John and Kathi have a turkey - what foresight!!





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Last updated 18th March 2018