Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Through The Bahamas

The water in the Bahamas was startlingly clear in most places. Even when it was more than 25' deep you could see every feature on the bottom. Here it is only about 8' and you get a lovely shadow of the boat on the bottom.

The Bahama island chain has a remarkable variety of places. The southern most islands (e.g. Mayguana and Great Inagua) are quite large with very small populations and little tourism. Further north you get into chains of smaller islands, we visited the Exumas and Abacos, that are more what one thinks about when the name 'Bahamas' comes up. There have more people (still not crowded though) and economies pretty much dependant on the tourist dollar. Finally there is Nassau which is unique - it is very urban and not really very nice.

Georgetown is on Great Exuma which, in comparison to its neighbours. is pretty large - although "Great" seems a bit of an exaggeration. Northward from Great Exuma is a string of small islands, some of which have small populations, some not do not. In total they are interesting. The surrounding waters are impossibly beautiful. If you have ever seen a picture of them you probably thought it was just a trick of the photography to get colours like that - not true. The variety of shades of blue beggars the imagination. The Exumas divide the deeper waters of Exuma Sound on the east from the much shallower banks to the west. In places the banks are very shallow (2-3 feet at low tide); in most places they are 6-8'. There are a number of cuts that allow you to get from one side of the islands to the other.

My son and his girlfriend flew into Georgetown and we had a week to deliver them to Nassau for their return trip to Toronto. We could have used more time to explore this lovely area. We stopped at the most popular places but they were not too crowded and worth the time. Staniel Cay had two great attractions only a mile or so apart. One is 'Thunderball Cave'. To hear the locals tell it, most of early James Bond movie, Thunderball, was filmed here - in reality, only the underwater scenes. (BTW, we later watched the movie - it has not stood up to the test of time very well.) The cave exists under a small rocky island and has an entrance on either side that you can swim through at low tide - perhaps 75' apart. What really sets it off is that there are a couple of holes through from the top of the island so it is lit as if with spotlights. There is a remarkable collection of tropical fish here who are very used to getting fed by visitors. If you do not have anything for them to eat they will try to nibble on you. Very much like snorkeling inside a huge fish tank.

Not far away are the locally-famous swimming pigs. A local farmer keeps a number of pigs on an island who have been used to being fed by visitors - do you sense a trend here? There were four of them there; two that were light brown with darker spots and two quite pink. The former would swim out to your dinghy to get their handouts. The pink porkers would only wade out to get theirs. Turns out pigs can swim very well - no problems with sinking for sure although they would go faster if they had little swim fins I think. Their little feet do not propel them very quickly. What a great deal for the farmer - free feeding for his pigs. These guys looked pretty much ready for market, they were quite large, although I should confess that as a city boy my exposure to pigs (rather than pork) has been limited.

Here he comes for yet another snack! Getting full does not seem to be a problem for these guys.

A short sail north we came to Exuma Park which is only accessible by boat and is truly gorgeous. Near the park headquarters there are a number of moorings in a long curving cut that is quite deep with very shallow water on either side (see picture). At low tide sand appears on both sides of the boat. In the channel there is a considerable current, as you might expect, and even largish sharks swimming by.

Exuma Park is beautiful and even has WiFi if you pay for it
. Moorings only here since space is limited and demand high - you have to reserve the day before and they call you VHF to tell you which mooring is yours. This photo was taken at about mid-tide. At low tide the sand banks on either side get much shallower.

We went for a long hike on the island and this was well worth it as we got to see great views and interesting features like salt pans that get a bit damp at high tides and blowholes. Blowholes are created where the sea has eroded away the soft limestone to create a sort of cave. Add a hole through the roof of the cave and the right sea conditions and you are all set. June was standing next to the first of these we encountered (we didn't really know what a bh was at this point) when a moderate wave crashed into cave below. The wave rapidly compressed the air in the cave which 'blew' out of the hole with considerable power. Her hat ended up some distance away and so did she when she returned to earth after her surprise.

In a park which asks that nothing be left behind, you are encouraged to leave a piece of wood with your boat name. Only after we made ours on a little bit of 1" x 4" we had, we learned that you are only supposed to use driftwood. Nice if they mentioned this in the cruising guides!

The next day illustrated the fickleness of the weather here. Heading north we started with several hours running in gorgeous conditions with the asymmetric spinnaker up (something we did often in the Bahamas) . Since the forecast was for squally conditions later in the day and because the sky was looking a bit iffy ahead (not really nasty, just iffy) I thought we should get the spinn away. Turned out to be a good call since about 20 minutes later we go hit by one of the nastiest squalls I have experience in 40 years of sailing and lots of squalls. Winds switched to almost due north (about 160* wind shift) and rapidly reached a steady 30 knots. Rain was torrential and really cold - I was pleased to have my very heavy-duty rain gear on. It was not like the usual 30 minute squall. This one lasted more than 2 1/2 hours which was long enough to built waves from the north that were about 4' high and very short. These were added to the 4 to 5' waves from the south that had built up over the last couple of days and the result was a chaotic sea. We had to go north and I was not impressed with the idea of beating into this mess so we motored - only problem was that if we went north the prop would almost come out of the water and cavitate (suck in air and allow the engine to over-rev). So we ended up tacking with engine so we could take the waves at a bit of angle. This was a first for me.

We finally got into the anchorage at Allan's Cay about 1730. I had chosen this particular spot since it seemed to have the best protection of any of the nearby spots and the forecast for the night was crummy with more squalls predicted. Of course, just about everyone else in the area had come to the same conclusion so it was crowded. We finally got a spot where we were not too close to others (and the reverse) which was fine, except that more boats kept coming and in the middle of the night a front went through and we swung to face in the opposite direction. Now there was not enough room as boats had differing amounts of scope out and had swung differently. After trying to find a spot to re-anchor (always fun in the rain and the dark) for a half hour or so we gave up and decided to start heading for Nassau around 0330. This worked out fine and meant we got to Nassau in good time.

Nassau (how do I put this nicely?) is the armpit of the islands. The anchorage is in a long channel that lies between city and Paradise Island. There is lots of current here and lots of traffic so it is not the best place to anchor for sure but at least has a secure dinghy dock. Paradise Island (see pic) is a huge resort development that looks like a cross between Disney World, Miami Beach and Las Vegas and it entirely an artificial environment. Nassau itself is expensive, unattractive, and most of it is unsafe in the evening and barely better during the day. We went to a bakery and door was locked and you had to be buzzed in. We had lunch at the local version of a fish market/farmers' market were we accosted by a drunk and had the female owner of the little outdoor restaurant scare off the guy with her machete. By the time we left (to go back behind the razor wire where the dinghy dock was), an older woman (also very drunk) had been pushed over and fallen on her beer bottle so her face was cutup, and an ambulance and the police were on the way. We were happy to leave Nassau to head toward the Abacos.

This is largest hotel on Paradise Island which is connected to Nassau itself by two large bridges. We walked over to have a look but could not find Mickey or Donald anywhere.

The Abacos are another lovely group of islands that are lightly populated but still focused on tourists. There are some pretty towns here that seem like very nice places to live. Hope Town is famous for it light house (see pictures), but also has lovely frame houses. The main part of the town does not allow any cars on its narrow streets. We anchored just outside the town's harbour in our shallowest anchorage yet - only about 6 feet of water at low tide. The entire area around Hope Town is about 8 feet at most.

Hope Town, with its famous lighthouse, is a lovely spot in many ways. The little picture shows a bronze door handle on the door that lets you get go out onto the balcony of the lighthouse (just above the top red stripe). The lighthouse is a wonderful example of the fruits of the latter part of the Industrial Revolution. It is made of iron, has a beautiful Fresnel lens, and uses a kerosene burner (like a giant Coleman lantern) to generate light - yes even today.

As you go north from Hope Town the population density drops off until you are into an area of uninhabited cays. This area still gets a lot of boat traffic as vessels either are coming or going to Florida from here. We did an overnight to Fort Pierce from a nice little harbour on one of these islands. It was an interesting trip for two reasons. The first was that we ended up doing more motoring than we had since leaving the United States. There was virtually no wind at all, even when we were crossing the Gulf Stream. We certainly look for any opportunity to sail and it never occurred to either of us to even try to sail. At most we might have had 5 knots and then almost on the news. The second interesting feature was crossing 50 miles or so of relatively shallow bank before reaching the open ocean between the islands and Florida. We were out of sight of land for many hours and yet the water was less than 25 feet deep the entire time (at times less than 10 feet).

We arrived at Fort Pierce just at dawn which was pretty much our plan, but our adventure was not over. As we moved toward and into the fairly narrow inlet there were hundreds of sport fishing boats, of every size, heading out. We just hoped they were paying attention and they seemed to be. Once we got into the ICW we were too early for the marina where we were hauling to be open. We decided to anchor for a couple of hours before calling them and heading in. Low and behold the mighty Westerbeke would not start. This had happened a couple of times before but I was always able to get it started by jumping the solenoid on the starter with a large screwdriver - not this time though. We ended up needing a tow into the marina - quite an ignominious ending to six months of a great sailing adventure.

After two days the mechanic finally came and it did not take him too long to discover that the culprit was a well-hidden circuit breaker on top of the engine that is part of starting circuitry. I did not even know that I had such a beast and it was hard to spot (it was under some wires and had been painted with the engine). Finally we got hauled and prepped the boat for long term storage until our return in October. The yard has many (300?) boats in long-term storage including many Canadians - we are between boats from Ottawa and Toronto. They do a good job of securing the boats since the ground is concrete and they have two ton concrete anchors (4 per boat) that each boat is tied to.

Future postings - coming soon I promise - will include more reviews and a look at our plans for the fall.

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