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Bahamas II - De trip home


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It was mid July when we left the Dominican Republic and set sail for the Turks and Caicos islands. Lying 90 miles north of Hispanola, they are part of the Bahamas Island chain.

Turks and Caicos


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We sailed overnight in a breezy summer’s evening. There was a bit of a chop, but we made good time and by morning we were on the Caicos bank. A lot like the great Bahamas bank; miles of pure white sand covered by 15 feet of crystal clear water gives the ocean a dazzling turquoise color in every direction.

We arrived in Sopadilla Bay (which I had been told was a popular cruising anchorage) in the island of Povendiales (everyone just says Provo) about 3:30 that afternoon. We had exactly $5 in cash between us; you couldn’t get US dollars in the DR. But, according to the cruise guide, $5 was the clear in cost - if you were on time and didn’t have to pay overtime charges.

Turned out there wasn’t much at Sopadilla but a beach and a couple houses. I saw a dilapidated dock on a rocky outcropping on the side of the bay, and took Vulpix (our dinghy) over to find customs.

I walked down a dirt road to a gravel road to a poorly paved road, and followed it to a slightly better paved road. I asked several passing by cars where customs was; but no one knew. Not a good sign. Then one guy said it would probably be at the port loading facility down the road. So I walked about a half mile and found an old building sitting next to a small concrete docking facility used for shipping.

I walked in to the office. It was about 4:15. I presented my papers to the unhappy looking customs agent. She asked me for $18 for overtime charges. I told her we had arrived at Sopadilla Bay at 3pm but it had taken me a while to find customs. She said it didn’t matter, I arrived at customs after 4pm (it closed early on Fridays). I said I had just come from the DR and only had $5 cash. Would she take a check or credit card? No. Was there an ATM anywhere around? No. She said I would have to come in on Monday to pay the rest of the cash. Now, I really didn’t want to stay in deserted Sopadilla Bay for the weekend just to pay customs their measly $18. So I asked her if she couldn’t cut me a break, since I had arrived in port on time and was only 15 minutes late (and most days customs was open till 5). She gave me a dirty look at me and accused me off trying to steal from the T&C government. I tried not to laugh out loud. I’m sure she thought I was a rich American and was using lack of cash as a ruse to avoid paying the $18. After begging and pleading and groveling for a half hour, she finally got tired of me and let me go. I felt like “the ugly American,” but shoot, I really did only have $5.

I read in a guide book that rock carvings had been made on a nearby hilltop by shipwreck survivors. 150 years ago, the T&C were not a popular tourist destination, apparently. So Tracie and I hiked up a nearby hill and found them. A bunch of smooth rocks with worn looking carvings of names from the 1800s. Kind of gave me the creeps thinking of poor guys shipwrecked on the desolate island.


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Sopadilla Bay was on the south side of Provo, the Turk’s most populous island. We west sailed around the island and, after spending the afternoon on a deserted beach, dropped the hook in a cut on the east side, in a cut next to a little marina. It was tricky getting it, you had to pick you way through a reef and then shifting sand bars in the cut. As in the Bahamas, navigational aids are basically changes in water color.

We desperately needed cash. There weren’t any ATMs near the marina, so we rented a cab. As I always do, I asked the driver what the fare would be to drive to an ATM. He told me 20 bucks. Seemed reasonable. We drove several miles to find a bank ATM. Didn’t work. We drove to a 2d ATM. Didn’t work (though it did eat Tracie’s card, forcing us to stay an extra day.) 3d. Nope. This was a significant problem, because now we couldn’t even pay the cab. I told the driver this, and said that we’d have to try to get cash the next day when the banks opened (this was Saturday). We passed a supermarket, and the driver dropped us off to pick up some groceries. They let us pay for the groceries with a card, but wouldn’t give us cash.

On the way back to the boat, the cab driver said he “remembered” one other ATM, which happened to be about 1/4 mile from our marina. That one worked and we got cash. I was a little annoyed the driver hadn’t “remembered” about this ATM before taking us for a ride all over the island.

Back at the marina, I asked the driver what his fare was. I expected a bit more than the $20 because he had to (supposedly) drive to a couple other ATMs and dropped us off at the grocery store. He said: $120 (!). I said no way -- we could have rented our own car for $60. I told I’d give him $40. So that caused a big argument, which made me a little nervous cuz the guy had a gold tooth with a diamond in it and big gold chain with a gold locket of a .357 magnum around his neck. Tracie was arguing a little harder than I thought was necessary; I kind of figured it wasn’t worth getting capped for a few bucks. Fortunately for us, the Turks’ Minister of Tourism happened to be having lunch at the marina restaurant and intervened on our behalf. I made sure our door was locked (a rarity, actually) that night!

We left the T&C and headed for the Bahamas. On the way out the customs guy charged me $18 bucks. Got their OT pay after all, I reckoned.

The Bahamas Out Islands


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The Bahamas are a huge island chain. The islands in the southern part of the chain are very remote. Undeveloped, sparsely populated, with lots of undeveloped habitat. If your idea of paradise is secluded anchorages and deserted beaches, head down that way in July. We went for days without seeing other boats.

Our first landfall was Mayaguana Island. There was a little settlement on a Bay (Abraham’s) inside a big enclosed reef. We arrived early in the morning after an overnight passage from Provo, and headed east into the shallow bay, straight into the rising sun dodging coral heads on the coral head infested bottom.

There was no other boat there. There was an old concrete dock, but the water was so shallow we couldn’t get within a ¼ mile of it. I took Vulpix to the dock and walked ½ mile to the settlement, which included the government building. The lady there was very friendly, and with little hassle took my papers and my hundred bucks to clear into the Bahamas. Walking back, I passed a seaside graveyard. Most of the markers were just a pile of conch shells; only a couple had any kind of cement marker. It looked like it had been there for at least a hundred years. Not a bad place for eternal rest, I thought, with its peaceful palm tree surroundings and fabulous view of the ocean.

Squalls out on the ocean


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Our next jaunt was a 35 mile hop to Acklins island. It was a nice morning with a light breeze, but gusty. The remnants of a tropical storm was passing a few hundred miles to the south, and the sky had a weird, ominous, grey look to it. I knew I wanted to put one reef in the sails, and debated whether to put in a second. Something told me to put the second reef in and motor sail.

For the first couple hours, it seemed like I had been too conservative. The winds were blowing about 15 knots, but the sky still had a weird grey look. Suddenly, a squall hit and the winds jump to 25 knots (apparent). Nothing to really fret about, but I was glad I had reduced sail. The winds died back to 15 or so for about 20 minutes. Then they picked up to 25, then 30, then 35 to 40. This was the apparent wind speed; we were making 10-14 knots boat speed downwind, meaning the true wind speed was about 50 knots or close to 60 mph. It was really blowing - white streaks on the water and the waves, though not large, were growing rapidly in to confused, rolly swells. I tried to keep the boat heading directly downwind, so that the mainsail would blanket the forward jib sail, reducing the overall pressure on the rig. The one thing you worry about on a cat is capsize, because if they go over they don’t right. I really didn’t think 50 knots on the side would capsize our boat, but I really didn’t want to test the theory either.

It blew like that for maybe 10 minutes (seemed like and hour). While I tried not to look worried, the kids put on their raincoats and thought it was great fun to roll around in the cockpit in the wind and spray. I thought they were nuts, I would have rather been inside and dry! But of course I sat there and tried my best to act like this was just a typical event.

After that bit of excitement, the winds eased for the rest of the passage, and we arrived in a gorgeous, protected anchorage on the northeast side of the island. It was idyllic with multicolored water and a white sand beach stripping the low lying land. Again, we were the only boat enjoying this beautiful little cove.

Clarence Town, Long Island


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On Long Island, Clarence Town was one of the larger establishments, which isn’t saying much. But the anchorage was another beautiful, well protected harbor with great places to anchor. One night we anchored off a little island behind a low reef wall facing the ocean; another night we anchored off the town. There were actually a couple other sailboats here.

Tracie, Eileen and I took the dinghy to one end of the harbor one afternoon. This end of the bay was flat and shallow, 2-3’, but near the end was the big (200 yards across) “blue hole”, maybe 40’ deep and deep blue in contrast to the pale green of the rest of the bay. There was this strange circular net structure in the middle of the blue hole, like a big fish pen (which is what I think it was). Along the shore, there were structures and big tanks, overgrown and deserted. I climbed around and explored the place and found a shed that contained records of a fish farm that apparently had been abandoned about 4 years earlier. The place was largely intact, with a rusted diesel generator and bottles containing what looked like fish embryos. Mad science.

Rum, cats, and noseeums


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The 30 mile run to Rum Cay was a joy. We anchored off an old dock, again the only cruisers around. There were some tempting looking coral heads on the way in, so Trace and I took the dinghy with our snorkeling gear. We found a really fantastic coral jungle - 20’ cuts of coral growing out like weird trees in all these fantastic shapes. But it was mostly dead. All over the Bahamas and the Caribbean too, the reefs look sick or dying. Very sad. There were few reefs that looked vibrant and alive.

The noseeums attacked en masse that night. It was our first and only really bad night. We all spent the night scratching, slapping and itching.

The next night, we sailed to Cat island, where we anchored well offshore (to avoid the bugs) around the southwest tip of the island. Sailing there was cool; the island touches along the side of the ocean, and you can see a clear line where the deep blue of the ocean depths meets the turquoise green of the shallow water.

The next night we made it into West Bay in little San Salvador. A delightful bay lined with a long white beach - perfect for jogging or long walks. Unfortunately, it had been taken over by a cruise ship line as a tourist dump, and the rum runner bars kind of spoiled the bay’s charming appeal. No ships were there when we arrived, however, and we had the place to ourselves, except for some of the cruise line employees who maintained the place. I invited them over for beer and they all came paddling out in their kayaks and joined us for a while.

Eleuthra


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Eleuthra, a long narrow island about 2/3 up the Bahamas chain, was our next stop. We had a nice sail on the way in, but as we approached the island, a big, black, ugly cloud came blowing over the land. As it approached us, I saw the long dark straw of a waterspout. The waterspout wasn’t fat, but it moved steadily alongside us. I’d guess it was about ¼ mile away as it snaked its way along the water and then moved behind us. I wondered how strong the winds were but didn’t really want to find out.

Pulling into Rock Sound on the southern part of the island, the rest of the squall hit us. I set the anchor in a 30 knot rain storm so hard you could hardly see the end of the boat.

Rock Sound is a quaint little town, with pretty little shops and restaurants. We were again the only boat there, so the friendly locals were very happy to wait on us.

Eleuthra, like the rest of the Bahamas, is flat. Rock Sound Bay isn’t more than 10’ deep anywhere. But right at the edge of the little town was an “ocean hole”, a round body of water, maybe 200’ in diameter. Ocean fish swim up the edge, looking for food. Locals say scuba divers have never found the bottom. Pretty neat.

Halfway up Eleuthra, we pulled into Governor’s Harbor. The town was having its annual independence day regatta, and this was special as it was the Bahamas 30th independence day. We took the kids in to the little fair they were having there. While we gorged on conch salad and fritters the kids had a silly string war with the locals. The local entertainment featured a lady who identified herself as the “big fat Bahama mama.” You can supply the mental image.

A little farther up the coast, we pulled into Hatchet Bay. It was a cool place; a 40’ hole had been cut into the reef wall, allowing ingress into a completely protected little bay. I had hoped to have Irie hauled so I could paint her bottom, but the marina there had gone out of business, evidenced by a 10’ sapling growing in the middle of the crane barge. We found a cute little home style restaurant where we had cracked conch.

Conch are a type of clam that are prevalent in the Bahamas. Bahamians make it into all kinds of food. You would recognize the distinctive shiny, pink, flared lips of the queen conch shell.

We were now at the northwestern end of Eleuthra, and stopped for a night in the town of Spanish Wells. Everything was closed for the independence day weekend, but the kids made some friends in the dilapidated marina where we tied. And Kiera caught a little Nassau grouper which we were going to cook up for a snack until she felt sorry for it and let it free.


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Around the north end of Eleuthra is a passage between the land and a large coral reef called the “Devil’s Backbone.” The guide books, in their usual overly cautious way, strongly urged hiring a pilot. One called me and offered his service for $70. I thought about it and decided to try it myself. It wasn’t that bad - the worst part was actually getting through a place where the sand was shoaling even before getting near the coral. We pulled up and anchored off one of the coral banks on the way in, and I bagged 3 lobsters and a couple groupers, which we had for dinner (I only feel so sorry for lobster and grouper).

Dunmore Town on Harbor Island (a strip of an island off the northeast part of Eleuthra) was the biggest town we had seen since coming into the Bahamas. Lots of fishing boats, though sailboats were sparse. We stayed in a marina for a night, and rented a golf cart to explore. We went to a great beach on the east side of the island. It was famous for its pink tint, which was a very light tint in my perception. But it was a pretty beach. I went jogging and Trace and Kiera found some horses to ride, which they had developed a knack at doing.

Harbor Island was the last outbound stop, now it was time to head back to Miami. I had wanted to visit the Abaco Islands, just another 50 miles north, but we just didn’t have time to see them and get back to Miami in time to get the kids registered for school. Some other time.

On the way back, we re-passaged the devils backbone (and picked up another supply of lobster and grouper), and anchored in Royal Island, another wonderful little well protected anchorage. Other than us, there was an 85’ power yacht that pulled in. He spent about an hour dropping, picking up, moving, and then re-dropping his anchor. I couldn’t tell if the guy was practicing or just incompetent.

Royal Island used to be the home of an exclusive estate, and I went and explored the ruins. It must have been an amazing place 30-40 years before. As I walked around the ruins, I could almost hear the laughter and parties from decades gone by. That is, until I stepped into something I later decided was probably a fire ant nest. If you’ve never done this, my advice is: don’t.

Nassau


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I had promised the kids we’d stop at Atlantis in Paradise Island, Nassau, on the way back. We stayed at Atlantis marina one night. Irie looked like a dinghy compared to the mega-yachts tied up there. So I flew my foreign courtesy flag halyard (you have to buy a flag for each country you visit) from all the countries we had visited, to say: “how many of you big fancy slobs have sailed across the ocean?” (<- Inferiority complex showing here.) We had a blast again at the Atlantis resort, but it wasn’t quite as cool the second time around, at least to me.

We stayed a couple extra nights in Nassau waiting out rough weather, and headed out on August 14th. On the way out of Nassau harbor, we passed a couple giant (even compared to the mega-yachts) cruise ships coming in. I remembered being on one almost exactly two years before, on my law firm’s annual retreat, and remembered looking down from high up on the cruise ship and wondering what it would be like to sail on my own boat there. Now I was actually doing it - and I mostly wanted to make sure I got the hell out of their way!

Back to Miami


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We sailed to and spent the night at Chubb Cay, and left 6am the next day for the 70 mile run to Bimini. Very light winds - I flew the spinnaker for a while, first time since we crossed the Atlantic I think, but even that wouldn’t work after a while and we just motored over the Great Bahamas Bank. We pulled into Honeymoon harbor of Gun Cay, just south of Bimini. I went swimming, and that evening, we built a bonfire and I took my guitar out and played a few songs. One last time.

The next day we motored 5 miles up and snorkeled on the Sampona wreck; always a fun thing to do. We cruised into Alice town in North Bimini, tied up at Weech’s dock and had our final cruising dinner at the Big Game Club.

August 18th we headed across the Gulf Stream. Winds were light, waves were mild. We dodged the freighters and cruise ships, and I caught I very large clump of sea grass that did an astonishing job of acting like a large fish. It was late afternoon when I saw the Miami skyscrapers start to peak over the horizon.

It was about the toughest approach I had had to make the whole trip.






Unskilled and Unaware

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