Waiting for a Weather Window in Nassua

From Highbourne Cay, we scrutinized the weather reports and entertained all options for what to do with our last few days in the Bahamas. We considered returning south, even as far as Georgetown, to avoid the possibility of a menacing tropical depression brewing off the coast of Costa Rica. The next day, that same storm appeared headed straight for the Exumas, so we researched anchorages in the Berry Islands. Realizing there are few options for a deep draft boat, and that we’d end up much farther north than our goal for crossing back to the Florida Keys, we talked to fellow cruisers about the charms of Bimini. And after all that, we did what pretty much everyone else does, and sailed a full day to the island of New Providence and the city of Nassau to hide out from yet another week of strong winds and unpredictable squalls.

Two thirds of the population of the 700 islands of the Bahamas live on this one island. And pretty much everyone goes to college here at some point, or works here, or has family here. Which means a cruiser can find needed boat parts or provisions, but that it’s also crowded! And also feels slightly seedy with the only threat of crime we’d experienced so far on our trip.

We set a course for the Palm Cay marina on the southeast side of the island. We’d met Demario, the dock master, at Highbourne during the Poker Run, and he’d invited us to come visit his marina and he offered us a discount. Well, heck yeah! Admiring the sunset over bacon cheeseburgers at the restaurant our first evening, it was clear that we’d chosen a great place to be “stuck” waiting out the next blow.

This place has everything a cruiser needs: laundry, showers, cafe, restaurant, fuel, and of course a protected harbor and safe slips. In fact, I’d often forget how hard the wind was actually blowing until I’d follow the boardwalk around the corner past the marina office, and experience the full force of the wind in the face, almost blowing me over! It felt very safe with security at the gate to the community, and an actual chain prohibiting access to the harbor overnight.

And at a very reasonable rate of $2.00 per foot, Palm Cay boasted unusual amenities. We had use of a courtesy car for free for two-hour blocks. Plenty of time to travel to the marine supply store (where we bought a new macerator pump for the galley sink),or the grocery store (where we resupplied with fresh produce and even gluten free English muffins), or to get a haircut (I was weeks overdue for a trim),or just to go out for lunch when we got a little bit stir crazy after several days of rain. I’m pretty sure we got our money’s worth out of that free car!

For $15 per person, we bought a membership to the Palm Cay Beach Club for the duration of our stay. Talk about fake it till you make it! When breaks in the wind and the rain allowed, we definitely pretended we were yachties instead of cruisers for a change.

Palm Cay has a fairly common dock cat, and a much less common marina manatee. One morning, as I was attempting to navigate the huge step from the boat to the dock at low tide, I thought, “I don’t remember that big grey rock living under our pier.” “Mmmmm……Mike! Come quick! There’s a manatee under our boat!” We watched her drift from piling to piling, nibbling on the vegetation that grows there, wishing we could convince her to eat the vegetation growing on Sanitas’ hull instead. I named her Blue for the streaks of blue hull paint visible on her back, and we watched her brunch her way across the harbor for quite some time.

In the amazing coincidence department, we met two families in the marina from Capt. Mike’s home town in Western New York!

You’re not renting a slip, you’re renting an island

I’d heard great things about the Highbourne Cay marina since Florida. From Jack who ran the fuel dock at the Marathon Marina, to our friends Pat and Melana, to strangers who we met in various ports. So on our slow trip north through the Exumas, I was excited to spend a few nights here to explore.

After almost three months of traveling with Orion and SE of Disorder, our paths finally diverged for good at Highbourne. They headed straight back to Florida in a single, long 34 -hour passage! While Sanitas planned to slow roll the return. Yep. We’re obviously in denial about this adventure coming to a close. We celebrated our successful cruising season over dinner at the high-end Xuma restaurant (where a Kalik beer costs $8) and told our favorite stories and relived our best adventures. I feel that our lives are forever intertwined after this season of highs, lows, and helping each other through challenges both big and small. Goodbye Chris, Stan, Laura, and Bob! Fair winds and following seas until we meet again!

The next morning dawned loud. It was the annual Poker Run… a sponsored event of around 100 speed boats traveling from Nassau through the Exumas, complete with loud music, beer drinking, and all the accompanying shenanigans. From our anchorage just west of Highbourne, boats zoomed past so close that the wake almost sent a wave over Sanitas’ stern. Unsettling and uncomfortable, we hailed the marina and begged to be allowed to enter our slip before the usual check-in time.

Entering a marina is always interesting. This time we were the only sailboat, and Sanitas was the smallest boat by an order of magnitude. Add the Poker Run and several mega yachts queued up waiting for the fuel dock, and space was a bit tight in Highbourne marina. Capt. Mike made it look easy though, coasting to a stop perfectly positioned in our slip – one line thrown to the dock master and we were home for the next few nights. Only afterwards did he confess that we had coasted in completely on incoming current, with the engine in neutral, and therefore had no steering ability whatsoever. It’s better to be lucky than good, right?

Highbourne is one of the most expensive marinas that we’ve stayed at this year. I was uncomfortable about it at first, being always mindful of our cruising budget and calculating trade offs of what’s worth spending money on. But once we started to explore, I realized that the safe slip was the least of the benefits of staying at Highbourne. The real value of a stay here is the chance to roam the private and exquisitely maintained island at your leisure, almost as if we were resort people instead of sailboat cruisers. And our fees are also supporting a bird conservation area on the north side of the island. Sign me up! I was a bit sad to observe that many of the mega yacht guests never left their floating hotels / dance clubs to explore. Well, that meant Mike and I had most of the stunning beaches all to ourselves!

The same family has owned this island since the 1950s and has invested a great deal into the gardens and accommodations. While walking or biking around the island, visitors find frequent “surprises”; beach huts and cabanas, lounge chairs and swings, and even an open air yoga studio / gym at the highest point of the island.

The resort staff lives in a small village within the complex, and maintains an organic farm raising chickens and goats and grown produce for the Xuma restaurant. I had a lovely conversation with mama goat.

I wish I had more photos of the gardens and beaches of Highbourne Cay to share, but….. the rain started. If the theme of the first two months of our cruising season was Northerly Winds, the theme of the last month was Tropical Rains. Believe it or not, Mother Nature doesn’t keep a day planner, and hurricane season doesn’t necessarily start on June 1st. This year, the crazy winds and rains started in May, making weather watching imperative, and route planning difficult. We made the best of it by plugging into shore power and running the air conditioner, and by spending time under the many shelters on the island watching the rain from lounge chairs. Not such a bad way to pass the time!

My favorite place in the Bahamas

When someone asks, “What was your favorite part of the Bahamas?” it’s hard to come up with a single answer. Do you mean my favorite spot to sail? Or my favorite beach? Or my favorite place to hike? My favorite deserted island? Or my favorite town? The best place to socialize with other cruisers? Or the best place to get a feel for the real islands?

If asked to pick one favorite spot, I will always choose the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Once we safely pick up a ball in the north mooring field, I’d be perfectly happy to stay until we run out of cans of tuna fish and bottles of rum.

On this northbound trip through the Exumas, we visited several new parts of the park that we’d missed on our sprint south. There are eighteen Cays within the park boundaries. We anchored off the coast of O’Brien’s Cay for a couple of nights to snorkel the wreck of a plane that crashed here in the bad old days of cocaine smuggling from the Bahamas to the US. Ordinarily, you’d need to scuba dive a plane wreck, but the waters around Cambridge Cay, Bells Island, and O’Brien’s Cay are so shallow, even I was able to snorkel the wreck. At least when the current, which rips through this narrow gap, was reasonably light. The sea aquarium is another stellar snorkeling site just a few boat lengths from our anchorage. It’s a wall dive, that again is a rare experience for shallow diving snorkelers, full of colorful live coral and fish of all sizes and colors. Note to self: next year, bring an underwater camera!

Along with Orion and SE of Disorder, we “dinghy-pooled” over to Cambridge Cay to hike. Poor little Bug could not have covered that distance. Note to self: next year, buy a bigger dinghy and/or outboard! The cliff hike is amazing, with lots of short steep climbs between gorgeous beaches.

Have to admit I got a little carried away exploring and taking pictures of the rocky shore made up of limestone, coral, shells, and stromatolites – fossilized remains of ancient single-celled microbes.

Of course, some of the most dramatic rock formations located near Rachel’s Bubble Bath needed a little help from human hands.

All in all, we had a wonderful time exploring the southern portion of Exuma Park. Until nighttime when thunderstorms arose and the wind shifted dramatically. But that’s another story…

Well that was exciting …

After that crazy night, we craved a safe, protected anchorage. And we found it back in the mooring field on Warderwick Wells. We hiked so much of the island on this visit, we ended up sunburnt and dehydrated and covered with scratches and bug bites. Always the sign of a good adventure!

I’ve mentioned the hike to Boo Boo hill, the highest point on Warderwick Wells. This time, we finally got our act together to leave a souvenir of our passage. The St Pete Marina Dock 4 crew is now immortalized on a sign at the top of Boo Boo! (Don’t worry, although we follow the rules of Leave No Trace in the National Park, an exception is made for wooden signs left by cruisers. After a season, or even a few summer storms, they quickly decompose and leave space for next year’s cruisers to leave their own record of their passage.)

The snorkeling at Warderwick Wells is always amazing. This time, I saw a sea turtle, lion fish, gigantic grouper and lobster. Oh, and Sanitas’ latest friend Sharkey Shark. Am I ever going to get used to the fact that these massive sharks longer than I am tall live under our boat? Better not to think about it!

Getting just a teeny bit tired of our variations on the one-pot meal, Mike took on the challenge of creating a gluten-free pizza. This was an all afternoon ordeal of mixing dough, allowing it to rise, rehydrating spinach and green pepper toppings, slicing salami, and making sauce. I think it turned out pretty darn amazing. What do you think?

Turning around….and sharks!

It was bittersweet to leave Georgetown and head back north to the Exumas. Sure, I knew we’d been in Georgetown long enough (almost a month all told!) and that if we were really cruisers, then our sailboat needed to move. And we missed our friends on Orion and SV Disorder and looked forward to seeing them again. But ….. Georgetown is a turning point. Either you are continuing to sail east and south to new adventures and new counties. Or you are acknowledging that this year’s cruising season is coming to an end, and it is time to turn around and make your way back to Florida before hurricane season.

So I was in a bit of a funk as we left Elizabeth Harbor and pointed Sanitas’ bow north. After a beautiful day’s sail, we returned to Big Majors Spot, near Staniel Cay and had a very fun reunion with our Dock 4 friends. And we shook ourselves out of our gloomy mood, and decided to visit islands we had missed on our speedy trip south through the island chain.

First stop: Exploring Pipe Cay and the Decca Station ruins.

There’s pretty much nothing on the island, except for the ruins of the Decca navigation system station; a radio-based system that was a precursor to the satellite-based GPS. The ruins have sort of a “Lost” TV show feel and I tried (and failed) to imagine the lonely life of the three-person maintenance crew who lived here as castaways. This guy has been waiting for a loooooong time for a crew member to replace him!

Here’s a shot of Sanitas in the harbor with some of the navigation markers and the beautiful beach.

Decca navigation system

MV Jenny was also anchored off Pipe Cay. We’d seen her several places in the Exumas where she stood out as a tall ship with an entire garden of herbs and vegetables and flowers on her second story stern. We were able to satisfy our curiosity when her captains Dick and Alex invited us over for dinner and gave us a tour. Jenny felt more like a floating home than simply a boat….a full size refrigerator! Couches and recliners! Patio furniture! An engine room the size of a one-car garage! We really enjoyed our evening hearing about Jenny’s seven years of cruising from Maine, down to Florida, and through the Caribbean!

Next stop was Compass Cay and the famous pet sharks.

The tiny Compass Cay marina is a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere. It’s also one of the most expensive marinas in the Bahamas, so we chose to anchor in the harbor and just dinghy in to visit Tucker and his sons’ tropical paradise. Pointing out our anchorage on the very technical island map 😜

Rumor has it that an episode of The Bachelorette was filmed here a few days before our visit. The series starts Memorial Day weekend, so I might need to watch it!

We hiked the length of the island, and then brought Mike’s famous red beans and rice to the Saturday potluck dinner. Say what you will about motor boats vs sailboats, but motor boats that stay in expensive marinas bring THE BEST food to potlucks! And this group from Cape Coral, FL were extremely welcoming and generous. We also met sailors from Breckinridge, CO on SV To The Max! Fun to get a little reminder of home!

But the real highlight of Compass Cay is those famous sharks. “Only” nurse sharks, so not technically aggressive, they still have sharp teeth and beady little predator eyes, and some were still longer than I am tall. But I figured, what the heck – they have names, so they won’t eat me. Right? So, without further ado, I jumped in.

Even though I got into the water with those critters under my own power, I still found it a little bit unnerving. I’d watch the shark in front of me, keeping my hands in fists so that my fingers didn’t look too much like little squids, and a different shark would brush me from behind. Yep. I might have squealed a little bit.

“Can’t you see them circling, honey? Can’t you feel ’em schooling around? You got fins to the left, fins to the right, and your the only bait in town”

Well that was exciting…

This one’s for the folks that are bored of beautiful beach and sunsets.

Our second day at the O’Briens Cay anchorage was a perfect Exuma day; a hike on Cambridge Cay, a swim at Rachel’s Bubble Bath, snorkeling a submerged plane wreck and the Sea Aquarium. After dinner we shared drinks and conversation on SV Orion. We watched flashes of lightning on the horizon and as the first raindrops fell, rushed back to Sanitas to batten down the hatches.

As we settled into our dry and cozy salon to watch a movie, Capt. Mike suddenly sat up straight, cocked his head, and said, “Something’s changed; the wind direction or current, and we’re starting to lean at the wrong angle.” At that moment the instrument panel started flashing and alarming, “Shallow Water! Shallow Water!” As Capt. Mike bounded up the companionway stairs, I asked what I should do and he said, “Grab the key for the motor. Turn on the windless. And get up here and help me figure out what the heck is going on.”

As we stepped out into the rain, we saw by flashes of lightning that sure enough – land looked much closer than it had before sunset. Mike started the motor without any of the usual safety checks and threw it into forward, aiming into the dark void in the opposite direction from shore. We couldn’t travel too far in that direction in the blind, because this portion of the Exuma chain is known for drifting sand bores, coral heads, and rocky washes. Also, we still had at least 100 feet of anchor chain out. We couldn’t immediately tell if our anchor had dragged, or if the change in wind direction that accompanied the squall simply caused it to reset in a new direction, bringing us into the shallows in the process. Perhaps a little of both? I hurried below to put on non-skid shoes, rain coat, and PFD, and to convince Mike to wear his foulie.

We decided that it was safer to keep the anchor set for the moment, rather than drifting in the darkness between flashes of lightning, and so Capt. Mike stood at the helm making small adjustment to throttle and wheel, basically attempting to keep Sanitas treading water. We’d watch the depth display go from 10 feet to 9 feet to 8 to 7, and then rev the engine and inch forward and to starboard back to deeper water. We we coming uncomfortably close to SE of Disorder, who had also swung in a different direction on her anchor in the squall. All four boats in the anchorage were now lit up as much as possible, with spreader lights and running lights as well as masthead lights, the better for Mike to see the boats and to avoid them.

After 15 minutes, the storm had not moved on but we had better bearings on the situation. We decided we needed to raise anchor and reset it further from shore and from the other anchored boats. Capt. Mike headed forward to handle the anchor and bridle, leaving me at the helm. Wait a minute! I didn’t really understand what kind of magic he’d been using to keep us firmly in place. A few hurried instructions later, and I accepted control of the helm.

We have worked to develop hand signals for raising the anchor, so that we can execute calmly and in conditions where wind makes it difficult to hear each other. But, we couldn’t see hand signals in the dark, so we had to resort to screaming our heads off at each other. The VHF kept squeaking as our friends asked how we were doing and how they could help. At one point Stan on SE of Disorder transmitted, “Are you ok Sanitas? I can hear you hollering.” Yep. That’s our new nighttime anchoring communication strategy. Note to self…. Buy the wireless headsets that are nicknamed “the marriage savers” before next season.

The rain continued to pour down, but we successfully dropped anchor, backed down on it hard to set it, and confirmed using GPS that we were now swinging in a new safe arc. We stripped off our soaking wet clothes down to the underwater (why on earth was I wearing cotton?) and went below. After telling our friends that Sanitas was secure, we sat down and stared at each other and tried to slow our racing hearts.

By now it was past midnight, and tough to calm down enough to sleep. Three more times during the night squalls hit us, complete with driving rain, gusts above 35knots, and currents fighting wind to bounce Sanitas at strange angles. Not much sleep to be had! But the anchor held, and we were safe the rest of the night, even if we were uncomfortable and hyper-alert.

Capt. Mike dove the boat in the morning and confirmed that the lowest 6-8 inches of the keel were scoured clean. We had definitely come to a rest in sand or soft mud when we felt Sanitas tip. But thank goodness, we did not hit rock or coral, and did not get stuck in the sand. Also the rudder hadn’t touched, which certainly could have been damaged with Sanitas going aground in reverse. I’m very impressed that Mike was so attuned to the feel of the boat that he noticed as soon as something felt wrong. Our cockpit was a disaster the next morning, with wet clothes and shoes and safety equipment everywhere (and permeated with the smell of mildew) but no permanent damage.

Pics of cockpit

An adventure is never fun while you are having it. And apparently, I never capture photos during an adventure. But here’s a screen shot from the chart plotter from that night. See the yellow squiggle on the right side of the screen that looks waaaayyyy too close to land. That’s were Sanitas was never supposed to be.