Oh, Bollocks!

After our quiet night anchored out on the Bank, we had a lovely downwind sail the rest of the way to Great Harbour Cay. Sanitas flew her spinnaker, and Leef Nu sailed wing-on-wing.

I guess you could say we finally experienced the “fair winds and following seas” that everyone has been wishing us. We were slightly concerned about the approach to Great Harbour because all the charts warn that the channel markers are missing, and show water depths as low as 5 feet. So as our three boats and a fourth unknown boat converged on the island, we ALL sort of slowed down and hoped someone else would go first. But the new boat, C’est La Sea, hailed us on the radio and said that they draft 8 feet (!) and asked if we’d mind testing the waters for them. Well that made Sanitas’ 5.5 foot draft seem shallow, so they shamed us into heading in. We timed it well, and had about 1.6 feet of extra water due to the tides, so we were all fine, and anchored just off Rat Cay for the night.

After snorkeling the wreck of a DC3 airplane just outside the anchorage, we all dinghied ashore to explore the small town of Bullocks Harbour. Not much to it but a few brightly colored houses and some pretty flowering gardens and one actual hill to give us a bit of exercise. We sat outside on a grassy bluff overlooking the harbor and had a lunch of pork chops and peas and rice at Coolie Mae’s Sunset Restaurant. (I took this picture with my phone inside my Ugo waterproof purse. Not the best quality picture, but a fun experiment to see if it would actually work)

Everything runs on island time, and there is no such thing as fast food. So lunch can take the better part of the afternoon. After taking our orders, the waitress returned and asked, “For the people who ordered the pork chops, do you want the good news, or the bad news?” I chirped up “The bad news!” And I guess I stumped her. She couldn’t think of any bad news, just told us that the pork chops would be served grilled with barbecue sauce. I think that’s going to be my new motto for this cruising season, “There IS no bad news” 😀

The next morning, we raised anchor at 7am and sailed around the north side of Great Harbour Cay and then 31 nm south to Devil’s Cay. It’s been fun traveling with Elixir and Leef Nu. Their crews are both from Ontario and their backgrounds involve sailboat racing on the Great Lakes. So they always prefer to sail rather than motor, and they challenge us to do the same, even when wind condition isn’t optimal. We essentially raced around the top of Great Harbour, constantly trimming the sails, and pointing as high into the wind as our various boats and sails would allow. Sanitas’ cutter rig gave us an advantage, and we were able to point at about 38 degrees to the wind, keeping ahead of the longer and faster Leef Nu who had to repeatedly tack. Good fun!

Great Stirrup Cay and Little Stirrup Cay, just off the north tip of Great Harbour, are private islands owned by the cruise ship lines. For some reason, they think you need zip lines and a water slide park to get the full Bahamas Island experience. For the record, I disagree. As we sailed by a Royal Norwegian Cruise ship, close enough to watch the movie they were showing on the deck and the count the little people running around the track, I was disappointed that not one person waved to us (or threw us an omelette or some bacon from the buffet). Sanitas was trying her best to give them a show, flying all three sails and heeled over prettily, sailing about 6 knots. I thought of a good way to show our displeasure. I radioed back to Leef Nu and went for the nuclear option; escalating directly to double-dog-daring them to moon the cruise ship as they sailed past. A few minutes later, we got the happy news of “Mission Accomplished!”

This is what a massive cruise ship looks like from 0.2 nautical miles away.

Our pleasant sail was made even more enjoyable when a pod of about a dozen dolphins, including babies, joined us and swam along side. Capt. Mike and I took turns going to the bow to wave at them and squeak at them while they circled around and around to accompany us as long as possible. These social and intelligent creatures are magical, and I feel blessed every time they choose to keep us company.

We made such good time, that we were anchors down west of Little Gaulding Cay by 2:30 pm. Plenty of time to put Bug in the water and go explore some of the pristine white sand beaches that surround the stunning anchorage.

Literally in the Middle of Nowhere

When planning a sail to the Bahamas, cruisers put a great deal of effort into planning the Gulf Stream crossing. For good reason, of course. The distance is significant, often requiring an overnight sail, and that river of current sure makes route planning tricky. But no one really tells you that once you’ve successfully reached the Near Bahamas islands, you immediately need to start planning your next passage.

From Bimini, a sailboat can head north to the beautiful Abacos, although the winter storms are more powerful that far north, and you may find yourself stuck waiting out a northerly longer than planned. Or you can head east east across the Great Bahama Bank to the Berry Islands. Since we completely missed the Berrys last season, we decided not to make the same mistake this time! So from South Bimini, we set off east across 90-some miles of shallow sea. And if you do the math, you’ll soon find that at a pace that’s somewhere between a fast walk and a slow jog, you can’t cross those 90 miles during the limited daylight hours available in mid-January.

Since we are in no particular hurry, we set out from Bimini Sands with SV Elixir and SV Leef Nu and aimed for an imaginary point in the middle of all that water near Mackie Shoal. The shoal is exactly what it sounds like – a giant sandbar in the middle of all that water. While you wouldn’t want to encounter the shoal by mistake, skirting the northern edge of it on purpose makes a great rest stop on the way across the Bank. Hours after we’d lost sight of land and lost cell phone coverage, we could see a very small wooden pole that marks the shoal, and we veered a bit south to get off the waypoint to waypoint route. Scanning for shallows, we decided to drop anchor in 14 feet of water surrounded by nothingness in all directions. Even with two buddy boats, our little flotilla seemed like a very small speck in a very large ocean. But the waters were calm, the sunset was spectacular, and my Thai green chili tasted way better than it ever does on land.

After the Zombie Apocalypse

I assume that Bimini Sands Resort is a shadow of its former glory. There are hints of that glory everywhere: the two swimming pools, the floating docks, the abandoned tiki bar, the coral-pink townhouses that are visible from miles out to sea.

But the entire time we stayed there, I never saw a single guest staying in the hotel rooms or timeshare condos. And they are so desperate to look like the marina is still in business, that if you commit to staying for an entire week, it will only cost you $100.

The regular nightly rate of $1 per foot isn’t bad either. This is the point where I usually say, “But it has everything a cruiser needs” but this time it wasn’t really the case. The reverse-osmosis water filtration system was broken, so the only available water was salt water. We had filled our tanks in Marathon, so we didn’t really need water, but when you’re paying for a marina, you want the luxury of or a hot shower and the chance to wash to salt off your boat or to do laundry. The small cafe only served breakfast. The ship’s store stocked no produce or ice cream. There was no place to buy a beer, or even a bag of ice. And the sand flies were atrocious! After the first evening, my legs were covered in thousands of bites, and I itched too much to sleep. Capt. Mike decided we must have timed our arrival just after a Zombie apocalypse. It’s the only reasonable explanation for the fact that the only two things left alive at the resort were Donnie the dock master and the ravenous sand flies.

But we were finally in the Bahamas, and we were going to enjoy ourselves. In addition to SV Elixir, there were two other boats in the marina: SV Providence, captained by Bill who organizes the dinghy poker run during the Cruisers’ Regatta in Georgetown, and Leef Nu, owned by Kevin and Cheryl from Hamilton, Ontario. The Canadians are starting to outnumber us!

We got some work done; cleaning Sanitas up after the crossing, varnishing the steering wheel, and replacing a mysteriously missing prop anode. Then we played tourist – exploring every inch of South Bimini, including the original Fountain of Youth, and taking a $3 water taxi across to North Bimini where we took a golf cart tour with Anthony.

After a quick loop through Alicetown and Baileytown, we learned another reason why everything was so quiet. The huge Hilton Resort World which contains two marinas, a casino, and several hotels and restaurants was closed for two weeks. That meant no guests, no employees, and very little of the businesses that spring up to keep them entertained. One local said he had never seen Bimini this quiet in his 37 years. Luckily Stuart’s Conch Stand was open and serving fresh conch salad and rum punch.

We also visited the intriguing and bizarre labor of love that is Ashley Saunders’ Dolphin House. Ashley was born in Bimini, studied in the US, and returned home to become its unofficial historian and to write several books about the island. He says that after a chance encounter with dolphins out on the water, the dolphins brought out something buried deep with him, and he became an artist. To thank the dolphins for this gift, he began building Dolphin House back in 1993 and it’s now a complex mosaic-covered building that evokes Gaudi’s Barcelona Park. Ashley says that his house contains a bit of everything built on Bimini, and I believe him. It’s decorated entirely with found objects such as leftover tiles of all shapes and colors, buoys and corals washed ashore on the beach. And whatever bottles and jars and plaster animals caught his eye. I really enjoyed our tour, exploring every corner of every beadazzled room, and even climbing a narrow flight of concrete stairs to the “observation deck” and a view of the town. As we left, we taped one of Sanitas’ boat cards on the gift shop wall to prove we’d passed through.

Back on South Bimini, we visited The Shark Lab. We learned all about the almost 30 years of research that The Lab has performed on the habitat, biology, reproduction, and behaviors of nurse sharks, lemon sharks, hammerhead sharks, and tiger sharks. Fascinating stuff. Did you know that lemon sharks always return to the same nursery where they were born to give birth to their own young? Even a dozen years later and after migrating all over the waters of the Bahamas and Florida? Or than sharks have personalities? A Shark Lab investigator spent several years proving that some sharks individual sharks are shy, some are bold, some are curious, and some are aggressive and they exhibit these same characteristics in captivity or in the wild and over a period of years. The first afternoon, we weren’t allowed to walk down the beach to the shark pens because a group was filming a music video for Baby Shark Doo Doo Doo. (Ok, not really. But a film crew was working on something, and our guide was sworn to secrecy and couldn’t tell us who they represented or where we’d see the results). But Jessie, our guide, did bring a juvenile nurse shark up to the beach where we could see it and briefly touch it. Jeff and I returned the next afternoon to get the chance to see the pens and a juvenile lemon shark that had been captured the day before. Each shark is kept for no more than two weeks of study and tagging so that they are not stressed, and can be returned to the wild to live a long and happy shark-y life.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to get ashore easily, so I ran everyday around South Bimini and had the chance to explore a nature trail, some lovely homes, and rustic beach art. It’s a lovely introduction to the Bahamas and island life. Just hope that the water filter has been repaired, and don’t forget your sunblock!

Crossing the Gulf Stream to The Bahamas… Third Time’s the Charm

The alarm went off at 4 am (ouch) and we were raising anchor at 4:30. It’s so crowded in No Name Harbor that another sailboat was sitting literally on top of our anchor. I took the helm and inched ever so slowly forward and Capt. Mike brought in the rode, using a boat hook to push the other boat just far enough away for us to sneak our anchor out from underneath. I made one super tight turn to starboard, and we were out of there!

Not very comfortable leaving a harbor in the dark, we carefully followed our old track on the chart plotter, making sure to avoid two shallow shoals on the way back to the channel. Each time we spotted a light ahead, we had a quick urgent debate over what it was (Channel marker? Reef light? Another boat?) and whether we needed to take action to avoid it. My favorite moment was making a 20 degree turn to starboard to avoid what appeared to be a super bright masthead light….. but actually turned out to be an airplane. Whoopsie! This morning’s sunrise was the most beautiful yet, and we overheard the two boats behind us ooh-ing and ah-ing about the beauty and the photos they took of a sailboat silhouetted by the rising sun (Sanitas!). I WILL stalk them in Bimini and get them to send me that photo!

Both wind and waves were extremely calm all day, which made for a safe and uneventful crossing, but also required us to motor all day. That’s ok by me. I consider crossing the Gulf Stream something to get over with so we can enjoy the Bahamas, not really a pleasant day of sailing for its own sake.

We left the Miami channel heading southeast with a COG of about 135 deg. This allowed us the get a teeny bit south of Bimini, so that once we really experienced the effects of the Gulf Stream current it could carry us north and east without overshooting our goal. In the stream, we gradually adjusted our heading over about an hour from 135deg to 110deg to 95deg. Then we pretty much set the autopilot to steer to a heading of 95deg and left it alone for the rest of the trip. In the fastest part of the Gulf Stream flow, our COG was 75deg, but it eased to 85deg later in the trip. We made good time because we were able to benefit from the flow, rather than fighting hard against it, and we arrived at Bimini Sands Marina on South Bimini by 1:30 pm. That’s more like it! Why cross overnight and arrive sleep deprived and stressed from all the cargo ship traffic when you can cross calmly on a cool sunny day with absolutely no drama?

After raising the yellow quarantine flag, our good luck continued as Capt Mike caught a $5 taxi to the airport, and breezed through customs and immigration with no issues. Filled out a whole bunch of papers, handed over $300 in cash, and we are free to stay in the Bahamas for the next four months. We replaced that Q flag with the Bahamas courtesy flag and celebrated this big milestone. After all, we’d been working since the end of September to prepare for this, and making significant boat repairs right up until the day before!

We had a champagne toast with Jeff and Trish of SV Elixir who were also feeling the sense of accomplishment. They are a sweet newlywed couple from Sarnia, Ontario who are cruising for a year on their Honeymoon. Making it out of the ICW and out of the US winter is certainly something worth celebrating!

Crossing the Gulf Stream to The Bahamas …. Attempt #2

After our pit-crew efficient 15-hour stop in Boot Key Harbor, we were on the move again. Anchor raised, we headed north, planning to leave the Hawk Channel at Angelfish Cut and aim our bow for Bimini. But after listening to Chris Parker’s marine weather forecast on the short wave radio at 6:30 am, we learned that a cold front would pass through Florida tonight, and we should wait for the calm after the storm to make such an ambitious crossing. So we consoled ourselves with another glorious day of sailing along at 6 knots and anchored off Rodriguez Key.

Now it really feels like we are cruising! Anchoring near just a few boats instead of crowded in a marina or mooring field, cooking a one-pot meal and digging into our canned goods, watching the sunset, moonrise, and sunrise away from city lights.

With that sunrise came a shiver of excitement. This is it! We’ll be in Bimini by nightfall, and will catch up with SV Eileen! Perhaps somebody should have knocked on wood.

A couple hours into our sail, and before we’d even left the protection of the Florida reef, Capt. Mike noticed that the bilge pump was running frequently. With calm seas, there was no real reason for so much water entering the bilge, so he lifted the engine compartment to investigate. A steady stream of water was entering the boat from the rudder…and the stream increased the faster we moved. Huh.

A couple of Google searches later, we’d narrowed it down to the rudder packing gland. Fixing the problem might be as simple as tightening three bolts….or might be as complex and costly as lifting Sanitas out of the water and replacing the packing material. With a spare part we did not currently possess. Double drat! Either way, we decided not to leave the USA with a big leak of water into the boat. So guess what? For the second year in a row, we’re making an unscheduled stop in Miami. Triple drat!

But we made the best of it this time, and anchored in lovely No Name Harbor on Key Biscayne. (Even lovelier after the brightly-lit-up, rap-music-blaring day trippers go home on Saturday night, lol). After our trek to West Marine to purchase parts, we joined a dozen Latino families at a Cuban restaurant for Sunday dinner of lechon asado, pescado entero, and sangria.

And we squeezed in a little time to enjoy the walking paths and beaches of Bill Baggs Cape Florida State Park

And THANKFULLY we did not need to find a boatyard to hoist Sanitas for repairs. Instead, Capt. Mike gambled that our stern was just barely high enough out of the water that he could replace the packing gland material in the water. We both held our breaths when he pulled out the old packing material, leaving a hole in the bottom of the boat, and let our breaths back out when the ocean stayed on the outside where it belongs.

Lots of cruisers in the harbor planning on an early Tuesday morning crossing. Let’s hope this time we will be one of them!