Crossing the Coral Garden

Leaving Spanish Wells Harbor was a little bit more exciting than we had expected.

We’d spent three nights on one of Bandit’s mooring balls, but we had only paid for one night. It seemed bad karma, not to mention impolite to leaving without paying the rest. So we spoke to Mrs Bandit on the radio the night before leaving, and made a plan for him to pick up the money at 7:00 am – just before we headed out for the day’s sail. Apparently Mrs Bandit never told Mr Bandit the plan, because by the time we hailed him on the radio at 7:30, he was already two islands away. We tossed around some ideas of how to get him the money without too badly inconveniencing ourselves, and finally settled on giving the money to one of his friends at the fuel dock. So, we cruised ever so slowly past the dock and I shouted “Does anyone know Bandit?” When someone answered “Yes. I’ll make sure this gets to him” I leaned over and handed him an envelope filled with cash as we drifted by. Bandit, if you’re reading this, I hope you got your money. I handed it to the old fisherman with the beard. You guys know each other, right?

Then all of our comm systems suddenly blew up. I heard “Sanitas… Sanitas … Sanitas” on channel 71. Then a DSC direct call, which makes our VHF ring like an old-school telephone. Then my new-school cell phone started ringing (which happens so seldom, I don’t even recognize the ring tone). Our friends on Orion and Disorder were trying to alert us that a massive UFO-sized cargo ship had just entered the narrow Spanish Wells channel.

We were already trying to leave the harbor, and were pretty sure this channel wasn’t big enough for the both of us. So we did a little donut turn to slow down, and moved as far to starboard as we could while still staying in deep water. And I walked along the starboard deck of Sanitas fending off dock pilings with my bare hands. A crewman on the cargo ship waved at me. Now this all happened in fairly slow motion, so it might not have appeared at all dramatic to a bystander, but it was hair-curlingly nerve wracking to me and to Capt. Mike! Especially since I hadn’t had my morning coffee yet!

This was our easiest passage so far: smooth seas, light winds, no dramatic equipment failures. Crossing Fleeming Cut was a piece of cake. (Remember my goal for crossing cuts? No stories!) The trickiest part of this day was crossing the coral garden east of Nassau. The charts for this area are covered with plus symbols and warnings such as “Numerous Shallow Coral Heads”, “Unsurveyed Area”, and “Visual Piloting Rules apply”. We had downloaded a set of eight GPS waypoints from Drew on Z-Raye, and we used these points to guide us from Fleeming Cut down to the northern end of the Exuma Chain near Ship Channel. These waypoints helped immensely, but didn’t substitute for scanning the seas ahead, and adjusting course when needed.

From about 1:30 in the afternoon to 4:30, Capt. Mike and I took turns standing on the bow of Sanitas, wearing polarized sunglasses, scanning the waters around us. We kept the autopilot navigating to the next waypoint, but when we’d spot a round, black coral head, the spotter on the bow would provide guidance to the person at the helm on how to avoid it. Things like, “Twenty degrees to starboard”, or ” hard to port”.

The coral was easier to spot than I had expected, and we usually saw them about a football field away. Still, it kept me on edge for the afternoon, especially when we were in the thick of it and there were coral heads to both sides and directly ahead of us. Once the sun got lower in the sky, it was harder to spot the contrast between the turquoise blue of the water and the black of the coral. I’m glad that by that point in the afternoon, we were through the thickest patch, and the need to frequently adjust course to avoid hitting the coral had diminished.

We pulled into the anchorage at Highborn Cay around 6:30 after about eleven hours of travel. Exactly one month after entering The Bahamas, we’d finally made it to the Exuma Islands! In addition to that milestone, we also celebrated six months since we left our jobs, AND Mike’s birthday. Fresh lime margaritas in the cockpit at sunset, using the last of our rapidly melting ice; homemade pad thai with ingredients from the tiny Asian market in Marsh Harbour, and gluten free brownies standing in for a birthday cake.

Now this is more like it!

Excitement in the Anchorage….

By the end of our stay in Marsh Harbour, the anchorage grew very crowded. Many boats were hiding out from the winter north-easters, and waiting for the swells in the ocean outside of the Sea of Abaco to decrease before heading south. Exactly what we were doing! And with these winds coming from an unusual direction, the popular anchorages outside the harbors didn’t provide enough protection to be safe and comfortable. Mike and I took Sanitas out of the harbor after 8 day’s to attempt to head south to Little Harbor, but the winds were higher than predicted, the waves even inside the reef were high and choppy, and the glimpse of the cut that we could see was a whipped cream froth of white waves and foam. So we turned around, and went back to Marsh Harbour for another 2 nights.

As we selected our anchor spot, and dropped the hook, we noticed many captains sitting in their cockpits watching the world go by with suspicion. We soon learned that the suspicion was warranted. The wind continued to increase, and rain started, so Mike and I hid below decks to enjoy our lunch in peace.

We tend to keep the VHF radio tuned to 16 (the hail and distress channel) or 68 (the Cruiser Net and ship-to-ship channel) as long as we hare making enough solar power to do so. Good thing too! Because our lunch was interrupted by calls of “You’re dragging anchor!” on 16, and blasts of an air horn alerting the entire anchorage to danger. Now of course Sanitas wasn’t dragging. Don’t be ridiculous! But a huge catamaran with no one aboard was no longer hooked, and was drifting unattended through the crowded field of boats.

Bob from Orion hailed us directly to let us know it was drifting right at Sanitas. Bob and the skipper from Compass Rose jumped in their dinghies to see if they could board the cat. Mike and I stood by on Sanitas, ready to fend her off if she drifted too close. Luckily, her anchor caught again before she ran into anyone. But now we had a catamaran much too close to our full-keeled monohull, and to several small motor trawlers. Each of these types of boats swing differently on anchor, and need to have space to swing fully and safely as the wind changes direction.

Bob managed to reach the owner of the catamaran, Southern Passage, who was ashore on Great Abaco, and received permission to board her and power up her engine in order to move if necessary. So the excitement ended well. Bob and Mike got a tour of a gorgeous, 50 foot by 26 foot catamaran (we learned she charters for $15,000 a week!) and had beers with the captain after he arrived back at the boat and successfully moved her to a safer location and reset the anchor.

The winds died down completely at sunset, we we actually were able to put the adventure behind us and could go to sleep at night!

Great Sale and Fox Town

Our trip through the northern Bahamas has been dictated by the winds. It’s tricky for a sail boat of our size and design to sail straight into the wind, and in this part of the world, the prevailing winds are easterlies. So … we motored across the Little Bahama Banks to Mangrove Cay, and then to Great Sale Cay, where the Northwest Harbor is very well protected from the easterly winds. Unfortunately, there’s not much else going on at Great Sale. It is a small, uninhabited island of mostly mangroves, without the gorgeous sandy beaches of tropical fantasies. On our first night there, we had a had a potluck on the beach and watched the sunset (and were feasted upon by sand fleas in the meantime). The dinghy ride back into the wind was enough of a wet and salty ordeal that we didn’t try THAT again!

After that, we just sort of hung out in the harbor, watched the weather, and waited for lighter winds.

Eventually, we got a bit of cabin fever. On our first attempt to leave Great Sale, Sanitas and Orion sailed and motored into the wind for three hours … and then calculated that at a pace that was slowing to less than 3 knots,we would never make it to the the next safe harbor before sunset, so we turned around and motored back with our tails between our legs. Disorder won the bet that we’d be back before lunchtime!

Two more days in the same harbor and we were getting even more stir crazy, so we took the next opportunity to sail and motor east to Foxtown on Little Abaco Island. You’ve already heard about that great adventure, running aground in the Fox Town Harbor! You’d have thought we arrived in New York City by our excitement to reach civilization! The town was about 3 blocks long, with one restaurant, two mini marts, and one very active (aka, loud) church. We walked the entire length, met all of the local hustlers, sampled the local rum and the cracked conch (made especially for Mike and me with rice flour because we are allergic to wheat), and headed back to our boats with grocery bags filled with lobster tails.

After sampling all the delights of Fox Town, we still needed a few basic things, such as water, fuel, and internet. So our next stop would be beautiful Green Turtle Cay…..

Clearing Customs

The Bahamas has figured out how to make clearing customs easy. Just hand over a lot of money. In cash.

When we arrived at the Old Bahama Bay Marina at West End on Grand Bahama Island after an overnight sail from Miami, the captain and crew were tired, and tempers frayed. We timed our arrival for just after sunrise, so that we would have good visibility entering a new harbor, and just before the Customs office opened, so we could breeze through without much wait. But we didn’t think about the fact that it would be Saturday … of Presidents’ Day weekend ….

As our three sailboats slowly made our slow and dignified approach into the harbor, planning to tie up at the Customs Dock, a sudden hoard of small and agile go-fast fishing boats zoomed around us and claimed all the spots at the dock. They promptly started blaring dance music, stripping down to bikinis, and popping the top of beer cans. Oh. And jumped ahead of us in the Customs line. It was a bit of a shock to realize that the trip from Miami that had taken us about 15 hours, was also achievable on a small boat with 2 or 4 powerful motors in just a couple of hours. And that the huge Gulf Stream crossing that we had been thinking about for months could be performed as part of a one-day fishing / drinking party. Oh well. It puts things in perspective, and reminds us that sail people and motor people are different breeds! Capt Mike got his revenge in the Customs line when the kids from the fishing boats were talking about the cost of diesel, and when they asked how long Mike was staying in The Bahamas and he answered, “oh, at least three months.” 😎

We carry a waterproof document bag that contains all important paperwork: passports, ship’s registration with the US Coast Guard, insurance, etc. Mike learned some good lessons about how the clear Customs smoothly from our previous charters:

  • Dress neatly
  • Bring your own pen (really!)
  • Have all documents in order (one of the fishing boats forgot their registration)
  • Be polite
  • Know the fees and have money ready in cash

In The Bahamas, a cruising permit authorizing Sanitas to sail in the water of the Commonwealth for three months costs $300. We intend to get our money’s worth! Each member of the ship’s crew also gets approved by immigration to stay in the country for a certain period of time. I think they gave us six months. Probably hoping for another $300 cruising permit! While Capt Mike was standing in line, I took advantage of being tied to the dock to make coffee, empty trash and even take a quick shower, cheating just a little bit on our Customs quarantine status. Finally we were all cleared in and officially and could lower the yellow Q flag, and raise the Bahamas courtesy flag, and continue sailing east across the Little Bahama Bank!