My Favorite Place in the World

Once we tackled our jack line and solar panel repairs, we could relax and enjoy our stay in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park – one of my very favorite places in the world. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…. I would be perfectly happy staying right there in the north mooring field until I ran out of $20 bills to pay for the daily mooring fees, and emptied the bilge of cans of tuna fish for meals. On our first full day in the mooring field, the cruisers organized a beach happy hour potluck, complete with live music.

The Park was established in 1958 and protects 176 square miles of islands and seabed. It is a no-take zone for fish and turtles, which means that the marine life is glorious and varied. My favorite part of the Park is the hiking trails on Warderick Wells Cay, which provide an excellent opportunity to stretch the legs after days and nights on a tiny boat! There’s a cruising tradition to make a sign for your boat out of natural materials (no plastics, please) and to add that sign to the collection at the top of Boo Boo Hill. A half mile into our hike, I found the perfect piece of wood…. and then found myself committed to carrying it for the next five hours!

This year, I finally managed to pack enough water, snacks, and sunscreen to hike from the park office all the way to the south end on the island to Pirates Lair and Turtle Beach. It took us five hours to make that round trip – way longer than you’d expect from the mileage. But often, the trail is only a suggestion, and it’s always a mixture of sharp eroded limestone rock and dry loose sand. Even at sea level, the hiking is slow going! But Jeff and Trish of Elixir were good company, and we peer-pressured each other into continuing south at each trail intersection. Phew!

Capt. Mike thinks that Perky Turkey Jerky should sponsor our adventures. Here he is practicing his brand placement and his Vanna White skills.

Beach planks! Gotta stay in shape!

We collect photos of Sanitas’ sister ships wherever we meet them. Here’s the beautiful Island Lady – a 31 foot Pacific Seacraft captained by Cree.

For the final ritual of our stay in the park, the whole crews of Sanitas, Leef Nu, and Elixir climbed Boo Boo Hill one last time, and added our sign to the pile. We were here! In case you were wondering, our Dock 4 sign from last season is still there too.

Recovery Mode

After the crazy weather and scary sail into Warderick Wells, it was a wonderful feeling to be safely tied to a mooring ball in the north mooring field for the next few days.

Our first order of business was to assess the damage to our lazy jack system and solar panels. By covering one panel at a time, we figured out that the cracked solar panels still partially functioned. Great news! Because if the flexible panels weren’t functioning at all, we wouldn’t have the capacity to generate enough power to run our instruments and to keep the fridge cold. We’d have to run the generator or the motor every day to keep our house batteries topped up – loud, smelly, and requiring a lot of fuel. However, they were definitely compromised, and a google search informed us that they could catch on fire because of the damage. So we pretty much knew we needed to replace them, but where the heck would we find solar panels in the Bahamas? And exactly how many arms and how many legs would they charge if we found them? So I had a brilliant idea……

Drew and Sharon of SV ZRaye, our friends from St Petersburg, planned to leave Florida for the Bahamas as soon as they got a good weather window. Maybe they’d be kind enough to hand deliver two new solar panels to wherever we happened to be? Before I could reach out to ZRaye to propose our plan, or to start shopping on line for new solar panels, I had to figure out how to get cell coverage and data from within the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Last year, we figured out that if we took a 20 minute hike to the top of Boo Boo Hill, and stood behind and bench, and held my cell phone up in the air, I could usually get signal. This year, this old dog learned a new trick. We put my Google Fi phone in a waterproof bag and raised it up the flag halyard (which will henceforth be known as the “phone halyard”) We used my phone as a WiFi hot spot, and could sit comfortably in the cockpit surfing the interwebs on Mike’s phone and my iPad. Thanks to Elixir for the tip! An hour later, two new solar panels were ordered, shipping to Key West arranged, and ZRaye agreed to don her superhero cape and swoop in to rescue us with an international delivery. I love it when a plan comes together.

Next order of business, repairing the lazy jacks. Jeff from Elixir came by to help me hoist Capt. Mike up the mast. Safety third! It’s always good to have a backup line attached in case the main halyard fails when he’s 50 feet up in the air! Together, we hauled him up, where he was able to knot and repair the lazy jacks, instead of having to order a whole new system. Check one more repair off the list!

Finally, Capt. Mike used spare nuts and bolts and washers to replace the hardware that had broken on our dodger and Bimini. Not pretty, but it worked! Its amazing what a difference 24 hours makes. Yesterday we were wet, tired, and scared with lots of expensive repairs to make. Today we were dry, well-fed, and basking in the sun, with all our problems solved for about $300. Not bad! We celebrated with a hike up Boo Boo Hill to stretch our legs and enjoy the views from this little slice of paradise.

Well That Was a Shit Show (Pardon my French)

If you’re reading this … and you’re my mom … you might want to skip to the next blog post. I’ll post about beautiful beaches and sunsets again soon, I promise.

Quote from the Explorer Chart Books: “Warderick Cut is wide and deep. This is probably the best cut between Highbourne and Conch Cuts unless you encounter a north wind against an ebb current. The current can be particularly strong here.”

The cuts in the Exumas are gaps in the island chain that divide the deep, rough Exuma Sound from the shallow, protected Bank. When the tides change, massive amounts of water funnel through the cuts driving extremely strong currents. On a good day, you aim right down the middle and let the current carry you through. On a bad day…. you don’t go through at all.

I have a rule, or maybe more of a goal, that I never want to have a good story about passing through a cut in the Bahamas. I always want us to have reviewed the weather reports in advance, researched the tides, planned the time of day, and then simply glide through each cut like we’re floating on a lazy river. Unfortunately, this time I got myself a story.

We left Rock Sound on Eleuthera in a veritable parade of boats. Everyone had weathered the most recent cold front, and decided to use this good weather window to move on before the next one hit. Six boats were traveling the same route as Sanitas; a straight shot of 46.5 nautical miles to Warderick Wells, halfway down the Exuma chain. Weather forecast was for 10 knots, increasing to 15 knots over the course of the day. Totally benign sailing conditions. Until they weren’t.

At about 12:30, we were seeing 20-30 knots directly on the stern, with at least 3 meter swells. Tricky sailing, because the swells really bounced Sanitas around, changing her direction relative to the wind just enough to trigger some accidental jibes – a fast powerful swing of the boom from one side of the boat to the other, ending in a powerful crash. We use a break system to control how far the boom can swing, but the force was still significant.

Jeff, on Elixir, radioed and asked us to double check the tides. When we expected to arrive at 3:00, it was supposed to be mid-tide, when the current is the strongest and fastest. We agreed to monitor conditions, and radio ahead to other boats to ask about the conditions. If it looked too rough, we’d wait.

Then, chaos erupted. While Capt. Mike was trying put a second reef in the mainsail, the starboard lazy jack lines snapped, and suddenly about 75 feet of thin line was whipping around crazily in the wind. On the next accidental jib, the unbalanced sail put pressure on the remaining port lazy jack lines, causing them to snap too. Double the amount of lines whipping in the wind. One failure cascaded into the next. While Capt. Mike went forward to grab handfuls of line and wrap it in duct tape to get it under control, one piece of line snagged on the corner of our dodger canvas and ripped the hardware right off, folding the canvas and our flexible solar panels in half. We used the knife mounted on the steering pedestal to cut that line to relieve the pressure. So much for saving the lazy jacks! Now I had control of the helm while Capt. Mike had to finish corralling the lazy jacks, and also had to dig spare lines out of the cockpit locker to lash our solar panels on before they could sustain more damage. So now, with our mainsail double-reefed and falling out of the destroyed sail bag, and our view from the helm partially blocked by the sail, we arrived at the Cut.

We hailed The Colonel’s Lady on 16 and asked what the conditions were like when they passed through the cut just before us. Their Captain responded, “Are you familiar with the term ‘a rage’? When northeast winds are blowing against the easterly flowing ebb tide right at the strongest mid-tide levels, forming big standing waves? Well it’s raging right now.” Capt. Mike asked, “But it’s doable?” And the Captain answered, “Well …. how heavy is your boat?”

At this point, we didn’t have a lot of options. Winds were over 30 knots, gusting higher. Swells were 3 meters with a very short period between waves. Our buddy boat Elixir reported “falling” down the waves at over 11 knots. You’re not in control of the boat or able to steer at those speeds. When the boat ahead of us entered a wave trough, it disappeared from view until it climbed up the next one. We couldn’t simply do circles out on the Sound and wait for better conditions. And our mainsail was a mess (we were afraid to turn into the wind and finish dropping it without our lazy jacks and sail bag in these conditions), the dodger and solar panels were barely tied on using a spare line, and stuff was thrown all over the cabin. So we went for it.

Capt. Mike was standing at the helm, tethered in and hand steering; trying to simultaneously keep us from going broadsides to the waves, and to keep us off the rocks and shoals. I was sitting close to the companionway, tethered in, holding up the iPad with Navionics so he could see the best route to take between the hazards. He said, “Don’t be surprised if a wave washes over the cockpit.” Yes. Really. He’d spin the wheel all the way to one side, then spin it quickly all the way back, trying to hit the waves head on so that we wouldn’t be knocked down by a sideways wave. He tried to stay on his feet, but Sanitas was bucking so hard, he got knocked back onto his butt on the cockpit bench. When he’d look back over his left shoulder to try to time the next wave, all he saw was frothy white water higher than our heads. The rock bars on either side of the cut looked awfully close, and Warderick Cut didn’t seem so wide anymore. But good steering and running the engine at maximum rpms got us through it. Capt. Mike would have a sore back and shoulders the next day.

Once we had enough sea room, we turned back into the wind and dropped the sail, manually flaking it and lashing it in place with dock lines. We had already passed the entrance to the mooring field, so we pointed Sanitas’ bow back into that wind and aimed for the narrow entrance. A fellow cruiser jumped into his dinghy and zoomed over to help us pick up the mooring ball. Thank goodness. It was still blowing 22+ knots in the protected mooring field when we got there, and we had to make a very tight turn to head upwind to the mooring ball inside a channel only two boat-lengths wide. Once secured, we took a deep breath, gave each other a hug, and radioed the park office that we’d not be coming ashore to check in that night. Did a quick survey of the damage and decided to put that off until tomorrow too. We confirmed that Elixir made it through ok (although they’d actually been spun around 360 degrees in the cut!), and we poured ourselves a whisky and watched the sunset, grateful to have made it to a safe harbor.

Exploring Eleuthera Part #2

One of the best things about sailboat cruising is that we get to experience so much of the world that is off the typical tourist path. We visit pristine white sand beaches, where Capt. Mike and I are usually the only two human beings to be found. (Although there are always plenty of lizards!) And I marvel at the fact that there are still miles of ocean shore that are NOT covered in condos and sunbathers. However, the flip side of this blessing is that we don’t get the opportunity to explore the interior of the islands we visit. We’re usually limited by the distance we can cover on foot in tropical heat.

So to remedy that situation, we decided to join forces with the crew of Leef Nu and Elixir to rent a car and really explore the towns and natural wonders of Eleuthera. It’s a long and skinny island (110 miles long, and often about a mile wide) so we had to motivate and get an early start to have any hope of seeing it all. From the Rock Sound anchorage, we started north. Big thanks to Kevin for driving and figuring out the whole “drive on the left side” thing. Since we had plenty of room in the van, we pulled over a few miles outside of town and picked up a little old lady hitchhiker who promptly fell asleep in the passenger seat and stayed that way for the next hour and a half. We couldn’t bring her all the way to her destination, but I hope we helped her out a bit that day!

First stop was the Glass Window – a narrow ridge of rock less that 30 feet wide that separates north and south Eleuthera.

The scenery is extremely dramatic because the velvet blue deep Atlantic Ocean forms the east side and is full of fury and waves and rocky cliffs, while the lighter turquoise shallow Bight of Eleuthera forms the west side in calm and quiet waters. At its narrowest point, there is only room for the road that crosses the water on a one-lane bridge. Every few years, a hurricane ravages the bridge, disrupting life on the island until it can be repaired. Most recently, a rogue wave pushed the entire bridge about 15 feet west (!) and it was easier to move the road to the new location than to move the bridge back to the road. I thought this would be a quick stop, but we just kept hiking to new vantage points and taking more pictures.

Just south on the bridge is the best, most powerful blow hole I’ve ever seen! I expected a blow hole to expel a huge plume of sea water toward the sky. Maybe I was confusing it with a geyser? Instead, it’s a bit of magic – an invisible force that inhales a deep breath, and puffs it back out, complete with a haunted “whooooooo” noise. A conveniently located tin can kept us entertained for ages: drop it in the hole and minutes later, whoooooo-pop! The can shoots skyward!

Next stop – the Queen’s Baths where on a calm day, at low tide, you can linger in the baths for hours, enjoying the sun-warmed water and checking out the shells and interesting creatures caught in the tidal pools. But if you’re there on rough day or at high tide like we were, instead you decide to appreciate the force and beauty of nature from a safe distance. Still beautiful though!

Just outside the little town of Hatchet Bay, we took a narrow little dirt road until we no longer felt safe driving the rental car. Just across from our unofficial parking spot we found a hole in the ground and climbed down to check out the caves.

At first glimpse the cave was cool, but seemed fairly small. But we followed a trail of string along the ground and it kept going….and going….and going. At times, I expected blind albino creatures from a horror movie to scuttle out from the shadows of our head lamps, but I just kept breathing, and kept following that string, and eventually exited from a different hole in the ground about three quarters of a mile away. The cave was truly amazing. Back in the states, there’d be an entrance fee and a tour guide and a gift shop. Here in the Bahamas there was just us – and ancient stalactites, a rainbow of colors, caverns high enough to stand up in, and tunnels so low we had to crawl. Oh, and bats! What a cool adventure.

After all that adventure-ing, we’d worked up quite an appetite. So, acting on a tip from my new friend Amy, we stopped at LeoRose Sunset Beach in James Cistern for a late lunch and some great live music!

And THEN……. ok, this is exciting. I’m getting all giggly just thinking about it again. After we parked the rental car and wandered down the beach toward our dinghy and returning to Sanitas, we ran into DAN AND KIKA OF SAILING UMA! If you haven’t heard of Sailing Uma, they are YouTube sailing video celebrities who bought an old, inexpensive sailboat and spent about a year getting her in good condition to sail, and then have been cruising in a very sustainable manner, capturing their adventures and their boat projects in truly stunningly beautiful videos. They are charming, talented, artistic, and so much fun to watch! And… I can now tell you from personal experience after Capt. Mike got all fanboy on me …. they are very genuine and down-to-earth people. So after crossing paths on the beach, they joined us on Sanitas for cocktails and to share travel stories. (In case you’re wondering, when YouTube celebrities stop by, I break out the last stash of charcuterie and hummus imported from Florida, as well as a bag of precious tortilla chips 😜). And if the day couldn’t get any better, they invited us over to Uma for a quick tour and to sign their chalkboard wall. If you haven’t headed over to YouTube yet to subscribe to their channel, do it! now!

Exploring Eleuthera part 1

I’d have been perfectly happy to stay in paradise in the mid-Barrys for a week, but Mother Nature had other plans. January weather is tricky in the Bahamas, especially in the northern islands, and we had found ourselves in a pattern of cold fronts bringing unusually cold temperature to Florida, and then carrying on with strong north winds to our region of the Bahamas. At one point, Chris Parker was forecasting winds up to 40 knots. Yikes! So we temporarily left paradise behind, and grabbed a break in the weather to head south.

We raised anchor at 6:40 am and our small flotilla of three boats sailed south along the Berry chain, paralleling the coast of Little Harbour Cay, before leaving land behind and heading mostly east and a little bit south toward Eleuthera. It wasn’t a sure thing that we could successfully make this jump. The magnitude and direction of the wind introduced risk of high swells that could slow our forward progress enough to keep us from making it to safe harbor before sunset. But we were lucky this time, and the winds instead made for an exhilarating day of sailing! No need for our backup plan of diverting to Nassau. We set our anchor in Royal Island Harbour at 4:45 after traveling 51nm and squeezed in among the dozen boats already there; apparently we aren’t the only ones with this great idea to hide from the next front.

Royal Island is definitely safe and secure – practically a hurricane hole – but there’s NOTHING to do there. It’s a private island, hosting a luxury resort whose five villas and private clubhouse start at $14,000 per night. So they obviously don’t want riffraff like us ashore. We entertained ourselves in the calm before the storm with stand-up paddle boarding and scraping growth off the bottom of Sanitas. Fun, too, surprising the local turtle population with our loud and splashy presence.

But the next day, the front hit just as protected with torrential rain and sustained winds of over 35 knots and we never left the boat. We baked brownies, indulged in snacks of smoked salmon and goat cheese, and watched movie after movie. I’ve gotta admit – it killed me to be only four miles from the closest point of land at Spanish Wells, and not to be able to get over to town! One more reminder that while cruising, weather is always king.

So as soon as that front passed, we made another hop over to Eleuthera to find our next hidey hole and hopefully a bit of civilization to go with it. One of the best things about this second season of Bahamas cruising is that we can mix favorite locations from last year with visits to new places that we missed the last time around. Eleuthera is one of those new spots I’ve been really anxious to explore. After a fast 35 mile sail and successfully timing passage through Current Cut, we set anchor outside beautiful Governor’s Harbour. This colorful city filled with flowers was the first capital of the Bahamas, and the colonial architecture and largest library outside of Nassau attest to that legacy of influence. We put Bug in the water and rushed ashore to explore the town and beautiful French Leave Beach on the Atlantic side of the island.

Look at those cute newlyweds!

Unfortunately (say it with me now) weather is king! And the holding is poor off Governor’s Harbour, in hard marl and grass, and we couldn’t trust it to keep Sanitas safe during the next front. So with only a teaser of the islands’ charms, we hopped another 25 nm south to Rock Sound. Capt. Mike and I really tested our standard operating procedure for lowering the dinghy when we tried it in more than 20 knot winds. Good thing we’ve had a lot of practice! Flawless. Several friendly wagging dogs showed us the way to Ocean Hole Park, just two blocks from the dinghy dock, and we quickly oriented ourselves to the location of the cheap grocery store, the fancy grocery store, the free drinking water, and the absolutely not free happy hour at Frigates.

Then I had a real treat …. I’m a member of the Facebook group Women Who Sail, and I’ve learned a great deal about maintaining a boat and about cruising life from the discussions. A fellow WWS member, Amy, had posted that she lives on Eleuthera and would love to meet up. The timing worked out perfectly and she drove down to meet me and to show off her beautiful island the day before returning to winter in Vermont. We had a great time exploring marinas and secret beaches well beyond the range I could ever reach by foot.

And of course we shared stories about our families, backgrounds, and lives. It’s really special when social media can facilitate real life friendships! Amy gave us tips for where to listen to live music and how to find the local fish frys, and introduced us to another local, Bobby, who we met up with every day for the rest of our stay. Thanks for the homemade bread, cheese, and other treats Amy! And thanks for sharing your love of your beautiful island home.