We finally made it to the Bahamas! Our first Gulf Stream crossing was extremely calm – too calm, in fact. Although it was carrying us north at 2.5 knots, we had no wind to assist its efforts, and we ended up motoring the whole 18 hours. Of course, things got more exciting when thunderstorms started forming all around us at 3 a.m. We made a cold, wet arrival at West End, Grand Bahama on September 24, and slept like babies before clearing into our first foreign port. After completing tons of forms and paying a hefty cruising permit fee, we lowered the quarantine flag and hoisted the Bahamian ensign (a maritime custom indicating we were cleared into the country).
The crystal waters at our first anchorage were amazing, and within 2 days we were collecting and preparing conch like pros! After one of our conch gathering swims we were met with visitors. The Bahamian Defense Force boarded us! Two of the sailors stayed with us onboard for half an hour, checking our passports and entry documents, and enjoying some of our New Orleans beer. When they were done with the inspection, they asked us to check a box on a form indicating whether “we were satisfied” with the way the boarding had been carried out. (We were.) And friends may wonder why we refuse to have any illegal “contraband” on our boat!
Despite our love of our first beautiful Bahamian anchorage, we were eager to move on. We made a couple of quick stops, each about 20 miles apart, in Mangrove Cay and Great Sale Cay. There, we were able to fully enjoy the “super blood moon” with no nearby city lights.
In the calm bay of Great Sale Cay, I made my first hike up the mast. Climbing to a height of 60 feet on a bobbing boat is quite an exhilarating experience. The climb was necessary to adhere some special bling to the top of the mast. A couple of fleur de lis cut from reflective tape makes it easier to distinguish our boat in a crowded anchorage when returning home after dark.
From here we were excited to start traversing the Northern Abaco Cays, starting almost at the northeastern tip of the Bahamas – Little Grand Cay. Per a guidebook, we expected to find a charming little town with a few places to stop for libations, and where we might stock up on fresh veggies. What we found instead was a very overpriced dive bar in a very dirty town. I know trash disposal in the Bahamas is a challenge, but there was garbage everywhere on the ground. The best part of this settlement was the people. In fact, we’ve learned that this is the case everywhere in this country. Everyone is friendly and welcoming, even when they’re charging you $7 for a dozen eggs and a bell pepper.
The anchorage here was not ideal. Inside the bay the grass was so thick we couldn’t get our anchor to hold. Outside we held fine in sand. The problem was that it was very, very shallow sand, and we ended up resting on the bottom at low tide. It’s very disconcerting to see part of your hull rising out of the water with each passing hour. All we could do was wait for high tide in the morning.
We next headed to Double Breasted Cay, an uninhabited and picturesque locale. Unfortunately, we didn’t get a chance to enjoy it for long. As if it weren’t bad enough that the strong current in opposition to the wind kept our boat dragging and swinging all day, we got word that the Bahamas was on hurricane watch. (Soon we’ll do a blog entry on how we get weather forecasts with no internet.) We knew we had time before Hurricane Joachin became a threat to us so we decided to stay put and set two anchors to steady us in the strong current – another first for us. The next morning, we got news that we were now under a hurricane warning, and that Joaquin was strengthening and heading right for us! All models told the same story – the safest place to be would be as far west as we could get, so back to our first anchorage it was! (It was now October 1st, the day John-Michael officially retired from the U.S. Army. We definitely found time to celebrate that!)
Two days later, with the hurricane already pummeling many of the easternmost islands, we were safely at anchor in a spot we only knew about because of Facebook. We reached out to a couple of sailing groups and learned about a residential development in the works near West End that had a waterway carved out with plenty of room for lots of boats to seek refuge, and we had it all to ourselves.
The only hurricane effects we experienced were 20+ knot winds – perfect for sailing! Too bad we were at anchor. At least we had lots of time to learn how to play our new favorite card game, Gin Rummy. We’re totally addicted!
By the 4th of October we were heading back in the direction from which we’d come. This passage, however, would be a bit more challenging than the last. On our way to a new anchorage, Carter’s Cay, we sailed through some hellacious storms. Winds were gusting up past 30 knots, from several directions, then back down to almost nothing. John-Michael was exhausted in his constant battle against the gusty winds, with an autopilot that could not keep up with the conditions, and I was exhausted with all the sail changes needed. Then one of our spare lines atop the mast got twisted around our staysail furler, (the smaller of our two headsails) preventing us from rolling it in. THEN, one of our headsail lines (called a “jib sheet”) came loose and knotted itself tightly around the other one. We were able to furl that sail, but we couldn’t use either headsail until JM remedied both situations by crawling forward in nasty winds. My hero! We were SO ready for a peaceful anchorage…but NOOOOOO. Carter’s Cay lies at a cut between Little Bahama Bank and the Atlantic Ocean. The current in that cut is STRONG. When extremely windy conditions counter that current and wash over the reef on the Atlantic side an event called a “rage” occurs. We didn’t know about that at the time, but we knew we had a helluva time sleeping that night. We were anchored in clay-like sand, so we stayed put through it all, but the heavy rocking back and forth made for a fitful night of bouncing against the walls. By the next morning, however, it was glorious. Because we’d stuck so firmly in place the night before, we knew we had good holding, so we decided to stay for a few more days. (One of us ALWAYS dives on our anchor to ensure that it is properly set.)
Carter’s Cay was great. It’s uninhabited except for a few fishermen who stay on their boats or on the island occasionally before heading to their home ports with their freezers full of fish and lobster. (Called “crawfish” here. Now I understand why there’s a limit of 10 “crawfish” per boat. When I first read that I laughed out loud.) One of these boats moored nearby on our last day. It’s this boat captain who asked us how we fared in the rage. I was glad to learn this new, important term. This super friendly man came to our boat with 8 lobster (I just can’t bring myself to call them crawfish), which he cleaned and seasoned for us, and wanted nothing in return!
We sent him back with the last of our NOLA beers and some crackers. These are the FRIENDLIEST people!! (Funny side note: When prepping the lobster he asked for something called “sour”. I asked him to explain but he couldn’t. I offered balsamic vinegar, which he said “would be strange, but… okay.” Days later I asked a lady at a grocery store for this mysterious ingredient. “Oh, he was just asking for lemon juice.”)
Carter’s Cay was fun to explore, in and out of the water. There’s an abandoned U.S. military missile tracking base there, which was kind of spooky, and a beautiful reef nearby where John-Michael speared a couple of tasty hogfish for us. How nice to catch our own dinner, finally!
The upper Abaco cays were a fun start to our journey. As it continues, I know we’ll encounter some of the destruction caused by Hurricane Joachin to this island paradise and its kind people. When we asked a man on West End if he had any family who were affected by the storm he said, “not immediate family, but, you know, we’re all family here in the Bahamas”.