Island Hopping Back to the U.S.

Map Little Harbour to Miami

This entry starts where we left off in The Whale and the Abacos, as we were preparing for the passage south from the Abacos to the northern end of Eleuthera.

Passage to Eleuthera

We slipped from our mooring in Little Harbour early in the morning to beat the incoming weather front that would make the winds higher and the ocean rougher late in the day. Once we got out in deep water (over 14,000 feet) in the Northwest Providence Channel, we set sails with a following wind and seas striking us from the aft starboard quarter. With the winds in the mid-twenties and the seas up to six feet, it was our fastest crossing to date. We averaged well over 6 knots and actually registered 10.9 knots momentarily while surfing down a wave.

Max Speed

This is crazy speed for a heavy-displacement, full-keel sailboat. The crossing was made even better when Kimberly caught a mahi-mahi on our trolling line.

K and mahi

After fifty-five miles and nine hours, we anchored inside the protected harbor at Royal Island with plenty of daylight to clean the big fish and enjoy some sundowners. The next day, machete in hand, we went ashore to explore what looked like an abandoned pier with some stairs leading into the woods. We could see that there was a small structure deep in the trees, but we were not prepared for what we found behind a dense layer of foliage. At the top of the stairs, we stumbled into the sprawling ruins of a private estate built in the 1930s by a man who wanted a fishing resort to entertain all his friends. He must have had many friends, because this place was a massive complex of cottages. You can still see how magnificent the property layout is under the blanket of green that is slowly consuming it. We even found an orange tree full of fruit that we could not pass up.

Royal Island Ruins Hearth

Royal Island Ruins Plants

K in stone window

K picking oranges

We left Royal Island feeling like extras in an Indiana Jones movie after our exploration of the ruins and set sail for the nearby town of Spanish Wells. The town is the base for a huge fleet of fishing boats that account for over 70 percent of the entire Bahamian harvest of lobster. The resemblance to the towns in south Louisiana with large shrimping fleets was striking. We meandered the wharves and streets in the rain and stumbled into a tiny, but lively locals’ spot, the Buddha Snack Shack for happy hour. We got great advice about where to go on the nearby islands from the locals at the bar and planned our next few days accordingly.

Spanish Wells
My Town

It was Thanksgiving, and we could not believe our poor timing. As we were leaving the Abacos a few days before, we heard on the radio that the cruisers in that area were getting together for a fried turkey dinner; Kimberly almost made me turn the boat around. But she would not be denied fried turkey on Thanksgiving, even if it meant pan frying some smoked turkey deli meat for breakfast.

Fried Turkey

The rest of the day we stayed on board and prepared a huge pot of gumbo for dinner with a fellow cruiser.

Based on the advice of residents, we anchored right off the beach on Russell Island and took the dinghy ashore to the Sand Bar, another great island restaurant and bar. Best of all, we had the rarest of rare luxuries, we could get their wi-fi signal from the boat and have decent enough speeds to surf and upload pictures, and even video.

Dink at Sandbar black and white

Us at Sandbar
s/v Pura Vida in the background

The next day we wanted to set off for the Berry Islands, a lightly inhabited cluster of beautiful islands that promised isolated anchorages, excellent snorkeling, and pristine land areas to explore. But, as is often the case when sailing, the winds would not allow us to go straight there. Instead, we detoured through Nassau and spent a couple of nights at the most populated island in the entire Bahamas. Nassau is the exact opposite of what we were seeking; dirty water, crowded anchorages, lots of large powerboat traffic, non-stop sirens wailing in the distance. It was a stark reminder of some of the things we strive to escape while cruising. After just one night in the main channel we had to leave to find something more peaceful. As we sailed through the main harbor channel, our boat was dwarfed by four immense cruise ships docked just a few hundred feet away.

Cruise ships

We quickly got out of there and anchored in West Bay, still part of Nassau, but out of the way from all the shipping traffic. As we approached the anchorage, we looked curiously at what appeared to be a gigantic Inca totem pole adjacent to a temple pyramid. What was this thing doing in the Bahamas??? We discovered that we were anchoring right offshore from one of the most interesting private residences on the planet – a party pad called Nygard Cay built by a billionaire fashion executive.  It even has its own fake volcano that actually erupts.

Inca House

As interesting as this place was, it was not the Berrys, so we set sail in rolling seas to get to the islands that captured our interest. Our first destination in the Berry Islands was Frozen Cay; quite the misnomer. The guidebooks state that this is a private island that does not welcome visitors, but there was plenty to explore in the surrounding waters. We speared several grunts for dinner and caught our limit of the largest conch we have ever seen. It took me forever to clean them all, but what a delicious treat!

20151203_135113

The next day, we hiked through the woods on nearby Hoffmann Island to a blue hole surrounded by small cliffs and forest.

Blue Hole 2

We jumped in from a ledge twenty feet above until we were sore from hitting the water so much and Kimberly had a nice collection of bruises from trying to do a cannonball from that high up. Ouch!

That night we went to dinner at a place called Flo’s Conch Bar. It’s the only property on Little Harbour Cay, and according to the guidebooks, a “must visit” for cruisers because of the friendly service and great food. Fellow cruisers be warned, Flo’s Conch Bar is the exact opposite: surly service, the worst over-fried frozen food, and exorbitant prices. They even charged us for using their wi-fi! What a letdown.

Flos 2

Time was getting short before we had to head back to Florida to meet family for x-mas. The upcoming forecasted favorable weather window for crossing the Gulf Stream gave us only about one more week in the Berry Islands before we had to set sail for Bimini to stage for the crossing to the U.S. During these last days in the Berrys, we explored more ruins of formerly glorious mansions (there seem to be a lot of those in the Bahamas). Bird Cay is a private island that’s for sale; if you have a cool $8.9 million, it can be yours. It includes the ruins of the mansion built by the heir to the Standard Oil fortune in the 1940s and was once used to entertain such notables as Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Cary Grant, among many.

Bird Cay 1

Bird Cay 2

We also met other sailors and had drinks aboard their beautiful boat at Chub Cay. Meeting friendly fellow cruisers like Glenda and Greg aboard Ti Amo is one of the reasons we do this.

The winds were finally dropping into the low twenties and it was time to head for Bimini, stop for one night, and then cross over to Miami to check back into the U.S. before the winds were forecast to pick back up into the thirties. The 80 mile passage from Chub Cay to Bimini would take approximately sixteen hours, so in order to arrive in daylight, we had to leave at night. The approach to Bimini can be confusing in the dark and we wanted to avoid this.

Passage Chub to Miami

We decided to leave mid-afternoon, do a night passage, and arrive just after sunrise. It was a cloudy and moonless night, but since the passage did not have any major obstacles, we felt confident taking off. Once we got a few miles away from Chub Cay, there was absolutely zero light except our own running lights and the occasional bioluminescence in the water. With no visible landmarks, we were navigating strictly by GPS. We were sailing fast with just the genoa (big headsail in the front of the boat) and making great time. Sometime around midnight, all the instruments went dark. The GPS shut down, the autopilot stopped steering, the depth gauge went blank, even the light on the compass stopped shining. I steered as straight a course as I could manage under the conditions while Kimberly scrambled downstairs to check the breakers. We’re not sure what happened, but something tripped all the instrument breakers leaving us temporarily blind in the middle of the Great Bahamas Bank. Fortunately, after a few minutes everything was back up and running, especially our adrenaline! Lesson learned: always have a flashlight at the helm to see the compass if everything else fails.

For the second time in our travels so far, our planning was foiled by great winds giving us better sailing speed than expected. Instead of a sixteen hour passage with a sunrise arrival in Bimini, we had a twelve hour passage with a 3 a.m. arrival in complete darkness. Time to head behind the first island in Bimini and anchor off the beach for a little protection from the rolling swell to await daylight. We did not sleep. The rolling was so bad that we kept crashing into each other and the walls on the side of our bed. As soon as daylight broke, we headed for the Bimini Sands Marina (recommended by other cruisers on Facebook) to get some rest for a day before crossing the Gulf Stream.

We left at 8 a.m. in beautiful conditions with the seas and winds in our favor. We felt a little like salmon going upstream since every other boat we encountered was heading the other direction. December is the start of the season for snowbirds migrating to the Bahamas and we were going against traffic. The enormity of Miami never fails to impress. We could see the sprawling skyline from almost twenty miles offshore. When we entered the port of Miami, our boat looked like it had been shrunk. All the docks are designed for massive cruise and cargo ships; each dock fender was as large as Pura Vida. We motored as Lilliputians past the main port toward a mooring field near Coconut Grove where we could get a taxi the next day to go to the U.S. Customs office to clear back into the country. Since we’re going back to the Bahamas in January, we were not sad that our tour of the northern islands is over.

Map N Bahamas route

We were thrilled to be back in the land of unlimited cellphone calls, Amazon Prime deliveries, giant grocery stores, and all the amenities we so often take for granted. We will enjoy them for a little while…just long enough to make us want to leave them again.

14 comments:

    1. So glad you’re enjoying the blog. After JM wrote this last one I was getting excited while reading it – like I wasn’t there when it actually happened. 🙂 Happy New Year!! Love ya!!

  1. Exploring the abandoned ruins of houses and resorts has always been one of my favorite things to do when cruising the Bahamas. Its also why I never worry too much about development on the out islands. They never seem to last!

    1. We’re quickly learning what fun this can be! We’re also learning to always bring bug spray – those abandoned pools are breeding grounds for mosquitoes!

    1. Not yet. We only stopped in Bimini for a day on the way back to the U.S. for the holidays. We’re exploring Bimini when we return to the Bahamas later this month.

  2. I am amazed at the access available to these old estates by wandering explorers. Here, every square inch of land is fenced and posted. I bet it was incredible to see those old estates and imagine the parties and goings on the islands must have seen during their heyday.

    PS… I am enthralled by your blog! I read a post or two of three everyday. It won’t be long before I catch up with you. Smooth Sailing guys!!!!

    W.

    1. That means a lot that you like it so much.
      We were also surprised at the access to the old mansions and properties. We have been very to happy to note that, unlike in the US, many of the prime beachfront areas are widely accessible to the public. You find a lot of modest homes in places that in the US would have been gobbled up by fenced McMansions or luxury condos.

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