Sunday, February 19, 2017

A Week in the Berries

We weren’t planning on coming to the Berry Islands originally; the plan was to cross to Bimini and then hightail it to Nassau and beyond to the Exumas, ASAP. But then schedule and weather dictated a departure from Ft. Lauderdale, and my brother Steve flew in to do the crossing with us and didn’t have to leave Nassau until Feb 19th. So when we got a good long weather window the day after he flew in, it made perfect sense to cross all the way to Great Harbour Cay and then spend the week in the Berry Islands before heading to Nassau.

It’s kinda cool that we came back to the Berry Islands, actually. It was a high-altitude sighting of the Great Harbour Cay airstrip and sailboats around the island that gave me the idea for our 2015 flying-sailing trip to the Bahamas. Great Harbour Cay was the first out-island we landed at on that trip, after clearing in at Freeport. The Berries don’t feature heavily on most cruising itineraries (the Abacos and Exumas are far more popular), and thus are fairly quiet despite being the closest cruising grounds to Florida.

Our first morning in the Berries was spent in the Great Harbour Cay marina, on Valentine’s Day, and it started off with a bang. I launched the paddleboard and paddled the perfectly still outer harbor; upon my return Steve and Dawn excitedly informed me that there was a giant manatee just down the dock. I paddled down, they turned on a water tap that reportedly attracted said manatee, and right on cue he appeared. He was massive, every bit as long as our 11’6” paddleboard, with a chunk missing out of his tail attesting to at one close escape in his long life in the harbor. Not an hour later, after I stowed the paddleboard on our forward port lifeline, another manatee appeared alongside – this one a juvenile, but still a good 7 or 8 feet long. Steve jumped in along with Hans, one of the crew of the Swiss RM12 in the next slip. The young manatee proved extremely friendly, even allowing swimmers to ride on his back; in short order, Dawn and I and the ladies on the Swiss boat were in the questionably clean marina water and petting our first manatee. Amazing! Even Piper got in a swim, though he didn't pay the manatee much attention.


We left the dock at 11:30 and arrived at a cove (whose name I don’t know) on the east side of the island just after 3, having motored well around the shoals and cays to the north. We decided to stay here two nights because the wind was forecast to get strong out of the south before daybreak on Wednesday and then get stronger from the southwest that afternoon before a cold front passed early Thursday; this is one of the few anchorages in the area with complete S-NW protection. It turned out to be a gorgeous first anchorage, with beautiful clear water and a sand bottom that reflected aquamarine. We launched the paddleboard soon after arrival, Steve got some spectacular drone footage, and we later took the dinghy to the beach to explore and so Piper could run and play and poop.


The next morning the wind was indeed strong out of the southwest, but we were quite snug in the cove. We started our day exploring Shark Creek by dinghy. It supposedly goes to the west side of Great Harbour Cay but we never made it…must’ve made a wrong turn somewhere. Regardless, it was quite pretty and there were a ton of sea turtles and stingrays in the creek. Afterwards we went to have lunch (and get some internet!) at The New Beach Club on the south side of the cove. In the afternoon we explored Hawksnest Cay, which has some sea caves, tide pools, and a spectacular, deserted half-moon beach facing the ocean. Piper greatly enjoyed running around off-leash but balked at getting in the water to walk around the last point of our circuit of the island. It took some coaxing but he finally did it…only to be rewarded with a drenching during the very wet dinghy ride back against wind and sizable choppy waves…and then a seawater drunking to wash off latent sand before reboarding Windbird! He was not a happy puppy about that.


The wind continued to howl throughout the night and several small squalls passed overhead in the early morning hours. Just after sunrise the wind swang sharply to the northwest, and then started to settle down a bit. We waited until after ten before raising anchor and heading out of the cove, where there were fairly big swells from the north. The wind outside was still averaging 22 knots, and we scooted quickly southward under yankee alone. Dawn got an hour of practice steering with following seas, then Steve took over for the 2nd hour. Approaching Hoffman's Cay we rolled up the sail and started the engine, then worked our way into the winding, current-swept anchorage between Hoffman's, White, and Devil's Cays. Our first attempt at anchoring out of the current resulted in immediate dragging in weeds; by the time we hooked we were too close to a boat behind us, so we picked up and moved over into a sandier spot with much stronger current. This time the anchor set immediately, and continued to hold when we swung with the current every six hours.


The Swiss boat (Cadences) arrived soon after us, and Steve and I went over to talk to them. We all wanted to hike to the Hoffman's Cay Blue Hole, but the trailhead's cove is exposed to the northwest. Steve and I took the dinghy to a more protected cove on the southeast side of Hoffman's but couldn't find a good trail across the island, so we scouted through the cut to the west side of the island. As expected the waves were big and choppy and landing would have been all but impossible. So we were resigned to not going to the Blue Hole on Thursday. Instead we picked up the Swiss crew with our dinghy and we all went over to the protected beach on White Cay. Steve brought his drone and (rather bravely) flew it the mile or so across to the Blue Hole. Afterwards we went to Cadences for sundowners, then came back to Windbird for dinner.

Cadences left for Nassau early Friday; we had considered doing so but decided to do a night sail departing early Saturday instead. Thus we were able to dinghy and hike to the Blue Hole in considerably calmer conditions. In fact it was eerily calm up at the Blue Hole, with barely a ripple on its deep, dark surface. The water is quite clear so you could easily see the sides plunging downward, but no sunlight reaches the bottom - it's well over 100 feet deep. Steve and I took turns flying the drone and filming each other jumping in from the cliffs (only 15-20' tall). Afterwards we came back to Windbird, got her ready to go, and picked up the anchor to reposition another couple miles south to Little Harbour Cay. There was very little wind but we sailed anyways, making an average of 3.5 knots. 


At Little Harbour we tucked in deep behind Cabbage Cay to get out of the easterly swell, dropping the hook in 9.5 feet at high water. As the day progressed we drifted into somewhat shallower water and I thought we might bottom out at low tide, but we never did (we were departing just after high tide anyways). It was a beautiful, wonderfully calm anchorage, and we had fun paddleboarding and snorkeling with stingrays and a lone small reef shark. We later learned that there was a 8 or 9 foot hammerhead shark spotted in the anchorage, but we never saw him. Steve got out his drone and flew it while perched at the masthead in our bosun's chair, which yielded some pretty spectacular footage. This ended up being Dawn's favorite anchorage in the Berries...I think Hoffman's Cay was just as pretty, but this was certainly a calmer, less current-swept anchorage. In the afternoon we took the dinghy over to Flo's Conch Bar for conch fritters and rum & cokes, then returned for sundowners aboard and Boom-Boom Shrimp Tacos for dinner. 


We took Piper to shore around 8pm and then prepared the boat for departure before retiring to bed much earlier than normal. We woke up at 1:30am and had the anchor up at 2am, and were still steaming out to sea through the wide, easy cut. The wind was ESE at 10 knots, later increasing to around 16 by the time we approached Nassau. We could have sailed close-hauled and come within 10-15 degrees of laying the rhumb line, but I knew that by midday the wind and seas were forecast to come up quite a bit so we just kept the engine running and motorsailed lickity-split. We got to Nassau harbour entrance by 9:30am and followed the Carnival Victory ship in. We were anchored in the east channel by 10:15am, ended up deciding to anchor a second time, and then were browbeat into reanchoring once more by a rather rude Canadian sailor (who knew such a thing existed!) last night. But Nassau merits its own post, so I'll wrap this one up. We left Ft. Lauderdale a week ago today, and thus far we've really enjoyed our cruise of the Bahamas. We're really excited to continue southward to the Exumas.



  1. "the wind swang sharply"?! That must be a Minnesota conjugation. Lol!

  2. Thanks for the update and beautiful pics! Looks like you had beautiful weather and I'm sure Steve is sad to have to head home. Look forward to hearing more from you! Love you! M&D

  3. Roger - Hah! Must've slipped by my copy editor! ;-P

  4. "The young manatee proved extremely friendly, even allowing swimmers to ride on his back; in short order, Dawn and I and the ladies on the Swiss boat were in the questionably clean marina water and petting our first manatee. Amazing!"

    Wow Sam, I really expected better from you of all people. Kind of a jerk thing to do to ride a manatee. In Florida it's illegal to even touch one, and rightfully so.

    Really surprised by your actions here.