Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Shock to the System

During the nearly four weeks we spent cruising the Exumas between Nassau and Georgetown, the largest village we saw was Black Point, which had a population of 230 as of the 2010 census. Georgetown, "the big city" in the Exumas, has a population of 1437. So it was a bit of a shock to the system to fly back to the U.S. and drive in the Atlanta metro (pop 5.7 million) during rush hour, then fly a four day trip with long layovers in New York City (pop 8.5 million in city limits) and Los Angeles (12.8 million in metro area). Those three cities alone have roughly 72x the population of the entire Bahamas! The good news is that I got my FAA medical taken care of on Friday, and the captain I was flying with was quite generous and let me make all three landings, so my landing currency is reset. Otherwise I would have had to go back to work before May 6th, right around the time we'll be crossing back to the States.

While I was gone it blew pretty hard for several days, but straight out of the Northeast. Windbird was quite protected on her mooring in Gaviota Bay, and Dawn had no trouble ferrying Piper to shore. They got quite a bit of hiking in on Stocking Island and visited with friends while I was gone. Dawn also stripped and sanded several pieces that need revarnishing: our cockpit table, the engine control cover, and the teak trim ring around our compass.

I finished my trip at 6am yesterday (I flew the redeye from LAX) and had several hours to kill before my flight to Georgetown. By pure coincidence, my friends Duncan and Katie and their two boys had just arrived on the redeye from Portland and were waiting for their connecting flight to St. Thomas, where they were taking the ferry to Tortola to begin a bareboat charter. Duncan owns a 51' Jeanneau that is in charter service with The Moorings; I've chartered boats in the BVI and elsewhere using his points several times over the last few years. I normally go to the "Interline Regatta" in the BVI with Duncan & Katie every October, but skipped this last year since Dawn & I were at the Annapolis Boat Show, so it was good to see them. We plan to have them aboard Windbird this summer or fall, and we hope to have Windbird at the 2018 Interline Regatta.

I landed in Georgetown just before 1pm and was surprised to see Bret and Theresa from Elusive when I walked out of customs. They were meeting their daughter who was arriving on the American flight that landed just after mine. We shared a taxi downtown, and I met Dawn next to the Exuma Market. We reprovisioned right away, we filled our jerry cans with water at the dinghy dock, then dinghied across to Windbird. Piper was very happy to see me! We went across to the Chat N Chill and had a late lunch of conch salad and a shared hamburger, then headed back to Windbird and moved the boat off of the mooring and anchored further north, right in between Monument Beach and Honeymoon Beach. It's a nice spot but quite deep; I dove on the anchor as the sun was setting and it took me a few tries to find it in the dark, silty (stirred-up) water.

We have a rather long list of deferred boat maintenance (mostly cosmetic stuff) that we'll be working on this week. Today Dawn continued with her sanding/varnishing project, while I borrowed a Loos Meter and retensioned our rigging, worked on the watermaker, and cleaned up some SSB connections. After lunch we took a break to return the Loos meter to its owner and run across to town to see if the fresh produce had come in yet (it hadn't), get more water, and buy a hawaiian sling and spear at the Top-To-Bottom store. Tonight both Dawn and I took the paddleboard out; I stopped and visited with several boats we know that just came in yesterday. Boat work continues tomorrow but hopefully we'll find some time to run over to Sand Dollar Beach for snorkeling (and spear-fishing!) on the offlying reef.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Meet The Parents

We had a great nine days with my mom and dad aboard Windbird, with decent (albeit a bit coldish) weather and cooperative winds and spectacular sailing. We made it to Georgetown on Tuesday morning, put Windbird on a mooring, and then both my parents and I flew out yesterday afternoon. They were heading back to Minneapolis, while I came to Atlanta for an eye appointment and FAA physical today and a 4-day work trip (JFK, LAX) starting tomorrow. Meanwhile Dawn and Piper are staying on the boat for what may be the last good blow of the season.

Boy, it's been ten days since I've posted. I'll try to summarize:
  • Mar 15, Mom & Dad flew in from Nassau on a Flamingo Air Be-99. It was the middle of a norther, making for an extremely slow and extremely wet 1.5mi dinghy ride back to the boat. I should know by now that wet/rough conditions = MAX 2 people & bags in the dinghy at one time. Later I took them around Big Major's to feed the pigs and then over to Thunderball Grotto to snorkel and feed the fish. Their new snorkel equipment wasn't working great - not impressed with the one-piece over-the-face mask-snorkel combos. We met up with Lani, Greenstone, and Saber Tooth in the Big Majors anchorage. 
  • Mar 16, a nice 19nm sail up to Warderick Wells (close-reaching and then beating in N-NNE winds). Got a ball at the very end of the north mooring field. Visited park headquarters, took my parents snorkeling at the Ranger's Garden site. Was just after slack water and the current came up a lot quicker than expected, and I ended up dragging my mom back to the dinghy and then going to rescue my dad who was clinging to another mooring buoy for dear life. This was only 20 minutes after low tide. 
  • Mar 17, wind was howling from NE. Took the dinghy around Warderick Wells to the Hog Cay anchorage where we snorkeled and explored Pirate's Lair and Hog Cay. Later we hiked up Boo Boo Hill. It got pretty chilly in the afternoon so we scratched our planned afternoon snorkel expedition.
  • Mar 18, wind was still up above 15 kts so we did a nice broadish reach to Conch Cut via the banks, then beat up to Cambridge Cay, total 13nm. It was just approaching high tide so we took the Kiss Rock entry and never saw less than 8.5 feet. We loaded up the dinghy and took mom and dad to the Sea Aquarium, which they absolutely loved. On the way back we explored the Pasture Cay/Bell Cay area a bit, and then went hiking on Cambridge after we got back. The wind was still a bit too high to make the trip out to the Rocky Dundas, which was a bit disappointing as I didn't make it out there on either visit. Maybe next time. 
  • Mar 19, sailed 22nm from Cambridge Cay down to Black Point via Exuma Sound. The wind was NNW 10-14 kts so we set our spinnaker pole for the first time and gybed back and forth between a broad reach and wing-on-wing, which worked pretty great. We made good time on a really pleasant sail. The wind was just far enough west that the Black Point anchorage was pretty rolly/choppy, but not untenable. We really enjoyed the cute little settlement; it has a lot to offer cruisers and I can see why people stay there a while. 
  • Mar 20, sailed 12nm to Little Farmers Cay via the banks on a beam reach in NE 15 kts. We went a little further to take the deeper-draft route in and never saw less than 9 feet on a midtide; we initially went around to between Little Farmers and Great Guana Cays and found it a bit too rough for our liking. Besides, the moorings appeared to be in sorry shape and the bottom looked fairly rocky and scoured, so I decided to backtrack to anchor on the SW side of the island (which everyone else had done). There were several boats we know in the anchorage so we spent some time visiting Crimson Katherine, Brown Eye Girl, and Aura before heading into the quaint little town. We had dinner reservations at Ocean Cabin, which was a pretty fantastic meal; the owner, Terry Bain, is also an interesting and funny guy. Before we went to bed we put the dinghy on the foredeck and prepped the boat for an early departure.
  • Mar 21st, we were awake at 2am, anchor up at 2:30, and bashing our way out of Farmer's Cut by 3am. The wind was down to NE at 12 kts and the early departure was in order to go at slack high water to avoid a wind-vs-current was still pretty gnarly in the cut, a lot worse than I expected. Here's the really bad part: Dawn had been on the foredeck with the spotlight to assist in our somewhat intricate route around the south end of Farmer's (we had a track from the previous day) and I called her back to the cockpit just a little too late and she didn't hear me. In the next ten seconds it went from slight swell to bashing into near-breakers, and she was stuck on the foredeck clinging for dear life to the rolled-up Yankee. Bad, bad, bad. At least she had the good sense to not try to come back during that. In my sleepy pre-sail preparation I neglected to run jacklines, which we normally consider mandatory at night. It was a really stupid oversight that could've turned disastrous if we'd buried the bow in a breaker. The rest of the night passage went really well (other than my Mom getting seasick); my dad in particular really enjoyed it, and I'm glad we did it. But looking back, I think our previous success in timing cuts to avoid rough conditions had made me a bit complacent. 
We arrived at Coral Cay Cut just after 10am, having passed by a good 15 outbound boats including a sister Tayana 42 (Green Ghost) that hailed us on the VHF to tell us we looked good. We sailed all the way through Elizabeth Harbour to the anchorage at volleyball beach. We took the first free mooring ball we saw, but subsequent inspection showed it was completely inadequate for anything other than completely calm conditions (which we had Tuesday night). We took the dinghy over to Georgetown, walked around, and checked out the services on offer. It was smaller than I expected, albeit the largest town I'd been in for nearly a month. Right next to the dinghy bridge I was delighted to see Texas Two Step, former buddy-boaters with my friends Lance and Andy on S/V Yolo. I had actually met Leslie in Ft. Pierce during my boat-shopping roadtrip with Lance in May, but this was my first time meeting Dave. He's a commercial helicopter pilot (specializing in long-line heavy lift) and we hit it off pretty well.

Wednesday morning I dove on a number of nearby moorings and found a couple of suitable ones; we moved Windbird right away. Dave and Leslie moved T2S to a nearby mooring later in the morning since they were flying out Thursday, then Dave took me spearfishing outside of Elizabeth Cay. It was a little rough out in the sound but I really enjoyed it. Dave is pretty good at it and I was mostly watching - the few opportunities I had to take a shot, I was too slow and moving a bit too much in the surge. I did quite a bit of hunting through the various holes and crags of the reefs, though. My free-diving abilities, while nothing to write home about, have drastically improved in the last six weeks - I can get down to about 30 feet and stay there for 30-40 seconds. None of the reefs we checked were particularly bountiful but Dave managed to snag two lobster, a red snapper, and a decent-sized Porgee. After I got back my Dad and I took a run across to Georgetown to fill jerry cans with water and gasoline, and then we met Dave and Leslie and several other cruisers at Chat N Chill. I ordered Conch Salad from the nearby good. Dawn liked it too. My parents tried it and my mom liked it but was a bit too weirded out by the conch preparation, while my dad didn't care for the texture. Back at Windbird, I cleaned, filleted, and grilled the fish, which we subsequently brought over to T2S. Leslie showed Dawn how to make Cracked Lobster (or conch) and we had a really nice feast. We'd originally been planning to go out to dinner for my parents' last night but they agreed this was much better. It was really nice of Dave and Leslie to take the four of us under their wing, based on little more than a few mutual friends and a shared appreciation for sailing and the sea. Thus far I've found this kind of mentality to be much more the rule than the exception out here.

I think we're a bit after the peak for cruisers in Georgetown but there are still a ton of boats spread over several anchorages and holes (the recent cruiser's regatta had ~400 boats). There is a VHF net at 8am every morning; on Wednesday we called in during the "New Arrivals" segment, and the next day I advertised that Dawn was looking for hiking partners in my absence. Almost immediately after the net Endangered Species called us up and said they had buddy boated with Mark & Judy in the Pacific during their respective circumnavigations, and Judy had emailed them saying to be on the lookout for us! Shortly thereafter there was a knock on the hull and Gwen from Tackless Too introduced herself...another friend of Mark & Judy alerted by email! In her case she's also alone on their boat for a few days (plus pooch) and was also looking for a hiking partner. Perfect! I'm pretty confident that Dawn will be well taken care of in my absence.

My eye appointment just got cancelled (sick doctor, ugh) and there's a chance I'm going to have to extend my stay in Atlanta by a day. I certainly hope not. As things stand now, I'll be flying back to Georgetown on Tuesday morning, Dawn and I will hang out locally and work on the boat until April 4th, then our friends Brad & Amber fly in. Depending on weather we hope to go to Long Island and/or Cat Island for a few weeks (Brad & Amber will fly back to Nassau from there). We'll be back in Georgetown for my birthday on April 17th, Judy will fly in the 18th, and then we'll start working our way north. I'm thinking a fourth visit to the Land & Sea Park is in order, then crossing to Eleuthera and out via the Abacos is going to be our plan. We'll replace canvas and expand our solar this summer while cruising the Chesapeake, then hit the Bahamas again next Nov/Dec on our way south (east!) to the Caribbean. I've really enjoyed these last six weeks and Dawn has too; I think the cruising life is suiting us just fine.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Back to Staniel Cay

We're back at Staniel Cay, once again to wait out weather and for guest flight connections. This time the weather is a little garden-variety cold front spun off from the giant nor'easter about to pound New England, and the guests are my parents who are flying in tomorrow and staying nine days. We were originally planning to come here today but, as usual, the weather has final say.

On Sunday morning I got up at 7am - no Chris Parker makes Sunday my day to sleep in! Actually the clock had just sprung forward to 7am was really 6am so far as many body was concerned, but nevertheless it felt kinda like sleeping in and I was still up before the sun for another gorgeous dawn paddleboard excursion. We were planning to go snorkeling again but Dawn decided she'd rather not as she had a bad blister on her toe from Saturday's snorkel marathon. Later we fixed her up with some moleskin to make putting her fins on bearable, but our Sunday morning outing consisted of hiking the hills and cairns of jagged Hog Cay. We got some nice pics of Windbird in the gorgeous, protected Hog Cay anchorage as well as the first hilltop scrap of 3G we'd had since Shroud Cay. Naturally, I used it to update facebook (primarily to assure my parents that we were still alive - sure enough, they were a little nervous that they hadn't been able to contact us in nearly a week and were supposed to fly to meet us shortly).

After finishing the hike we got the boat together, slipped the mooring, and rode a rollicking 3-knot current out into a rather choppy Exuma Sound. The wind was pretty directly on the nose so we just motorsailed the 8.8 miles down to Cambridge Cay. We had a mooring shortly after noon, I took Piper to a beach that turned out to be a giant tidal flat (which he loved running across at breakneck speed despite occasionally tripping rather comically over crab holes), I stopped to talk to "Minnesota Mafia" members Night Star (we just missed Greenstone and Saber Tooth), and then Dawn and I loaded up the dinghy with snorkel safari gear and cruised several miles north to the Sea Aquarium, on the northern tip of O'Brian's Cay. Incidentally, in the Bahamas with a boat of any draft whatsoever, a go-fast dinghy is pretty close to a necessity. Our 15-hp Yamaha Enduro two-stroke on a 13-foot West Marine RIB is pretty much the perfect combination for two people & a dog. With four people aboard, though, it's almost impossible to plane - that's when I wish we had a bit more power.

The Sea Aquarium was as spectacular as rumored, with absolute hordes of Seargeant-Majors, Parrotfish, Triggerfish, Angelfish, Wrasses, Nassau Groupers, and assorted small reef fish. Dawn really liked it but still rated her find off Hog Cay as a better snorkel. We also stopped off at Airplane Reef, a reef that a supposedly-drug-running Cessna 210 happened to crash right on top of in the 1980s. The plane is still there in 20 feet of water and quite intact, and both doors are missing making it possible to swim right through! After a while there the current was starting to run and Dawn was getting cold, so we cruised back to the boat, picked up Piper, and went to the beach. We found a short trail to the eastern side of the island and then up to a series of headlands marked with cairns and overlooking spectacular high cliffs. Most of the cliff path was free of the thicket of scrub brush that normally covers Bahamian cays, and the low heather that abounded instead made it look almost like something you'd see on the west coast of Ireland.

On our way back to the boat we ran south to the little sandbar with the pay box, paid for two nights, let Piper run around a bit, then headed back to the boat for sunddowners and dinner. Gorgeous sunset, and now it's not until after 7pm! At 9 we ran Piper back to the sandspit in the moonlight, and the next morning Dawn brought him back out there on the paddleboard. It was a pretty good workout getting out there against the falling tide, she said, but the return trip was quite speedy. In the meantime I had listened to Chris Parker on the SSB, and the news wasn't great. On Saturday he'd been talking about an incoming cold front but it sounded like high winds would hold off until Tuesday night. Now, two days later, he said high southwesterly wind would start before dawn on Tuesday and advised being in a secure anchorage by Monday night. Cambridge is fairly secure with stout, well-maintained moorings, but is a bit open to the southwest. What concerned me more was the prospect of sailing to Staniel in big wind on Tuesday and then running into the anchorage via Big Rock Cut, a somewhat shallow, narrow cut that is known to be quite prone to raging. So we reluctantly forfeited our second night's mooring payment and our snorkel plans for the day, packed up, and headed out.

Now in retrospect I could have stuck to my original plan. The wind did pick up today but not quite as much as Chris was predicting, and the squalls have held off till late afternoon. The southwesterly wind direction would have made for a near-beam reach, and sticking close to the cays would have provided fairly flat seas. Big Rock Cut was much easier to cross than reputed (granted, we made sure to arrive near slack tide). But I've been making a conscious effort to continue to make conservative decisions out here even though (or because) our comfort level has been increasing considerably. So I did the conservative thing, came back a day early, and was rewarded with a 12-mile bash into choppy seas and 12-15 knots directly on the nose. We at least had plenty of time before our planned low-tide arrival at Big Rock Cut, so we turned off the engine and beat upwind the first 2.5 hours. Dawn was at the helm quite a bit and did very well, and I of course enjoyed my turns steering upwind. Windbird is hardly the most weatherly racer out there but she's no slug either...she stands up well to her sails and lets you know when she's in the groove. We did one big tack offshore and then one long tack down the coast - during which we got lifted a good 30 degrees - and then decided that to keep our appointment with slack water we should furl the Yankee, hoist the iron genny, and make tracks for the last hour to Big Rock Cut. I belatedly threw out a line for the last hour (it's been stowed lately because there's no fishing in the Exuma Park) but didn't get any strikes despite straddling the dropoff and veering for some promising-looking patches of seaweed.

We anchored "Between The Majors" in anticipation of today and tomorrow's blow, and it's far from the perfect anchorage. The bottom is mostly scoured rock and seaweed with poor holding except for a sandy patch that's a little too shallow for comfort on Windbird. It took two tries to grab, and after hooking up the second time a quick snorkel on the anchor confirmed a rather tenuous-looking hold on the bottom. Last night the southerlies started to blow and a bunch of surge worked up inside the anchorage, turning it into a rocking-rolling mess; then after high tide it was wind against current, which on Windbird is always anyone's guess what's going to happen. Her high forward sheer likes to catch the wind and turn her slightly ass-to, but her underbody likes to "sail" forward into current. In this case those dynamics resulted in her sailing wildly to and fro right over the top of her anchor, east and west in giant 160-foot arcs to each end of her chain, for nearly five hours from 10pm to 3am. It's an absolutely wonder we didn't jerk the anchor out of the bottom or otherwise drag, but we stayed more put than our neighbors. It was an utterly sleepless night for me, and by extension Dawn, though I slept (napped) out on the starboard settee.

The reason for my anchoring choice became more apparent this morning when the wind veered southwest and increased considerably. Our friends Jack, Linda and Naia on S/V Lani are anchored over at Big Majors (we visited via dinghy yesterday) and had a comfortable night followed by a miserable, boat-bound day today as massive surge poured around the point. Most of the boats over there left today; many came over here and tonight promises to be a more crowded repeat of last night, though Windbird should be better behaved with westerly winds vs north/south current. We stayed put enough today for me to feel comfortable leaving the boat to bash our way to town in the dinghy for reprovisioning, trash disposal, and a drink at SCYC. Other than that it was mostly a boat cleaning, water-making, battery-charging and hair-cutting day here on Windbird. My parents flew into Nassau this afternoon and will be landing at Staniel Cay tomorrow morning around 8:30am. What we'll do then depends entirely on the weather, and particularly whether the extended forecast contains probable weather windows to get to Georgetown. We'd like to head back north for a third visit to Exuma Park, but only if we're reasonably sure we'll have one good day (or night) on the Sound to get 30-60 miles southeast (depending on where we jump off) and make it through the cut into Elizabeth Harbour in decent conditions and with good light. So as with everything out here, we're playing it by ear.

Another Bite at the Apple

Written 3/11/17

Dawn and Christina thoroughly enjoyed their Thursday morning paddleboard exploration of Shroud Cay’s middle creek. They detoured into several small side creeks and were able to see several sharks, rays, turtles, and other wildlife. While they were gone, Piper and I took the dinghy over to Fresh Well Bay and hiked up to the namesake well, which has been providing good sweet water to mariners since the 1700s. Afterward we scrambled around and bushwhacked a bit getting some panoramic shots of the western mooring field, then took the dinghy over to the southwestern creek where I rowed in a little ways (no motorized vessels are permitted except for the northernmost creek to Driftwood Beach). About that time the girls called on the mobile VHF so we drifted back out of the creek and started the engine to zip over to pick them up. Once back on the boat Dawn and I had lunch, then got the boat ready to go and raised the anchor for our short motor up to Hawksbill Cay. The wind was out of the east at 10 knots so I rolled out the jib to motorsail – and it promptly veered southeast, almost south. So much for that.

Hawksbill Cay is where Dawn and I unknowingly flew over Windbird on March 29th, 2015, during our flying/sailing tour of the Bahamas. At the time Mark and Judy were northbound from Warderick Wells, on their way back to the States. So it was cool to go back to the site of our original rendezvous and recreate Judy’s shot of Windbird from that day – albeit with a few less boats and a few more clouds in the background. We hiked up to a cairn to get the shot shortly after we moored, and then were heading up the western coast to find some ruins when the skies opened up. We hastily retreated to the boat and decided to go the next morning, which is just what we did, as soon as Chris Parker’s SSB forecast was over. The Russell Plantation ruins turned out to be quite extensive but quite, well, ruined…they date to 1785 and what various hurricanes haven’t destroyed, the vegetation is well on its way to obliterating. Still a neat spot, and a very nice hike.

It’s only about 10 miles from Hawksbill Cay to Warderick Wells as the crow flies, but to get to the South Mooring Field we had to go out to the sound via Alligator Cay Cut and then wind our way back in through the reef and behind Hog Cay for a total of nearly 18 miles. We had enough wind to motorsail but not quite enough to sail, and made pretty good time, 3+15 enroute, to arrive shortly after low tide. The entrance is fairly narrow…not quite as narrow as the north mooring field, but the sides are jagged rocks rather than submerged sandbars, so it feels a lot narrower! Once inside there is 360-degree protection, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. A lot of current runs through, like at all the other cut anchorages around here, but you learn to plan your day in six-hour chunks around the tides. We were the only boat in the anchorage yesterday, though two more came in today.

After getting in we took Piper to the beach to do his business, checked out a palm-lined clearing known as “Pirate's Lair” (not hyperbole for once – this really was a major pirate hangout back in the day), hiked across the island to Turtle Beach, then walked back around the island’s jagged southern perimeter. Once we got back I decided I had to get in the gorgeous water to cool down, current be damned, and devised a nice way of doing so. I hung one of our docklines off the back of the boat with a bowline at the end, stripped down to my birthday suit, jumped off the boat, floated back to the line, put my foot in the loop, and body-surfed the 3-knot current, cold beer in hand!

We launched the paddleboard just before sunset, near slack tide, and I took a nice calm sunset cruise around the anchorage. It was so nice I got up early to repeat it this morning just before sunrise, and then Dawn took over for a good hour or so with Piper as a passenger while I listened to Chris Parker. Once she got back I made Mexican Breakfast, and then dove into my “to-do” list for the day. Boat maintenance/repair items have been piling up a bit as I’ve been a little too busy enjoying all the scenic anchorages and their diversions. I started by remounting our Garmin Gwind receiver for better wifi reception (our wind instrument has been somewhat intermittent), realigned our alternator which involved digging through most of the ship’s spares looking for just the right bolt (it was in the bag labeled “alternator!”), resecured the boom vang tang for like the third time now (a charm?), tried to troubleshoot our transmission after the forward gear temporarily failed to engage twice in the last two days (no culprit found, which worries me), and did some electrical troubleshooting in the forward V-berth. I didn’t get around to cleaning my SSB connections…reception has been pretty clear out here, anyways, it’s just that Chris Parker never seems to hear my transmissions (possible due to five boats trying to chime in at once?). And the stainless steel remained unpolished. Maybe tomorrow.

We took a break in the middle of boat work for some slack tide snorkeling. Dawn found some hotspots during her paddleboarding this morning, and the one we snorkeled turned out to be absolutely spectacular. We’ll check out the other one tomorrow morning at high tide before taking off. Late this afternoon, we packed up the dinghy and took it completely around the island to the Park headquarters at the north mooring field, where they had their once-weekly Happy Hour under the tiki hut on Powerful Beach. It was a full house with all moorings full and a few in attendance from Emerald Rock as well. We didn’t know anyone beforehand but there were several boats we’d seen before or heard on the VHF, and everyone was quite friendly. Piper got quite a few “accidentally” dropped morsels and lots of fond pats on the head. We came back well after sunset, but the full moon was quite high by then and lit our way home nicely. Oh, and we had Dawn's waterproofed iPad with our earlier track, too.

The fact that it’s a full moon reminds us that we’ll have been in the Bahamas for a full month come Monday. By my count about seven days of that has been spent hiding from weather, two days in Nassau while I flew back to Atlanta, and another couple days dropping off or picking up guests. We’ve still seen a ton in the time we’ve had, and we absolutely love it here. And though we’ve seen a couple of decent blows, the rest of the time the weather has been pretty accommodating in letting us move up and down the islands pretty much at will. We’re really glad we were able to come back up to the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park, because all of our favorite parts thus far have been here. My parents are flying into Staniel Cay on Wednesday so we’ll have to head back down there in a few days, but if the weather forecast cooperates we hope to come back up here with them for a third time.

The Perfect Sail

We've been mostly without internet for the last week except for the occasional dab of 3G on hilltop hikes, so my interim posts will be backdated. Here's "The Perfect Sail," written 3/8/17.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

A Good 4-Day Blow

The wind picked up markedly out of the northeast after midnight on Saturday, and by dawn it was 040 at 28 gusting 35. I had the anchor alarm set but was still up quite a bit to make sure all our neighbors were holding fast. We all held well and there was no drama Saturday night. Sunday was gloomy and cold, and virtually nobody left their boats except for us, for Piper's shore breaks. We took him to Pig Beach - away from the hungry swine -  and later explored Pirate's Beach (a cruiser meeting spot with secondhand tables, benches, chairs, games, and a grill) and the unnamed beach north of it. The first dinghy ride was pretty wet, until I adjusted my technique: put everyone further back in the boat, use half-throttle to get the nose high, go straight into the waves until in the lee of the land, and then head to your destination.

We spent Saturday doing various repairs (changed alternator belts, found a leak in the fresh water system) and chores and playing some games, and then headed over to a nearby Tayana 47, "Moor Passages," to check out our boat's bigger (and much newer) sister. We had hosted happy hour with Roy and Kristina as well Bret and Theresa from Elusive the previous night. But other than our brief visit to their boat, Saturday was a pretty slow day for us and everyone else. Late that night there was a bit of excitement on the VHF - a sailboat on the Staniel Cay side had lost their anchor and was trying to get to the fuel dock, but subsequently lost their bow thruster and went aground (on soft sand, thankfully). Someone helped them get off the bar and safely tied up, and otherwise it was a quiet night though it continued to blow heavily with regular 35 knot gusts.

Sunday was a bit sunnier and people began to emerge from their boats. Nobody was going around the bend to town just yet, but more people went to Pirates Beach, and Elusive set up a happy hour there for 5pm. In the meantime I got our watermaker running for the first time. I never did it in the States because the water was never that great, but here it's perfectly clear so I finally dove in (also due to necessity - 4 people went through one 75 gallon tank in 9 days, and I didn't want to haul water from SCYC in the blow). I changed the prefilter, cleaned the prefilter case and lines, and oiled the pump piston...but didn't get any output on my first try. I realized that air was getting in the system on the prefilter side, so I went through and tightened hose clamps, then used silicone grease on the o-ring and filter case threads. This time we got output right away. I ran it for a half-hour to run all the biocide through the system (the membrane had last been pickled a year ago), then tested it with a TDS meter and by taste. Perfect. I ran it 4 hours and put 15 gallons in the starboard tank, then ran it 3 hours yesterday, and again today. We're making so much wind power that our batteries are staying nearly topped off, even with the extra 8-amp draw of the watermaker.

The Happy Hour on Pirates Beach was a nice respite from the wind, and we got to talk to several sailors we'd only met in passing or heard on the VHF before: Bob on The Edge, Walter and Connie on Summer of 42 (from Golden Valley MN!), Dave and Deb on Lilliputian, Mike, Blanche and Matt on Saltwater Taffy, Stephan and Brigitte on Fille, and others. But the sun set quickly and took the warmth with it, so we moved our beach party up to 2:30 for yesterday. This time most of the "Minnesota Mafia" (my term) was there. Besides Summer of 42, this includes Bob & Judy on Greenstone, Jerry, Deb & guest Kevin on Nightstar, and John and Nora on Sabertooth (honorary Minnesotans - they're Canadian). This group talks on VHF Channel 17 at least three times a day, and they're hilarious. We don't mean to eavesdrop - we and Elusive and Moor Passages have been monitoring and occasionally calling each other on 17 on our handheld VHFs. On Sunday night Jerry and John were chatting and somehow the talk made an abrupt turn to their mutual admiration for each other's boats. I couldn't resist chiming in: "Jeez, you two, get a room!" Dawn was aghast, but they were still laughing about it on the beach the next day so I sheepishly confessed to being the smartass interloper. Which is how I met the remaining members of the Minnesota Mafia. Super nice people. The other really cool guys who later showed up were Elisha and Wes, two 18-year old kids fresh out of high school and cruising the Bahamas on a barebones Tanzer 27. They don't have a working engine and their forestay is currently held together with bubble gum and baling wire after a near-dismasting, but they sure have a ton of infectious enthusiasm. Good for them.

We were hoping to head up to Shroud Cay today but the wind is still blowing harder than previously forecast, with occasional blasts to 30. It has veered enough that it'd be a downwind run and Windbird would be fine, but it's supposed to be nicer tomorrow - Dawn would rather not have any white-knuckle sails if we don't have to. So the plan is Shroud tomorrow, Hawksbill on Thursday, Warderick Wells south mooring field for two days, and Cambridge Cay for two days, then returning to Staniel when my parents fly in next Wednesday. All that is, of course, dependent on weather, but it sounds like we'll have a nice stretch of it until the 15th or so. Of course then we'll probably all be griping about lack of wind. As I said at Happy Hour the other day: "I don't ask for much...just constant wind between 15 and 22 knots at 60 to 120 degrees true wind angle no matter where I'm going!" In the meantime we're taking advantage of slightly better conditions today to go to Staniel Cay for the first time since Friday. We'll do some laundry, drop off garbage, fill up a gasoline jerry can, and have lunch at SCYC. This afternoon we have a Cards Against Humanity tournament scheduled on Pirates Beach. A little watermaking, a few boat chores, a few Piper runs to shore...rough life out here!

Monday, March 6, 2017

Big Majors Spot & Staniel Cay

Kevin and Jeannie originally booked their flight out of Staniel Cay for Monday, March 6th, but a cold front with a very high pressure system on the backside changed our plans. Chris Parker, the marine weather guru who I listen to every morning on the SSB, called it the “longest high-wind event of the winter.” The wind was forecast to pick up to 25-30 knots with gusts to 35 in the early morning hours on Saturday, and wouldn’t really subside until the following Wednesday. Accordingly, Kevin and Jeannie wanted to switch their flight to Friday, March 3rd, and that meant heading down to Staniel Cay on Thursday – two days earlier than planned.

So we skipped the Warderick Wells south mooring field, and we skipped Cambridge Cay – Dawn and I will hopefully return to those later this week or early next week. We dropped the mooring ball at Warderick Wells North at 9:20am, hoisted the mainsail around the corner clear of the sand bores, and motorsailed southeast with the wind straight on our nose, tacking 20 degrees each side to keep the mainsail full and powering us through the chop. Nineteen miles and four hours later, we anchored on the southwest side of Big Major’s Spot, in a large cove that would be well-protected in the coming blow.

Big Major’s Spot is best known as the home of Staniel Cay’s swimming pigs, which have been in the news a bit lately. About two weeks ago, six of the pigs died under uncertain circumstances. The rumors have been flying up and down the Bahamas and beyond. Some claim a tourist poisoned them; others, tourists were giving them beer or booze; supposedly, a cruiser/vet did an autopsy on one and found impacted sand in its stomach, indicative of dehydration due to the pigs’ fresh water supply drying up. Whatever the truth, by the time we showed up there was a slew of young replacement piggies on Pig Beach along with new water dishes (refilled daily) and food trays along with signs instructing tourists to not place their offerings in the sand. Of course the minute you put the food in the trays, the pigs knock it into the sand! There are still a number of larger pigs that I remember from last time, so apparently the Staniel Cay Pig Massacre didn’t decimate their numbers quite to the extent that some rumors had it.

After visiting the pigs we headed to shore so Kevin and Jeannie could rebook their flights while Dawn and I did a little reprovisioning at Isles General Store. After that we dinghied around the corner to Staniel Cay Yacht Club, watched the ever-present nurse sharks and rays in the shallows, went in the bar for a few drinks and the first good wifi we’d seen in a week, and then had a really nice fairwell/sunset dinner on the deck. Here’s a good tip about dinner at SCYC: their dining room is nice but a bit formal, dinner prices are quite expensive, and reservations are required. However, you can order off the lunch menu all the way up until 9pm, eat al fresco on the deck (or in the bar), the food is still fantastic, and the prices are downright cheap - for the Exumas, anyways.

Friday morning I got up early and swam some laps around the boat in the clear sapphire 10’ water, then made breakfast. The Flamingo Air flight wasn’t until 2pm so Kevin and I had time to grab our snorkel gear and head over to Thunderball Grotto for some snorkeling. It was a gorgeous day – the last one in a while – so the grotto was pretty busy, but there were more fish than last time I was there, and the high tide opened up several routes I don’t remember in and out of the grotto. Such a neat, gorgeous spot.

We ran Kevin and Jeannie up the creek by the airport around 1pm; we said our goodbyes and they headed to the airport while Dawn and I waited for Isles General Store to open after lunch so we could dispose of the two bags of garbage we’d accumulated over the last nine days. While we waited we chatted with an older cruiser couple on a gorgeous trawler around the corner that we’d been admiring, Linda Lee. After an hour we gave up (later learned the proprietors had flown to Nassau for a funeral and would return Monday) & headed over to SCYC. They happily let us throw our bags in their trailer for nearly $7 per bag!!! There is supposedly a public dump on the island, we intend to find it tomorrow. We headed up the hill and found both the Blue Store and the Pink Store; they had everything we needed and then some, with the Blue Store in particular carrying a good variety of excellent produce at not-terrible prices. I checked out the liquor store (& Laundromat!) to see about replenishing my beer supply, but prices were predictable expensive and they had only glass bottles – we try to do aluminum cans for ease of storage/crushing/disposal. I still have plenty of beer (I tend to drink rum- or gin-based cocktails anyways) so restocking can easily wait till Georgetown.

Finally we had a drink at the SCYC bar and paid our ridiculous garbage fees before heading back to the boat. The wind had already switched to the northeast but was quite light; I motored the boat back to lay the chain out nicely, made sure the anchor was realigned, and then backed down on it hard. A quick dive on the anchor confirmed it was well-buried. All the boats around us – and most importantly, those northeast of us – were cruising boats that appeared to have good tackle with all-chain rode. One French boat had anchored right on top of us that morning, but on my request he moved another two boatlengths northeast, which spaced everyone out quite nicely. As the sun set, I counted 52 anchor lights in the anchorage; everyone was settled in for what promised to be a long night followed by a long couple of days.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Norman's Cay, Shroud Cay & Warderick Wells

I’m a full week behind on blogging for a couple of reasons. We haven’t had much reliable internet access, we had guests aboard, and we've been quite busy enjoying the cruiser life – swimming, snorkeling, hiking, sailing, socializing, etc. But now we’re stuck in Staniel Cay for a few days riding out a good blow, Kevin and Jeannie flew home a few days early due to said blow, and we have internet access.

We got to Norman’s Cay last Saturday, February 25th, our second day in the Exumas. Everybody except me swam to the unnamed small cay near our anchorage shortly after arrival; I took the dinghy for the return trip as the current through the cut is pretty fierce other than a few minutes of slack water every six hours. After we got back we took the dinghy around to the west side of the island, walked on the beach, and got sundowners at MacDuff’s. This was formerly the rustic Norman’s Cay Beach Club but has received quite a facelift, with prices to match, but it’s the only game in town on Norman’s Cay, for now. There’s been a big development in the works for quite some time and now it seems like it might actually happen, as excavators were busy digging out a cut to the new marina nearly 24/7 while we were there. I don’t think Norman’s Cay has seen that kind of activity since it was a bustling drug smuggler’s haven in the late 70s and early 80s.

On Sunday morning we packed up the dinghy for an expedition to Shroud Cay, three miles south across a series of shallow flats. A jungle-like network of mangrove swamps and creeks bordered by high ancient dunes, Shroud Cay is the northernmost island in the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park. They allow motorized dinghies in the northernmost creek only, which is what we came to explore. The creek was really pretty and peaceful but the only wildlife we saw on the way in was an enormous spotted eagle ray. The creek eventually deposits you on a gorgeous beach on the eastern (Exuma Sound-facing) side of the island, from which a short steep trail leads you up to famous Camp Driftwood. Straddling the top of the ridge, Camp Driftwood was once used by DEA agents to spy on Carlos Lehder’s narco activities three miles north; later, cruisers left many driftwood mementos, which have been sadly cleaned out by the Park. The undergrowth is in the process of reclaiming the site, but it’s still a good view and worthwhile short hike. On the dinghy ride back out, we stopped the engine and drifted several times, and saw quite a bit more wildlife including various fish, nurse sharks, sea turtles, and rays. And we came across that big daddy Eagle Ray again just as we exited the creek.


Back at Norman’s Cay we went for Sunday lunch at MacDuff’s, a rather expensive proposition that Dawn and I wouldn’t have done on our own, but Kevin & Jeannie insisted on treating us. Afterwards we ended up talking to the pilot of a WWII-era Douglas A26 Invader we had seen parked on the airport ramp. They were preparing to depart, and he promised us a good fly-by. The venerable warbird was already firing up by the time we got back to the boat, so I got out the bosun’s chair and scaled the mast for a better view. The fly-bys weren’t terribly low or near, but pretty cool nonetheless with that great radial rumble. After that Kevin, Jeannie and I ventured out for a close look at another WWII vet, a DC-3/C-47 that was engaged in Mr. Lehder’s employ when it ditched in the Norman’s Cay lagoon in the late 70s. There’s not much left of the wreck above water, but it is surprisingly complete below. That plus huge schools of friendly (e.g. fed) Seargeant-Majors, Blue Tangs, and other reef fish makes it a great, unique and easy snorkel.

Late Sunday the wind picked up considerably as northeasterlies spilled across a cold front that stalled near Nassau. Chris Parker had predicted this exact scenario, and we anchored accordingly; we bounced around a bit overnight in east winds gusting to 25 knots, but stayed well protected from any surge coming in off Exuma Sound. We were originally planning to sail to Highbourne Cay on Monday, but the mooring field there is notoriously rolly in southeasterlies and that’s exactly what was predicted; besides, with the wind forecast to increase further and veer 20 degrees on Tuesday, we decided to take our medicine all at once with a long slog to windward on Monday. It was 19 miles to Warderick Wells, and we were able to do all but the last few miles under sail with a double-reefed main and staysail (later replaced by a partially-furled Yankee). The first few hours was a beam-to-close-reach and was surprisingly comfortable; after that we turned further east to traverse the Wide Opening, putting us hard on the wind and bashing into big waves that worked their way in from Exuma Sound. We were still within 15-20 degrees of laying our course. It was too rough for the girls to make lunch so we hove to, the first time that I’ve done that in this boat. It wasn’t ideal with the partially-furled Yankee – we laid at 90 degrees to the wind and still fore-reached at 2 knots – but it did calm the motion considerably, and I think it’d work even better with the staysail or just a scrap of Yankee.

Once we got to the Alligator Cay Bank waypoint we furled the headsail, started the engine, and headed into Warderick Wells. I’d hoped to arrive at slack water but the windward bash and lunch stop resulted in us being about 90 minutes late, with a torrent of water pouring into the narrow channel. We were assigned mooring ball #4, the first in the inner anchorage, but I wasn’t 100% certain I had the right ball and made a test pass to verify its identity and feel out the current. The western (starboard) side of the anchorage had a sharp ledge to a shallow bar that was easily read; when I turned to port to double back, I was surprised that the seemingly deeper eastern side also shoaled remarkably quickly. 80 degrees into the turn our sounder read 5.5 feet (on a draft of 6’); I gunned the engine and kept the rudder hard over. We spun in the sand and with only a slight hesitation, slid into deeper water. Whew. That’s the first time I’ve touched bottom in Windbird, though surely not the last.

We got PiperDog to shore to pee, then cleaned up the boat and prepared for a windy night on the ball. The next morning I goofed up putting my contact in my left eye and severely irritated it (contacts are a new thing to me – I’ve worn glasses most of my life), so I stayed aboard and did boat work while the others went to the office to pay and took a hike across the island to collect some driftwood. They had several pieces when they returned; I picked the most promising piece and set to work with chisels, my boy scout knife, and a soldering iron-cum-woodburning iron. Boo Boo Hill on Warderick Wells is another place where cruisers have long offered driftwood mementos to the sea gods, and here the Park lets them remain.  Fashioning our own contribution was a pleasant use of the afternoon, though I took a brief break to push a charter Jeanneau off the sandbank with our dinghy. At low slack water when we went snorkeling just west of the park headquarters and checked out a burned-up Contessa 44 hull just below mooring ball #9. This was Dawn’s first time using her new snorkel equipment, and she really liked it. At 5pm headed over to Elusive, where Bret and Theresa were hosting happy hour. We first met them in the Berries, then Nassau, then Allen’s Cay. Super nice, down-to-earth couple.

Wednesday was a jam-packed day. In the morning at slack high water, Jeannie and Kevin and I took the dinghy over to emerald rock and snorkeled a couple of patch reefs in the area. Then we picked up Dawn, beached the dinghy ashore, and made the short hike up Boo Boo Hill to place our driftwood offering. We also went to the nearby blowholes, though the waves off Exuma Sound were not quite at the right angle to make them “blow.” Back at the boat we had lunch and welcomed Lani to the anchorage. We were mooring-ball neighbors with them in Ft. Lauderdale, and though we’ve kept in touch with Jack and Linda, this was the first time we’d seen them since. We also watched a very swish, professionally crewed 60’ catamaran (with which we had shared a dock in Nassau) try to pass us to our west. “Hey,” we shouted, “it’s really shallow there! Someone ran aground there yesterday.” A very Gallic reply: “Yes, we know, we are looking. It is high tide.” You know exactly what happened next. It was actually an hour after high tide, and though we tried to help them off the bar, they were stuck for the next ten hours. It made for some good photos as we swam and paddleboarded and dinghied between the boat and the dry sandbar that afternoon. At slack low water Dawn and Kevin and I snorkeled “Judy’s Reef,” near the outer anchorage entrance. It was the best snorkel yet, I think, and I saw a 10’ bull shark in the distance (swimming away, thankfully!) and an enormous 5’ Goliath grouper. Finally, Wednesday evening we had happy hour aboard Lani. 

We loved Warderick Wells and really wanted to explore the surrounding area more; we had planned to also anchor at Hawksbill Cay, Hog Cay, and Cambridge Cay. As it turned out, a combination of incoming weather and a need to get our guests to Staniel Cay to fly out caused us to miss all three of those. That’s the downside to having guests aboard. We enjoyed Kevin and Jeannie’s company, but there’s no question that we would have done the Exuma Park much more slowly on our own. And in fact we’ll be headed back up that way as soon as this present blow subsides. More on that in my next post about Staniel Cay.