Saturday, April 15, 2017

Three Months In

We had another really nice sail over from Long Island to Georgetown on Thursday. The wind was NE to ENE at 17 knots for a really broad reach, but we only had to gybe twice, to enter the Three Fathom Channel into Elizabeth Harbour. There was a pretty decent ocean swell on our quarter, which made for active steering conditions - the autopilot couldn't keep up - but it was still fairly comfortable and we made the 25 miles in about 4.5 hours. The cut into Elizabeth Harbour had a few good rollers in it but nothing breaking. We remained under full sail right up to the Monument Beach anchorage, sailing through a good portion of the Georgetown fleet at 7 knots in the process. That was fun, and we got a few nice comments after the fact. From here on in, we'll be inexorably northbound - for this season, anyways.

We've now been out cruising for three months, two of those in the Bahamas. We're certainly not old hands, but neither are we total noobs anymore. We've learned a ton about our boat and how to best sail and maintain her, about navigation and weather and passagemaking, about docking and anchoring, about what duties and procedures work best for us, and what tasks each person is most suited for. There hasn't been a day that's gone by where we haven't learned something new. And yet, for all that, it's been surprisingly easy. At no time have I felt completely over my head. Dawn gained an enormous amount of confidence in herself and the boat (and hopefully me). Our preparation & self-sufficiency proved up to par; at no point did we have to lean on another boat for tools or spares or know-how. In part I think we've been lucky to not have been tested with anything beyond our skill level before we were up to speed - but we've also been pretty careful not to put ourselves in sticky situations before we were ready to handle them (with one notable exception, our night exit at Farmer's Cay Cut in heavy conditions).

Reflecting on our two months in the Bahamas in particular, here are a few things that have really struck me as a noob cruiser:

It's Not Rocket Science
Because it's the first foreign land we've visited, because there's so much shallow water and many reefs and fierce currents and a long history of shipwrecks, the Bahamas held a certain amount of intimidation factor for us. But you get out here and you run into a lot of really normal people, plus more than a few complete knuckleheads, who have been doing this for years and years and have managed to keep themselves out of trouble. Most of this isn't all that hard, it's just plain common sense. This is one area where I'm really lucky to have Dawn, because she definitely has the edge on me in that area and has proven over the course of the trip that she'll reel me in when I need it.

Navigation Is Actually Easier Here
Ok, lights and markings aren't up to U.S. standards and neither are the out-of-date government surveys or the charts (paper or electronic) based on them. But the privately produced Explorer Charts are fairly accurate, and there are a number of electronic charts for iPad and chartplotter based on them. Even where accuracy is wanting, you have the advantage of actually being able to see the bottom! Before arrival I was super nervous about learning to read the water. Within the first few days, I had it. Shallows, rock bars, reefs and stray coral heads are all pretty obvious. This assumes, of course, that you're only sailing during the day on the banks unless on a route known to be free of stray heads, with good over the shoulder light, and relatively flat water.

Go Where The Wind Takes You
The winter weather isn't exactly benign here, but it's pretty predictable. Listening to Chris Parker on our SSB each morning, we knew when major systems were on their way, usually four or five days in advance, and could change our plans accordingly. Thus were we able to freely move up and down the Exumas three times despite what old-timers described as a more-active-than-average winter. There are a limited number of times to move in any particular direction and these are further restricted by the limited number of anchorages with protection from west- and north-component wind. Get tied down to a schedule and you'll miss the available windows.

Tides and Currents Rule All
Maybe this comes more naturally to people who grew up on the ocean; I know I have to think about it, and typically do at least six or seven times a day. The tides aren't huge here (2.5 to 4 feet) but taking a six-foot draft through shallow approaches to desirable anchorages makes them pretty important, and then you consider the huge volume of water that flows through a limited number of cuts resulting in strong currents. A cut that's just fine when the current is flowing with the wind can turn into a dangerous mess after the tide reverses. Current more than anything determined the timing of our deep-water passages, while tide and the availability of light determined the timing of bank-side passages.

Good Ground Tackle Is Worth Its Weight in Gold
Mark and Judy Handley swore by their 66-lb Spade anchor on 5/16" G4 all-chain rode, and it wasn't just them trying to sell the boat. This anchor does a hell of a job of laying down on the seabed nicely, biting and digging in right away, and resetting itself immediately after each swing. And you will swing mightily, every six hours as the current reverses in the majority of anchorages. Trust in one's ground tackle does wonders for the skipper's ability to sleep soundly (diving on your anchor and a good drag-alarm program for your smartphone are the other key components). Last week we did our first Bahamian moor in Joe's Sound due to the narrowness of the anchorage. That's a rarity out here these days - it's mostly a relic of the CQR anchor, which did a poor job of resetting itself after a swing. In most anchorages good modern tackle makes the Bahamian moor unneccessary, which is nice because it's a lot of work to put down and pull up.

You'll Never, Ever Be Bored
Silly me, I thought I was going to get caught up on my pleasure reading out here. I haven't even got caught up with my boat reading! For that matter, I thought I would write more, and it's everything I can do to get my column out once a month and update this blog once a week! Just everyday living - meals, cleaning, bathing, taking the dog to shore - takes up more time than land living. Then there is watermaking/hauling, reprovisioning runs, trash disposal, dinghy refueling, boat maintenance, repairs, and occasional deep cleaning to do. Moving the boat takes up a lot of time, even on short passages, when you consider the time it takes to get the boat ready to go and putting it to bed when you're done. So it's not like there's unlimited spare time to begin with, and then there's so much great hiking, snorkeling, and dinghy exploring to do out here. And then there are the sundowners, and happy hours on your buddy's boat that just sailed into the anchorage, and impromptu potlucks and bonfires on the beach. I initially thought this busyness was simply because we're new, but now I'm not so sure. I do think it accounts for the appallingly shabby cosmetic condition of a lot of the cruisers' boats out here. We had to take nearly a week "off" just to get some varnishing and other mostly-cosmetic maintenance done. 

Guests Are Nice, But...
Most cruisers are ambivalent at best about guests, an attitude I never quite understood until now. Don't get me wrong, I love having guests on board, and Windbird is really nicely set up for it. But guests inevitably tie you into a schedule because there are a limited number of places they can meet and leave the boat. This has inevitably led us to moving the boat more than we need to and spending less time in some really spectacular anchorages than we'd like (and probably has contributed a lot to the "busy" syndrome I mention above). And it's meant spending less time with some really cool cruising friends we'd probably have buddy-boated with. Even when you share an anchorage with people you know, having guests aboard makes you less likely that you'll socialize outside your boat. None of which is to say that we intend to stop having guests onboard. But we're definitely going to emphasize the necessity of schedule/destination flexibility on their part (even if it means buying last-minute tickets), and we're going to take care to schedule time "just for us" between guests.

Bahamians Are Some of the Friendliest People on Earth
That's all. I just love 'em to death. Outside of Nassau I have yet to run into a Bahamian asshole, which is more than I can say of the cruising community (where they're still rarer than average). The further from Nassau you go, the nicer they get.

Georgetown is just Pretty Nice
Ok, I've spent some time here now. I see the appeal. It's a pretty harbour. There's a lot to do, and a lively cruiser social scene. Services are plentiful and convenient. There's an international airport for guests to fly in and out. And anybody who's been here for any length of time develops a network of friends here, often encompassing the neighboring boats in "their" anchorage. But yikes, I'm not sure I understand the folks who sail straight here, anchor in Elizabeth Harbour for all winter long, and then sail back to Florida. Georgetown is pretty nice, but gobsmackingly spectacular is right next door! The week in Joe's Sound made me realize how great it was to be out of Georgetown, and I wasn't particularly thrilled to come back. Of course then we met some cool folks at the Chat-n-Chill...and invited our friends from S/V Finally over for happy hour Thursday...and Friday night there was an awesome beach party & musical jam session on Honeymoon Beach....

That's it for now, though I'm sure I'll think of a few things later. Some of the above might sound like bitching, but far from it. This isn't vacation, it's a lifestyle - one that involves a certain amount of work and discomfort and uncertainty, but one that yields daily rewards that most working stiffs can only dream of for 51 weeks out of the year. I'm having a blast out here, and I'm happy to report that Dawn and Piper are both really enjoying it as well.


  1. I've very much enjoyed following your adventures through our Minnesota winter. Any plans to bring the boat into the Great Lakes in the summer months? I've always thought that the harbors in Chicago and Duluth look like fun places.

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