Shallow Water Sailing through the Bahamas

The major problem with getting to the Bahamas is a little thing called the Gulf Stream.  The Gulf Stream runs north up to 3kts between Florida and the Bahamas. And if you get any sort of North wind you get “Elephants”, caused by wind against current, something we wished to only read about rather than actually experience.

So we waited in Marathon, paying particular attention to Chris Parker’s (the guru) daily weather email as well as PredictWind. We’d missed a good weather window getting our new solar panels installed, and finally we got what looked like a small window a week later.

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So off we went, leaving at lunchtime so we could dodge the lobster pots on the way out across the shallows to the drop off, where the water gets very deep very quickly.

Because we were travelling East from Marathon to Key Largo, progress was slow as we pounded away into a 15kt Easterly. The Gulf Stream was 8nm off the shallows so it was slow progress to get out there. Once we got to Key Largo conditions got a lot better as the wind dropped and veered a bit to the south, and the current really kicked in. If we did it again we would have kept inside and reef up to Key Largo and then went through the reef there straight to Bimini.

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We motor sailed across the gulf stream at night, missing out on some good fishing and seeing the phenomena of the stream itself as the water turns a brilliant blue. But a night-time crossing saw us get into Bimini in the morning.

Bimini is not noted for its good anchorages so we booked into Sea Crest Hotel and Marina, which cost us 2 bucks a foot per night. We took 3 nights so we could be there for the SuperBowl on Sunday. Check-in was pretty straightforward and 300USD later we had a cruising permit.

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Then it was time to explore Bimini. A long walk along the beach saw us pop out opposite the big Hilton Resort World. It felt like we were back in the USA. Getting out of there, we were picked up by Mandy Lu and Chee on their rented golf chart. We ended up spending the rest of the day with them and their golf cart (or should I say 3 golf carts as it took them 3 goes to get one that sort of worked.

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One the way we found some wonderful Conch Shacks and bars. The conch, lobster and beers were surprisingly reasonably priced and we made a couple of new friends.

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Next day the wind started to howl so the planned dinghy ride to South Bimini was off. Instead we ate more conch and pottered around Alice Town. We discovered a pot luck cruisers get together at the next marina and gate crashed this. We ended the night on Lee Carlson’s catamaran, talking to Lee and Josie about writing, sailing and life in general. I’ve since downloaded Lee’s “Passage to Nirvana” – a great read about his journey back from a traumatic brain injury, with a bit of sailing, divorce, Buddhism and Zen thrown in.

Sunday was Superbowl, but before we indulged in a night of drinking and sports watching, we decided to dinghy over to South Bimini and explore that island for a couple of hours. We wandered through the main resort/condo complex before wandering along the beach and back through a canal settlement.

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We surveyed all the (two) available options to watch Superbowl and decided to go upmarket to the Casino where we got to eat a buffet with 25 current NFL players who’d been brought over by one particular agent. We’d met a few of them at the beach bar the day before and Dee had jumped at the enormous photo opportunity (and some of these guys were beyond enormous).

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Lee had kindly offered to drive his whaler over so we avoided a taxi ride. The four had become 3 after Josie had succumbed to the effects of a handover from our drinking session the night before. It turned out to be a great night with many of the players stopping for a chat as we had positioned ourselves strategically at the bar.

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Unfortunately, we had missed Sunday’s weather window to cross the Banks so we spent a couple of days at Gun Cay and Cat Cay waiting for the wind to drop enough to cross. Wednesday came and we were off. At first light.

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We followed the designated path on our C-Map charts, which we had swapped to after hearing that the Navionics charts were problematic in the Bahamas. The other good thing about C-Map was that they had all the ActiveCaptain information integrated on-screen. We also used the waypoints in “The Waterways Guide to the Bahamas” as well as in Bruce Van Sant’s “The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South : The Thornless Path to Windward”.

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It was a bizarre and exhilarating experience crossing the Great Bahamas Banks. For 50nm we had 1-3m of crystal clear water under the keels. The wind was right on the nose the whole way but only 8-12kts so bearable. We had planned to put up the mainsail but had managed to rip the mainsail near the top batten car, the one that takes all the load from the square top rig. We discovered that particular batten car had lost a lot of its talon balls – hence the problem. Guess we will be motoring all the way to Nassau.

We had company across the banks in the form of a Canadian Lagoon 470, but they stopped shortly before dark to anchor off to one side. Not sure they went far enough because we noticed a fishing boat lining them up as he went the other way.  Instead of anchoring on the banks we decided to keep going to Chub Cay, 14nm after we left the banks. We got there at 9pm and anchored in the dark. Pretty straight forward and the anchorage had good holding.

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Next day we were up early and heading off to Nassau. Lots of people avoid Nassau with its high crime rate and its glitzy cruise ship/Atlantis resort focus. Dee had been there before and she quite liked it. It’s a great place to reprovision and Atlantis is worth a quick peep, until you grow tired of the glitz and high prices.

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We booked into the Nassau Harbour Club and Marina – a name that is more highfalutin than its run-down nature. At 2 bucks a foot it was okay and it had 24/7 security so we had no problems. Walking around town during the day seemed okay as was ducking down to the Poop Deck at night. We took a day longer than the one planned to fix our mainsail and redo the batten cars with a full set of taulon balls, a job that involves dropping all the batten cars off from the bottom to get to the one at the top.

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At night we would taxi over to Atlantis and check out the superyachts in the marina and watch the beautiful people frequent the Casino. On our last afternoon, we headed off to the old town and wandered around the historic sites. Edward and Mrs Simpson were banished here during WW2 as the UK Governor and it was interesting to see where he lived.

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Unfortunately we picked a bad day to go across to the Exumas but we were on a schedule and we needed to keep moving. I spent Saturday night researching the crossing over the notorious Yellow Banks and finally decided to use some waypoints off someone’s elses blog that took us between Yellow and White Banks, where the bombies were supposedly slightly less.

We beat our way into the 15kt SE wind, getting a bit of respite when we turned south to get down to our chosen crossing point. Closing in on the banks, I changed into my bathers and wetsuit top and clipped on at the front, looking out for any bombies in the clear but rough water as the water depth dropped to less than 3m. The water temperature wasn’t too bad as I signalled left and right to avoid any suspicious dark patches on the sandy bottom. We made it though unscathed and we headed for Highbourne Cay, a beautiful sandy anchorage around the corner from an expensive marina and resort. For the first time in ages I swam on my anchor – it felt good to be back in clear warm water again.

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But there was no time for the wicked and we were off again in the morning for a cracker of a sail to Warderick Wells. With a lovely 15kt Easterly we made great time under a single reef over clear water with a slight chop. We had rung ahead and booked a  mooring for 2 nights at $31 a night. The Bahamian dollar is the same as the US Dollar and you can use either here.

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Warderick Wells was heaven on earth. Everything you imagined a Bahamas anchorage to be and more. We were allocated mooring 18, which meant we had to pass 17 other boats all moored in a narrow channel which hooks around in a 180 degree turn to get to our mooring, which was one of the last. There’s a strong current running through, which kept us on our toes as we hooked onto our mooring just before 3pm. I jumped into the water for a quick snorkel and low and behold – 6 spotted Eagle Rays – huge – glided past. I was thinking bugger – I haven’t got my camera – but it wasn’t a problem as they were our constant companions during our stay.  We had some great snorkelling and nice beach and sand bar walks amongst the stunning scenery.

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After a couple of relaxing days at Warderwick Wells it was time to move on. Not much of a move but the 16nm sail inside the protected waters of the Exumas was exhilarating – especially when most of it was with less than 2-4m under the keels.

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The water going into Staniel Quay was shallow, perfect cat country. We motored past the somewhat famous yacht club and between two limestone outcrops into an anchorage just behind Thunderbolt Grotto. A quick lunch and off we went in A Little Bit of Mischief to the grotto for my best Sean Connery impersonation. We got there purposely at lunchtime so as to get the full effect of the sun streaming in through the top of the fully enclosed grotto. It was pretty cool, even with the hordes of people there.

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Snorkelling over, we headed for town. We wandered over to where the crayfishermen were preparing tonight’s dinner and watched the twenty or so nurse sharks and stringrays gathering in the shallow below for a cheap feel of the offcuts. Dee wandered in amongst them and we got the obligatory video and photos of these harmless creatures.

Needing exercise, we buckled up our walking sandals and hit the road out along the coast to the airport. Scenic but not much to write home about. As all good walks do, this one ended at the bar of the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, which by this stage was quite lively.

We’d booked in for our Valentine’s Day dinner so it was back to the boat to scrub up before hitting the restaurant next to the bar for a great surf and turf special. A lovely night with Darling Dee xxx.

Next morning, it was off to find the swimming pork chops at Big Major Spot, a couple of miles around the corner. It was a great anchorage, with lots of boats preferring to stay there rather than in front of Staniel. We picked a spot and dropped the dinghy, wanting to get there before the hordes descended. This is the spot on all of the publicity shots for the Exumas and was one of the places we were looking forward to visiting, if only because of its extreme novelty value. I’ve never seen a group of pigs swimming in the ocean and it really was fascinating. Dee got to cuddle a baby piglet and we took in some food for them to eat. The pigs know this and send out a welcoming committee as your dinghy approaches.

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We spent half an hour on the beach and we could have spend a lazy day swimming off the back of La Mischief in the crystal clear waters, except for the maniac dinghy and waterski drivers who sped through the anchorage. Time to keep moving as Dee had a plane to catch from Georgetown.

Next stop was Little Farmers Cay, where the anchoring is a little problematic. We chose to anchor off the south shore of Great Guana Cay and dinghy across to Little Farmers. As we pulled into the anchorage Siggy from Asante radioed to say they were there and then Askari came over in their dinghy to say hello. It’s a small world – this cruising caper.

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We wanted to see if we could get some dinghy fuel (which we couldn’t) so we thought we would catch up with everyone the next day, instead opting to dinghy over to Little Farmers before things shut. We walked around pretty much the whole island and the best we could find was The Sunset Bar and Grill on the west side of the island. So we walked back to our dinghy and motored around there. Askari had left their dinghy there so we met up for a sunset drink (or maybe it was two).  Other cruisers started to come in and we had a great night, managing to drink the bar out of cold beer. There were claims of a “green flash” – maybe alcohol induced, maybe not – who am I to say. Anyway we had an exhilarating dinghy ride back late in a moonless night.

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Next morning Askari and Assante had left so we decided to go and find the cave/sinkhole that a couple of other crew had told us about. We eventually found it but decided against snorkelling it as was suggested we should. Instead we went back to La Mischief and motored our way through shallow water ways, sticking to the route on our C-Map charts to get to Cave Cay, where we anchored outside the hardly used marina that’s probably the best hurricane hole in the Bahamas, being completely landlocked barring a narrow entrance channel. There was very little sign of life so we kept going on our dinghy ride across to one of David Copperfield’s five private islands – Musha Cay. It looked incredible from the water, with its imported palm trees and zillion dollar price tag (you can only rent out the whole island).

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Next morning, it was up early and out the cut at slack tide. What a difference between the flat water on the inside (west) and the ocean swells and deep water of Exuma Sound on the outside (east).   After getting away from the coast we motor sailed for a while before getting enough angle to sail with the odd tack thrown in to get away from the coast. We took the sails down outside of Conch Cay Cut but didn’t really need to as there was plenty of sea room inside in the calm water.

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The vast majority of boats anchor off Stocking Island, well protected from the prevailing Easterlies. Someone did a count and came up with 235 boats, down from last years 290 boats. However there’s plenty of room to spread out and there’s also moorings available in several well protected basins. We parked next to Assante and promised to catch up for a beer or two this time. It was also good to catch up with Don and Nina from Enjoy, a fellow Lagoon 421 and they reintroduced us to Texas Hold Em Poker in preparation for the Poker Nights that are held regularly at St Francis

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Georgetown is pretty unique. It’s the end of the road for the majority of cruisers there, as it’s from here that they turn around and head back to the States for summer.  Year after year, the same cruisers sail down her, stop for 3 months and then turn around and go back again. Everyone knows everyone and there’s a pretty well-defined social calendar with Poker on Tuesdays and Thursdays, Trivia nights, Volleyball at 2pm every day, Talks and Discussions on just about anything cruiser related, Yoga, Water aerobics etc. etc. etc.  It’s not referred to as Adult Day Care for nothing. The perfect place for Dee to leave Steve (in Adult Day Care) whilst she flew back to California to visit her mum.

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With my long list of boat jobs, I settled in for a couple of weeks of batching on La Mischief. The dinghy ride across the bay to Georgetown got a bit wet with the stiff easterlies that were blowing but Eddy’s had good internet and cheap beer and that made it worthwhile.

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DINGHY DOCK – GEORGETOWN

Don organised a get together on Volleyball beach for all the Lagoon owners to get to know one another. There were a couple of talks on the Beach about leaving “Chicken Harbor” to go South and East to the Caribbean and Siggy and I eagerly attended those, wandering how best to do the Thorny Path without getting beaten up by the Trade Winds. Over the next few days, the long-range forecasts seemed to suggest a significant stalling of the trades as a trough pushed down in front of a cold front and seemingly produced an opportunity to perhaps make it all the way to Puerto Rico with the motors on.

By coincidence, Ashley and Jamie were leaving their boat to make way for family and were looking for a ride down to the Caribbean.  A cunning plan was starting to swish around in my head. A few discussions with Dee and it was decided that I take on Ashley and Jamie and we set sail/Yanmars to make use of this great weather window. Dee would meet us in Puerto Rico, along with Kirk.

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JAMIE & ASHLEY – MY NEW CREW

On Sunday, 20 or so boats met on Cat’s Meow to discuss our plans to leave that week.  Most of us settled on Tuesday as the day to set sail/motor. And so it was. There’s no fuel dock at Georgetown, despite the huge number of boats, so we topped up using jerry cans. We paid even more money to Customs so we could get our departure notice, which DR asked for.

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The Way into Georgetown

And then we were off, heading north of Long Island and off to the Dominican Republic before a very large swell came in on Sunday.

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