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Jascat to the Bahamas
Green Turtle Cay to Treasure Cay
03/05/2011, Treasure Cay Marina

Sailboat aground in entrance to White Sound, Green Turtle Cay

Mar 1: After a very pleasant supper at the Green Turtle Club restaurant, we set down to plan our next trip which was to be to Treasure Cay. A couple of cruisers highly recommended the Treasure Cay Marina as a good place to stage out of while cruising the south part of the Sea of Abaco so we wanted to stay there a night or two to check the area out. The first part of our planning is always a check of the upcoming weather. The next day, March 1, looked to be ok, but after that, the weather was going to get a bit dicey. A cold front (what else) was coming through on March 2 bringing high winds out of the north for the next several days. That was highly significant because to get from Green Turtle to Treasure Cay and other southern destinations you have to go around the "Whale" and you can't do that when high winds are blowing from the north.

The Sea of Abaco is divided into two halves by a shoal that extends out from Treasure Cay (which is actually a peninsula on Great Abaco) out to an island called Whale Cay. The shoal is too shallow for larger boats to cross so it is necessary to go out into the ocean to go around Whale Cay. This requires going through a passage in the offshore reef called the Whale Cay Channel. In strong north to east winds, the passage can become dangerous with steep breaking waves. These conditions are known as a "rage". The weather forecast was predicting just those conditions.

Well, no problem. We had a whole day before the winds were going to clock around to the north and increase. We just needed to get off reasonably early in the morning to ensure an easy passage.

The next morning around 9am we headed out to cross the Whale. As we motored away from the marina we could see a sailboat just entering the White Sound entrance channel. It had its sails up but didn't appear to be moving. As we got closer, we realized why. It was aground.

The entrance channel to White Sound has a controlling depth of about 5 feet. It is an "L" shaped channel and quite narrow, maybe two large boats wide. The larger boats go in or out one at a time.

The grounded sailboat, we later found out, had a 6 foot draft. He had entered the channel with the tide up about a foot just an hour or two before low tide. If he had followed his wife's advice, he would have been ok. She told him to stay in the center of the channel but he instead tried to "cut the corner" in the "L" of the channel.

As we motored out, we could see that the skipper was trying hard to get off the shoal. He had his sails up to try to heel the boat over to reduce his draft and was using his dinghy to try steer the boat off the shoal. We decided to stay well clear to give him room to work so we went back into the sound and took up a mooring buoy. After a while, a couple of cruisers in dinghies joined him to help out. Nothing worked. The tide was dropping too fast to allow the boat to be pulled off the shoal. About 11am, the skipper dropped the sails, deployed an anchor to prevent the boat from going further on the shoal, and sat back to await the next high tide coming up at about 3pm.

From the sound, we couldn't tell if the grounded boat was blocking the channel or not. One report said that there might be room to go around but the reporter wasn't sure. So we sat and stewed. Our precious Whale crossing day was running out. Finally about 12:30pm a 44 ft catamaran decided to try to go around. He made it out with no apparent problems, opening up the channel for the rest of us. When we went out at about 1pm, we found the grounded boat to be right on the edge of the channel leaving maybe 3/4th of the channel open.

Our rounding of the Whale turned out to be very easy. We entered the Whale Channel after a rousing one hour sail from Green Turtle in 15 to 20 kt winds fortunately from the SW. The Channel turned out to be no rougher than the rest of the Sea of Abaco which was choppy with 2 to 3 foot waves. We continued on to Treasure Cay Marina arriving there about 5pm.

As I write this on March 3, the weather forecast has pretty much come to pass. On March 2, the day after we arrived in Treasure Cay, the Whale was still passable in the morning but very rough. The local weather report showed winds during the afternoon up to 25 knots out of the north. Today, the cruisers net says the ocean passages are close to impassable with near "rage" conditions. The peak wind speed today reached 35 knots out of the ENE.

Meanwhile, we are tucked safely here in Treasure Cay Marina. Our intended overnight stay has stretched to four days already and will probably last till at least Sunday, March 6, while we wait out this latest windy spell. Next stop, undetermined. (see, we really are on "cruisers time".)

Black Sound to White Sound on Green Turtle Cay
03/05/2011, Green Turtle Club Marina

The museum in New Plymouth

Feb 28: It's only about a 30 minute run from Black Sound over to White Sound on Green Turtle Cay. Our main goal in moving over there was so that we would be closer to the north end of the beach on the ocean side of the island. That end is supposed to have good snorkeling. And of course, we intended to do what cruisers always do when they go into a marina, wash clothes.

We did walk out to the beach but unfortunately waves were breaking across the reef we wanted to snorkel. We didn't get in the water but it is a very pretty beach.

The marina had an interesting special going. They were charging a dockage fee of $1.95 /ft of boat length/day which is a very high price but then discounting it dollar for dollar spent at their restaurant. Jascat is 34 feet long so that meant that we could spend $68 for free (sort of) at supper. Ann had the lobster ($31) and I had the Grouper served Bahamian style ($26). After adding in drinks and tip, the marina made a little money on us, but the supper was well worth it. Fantastic meal.

Allans-Pensacola to Black Sound on Green Turtle Cay
03/05/2011, Mooring buoy in Black Sound, Green Turtle Cay

Sunset from Allans-Pensacola anchorage

Feb 27: We departed Allans about 9am for the short run over to a small bay on the south end of Green Turtle Cay known as Black Sound. We took up a mooring bouy there around 2pm and dinghy'd over to the Government Dock to take a walk around the town of New Plymouth. Feb 27 was a Sunday and I've never seen a town so shut down. One small grocery was open but I'm not sure why as there were only a handful of people to be found anywhere. I guess that all the locals were home watching TV.

The town however was lovely. The next morning we got up early and started a 2nd tour of New Plymouth. The museum was very interesting especially since the lady giving the tour could tie in her history with that of the island. The town was pretty much wiped out by a hurricane in 1932 and she could point out that this destroyed place or that was owned by her uncle or grandfather.

There were only two "official" gift shops in town and Ann enjoyed both. I say "official" because every store in the Bahamas, including the grocery stores, advertise themselves as a gift shop. The prices in one shop were 50% off because the store was going out of business. The proprietor said that she had not done well since 9/11 and that the current recession had finally done her business in. She said the British stopped coming after 9/11 and the Americans stopped after the recession.

A highlight of our New Plymouth tour was a long conversation with one of the local residents. We were sitting on a bench at the Post Office waiting for a shop to open (they close down here for lunch) when an elderly lady came up to use the Post Office. The Post Office was also shut down for lunch so we ended up exchanging pleasantries. Turns out that this little five foot tall woman was the first commercially licensed female airplane pilot in the Bahamas. She ran a commercial flying service operating (I think she said) out of Marsh Harbour. Most of her customers were government officials flying around the islands on official business. She never married because she said that in that era (I think she was talking about the 60's, 70's and 80's) no man would let her continue to run her business. She wasn't about to be a "stay at home mom".

Around 2pm, we had seen enough of New Plymouth (and enjoyed it) so we decided to move the boat over to the north end of Green Turtle Cay and take a berth in the Green Turtle Club Marina. There's a beach and potential snorkel spot over there that we wanted to see.

Little Cave Cay to Allans-Pensacola Cay
03/02/2011, Anchored at Allans-Pensacola Cay

Ann reading in the shade of the spinnaker - wish I had been up there with her

Feb 26:

What a fantastic sail today. We awakened to a near calm thinking we would probably have to motor all the way to Allans-Pensacola. We had a choice of paths to get there. The conservative, deep water path requires going around the huge shoal that lies off the west end of Little Abaco Cay. Going around this shoal adds 20 nm to the trip making the total distance to Allans about 40 nm. The other path cuts inside the shoal cutting the distance to 20 nm but is narrow, shallow (5 foot depth at low water) and unmarked. As of our leaving time of 8am, we hadn't decided which path to take. I was somewhat hesitant about running the cut on this particular morning because the tide was falling. If we ran up on the shoal, we could end up staying there until the tide came up again 6 hours later. Ann was ready to take the cut no matter what the conditions were - a complete reversal of our normal tendencies on decisions like this.

The final decision wasn't made until we were just off the cut. The conditions were absolutely perfect for eyeball navigating through a shallow sea so we decide to go for it. The sea was flat and the sun was positioned just behind our shoulders lighting up the sea bed. And we had the C-Map charts on the chartplotter which show the cut in detail. With Ann on the bow and me following the chart, the passage through the cut turned out to be one of the easier bits of shallow water navigating that we have done. We never saw less than about 8 feet of water through the whole cut.

Leaving the cut about 9am, we set out east to Allans. After motoring for an hour in a calm, the merest waif of a breeze came up over our starboard rear quarter. Realizing that Allans was only about 12 nm away and that we had all day to get there, we decided to set our cruising spinnaker and accept whatever speed it could give us. With the sail set, the motor turned off, and the drive leg up (a vital part of the equation - raising the prop out of the water removes a huge amount of drag), we were sailing at about 1.5 knots in 3 to 4 knots of wind. And by merest good fortune, we had from .8 to 1.3 knots of current going our way as well. With the two combined, we managed a ground speed nearly 3 knots taking us almost all the way to Allans in only 3 hours.

It was the most relaxing sail we have had on this trip. Ann went up front to read in the shade of the spinnaker and I stretched out on the side of cockpit. The autopilot was steering. The temperature was alternately hot in the sunshine and then cool as puffy little clouds would screen the sun ever now and then. The sea was totally flat. The boat was moving so slowly through the water that there was barely any sound. The conditions lead me to catnap and I woke up with the worst sunburn I've had in years. I should have been up front with Ann.

We arrived at Allans-Pensacola and took up anchor at about 1:30pm. We had the place to ourselves till about 5pm when a trawler came in and anchored just off our port side. Nice people on board the trawler. They rowed their dinghy over and said hello.

The guide books say that this is a popular anchorage with cruisers and is often crowded, so having just one other boat in the anchorage is a surprise. Several of the seasoned cruisers have told us that the number of boats cruising the Bahamas is down considerably from previous years. They attribute that to the recession and to the terrible season the Bahamas suffered last year. One of the cruisers mentioned that he was trapped in port by bad weather for two weeks during March last year.

Big Cut to Little Cave Cay
02/28/2011, Anchored off Little Cave Cay

Anchorage off Northeast side of Little Cave Cay

Feb 25: After staying up half the night, we were ready to leave Big Cut and the Bight in general as soon as we could. We had to wait around, however, because we wanted to time our run through the Spence Rock Passage. This passage is the primary reason that most cruising sailboats don't sail the Bight of Abaco (the lack of good anchorages is another good reason, but they don't know about that since the guide books don't tell them, see previous post). The entire top of the Bight is sealed off by sandbars, reefs and islands so that the Spence Rock Passage is the only way out to boats that draw more than a couple feet of depth. At low water, the passage has a controlling depth (ie, the most shallow point) around 4.5 feet. No problem for Jascat because she can retract her swing keels so that she draws only 3.5 feet (even less if you pull them all the way up but then you have trouble steering). Never the less, being the conservative sailors that we are, we wanted to time our passage so that we went through on a rising tide and a little extra depth. The tide charts indicated that the perfect time was around 2:30pm. So to avoid getting to the Spence Rock too soon we delayed leaving Big Cut till 10am.

After a comfortable sail, we arrived at Spence Rock right on time. Running the passage turned out to be very easy. The mid afternoon timing gave us the perfect sun angle to light up the sea bottom so that the rocks and shoals were easy to see. Ann rode the bow spotting for me as I followed the course shown on the chartplotter. Our C-Map electronic charts have the Explorer Chart courses built in. (The Explorer Charts are the definitive charts for the Bahamas.) The chartplotter course proved to be right on as I never saw less than about 7 foot depth and Ann never had to scream stop!

Little Cave Cay is right at the end of the Spence Rock Passage and is shown on the charts as an anchorage having "good holding". Sure enough, the Rocna bit right in and set hard. We went to bed about 8:30pm determined to make up for the previous rotten night.

Hard Bargain to Big Cut north of Bamboo Cay
02/28/2011, Anchored in Big Cut

Ann making Pita Bread

[note: this was written Feb 24 when I was still mad at the guide book descriptions of the anchorages in the Bight]

Our original schedule had us going to Joe Downer Cay from Hard Bargain and from there hopping up the west coast of Big Abaco Cay stopping at the various "exquisite" anchorages touted in the guide books. An east wind blowing as we left Hard Bargain made Joe Downer a questionable target (we would have had to tack to get there) so we decided to go to our 2nd potential stop, Normans Castle, instead. Normans was a bit more to the west meaning that we could make it in one long close hauled run. So I started looking at the guide books about Normans Castle.

Our difficulty anchoring at Hard Bargain had me looking closely at the anchoring conditions not only in Normans but in the rest of the west side anchorages. None of the guide books rated the anchoring conditions in any detail. They talked about how beautiful the anchorages were but not how well the anchor could be set. The charts showed the sea bottom at most of the anchorages to be composed of "marl". At the time, I didn't know what marl was. I now know that it means impenetrable - your anchor will never set in this stuff.

From what I could gleam out of the guide books, the favored anchorage as far as protection from the expected winds was past Normans at either Big Cut off Bambo Cay or Rock Harbor off Rocky Harbor Cay. We were making such good time crossing the Bight, that we decided to head on past Normans to the better protected anchorages.

Both Big Cut and Rock Harbor, however, turned out to have the dreaded marl sea bottoms which at the time I didn't know would be a problem. Rock Harbor is indeed a beautiful anchorage but we couldn't get our Rocna anchor to even pretend to dig in. So we moved over to Big Cut. The first try there failed as well but the second dug in hard. We couldn't believe our luck.

When your safety depends on an anchor, however, you try not to trust to luck, so we got out our snorkel gear to take a look. The anchor had imbedded itself in a two foot high ledge that ran across the anchorage. While it was clear that the anchor would probably hold in a hurricane blowing against the ledge, it wasn't so clear what would happen if the current reversed, thereby pulling the anchor away from the ledge. What's normally done to protect from current changes is to set a 2nd anchor 180 deg behind the boat so that when the current changes, the boat will ride on the second anchor.

We got out our backup anchor, a 16 lb Fortress, and proceed to set a 2nd anchor. After dropping the anchor from the dinghy, I snorkeled down to set the anchor by hand. That's when I discovered that marl is just another name for concrete. The Fortress (which is designed for soft bottoms) wasn't going to dig in under any conditions. We pulled in the Fortress and considered our options.

We had enough daylight left that we could try one more anchorage but given the lack of information about holding conditions in the guide books, there wasn't any guarantee that any other anchorage would be any better. And we did have a set that would hold us well given the existing directions of the wind and current. We just needed to ensure that neither the wind nor the current turned us around.

These considerations left us with our least favored option: stay up all night on anchor watch. That way if conditions reversed and the anchor pulled out, we could fire up the engine, pull up the anchor, move out to sea (which in this area was only about 12 feet deep), and either try to reset the anchor or just heave to and wait for daylight. Ann took the 6pm to midnight watch and I took midnight to 6am.

The current did reverse during the night, of course, but the wind stayed steady out of the east at 10 knots which was enough to over power the current change, leaving us at the same orientation to the rock ledge all night. There was never any cause for concern other than judging the boats orientation which is always difficult at night with just a few far off lights for reference.

So why have I written about this in such detail? I guess I'm just disappointed with the guide books. Had I known that there were no anchorages with good holding on the west side of Great Abaco, I wouldn't have come over here. Along with saying how beautiful an anchorage is, the guide books should say whether an anchor can actually be set in it.

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Who: John and Ann Barton (and Sarah, part time)
Port: San Antonio, Texas
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