While the idea that we would use Man O'War Cay as our "base" proved to be unattractive after we actually visited Man O'War, the idea of having a "base" - temporary home turned out to be a good one. Our base was Hope Town. Hope Town is charming (check out the photos),with the famous lighthouse, 2 little grocery stores, one of which is Verns. Verns is famous for fresh baked goods, in particular Vern's Key Lime Pie. We bought one ($15.00!) and it was worth every penny - it was to kill for. Wiley reluctantly shared some with our friends. The restaurants in Hope Town - are right on the water front (Harbour's Edge and Cap'n Jack) on either the bay ( or ocean side (Fireflies). It is easy bringing the dinghy into town at the sailing school dock which is across from the marina (Hope Town Inn and Marina) where we stayed. It has one of the all-time great beaches, Tahiti Beach, with great snorkeling - white powdering sands, and good shelling. It is more than 13 miles from downtown, so we rented bikes and rode a hilly ride and worked off some of the rum drinks we have enjoyed so much. There is also a dive shop - Froggies where we get our scuba tanks filled by Lambert and Theresa.
The Hope Town Inn and Marina is in transition as it builds a brand new facility. It is getting closer to completion and includes 2 pools (one where you can be served a drink while you sit on a bar stool in the pool!), will have a small store, a small restaurant, showers, wi-fi, etc. Currently the resources are limited but we have enjoyed the safety of being at a slip, having electricity, and certainly enjoyed the bartender Katie's Yellow Bird. Additionally, Wiley found a path that led to a "private spot" to go swim in the Sea of Abaco. I found it less attractive after learning that Bull Sharks like to come past this area on their way to a shallow feeding ground near the entrance to Hope Town. In fact we took a dinghy ride out to this area to look for Bull Sharks. Wiley is eager to see some large tropical "beasts" - that is besides me in the water.
We took many trips from Hope Town to places to dive or snorkel in the Sea of Abaco but would always return when bad weather was probable. We never felt "stuck" there.
However, once a week we went to Marsh Harbor. We anchored there and went ashore in Dimples to grocery shop at Maxwell's (It is the only grocery store in the islands that compares with a grocery store in the states.)
We voyaged from Hope Town on several SCUBA expeditions.
Man-O-War is a great place for a boat during a hurricane but not a good place for an adult with ADHD who is used to the wonders of Chicago. That sums it up! For years, I have been reading about Man-O-War Cay and talking about how we would "base" there after we got to the Bahamas.
The harbors (there is one north and the other south of the harbor entrance) are indeed well-protected from the seas although they seemed smaller than we expected. We met a couple who keep their sailboat on a mooring at Man-O-War during the hurricane season, and their vessel survived Hurricane Irene, which was a CAT3 when it hit here.
The "settlement" is tiny. There is a dockside restaurant which serves okay food at typical Bahamian prices. There is a dive shop which never seems to be open. There are 2 boat yards run by the same people, and reported to be highly competent. There are 2 small grocery stores as well as a couple of shops. There is a cannon from a US warship wrecked during the Civil War, mounted near a dock where it rusts away, despite the coating of bright white, black, blue and yellow enamel paint (colors of the Bahamian flag). There are rusting boat engines laying around as well as beautiful little sailboats that are hand-built out of wood at Man-O-War. The museum in in an old house which contains displays of mostly things from the 1950s. The 1950s kitchen in the house is part of the museum as well as an old washing machine that sits outside.
The island seems to be marked by a certain lack of diversity. It is not just that most of the inhabitants are white, and that the black people one sees mostly just work on the island leaving by ferry every night; its that most of the white people seem to be related to one another. The all kind of look alike. We noticed the same resemblance in the many old photographs of residents displayed in the little museum. In one photo of an island wedding around 1900, the bride and groom bear a distinct family resemblance to each other. The island was settled by a handful of loyalists families who fled New York and Charleston after their side (i.e., the British) lost the American Revolutionary War. The same families are still here.
The island is very Christian. Notwithstanding its small size, the settlement boats several nice looking little churches. Any sale of alcoholic beverages is prohibited. The only upcoming entertainment consisted of a Christian Folk Singer, and a movie being shown at one of the local churches about a champion surfer who goes on a quest for the Big Wave and instead finds Jesus.
Much of the island is taken up by attractive private residences owned by wealthy Americans and others. They have PRIVATE PROPERTY and NO TRESPASSING signs which bar access to much of the islands beaches.
It makes us appreciate Chicago, where almost the entire majestic waterfront is park, owned by all the people, "forever open, clear, and free".
Between that and the lack of intellectual stimulation, we quickly became homesick and spent only 2 nights at the place I had dreamed would be our base. We really haven't given Man-O-War a good enough look; we will come back, stay a while more, and see if we still feel the same way. We plan to have some routine maintenance done on our boat by one of the yards here.
For now, we cast off the mooring and headed for historic Hope Town and its famous red and white candy striped lighthouse.
Years before we embarked on this extended voyage, a couple who owned a large new sailing yacht at North Point Marina told us (based on what they described as "years of sailing and diving in the Bahamas") that we would never be able to get our sailboat out to the reefs for SCUBA diving. They said that unless we had something like a big Zodiac with a 15hp outboard, "you just can't go diving". A sailing (and scuba-diving) couple we met at Vero Beach, Florida who said they live on their boat at Man-O-War Cay for months every year, told us the same thing. "you need a big inflatable dinghy with a 20hp outboard to get out to the reefs."
Well, we don't have a big inflatable with a big motor. Instead, we have a little 8 foot Dimples with her 2hp. outboard.
So the question was, could we navigate Les Miserables into a place where we could anchor among the coral reefs and explore some of the great dive sites of the Bahamas?
It turns out that we can. We left Marsh Harbor, hoisted all sail and had a fast passage at speeds up to 6.4 knots, through crystal clear water across the Sea of Abaco into the North Man-O-War Passage, then out toward the Atlantic, then headed back to a gap in the reef that lies behind Fowl Cay and the outer reef on the Atlantic side.
It helped that the seas on the passage were maybe 2 feet! We had listened to the "Cruisers Net," an informal broadcast done by cruisers themselves at 0815 every morning on weather, sea state, community events, local business "promos" etc. The report on North Man-O-War was that "you could do the passage on a shingle, it's so smooth"! After hearing this, we had the anchor up and were underway within the hour.
In avoiding a collision with a reef or rock as we made our way around various of them and into an area of sand near a dive site called "French Grunt Alley" we relied on Fernando, our faithful chartplotter GPS, and the keen eyes of Merry, up in the bow pulpit "reading the bottom". We approached the reef we would be diving on under slow power, and when Merry yelled that we were "three boat lengths" from the reef, we dropped the anchor in 40 feet of water, set it, put up our "Diver Down" flag, put on our wetsuits and scuba gear and jumped in.
It turned out that we were about a football field from the reef after setting anchor, but this presented no problem, and we swam to the reef, let the air out of our BCs (buoyancy compensators) and submerged to explore a healthy reef full of colorful tropical fish. We saw huge schools of royal blue chromies, French Angels, Parrot fish, and lots of Damselfish, each guarding its little personal patch of rock or reef. There was no surge and little current. After 62 minutes of bottom time we surfaced because Merry felt a bit cold, inflated our BCs and swam back to Les Miserables. We didn't see anything large - no big green moray eel, no sharks, though Merry did see a large curious Barracuda hanging outside the reef watching us. By 4:30 we had the tanks and scuba gear stowed and were underway, and we sailed to Man-O-War Cay, where we cautiously entered the narrow channel and picked up a mooring in the South Harbor near our friends Barbara and Merle's boat Endurance.
This was one more time that little Les Miserable did what people had told us we couldn't do.
Marsh Harbor was not all that we expected.
We had been told that in the winter, as many as 500 boats can be anchored here. By that standard, the harbor seemed small to hold that many boats.
We had read that Marsh Harbor was the third largest city in the Bahamas, after Freeport and Nassau. This is true. However, the population is only about 5,000 people, making it less than one third the size of Geneva, Illinois the "small town" we live in.
We enjoyed a lovely dinner with our friends Merle and Barbara ashore (after a brief, impromptu "dingy race" to the restaurant dock in which Dimples with her 2hp outboard and attached "flotation tubes" did not fair well.) We enjoyed a lovely lunch at a harbor side restaurant - Mangoes since Curlytails was closed.
Unlike Green Turtle, Marsh Harbor is no "resort". It has a gritty reality to it. At the floating dinghy dock (a courtesy of the Royal Marsh Harbor Yacht Club) kids, and on occasion, a troubled looking adult (other cruisers describe them as "winos") wait, eager to grasp your dingy painter (line) with the expectation that you will tip them for this unwanted and unnecessary service. A nearby commercial site is surrounded by a chain-link fence with a coil of razor wire along the top, and an armored care with uniformed men AND REALLY BIG GUNS make pick-ups and deliveries at the local banks. The unemployment rate in the Bahamas is around 14%, and you see a lot of people here who, in material terms, don't have much.
Yet almost everyone here still greets you with a bright smile and a friendly hello. Marsh Harbor has a fairly large, well-stocked grocery store, Maxwell's Supermarket, hardware stores, and a store that sells DVDs of very recent movies in suspicious xeroxed paper packets (we did not buy any). If you get to the grocery store on Thursday or Friday there is plenty of fresh produce because the barges bring them in from the states on those days.
The Commonwealth of the Bahamas is NOT a third world country. It is a thriving democracy, with three constructive political parties (FNM, PLP, and DNA). they have an election coming up, and we watched political adds on TV at the bank. None of the adds were "attack adds". Candidate posters are everywhere. Even in Marsh Harbor, the crime rate is low by U.S. standards. On our second day in Marsh Harbor, we watched some black Bahamian kids - ages maybe between seven and twelve- jump off a pier, swim underwater to the beach, and then come up laughing, joking, and then running out to the end of the pier to make another dive.
That is when I decided that I really like Marsh Harbor.
It didn't hurt that a friendly Bahamian pharmacist filled two of my prescriptions that had run out, at a price with insurance paying nothing, which was 1/3 of the amount I pay "out of pocket" for the same medications AFTER my insurance has paid its share. The Bahamians are adding prescription drugs to their National Health Insurance next year, and will be paying for it with a modest increase in their taxes.
It makes you wonder if WE are the Third World Country.
We had heard about "The Whale" and the "rages" that occurred at the "Whale" - a "rage" is when there is a great force of wind causing large waves and rough seas.
The water bounces off of reefs and shoals creating great waves and white caps making a passage dangerous even for large boats. It was another among many "worries" that Wiley has carried with throughout our trip - "Could we get through the Whale Passage in our little boat?"! Wiley had talked about this so often I too began to worry about the "RAGE".
The weather had to be settled for our little boat to go through the Whale Passage, which runs outside into the Atlantic and then back into the Sea of Abaco. We had thought about waiting until Tuesday to make this trip but seeing all of the boats on our dock head out of Green Turtle and many confirmations that the "Whale" was settled today caused us to leap at the chance to join the other cruisers. Sailors confidence is often influenced by the thinking of those around you.... "if they are going, then we should too". So, like lemmings we joined the group.
As we prepared to leave Green Turtle we had to settle up our bill for dockage for 8 nights at Green Turtle Club and Marina. Yikes! we had not anticipated staying at a marina for that long of a period of time but the weather, our 40th anniversary - YES 40 YEARS TOGETHER (and this last year being with each other 24/7!!!), as well as waiting for another 'weather window' kept us tied to the dock. They have a special deal that whatever $$ you spend on meals or drinks is deducted from your dockage fee. We did such a good job eating and drinking many "Yellow Birds" that our dockage was free. However, of course our meals and drinks were not - but even so our bill was in our minds reasonable. However, we now need to exercise more and cut out some (but not all!- remember that we ARE with each other 24/7) of the rum in our diet. We left Green Turtle Cay Marina - with the fine dining, rum drinks, swimming pool, and dockage with plans to anchor in Marsh Harbor. It turned out that the "raging whale" was more like a "swimming guppy" - it was a smooth ride on a beautiful 80+ degree day with soft southeasterly winds and 4 hours after leaving Green Turtle we were setting anchor in Marsh Harbor.
The entrance into Marsh Harbor was somewhat shallow, but once inside we found a place to anchor and were surprised when we were setting anchor that Barbara and Merle (along with their dog Mozart) showed up alongside our boat in their dinghy. They were anchored nearby. Ah, friends to share sundowners with once again. Are you sensing a theme of overcoming our fears, or admiring sunsets, or finding any excuse to enjoy some rum/ wine? Retirement may need to include a 12 step program.
We took our dinghy around and up the north side of Marsh Harbor to snorkel on a magical reef - Mermaid's Reef. It is a protected reef with 2 buoys for small boats to tie onto. Video footage of the two of us donning our snorkel gear and diving is pretty boring, however you can imagine the challenges of getting our old bodies back into the dinghy. We have a rope/plastic step ladder that swings under the dinghy - so while holding on to the side (arms stretched over our dinghy dogs - inflatable boat collar) we try to swing the ladder away to create a fulcrum with our bodies to get over the side of the dinghy. This leads to us landing pretty much face first into the dinghy with our butt in the air and our voice filling the air with many expletives! The first one into the dinghy gets the added benefit of rocking wildly about as our partner gets in next. It is sooo nice when no one else is around and there is no video footage that can be shared.
Marsh Harbor has a lot to offer in the way of resources - groceries, hardware stores, liquor stores, banks, etc. We enjoyed a lovely lunch at Mangos looking out over the harbor and did a little shopping. We then decided to take advantage of the great weather we were having to move to Man-O-War Cay with the hope that we would be able to go "outside" into the Atlantic Ocean through Man o' War Passage and anchor Les Miserable for a dive on the French Grunt Reef along the way. However, this will once again mean facing the possibility of another 'rage' or maybe not?!
We only slept for half the night at Great Sale Cay, by 0300, the wind had shifted so that it was blowing from the west, and gradually increased to 20 miles per hour. Great Sale now offered no protection whatsoever. It was Memory Rock all over again! By dawn the anchorage was entirely untenable and I feared that Les Miserable would drag her anchor and end up on the beach! However, as with most of the things I worry a out, this did not come to pass. Using our "marriage savers" again, with Merry at the helm, I pulled the anchor up and once again we got underway with no difficulty.
We headed north to clear Little Sale Cay, before we could turn SE toward the entrance to the Sea of Abaco. Other than an anxious moment, when I strayed into an area of submerged rocks, causing the depth alarm on Fernando (our Chart Plotter and Navigation computer) to go off, it was an easy day. Merry reminded me that Fernando shows those submerged rocks as little x's on the chart- avoid them. After we made the turn, we were on a "run" (sailing with the wind behind us) with very moderate seas (2-3 footers) and our old boat began to "surf", attaining speeds over 7 knots - faster than her hull speed! We were screaming! We passed a succession of sailboats - all going in the other direction. Everyone else, it seems, was going back to the USA, while we were just getting here!
Merry entered five different waypoints on Fernando. It was a sunny, clear day and at one point a dolphin passed right in front of Les Miserables, so close I feared that I would hit it. It was a great change from the months we spent on the brown waters of the ICW. No more bends, twists and turns, no more constant watch for channel markers, no more brown water; instead, just navigating from one waypoint to the next. We are learning to "read" the water. The darker areas are either grass bottomed (and can be very shallow) or reef. The brilliant aqua means we are over white sands and the clear water is all you see. We weren't sure if we could make it to our objective Green Turtle Cay before dark, however by 1650 we had entered the White Sound entrance and made our way up the narrow and skinny watered channel to a slip at the Green Turtle Club Marina, with its great restaurant, swimming pool, and a dive shop right next door. I thought that the human body was not designed to survive the incredible speed of 7 knots for a whole day, and that this immense speed had caused pressure to build up against our skulls so that our brains suddenly exploded, so that we instantly died, and beautiful Green Turtle Cay is, in fact, heaven. It is that cool here!