We got up a little late today because we planned to make just a short hop around the North end of the Berrys and over to Devil's/Hoffman Cay area. We've heard wonderful stories of great fishing, protected anchorages, blue holes and more. Our friends on Shanty were there and we had heard a bit of traffic from other boats in the area on the VHF who seemed to be enjoying themselves. We wanted to sneak back into the no surge, low current anchorages on the west side of the islands. This would require a high tide entrance as we couldn't clear the two foot something depths at low water. Our trusty tide graphic for the day said high water at 2PM so we set our sights to arrive around noon on a rising tide. This provided a little fudge factor on the timing, which is never spot on due to the distance between tide stations, and ensured that if we bumped into some sand we would rise off and have an opportunity to abort the mission, backing into deeper water.
The weather was looking grim for the rest of the week and we needed to be in Nassau by the 22nd at the latest and preferably a few days earlier. We were hoping for a day or two in the central Berrys and then an opening to cross the Providence Channel in comfort.
We settled up at the Marina and motored out of the harbor at around 10:30 in the morning. Magic had anchored out the night before and we could hear them making good progress to Nassau on the radio (not to mention hooking several fish across the drop off). We rounded the outer end of the Berrys, Little Stirrup and Great Stirrup Cays, as two floating hotels came into view. The northern most Berrys are a regular stop for cruise ships and there are supposed to be some big moorings without lights floating in the area. We didn't see any so perhaps they were both in use. We dodged around the para-sailors and jet skiers as we turned into the wind to raise the main.
This was our first time to raise the entire main. You can use the windlass to get the main up on our boat but I prefer to use the two speed winch. We have a huge, heavy main. In order to get it to the top of the stick as quickly as possible I pull it directly by hand up to about the third reef, then use the fast speed on the winch to somewhere between the first and second reef, and then the slow speed to the top. I can just about do this without stopping if nothing gets hung up. However, given that we have a topping lift, traveler, main sheet, outhaul, long battens with lazy jacks, zip up sail bag, and three reef lines (the third of which is longer than a lot of people's halyards) it is fairly easy to end up with something wrapped around something. When you raise the main by hand you can really feel when there's something amiss, even when everything looks ok. On this go I had the main sheet a little tight which made getting the battens through the jacks easy but shut me down about 5 feet before the mast head.
We were motor sailing along and I kept running the weather forecasts through in my head wondering if Thursday would be tenable for a run across the deep water to Nassau. Then I heard some more boats having a wonderful sail to New Providence 10 to 20 miles ahead of us. Next we got on course for a Devil's/Hoffman way point we had set that coincidentally lined up with Nassau approach. Hum, it's only 40 nautical miles to Nassau Harbor from our current position. We're doing 10 knots. It's a little after noon. Nassau it is.
The seas were pretty flat with a long duration swell. The swell was on the beam so we rocked a bit in the light wind. Heading to a new harbor I wanted as much light as possible so I did a little bit of sail tweaking and got us up to 11 knots for a bit. Everything was running smooth and it was certainly our most comfortable passage yet but the skies were very gloomy. Our leeward shrouds were deflecting a bit more than I'd like when the swell counter healed the boat, which I need to check into, but everything else was humming along.
The Nassau Harbor entrance is made to sound pretty nasty in many of the Cruising Guides and Chart Books. It was getting toward sunset. We were all geared up to take bearings, binoculars in hand and a weather eye on the horizon. Then we saw the Atlantis Hotel. It's pretty big and hard to miss. It also sits very close to the North West harbor entrance. As we approached the rest of the island formed a thin line on the horizon and other towers and landmarks materialized. Shipping and other power boat traffic are another tell tale. As you approach, shoot for the middle of what looks like a singular long rocky break water and as you close on it an opening will appear in the middle (it is actually several stretches of break water). Pretty straight forward really. It was overcast but not stormy and we had no real problem getting in.
Holding inside the diminishing quantity of anchorages in the harbor is not rumored to be good and the forecast called for squally weather with winds above 20 knots. Most folks were taking spots in marinas. We called in to get a slip at the Atlantis Marina for a splurge, expecting $3-5 a foot. It was $7. Apparently 26 feet of beam keeps you out of the cheap spots. Next we called into the harbor master, a requirement to enter Nassau. They took our Boat name and ID, port of entry, last port of call and gave us the green light in what seemed to be a fairly routine VHF affair. About a mile out we furled the jib and dropped the main in the bag. We were in the harbor and entering the Atlantis marina in no time. In my mind this was like returning to Marina Del Rey, a cake walk. If you think Nassau is bad I don't think you could justify getting within 5 miles of Bimini or Great Harbor.
The harbor is busy. There were four towering cruise ships in port, our mast didn't even reach their first deck level. It was fun tooling by them a few 10s of feet away. Tour boats with a drag coefficient of an African Bull Elephant with five sheets of plywood chained loosely around its waist, brutally forced their way through the water leaving unprecedented wakes. Boats pass on whichever side of you they feel like. It's a little hectic. On the other hand, there's lots of water and plenty of room.
The only other sailboat in the Atlantis Marina was a 100 foot monohull at the entrance. Everything else is either a mega yacht over 80 feet or a crazy slick Sport Fisher, not much smaller. We went from being a big boat in Bimini to being a speck in the water in Nassau.
All of the docks in the Bahamas that we have seen so far have concrete or wood pilings on the out side of the dock. This sucks. With winds in the teens and twenties you need to get real good at docking real fast. There are no long smooth surfaces to come along side and gently rub, no rubber bumpers on the concrete pilings and certainly no floating docks. It's just you and your fenders, and it's just about impossible to get you fenders hung horizontally in exactly the right spot to take the first touch on a leeward dock. Given the chance we hang the fenders on the post rather than the boat so that the fender is always between the boat and the post. This doesn't fly when you're coming in for the first time of course. Moral of the story, don't let anyone tell you that a rub rail isn't a necessity. You have to have one! Also fender boards (a board that runs horizontally across two or three vertical fenders) is a great thing to have handy.
We got tied up and as seems to be our fate it began to rain and blow. It was nice to be situated and relaxing. We ended the day with a bit of sushi at Nobu and then turned in. I regret not visiting Devil's/Hoffman but the tales I keep hearing about the Exumas make me hopeful that there will be plenty of beautiful anchorages down island to make up for the miss.
12/15/2006, Bullocks Harbor
I hate to say it but December has been pretty gloomy in the Bahamas. We've had some fantastic blue sky days but more often it's a blue patch in a grey sky. We're relaxing in the boat today, working on weather windows and reading. Hideko is reading "Brain Styles for Lovers" (should I be scared?), a book that Captain Charlie on CatNip gave her before we left Bimini. Captain Charlie is a USCG captain and instructor single handing her Packet Cat to Exuma. We spent some great hours chatting with her in Bimini and we were going to sail around North Rock together yesterday morning but one of her cats got loose (hope the kitten is home safe).
The SSB I/O here isn't great. Not bad in the anchorage outside of the harbor but tough inside the marina. We met David on Magic, a beautiful Baba 40 double ender, today. David and Donna have been in the anchorage and, as of yesterday, the marina for a week or so waiting to be able to get around the top of the Berrys in good weather. We're both set to go tomorrow with light North winds in between fronts. We'll head due South to Devils Cay if the window to Nassau stays open later in the week. I'm beginning to see why they call this the thorny path, I guess I need to reread Bruce Van Sant's book.
12/14/2006, Great Harbor Cay
We waited for a rising tide and once we had a foot of water under the keel we weighed anchor and motored into the Marina to tie up and check out Great Harbor Cay. The west side of Great Harbor is rocky and has cliffs as high as 30 feet in places. The rock is eaten away by the tidal flow at the waterline giving it a mushroom like overhang reminiscent of Micronesia, if not so pronounced. The East side of Great Harbor has several beautiful white sand beaches. The southern beach on the east coast is formed in the shape of a huge crescent and has small outlying Cays on each tip. The sand is like confectionary sugar it is so fine and soft. We found a place called "The Beach Club", with great cheese burgers and stiff drinks right on the beach.
As we were exploring the marina area we ran into the crew of Shanty, some folks we'd met in Bimini. They left a little after we did yesterday and got into Great Harbor at 3AM this morning. Steve, the captain, went for a nap as he had been working hard for about 18 hours. Dennis and Linda were crewing for Steve and joined us at the Beach club. After two potent Rum and Cokes, Dennis and I walked around the beach solving all of the world's problems; you know the kind of discussion. On the way back to town (a three mile walk over the hill in the middle of the island) a really nice lady in a van stopped out of the blue and offered us a ride. We graciously accepted. We got out at the local store which had just received a shipment so we bought a nice ripe tomato, some grapes and other stuff.
It turns out that this is sort of standard in the outer islands of the Bahamas. If you have a car and see someone walking your way, the thing to do is offer them a ride. Locals don't always stop for tourists because tourists often want to walk, and though unspoken, tourists may be afraid to get into a car with a stranger. This is an unfortunate fear cultured in the US and other developed countries. Outside of Nassau, safety in the Bahamas if far higher than almost any place in the US I've been. You don't have a lot of crime in places where everyone knows everyone else.
If you need a ride in the Bahamas you don't stick your thumb out, you hold your hand open and out, down by your hip and wave it side to side. This is almost guaranteed to stop the very next car that sees you.
12/13/2006, The Banks
We are fair weather sailors. The problem is that fair weather doesn't always come from the right direction. We had been waiting, enjoying, but waiting, in Bimini for over a week for something we could sail into the Berrys with. My most recent 7 day outlook combined with the NOAA Offshore Forecast had me convinced that if we didn't reduce our weather requirements we would be in Bimini for some time. This time of year fronts tend to show up about every three to four days. Fronts can be squally with high speed wind gusts, rain and overcast skies. Not fun to sail in. On the other hand, fronts create a break in the ever present Easterly trades. You can ride the clocking wind in front of the front, or you can take the north east wind behind the front. The week we were in Bimini both of these types of opportunities came along but always with 20 knots plus and big seas. Big seas translates to "choppy and no fun to anchor in" on the banks.
Needing to get to Nassau by around the 20th and wanting to get some time in cruising the Berrys before that, we needed to find a window within a week. We selected the lesser of evils within the 7 day forecast, a diminishing East wind with reasonable seas. The wind doesn't always blow your way, that's why the lord gave us motors. We were heading from Bimini around North Rock to Bullocks Harbor on Great Harbor Cay. All in all it was about an 80 mile jump. We left before first light in order to ensure that we could make the entire run in daylight. We rounded the North shore of Bimini at about 7AM with a spectacular sunrise in the East and didn't even bother raising the main. The wind was coming from 92 degrees and we were heading 92 degrees. The banks were choppy and it was a rough ride but Swingin' on a Star did over 8 knots the entire way. She would have done more if asked but the crew could only take so much of the seas on the nose so we settled in at 8.
It was a pretty eventless trip. We did a small service on both diesels before leaving Bimini, emptying quite a bit of water from the Starboard Racor. Everything ran smooth for the 10 hours we motored. We did see two skiffs (small open boats with an outboard) 20 miles from anywhere. We wondered how they got out there and how they were going to get back. Each had two guys aboard, one on the motor and one in a wet suit standing on the bow. Later Steve on Shanty informed us that they were probably Lobster hunting and were likely working from a larger boat anchored on the banks.
We hit the Bullocks Harbor way point at 4PM as planned and made our way to the anchorage just south of the entrance to the Great Harbor Cay Harbor. Hideko and I got greedy and went way too far into a long shallow grassy bottomed shelf. We were trying to get right up on this nice white sand beach. We ended up anchored with about an inch of water under the keel at low tide. Some would say that's perfect other would say something else. I was a little concerned about getting out later.
It was our first time using the Rocna. It was overcast all afternoon and started to sprinkle while we were anchoring. The Rocna took a while to set in the tough grassy bottom (one of the less preferable bottom types to anchor in). We had to back down quite a ways before the anchor finally bit. Once set it held like a champ all night in fairly strong winds. The water was beautiful so we ran the water maker for three hours to fill the tanks up a bit. Our Spectra Newport 400 was making 15 gallons an hour in the clear water.
This was our longest passage yet and all motoring into the wind at that. After the Gulf Stream crossing this was not such a big deal but still tiring. Roq, however, managed to sleep the whole way. Once we were settled at anchor Hideko cooked up a nice warm meal and we both hit the hay early.
We had been enjoying Bimini for a while because the weather has not been favorable for crossing the Banks. It looks like finally tomorrow will be the day we will sail (er, motor) to the Berrys. We had made a new batch of friends in Bimini and many of them are planning to leave tomorrow as well.
We scheduled the day before our crossing for diesel maintenance and we wanted to get the work over with early in the day so that we could relax later in the day. We spent a good part of the day saying goodbye to new friends and didn't wrap up maintenance until three o'clock or so. We wanted to go to the beach one last time before sunset. The crew of Side by Side, a Manta catamaran in the harbor, was out on the beach, so we joined them for some relaxation. The water was too cold for Randy and I (26 centigrade) so we stayed on the sand and watched the kids create an obstacle course for their hermit crabs.
We got on the computers at the Ministry of Tourism for some Internet access (first time since FL other than SailMail) right at the end of the day. The folks there knew of a gentleman in Baileytown who was making bread so we were able to pick up two loaves of Bimini bread before we left. Now we had really done Bimini right!
We went to the BTC (Bahamian Telephone Company) today to try to get a cell phone working and lo and behold they were having a massive party with all of Bimini in attendance. They had a Junkanoo band, food and all. Stevie S. sang songs about Bimini and the CEO of BTC introduced their brand new GSM and Blackberry services on Bimini. Just in time for me to enable my GSM phone! Now if I can just find a charger...