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Swingin' on a Star
Ship's log for the circumnavigating Saint Francis 50 catamaran, "Swingin on a Star".
Transiting the Banks to Normans Cay
12/27/2006, The Great Bahama Bank

We had a front pass on the 26th. It was pretty mild but I always hate to tempt fate and sail with a front coming, even if the gradient wind is good. Rain and high wind squalls are no fun when you're sailing in areas known for numerous coral heads.

The forecast for the 27th was for North wind around 15 knots which is just about perfect for a sail down to the Exumas. The three days after were forecast at 20 knots plus from the east. We had originally planned to stop at Allens Cay to see the iguanas and make the first sail as short as possible. Given the conditions and the fact that my sister's family was aboard, Hideko and I decided that we should make a longer run and get on the hook at Normans Cay due to the better protection.

We had to leave the harbor with a fairly stiff wind and it was really nice to have extra hands onboard to help spring off of the dock safely. We checked out with the harbor master as we headed out the West harbor entrance (Nassau Harbor control wants all boats entering and leaving to check in).

As we approached the outer buoys the swell began to build. It was work getting out of the entrance with large 5 and 6 footers on the nose and breakers on either side. We had to go around Paradise Island to get to Porgee Rocks due to our inability to get under the bridges. This put us at a serious disadvantage to the boats that could just pop out of the East end of the harbor and head south. It was also pretty rough going with big swells on the beam and some waves breaking at the tops due to the rapid shoaling and wind. It was not the first exposure to sailing for the family on our new boat I was hoping for. I sensed some nervousness here and there but the kids were having a blast. They liked seeing the Atlantis from the ocean and riding the waves.

We motored into the lee of Salt Cay which killed the nasty surf thankfully. We had plotted a track around the east side of Porgee Rocks which took us through the deepest water in the neighborhood, not deep by any stretch. Once we cleared into the really deep water south of Porgee (20 feet) we headed up to raise the main.

It takes awhile to get the canvas up to the top of that 72 foot stick. We watched several other boats who had left the East Harbor sail off ahead of us as we cranked away on the winch. Someone once told me that anytime you have two sail boats in the same water you have a race. Things we pretty gusty and it looked like it could get a bit squally so I left the first reef in. Brayden, my four year old nephew, kept telling me, "Captain, we need to beat them".

We were motor sailing on one engine at a little over 10 knots. I wanted to get to Normans fairly early due to the strange anchorage, shoal water entrance and poor light. I also didn't want my seven guests to have too long a first sail. The weather was very overcast but seemed stable. We were in a deep broad reach with 12 knots apparent so I shook out the reef and killed the engine which slowed us a bit but we were still doing over nine knots. We passed two boats fairly quickly and left one that had vectored in on us. We caught and passed another two mono hulls just past Yellow Bank.

Ah yes, Yellow Banks. You have to love areas of the chart marked, "numerous shallow coral heads" with well known waypoints on either side and rhumb lines connecting all the dots. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I just can't get used to sailing 10 knots in 10 feet of water. I only saw ten feet once but it freaked me out all the same. I later read the Stephen Pavlidis Guide and noted the following quote, "A few of these heads have only 3'-4' of water over them". Hideko routed us around a few scary looking spots but I really don't know if we could reliably expect to see all trouble areas at nine knots with the cloud cover we had. I have talked to other cruiser who have a fairly cavalier attitude about these banks, sailing through at night or on auto pilot with no watch. The only thing I can say about that is that if you are routing directly from one Explorer Chart waypoint to another you're probably fine relative to coral heads, so many people travel the exact path. On the other hand, you have a good chance of having a head on collision with someone else on the reciprocal track.

As we cleared the Yellow Bank area the swell picked up and the ride got a little more rolly, but was still fairly comfortable. No one took medicine and the Mal de Mer didn't strike once. With seven landlubbers aboard that's saying something given the 40 mile run.

We never caught up with Eryan or Side by Side but they were both there when we reached the main anchorage at Normans. We considered anchoring in the Pond and on the West side of Normans but we thought it would be more fun to be close to Eryan and Side by Side so that the kids on all three boats could play together. The Pond has a tight entrance only navigable (by us anyway) at high water. Once inside, the Pond is like a lake and one of the most peaceful anchorages around. Pavlidis noted that Hammerhead Sharks frequent the Pond and Andre, yet another French Canadian we had met in Bimini, told us he saw Lemon and Tiger sharks from his deck. I am not shark paranoid but I wanted to find a place fun for the kids to swim and Tiger sharks are one of the three flavors (Whites and Bulls are the other two) that don't let kids swim with. The other problem with the Pond is that the entrance is on the Exuma Sound side and with the winds predicted (20+ knots from the East) you can't get in or out of the Pond. There were no yachts on the West side. So we decided to drop the hook near Eryan. The main anchorage at the South end of Normans is well protected but right in a high current cut, which I hate.

Alex from Eryan and Jean, another French Canadian skipper, came out to help us as we were looking for a good anchorage. They gave us an overview of the depths in the area and, in the end, dinghied out our second anchor making Hideko's and my job very easy. Talk about a helping hand! It was our first time Bahamian mooring and it was great to get the help.

Catamarans are tricky to double bow anchor. We have a second roller on the top of the cross beam but there is no track on deck or easy access to the windlass for the second chain so we have to hand deploy things. We stow our 66 pound Claw wrapped in some towels in a deck locker so we have to dig that out and then attach the shackle with some pliers and hand lower the chain over the roller. We also have to pre load the chain onto a trampoline to avoid chewing up the lip of the chain locker.

You pretty much need to secure each anchor with a bridal on a cat. The bridal acts as a snubber taking up a bit of the shock load that can be generated when the boat falls back off of the anchor and it also centers the chain between the two hulls, avoiding too much sailing around. We leave our main bridal on the storm anchor attachment points and cleat the secondary bridal onto the cleats on the cross bar. Once we had the anchors down we hooked the bridals on and sat back to consider the situation. Two anchors, two chains, two bridals. Very complicated and, with a few 360 degree rotations, quite messy. We pretty much had to Bahamian moor because there were a lot of boats in the anchorage with two anchors out and not much deep water. I am hoping we don't have a twisted mess to undue when it is time to leave.

Rick on Merlin showed me a lot of great places to visit in the Exumas. He explicitly warned me about the wicked Bahamian current flowing onto and off of the banks through the cuts between islands in the Exumas. I am experiencing first hand what he warned me about. The current here is so strong that none of the kids can jump off of the boat into the water because they would never be able swim back to the boat. Taking a dinghy ride can be a lot of work and stowing the dinghy is a pain because the dinghy wants to point in different directions than the large boat. The wind blowing 20 knots against the outbound tide creates a small, due to the limited fetch, perfectly vertical chop, guaranteed to soak everyone on the dinghy if you aren't surfing down wind.

I think we are going to consider moving to the west side of the island tomorrow.

The Bahamas
Leaving Atlantis
12/26/2006, The Atlantis Marina

We had originally planned to leave on the 26th for Allens Cay but a front came through today so we decided to wait until Wednesday the 27th. It was a mild front but the rain and gusty weather would have made the tricky trip through the banks no fun. We are set to leave tomorrow early in the morning so that we have plenty of time to see the Allens Cay Iguanas and then perhaps anchor or even head down to Norman to visit with some of out other friends. We have to go out the West Nassau harbor entrance and then head all the way around Paradise Island due to our bridge problem. We are going to inch our way down to Porgee rocks through all of the shoal water on the East side of New Providence and then off to the Exumas.

I always like to have everything ship shape the day before the day before we make a passage. That allows me to rest and take care of everything I forgot to handle the day before the passage. The kids all played at the park today and I just took a nap. I spent a little time at the pool right next to the boat and even sat in the Jacuzzi for a while. The Walkers took me to Johnny Rockets for dinner and then we did a chart briefing. It was a nice close to a wonderful stay at Atlantis.

The Bahamas
Christmas Aboard
12/25/2006, Paradise Island

It was a great first Christmas on our boat. We had a bunch of family aboard, the kids opened presents, we played Christmas tunes on the MP3 rig and we had great food.

Having 9 people for Christmas dinner on a boat is a serious endeavor. Jessica, Garret, Pops, Hideko and I all had to really hustle to get everything ready, even Brayden and Logan helped. In the end we had used every cooking appliance and almost all of the pots and pans. We had a Butternut Squash soup going on the stove top (and used the overn to roast the squash prior), Broccoli going on the stove top, a birthday cake (Logan was born on Christmas day six years ago) and a pumpkin pie in the oven, mashed potatoes heating in the convection oven, Béarnaise sauce on the stove top and a Chateau Briand grilling on the barbeque. Throw in an Agua Dulce Cabernet from our engagement and you have a pretty good meal. The weather cooperated so we ate outside which was a nice bonus.

You really need to plan the logistics out for this type of thing on a boat. At home on the dirt you can just whip up whatever with counter space and pots and pans to spare. On the boat you have to carefully sequence things to avoid running out of cookers or pots and pans or counter. Hideko was finding bowls and whatnot all over the boat the next day.

The Bahamas
The Atlantis Marina
12/24/2006, Nassau

Well it has been an interesting week. We've gone from 2 people and a dog on the boat to 9 and a dog. Wow. It's kind of fun to have every berth in use. We have basically been parked so there hasn't been a lot of nautical stuff happening aboard. I think the week on the dock has been a good way to acquaint everyone with the boat. Living on a boat is not like living in a house. Everyone has now dealt with living on a boat (even if it is one plugged into shore power, and adjacent to Johnny Rockets and a Casino).

The Atlantis has been a blast for the kids and adults. The aquariums are awesome and the pools and water slides are a constant source of fun for the kids. The Atlantis is like a giant ocean based theme park. They have water slides that wind through shark filled pools, a set of tunnels that burrow through the lost city known as The Dig, many kids pools and some adult pools, a lagoon with a completely protected beach and lots of paddle boats and other toys, beach access with life guards and perimeter nets, jet ski rentals, scuba programs for the kids, an Internet library, crew's lounge with showers and a pool table, the list goes on. It is a great resort complete with restaurants of all kinds and a casino. It is also safe, unlike Nassau at large. There are guards and video cameras everywhere.

Some tips for cruisers considering a visit to Atlantis follow. If you dock somewhere in Nassau and come to the Atlantis with your family you will likely pay more than if you just dock here. The Atlantis park is an open area, you could be sneaky and get into a lot of the fun at the resort without paying. That said you need a wrist band to do the water slides and to even get into some of the areas. To get a wrist band you need a room key (or marina key) or you can buy a one day access pass. The one day pass runs up to $200 for a family of four. If you dock your 50 foot boat near the entrance of the marina you will pay $3 a foot (no extra charge for Catamarans!) or $150 a night. Not only will you get full access to the park for your whole crew but also a safe slip with good dock service, power, room service and everything else you have staying in a room at the hotel. No cab fares or dinghy rides either. IMHO this is the bargain of the century. We have 9 on board and pay $150 a night! Sixteen dollars a head is pretty cheap for the experience.

The Atlantis marina is located west of the bridges, which is great if you are entering the harbor from the West. Our stick is 72 feet above the water which means that I don't do bridges under 75 feet. The Paradise island bridges that cross the Nassau harbor are 65 feet. Most marinas here require us to enter from the far more tricky East side of the harbor, no fun in fading light.

Getting a slip reserved in the Atlantis Marina can be difficult during the holidays. The entire place has been reserved this year since August. However, weather and the whims of the rich and famous (who don't care about paying cancellation fees) leave slips open constantly. If you are willing to roll the dice a bit you can stay here as long as you like in my experience. Here's what I ended up doing: We called in September to discover that they were booked but we were told to call in when in town and they would see what they could do. December 16th we radioed in on approach and they said no problem for two nights, take slip 27. Unfortunately slip 27 is prime turf (an alongside spot big enough for a 200 footer) and ran $7 a foot. Yikes. The next day we moved into a slot that had become available up to the 23rd. We didn't want to leave the marina until after Christmas to minimize the challenges with 9 aboard. Lucky for us the 120 foot sloop taking up the alongside #1 and #2 spots moved into a prime slip so we shuffled over to #2 for the last few nights at the reduced rate of $3 a foot. As stated previously we would have had far fewer problems if our beam had been only 22 feet as there are many 25 foot slips for the mega yachts. Our beam of 26 and change had us scratching for the alongside slips only. If you are close to the entrance you only pay $3 per foot but have a good walk around the marina to get to the resort. The middle spots are $5 and the prime spots in the main marina area are $7.

They purport to be very green and I'm sure they try but the mega yachts are washing the topsides every day or two so there's soap and other cleansers floating around the marina regularly. You obviously need to be on holding tanks here but the marina pump outs at each slip are broken. The kind of broken where they will never be fixed I suspect. There's no fuel and the dinghy dock, if you're visiting, is at the very back behind an alley where they often have two mega yachts side by side parked two deep. If you can tie more than two dinghies up there I'd be surprised, they are not exactly encouraging outside boats to visit.

The Bahamas
Beam Challenged
12/18/2006, Atlantis

You wouldn't think it looking around at all of these monster motor boats, but we actually don't fit into most slips here. Our catamaran is a bit over 26 feet wide. The beam makes things real stable and comfy, but tricky to fit anywhere in a marina. It is end tie or no tie for us.

The marina is not quite packed but apparently the whole place is booked for Christmas. We called in September to check into reservations and they told us to just show up because they couldn't give us a reservation. We had to move to a new spot today to squeeze another few days out of the harbor master.

The Bahamas
12/17/2006, Atlantis

We walked around the Atlantis a bit and ran into Alex and Ellen from Eyran and Dennis and Linda from Shanty. The Atlantis grounds are pretty awesome and even if you have a natural aversion to touristy stuff you should at least give this place look. There are under water tunnels with views into the various lagoons and lots of fun places to explore for kids and adults. The water park is better than any I've seen with swimming pools, water slides that shoot through tubes underneath shark filled pools, snorkeling lagoons and of course a huge section of beach.

The marina has wifi, a lounge with pool tables, bathrooms and showers that are very nice and clean, laundry, the works. They try to be as green as possible and keep strict rules regarding discharge of anything in the marina. It's crazy expensive but pretty nice.

We met up later in the day on the veranda (our cockpit really) with Alex, Ellen and their two kids, Louic and Mia. We had a relaxing evening chatting about cruising and how they managed with two kids. We hope to see them in Exuma over the weeks ahead so that I can talk Alex into teaching me how to spear fish and catch lobster the Bahamian way (no dive tanks, sob).

The Bahamas
Crossing the New Providence Channel
12/16/2006, Nassau

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.

The Bahamas

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