Transiting the Banks to Normans Cay
27 December 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.