17 February 2015 | Highborne Cay, Exumas, Bahamas
Caroline / 75º, mostly sunny, winds S 18 MPH
We finally left Bimini a week ago today, back through that exciting surf in the entrance channel. The good news was, the wind was only about half the velocity we found coming in. Still, it's always exciting to motor through crashing waves. Our friend Jan took some nice photos of us out there as we left, but his Internet situation is as bad as ours, so it may be a while until he can email us high res files to post.
On Monday, we headed ESE directly across the Great Bahama Bank, a shallow, open patch of water measuring more than 60 miles across and just six to12 feet deep. We arrived well after dark on an incredibly dark night, lit only by a half moon and billions of start - more than I can recall having seen in many years. As the winds were light and the seas calm, we anchored out in the open water just west of the Northwest Channel, a narrow entrance bracketed by shoals that leads to the Tongue of the Ocean.
Early the next morning, we sailed through the opening to the Northwest Channel, in water that dropped from nine feet to 324 feet in less than two miles. From there, incredibly, it just got deeper - averaging well over 6,000 feet and reaching, in some places, close to 10,000. Larry admitted to feeling a little anxious about transitioning to such deep water; definitely not a place you'd want your boat to sink. (Not that you'd want it to sink in 20 feet of water, either.)
Our destination that day was a small anchorage called West Bay, located on the west end of New Providence Island, well away from the hustle and bustle of Nassau. However, as the narrow entrance to the bay came into view in the late afternoon, we realized we had a problem. Swells had been building all day, six or eight feet tall but with such long intervals that we hardly noticed them out on the banks. As we - and the swells - approached the harbor, and the water quickly and dramatically shallowed, those rollers grew and surged diagonally across the harbor, breaking with a crash as they ran in with a velocity that would make a Malibu surfer proud. We did a hard left turn into the swells when we realized how big they were, and poured on the coals to move back out into calmer water as quickly as Thalia could.
Once out of harm's way, we circled around the considerable shoals to another, southern entrance to the bay, but saw that it was nearly as unsettled. Feeling we'd had enough surf excitement for a while, we left and once again anchored out on the Great Bahama Bank, this time on its eastern side and somewhat in the lee side of the island.
Wednesday morning, we headed SE across this bank to our first stop in the northern Exuma islands, Allens Cay (by the way, whether spelled "Key" or "Cay", they're all pronounced key. It takes a while to get into the habit of this...). Our main reason for choosing this particular cay was the relative shelter we expected it to provide from the wind.
As is typical in these parts, the prevailing winds are from the east, but whenever a front or ridge of high pressure moves through, they clock around to the south, west, north, and finally back to the east. What hasn't been typical this year - as anyone suffering through the northeast U.S.'s brutal winter can attest - is the frequency and severity of these fronts. The weather we were facing four days ago was the dregs of the same brutal storm our friends Tom and Jan had just suffered through on Nantucket. By the time it got down here, what we saw was a temperature drop into the 60s and some high winds from the northwest clocking around to the east.
Tiny Allens Cay's even smaller neighbor is Leaf Cay. Both run north-south, with a sheltered bay about 600 feet across that has good holding for anchors. Neither cay is inhabited, other than a lot of unique, endangered, prehistoric iguanas on Allens Cay that are a popular attraction for tour boats out of Nassau, who pull right up onto the beaches, disgorging tourists armed with skewered grapes to feed the iguanas. The iguanas are so accustomed to this that when you land on the beach in a dinghy, a large welcome party is there to greet you.
We spent four nights there, two of which were calm and pleasant, and two of which were pretty rough. All I can say is, we're learning! As with West Bay, we failed to understand the effects of current, in this case running swiftly between the two cays as the tides changed. When the wind was relatively calm or from the west or east, this was hardly noticeable, as on our second and third nights. But that first night was less comfortable, with northerly winds pushing against an ebbing tide that caused Thalia to hobby horse around. She - and all the other boats around her - also swung in rather unpredictable ways, increasing our anxiety and making for a poor night's sleep.
Each morning, most of the boats there would leave for other destinations. Each afternoon and into the evening, we would watch with some apprehension as boat after boat motored in. Some of these were seasoned sailors who quickly scoped out the water and other boats, and dropped their anchors decisively and intelligently. Others would circle around and around, then drop their hook too close to another boat, pull it back up, and try again. They would usually be treated to the crossed arms and the "You're too close to my boat!" glare that sailors have perfected over the years.
By the time it got dark last night, we had 11 boats anchored there, a reasonable number in settled weather. More than half of them were catamarans, including one latecomer who spent close to an hour circling around and aborting anchor drops before finally settling not too far from our port side. The wind picked up steadily during the evening. When we went to sleep around 10 pm, it was blowing moderately from the southeast and the tide was starting to flood, making things a little bumpy but not too bad.
At about 1:00 am, we were awakened from deep sleep to a big thud and a great deal of shouting. We struggled our way out of sleep, into clothes and into our cockpit. The catamaran had hit our starboard aft side, and its owner was shouting that our anchor must have dragged and that we had hit him. The wind pulled our boats apart long enough for Larry to check both Drag Queen - our trusty anchor alarm app - and our track on the Garmin chart on our iPad. Both showed us not more than 60 feet or so from where we'd dropped the hook.
After considerable excitement and back-and-forth with the cat captain - during which we all observed how the boats were swinging - he realized it was his boat that had either dragged its anchor, or had out too much rode (chain length) and was swinging in a larger arc than we were. Being a cat didn't help either, as its high, lightweight hulls give the wind a lot to push around, and its shallow draft gives it little resistance in moving through the water.
At the same time our little drama was going on, we saw a similar scene just a few hundred feet away, where another cat had nearly clipped both a monohull and a cat. Both of the errant cats had their engines on by now and were backing away from the rest of us as best they could. The second cat, sensibly, pulled up his anchor, moved farther away from the other two boats, and dropped it. Larry too, suggested to our neighbor that he do the same, or at least shorten his rode. For reasons we don't understand, he decided against that - perhaps being frightened of having to anchor again in the dark. In any event, he kept his engine running and spent the entire rest of the night driving his boat around in circles, letting it drift and then backing down when he got too close to us again.
Needless to say, we had little confidence at this point in his piloting or anchoring skills, so we ended up taking watches all night as well to keep an eye on him. Whenever he veered dangerously close, we'd shine our flashlight onto the water, illuminating it for him so he could see how close he was. He didn't hit us again, thank goodness, and we saw no evidence of any damage from the first encounter. Around 7:00 this morning, he finally pulled anchor and left the harbor without another word. We went back to bed.
And that, folks, is what sailors in these parts call boat pachinko.