The Devil's Backbone
04 May 2015 | Hope Town, Abacos, Bahamas
Caroline / 77º, overcast with increasing winds
The distance between Spanish Wells and Harbour Island is only about 10 miles, an easy 2 hour trip as seen on paper. To actually reach Harbour Island, though, requires navigating a notoriously dangerous, circuitous route through shallow coral heads and shifting sands. Every chart and guide book warns boaters to hire a pilot to help guide them through.
We made the decision to do just that after having taken the ferry over to picturesque Harbour Island with visiting friend Janis, whom we had picked up in Nassau in early April. The day trip on the ferry convinced us that daughter Kelli, due to fly in to Nassau the following week, would enjoy the island as well.
In the meantime, we had a glorious week of sailing and visiting with Janis, spending our first full day sailing from Nassau to Spanish Wells, where we snagged a mooring ball in the tiny harbor right in town. Janis is the perfect person to take to Spanish Wells, as she has family and friends dating back many years. In fact, this is where Janis's grandmother's sailboat Granny Goose sank during Hurricane Andrew in 1992. Although her grandmother survived the ordeal, the boat was a total loss and had to be abandoned. Janis, who was visiting at the time with her boyfriend and two kids - and who holed up in a local hotel during the blow - will never forget the experience. Nevertheless, she was very happy to finally be back and to see the town again.
Spanish Wells is a working harbor, not a tourist town. The focus is on fishing, and in fact, fishermen there supply the majority of lobster to Red Lobster in the U.S. The town seems pretty prosperous, and its excellent colorful murals and well-kept homes show more pride of ownership than most of the islands we've visited.
While there we dined out twice, first at Budda's Bar, a wonderfully funky spot at the top of the hill off 12th Street. It's actually a collection of ramshackle buses circled around an old house which is now the liquor store. One of the buses houses the kitchen and another, well, we're not quite sure what they store in there. There are also a couple of shacks and, in the middle of the compound, a seating area and open-air bar. The vibe is laid-back funk, and the food is really good, typical Bahamian chow. We had very strong Goombay Smashes, conch burgers, and grilled fish the first night we arrived, happy to be able to dine out after a ten hour passage.
The Ship Yard is a new restaurant out on a point at the eastern edge of town, and it has a crisp, nicely detailed interior that to me was reminiscent of Nantucket. The lunch we had there was good, although not as good as the food at Budda's. Different scene - more the kind of place you'd take your mom, whereas Budda's is the perfect spot for your old high school friend.
As Janis was only with us three short days before she was due to attend a friend's wedding in Harbour Island, we decided to take the high speed ferry over there, spend a day together, and then leave her with her other friends while Larry and I returned to our Spanish Wells anchorage.
Unlike Spanish Wells, Harbour Island is very much a tourist destination, with upscale hotels and resorts, charming cottages that rent for thousands of dollars a week, a wide array of restaurants from conch shacks to four star dining. There's also Valentine's, a very nice marina catering to mega-yachts. There are some cars, but nearly everyone bombs around in golf carts. We tried to find one for Janis to rent, as the cottage in which she was staying with friends is quite far out of town, but they were all reserved. So we walked.
Our main destination was the pink sand beach for which Harbour Island is justifiably famous. It's rated among the top ten beaches in the world, and it did not disappoint. There are miles of aqua water and long crescents of sand, with very few people. It's spotlessly clean (unusual in the Bahamas, where beaches are often littered with fishing nets and lines and other garbage). The powdery fine sand that is indeed pink, tinted from red coral crushed by the surf. We spent an idyllic afternoon on the beach at the very lovely Pink Sands resort, and then sadly said our goodbyes and headed back on the afternoon ferry.
Thalia left early the next morning to sail back to a marina in Nassau to pick up Kelli, who arrived the next afternoon. This time, we stayed an extra night, spending a day playing tourist in Nassau, the first time any of us had seen it.
We took the city bus into town ($1.50 versus a $30 cab ride). First we visited the Pirate's Museum, definitely as touristy as you might guess, but nicely done and quite educational. We had lunch at an overpriced Greek place, and then walked all afternoon.
We visited the John Watlings distillery for a tour and rum tasting, then walked through shabby but still charming neighborhoods to finally reach the Queen's Staircase, an immensely tall, narrow, man-made canyon with a staircase leading out of it, all hand-cut from the limestone rock by slaves in the 1790s. It was later renamed to honor Queen Victoria for her role in bringing about the abolition of slavery in the Bahamas.
The next day we left Nassau and headed back out on our now-familiar route to the Spanish Wells area, this time anchoring at nearby Meeks Patch before meeting our guide, Little Woody, just outside the east channel entrance to Spanish Wells. He showed up on a little 16 foot fishing boat, pausing next to us just long enough to say hello and "Follow me," and we were off at nearly full throttle to try to keep up.
Little Woody stayed about 150 feet ahead of us, occasionally hailing us on the VHF radio to point out a site of historical or geographic interest as we motored along the very northern edge of Eleuthera Island toward the cut to Harbour Island.
To the casual observer, there seemed to be no rhyme or reason to our route. In fact, though, it followed the route on our electronic charts pretty closely, except in a few (notable) places.
Larry was at the helm and was concentrating hard to follow Little Woody's exact route, which in some places appeared to be taking us right toward patches of coral rocks or right up onto the beaches. We never saw less than 10 feet of water, which in the Bahamas is plenty deep. So it wasn't that the route was particularly shallow, as is so often true here, but that there was a very specific route snaking through patches of shallow sand and coral heads that has to be followed.
We learned from this just how difficult it is to visually pilot through tricky waters like these. When navigating, people obviously try to avoid the dark-colored water where coral heads lurk and favor the brilliant aqua water with sand under it, as hitting sand certainly sounds better than hitting coral. But that is deceptive. Even in areas with charted routes, sandy areas shift significantly and sometimes dramatically. So the sandy patches can shoal up to very shallow depths, and those dark coral heads might well be 16 feet under water. It's nearly impossible to tell just from looking at them. While we weren't thrilled about having to spend $100 to hire a pilot, it was better than trying to go through on our own.
When we arrived in more open water after curving down around the northeastern tip of Eleuthera and into the sheltered water between it and Harbour Island, Little Woody hailed us, gave Larry a few general instructions on completing the route, and then drew his skiff up alongside. Larry handed him a hundred dollar bill, and Woody handed up a parting gift with thanks and a smile: a package of Johnny cakes and a carrot cake, all of which he had baked himself.
We dropped our anchor just outside of Valentine's Marina, and in between rain squalls, the three of us spent several days exploring the island. One day we rented a golf cart and drove from one end of the island to the other. We introduced Kelli to conch salad at Queen Conch, a harborside shack whose owners have built a really nice covered seating area in back.
And we spent hours on those soft sand beaches, snorkeling, swimming, shelling and walking. We visited a few of the shops in town for souvenirs and, on our last night there, had a delightful meal on the deck of the restaurant at the marina, watching the local fisherman clean their catch while we downed rum drinks and feasted on grouper, snapper, and shellfish.
Because the wind was not favorable for returning to Nassau - not to mention none of us relished another ten hours in the ocean swells going back there - we returned to Spanish Wells instead, and put Kelli on a water taxi the next morning to take her to the North Eleuthera airport, where she caught a short commuter flight to Nassau.
Heading back to Spanish Wells was relatively easy, as we had tracks on both our main chartplotter and our iPad from when we followed Little Woody through the first time. We left late morning so we'd have as much deep water as possible with the rising tide. With Larry at the helm and me navigating, we carefully picked our way back out of the harbor, curving to the west around the tip of Eleuthera, and back toward Spanish Wells.
The weather was drizzling and threatening to develop into a squall, with winds rising steadily as we headed west. Right around the time we got to the part with the really skinny channel that appeared to be much too close to the beach, the squall hit. Kelli wisely disappeared below, and Larry and I got drenched. Worse than that, though, the wind backed around the the northwest, and was pushing us toward the shore, with big swells breaking on the beach not more than a few hundred feet away. It took concentration to steer through that, especially when we peered into the sheets of water coming down and saw none other than Little Woody, guiding a large yacht and coming straight at us. He hailed us on the VHF and told us we'd be fine if he passed to our port side (that would be the beach side, thankfully), so we held our course with some relief and once again were thankful he was there.
Spending one last day in Spanish Wells turned out to be a treat for Kelli, who had only seen it while motoring through. Once we'd anchored, we headed into town to walk a big loop, starting with a long beach walk to search for shells, then a visit to a local variety store Janis had told us about that stocks a wide selection of Bahamian batiks. We bought lengths of several to make into napkins. And then, of course, as the sun was setting, we walked back up to Budda's so Kelli could try their conch burgers and grouper fingers on her last night in the Bahamas.