The Abacos, Part I
09 May 2015 | Green Turtle Cay, Abacos, Bahamas
Caroline / 86º, 74% humidity, partly cloudy, winds S 8 MPH
Seven and a half years ago, we spent our honeymoon in the Abacos. We flew into Marsh Harbour, spent a week island hopping aboard a liveaboard sailboat getting our ASA certification for future sailing dreams, and then spent a week scuba diving out of Marsh Harbour. This was the only part of the Bahamas either of us had ever visited.
Now, more than three months into our Bahamian tour aboard Thalia, we find ourselves back in the Abacos, at long last. We sailed up from Spanish Wells on a brisk but lovely day toward the end of April, arriving at Little Harbour just inside the southern entrance to the Sea of Abaco after about nine hours.
Little Harbour/Pete’s Pub
Little Harbour is a great place to anchor for two reasons. One, it’s the first spot inside the opening to Great Abaco Island that’s well protected from wind and waves from most directions. And two - more importantly - it’s where one can find Pete’s Pub, a local institution.
We had visited Pete’s with our divemaster Keith and our sailing instructor Estelle our last time here, and were excited to see it again. Pete’s is a wonderfully laid-back, funky, open air bar and restaurant. As Pete is a renowned bronze sculptor, there’s also a gallery and foundry, a gift shop, and a boardwalk that meanders back through the mangroves to the beach, with lifelike bronze sculptures of local birds and animals at every turn.
Little Harbour Punch is the drink of choice, and the restaurant also offers up burgers and local fish. Seating ranges from picnic tables (one that you have to wade over to in the shallow water when the tide is up) to bar stools to a group of old theater seats angled up the hillside next to the kitchen building. Every available surface - the rafters, railings, ceilings - is covered with graffiti, commemorative t-shirts, decorated oars, and other fun mementos. Shoes and shirts are not even particularly welcome. It is a very fun place to spend an evening.
After a couple of days in Little Harbour, we made our way up the twisting route to Marsh Harbour on the north end of Great Abaco Island. The waters in the Abacos are trickier than those we’ve seen anywhere else in the Bahamas. They’re quite shallow, in many places too shallow for our six foot draft boat unless we are on a rising or high tide. All of the usual navigation charts here are reputed to be less accurate than elsewhere in the Bahamas, and in fact we’ve found that our various electronic and paper charts rarely agree with each other here.
In any case, we arrived with no issues and dropped anchor in the busy harbor. Although it appears to have plenty of room, it’s a tricky harbor in which to anchor. There are two channels through it used constantly by ferries, supply boats, and other boat traffic. The water is quite shallow - only around five feet in many areas at low tide, so deeper draft boats like ours have to choose their spots carefully. And when we arrived, there were lots of boats already anchored there, due to a storm that had been brewing for several days (this was actually the weather system that spawned Tropical Storm Ana).
True to the forecast, we were hit with a large squall in the late afternoon, just a few hours after we arrived. Rain, lightning, thunder, and high winds buffeted us as the predictable boat pachinko began. A 50 foot ketch - whose owners were apparently enjoying a cold one onshore - broke free of its anchor and skittered across the harbor, causing a couple of anchored boats to hastily pull up their hooks and move to avoid being hit. Continuing on its path, the ketch finally crashed into an abandoned set of docks on shore, where it floundered a good half hour until its owners came zipping over on a skiff they must have hired to help them reach the boat in the high winds (dinghy travel would not have been advised under these circumstances). They managed to get onboard, and with the help of the skiff, pulled themselves off the docks and motored out to where they could re-anchor.
Another boat just upwind of us - also unmanned - somehow either dragged anchor or crossed anchor lines with its neighbor, a single-hander who had to spend the next several hours fending off the errant boat until the winds finally calmed down enough for him to be able to pull up his own anchor and move away.
While that was going on, we realized that Thalia had drifted closer to shore than before the storm - our anchor had dragged for the first time ever. We didn’t wait for the storm to abate, but pulled up our anchor and, in 37 knot winds, maneuvered her to a different spot to drop the hook again. This time it held, although we didn’t sleep well that night and refused to leave the boat the next day despite wanting to visit with our friend Pete in a nearby marina. The weather was just too unsettled, and we dreaded the thought of being onshore if another squall should hit.
We did manage a brief visit with Pete the next morning when we finally took our dinghy Thalita ashore. He and his wonderful yellow lab Ally had recently arrived after a long ocean passage from North Carolina, and we were anxious to catch up before he headed back out on his way down to George Town in the Exumas.
Onshore, Marsh Harbour seems a little more prosperous than it did seven years ago. There are now two traffic lights instead of one, and proportionately more cars, of course. There’s a huge new government building complex that is difficult to find but that is very nice - I guess that shows some of the new 7.5% value-added tax at work. We rode our bikes over there to have our Bahamian immigration permit extended from 90 to 120 days. And the main local grocery store, Maxwell’s, was quite impressive compared to what we remembered.
Once the weather settled down, we booked a day of diving with our old friend Keith at Dive Abaco. Although that day dawned gray and drizzly, it ended up being a nice one for diving, with flat calm conditions and even an appearance by the sun in the late morning. Larry brought along his underwater camera, which he hadn’t used in several years, and got some nice shots. The best was of one of the nearly tame local groupers, which follow Keith around underwater like dogs.
We took our bikes ashore to explore and to run errands, trying in vain to locate a needed part for our toilet at several hardware stores. It was a nice excuse to get out and ride. Another day we hauled our mountain of laundry in backpacks to a local laundromat. After all the errands were done, though, we felt ready to move on from Marsh Harbour. The weather was building up more momentum, so we set out to zig and zag in the deeper water across the Sea of Abaco to lovely Hope Town, with its protected harbor and secure moorings. We had tied up here as one of the stops on our honeymoon sailing trip, and were anxious to visit it again.
Of all the towns we’ve visited in the Bahamas, we both love this one the best. Sometimes places seem less wonderful to us the second time we visit, but not Hope Town. If anything, it’s even more charming. Located at the north end of Elbow Cay on the western edge of the Sea of Abaco, it’s a sliver of a town wrapped around a very well protected harbor. Its unique and iconic candy-striped lighthouse, built in 1864, is visible for 15 miles and perches near the entrance to the harbor.
Hope Town is a little tricky to get to, surrounded by very shallow water spiked with coral reefs, and a narrow channel that a boat like ours can only navigate at or near high tide. Once inside the harbor, the water is about 10 feet deep and holds some 30 or so mooring balls, all available to rent for $20 a night.
We arrived just after high tide on a breezy Sunday in the late morning, tying up to one of the balls and, after lunch, taking our dinghy ashore to wander around. As with most Bahamian towns, the place is pretty deserted on Sundays, with nothing much open. The lighthouse was, though, so we first headed over there to climb up its narrow metal staircase and out through a tiny half-door onto the viewing platform for stunning panoramic views of the harbor, the island, and the indigo Atlantic. It was quite windy, and we could feel the old structure swaying a bit, which was somewhat disconcerting. However, the 89 foot tower hasn’t fallen throughout 140 years and numerous hurricanes - and was substantially reinforced in 1953 - so it appears to be perfectly safe.
After the lighthouse visit we wandered through the main part of town, past charming Victorian cottages painted in wonderful pastel colors. There are numerous restaurants and shops, but none of the tacky t-shirt places one usually sees in a touristy town. This place - like Nantucket or Edgartown - exudes taste, without being snooty. The people are just as friendly here as anywhere we’ve been in the Bahamas.
Because the town is so small, services are somewhat limited. If you want to drop off trash, you can only do that between 8:30 and 9:30 on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays. The BTC (Bahamas Telephone Co.) office is only open from 9:00 until 3:00 on Tuesdays. And the one bank in town, almost comically, opens its doors from 10:00 until noon on Thursdays, with no ATM.
On Monday we headed over to Jack’s, a popular local hangout we remembered from our first visit. Monday is Bahamian Bingo night, so we found a table and joined in the fun. Unfortunately, while the place was packed and the bingo was fun, the food was really mediocre and the drinks were expensive. We thought $7.75 (happy hour price!) was really steep for a small margarita in an 8 ounce plastic cup. Kaliks or Heinekens were $5.00 each at happy hour. So that was disappointing for us, given our limited funds, but the evening was enjoyable anyway.
By the time we got back to Thalia, the rain was starting, and by midnight, it was really coming down. It rained and squalled and blew about 30 knots off and on all day Tuesday, causing all the boats in the harbor to swing around on their moorings, but no one seemed to have any problems. We spent a quiet day reading and doing trip planning for the rest of our Bahamian journey, plotting courses up to several cays and eventually across the Atlantic for our return to the U.S.