Trip report #4 – Cruising in the Bahamas

[Note: This was intended to be my final report, but as you may have seen on the news. There is a tropical storm brewing in the Caribbean, and Mas O Menos is on the eastern edge of the Bahamas with 200 miles of water to cross before reaching Florida. Also – make sure you read the Braun Jones email at the bottom of my trip report. Amazing.]

As I’m typing this, we have just taken off from Northern Eleuthera airport, headed back to the US. I’m looking out the window and my primary thought is “I wish I hadn’t packed the camera.” Whereas the view from sea-level was incredible, it is much more so from the air. Clear blue water and pink sand beaches all around. From this perspective I can see the coral heads we had to zig zag through, and I can see the large expanses of water we have crossed. The distances look so large, that it’s tough to imagine ourselves in a little boat out there in the middle. What were we thinking?

Roberta asks “Is there anything more you wish we had done? Are you glad we are leaving?” I respond: “I wish I could have just five days of sunshine, at anchor, on one or more of those beaches.” One month wasn’t enough… Especially given that we had storms virtually every day. We should have studied the calendar a bit more before the trip, and noticed that June starts the rain and hurricane season.

I’m getting ahead of myself though. I should start at the beginning, or at least, where I left off with my last report.




The orange line on this map traces our north-bound route, as described in this report,
from Great Exuma Island to Harbor Island

When last I wrote, we had left our boat thirty miles north of Great Exuma. We hit bad sea conditions and had to charter a local boat to take us “the shallow way” to Barraterra on Great Exuma. We enjoyed a very pleasant long weekend, and I even got in a round of golf and Roberta a day at the spa. Unfortunately, we had rain and thundershowers throughout most of our stay. We stayed at the Four Seasons hotel, which is adjacent to a newly opened, and still under construction marina, “The Emerald Bay Marina.” We were impressed by the marina, golf course, and overall development. Roberta and I even briefly visited the realty office, curious to see what waterfront lots were going for. I was shocked by the prices – view lots starting at a million, with waterfront $2 million and up. So much for that idea.

This has nothing, or, at least almost nothing, to do with boating or the Bahamas, but for me, an interesting side note to our time on Great Exuma was our discussions with our cab driver about Cuba. I had just been thinking about Cuba when writing my last trip report. I had been looking at pictures of the globe from space, and noticed how remarkable the Bahamas were. I thought about including a space photo of the globe, to make my point. As I was scanning the photo I noticed that nearby Cuba shared many of the same attributes to be a great cruising ground, and we were practically there. In addition to all of the islands and coast to explore, there is a culture caught in time. Knowing that the odds are against my ever taking a boat there, the subject was dropped as rapidly as it had entered my head. Then, our driver, who we used several times during our stay, started talking about having married a Cuban who was still in Cuba. She is now waiting for permission to join him on Great Exuma. The driver had been making weekly visits to Cuba for many years, and could speak first hand on life there. He was quite defensive when asked about Cuba, and focused on the life-long free education and free health care. When asked why we boat, I usually speak of the fine times at anchor, but also at the top of the list, for Roberta and I, is a strong interest in experiencing other cultures. Arriving someplace via our personal boat, with Shelby (our dog) along, seems to put us more in touch with a culture, than the experience one gets when they visit a place via cruise ship or jet. Seeing Cuba, and of course, America, through the eyes of a Bahamian cab driver is an integral part of the boating experience for us. It’s the real reason we plan on circumnavigating with our new boat.

Everyone we spoke to in the Exumas mentioned the dramatic increase in tourism. The headlines in the papers were boasting of record economic growth. Construction was visible everywhere. Our aforementioned cab driver said that the population on Great Exuma had doubled in recent years, from 4,000 to 8,000 as people moved to the island for jobs in tourism. Roberta and I live half the year in Mexico in a small town that has seen similar growth. Just a few years ago, it was a major challenge to do any shopping, and now, we decide between Costco, or any of the other megastores, as we read in the paper about where the rumored new Walmart might be located. I’m not sure these people understand what their future might hold, and how it will affect their lives.

A local charter captain in Nassau pointed out to me beach after beach that he had played at as a child, each of which had now been converted into major tourist hotels. I couldn’t resist asking how it felt to see their beaches being lost. His response: “In the Bahamas we have lots of beaches. Tourism brings money and jobs. For that, we’ll find another beach.”

My apologies for digressing (if it is a digression, I’ll let you decide..), now back to the trip.



Boats at anchor in Elizabeth Harbor on Great Exuma. The Harbor fills with
500 boats or more during the high season. WHEN IS THE HIGH SEASON?




Another view of Elizabeth Harbor. I’m struggling a bit with the
camera as the pictures aren’t capturing the translucency of the water


Our original plan for the trip was to start in Fort Lauderdale, cruise the Bahamas, and return the boat to Fort Lauderdale. We had now reached the southern most point in our journey and were recognizing that our future cruising plans really consisted of nothing more than retracing the path we used to get here.

We were sitting having lunch, at the Peace & Plenty restaurant in George Town on Great Exuma when some other boaters, at a nearby table heard our conversation and started talking to us about boating in the Bahamas. The conversation took a fateful turn when they mentioned that “we must check out Spanish Wells and Harbour Island”. We had a tight schedule, and knew we couldn’t go there, but took down their restaurant and marina recommendations anyhow, for future reference.



The Peace & Plenty Hotel, at Georgetown, is a boaters “hang out”.
 This is our view while having lunch

When we returned to our hotel room, there was an email from Ken Coffer, a Florida-based captain who I’ve been consulting with on our big boat construction project (www.kensblog.com). Ken helped us at the start of the trip, by running the boat from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini, and had offered to return the boat from Bimini to Fort Lauderdale at the end of our trip.


Hi Ken

It sounds like you are having a fun trip. Its very hard to beat the clarity of the Bahamian waters.

I know how hard it can be to keep a schedule in the Bahamas if the weather kicks up. This is especially true in a small boat.

I have seen 100’ vessels stuck in Nassau for several weeks unable to return to ft Lauderdale due to the high seas in the Providence Channels, Tongue of the Ocean or Gulf Stream. So far this seems to be a great year for weather in the Bahamas.

I appreciate the offer for a good time. It doesn’t really make any difference to me where I return from Bimini Nassau Georgetown etc.

Why don’t you just enjoy your trip and where ever you wind up let me know and I will get her to Fort Lauderdale from there

Have a great trip

Ken Coffer



Given the current weather in the Bahamas, Ken Coffer is probably wishing he had never sent this email. In fact, I’m betting he REALLY wishes he hadn’t sent this email. Because, it started Roberta and I thinking. Our options were suddenly: a) Retrace our old steps and see the same old places again, or b) Go new places and see new things. What would you do?

After agonizing over the tough decision for at least 2 or 3 seconds, we started focusing on typing an email back to Ken Coffer taking him up on his generous, but perhaps misguided, offer. Harbour Island, here we come!

But first, we had to get back to Nassau, which was 150 or so miles north, and Mas O Menos, our boat, was still, we hoped, tied at a dock 30 miles north of where we were standing. We had left it at Little Farmer’s Cay, and were hoping that Curly, and his cousin, two locals who gave us a ride to Great Exuma, would actually show up at the pre-designated time, to take us back to our boat. Which, to our delight, they did.

Whereas our trip south had been done in high winds and low tides, our rocket-ride (their fast boat) back north was done over calmer, deeper water, with a little less sense of urgency. It was still a 55 knot wild ride, but we were able to take time to stop along the way for picture taking and exploration.
 



One of MANY islands and beaches we passed

 



The private island Musha Cay. If your rich and famous, you rent the whole island.
If you’re me, you get to take a picture as you pass by

 



Cave Cay, soon to be a major new tourist development and marina.
You can’t tell in this photo, but we had to enter via a narrow cut and are sitting in a small bay.
Great protection from the elements and a lot of money to be spent.
I look forward to checking it out someday

Finally, we had arrived at Little Farmer’s Cay, and Mas O Menos was still there! She had been well watched over and taken care of by the staff at the Farmer’s Cay Yacht Club. Within a few minutes, we were in the boat, and headed north.


Mas O Menos, tied in on all four sides at the “Farmer’s Cay Yacht Club”.
The staff were extremely helpful and nice – but, some one
had to be grinning when they came up with the name.
You are looking at virtually all of the marina

Before leaving Little Farmer’s Cay, I was able to take this photo of the beach next to the Yacht Club. Life was good again. We were home on Mas O Menos, with blue skies and new places to go.



Finally, I got it right. Here, you can see how the water looks. Keep in mind
that you can easily be in water this depth forty miles off shore, and you start to
understand what it is like to boat in the Bahamas

Heading north, we couldn’t resist spending a wonderful day, and evening, anchored at Big Major Cay. We even swam to shore, to play with the pigs. This meant a two hundred foot swim to shore, during which I, of course, spent much of the swim calculating whether I could reach the boat or shore faster should I see a shark. Once on the beach, surrounded by hungry pigs, one of which Roberta was petting, it was time to swim back to the boat. Once safely back on the boat, we watched as a large dark object swam beneath the boat. Roberta reminded me that the sharks around there don’t eat people (usually) and that I should relax. Which I did.

The only other item perhaps meriting comment, from our day and night at anchor, would be the adjoining boat in the anchorage; a small sail boat with a French Canadian couple who remained nude throughout our stay. Having cruised the Med for years this was not unusual. However, the Bahamas are not the Med. The Bahamas are quite conservative. The Bahamians are a very religious people. Bibles in cabs and at the front desk in hotels were commonplace. We felt safe everywhere (although, I’m sure that there are places particularly in Nassau, as in large towns everywhere where crime is an issue). One hotel manager, when asked for the room key even said “Why you want a key? You in Paradise mon” (his words, not mine). Another comment on this same topic: We decided to take a cab one day to see a movie in Nassau. The cab driver asked what we were seeing and we said “The Da Vinci Code.” This didn’t go over well. I doubt the movie was a hit in the Bahamas, and the theater was very empty
 



The end of another perfect day at anchor. The fenders are piled on top of the engines to
free up space in the small cockpit. The snorkeling gear is still sitting there, ready for more action tomorrow

It is a 90 mile run from Big Major Cay to Nassau. We expected a smooth run, and were quite surprised when it didn’t work out that way. The winds are generally from the east or south, but not this time. We were going due north into a strong north wind, as the skies clouded, and rain became imminent. This translated into ninety miles of very uncomfortable four foot seas. We slowed down to 18 knots, and settled in for a long tooth jarring ride.

One thing I should mention about our Glacier Bay power catamaran: Although it is only a 27’ boat, it is a very stable, solid boat, and I would rather be aboard it in rough seas than most any 40’ monohull I can think of (Nordhavn excepted). That said, we weren’t seeing 40 foot boats in the marinas. Most of the boats we saw were 58’ and up. Way up. Most of the marinas were filled with large Hatteras or Viking sport fishers. I’m sure most of the boats around us assumed we were aboard a tender to some much larger boat. Who would think we would be cruising hundreds, and hundreds, of miles on a little boat?

Although we arrived safely in Nassau, the boat did not arrive in perfect condition. Something wasn’t right electrically. The inverter was dead (no 110v), sparks would fly at any attempt to turn on the power to the electrical outlets, and the air conditioning quit working. After a bit of debugging, I decided to call an electrician, and an air conditioning guy. We spent two days together on the boat trying to sort things out. I also need to thank the people at Glacier Bay, whose customer support department was very helpful.

The air conditioning is cooled via sea water. Apparently, a loose hose was spraying salt water which filled a couple of very hard to reach junction boxes, as well as spraying the seawater pump itself. Given our ride from Big Major Cay, I was not surprised. The spraying water had fried the pump, and caused several other problems. Three technicians were on the boat for two days working hard, and at the end, I was pleasantly surprised by the reasonable bill, and the quality of the technicians.

We then checked into the Atlantis hotel for five days of relaxation, joined by Roberta’s parents, who had flown in from California.



Robertas’ parents joined us in Nassau for a few days. As a west coaster,
my overall reation to Atlantis was, “it’s a long way to go to wind up in Las Vegas”





The marina at the Atlantis Hotel is huge. This is a tiny corner.
They only accept boats 40′ and larger. Most I saw were a LOT larger.
I would guess that there were more than 20 boats over 150′ long
and PLENTY of the little 100 footers



 



Welcome to Atlantis

The Atlantis hotel, and Paradise island are “over the top.” I won’t bore you with the details. OK — perhaps a few boring details. The golf course was great. Michael Jordan has a home on the course, as does Barry Bonds (or, so I was told). Oprah has a couple of homes. Roberta is Starbucks-addicted, and was able to quench her thirst. We found an excellent restaurant we all liked: Café Martinique, and, another, Café Matisse, that was also excellent. We also discovered some others that cost far more than their food or service justified.

At last, we were ready for our last big cruise. Roberta’s parents left for the airport, and we starting planning the 50 mile trip to Harbour Island. Our bad luck with weather was continuing as we set off in clouded skies and moderate winds. To play it safe, we decided to make the run “on the inside” staying in the shallow water (the south side of Rose Island, and then through Current Cut).

See this link for a bit of a map: http://www.eleuthera-map.com/north-map.htm

The last 10 or so miles of the trip to Harbour Island is where it gets interesting. After crossing a large bay, At Spanish Wells, you call out on channel 16 seeking a guide to help you traverse the coral field, called “The Devils Backbone” at the north end of Eleuthera Island. Responding to my query was a gentleman named A-1 who said to meet him in front of the island of Spanish Wells. He then motioned for me to follow him, and stay close. I stayed just behind him as we crossed over and between huge amounts of coral. He later charged me $80, which I was very happy to pay. He also gave me a free loaf of homemade Bahamian bread, which we enjoyed having not had time to eat all day.



Mas O Menos following A1 through the Devil’s Backbone

And, with our arrival at the Harbor Island Marina, our cruising came to an end. Our plan had been to cruise back to Spanish Wells to explore. I had heard rumors of sunken 300 year old ships, sitting in 10 feet of water, and even a train wreck sitting in shallow water, but, none of this was to happen. A major storm was on its way, and further cruising was impossible.



Unloading the boat at the end of the trip. It’s a lot of stuff,
but remember, we were on the boat for a month!

Harbour Island was a perfect way to end the trip. Our hotel was incredibly romantic, and fronted a THREE MILE long pink sand beach.



The pink sand beach on Harbour Island

 



Valentine’s is a VERY modern marina on Harbour Island.
We were quite impressed and recommend it strongly.
That said, they didn’t have space for us, so we’re down the road at the
Harbour Island marina, which was smaller, but also great



 



On Harbour Island, and others we visited, the primary mode of transportation
 is the golf cart. Here you see the parking lot infront of Valentine’s marina



 



Roberta and Shelby in our golf cart. Roberta took a similar picture of me,
but – I never like how I look in pictures, and it’s my trip report



 



In addition to the charts, there are hints like this that you are nearing shallow water



 



The beach in front of our hotel on Harbour Island. Three miles of pink sand beach.
I’m VERY happy with how this picture turned out, but even this photo is not as stunning as the “real thing”

A few comments on our time on Harbour Island before I end this trip report:

Although my photos show blue skies, these were rare moments. For most of our four days on the island we were hiding from the thunderstorms. Being from the west coast, we are not accustomed to daily thunder and lightning storms. In fact, we have a special problem with thunder. In Mexico, we live near a major hotel that has frequent fireworks shows. On one occasion, Shelby, our dog, managed to catch her collar on a fence, in our backyard, during a particularly wild fireworks extravaganza. We were gone at the time, but apparently, Shelby spent several hours assuming she was about to be blown up, and has never quite recovered from it. She equates thunder with fireworks, and goes completely crazy at the first flash of lightning. Suffice it to say that we didn’t get a lot of sleep for two nights in a row.

We had a great dinner at the Rock House restaurant. If you go to Harbour Island, go there. We also had a great lunch at the Pink Sands Hotel. Plan on spending a LOT of money while on Harbour Island, but you will be impressed.

Lastly…

I am now typing from our hotel in New York. I have been swapping emails with Ken Coffer who is taking Mas O Menos, and is just getting underway on Harbour Island bound for Nassau. The news report on the television behind me is talking about the tropical storm brewing in the Caribbean. Ken is a very competent captain, and I am confident he will get Mas O Menos back to Florida safely. But, I will certainly be watching the weather reports closely over the next few days. The run to Nassau shouldn’t be too bad, but the 120 mile run from Nassau to Bimini, across the “Tongue of the Sea” can be a huge problem.

I’ll report back as I know more.

Thank you,

Ken Williams
kenw@seanet.com
www.kensblog.com
www.kensbook.com


Exerpts from my email;

From Dan Streech, CEO of Norhavn –

Hi Ken and Roberta,

Just finished reading part 3 of your Bahamas trip report. Great writing! Your report brought back wonderful memories of when Marcia and I made somewhat the same trip on a Nordhavn 35. We have friends (Gary and Sue Johnson) who have a home in Staniel Cay so we visited them during our cruise. We enjoyed the pig, the yacht club, Fowl Cay and Thunderball cave just like you. Did the fish bite you in the cave?

I know that you guys are great adventurers, but I will only give you full recognition after you tell me that you went down the big water slide at Atlantis..

Happy Cruising,
Dan Streech



From Braun & Tina Jones, aboard Grey Pearl, a Nordhavn ’62, now cruising in the Middle East. Warning: This one is scary to read.


Hello to all,

It is 0615 hrs, the sun has just come up and we are completing an overnight passage along the coast of Israel. We have traveled mostly at night during the past 5 weeks so we have more daytime in port for land exploration. A lot of people in these parts travel only at night for more nefarious reasons. The military activity along the coasts definitely increases after dark. We can’t see much of what is going on – even our radar doesn’t pick it all up but we hear stuff – gunboats, surveillance vessels, smuggling ops., low flying aircraft, etc. Simon and Garfunkel were in this part of the world when they did their ‘troubled waters’ gig

We are now in Israeli waters and feel a little better having spent the previous weeks in Syria and Lebanon both of which were tense but fascinating. We visited multiple ports and traveled thousands of kilometers deep inside each country – a lot of camels and desert but also saw the big cities Damascus, Beirut, etc. All was interesting and historic but with an uneasy military/authoritarian presence. More to follow with Tina’s report.

Last evening we were in Jounieh, Lebanon, and the Assistant Chief of Mission from the American Embassy (#2 to the Ambassador) came to our dock. He had a report there were a couple of Americans on boats in country. He had trouble locating us because most of the boats we are traveling with are from Western Europe, us few from the USA hide in this crowd. We talked with the Chief about where we had been and he reminded us about the State Dept. travel advisories, particularly for Syria. It was good we met him on the last night in Lebanon.

When moving to Israel we were told by the Israeli navy to sail THEIR given course, NOT to stray, and to NOT enter Israeli waters until after dawn. At dawn we were greeted by several fast gunboats, PT 109 types but with a lot more guns all manned and pointed at Grey Pearl. They made multiple approaches and frequent radio checks. These guys are serious. They approach head on at a high rate of speed, pick the passing side and roar by with guns trained broadside on the target – us. Or, they sneak up from behind and scare the beejesus out of you with the overtake at 75 yards passing Grey Pearl’s beam.

We are told Israel is easier on the entry formalities than Turkey, Syria or Lebanon.

In Turkey they made you wait and wanted money. In Syria they really made you wait, no money but kept the passports. In Lebanon long wait, some money, lots of paper work and kept the passports. You only get the passports returned when you are leaving the dock… an official (lots of uniforms here) hands them to you from the pier as you are underway and LEAVING their country! – an unfounded phobia about people wanting to extend their stay???

Go figure! Oops, now approaching Haifa harbor and here come the PT boats welcoming party. Better go and make sure they know I am a ‘friendly’. You cant’ make this stuff up.

Best,
Braun and Tina

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Credits     |     Video produced by: Rock Steady Media     |     Teletype photo: Arnold Reinhold     |     PDP-11 photo: Trammell Hudson