Cruising the Bahamas on my J/34c
By Pam and Glenn CooperPart One:
April 6, 1999: Late yesterday, before the sun started to set, the wind started fading then quietly evaporated. We noticed alongside our hull, at our anchorage in Shroud Cay, the Central Exumas, a large barracuda.Barracuda visit at Shroud Cay.... Without a ripple on the invisible water, it was impossible not to believe the fish was simply being levitated above the bottom, which lay ten feet below us! There have been nights when we've watched the ocean bottom solely by moonlight. The clarity, the colors and the inhabitants of these Bahama waters are beyond the imagination of those who have come for the first time. It's not just us New Englanders who say this but many other cruisers who have left wakes in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The Bahamas are very special.
Can you believe it, we have started the long trip back to the Boston area. About two weeks ago we left George Town to turn north and visit cays in the Exumas we passed by on the way south, then to the Abacos via north Eleuthera. Our plans are to leave the Abacos for the States in early May and try to do as much of the trip to New England offshore. We are not equipped to handle real heavy weather on the open ocean (no drogue or sea anchor gear, and neither a storm trysail nor storm jib) so we'll aim for places where we can run from weather if we have 24-48 hours warning (100 miles from shore).
Before we share what we've learned during our trip, some of our experiences, and the performance of our J-34c, quickly here is where we've voyaged since Christmas. Pam and I spent about a month and a half in Florida during which we made changes on "Colette" in Stuart (three weeks at Stuart Yacht) and later in Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood. We'd like to have seen the sights in Miami for a few days but a weather window to cross the Gulf Stream opened for us. We tucked into a Miami anchorage late on January 14th and then headed to Miami's Government Cut the next morning. We cleared the cut at 8:30AM and headed to Bimini. The rumb line was 97 magnetic but after doing a calculation for the speed and direction of the "Stream" we aimed our nose at 121 degrees M. And on the nose it was. About six and a half hours later, far faster then average, and after having to put one precautionary reef in the main, we first saw the fabled colors of inshore Bahamas waters.
Suddenly there was a mini Chinese fire drill aboard as we had to pick up a small range and read water colors to run a zigzag course and miss a rocky shoal, all part of getting into Bimini. Made it! Once through customs I decided the time had come to dive under the boat and see if our zincs were eroding too fast (a reoccurring problem we now think is licked ... but more on this later). Poised on the swim ladder with snorkle and mask on my forehead I decided, what the heck, I can do it later. Yes, I am a procrastinator, but this time the deciding factor were the two six foot bull sharks that passed by my feet! As I have come to learn, if you don't want to see sharks when you dive in Bahama waters, keep your eyes closed!
We made it to the Bahamas but not the way we originally envisioned. Our initial plan was to go with a first landfall at West End on the road to the Abacos. After talking with other cruisers we decided that since we were well into the southern winter the idea was to make as much southing as possible. The main weather impediment are cold fronts that work their way down from the Florida Straits with winds that clock from the typical east/northeast to south then west and northwest before returning to the east/northeast. The further south you go, the milder are the passing fronts. The Abacos would see a lot more strong frontal activity than the southern Exumas.
Here's the "hitch" regarding finding a protected anchorage: the prevailing winds are northeast to southeast, but a "busting" winter front often starts with a southwest component that can be windy and squally quickly followed by strong northwest winds and eventually strong winds that clock to the northeast and stay there for as much as 4-6 days. The problem is there are few anchorages that will protect you from a clocking cold front (called a "frontal passage" here). There are winter seasons in the Bahamas that can be nasty. Last year's El Nino year was a classic "nasty". Winter cruising safely here means you are never more the 24-36 hours from a fully protected anchorage.
As we now know and appreciate there are two skills you have to quickly learn to cruise the Bahamas comfortably and safely. The first is to anticipate when a front will approach, along with it's wind directions and velocities (there are plenty of VHF and SSB weather resources here to use). The second is only move in shallow water when the sun is high in the sky, hopefully above or behind you to make it possible to determine water depth by color (reading the waters). In shallow Bahamian waters there is virtually no place to be underway after dark. Because certain Bahamian deep water routes have so much commercial traffic on them - often without illumination and radar - extra caution is needed offshore as well.
Briefly, here is where we've been since leaving Bimini. After spending a day there and knowing the winds on the Great Bahama Bank would be benign, we slipped away midday the next day. During the new moon we anchored twice on the Banks. It was thrilling for us. The nearest land was about 50-60 miles away and we're swimming and anchoring in 10-12 feet of water. The stars were brighter then we've ever seen them. Of course if the weather had kicked up we'd have another story to tell.
Conching in the Exumas, Pam goes Bahamian!Next we entered the southern Berry Islands at Chubb Cay. It just happens to be on the path to Nassau and the Exumas so it's a popular stopover for snowbird sailors; it was for us. Here we were introduced to the fine art of catching, cleaning, and cooking conch ... our new staple source of protein. Conch is a wonderful diet food: no matter how much you eat you cannot possibly replace the calories expended catching and preparing it. How did Popeye get those forearms? Pounding conch,for sure!
After 3 lazy days hiking through mangroves and diving on nearby reefs at Chubb we headed toward Nassau close-hauled in 15-20 kts of true wind. Realizing we couldn't fetch Nassau without tacking we eased to the West side of New Providence Island and anchored that night in West Bay. In a sense it was the model for entering most anchorages here. You use GPS to get yourself "positioned", but then read the water colors to determine depth, and the location of hazards. The hazards are typically patch reefs or larger ones and, of course, shallow water. Charts are important but eyes are better. Remember there are strong currents here not to mention what agitates the bottom during hurricane season. The next day was a miserable motor against steep seas as we dodged a rocky shore to enter Nassau harbor.
We enjoyed Nassau in spite of all the negatives we've heard. The people were very nice. In fact, one day while I was lugging a large 2 X 6 a couple stopped their car and said "... that's too heavy to carry. Hop in and we'll take you where you want to go"! Not likely to happen in Boston.
In Nassau we were introduced to several aspects of cruising that you have to get used to here. One is there are virtually no marinas with floating docks. Here you tie-up to "barbed" pilings, and in the case of Nassau ,when the tide ran out, you had to call upon rock climbing skills to make it up to the dock. If there is one advantage to the cruising "slugs" with 10' freeboard it's the relative ease of getting up onto Bahama docks. The J-34c's sleek design had us shinnying up the pilings 5 feet to the dock and then repelling back down again. For us Nassau will be partially remembered as "splinter city". Something else one has to come to terms with here is water pressure. Ain't none! There are plenty of coin-operated laundromats. Bring lots of magazines ... the washers take about two hours to fill. True in Nassau and in George Town - great way to meet the female side of the sailing crowd down here (why is that???).
While in Nassau we visited BASRA. This is the only organization in the Bahamas that provides - in a limited way - the kinds of services, especially search and rescue, of our own Coast Guard. BASRA depends heavily on private financial support and private SAR, search and rescue, support to carry out its activities, such as air search since BASRA has no planes of its own. Happily, BASRA also has a close working relationship with the U.S.C.G..
BASRA should be every cruisers first stop in Nassau. They have the only public dinghy dock in the city. At BASRA we spent time with Chris Lloyd: coordinator with USCG and great resource of info.Chris Lloyd, the director, and picked his brains for about an hour asking all sorts of questions about weather resources, anchorages, and fishing. He loves to have visitors stop by and also is busy promoting yacht racing in the Nassau area. Because of its closeness to Florida, Chris expects the Nassau area to one day rival Antigua Race Week. If you are cruising the Bahamas and someone has to reach you their first call should be to BASRA.
It blew for days at about 25 kts through Nassau and from a direction (southeast) to really roil the banks (meant 4-5' steep seas on the nose while we had to dodge coral heads). We were itchy to get to the northern Exumas so when the wind velocity eased off a bit we sailed and motored to our first destination in the Exumas.
It was exciting. Our first stop in the Exumas was Highborne Cay. In the weeks ahead we sat out a few "fronts", got faster at cleaning conch, and slowly made our way, via Allens Cay, Hawksbill, Warderick Wells, Staniel, Blackpoint, Little Farmers and Darby cays to that mecca of the southbound sailor, George Town, on Great Exuma Island. When we arrived there were almost 400 sailboats at anchor, some on the same bit of watery turf since November! Pam was concerned it would be too crowded to find a spot to anchor but as soon as we saw the place we knew 300 more would have no problem finding space to launch the hook!
In late February we hosted Glenn's sister Jane and Pam's sister Susie. For both visits we never left George Town, and we never had the mainsail cover off. Sailors? We all had a ball.
Between the two "sister" visits we did a mini cruise "off the beaten path" out to the outlying Atlantic islands (25 to 40 nm) from George Town. The islands we visited were Long Island, Conception Island, and Rum Cay. It was at Conception that we had our one "hoary" anchorage adventure. After two nice days in the lee of northeast winds our anchorage was heaven. "Herb", the Atlantic weather guru on SSB (we try to listen to him every day), assured us that while a front was approaching there would be no noticeable winds from the southwest, northwest or north. Herb's calming report was light to variable until it clocked into the northeast, after which it would pick up to 20-25 kts for two days. No worries, mon. The anchorage would continue being a watery Garden of Eden.
When we hit the sack winds were starting to pick up from the southwest, hmmmm, at about 10 kts. Waves were starting to work their way around the finger of land south of us into the anchorage. By 3-4 AM the winds had clocked to the northwest and were now above 15 kts and steep 3-4 seas were changing our comfort level by the minute. Conditions were building and there we were on a lee shore only about 200 yards off our stern. At about 4:30 we started the diesel and commenced an anchor watch. We knew we had to find shelter but without good light there was no safe way to pass through the ringing reefs.
Allen's Cay -N. Exumas: land on the beach and iguanas run out to greet you! There were about six other boats caught in the same predicament. Two had accidents while trying to leave around 3AM. The worst was a lost dingy and outboard when a plunging stern punctured the dinghy's hull (the culprit was a self steering vane). A New Zealand couple in an Island Packet bent the beejezus out of their bowroller as they tried to bring their chain rode on deck. We ran into them several days later and they chirped they didn't have to replace any stemhead gear as they got it bent back into shape at a marina. Rugged stuff??
No one was hurt on any of the boats, and in about 2 hours all the boats were back in a lee, on the other side of the island. Our boat handles easier then most - under sail or power - so after Pam did her Arnold Schwartzenegger act getting the anchor up, we rounded up under the southern end of the island under sail and tucked into the lee on the east side into much easier conditions. A day later we sailed to Rum Cay. Rum Cay, along with George Town, is a popular stopover for Caribbean voyagers going north or south.
Later on we heard lots of boats got "caught" by the "incorrect" weather report. Friends of ours in Eleuthera got smacked by 40 kts plus and at Royal Island just northwest from Eleuthera, 70 kts gusts were reported. Plenty of worries, mon.
Actually the Conception Island experience taught us a few valuable lessons, all confirmed by chats with other cruisers: first during the period of winter fronts one should assume the worst no matter the weather advise and head for anchorages protected on all sides. As far as winter weather fronts are concerned native Bahamian fishermen take a simpler approach. Not having SSB's and other sources of weather information they simply head for cover when the wind goes south. In retrospect this is wise advice. Preceding every frontal passage we experienced, weak ones or blustery ones, the wind always went south about 24 hours before the fronts appeared. And second, though the "outer" Bahamas have their beauty, they lack all weather anchorages; they are best visited during the spring and early summer months when fronts are no longer a threat. Already we are talking about returning to the Long Island, Conception and Jumentos areas, and others, next April - July.
We simply do not have the skill with words to describe the beauty of the Bahamas and the gentle ways of Bahamians. This place is a paradise. It has changed little, except for a few places like Nassau, Marsh Harbor and a few distant resort destinations, in the past five centuries. In almost all of these islands, when you step away from your boat, what you see and experience is a mirror image of what the earliest inhabitants saw and did. We love it.
But before I paint too rosey a picture don't get the idea it's all fun and games. After all back in "civilization" if you want a nice seafood dinner all you have to do is go to the restaurant or the store, and it's there for the asking ... er, paying. Our life is hard. To get the same we have to expose ourselves to the harmful rays of the sun, sometimes for hours, with only a bathing suit for protection. And can you imagine how fatiguing it is breathing through a tube while diving on colorful reefs for lobster and grouper. Sometimes we have to do this all day! There have been times when this has proven so stressful we've had to chill-out (actually never "literally" chill-out!) by hanging around beaches and collecting shells. Please, feel sorry for us! OK, we're rubbing it in.
Fishing: If you like the outdoors then winter in the Bahamas is for you. We never have had a day when it didn't reach at least 70 F. The typical daily temp here is 75-80 F and mainly sunny. Lobster fishing season ends April 1st so winter has that draw as well. We are certified divers but tanks are not allowed here for catching fish nor are spear guns. You have to free dive and use only a sling type spear. It means you get eyeball to eyeball with the prey.
We were lucky to spend a week cruising with a couple who are accomplished divers and hunters. They completely changed what we do when we go fishing now. Everyone talks about Bahama waters being fished out. They proved it isn't the case as they - Peter and Sandra - could go out for 2 hours and always fill the lobster catch bag. Hey, toss in a grouper or two, as well. The key is diving on the windward side of the cays in deeper waters. Another key is knowing the environment your "prey" likes. There's a catch ... in fact two. First you have to operate in deeper water. We dove for lobster in 20-30' foot places, and ... here's the biggy ... when you are diving these spots you occasionally get visited by "men in gray suits". Sharks.
When we see sharks we get out of the water and say things like, " ... I'd rather eat canned chili anyways". Once, when diving for conch alone in the reefs by Rum Cay I was "visited" by a shark much larger then me. I had no spear with me and got quite itchy as he was slowly circling, and eyeballing me. Creepy. My mask was flooding and the bag of conchs was getting heavier by the second. Anyway, all's well that ends well. Now we always have a dinghy with someone in it when we dive where sharks frequent, especially if we're spearing.
When spearing you always want to get the fish quickly out of the water. Sharks smell blood from far away and are supposed to hear noises from wounded fish. Also barracuda are notorious for darting at speared fish, especially silvery colored snappers. Once after "throttling" a grouper in the rocks I swam bank to the dink ... fish out of the water stuck up on my spear the whole time ... and gave it to Pam to put in the catch bucket. Pam told me about a big "cuda" lurking around. The fishing was so promising I told Pam I'd rather hang in the water and swim parallel to the dink, but would she please keep a lookout?. When I got about 10 yards from the dinghy the barracuda charged me ... then veered away at the last second. It happened even too fast for me to "inflate" my wetsuit! Two seconds later I was in the dinghy.
Sound scary? No way. The waters here are safe but some common sense goes a long way. We love being in the water every day. We never tire of it.