For months, we studied everything we could about crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas, and it was always a topic of discussion with other cruisers. Where are you jumping off, where are you heading, and what does the weather window look like? The questions were always the same, but the answers evolved as we grew closer to the jumping off harbors.
This “chapter” covers “THE CROSSING” and our initial cruising in the Northwest Bahamas.
The Crossing (Tue-Wed, Christmas Day to Dec 26)
It was rise and shine at 5 am and anchor up at 6. Sue and I were on our way. Despite a full moon, it was cloudy and darker than expected, but we sorted out the Florida Channel buoys and marks and by 0640 were rounding Cape Florida. We set our initial heading to 104 degrees by compass.
This was 19 degrees to the right of the direct course line to Bimini and North Rock. The adjustment was needed to counteract the effect of the 2.5 knot Gulf Stream which would set us to the North as we crossed it at a boat speed of around 6.5 knots. This was our heading for the next 48 miles. As we motor sailed, we tracked our position on the paper chart. We initially stayed south of our course line. Halfway across the stream, we were back on the course line; then north; and then near the end we came back very close to our intended way point of North Rock. It worked just like the theory said it would!
Sue was first to spot South Bimini Island, and by 2:30 pm, we were passing North Rock and our depth sounder clearly announced we were “on the Bank.” Depths were now around 20 feet even though it looked like we were in a calm area of the open ocean. If the lack of ocean swells couldn’t convince you, then you just had to look over the side and clearly see the bottom. Kind of scary, but the clear blue green water was already working its magic. We set the sails and turned off the motor. We had made it to the Bahamas!
Plan A was to continue crossing the bank slowly through the night so that we would close in on the Northwest Channel light at dawn. The slowly dying wind made it easy to move slowly, but once it got dark, and the current began to affect us, it was a lot easier to just slowly motor.
Sue prepared a great hot dish of chicken and rice which we ate in the cockpit – in the dark. It was a perfect preparation for the first watch by Brian from 5 to 9. Sue napped and then took the 9 to 12:30 watch, and made the course adjustment at Mackie Shoal. Brian then took the next watch, switched from sail to motor and kept a lookout for some overtaking motoring sailboats, plus an occasional commercial vessel traveling toward Bimini. We eventually overtook some of the other boats which slowed down before dawn, as well as a couple of boats who just dropped the hook just short of the Northwest Channel.
Not all the lights and buoys were as charted, but Brian eventually got it sorted out. We passed Northwest Channel light at around at 0610. Sue took it from there and Brian crashed for a few hours, before getting up to let Sue sleep a few more hours until noon.
Nassau slowly came into view and by 1:00 we received permission for Nassau Harbor Control to enter the harbor. We contacted Nassau Yacht Haven, and were happy when they said they had some room for us. We tied up at 2:30 in a mild breeze with some excellent dock line help from John. We now had to wait for Immigration and Customs to clear us in.
We cleaned up Sogno (lots of salt spray) and Immigration arrived within half an hour and we were done in less than 10 minutes. Customs was another matter, but after verifying that there was a Customs officer working her way through other boats in the marina, we just had to wait until around 5:00 or so to answer a few questions and pay our $300 cruising permit fee. Yes – we had arrived! Down went our yellow quarantine flag, and up went our Bahamas courtesy flag. We were free to move about the country!
December 26, is a big holiday in the Bahamas, so almost everything was closed. After taking showers, we ran into George and Lynn (Sunspot Baby) who told us about the weekly cruisers lunch on Thursday (tomorrow). We also got a rundown on what bars and restaurants were open in the area from the friendly security guard. Crazy Johnnies Rock and Roll Bar was our first stop, and we sampled our first Bahamian beer – Kalik. From there we went to a nearby Outback steakhouse, where we got an ok meal, with very indifferent service. We reckoned our waitress was not very happy about working on Boxing Day, and let it go at that. It was time to get some sleep.
Nassau is fun, but Cruising is Better (Thur-Sat, Dec 27-29)
Nassau is on New Providence Island -- the capital of the Bahamas. Nearly 80% of the country lives in and about Nassau. It’s a good sized city, that depends heavily on the tourist industry. We stayed in Nassau for 4 days, and had a chance to organize Sogno, provision, do laundry, meet other cruisers, fix a few items and see some of the sights. At the Cruisers Lunch (Green Parrot) we had a chance to meet local legends Nick and Carolyn Wardle . They helped organize the Bahamian Air Sea Rescue Association (BASRA) and are always helping out arriving cruisers with weather reports and other useful information.
We finally got a handle on the local bus system, and managed to make it out to the Ardastra Gardens to see the flowers, wildlife and flamingo show. The local marina restaurant (The Poop Deck) was a good place to hang out, sample some conch fritters and talk to other cruisers. Watching other cruisers arrive is always fun especially when you have seen them during a cruise such as Event Horizon II (Peter and Cheryl). They shared an anchorage while riding out Noel off the Alligator River. Our self-conducted tour of Nassau included downtown, the Library (originally an old jail), Fort Fincastle, the Water Tower and the Queen’s Steps, plus shops in the area around the cruise ship docks.
By day four, we were getting a bit depressed, since the weather and wind were still not favorable for continuing south --- to the Exumas. We finally decided to head northwest to the Berry Islands, and check out Little Harbour and Cabbage Cays. It was time for us to go cruising and that meant going wherever the wind was bound for!
Reading the Waters in Little Harbour Cay (Sun, Dec 30)
After a stop at the fuel dock, we were underway at around 10am for our 38 mile sail to the Berry Islands and Little Harbour Cay. The skies were clear and we got an hour of sailing in, but the winds were weakening, and from dead astern. We finally had to motor the rest of the way, to be sure we got in with some adequate light.
We arrived at the Little Harbour Cay entrance at 3:45. The sun was just high enough for us to still “read the water colors” and work our way around the brown and dark spots (shallow) and stay in the blue and blue green areas (deep) as we headed for the anchorage. Brian was at the bow busily waving his arms to indicate where Sue should steer - - left, right, more right, left, etc. As we approached the charted anchorage, the depth kept decreasing, and soon all we saw around us were dark spots and depths of 6 or 7 feet. We were close to where a bunch of other boats were anchored, but we couldn’t get any further “local knowledge” so we turned around and headed for High Cay (aka Frozen Cay) which would also give us some shelter from the SE winds.
Our first anchoring attempt (35 # CQR) wouldn’t set, so we changed locations and ended up anchoring near a bunch of other boats who seemed to be riding nicely. Given all the room, we probably were a little closer that we should have been, but we still had adequate swing room, and we didn’t have much time left before the sun set. We declared ourselves anchored and set about preparing to properly watch the sun set.
There was a little bit of roll, but as anchorages go this was a keeper and we slept well after Sue put together a great shrimp and broccoli pasta dish followed by a “Beautiful Mind” DVD.
Ringing in the New Year at High Cay (Mon, Dec 31)
New Year’s Eve day, we dropped our dinghy and did some exploring. Flo’s Conch bar was closed, so we continued motoring about Little Harbour Cay, Comfort Cay and Lizard Cay. The water was shallow enough (less than 2 feet) that we had to row for a while. After getting back in good water, we headed for the local beach and all the cruisers enjoying the water. There were 3 sailboats and a trawler present, and we found out the local scoop on Flo’s (conch, fish, lobster, French fries, and rum punch), how to get a conch out of his shell, where the good snorkeling was, and how to burn your garbage on the beach. We clearly had a lot more to learn.
We headed back to Sogno, and took some time to look at how our anchor was set, using a clear bottom viewing bucket. It was kind of scary to see that the anchor was only 50% buried in the sand, even though it was holding fine. In any event we spent the afternoon recharging the battery, while two of the boats moved over to the Cabbage Cay – Little Harbour Cay anchorage. A grilled steak dinner, some local fireworks and a bonfire we could see on the beach finally put us in a New Year’s Eve mood. We toasted the New Year in a bit early (thanks Dan and Elaine for the champagne) and turned out the lights on what had been a very special year. What would 2008 bring?
Riding Our First Norther (Tues – Sat, New Years Day - Jan 5)
We began the New Year, with a mimosa brunch, followed by a change of anchorage on a rising tide. Going over to join the other boats near Cabbage Cay was not a problem if you came in from the south. What WAS a problem was anchoring. After 3 attempts near where the charted anchorage was, we finally moved out to deeper water and managed to set the anchor with 90 feet of chain and 40 feet of nylon rode. Hooray! We then took another giant step toward Bahamas cruising, by breaking out the snorkel gear and taking our first tentative exploration of the local sea bed off the beach. Needless to say, Sue and I were just thrilled with what was probably pretty tame stuff, but we liked what we saw, and decided that beach people might have something going after all.
We were glad we got this beach time in, because by midnight, the wind began to howl and our first cold front with accompanying “norther” had arrived. For the next 4 days, there was not much to do unless you wanted to go around and get wet (plus salt) in your dinghy in the 20-25 knot winds. We elected to focus on various improvement and repair projects, this blog and just catching up on our reading. Sue kept up morale with food (quesadillas, pasta, brownies, etc.)
One “funny” incident occurred when one night Brian went to bed at around 8:30. We didn’t know it, but around 9 pm one of the boats close to the shore (San-I-Tee) had started bouncing on the bottom and had been forced to re-anchor near us. When Brian woke up at 12:30 and checked the anchorage he saw San-I-Tee and thought she was dragging anchor. On went the search light and he sounded the alarm on our air horn. Once we all got on the radio, we found out what had happened and could all go back to sleep. Brian was “complimented” on watching out for others, but it was clear the wind was wearing on peoples nerves.
By Saturday, the wind was beginning to lessen, and two of the larger sailboats elected to leave for Nassau. The rest of us elected to wait for Sunday, which the weather gurus said was a better day.
Our Best Sail So Far (Sun, Jan 6)
We all got going at around 6:45 am and made it out the entrance at high water with no problems. The wind was a steady 15 knots or so out of the ENE so we had a great sail all the way to Nassau, averaging 6.5 knots, with Sogno leading the way. There was a brief squall to greet us as we approached the harbor entrance, but all went well and we were back in Nassau Yacht Haven by 1:00.
After getting cleaned up a bit, we did some provisioning and stopped by the Poop Deck. We of course talked with more cruisers, including John and Maryann (Lucky Girl) who were docked near us and invited us to stop by in the morning to go over the Exuma charts with them.
Back on Sogno it was a grilled steak, brownies and an X-file episode on DVD. It had been a very good sailing day!
Enjoying Nassau and Getting Ready for the Exumas (Mon-Tue, Jan 7-8)
The weather reports Monday morning were looking good for a Wednesday departure for Allan’s Cay in the Exumas. We did spend some time over at Lucky Girl, learning about good anchorages, snorkel areas, marinas, and hiking areas down the Exumas chain. John and Maryann had spent a number of years in the Bahamas and we thank them for taking time to help out some first timers.
After that we jumped on a bus into town and explored the local Straw Market. We found it more like a tourist flea market, and kind of limited in the local crafts available. We then went out to Arawak Cay (aka “the Fish-fry”) to get some local seafood. Mondays are a slow day there, but we did get some advice from one restaurant owner (“Full Belly”) and had some excellent grilled conch and grouper at “Seafood Haven.” We were so full, we only took the bus back to town, and then walked the rest of the way to the marina to get some exercise.
On Tuesday, we topped off our fuel tanks and jugs and then went off to Paradise Island. It turned out to be an easy walk over the bridge, and we immediately checked out the Atlantis resort. It has a fabulous little aquarium that can be seen for free in the grand hotel lobby. The scale of the whole things is tremendous, and we only saw the casino, marina, and other public areas. The whole resort represented an investment over $1.9B.
After we got back to the marina, we decided to finally buy some fishing gear, and got considerable help from a nearby marine store. After an hour we emerged with rod, reel, hand lines, gaff, lures, and assorted other “accessories”. With a little luck, we should be able to eventually catch something. We’ll keep you informed on how we do.
We’re planning to depart for the “Far Bahamas” tomorrow, crossing the Yellow Bank. Sounds exotic, but we’re assured that it’s a pretty easy run of 35 miles or so, if the east wind stays tame. Stay tuned …
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Brian and Sue
Buds at Sea