Howdy from the Bahamas! It’s been a while since we checked in. It’s not that the trip is over, or that we’ve forgotten you, or that I’ve lost interest in this journal. It’s just that NOTHING HAS HAPPENED since we last checked in and I respect you too much to bore you with my finger’s recovery, the flu I caught over New Year’s, and the interminable wait for favorable weather. But all that’s changed now!
Let’s get up to speed. After five weeks in Stuart, we were finally ready to continue down the Florida coast to Lake Worth, where we intended to make the 14-hour jump to the Abacos, Bahamas. We arrived, set our shiny new, highly touted (but untested) anchor, and waited for a decent weather window to cross the Gulf Stream.
The Gulf Stream, a warm river within a cold ocean, runs roughly northeasterly from the Gulf of Mexico, between Florida and Cuba, up the east coast, and across the Atlantic Ocean toward Ireland and the UK (It’s one of the reasons that those islands are fertile, rather than frigid). The stream pics up velocity as it gets squeezed between the east coast of Florida and the Bahama banks, pushing an eastbound boat northwards at two or three knots. In the best of conditions, it’s like trying to walk across a moving conveyor belt. Consequently, crossing the Gulf Stream is something of a big deal among cruisers. One oft-repeated rule is to never try to make the trip if there is any wind from the north. The north wind fights against the northerly current to create truly hellacious waves. (For some reason wind is referred to by the direction it is coming from, while waves and current are described by the direction they flow toward. You get used to it.) After our unpleasant overnight passage from Charleston, with its eight-foot following seas, we were determined to wait for favorable conditions. 6:30 every morning found us huddled around our SSB radio, listening to weather forecasts by Chris Parker’s Marine Weather Center (a subscription service for recreational sailors like us).
Five days later and we were still sitting in Lake Worth under overcast, blustery skies, eating our stores, re-reading everything aboard. It all culminated in an afternoon of driving rain, 30-knot winds (gusting to 40), and – no joke – tornado warnings. We let out more anchor chain and sat in the cockpit, ready to start the engine and motor forward if the anchor started dragging. Letting out more anchor chain keeps the pull on the anchor horizontal, digging into the bottom. The amount of anchor line used for a given water depth is called “scope” and described as a ratio. For rope anchor line, a minimum 7:1 scope is recommended. For chain, a minimum 5:1. We ended up with 120 feet of chain out in 12 feet of water, giving us 10:1 scope. This will matter a bit later in this entry.
The front passed, sans tornado, and we looked up into the clear night vowing to catch a borderline-acceptable 18-hour weather window forecast for the next day. Although we rose at 3am, we hit a couple snags that kept us from taking off. First, we had some tiny and easily-solved mechanical issues. Second, and more importantly, we were a little gun-shy. While we didn’t want to admit it, but we’d grown a bit timid after our Charleston passage. We spent an hour or so checking and rechecking weather forecasts and asking each other, “Do you want to go?” “I don’t know. Do you want to go?” until the sun rose and it was too late to make the crossing.
Rather than sit still, we chose instead to head to Miami where we could make the shorter passage to Bimini in daylight. We upped anchor and headed out on a pleasant daysail south.
On the way, we were shooed off by the US Navy, who were conducting maneuvers in the area. It might not translate in the pic, but seeing a submarine driving around in circles off your beam is quite unnerving.
We arrived that afternoon in Fort Lauderdale. There is much inconclusive discussion in the community about the costs of cruising. Everybody who is planning a trip wants to know how much money they’ll need. Everybody who writes about it says, “It depends”. They’re right, of course. You’re not going to become a different person while cruising. If you like going to restaurants, you’re probably not going to want to suddenly live on canned beans and rice. Similarly, if you’re accustomed to the charms of a marina, you’re not going to be happy anchoring out every night with only the possibility of a wet dinghy ride ashore to console you.
We of limited budget fall firmly in the “anchor out” camp. The thing that’s come as a surprise for us is how oftentimes, especially on the southern ICW, anchoring is just not possible. The waterway is too narrow, the coves too shallow, and a marina is the only option.
This explains how we spent two nights (again, waiting for a front to pass) surrounded by megayachts in the most expensive marina we’ve berthed in this trip (I have never before seen so many flat screens in a dockmaster’s office). Our short time in Fort Lauderdale did allow us to connect with Deb’s cousin Kenny, a longtime local. We had a lovely day with Kenny visiting all the most glamorous spots around town.
The next day, we were off to Miami. We rounded the southern tip of Key Biscayne, entered tiny, protected, and crowded No Name Harbor before sunset, and settled in to wait for yet another front to pass.
We kept ourselves busy with boat projects and reprovisioning. I built a raincatcher (a tarp with a hose led to our water tank) in anticipation of our Bahamas cruise, where water costs money.
Lucy made friends with a manatee.
The front blew through on the third day. This was the bottom end of the same system that dumped so much snow on the Mid-Atlantic and New York. For us, it meant a day of sitting out 30-knot winds all over again, although this time in a crowded harbor with much less scope. With so many boats in the harbor, you can’t just lay out as much anchor chain as you like, or you’ll hit other boats when the wind shifts. We (and everybody else) could only put out about 55-feet of anchor chain in 13 feet of water, for a little more than 4:1 scope. Happily, the anchor had two nights to firmly set, although I again spent the entire day in the cockpit waiting for it to drag. Far more confident in our new anchor, Deb baked bread and Lucy slept. We didn’t drag. I love our new anchor.
The various marine weather forecasts were beginning to agree that a good window would come along the following Monday, which happened to be my birthday. The buzz filled the anchorage (about the forecast, not my birthday), with lots of shouted boat-to-boat conversations. “You going?” “Maybe! How ‘bout you?” The forecast called for a slight north wind in the early morning, shifting east as the sun rose. We’d take it. Sunday evening, we left the harbor to spend the night off Key Biscayne for an easy exit in the morning. We lashed the dinghy on deck and got everything ready for a 6am departure.
On our way, we learned the forecast wasn’t kidding. The early morning north wind indeed kept the seas up.
After about two hours we were seriously considering turning back. In an instant, the wind shifted east and the seas calmed.
The rest of the trip was an uneventful motorsail. By 3pm we were safely tied up in Bimini Sands Marina on South Bimini Island. After a taxi ride to the airport to check in with customs and immigration, I returned to the boat to hoist our Bahamas courtesy flag from the rigging. All in all, it was a pretty majestic birthday.
We showered and slept and awoke the next day eager to explore. We caught a ferry to Alice Town on North Bimini and walked the King’s Highway through town, sharing the road with pedestrians, heavy vehicles, bicycles, and golf carts (a popular mode of transport on the narrow island roads).
Of course, we strolled on the beach.
Our day’s destination was Joe’s Conch Shack. We arrived to be told by the gentleman sitting out front that the only menu item available was conch salad, which happened to be exactly what we came for.
The gentleman walked to the back of the shack which faced the beach. Curious, we took a peek around to the other side, where we found four men cleaning lobster tails in front of a massive pile of conch shells.
Our guy waded into the water, pulled out a couple shells from the boat and whacked them with a hammer to create a hole in the shell.
Another guy used the hole to cut out the animal and quickly skin it with a deftness that all evidence suggests would leave me with missing digits.
Back in to the front in the shop our guy finely chopped tomato, pepper, and onion, as well as the meat, seasoned all with a sprinkle of garlic salt, and served it in two Styrofoam bowls with plastic spoons, squeezing two limes over each portion.
We sat at an outdoor table with our food and a couple Kalik beers. Briny and chewy and cooked in the lime juice, it was the freshest conch we’d ever tasked. We’re told that Joe’s has a rival, Stuart’s Conch Shack, just up the road (the young ferry captain expressed a preference). Apparently Joe used to work for Stuart until he was fired and set up his own shop. I’m looking forward to comparison shopping.
And it looks like we’ll have some time for more exploring. As I write this, another front is approaching the central Bahamas (again with tornados in Florida). Today, Deb and I walked out to the harbor entrance; the narrow, shallow, and rock-lined harbor entrance; to see white-caps blowing in from the southeast. No boats came in or out of the harbor today.
While we’ve had a number of “firsts” as we’ve meandered down the east coast, we feel like this last passage, finally breaking free of the US, marks a new chapter in this trip. The forecast tells us that the next couple days will be good weather for crossing the Grand Bahama Bank for Nassau and the Exumas. We’re watered, provisioned, and fueld up. Let’s go!