|Nirvana in the Bahamas
Sunday, October 31, 2010
The Nassau Harbor is not a happy place for small boats. There is no bay around which the city wraps. Instead there is a strait that runs between the city waterfront and an island offshore: Paradise Island. The strait is only as long as Paradise Island--about two miles--and the stretch of open water between the Nassau waterfront and the Paradise shore is about 500 yards across. There are two bridges crossing over to the island, one-way thoroughfares that--like the bridges along the ICW--arc up to a good height so that sailboats and large motor yachts can pass under. On the ICW, I think the controlling height for these kinds of bridges is around 65 feet of clearance above the water, but these twin bridges connecting Nassau with Paradise Island look as if they rise even higher than that. Anyway, this Nassau harbor has a steady flow of boat traffic running back and forth, and in and out of the two ends, and all this activity chops up the water into a jumble of wake-waves. The marinas along the Nassau waterfront are unprotected from all this roughness so no matter which one your boat is in there's no escaping the rock and roll.
But anyway, Kobuk and I are battened down in the Nassau Harbour Marina where the motion is lively but there is no contact with docks. The way to survive in this sort of slop is to have a slip with pilings on the other side of the hull, away from the dock. When four lines are run and adjusted it's possible to keep the boat away from the dock. It's a devilish job for a single hander to get lines to those four corners, but once it's done then there's no need for fenders and no bumping against wooden pilings. Kobuk is protected, but her small size makes for lively motion. She acts like a stallion bucking and skittering when three or four cowboys have lassoed him and are trying to tame his anxiety.
In the United States, the idea of Sunday being a day of rest seems to have gone the way of drive-in theatres, but here in the Bahamas it is a different story. Never mind that it is the "big city:" most stores are closed and the streets quiet. This seems like a congenial environment for bicycling so I wrangle Bike Friday up onto the dock and take a little ride. Naturally, it is Paradise Island that beacons; when you look across towards it your view is arrested by the coral colored towers of the Atlantis Casino, and so--as perverse as it is--you find yourself ineluctibly drawn to its imposing bulk. When you arrive on Paradise Island, you leave the Bahamas and enter a completely different world. Nassau itself is a queer environment in which British colonial architecture houses all sorts of contemporary tourism facilities, but with telltale signs of third-world disorder showing up here and there. In the center of the city there has been a concerted effort to keep everything neat and clean, but one does not have to walk far to see an unfinished sidewalk or a vacant piece of prime real estate or a building in need of paint. But Paradise Island is a different story. Here we have corporate internationalism with landscapes designed from scratch. The entire island is a planned development with all the spit and polish of ritzy southern Florida. The casino dominates the island, but there are ancilliary hotels and upscale shops and exclusive residential neighborhoods as well. There is no denying its kerb appeal, and it is easy to be seduced by the Starbucks and the Ben and Jerrys, but of course it is an exclusive realm where visitors from the outside are welcome--but if you're planning on anything other than a day trip you better bring lots of money.
Monday, November 1, 2010
In mid-morning while I am tending to small chores aboard Kobuk, Steve arrives carrying a single duffel. He is here to spend a few days on the boat, but I am anxious that he will not find the pleasures of small boat cruising to his liking. As long as we are here in Nassau, he can be diverted by Atlantis but I suspect that as soon as we pull out of port he will be disenchanted with the daily routine: motor for five or six hours at six miles per hour and then tie off somewhere to make dinner on a Coleman stove before turning in. This is not my idea of what Steve would consider to be fun. But no matter: we are always comfortable with each other's company and that is the most important thing when more than one person are on a small boat at sea.
We hike over the bridge to check out the Casino. As we're passing the upscale shops leading to its entrance, Steve talks up a young Bahamian woman who is in the business of selling timeshare condos. He works his usual magic and in five minutes achieves what I fail to do for months on end. Deedee is disillusioned by her job and finds Steve's disarming frankness hypnotic so she abandons her post and spends the rest of the day attached to the two of us. The first order of business is of course to see what is going on in the casino, but what we discover there is a crushing blow: Steve's hopes of buying his way into a poker tournament are dashed: it turns out that there are no ongoing poker tournaments. Since it is a big casino and Steve has seen it as the setting for televised poker tournaments, he simply presumed that like most such places it would have ongoing tournaments. Then it turns out that Deedee cannot gamble. She tells us that it is against the law for Bahamians to play, although she is happy to simply watch. Anyway, all this puts a damper on Steve's gambling ambitions so we go have ice cream instead.
Now there is a new twist to the story. I have been expecting that Steve would stay aboard Kobuk each night, but now he starts talking about finding a hotel room to rent while we are here in Nassau. A half-hearted search fails to turn up anything reasonable so Steve and I head back to the boat with plans to meet with Deedee later on for dinner. After we're back aboard Kobuk, I beg out of the dinner plans and so Steve goes off on his own to meet with Deedee. In the end, they make an early evening of it and return together to Kobuk. Deedee seems to have attached herself to Steve, although his interest in her is--shall we say--suspect. Finally, late in the evening, after spending hours poolside talking about trivia, Steve and Deedee fall asleep on lounge chairs next to the pool. I bunk on Kobuk which is only a few yards away, but the two of them are like sunbathers who forgot to go home when the sun set. In the morning, Deedee is gone and Steve is still sacked out in his lawn chair.
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
This is a busy day for me. Nassau will be the last real opportunity to buy equipment and supplies that might be needed in the weeks to come. For the next five hundred miles or so, the only towns we will visit will be small Bahamian burgs that may have a restaurant or two but are not likely to have outlets dedicated to marine hardware and the like. I have a shopping list and a to-do list and make an honest effort to run through them before the end of the day. I am only partially successful with finding things and getting things done, but that is the way of things on a boat. In any event, we are committed to departing tomorrow morning.
One of the things on my list is a Bruce anchor along with the appropriate tackle. I have a good anchor, but it would be sensible to have a second one--not just in case something happens to the first but also to effect a Bahamian moor if Kobuk has to spend a night in a place where the current shifts with the tide. A Bahamian moor involves dropping one anchor "upstream" and then letting out twice the appropriate amount of anchor line to drop the second anchor. By then hauling back on the first anchor line, the boat can be held by two anchors in such a way that she cannot slew around on her scope and also won't trip her anchor when the current reverses. The reason for wanting to buy a Bruce anchor is that it does a good job in the kinds of bottom conditions that confound my current anchor. But it is all to no avail. I visit a number of stores that sell anchors, but they all seem to sell the Danforth type (which is what I already have) and nothing else. Kobuk will have to do without.
Steve's big purchase of the day is a pillow. He is a bit wary about the foam mattress I have on-board for him to use on the floor in the space behind the cabin, but what really has him concerned is the prospect of sleeping without a pillow.
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Before we can go anywhere this morning, we have to gas up. But this turns out to be a bit complicated. There is no gas dock in the marina where we have been staying so we motor over to the nearby dock with the big Texaco sign. After tieing off and spending ten minutes trying to scare up a gas attendant, I find out that the operation has recently lost its capacity to process credit card purchases. To fill up here will virtually wipe out my ready cash supply so we move on to a third location where there appears to be a gas dock and tie off there. The attendant shows up and asks us to move to the back side of the dock--and at the same time undertakes the fueling of the Nassau Harbour Pilot Boat. The Harbour Pilot Boat consumes 260 gallons of fuel via a delivery system that is slow even by Bahamian standards, and by the time we have gotten ourselves squared away for the day's cruise the better part of an hour has passed. Considering that we didn't get moving in the first place until around 10:30, all this means that the morning is virtually gone before we motor out of Nassau Harbour.
Steve is planning to fly back to Miami on November 7th or 8th, so the best plan for us is to head on up to Spanish Wells, and then over to Eleuthera's Harbour Island. These two destinations are fairly near to Nassau: we should reach Spanish Wells tomorrow and should only need part of one more day to make Harbour Island. My thinking is that Steve can fly to Nassau from the airport near Harbour Island and we will have two or three days to spend ashore in those two towns.
But first, to get to Spanish Wells we have to run northeast for about 55 miles past a string of small cays. The wind is out of the east-northeast so I steer for the more protected side of the small cays and we bounce around in moderately rough conditions for a few hours. At first, the cays actually tend to run east-northeast and afford little protection but as farther along they curve upward more to the north and their leeward sides become a more effective screen. Most of the time the cays are visible off the starboard beam, but by late afternoon they become fewer and smaller and rather more distant. For an hour or so they almost completely disappear, with just a hint of one of them faintly visible. Steve comments on the fact that we are pretty much completely out of sight of land, and this reminds me of how disturbing I found such a situation the first few times it happened to me.
Steve looks at me with his usual poker face and says, "So, ah, here on vacation I have turned myself over to your expertise on the water but now I wonder what to do when you have a heart attack." I give him a little primer on how to run the two engines but then say, "Oh, don't worry: If I fall overboard or have a heart attack you'll have plenty of time to read all the manuals. They're in the library up in the bow where my bunk is located."
"Yeah, but how will I know where to head to get back to civilization?"
"That's easy. Just go with the wind; go west. If you're so unlucky as to miss Nassau and Andros you'll eventually bump into Florida."
That seems to placate Steve, but he then observes that when he gets somewhere he thinks he'll sell the boat. I don't mind since I won't be around to witness it.
Not long before sunset, we close with the south end of Current Island, which has the Pimlico Islands running a short distance off its western shore. Tucked in there is an anchorage that should offer good protection for the night. We have to negotiate some areas of extreme shallows and along our line of approach the surface of the ocean does very strange things. No more than a tenth of a mile out from the end of the Pimlicos the waves peak up and become extremely jumbled--as if there is something half alive under the surface. The charts look straightforward, though, and give me confidence that there are no real hazards. We motor through it and the depth finder detects virtually no change in its readings. All this confusion must be a confrontation of some sort between a strong current and oncoming waves. Either that, or two clashing currents. Anyway, when we get to anchorage it is indeed a calm spot. A small stretch of beach on Channel Island allows us to tie off on shore with just the lunch hook off the stern to keep us afloat when the tide goes out. We happen to be arriving at low tide and we will be leaving in the morning around low tide, so there is little chance that we will be hung up by a falling water level. That of course depends on the lunch hook holding. If it doesn't then we could be pushed ashore in the middle of the night and then be high and dry in the morning. The grapnel, however, really does seem to have a good set in the sand and grass of the bottom.
After sunset when we are eating our corn and bean and franks dinner, Steve breaks the news to me that he is somewhat disillusioned by the reality of this Bahamian cruising. He was expecting nubile young girls frolicing nude on sandy beaches but reality has served up hardship instead--a hard bed and pesky, hardbitten little insects. He hopes I won't mind but he thinks that when we get to Spanish Wells tomorrow he will look for a way to fly back to Miami right away. This plan sounds fine to me. It hasn't felt like Steve was enjoying himself, really, and neither one of us is into social convention. We talk about the prospects of making it to Spanish Wells in time for him to catch a flight out.
Current Island Beach, Eleuthera: 25* 19.330' N / 76* 51.095' W
Distance: 36 miles
Total Distance: 9,552 miles
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Steve spent a miserable night being bitten by bugs and dripped on by a passing rain shower. Up in the bow I had it better. But anyway, we're up at dawn and both decide to take a swim in the clear water. Steve finds two starfish, which I should imagine will take the edge off his unhappy view of the Bahamas, and then we prepare to depart. The small beach to which we are attached has a handful of long-abandoned umbrellas that have palm fronds for their canvas. They all were anchored in the sand by pouring concrete into dug holes with the umbrella post braced in position, but the umbrella nearest the beach has been excavated by the tidal comings and goings, with the result that the concrete base is sitting high--but only occasionally dry--on the beach sand. This is what we tied Kobuk to, and the lateral tug of current during the night has tipped the umbrella. I try to resurrect the umbrella but its concrete base has the shape of an inverted cone and the whole structure is inherently unstable in the upright position so I leave it on its side Well, the forlorn look of abandonment was already an integral part of the scene so I guess we have not brought about a significant amount of aesthetic degradation.
This last stretch of open water leading to Spanish Wells is a deep bay, entered from the southwest, that tempers the effects of the wind and waves that we are heading into. As we approach Meeks Patch, a small cay close up by Spanish Wells, the catamaran ferry runs up from our stern and passes us off to port. She will be in Spanish Wells very soon but we will not get there until an hour from now. I know that Steve is thinking that this may be his only ride out of town, but there is nothing to be done but to motor along at our snails pace. Ordinarily we could have powered up with the main engine and gotten at the same time as the ferry, but our trial run with the main engine when we left Nassau made it clear that our top speed would only be about 12 mph, not enough to keep up with the ferry.
When we slip through the entrance channel, the town of Spanish Wells stand in front of us with unusual boldness. Buildings line the shore and the entire town is relatively short on trees. It has a remarkably built-up look for a Bahamian town--but the look is nice because the homes are well-tended and all the business establishments are spruce. White is the domainant color, but a good number of buildings are painted in various pastels. The channel T's in front of us and I bear left to get to where the Explorer Chartbook claims the marina is located. We settle in at the marina and quickly discover that the ferry has already left for Harbour Island on Eleuthera, but will be returning around four to pick up passengers and run back to Nassau. Steve inquires about air flights and discovers that one will be leaving from Eleuthera in about an hour and a half. That's his preference and the employees in the marina set things up for him--not only arranging his ticket purchase but also organizing his taxi ride to the Eleuthera shuttle (about two miles across a narrow strait) and then a taxi on the other side for getting to the airport. Even while I am still doing the paperwork associated with check-in to the marina, Steve manages to get packed and say his goodbyes. Now for the first time since arriving a few weeks ago I will be alone on Kobuk for a significant stretch.
There is a hurricane churning its way north towards the Windward Passage -- the strait between Cuba and Haiti -- and, although that is quite a distance southeast of here, the storm poses a threat. It is expected to run straight north, well east of here, but it will unsettle the weather and the forecast is for unusually strong winds coming out of the north for the next few days. Kobuk and I probably will be harbor bound for a while. With such a prognosis, there is little urgency associated with getting things done so in the afternoon I pedal around Spanish Wells to get familiar with its layout and temperament. It is unusual in many ways: prosperous, tidy, and White. There are relatively few Blacks on the island and the White population contains a surprisingly large number of blonde and blue eyed folks.
In mid-afternoon I track down a private clinic to have my ear looked at and in a matter of minutes the doctor and nurse who work there give me my hearing back. The nurse does the work, of course. Anyway, it is nice to be done with all that wax and my newly recovered sense of hearing is delighted to hear the deluge of rain that is pounding down outside. The rain doesn't last, of course, and after sitting around in the waiting room (how often have you waited to leave a doctor's office?) for a half hour or so, I pedal back to Kobuk in the light drizzle that is trailing the storm.
Yacht Haven Marina, Spanish Wells, Eleuthera: 25* 32.469' N / 76* 45.366' W
Distance: 18 miles
Total Distance: 9,570 miles
Friday, November 5 - Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Hurricane Mitch has dragged his ass through the Windward Passage and already there are weather conditions locally that step outside the bounds of social convention. We are not anywhere near the hurricane but lets keep a watchful eye in case he decides to be unpredictable. In any event, the local weather will continue to act up until after Mitch, like Elvis, "has left the building."
"Act up" means lots of north wind and fierce outbursts of rain. We want to run south along Eleuthera's western shore, but these days the anemometer is often reading above 30 mph and this is too much for us to handle even when headed downwind. How windy is it? So windy that the daily ferry between Nassau and here has not run for the past three days.
Mitch did stick to plan and the only place to really suffer any significant damage is Haiti, surely the Caribbean country that can least afford it. Mitch pursues his northerly course and we spend our time waiting for the hangover to ameliorate.
Spanish Wells is a Bahamian anomaly. Blacks make up 85% of the national population but on this particular cay where the per capita income is stratospheric by Bahamian standards they are hardly even a presence. The manager of the marina and his brother who also works there -- they are Black. But very few others are to be seen in town. Every day a few Blacks shuttle over by ferry from the Eleuthera mainland to work in the robust Spanish Wells economy, but they return home every evening and even when on the island they give the impression of a trace minority.
The place is considered to be part of Eleuthera, but in fact it occupies a cay separated from Eleuthera's northwest end by shallow waters and a channel that together could be readily negotiated by an intermediate swimmer. Many (Black) people shuttle across by ferry every day from the main island to work in the robust Spanish Wells economy. And then in the evening they return the same way.
St. George's Cay is a small place and the town of Spanish Wells occupies the whole of it. The cay is elongated east-west and has no obviously natural outback, but its entire north shore is a continuous beach facing out towards the Tongue of the Ocean. Although this north shore is developed, it is the back side of town, the area that is more residential than commercial. The beach, therefore, conveys an illusion of semi-wildness. These days, with the a north wind wailing, the offshore seas look serious and the breakers roll in across the broad shallows that protect the beach. Discontinuous coral reef is out there somewhere, helping to stem the onslaught.
Although St. George's Cay is all built up, the south shore is naught but a narrow channel that partitions off two other islands, one of which is very small and relatively pristine while the other of which is the large and hilly Russell Island. Russell is connected to Spanish Wells by a bridge over the channel and these days the one main road on Russell is providing access for upscale home development on oversized parcels of land. Russell Island is turning into a rich folks' retreat.
Spanish Wells has just about everything that a boater would need. Not just good supplies of marine and standard hardware are readily available; some of the best canvas workers and sail makers and engine mechanichs to be found in the Bahamas live here along with their reputations. Kobuk very much needs a new canvas. The zip-on side curtains look very shabby indeed and the Bimini top, which was replace three years ago in Prince Edward Island, is starting to fray as well. Spanish Wells is the ideal place to get the replacement work done, but when I talk to the premiere canvas shop in town the proprietor tells me that he is booked up with work for at least a few weeks. I shift gears and start to track down a respected mechanic to take a look at the overheating problem with the Mazda, but after making a preliminary arrangement I chicken out. The Mazda is running and I have no seriously long crossings to make with Kobuk before storing her and returning to Utah, so I'm leery about getting hung up here in town trying to sort out a problem that stalled me in Marsh Harbour for a few days and yet never got resolved.
By Tuesday the 9th, the wind has abated somewhat and the ferry service has restarted, but still the marine forecasts post small craft advisories and I haven't yet made a trip to Dunmore Town on Harbour Island. This is supposed to be one of the most picturesque towns in the Bahamas and my detour northeastward out of Nassau was motivated largely by a desire to see it. The town sits on a small cay up in the northeast corner of Eleuthera, fronting the Atlantic. It is only a dozen miles from Spanish Wells, but to get there a boat has to follow a notorious track running through a coral minefield that has the rugged waves of the Tongue of the Ocean coming in on the port beam and the isolated beaches and dark headlands of Eleuthera's north shore to starboard. I thought I would be able to thread Kobuk through but with the current weather conditions there is no way I'll chance it.
The ferry is running, though, so I'll be a passenger and let some local knowledge inform the passage. On a wind-whipped morning with a few puffy clouds flying south, we run at speed through this zone of hazards known as "The Devil's Backbone," and in less than an hour get deposted at the protected ferry dock on the western side of Harbour Island. I have the Bike Friday with me, so it is a happy day of casual cycling through the streets of historic Dunmore Town. The town overtops a hill in the middle of the island and sprawls down to both the east and the west until coming to a halt at the water's edge on both sides of the island. The streets often are steep -- a novelty in the Bahamas -- and the establishments in town include a number of well-restored old buildings. At lunch time, I pedal over to the luxurious Coral Sands Hotel which overlooks the Atlantic. The hotel occupies the top of a low bluff and, yes, the broad, sandy beach down below definitely is the color of pale pink coral. The beach is one of the best in the world. When I walk along it, the sand is so fine that it feels as if it has no texture. I scoop some into a plastic bag to keep as a souvenir and later when I examine it more closely I find that when some is poured into a cup of water it does not settle but instead stays suspended in the water. Surely it sinks with time, but not while I was watching.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
Finally the wind has let up and we can escape. It continues out of the north, which suits our purposes, and the whole of Eleuthera lies before us. To start with we run back down the bay that we came up last week with Steve and then, only a few miles north of our derelict umbrellas, slip through Current Cut. We're heading pretty much east now, across the shallow bay on the underside of Eleuthera's north end. As we inch toward the middle of the shallow bay, the island shore stays readily visible all around the bay and over in the northeast we can see where the Glass Window interrupts the flow of the coastline. Almost the entire run of Eleuthera is impossibly skinny, but at the Glass Window the island's threadlike character is truly exposed by a narrow cut where the land has become so threadbare that only a few rocks resting slightly above high tide keep the thread from breaking. The land to either side of the cut rises abruptly to about the height of a giraffe and a bridge carries the Queens Highway over the geological interruption. The aperture is miles away, but with the binoculars I can see through the window to the Atlantic. I am not so fortunate, however, as to view it when a boat is passing by on the other side.
Our angle of attack is acute so only very slowly do we close with the coastal bluffs that stand up in the vicinity of Hatchet Bay, which is our destination for the night. The bluffs are a bit of a surprise, actually, since the Bahamas generally have muted relief. Even with these bluffs, the drop down their faces is not so great--no more, I should think, than the height of a tall-masted sloop. But their rock faces plunge to the sea and they are continuous for a number of miles. What makes Hatchet Bay so enchanting is that you enter it through an obscure, narrow passage that cleaves through these bluffs. Once inside, we find ourselves in a spacious pond with Alice Town at its east end and a government dock there as well. There are also mooring balls but we head for the pitted concrete pier because I want to take a ride in the country. The pier towers above Kobuk and has a scarcity of fittings for tieing off a boat. Already there are two large hulls lying alongside, one a local fishing boat and the other a yacht that is beginning to show its age. Between them, the binoculars reveal, there are a couple rusty rings that I can use to secure Kobuk. With any sort of chop in this bay, it would be very bad for Kobuk's complexion if I were to leave her here against the wall, but it is millpond calm in here today so I take the chance.
There is not a lot to see in Alice Town, but I imagine that my view of the place has been colored by my exposure during the last week to the prosperity and civic pride that are so evident in Spanish Wells and Harbour Island. The town is certainly pleasant, and I even locate the little bar called The Spot that was recommended to me by ____ville, the dock attendant at Yacht Haven Marina. But after just a few minutes of cruising up and down the few streets of the town I head south on the Queens Highway to see a bit of the country.
Eleuthera feels different to me. It is not like the other Bahamian islands we have visited so far. The casuarinas are less conspicuous--and the absence of their frayed and filmy branches is not a loss to my mind. Instead, the landscape is gently rolling and the plant association is a more healthy mixture of robust shrubs that make up in bulk for what they lack in height. Palmetto Palms are scattered about, most of them only shrub height but the odd one standing tall. With the rolling terrain, vistas are more common than on the very flat islands and the blue palatte of the offshore waters is better balanced by the richer saturation of glistening greens here on land.
After a few miles of pedaling, a place called the Rainbow Inn comes into view at the crest of a little hill. It is a lodge with a restaurant that sits on a sloping piece of land with a view out over the great expanse of shallow banks off the western side of Eleuthera. The lodge is really a collection of small cabins set in a glade of manicured landscaping. There is a pool and also a path down to the sea. I had suspected that this place was here from something I had read in a guidebook, and that is the reason I've brought along my backpack and computer. Sure enough: the place has wifi and the cheerful Aussie gal at the front desk in the main building encourages me to go out by the pool to get a signal. I settle in for a few hours of work and then when day is fading I go into the main lodge to have dinner. The dining room is a sort of crows nest looking out over the Bight of Eleuthera and I watch the sunset across the broad bay that is a vast stretch of crinkled blue on which not a single vessel is present to scratch its surface.
Hatchet Bay Government Pier, Eleuthera: 35* 21.052' N / 76* 29.203' W
Distance: 32 miles
Total Distance: 9, 602 miles
Thursday, November 11, 2010
It would be ungracious to complain about the look of the Bahamas, but I would be dishonest if I did not admit that before reaching Eleuthera I found the country's northern islands to be somehow less appealing than I had always imagined them. The islands are unquestionably beautiful and the climate has been a delight. Certainly the water has proven to be as queerly translucent as I always thought it would be. But I had some sort of unrealistic expectation that a magical atmosphere would somehow engender an altered state of consciousness. Just how vague and nebulous this expectation was can be estimated by the fact that I have little experience with recreational drugs and thus do not know what I am talking about. I guess somehow I expected to be inspired whereas reality did no more than please me.
But perhaps it is good to not give up on one's illusions too soon. Here along the protected shore of Eleuthera I am beginning to feel a buzz. The atmosphere is vaguely magical. The sea is benign (here on the leeward side), the strand of greenery off the port beam beckons to the mariner. Gazing down into the water is almost as good as looking into the right woman's eyes. And of course there is the thrilling knowledge that nobody lives here. That's an exaggeration, of course, but not by an awful lot. Eleuthera is maybe a hundred miles long and once you're south of that northern tip you are only going to encounter a handful of Bahamian towns, each of which is small enough to be scooped up by Hercules in a single swipe.
Kobuk arrives at South Palmetto Point in mid-afternoon, where a singular town dock extends out into the porcelain waters and three or four houses are visible along the shore. We attach ourselves to the dock in utter silence. There are no people about, no other boats in sight. It almost makes me wonder if Kobuk will be lonely when I bicycle away to see the sights. In this instance, the town itself is arrayed along a simple street that terminates at the town dock. There is a store, a library, and too few houses even to accommodate a polygamous family from Utah. I turn down the one existing side road and it rambles along southward, parallel with the island's western shore. Now I discover that of course there is more development here than meets the eye from offshore, but still it is really a place so small that everybody must know everybody else.
South Palmetto Point is the village here on the western side of this stilletto-thin island. Over near the eastern shore, where the Atlantic rolls in, there is a somewhat larger burg called North Palmetto Point. Bicycling across the island only takes about ten minutes and after passing through this other village I turn onto an unpaved road that rolls up over a small hill and drops down to the Atlantic Shore. Here, the continuous beach bends and curves along a sinuous shore with a discontinuous gallery of shade trees overhanging it. Bright sunlight electrifies the open sea -- deep navy blue out away from shore, teals and jades and greens of every kind that make the shallows into shimmering bands of neon, breaking waves on the shore that cast up ephemeral lines of phosphorescent white so brilliant that it hurts your eyes.
Government Pier, South Palmetto Point, Eleuthera: 25* 08.923' N / 76* 10.971' W
Distance: 26 miles
Total Distance 9,628 miles
Friday, November 12, 2010
The ENE wind was hardly noticeable while we were close to shore, but the route from here to Cape Eleuthera is easiest and most direct if we move offshore a bit. Cape Eleuthera sits at the end of an "anchor fluke" of land that extends westward from the generally north-south run of the whole island. To go there as the crow flies would be nice -- putting the wind behind us -- but that's not feasible because there's a giant swath of ultra-shallow water lying to the northeast of the fluke tip. There's a vaguely buoyed passage wending through this piloting hazard, but it starts well south of us, not far offshore from the fluke arm. We set a direct course for the entrance to that channel and the result is that we gradually angle a few miles out away from shore but keep the wind slightly abaft of my left shoulder. The strength of the breeze is close to small craft warning levels, I should think, but with the body of Eleuthera only a few miles up-breeze the waves don't build that much. It's sloppy though, and Kobuk always wallows a lot when she's getting hit broadside.
But we are within our comfort zone and the warm sun encourages us to not lose heart. A tropical day with the sun shining makes boisterous weather seem like a pick-me-up. Similar wind and waves on an overcast day when the sea is dark and the air is chill would certainly shove a sliver of anxiety into my spirit.
At the entrance to the passage through the shallows we turn right and head directly westward. Now the question of water depth is the paramount consideration. Most everything around here appears to be sand. I don't see many coral heads, and that is a good thing. But even sand would not be nice if a trough between waves were to set us down on it. This is not so likely, I should think, but with the water so clear here in the Bahamas any time it is less than six feet deep it looks as if we are about to be grounded.
We exit the channel with Cape Eleuthera off our port beam and ten minutes of southing puts us off the excavated channel that runs into the marina there. We forge our way against the headwind until we're up-channel enough to be in the protection of land. Past the breakwaters, we curl right to enter a placid basin that is lined with marina facilities. I wouldn't be surprised if there were room for a hundred yachts in here, but the actual count is in the single digits. Kobuk and I get squared away with a gas fill-up and a slip assignment, and I amble around the premises getting a feel for the place. It is not empty of people, but the visitors are so few that in such a large facility they are conspicuous by their presence.
There is no town here -- just facilities for those who have money. I must count myself as one since I am choosing to stay here. It is the only reasonable haven here at the southwest tip of Eleuthera, and it is in this vicinity that we really must be if we are going to minimize the crossing distance to the Exumas. That passage won't happen tomorrow, though: the forecast is for small craft advisories all weekend long.
Cape Eleuthera Marina, Eleuthera: 24* 50.228' N / 76* 20.576' W
Distance: 27 miles
Total Distance 9, 655 miles
Saturday, November 13, 2010
The most notable thing about Cape Eleuthera is not the marina -- which may be nice but is really just another fine marina -- but instead The Island School which occupies an acreage that is within walking distance of the boat docks. The school was started by Chris Maxie, a former member of the Navy Seals, if the scuttlebut about him is accurate. In this locale, his reputation appears to have attained mythical proportions: some say he has a morning routine that involves doing a two-mile open water swim from the school to the marina (it's the long way around), and everyone seems to agree that his drive and persistence are nearly superhuman.
Yesterday evening I pedaled out past the school, along the road that leads to Rock Sound, but my detour into its driveway only gave me a superficial impression of what the facilities are like. It is my intention to go back over there and see if Chris is around, but somehow the time slips away and evening falls without my ever getting around to it.
I am eager, now, to cross to the Exumas because everything I have read and heard makes them out to be pristine and unspoiled. It is very silly, really: except for Nassau, virtually all the Bahamas is unspoiled and the difference between the Exumas and, say, Andros probably is inconsequential. It's a character flaw, really. Wherever I haven't yet been always impresses me as more exotic, more desirable than wherever I am at the moment. This is what keeps me doing the trip, I suppose. In my view, the Exumas are better than Eleuthera which in turn surpasses Andros. And then after the Exumas I am motivated by the prospect of ever-increasing exoticism: the Turks & Caicos, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and on and on. I have mental images of each of these places and although it is not a perfect linkage, there is a high positive correlation between a place's desirability and its distance from my current location. I am obviously not cut out for more serious pursuits in this life, but at least my mental makeup is such as to keep me moving forward with this particular project.
Sunday, November 14, 2010
The small craft warnings persist, but here in Cape Eleuthera Marina the only sign of the wind is the rustling of palms. Land lubbers have no idea how mischevious the wind is. Unless it really gets up and blows like stink, a breeze on land when there are trees about is hardly ever anything more than a soft caress. But get out away from land a mile or two and that same breeze is playing havoc with water, shaping it into great gobs of lumpy stuff that run before it as if fleeing an armed enemy. Just think of it: waves are all wind created and each one has so much mass and so much power and so much potential for devastation. And yet, the wind was what conceived it and raised it up. That something so light and insubstantial as air could take a dead flat ocean and turn it into a living thing is beyond my comprehension. Not beyond my intellectual comprehension but certainly well beyond my emotional understanding of how life works.
The Island School. I do eventually get over there for a more thorough look at the operation. The idea behind The Island School is that a good part of education should be dedicated to a more thorough and more sensitive consideration of the here and now. The school deals with environmental conditions and how to "put them right." It observes social conditions and looks for ways to "make them just." In short, without being explicit about it, the school is teaching values. It does this by paying attention to these matters here on Eleuthera. It builds windmills, seeks out locals who can participate, restores marshes, uses local foods, etc. The idea here is obvious and yet unusual. Environmental and social issues are all the rage these days in our education system, and this does strike me as a good thing, but few institutions are approaching these topics in a hands-on, here-and-now fashion. The Island School is all about what can be directly observed here at the southern end of this isolated island of Eleuthera and what can be done with brains and muscle-power to modify these local conditions in accordance with enlightened ideas about how we should treat our environment and how we should interact with other people.
It takes little time to locate Chris Maxie who as founder and head of the school does not administer it in the traditional bureaucratic manner. When we meet up he is working on a repair project, but instantaneously he drops what he is doing to give me a tour -- the first part of which involves the two of us carrying kitchen organics over to the other side of the campus where the pig pen is located. Chris shows me a number of the different projects that are being carried on and it is clear that they are governed by a desire to achieve the Wendell Berry vision of local self-sufficiency and care for the land. In this school, the preferred ideals are taught about not simply by reading and writing and espousing. They are taught by creating a culture in which everybody on site feels motivated to live them. Relatively few educators are aware of the degree to which contemporary students yearn for more of this sort of relevance in their educations. The students here are trying to live what they believe -- and it is a pleasure to see.
In the afternoon, I discover that the charging cable for my laptop does not work properly. It permits the laptop to run without depleting any of the power stored in the battery, but it does not charge the battery. I view this as a serious problem since there are bound to be times in the isolated Exumas when my online work will require use of a wifi hotspot that is not in range of an electrical outlet. It seems to me that I must try to resolve this problem before crossing over to Highborne Cay. I ask around and learn that the only possibility of getting a replacement charge cable is at a store in Rock Sound which is over 20 miles away. So typical of the Bahamas: the fellow who manages the small car rental operation here at the marina tells me about these two men who have just returned their rental car a few hours early. He thinks maybe I should talk to them and see if they would mind my using their car. Can you imagine a business being run like this in North America? I can't. The two guys -- who are indeed American visitors -- happily let me use their vehicle (nobody even asks about the insurance issue). I drive to Rock Sound and locate the store I had been told about -- a sort of back-country, 20th-century, general-merchandise establishment overseen by a cadre of crusty old-timers who know everybody in the area and everything about the products they sell. They do have a new charging cable that will work for my laptop, but it is quite expensively priced (about $150) and so I ask to try it out before I buy it. They agree, but the test reveals that it does nothing to charge the battery and so I return to the marina empty handed. I get back late, after the car is due to be returned, but the manager of the car rental business dismisses this as being trivial. Avis, National, and all you others: take note.
It appears that the charging problem does not originate with the charging cord, but its real cause will never be discovered because when I get back aboard Kobuk and plug in the laptop in once again, it charges just fine.
Monday, November 15, 2010
As the sky turns from black to slate, I arise and prepare to depart. When the light is good enough I will take a swim to retrieve the bicycle lock that I dropped overboard last night and then we will motor out of here. But as usual, it is not as straightforward as planned.
The Bahamas may have other drawbacks, but one thing that can be counted on is the clarity of the water. By the time the sun is up, I can look overboard on Kobuk's port side and see the bicycle lock resting on the bottom in 8-10 feet. This is in the marina. I have never been anywhere in the world where harbor waters are so clear that you feel no hesitation whatsoever about swimming in them. In Kobuk's long trip across North America the only time I ever saw water approaching the clarity of Bahamian harbor water was in the wild expanses of northern Lake Michigan where towns are few and far away and where deep water craft rarely approach the coast.
By sub-tropical standards, the sun rises late at this time of year and it is not until seven that I fire up the engines and start to untie the mooring lines. But then the little Yamaha stalls. I clamber back aboard to restart it, but without success: the engine cranks over but will not fire. I check the fuel line and clean the fuel filter, but still nothing. I decide to remove a spark plug only to discover that there is not the proper sized deep-socket in my tool box. The little ten horse that I used to have required a different size socket wrench and when I replaced it with this twenty horse I failed to make sure of having the right size socket wrench. There are no mechanics here and BT Galloway, who soon will open a diesel repair shop is already out fishing for the day. Finally, around eight o'clock, Neil in the dive shop comes to my rescue by calling up a mechanic in Rock Sound--a man named Nevil who appears an hour later.
Nevil is a quiet, sliver of a man, Bahamian Black, who moves with the delicacy and deliberation of a good mechanic. He sits on Kobuk's stern and hangs out over the Yamaha with his legs straddling it and his knees unbent so as to keep his running shoes from dipping in the water. I hover about trying to see what he discovers and eventually he encourages me to go finish the breakfast I was starting in the nearby coffee shop when he showed up. His manner is so polite that only when I am up there drinking my coffee and eating my eggs do I realize that he has kicked me off my own boat. I take my time eating and eventually Nevil appears with a look of pleased gravity on his face. We go back to Kobuk and Nevil explains that the problem is associated with an electrical connection in the motor. This is all a mystery to me, but in the engine's circuit board Nevil identifies a particular circuit connector that when UNplugged makes it impossible to turn off the engine. When he disconnected and then reconnected this particular circuit the engine started right away. Go figure. Anyway, he advises me that if the problem recurs I probably should undo this circuit and then redo it. This is black box stuff, but who am I to challenge what evidently works? Before Nevil leaves, I talk him into selling me his deep socket of the correct size for the Yamaha plugs.
By the time Nevil leaves, it is only ten o'clock so there still is time to make the crossing to the Exumas. It would have been best to leave very early when the wind would have been at its lightest, but even now will work since wind speed and direction are favorable. Kobuk motors out into Exuma Sound and we start our 30-mile trek. Naturally, I am nervous that there will be a mechanical problem with the Yamaha and so the time passes slowly as we cover the distance--one mile ever nine minutes or so. We are averaging about 6.6 miles per hour and the wind and waves are behind us. At first the waves are on our port beam, but once we get a few miles offshore they back towards our stern and we begin to get the occasional surf ride. The miles click by and we approach the halfway point.
With 14.6 miles left in the crossing, the Yamaha quits. I start it up again and it runs for thirty seconds and then quits again.
It's time to punt. I fire up the bumblebee and we carry on using the Mazda and jet drive. All this sounds so straightforward, but to someone as timid as me the anxiety is excruciating. My experience has been that whenever one engine gives trouble the malaise strikes a sympathetic nerve in the other one and before I know it I am coping with two dead engines. That's tolerable on the Missouri River when sooner or later the current will take us to shore, but out here on the ocean when the nearest land is a small island fifteen miles away (and not yet visible), the consequences are likely to be more troublesome. But we motor along without incident and before long a small thin spike appears on the horizon that can only be the Batelco tower on Highborne Cay where we are headed. The simple existence of that vertical pin out there in the distance is enough to take the edge off my worry. It is utterly irrational, but then most worry is irrational.
We motor into Highborne Marina around three in the afternoon, and I am now confronted with a linguistic problem. I have already told you that the Bahamian waters are clear and transparent so how do I explain that the Exuma waters are even more clear and even more transparent? I know: take some distilled water, add a little bleach, and then pour it into a Chinese ceramic bowl that has an intricate floral pattern in it. You will see the pattern in the bowl as if the liquid were not present and that is how you see the shallows in the Exumas. But the Exumas are better than the Chinese bowl because the shallows give way to greater depths and the perpendicular perspective into the water gives way to an oblique one, and these two factors transform the transparency down below into an endless palatte of blues, greens, and aquamarines whenever looking farther afield. But it is not just the colors themselves--as spectacular as they are: it is also the fact that they seem to be irridescent and glowing, brought to life by the warmth of the sun.
Highborne Marina, Highborne Cay, Exumas: 24* 42.560' N / 76* 49.313' W
Distance: 33 miles
Total Distance: 9,688 miles
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
We have arrived. After six seasons and countless small adventures, Kobuk has just pulled into the little bay on the north side of Southwest Allens Cay. Getting here was nothing more than a forty-five minute run from Highborn Cay, but when we rounded the cusp of land that guards the northeast corner of our bay we found outselves in the sort of place that first motivated me to build Kobuk and then sustained our fitful progress over the past six years. This is what I had in mind. Southwest Allens Cay is a postage stamp in a tropical sea. it has a dark coral shore around the perimeter, except within this bay where a white sand beach defines its innermost penetration. Kobuk is anchored off the beach on a sandy bottom. The wind is from the south and so the bay is offering perfect protection. As Kobuk rides to her anchor. the dark coral shore is off both sides and the sandy beach is dead ahead. The small island is a roller coaster of tiny hummocks overgrown with a dense thicket of greenery and there are no trees ashore except a single lonely palm set back from the beach.
Southwest Allens Cay is one of a cluster of small islands and here where we're parked we can see the the others off our stern, more distant than the snug shore of our little bay but close enough to offer good protection if the wind were to reverse. The other little islands look much like this one: small, hummocky, densely green, and mostly coral but with white sand beaches here and there. The islands surround a little basin where a sandy bottom is etched with channels that allow deeper draft yachts to enter. But with her shallow draft, Kobuk could go anywhere in here.
Try to imagine what it would be like to float on a transparent film, as if suspended above an alien world. Down below us the life of the ocean is as revealed no less well than if Kobuk had a glass bottom. Kobuk is now over sand, but on the way in we could see the fish and the sea grass, the coral and conch. I cannot resist this world. No sooner is Kobuk secure than I put on mask and snorkle and fins and hop over the side. The water is much more refreshing than a bath. It washes away the dampness of tropical perspiration and replaces it with a fresh film of water so mild that it feels like a shower does when you follow a warm one with a minute or two of slightly cooler flow to give your core a hint that you are still alive. I troll along the coral shore, staring down at the collection of marine life. In addition to small live ones, there are plenty of dead conch shells littering the floor of the bay and the small fish like to hide out in them to avoid predators. A variety of small fish swim by and pay me no mind. It is like being a stranger on a big city sidewalk as the locals skirt you without actually avoiding you. 'There are things to do and places to go and this stranger is in the way but is not really a threat.'
Southwest Allens Cay is really just a horseshoe sliver of land and the tropical breeze out of the south sweeps right through Kobuk's open clamshell top. I relaxin the shade of the canvas, behind the cabin, and the breeze keeps the place cool. "Is there something that needs to be done? Yes, there are many things to do, many many things, but now is not the time to do them. Now is the time to sit in the shade and accept the reality of finally having gotten here. This I do.
Southwest Allens Cay Anchorage, Exumas: 24* 44.631' N / 76* 50.388 W
Distance: 4 miles
Total Distance: 9,692 miles
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
Last night there were two other boats anchored in different parts of the protected waters wedged between the Allen Cays and Leaf Cay--a sloop out of Quebec and a mysterious gray catamaran in the distance. As this morning progresses, they pull anchor and head north. Kobuk and I are left in complete solitude for an hour or so until two big power boats show up with tourists aboard. They are on day trips from Nassau some 25 miles away. These cigarette boat look-alikes have seating for 8-12 people and they zoom across the passage in what I imagine should be less time than most people spend commuting to work in a big city. Each boat pulls up on a stretch of sand on Leaf Cay and everybody steps ashore to look at the iguanas. The iguanas cooperate, I gather, by emerging from the rough island shrubbery and scurrying down onto the beach to see if there might be some free eats. Each species gawks at the other, but then the humans retreat first to start the journey home. The Iguanas, I imagine, puzzle over this for a while and then begin to return to their former duties.
Neither of the two tourist boats stays long; in less than an hour they come and go, and then once again the.islands are wilderness. This abrupt pattern of human appearance and disappearance does put some substance to the idea that we are only temporary intruders on the planet. Even when the sailboats glided away their departure seemed frantic and precipitous compared to the stately rhythm of tide and wind. The sky overhead is a vast bowl. Out beyond this little cradle of cays the sea extends limitlessly. The world herein is simple, structured, and safe.
Before leaving the Allen Cays, we go over to the Leaf Cay beach where the iguanas hang out and nudge ashore to take a look. There is one iguana already there on the beach and as soon as I run a line from Kobuk's bow to a piece of coral rock another emerges from the shrubbery and makes its fitful way down closer to us. I have to say, these are designer iguanas. The are sleek and small and look more lizard like than the Mexican variety. Their lesser size makes sense since they are surviving in a world with dimensions that cannot exceed a few acres. Why they should look snake-rather than alligator-like I cannot say.
We're on our way to Norman's Cay which is only about a dozen miles south of here, but en route we stop back in at the Highborne Marina to check the Internet. The signal is down when we arrive, but after an hour wait I can review my online courses and then away we go. Norman's Cay is our destination for no better reason than the existence of a restaurant there. When we arrived at Highborne Marina yesterday there was a dock party going on at a picknick table under a gazebo near our assigned slip. I was corralled by the ringleader of the crowd--a gracefully aging man named Bruce who with his wife Kerry have an estate over on Norman's. Bruce is a golden maned charmer with the kind of upbeat sincerity that nobody can resist, and he introduced me to his crowd of revellers, one of whom is named Celeste. Celeste is a cook for MacDuff's Restaurant at the south end of Norman's Cay and Bruce persuades me that the place should not be missed. When I eat some of the ceviche that Celeste has brought to the party, I silently agree.
It is almost sunset by the time we reach the crescent beach at the south end of Normans Cay, and in the last golden rays I drop a stern anchor and run Kobuk up onto the beach to go get dinner. The beach landing was a little complicated because as the water shallowed down to only two or three feet a large patch of darkness appeared in the sand more or less directly ahead of us and I steered us off to the left to avoid it. I presumed it was a small patch of coral sticking up through the sand but when we crunched ashore and I jumped over the starboard side, the dark patch moved around the stern of the boat and drifted on past me, only a few feet away in less than two feet of water. It was a large ray and it moved along slowly with no sign of movement in its great delta wings. I couldn't help but think of Captain John Smith getting zapped by one of these things when he stepped ashore at Stingray Point in Chesapeake Bay.
There is an airstrip at this south end of Normans Cay and MacDuff's is wedged in between the runway and the westside beach on which Kobuk is parked. When I arrive for dinner, Celeste is not working but a short,round Peruvian man is in there with his wife and young daughter. He is the cook tonight and he makes me dinner with nobody else around but his family members. His wife is a churchmouse over near the entrance to the kitchen; his toddler daughter is enthralled with the golden lab that likes to knock her over and lick her. It is a little surprising to have this Bahamian restaurant being managed tonight by a family out of Lima, but then it must have been even more anomolous a decade or two ago when Carlos Lehder used this island as a staging point for his Columbia-to-Florida cocaine smuggling operation. After dark when I return to Kobuk the bugs are out in force so I untie and we motor out a few hundred yards to anchor in seven feet of water. The moon is nearly full and I sit aboard sipping rum and looking at the dark silhouette of Normans Cay with the arcuate beach gleaming silver in the moonlight. How quickly things change. When Carlos was in his heyday, I was already past my prime and wondering what to do with myself. Now he is gone and I am on a mission, with Normans Cay as one of my stops along the way.
Normans Cay, Southwest Beach, Exumas: 24* 35.871' N / 76* 49.178' W
Distance: 14 miles
Total Distance: 9,706 miles
Thursday, November 18, 2010
The morning run from Normans Cay down to Warderick Wells was a walk in the park. The wind whispered quietly and there was just a hint of a crinkle on the ocean's surface here where the banks lie to the lee of the cays. We passed by Shroud Cay with its mangrove lined creeks and it was there that the little Yamaha once again showed signs of trouble. The rpm level dropped lower and lower--as if we had motored into a vat of molasses--and motor nearly died. But eventually the Yamaha recovered and carried on to push the rest of the way. I don't know what the problem is; the engine genreally sounds very healthy. Maybe there is a bit of monofilament fishing line wrapped in around the propeller shaft. Maybe the air vent on the gas tank is partially clogged. Maybe the fuel has algae or some other gummy substance in it. Whatever. The motor sounds fine 99.44% of the time and the lights for temperature and oil never seem to come on so we'll just keep on chugging and hope that it is nothing serious. I won't be able to get mechanical assistance until we reach Georgetown anyway.
By early afternoon we are pulled up on a little beach with a big name--"Powerful Beach"--right next to the headquarters for the Exumas National Park. The park encompasses a chain of Exuma cays and all the surrounding waters, a stretch of relatively untouched wilderness that runs for about thirty miles. The park headquarters here on Warderick Wells is more or less in the middle of this thirty mile run. There are a few private homes on some cays in the park, but they are isolated and rare, and for the most part all you see is wilderness. There are no settlements. Most of what you see is the cays, but most of the park is ocean. The fish and the coral and the clean white sands--these are the things that make the park seem otherworldly. But to experience them more directly I am going to have to go overboard and do more snorkeling.
When I talk with the woman who manages the park headquarters, she lets me know that I have just barely beaten the crowd. She expects that within a week there will be more boats in here than the mooring balls and favorable anchorages can accomodate. Evidently, there is a backlog of boaters over in Florida waiting for an opportunity to cross to the Bahamas. The winds have been so strong that the lack of a weather window has piled them up. When a good day comes, I suppose it will be like a stampede, a rush from the starting line to get to the good places first. It all seems so improbable since Kobuk and I have known nothing but solitude the whole time we have been in the Bahamas.
Today here in the park mooring zone, for example, there is only one other boat--a sailboat charter out of Nassau that is stranded here with a an auxiliary engine that has a bad starter. The boat is named Congo, and her skipper is a 24 year old kid from Montreal named Shawn. In spite of his name, he is French Canadian and on board he has a disgruntled family of three that resents spending so much money to sit around on a broken boat. Never mind that they are sitting around in what has to be one of the most stunning settings they ever have seen--it is the principle of the thing. Shawn is a happy-go-lucky chatterbox who cannot wipe the smile off his face and who seems congenitally unable to look at the dark side of things. He is hanging out here at the park headquarters instead of on Congo ostensibly because the cell phone connection upon which he depends for contact with the outside world only gets a signal here at this high point of land. He is arranging for the needed part to be brought in by the Bahamian Defense Force tomorrow morning, an informal shipping arrangement that requires a military courier to make two boat shuttles and one air flight. The isolation here is very real. Although Shawn has been working the phone to get the delivery organized, he really doesn't know whether the replacement of the starter will solve his mechanical problem. He has not yet explained this to his clients, though. Some things may be better left unsaid. Shawn's time ashore is lengthy, and although the arrangements he is making are real, the truth of the matter is that he really does not want to face the discontent of his clients.
Shawn is a lithe whippet of a kid with an enthusiasm that I should imagine young women must find irresistable. He has that French Canadian way of talking out of the side of his mouth--Jean Cretien style. Usually, this comes across as some sort of facial irregularity but in Shawn's case it looks like a natural compliment to his overall goofiness.
I do wonder about this talking out the side of the mouth business, though. Few people do it and all the ones I can think of who do do it are French Canadian. Is it something about the language? That seems unlikely since people from France don't talk that way. Is it a cultural practice? A signal of some sort about the kind of person you are? It's a mystery.
Mooring, Warderick Wells, Exumas: 24* 23.690' N / 76* 37.942' W
Distance: 28 miles
Total Distance: 9,734 miles
Friday, November 19, 2010
Whenever a Bahamian island is called "wells" instead of "cay" it is an indication that the place was a source of fresh water. But it is hard to see how this lovely island named Warderick Wells ever could have been known for such a thing. It is dry here. Although a mantle of green drapes much of the land and at least from sea appears to be fairly abundant, a walk on shore reveals its true nature. There is very little that grows above shoulder height--except in the vicinity of the park headquarters where a diversity of indigenous plants have been installed, often accompanied by descriptive plaques giving the name and describing the attributes. Elsewhere, the ground cover is less dense, more scrubby, and usually more diminutive. Even the labeled plants near the park headquarters are described as having adapted to water scarcity. The key to survival here appears to be the usual xerophytic strategies: salt tolerance, deep roots, waxy leaves, and the like.
The island is about four miles long and perhaps a half mile across--large by Exuma Cays standards, but far from being the largest. To estimate length and width subtly suggests that the island has an unremarkable shape; it insinuates ovality. But that's a lie: in fact, it would be hard to imagine an island this small having any more capes and bays than it does. The usual pattern for one of these long, skinny cays is for the northeastern coastline to run straight--well, at least somewhat straight, rather like a jackrabbit running down the road ahead of your car at night, darting side to side but refusing to leave the road. Also, it is not uncommon for this side of the island to have long beaches. This side, remember, is the side facing the open ocean (Exuma Sound) so whenever the wind blows strong, as it does now, the waves rumble in like runaway trains bent on destruction.
But then on the southwest side of a typical cay, the pattern is for there to be the most absurdly complicated coastal geography one could ever imagine: low headlands, small bays with white sand beaches deeply recessed, tidal flats that penetrate to the core of the cay, shallows galore with sand banks that surface at low tide like the bleached back of a quietly surfacing whale, caves, mangroves, sandy beachlets that disappear at high tide, limestone overhangs below which the sea is constantly mining, mining. What adds to this complexity is the astounding fact that the sea itself is a visible and varied world. Everywhere the water is shallow and the only question for the navigator is How shallow? In all directions, the translucent and largely transparent water of the banks is revealing what lies beneath. It is a different ocean, a confessional ocean, an ocean readily prepared to betray some of its secrets. And this shallow bank definitely is not one big stretch of sand. Dark water may be marginally deeper water, but more likely it is coral banks or patches of sea grass. Light water is most likely sand, with higher intensity lightness a probable indicator of extreme shallows. The visible variation in the look of the surrounding waters adds to the obvious complexity of the southeast coastline. And then, to complicate the complexity even more, there almost surely are a handful of smaller cays near at hand, some of them hidden in the folds of the larger cay's unpredictable coastline but others that are little anchored buoys floating offshore. Even the smaller of these--the ones that run for only a couple hundred yards are likely to have some character in the form of miniature beaches or dark limestone headlands that stand up like alert chihuahuas.
I started out talking about Warderick Wells and ended up describing Exuma Cays in general, but all these general attributes apply to this specific place. But now I am ashore, ferried in by Shawn who is waiting for his replacement starter. We're hiking across the tidal flats of the island interior towards Boo Boo Hill, which rises up to a panoramic crest overlooking the Exuma Sound side. Shawn and I are walking together because he is reluctant to spend time with his disgruntled clients who are ahead of us on the same trail. Shawn's enthusiasm for the beauty of this national park is so great that his clients must be dour indeed to resist his charms. As we ascend Boo Boo Hill we enter a thick stand of palmetto palms that are not much taller than us, but in less than a minute this gives way to lesser scrub until a few moments later we reach the hilltop and look out on a wild northeastern shore where deep blue seas are exploding against the jagged, black, limestone bluffs that run most of the length of the island. There is Boo Boo Beach down there, but it is a forshortened strand of sand curtailed at each end by black rocks and everywhere else we can see the coast is one long zone of destruction for any offshore boat out there that might lose its source of power.
The Exumas National Park does not permit the removal or displacement of anything on any of its cays or in its waters, but one exception is that people are permitted to pick up a piece of driftwood and deposit it at the top of Boo Boo Hill with information about themselves and their boat written on it. The pile of rustic signs is an overgrown cairn at the top of the hill and some of them have been carved, some painted. Some look quite professional and many look as if they were the result of hours of labor. All of them, however, show signs of deterioration. Even those dating to only a year ago look as if they have been neglected for a generation. It's a strange thing, this desire to leave behind some mark of having been. Here in the Bahamas the cruising subculture appears to be particularly taken with this form of graffiti. In bars, on marina walls, and even here in the national park one can read that Tom and Judy passed through on Sand Dollar in the spring of 2007, or that the Springers and their three children aboard Southern Cross laid over in the fall of '09.
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Coming off the mooring here at Warderick Wells, there is a gauntlet of shallows, reef, and hazards that must be negotiated in order to get to the south end of the island. There is of course the deep water and the clear sailing of the Exuma Sound side but with the wind up around six on the Beaufort scale the seas out there would be too much for Kobuk to handle. We will work the lees and find a way to transit the narrow channels where the winds of the open ocean can do us dirty. But all these hazards off the lee of Warderick Wells force us out uncomfortably far from shore--really not much more than a mile--but on a day like today that is enough to make us plunge and bob and close the clamshell top to keep the spray out. It is the most venturesome we will have to be today, though, so the worst is over in the third of the wiggly passage that we are making to Compass Cay.
This kind of navigation is great fun. We are trying to get from A to B without exposing ourselves to the open water conditions, which keeps us hugging the shore. But at the same time the greatest concentration of hazards generally is close to shore and so the voyage is a constant review of the relevant Explorer Chart, positioning ourselves on it, relating the untidy collection of island bits in our panoramic view to the real estate plotted on the map, and anticipating where our current track will lead or should lead. It keeps the mind occupied. Really, the odds are extraordinarily high that we will not bump into anything since the tide is still fairly high and the charts show the look of the land when it is low, but uneventful progress in this sort of complicated environment requires an approach based on the worst case scenario. I have noticed, however, that this season for the first time I have begun to take shortcuts based on judgement rather than simply following what the chart would indicate is the safest course.
In our progress southeastward along the chain of Exuma Cays, the landscapes vary much more than I had expected. I had thought that there would be little besides flat slivers of land where beaches and limestone ledges and mangrove sloughs pass by in unpredictable order, but actually the scene is more stimulating than that. Mangrove coastal zones actually are rare--which suits me just fine--and most of the cays have pleasing hills or bluffs that aren't very big but are often bolder than I ever imagined they would be. On this particular day, our route takes us along the protected perimeter of Halls Pond Cay, which strikes me as being more diverse and alluring than usual. Off its southeast end we have to transit Bells Cut but there is a stringy little cay out there in the middle of the cut and we are able to ad lib protection by sneaking across its lee side shallows.
It only takes a few hours to reach the marina at Compass Cay where I am eager to spend the night--mostly because it will give me a chance to take a shower in fresh water. When I motor up to the dock here I am greeted by a man of undemonstrative good cheer, a Black man who though not unduly large in the physical sense is somehow substantial in his presence. He is, it turns out, Tucker Rolle, the owner of the marina. He is on the dock to take my lines--humble work for a successful capitalist--while his son Jamal manages the marina office. They are, at this quiet time of year, the full staff for the place. How Tucker Rolle came to be the owner of this place is the sort of story that only life can narrate; such improbabilities mouthed by a creator of fiction never would be believed. He grew up on Compass Cay, back before tourism had come to the Bahamas, back when families survived on fishing and simple farming. When he was grown, economic circumstances forced him to leave the island and make a place for himself in Black Point Settlement on Great Guana Cay. During his years there, the tourism revolution began to sweep through the Bahamas and foreigners arrived at Compass Cay with money. One of them built the marina and others bought land where they could build their secluded little paradises. Eventually, Tucker was hired on by the marina to manage it. Tucker returned to Compass Cay and did his job, even continuing to do it when the owner disappeared. Years went by during which Tucker was the de facto possessor of the marina but legally nothing but its manager. Finally, Tucker applied to be enstated as owner of an abandoned enterprise and the Bahamian government smiled on his application. It has turned out well since on the one hand Tucker is clearly trying to operate a rational, successful business, but on the other he is too old or too wise to pursue aggressive expansion for the sake of some elusive economic benefit that in any event would almost surely be a poisonous path to riches.
Compass Cay Marina, Exumas: 24* 15.664' N / 76* 30.783' W
Distance: 17 miles
Total Distance: 9,751 miles
Sunday, November 21, 2010
Tucker has trained his fish. Here in the marina, the pale bonefish and the big dark nurse sharks hold a never-ending convention. The bonefish socialize a great deal. They move around a lot and seem to be adept at schmoozing. The nurse sharks, on the other hand, act bored. They lie around on the bottom waiting for something to happen. And really there is only one thing that can happen: somebody feeds them. Tucker and the boaters feed these fish regularly and as a consequence this population is corralled here in the little harbor no less effectively than if they were in an aquarium.
Whenever feeding occurs, the two species respond in a way that parallels the behavior of large corporations vs. small businesses. Only when large amounts of food are dumped into the water do the sharks come to life; small offerings (like a sandwich or less) are snapped up by the bonefish who, the instant anything strikes the water, dart toward it as if shot out of a gun. They all may be swirling around in the water in graceful and interlinked patterns moving along nicely, but the instant something has an impact on the surface of the water every one of them shifts into hyperdrive and dart toward that single point faster than the synapses in your brain can apprehend the event. They look as if this instantaneous convergence is about to become the mother of all traffic accidents, but of course one of them gets their first and all of them avoid collision and slip away back into deeper water. Even the winning contestant doesn't hang around but instead dissolves into the dispersing crowd. One second and it is all over: the offering has appeared, the bonefish have converged, the winner has prevailed, and everyone has returned to their former swirl of socialization. So little time has expired that you wonder if it really happened.
Tucker has built a small dock that is much lower than all the others--so low that at high tide you can stand on it and be knee deep in water. There are steps down to it and its function is to act as a station for feeding the fish. When the tide is in, the fish will swim across the deck. If significant amounts of food are offered, even the sharks get on the dock. When the sharks are on the dock they virtually cover it with their body masses and their snakelike intertanglement is suggestive: it looks like an aquatic version of foreplay for group sex.
Still the wind rages, but now with one day of success at using protected lees to make southing it doesn't seem so silly to do the same thing again. Tucker has warned me about the hazards of Joe Cay Cut on a day like this, so instead of running down through the isle strewn narrows of Pipe Creek, Kobuk and I bend around the lee side of Pipe Cay and stay as close to shore as possible. It is not far to Staniel Cay, but I guess that sort of statement depends on how you compute such a thing. It is only a few miles, but if you measure distance on an ordinal scale, using number of islands passed as your counting device, then the voyage is an extended one.
Almost too soon, we arrive at Staniel Cay, famous for its pink pigs and Thunderball Grotto. As for the pigs--they will get explained on a different day (for I haven't seen them yet). Thunderball Grotto is reknowned as the onsite location for the ocean cave scene in that early 007 film from the sixties: Thunderball. It is early afternoon when I tie Kobuk to one of the long docks at Staniel Cay Yacht Club, a cheerful, colorful place that has not just marina facilities but also a bar and restaurant, and a small cluster of gaily painted cabins that all appear to be rented. Here for the first time the visitor industry looks as if it is surviving the off season. The bar and restaurant are designed for island life. A great room, open but screened on three sides, has enough space for many dozens of patrons to drink or eat without feeling as if they are all together in a sardine can. At the same time, the low ceilings and the interior layout make the place seem inviting even when only a few people are it.
Before the day is done I take Bike Friday for an exploratory spin. In spite of its international reputation, the settlement at Staniel Cay is much, much smaller than, say, a dieing prairie town in western Kansas--but a lot better looking. I pedal over to the airstrip, which is almost within hailing distance of the town's main street along the waterfront, and cycle the full length of the runway--partly to get a look at the hilly landscape just beyond the tidal flat on its far side, but mostly so I can say that I have bicycled an airport runway (which I imagine is something that relatively few people have done).
Staniel Cay Yacht Club, Exumas: 24* 10.331' N / 76* 26.759' W
Distance: 11 miles
Total Distance: 9,762 miles
Monday, November 22, 2010
Every once in a while I have to spend a day doing school work. This will be one of those days. Kobuk lies comfortably at the dock--she is lashed to it but the wind is holding her off from it and the shore is so close to windward that there are no waves to speak of. I choose to work aboard rather than in the bar or restaurant or out on the unshaded little patio. The day is exhausted grading papers, but the work goes well and by late afternoon I have finished what I had thought might take more than a day. This even includes welcome interruptions on three different occasions by people who wonder if Kobuk's Utah registration is for real. In each instance the interruption stretches on for more than mere minutes. One of the visitors is the hired captain for a large yacht named Miss Anna which is anchored off. He has an Old World demeanor and a New World good humor. It is hard to know which world he is from, actually: He has no noticeable accent; he certainly is not Bahamian; but there is something about him that leaves me thinking he must not be American. Later on I learn that most probably he is British--but even that is just a guess. Unfortunately, I do not take care to remember his name, and so his identity remains even more mysterious than necessary.
To reward myself for having been a good boy and done my work, I take dinner in the yacht club restaurant. It is Bahamian style, which means that you order a few hours in advance and then show up at the designated time (6:30). A little bell is rung, and all those who will be dining leave the bar area and take one of the surrounding tables. I decided that the right dinner choice would be ribs since I like their taste but usually avoid ordering them because I'm such a slob when I eat them. I try to do it without making a mess, but this has always been impossible for me. I have my excuse, of course: my front teeth cannot be made to close completely--a slit remains between the uppers and the lowers--and this makes it devilishly hard to remove all the meat from a rib. It is awkward in public because in my efforts I spread sauce even farther afield than usual and yet when I am finished with the bone it looks like something that grandpa gnawed on without bothering to put in his false teeth. Since I'm dining alone, it's a good chance for me to get the taste of ribs without being humiliated. Of course, there are diners at other tables, but I figure they can't really see what is going on. It's like when I'm on Kobuk: I'll pee over the side (but not in harbor) even when there are people about if they are some distance off. They may be able to figure out what I'm doing but I don't believe they can really see the mechanics of it all--unless they use binoculars, in which case they deserve what they see.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
There are more arrivals and departures at Staniel Cay Yacht Club than I have seen anywhere else in the Bahamas so far. There is not a lot of traffic, but there is at least some activity. There were three yachts here when I arrived the day before yesterday. Since then two have left and two new ones have taken their place. Although the marina is operating at about twenty percent capacity, at least the cabanas are filled each night. Ever since arriving in the Exumas, I have seen the occasional cruising yacht whereas before there appeared to be no traffic at all. It may be that as the busy season approaches the traffic builds gradually, but I suspect that the presence of the occasional cruising yach here in the Exumas is nothing more than the widespread recognition that the Exumas are a more delightful cruising ground than any other Bahamian island group.
The two yachts that have departed from Staniel Cay were mini-megacruisers, ocean worthy power boats with hired crews and polished chrome. They were in the 80-100 foot range, I'd say, and when the sun went down they both turned on exterior lights designed to dazzle. They had discretely placed blue lights that could not be seen directly but that cast a neon glow along passageways and in the aft deck. Both also had under sea lights as well, casting rays out into the marina waters. The turquoise and emerald hues that Bahamian waters display under sunlight get dramatized, as if in a staged production, when they are brought to life at night in isolated pools surrounding the floating palaces.
Kobuk and I are plan to move on down to the government dock at Black Point, on Great Guana Cay just a few miles from here, but can one leave Staniel Cay behind without visiting the notorious pigs of Big Majors Spot? They are reputed to be at the south end of that Cay, just around the corner, so before heading south we curl around that nearby headland and motor into the broad bay that it protects. There are three large large yachts anchored in the bay--including Miss Emma--and also one sailboat. I steer us close to the beach but no pigs emerge out of the wilderness that lays behind it. We motor back and forth for a few minutes, hoping for a pig event, but since all is quiet I decide we should move on.
But just then a small sport fishing boat arrives from the north and its crew starts hailing me. It is people from Miss Emma who have been out fishing for a few hours. They yell across the water asking if I have seen the pigs and when I say "no" the stranger standing near the stern says "You have to call them." And then he lets loose with a farmers pig call. A few minutes later a very clean pig trots out of the undergrowth next to the beach and makes a beeline for the sport fisher. No hesitation at the water's edge: he just wades right in and paddles out to the boat while the crew aboard unwrap the goodies that they have brought for the pigs. Soon, two more arrive and by the time they have gotten out into the water the first one is at the stern with his front legs on the transom and his snout waiting for action. Not only do the pigs go to the boat to be fed--they do so in a civilized manner. They don't jostle--well, not very much--and they seem to know enough to wait their turns.
When the crew of Miss Emma is done done feeding the pigs, it feeds me next. The man with the pig call is Axel, the owner of Miss Emma, and he invites me aboard his yacht for lunch. I feast on a turkey and cranberry sandwich while Axel and his family ask questions about Kobuk and life aboard. Axel and his wife are Danish but have been living in California for many years. Their two guests also are Danish; perhaps they are relatives. In any event, everybody aboard adopts a solicitous attitude about my well-being and send me off after lunch with a marvellous assortment of "left overs:" macaroni and cheese, chocolate chip cookies, half a lobster.
Kobuk makes it to Black Point by late afternoon and when I nudge her up to the dock to tie off an young man comes running out and asks me if I could go retrieve the policeman from his police boat that has just anchored off the beach a few hundred yards away. I go out to pick him. He is a jovial, gentle man with the dimensions of an NFL lineman and when we return to the dock he helps me get Kobuk put to bed.
Black Point Government Dock: 24* 05.913' N / 76* 24.062
Distance: 11 miles
Total Distance: 9,773 miles
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
A good thing about cruising is that it teaches you to pay attention to your own considered judgement about what is safe and what is not, what is seaworthy and what is not, when to go and when to not. I am about to be retaught this lesson--as you shall see.
Little Farmers Cay is not so far off, only about a dozen miles farther along the Exumas from Black Point, and I select it as my destination for today. The cay is occupied by the descendents of a single family and has fewer than a hundred residents. The cruising guide leaves the impression that it is a good place to stop over because it has yacht facilities and an inviting restaurant in the small village. The Explorer Chartbook seems to confirm all this positiveness, noting the existence of the marina and extolling the beauty of the island. When I look at Little Farmers Cay on the chart it displays an appealing irregularity in its shape with a deeply indented bay as well as another of less expansive dimensions. The little town is positioned just inland from the lesser bay and a government dock is shown as being just inside the bay entrance. The marina, on the other hand, is at the end of the peninsula that scribes the north end of the large bay. These landscape features are on the eastern side of the cay.
Farther east, across a passage that is about a half mile in breadth, are two other cays--Great Guana Cay and Big Farmers Cay--and these islands provide Little Farmers Cay with protection against the prevailing easterly winds that blow most of the time here in the Bahamas (and that certainly are blowing today). The shelter provided to Little Farmers Cay is real enough, but to me the breadth of the passage looks as if it could allow for an uncomfortable amount of chop to develop that looks as if it would be completely free to work its way into both bays and certainly up against the marina docks that are at the end of the peninsula. Not only that, there is a small opening between Great Guana Cay and Big Farmers Cay, and I imagine that that cut could magnify the problem somewhat. Still, both the cruising guides and the Explorer Chartbook identify Little Farmers Cay as a suitable stopover so I conclude that my concern with rough water must be overinflated.
On the way down to Little Farmers Cay, the sportfisher from Miss Emma comes roaring up from aft and we both shut down to talk across the water for a few minutes. Axel and his guests are on their way down to Cave Cay five miles farther on to do a little searching for shells on a sandbar down there. This is obviously an afternoon outing that will find them back aboard Miss Emma in just a few hours. A place that they view as a short excursion via their "dinghy" is for Kobuk and me a two-day trip. Well, this is an exaggeration. We could get there from the piggy bay up on Big Majors in a day easy enough, but to get there and back would really have to be a two day outing if relying on the Yamaha. Do you have any idea how much bigger the world is if you only travel at six or seven miles per hour?
When Kobuk reaches Little Farmers Cay, the docks of the marina have no boats on them. Choppy water is sluicing past the many pilings that suspend the docks and although a night there would be manageable it also looks as if it could be quite uncomfortable with lots of bobbing around and a good chance of bumping and banging on the pilings. We carry on the extra half mile past the big bay to look at the municipal dock. It looks marginally better situated and has a number of small runabouts tied to it by their bows with anchors off the stern. I choose it as the place to spend the night since there are a couple offshore rocks to break up the chop and the presence of other boats Kobuk's size imply its suitability. We nose up to that dock and a fellow on shore helps us tie off the bow. I toss the lunch hook off the stern.
A stocky, oval-faced man named Hailey is there watching the tie-off procedure and when I step up onto Kobuk's bow he asks what I think is the matter with my engine. On the way in, the engine was caughing and missing, probably because the thermostat for the raw water system has been removed in an effort to solve the overheating problem that has plagued it since last January. Without the thermostat, the engine takes a tremendously long time to warm up and run smoothly. I start to explain this and Hailey asks if I would like him to take a look at it. With my assent, he comes aboard and proceeds to check the fuel for water and dirt, replace the fuel filter, top off the coolant, and clean the plugs. When he is done, the engine does indeed run better. I doubt he has solved the overheating problem, but he has at least highlighted my need to more carefully maintain the engine systems. Thereafter, Hailey is pretty much constantly around the dock and offering to help me in any way possible. He claims that his boat is damaged and out of the water because his nephew abused it while he was off island a couple weeks back. He hasn't yet completed the repairs needed to get it back on the water. Hailey is 42 years old and looks about 30. He has the firm flesh of a young man, muscular in build and unlined in the face. He is a passing figure who I imagine I shall remember for some time as an example of the "can do" Bahamian mentality when it comes to boats and water.
The evening is a nightmare since the wind strengthens, the chop increases, and Kobuk's stern anchor does not hold. The bottom in here is grass and the grapnel really won't penetrate it. I spend hours repositioning and rearranging in an effort to keep Kobuk from colliding with her neighbors. After dark I do finally manage to achieve a tenuous stasis, but not of sufficient security to permit comfortable sleep. The night is a sequence of fitful naps each of which comes to an abrupt end as soon as the sounds or the motions of Kobuk take on a different pattern. If we're ever again in the neighborhood, we may stop over for a few afternoon hours, but when it comes to spending the night we'll look for some better protected spot.
Little Farmers Cay Government Dock: 23* 57.561' N / 76* 19.206' W
Distance: 12 miles
Total Distance: 9,785 miles
Thursday, November 25, 2010
Thanksgiving. And I have hardly any money; I'm just about out of cash. I pulled a couple hundred dollars out of an ATM before departing Eleuthera, but that was the better part of two weeks ago and now I only have twenty left. Here in the upper Exumas there are places where it is possible to get wifi, but I have yet to find an ATM location. Probably there was one somewhere on Staniel Cay, but I never saw a bank there and I didn't happen to ask around. Anyway, it is still some distance to Georgetown, and that is the only place I know of where there is bound to be an ATM. On the other hand, there is a large marina on Great Exuma, about a dozen miles before getting to Georgetown, and there I know that I could use a credit card, not just for dockage but also for dinner. I think that if I could get that far then I would be okay. I spend an hour setting up the route on the GPS and the distance from here at Little Farmers Cay to the Marina at Emerald Bay computes at 51 miles. This is more than I want to cover in a single day so I plan on spending tonight anchored in the lee of a small cay some where well along and then getting into Emerald Bay around noon tomorrow. The fact that I'll be spending Thanksgiving evening in the wilderness removes all incentive to get an early start and so the sun has been up for a few hours before Kobuk gets released from the government dock and begins to nose southward.
A couple hours later, after passing through shallow areas that the Explorer Charts depict as off limits for most boats, I discover that when compiling the route to Emerald Bay I displaced one of the waypoints by entering the wrong coordinates. When this is corrected it appears that Emerald Bay is not as far off as I thought--a day trip that is 37 miles instead of 51. I compute that if Kobuk can maintain here current speed of six mph we might reach there before sunset. The prospect of a shower and of dinner in a fine restaurant--that's enough to change my plan for the day. We motor on with the expectation that we can reach the marina before 4:45. Sunset is at 5:00 so there is not a lot of latitude for a late arrival.
Kobuk spends the day running across all sorts of sandbanks and shallow bars in the lee of small cays. The configuration of channels and sandbars in this area is highly complex, a function of the fact that we are coming abreast of the northwest end of Great Exuma Island where tides and currents must carry large amounts of water through relatively narrow interisland passages. I concern myself with the fact that the Explorer Chartbook identifies all sorts of locales en route where the water depth is supposed to be only one or two feet at low tide, but when Kobuk passes over them with a few feet to spare I become more and more delighted with her shallow draft cabability. Of course, low tide will happen just before sunset, but by then we will be past all but one of the extreme shallows. The one remaining, however, will be the shallowest of the lot. We reach it at 4:00 and running over it does require the Yamaha to churn a little sand. But we make it, and by 4:15 we are positioned for our necessary exit from protected waters out into the extreme roughness of Exuma Sound. We must pass through the Steventon Channel and out around Roker Point to get to the marina, a distance of 2.7 miles.
Getting out the channel is dicey since the 4-5 foot waves are piling up here. There are coral outcrops to either side, no more than a couple hundred yards apart, and the shallow bar connecting them is heaping up the waves. With the main engine running, I am able to maneuver Kobuk more effectively and and also vary her forward power more instantaneously. We power up the steep waves and then throttle back on the downhill sides until at last we are in open water. Once out of the channel, the waves are less bunched but our route obliges us to take them somewhat on the beam, and so I must constantly watch for any ugly shaped growlers that might have the potential to flip us if we do not confront them. I have to be on the alert all the time, but Kobuk comes through and the stress only lasts for less than half an hour. Running with the waves can be treacherous if the hull is caught wrong, but the downwind sprint in through the marina channel is not too extreme and is over in just a couple minutes. Once past the breakwater, the protected channels of the marina are delightfully calm.
I discover that the price for staying at the marina is very reasonable if Kobuk remains for three nights, so three nights it will be. Here we can live on a credit card. Even Thanksgiving dinner can be on a credit card, and it is at a nearby restaurant called Pallappa (a corruption of the Spanish word 'palapa' for a little frond roofed gazebo?) where I stuff myself on prime rib and baked potato. It is not traditional Thanksgiving fare, but it tastes good to me.
The Marina at Emerald Bay, Great Exuma: 23* 37.768' N / 75* 55.043 W
Distance: 38 miles
Total Distance: 9,823 miles
Friday, November 26, 2010
The Marina at Emerald Cay is deadly quiet and the facilities here are starkly modern with no hint of exoticism. But this should be weighed against the benefits: the docks and grounds are meticulously maintained, the docks are floating docks (a luxury that Kobuk has not enjoyed since last January), the clubhouse is an appealing structure done in grandly colonial style, the staff are just as friendly as everywhere else in the Bahamas, the spacious and airconditioned clubhouse has not just a reading room well stocked with boating magazines but also a room with a pool table and a large lounge with couches and easy chairs and a wide screen tv. On top of all this, the bathrooms and shower facilities and laundry are meticulously clean and appealing--and free. This is costing me forty dollars a night and that's a good deal. The days I spend here will be a sort of r&r after spending two weeks knocking about in the back country.
Free laundry--that's a first--and so laundry is my first priority for the day. I haven't done laundry since leaving Fresh Creek four weeks ago so as you can imagine it is about time. When I got in yesterday and took a shower it took me until after my fingers were wrinkled to soak off all the grime and salt. Well, maybe I was clean before then, but I really didn't want to get out of the shower. Now with myself and my clothes daisy fresh I feel renewed.
Ever since returning to the Bahamas I have been nagged by the thought that maybe this whole enterprise is grinding to a stop. What with Kobuk's chronic problems--both mechanical and structural--and her obvious weaknesses when it comes to dealing with open ocean conditions, I have begun to question whether it is sensible to continue on past Georgetown. But part of the problem, I think, is that Kobuk went into the water back in Marsh Harbour something less than shipshape. I think that if she were spruced up a bit, and the hull leak repaired, and the engine overheating resolved, then my attitude about continuing would improve. I have decided to stay here in the Georgetown area for about ten days and then store the boat and return to Utah. I'll use this time to do all patching and repairing and general maintenance that can be done with Kobuk in the water. I'll get to Georgetown and look for a good storage arrangement where there would be personnel properly equipped to locate and repair the hull leak and also resolve the engine glitch. I'll plan to return in April or early May. Many would choose to avoid cruising this area during the hurricane season but I think it might be the right choice for Kobuk since at the first sign of a tropical storm or hurricane I doubt I would have much trouble getting someone to pull her out of the water. And the big advantage of the hurricane season is that the winds are much lighter on average. Ever since Spanish Wells, we've been coping with winter winds which blow much more vigorously and these have kept Kobuk in port for as many days as she has been able to voyage.
Today will be the beginning of Kobuk's refit. I will start cleaning and reoiling all of her mahogany trim including the whole interior of the cabin. The carling frequently has to be restored, but the interior of the cabin has remained untouched since she first went into the water back on July 4th, 2002. She is looking bleached and blotched everywhere in the cabin so I think a refurbishing of her interior will improve my desire to carry on. When she looks her best, I have every reason in the world to keep taking her out and showing her off. Right now, unfortunately, she looks bedraggled. The other drastic need when it comes to appearances is replacement of all the canvas. Her bimini top droops like the skin of a little old lady who just lost fifty pounds and the side curtains are so worn out that velcro strips are detaching themselves from the canvas. The situation is so bad that even in a relatively small rainstorm water drips down from the underbody of the bimini in multiple locations. Georgetown, Georgetown--I think there I will be able to find someone to replace all the canvas. But for today, I go to work on the mahogany trim and by the time the sun is setting I have cleaned, brightened, and reoiled all the trim aft of the cabin. When the mess is cleaned up and the floor scrubbed, Kobuk's appearance aft of the cabin is botox beautiful and my state of mind has already undergone a change in the positive direction.
Saturday, November 27 - Tuesday, November 30, 2010
From here to Georgetown is only about 15 miles, but the first half of that has to be done on open water with no protection from the easterlies. The wind forecast for the next few days is not to my liking, and that is the reason I decided to commit to the minimum three-day stay here at Emerald Cay. Now on the second day here in harbor, I spend a few hours in the clubhouse lounging around on the easy chairs. The marina maintains subscriptions to a variety of boating magazines so that the guests here will have some timely reading material. I poke through their collection and come across a boating magazine that I have not seen before: Soundings. It has a large format and seems to carry articles that would appeal to ordinary boaters -- and not just the megayacht crowd. It strikes me that the magazine might be receptive to an article about Kobuk so I send off an email to the editor. Within an hour I receive back a message from Bill Sisson encouraging me to submit something -- and that gets me excited.
Maintenance work on Kobuk comes to a screeching halt. Concerns with the weather forecast go out the window. I spend the next two days drafting and editing an article for submission. The club house has an upstairs great room with banks of windows all around. They look down on the marina docks and out over the neck of land separating them from the open sea. The ocean view extends to the horizon. The furniture and fittings within the room give it a homey feel. Homey, that is, if you're rich. It is the sort of place that you might expect a corporate plunderer to have created as his personal retreat from the evils of the world. In one alcove of the room there is a fine mahogany desk where I can settle in to do the job. By late Tuesday, it is done and the draft submitted. The Marina at Emerald Cay has served me well: its elegant interior and extravagant view was just the thing to get my mind engaged with the task at hand. Now if I ever find myself confronted with another such writing task I'll probably feel that it can only be done by returning to the club house at Emerald Cay Marina.
Wednesday, December 1, 2010
The end of the line. In a few more hours Kobuk and I will arrive in George Town where the voyage will come to a stop for this season. We motor out of the marina and turn right. The sun is shining. The air is warm. The wind and waves are merely playful. Off the starboard beam, the verdant shore of Great Exuma stretches into the distance. Reefs and shallows keep us from getting close in, but conditions here on the open water are benign.
As we approach the northwestern end of Stocking Island, we're able to pick up a channel that takes us in to the protected bay on its leeward side, and only minutes later we arrive in one of the most popular cruising centers of the Caribbean. On one side is the irregular shore of Great Exuma with George Town tucked in behind a neck of land that sticks out into the bay a short distance. On the other side is the long string of bright white beaches that line the leeward shore of Stocking Island. In between, we cruise on a placid field of water that is only a couple miles across. Kobuk and I curl around the neck of land and come to rest at one of the ramshackle docks of Exuma Docking Services. The facility is the inverse of the Marina at Emerald Cay, but one thing that the two have in common is lack of business. There were fewer than a dozen boats up at Emerald Cay, but here the number is significantly less. A young man comes out to greet me and then guides us over to a section of dock that is close in to shore. When I visit the office, it is a makeshift thing that doubles as a poorly stocked convenience store. Nearby are gas and diesel pumps, but the Exuma Docking Service has fallen on times so tough that they can't afford to market fuel.
Downtown George Town has an unusual layout. It consists of a single road that keeps to the perimeter of a bulge in the island's coast, and that means that the establishments on one side front the bay. But on the other side of the street the land drops off into a shallow pond, a round dollop of protected water that claims the attention of Main Street almost as effectively as the bay side does. The shops and establishments that line the main street all front on one body of water or the other. The little pond actually connects with the bay by a very narrow channel, and Main Street leaps the channel on a little bridge. Passage under the bridge can be done by most tenders. Kobuk could make it through although the vertical clearance under the bridge would be too little to leave the antenna up and I would prefer to only make the transit when the tide is low. All this is relevant because the back side of the pond has a rundown, but serviceable, boat ramp where Kobuk might be hauled from the water.
Exuma Docking Services, George Town: 23* 30.263' N / 75* 46.075' W
Distance: 16 miles
Total Distance: 9,839 miles
Thursday, December 2, 2010
The first order of business is to find a storage arrangement for Kobuk. I pedal around and talk with people and this leads me to head southeast along Great Exuma's only major road searching for a couple boat storage facilities that are supposed to be located out that way. After a few miles, I arrive at the first one and bounce up and down on its dusty entrance drive. Large and derelict hulls languish by the side of the road and there is an atmosphere of abandonment that clings to the place. Nevertheless, I do find there a young man who manages the facility and he confirms that he would be able to store Kobuk if I want. The rate for monthly storage is high, however, and there is nothing here in the way of supplies for doing boat work. When I get back I would have to prepare for launch by making multiple bicycle trips between here and downtown George Town. Manageable, but not ideal.
A mile or so farther on I come to the second possible storage facility and it has a more encouraging appearance. There are lots of smaller boats already in storage and the facility includes a well-stocked marine supply store. I inquire about storage and get told that it could be arranged but that I would have to talk with a gentleman who happens to not be on the premises. I also ask about hull repair because Kobuk is leaking and something will need to be done. I'm thinking that in a place like this the work might be done in my absence -- which would spare me the tribulations of working with fibreglass. Yes, they could do fibreglass repair to the hull, but I should talk with the man out in the yard who is currently making a repair on a boat there. He is hired by this facility on a contract basis to do such work and he would be able to give me a rough estimate of the cost. Hmmm.
I find the man crouched under a large hull, grinding away in a cloud of fibreglass dust. The white haze of fine particles obscures the visage of this very black Bahamian man, but when he moves away from the boat and removes the cheap respirator that covers his face I can see that he is old like me. His name is Jay Martin and I don't think he know the meaning off the phrase "body fat." He has the lean look of a hyperactive cowpoke.
Jay listens to my query and immediately tries to sell himself as an independent agent who could do the repair work and could also store Kobuk next to his home. He carries on about how he could offer both services at a price well below what this facility would demand -- a prospect that already has occurred to me. I am a little leery about making an arrangement with this total stranger, but he quotes me a very reasonable price and I decide to make a tentative arrangement with him that involves his pulling Kobuk out of the water at the little pond's launch ramp a few days from now. I am not sure about Jay's reliability, but I figure that I'll be able to ask around town and get some sort of read on the man. Jay's home is way up past Emerald Cay Marina, unfortunately, but hauling the boat that far should not be too much of a problem (assuming the road is not extremely potholed). I pedal back to George Town with a storage arrangement in place and three days to kill.
Friday, December 3, 2010
I don't fly back to Utah until the ninth so there's time to relax a little before putting Kobuk to bed. In the early afternoon we cruise across the bay to the Stocking Island side and take up residence on the beach next to the Chat 'n' Chill. The anchor is buried in the beach sand and the lunch hook is holding the stern offshore. At low tide the bow just barely sits in the sand but for most of a tidal cycle we are completely afloat and yet stepping ashore is just a matter of tugging on the beach anchor line a bit and hopping off the bow.
The Chat 'n' Chill is an open air bar next to the beach. It may be humble and it may be rustic but it has an international reputation. All the cruising guides talk about it and so do all the cruising people who have passed this way. It is in an ideal location -- which is, of course, the key to profitability for any commercial establishment. What makes the location so good is not just the protected out beyond the front deck but also the deep water channel that runs along the north side. This leeward shore of Stocking is almost continuous beach, but right here by the Chat 'n' Chill a natural channel leads inland towards a double arm of protected water. The channel here represents the stock of an anchor and the bay to which it leads extends perpendicularly in both directions away from the stock -- just as anchor flukes would do. Both arms of the bay are well protected and offer outstanding anchorage but the arm to port when you enter is a true hurricane hole. It has low hills all around and I've read that there are places where it would be possible to tie off fore and aft ashore. A good number of boats are anchored herein, and my impression is that many of them are semi-permanent residents. It is expected that any time now the yachtees making their fall trek down the ICW will get to the Bahamas and a great crowd of them may finally take up winter residence in the vicinity of George Town. This bay and this channel have the most desirable anchorages in the region, and the Chat 'n' Chill is the only watering hole this side of George Town. A small, floating city is likely to spring up here soon, but right now Kobuk and I find relative peace. The beach and bar are never empty but the traffic coming and going is a trickle and the buzz of the bar-side crowd is never enough to drown out a normal conversation.
Time for a Kalik.
Chat 'n' Chill Beach, Stocking Island: 23* 31.097' N / 75* 45.343' W
Distance: 2 miles
Total Distance: 9,841 miles
Saturday, December 4, 2010
On the beach there is a small, open shack where all day long a Bahamian youth cracks conch and dices greens and mixes up a cold conch ceviche to go with your margarita. Out from the shack, where the sandy beach is wet from the receding tide, a long-established pile of conch shells testifies to the stability of the enterprise and the industriousness of its operator. From Kobuk I can watch the fitful flow of customers, but all that activity is a stone's throw up the beach from here. We are intentionally positioned a little farther from the action because I have work to do. I spend the day cleaning and scrubbing the interior of Kobuk's cabin. It is all plain, unvarnished mahogany that has not had any real maintenance since before Kobuk was launched back in the summer of '02. It has held up well, but the oiled finish has gradually darkened. I want to get it looking more like it did when it was new. Eight years have passed, but now with the arrival in this place I feel we have finally made it to the tropical prom -- and it's time for Kobuk to dress for the occasion.
It is not an easy job, though. It requires hours and hours of elbow grease -- not so exhausting as, say, ditch-digging but certainly strenuous enough for a retiree lounging in the Bahamas. The biggest part of the job is stripping the mottled darkness off the underside of the clamshell cabin-top. This swath of mahogany ply has succumbed to mould over the years. The mould spreads whenever Kobuk is stored and each time I return to relaunch I have to scrub it off. But until now I've only done the job in a half-hearted way. Here with the sun so bright and the scene so fine and the bar so close, it is time to do it right. By late afternoon there are real signs of progress and I conclude that enough is enough. It's time to slip on over to the Chat 'n' Chill. . . .
Sunday, December 5, 2010
The work continues, but really it does not feel like work. By mid-afternoon the cleaning is done and two fresh coats of teak oil are seeping into the wood. There is always a feeling of satisfaction when the prep work is finally done and the brush begins to make the surface new once again. The interior of Kobuk's cabin gleams the way it ought to now, and I am hoping that the sheen will still be there in the spring when we set off for points south.
Although the refurbishing of the cabin is the main job for the weekend, there are a number of smaller tasks that get attended to as well. Kobuk is about to go into storage, and this time it is going to be outdoor storage under a tropical sun. The degradation during down time could be unpleasant, but I want her to go into hibernation as fat and sleek as possible. At least this time the storage period should be somewhat less than in the past: I plan to be back in 4-5 months. There are problems, problems of course, but the storage time should not be so great as to add to them. The main problems are the same old ones: the hull leaks, the main engine overheats, and the Yamaha occasionally hiccups. These are enough to get under the skin of any captain -- even one as tolerant as me. I'm hoping that Jay will be able to repair the hull well enough to stop the leaking. As for the overheating Mazda -- I'll be spending the next few months trying to get suggestions out of John Lauter at Rotary Power Marine Corporation. I suspect that the heat exchangers will have to be replaced but maybe John will have other ideas. As for the Yamaha, I think it is probably foreign matter in the carburetor and when I get back I'll have Minns Marina clean it out.
Monday, December 6, 2010
We make a midday transit back across to Exuma Docking Services and get set up for a two night stay. I am scheduled to meet Jay on Wednesday at noon by the launch ramp in the little pond. He is going to arrange for a trailer and I have emphasized to him that Kobuk is heavier than she looks and will probably require a double-axel rig. Jay thinks he can borrow one, but we may end up having to rent from Minns. Money is the issue here: he has none so I'll need to get him some cash if we have to go the rental route. Anyway, it's time to be back in George Town because I have to do my online school-work and there are plenty of little last-minute errands to run.
Jay checks out. I inquire of a few different people and they all seem to know him. They say he does lots of fibreglass work and should be the right person for repairing the hull. Also, the fact that everybody knows him is vaguely reassuring.
There is a small coffee shop near the marina where I can get wifi, and in the afternoon I catch up with all my online work. Right as I'm finishing the laptop crashes, however. Since I fly back to Utah in three days I should be able to cope, but it is a good thing this didn't happen up at the far north end of the Exumas where Internet cafes are non-existent.
I check out the passage leading to the little pond by hanging over the bridge railing and extending my tape measure down to the water. The passersby thing I'm odd. But anyway, there'll be enough clearance for Kobuk so no worries there.
Exuma Docking Services, George Town: 23* 30.264' N / 75* 46.073' W
Distance: 2 miles
Total Distance: 9,843 miles
Tuesday, December 7, 2010
Kobuk's one-year cruising permit will expire next month so I have to go to the government building to see about an extension. I do the paperwork and pay my $300 and in return I get a notice saying that a new permit will be sent to me at my Utah address. One more year, though, and Kobuk will become liable for importation taxes so in 2011 we must move on. I estimate that it will take about ten days of cruising to reach the Turks & Caicos -- ten days, that is, of actual cruising, above and beyond the days that are spent hanging out at the beach or waiting for the right weather. Ten days, then, really means more like twenty days, but even this is a short enough period that one more trip to the Bahamas should get us out of them. I plan to return in late April and cruise for two months, so I'm pretty confident that we will exit the country before Kobuk's ninth birthday (July 4th, 2011).
The next order of business is to see about the computer problem. Down Main Street a ways, past the bridge, there is a battered old building with gaping holes for windows that advertises itself as a grocery story. It also has outside a sign indicating that computer repairs can be done there. I figure it's worth a shot so I walk down that way to see if it is really true. When I enter there is an ancient Bahamian man tending the place. Bent in the back and hard of hearing, he attends to my question about computer repairs and lights up with interest as he tells me his young nephew can help me. The old man steps out the back door and calls the nephew who is working on a car. When the nephew comes in wiping the grease off his hands, he asks what he can do for me. I explain, and he says that he thinks he can fix me up. In the far corner of the grocery store, under a square opening in the end wall, there is a cluttered desk that is piled with electronic items and surrounded with aging computer hardware. He hauls out a big binder that has all sorts of CD's in it and selects what he thinks will be the correct one. He puts it in my computer and goes to work. After a few minutes, he advises me that he thinks he'll be able to patch the problem but that it will take an hour or two and I should come back later. I do as he says and when I return the laptop is indeed running. It's a marvellous world.
And so to celebrate, I go out to dinner in the evening at a restaurant on the far side of the pond next to the launch ramp. I have already been here once so I know that the dining area is in a separate room past the bar. I go in and take a seat and place my order for dinner. Nobody else is dining in tonight so I sit alone and read. Before my meal is served, a group of six young women enter the room looking mighty American. They are busily talking with one another and the waitress is reorganizing two tables to accommodate them. As one of the young women passes by I notice that she has on a short-sleeved golf shirt that has an emblem on the sleeve that consists of a "U" and a feather. I look up and make eye contact and ask her, "The University of Utah?" Yes, and so are the other five. I join them for dinner.
Wednesday, December 8, 2010
And now the time has come to get Kobuk out of the water. Kobuk and I arrive at the appointed hour, and so does Jay. He has a trailer that looks as if it will do the job, but only just barely. His pick-up truck is old and battered, but I knew that already. What I didn't notice before, though, was just how bald the tires are. Anyway, Jay maneuvers the trailer down the ramp and into the water and we manage to cinch Kobuk into place. This was not straightforward because just below water level the concrete ramp drops off into sand and mud. Jay does not want to back his rear wheels off the concrete, and I don't want him to either, but the trailer is a bit too much out of the water for getting Kobuk fully onto it. A relative of Jay appears and gives us some help. Eventually, we manage to pull the bow all the way forward to the v-receptacle and so then it is a matter of hauling Kobuk free from the water. Jay's pickup tires spin and smoke and squeal in agony as the trailer and Kobuk gradually move forward. But the concrete drop-off proves to be too much and we just cannot get the trailer wheels to make the hop. A passerby in a different pickup truck is hailed by Jay -- he's a friend, of course -- and in a few minutes we have that pickup pulling Jay's pickup, which in turn is pulling the trailer. This does the trick. Once the vehicular train is clear of the launch ramp, Jay pulls over to the side of the road and the whole rig finally is resting on the road's sloped shoulder.
The road to Jay's place is the main island highway. It's called the Queen's Highway, of course. It is not in great condition, but it is not seriously potholed and as far as I can tell Kobuk withstands the bumpy ride without significant damage. Jay's small house is located just a couple miles past the Marina at Emerald Cay. His is one of a row of local homes sandwiched between the highway and Flamingo Bay. Kobuk ends up in Jay's back yard -- which is an appropriate resting place for a boat that was built in a back yard.