Leaving the Bahamas

By aaron.axvig, 21 April, 2020

About a week ago we decided that it was finally time to leave the Bahamas.  We had basically been sitting on the boat for three weeks as more and more restrictions were put in place.  I don't remember all the details but it was a progression: first all gatherings were prohibited, then all beaches were closed, then more and more until we were literally forbidden from leaving our boat for any purpose.  Grocery delivery was to be arranged with a $150 minimum and $15 delivery fee.

Every time a new restriction was announced it was always slightly open to interpretation so the situation was changing every day as different officials were asked questions.  There were many interpretations of whether travel back to the US was allowed, with or without stops to sleep, refuel, get groceries/water, etc.  I was very stressed out and losing a lot of sleep.  Most recently they did publish guidelines to answer some of those questions, which also included a line "encouraging boaters to return to their home country".

So we eventually came to an agreement that we would start the return trip on Friday.  Then Anna found out that she had a role in a murder-mystery held via VHF radio on Saturday night so negotiated that we would leave on Sunday.  But the weather window was too good starting on Friday and we found friends on SV Keelin It that were also going back to the US on Friday.  We were talking to them at 10:00am on Thursday and they were 60 miles north in Staniel Cay.  We quickly decided to leave at 11:00am to make it 50 miles to Blackpoint and then we would be caught up to them if we just left a little earlier than them on the next morning.  So we got off the phone with them and then quickly prepared to leave.  Aaron had just gotten the steering system repaired the evening before and half of the steering pedestal remained to be put back together!  But we did get everything done and leave at 11:00am as planned.

Another friend, Eric on SV Medicinal, joined us for that trip up to Blackpoint.  We had a nice motorsail for the first half of the trip and then the wind died out and it was just motoring.  We passed through Dotham Cut just as the sun set over the beautiful "White Horses" cliffs.  The cut was in full ebb flow at about 3 knots against us and even with hardly any swell in Exuma Sound it was developing a two-foot "rage" as they call the tide rips here.  Pretty exciting.

We motored north Friday morning at sunrise and Keelin It popped out of the Staniel Cay harbor to join us as we passed by.  We soon turned west to follow the Decca Channel over to the Tongue of the Ocean and then followed that north.  As dark settled in we could see the glow of Nassau to the northeast and a few of the smaller towns on Andros to the west.  We pretty much always had 8-10 knots of wind at our backs so had the motor running just above idle to keep our speed in the 5-5.5 knot range.  I was very nervous about fuel levels as I hadn't filled the tank to overflowing but was "pretty sure" it was basically full when we left George Town.  "Pretty sure" feels a lot like "pretty dumb" when you are out with no land in sight!  Our fuel gauge does not give very good readings when the tank is full-ish.  Anna reassured me that my calculations made sense and that we should be fine, and by midnight we burned enough that the tank level indications became steady enough to inspire confidence, showing that we had 70% of our 35 gallon tank left and 10 gallons on deck.  We burn about 0.5gph at slow speed and 0.8gph at a fast cruise, so this would easily be enough to motor the whole way if necessary.

And it basically was necessary.  As we passed through the Northwest Channel at dawn on Saturday we turned west which put us on a good angle to the wind so we had the engine off for about four hours, but that was it.  The wind became westerly so we motored into it towards Bimini.  We heard from another boat on the radio that thunderstorms were forecast in the Gulf Stream between 3:00pm and 9:00pm so planned to anchor off of the NE tip of Bimini until those passed.  On our way there a rain shower blew north ahead of us and then built into a nice looking storm.  And then it reversed course and came back at us!  It wasn't too bad, 30mph winds and moderate rain, not much lightning.  We arrived at Bimini at about 6:30 and anchored.  We siphoned our 10 gallons of diesel from on deck into the fuel tank, had some supper, had a nap, and then took off in the pitch dark at 9:00pm.  As we got around Bimini we were welcomed by the crazy glow of lights from Florida only 45 miles distant.  Again the winds were pretty calm so we were motoring, but having basically no waves is very nice too.

We arrived at the Fort Pierce inlet at about 3:30pm on Sunday.  Just outside the inlet I filled out our info for US Customs on their app and received notification that they approved our arrival a few minutes later.  Inside the inlet it was a culture shock as the sand bars were lined with boats and people partying, maybe 80% of them observing any sort of 6 foot separation rule.  We quickly got fuel at the nearby marina and then took off to make it through a bridge that only opens every half-hour.  Keelin It didn't make it through so we turned off the engine and sailed downwind with just the jib at a leisurely pace.  Big center-console boats with three or four 400 horsepower engines were screaming past us up and down the channel (is there anything more American?!) and it felt really good to see such normal activity after 3-4 weeks of sitting there in the Bahamas on crazy lockdown.

Eventually Keelin It caught up to us and we anchored just south of the Vero Beach City Marina.  Anna and I took Louise to land for the first time in maybe three weeks and we picked up some pasta and pizza to go.  It was amazing, not only in taste but also most importantly in having the freedom to get it in the first place.