Bahamas

By aaron.axvig, 21 April, 2020

Better late than never to write about what we did in the Bahamas...

Our first day in Great Harbor Key we went and talked to Rhett and Deb on SV Twin as we recognized them from the marina in South Bimini (and they have the same model boat as we do).  They were planning to move around a point about 1/2 mile away and we decided to move with them.  We would be more protected from the winds for the next day or two.  Then we went to walk around town.  There was a wild preaching sort of thing going on in the city park, sort of like slam poetry maybe.  The one lady was rhythmically shouting (rapping?) into the microphone and a few others were gathered around.  They had their maxed out PA system pointed outwards so everyone could experience it!  We went to a little restaurant on top of a hill and had some OK food.  We also bought a few things at the relatively well-stocked grocery store.  Then that evening we went over to their boat for supper; I was a little late as I took the dinghy to the marina to get the MyIslandWiFi hotspot unit.  The cut through rock into the harbor is pretty neat.  It was dark on the way back and I had the dinghy lights on.  As I was about halfways back to the boat (a couple miles trip) I felt a wake.  You can tell from the feel of the waves how recently the wake was made, and these felt very recent.  And then I smelled exhaust.  So basically some maniac with no lights on buzzed right past me in the pitch dark.

The next day we decided to go to the beach on the island.  As we rounded the point on the way to the dinghy parking area the waves really picked up.  We were very glad to be anchored on the calm side!  We walked about 1.5 miles to the east side of the island and played with Louise there for an hour or so.  The sand was soooo fine!

We spent one or two more nights there and then went with SV Twin and SV Make Way to Hoffman Key.  We had a really nice sail to there.  Aaron and Rhett went to check out the blue hole.  The anchorage was just OK as there was some surge that made the boat rock in funny ways all night.  Then we motorsailed to Nassau where we fueled up and anchored a bit west of the conch shacks area.  We stayed there for several nights while some wild winds blew through.  We walked a long ways to do laundry one day, went to the grocery store another day (very nearly stocked and priced as well as an American grocery store), and ate at the conch shacks.  Overall we enjoyed it there, despite having heard many bad things.

Then we motorsailed over to Allen's Cay.  We anchored there for a few days and had an amazing time snorkeling and paddleboarding around the boat, exploring some nearby reefs, checking out the iguanas, and just really loving the incredibly clear water and sunny days.  Rhett and Matt had their spears out at one of the reefs and some snorkelers from a tour boat were very upset that we would fish inside of the national park where it is prohibited.  They didn't believe that the park starts about 10 miles south of where we were...probably thought all of the Exumas were in the park.

Our next stop was Norman's Cay.  There were quite a few boats in the channel there but we easily found a spot near the mostly submerged plane wreck which is a very popular snorkeling spot.  So we did some snorkeling and spent a few nights there too.  A big front blew through and one night at about 2:30am our anchor alarm went off.  I quickly determined that it was NOT a false alarm and that we were indeed on the move.  As I popped up on deck and got the engine started our anchor rehooked and we swung sideways into a sailboat that had previously been a few hundred feet behind us.  I was able to drive ahead into the 35-40 mph wind then and keep us ahead of that boat while Anna pulled the anchor up.  Then drove in the dark and crazy wind and two foot waves back to pretty near our old spot and were able to anchor again.  There was no sleep until the wind finally started to abate later in the morning.  As for a root cause, I think that the anchor plugged up with grass and therefore did not handle the 90 degree change in wind direction well.  We talked to the other boat that afternoon and they didn't really have any damage other than some very scared kids.  One of our stantions was bent a little.

Also that night a charter catamaran had one of their lazy jacks break so their mainsail was flying around in the wind.  And then their anchor must have drug too because they were driving around.  Eventually they got re-anchored but still couldn't figure out how to get the sail under control.  They asked for help on the radio but no one was willing to go help them in the dark...I'm certain it would have been different if there was a significant risk of harm to them.  Eventually they figured out that they could lay on the sail and once it was light out and slightly calmer I went over to help them out.  The front end of the dinghy was VERY light in the high winds, definitely a risk of flipping in those sort of conditions.  Once I got there I used an old reefing line that I had brought along and laced their sail down to the boom.

One morning I went with Rhett, Don, and Matt to spearfish at a reef maybe a couple miles south.  It was pretty hard to find as no one had brought any electronic navigation devices but eventually we found it.  It was mostly 15 feet or more deep and there was a pretty strong current.  Don speared a fish and was hollering for us to hurry up and get him because a shark was trying to get the fish from him.  There were lots of barracuda around there too, and I really did not like snorkeling in that spot.

At all of these places we were trading nights hosting dinner with Rhett and Deb on Twin, Matt and Laurie on Make Way, and Don and Mary on Lovely Lady.  It was a very fun group!

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.

By aaron.axvig, 1 February, 2020

We spent a week and a day on South Bimini until the weather was right to sail east.  On the first day I did customs and immigration at the airport in the afternoon.  Then we started meeting all of our new neighbors; about 12 boats had arrived to the marina with us that day, and it was almost empty previously.

We spent some time marveling at the comically clear water.  It was about 10 feet deep around the docks and we could see perfectly to the bottom.  There were lots of minnows, plenty of 6" fish, and even some 12-18" ones.

The first or second day we went to North Bimini to see what it had to offer.  Louise came with to help.  The dinghy parking situation was not that good, just an aluminum swim ladder on a beat up concrete wall, with the east winds making some weird little waves to push our dinghy into the wall.  We walked around for about an hour.  Very interesting.  There was what appeared to be the power plant of the island, which I think was just a large diesel generator.  It makes sense that the marina charges $30/day for power, and we have seen some that have meters and charge $0.80/kWh (4-8 times what you might pay at a house in the US).  There were some grocery/convenience stores, some just small rooms absolutely packed full of packaged/canned food and some with a little more organization and potatoes, onions, etc.  Most prices are double that of an average US grocery store.

The no-see-ums were really bad the first two nights, but then it was pretty windy so they weren't a problem.  House flies were not deterred though!  We had to keep screens in most of the time--they block some airflow and make it tedious to go in and out.  We made a habit out of taking Louise to the beach by the marina in the late afternoon.  She would chase the tennis ball and I would look for beach glass.  The first time we went to the beach Anna couldn't find her phone when we got back to the boat.  So we went to the beach to look, and eventually I found it about 18" below the surf.  It still worked...for about two days.

I read six books in six days.  We did lots of crossword puzzles.  We watched the Vikings play (and lose) at the Thirsty Turtle, a bar a five minute walk away.  They had a pizza oven but were not able to get supplies to make pizzas before we left, still in the process of opening after renovations.  The marina had a new owner too.

One of the other boats in the marina was SV Twin (that we had crossed paths with as we approached Bimini) and they have the same model of boat as us.  This was the first time we had seen another one (excepting the one we looked at in Port Charlotte, FL when we were boat shopping, and one that we saw in passing at the marina where our boat's previous owners kept our boat) so we had a lot of fun touring theirs and showing them ours.  There are so many interesting differences!

For internet connectivity we could use the Wi-Fi at the marina office or at the Thirsty Turtle.  And probably half of the days I would take my phone out of airplane mode, resulting in an automatic $10 charge for 24 hours of great roaming connectivity (set up with Verizon ahead of time, some people were doing the same with AT&T too).  We had a Wi-Fi hotspot device with unlimited data waiting for us at Great Harbor Cay so we were looking forward to getting that.

The marina gave us a prorated price of $150/7 for our eighth night there and the next morning we departed at sunrise for Great Harbor Cay.  It was 80 miles to travel and we were going straight into a 10-15 knot wind and two foot waves.  Sometimes the bow would slam on a wave and Louise would get really scared.  Into waves and wind is not great for speed and it was a long ways so we ended up anchoring in the dark at 10:30pm.  It was an easy approach and a wide open area to anchor so not too bad.

By aaron.axvig, 1 February, 2020

On January 7th we left No Name Harbor just as the sky began to lighten.  As the sun rose above the horizon we were clearing the last channel markers off of Cape Florida.  A few boats were ahead of us and as we went a few more appeared behind us.  There were about 10 boats visible in total.

We held a course maybe 20 degrees south of straight towards Bimini in order to make a little headway south before reaching the Gulf Stream which would swiftly carry us north.  I don't remember the exact characteristics of the Stream that day but let's just say that about 5 miles out it became strong, so I altered course to maybe only 5 degrees south of straight east (yes, that would be 95 degrees).  I altered the settings of the chart plotter so that lines indicating both heading (direction the boat is pointed) and track (direction of boat movement over ground) angles emanated from our location marker.  It was interesting to see them differ by 15 degrees or so due to the combined current and boat movement through water.

The chief risk of crossing the Stream is that you end up heading so far south to keep from drifting north that you don't make much speed in the east/west direction, making the trip much different than planned.  This was almost not a concern for us since we started somewhat south of where we needed to be.  But still, I figured it was most efficient to get out of the Stream as quickly as possible, hence the almost straight east heading.  And after we got out of the Stream I could make up a couple of miles to the south without needing to motor against the current.  I didn't dream this strategy up on my own; it is described in the Explorer Chart books.

All the other boats seemed to be steering whatever heading would keep them on a line drawn straight between No Name Harbor and Bimini (again, not a big deal for a destination that is a little north of your start anyways).  With our almost straight east heading we drifted a few miles north of the main group of boats, crossed paths with SV Make Way and SV Twin, and drifted a mile or so north of them.  At that point we were within about five miles (I think?) of Bimini and I was surprised that the current still had not really abated.  The current ended up holding pretty strong until just one or two miles out so my plan of making up southerly distance out of the current yield any real advantage.  But we arrived in Bimini at about the same time (2:00pm?) as the other boats anyways.  (When I took the screenshot of the currents in the Windy app for this article I realized that it probably typical, I just didn't remember to look at the currents forecast that day.)

For the crossing we had a great breeze that would probably have let us sail at 5.5-6 knots but we motored at about 50% throttle too to put us at a solid 7 knots (IIRC).  When we started out in the morning there were some 2-3 foot waves coming from the north so it was a little bouncy but we did fine.  Those died down later in the morning so overall we had really nice conditions.

On the final approach to the island of South Bimini we followed another sailboat; they bumped a sandbar and backed off.  So we followed their new route and made it through the very narrow approach through the small jetties into the Bimini Sands Marina.  It was pretty shallow at one point in that channel, just shy of six feet maybe half an hour after low tide.  But we made it and docked successfully.  They had a rate of $150 for a week so we planned to stay there for that long as the wind was forecast to blow strongly out of the east for several days...and we wanted to go east!

I took a shuttle bus to the airport a couple miles away and went through customs and immigration for myself, Anna, Louise, and the boat.  Once I got back about two hours later Anna and Louise were able to finally step on shore.

Sailboats on the horizon
Sailboats visible on the horizon as we depart Florida
What we see on the chartplotter
Here is what our chartplotter looked like at one point. We have drifted north of the purple route line. The black line shows which way the bow is pointed, and the blue line shows the direction that the boat is moving over ground. With no current the blue and black lines would be very close to each other.