It wasn’t much more than six or eight weeks ago that I was smugly telling my brother that I could count on one hand the number of rainy days we’d experienced since leaving Pensacola last November. While the folks back home were being soaked by an endless succession of cold fronts, we were living in a climatic bubble in St Petersburg, where some curious quirk of geography brings endless sun. In fact, at one time the St Petersburg Evening Independent, the town’s afternoon newspaper, offered copies for free after any day that the sun didn’t shine. Over its 76 years of publication, they only had to stand by their “sunshine guarantee” three or four times a year.
Even once we left St Pete and finally started heading south, good weather seemed to follow us. We were pinned a few times by some blustery days, but hardly ever had to deal with wet weather.
Everything changed on the 1st of May. The day after arriving in Salt Cay, Long Island, the sky turned cloudy and threatening, with occasional rumbles of thunder, and it’s stayed that way ever since. Four weeks later, we’re holed up at Bimini Sands Marina while heavy weather generated by TS Alberto blows through. During those four weeks, we’ve been dogged by squalls, chased by thunderstorms, besieged by blustery winds, and tossed about by swells and chop, forcing us to seek refuge in marinas to get some relief. We’ve had a boat near us hit by lightning, ridden out 35 knot gusts, and sat at anchor trying to sleep while the boat pitched up and down at least five feet. I’m not really sure where my sunglasses are as I haven’t needed them in weeks, and I believe our tans are starting to wash off.
I think we’re experiencing weather karma. Some cosmic retribution for being so smug about how fabulous things were initially.
It’s currently blowing 15 knots gusting to 25 with occasional heavy rain, compliments of Alberto. Our best guess is that it will be another couple of days before things calm down enough to let us resume our journey homeward. Yesterday afternoon we walked over to look at the entrance to the marina, and watched breaking waves sweeping into the channel.
A center console fishing boat nosing its way out was launched at a 45 degree angle by the surf. Not a chance we’d try to push our way out through a swell like that. Today is Memorial Day, and the seas are supposed to be running 5 to 8 feet in the Gulf Stream. But they’re calling for two foot seas and 10 knots of SE wind by Wednesday, so we’re making preparations to head back across to Florida. I think we’ll try crossing from here to Fowey Rocks near Miami, and then hang a left in the Hawk Channel to start working our way down the Keys. It’s not the route we would have initially picked, but the weather has pushed us further north than we’d normally want to be for a Gulf Stream crossing.
But that’s a concern for another day. For now, we have some good books on our Kindles, we can pick up TV and FM radio from Miami, and being plugged into shore power means it’s cool and dry onboard since the air conditioning is running, so I think we’ll just have a couple more fruity rum drinks, relax, and wait for the sun to come back out. I mean, it has to eventually, right?
Over coffee this morning, Rhonda and I discussed just throwing in the towel and becoming permanent residents here in the Bahamas. Staying here and embracing the fact that we can’t leave because we can’t seem to get a break in the weather would not only give us a jump on next year’s cruising season, but also put an end to our continual weather frustrations. It was a tempting notion, but we ultimately decided we’re not quite ready to surrender. Almost, but not quite.
Our daily weather in the Exumas
Thunderstorms and squalls started over three weeks ago. Then the wind started blowing. It’s been raining or blowing (or sometimes both) every day since. We’ve been trying to work our way back to Florida for a while now, but it seems to be just one weather thing after another standing in our way.
For starters, we spent a week or so working our way up the Exumas from Long Island, dogged by thunderstorms the entire way. We were chased into Warderick Wells to wait out a line of storms, and while we were there, the boat on the mooring in front of us was struck by lightning. All their electronics were blown out, and they couldn’t get their engines started afterwards. We felt terrible for them, but we counted our blessings that it wasn’t us. We got out of there as soon as we could.
That’s the boat that was hit by lightning. Too close for comfort.
We’d been having increasing difficulty getting our engine to turn over, which left us feeling pretty vulnerable. We knew if we were out on the water and got overtaken by a storm, we’d need to be able to start the engine and turn up wind to get the sails down and then motor through the squall. Maybe salty sailors would just batten the hatches, lash themselves to the wheel and ride the whirlwind, but we’re a little old (or maybe just too sensible) for that kind of thing. We needed to know that when we needed it, the engine was going to start, no question. And that wasn’t the case. I suspected a dying starting battery. It was only three years old, which is a bit premature for it to expire, but it was also a potentially easy fix, so I was hoping that my suspicion was correct when my diagnostics pointed to that as the culprit. There aren’t many batteries to be found in the Exumas, though, so we decided to head back to New Providence and Palm Cay Marina. We knew we’d be able to use the marina’s free courtesy car to hunt down a new battery or anything else we may need. If you’re looking for repair parts in the Bahamas, Nassau is the place to be.
We joked on the way into the marina that we hoped we wouldn’t get stuck here yet again for 7 to 10 days. It seems that every time we decide to go to Palm Cay, circumstances conspire to trap us here until we’ve spent at least a thousand dollars.
The good news is that our problem did turn out to be the battery. They have a large NAPA store on New Providence, and it was an easy errand to borrow the free marina courtesy car and go pick up a marine starting battery. It cost twice what we would have paid in Florida, but they had five in stock with a date code of April 2018 and we were able to walk out the door with one, so there are no complaints. After swapping the new battery for the old one, a quick turn of the key resulted in the engine firing right up. She was her old self again. Problem solved and confidence restored!
Unfortunately, I guess in the great cosmic ledger, we still owed Palm Cay Marina some more money, and it was our fate to remain until we had surrendered it. Even though we were able to fix our problem in 24 hours, for the next few days the wind blew way too hard for us to get out. We thought we saw a window after a couple of days, but then Mike’s Weather Page, an amateur weather resource a fellow boater introduced us to, began warning that advance models showed a possible low forming in the Caribbean and moving north toward Florida. It looked as though if we left Palm Cay, we’d be heading right into the path of a potential tropical storm. In addition, a persistent strong southerly flow sucking moisture up from the Caribbean has erected a wall of squalls and thunderstorms between the Bahamas and Florida, which we had absolutely no interest in trying to sail through.
This wall of thunderstorms persisted all week
So now it’s a week later, which means we’d once again pulled in for just a few days and ended up staying until our bill exceeded $1,000. The low that the amateurs started talking about almost a week ago has finally attracted the attention of the professionals at the National Hurricane Center, which is giving the system a 40% chance of development over the next several days. But it looks like we have a few better days coming up in which to move the boat before conditions are predicted to deteriorate (still rainy, still windy, but not so much that we can’t make a go of it). We’ve decided to cross the Great Banks back to Bimini and then hole up in a well-protected marina we know there to wait out the approaching low and the predicted 40 knot winds. At least that way we’ll only be a single day’s travel from the Florida Keys when things finally settle back down. Whenever that may be. Possibly next month.
Since we had some time to kill, we did manage to have some fun while here. A couple we befriended back in St Pete (who offered Rhonda and I a lot of support and assistance when I had my injury) were in the marina also, and we got to play tour guide and take them to some of our favorite places in Nassau. Here are a few pictures.
The Queen’s Staircase
Historic Fort Fincastle
The Governor General’s House
The famous Greycliff Estate
The parlor at Greycliff
The restaurant at Greycliff
In addition to a hotel and a restaurant, Greycliff has factories for both hand-rolled cigars and hand-dipped chocolates.
Our friends had heard of an area called The Fish Fry, which featured dozens of locally owned Bahamian restaurants. We checked it out and selected one for lunch.
Great food at a really good price
The Conch shell pile behind the restaurant. There is apparently an infinite supply of this Bahamian staple.
And of course, when in Nassau you have to pay a visit to Atlantis.
In a final note, we got to meet this fellow the next day, swimming around our boat. He (she?) had latched on to a water hose and was happily sucking down gallons and gallons of fresh water, and didn’t seem to mind a bit when people swam over to pet him.
As always, we’ve enjoyed our time here on New Providence. It’s nothing like the majority of the other islands we’ve visited in the Bahamas. But sometimes you just need a dose of civilization or ready access to spare parts. Tomorrow we’re departing for the Berry Islands, and then on to Bimini. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that we can make it safely in to Bimini Sands Marina before the weather goes south.
When we left Long Island, we’d planned to work our way north through the Bahamian Out Islands to check out some places we hadn’t yet seen. But when 10 days of stalled fronts degenerating into troughs bringing day after day of thunderstorms required us to keep pushing off our departure, we finally ran out of calendar. Hurricane season starts in just a couple of weeks, and it was time for us to start our journey back to Florida. It has been a short cruising season for us this year, but after shattering my kneecap in January and undergoing surgery to repair my leg, we didn’t initially think we were going to have any season at all, so we’re happy that we were able to salvage at least a couple of months.
A brief break in the weather let us jump from Long Island to Rat Cay in the Exumas, and then on to Big Majors Spot just off Staniel Cay (home of the original Bahamian swimming pigs) the next day.
Anchored off what we call “Pig Beach,” home of the original and world famous Bahamian swimming pigs.
We’re now back in the land of megayachts and mini-cruise ships, we’re sad to say. When we pulled into Big Majors, it looked like a major fleet exercise was underway, with dozens of 100+ foot yachts and their collections of associated water toys filling the bay. M/V Wheels caught our eye, so we looked it up online. It stood out because it was 164 feet long and came with what looked like a 70 or 80 foot sport fishing boat, a 35 foot center console tender sporting four 350 hp outboards, a large dinghy, and the usual assortment of smaller water toys. It apparently belongs to someone who owns a NASCAR racing team, and it can be yours for seven days for a mere $200,000, tax and gratuities not included.
Needless to say, we already miss Long Island…
Anyway, we’ll be here at Big Majors Spot for a few days waiting out some more thunderstorms, and then it appears that we’ll have a two or three day window to get back up to New Providence and the Nassau area before a big blow with 30+ knot winds starts early next week. We weren’t originally planning to stop there again, but we’ve been having a bit of trouble getting our engine to start, and I suspect our starting battery has met with an early death. When trying to crank the engine, I’m only reading 6 to 8 volts on the starting battery, and when I take the cell gravities they look pretty screwy. Replacing the three year old battery seems like a good place to start, and that means back to Nassau we go. If it turns out to be something more than a battery, I feel a lot better about yanking the starter and installing our spare if we’re in a nice marina where we can actually get parts and don’t have to worry about having to start the engine to deal with a dragging anchor in the middle of the night. We’re just hoping we don’t get stuck there for a week to 10 days again, as seems to happen every time we enter Palm Cay Marina!
We’ve said before that Georgetown, Great Exuma, is something every cruiser should experience at least once. It’s one of the great gathering places for our tribe of sea gypsies, salty dogs and scalawags, and joining the hundreds of boats of all shapes and sizes swinging at anchor within Elizabeth Harbour affirms your place in this community. The sight of the night sky illuminated by a constellation of anchor lights, each bright sparkle representing a person, couple or family that shares a common dream and experience, is truly something to see.
But we’d had just about enough. We immensely enjoyed attending our second National Family Island Regatta. But after eight days at anchor, we’d had all we cared to handle of loud music booming from beach bars until 3 or 4 AM, boats roaring through the anchorage at all hours throwing wakes, and constant radio traffic on the VHF. Some people enjoy water aerobics at 0930, volleyball at 2PM, and beach yoga at 4 o’clock every day. But to paraphrase the great Jimmy Buffett, we don’t need that much organization in our lives. We were craving some peace and quiet.
We found it on Long Island. It was an easy six hour, 35 mile journey to Thompson Bay and the little town of Salt Pond. It was a beautiful day on the water, and during the passage we crossed the Tropic of Cancer, putting us once again in the tropics.
Approaching Long Island
We dropped the anchor in clean white sand in 8 feet of clear water, turned off the engine, and then marveled at the stillness of it all. The gentle lapping sound of water against the hull and a distant crowing of a rooster was all we could hear. We shared a bay that’s easily over a mile across with less than a dozen other boats. The radio was blissfully quiet. It was the un-Georgetown, and just what we were looking for to decompress from the past frenzied week.
True to its name, Long island is a very long island. It runs about 80 miles roughly north to south, but averages less than a mile wide. A single two lane road runs the entire length of the island, passing through a handful of resorts and a string of a dozen or so small settlements, and the island is most easily toured by car. Tucked into Thompson Bay behind the broad finger of Indian Hole Point, just off the settlement of Salt Pond, we were well protected from forecasted high winds that were expected to arrive within the next few days.
Thompson Bay, Long Island, Eagle Too in the center distance.
Salt Pond offers almost everything a cruiser needs. It has a well-stocked market (mailboats arrive weekly), a liquor store, a well-equipped marine supply store, a rental car agency and Sou’ Side Bar and Grill, which can all be accessed from a conveniently located private dock that the owner graciously allows cruisers to use to come ashore.
The dinghy dock, right down the hill from the grocery, restaurant and liquor store.
Small but well stocked, Rhonda even found the orange marmalade she was looking for to make a marinade for chicken.
Perusing the produce section.
Sou’ Side Bar & Grill
Stopping for lunch at Sou’ Side Bar & Grill
A 10 minute dinghy ride across the bay takes you to Tiny’s Hurricane Hole, a cute beach bar and restaurant run by a couple from California. It was there that we met Penny, a part time Long Island resident who runs the local VHF cruisers net. She lives ashore, but loves interacting with the cruising community by running the morning net. The season being basically over, she’d packed away her radio and was getting ready to fly back to the US for the summer. But she was a wealth of information about things to see and do while we were on the island.
Tiny’s has free WiFi!
Happy hour at Tiny’s. Penny is on the right. She runs the daily VHF cruisers net.
It had been almost a month since we had last done laundry, and it was high on our list of priorities. Tiny’s offered a pair of washers and dryers for cruisers to use, but at $5 per load per machine, we thought we were looking at $30 or more to wash clothes. Plus it was sort of implied that if you were hanging around the bar for three hours doing laundry, you should probably be ordering some food and beverages, so we were contemplating a $100 laundry run. But we heard of a place in the settlement of Deadman’s Cay where you could drop off laundry, and pick it up the next day. It was too far to walk or dinghy to, but we wanted to rent a car to see more of the island, and so a plan was born. We made arrangements to pick up a car at 11 AM and head south to Deadman’s Cay, find this rumored laundry, drop off our clothes, and then go sightseeing. We’d either pick them up on the way back to Salt Pond, or early the following morning, since we had the car for 24 hours.
Loaded down with laundry.
Our ride for the day. Glad I can still drive a stick shift!
It took a while to find the laundry. The locals know where everything is, and so you don’t see a lot of signs on businesses.
It worked out really well, as Nadia, the woman who ran the laundry, only charged us $2 per load to wash, dry and fold. The total bill came to $17 for two large plastic bags of clothes. We felt that we saved enough to pretty much cover the $65 car rental.
One of our sightseeing priorities was to see several of the churches of Father Jerome. He and his churches really deserve their own post. He was an early 20th century renaissance man who learned architecture, became an Anglican priest, converted to Catholicism at some point, and made it his life’s work to rebuild Bahamian churches that had been destroyed in hurricanes. His designs featured stout concrete construction that was intended to withstand future storms. Long Island has several Father Jerome churches, and we went in search of them.
Another island highlight we visited was Dean’s Blue Hole, which claims to be the world’s deepest saltwater blue hole at 663 feet deep, although apparently a deeper one was found a few years ago in China.
Dean’s is the site of the international free diving championships, where divers set world records descending to incredible depths (greater than 300 feet) while holding their breath. We brought along our snorkel gear so that we could explore the site, and since there was no one there the day we visited, we even swam out to the platform the divers use to train and compete. Entering the hole from the beach, it was amazing how in less than three or four paces the water went from ankle deep to bottomless.
After swimming at Dean’s Blue Hole we stopped for a late lunch at a little roadside bar and grill called Max’s Conch Bar…
and then crossed the island to explore several of the beaches on the Atlantic side. We saw an occasional footprint, but otherwise had the east coast of the island all to ourselves.
The island also has several large cave systems that can be explored. We’d hoped to see at least one of them, but we just ran out of day, parking the car and dinghying back out to Eagle Too shortly after sunset. Next time maybe. Because I think we’ll probably want to pass this way again next year to finish exploring all Long Island has to offer.
Twenty-eight sailboats came to the starting line. They formed up abreast of one another, dropped their sails, set their anchors, and waited for the starting gun.
Everything was quiet for a moment, the crews tensely waiting at their stations. Then the loud report of the gun kicked everyone into action. The anchor men started furiously hauling in the rodes, pulling the boats across the starting line while the line handlers begin hauling up the sails.
The helmsmen tried to lay in a course that would avoid the jam of other boats twisting to find the wind while giving them each an advantage off the line. Everyone was shouting orders, warnings, insults. It was pure pandemonium!
This was our second year attending the National Family Island Regatta. If you haven’t been following us for long, please go back and read this post from last year’s Regatta to better understand what an awesome event it is:
This year, though, the races were taken to an entirely new level. Gusty, variable winds challenged the crews to maintain control of their vessels. Some would set a reef in their mainsail, others wouldn’t, and it was anyone’s guess which decision the fickle winds would favor. The boats seemed to stay bunched tighter together, resulting in high drama while rounding the marks. And to top it off, we decided this year to anchor Eagle Too in Kidde Cove, closer to the race course. At times, wind shifts actually put us inside the course, with race boats coming down both our port and starboard sides. How close were we to the action? This close!
A dozen boats tried to round the mark where there was only room for half that many. Boats were colliding, crew members were yelling, pushing other boats and in some cases jumping or falling from one boat to another.
Then boats began to sink. Whether from collisions or wind gusts, boats were tipped on their sides, emptying their crews into the harbor and disappearing underway, leaving only their masts visible. Then unbelievably, other boats actually started running over the sunken vessels with their crews treading water. It was literally a waterborne train wreck. Damn it was fun to watch!
A cruiser chasing the boats in his dinghy gave color commentary on VHF channel 72. Blow by blow, turn by turn, he excitedly called out collisions and sinkings and strategic moves like a professional horse track announcer. His excitement was infectious. Full contact demolition sailboat racing. If ESPN would broadcast this, I think the ratings would be phenomenal!
Twenty-eight boats came to the starting line. By the end of the race, four were sitting on the bottom of the harbor, and six more had been towed off the course, unable to complete the race. But no one was hurt, so in the end, it was just an exciting place to be.
We enjoyed some of the finest sailboat racing you can imagine. From little Class E dinghies with a crew of one or two:
to the stars of the show, the big Class A sloops, with their crews of 14 or more:
it was four full days of fast action and high drama on Elizabeth Harbor. If you love sailing and you haven’t attended a National Family Island Regatta, you really should put it on your short list of things to do someday! We’re so glad we had this opportunity to experience it again.
We have some videos to post, but it will have to wait for a time when we have a better internet connection. For now, here’s just a sampling of the hundreds of pictures we took.