There’s No Place Like Home!

After cruising for six months and traveling over 2,000 miles, we’re happy to be back in Pensacola for the summer. We’ve seen and done some amazing things since our departure last December, but for now we’re looking forward to a few months of downtime. No worrying about whether the anchor is well set, or if we’re in a protected location for the next passing front, or how far it will be until we see another fuel pier or grocery store. Just a chance to relax, reconnect with family and friends and get reacquainted with our home town.

We truly threaded the needle on our passages across the Gulf and back to Pensacola. While persistent unsettled weather generated widespread rainstorms, we were able to pick windows that let us navigate from the Florida Keys all the way home to our slip at Palafox Pier without encountering a single drop of rain.

clouds

While still in the Bahamas, when we first made the decision to point our bow north, we called Palafox Pier and Yacht Harbor and inquired about our old slip. We had lived on E dock in slip 6 for a year and a half while getting Eagle Too ready to cruise. It was vacant, and the terrific folks at the marina made sure it was available for us when we slipped quietly in just after sunrise this past Thursday. So if you’ve visited with us before at Palafox Pier, then look for us in our old location.

homeagain

It’s been quite a journey, but now we’re home.  We’ve already started the process of converting Eagle Too from a proper cruising boat back into a fair weather sailor, offloading some of the gear we carry that we won’t be needing for leisurely sails in local waters. Our water maker is pickled and ready to be put in storage, our satellite tracker has been deactivated (which will save us $69 a month while we’re here), and we’ve begun to tackle some of the little tasks and chores that we never seemed to find the time to attend to while cruising.

With this latest cruise now behind us, we’ve traveled a combined total of over 4,000 miles and have sailed our boat to three countries (the Bahamas, Cuba and Mexico). Our tentative plans have us here until November. It’s too soon to say where we might go next—we’ll just see how we feel after the summer (and hurricane season) winds down.

We’ll post something on our Facebook page soon about a little get together here at the marina. So please stop by if you’d like to say hi and catch up, have a glass of wine, see a few pictures, and help us enjoy a sunset. 🙂

A Cruiser’s Passage Planning Primer

There’s a lot of time to think about things when you’re spending 32 hours motorsailing across the Gulf. One of the many thoughts that crossed my mind during our recent jump from Clearwater, Florida to Port St Joe was the issue of picking a suitable weather window for offshore travel. The criteria for planning a comfortable and thus enjoyable ocean passage is a topic I wish we had known more about before setting off on our Life On The Hook™. But there’s no teacher like experience, and after over a dozen offshore passages of a hundred miles or more, many involving the crossing of a major ocean current, we’ve come up with a list of criteria that we apply when determining whether or not to make a jump. This list reflects our priorities and ours alone. You may have or learn to develop your own list of what’s important to you. But since it’s always good to share knowledge and experience, I thought we’d pass along what we feel makes for the most comfortable passages.

Leaving Clearwater Florida Bound For Apalachicola

Leaving Clearwater Florida Bound For Apalachicola

Number one on our list by a wide margin is sea state. When we first started cruising, I’d have considered the wind forecast to be the top concern, but something we’ve learned is that the winds don’t matter if the sea state doesn’t work. When making a go/no go decision, we’re looking for forecast seas of one to two feet. If everything else is perfect or we absolutely have to get moving (which seldom happens because as cruisers we don’t travel on a schedule), then we’ll consider two to three foot seas. But if we see that the forecast calls for three to five feet or more, then forget it, we’re staying put, even if the winds and weather are favorable. High seas make for a miserable passage, which often means missing out on an otherwise nominal weather window because the seas are still too high from a previous weather system.

Now we’ve met some cruisers that will laugh at that. “Three to five foot seas? That’s nothing!” they’ll say. But here’s what we’ve learned. The forecast wave height is for the average sea state. If the forecast is for 1 to 2, you’re going to experience quite a few 3 footers. If they’re calling for 4 to 5, well, you’ll have more than a few 7 footers hitting you. And for us on our boat, this would be dangerous. Not because the boat can’t take it, but because the chance of one of us getting hurt increases exponentially with sea state. In 1 to 2 footers, it’s not too hard to move around, as long as we’re careful and always keep one hand on the boat. It’s possible to put a pot on the stove to make coffee or heat up a meal. Above 3 feet, the boat will start pitching and rolling enough that going below and moving around can be dangerous. The stove gimbal is hitting its stops, which means pots won’t stay put, so it’s strictly sandwiches and water rather than hot food and coffee.  Spending hours holding on to the stern pulpit to keep yourself upright is tiring, and fatigue leads to loss of focus. Then you try to go below, miss one of the ladder steps, and fall into the cabin and get hurt while 50 miles offshore.  Following 5 foot swells cause the boat to roll 25 to 30 degrees or more, and beating into them causes the bow to bash into the waves. It can be tolerated for a few hours. But a day or more? No thank you.

Rhonda Caught A 24 Inch Little Tunny. Related To Tuna, The Gulf Was Full Of Them.

Rhonda Caught A 24 Inch Little Tunny. Related To Tuna, The Gulf Was Full Of Them.

Next we look at forecast precipitation. We live under a 63 foot aluminum pole, and when we’re out on the ocean, we’re the tallest thing by far from us to the horizon. So if they’re predicting thunderstorms, we don’t go. It’s just that simple. Much better to just wait it out in the marina or anchorage, where at least we’re not the only tall aluminum pole around. If the forecast is calling for showers, but not thunderstorms, then it comes down to intensity. A little light rain isn’t that big a deal, we have foul weather gear for that. But if they’re calling for moderate to heavy showers, we’ll probably stay put. It might be different if we had a full enclosure for our cockpit, but we don’t, and there’s only so many hours of standing at the helm in the rain that we can tolerate. If it’s not a day that you’d consider riding a motorcycle, it’s probably not a good day for a passage.

Another Little Tunny. Only 18 Inches, So She Let Him Go.

Another Little Tunny. Only 18 Inches, So She Let Him Go.

Now we get to wind. You might think that as a sailboat, this would be higher on the list, but here’s what we’ve learned about wind in our 4,000 miles of travel. It almost never blows from the right direction at the right speed. It’s either too little, too much, or coming from the wrong direction. If we only traveled when the wind was right for sailing, we’d hardly ever go anywhere. So if the prediction is for force 3 or less (up to 10 knots), we’ll go, regardless of the forecast direction. We’ll consider going in a force 4 wind (11 to 16 knots) if it will be behind us, but we won’t go if we’ll be reaching into it, because the apparent wind will be in the 20+ knot range. Greater than force 4, we’re staying put. Even as seasoned a sailor as Bruce Van Sant, author of the cruiser’s bible The Gentlemen’s Guide To Passages South, says that there’s no point in traveling in anything higher that a force 3 wind unless you have no other choice. It’s not relaxing, it’s hard work, people can get hurt and boats can break, and that’s not why we cruise. It’s probably different if you have to be at work on Monday, but cruisers don’t sail to a schedule. We just don’t do it.

So here’s the dirty little secret about sailboats, at least as far as cruising goes. Seventy-five percent of the time, you’re going to be motoring or motorsailing. Only a quarter of the time or less will you actually be able to arrive at your destination under sail alone. So yes, make sure those sails and rigging are in top shape, but also consider adding that three bladed prop, make sure your engine alignment is spot on, and do whatever propulsion system upgrades you may need in order to feel confident about running your engine for days at a time without a break. You’ll probably need a spare alternator or water pump much more than a spare sail.

Good Morning, Apalachicola!

Good Morning, Apalachicola!

After considering the sea state, rain and wind, we like to take a look at the moon phase. Since you only get one full moon a month, it’s not something you can really factor in to your decision to go if everything else is in alignment. You just take what you get. But let me tell you, spending a night at sea in conditions that require sail adjustments or movement about the deck is infinitely better when there’s actually some light to see by and you’re not totally dependent on a headlamp. And it’s extremely comforting to actually be able to see a horizon at night, especially when crossing a shipping lane full of fast moving freighters or threading through a pack of fishing trawlers. The total darkness of an overcast night with a new moon, where you can hear the waves but can’t see them because the world beyond the lifelines is invisible, can be unsettling. So we like to make long passages during times when the moon is at or near full.

Heading Up The Apalachicola River

Heading Up The Apalachicola River

Yes, the stars are breathtaking out in the middle of a calm sea on a clear, moonless night while ghosting along under sail in a gentle breeze. But in 14 months of travel, we’ve experienced exactly two nights like that. Every other of the more than a dozen overnight passages we’ve made have been cloudy, dark, rolly, windy, or some combination of the four, while the steady drone of the engine numbed our ears and physically wore us down.

RIver Cruising. We Saw Alligators, Manatees, Turtles And Ospreys.

RIver Cruising. We Saw Alligators, Manatees, Turtles And Ospreys.

So those are the criteria that we evaluate when determining when to head out onto open water. If you’re one of those people whose response is “we go regardless of the conditions,” or “we sail through thunderstorms and force 7 winds all the time,” I have one simple question for you. Why? I’d like to hear what motivates you to do such a thing.

Crossing Lake Wimico

Crossing Lake Wimico

Since much of this discussion probably makes ocean passages sound less idyllic than you may have pictured, some of you may be asking the question, “Is it worth it?” My answer is “Yes, it is.” Passages can be a trial, a measure of determination and a test of endurance. But the return on the investment is that we get to spend weeks, even months visiting some pretty amazing places that most people are lucky to experience for just a handful of days. And in the final balance, that’s what cruising is all about.

Maintenance in Paradise

Cruising /krōōz-ing/ verb: The act of performing boat repairs in a series of exotic locations.

We’ve learned that when it comes to maintenance and upkeep, a good rule of thumb is to expect to spend about 10% of the purchase price of your vessel on annual maintenance.  If you’re currently only using your boat on weekends and for an occasional vacation trip, you might think that that’s a bit (or maybe a lot) too high. But cruisers use their boats daily and use them hard, and things break or wear out with surprising frequency.  We’re now into our 14th month of full time cruising, and our experience tells us that 10% might even be a little light. We have things onboard that we’ve already had to replace twice. And that’s for a boat that was lightly used and thoroughly refitted before our departure. So for you future cruisers out there, ensure that your proposed budget has that 10% maintenance line built in. Trust me on this one, or you might find your cruising dreams unexpectedly cut short.

So there we were anchored between Key Largo and Rodriquez Key, preparing to get underway for Marathon and the Moser Channel. Rhonda started the engine, while I went up on the bow to raise the anchor. I stepped on the anchor windlass “up” switch, and the rode began paying in as usual. Suddenly, the windlass let out a groan and quit. After years of faithful service, it apparently decided it no longer wanted to participate in our adventure. I had to resort to pulling in our 55 lb. Mantus anchor and chain rode by hand.

We knew we had between two and three weeks of coastal cruising ahead of us in order to make it back to Pensacola, much of it spent in anchorages. That meant a lot of anchoring. And I didn’t think my 59 year old back could play human windlass for that long. We had to have a functional windlass, which means fixing it wasn’t something I could put off until we made it home.

So our quick touch and go in Marathon turned into a maintenance stop. We called Skipjack (formerly Sombrero) Marina, where we knew Scott the dockmaster from previous visits, and he found us a spot along the bulkhead (close to the pool!) where we could plug into shore power and work on our problem.

I pulled the windlass unit out and started overhauling it, and finally got it to reluctantly pull the anchor up. Unfortunately, it would trip the circuit breaker every five to ten seconds. This meant that in order to weigh anchor, Rhonda would have to stay below in the cabin to continually reset the breaker, while I pulled the anchor up a few feet at a time. While this may have gotten us home, I decided this just wouldn’t do. Sometimes things happen out here that require you to move the boat right now, and having to nurse a sick windlass that would need 10 or 15 minutes to weigh anchor was just too risky.

removal

removed

It was decision time. The old windlass was a 20 year old Simpson Lawrence Sprint Atlantic, a model that was no longer made. Even if I could get it working again, it probably wasn’t going to get any better in time, and parts were extremely rare. It looked like we were shopping for a new windlass, to the tune of about two boat bucks.

We tried to look on the bright side. If the windlass had failed just a few weeks earlier, while we were in the Bahamas, replacing it probably would have been near impossible. But since it had had the consideration to wait until we were back in the Keys, we were able to jump online and order a replacement from Defender and have it shipped second day to the marina. Eagle Too just seems to look out for us that way, for which we’re very grateful.

Since Lewmar had purchased Simpson Lawrence some years previously, I checked their website for guidance. The recommended replacement unit for our old Sprint Atlantic was the Lewmar V2. My hope was that it was similar enough to our old unit that it would drop into the existing mounting holes and fit under the anchor locker lid.

Test Fit Of New Unit

Test Fit Of New Unit

Alas, this was a boat job afterall. Which means that there’s always something unanticipated that has to be dealt with. While the motor and gearbox fit in the existing space and the mounting bolt pattern was the same, the new deck unit was more compact than the older one. The hawsepipe, or the hole in the deck through which the windlass drops the anchor chain into the anchor locker, didn’t align. Which means it was going to take some glass work to make it right.

Now any properly outfitted cruising boat should have some basic fiberglass repair supplies onboard, because you just never know when you might need to do a quick glass job. I chopped up some fiberglass mat and stirred it into about four ounces of catalyzed resin to make a thick slurry, and filled in the forward third of the existing hawse pipe hole. After an overnight cure and some sanding, a quick skim coat of some thickened epoxy and a little more sanding reduced the size of the hole to the right size for the new windlass, and gave me a nice flat surface to ensure the bedding compound (butyl rubber, naturally) would provide a watertight seal. It still needs a little Gel Coat to make it perfect, but that can actually wait until we’re home again.

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glasswork

Top Half of Hawsepipe Filled With Epoxy

Top Half of Hawsepipe Filled With Epoxy

Then there was the little matter of needing an additional electrical cable to power the motor, as the old windlass used a pair of 2AWG battery cables and this one required a third. So it was off to West Marine for 25 feet of battery cable. And of course, the windlass solenoid and breaker had to both also be replaced. But after about five days, we once again had a working windlass, which wonder of wonders, just fit exactly under the anchor locker lid, even though it was a full inch and a half taller than the old one. I just knew I was going to have to cut a 5 inch hole in the anchor locker lid for the capstan to protrude through, and whooped with delight when I finally had everything bolted together and attempted to close the lid and it actually shut!

installed

So Nice And Shiny!

So Nice And Shiny!

You Can See The Epoxy Patch At The Top Of The Windlass

You Can See The Epoxy Patch At The Top Of The Windlass

Then the level sensor in our shower sump box failed, but that was only about a 30 minute fix, since we had a spare sensor onboard. And then we noticed water in the bilge, which isn’t right since ours is bone dry. I traced it to a failed air conditioner condensate venturi, which was allowing the AC condensate to dribble into the bilge rather than be sucked overboard as it should. So since I was already working on the sump box, I took a day and yanked out the venturi and plumbed the AC drain pan to the shower sump. It’s a job I was meaning to do anyway once we made it home, and the air conditioner seems to be working so much better now that the cooling water flow is no longer restricted by the venturi.

So our quick pit stop in Marathon turned into a $3,000, week long mini-refit. After seven days of living in a torn apart boat, we were tired and cranky and so very glad when we were finally able to get the cabin put back together and just relax for a couple of days.

As we enter June (and the beginning of hurricane season), we’re close to halfway through the year, and we’ve spent about half of our anticipated annual maintenance budget. So our advice is that unless you’re starting out with a new boat that’s still under warranty, make sure you set enough aside for those inevitable repairs. And remember, that 10% figure is just for parts and materials. If you have to pay someone to do all of these basic maintenance tasks for you, you’ll need to at least double that amount!

Misconceptions and the Realities of Cruising

For those of you who may be considering the cruising life, we think it’s important for you to have an idea of what to expect. We’ve learned in our time afloat that while we do have our share of lazy, relaxing days…

relaxing

Beautiful vistas…

vista

Gorgeous anchorages with crystal clear water…

anchorage

And amazing sunsets…

sunset

It all comes at a price. One you have to be willing to pay to enjoy the moments of splendor. You may have seen something like this before:what-i-do

Well, Mom had it almost right. While the Bahamas are indeed beautiful, the weather leaves quite a bit to be desired. In our three months of exploration, we felt lucky if we had one decent day a week. Quite often we’d find ourselves pinned in place for 10 days or more, waiting for conditions to improve enough to let us move to another destination.

Travel along with us on a typical passage from Emerald Bay Marina to George Town. This was the best weather we found in almost two weeks of waiting. Sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride…

The Thousand Dollar Box

The following is a true story. Identities have been concealed to prevent hurt feelings.

One of the reasons to read cruising blogs it to learn from the experiences of those who are out here living the life. Study their mistakes so that you can hopefully avoid making the same ones yourself. Well, here’s a cautionary tale about a total screw-up we made that ended up costing us a whole lot of time and took a huge bite out of our meager cruising budget. It’s the story of the thousand dollar box.

It all started with what we thought was a rational decision. Rhonda needed some medications refilled. Her doctor had written her several prescriptions prior to our departure, and our plan was to have them filled in the Bahamas. But it turned out that it wasn’t going to be that simple. While in Nassau, we called a local pharmacy, which referred us to the local hospital. When we called, the nurse we spoke with told us that we would first need to make an appointment with a Bahamian doctor to countersign the prescriptions, and then the pharmacy would most likely have to order one of the two meds Rhonda takes. We were only in town for a few more days and had only limited access to transportation, so the logistics of it all started to seem a little too complex. There had to be a better option than renting a car and paying a doctor and then waiting for ordered drugs to arrive when we really wanted to keep moving south. So we kicked the can down the road and decided to wait until we arrived in George Town. They dealt with hundreds of cruisers every year, most of them retirees like us and undoubtedly many of whom took various medications. Our plan B would be to put Rhonda on a plane to fly home and get her prescriptions filled, since Delta has daily flights from George Town. If we could find a good place to leave the boat, maybe I’d also come along and we’d take a little vacation from our permanent vacation.

During the few stops on our way south where we had internet access, I started looking up airfares from George Town to Pensacola, and discovered that it was going to be $800 to $1000 for just Rhonda to fly home. Flying both of us back for what was a non-emergency was just out of the question.

But then we started considering another possibility. Maybe a family member back home that had a long relationship with a local pharmacy there could get refills for Rhonda and ship them to us. How much could it possibly cost to ship a small box to the Bahamas from the US? Sixty or 80 dollars maybe? Much cheaper than trying to fly home.

Once we started kicking the idea around of having Rhonda’s prescriptions mailed to us, we began talking about some other things we’d like to have but couldn’t find in the Bahamas, like some Starbucks espresso for me and a few boxes of that precooked packaged bacon that Rhonda likes. Turn the shipment into a care package. So we put a short list together that came to about $200 worth of groceries and things and emailed it home (that might sound like a lot, but four bags of Starbucks was $50). The family member in question likes doing that sort of thing after all, performing thoughtful little tasks to help out.

So about this time, we dropped anchor in George Town, where our first order of business was to look into shipping options and a local address where we could have a package sent. It was while doing this research that we found out that my suspicion about George Town was true – they were used to dealing with older cruisers and their prescriptions. We were referred to Smitty’s Pharmacy, about two miles north of town, where we were told we could get whatever Rhonda needed.

Two miles? OK, a bit far to walk, and being frugal cruisers on a limited income, we didn’t really want to spend $20 on a roundtrip cab fare. But this being the Bahamas, we did what cruisers do here—we started walking, while I stuck my thumb out whenever I heard a car coming. And in less than five minutes, not only did a nice local pick us up and take us to Smitty’s, but offered to come back and pick us up for the return trip to town.

So Rhonda stepped up to the pharmacy window at Smitty’s and explained what she needed, and after a bit of discussion about doses and quantity, the pharmacist gave Rhonda her drugs. No need to see a local doctor. Hell, the pharmacist never even asked to see the prescriptions, which Rhonda had brought along. He just took her word for it and gave her the drugs, at a total cost of what just the copay would have been back home. We even threw in a pack of Stugeron, which is this awesome anti-nausea drug that I wanted Rhonda to try for her occasional sea sickness that is available everywhere in the world except the US because of some problem with the FDA. When we tried to get another box of it a few weeks later back in Nassau, we were told it was only available via prescription!

pharmacy

So with filled prescriptions in hand, we started to head back into town, and soon find ourselves on a school bus filled with refugees from the disastrous Fyre Festival that had just imploded the night before. That’s a whole ‘nuther story that maybe we’ll take up another time, but if you’re curious, just google Fyre Festival and you’ll get a sense of what happened.

And it was at this point that we made our thousand dollar mistake. Once we were successful in getting Rhonda’s prescriptions filled, there really wasn’t any need for the care package to be sent from home. But because we knew that at this point several family members were involved, and I really did want the expresso, we still thought we’d spend the $60–$80 that we thought it would cost to get the box of goodies.

So the box got shipped UPS second day international. Now second day shipping means nothing in the Bahamas. Yes, it made it from Florida to Nassau in two days, but then it apparently got deposited in a customs warehouse that I envision as being similar to the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

government_warehouse

Now we weren’t in Nassau. We were in George Town, about 150 miles south. And no one could give us a clear idea of when or if the package would make it to us.

So then the fun really began. While waiting for someone at UPS to get back to us about a delivery date, we started looking at the receipts for the box contents and shipping that our family member back home emailed us. And almost passed out. Because what we just assumed was going to be a $60–$80 shipping fee was actually almost $350.

“That can’t be right,” I said with alarm. “Surely someone would have called us before spending $350 to send a box with less than $200 worth of stuff in it, none of which we actually need.”

But there it was in black in white, and we felt sick to our stomachs over the hole it blew in our budget. Now I guess that was on us, because we had just assumed that shipping a box from Florida to the Bahamas, a distance of just a few hundred miles, shouldn’t cost much more than shipping it to Atlanta or Miami. Oh sure, there might be an import fee, but the actual shipping shouldn’t cost that much more. Boy were we wrong. We hadn’t given our helpful family member a budget ceiling. But still, a call might have been nice.

And it kept getting better. We were finally contacted by UPS, who told us we owed 35% import duty on the box’s contents before Customs would release it. We’d carefully explained to our family member back home that we needed the box clearly labeled “S/V Eagle Too Yacht In Transit” to avoid import duty, and they had dutifully complied. But for reasons that we could never quite understand, we still got dinged for duty. And the icing on the cake is that they charge import duty on shipping fees! So we had to pay a 35% duty on the $200 box and the $350 shipping. Are you adding this all up?

So then we get to the final piece in this sad tale. We’ve now been in George Town for 10 days, and we’ve had about enough of the weather and the extremely rolly anchorage. The Family Island Regatta was over, and there really wasn’t any reason for us to hang around except to see when this package might finally show up. Meanwhile, a weather window had opened that we wanted to take advantage of. We’d had the crap beat out of us getting down to George Town (there will be something about that in a day or two) and we wanted to avoid more of the same on the return trip. So we called UPS in Nassau and told them to just hold on to the package, because we were coming to get it.

We needed to be out of the Exumas in a few weeks anyway for insurance reasons (hurricane season is approaching), and we knew we were probably going to head north, but a stop in Nassau really wasn’t in the plans, because it’s an expensive place to hang out. But back we went, returning to Palm Cay Marina, where we spent $80 a day for three days (plus power and water) because we pulled in on a Friday afternoon and didn’t think we’d be able to get our box until UPS opened the following Monday.

As it turned out, UPS delivered the box to the marina office for us, and it was there waiting for us when we tied up on Friday afternoon. But we’d already committed to a three day stay when we had called several days earlier to make the reservation, so there you are.

1k-box-2

A box containing less than $200 worth of groceries that we really didn’t need since we’d managed to get Rhonda’s prescriptions filled in George Town. $350 to ship that box to Nassau.  About $120 in import duty, which no one can explain to our satisfaction why we had to pay since we were a yacht in transit. And then about $300 in marina fees to return to Nassau to pick up said box. And now we sit here enjoying my $10 a cup Starbucks while Rhonda savors her $8 per strip bacon.

Let this be a warning to you…

Ten Days In George Town

Ah, George Town—an essential punch on every cruiser’s ticket. It’s the world’s largest floating campground and RV park for sea gypsies.

You (We) Are Here

You (We) Are Here

You haven’t fully sampled all that east coast cruising offers if you’ve never searched for a good spot to anchor among a hundred other boats in Elizabeth Harbor or sipped a cold one at the Chat N Chill, plowed your dinghy through a rage while trying to enter Lake Victoria or grabbed lunch at the pool bar at Peace & Plenty.gt6

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Leaving Lake Victoria

Leaving Lake Victoria

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George Town is to cruisers what Sturgis is to bikers or Oshkosh to pilots. It’s a central gathering point for members of the tribe, a place that allows you to mingle with hundreds of people with similar interests and experiences, and the nautical hajj that every cruiser should make at least once. You may love it or you may hate it, but I doubt you’ll sail away noncommittal.gt2

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The Smallest Cruisers

The Smallest Cruisers

There were things we liked about George Town.  Probably number one for us was the ability to easily obtain provisions, fuel, and adult beverages, and ATMs were convenient. Unlike other locations in the Exumas, the markets in George Town were relatively well stocked. gt15

Both the Exuma Market (groceries) and the nearby Shell Station (fuel) had their own dinghy docks.gt14

Top II Bottom was an amazing little hardware store reminiscent of something from Mayberry RFD, with narrow aisles crammed ceiling high with virtually anything you could possibly need, provided you had the time to search for it (all the merchandise was placed in apparently random order, like snorkel gear in the kitchenware section and electrical supplies mingled with fishing tackle).gt11

Most of the residents were extremely friendly. In fact, I’m pretty sure it’s the only place we’ve been where perfect strangers would say, “Welcome to the Exumas! (or sometimes, Bahamas) in lieu of a “hello” as we’d pass on the street.  I found it interesting that the town re-broadcasts the four major US networks (ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox), allowing you to watch the evening news or stay up with what’s happening on Dancing With The Stars if such things are important to you. Even Nassau didn’t offer that. And there was near-4G cellular service, which let us use our phones as hotspots to get good internet access for all our digital devices.

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The Busiest Boat In The Harbor!

The Busiest Boat In The Harbor!

What didn’t we like about the town? First, it was just too busy. When we were there, we shared the harbor with over 100 cruising boats of every shape and size. We were told that if we had been there a couple of months earlier, there were as many as 400 boats. The island’s only pumpout boat has been out of service since a hurricane blew through last year, so just let that thought roll around in your mind a bit.  There was supposed to be a harbor area WiFi service called Bahamas WiMax that we paid $20 for. It hardly ever worked. Various power boats roar through the Stocking Island anchorage at high speed, caring not a bit that their wakes are throwing your dinghy up onto your stern and tossing your boat around while you’re trying to cook breakfast/lunch/dinner. In fact, one of the worst offenders was named FU2, which probably tells you all you need to know about the attitude of the Bahamians who drove it. The radio (channel 68) is constantly busy, with everyone in the harbor seeming to need to talk to everyone else about something very important all day and much of the night. But without a doubt, the thing we least enjoyed about our stay there was how rolly the harbor was. I think we had one decent night’s sleep in ten days. No other place we’ve anchored in the Bahamas has had our boat rocking and pitching so much. The wind clocked completely around the compass during our stay, but the rolling never stopped, except for the one calm day we experienced when the winds finally dropped below the 15-25 knot range.

But with all that, it was still a journey I’m glad we made. Not only because we got to see the Family Island Regatta, but because George Town showed us that maybe we’re not as crazy as some people may think. All of our friends and relatives generally express some small level of interest in how we’re living this stage of our lives, but could never imagine themselves doing something similar. They’re just too connected to their material possessions and too comfortable with their mortgages and steady jobs and cable TV bills and lawn maintenance and knowing that every week is going to be pretty much a replay of the week before and the week before that, with next week looking like more of the same. And heaven knows we’ve seen more marinas than we can count that are filled with boats that never go anywhere. But after our first day here in George Town, Rhonda turned to me and said, “I can’t believe there are this many other people during this!” by which she meant people using their boats for travel and adventure, i.e. cruising. You know, people like us.

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If you consider yourself a cruiser, you really need to visit George Town at least once.

The Family Island Regatta, The Reason We’re Here In George Town

When we set out from Pensacola last December, we only had three firm objectives in mind in what was otherwise a vague and flexible agenda. The first was to spend the holidays in St. Petersburg. The second was to enter the Bahamas through Bimini. And the third was to spend the last week of April in George Town, Great Exuma.

We love St. Petersburg, and have basically adopted it as our second home. And our decision to cross to Bimini was driven by a wish to make the quickest possible Gulf Stream crossing. But why be in George Town by late April? One reason. We wanted to enjoy the 64th annual Family Island Regatta.

What is the Family Island Regatta? For Bahamians, it’s the America’s Cup meets the Kentucky Derby, with some Super Bowl thrown in. As an island nation, the folks here love their boats. Particularly sailboats. And sailboat racing is a major passion. Islands compete against each other to see who has the best sailors and the fastest boats. And each year since 1954, the best of the best have congregated in George Town for the Family Island Regatta.

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And what fine boats they race. We’re not talking about fiberglass, factory built one-design boats here, we’re talking traditional Bahamian sloops. Constructed by hand of madeira (Spanish cedar) and mahogany, the boats are beautiful works of craftsmanship. Sporting canvas sails and rigged with simple blocks and tackle (not a winch in sight), the vessels carry absurd amounts of sail for their size. On many, the booms are easily twice the length of the boat. And they are so lightly ballasted that the crew has to scamper up planks suspended over the side to keep the boats from capsizing.

Boats compete in one of five categories, from the tiny one-man E class dinghies

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to the largest A class sloops carrying crews of over a dozen.

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We watched in the days leading up to the races as the boats began arriving on the inter-island freighters.

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As probably the largest sporting event in the islands, the Regatta also includes a host of shore side events and activities. A virtual village of plywood structures are built around the waterfront to sell beer, liquor, and a variety of Bahamian foods. We’d call them booths, but the Bahamians proudly refer to them as shacks.

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And of course there was a parade, Bahamian style.

And then finally, it was time for the races. With racing spread over four days, the smaller boats go first each day. Up to 30 C, D and E class boats would come to the line for each day’s start, filling the bay with sails.

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Next up would be the B class sloops with a crew of four to six. Typically a dozen boats would race in that class. And the final race each day would feature the thoroughbreds of the regatta, the big class A sloops representing various islands throughout the Bahamas. Six boats competed in this class, most trailed by a separate support boat.

We watched most of the races from onboard Eagle Too, and the course actually passed through part of the anchorage. But for the Class A’s, we wanted to be in the middle of the action, so we rode over to the starting line in our dinghy to watch from up close.

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Now maybe there are other races that begin this way, but it was new experience for us. Each boat anchors at the starting line with sails down. When the gun goes off, the bowman begins hauling in the anchor, physically pulling the boat across the starting line, while the crew scrambles to raise the sails. The crew that can manage the intricate dance best gets away the fastest. Here, watch:

From the mad frenzy and jockeying for position at the start…

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To the controlled chaos of rounding the upwind mark, with crews scrambling to trim sails and man their planks…

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to the majestic parade of the downwind legs…

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it was some of the best racing I believe we’ve ever seen. After four days of intense competition, we were sorry to see it end. I’m definitely glad we made it to this year’s event. Maybe we’ll have to come again next year!

Happier Hour And The Very Good Deal

We first heard about Emerald Bay Marina (or The Marina at Emerald Bay as they like to call themselves on the VHF) from another cruising couple we met in Nassau. During our travels we often learn of places that weren’t originally on our radar from talking to other boaters. I’d go so far as to say that probably half the places we’ve made a point to visit were places we’d never even heard of when we set out for the Bahamas last December.

When another couple we were having sundowners with several weeks later, this time at Allen’s Cay in the northern Exumas, also mentioned Emerald Bay, it cemented the notion that maybe this was a place we should visit. And when weather delays kept pushing back our arrival in George Town, and we found ourselves staring April 15th in the face and needed to find some reliable internet to do our taxes, the Marina at Emerald Bay sounded like a very good option since we were in the area.

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So we pulled in for a few days. To do our taxes. And catch up on laundry. And grab some provisions and restock our liquor cabinet. And then the weather closed in.

We’ve been here now for two weeks, listening to the wind blow. A steady 15 to 25 knots from the northeast, with gusts on some days into the 30’s. But before you tell us to suck it up and not let a little wind scare us, I should point out that the marina entrance faces northeast, and runs close to a shallow reef. When the wind blows strongly from anywhere north of east, large breaking waves sweep the inlet.

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We watched boats try to leave. And the breakers stopped them dead like they hit a wall, and then tossed them around like a cork in a tempest. There just wasn’t anyplace we needed to be that merited chancing an exit through those waves. As I said to another boater who thought he could impress or inspire us with tales about worse conditions he’d endured in the past, we had no reason to deliberately put ourselves in a situation where one little engine hiccup could cause us to lose the boat.

But here’s the good news. If you’re going to be stuck somewhere for a while, it would be hard to beat The Marina at Emerald Bay. Because it would be hard to think of a place that was better at serving the needs of cruisers like us.

There’s pretty good, free WiFi, and a strong cell signal. The shower room is among the best we’ve seen in our travels, with individual rooms each containing a sink, toilet and enclosed shower, all cleaned daily. Modern floating docks in very good condition. The laundry facility? Several washers and dryers, all late model front loaders, and they’re totally free! Yes, free. A free DVD lending library with several hundred movies. A pleasant, professional staff. And probably the nicest clubhouse we’ve ever seen. Even nicer than any yacht club we’ve visited.

The front desk check-in.

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The reading room.

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The coffee bar, replenished daily.

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The boater’s  lounge.

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More of the boater’s lounge.

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The TV room, with American satellite TV.

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Even a complimentary internet-connected computer for those who don’t have their own laptop.

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We forgot to take a picture of the fitness center and weight room, but we did grab a shot of the billiards table.

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Now none of this would surprise many of you if I told you that we were paying $5, $4, even $3 a foot to stay here. But get this. Our charge to stay at The Marina at Emerald Bay has been 50 cents a foot. That’s right. Half a buck per foot per night. So for our 37 foot boat, we have the free laundry, free WiFi, free DVD library, showers and coffee bar and lounge and computers for less than $20 a day.

But wait, there’s more! It’s called Happier Hour, and it takes place every Monday at 5:30. You see, The Marina at Emerald Bay is owned by Sandals Resort, and to make us feel part of the family, they throw a free weekly party for the marina guests.

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Just be sure to be on time, because the rum punch and food goes fast once the bell rings!

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Not enough for you? Well, there’s a Greg Norman designed 18 hole course right next door that wraps along the shore like Pebble Beach, and of course, the Sandals Resort that I mentioned in our previous post is just a few minute’s walk down the beach. They’re not free, of course, but with all the money you can save by staying at the marina, well, maybe you can afford to splurge a little!

What’s the catch, you ask? Well, there are two. First, in order to secure the 50 cents per night rate, you have to stay a minimum of three nights (but honestly, why would you want to leave after just one or two nights?). The second is that the bargain rate dockage comes with no services. That’s no water, no power, no pumpout. Just a space at a dock to tie up your boat. But since we make our own water and power, and the temperatures are still cool enough to be comfortable without air conditioning, this hasn’t been a problem for us. But if you absolutely need power and water for air conditioning and the ice maker, well, the rate is $2.75 a foot a day, plus metered utilities.

But honestly, who would have believed you could find such value here in the Bahamas, land of the $18 hamburger and $45 case of beer?

Yes, I Am (Or Theoretically Could Be) A Pirate, 200 Years Too Late

So we’re currently stuck at Emerald Bay Marina on Great Exuma Island waiting yet again for weather. We’d heard a lot of good things about the marina here at Emerald Bay and what a first class operation it was from cruisers we met on our way south, and we’ll have more to say about that in another post. But today we want to talk about the enjoyable time we had yesterday.

Emerald Bay Marina is owned by Sandals, which also operates the Sandals Emerald Bay Resort that’s just down the beach. Rhonda and I decided to go for a walk on the beach yesterday, because we’d heard that it was a shortcut to a local bakery in Roker’s Point where you could order fresh Bahamian bread for pick up the next morning.

So we’re strolling along a typical Bahamian beach (beautiful clear blue water and nice almost-white sand) when we happened across the beach-side entrance to Sandals.

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There were water toys scattered about and pretty little cabanas full of Sandals guests relaxing and enjoying the day, and one of the first things I noticed is that there really didn’t appear to be any sort of control over access to the resort from the beach.

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So I started looking a little closer at the folks on the beach, and the second thing I noticed is that no one appeared to be wearing any sort of wristband or tag that identified them as guests of the resort.

So I turned to Rhonda and said, “You know, I’ll bet that in theory, (since this was a purely hypothetical conversation, after all) we could just walk right into Sandals and check it out, since there really doesn’t seem to be any type of gate or fence or person checking IDs.

It actually seemed like it would be a reasonable thing to do, because the marina, being an extension of Sandals Resort, offered a resort day-pass for $160 per person, and we’d discussed possibly buying a day’s access for my birthday next Tuesday. Surely they’d understand if we wanted to first take a quick look to see if it merited $320 for a one day pass for the two of us?

And then I said to Rhonda (purely theoretically, of course), “And you know, since the resort is an all-inclusive, I’ll bet if we just walked up to the pool bar like we belonged there and asked for a couple of beers, they’d more than likely serve us, because I doubt the wait staff checks room keys or anything.”

“Do you think so?” Rhonda asked apprehensively, as she is not a natural born pirate and somewhat uncomfortable with such speculation.

“I dunno for sure, but I’ll bet you the servers don’t care, particularly if you throw a couple of bucks their way,” I offered hypothetically.

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“And I’ll bet we could even enjoy some of the activities and perhaps even relax by the pool. If we were to try, that is,” I conjectured.

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Let’s just say that it ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable day.

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Were we pirates? Well, who’s to say, really? Maybe the title of this post reveals a hidden truth. Or maybe it’s all just an opportunity waiting for someone with a sense of daring and adventure to exploit. We’ll never tell… 🙂

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The Bahamian Ghost Town

We first heard about Lee Stocking Island from some cruisers we’d met further up the Exumas. It was an odd place, they told us. It had been home to a large marine research station that had been suddenly and completely abandoned in 2012. The crew just got on boats one day and left, leaving everything behind. As recently as two or three years ago, they said, you could still find computers sitting on desks, outboard motors on skiffs, and equipment in the labs.

It sounded like an episode of Lost. This we had to see.

It was a short trip from where we had anchored at Rudder Cut Cay to see David Copperfield’s underwater sculpture The Piano. Only 12 miles or so.  Of course, we had to thread our way out Rudder Cut and then back in through Adderly Cut. Navigating cuts, which are the breaks between the Exuma Cays that provide passage between the Banks and Exuma Sound, is one of the most dangerous navigational challenges you face down here.  Huge volumes of water stream through the cuts, generating strong tidal currents. The tumultuous reversing seas and standing waves that sometimes arise, as well as numerous reefs and rocks, have ended more than one cruiser’s journey. We then had to ride a rising tide to clear a large shoal in order to get into the anchorage. But hey, it was only 12 miles or so.

It took a radio call to boats already in the anchorage for guidance on navigating our way in. An hour of seeing a foot or less under our keel left Rhonda craving a stiff drink by the time we finally dropped the anchor. But we obviously made it, or you wouldn’t be reading this. Three or four weeks ago, we would have just passed on by. But after dozens of Cays and weeks of navigating the shoals and channels of the Banks, I was sure we could do it.

So what did we find? Here, have a look.

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I can’t believe Hollywood hasn’t made a horror movie here. We walked about the property for an hour, the only people there, feeling a bit uncomfortable and out of place, as if we shouldn’t be intruding in this Bahamian ghost town. It definitely wasn’t your typical Exumas experience. But it’s a stop I’m glad we took the time to make.

And by the way, you may have noticed that it’s been darn near a month since we’ve updated our blog. That’s entirely due to how rare it is to find a decent internet connection here in the Exumas. While we’ve occasionally been able to get a good enough connection from a nearby BTC (Bahamas Telephone Company) tower to do a quick Facebook update and sometimes even upload a few pictures, it has been over four weeks since we’ve had WiFi with enough bandwidth to do a blog post. But we arrived today at Emerald Bay Marina on Grand Exuma Island, where it looks like we’ll be hanging out for at least a few days, maybe a week, to wait for some windy weather to blow through. We’ve seen and done some amazing things in the last four weeks, so maybe we’ll have to do a mother-of-all-update posts to catch everyone up!