We made our way to Stuart, FL and were watching the weather forecasts, awaiting for a good “weather window” to make our crossing to the Bahamas. We originally thought that we would be departing from the Lake Worth or West Palm Beach, both of which are south of our initial Bahamas destination of West End on Grand Bahama island. For you non-ocean going boaters, the Gulf Stream is a massive current that flows northward between the east coast of Florida and the Bahama islands at an average rate of 3.3 mph, before going up the entire US east coast and then turning west to the British isles. Hence the desirability of starting further south so you don’t have to fight the strong current. As it turned out, the forecast was looking good to begin our crossing right from Stuart. So we departed Stuart early morning on the last day of March. As things happen while cruising, the forecast was not quite accurate and the seas were a little bigger than anticipated. However, our fair weather, flat water loving cats were not happy.
We were traveling alone and with no boats in sight. The water was initially a lovely shade of medium blue and then suddenly it changed to deep blue almost black. Next Dance had entered the Gulf Stream about 15 miles east of the Florida coast. The Gulf Stream flows along a very deep, steeped wall ocean canyon. The depth of water under Next Dance suddenly went from 60 feet to no bottom registering on our depth meter. You also can tell when you’re in the Gulf Stream by watching the water temperature gauge, the Gulf Stream is about 4-5 degrees warmer than the surrounding waters.
We made fair progress throughout the day but by late afternoon the current had pushed Next Dance about 20 miles north of our destination. We would need to turn south, and motor into the oncoming seas in order to reach West End. As we mentioned above, the waves were higher than forecasted, averaging about 4 to 5 feet. While this isn’t a problem for our boat, oncoming seas of this magnitude requires that we slowdown our speed somewhat to ease the boat’s motion. And, since darkness still comes early in late March, we realized that we wouldn’t make it to West End until just after sundown. Because we did not want to enter an unknown, to us, harbor in the dark, we decided to enter the Bahama Bank at a point 12 miles north of West End, about a hour south of where we were.
For those of you who haven’t been to the Bahamas, all of the islands are located on a very large, shallow sand bank which extends about 100 miles east to west and about 600 miles north to south. The extremely clear water over this bank averages 5 to 12 feet deep, with generally sandy bottom. The spot where we entered the Bahamian bank is marked by a large rock, Memory Rock. From the entrance there is a natural channel of 10+ foot deep water that leads generally east for about 50 miles then turns south to the Abaco islands, our final destination. Since Next Dance draws 5 feet 6 feet when fully loaded with fuel and provisions, we need to stay in these channels to avoid scraping any paint off our keel.
In settled weather, it is possible to anchor anywhere on the bank, as long as you are sufficiently outside these channels, so as not to be rundown be a fast boat running at night. But the weather forecast for the next few days called for 25 to 30 mph winds and 2 to 3 ft waves on the banks. We decided to anchor for the night in the lee of an island (sorry, don’t have our log with and we can’t remember the name of the island) about two hours onto the bank. We reached the island, just as the sun was setting and the wind was picking up. There were two boats already anchored there and we tucked in beside them. It was a moonless night. And with no inhabited land within 20 miles of us, the lights visible were on the neighboring boats. It was really, really dark.
The next day, we were on the move again and the wind was blowing hard with close spaced, steep waves hitting us on our starboard beam throughout the morning as we motored east. The boat was constantly covered with salt spray. About noon the channel made a 90 degree turn to the right, and we motored into the windblown waves until we came under the lee of Little Abaco island, when the cats became happy for the first time that day. A couple of hours further on, we arrived at our anchorage, Crab Cay. This is a very large anchorage, well protected from wind and waves, except from the west. There is even a beautiful, sandy beach with palm trees on the south island. No signs of human habitation are visible. There were 5 or 6 boats already anchored there when we arrived, but because of it’s large size we anchored at least 200 feet from the nearest boat, in crystal clear, 10 feet deep water.
Since we were now in Bahamian waters, we needed to clear customs. This can be done at a number of islands in the Bahamas. Since we missed our opportunity to clear in at West End, Grand Bahama, we decided to clear in at Green Turtle Cay, one of the northern Abaco islands. The winds were still blowing strong the next morning, April 2nd, and the following day was a Sunday and the custom offices were closed (Island time, Mon!), we decided to relax for a couple of days at Crab Cay and celebrate Mark’s birthday on Sunday. Since we had not cleared customs as yet, we were required by Bahamian law to remain on the boat and not go ashore. So we spent the time washing the salt spray off the boat, snorkeling, relaxing in the sun and running our newly installed water maker to replace the water we used cleaning the boat.
An aside, on water makers and the water in the Bahamas. When we built Next Dance we knew we wanted to spend some time in the islands. An given that fresh water is scarce in the Bahamas and therefore very expensive, up to 35 cents a gallon, AND, we wanted living aboard Next Dance to replicate living ashore, we had the boat plumbed for a water maker when we had her built. Then in the early spring of 2016, when we anticipated going to the Bahamas later that year, we had a water maker installed during our stay in Stuart, Florida. Water makers convert sea water to fresh water by a reverse osmosis process using high pressure pumps that forces the sea water through a exceedingly fine membrane straining out the salt. The resulting fresh water is exceedingly pure. But since these pumps use a lot of power, we only can operate the water maker while our 12 kilowatt generator is running. Since we didn’t want to run the generator beyond the time necessary to recharge our batteries while at anchor, we installed a relatively high capacity water maker so that we could have all the water we could use daily in about two hours. Oh what a luxury!
While in our anchorage, a young man kayaked over from a sailboat. He came over to ask where we were going to clear customs and what his options were. Mark provided him with some helpful information. Turns out it was two young Russian men who were going to be cruising for the next few years, spending some time the Bahamas and then working their way down to the Caribbean. He also told us that while they were in West Palm Beach, someone had stole their dinghy with engine. Hence why he was in an inflatable kayak. Hate to hear these things, but unfortunately they sometimes happen. As a matter of fact, it is noted in cruising guides that while in the Bahamian water, it is prudent to lock your dinghy to your boat, or even better, to bring it onboard when not in use.
The next day we made way to Green Turtle Cay where we would clear customs and begin enjoying the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas. We were beyond thrilled to finally be here on our own boat. Many years earlier we had chartered several catamarans in the Bahamas. So we were familiar with the waters and the sights we were going to see.
Getting into the Green Turtle Cay harbor is through a marked channel that can be shallow, so you have to pay attention. We had reservations at the Green Turtle Club. The dock hands there are absolutely the best in the Abacos, at least in our opinion. They know exactly what they are doing. They ask permission to come aboard and then they take care of all of the line handling the getting the boat secured. We planned to spend the next few days there getting cleared and then exploring the island and having a few Tipsy Turtles (their signature drink there). There are no cars on the island, other than the construction trucks that they bring over on a ferry. So the mode of transportation is either bicycles or golf carts. Mark rented a golf cart and took the short journey to the other end of the island to clear customs. I stayed on the boat and got everything ship shape and got us checked in to the marina. When Mark came back we went off to explore. There are several beautiful beaches filled with finds of sea glass and shells.
Heather, Ellie and Anna flew into Marsh Harbor and joined us for a week. They were so excited to really get a taste of what cruising in the Bahamas was all about. It was a whirlwind week of swimming, sight-seeing and just having a lot of fun together sharing this great experience of being on a boat in the Bahamas. Life on a boat is good! Here’s some photos of family fun in the sun.
Wow! That was fun.
There’s more Bahamas fun and a Colorado wedding to look forward to. So until next time . . .
Fair winds and following seas!
Pauline, Mark, Ming and Pema