Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Final week in da islands

We are under way across the Tongue of the Ocean from Nassau. We had a pleasant stay of almost two weeks in the harbor, but hurricane season is now three weeks old and our time in the Bahamas is coming to a close.

Just a small part of the enormous water park at Atlantis.

When last I posted here we had just tied up at the Nassau Harbour Club (map), a marina and "resort" toward the west end of the harbor, on the New Providence side. As Nassau marinas go, the rates are reasonable at $1.75 per foot, with one day's discount for a week stay. There's a mandatory $8 per day charge for water, but the water system was inoperative when we arrived, and remained down for the duration of our stay, so we were not charged. Louise managed to get one fill during the week from a long hose.

In the morning I used the Bahamas Ride app to hail a taxi. It's a $40 ride to the airport, which takes about a half hour. Knowing I would have to clear US customs as well as the usual security lines, I arrived, as recommended, three hours before departure. I sailed through security, Customs, and Immigration in less than five minutes and was able to get on an earlier flight to Atlanta, which helped with what would have been a tight connection there. I also avoided the dreaded center seat which had been assigned, in favor of an aisle seat.

I was not so lucky in Atlanta. Flying, as I was, on donated miles, they would not even put me on a standby list for an earlier flight unless I wanted to pay $75. Instead I had a relaxing three hours in Atlanta, where, in hindsight, I should have had an early dinner. My flight was delayed out of the gate and then re-routed around thunderstorms, arriving in Dallas over an hour late. I ended up eating at 9pm in the hotel bar.

I had a really good conference and training symposium over the next five days. I won't bore you with the details, other than to say that there was an overabundance of food and yours truly lacked the willpower to resist it. The hotel had a nice buffet breakfast every morning which included cooked-to-order omelettes, and an open-bar happy hour every afternoon with a huge snack spread. Left to my own devices, that would have been sufficient to feed me the entire week.

Anyone who knows me intimately knows I have a thing for soft pretzels. Add in the deli mustard at left and this afternoon snack spread was deadly.

But, no, the conference also had the hotel provide a buffet lunch and a plated dinner every day, plus morning and afternoon snack breaks. For someone who seldom has dessert at home, I suddenly found myself faced with three a day, between the one at lunch, the one at dinner, and the ice cream or cookies that constituted the afternoon snack. Blork. Louise, on the other hand, ate in and thus more healthily each night, and spent most of the week down below sewing, leaving the boat only twice for errands.

Friday's schedule had the conference ending at noon, which should have been plenty of time for me to make a 1:45 flight, since we were at an airport hotel. But when I went to check in online the day before, Delta's system would not allow me to check in since I had an international ticket with no return flight or date. I guess their system is too stupid to recognize round-trip flights to the US originating abroad.

No matter what I tried, I could not get checked in ahead of time, and the airline was suggesting I needed to be at the terminal again three hours ahead of departure. I decided to split the difference and left the conference an hour early to arrive two hours ahead of time. It took three different Delta agents before one of them was finally able to clear the document hold and check me in, and even to do that I had to give them a date of return to the US.

That again put me in the gate area one full flight ahead of my scheduled departure, but, once again, they would not put me on the earlier flight without a fee. My return flights were otherwise uneventful, other than a late departure on the Nassau leg. I zipped through Bahamian customs with nary a question about the boat parts I was carrying or even having to show my cruising permit; the Nassau airport staff are much more jaded than the often lone staffers on the out islands.

I managed to get one text out to Louise from the airport and then my T-Mobile phone crapped out, showing "No Signal" in places where it had worked fine on my way out. I chalked it up to a BTC glitch and grabbed a cab home.

We were scheduled to depart the next day, Saturday, making it an even week at the Nassau Harbour Club. But Saturday morning my phone was still not working, and I decided to take the T-Mobile SIM out and see if I had better luck with my Bahamian Aliv SIM. That's when the SIM tray broke in half while I was removing it, leaving the SIM stuck inside the phone.

A little Internet sleuthing turned up two cellular repair places nearby, one of whom had replacement SIM trays for my model. I hoofed it the mile or so to the store, and $100 later the broken tray was replaced. That involved heating the case of the phone to pry the back off, working the broken bits out, and gluing the phone back together ($70), plus the cost of the tray ($30) which, of course, is a different color than the rest of the phone.

One way to know you are in the Bahamas. The cell phone store sells guitars.

The phone worked on and off for a few hours after that with the T-Mobile SIM, but still not 100%, so I swapped in the Aliv SIM and it has been working since. I'm not sure if the T-Mobile SIM is bad, or the SIM slot in the phone is marginal and thus may have been responsible for the SIM jamming in the slot and the tray breaking off. I may be shopping for a new phone back in the states. In any event, this one is no longer waterproof (the reason I chose this model) owing to the repair.

After spending all morning at the cell phone joint I was in no mood to move the boat, and so we just extended an extra day. That gave me a chance to swim in the pool, about the only "resort" amenity in this very tired and shop-worn property (although they are apparently going to try to renovate and re-open the long-shuttered restaurant and bar). They have hotel rooms here, too, but I would not recommend the place for that purpose.

We walked over to Montagu Gardens for dinner, which turns out to be the local wedding factory. Several tables were set for Fathers Day celebrations, and out back a giant wedding-like function was set up under awnings, complete with DJ, that we learned was an anniversary party. We were the only non-Bahamians in the whole place, which was packed by the time we left. On our way home we stopped at the very nice grocery store across the street from the marina and stocked up on some essentials like milk and veggies. We remembered this store from last time, when we rode the shuttle over from Atlantis.

Vector docked in the cheap seats at Atlantis, as seen from the Harbourside Resort.

Sunday morning we dropped lines for the very short ten-minute trip along Potter's Cay and under the bridge to Atlantis on Paradise Island (map). We remembered enjoying ourselves there on our last visit and so decided to spend three nights and take in the water park and well-kept grounds and aquariums.

The price has increased since our last visit, to $4.50 per foot, but day passes to the water park are $165 apiece, making the $230 or so to dock the boat a relative bargain. Dockage includes four passes per day, and we had hoped my cousins might have been able to join us here, but their schedule did not permit it.

Louise enjoying the rapids river ride.

We enjoyed our three days in the park. We scheduled our visits around the cruise ship arrivals; a day at Atlantis is available as a shore excursion on every ship that calls here. The cruise passengers swell the park attendance mid-day, but they're all gone by 3pm if they don't want to miss their ship, and the park is open to 7.

As we remembered from last time, the shortcoming of Atlantis is dining. They are trying to emulate the big Vegas casino resorts, with no fewer than four "celebrity chef" venues and a number of casual choices, but all fall short of the mark. Between the Bahamian prices and standards of service, and the general disconnect between western and Bahamian tastes, none of the on-property restaurants is appealing.

We ended up eating at the Pirate Republic Tap Room in the Marina Village two nights, one of which we carried in a pizza from the Marina Pizzeria across the square just so we could have draft beers with it. And one night we just shared a salad and two apps at the frou-frou Todd English joint, Olives. Better options are available at lunch time, when another half dozen outdoor venues are open in the water park area.

A view over the Northwest Providence Channel and a pair of water slides.

The $4.50 docks are actually the cheap seats at the Altantis Marina; it's a quarter mile to the marina office from these slips and again as far from the office to the main hotel. The marina is happy to run you around in their golf carts, but we remembered from last visit the secret to happiness here: we instead walked through the Harbourside Resort to their lobby and got on the shuttle buses that will take you to any of the three major tower lobbies (Royal, The Cove, or Coral). There is also a shuttle that will take you to the grocery store for $10 round trip, the same one across the street from our last marina.

Three days was plenty for Atlantis, which might best be described as a Bahamian version of Disney trying to re-create the Bellagio. It's a bit sad to think that the closest many resort guests will get to the real Bahamas is the fake Bahamian "Marina Village," and the clearest water they will see is off the beach at the resort. Still, it was a nice diversion.

Lots of megayachts here. "Misunderstood" is a familiar 165-footer that we often see at her home dock in Fort Lauderdale.

This morning I walked across the street to grab some bagels at Dunkin' Donuts (really), we took one last dip in the pool closest to the boat, and shoved off. The Atlantis Marina is megayacht central, and we had to let one pass before we could even back out of the slip. It is essential here to coordinate arrival and departure with the marina office to avoid any unpleasant surprises in the channel.

We received permission from Nassau Harbor Control for an immediate departure, cleared out of the harbor, and turned west towards Andros. Our planned next stop was Morgan's Bluff at the north end of Andros Island. Shortly after leaving the harbor, though, we spent some more time reading the latest reviews and information about the harbor there, and started to have second thoughts.

Nassau receding behind us. A Carnival ship is in port.

The harbor there is apparently littered with wrecks, and there is one bar and one restaurant that are seldom open and have no phone numbers to even call and ask. We could offload scooters onto the abandoned water barge dock there and maybe explore the island, but we'll save that for another visit when we are not feeling the pressure to use this very settled weather window to get back to the States.

Instead we turned northwest to Chub Cay, where we stayed on our way our of Nassau last time, too. I wrote back then about the unfinished nature of the place and the dilapidated condition of some of the facilities, but apparently the main clubhouse has since been completed and is reportedly very nice. We made dinner reservations for tonight which ought to let us land the tender on this otherwise private island.

From here we will proceed across the bank to the northwest end of Bimini, a two-day trip. We'll anchor mid-bank tomorrow night without Internet access (but satellite TV is working again), and be back on-line off Bimini, anchored near the resort. From there it is a long one-day run to Palm Beach inlet.

A cruise ship passes an anchored Canadian warship, as seen from the Atlantis beach. The warship docked at the cruise docks when they were not full, starting right after I left. He was back at the dock the day after I shot this.

We had hoped to leave the Bahamas and head directly north in the Gulf Stream, making a landfall at least as far north as Beaufort, NC, if not further. But we're down to our last 200 gallons of diesel, not counting the 200 gallon reserve that also trims the boat. By the time we reach Bimini that will be down to 150 gallons, which is not enough to make North Carolina.

We briefly contemplated fueling up in Nassau. But with the cheapest diesel in the Bahamas at $4.30 per gallon, it's much cheaper to just add the few dozen extra miles to stop in Palm Beach before heading north. Fuel in that part of Florida is around $3.00 per gallon right now. This will also let us clear in to the US using the whizzy new ROAM app from Customs and Border Protection, which eliminates the in-person appearance in favor of video chat. It's being rolled out slowly and is not available north of Florida yet.

Once we've cleared in and fueled up we will go right back out to catch the Gulf Stream push northward. With a full load of fuel we will have our pick of places to come back in, limited only by weather. A six-day window could take us all the way to New York Harbor, whereas a three-day tip would bring us to Beaufort.

Update: We are anchored off the beach at Chub Cay (map), not far from where we were last time. Heading ashore for dinner shortly. Next post will be from Bimini in a couple of days.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

Gone to Texas

We are docked at a marina in Nassau Harbour, having pulled in just ahead of slack tide this morning. It's our first dock since leaving Turtle Cove in Providenciales in May, and only the second dock since leaving Florida in March.

We're here principally because I am flying to Dallas for a Red Cross training symposium tomorrow. When Louise leaves the boat for a few days or more, I often remain at anchor, but when the tables are turned we prefer a dock. She'd rather not have to deal with the finicky tender. Louise will be holding down the fort and keeping Angel company for the five days I am gone.

Honestly, the timing is right for it, too, in the sense that it is now hot, humid, and still enough that air conditioning is a welcome relief, and it will be nice to have water available to deal with the accumulated backlog of laundry. At the moment, the water is down for repair -- this is still, after all, the Bahamas.

Fireworks over Paradise Island, from our anchorage. Atlantis resort at left. I don't know the occasion.

We had a very pleasant cruise from Allens Cay to Nassau Harbor on Thursday. We spent a half hour on the flybridge as we crossed the middle of the Yellow Bank, where the ability to see the corals in the water is critical. Two mailboats passed us on their way back to Nassau as well.

We called Nassau Harbour Control for permission to enter as we were just outside the eastern light, right after the mailboats. I had barely hung up the microphone when we heard Loose Seal call in as well; they turned out to be just a mile behind us, coming from northern Eleuthera. We hailed them on the radio and agreed to meet up Friday, as they needed to spend Thursday dealing with Customs, and were planning to leave here this morning.

Unlike Highbourne, Nassau Harbor was uncrowded, reminding us of how quiet George Town was. On our last pass through here, we had to anchor another half mile away, there were so many anchored boats. Wednesday evening there were but two on this side of the Sidney Poitier bridge. We dropped the hook just a short distance from the marina (map). Loose Seal cruised on past us to this same marina.

We splashed the tender after cocktail hour and dinghied in to The Poop Deck, a casual restaurant overlooking the Yacht Haven Marina. Apart from the Green Parrot across the harbor, where we ate on our last pass, it's really the only boat-in restaurant option in the harbor. On our way we spent a little time sounding out the fairway and slips in this marina as well. Back at Vector we were treated to a fireworks show, visible over the ocean across Paradise Island.

Mailboat passing us. This swoopy catamaran we think is the one we saw in Salt Pond.

Yesterday morning we tendered in here to talk to the dockmaster and get our slip assignment. With the thruster acting up I wanted to have my docking game plan all laid out ahead of time. We got back to Vector in time for lunch and to have a conference call with our financial planners, who are in the process of moving to a different underlying brokerage. I'll have to sign some papers while I am in Dallas and mail them back.

I spent most of the afternoon getting ready for my trip. That included finalizing all my parts orders, and spending a couple of hours on the Red Cross web site taking some on-line prerequisite training and reading documents. Some of the material has either changed or been created since the last time I was out, and that was just in October.

At 5:30 we dinghied back over to the marina to meet up with Meghan, Ben, and Mason for beer and snacks on the patio. It was great finally getting to spend enough time to have a real conversation. We discussed their route back to Florida and their plans moving forward. Afterwards, Louise and I walked to dinner at Villa East, a Chinese restaurant just a block away. It felt very familiar, in the way that many Chinese restaurants do, but the food tasted decidedly non-Asian, though tasty. A pianist played lounge music nearby, which was very pleasant.

This morning we decked the tender, weighed anchor, and ran all of five minutes to get here to the dock. Pushing into the current and nose-first into the slip we docked without drama, connected the power cord, and turned on the AC. The last couple of days at anchor we ran the generator about twice our usual amount to get a little AC in the pilothouse and stateroom.

Ben and Meghan decided to spend another night, so we will see them again for docktails today. I'm all packed for my trip so I can relax for the rest of the day. I'll grab a taxi in the morning to take me to the airport, and Louise will finally be able to expand quilting operations to the entire boat.

I may or may not get a blog post in while I am in Dallas. I'll be back here Friday evening, and it will probably take me a day or two to recover before I can post again. At this point we are scheduled to shove off next Saturday, possibly just to cross the harbor to Atlantis.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

Exuma Exeunt

We are underway across the bank, the northern Exuma Cays receding behind us, en route to Nassau. We've enjoyed the month and a half or so that we spent in the Exumas and the out-islands, but our time there has come to an end.

Double rainbow yesterday afternoon off Leaf Cay. Highbourne and the megayacht anchorage in the background.

Monday evening we splashed the tender and headed ashore to the Cape Eleuthera Marina for dinner. The chart showed a back way in from the bight, via a small dinghy channel under a pair of bridges. We started to take that only to find ourselves being swept down the channel by more than a couple of knots of current.

The channel was clearly excavated from hard rock, and, not wanting to be swept into rocks without a clear idea of what was ahead, we turned around and instead went around the point and in the main marina entrance. We tied up and walked to the restaurant, which has been renamed to Barracuda's. We had the whole place to ourselves. Afterwards we strolled around the cape a bit.

The storage tanks for the Cape Eleuthera fuel dock are painted with an aquatic mural.

With the benefit of some local knowledge, and much closer to slack, we left via the dinghy channel which was a much shorter and more pleasant ride. We did glide over a rock shelf just a couple of feet deep, so we were wise to have turned around earlier.

The bight was almost unbelievably calm overnight. We spent some time on the aft deck watching a variety of fish swim around us in our underwater light. We were surprised that the fish tally included a couple of squid. Those are wicked fast when they want to be, and with the tentacles folded in they can pass for regular fish.

Last night we had pipe fish rather than squid, feasting on minnows. Dozens of them, all night.

Tuesday morning, as we were enjoying our coffee on deck, again in complete calm, we were entertained by a trio of dolphins. We saw them approaching from a quarter mile out, but as they neared Vector they decided to put on  a show. One had a good size fish in his mouth and was tossing it forward through the air, then resurfacing to catch it. We'd never observed this, but it is apparently a common dolphin behavior. Then two of the dolphins began a series of full breeches, launching perhaps six feet or so in the air. It was all quite spectacular, but over all too soon, and we never even got a photo.

Just as we were preparing to raise anchor for the run to Highbourne Cay in the Exumas, Loose Seal called on the radio to tell us they'd be heading north along Eleuthera instead. The wind was going to be directly on our nose for our crossing, acing them out of sailing across. They are also headed to Nassau, so perhaps we will see them yet again.

The aforementioned minnows. I was just trying to capture how close our keel was to the bottom.

We had a pleasant and uneventful cruise across Exuma Sound, and an easy entry to the bank via Highbourne Cut. With winds having clocked uncharacteristically to the west, several large yachts were anchored on the sound side of the cays, and we soon learned why. We came around the corner and dropped our hook among a gaggle of megayachts (map), but in a good half meter of swell.

Fortunately, the wind held us directly into the wind-driven swell and so we pitched rather than rolled. The megayachts, at three times Vector's length, barely moved. We looked at some more protected options on the charts, but ultimately decided it was tolerable and that we preferred to have the shorter tender ride through the chop to dinner.

Vector among her larger brethren. We recognized Gallant Lady at left from Fort Lauderdale.

The very nice and very upscale Xuma restaurant on Highbourne requires reservations for dinner to be made by 4pm. I had been trying to call them on the phone all afternoon with no success -- several rings and then a disconnect. And so I ran over alone in the tender just before 4. The phone issue turned out to be a BTC outage. The early run allowed me to stop in the little store attached to the marina and pick up some fresh veggies and milk.

We returned in the tender at 6:30 for dinner, which was very nice if a bit pricey. Highbourne does have condo and resort guests, and perhaps some were with us, but I think most of our dining company were megayacht guests (or owners) who had been tendered ashore. The marina was incredibly busy, considering the rest of the Exumas seem to have emptied out for the season.

The megayachts are too large for the marina, and I counted at least a half dozen anchored with us or a short distance away. A clear giveaway that this is a nightly occurrence: the local gulls appeared off our stern at night to feed in our underwater light.

Vector from Leaf Cay. Allens Cay in the background.

Yesterday morning, with the swell and chop still high enough to make hoisting the tender dicey, we set it on a tow line and moved around to the protected anchorage between Allens Cay and Leaf Cay (map). Surrounded on all sides by cays, it was flat calm in there, and lovely. I snorkeled and we both swam before dinner. I also swam ashore at Leaf Cay to get some close-up photos of the famous Allens Cay iguanas, which exist no where else in the world.

A pair of Allens Cay Iguanas, looking for a handout.

Another pair. Even with his markings, the big male nearly disappears against the rocks.

Anchored, as we were, less than a hundred yards off the beach, we could see the iguanas just fine from on deck, and we had the entertainment of watching an endless procession of tour boats land on the beach. Rules against feeding or molesting the endangered iguanas are routinely violated. AT one point a giant charter cat, whose enormous tender had already landed on the beach, came right up to us and spun around between us and the shore.

Our entertainment, watching the beach. AquaCat is spinning around at right and their tender is to the left.

The cat was quite large. Normally a dive charter.

Shortly after anchoring we tendered over to Southwest Allens Cay, which is where the largest group of iguanas is said to reside. A bored-looking yacht crewman was on the beach watching over an Easy-Up with a table and a half dozen chairs, waiting for a group of passengers. He told us he'd only seen a couple of smaller iguanas with white X's painted on them, and we ultimately realized the larger group is now on Leaf Cay where we anchored.

Iguana x-out. I don't know what it signifies.

I grilled a nice steak for dinner and we had a blissfully calm night at anchor. Two Sea-Rays and a sailing cat shared the anchorage with us. This morning we took a quick dinghy tour of the cays surrounding the anchorage before hoisting the tender back on deck.

Two iguanas heading into their den.

Today we have near-perfect conditions for crossing the bank. While we are not due at the marina until Saturday, we'll be happy to be in the harbor a couple of days early. That will give us a chance to check out the marina and figure out how to dock with no thruster, which quit back in the Turks & Caicos. It will also give me a full extra day to get ready for my class  and do the prerequisite reading, without worrying about weather or moving the boat.

Faded iguana sign.

I'll be back in the US for five days while Louise holds down the fort. I've already ordered a half dozen spare parts sent to the hotel to bring back with me, including parts for the watermaker and the tender engine. And I will be bringing all my US SIM cards and devices to let them sync up with their domestic carriers, so they won't be shut down for being offline longer than 90 days.

When I return we might spend a day or two at Atlantis to play in their water park, if they have room on the "cheap" dock ($4.50 per foot!). From there our return path to the US will depend on weather and fuel pricing; we can come back via Bimini to Palm Beach, or else via Freeport or The Abacos to points north.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Greetings from the smallest cruise ship

We are under way in Exuma Sound, en route to Cape Eleuthera. It's been an interesting couple of days. We had a good time at Cat and Little San Salvador islands, but it's time to move along. I want to have plenty of buffer before my Sunday flight out of Nassau.

Vector, alone at anchor in West Bay, Little San Salvador.

We arrived at Arthurs Town before 2pm and set the hook off the town dock (map). As we feared, there was a good deal of swell out of the south, since winds had begun clocking around south from east. Reviews said this anchorage was untenable in swell, and when we arrived we could see a pair of small sailboats pitching rather violently.

Fortunately, wind and swell were from very nearly identical directions. Pointed directly into it, the motion on Vector was not bad at all, and we decided we could just stay put. Getting ashore, however, would be another matter. That same swell was crashing into the shoreline along the entire town, and up against the concrete remains of the town dock. Making matters worse, the shoreline is rocky and what little beach exists is well-guarded by stray rocks.

Seas too rough for a tender landing, either at the dock or the beach.

We spent considerable time staring at the shoreline through binoculars, looking at satellite photos, and reading notes from other cruisers before deciding that landing the tender was too risky. Anchored just 500 feet from shore, however, we figured we could paddle ashore in our inflatable kayak. That can be a wet experience, especially in surf, and so we opted to just go once, waiting until we were ready to head over to the rake and scrape festival.

We landed the kayak without incident on the beach nearest the airport access road, just a bit after 6pm. It was a short walk to the festival marketplace at the airport, and we could hear music emanating from there as soon as we landed. We arrived at the festival grounds about 6:20, a bit late, so we thought, for the 6pm scheduled start of the Battle of the Bands.

Vector (and some sailboats) anchored at Arthurs Town, as seen from our kayak landing on the beach.

The music we heard turned out to be recorded. The stage was empty, and the festival park had perhaps three dozen people milling around. We're used to things happening on "island time" and so we thought nothing of this at all. We found the beer stand right away, but before we could even buy a beer we were each being hit up by several young contestants in the Little Miss Cat Island beauty pageant. We ended up sponsoring each contestant for a dollar apiece.

After sitting a while sipping our beers with nothing at all happening on stage, we eventually wandered over to one of the half dozen food stalls and bought a plate of BBQ ribs for dinner, with traditional Bahamian sides of peas & rice and mac & cheese. We shared one plate between us, which was plenty.

Somewhere between 7:30 and 8pm, with still nothing happening on stage, they booted everyone out of the festival park so they could collect admission from us all. We re-entered to the tune of $15 each, hoping that, at some point, there would be a live band, battle or no.

Rake and Scrape fest, finally under way. Quadrille dancers on stage.

Not long afterwards our new friends Ben and Meghan and their dog Mason from s/v Loose Seal showed up; they had dropped the hook not far from us about three hours after we did. They, too, grabbed some food, and let Mason play with the local children. Unfortunately, they had to cut their evening short just a short while later when they got word that friends of theirs had been rescued from their sinking vessel off the coast of the Dominican Republic. I had read about the rescue earlier in the day, but of course had no idea Meghan and Ben knew them.

It was a good diversion to have them to chat with, but by 9pm, which was the scheduled end of the battle of the bands and the scheduled start of the evening show, still not a single band had taken the stage. By this time, the crowd had swelled to maybe a couple hundred; the Bahamians either already knew there would be no Battle of the Bands, or else had only planned to come for the evening show.

I think you can see where this is going. Some announcements about a delay in busing some Nassau primary school kids up from The Bight was part of the delay, perhaps the same kids we saw down there the day before, still waiting past 7pm for their 6:30 ride. And something about not wanting to change the order of the program.

The view from our deck at Half Moon Cay. Like anchoring in a swimming pool. Cruise facilities in background.

Suffice it to say the music started after 9:30, the school kids had not arrived, the first act was terrible, and the short part of the second act we managed to catch was not much better. The power went out just before the first act started, for another ten minute delay, and apparently it had gone out in The Bight somewhat earlier. At 10pm we left and made our way back to our wet chariot to head home.

This is Bahamian culture in a nutshell. Other than the lack of any actual festival music, we very much enjoyed ourselves for the evening. The food was good, and all the Bahamians were happy to be relaxing on Labour Day Weekend. There was only a mild uprising when the music did not start on time. And children were playing everywhere.

This ersatz pirate ship at Half Moon Cay is a bar. To the right is one of the many cabanas passengers can rent for the day for $300.

Many an entrepreneur has come to the Bahamas hoping to open a western-style resort with first world promptness and attention to detail, only to run smack into the cultural norms that simply will not support that. The abandoned foundations of these resorts can be found all over the islands. And western tourists coming here for vacation with western service expectations are sometimes sorely disappointed.

What the Bahamians lack in first-world promptness, they make up for in friendliness and willingness to help. They will open their homes and cook dinner for you, or give you a lift to the other end of the island, or come out in an old fishing boat and tow you off a sandbar. Just be prepared for all of that to happen on Island Time.

Vector at Half Moon Cay. Tiki hut to left used to be a bar but is now the high-zoot private cabana.

We were a bit nervous about getting the kayak launched in the heavy surf and over the rocks, in the dark. Louise paddled from the front seat while I pushed off the beach from thigh-deep in the water, then jumped in like a bobsled brakeman. Other than getting my foot tangled in the seat strap it worked like a charm and we were in open water without a hitch. It was a longer ride home, paddling against wind and wave.

We awoke yesterday to an even bouncier morning. Needing nothing else from Arthurs Town, we decided to get moving to our next stop sooner rather than later. That first required a bit of research, since that next stop was a private island belonging to a cruise line. After a while I was able to find the island's port call schedule and determine that no cruise ships were scheduled to be in port either yesterday or today, and so we weighed anchor before lunch and headed that direction.

Lobster shack and the "I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever" bar (as written on sign).

Holland America cruise line purchased Little San Salvador Island in 1996 for the beautiful bay at the southwest corner with its white powder sand beach. They developed about 50 of the island's 2,400 acres into a luxury beach playground for their cruise passengers, and have improved the property over the past two decades. A handful of caretakers and maintenance staff live at the complex in trailers, but the island is otherwise uninhabited.

We hailed the island manager on the VHF as we arrived to let him know we would be anchoring, and to  ask permission to go ashore. While they own the island, they can not own the bay, and the beach up to the high tide line. But it's a courtesy to anchor out of the way, and permission is needed to go beyond the high tide line. We dropped the hook in ten feet, just off the swim area (map).

The air conditioned massage "shack." So inviting, but the staff arrives with the ship. 

In the past, boaters have been permitted to stroll the complex (when no ships are there) after asking permission, and some have even been given tours by island staff. We were told we could only access the beach, likely because the privilege has been abused. One boating family of three felt entitled to help themselves to the buffet every day for two weeks, and use the water park and other amenities on cruise ship days. I wanted to think ugly Americans, but these turned out to be ugly Bulgarians instead.

We anchored close enough to the beach that I just swam ashore to stroll. I walked most of the developed length of the beach, took a few photos, and then swam back. While I had heard there was no cell service here, there is now a tower on the island and we had good 4G signal from both BTC and Aliv, so we spent the day on the boat relaxing and catching up. For most of the afternoon we had the whole place to ourselves, and it was quite lovely. The water here is the clearest we've seen yet.

Two of the five "villas." Painted in Bahamian style.

Late in the afternoon s/v Loose Seal arrived, asking permission to bring Mason ashore. If only the fake pirate-ship bar had been open, we would gladly have joined them ashore. Of course, even when the bars here are open, you can only buy a drink (or a massage, or rent water sports gear) with your cruise card. There is, in fact, nothing consumable on the island itself at all -- not a scrap of food or a single bottle of beer. Or even a cash register. All of it is unloaded from the ship when it arrives, and loaded right back aboard when it leaves. The beach is really just an extension of the on-board experience.

Another motor yacht, Adventures Baby, arrived in the evening and then all was quiet for the night. The island is strictly a daytime venue, so there are no street or walkway lights; a light had been left on in one of the two-story beach "villas" ($550 to rent for the day, charged to your stateroom) and one in the massage shack. We could see a faint light from the horse stable and a glow above the power plant and staff village, but nothing to disturb the view of the stars. The only noise was the quiet hum of the power station.

Sunset at Half Moon Cay. Loose Seal and Adventures Baby to the right.

It really was a lovely anchorage, and we could easily have spent another night if we had the time. We're glad we finally saw the place; we had been scheduled to stop here on the MS Oosterdam over Christmas during our first year on the road, but the weather was too rough for them to load the tenders at the ship, so we passed on by and had an extra day at sea instead.

We're no strangers to cruise ship private islands, having previously visited Princess Cays, which is actually part of a small peninsula on the enormous island of Eleuthera. As you might expect, this was the Princess Cruises equivalent to Half Moon Cay, with all the same stuff -- swimming, snorkeling, a BBQ buffet, water toys, etc.. We made a return visit years later on a different Princess cruise and decided it was not even worth going ashore; we let 1,500 other people do that and then had the ship mostly to ourselves.

I mention this because we passed Princess Cays this morning. Behemoth Carnival Cruises bought Holland America and Princess, among others, and now Carnival's own branded ships make more port calls at these two properties than either of the original owners. And thus we passed, close aboard, the Carnival Ecstasy "anchored" off Princess Cays, their passengers enjoying themselves ashore.

Carnival Ecstasy hovering off Princess Cays, Eleuthera, tenders alongside. Princess Cays in background.

I put anchored in quotes, because the ship was actually "hovering," a computer controlling the bow and stern thrusters, rudder, and propellers to keep the ship in a fixed position and orientation. Their AIS transponder indicated "Under Way Using Engine." Before crossing their stern at less than a half mile, I called on the radio to ensure that they, indeed, would remain stationary until their scheduled departure at 17:00.

Update: We are now anchored, just inside the bight of Cape Eleuthera (map). This is our second attempt here; I snorkeled the anchor at our first spot and it was lying upside-down with just a tiny piece of one fluke hooked. The bottom here is minimal sand over rock, with coral everywhere. We moved to an area with more sand and less coral and have the main fluke at least dug in a few inches.

Tonight we will dinghy ashore to the Cape Eleuthera Marina and eat in the on-site restaurant, Pascals. Just in the nick of time; we used the last of our fresh lettuce last night, having to throw most of a head away. S/v Loose Seal has again joined us here; we seem to be running in parallel. In the morning we will head back across the Sound to the Exumas.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Festival groupies

This morning finds us again under way, along the bank on the leeward side of Cat Island to Arthurs Town at the north end. We have our fingers crossed that when we arrive, we will find minimal swell. We've heard the anchorage there can be miserable in some conditions.

Yesterday we dropped the hook shortly after I posted here, just a quarter mile off the town dock at the New Bight settlement (map). I spent the last twenty minutes of the trip on the flybridge so I could see the corals, as we were in just a dozen feet of water. One sailboat was already anchored here and we gave them a respectable distance. Two megayachts were anchored off the beach a few miles south.

Vector and s/v Loose Seal, as seen from The Hermitage.

It was the Labour Day holiday, and we were concerned that the restaurants might not be open, so I made a few calls on the way in. The very nice proprietor of the Bridge Inn said they were open for dinner but we had to put our order in ahead of time. It's a ways in from the beach so we asked where to land, and they said they would pick us up at the dock. Louise ordered the grouper and I order pork chops.

We splashed the tender right after anchoring and then spent a half hour on deck with a cold beer. I had suggested 6:30 for dinner but they asked if we could come at 6 instead, and so just a few minutes before 6 we zipped over to the dock. Disembarking at this dock involved pushing up against a rock and scrambling a few feet up.

Scalar at the dock. We clambered up the rocks at the side, then lined it into deeper water.

A few minutes later a pickup truck rolled up and we piled in the front seat with Lysse for the short drive to the restaurant. On the way we picked up a hitchhiker who rode in the bed; this sort of hitching is commonplace in the islands. Lysse (short for Ulysses) was also our server.

As we pulled up to the restaurant, which is part of a 12-room inn, the property was full of Bahamian schoolchildren in uniform. Strange, considering today was a school holiday. We learned at dinner that the Cat Island Rake and Scrape Festival is this weekend, featuring bands young and old from all over the islands. Many of these children had come down from Nassau and they were staying at the inn. The festival is actually in Arthurs Town, about a forty minute drive north.

Bahamians love festivals. This one is every year on Labour Day Weekend.

Our dinner was excellent, and aside from some of the aforementioned children traipsing through, we dined alone. The restaurant had previously served their young charges a buffet dinner; when we were there the kids were awaiting transportation to take them to the festival for their performance. The proprietor also wanted to go up to the event, which is why she asked us to come in early.

Considering the festival also runs all day today, we decided we'd get an early start and head up that way, in the hopes of catching the Battle of the Bands finals and maybe some of the evening music. We also expect to find some food stalls there. It's a four to five hour cruise, so we wanted to get an early start.

Gateway to The Hermitage on Como Hill.

That meant wrapping up our visit to New Bight this morning. One of the attractions here is the highest point in the Bahamas, Mount Como (aka Mount Alvernia), at 206' above sea level. Atop this hill sits The Hermitage, constructed in 1939 from local stone by Catholic priest Monsignor John Hawes, known locally as Father Jerome.

It looks like a rock face, but there are rough-hewn rock steps leading all the way up.

From the bay, The Hermitage looks like a distant monastery of significant proportions. In fact, it is much closer than it looks, a hike of just 3/4 mile from the dock, owing to the fact that he constructed it in miniature. It is said to be 5/8 scale; we both had to duck to clear the doorways.

Louise standing in front of the chapel gives some scale.

It took us twenty minutes or so to reach the summit; it was slow going because one of Louise's shoes broke halfway up. We scaled the last thirty feet or so on the original hewn stone staircase, through the Stations of the Cross. The site, which still belongs to the Archdiocese of Nassau, is very well kept. We went through the small chapel and adjacent rooms, looked into the crypts, saw the cistern and catchment system, and I climbed the straight ladder to the belfry.

Looking out the belfry. There is a cast iron bell behind my head, and I am standing on a rung embedded in the walls.

We opted to walk out the somewhat longer but less steep route via the dirt road. Once back on pavement, a 15-minute walk brought us back to the dock. About halfway down we encountered our sailboat neighbors, on their way up. It was very nice to meet Meghan and Ben and their dog, Mason, from s/v Loose Seal. They, too, are thinking about heading to Arthurs Town and thence to Little San Salvador, so perhaps we will run into them again.

Louise signs the guest book at the altar. Dozens of names were inscribed yesterday, we assume by the visiting schoolchildren.

After arriving back at Vector we immediately decked the tender. I am now having to tilt the motor by grabbing the lower unit and heaving it away from the transom with the dinghy hanging just at boat deck level. I have a new tilt tube to replace this corroded one, but I am worried that without access to more parts and help, I can easily get halfway through the replacement and not be able to finish, which would leave us without a tender altogether.

Who knew there were US survey benchmarks in the Bahamas?

We should be arriving off the Arthur Town dock by 3pm. If conditions are unacceptable we'll have to go south to Bennetts Harbour. From there we can either dinghy in the 3.5 miles, or hitch a ride. We're hoping we'll get to see some of the same kids we met yesterday perform at the festival.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Unplanned detour

I am typing under way across Exuma Sound, in a thousand fathoms of depth. We left cell coverage a short while ago, and will not have it back until later today when we get within a dozen miles of Cat Island. Seas are two feet on a short three second period off the starboard bow, a bit bouncy but tolerable.

The view over the harbor from the deck of the St. Francis at dinner Tuesday evening.

Wednesday evening we had a nice dinner on the aft deck, and then took one final tender ride, two miles across the harbor to the Augusta Bay Resort. The morning cruisers net had announced there would be music at the tiki bar, Frankie Bananas, on the dock there in the evening, following a bbq dinner. The dinner did not much interest us. We could see a line of rain storms in the distance, but they were passing behind the islands and it looked like we would stay dry.

We were a bit unnerved to arrive at the dock to find it empty. No dinghies except us and another couple who arrived at the same time. And the tiki bar was deserted. The bbq dinner was supposed to have started an hour earlier. I clambered onto the dock and headed ashore to figure out what was going on. It turned out they had relocated the event to inside the restaurant ashore, due to the threat of rain.

We spent a couple of hours sitting at the bar with a few Bahamian beers and listening to the music. It was mostly traditional rake-and-scrape with some mellow rock standards mixed in. We recognized some of the band from the last rake-and-scrape we attended at Eddie's Edgewater three years ago. It was an enjoyable evening.

The band at Augusta Bay. Note the gentleman at right, playing a saw with a screwdriver.

Arriving back at Vector we decided to deck the tender in case the weather called for a morning departure. Trying to lift the dinghy motor out of the water, the cowling that I had repaired in Fort Lauderdale with JB Weld came off in my hand. Nothing I tried could coax the motor back up out of the water until we finally resorted to using the crane. The corroded tilt tube is past due for replacement.

As if that was not trouble enough for one evening, we started the generator to charge the batteries only to find no water flow from the exhaust. Fortunately we noticed that and got it shut down quickly, before it had a chance to overheat. I spent the next 45 minutes replacing the impeller and getting all the shards out of the heat exchanger.

Thursday morning the forecast on the sound looked acceptable for a crossing, and so we said our goodbyes on the morning net, weighed anchor, and headed out. It takes a good hour just to get out of the harbor, which was more or less smooth as glass. That belies the conditions outside, and as soon as we cleared out of Conch Cay Cut we realized we had made a mistake.

Seas were a steep three to four feet on a short four second period, just forward of the starboard beam. We were slamming over them uncomfortably. We did press on into deep water, just to see if there was any real improvement, but there was not. Faced with the prospect of taking a beating for seven hours, we opted to change course. Our options were to turn around completely, or head northwest along the Exumas, putting the seas behind us, and coming back in either at Emerald Bay or at Lee Stocking Island.

At Emerald Bay, just about an hour away, our only option was a marina for $120 that we did not really need. We'd been there before and it was no great shakes.  Turning around would be a five mile trip back to a safe anchorage, and in hindsight this would have been the best option. Instead we elected to put the seas on the stern and head to Lee Stocking.

That decision had us arriving, some three hours later, at Adderly Cut right at the height of the ebb. As I have discussed here before, ebb tides in the Exumas oppose the easterly trades and cause "rage" conditions at the cuts, and, sure enough, I had to pilot my way in through some serious seas. Adderly is a wide and deep cut, however, and we made it in without incident. We came around the northwest point of the island and dropped the hook a half mile from the abandoned research station (map).

The concrete monument marker at Adderly Cay, on our way out this morning.

It was early in the day, so I spent an hour or so working on the dinghy motor. Copious amounts of WD-40 freed up the tilt tube somewhat, but it looks like I will be lifting the motor only after hoisting the dink on deck until I can replace that tube. I also re-attached the cowl latch and got the cowl back on properly. I finished in plenty of time to splash the tender and go ashore.

I had hoped to land at the old dock and stroll around the ghost town. But a note in the cruising database said there were newly erected no-trepass signs. I made a few inquiries and learned that the current owner of the island is adamant about keeping people out, and we respected that. The tender remained on deck. There are plenty of photos on the Internet, many on other cruising blogs, for those curious about the eerie post-apocalyptic nature of the abandoned station.

This morning we weighed anchor and headed back out the cut to try again. While seas are the same direction and even shorter period today, they are only half as tall. Once in deep water we opted to continue all the way to Cat. We'll make landfall near the New Bight settlement. There are three or four restaurants there, and we are hoping that at least one will be serving dinner, even though today is Labor Day here in the Bahamas. At least one is at a small resort, so if they have any guests they might be open.

Update: We are in sight of Cat Island and will be passing Hawk's Nest Point shortly. Anchor down in about two hours near the New Bight settlement.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Out of the tropics

We are anchored back in Elizabeth Harbour, across from George Town, Great Exuma (map). We're just a little west of where we anchored earlier, owing in large part to the fact that the harbor has emptied out considerably.

Thursday afternoon we splashed the tender to head ashore for dinner. Rather than go into town, we opted instead to make our way across Thompson Bay to the small resort of Tiny's Hurricane Hole, on the Indian Hole Peninsula that protects the northern part of the bay. Resort may be a misnomer; it's two beach cabins with a tiki bar and grill.

Sign marking the Tropic of Cancer, which bisects Long Island.

Landing the tender there turned into something of a clown show. The information online said there was a small channel adjacent to a limestone rock jetty that would allow us to get the dink all the way to the beach. That proved incorrect; we ran out of water less than halfway from the head of the jetty to the shore. With rocks strewn on the bottom I took the engine out of gear, and then the fun started...

Winds were perhaps 10-15 and parallel to shore. With no power, that quickly swept us away from the limestone jetty and into much shallower water and finally up against the other jetty, which was earth and stone. We simply could not paddle hard enough against the wind to get back into deeper water. After perhaps five minutes of struggling and pushing against the bottom and the jetty, we got out far enough to start the motor and head back out into deeper water.

Our second pass was much smoother. Rather than try to get ashore we just nosed up to the end of the limestone jetty, stepped out, and tied off to the rocks. Lesson learned regarding this particular stop. Of course, the six patrons already at the tiki bar got a great show; I flipped my hat over for tips when we walked in. One patron offered to buy us a beer.

Scalar tied to the end of the jetty, finally. Vector is a white spec in the background.

All's well that ends well and we had a nice casual dinner near the beach. My burger was excellent, but Louise's fish sandwich was disappointing enough that she scratched the place off the list. We enjoyed meeting fellow cruisers Doug and Sandy on the catamaran Alibi. They had landed their dink in town and ridden their folding bikes the two miles out to the bar.

Friday morning we loaded all our trash into the dinghy and headed to town to get a car. I had called Thursday to get pricing and information and say we would be in in the morning; nevertheless, the car rental was deserted when we arrived. After making a few calls we learned the proprietor had gone to the next town to take care of some business, and promised to return in "a half hour." That's island time, mon -- they returned an hour later. We found a couple of chairs and sat down in the shade.

Our econobox

For $65 we got a tiny Suzuki with a stick shift. The Bahamas is a drive-left country, but this car was left-hand-drive, which suited me fine because my stick-shift muscle memory is all in my right arm. We headed north to explore the island in air-conditioned comfort. We had contemplated dropping the scooters at the government dock instead, but 100+ miles is a long day in the tropic sun.

First stop was the Stella Maris airport to extend our cruising permit and update our customs and immigration paperwork. After that we went almost to the northernmost tip of the island; the unpaved road that leads to the tip and the Columbus monument thereon became too tenuous for the little Suzuki perhaps two miles from the end and we turned around.

We then drove all the way south to very nearly the southern tip of the island. We stopped in Clarence Town to see what we missed on our brief stop there in the boat. And we tried to find "Hard Bargain," across from which we spent such a miserable night, but there is not even a sign on the road.

Sign at Dean's Blue Hole. It's really in second place. They have free-diving competitions here.

On our return trip north we drove out to Dean's Blue Hole, which is the second-deepest blue hole in the world (signage at the site optimistically lays claim to first place). It's quite impressive, and I thought to maybe go swimming or even jump off the low limestone cliff overhanging the steep side. We brought our suits with us, but lack of any way to rinse off the saltwater after swimming persuaded me to give it a skip, as we intended to remain ashore for dinner. If I had thought to bring my snorkel gear I might have changed my mind.

You can walk along in calf-deep water and then suddenly find yourself in 600'. Platform in the center supports the free-diving cable. Better photos abound on the Internet.

We refueled the rental car at the lone gas station in town. That happens to be next door to Regatta Park, which was abuzz with workers painting and freshening things. It turns out that the Long Island Regatta is this week. We asked around town if that attracted a lot of cruisers, but it's too late in the season.

At just 50 miles long, we had explored the entire island by 5pm, and we stopped at Sou' Side bar and grill right across from the dinghy landing for an early dinner. A quick trip next door for groceries wrapped up our shore leave. We parked the car with the keys still in it back at the rental place, as instructed, and headed back to the dinghy.

This old "fisherman" anchor was on the dinghy dock. Perhaps recently recovered from a wreck.

Saturday morning we decided we'd got our fill of Salt Pond, and opted to cruise up to the northern tip of the Island and anchor off the beach at Calabash Bay. If we were lucky we could land the tender on the beach right at the Cape Santa Maria Resort for a nice dinner, and maybe have a relaxing couple of days. I needed to work on the watermaker, and had figured to do that here, too.

We ended up transiting the fairly shallow channel across the northern reaches of the bank right at low tide, with, at times, just a foot of water under the keel. But we got through without incident, crossing the Tropic of Cancer and emerging into the deep water of Exuma Sound, just as a line of squalls caught up to us.

Vector (at right) in Thompson Bay, as see from the car rental.

We could see a couple of boats in the Calabash Bay anchorage. But getting into this bay requires visual navigation through a coral field. That requires good light, and relatively calm seas. At that moment, we had neither. I could see on the radar that the squalls would pass, but the forecast showed nothing but overcast for the rest of the day, and all day Sunday as well. Already in Exuma Sound, we turned west and headed for George Town, rather than finding a place to wait it out on Long Island.

We pulled up here right at 5pm, amazed to see the anchorage mostly empty and with our pick of spots. We got the hook set just before another squall came through. An hour later when the squall had passed, it was followed by a water spout which came right down the channel, passed us perhaps 100 yards away, and continued to a landfall in George Town. Louise grabbed the radio mic and alerted the anchorage as we saw it coming. Blu on the Water posted this video on their Facebook page; if you look closely you can see the spout passing Vector in the distance.

Best shot I could get of the funnel cloud after it passed us. Click to enlarge.

Sunday I set to work on the water maker. The last time we ran it, the production dropped to less than 3gph and it eventually "stalled" again. I suspected problems at the top end of the motor, and so I pulled the motor off and opened it up. Sure enough, tons of brush dust in there just in the last 300 hours, and one of the brush springs appears to be end-of-life. The brushes themselves have quite a bit of wear, although still within limits per the manufacturer.

I don't have spares for these, so I cleaned all the dust out of the motor with a vacuum and copious amounts of compressed air, cleaned up the commutator with fine sandpaper, and put the best spring with the shorter brush and vice-versa. Yesterday it ran all day at an average production of over 6gph, an improvement but still shy of spec.

Motor brushes. Left one is more worn. They are 0.87" long when new.

Sunday evening we wanted to go back to the Lumina Resort for dinner, since we enjoyed it on our last visit. They informed us they no longer accept dinner guests from outside the resort; phooey. So we had a casual meal at the St. Francis instead, which was as good as we remembered from three years ago.

I spent most of yesterday planning routes to take us from here to Nassau by way of Cat and Little San Salvador islands. We bashed our way across the harbor to go to town for dinner. After a casual meal on the deck at Blu on the Water at the Exuma Yacht Club, whose docks finally reopened since we left in April, we took a stroll around Lake Victoria. Eddie's was just gearing up for their weekly Rake and Scrape as we walked by; neither of us was much in the mood for dancing in a 90-degree room so we kept on walking.

Weather for a crossing to Cat Island is not acceptable until tomorrow at the earliest and more likely Thursday. We'll exit the harbor to the north, cross the sound, and anchor in the bight. From there we will work our way northwest to the southern tip of Eleuthera, stopping at Little San Salvador on the way. This latter island is better known as Half Moon Cay, the name Holland America bestowed upon it when they built a private facility there for cruise guests. Our last Holland America cruise had to skip it due to weather, so we will make up for it now.

The sure sign of the end of the season in George Town: an empty dinghy dock. Admittedly this is after the market had closed for the day.

We've already cruised Eleuthera, so other than a quick overnight stop we will simply cross back over to the Exumas at Ship Channel. From there its a long day across the bank to Nassau Harbor. We made reservations at a secure marina there so I can fly to my Red Cross training in Dallas while Louise takes care of the boat and the cat.

In case you missed it, we've already had the first named topical storm of the season, Alberto, even though the season does not officially start for another two days. We don't have a magic date in our insurance policy; our deductible just increases significantly during named storms unless we are north of the Carolinas. Still, we'd rather not take too many chances, and so once I return to Nassau it will be high time to start heading north. The fact that there are perhaps fewer than fifty boats left in the harbor here is a sure sign.