Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Settled in at Great Harbour

We are under way en route to the Berry Islands. Little Stirrup Cay is about five miles ahead, and the Batelco cell tower at Great Harbour Cay is perhaps eight or ten miles off our starboard bow, close enough to get online. (Update: We're anchored in Great Harbour, see below.)

Sunday night we anchored on the bank, just SE of an area known as the Gingerbread Ground (map). The chart showed a 12-foot hump, but we found the depth where we dropped to be consistent with the surrounding area at 30'. We put out 150' of chain and had a comfortable night. The nearest land to that spot is 35 miles away; Bimini to the west and Little Stirrup to the east. It's at once magic and unnerving to anchor with nothing but horizon in sight for 360°.

Bimini from our anchorage. The water really is that color.

We weighed anchor Sunday morning after a leisurely coffee and catching up online before leaving cell service behind. As I came into the pilothouse to get ready for departure, I spotted a nice Krogen 48 across the anchorage that had just come in. It looked oddly familiar, but I could not make out the name since it was stenciled across an open transom door.

As we were pulling out the skipper passed us in his dink, on his way to clear in, and we waved... it turned out to be Bill and Lisa on Changing Course, whom we had met years ago in Stuart. We also had pizza with them in Black Point on our last Bahamas cruise three years ago, and we passed them later that year on a mooring in Bath, Maine. They were planning to cross the bank later in the day, but by the more southerly route. I'm sorry we did not get a chance to connect in Bimini, but perhaps we'll cross paths later on in the Exumas. The cruising community is tight-knit and we tend to see the same boats in many places.

Our anchorage looking SW. That's Changing Course right in the middle.

We proceeded north up the west coast of North Bimini, passing the enormous Resorts World complex. We spent some time there on our last visit; since then they have completed a new Hilton hotel and expanded the complex. We also crossed paths with the new high-speed ferry that serves the resort from Miami, a much smaller but much faster vessel than the cruise-ship sized ferry the resort owned and operated back then.

North Rock is the northernmost obstruction in the Bimini Islands; from the west it resembles nothing so much as a crusty submarine complete with conning tower and periscope. It is here we made our turn to the east to cross the bank. We had cell service with Internet for another two hours and made good use of it to catch up on news and social media.

Submarine! Not really... just North Rock.

The bank is absolutely beautiful in calm conditions, a lush turquoise color. Even in 30' of water you can look down and see the bottom, like a giant swimming pool. In fact, I would have gone for a swim once we anchored, inviting as it was, except that the combination of sub-80° water and air temperatures do not make for a relaxing swim. We'll wait until we are a bit closer to the tropics.

We enjoyed cocktails and dinner on the aft deck, and Louise retired to her sewing lair while I fired up the DirecTV receiver and watched a couple of movies. The wind, which had been light all day, laid down even further in the evening and we had a calm night. After dark, the parade of brightly lit cruise ships heading out the Northwest Providence Channel appeared in the distance to the north.

Sunset through some haze, from the bank. Or maybe the Comfort Inn logo.

Yesterday morning we weighed anchor shortly after our first cup of coffee. It's remarkable how much of our morning ritual revolves around the Internet, especially in remote places. We usually sit with our laptops over two cups of coffee as we each check news, weather, and social media before starting our day. When the Internet is down, finishing that second cup of coffee under way is a more interesting choice.

We'd been ruminating all afternoon about where to stop that night. Heavy weather is moving in that will require protection from the south, then southwest, then west, then northwest, and finally, north. Our original plan was to head all the way around to a bay on the far side of Great Harbour Cay, just south of Petit Cay. But after consulting our guides, we settled instead on Great Habour itself, which initially looked to us like it lacked protection from the western quadrants. The guides say the shallow sand to the west is sufficient, and the harbor is otherwise better protected from south and north.

We approached Little Stirrup Cay, which is owned by Royal Caribbean as a private retreat for their cruise passengers. Royal Caribbean calls the island CoCo Cay; we couldn't see the cruise beach from our route because it is on the harbor side of the island. We could, however, see Norwegian Cruise Line's private beach  ahead of us on Great Stirrup Cay. We cut right through the cruise ship anchorages; no one was in port when we arrived and the beaches were empty and neatly arranged for the next arrival.

Private cruise ship paradise. Zoom in to see a thousand neatly-arranged beach chairs, empty. Tower at left is under construction. Zip line, maybe?

Update: We're now anchored in Great Harbour, just east of Goat Cay (map). After passing through the cruise ship anchorage we entered the shallower waters on the approach to the harbor, and I had to set the computer aside. I had figured to finish this post shortly after we set the hook, just a little after 3pm, but circumstances conspired against that and I am just now getting to it, a full 24 hours later.

Once we made the turn past Great Stirrup Cay the approach to the harbor was easy. This is a deep, natural harbor that was a refuge for large sailing ships over a century ago. Depth in the center of the harbor is perhaps 20' and it shallows gradually in all directions so you can "pick your depth" for comfortable anchoring. With winds already out of the west at 15 and heading for 20, we opted to proceed straight in and drop in the lee of Goat Cay in about ten feet. Louise stood on the bow and had me stop the boat when the anchor was above a nice sandy area.

We had the whole harbor to ourselves for most of the afternoon. With no cruise ships in port the Cays were quiet, and one sailboat which appears to be unoccupied is anchored close to Great Stirrup. While we were eating dinner a sailboat with a Montreal hailing port came in and dropped a couple hundred feet from us, also in the lee of Goat Cay, but he left first thing this morning.

After getting the hook set and securing the boat, I sat down to upload photos and finish the blog. Much to my dismay, the high-speed Intenet access we enjoyed in Bimini on my old cell phone, now on BTC service, had been replaced by molasses-slow 2.5g service. Louise's Verizon phone and my T-Mobile phone both registered high-speed LTE or HSPA service, so we knew it was available, but nothing I tried would get the old Galaxy S4 to connect at HSPA speed. It was stuck on Edge service and giving at most 220kbps speeds. Enough to maybe finish typing the blog, but not enough to upload even a single photo.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and well into the evening working on this problem. The phone is an old Sprint model, and Sprint, in cahoots with Samsung, has locked everything down so tight that it's nearly impossible to get to all the settings that need to be changed to even attempt fixing this. Many of them would not be accessible at all had I not rooted the phone early on.

Sunset over Great Harbour. Goat Cay to the left and Little Stirrup to the right.

In the end, I never was able to resolve it, notwithstanding many Internet searches, all of which loaded painfully slowly. I was at least able to use my T-Mobile phone to get online while I worked on the problem. The phone was connected at high speed, but T-Mobile's unlimited International plan throttles the connections down to 256kbps. (Louise's Verizon phone, also connected at high speed, has no International data allotment at all; we dare not turn it on or we'll get a huge bill just for all the data Android uses in the background.)

After beating my head against this particular wall for hours, I decided to try the SIM card in some of the other devices on board to try to work around this. My own T-Mobile phone would not accept it because I have not had it on service long enough for T-Mobile to unlock it (really? I mean, I own it outright). Louise's Verizon phone rejected it because she's never asked for the phone to be unlocked. The JetPack MiFi I've had lying around accepted the card and told me it was connected to BTC, but no pages would load even after fiddling with the APN settings.

Ultimately what worked was putting the SIM in our Apple iPad Mini. That got us onto the high speed network with download speeds in the 6mbps range, which is plenty to load photos and anything else we need, even video should we be willing to use our metered data allotment for it. By the time I got it working, though, Louise was already in bed and I had no energy left to finish the blog.

I did interrupt this whole process for cocktail hour and to cook dinner. We had taken a nice skirt steak out early in the day for grilling, and Louise made quinoa pilaf to go with it. Around 6:15 I fired up the grill for a 6:30ish dinner. As usual I opened up he grill a couple of minutes after starting it to wire-brush the grates and make sure it was heating up.

When I came back to it ten minutes later to cook, it was barely warm. Uh oh. Opening it up and pulling the grate confirmed my fear: the electric heating element had broken in half. The last time this happened we were, ironically, also in the Berry Islands, at Chub Cay. Maybe the grill does not like the Bahamas. In any event, with no recourse, I ended up pan-frying the steak and we enjoyed dinner on the aft deck.

Broken element. No way to fix this. The detritus underneath are flakes of powder coating from the aging grates.

In hindsight I should have ordered a spare for this component before we left the US. Last time this happened, we were expecting to meet up with friends in Bimini who were coming over by ferry. I ordered a replacement element shipped expedited to their hotel in Miami and they brought it across in their suitcase. And, honestly, if we knew anyone at all who was flying in to the islands in the next few weeks, we'd do the same thing again.

Since we don't, however, I spent the entire morning and into the afternoon trying to figure out how to get a $40 grill part sent to the Bahamas. For a while it looked like we'd have to have it sent to our mail box in Green Cove Springs and then pay something north of $100 to FedEx it to Nassau, a place we would not even stop if not for that reason. Adding insult to injury, the Bahamians assess their 45% customs duty on the value of the item inclusive of shipping.

Making good use of the high-speed Internet I worked so hard to acquire yesterday, I eventually learned that I could have it shipped to Watermakers Air in Fort Lauderdale, and they would fly it to Staniel Cay for $35. The part is now on its way to Fort Lauderdale and it should be at Staniel in a little more than a week, about when we should arrive. We'll pay duty on $85, unless I convince Customs that it is, indeed, a replacement part and will leave the country with us.

Anthem of the Seas across Little Stirrup Cay.

This morning two cruise ships dropped anchor. Royal Caribbean's Anthem of the Seas is at Little Stirrup, and Regent's Seven Seas Explorer is at Great Stirrup. Swarms of jet skis rented to the passengers have been buzzing by us all day. We can barely see the top of the Regent ship, over the crest of the island, but we have a good view of the more distant Royal Caribbean.

At some point during morning coffee Louise looked out the window and announced "the cruise ship has an erection!"  And so it did. A bit of Internet sleuthing revealed this is Royal Caribbean's new "North Star" observation/amusement ride, available on several of their ships, which lifts 14 passengers at a time some 300' above the water. Sign me up.

Anthem of the Seas with its, ahem, pod ride deployed.

A word might be in order here for anyone unfamiliar with cruise ship "private islands." Pretty much every line has one, now, with Norwegian being here, Royal Caribbean being here as well as having a private beach in Haiti, Princess having a slice of Eleuthera, Holland America "Half Moon Cay" just south of Eleuthera, and so on. We've been more than once, and so are familiar.

These islands (or, in some cases, sections of islands) are uninhabited save for a caretaker or two and maybe a security guard. There are no towns, stores, restaurants, or services of any kind. When a cruise ship arrives, it brings everything with it. Food, beverages, servers, and even cash registers are carted ashore on tenders after the ship drops anchor, and it all goes right back before the ship leaves. You buy your drinks with your cruise card just as you do on board, and the food is included.

Seven Seas Explorer at left with only the radome and smokestack visible. Lighthouse on right is nicely kept by the cruise line. The container on the beach is not visible to the passengers.

What does remain on the island are beach chairs in the thousands, and cabanas which can be rented for an extra charge just like at the pool at a resort hotel. Also a shack stocked with water toys, snorkel gear, scuba equipment, the list goes on, all available for rent at an extra charge. A fleet of jet skis is nearby, typically operated by a local charter company; they are chained up until the ship arrives and then a couple of Bahamians come out from a nearby populated island (in this case, Great Harbour Cay) to take care of rentals and maybe guided tours. There are sometimes stalls leased to locals for craft sales, who also arrive by boat.

So while it looks like we could just dinghy ashore and get some great BBQ and a cold draft beer, in fact, landing is not permitted, and without cruise cards we could buy nothing. The closest we come to partaking is watching the jet ski tours whizz by with a muscular Bahamian in front and a half dozen pasty white tourists looking either elated or seasick following behind.

High winds, and thus heavy seas, will be with us here to the weekend, pinning us here in the calm harbor. As soon as we can we will move a little further along, southward along the Berry Island chain before crossing the Tongue of the Ocean to New Providence. There we will anchor without going ashore before crossing the bank to the Exumas. And as I type my last sentence, the cruise ships are steaming away and we are again alone.

1 comment:

  1. One can easily see how all the work / preparation you two go through has a wonderful return.....what a beautiful place! Life is short and all your many years of toil are paying off ten-fold in your retirement.


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