Saturday, March 21, 2020

Big Majors Update

We are anchored at Big Majors Spot, in the Exumas, Bahamas (map). This is a familiar and comfortable stop for us, which is good, considering what's happening right now. We are safe, well-provisioned, and very comfortable, but plans for what to do next are a very large question mark.

We arrived Monday after a very nice and uneventful cruise from Norman's Cay. We picked up Internet about two hours out, and after uploading the last post, we caught up on email and the news. Fortunately, all of our friends and family are thus far safe and well.

Shortly after dropping the hook, we splashed the tender and rode over to the Staniel Cay Yacht club for dinner. At that time, the virus had not yet made it to the Bahamas, and while there was some risk in eating out, we decided that the risk level was only going to increase and we'd be better off going out sooner rather than later. It was good to finally get off the boat after five nights aboard. We strolled a little bit afterward.

One of many beautiful sunsets from our anchorage at Big Majors.

While at the yacht club we learned that Tuesday they were having a big St. Patty's Day party in the bar, complete with green beer at $3 apiece (beer here is typically $7 a bottle). We were glad we went Monday instead -- there was no way we were going to risk the amount of contact involved in a party.

Tuesday a pair of Nordhavns arrived together, a 57 and a 63, and a short time later their two crews arrived at Vector in a tender. It turns out that the skipper of the 57 had run into us in Kentucky Lake, on a completely different boat that he was delivering. We remember talking to him, because he knows the owner of our only sister ship, which is in San Diego. Small world. Other than exchanging boat cards (but no handshakes), they hovered off at a safe distance while we chatted. It was very nice to meet Gale and Mary aboard Worknot and Nora and Karl aboard Bravo. Both boats are still here.

The anchorage was quite busy when we arrived, perhaps 50 boats or so, normal for here at this time of the season. Consequently, cell service was a bit spotty. Both my Google Fi and my T-Mobile are connecting to BTC at HSPA+ on Bands 2 or 5, whereas Bahamian phones and SIMs connect at LTE on Band 17. I think BTC is turning us off intermittently to conserve bandwidth, and now I'm sorry I did not pick up a BTC or Aliv SIM in Bimini. I might yet go in search of one someplace.

Cheers, from the Staniel Cay Yacht Club.

By Wednesday morning we had high-confidence information that our pain reliever and fever reducer of choice aboard Vector, ibuprofen (such as Advil), should not be used to treat Covid-19 symptoms, and instead we should use paracetamol, also known as acetaminophen (such as Tylenol). I rummaged through our first aid kits and our enormous offshore medical kit, and only came up with seven doses, barely enough to get started if either of us developed symptoms. By contrast, we have hundreds of ibuprofen.

We decided to go ashore ahead of dinner time and canvas the stores not only for meds, but also to asses the provision situation in case we had to hunker down here. We found both groceries, the Pink Store and the Blue Store, nearly next door to one another, open for business and actually fairly well stocked. The fresh veggies were lacking because the mail boat had not yet arrived. The Blue Store is the larger and better stocked of the two, and we found 24-dose packages of Tylenol on the shelf. We picked up two packages before heading back over to the yacht club again for cocktails and dinner. The WHO has since walked back that guidance, but now we have some anyway.

We've now been here five days. When we have not both had our heads buried in our computers trying to make sense out of what's been happening, I have spent every waking minute working on our water supply. By which I mostly mean the watermaker, which has not been operating properly since the minute we left the US.

All the paracetamol (acetaminophen) I could find aboard. We prefer ibuprofen.

When this problem reared its ugly head and I contemplated what it might cost to fix it here in the Bahamas, by ordering parts or spending lots of time on the phone at 20 cents a minute to troubleshoot, I decided not to worry too much because water is widely available in the islands, running from 30 to 50 cents a gallon. But as the worldwide situation worsened and the Bahamas started contemplating measures, it became clear that marinas might close and water could become a challenge. So I renewed my focus on the problem.

It was pretty clear to me that, whatever else might be wrong, I was getting a lot of air in the system on the suction side of the feed pump, which is above the waterline. The system is more than a dozen years old, and most of the plumbing comprises vinyl hoses, nylon fittings, and plastic parts. Just like the problem with the plasticizer oozing out of our inflatable kayak, all of these parts have become stiff and brittle. And, of course, I have almost no spares for any of it aboard.

After four solid days in the engine room in my skivvies, I have completely disassembled every hose and fitting on the suction side of the system, re-taped every joint, replaced what fittings I could, eliminated unnecessary parts (and thus joints), and replaced old vinyl suction hose with newer vinyl hose that is not rated for vacuum, but should get us by for a couple of months. I proceeded very carefully and deliberately, knowing that snapping the wrong brittle nylon fitting or stripping the wrong threads could be the end of the watermaker until parts can be flown in.

The watermaker torn apart mid-project, with tools everywhere. What looks like a cup of coffee was hot water to soften the ends of the vinyl hoses to slip them on.

The end result of all this is a system that starts out making 7 gallons per hour (out of a rated 13) first thing in the morning with the generator running, and tapers off over a few hours to around 4 gph. We shut it down when it drops below that, both to protect the pump, and because it's using a lot of battery power to little effect. If I can sustain this rate, we can make 20-30 gallons per day, which is a little more than we use. With a little luck, that should hold us as long as we're here.

With water in short supply, the other project I knocked out is a "hot water recirculation" system, a project that has been on my list for seven years, but, as a full day effort, always got preempted by something more pressing, important, or useful. Of course, I had not planned on this project here, and with no access to a hardware store, I had to make do with parts on hand.

Very long-time readers may remember this system from our bus. We built the bus systems from scratch, and so had the luxury to include an extra water line at every fixture for it, and we had solenoid valves and pushbuttons located at the galley sink, the shower, and the bathroom sink. It saved us gallons and gallons of precious water when we were boondocking in the desert. Now was the time to implement it on the boat.

This unassuming blue button sends hot water back to the tank until it's hot enough to shower.

The way this works is simple. No one wants to get under the shower head until the water is warm, and it takes time for hot water to make its way from the water heater to the shower head. All of the cold water sitting in the pipe needs to get out of the way. Instead of running that right into the drain, which on the boat means overboard but on the bus meant filling up the gray water tank, or into a bucket for use elsewhere, the recirculating valve lets that standing water run right back to the fresh water tank, so it can be used later.

On the bus these valves were literally right before the fixtures, so once you were done using the valve, the water would be hot at the fixture right away. Since I don't have access in the walls to add a water return line to every fixture, instead I installed a single valve at "the end of the line" for the main hot water pipe running through the below-decks bilge. That gets the hot water to within seven feet or so of the shower head, cutting off another 25' or so of pipe run. It also gets it within five feet of either bathroom sink, cutting off 30', and within ten feet of the galley sink and dishwasher, cutting off 20'.

It's not perfect, but it helps. It saves about a half gallon getting the shower usably warm, and somewhat less for the galley. But that's a gallon or so per day that we don't have to make with the anemic watermaker. I put a nice pushbutton in the master head to operate the valve, and I may add buttons in the galley and guest stateroom in the future. And when we get back to the US, I will go to the hardware store and replace the hokey combination of parts I used to insert the valve into the PEX plumbing, including a female-to-female garden hose adapter, a 1.5" long piece of vinyl hose, and five zip ties.

The actual valve, in the forward half of the midships bilge. Pay no attention to the tip of the beer iceberg. If you look closely, you can see the valve mated to the plumbing with a short piece of vinyl tube and some zip ties.

This anchorage at Big Majors Spot with the nearby Staniel Cay was intended to be just a way station on our cruise south through the Exumas to George Town, and then perhaps onward to Eleuthera. Lousy weather, combined with the fact that parts can easily be flown here from Fort Lauderdale, as regular readers may remember, had us planning early on to stay here at least until this morning, when weather would be good for moving on.

Thursday afternoon, however, the proverbial wrench was thrown into the works. By proclamation of the Prime Minister, effective yesterday, all businesses in the Bahamas were ordered to close to the public, with a short list of critical exceptions. The proclamation also forbid inter-island travel on mail boats or commercial transports, a statement that was so poorly worded that numerous cruisers took it to mean their boats could not be moved from their present locations.

Knowing the weather would keep us from moving at all yesterday, we knew we had a day to ruminate about it. Lots of cruisers, of course, were in a full panic by the end of the day, and the anchorage was restless yesterday, as were the Bahamas cruising forums on the Internet. I spent most of the day getting the watermaker back together and the engine room in "at sea" readiness, just in case.

Today's weather was perfect for moving, and I would summarize this morning's menu this way:

  • Original plan: continue south through the Exumas toward George Town.
  • Post-proclamation panic plan: Head back to Norman's as the first step to getting out of the Bahamas ASAP.
  • Cooler-heads-prevail plan: Sit right here in our cozy anchorage until we have more clarity.

Cooler heads prevailed, and here we sit, still at Big Majors Spot. The anchorage cleared out today, at one point down to perhaps 20 boats, although a few more came in this afternoon, possibly northbound boats bailing out of points south. The fuel dock at Staniel Cay was abnormally busy, as lots of boats fueled up in preparation for who-knows-what. And some people seem surprised that anything might be closed.

A view of just about a quarter of the anchorage, before the exodus.

Continuing to stay right here means we are compliant with even the strictest interpretation of the PM's order. And it's not a bad place to be: one of the most comfortable anchorages in the Exumas, with fairly well-stocked stores a short tender ride away, decent Internet access, and a community of cruisers who can provide emergency assistance in a pinch. Plus an airstrip nearby for emergency parts delivery or evacuation.

Things here are, in a word, eerie. None of the usual daily high-speed tour boats arrived from Nassau taking tourists to see the swimming pigs. No dinner reservations were made on the radio at the yacht club or the tony Fowl Cay resort. No megayachts deposited a horde of entitled visitors into the anchorage on jet skis. At some level, it was blissfully quiet and subdued.

We're not entirely certain what our next move will be. At some level, we are safer here than back in the US. It's more isolated, and the weather is more comfortable. On the other hand, the rules here will be more restrictive with harsher penalties, provisions are limited, I have minimal access to hardware, and if the worst happens we are far from the standard of medical care we would need.

The infamous swimming pigs. The busiest the beach got today.

We are hedging our bets by continuing to try to fill the water tank, and planning numerous escape routes for various weather scenarios. By our "normal" means, it takes us five days to get back to Florida from here. But the reality is that we can proceed on the most direct route, non-stop, and be there in a little over one full day, about 30 hours.

The current order from Nassau extends through the end of the month, March 31. It would be hubris to think that, when it expires, things will return to the way they were. But what comes next is as yet unknown. We are keeping all options open. If we choose to remain in this neighborhood, we might move some six miles south, to Black Point, where we have access to a different set of services, including a bakery and a laundry (not normally needed, but might be if we can't make enough water of our own).

In the meantime, our thoughts are with our families and friends, many of whom are in lockdown of their own. We are very fortunate to be here in our self-sufficient, easily-isolated bubble. Our hearts go out to those whose very livelihoods are now on hold, and for whom the future is even less certain.


  1. We're still watching just not posting. Temperature, humidly, and UV wise, you are in a good spot. I hope the provisions hold out. Take care, you are in our thoughts.

  2. Not easy to know what's the right choice in these situations. I'm glad you're in a safe spot for now, and well-provisioned.


  3. Louisiana's Governor shut down all not essential travel effective 5pm today. Man I wish we were sitting on the deck of Swept away on Stanial instead of home.


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