Saturday, April 4, 2020

(Lock) down and (get) out

We are still at Big Majors Spot, in the Exumas, Bahamas. We're in a slightly different spot in the anchorage, and last night I counted 45 boats here, a number that has been pretty consistent of late. We are confined to the boat until Monday morning, not permitted to get off for any reason other than an emergency.

It's been nine days since my last post, and I'm trying to post an update here every week or two for our families and friends. Louise and I are doing fine, but going through all the same issues and emotions that are challenging everyone in these times. We keep reminding ourselves how fortunate we are to be healthy and in this beautiful place with lovely weather.

I have generally been keeping myself busy with projects around the boat; both those that have cropped up recently with some amount of urgency, and those that have been languishing on the "when I get time" project list, in some cases for years. Louise has been deep-cleaning the boat and continuing to quilt.

Another spectacular sunset over a calm anchorage. This never gets old for us, but you may be tired of seeing them by the end of this post.

We did make it over to the Yacht Club after my last post for carry-out dinner, which we ate on the patio. Louise enjoyed the break from relentless cooking and we both enjoyed a change of scenery and getting off the boat. They had arranged everything to minimize contact and maintain social distancing, and even though the restrooms are closed we found a water spigot where we could wash our hands.

Speaking of relentless cooking, we tore the galley apart looking for some cans of chopped olives that we knew we bought before we left. Also missing: jars of artichoke hearts, a bottle of Sriracha, and a bottle of deli mustard. This last item is principally used in Sean's famous home-made balsamic vinaigrette salad dressing, and this is probably the most critical of all those items.

Louise was starting to convince herself that she screwed up on the provisioning list and forgot some items, right up until we discovered the absence of the mustard. She had texted me from the other end of the store, with a photo of two different mustards, to ask which one was correct. Pictographic evidence that it made it into the shopping cart. Moreover, I knew exactly what date it was and thus which store and where the boat was.

Our anchorage a week or so ago, as seen by a drone flown from a Bayliner 4588. Vector is near the top, about midway across. Photo: Jason Vienneau.

It was a big Walmart run that we had made with our rental car after returning from visiting family in Orlando. Vector was at a covered slip at Bradford Marine, in Fort Lauderdale. We figured either we left an entire bag of groceries still on the little bag carousel at the Walmart register, or else it fell off the weird, home-made, ultra-narrow dolly that was the only cart which would roll past the roof supports on the dock to get to Vector.

The olives we can buy here, whole, pitted ones for $5.50 a can. The artichoke hearts we'll just do without in the recipe that calls for them. And Louise is using Tabasco instead of Sriracha on her breakfast. I probably have just enough deli mustard left to make salad dressing for the rest of our time in the Bahamas, if I am conservative. At this point, we are unlikely to get to another island with a better store for the remainder of our stay.

Another place we won't get to: a hairdresser. Louise missed her chance to get her hair cut before we left the states, but did not sweat it because we know there are stylists in George Town, Rock Sound, and other settlements that we'd planned to visit. Of course, we ended up being waylaid here, and while there might well be someone on Staniel Cay who cuts hair, that's not one of the "essential services" exempted from the nationwide shutdown in place since March 20th.


Her hair got progressively more irritating until, one day, she announced that we were taking matters into our own hands. Now, we've been cutting my hair aboard for several years, but it's a cinch, a #2 comb on the Wahl clippers. I shear most of it myself, and Louise touches up the parts I can't see or reach well. We do it on the swim step, so any clippings I can't capture for the trash just go overboard.

For a while, Louise sported a buzz cut, and I was able to do that with the same clippers and a much longer comb. But with her current pixie-esque style, she really needs a competent stylist. That's not me, but I was willing to give it a try. We agreed that the back-up to any failed effort at this was going to be another buzz. We taped over the shower drain and used the shower stall, since naked on the swim step is not an option here.


My decent hair-cutting scissors that came with the Wahl went AWOL years ago, leaving us with our crappy household scissors or a tiny pair of razor-sharp embroidery scissors. (Any attempt to use her sewing scissors would have resulted in my body washing ashore somewhere on Andros.) Louise reports that I was about as nervous as she'd ever seen me as I attempted to shorten everything up without making a hack job out of it. It actually came out sort-of OK, with Louise admitting to having paid real money for worse cuts.

We took the Emergency Orders here to heart, and have stayed right here, sheltering in place, since they were announced, only moving the boat or going ashore for permitted reasons. Others have been more cavalier; we noticed cruisers continuing to use the beach (all beaches are closed) and some even carried on with their cruises as if nothing has happened, gallivanting through the Exumas Park anchorages and then cruising over to George Town or Eluethera. More annoyingly, a number of high-speed boats continued to arrive at Pig Beach with charter or resort guests.

After a day or two of this, cruisers started taking to the radio to chastise the tour boats for violating the orders. We have things pretty good here, with essential services nearby and still open to cruisers. What everyone worries about is that a few miscreants will cause sweeping restrictions that will affect everyone.

These are posted near every beach on inhabited islands. Crystal clear.

We've now listened to three more press conferences by the Prime Minister since my last post, and, unsurprisingly, in each one he has chastised Bahamians for failing to follow the orders, stop gatherings, and maintain distance. Most of the misbehavior has been in Nassau, although he has also called out some continued inter-island visitation in the outer family islands (inter-island travel is prohibited). And the number of cases in-country continues to grow, most in Nassau, a few on Grand Bahama, and, more alarmingly, one in Bimini, who succumbed. At this writing there are 24 cases including four fatalities.

While it is a grim subject, it continues to be refreshing to listen to a head of state who is articulate, intelligent, dedicated, and level-headed. His concern for the well-being of the population is clearly evident, even as many Bahamians are critical of the restrictions. And not once has he tweeted about his television ratings.

Even the subdued ones are nice.

On the project front, in addition to the unending tweaking of the watermaker, I managed to knock a few things off the list. Starting with excavating, emptying, and re-organizing a dozen or so parts boxes scatter throughout the engine room. A number of these held parts, supplies, and tools that we transferred over from the bus when it finally sold. I did not have the time then to go through them all, sort them, and get them into the right places before it all had to be secured for sea, and they've languished that way ever since. Similarly there were boxes of parts from various other projects helter-skelter around the boat.

Among other things, this meant that I ended up opening five or six boxes, some hard to reach, every time I needed to find a part for a current project that I just knew I had someplace. When I was done, a full bag went to the dump, a handful of things ended up in the sell or give-away piles, and everything was boxed according to category, from plumbing to deck hardware to electrical.

You may recall that I installed a new combination navigation light on the bow of the dinghy in Bimini. I completed that project here, only to learn after getting it nicely finished that, here in the utter darkness of the remote islands, enough light reflects off the dinghy tubes back toward my eyes that I have to shield them with my hand to keep my night vision. I needed to fabricate a guard to keep that from happening, and what I had available was a plastic restaurant take-out container. I cut it to the right shape and it's working well, but it looks hokey. I'll do something a bit classier when we get back to the US.

The new nav light on the dinghy, complete with cut-away takeout tray as a backscatter shield.

A project of little use here in the Bahamas, but long on the list, has been a power failure alarm. Back when I was in the network operations business, I built control centers where the backup power was so good, a room full of control techs would never even notice that utility power had failed; batteries would take over seamlessly, and every computer, monitor, and light in the room remained operational. Eventually, the backup generator would start. But if the generator failed and utility power was not restored, the batteries would deplete and the jig would be up. We had revolving blue lights mounted in the ceiling, a la K-Mart, which were the only way to know the input power had failed and someone needed to check to make sure it got restored.

Vector is the same way: everything on the boat runs on batteries or a battery-powered inverter. Turning off the input power to the inverter merely switches it from charging mode to inverting mode; nothing on the boat turns off or even blips. More than once, shore power has gone out without us noticing, the first indication being hours later when the batteries died and we started getting alarms. We needed the equivalent of the revolving blue light.

This project languished because it needed several hours of noodling on how to make it work without itself using any battery power under normal circumstances, and a full day of sweaty work in the engine room and under the helm to build and install it. At some point I might diagram the circuit and write it up for anyone who cares; suffice it to say it works like a charm and makes a loud beeping noise when the power goes out, unless the sole reason is the normal shutdown of the generator.

This nurse shark swam under us at dinner time tonight. He's near the bottom, ten feet below the surface; the water here is that clear. I took this photo from on deck.

I also installed a 12v fan in the forward stateroom, which is also the quilt studio, at the request of the artist-in-residence. I added a deck light on the dinghy and rewired the lights so the anchor light can be turned on without the nav lights. And today I changed the generator oil, a few hours overdue but postponed by other projects. In preparation for whatever rules changes might have arrived before the putative March 31 expiration of the emergency order, I made a quick trip to the dump to offload our trash.

Our waste tanks were nearly full, and the forecast said winds would clock around to the west, preceded by strong northwesterlies, starting in the afternoon of the 31st. And so we made ready to depart on Monday, with the idea that we'd head three miles into Exuma Sound, discharge our waste, and then come back to an anchorage with protection to the west. After my trip to the dump we brought the tender along side and got it ready for hoisting.

While we were eating lunch, however, we heard an announcement on the VHF that the BTC (telephone company) office would be open from 9:30 to 3:00 on Tuesday, and I might be able to buy a SIM. We let the tender trail again and opted to wait until the morning to move, after going ashore for a SIM.

The SIM is necessitated by the fact that we are fast running out of our allotment of mobile data. Rather than buy a local BTC (or Aliv) SIM in Bimini as soon as we arrived, as we have done in the past, this year I decided to give Google Fi a try instead. Fi comes with 22gb of high-speed data, and we figured that we'd be supplementing it with WiFi from shore in various places, leaving the option open to buy a BTC SIM later if Fi did not work out, for whatever reason.

Last one, I promise.

"Buy later" in this case meant "in George Town" (or maybe Eleuthera), where we'd be before we needed to make a decision. Or so we thought. When it became clear that we'd need to do something about it here, I had even put the word out to the cruising community that I was looking to buy a card from another cruiser, perhaps one heading home. So I was ecstatic to learn that the normally-shuttered BTC office here would be open for a single day.

I tendered ashore after morning coffee and news, arriving at the BTC office a little after 10. They, of course, were completely out of SIM cards. It is little wonder that Aliv (who has no office here at all) is eating their lunch. I shrugged my shoulders, made a quick stop at the grocery, and headed back to Vector to deck the tender and head offshore.

We weighed anchor after a little more than two full weeks in the same spot. This anchorage is usually good for a few days at most. In the two weeks the winds had clocked all the way around and we made a perfect circle; fortunately they were light when they clocked through west, otherwise the anchorage is untenable.

Our swing circle after two weeks. Half moon at left was more typical pattern from a previous visit.

We can only get to the Staniel Cay channel from the bank side with some tidal help; we left close to high tide and had two feet under the keel at the skinny spots. We squirted out into the sound at slack, bounced our way out to the three mile limit, emptied the tanks, and came back with a fair current behind us through the cut. A quick turn to starboard brought us to the rapidly filling "between the Majors" anchorage, where we dropped the hook (map) squarely between Big Majors and Little Majors cays.

This is a tidal channel, and when the tide reversal had us beam on to the channel, we rolled a bit from incoming swell. But it was otherwise comfortable and we had a pleasant couple of nights there. In a crowded anchorage we were on a short scope in poor holding, and on April Fools in a 41-knot frontal wind the anchor let go and we started to drag, an event so rare for us that I can still count them on one hand. Of course I was in the engine room at the time and Louise had to run down and get me.

I fired the engine up before we got far enough to touch bottom or run into anyone else, and we commenced the clown show that is trying to retrieve an anchor while trying to maneuver in 35 knots of wind. I could not have handled this on our first trip here, but now it's no big deal, but looks rather  comical. It does not help that Louise can not reach the chain hook, and so I have to leave the pilothouse in the middle, engine in gear, to retrieve it.

Walking to the Yacht Club for lunch, we noticed Louise's outfit matched the water and the seawall.

There was no further drama for the rest of our stay, and we never even put the tender back in the water while we were there. The anchorage emptied out rapidly Thursday morning, as everyone moved back here for the switch back to easterlies. We had to wait for enough tide to get through the skinny bits again, early afternoon.

One other boat remained with us for that time, a sailing catamaran, and he made a plea on the radio in the morning for help with a fuel delivery problem on his starboard engine. They were only perhaps 200' from us, and under any other circumstances I would have offered to zip over with my tools and get him going again. But three other boats got on the radio with advice, and someone came over to lend him a hand, and I did not need to get to the point of deciding whether to break isolation protocol to help another cruiser. But I felt bad about not being Johnny-on-the-spot.

Once we had enough tide we came back to this side and settled in for the duration. Yesterday we needed another grocery run, and so we ordered a carry-out lunch from the Yacht Club in lieu of dinner, then walked over to the store, where we found most of what we needed. The store was limiting customers to one at a time inside the store and asked everyone to wear masks; we were wearing the cloth ones that Louise had sewn just as soon as the new mask guidance came out in the US. While we were picking up lunch, we learned the PM would be making another address at 5pm.

And on our way to the grocery store, we noticed it matched this house, too.

That address lasted just a few minutes before he turned it over to the minister of health, but it was a bombshell. Apparently, just as happened in South Florida and other places, many have ignored the rules and continued parties in parks, large family gatherings, and the like, and he ordered the entire country shut down from 8pm, just three hours after he spoke, until 5am Monday. That means no groceries, water, fuel, or anything else. The Yacht Club quickly extended its fuel dock hours to 8pm to accommodate last-minute needs.

Before that press conference even started, images started appearing online of orders from various police stations around the country for cruisers to remain aboard their boats and not come ashore. Attached to some of those orders were phone numbers for local business such as grocery stores to purchase supplies and have them delivered to the dock for pickup without disembarking. Those orders were not in effect here, at least up until the press conference.

Cruisers ordered to remain aboard in Governor's Harbor, Eleuthera.

We were very glad to have gotten one last meal ashore and stocked up on groceries before the lockdown. I still have trash to take ashore, but that can certainly wait until Monday. Sometime this morning, a cruiser in the anchorage radioed ashore for clarification on whether water activities like kayaking or paddleboarding from the boat is allowed, and the local police insisted we refrain from that and remain on board. I settled in to more projects.

The watermaker, which had been making 4-7gph until now and has been keeping up with our daily use and even made enough extra to do laundry, quit altogether. Production stopped, and the feed pump started making a horrible screeching sound. So yesterday I took the pump apart, and it's toast. It's an expensive carbon-vane, ceramic-chamber type, and the vanes have started to self-destruct. We need a new pump. I've been emailing with our watermaker guy in Fort Lauderdale about maybe putting one on a Makers Air flight out here to Staniel this week.

Under the cover of the vane pump. Bits of carbon from the vanes, and some other debris in the middle.

As if that was not enough, the battery bank is no longer holding a charge for very long. Probably one of the batteries has failed and it's dragging the whole bank down; I need to run the generator basically for a full day to take the bank apart and deal with it, and I needed to get the oil changed first, which I did today. Tomorrow's plan was to spend the day doing the battery work.

When it rains, it pours. Angel turned 19 last month, and she's been slowing down considerably. In the last few days, we're noticing signs that the end is near, and Thursday was particularly bad. We monitored her overnight, and yesterday we started giving her subcutaneous fluids. We had just a single 1-liter bag of lactated ringers on board, an IV set, and plenty of needles. With the current situation here, there is no way to get her veterinary care, including euthanasia should it come to that. We're hoping the fluids will keep her comfortable until we can return to the US.

Angel never settles in like this on my lap. A sure sign she's not herself.

And now for the biggest news, which did not even exist when I began typing this post, well before dinner. Just about three hours ago, the US Embassy in Nassau release a series of tweets and Facebook posts aimed at US citizens still in the Bahamas. Possibly in response to reports of boats being prohibited from leaving the harbor in Bimini, which necessitated the embassy's involvement, they are now recommending we leave the Bahamas as soon as the total lockdown is lifted on Monday morning:

From US Embassy, Nassau, Bahamas:
FELLOW AMERICANS - These are trying and difficult times for all of us. We are all coping with the sudden but necessary restrictions to our movement and our daily lives as the Bahamian government works diligently to reduce the spread of COVID-19. ...
FULL LOCKDOWN and BORDER CLOSURE - On April 3, the Prime Minister of The Bahamas announced a full lockdown throughout The Bahamas until 5:00am on April 6. We urge all Americans still in The Bahamas and its territorial waters to shelter in place and stay home, on your vessel, or in your hotel/lodging until the full lockdown is lifted and the previous 24-hour curfew regulations resume. ...
BOATS LEAVING THE BAHAMAS - Even after the full lockdown is lifted on April 6, we understand that existing restrictions on inter-island traffic may severely limit the ability of vessels deeper in Bahamian waters to return to the United States.
Although the emergency orders allow vessels to depart The Bahamas directly for the United States, there are no exceptions for anyone—whether Bahamian resident, citizen, or foreigner—to circumvent the restrictions on inter-island movement.
If local authorities do not permit you to transit due to these restrictions, you must shelter in place. We will inform you of any changes as soon as we are aware of them.
LEAVE AS SOON AS POSSIBLE - Whether you're at a hotel, on a private boat, or anywhere else, if you are a U.S. citizen and at any point in the near future may need to return to the United States, we urge you to leave as soon as commercial flights again become available, or as soon as you are able to depart by boat or private charter.
Do not wait, and do not assume this message doesn't apply to you. As we have seen, we cannot predict if, when, or how severely movement within and out of The Bahamas may become restricted, whether by air or by sea.
If you reside in The Bahamas or otherwise choose to stay, please be prepared to remain in The Bahamas for an indefinite period of time. ...

So that becomes the final answer to all our issues. We will heed the embassy's recommendation and leave the country expeditiously, while trying to abide by all the rules currently in force. A Monday morning departure makes the battery and watermaker problems moot, at least for the remainder of our time here, as well as the missing provisions, and will likely get us back to the states in time to get Angel to a vet. As soon as this is posted, I will start working on safe and expeditious return routes, and tomorrow I will secure all the loose watermaker parts in the engine room and get the boat ready for sea.

The folks in these five dinghies decided to defy the order to remain aboard their boats, and circled around the anchorage playing music and singing to the other boats. They got near us at dinner time, acing us out of a quiet dinner on deck and driving us right back inside.

Our window for crossing the Gulf Stream back to Florida is Thursday. We will arrange our travel to make that window, crossing both sides of the Bahamas Bank and the Tongue of the Ocean. We will not be stopping at any other islands and will try to remain several miles from land at all times until we are safely back in the US. Among other things, this will make Internet access very sporadic, catching short bits of it here and there as we come within a few miles of towers. We will be using this limited time to get weather information and any news updates on the situation here or in Florida.

Until we reach the Strait of Florida it's difficult to say what our arrival point will be, as it will depend on weather and the specifics of the Gulf Stream that day. It will likely be either Government Cut in Miami, or Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. We will clear back in to the US electronically from my cell phone, which is already set up for that.

We arrived in-country exactly one month ago today.


  1. One reason I read your blog is because it expands my vocabulary. I have Wiktionary open and at my fingertips and I usually learn two or three new words each time.


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