Tuesday, March 26, 2024

Charm City in our hearts

We are under way northbound on the Great Bahamas Bank, in the protection of the Exuma chain just off to starboard. We've spent the last five days pinned down by weather, and I might easily have got a post up here, but I knew we'd have six hours under way with little else to do, so I saved it for today.

Vector at Pipe Creek, after the crowd had departed. Snapped by a passing cruiser we had met just briefly in Great Harbour Cay. Photo: Chris Head

That, of course, did not anticipate the horrific allision this morning of a neoPanamax container ship with the Francis Scott Key bridge in Baltimore. We've been mesmerized by the coverage, but also I spent a good part of the morning combating conspiracy theories and just plain misunderstanding on social media. We've been under that bridge several times in Vector, and over it at least once, and we have a fondness for Baltimore. Our hearts go out to the families of those lost in the tragedy, and those whose livelihoods will be disrupted, and the entire community there.

Our very first visit to Baltimore aboard Vector was very early in our boating career. We had joined the Marine Trawler Owners Associate (MTOA) and were there to attend our first rendezvous. As newcomers to both boating and the MTOA, we were assigned a "mentor" to spend some time with us. As it happens, he was a retired Maryland Pilot who brought ships like this one into Baltimore. When we lamented to him that we had chosen a very large boat to start out, he reassured us by telling us that bigger, heavier vessels are actually a lot easier to pilot, and that we would come to appreciate that; he was right. He also told us that the flip side is you will know well ahead of time that you will have a problem you can't avoid; I think the example he used was "we will hit that bridge in three minutes, and nothing we do can stop that."

And a rare head-on view. Photo: Chris Head

There was a Maryland Pilot at the conn this morning who knew exactly this, likely three or four minutes in advance. As I understand it, they had the presence of mind to pick up the phone and call someone who was able to stop traffic from entering the bridge, likely saving many lives. The details, of course, will all come out in the NTSB report, many months from now. For now, I will try to put it out of my mind long enough to get the travelogue done.

When I finished my last blog post here from the Galliot Cay anchorage, things were relatively comfortable. But later in the evening the wind and swell changed just enough to make it a very lumpy night aboard Vector. I don't have much trouble in these conditions, but Louise was up all night and got almost no sleep. Consequently, I was up before the dawn so we could get under way at first light and get the stabilizers working. Barefeet weighed anchor and headed out just ahead of us.

Vector entering Galliot Cut, just before turning to the anchorage. Photo: Erin Miller

We both set our sights on a semi-protected bay just south of Black Point. They apparently arrived just in time to get their hook set before a giant thunderstorm hit. We were not so lucky and took the brunt of it under way; our anemometer registered 48mph winds on our port beam. That pegged the stabilizers, with a considerable list to starboard, and drove rainwater into the boat through every port side orifice.

It had let up somewhat by the time we arrived, and we blasted past Barefeet and several sailboats to snag the best spot in the anchorage just a few feet from shore (map). In due time the wind clocked around and we had a comfortable night, sleeping in on Wednesday morning to make up for the miserable night Monday.

Wednesday we weighed anchor, once again right behind Barefeet, for the short run to Big Majors Spot, opting to pass up the anchorage at Black Point Settlement, which was just recovering from an enormous regatta/rally of the Seven Seas Cruising Association. Big Majors was busy but not too busy, and we were able to work in close to the beach and drop the hook in a good spot (map).

Big Majors at a busy time. All the dots are boats.

Regular readers may remember that this is exactly where our last Bahamas cruise came to an ignoble end, after sheltering in place here for over three weeks in the early days of the pandemic. We developed a connection to the place, with our last take-out meals from from the nearby restaurant, one of the best in the Exumas, and our early purchases of COVID-related medications coming from the store in town, fully masked and one patron allowed in at a time. When even outdoor exercise became banned, we made it a point to walk our trash to the dump every few days.

You'd think we'd be tired of the place, but I was looking forward to spending a few days, and enjoying the place in a less fraught time. As with so much of this year's cruise, the weather had other plans for us. But at least this day was pleasant, and we splashed the tender and headed to the nearby Staniel Cay Yacht Club bar to meet up with Erin and Chris for an early dinner. Sadly, they were out of draft beer, but we enjoyed our burgers with some bottled beer instead. The bar was packed. After dinner we strolled around town, past the government dock and the two stores we remember so well.

Staniel Cay Yacht Club, more or less as we left it.

We knew some weather was coming, but the seriousness of the situation became clearer to us as Chris spent the first few minutes in the bar on the phone with Norman's Cay marina 30 miles north. Barefeet moves more than we do, and they wanted the protection. The three other, less expensive marinas nearby were already unavailable; two were sold out, and Staniel Cay actually makes all vessels leave the docks in westerlies.

Sunset over Big Majors Spot.

As soon as we got back from dinner, Louise hit all the weather sources and announced that we might be in for a walloping. By first thing Thursday morning we knew it was serious and we had a big discussion about our options. I immediately contacted Norman's Cay (and the other two -- Compass Cay and Highbourne) hoping for a last-minute spot. To place this in perspective, Norman's Cay is $8 per foot, and we'd need to be there at least three nights, for something north of $1,500 including tax and power just to hide from a storm.

Alas, I think Barefeet got the very last reservation, which explains Chris's hustle right before dinner. For the last several days they've been texting us from what they kept calling "private equity land" -- there's a lot of money here in yachting season. That left us scrambling to find some kind of protection from strong winds that were going to clock around through every direction, including the very problematic westerlies, where choices are few. When we were stuck here for weeks, we were able to go around the back side to a spot called "between the Majors" for protection, but there are perhaps five times as many boats here now, and we knew that would be an untenable zoo.

I snapped this photo on our way out of the abandoned docks where we used to land to walk to the dump, our only exercise for a while during COVID, just for nostalgia.

After an hour or so with the charts, we settled on a place called Pipe Creek. It's protected on all sides, with Compass Key to the north, Thomas Cay to the east, Overyonder Cay to the south, and Rat Cay and Little Pipe Cay to the west. The problem is the entrance from the bank side is 5' deep at low water, and the Sound side entrance is narrow and difficult in many sea conditions. Also, swing room for Vector's draft is available in a limited number of spots. Big Majors would be comfortable for two more days, but if we did not get moving first thing Thursday, we'd likely miss out altogether.

And thus it was that we weighed anchor right after developing our plan, after just a single night at Big Majors. We made our way out into the Sound, since tide would not be favorable for the bank route until the sun was too low to see the bottom for visual piloting. We arrived at Overyonder Cut on the last of the ebb, as I wanted some current against me for the challenging entrance. That put us inside at dead low tide. As we feared, the "easy" spaces were already taken, and we had to pick our way carefully through shallows and along the channel "between The Mice and Rat" to find a spot almost in the middle of the basin (map), where we had just enough swing room between a pair of 6' shoals to put out 70' of chain.

Sunset from Pipe Creek, in the calm before the storm.

And that's where we've been, right up until this morning, five full nights. It's a beautiful spot, surrounded by lush hills, white sand beaches, and just a few high-end "lodges" that are basically AirBnBs for the uber-wealthy. We were quite happy to arrive when we did, with fewer than 20 boats in the harbor. By night fall the number was two dozen, and we would have had trouble finding a spot. The number climbed to 30 for the worst of the storms. Still, we were comfortably spread out, much more so than some of the other anchorages.

On our way out into the sound we passed the "between the Majors" anchorage and it was already packed to the gills. Over the next two days we heard hundreds of radio calls between boats jockeying for position and concerned about overlapping swing circles in reversing current and high winds. We were very, very glad to be away from the madness in a harder-to-access spot which, frankly, we could not have accessed on our first couple of visits here because our skills were not yet up to the task.

My feeble attempt to capture some of the anchorage, with Vector center-frame.

Shortly after setting the hook we splashed the tender to sound out our entire swing circle (and then some) and have a visual look at our anchor set. We also sounded out the route north past Compass Cay, finding a bar just south of the marina that would have been a problem for Vector even at high tide. We talked briefly to a 53' Fleming, Stand Down, that came in via that route to get their soundings, but they only draw 5'. Before dinner I went out again, slipped through the narrow opening between Rat and Little Pipe Cays, and sounded out the other route to the bank, finding it as charted, with 7' at mid tide. We had a quiet dinner aboard.

A bit more ominous sunset before the storm. s/v Kepler in the foreground and Little Pipe Cay background.

Friday the winds started in earnest, but they were still the more common easterly trades. Someone over between the Majors opened a pop-up "cruisers net" on the radio which we monitored to glean any information on how folks were faring down there. Even though it was blowing 20 knots, a whole gaggle of children from several boats in our anchorage spent the day playing on the sand bar.

We never left the boat and had another quiet dinner on board. I was sorry to be missing the annual James-Bond themed Casino Royale night at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, hastily moved up from Saturday night due to the storm. I'm certain I could have placed in the James Bond costume contest in my tux. The Bond connection stems from the nearby underwater cave that featured in the film Thunderball and is now known as Thunderball Grotto.

I snapped this photo of my computer screen in the course of working on it. This is supposed to be a solid black background.

Winds continued to escalate and started moving clockwise overnight. In the morning was another impromptu radio net, followed by more negotiations among cruisers. We heard at least one boat who did not realize they would be thrown out of the marina in the morning and had become desperate for a spot. That made me wonder if the marina had sold some slips to cruisers hoping to shelter from the storm without bothering to tell them they would have to leave just when they needed it most.

Thunderstorms moved in as expected and things went from bad to worse in short order. We were well-set, as were the rest of the boats in our anchorage. At the height of the storm our anemometer registered wind at 52mph, but honestly I think it missed the peak. We had almost zero visibility at times, and the boat got a nice rinse. Lightning strikes were all around us, but thankfully none in the anchorage.

Anemometer showing max wind speed of 52mph (45kt).

Others were not so lucky. We heard reports of 67-knot winds Between the Majors, and four or five dinghys were flipped over, their motors inundated and contents lost. Numerous cushions and other items went overboard. And lots of boats dragged and needed to be maneuvered or re-positioned. We later learned that seven boats in George Town took direct lightning strikes.

It was mostly over by nightfall. We're glad it hit in the daytime, and we had a comfortable night. We awoke Sunday to much milder conditions, but there is no rest for the weary. In the middle of the morning generator and watermaker run, the watermaker went into alarm for plugged filters. I thought that odd, since they're pretty fresh, but I shut it down and did not think much more of it.

The calm after the storm. Sunset Sunday evening.

Later I went into the engine room to change the filters, only to find a spray of salt water radiating out several feet in all directions from the watermaker. Uh-oh. After a brief inspection I donned some safety glasses and started it from the maintenance switch. That's when I discovered one of the hoses had come loose and popped off its barb. It was a simple fix, but I spent over an hour cleaning salt water out of the ER and rising some parts with fresh. I did not need to change the filters.

Da Conch Swing. While this looks like a beach, we are on a sand bar. The water covers the sand here.

Conditions were pleasant enough Sunday afternoon that we launched the tender, rode around the harbor a bit, and landed on the sand bar. We spent some time at a beach swing made from driftwood and adorned with a sign, erected by the exclusive guest house on Little Pipe Cay. We met four families on the beach, from Rebel Fox, Kepler, and Oceananigans. The two families aboard this latter vessel, a large catamaran, are from San Jose, and I enjoyed connecting with them over our shared history.

Families enjoying the sandbar. We saw kiteboarders several days, and I think the small wing kite here is a trainer.

I had made certain we were all set to go by Sunday night, in case Monday's weather was favorable. But Louise determined we have a much smoother ride today, and so we just waited it our one more night. But over the course of the day the anchorage emptied out, including the folks we had just met, and we had just four other boats widely spaced by yesterday evening. It looked like Vector had a bad case of halitosis. I did spend some time in the afternoon sounding out more of our exit route, and swinging past some of the high-end properties on the surrounding islands.

Vector, now all alone, as seen in the distance from Little Pipe Cay.

Yesterday we also learned that there had been a fatal accident Sunday morning over at Big Majors. A couple in their 50s were out in their dinghy and they were run over by one of the many high-speed tour/transport boats that blow through the anchorage on full plane at all hours. The couple was ejected from the boat and the woman did not survive. The man was airlifted to Nassau in critical condition. Our thoughts are with him. I did ask around to make sure someone was looking after their anchored boat and other affairs; this is not a place to leave a cruising vessel unattended.

Our final sunset from Pipe Creek.

I grilled a nice steak for our final dinner at Pipe Creek. Afterwards we enjoyed the sunset, and then were treated to a SpaceX rocket launch through partly cloudy skies. We could see the booster firing for its return after it separated from the second stage, and I was even able to snap a couple of photos.

SpaceX Starlink launch coming into view.

That brings us to today. We needed an early start to have high tide for our departure, and we heard about the bridge collapse on the marine radio as we were making ready to depart. Of course we got sucked into the coverage immediately, and after we navigated all the skinny bits out to the bank, including having to do-si-do with an anchored sailboat that was right in the only deep part of the channel, I brought my laptop up to the helm to catch up.

The bright spot about mid-tail is the Falcon-9 booster returning.

Update: We are anchored off Highbourne Cay, in a familiar spot (map). I think we both spent the first two hours of the cruise on the bridge collapse coverage and the social media chatter around it. The late start on the blog, as well as a fair amount of traffic in the "lane," meant I did not get this post done before we arrived.

Second stage almost directly overhead.

Once we landed here I called the marina to make sure their store was open, even though their restaurant is dark Tuesdays, and we dropped the tender and rode over. We walked around the property a bit before stopping in to the very nice but very expensive store for some milk, chips, and two fresh veggies totaling $32. It would all be cheaper at our next stop, but what we've learned in the Bahamas is not to pass up milk or vegetables if you need them, because that next stop in just another day or two may not have any for a week.

The "weather coconut" on Highbourne Cay.

If the weather cooperates, tomorrow we will make the long run from here up to Royal Island to shelter from the next windstorm while we stage for the crossing to the Abacos. It's been nine years, and a hurricane, since we've been to the Abacos, and on that trip we had to miss some of the best parts, so we are looking forward to getting back.

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