Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Cruising a post-Dorian Abacos

As I begin typing we are anchored in Marsh Harbour, Abacos, which is on the "big island" of Great Abaco. We've been here a few days already and hope to get underway tomorrow for Treasure Cay, also on the island of Great Abaco. It's been ten days since I last posted, and I am grappling with the reality that we have no more long passages now until we leave the Bahamas, so I can't really save all my typing for when we are under way. There's a lot to update and I don't expect to finish this post today. [Update: it took longer than I hoped and this post is far too long; grab a drink.]

Elbow Cay lighthouse, as seen from inside Hope Town Harbour. A canonical image of the Bahamas.

The rest of our passage from Egg Island was comfortable, and we arrived at the Little Harbour inlet right at slack for a drama-free entrance. We can't get into Little Harbour at any tide level, and even though we would have loved to see the place, and reconnect with our friends on Barefeet moored in the harbor, the two anchorages immediately outside were way too rolly to want to spend even a night. Instead we turned north and dropped the hook in the lee of Lynyard Cay (map). The ride was bouncy until we were fully in the lee, which convinced us there was no good way to tender back to Little Harbour from here.

Sunset from our anchorage off Lynyard Cay.

The bottom was very grassy and so we had to hunt around for a patch of clear sand in which to anchor. We had a good set and a comfortable evening, with dinner aboard. We also had a comfortable night, right up until 6am, when we woke to the dulcet sounds of our anchor alarm. By which I mean a carefully crafted Klaxon sound meant to induce an adrenaline rush. Even with the adrenaline, we staggered upstairs and, pre-coffee, were both too foggy-headed to even silence the alarm expeditiously.

The vast majority of time the anchor alarm goes off it is either because a GPS glitch caused the boat to appear a few feet away from where it actually was, or because I set a very tight alarm circle, and if I don't mash the "set" button at the exact instant the anchor hits the bottom, or if it takes a few feet to set, the alarm circle is not exactly correct and we leave it when we swing in a different direction. This was neither of those -- we were moving.

How Louise dries the laundry after a passage. I put these clotheslines up in the engine room years ago. The power-hungry electric drier gets used for a final fluff.

We very seldom drag anchor, but when we do, putting out a bunch more chain is almost guaranteed to fix it, and with some 700' to the boat behind us, a big Krogen named Invictus that had come in after us, that's what we did. No sooner did I shut down the engine than we started moving again, and so we added even more scope until we had some 170' of chain out. In just 17' of water, that's what we'd use for tropical storm force winds, and the wind had only picked up into the 20s. While we were doing this, we noticed Invictus out on their bow doing the exact same thing.

When even that failed to keep us in place, we knew we had a bigger problem than just insufficient scope. It was dark when we first came up to the pilothouse, but by now it was twilight, and knowing we had to move later in the day anyway due to shifting winds, we decided to just weigh anchor and get under way. When we finally got the anchor out of the water the problem became clear: we had pulled it through the clear sand and into the grass, and a big gust of wind pulled it out with a big ball of grass, roots, and rocks nestled in the flukes. That keeps the flukes from digging back in and it just skips along the bottom, the one downside to our nice Bruce anchor.

This giant ball of roots and rocks makes the anchor slide along the bottom rather than re-catching.

Shortly after we had arrived to this spot, another big Krogen, Moonlight Dance, weighed anchor and left, but not before dragging the anchor a couple hundred feet hanging just below the surface, and then throwing a bunch of debris overboard when it came up on deck. We had been puzzled, but when our own anchor came up, it all became clear. We made a mental note to anchor further from the grassy areas if we ever come back.

It was a short cruise north and around the corner to an area known as Black Point Cay, where we tucked in as close to the southwest corner as we could get (map), for protection from southerly winds. Moonlight Dance was already there, along with perhaps ten other boats. Protection from southerlies is a scarce commodity in this area.

Sunrise at the Black Point Cay anchorage.

My big project for the afternoon, after the engine room had cooled down a bit, was to replace one of the J-tubes on our troublesome watermaker. The last time I ran it the filer alarm went off, which seemed strange considering the filter readings we'd been getting. When I went down to the ER to have a look, water was spraying out at 800psi in a fine mist. The last time this happened, on the same J-tube, I had to repair it with JB-Weld, as I did not yet have a spare, and that repair has lasted years. The new leak was in a different spot. It was a big project, requiring removing the Clark pump from its mounting and then doing yoga with a pair of wrenches in hand to remove the compression fittings.

One of two stainless J-tubes. JB-Weld repair at right held for years; the new leak is in the straight section.

My other afternoon task was dealing with a jury summons we received at our mail receiving service. They will open mail items and scan and email them to us on request, and when we see legal paperwork we have them do that. The Clay County court system has a web page for prospective jurors, and I was able to enter an "on vacation" excuse. They accepted a scan of our Bahamian cruising permit as evidence I was out of country, and I got a text message the next morning excusing me. We had a quiet sunset dinner on board. Winds increased overnight but we were mostly comfortable.

Thursday was a rainy day, and with winds shifting to the northwest, it was a good time to move. We weighed anchor and headed north to an anchorage near Tilloo Cut, where we worked in as close to shore as depth would allow and dropped the hook (map). The large cay known as Lubbers Quarter gave us something of a lee there, comfortable for one night until the winds started to shift more to the south.

Vector anchored at Tahiti Beach, looking toward Elbow Cay.

The channel north of there along Elbow Cay is very shallow; my chart says 4'-5' at low tide. We were planning to maybe sound it out in the dinghy before deciding if we'd have to go around the deeper channel west of Lubbers. But just after high tide Friday morning, none other than Barefeet passed us headed for the channel. They relayed their soundings back to us, and we quickly weighed anchor and headed north, getting past the first shallow stretch and dropping the hook in a tight anchorage off Tahiti Beach (map). Erin and Chris invited us over for homemade pizza, which was delicious.

Sunset over Tilloo Cay.

"Tahiti Beach" is mostly a sandbar that disappears entirely at high tide. At lower tide levels it becomes a family gathering/party spot, accessible from Hope Town by land. Around mid-morning the Thirsty Cuda, a floating bar, pulled in and set up shop just off the sandbar; Chris and I dinghied over and splurged on fruity rum drinks, the canonical sandbar tiki experience. In the evening we all piled into our respective tenders and rode the couple of miles to the Sea Spray resort on Elbow Cay for a beach-bar dinner; the marina is partly rebuilt, but not the restaurant, which is operating out of a food truck instead.

Chris and I enjoying the sandbar and a couple of drinks from the Thirsty Cuda behind us.

While we'd been seeing scattered wrecks and shoreside damage all the way up from Little Harbour, the sheer magnitude of Dorian's destruction and the painstaking pace of recovery becomes much more noticeable here in the more developed tourist areas. We walked around a bit on Lubbers Quarter and again here at Sea Spray. Construction is everywhere, moving at varying paces, but properties abandoned to the elements also abound. A dozen years of disaster relief work has accustomed us to the sight, but the heartbreak is still palpable. Even today I can't photograph it -- it's still an open wound for someone.

A distant view of Vector and Barefeet over the sandbar.

Sunday Barefeet left for Man-o-War Cay, and just before high tide we, too, weighed anchor, hoping to find a spot outside of Hope Town. The inside harbor there is full of moorings, none large enough for Vector. We scoped out a spot just abreast of the Elbow Cay lighthouse, but there was not enough depth for us to swing, and we backtracked to another deep pocket off the ruins (pre-Dorian) of the Elbow Cay Club (map). We had plenty of room to swing here, if a bit close to the marked sailing line, but with shoals in all directions, we were committed to this spot until high tide again would let us out.

Another sunset over Tilloo Cay. Barefeet is at left.

We tendered into town, landed at the public dock, and had a very nice walk around most of Hope Town after being pinned down on the boat for a while. Most everything is closed on Sunday, but we noted that a fair number of businesses had come back and the town was mostly intact. After our walk we tendered across the harbor to the Hope Town Inn and Marina, accessible only by water, for a nice dinner over draft beers at their bar overlooking the pool. This resort property is in full swing and had the nicest menu we've seen in quite a while. We walked the grounds a bit after dinner.

The bar at the Hope Town Inn and Marina. They had draft beer, a rarity in the Bahamas.

Our anchorage was a bit exposed in all directions except east, and overnight things became a bit bouncy. After midnight the tender was bashing into the swim platform and I ended up hip-tying it. I was hoping for another day in Hope Town, to maybe visit the lighthouse and stroll town with the businesses open, but after our morning coffee we decided the anchorage was just too lumpy and the ride to town would be a wet one. Instead we decked the tender and got under way just after high tide for Man-O-War Cay.

We were a little leery of this cannon aimed across our transom near the old Elbow Cay Club.

On our way to Man-O-War we crossed our wake. Long-time gluttons for punishment, er, I mean, readers of this blog may remember we started our first cruise to the Bahamas in the Abacos, nine years ago. We were traveling with another boat, with a draft even greater than Vector's, and between that, the lack of more detailed electronic charts, and our relative inexperience, we left the Abacos via Man-O-War Cut after a one-night stop at the island.

Sunset from our anchorage off Elbow Cay.

On this visit we pulled in much closer, entering the somewhat protected bay near Scopely Rock and dropping the hook (map), not far from Barefeet, who left shortly after we arrived. It was calm and overlooked a lovely beach. We had the hook down in plenty of time to take in the partial solar eclipse, which here reached a maximum of just under 40% obscured. A few wispy clouds passed by but we were able to get a good view through the eclipse glasses I stowed away after our 2017 totality experience in Charleston.

From our first anchorage at Man-O-War we could see the Atlantic over a small strip of white sand beach.

Just after maximum eclipse and with some clouds moving in, we dropped the tender and headed ashore for a walk around town. It was much as I remembered, except for the things that were obliterated by the storm. This was ground zero, sustaining a direct hit from the eye, with the one-two punch of eyewall winds in both directions. The Albury Brothers boat works is back in full swing, which was nice to see.

At max eclipse I snapped this photo on our flybridge. The eclipse is projected on the deck through the grommet holes of the soft top. 

Our lovely anchorage in the little bay was not to last. Shortly after we returned home, winds spiked up to 20, well above forecast, and our anchor, which had been set in just a few inches of sand over the rock bottom, began scraping the rock. Rather than spend a lot of time and emotional capital trying to re-set in in the very tight and shallow bay, we weighed and moved to a deeper, sandier spot outside, not far from where we were nine years ago (map).

As we walked around the cay we saw more eclipse projections from gaps in the tree cover.

We returned ashore in the morning for another short walk and to check out the hardware store. After that we weighed anchor on a rising tide for the hour-long cruise to Marsh Harbour. Most of the protected part of the harbor is just a hair too shallow for Vector at low tide, so we had to hunt around for some depth. We ended up anchoring not far from the entrance, in between the two channels that lead to the government docks (map). Those docks were very busy our entire stay.

Sunset from our second anchorage off Man-O-War.

We were settled in plenty of time to catch the last-ever Delta-IV Heavy launch from Canaveral, but even though we had clear skies, we saw nothing. The Delta-IV uses different propellant from SpaceX, with an all but invisible exhaust. We stopped at Barefeet for a quick chat on our way to Snappas, the restaurant at one of the marinas. It was typical marina fare but we were happy to have it; afterward we took a short walk to the nearby small liquor and grocery store for a look around. I stayed up for the 1:45am SpaceX launch, but there was too much cloud cover to see anything.

Please read the sign. I can not do justice in a caption.

Wednesday morning we landed at the public dinghy dock, which has free trash dumpsters. That's a big deal in the Bahamas, where we often have to pay between $5 and $10 per bag to offload trash; we carry large trash bags just for this purpose. We walked to the nicest grocery store we have ever seen in the Bahamas, Maxwell's, about a half mile from the dock. Along with the other groceries, we bought eggs and sausage for the first time in forever, and made breakfast sandwiches when got back home on a pair of hamburger buns that Erin and Chris had gifted us.

Obligatory food picture. I used the fancy plates.

In the afternoon I returned ashore stag to check out the rest of town, with stops at the liquor store and the pharmacy. I bought Stugeron (cinnarizine) for Louise, a seasickness med that is sold over the counter here but is unavailable in the US. This seems to work better for her than the other OTC meds. In the evening we were treated to more home-made pizza aboard Barefeet.

OK, Maxwell's takes the prize for nicest grocery in the Bahamas.

Thursday we had a quiet day at home, working on various projects (but not the blog, evidently), but we did go ashore for a walk. We stopped at Colors, a tiki bar restaurant, to check it out, confirming that Thursday was ladies night, with free drinks from 6-7. Louise is mostly not drinking nowadays, and absent any other ladies to tag along, we opted not to sit through loud music for one free beer at dinner, and ate at home instead.

This sign was on the pharmacy, of all places, where, like the liquor stores, I had to be buzzed in. Elsewhere in town I saw "masks required" signs leftover from an earlier time.

In keeping with the theme of everything breaking on this cruise, when I came upstairs from my shower at the end of the day, the chart plotter was flashing, the monitor blinking off and back on randomly. I tried power-cycling the monitor, but after it turned off, it would never turn back on again. Neither the remote nor the soft-switch pushbutton on the side would get it to come back on, even after several unplug/wait cycles, despite the power LED being lit.The smell of burning electronic circuitry confirmed the bad news.

Vector in the chaotic anchorage of Marsh Harbour.

To be fair, this was a cheap ($70) Insignia brand 19" TV from Best Buy, and it has been powered up more or less continuously for over 54,000 hours, with part of that time on a wonky sine wave from a failing inverter. I suppose I could not ask too much of it. But here it was almost bed time, with a wind shift expected overnight, and this monitor and the computer to which it was attached are integral parts of our anchor alarm system. To make matters worse, I know from experience that when the monitor stops working, our Nobeltec TimeZero plotter software eventually hangs, so I could not just rely on, say, VNC to display the screen elsewhere.

The failed monitor on its way off the boat. This case warping is now several years old, from a combination of internal heat and it sitting under the greenhouse windows of the pilothouse.

We bought this monitor in 2018 to replace an older Proscan 19" TV that suffered screen problems when it got wet (long story). The damaged part of the screen, a "nibble" in the bottom left corner, seemed OK for TV use, and I mounted it to the wall down in the guest stateroom, where it has sat mostly unused since. It took me 20 minutes or so to get it back off the wall and connected to the plotter PC. This late in the night I just set it on an inverted plastic container to keep the vent holes clear, and tied it to the busted monitor with a string to keep it from moving if we took a roll, and called it a day.

In the calm light of morning I snapped this photo of the jury-rig replacement sitting atop an inverted cream cheese container and tied to the failed unit behind it. You can see the "nibble" at lower left, which has since grown considerably.

Friday's project was thus excavating though the under-helm parts storage to find the table stand for the old TV, which I had removed to wall-mount it (yes, I am a parts hoarder), re-installing it, and physically swapping the two monitors, which have to be bolted down. Once I had it out I took the failed unit apart, harboring a fantasy that it was going to be a blown capacitor or on-board fuse that would quickly reveal itself. Of course I found nothing amiss at all on the single 5" x 6" circuit board that comprises the entire circuitry of this TV, nor could we find where the burnt smell had emanated. With no other options, we walked it to the trash dumpster on our way to the grocery store for provisions.

Dinghy dock at the Jib Room.

We returned ashore in the evening to the Jib Room, the restaurant at one of the other marinas, for dinner, which was OK but nothing special. This after yet another repair project, freeing up the bearings on our table fan for at least the third time since arriving in the Bahamas; the fan will be replaced when we return to the US. On our way home we stopped at Barefeet just to say hello and ended up staying much longer than intended over a beer. The evening ended with another SpaceX launch, wherein the booster landed on a drone ship just 50 miles east of us. The booster return was quite spectacular.

Dinner at the Jib Room overlooking the harbor.

By Saturday morning winds had clocked to the northeast as forecast and it became a bit bumpy where we were anchored. We weighed anchor as planned for the short cruise to Treasure Cay, where I am typing now, but we bashed through the chop, spraying salt water all over the boat and ruining the nice rainwater rinse we had gotten at Marsh. Oh well. Barefeet left the harbor right in front of us headed for the same place, and were again kind enough to relay the soundings. We made our way into the harbor through the shallow entrance, high tide putting 18" under our keel, and dropped the hook in the deeper end of the harbor (map).

Best shot I could get of the second stage flying almost directly overhead. The while line to the right is our SSB antenna illuminated by our anchor light.

I headed ashore first thing, landing at what is left of the destroyed marina, because I wanted to get cinnamon buns for the morning from Cafe La Florence, thinking they would be closed Sunday. I had heard good things about the cinnamon buns. When I got to the counter I learned that the cafe is open 7-12 on Sunday, even though both their Facebook page and the sign out front listed only Mon-Sat hours. I waved off, preferred to get them fresh in the morning, and instead checked out the nearby mini-mart, well-stocked, and the gorgeous re-opened beach resort a half mile away.

First stage re-entry burn, much closer than I expected. Much more impressive in person than this photo conveys.

I had to cut my exploration short to return home to grill some steaks for dinner; it was our turn to have Erin and Chris over after we'd been eating all their pizza. It was a great evening over too much wine, and we both crashed early.

We started out Sunday morning with the aforementioned cinnamon buns, served warm. We made a strategic error, inasmuch as we should have shared just one between us. They were enormous and loaded with sugar. We walked some of it off by walking down to the Bahama Beach Club resort, strolling the grounds, and making a reservation for dinner at the poolside bar.

Enormous cinnamon buns. $6 apiece. We could have shared one.

On the way back to Vector the dinghy gave an overheat alarm not once, but twice, and it had done so on our way to and from the Jib Room in Marsh Harbour as well. So we hoisted it on deck, bass-ackwards, so I could change the impeller. I knew this day would come eventually, and I had ordered the four-part impeller kit years ago to have at the ready.

Cafe La Florence. The blue building, with several businesses, withstood the storm well and was one of the first things to reopen here.

I removed the lower unit from the motor, took apart the pump housing, carefully cleaned everything up, and installed the new impeller into its housing. Then I installed the new gasket, O-ring, and Woodruff key and went to slide the whole assembly onto the drive shaft. It would not fit. Argh. A good look at the impeller revealed that all the external dimensions were an exact match, but the shaft hole on the replacement was about 2mm smaller than original.

An hour of Googling ensued, with both of us hammering away, It was a genuine Honda kit and all the part numbers were correct, so near as we can figure it was a mistake at the factory. And there are zero sources for the correct impeller in the Abacos. I inspected the old one; all the vanes were intact although with some cracking starting to show, but they're stiff in the compressed position so not moving enough water. I carefully lubricated everything and reinstalled the old impeller and put the engine back together, hoping we could nurse the engine along at lower speeds until we get back to the states.

View of the pool bar, complete with swim-up bar, and behind it the stunning water.

In the crushing defeat, and having not "changed" anything, I forgot to test the engine after we put it back in the water. So I am sure you can guess that when we got in the tender and started it up to make our dinner reservation, there was no water coming from the tell-tale. Back inside we went, with Louise heating up some leftovers for dinner while I called the hotel to cancel. After dinner, in what was left of the daylight, I took it all back apart.

The impeller was unchanged from when I had reassembled it, and that's when I realized the pump outlet and riser pipe must have been misaligned when I bolted the lower unit back on. A simple fix, and when we tested it after sunset it was all working again. I narrowly escaped having to inflate our kayak and row ashore in the morning to get expensive provisions for the rest of the trip; there is no guarantee I will be able to kayak ashore from any of our other stops.

This backhoe near the beach is frozen in time, likely flooded by the storm surge. It still has contractor items in the "glove box" area but the controls are rusted away.

Nervous now without a spare of any kind, I spent a good deal of time yesterday with a drill and a Dremel enlarging the hole in the new impeller, in the hopes that I can somehow make it fit the engine should the need arise. The current arrangement will have to last us until we get back to Florida. I did dinghy ashore for a real test, walking to the Beach Club and rewarding myself with a beer at the pool bar. I also made a dinner reservation for tomorrow, which is Italian night in their indoor venue. We had no interest in last night's "pizza night," since Bahamian pizza has universally disappointed, and I grilled some chicken at home instead.

We missed our opportunity to have dinner from the regular menu, which only happens Sunday and Thursday, and so instead today we went for lunch, making that today's big meal. We ate at the bar and had excellent burgers. We picked up an enormous cookie from Cafe La Florence on our way home for dessert.

Lunch at the pool bar with a view of that beautiful water.

Yesterday would have been an excellent day to "cross the Whale," a brief run outside the reef line at Whale Cay that is necessary to continue north. That requires cooperative conditions on the North Atlantic ocean, and every day on the radio can be heard skippers asking about conditions at the Whale. Barefeet left here Sunday, spent a night at Great Guana Cay, and transited the Whale yesterday, but we wanted more of a break in this very calm harbor after what seems like weeks of running and hiding from weather. With a cafe, a restaurant, a mini-mart, and a dinghy dock there is really not much else we need.

These guys are everywhere and they are skittish, but this one on the dock let me get close.

This may also be our one real chance to visit this place, with what some consider to be the nicest beach in all the Bahamas -- sugar sand adjacent to azure waters. In better times, the marina charged a fee to anchor here, if you could even find a spot, with most of the harbor given to moorings that would not fit us. Needing high tide just to come in and look makes for a challenging situation. We're happy to be here without the crowds.

Treasure Cay neither had treasure nor is it a cay, although it was at one time. I found an informative history of the place, pre-Dorian, here. Today there is an interesting juxtaposition between the Bahama Beach Club, fully reopened with amenities, and the Treasure Cay Hotel, Resort, & Marina, where the guest rooms have been bulldozed, the docks removed, and the pool and tiki bar area looking very much storm-ravaged. At least their fuel dock was able to reopen shortly after the storm. Recovery is a slow process in the islands.

What's left of the pool deck and tiki bar at the Treasure Cay Hotel and Marina.

Our next window to cross the Whale is Saturday. We'll be relaxing right here until Thursday, when we hope to depart on the afternoon high tide and cruise the short distance to Great Guana. It's a less protected anchorage, but we'd like to see the place before moving on. Once across the Whale we will make a familiar stop at Green Turtle Cay. Barefeet is there now, at one of the marinas, and there is a chance we will catch back up to them one more time.

From there it will be a slow roll along the inside all the way up to Walker Cay, where we entered the Bahamas for the first time nine years ago. We'll be keeping our eyes open for a weather window for the overnight crossing back to the US, likely making entry at Port Canaveral. Of course, the weather being what it has been this season, I am not making any bets.

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