Nearly 14 months ago, we started talking with Gary and Linda about a bareboat charter trip in the Bahamas. They are fellow Dryden Yacht Club members and sail a C&C 25. We had many delightful sails and social occasions together and we all thought we could get along well enough to share a sailing vacation. We booked a boat for ten days with Abaco Bahamas Charters and then all we had to do was wait for the time to arrive.
The Abacos are a group of islands in the northern part of the Bahamas. The largest island is Great Abaco and there are dozens of smaller cays, which along with coral reefs, form a protected body of water called the Sea of Abaco.
|Map of the Abacos|
|Satellite photo of the Sea of Abaco|
Just getting to the boat is an adventure. Our first flight leaves Winnipeg early in the morning so we stay in a hotel the night before. A change in our original itinerary means another overnight in Fort Lauderdale, but Continental Airlines graciously offers to pay for that. Finally, we land in Marsh Harbour, where we overnight again before taking the ferry to Elbow Cay.
We had booked a room at the Lofty Fig, right on the harbour, owned by an expatriate Canadian from Montreal. Since we are already in paradise, there seems to be nothing for it but to try and drink all the Kalik beer in every bar in Marsh Harbour. I don't suppose we succeed but there is a CLOSED sign on Curly Tails Bar and Grill the next morning (could have been just a coincidence). Gary and Bob discover a shared talent for making the acquaintance of everyone they meet and the evening is a rare one.
Susan says the two of us go around humping legs and licking faces!
|The Lofty Fig|
|Our new friends at Mango's|
|Curly Tails -- we spend a LOT of time in this bar|
The sun seems very bright this morning, but we manage to find the supermarket and the liquor store to provision for our voyage. A twenty minute ride on the Albury ferry to Elbow Cay, over the exquisite turquoise Sea of Abaco starts to get us in the mood for sailing. Sherman from Abaco Charters meets us at the Post Office dock and takes us to our boat.
Saltando is a palace! A brand-new Jeanneau 39, just arrived, and we are its first charter. This boat has three separate cabins, hot and cold running water and a DVD player. Not to mention dual steering wheels, in-mast mainsail furling and a huge chart plotter. We have read about these gadgets but never seen most of them. Sherman gives us an orientation to the boat, makes some recommendations for our visit to Hopetown and leaves us to our own devices (one of which includes a nap).
In the morning we listen to the Cruisers Net on the VHF radio and it confirms our suspicions: one of the cold fronts that regularly sweep out from Florida is moving through the Bahamas. The forecast promises 30 knot winds and temperatures in the mid-sixties. We decide this is not the day to venture out into strange waters in an unfamiliar ship.
|From the lighthouse|
Besides, at Captain Jack's, they have the wind screens rolled down, the beer is cold and the food is excellent.
We rent a golf cart, the primary means of dry-land transportation in these parts and set out to explore the island. Just outside of town, right on the beach, we find a pretty little bar called, coincidentally, On Da Beach! Perched on the sand dunes about forty feet up, it affords a spectacular view of the ocean, with the surf breaking on the fringing reef. The Kalik is cold here, too and they serve us some fresh grilled tuna that we still talk about a week later..
|Friendly Bahamian waitress|
The Cruisers Net promises warm and sunny with winds of 15 knots, so we cast off the mooring lines and pilot our vessel out of the harbour. The Sea of Abaco is so beautiful it takes your breath away! We need a little while to orient ourselves, figure out the chart plotter and get the furling mainsail to unfurl properly, but soon we are bowling along downwind as if we really do know what we are doing.
Our destination is Green Turtle Cay, the furthest that we are allowed to travel by our charter company. Getting to Green Turtle Cay requires transiting the Whale Cay Passage, a short, but exciting, sail on the open ocean with no fringing reef for protection. Heavy swells out of the east can cause Rage Sea conditions in the passage, which even freighters and cruise ships don't attempt.
|Whale Cay Passage|
|A keen eye and a steady hand|
By mid-afternoon we make our way into Black Sound on Green Turtle Cay and tie up to a mooring ball.
|A day in paradise|
|Entering Black Sound, Green Turtle Cay|
The settlement of New Plymouth is quaint and picturesque with friendly people, many descended from the original British Loyalists who left the U.S. in 1783 to escape the American Revolution and settled here. Miss Emily's Blue Bee Bar beckons us in and after a couple of Goombay Smashes, Miss Emily is able to convince us to stay for dinner. On leaving the restaurant, we encounter the local Junkanoo band practicing for the New Years parade.
A Christmas tree, arriving from somewhere
We would like to stay longer in Green Turtle Cay but if the weather changes, we could be trapped on the wrong side of the Whale Cay Passage, so we weigh anchor around noon and get in some beautiful sailing. By late afternoon, with the Passage behind us, we drop anchor in Baker's Bay on Great Guana Cay and dinghy in to what might be the most beautiful beach in the Bahamas. Unfortunately, a huge condo-golf course-marina development is under construction. The local people are fighting this project and managed to stop it for more than a year with legal challenges and protests. Recently, construction resumed and the project is slated for completion in 2010. The weather is so calm and settled that we dine on board and spend a comfortable night swinging on the anchor.
|Baker's Bay beach|
|Baker's Bay sunset|
|Dining on board|
Our next destination is only a few miles away so we head in the other direction, across the Sea of Abaco, just to let our boat stretch its legs. Compared to our lake with its gusts and wind shifts, the wind here is rock steady and -- at 15 to 20 knots -- just perfect. Since we are close by and need to replenish our Kalik beer supply, we go into Treasure Cay Marina and anchor for an hour. This is another big condo-marina tourist development and bears no resemblance to the simple and friendly settlements on the other cays, but there IS a liquor store.
|Entering Treasure Cay Marina|
|Treasure Cay beach|
A broad reach takes us back across to Great Guana Cay. We pick up a mooring in Fisher's Bay and dinghy ashore for a meal and a look around.
Sunday on Great Guana Cay is the day of the famous pig roast at Nippers Bar and Grill. The signature drink is a Frozen Nippa' (recipe: rum, rum, rum, rum, juice, juice, juice and grenadine!) We have several!
|The patio bar at Nipper's|
|New friends at Nippers|
The roasted pork is exquisite, the sun shines and everybody in Abaco seems to be there. Gary and Bob do their puppy-dog act (No legs are humped!) and soon we have met dozens of interesting people from all over.
|Still early in the day...|
|...later in the day!|
|...much later in the day!|
Along towards dusk, we head in the general direction of our boat, but don't get far before running aground at a tiki bar called Hang 10. Everyone going to or coming from Nippers has to pass by Hang 10 so we can hardly be blamed. The place is inhabited by a crew from Colorado, California and Michigan and we soon realize they are kindred spirits. They were heading for the pig roast earlier in the day but never quite made it past Hang 10!
|Hang 10 Tiki Bar|
|Even more new friends|
|These are our kind of people!|
Much later, we all make it to Grabber's restaurant for dinner and in the fullness of time arrive back on our boat in the moonlight.
|Dinner at Grabber's|
We listen to the morning Cruisers Net and hear not one, but two, comments about a bunch of Canadians from a remote part of Northwestern Ontario having a good time on Guana Cay. We wonder who they could possibly be.
This morning we talk to Troy at Dive Guana about a snorkelling trip. Around 10:00 we climb aboard Troy's dive boat for the 25 minute trip out to the reef in Fowl Cay National Park. He drops the anchor in about twenty feet next to some coral and throws some bread in the water. Instantly, dozens of fish boil up, chasing the bread. We dive for about two hours in two different spots. The corals are beautiful and the reef fish fascinating -- even the dozen medium-sized barracudas that hang around. pretending not to notice us.
|Dive Guana boat|
|On the reef|
|Here fishie, fishie...!|
In the afternoon, we move Saltando around into Settlement Harbour because the wind is expected to strengthen and swing to the northwest as yet another front passes through. We barbecue some pork chops for supper and turn in early.
We drop our mooring lines and head out to sea into headwinds of 25 knots, gusting to 30 and a strong swell combined with a lumpy chop. Saltando handles it all with equanimity. We roll out the main and leave the jib furled and move along at a good five knots. We probably should partly furl the main and roll out some jib for better balance, but the boat is comfortable, the wind is warm and the sun is bright, so we carry on. Eventually, we start the diesel and motor-sail to hold our course, then drop the sail and motor through the narrow harbour entrance of Man-O-War Cay.
The Albury family have been building boats on Man-O-War Cay since 1783. Albury Brothers Boats builds the sturdy, round-bilge deep-V fibreglass boats that we see everywhere. Another Albury shop still builds beautiful wooden sailing dinghies, using traditional tools and craftsmanship passed down through the generations. Mr. Albury gives us a tour of his shop and shows us his work.
|Mr. Albury's boat-building shop|
We also visit a sail shop, which has diversified into making canvas duffle bags, hats, purses and a variety of other products, all sewn on the premises. In another shop nearby, Joe Albury uses native hardwoods to make beautiful frame models and half-hull models of traditional boats.
|Albury sailing dinghies|
The only restaurant is closed and there is no alcohol sold on Man O' War Cay, so we dine aboard and turn in early.
In the morning, we head back to Elbow Cay on the last leg of our voyage. Despite giving the shallows west of Johnny's Cay a wide berth as suggested in the cruising guide and with the chart plotter showing eight feet of water, we run gently aground. A little twisting and turning and we are back into deeper water. The cruising guide also advises that banks and sandbars shift over time and charts are not always precise! The water in the Sea of Abaco is rarely more than 10 or 12 feet anywhere and it is easy to become complacent about having only a foot or two beneath the keel.
Just inside the harbour, under the candy-striped lighthouse, we pull into the Hopetown Marina to fill our fuel and water tanks. Then we motor over to our mooring and our sailing is done. We call Sherman on channel 16 and he comes to the boat to check it out and make sure we haven't broken anything. We have cleaned and tidied and he seems quite happy with our efforts.
We go ashore for the afternoon and rent a golf cart. We motor down the island with another stop for beer and food at On Da Beach and then carry on to the south end of the island for a swim at the beautiful Tahiti Beach. On the way back, we stop at the Abaco Inn for a fabulous seafood dinner -- a grand finale to our trip.
|Travel by golf cart|
It is 26°C, sunny with a light breeze. We leave Hopetown on the 9:45 ferry to Marsh Harbour and stop to visit one of our new friends who we hazily remember meeting at Nippers: Keith Rogers is an expat Canadian, who owns Dive Abaco and has lived in Marsh Harbour since the early 90's. He graciously allows us to leave our bags on his patio while we spend several hundred dollars in his gift shop! On our next visit, we will definitely choose Dive Abaco for our diving excursions.
A short taxi ride to the Marsh Harbour airport to catch the first of four flights that land us in Winnipeg just after midnight. It is -28°C with a wind-chill near -40°. HOW RUDE!