Life in the Amazing Abacos - SailNet Community
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Life in the Amazing Abacos

Though cruisers abound in these pristine waters this time of year, there are apparently fewer around now than in previous years.
After three weeks of island hopping among the Abacos in the northern Bahamas, life aboard our 35-foot Althea has taken on some of the trappings that readily come to mind when one imagines this tropical cruising existence. The sailing has been great with consistent winds sweeping over the sheltered waters of the Sea of Abaco. Neighboring cruisers here in Marsh Harbour mark the sunset each evening with a chorus of conch shell blasts. And the islands, vibrant reefs, and deserted beaches have been nothing short of stunning. Crystal-clear waters in teal, azure, and deep-blue allow the depths to be read by eye and fish and starfish to be spotted below while sailing above them. Newfound friends from all walks of life, young and old, seem to emerge from cruising boats of many makes and sizes, and the natives are friendly to boot.

Crossing the Stream    Getting to the Bahamas from the southeastern coast of the US usually means waiting for the right weather to cross the north-flowing Gulf Stream. We listened to the forecasts until we heard the magical words describing 15-knot winds south of east and then we jumped. Northerly winds can ramp up rough seas in no time, and rather than stress ourselves or our boat, we waited for perfect, flat-as-a-pancake conditions to make the crossing. Then, leaving a bright trail of phosphorescence in our wake throughout the night, we caught the Gulf Stream in one of its more benign moods. Why fight if you don’t have to?

The author enjoys a picture-postcard day in the Abacos with one of his new-found friends, a swimming swine.

First, we headed out under power from Ft. Worth Inlet, weaving around a number of ships and tugs that seemed out to get us as they made their way up and down the East Coast. We rounded Memory Rock during the day, marveling at the change of water color from deep ocean blue to shallow teal green, and anchored off Great Sale Cay. From there we stopped at several uninhabited islands as we made our way down to Green Turtle Cay where we checked in with the Bahamian Customs office.

Paperwork    For us, checking in to the Bahamas was a straightforward affair, and we knew that we had arrived in ‘island time’ when we found the Customs office empty and waited for an hour or so until the agent showed up. That was OK with us, since we’re not really in a hurry anymore, and checking in was the mission of the day. Veterans of this lifestyle hold that while cruising you can consider yourself fortunate to get one errand accomplished each day. Laundry, groceries, or even a phone call can consume the day by the time you’ve checked the weather, dinghied ashore, and traipsed across town only to find that whatever shop, laundromat, or phone company office has closed for the next couple of hours. You just never know what’s going to happen, which is part of the attraction of cruising to begin with, but something that always leaves you open for frustration should you still be operating within a 9:00-to-5:00 mindset.

At customs we filled out paperwork that seemed a little dated. We had to answer questions like how many people had died during the voyage, what we did with them, and were there an above average number of dead rats on board—all a reminder that we live in different times and are lucky to do so. The charge for checking in is a flat fee of $100.00 US, which can also be paid in Bahamian dollars because of the even exchange rate. This fee covers all Customs and Immigrations charges and includes the cruising permit and fishing license. It was a relatively painless endeavor for us, and one cruiser told us that when he checked in at West End, a custom agent riding a bicycle met him. They completed the paperwork and then that official offered the new arrival a rum-based beverage.

Navigation    Any new cruising ground takes some getting used to and we’ve seen several boats run aground in the past several weeks. We’ve even touched bottom ourselves a time or two. We’ve found that the navigational markers and navigational aids are few and far between, though we have seen a few lights here and there marking the entrances to major harbors, one lighthouse, and a number of stakes in shallow areas. The water is clear and with the sun overhead, the depths can be estimated with reasonable accuracy.

Using daylight hours to work their way south, the crew of Althea heads from one Bahamian island to the next.
We’ve also discovered that sailing on the Sea of Abaco usually means sailing during the day rather than risking the possibility of clunking into an unmarked obstruction during the night. To help us along, we’ve been using two cruising guides for the area, The Abaco Guide and The Bahamas Cruising Guide; both have been insightful. We’ve additionally been using The Gentlemen’s Guide to Passages South for a big-picture approach to where we are and where we’re going.

We’ve been fortunate thus far in our weather here, which the locals say has been one of the nicest winter just about anyone can remember. For over a month a strong high-pressure area has been parked just to the north. This has acted as an invisible shield, keeping the cold fronts and their inclement weather tracking north of this chain of islands. The forecast has been for east-to-southeast winds of 10 to 15 knots for a long succession of windy and sunlit days. And that’s great because weather plays no small role as we anticipate heading farther south in the Caribbean and there seem to be fewer NOAA VHF weather stations with the latest weather reports. Also, although the weather has been more than cooperative so far, it’s whimsical nature means that ignoring it, even for a day, can set you up for some hard-learned lessons in meteorological prudence. Even as I write the next several days are forecast to bring a succession of cold fronts blasting through, which will likely make for bumpy nights on the hook.

To keep on top of things we monitor the weather twice daily, morning and night, from several different sources. Each day we begin by listening to the Waterway Net on our single side band, 7268 on lower sideband, which relays both the latest Bahamas and National Weather Service forecasts. The only way to really make sense of these is to write the forecasts down in their entirety and then spend the rest of breakfast plotting cold fronts, ridges, troughs and wind speed and direction on the chart. We’ve made photocopies of the region solely for this purpose. Then there’s the Cruiser’s Net on VHF Channel 68 every morning, which provides weather information as well as analysis. In addition to weather, it’s also a valuable resource to cruisers new to the area as it tracks down mail, Internet access, or boat parts as well as daily specials at nearby restaurants and other social activities.

"A small jar of peanut butter can run close to $5.00 in some of the outer islands, and the rumor we've been hearing is that the prices just get steeper the farther you get down island."
Stocking Up
    Speaking of boat parts, they’re a bit on the pricey side here. A simple item such as blue tape can run up to $9.00. That means veteran sailors stock up on such items before leaving home. Food, staples, and beverages are also a bit more expensive here. A small jar of peanut butter can run close to $5.00 in some of the outer islands, so stock up well before you head this way. Almost everything you buy here comes in by boat and that contributes mightily to the final price. And the rumor we’ve been hearing is that the prices just get more expensive the farther you get down island. There hasn’t been a whole lot of produce here, either, in contrast to our last cruise through Central America. Bananas, limes, conch, lobster, and grouper are in abundance, but lettuce and other fresh produce has to be imported from the States and elsewhere.

On board Althea we don’t have refrigeration so fresh produce is eaten fast or it tends to rot right away. We had a cucumber melt on us in a record two days. We’ve also weaned ourselves off of ice, which at $4.00 a block with a day-and-a-half lifespan represents a luxury for our limited economic resources. In keeping with that frugal outlook, any fish we catch quickly moves onto the menu. We have learned, though, that a great way to make sure that you’re not going to catch any fish is to plan on having that for your next meal.

With the jib hanked-on and ready to go, the author's boat endures a blow on the hook in an otherwise idyllic anchorage.
Boats around here that do have refrigeration also tend to have wind generators, an array of solar panels, and depending on the sunlight and wind many still have to run their engines to keep up with the power demand. One cruiser we met said he ‘only’ had to run his engine three hours a day, an hour and a half in the morning and the same again in the evening, and then added he had to buy ice from time to time to keep his freezer cold! To be fair, we’re running our engine as I write this just to keep up with the sewing machine DVD demands. By the way, we’ve found that swapping DVDs with other cruisers in your neighborhood is pretty popular now.

All in all the Abacos have lived up to the raving reviews we got from those that had visited before us. "You have to have a real desire to see another part of the world to leave this area,’ one cruiser confided, and indeed there’s just about everything you need here for great cruising. We’d heard a lot of hype regarding the Bahamas before our trip and carried the reserve of someone heading off to take in ‘must see’ movie. Well we’re here to give it two thumbs and toes up. There’s just enough civilization that you can still get parts and supplies, yet a short day sail away you can find yourself anchored with a mere handful of boats off an uninhabited island and steady winds to carry your vessel back and forth. If you’re thinking about trying out some new cruising grounds that are reasonably accessible from most of the southern US, a cruiser’s paradise may be closer than you think.

Anchoring in Paradise

The holding ground here in the Bahamas varies, but mostly you’ll find sandy conditions, or sand with weeds. Some sectors offer moorings for $10.00 a night (Hopetown on Elbow Cay, some off Great Guana Cay, and in Man-o-War Cay). However, we’ve found that anchoring in a mooring field isn’t the easiest thing, especially if there are a lot of boats in the vicinity. We’ve also had some trouble setting our CQR in hard sand bottoms and have come close to demoting it from our primary anchor and promoting our Danforth in its place. We’ve yet to let our Delta have a shot at the title, but it may see some action soon.

These days it’s not unusual for us to sail off the hook and only start the engine after we’ve dropped the anchor and want to back it down, which is usually pretty easy to accomplish in these crystal-clear waters, particularly if your boat isn’t over 40 feet long. Of course if you want to keep the air clear of diesel noise, you can do as we do—put the hook down, pay out some scope, and then just don a mask and snorkel and hop over the side to make sure the hook is set.

Suggested Reading:

Deep Thinking in the Bahamas by Michelle Potter

Day Sailing the Thorny Path by Tom Wood

Regatta Time is Party Time in the Abacos by Doran Cushing


SailNet Store Section: Anchor Rollers and Chainstoppers

Mark Matthews is offline  
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