The Bahamas are a third-world country. The scenery is magnificent.
Sanctuary and crew had done due diligence on customs and immigration rules for 2009, and we had no problems or surprises with the customs and immigration process. In Ft. Myers, before we left, we signed up for the Florida “Local Boater Option” CBP program. Doing that made re-entry to the US very simple on our return to Ft. Pierce, at 01h00 in the morning! Note: The “Local Boater Option” is now a nationwide program called the “Small Vessel Reporting System.” Information on SVRS can be found here: http://www.cbp.gov/travel/pleasure-boats-private-flyers/svrs.
We crossed from Key Biscayne, FL, to Bimini, where we took a slip at Sea Crest Marina (in Alice Town) and cleared customs. We arrived on Easter weekend, and found Bimini to be a very devout Christian community. In Bimini, Easter is also celebrated as “homecoming weekend,” and there were many local celebrations. We were treated to steel band Street Music and a parade. Easter Monday is a holiday throughout the Bahamas. Bimini is not prosperous; perhaps, struggling. It’s quaint, though, and we’re really glad we visited.
We departed Bimini en route to Nassau on Easter Sunday Morning. We had thought we’d attend Easter services at the historic Wesley Chapel at Alice Town. The weather and sea states had been “acceptable” for our crossing to Bimini, and would have been “acceptable” for further passage to Chub Cay and Nassau. Unfortunately, the forecast that Easter Sunday morning was not favorable for that passage 48-hours out, so we made the decision to move on to take advantage of the moment.
We departed Alice Town at 09h00. That was too late to allow us to make landfall at Chub Cay before dark. The weather conditions were, and remained, mostly settled. Winds were 10 kts and seas no more than a moderate chop, so we anchored on the Grand Bahamas Bank, about 20 miles east of Chub Cay, at the entrance to the New Providence Channel and the “Tongue of the Ocean.” There was no land in sight. That was a very cool life experience; and, somewhat disorienting. I have seen the Milky Way from lots of remote places, but never like that. The entire star dome was visible, from horizon to horizon, in every direction. Magnificent!
We enjoyed our visit to Nassau, but now that we’ve done it once, we don’t feel the need to do it again. In 2009, it was very obvious they have a property crime problem in Nassau. Many businesses outside the tour boat district, and all the marinas, have buzzers that buzz you in and buzz you back out again. Marinas were overpriced for their condition. Anchoring in Nassau harbor is discouraged, both because of fast currents in questionable holding ground, but also because when the dinghy is away, its a public announcement that the boat is unoccupied. While we were there, two boats lost outboard motors off dinghies that had been left in the water overnight.
We enjoyed the tourist part of Nassau. There is all manner of local “junque” in the booths of the Nassau Straw Market. There is a nice aquarium at the Atlantis Resort. We learned we could go to Atlantis at about 17h00, and avoid the daytime visitor entrance fee. There is an eclectic collections of local food “restaurants” at Arawak Cay in Nassau. The food at Arawak Cay was great, and the ambiance was unique and fun.
North Eleuthera was quite nice (Royal Island, Spanish Wells and Dunmore Town on Harbour Island). Spanish Wells is one town where poverty seems held at arms length. There is a large, new, well stocked supermarket in Spanish Wells. The local economy is based on fisheries. The shrimp and lobster boats are clean, freshly painted and in good repair, unlike the US east coast shrimpers that all appear worn and in poor repair. The island is mostly white “loyalist” descendents.
Dunmore Town on Harbour Island is more like the profile of Nassau. There are a couple of 5-star resorts and a 4-star marinas with many very large pleasure boats, and there is the support mercantile for that high end market. The town itself is a pervasive, mostly black, underclass. The liberal Pindling government has not done much for “the people” that we could see.
We thoroughly enjoyed the “Glass Window” on North Eleuthera. It’s the narrowest part of the Island, with open ocean to the east and bay to the west. This is a formation where the ocean seas have worn through the cliffs. Hurricane waves roar through the cut, and every year people manage to get swept away in storm events. Neat spot!
The Abacos – the Sea of Abaco – were great. We enjoyed Little Harbor on the southeast of Great Abaco Island and Hopetown at Elbow Cay. At Little Harbour, we had “Rum Blasters” at Pete’s Pub; an absolutely “must see” place. We stopped at a location near Little Harbour called the “Bight of Old Robinson.” We got in our dinghies, and went exploring. There are “blue holes” there, so named because the deep ocean water is a magnificent shade of royal blue. These holes are a mile or more inland from the shelf of the bank, but they go hundreds of feet deep and some actually go out through the bank and into the ocean. Blue holes are clearly visible on the satellite pictures of Google Earth. They are amazing. They are around 50′ to 100′ across.
Hopetown is a lovely little community. Anchoring is possible, but very limited and in less-than-desirable locations. Local practice is to pick up a mooring, first-come, first-served. The fee for a mooring in 2009 ranged from $15.00 to $20.00 per night, collected at the boat by the mooring’s “owner,” around dinner time. At Hopetown, we visited the historic lighthouse. The lighthouse is 150 years old, and burns a kerosene flame for the light. That kerosene flame is visible 17 miles offshore. The light assembly has several bulls-eye Fresnel lenses mounted in a huge cast iron frame. The entire assembly floats in a pool of mercury, and can easily be turned by hand. Amazing. It’s a fully commissioned, active ATON. It is open to the public. No entrance fee. No metal detectors. No security. In fact, no one at all on-site during the day. A sign on the kerosene pump mechanism reads, “Please do not touch.” A chain of yellow plastic is across the stairs to the lens, with a sign that reads, “Please do not enter.” Just imagine what it would take to visit a commissioned lighthouse here in the US. The Abaco Inn, south of Hopetown on Elbow Key, is a very neat stop, with exquisite views overlooking the deep Atlantic.
Marsh Harbour is the largest “city” in the Abacos, but that makes it only slightly bigger than St. Michaels, Maryland. There is a reliable daily weather forecast for cruisers that originates from Marsh Harbour. Cruisers call in from all over the Sea-of-Abaco to report local conditions. This is a very valuable local service. There is a website where the forecast information is posted: http://barometerbob.org/. Wi-Fi is widely available throughout the central Abacos from a service called http://www.outislandnet.net; available, and pricey. The “International Airport” (MHH) is about 4 miles out of town. BahamasAir is the local carrier, but like everything in the Bahamas, often has schedule delays. The locals say, “If you have time to spare, fly BahamasAir!” Anchoring is legal and possible in Marsh Harbour. Holding is good in 12′ – 18′ of water. Harbour water is dirty, so don’t plan on using watermakers here. During the season, the harbour is crowded. Dinghy to shore. There are several public landings, and there are dinghy docks at local marinas to use of on-site restaurants. There is one traffic light in Marsh Harbour, and the business community is not particularly prosperous. There is a large hardware store. There are a couple of grocery stores; not supermarkets. We stayed at the Conch Inn. It was a good facility, $1.40/ft, including electric and water. The drinking water was not great, but it was free. In some other places, we saw water for $0.65/gallon.
During our cruise, we visited Man ‘O War, Great Guana, Green Turtle, Manjack, Double Breasted and Grand Cays. We also put in for an afternoon at Foxtown on Great Abaco Island. All of these locales are a little different from each other, and they are all unique and wonderful! Nippers, a restaurant on Great Guana Cay, is a “must see” place. Each Sunday, Nipper’s has a signature pig roast which is quite wonderful. We happened upon an annual celebration at Green Turte Cay called the “Island Roots Heritage Festival.” That celebration included a Conch-cleaning contest for kids, a performance akin to a “Mummer’s Parade” by the Royal Bahamian Defense Force, and a Junkanoo in the evening. This stop was
quite delightful. We met and shook hands with the Prime Minister, the Rt. Hon. Hubert Ingraham. We walked right up to him and shook his hand. His security detail – two guys, one military, one in plain clothes – were off across the parade field having nibblies, or something. Whatever! Everyone there was mellow! Just imagine doing that here in the US!
Manjack, Double Breasted and Grand cays are comparatively remote, less developed cays. They are all exquisite. At Manjack, we followed a wooded path across the island to a beautiful sand beach. The beach extended the length of the cay, and we were the only people there. A local resident there provides local wi-fi. Foxtown is Prime Minister Ingraham’s hometown. The approach to the town was shallow, so we anchored off the island and dinghied in. We enjioyed Conch Salad at a little local “restaurant” and stopped for milk in the “grocery store.” Both were rooms in small local homes. There was no milk. We anchored for two nights at Double Breasted. When the tide reversed the first night, we floated over, and unset, our own anchor. We wound up laying aground, in 5′ of water, just on the edge of a shoal. No damage, but unsettling. That morning, we set out a second anchor in a Bahamian Mooring configuration, to stay put. Now we understand why it’s called a “Bahamian Mooring.” We radioed on VHF68 to Rosie’s Restaurant on Grand Cay to come pick us up for dinner. It’s five miles, one-way, from the restaurant on Grand to the anchorage at Double Breasted, but they came for us and brought us back. That was really fun. Rosie is a boyhood friend of the Rt. Hon. Hubert Ingraham. We’re sure nothing happens in that part of the world that Rosie doesn’t know about, approve and benefit from. Very cool place!
Sea water in the Bahamas is CLEAN. You can easily see bottom in 15′ – 20′ everywhere. The colors are not like anything I’ve ever seen. Gorgeous! Currents on the edge of the banks are swift. One quarter to one third of the volume of water on the banks turns over at each tide cycle. That water floods and ebbs through “cuts” in the rim of the bank. When winds are up from an easterly direction, ocean seas and breaking waves cause “rages” at the cuts. Pay attention to the weather if going offshore. The sand is not silica; its million-upon-millions of tiny cretaceous animal shells.
We had five long crossings: Key Biscayne to Bimini, Bimini to Nassau (overnighted on the banks), Nassau to Eleuthera, Eleuthera to Great Abaco, and Grand Cay to Ft. Pierce.
We violated rule 1: “Never have a schedule on a boat!” And, we paid for it! We had a schedule to meet our 18 y/o granddaughter, who flew into Marsh Harbour. That forced us to cross from North Eleuthera to Grand Bahama (Little Harbour) in conditions that were unpleasant. The transit was 75 miles, and at our slow trawler speeds, took 9 hours of elapsed time. Seas were comprised of ocean swells with a wind-driven component atop the swells. The wave period of the swells was 7 – 8 seconds. The first two hours we were somewhat protected from the prevailing ESE trade winds by Eleuthera Island. Then we got into the open North Atlantic, and got beat up for a couple of hours in 4′ – 7′ seas. Then it laid down a little, and the seas improved to 3′-5′. Then the wind came back up, and seas got up to 5′-8′. The wave periods were longer than on the Chesapeake Bay, but it was an exhausting and uncomfortable day. Water depths reached >12,000 ft!
Still, though, we’re glad we went. The boat did fine. We traveled with a great friends as a very reliable buddy boat, so we always had “emergency backup.” We never needed it, but were very thankful for the friendship and camaraderie. For us, this was a “survey trip” to decide if we’d want to spend a winter over there. I think not. The natural beauty of the place is magnificent, but we do not have the physical stamina to enjoy diving, hiking and beach-combing. It would be no fun to “veg” on the boat all winter.