Thursday, February 27, 2014

Playing Tourist on Harbour Island

While waiting for the right weather to continue our northward journey to the Abacos and home, I am taking a vacation from the hard work of being on a boat. Today we took our bikes on the ferry to Dunmore Town, Harbour Island.

Million dollar beach homes and resorts...
...interspersed with tumbledown shacks, small pastel homes, narrow streets with golf carts.

A bakery. Yum.

If there is a hammock on the island, Pope will find it.

I am more interested in flowers and the pink sand beach where celebrities such as Martha Stewart and Nicole Kidman hunker down in seaside estates.

Oh, did I forget to mention that we broke down again? The day after I wrote the previous post, Gratitude. Leaving Highbourne, the wonderful luxurious marina resort, our electrical system failed. 

Stayed another day. The marina's excellent mechanic, Jason, fixed us up. A beautiful place, and a very expensive place to break down. For the investment we made in Highbourne, we could have flown to Harbour Island and stayed in a cute little pink B&B!

Saturday, February 22, 2014


Friends and readers back home: You may have had to shovel a lot of snow this winter. But look at the "bright" side--running water, hot shower, washer/dryer at your fingertips, bright electric lights, and bright green lettuce down the street at Kroger or Safeway. And so cheap! Do not take these for granted.

Yes, I was once a backpacker and still primarily travel on a budget. Most of this trip, we have anchored offshore for free.For a couple of days, however, I am changing my tune. We are sitting at a bar at a private island resort and marina--Highbourne Cay--eating blackened fish and salad with organic lettuce, pecans, and orange slices, on a restaurant patio, watching the US-Finland bronze metal hockey game.

I am relishing the delicious fresh greens; the first ones in weeks. An hour ago I borrowed a marina bike to ride to the ocean beach, just like I used to do back on the Intracoastal Waterway.
Then I luxuriated in a hot shower and washed my hair; first one in a long, long time. I had gotten used to being soaked with sweat and itching from crusty salt and insect bites, retiring into a bunk full of sand. (And sheets dotted with bloodstains from all our injuries.)

Ah, such decadence.

Our boat is dwarfed by the other boats, many of which come over from Miami or Nassau for holiday weekends.

This back-to-civilization experience will cost us a cool couple of hundred for each night--about 4 times a normal marina rate. Everything is beautifully constructed and maintained.

Supplies shipped in by boat or small plane. Water and electricity are metered. We still have to sleep on our boat without window screens or air conditioning; a cottage here costs $850 per night. The payoffs: My body and spirit are refreshed. For a few hours, I can put aside my fear of being out on the sea in a boat with "issues."

Pope was motivated stop at this outrageously priced resort, the only marina before we cross the ocean again, to recharge the batteries fully on electricity. We did the same for two nights at Staniel Cay. We are having trouble getting the engine started, and the batteries charged, possibly because of confused wiring or a loose connection. We are headed for Eleuthera, an island in the northern Bahamas that: 1) offers a route home via the Abacos that minimizes ocean crossings, and 2) has marine experts who can puzzle through the electrical system. We will turn on the engine tomorrow morning and not turn if off until we arrive.

There is more to be grateful for. We met sailors here on Highbourne Cay who had a much worse experience than us with running aground: 40 mph winds (our wind was only 20 mph), anchor chain wrapped around the keel AND prop (our rope was wrapped around the keel), and anchor buried so deep in mud that no leverage could pull it up (Pope got ours up from the dinghy). They were rescued by a towing service from Freeport, contacted by satellite phone--the last call they made before their phone died. They had a "buddy boat" with them. We don't have either luxury; we are alone and have only a low-powered VHF radio.

I am grateful that our grounding experience was not worse than it was.

We have met many cruisers who upgraded this or that on their boat because of previous experiences in the Exumas--hard-bottom dinghy with high-horsepower outboard to plow through current; backup wind AND solar to recharge batteries; multiple jugs on deck of fuel and water; high-powered radio antenna. The longer we stay, and the more stories I hear, the more I realize that to stay safe in a remote area without services and with shallow sandbars, strong currents and winds--let alone to have fun--takes much more preparation and equipment than we envisioned.

And with that understatement I'll again express my gratitude for life back home and vow never to take it for granted.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Staniel Cay: Oasis in Central Exumas

We are back at Staniel Cay—the only island in the central Exumas with fuel, water, and groceries. Last time, after dropping Henry and John at the tiny airstrip, we relaxed at anchor for several days. This time, we stocked up on supplies at the tiny markets and are again at anchor, waiting for a calm-weather window to head north. Right now, the wind and currents are powerfully at odds; the boat strains sideways against the anchor line, and we can barely maneuver our dinghy to shore across the swift-flowing water.

The on-shore scene is worth the trip. It’s a party.
On Monday night, the yacht club was hopping.
Ladies staying in seaside bungalows outdid each other in makeup and form-fitting dresses; their mates imbibed heavily, served by Carl the friendly bartender.

A Darth Vader-style megayacht, sleek black with red lights and crew dressed in black, docked at sunset. Owned by a South American billionaire, we surmised; the crew declined to disclose names.

Well after dark, we left the beach and strugged to steer our inflatable dinghy through the current toward the anchor light at the top of our mast, way out in the harbor—hoping we were aiming for the right boat.

Tuesday brought out the sharks. French-speaking females sunbathed and strolled the patio in short shorts and bikini tops barely covering huge tits. (Pope said to mention that.) A dozen nurse sharks circled, enjoying the scenery. Or maybe just scrounging for fish heads thrown overboard.

Stingrays also frequent the marina.

Indoors, the crew of the schooner Liberty sang sea shanties at the top of their lungs after munching on conch sandwiches and real hamburgers—often a rarity on boats. Lyrics about “waiting for weather” and unexpected storms. We could relate to that.

A developer who has worked on many of the islands told us he had mixed feelings about the pace of construction. Mega-mansions are dotting the oceanside dunes; expansive resorts are envisioned; and Aga Khan (grandson of the Pakistani leader known for various quirks) has reshaped the contours of his island. David Copperfield, the developer revealed, built tunnels on his island to store his magician’s props away from prying eyes. (We have enjoyed his shows in the past.)

Outdoors, the sound waves crackle with boats calling on VHF radio for space at the marina or fuel dock, and yacht club employees calling for assistance with ice, water, and transportation.  At 5 pm, employees living in Black Point, a settlement two islands over on Great Guana Cay, climbed down a ladder into a motorboat and headed home—a 15-minute trip over the shallows vs. the 2 hours it would take us, with a deeper keel, requiring a long detour into deeper water.

We relaxed on the yacht club patio, enjoying the bustle and the view of our boat, Echo II, swinging in the current (white dot in the photo).

This time, we returned just before dark.

Wednesday (and the rest of the week) we will continue waiting at Staniel Cay for a calm-weather window. It's quiet and somewhat lonely, with only a handful of boats left. Dozens headed south for GeorgeTown this week on the north wind. We need a south or east wind to head north. 

We are moving from the anchorage to the expensive yacht club marina to charge up our aged, fading batteries with a strong bolt of 110 electricity. That means we can hang around after dark to charge up our aged, fading bodies at the late-night party!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly, or How a Conch Shell Tried to Hijack Our Boat

This posting is dedicated to Greg, Barb, Bobby, and Joanna, who will be wide-eyed with disbelief and relief that they didn’t come with us.

In my previous posting I mentioned some goods and bads of our excursion to the Exumas. In the last 48 hours, we’ve upped the ante in both directions, with some REALLY goods and REALLY bads.

Really good: Dave from the sailboat Romana gave me a lift in his dinghy to snorkel at the Sea Aquarium off Cambridge Cay, boasting colorful fish, including some 3 or 4 feet long.

Really bad: Dave helped me out because our dinghy outboard was disabled. While I swam with the fishes, Dave’s passenger, Al, helped Pope find the problem—a broken and jammed shear pin.

Really good: Saw a stingray chased by a fish.

Really bad: The fish caught the stingray and latched onto its back. Parasite?

Really good:  Dental floss for sewing up the jib.

Really bad: Having to sew up the jib.
Really good: Drinks and conversation over happy hour with Bill and Alicia on the sailboat Destiny. They toiled for months to restore a vintage boat, older than ours.

Really bad: We ran out of beer, rum, and ice (as well as milk, butter, and mayonnaise) nine miles from the nearest market, and had nothing to contribute to happy hour! Needless to say, we are on our way to market now, even though it is out of our way, in the opposite direction of home.

Really good: Vic and Gigi from the trawler Salty Turtle, whom we met earlier in Nassau, took Pope and me in their dinghy to snorkel in the Coral Garden on the southern tip of Cambridge Cay.

Really bad: Although Salty Turtle is anchored in a peaceful, beautiful, but narrow anchorage surrounded by sandbars (Pipe Creek), we were unable to summon the courage to go there because the night before, when we anchored in another peaceful, beautiful, but narrow anchorage surrounded by sandbars (Compass Cay), we washed up on a sandbar in a powerful current. For those interested in the whole sad sailors’ story, see the long version below. For those already bored, disinterested, or suspicious of my continuing saga of misadventures, skip right on down to the next “Really good.” (But not those of you who want to feel “really good” about not coming on this trip.)

       *  *   *  *
Long version: After dropping our “hook” (a state-of-the-art Rocna anchor, with an excellent record of holding in most sea bottoms) in a narrow anchorage surrounded by sandbars, between Compass Cay and Pipe Cay, we “set” the anchor firmly by backing up the boat against the anchor line. One other boat was anchored just ahead of us. About 8 p.m., high tide, we heard and felt a rumble, possibly similar to a mild earthquake tremor. It only lasted a few seconds. We ran to the deck to see what was the matter, when what to our horrified eyes should appear, but the other boat – a quarter mile away! On the far side, we were perilously close to a channel into Exuma Sound, i.e., the ocean. The current was trying to sweep us that way. The anchor line was wrapped around the boat and firmly stuck under the keel, which in turn was embedded on a very shallow sandbar; in other words, we were hard aground. Thus began an all-night vigil and a ton of hard work--including Pope rowing out in the dinghy in wind, current, and dark to drop our spare Danforth anchor in deeper water--to prevent the boat from slipping farther onto the sandbar, get the line untangled, and keep the boat from getting pounded to pieces. At low tide, 2 a.m., the sandbar surfaced, only a shallow film of water washing over it. At high tide, 8 a.m., our keel  bumped heavily along the bottom and off the bar—minus a few quarts of paint. The current reversed, the current carried us away from the ocean, and the Danforth held. Whew!  Pope slipped out again in the dinghy, this time in growing light, to retrieve and re-drop the Rocna from the stern, just to make darn sure the boat couldn’t slip back onto the sandbar. At last, the problem became clear: a whopping big conch shell stuck in the middle of our Rocna! Rubbing its tough cheeks against the cool stainless steel, and preventing the anchor from digging in. You see, every 6 hours or so, the powerful currents flowing in and out of the cuts between the Exuma islands (cays) switch directions, from incoming tide to outgoing tide (flood and ebb). Anchors have to turn around 180 degrees and reset before the current sweeps the boat away. Until that night, our Rocna performed superbly. This time, that darn shell probably prevented the reset. Nature always wins! Anyway, the end of the story: after a couple of hours of sleep, we began the hard work of retrieving two anchors set in opposite directions, bow and stern. For an explanation of why that is difficult, ask any sailor. Pope had to lift the 40-pound Danforth into the dinghy. Meanwhile, his confidence in his trusty Rocna was badly shaken.

    *    *    *    *
Really good: Sunrise over Pipe Cay while waiting for high tide to bump us off the bar.

Really bad: Smashed index finger, adding to multiple cuts, sprains, and bruises from anchoring in strong wind and currents. The Exumas are not surrounded by placid seas as I envisioned; we had calm weather only 2 days out of 20 (one of the 2 is pictured below). Right now, it is blowing 15 mph and the boat is rocking and swinging wildly.

Really good: Hammock on the beach.

Really bad:  Getting up from hammock.

Finally, the really ugly:  There isn’t much! Everything is visually stunning--variety of blue water colors, beaches, rocks, boats, marine life--even when conditions are rough.

But! There IS the “chicken stance,” the ugly grimace and defiant posture exhibited by skippers, usually on large, expensive boats, when smaller boats such as Echo II anchor at a distance they deem too close and at risk of running into their shining fiberglass investment (or possibly just deflating their ego?). The m.o. is to stand on the forward deck during the lesser boat’s anchoring operation, with hands on hips and elbows extended, crowing like a rooster. The message is clear: go away, intruder—this is my patch of sea!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Stormy Weather, and Turnaround

All good things come to an end. All bad things come to an end.

This trip, so far, has had goods and bads—stingrays and purple coral fans; worn crankshaft and rusted iPad chargers. The further south we ventured, the warmer the water and less populated the beaches.

But the electrical and plumbing systems on Echo II are protesting the continued assault of salt spray and other not-to-be-mentioned chemical substances, and frankly, I am not entirely comfortable being in a floating tub. I’ve stayed fit with swimming and rowing, but my body is bruised and battered from being knocked around on the rocking boat.

Right now, boats are pouring into the Farmers channel--sandwiched among three islands--to wait out an impending storm, predicted to hit in the wee hours Thursday morning and diminish by Friday morning.  (We, of course, got here first; they are encroaching on our anchorage!)

George Town, our original destination, boasts a lively social scene—and ALL the cruisers are either there or on their way—but it is still a fair distance south and requires an ocean passage.

We rested comfortably for a few days at one of the out-islands en route to George Town, Little Farmers Cay, and in the lee of one of its harbors, endured a cold front that brought 25-mph winds and white caps. Trips to the tiny yacht club by dinghy offered cold beer, electrical outlets for charging computers, and bathrooms with running water.

We used some of the time at Farmers to discuss our motivations and schedule, and decided this was a good spot to turn around and begin the long journey north toward home. Pope began studying the charts north of the Exumas, seeking the shortest ocean crossings and most protected anchorages between the Exumas and Florida.

Along the way, we hope to stop in Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park for some more snorkeling and marine-mammal-spotting.

First, we have to get through the storm. As I write, the wind is rising ominously and black clouds are hovering. Could be good (being in this semi-protected anchorage) or bad.
Stay tuned as we continue our journey, in the northerly direction, and join us in hoping that the coming weeks will be nothing but fun, frolic, and good traveling. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Life on a Bahamian Island

Little Farmers Cay is a quiet, lightly developed island, settled by a former slave and populated largely by descendants—about 50 or so. As on other cays in the Bahamas without large tourist resorts, sailboats like ours anchor or tie up to a mooring ball offshore and dinghy ashore to a small town dock.

Most islands will haul your trash to the local dump for about $5 a bag; just leave it in the bin on the public dock (at left in photo).

Little Farmers and other islands boast colorful houses and tiny convenience stores with a few groceries. The day the weekly-or-so mail boat arrives, fresh produce is available—but it disappears fast. Earlier this week, I scored a head of cabbage and a pound of carrots at Black Point on Great Guana Cay.

On Little Farmers Cay, I met lifetime resident Rend, who built a towering, three-story wooden house from salvaged wood, surrounded by gardens and fruit trees and chickens poking around the yard.

Rend picked pomegranates and guavas from his garden for me. Can’t wait for them to ripen!  His wooden chess board and another game board are handmade.

Rend’s daughter Jasmine, visiting from Nassau where she works in marketing t the Atlantis resort, just happens to be an old friend of our mechanic back in Nassau, Albert the Diesel Wizard! Passed a pleasant hour chatting with Jasmine and Rend about island life and their hopes for creating a guest house on their land, which stretches down to the sea.

We stopped for a cool drink and reserved a 6 pm dinner at one of the two restaurants on Little Farmers. Back on Echo II, we enjoyed our own homemade bean soup for lunch and took a long rest before jumping in for an afternoon swim. The current runs so swiftly between the islands, I did another "lap pool" swim--stroking with all my strength and making little headway against the current.

It’s a hot day here! Not much to do but live the island life.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Whirlwind Tour: Staniel to Guana to Farmers

After 8 days cooling our sails at Staniel Cay, we tore ourselves out of our lethargy and motored five miles south to Black Point Settlement on Great Guana Cay, where there are THREE restaurants, because Pope had a hankering for a hamburger.

So...we anchored in a nice spot near the beach, with the intention of staying a few days...or a few weeks...quiet here, no mega-yachts, only cruisers, public dock, several restaurants, new friends, laundromat.

Pope got his hamburger. Spent the night. Shortly after sunrise, noticed cruisers racing over to the laundromat dock in their dinghies, hauling huge bags of laundry. One, two, three, four. Hmm. Thought we'd better find out what's up. By the time we got over there, people were lined up three deep waiting for machines. Eight dinghies at the laundromat dock.

The buzz was that a storm's predicted! In a couple of days. Everyone's washing up, stocking up, and fleeing for protected anchorages, mostly to the north. Hmm. Change of plans for us, too? I jogged across the little road, bought some scrumptious whole wheat bread from Corene at J.D.'s Straw Market and Grocery (a one-room shop) and dinghied back to Echo II.

We immediately cancelled our plan to visit the friendly iguanas on Bitter Guana Cay and stay a few days at the very agreeable settlement of Black Point. Instead, hauled anchor and took off for the south. To beat the crowds to a good spot, youi see. By the time the gusty weather hits (if ever), the most protected anchorages will be jam-packed. We don't want to backtrack to the north when so many enticing islands beckon to the south.

So here we are, anchored between Big Farmer and Little Farmer Cays, suffering from a surfeit of good beaches, good views, good beer, a promise of a hot meal and a hot shower at the tiny yacht club (view from the patio below), and the prospect of swimming in the clearest water in the Bahamas. Before the storm, after the storm, if there is no storm--who cares. It's all good.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Yeah, But What's It REALLY Like? Part 4

What is it like to be retired? I don’t know what it is for NORMAL people; that is, what it would be like at home in Washington, DC. Haven’t tried it yet. I can only relate to what it’s like aboard a small-ish sailboat in a laid-back, partially developed country.

I have not shoveled a single ounce of snow and don’t anticipate starting any time soon. I have not run for the Metro nor fretted on the platform waiting for a train since July. Not a single worry has entered my brain about how many signs are needed for a government-sponsored exhibit or how to explain a scientific result.

Instead, I get up in the morning, complain briefly about the damp sheets and pillows, then throw on the same dirty tank top I wore yesterday, since water is scarce so we rarely do laundry. I glance at the sun wondering whether it will be sweat-soaked hot or just plain warm, and curse the relentless wind, wishing it would give us a break and stop blowing sand in our eyes. I look around to find out which boats are leaving and whether any new ones are crowding us too closely in our anchorage.

If it’s calm I swim around the boat a few times to warm up my lazy muscles, being mindful of the current trying to suck me out to sea and the possibility of circling sharks or pigs that swim out to nudge you for a handout.


 Then I sink back into a vegetative state with a crime novel or Bill Bryson. After all that strenuous activity I’m too darn tired to do anything constructive like washing towels in a bucket or writing any serious travel articles other than this blog.

Ah, what a dismal life. So hard to endure. As my friend Linda reminds me, though, endure I must, because I need to inspire those poor working folks back home to persevere so that they, too, may someday suffer as much as me.

Each day I say a little prayer to the gods that we won’t have any more breakdowns. The gods have not been kind. I won’t repeat the very true tales about engine failures and ripped sails. This week, in continuation of our recent lucky streak of only experiencing minor issues, the centerboard cable broke, and the regulator on the propane grill jammed. Each incident makes me less confident, more homesick.

But I manage to stay on the boat instead of flying straight home, for the sake of my friends who need me to inspire them to work hard toward the seemingly elusive and somewhat questionable rewards of retirement.

As you can see on the map, we are essentially in the middle of nowhere--far from the comforts of home and civilization--at the red X. (Florida is upper left, Cuba lower left.) A tough spot to be in.

Most of this region consists of scenic, uninhabited islands. This week, because of our need for fresh water, we were forced to anchor off the shore of Staniel Cay, a small settlement with a marina. Despite the hardship of being stuck near semi-civilization, we  managed to survive on conch sandwiches and goombay smashes (rum cocktails) at the island’s tiny cafĂ©, along with locals in worn t-shirts and yachters in baseball caps inscribed with their boat names. Yesterday, we squeaked by with fried snapper and plantains on the patio of Taste and Sea. We had to share the meal to save cash and use the free wifi to pay our enormous credit card bills.

We filled 5-gallon canisters with diesel ($6.00/gal.) and fresh water (40 cents/ gal.) and hauled them to the boat in our dinghy. This involves lifting a 40-pound jug from an inflatable dinghy, at sea level, to the deck of the big boat, about 4 feet higher, in wind, waves, and current. Trust me, it rocks. Then we poured the liquids into the respective tanks through a small hole in the deck. Afterward, we had to jump in the water to wash off the diesel that splashed on our arms and legs.

Oh, the obstacles we have had to overcome. I hope you all appreciate the tribulations we’re going through for your sake.

To get any kind of decent nourishment I have to walk several blocks to the three tiny markets on Staniel Cay—making several trips until I find one that isn’t padlocked—searching for a fresh vegetable or two and maybe a can of soup or juice. Imagine a tiny 7-11 in a small pink or blue shack with shelves that are pretty barren except for a few hours after the boat from Nassau arrives, when all the yachters converge in a Black-Friday-type rout in which the meanest, strongest captains take home the fresh carrots and avocadoes and the rest of us make do with wilted iceberg lettuce and a $1.00 potato.  

I haven’t figured out what the local people eat, since stocks are low, prices are three times what they are back home, and well-paying jobs are scarce. I did see some squash plants in a field, being trampled by chickens.

We supplement our meager groceries with staples brought from the U.S.—rice, spaghetti, beans, canned soups—stored in plastic bins stacked in a corner of the boat. Finding things consumes a portion of every day. The bins are looking pretty empty these days, though, this being our fourth month on board.

When we get together with other sailors, such as Lee (an old friend with whom Pope has journeyed across oceans) and Stephanie, we have to scrounge for a few soggy crackers and a little salami to contribute to the party. Fortunately for us, Lee and Stephanie are on a big catamaran with real refrigeration, and they graciously offered to share. A fresh salad and watermelons were luxuries i didn’t expect to enjoy until we returned to Florida.

Keeping the boat clean is another challenge. Everything is damp and salty, wet and moldy. The plumbing backs up, and the bilge stinks unless it’s scrubbed with bleach—a slimy, disagreeable chore. As for personal hygiene, sometimes I rinse off the salt and sweat with a sun shower—five gallons of water in a hanging plastic bag. Most days, though, I climb into our bunk slathered in sunblock, perspiration, and Deep Woods Off, falling into a slumber frequently interrupted by the banging of ropes against the mast, and restless dreams of long, hot showers and clean, dry underwear.

Ah, this lifestyle is so hard. Who was the wise guy who told me my post-career life would be so blissful that I would wonder why I didn’t quit sooner? Why would I give up an ergomatic chair in an air-conditioned office for a soggy mattress with a toilet two feet from my head?

We left cars, closets, bathtubs, and washing machines behind in Washington, DC, along with jobs, snow, and Metro. At times I can’t wait to go home because life seems so much easier there, and I could hang out with friends in person instead of pining for an email every two or three months.

On the other hand, the air is warm, the water is blue, and the swimming is always free here, and I certainly don’t want to let down my friends who are counting on me to provide an armchair experience that will help them better appreciate the realities of what they’re working toward. In spite of the grueling day-to-day obstacles, at least the white sand beaches might provide a little inspiration. I hope.

 Guess this is what retirement is all about.