Season 3, Chapter 1 "Blast Off"
The goal was to reduce the time at the dock this off season. There are a cascading set of reasons for this which goes something like this: winter dock equals work projects, work projects equals time, money and frustration, which leads inevitably to “we need to do less work and more enjoying this $%#& boat” (I gave up cursing for lent). We returned to Stuart, Florida last year on December 14 and our goal was to be gone by April 1. During the three and a half months at the dock we upgraded and repaired numerous systems and Julia and I each furthered our boat knowledge through these thoroughly enjoyable learning and spending opportunities. By March 1, we were ready to go in terms of the boat. All of the major projects were completed and we were making up new little projects to keep busy - I know we should have been golfing or going to the beach instead of making up new projects but that’s not what we do. The only thing holding us back were a couple of dental related appointments for me and various hair, nail, etc. appointments for the admiral - that is to say Julia, not Tortilla. The last appointment finished at 3:00 p.m. on Monday, March 25. By midnight that night we were leaving the dock heading to Great Harbour, Berry Islands, the Bahamas. Of course, we left at Midnight and just as we cleared the dock the railroad bridge started to close and we had to wait 25 mins for the train to pass and the bridge to reopen. Not a big deal really but a bit annoying.
Before we departed, between 3:00 p.m. and midnight we had a couple of occasions to second guess our departure. The weather window was quite good for two days and then forecast to pick up for about a week so we really wanted to get moving. But, as I did an engine room check before dinner, I discovered a small puddle of hydraulic oil on the engine room floor. Ugh! The hydraulic system has cost us the most money and breaks down the most frequently and is also the most crucial system besides propulsion. I inspected the surrounding area and all of the lines and fittings and could not find a leak. I isolated the hoses and fittings and wrapped them in oil absorbing pads and then I ran the motor and hydraulics. No oil what so ever. I cleaned everything up and decided we were leaving despite this little annoyance. I thought about it while I was catching a couple of hours of sleep and I decided that this oil was from last year when we had a catastrophic failure in the hydraulic pump and had to replace it in Halifax. I had oil everywhere. It seems that some of that residual oil found a hiding place and decided after 9 months and many hours of running it would make itself known hours before our departure. Crazy stuff! After I got the oil mess cleaned up, I got an email from an old childhood friend telling me that our mutual friend had passed away at the ripe old age of 52. Was this a sign that we shouldn’t go?? I don’t know if it was or not but we decided to leave anyway.
The plan is to be in the Bahamas for about three months and then head north to the Chesapeake Bay for July - September then back to Stuart. Three months in the Bahamas takes a great deal of provisioning. Most of the places we want to go are not very populated and there are few if any services including groceries. So we provisioned like we never had before. A trip to the Publix for canned goods and non-perishable food items - 2 over flowing carts. A second trip to the Publix for paper goods, storage bags and various items I forgot the first trip. A trip to the butcher for about 60 pounds of meat - two whole tenderloins cut into fillets, a dozen chicken breasts, three pounds of ground beef, three pounds of ground lamb, three pounds of Italian sausage, eight racks of ribs, three pounds of oxtail, six pounds of cubed, boneless lamb, three pounds of meat for stew, two whole roaster chickens, two Boston Butts, Turkey wings and thighs, four pounds of crab meat, and much more. Then back to the Publix’s for perishable foods and stuff we forgot from round one and two. Mind you, we had been going to the auto parts store, ordering Yamaha spares, Lugger spares, and ordering from Amazon daily for the past month. As we leave for this trip we are better prepared than ever - or so we thought.
The first leg was excellent. We decided to take a pretty straight route from the St. Lucie Inlet to the West End of Grand Bahama and then follow the south coast of Grand Bahama down to the Berry Islands. The first eight hours or so we would be crossing the Gulf Stream and we would be heading slightly into the northerly flow of current. This is where you need to be careful. If you have opposing wind and current you get very unsettled and unpredictable seas. Our weather forecast called for gentle winds from the south east which meant a smooth crossing. All went well and we were on the other side of the stream by about 9:00 a.m. While our speed across the stream was slower than our normal speed because we were fighting the current, during the next 10 hours of traveling we were aided by a following current that bumped up our average speed. All-in-all we ended up right on our normal average of 7.75 knots for the 150 nms. We arrived too late to clear customs so we anchored off the east side of Great Harbour Cay and waited to enter the boat basin until the morning when we could go in at high tide. We had a nice thunder and lightening storm overnight which gave us a fresh water wash down and we awoke to a beautiful morning. I had a swim and we cooked breakfast and waited for the high tide which was forecast for about noon. At 11:30 a.m. we pulled the anchor up and then the trouble started. By now the winds had kicked up and we were sitting in 20 knot winds and two-foot seas as we weighed anchor. Not really an issue in and of itself, but when the anchor came over the bow roller the anchor windless stopped working. At his point I didn’t have time to worry about it so I secured the anchor and went to the helm to take control of the boat back from Julia. We headed into the Harbour and docked the boat with no troubles. Our friends Keith and Romy from Acqua Dolce (Nord 47) were already on the dock waiting for us when we arrived. After we got tied up, I stuck my head in the anchor locker to inspect the windlass. The hydraulic motor (there’s that word again!) had broken clean off of the gear box. How in the world did that happen? At that point I had no idea, but I knew I was in the Bahamas and we were planning to do lots of anchoring which would be impossible without a functioning windlass so I immediately got on the phone to various people to get a new hydraulic motor sent to Great Harbour Cay. The pump arrived two days later and I waited until the next morning to do the “simple” install. Once I got into the anchor locker and started the installation I realized what had happened. The gear box which sits below deck and turns the chain gypsy to retrieve or let out anchor chain had come loose and when the anchor came over the roller the gear box turned and the hydraulic motor which is mounted on the side of the gear box hit the chain pipe and was broken off. Ha, problem solved! Now I just had to fix the dang thing. Another great learning opportunity. Julia, Keith and I tore the windlass apart, learned how it was supposed to be installed, cleaned it up, greased it up and then put it all back together properly. I can honestly say that I think the windlass was not installed properly 14 years ago when the boat was built and somehow it made it through 14 years of service without failing (at least to my knowledge) and then one day it failed. It is back together and working well now and we are all “experts” at another system onboard VAMOS.
Great Harbour was nice though it lacked many amenities that you might like in the Bahamas like a swimming pool and bar. However, there was pretty good walking and they were able to get me the spare part in two days so I have all good things to say about this Cay. On our last night at the marina, our friends on Trixie (Nord 76), Bruno and Beatrice, arrived at the marina and we spent a good evening together along with their daughter, Sabrina. This is the fifth year that Bruno and Beatrice have come to the Bahamas on Trixie so they know all of the places we can go in these deep draft boats. Before we left Florida Julia was stalking Trixie online and marking all of her stops. Over dinner Bruno gave his favorite spots and this information has helped make our plan, as it is. While Trixie was coming to the dock Keith and Romy were making their way to an anchorage a few miles away. They wanted to get out of the marina and hopefully find a spot for some diving. That day was absolutely gorgeous for moving and they had a good ride to the anchorage. However, once they got there, they lost electrical power. This is cause for alarm especially in the Bahamas. They sent us a message and told us that they were moving to Chub Cay Marina to assess the problem. We were already scheduled to rendezvous with them the next day at Chub so we went on schedule and met them the next day. When we arrived Keith and Romy were obviously a bit frustrated and dejected by the problem. These boats are complicated and they tend to break at inopportune moments. However, when they are working well you have a totally independent, comfortable, moveable apartment that can cruise through poor conditions comfortably and has great range. You just have to balance the good days and the bad days. Anyway, after some digging around, we found that four of Keith’s six house batteries were not in service due to blown fuses. We replaced the fuses and all was back in order. This was a simple fix, but a scary enough problem when you are at sea with no electric. After seeing Keith’s issue, I came back to the boat and checked on my stock of spare fuses. As fate would have it, I had spares for some but not all of the big fuses on the boat. I got in touch with a service provider in Palm Beach and they put my requested order of fuses on another Nordhavn that was headed to the Bahamas. We will eventually meet up and we’ll make some new friends and I’ll get my spares.
Chub Cay was nice. There is a new marina and hotel with a swimming pool, swim up pool bar and a nice restaurant. Of course this all comes at a premium price. We stayed four nights at Chub and had a great time. We hit the beach with beers and sandwiches one day and I started back to swimming. At least a little bit of swimming. We walked the beaches and tried to make friends with all of the sport fish boat people but most of them stay at the marina for six to eight weeks to fish and the have their own social network. Being short time interlopers they didn’t pay much attention except to ask the odd question about our strange looking boats. I would go back to Chub Cay for sure and maybe we will on the way back.
From Chub we made our way south to the west end of New Providence Island. There is an anchorage called West Bay. The idea was to stay one night and then head further south to Highbourne Cay. The ride to the anchorage was largely uneventful except for a new learning experience. There was an alarm in the pilot house which said water was detected in the fuel. This is not good. Our main engine is nearly bulletproof and as dependable as they come, but water in the fuel will stop it. I checked the supply tank fuel and found no water in the fuel but did find water in the compartment below the supply tank which was apparently causing the alarm to trigger. I check the bilge and there was a normal amount of water in the bilge so no worries about sinking. I used a shop vac to get the water out of the compartment and upon inspection I found that the drain was plugged. It has always been this way since I got the boat because I had never really been in that compartment so it has been the same as long as we’ve owned the boat. I have no idea where the water came from, but I removed the plug to the water can drain and no more problem...at least not yet. As we entered the anchorage the charts gave us a suggested route which I followed. It seemed all good right up until the point we hit bottom and then not so much. We hit fairly softly but we hit and then we lifted off and then we hit a second time and then we were off. Ugh! Hitting bottom makes your knees knock. These boats are forgiving in many ways but if you hit bottom too hard you can do major damage. I called Keith who was just behind me and told him to stay further left then we did and he had no issues at all. The anchorage sucked. It was very rolly from surge. I had made water while we were moving and the tank was nearly full. This should be a good thing except when you are in a rolly anchorage and the water sloshes back and forth all night hitting the top of the tank (which is directly under our bed!). Not much sleep was had onboard VAMOS that night. Lesson learned. Do not top off the water tank unless we are at a marina. The good news was that Keith had caught a fish on the way so we had fresh mahi-mahi for dinner that evening. We left early the next morning and followed Acqua Dolce out of the anchorage and no issues with depth. We traveled about fifty miles to Highbourne Cay. Highbourne is a popular spot to stop for many cruisers in the Bahamas. Having visited there now I’m not entirely sure why. There is a modest grocery store where we spent one hundred and seventy dollars on a case of beer and one bag of perishable items like onions and milk and carrots. The marina can only accommodate a small number of vessels. But the restaurant is rumored to be the best in Exuma, and also the priciest. We didn't find out, but there sure are a huge number of 200 foot plus yachts anchored out with people jet skiing everywhere. The morning we left to move further south we watched a sea plane come in to drop off supplies to one yacht and pick up passengers going out and then return an hour later with new passengers. Pretty cool. I told Julia we need to get groceries that way one day just to say we did it! How much more expensive could it be than going to the Highbourne grocery?
Our next stop was Shroud Cay. Shroud was our first stop in the Exuma Park. There is no fishing or taking sea life of any sort in the park. There are several mooring fields and they can ask for a fee for anchoring. Many of the islands are owned by the National Trust and are deserted except for iguanas. We picked a couple to take Tortilla for walks. There was also an inland river which was navigable by dinghy at high tide. We explored one day and went clear across the island in 2 feet of water in a beautiful little river. We explored the beach on the east side of the island and then returned. When we got out of the boats to walk to the beach we saw a three foot lemon shark that swam right up to us in 2 feet of water. It was the highlight of the day. On the way out of the river we stopped at a beach and drank a few beers and swam. This is what we are supposed to be doing in the Bahamas, not fixing battery banks and windlasses. On the last evening the wind turned from the south and the anchorage got rough. We sat out the night with 25 knot winds and two to three foot waves. It was nearly impossible to get in and out of the dinghy. The wind persisted the next day and we decided we needed to leave to see if we could find a better spot. If we didn’t find something better we all figured we wouldn’t be any worse off. The spot we choose was only 12 miles south but we thought there might be a small amount of protection from the south winds. We were wrong and we decided to keep looking. Romy found a great hidden spot, but the approach was questionable in terms of depth. We decided that with three sets of charts we could find a way in without hitting bottom. Keith and Romy led the way since they need one less foot of water than we do. We followed them and Romy called out the depths as they went along. There was one spot where we were no more than 100 feet from the rocky shore line and we had to pass through a rock channel that was fairly narrow. They say eight feet as the minimum depth. We need seven feet of water to be floating. We followed them as closely as we could and made it through this spot just fine and they we found a well-protected anchorage. We were protected from nearly all sides and the bottom was excellent holding. Once the wind died it was gorgeous. We were just inside of O’Brien Cay near Cambridge Cay. We stayed for two nights on anchor and then we moved to the nearby mooring field which was also protected. There was comparatively lots to do at this spot. There was a beach that was easily accessible by dinghy and from the beach there was a path to the Atlantic side beach which was very cool. Swimming by the boat was good but there was a strong current from time-to-time. We also had several snorkel spots including an airplane wreck (which are prevalent throughout the Bahamas from drug running days) and a beautiful coral garden with tons of fish, referred to as ‘the aquarium’. This was certainly a good stop. While at Cambridge Cay on the mooring we watched a Nordhavn 68 go by and it turned out to be the boat that had left Palm Beach a few days earlier and was carrying our spare parts for us as well as several other boats. I hailed them on the VHF radio and we arranged to meet a couple of hours later. We took the dinghy to nearby Compass Cay and met Mike and Katie on Kya for the first time. We traded a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon for a bag full of fuses and we sat and traded stories over a couple of drinks. This certainly is an odd life we are leading.
From Cambridge, we moved south to Staniel Cay which was a big letdown. Staniel is one of the favorite spots in the Exumas. Tons of boats stop here to see the pigs. There is a beach with wild pigs that swim right up to your boat in hopes of getting fed. People bring scraps of food from their boats and feed the pigs. It is interesting but it also creates a good deal of apple cores and decomposing vegetation in the water which is not nice. There is also a great snorkel spot called Thunderball Grotto which was made famous in the James Bond movie Thunderball. The grotto was very cool especially since we were the only ones snorkeling it at the time. Fortunately, there were no big sharks attacking us like with James Bond. Staniel was pretty downtrodden though the bar and restaurant were very busy and the dinner that evening at the restaurant was quite good.
I was not happy at Staniel since we came to the Bahamas to get away from people and find secluded anchorages where we can fish and conch and maybe find a lobster. Staniel felt like just the opposite of that so we picked up anchor the next day and headed south to Black Point. There are two anchorages in Black Point and we picked the less convenient and less crowded one. As we went to drop anchor it was pissing rain which was fine because it cleaned the salt off of the boat. When the rain stopped, we went into town and had lunch. We hit the dock at low tide and had to climb a ladder to get up to the dock. Sure footed Julia went first. There was a fisherman cleaning fish and there were about a dozen sharks and stingrays eating the throwaways from the fish. Julia was quite concerned about Tortilla becoming fish bait so she let me handle Mrs. T. All turned out well but it was a pretty cool scene.
After lunch Acqua Dolce showed up at the anchorage and then much to my surprise, My Harley (Nordhavn 60) with Hank and Betsy showed up as well. We organized a happy hour on the beach and got caught up with Hank and Betsy and took some tips on spots to go to and avoid. We have seen My Harley several places in the past two years but we hadn’t connected with Hank and Betsy before so our impromptu get-together was perfect. There is nothing like hanging out on a pretty much deserted beach making new friends over a nice bottle of Rosé wine.
We wanted to stay at Black Point longer and do more exploring but the weather the next day looked good for moving and the weather the next couple of days after that looked fairly nasty. So we picked up anchor in the morning and headed south to Emerald Bay Marina north of George Town. We wanted to check out the marina because both VAMOS and Acqua Dolce have plans to stay at the marina in May while doing a bit of non-boat stuff and we wanted to see the marina. We also wanted to hit a restaurant or two and check out George Town. Lots of people on boats cruise to George Town early in the winter season and spend all winter on anchor in the harbor. There are plenty of planned events and lots of chances for socializing but you are on anchor all the time because there is no marina close by town. Because of this we figure George Town must be fairly nice. Ha! Not so. We rented a car and went to visit our friend from Cape Cod who owns a house just north of George Town. He has six acres on a hill top overlooking the entrance to the George Town Harbour. He has incredible views of the east and south shores of the island. PJ and his wife Bobby spend six months a year in this house and the balance in Cape Cod. We met at Sandwich Marina two years ago when we were stuck and waiting for some parts. PJ recommended a restaurant in town and gave us a few pointers for getting around which proved helpful. We visited town on the Thursday before Good Friday. Although many stores would be open on Friday, everyone seemed to be shopping and we got the full experience of shopping for groceries just after the ship came in and when everyone wanted to get their shopping completed. It was pandemonium! We hit the grocery store, the butcher shop, the Napa store and the liquor store. Everything was crazy! By the time we got back to the boat it was time for a drink and a nap.
We’ve been gone about a month and so far, we have mixed feelings about the trip. The weather has not cooperated much but we keep hearing it will improve in May. The fishing has been slow. We’ve yet to find a spot to conch and lobster and we’ve had too many boat issues given all of the work we’ve done the past two years. Nothing big except the windlass, but annoying stuff that needs to get addressed anyway. Hopefully the weather will improve and we can get to some better spots to do the things we came for! Until then, we will be watching weather and making plans to move on from Emerald Bay.