What happens in Nassau…
In this Ariose Note, Tim and I arrive in Nassau, the Bahamas’ capital, which felt like we were a world apart from the country we’ve been cruising over the last few months. Before getting into that, though, I’m going to back track to where our last post left off having made the passage from the Abacos to Eleuthra, where we waited for suitable weather to make the crossing to Nassau. That post was bound by a strict “no drama here” guarantee so we wrapped it up just prior to where our hearts began to pump a little faster …
As we neared the passage between St. George’s Cay and Eleuthra Island, the sight of breakers crashing on just-below-the-surface rocks startled us back to reality from what had been an exceptionally entrancing sail. The other option of continuing westward to enter between Egg and Little Egg Island would have required an additional 2 hours’ sail. That would have made for a sunset arrival – not good for visual navigation in these reef–filled waters. We knew the entrance would be tricky, so had been extra meticulous in plotting our course. I was at the helm, focussed on the electronic chart, and carefully followed the line on the tablet’s screen, feeling like I was playing a video game rather than sailing. Tim, at the bow, kept a sharp lookout. It was unnerving to say the least to head directly toward what felt like certain destruction only to make a near 90-degree turn at the last moment, as dictated by our plotted course, to avoid those rocks and head toward waves breaking on another menacing outcrop.
We refer to our paper and electronic charts, and narrative suggestions from our guide books too, when plotting our course. When in tight situations, though, we find we rely heavily on our electronic chart. With built-in GPS, we are able to easily see exactly where we are – live – in relation to depths and possible hazards. We do make sure we follow along on paper as well just in case the tablet conks out at an inopportune time. We’ve learned to trust the tablet. It hasn’t let us down. Our confidence in it isn’t unconditional, though. Others have mentioned that our particular software, Navionics, seems to be less accurate in the Bahamas than its main competitor, INav. INav, though, is based on Explorer Charts, which are our paper charts, so we appreciate having 2 different data sources to compare with one another. Okay, enough for now about charts.
So digging deep to move beyond that knot of fear, we cautiously picked our way through a zig-zag route, and with relief, ended up in the calmer, safer waters near Spanish Wells. We began to nose toward our intended place to anchor, just outside the town’s easterly entrance.
A month or so ago, we grounded in Black Sound Harbour, spending an uncomfortable night on a severe angle as Ariose’s belly rested on the mud bottom. The silver lining to that little incident? We met the nicest folks, fellow cruisers who dinghied over early the next morning to offer empathy, assistance, coffee, what have you. Since that seemed to be such an effective way to strike up relationships, we thought we might try the same technique in Spanish Wells. Well, that’s not really the way we planned it, but …
As we nosed in, our electronic chart was indicating we had 10 feet of water, whereas our paper charts read 6, but either way, we had plenty of depth. Alberg 30s only need a little over 4 feet. Suddenly Tim, still stationed at the bow, shouted, “Looks too shallow!” and before his exclamation mark hit my ears, our depth alarm concurred with his assessment, and we felt that unmistakeable firm stop of keel hitting bottom. We could see that it was a sandy bottom, so although any grounding causes just enough of an adrenaline surge to help us spring into action, there wasn’t the panic-trigger that happens when keel hits rock that we knew well from 4 months ago. This threatened to be another uncomfortable night, but posed no risk of anything worse.
Although we’re not inclined to brag, we do admit to having accumulated quite a bit of expertise in groundings. As our friend Mary has astutely commented, we seem particularly good at finding the “thin” water in the Bahamas! We knew well what to do. As always, it seems, the wind was at our stern so foiled my immediate effort to reverse off. A quick double-check of the tide tables revealed that water levels were dropping, so our window of opportunity to get off now was disappearing by the minute. Before you could say “gybe-ho” we rowed out first one then a second anchor to attempt to kedge off into deeper water. Nope. Anchors held but we couldn’t winch off. Tim tried to use his substantial weight to lean out and get some rocking going while I gunned the engine. Nothing. We untied jerry jugs and extra anchor and moved them to our dinghy thereby lightening Ariose by 100s of pounds. Certainly she would sit even an inch higher in the water? Nope. Solid. We then attached about 150 feet of rope to our main halyard (the line that comes off the top of the mast that is used to raise the main sail), and secured an anchor to that, used the dinghy to set it abeam as far as we could, then winched hard on the halyard. Our hope was to pull the mast over, forcing Ariose to heel enough so that we would float off. No luck. Then in a final desperate act, Tim performed his best Tarzan imitation to pull down on the mast, and although that nudged us over a few degrees, we stayed firm. Ariose was well settled on the bottom for the night, so we admitted defeat and decided and follow suit. We knew we’d be there for about 9 hours or so until the tide brought enough water to release us.
I then texted my brother Dave, who monitors our float plans when on passages, to confirm that “we’re here and settled for the night”, conveniently neglecting to mention how firmly “here” and “settled” we were.
We prepared dinner, appreciating our gimballed stove, and tucked in to our slanted v-berth for a surprisingly comfortable sleep, with gravity-encouraged closeness. About 3 am, we felt the welcome movement that we had tried so hard to induce the previous evening. We were upright and floating. We easily pulled ourselves into deeper water, made sure we were well set, and went back to sleep until dawn. No new friends made this time, though. Guess we’ll have to better plan the next grounding to happen within view of other boats.
It wasn’t until the next day that we had one of those knot-in-the-gut recognitions of a close call. As we debriefed, it occurred to us that the chart that had lead us astray to that grounding – albeit, a minor inconvenience – was the very same chart that we had trusted in the high risk situation of guiding us earlier that day through the rocky entrance and crashing surf. We’re grateful that the chart errors’ only consequence was discomfort, not devastation.
Several days of heavy easterly winds were in the forecast so we were eager to find a secure anchorage. Well-known Royal Island offers near-360 protection (although a little less along an east-west axis), but there were already several boats there, and we heard about issues with debris on bottom fouling anchors. We, or in particular, I should say Tim, wanted the assurance of not being in the vicinity of other boats, and to be somewhere where there is plenty of dragging room should that unfortunate circumstance arise (again). So instead, we headed over to the lee side of a slip of an island called Meeks Patch. Officially it’s uninhabited, but tell tale hoof prints in the sand let it be known that we weren’t alone. Once again, it was obvious that the pigs on this island were being cared for. We have mixed feelings about this unorthodox farming method. Presumably, these pigs live happier lives than their penned-in counterparts, and maybe have a smile on their snouts when the shotgun discharges (we couldn’t help but notice the empty cartridges in the sand). On the other hand, Tim’s found that there seem to be fewer warblers on the islands with pigs. We assume that the eggs of ground-nesting birds supplement the pigs’ diets.
We spent several days at Meek’s Patch. Part of our fantasy as we dreamed of this adventure included the ultimate in relaxation: days on end anchored in aqua waters, secluded white sand beach off our bow, palms providing shade. Not to say that this hasn’t existed – and Meeks Patch, if you substitute casuarinas for palms, would seem to have all the ingredients, but we’ve come to learn that the concept of “relaxing” is relative when cruising, and is a state more elusive than we would have thought. Being confident that our anchor is holding is a critical ingredient. Check. We were good. Solitude helps, which we did have at Meek’s Patch for a few days. Finding our surroundings pleasing and interesting is important. Check. Calm waters limiting the amount of motion on board is also important, and although we were blocked from the heaviest waves, Ariose was far from still while there. One of the biggest foils to absolute relaxation, we find, is the noise level. In heavy winds, the constant soundtrack of howls and whistles through the rigging and groans from the anchor rode, is wearying. I even resort to using earplugs at times to get a break in those conditions. Once calm returns, the underlying tension lifts. Aahhhh.
The days slip into one another with alarming ease. It’s hard to even say how we pass the time. Watching the sunrise, or more often than not, awaking to an already bright sky, a leisurely breakfast, a swim to shore to feed organic scraps to the pigs, and some time exploring the island occupied most days. I did have fun creating a fancy-hatted inukshuk and canine friend so that other visitors might be greeted by a bit of Canadiana while at Meek’s Patch. Then there’s lunch, an afternoon siesta in our hammock, maybe a bit more exploring, dinner while watching the nightly sunset show, and before we knew it, another 24 hours would be gone. Click on the 1st photo to enlarge if you’d like to scroll through a day-in-our-life at Meek’s Patch.
On a couple of days, I felt a particular urge to be productive, so launched a one-woman garbage drive, designating 2 disposal sights, tucked in where the winds would be unlikely to re-scatter the debris I collected. Even while doing this, I recognized what a sham my efforts were. Really, what is the difference between plastics strewn along the shoreline or piled together? I hoped, though, that investing this initial time and energy in gathering it up would make it more likely that someone would take on the next step and haul it to a proper disposal site (and not just think hey, here’s a mini-dump where we can unload our waste too). Even if it did get hauled away, that’s a poor solution. The sites we’ve seen on the islands are a collection of everything (household garbage, vehicles, hazardous wastes, etc), releasing toxins down through the porous rock to the sea, and when burned, into the air. Initially, when we saw pristine beauty marred by litter, we felt disgust, and if honest, an undercurrent of superiority. We would never do this in Canada! How arrogant. We’ve come to recognize that we’re fortunate to not live in a part of the world that has international traffic floating by, strewing garbage that inevitably washes up on our shores. And as for the garbage we do create, we just happen to live in a part of the world that has the resources to pay others to cart it away. Out of sight, out of mind. We can keep creating waste and not have to suffer guilt looking at it in our everyday lives. Hmm. Maybe a bit of that guilt would be helpful.
According to tourist promotional materials, the Bahamas comprises about 700 islands (brochures which, at the risk of pushing a point too far, don’t show the debris decorating the shores). Forty or so are inhabited, and about 2000 cays are uninhabited. At this point, we have been to about 14 and about half of those we’ve visited have been populated, by humans, that is. Even on the inhabited islands, we’ve sought out the areas away from others. It was now time to check out Nassau. Roughly 70 percent or a little less than 300,000 of the entire population of the Bahamas live here. We were about to get our people fix.
We stayed at Meek’s Patch an extra day once the winds abated to allow time for swells to calm in the open waters of Northeast Providence Channel. A couple hours’ crossing the bank west of Eleuthera Island, through the reef near Current Rock, and we were on our way. It was a pleasing broad reach for the entire 7-8 hours. Passing beside a huge pod of dolphins – we counted over 30 dorsal fins! – was a highlight. They were a very different species from the ones that we had become accustomed to on the IntraCoastal Waterway. They were larger and darker, and were behaving differently. In fact, we surmised that most were sleeping, floating motionlessly at the surface, some side by side. A few were swimming around, perhaps they on guard duty? Quite amazing.
Nassau, with its major airport and cruise ship port, serves up a first, and sometimes only, impression of the Bahamas for a lot of folks who visit. We’re grateful that we already had ample opportunity to experience other lower key areas first. Nassau announced itself long before we arrived with the distinctive outline of the massive Atlantis Resort complex. It’s pretty much a self-contained universe including water park, beach, more than 30 restaurants, aquarium, casinos, lots of nightlife, and a marina with 63 slips able to hold 160 foot yachts! Shortly after, just in case we didn’t yet get the message that tourism rules here, we could see the equally distinctive outline of several massive cruise ships at port.
Permission is required to enter or move within this busy harbour. Having successfully navigated New York’s and Norfolk’s ports, we felt prepared. A call through to Harbour Control to request clearance effectively deflated any delusions of grandeur that we of the 30-foot yacht, may have held. We were firmly directed to stand off as a cruise ship was about to depart. It did. Then we were directed to continue to stand off as the Disney Dream was also departing. We watched the distinguishing Mickey ears on the smokestack pass by too. May we have clearance now? Please? No. Stand off until Carnival Ecstasy exits. It’s staggering to watch these behemoths pass by. So once over 10,000 people headed out from their day in Nassau to venture off to other lands, we were permitted to enter. (As an aside, the largest cruise ship in the world, the Harmony of the Seas, calls Nassau home. It is over 300 metres long, has a capacity of nearly 7000, and the guests are well served, I would imagine, by a crew of 2,300.)
Anchoring here is not recommended, although some do. There are strong currents through the harbour (we were to find out just how strong!), lots of debris on the bottom to foul anchors, and a reputation for crime, although we haven’t encountered anyone who has experienced any incidents. When even the glossy guides discourage wandering off the main tourist area, and advise to never walk at night even in a large group, and online reports tell of incidents of boats at anchor being boarded by would-be thieves, we figured it would be prudent to pay attention. We had reserved at a recommended central marina with 24-hour security, and headed there.
Before leaving the topic of personal safety, certainly as with any large city, we donned a higher level of caution when out and about in Nassau. The main danger we encountered while there, though, was crossing the busy streets, and remembering to look to the left, in the “wrong” direction, to be sure we wouldn’t step into oncoming traffic. And when we did wander off the beaten track out of the tourist area, we felt no threat, but seemed to bemuse locals who once they discovered we were on a sailboat weren’t cruise shippers, offered friendly directions.
So once we were finally granted clearance into the harbour, we contacted the marina dock-master, a welcoming but perhaps overly laissez-faire fellow, for the usual instructions to help us prepare for our approach. “What side should we set our fenders and lines?” “Doesn’t matter what side you dock at – whatever you prefer,” was his response. We got things ready for a starboard docking. These pre-calls are also the time new arrivals are warned of unusual conditions, like strong currents, for example. When we were within shouting distance, in other words, quite close (too close!), the “doesn’t matter what side” dock-master indicated that the side we were heading toward was reserved for a large yacht. Oh, yes, and by the way, there is a wicked current here. That last warning was redundant by the time it was offered. We were frantically scrambling to change fenders and dock lines to port (lesson: from now on, we’ll have both sides set up), as the current shot us toward the pilings. It was, shall we say, an exhilarating but inelegant arrival, with no harm done to Ariose or the neighbouring boats. The only small dent we suffered was to our egos. That little arrival drama paled in comparison to our departure drama – but that was still days away.
We checked out areas of Nassau within easy walking distance. Cruise ships disgorge thousands here each day, with catamarans ferrying some out to beaches and snorkelling. Most, though, form a human river flowing through the well manicured few block radius of the docks. This area is full of bars, restaurants, and shops. We headed to the famed Straw Market, where we found some craftspeople working on their wares, but many of the stalls were bursting with obviously imported “souvenirs”. Being a part of the throng removed any desire we may have had to make any purchases. In the late 1700s, apparently there were at least 20 pirate captains using Nassau and area as a homeport, including Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. We’re not sure how this statistic is known. Perhaps there was a registry of some sort? You know, an annual inventory submitted of items plundered, prosthetic hooks used, and parrots shouldered? Anyways, seems to us that the piracy continues, this time as modern day colonialism masking under the cloak of tourism. We moved on to explore other areas.
One highlight for us was our visit to the Pompey Museum of Slavery and Emancipation. It’s named in honour of a courageous (and/or likely very desperate) person enslaved in the 1700s who lead a revolt. The museum is housed in the very building that served as a marketplace for about 150 years, selling humans and other valued goods. The displays are simple, even a little understated, and the setting is sanitized. Somehow, that contrast with the museum’s focus served to heighten the impact as we read through the narratives and examined the artefacts. What unimaginable trauma and horrors. It was jarring to step back outside into the sunlight and crowds of sunburned tourists.
Just a few blocks away, up a large hill (by Bahamian standards), the city takes on a very different feel. Apparently, freed slaves were originally settled in this area known as Bain Town, and 150 years later, this is still the exclusive neighbourhood of black folks living in conditions that scream of disadvantage. The wealthy, often white, residents of the city seem to have a hold on the shoreline properties and the well-groomed gated developments.
We spent 3 memorable days as a guest of one of my high school friends. Kelly’s adopted the Bahamas as home, and claims to not miss our Canadian winters! He lives an interesting life as a chiropractor maintaining both a private practice and working for the Bahamian Olympic track team, and is himself an accomplished triathlete. His brother Steve, was also down for a weekend escape from the tail end of northern Ontario’s winter.
Kelly’s hospitality gifted us welcome comfort that come with a few days on land. I had had a couple weeks break from life aboard when in Vancouver, but until then, our nights grounded had been the closest Tim has been to sleeping on terra firm since November. We did laundry, stocked up on provisions much appreciating use of Kelly’s car to do so, took advantage of having a full kitchen to cook in and dealt with Internet stuff. It was great to reminisce with Kelly and Steve, and catch up on where our lives have taken us. We also enjoyed a circle tour of New Providence Island, where Kelly pointed out the highlights as we drove by enclaves of the rich and famous, by modest homes used by everyday folks as cottages, fancy office buildings housing shell head offices of corporations benefitting from Bahamian tax law, to (finally!) road-side produce stands. Kelly gave us quite a taste of Nassau, and yes, that taste did include a boozy afternoon and evening at the famed Señor Frogs.
At one point during our visit, Kelly asked, with what might have been a bit of concern, about what we post on our blog. “What happens in Nassau, stays in Nassau,” I reassured him. We have a few rather incriminating photos, though, that we’d never consider including in a post, but will tuck away for their, ah, shall we say, fund-raising potential, should our cruising kitty drop too low. 😉
After 5 days, we had a favourable weather window for sailing to the Exumas, so knew it was time to move on.
It was close to slack tide as we awoke on departure day. In hindsight (where is hindsight when you need it?), we should have hustled to get out of the marina before the current began to build. We expected that we may not have Internet again for weeks, so I encouraged Tim to enjoy a leisurely coffee (didn’t need to twist his arm) and made the mistake of spending an hour or more sending off email. We talked about strategy a little in the event the current proved to be too strong, but we didn’t run through all the “what if’s” as we should have. We asked the dock-master to lend a hand, which he did by keeping our bowline around a pier. He was to do not let go until we had momentum moving astern. Tim was at the helm and reversed full speed. We moved, barely. The current was doing it’s best to keep us in Nassau. Then, if there had been any semblance that we were in control, it disappeared with a miscommunication between dock-master and captain. (That’s what I call Tim when he’s the one at the helm as incidents are unfolding). Lines were released prematurely. Within moments, the current grabbed our stern and swung us around returning us quickly back toward the pilings and worse, toward other docked vessels. It was one of those slow motion episodes, frighteningly clear from our powerless perspective. Lots of folks also saw and sprung into action. The play-by-play is etched into our memories, but it will suffice to say that we ended up wedged perpendicular under a large motor yacht’s protruding bow, with its menacing plow anchor crunching down on Ariose with every wave.
We were really concerned about the safety of those who helped out. A couple of guys were keen to put their limbs in direct line of potentially bone-crushing forces. Tim & I stayed on Ariose, trying to minimize damage and direct efforts to get out of this predicament. Not an easy task when everyone comes with their own opinion. We tossed lines to those who were able to help us turn our bow and get some purchase on the current. We were pushed against a piling, hitting our solar panels, which amazingly, suffered no damage. That over-engineered frame that Tim designed did its job. The yacht’s anchor did crush our dodger but on later examination, we were relieved to find that the clips holding it to the deck were ripped out but the frame was fine. The 20-year old canvas emerged looking only slightly more its age (sorry Chris!). There are some fresh gouges in Ariose’s deck top, but just cosmetic stuff that will be easy to epoxy along with the many other character marks we’ve imprinted on her. Most importantly, no one was injured.
We silently motored through Nassau harbour. We let our hearts stop racing before we set about processing and running through what we did right, could have done differently, and will do differently. Clear communication and verification that directions are understood is critical with all involved, and thinking through and preparing for the worst case scenarios is always time well spent. In this case, a better use of spring lines or timing our departure to slack tide would have prevented the whole shmozzle. A year ago, when we wrote the byline on Ariose Notes’ home page, that we were “living and learning aboard an Alberg 30”, we had no idea that this adventure would be so full of bold, uppercase LEARNING!
With gentle winds on our nose, we headed eastward toward the Exuma Cays. For over an hour, we motored through the Yellow Banks, an area on the charts that looks like it has been terribly afflicted by chicken pox. It was daunting to plot our way through these coral heads. We suspected most were deep enough to not give us any trouble, but having more than used up our quota of getting off easily from lessons learned experiences, we were not prepared to find out. I remained stationed at the bow for the entire time, and we found, to our relief, that the heads were easily observable dark patches, with lots of room to navigate. A slight sunburn from not covering up well enough is the only incident to report.
We’ll end off with a teaser for our next Ariose Note. That post will reveal whether this image is a rare Bahamian Rock Iguana or a public health poster warning what our skin is going to look like after all this sun/wind/salt water exposure. Stay tuned…