It’s our pleasure to share, you may be relieved to know, a rather lacklustre Ariose Note. In it, we cover some highlights of our final weeks in the northern Bahamas. There have been no crises, no accidents, no groundings, no incidents of any sort to report, but rather, just some tame experiences in a few charming towns, some favourable sailing, pleasing anchorages, and a perfect crossing as we said adios to the Abacos. Who would have thought that adrenaline-free cruising could be so enjoyable!
Oh, you may ask, what about Tim’s solo sailing experience when I abandoned ship to fly to Vancouver? Well, that doesn’t completely adhere to our promise of a lacklustre post, so his account will appear in a future Ariose Note.
When we were starting out in the Bahamas, exploring the northern cays in solitude, we wondered where the others sailboats were. We found them. The central part of the Abacos, known as the “hub” is the destination for many cruising snowbirds. About a third of the boats we see are Canadian, with many of these stored in Florida for the summer awaiting their owners’ annual migration. The Bahamas makes for an easy winter escape.
There are some charming towns in the Hub of Abaco. We spent time at three: Marsh Harbour, Man-O-War, and Hope Town. The area was settled by people of European heritage in the late 1700s. During the American Revolution, loyalists to Britain escaped, with some heading north to Canada, and others to British-claimed island territories. They brought with them their valued possessions, which is to say, their slaves. And so, blacks and whites, under differing levels of duress, arrived in the Bahamas. We wondered if they displaced the indigenous people, and apparently, the answer is no, they did not. The earlier people known as the Lucayans had settled this area centuries before and had already been decimated by the early 1500s. That’s an important story, but too heinous for guaranteed genteel Ariose Note. I’ll move on to lighter fare.
Marsh Harbour was the first town that we became acquainted with in the hub. It’s the 3rd largest community in the Bahamas, and does indeed as its name suggests, have a prominent harbour with marinas, mooring balls, and room to anchor at no cost, which we did. It does offer fairly good shelter, except, as Tim found out when he was on his own, in westerly winds. There are lots of restaurants, and a multi-block business section, serving many of the smaller communities on Great Abaco Island as well as the nearby outlying cays. It has North American style grocery and hardware stores so we undertook a major re-provisioning. Large stores bring with them large prices, though, often double what we would pay in Canada, and that’s not considering the exchange rate (Bahamian $ is on par with US$). This lead to many a mid-aisle debate as we made critical decisions. Was an $8 investment in sea-sickness prevention Salteen crackers really worthwhile? We’ve noticed some health advantages to the high prices, though: potato chips and chocolate bars rarely find their way onto Ariose these days. We seemed to entertain to some local folks who chatted with us as we crammed our packs with canned goods and then staggered back to the waterfront under the load.
Apparently there’s lots of agriculture on this part of Grand Bahama Island, but we have yet to see signs of locally grown produce. Pineapples ($9 each) and papaya ($4), for example, are imported. There were more than a dozen brands of canned coconut milk on the store shelves. Out of curiosity, we checked their origins. Some were processed in Asia, some the US, and even some in Jamaica, but none in the Bahamas. We were shocked to find that the actual product in the cans of every single brand was from Thailand. I know it isn’t news that there’s something amiss in our food distribution system, but when most beaches we stroll and even front yards we pass are littered with coconuts, and the coconuts in the cans come from the other side of the world, the issue really hits close to home. And on the matter of close to home, all the bagged carrots we’ve found in Bahamian grocery stores have come from Holland Marsh Ontario, a couple hours’ drive from where we live. Go figure.
There’s a wall in Marsh Harbour honouring people now deceased, with plaques describing their accomplishments. One fellow was noted to be the first to import Coca-cola products. Perhaps that being seen as an “achievement” warranting placement on this Wall of Heroes helps explain things.
You can imagine that it was with some excitement that we heard of the Hope Town’s Farmer’s market. Finally, we would be able to pick up some fresh local produce. I didn’t catch the location other than it was on the waterfront, but expected it would be easy to find. I rowed in, and sought it out. Even though the 2 vendors and ½ dozen customers gathered didn’t exactly stand out, my keen eye did spot them. One had a scanty selection of vegetables and sprouts, and was enthusiastically hawking green smoothies to some morning-after-St. Patrick’s Day folks. The other offered a small choice of delicious looking baked goods. That was it.
I guess I jumped ahead a little in the town tour. Before we headed to Hope Town, we checked out Man-O-War. It was just a short hop from Marsh Harbour to the other side of the Sea of Abaco. We had a fun brisk sail across varying shades of turquoise, aqua, and royal blue waters of what feels like an infinity pool. So striking.
The entrance to Man-O-War is a picturesque, limestone edged channel into a well-protected narrow harbour with Man-O-War Cay and the town to the east and the long strip of Dickie’s Cay buffering wind and waves from the west. This town has charm, and it’s clear that the residents put effort into maintaining it. Public garbage cans exist and are used. Streets are narrow, really no more than laneways, and cars are prohibited. If wheels are required to get around, golf carts or bikes are the vehicles of choice. Most buildings are wood-sided with shutters adding character and protecting from storms, and are freshly painted from a wide palette of colours. Manicured yards show off gorgeous tropical vegetation. The town’s legacy as home to quality boat-building continues today. The distinctive odour of fibreglass resin drifted out of workshops along the main street, bringing back some traumatic memories for me of my efforts working on Ariose last summer (with rather inelegant results). We strolled by Albury Boatworks which builds, among other beautiful wooden vessels, the Abaco dinghy. The Sail Shop has re-invented itself and the ladies there now craft all sorts of canvas products, in high demand by cruisers and other tourists. It’s a quiet town, explained in part by it being a dry community. I’m not talking about the lack of precipitation – it’s the ban on alcohol sales that I’m referring to. Tim, dissenter that he is, did dip surreptitiously into his stash of cheap rum for captain’s hour. There are several churches which speak to the town’s strong Christian traditions. Guidebooks warn cruisers that skimpy attire is not welcome. Here’s a gallery for you to see a bit of Man-O-War.
Most cays have one side that faces the protected Sea of Abaco and other side the rather wild Atlantic, often with gorgeous beaches. A short stroll eastward, the equivalent of a few blocks, and there, as expected, we found the beach. Man-O-War didn’t disappoint.
Next, just a little south, on Elbow Cay, we visited Hope Town. We expected to have to anchor out since this is a prime cruiser’s destination, and once we got there we could see why. The town’s got a lot of appeal. There is no anchoring permitted in the close confines of the crowded harbour, and available mooring balls are a rarity. We timed our arrival with the rising tide, as per one wise fellow cruiser’s suggestion, as that’s when boats with larger drafts needing the extra depth would depart. The strategy worked. We snagged the only untaken mooring ball.
Hope Town’s distinctive lighthouse served as a good bearing point to help us navigate in. This lighthouse’s image seems to makes it into every Bahamian tourist promotion publication. It sure is photogenic but is much more than a pretty face. It’s the last in the world to use a kerosene lamp. The rays are magnified and directed out through a lens floating in mercury to keep it level. It’s said to be visible for about 20 miles, although we aren’t brave or foolish enough to be out in these shallow and shoaly waters after dark to test out that claim. There is a resident keeper who winds it by hand every 90 minutes through the night, although he was nowhere to be seen when we were snooping about… likely taking a well-deserved day-time nap. The views from the top were spectacular.
Hope Town architecture also sports the characteristic whimsical colours of the Abacos. We found it delightful to wander the narrow streets, taking it all in. It’s the most dominated by tourism town we’ve seen so far, with the majority of houses being vacation rentals. While that detracted a little for us – we appreciate seeing the authentic side of a community too – we could appreciate what a charming alternative to resort get-aways it offered. As expected, a few steps over to the other side of town and we were rewarded once again by a fantastic Atlantic beach.
We enjoyed reconnecting with friends Mary and Rod in Hope Town. We met when they helped free us from our Black Sound grounding, and we also had a lovely evening together on Pegasus in Marsh Harbour a few weeks before. As with many other cruisers, they’ve used Hope Town as their home harbour for much of the winter. They’ve been living aboard their Morgan Heritage 46 full-time for a few years and have offered us more encouragement and moral support than they know. It’s hard, though, to return to 30 foot Ariose after an evening aboard a 46 footer without experiencing a bit of size envy. When we consider navigating shallow waters, or paying per foot docking fees, or keeping up with maintenance tasks, our appreciation of our boat’s modest size quickly returns.
We also had a brief dockside brush with sailing fame in Hope Town. A couple sought us out, having spotted Ariose in the harbour, to let us know they appreciated “the way we’re doing it”. We weren’t certain what to make of the comment. It soon became obvious that they were referring to assumptions about our cruising philosophy, assumptions made when an experienced salt sees an obviously older, classic boat, at the smaller end of the scale, set up to be fairly self-sufficient, with simple amenities, motor-less tender, etc. Just as we were parting, we asked about their interest in sailing, and they humbly mentioned some of their past experiences on their boat, the SV Hawk. They said they had circumnavigated twice, the first time “just” doing the regular milk-run through the Panama Canal, and the second time, rounding the world by the notoriously challenging route through the edges of the Antarctic around the Capes. We were already sitting in Poco ready to head back to Ariose, and they were clearly heading somewhere, so we picked up our jaws and wished them a good vacation and parted. Inquisitive folks that we are – well, yes, skeptical may be the better word (Really! They rounded the Capes?!!) – we googled their boat, and found out to our amazement that we had just met the Beth Leonard and Evans Starzinger, well known in cruising circles for their extensive voyages and Beth’s authoring. Wow. It would have been so interesting to hear more of their stories.
So, what else has struck us in our final weeks in the Abacos? You can’t help but notice that a small selection of local surnames occur over and over, whether in local businesses or on cemetery headstones. Man-O-War offers a good example. Albury Ferries, each boat named “Donnie”, have a strong presence as they zip people and goods about the islands and cays. According to our guidebook, Tommy Albury owns the local marina, Willlard Albury makes fibreglass boats, Joe Albury crafts dinghies, and Emerson Albury handcrafts furniture. There’s Albury’s Hardware Store, Albury’s Bakery, Norman Albury’s Sail Shop, Edison Albury runs a grocery store, Hazel Albury, a local author, runs a giftshop, Carmen Albury is a hair stylist… And this is all within one small town of about 300 local residents! There’s also the Sawyer, Lowe, Curry, and Sweeting families, perhaps a little less prominent than the Albury kin, but the odds are you could do well in guessing people’s names if you draw on this pool. Town descriptions proudly proclaim that many local residents’ lineage dates back to the original British Loyalists. Mm hmm.
A sound of Abaco that we’ll carry with us is the morning VHF radio show, the Cruiser’s Net, an entertaining and informative way to launch our day. It starts off with a “this day in history” fact or two, such as that on March 22nd in 1765, British Colonists were first taxed. That particular trivia offers a good segue to a quick tangent, if I may, about the Bahamas’ relatively new Value Added Tax (VAT), a goods and services tax. It’s quite a hot topic. There are scathing editorials in the local papers that match the tone on the street that citizens are being robbed with no gains to the people. We were surprised, then, to hear words of support from one marine supply store employee, in his distinctive Abaconian accent that to our ears, fuses deep south drawl with Newfoundlander cadence. He felt that they were seeing significant benefit since the VAT had been imposed. He then explained: there were now bigger houses, fancier cars, nicer vacations, and so forth … for those profiting in government!
Ok – back to the Cruiser’s Net. The main draw to the Net for us is the detailed weather update provided including the state of the seas at the various passages to/from the Atlantic. Although we had imagined life aboard being self-determining, the reality is our day-to-day decisions are very much dictated by something over which we have no control: the weather. Catching the forecast on the radio saves us having to use our own data to decide if it’s safe to stay where we are for the day or if we should be seeking refuge elsewhere. There are also announcements of boats arriving or departing which really points to what a tight-knit community of cruisers is here. We’ve noticed that there’s a recent flurry of departures as folks are beginning to head back State-side. Once again, we seem to be heading opposite the current, as we are continuing south. Something called “Invitations” follows, which is really just a series of promotions called in by the local bars and restaurants. Maybe we should have paid more attention prior to taking a mooring ball just in front of Captain Jack’s Bar , the open-air joint with live Saturday night entertainment. We were expecting to get a good night’s sleep! Then organizers of social events make sure all know what’s happening in terms of lunchtime talks, fundraisers, potlucks, etc. We’ve been struck by how separate the cruising community feels from the local community. There seems to be little resident involvement in these events, other than from those connected to the tourist economy. Then there’s the open mike section, where anyone may call in to ask for information, or to link with others. There are interesting characters out there cruising and listening in to the Net certainly confirms this. One of the better gems we’ve heard so far was a promise that the organizer of a fundraiser for restoring a historic boat would sing “If my nose ran money, I’d blow it all on you”. Despite the attractive appeal of that one, we weren’t able to make it to the event. When birthdays are announced, listeners are encouraged to click their mikes off & on in salute resulting in a deafening pandemonium of static on the airwaves. That, in a nutshell, is the Cruiser’s Net.
One other tradition that we encountered in the Abacos is that of cruisers signalling sunset with a blast on a conch horn. Tim hasn’t applied his oboe embouchure to the challenge (yet). I have been working at it, drawing on my one year of high school French horn, but have yet to get anything out of the shell that doesn’t resemble the sound a conch would make, if it could, in its dying breath.
It was a difficult decision to leave Hope Town and the Abacos. There’s always more we could see and do, interesting new people to meet, and friendships to deepen. In talking to others more familiar with the Bahamas, though, they’ve encouraged our plan to head south to the Exuma chain. Hurricane season is no longer a distant prospect, and we want to be sure we allot our remaining time to the things that drew us here in the first place. The Exuma Land and Sea Park sounds like it offers an outstanding experiences above and below the water. We have yet to do much snorkelling, but it’s definitely on our Bahamian bucket list. We have enough experience under our belt that we’re no longer feeling intimidated about the prospect of sailing in a more remote area where availability of supplies is less and seclusion more. After 2 months in the Bahamas, we’ve used less than ½ tank of diesel, we just topped up our fresh water for the first time since arriving, and have no difficulty having more than enough food on board to last a long, long time. We’re good to go.
We do have a couple of passages to get there. We have planned a route from the Abacos to Eleuthra, over to Nassau, and then onward to the Exuma Cays. We saw an upcoming weather window offering 2 days of light & variable winds. Although that meant that there would likely be too little air to sail at a decent speed, we’ll take those conditions over heavy winds and seas. Two days of the former conditions were to be followed by almost a week of the latter, so we knew it was time to say adios to the Abacos. We would move on.
We had a fabulous journey from Great Abaco to Eleuthra, about 50 nautical miles across other-worldly depths of the Atlantic. We departed at sunrise, and sure enough, the light breezes weren’t sufficient to get us there by sunset – and the channels in at the other end are definitely not to be navigated after dark. So with some disappointment, we started up the engine. We’ve done so little motoring in the last 2 months, the noise and motion felt rather unfamiliar. As mid-day neared, winds picked up and we were able to relish hours of full-on sailing. The blues, oh the blues. How to describe the look of the water? Royal blue transitioning to navy? That just doesn’t do it justice. We were sailing waters that were over 4000 meters (yes, metres!) deep. We’ve read that beyond about 50 metres, no light penetrates so all that’s seen is black. If that’s true, there must be some powerful undersea lumination going on in this area of the Atlantic, causing a fantastic electric cerulean glow. Just amazing.
Land appeared and the channel between Eleuthra Island and St.Georges Cay loomed. It’s a rather nerve-wracking entrance that requires a zig zag route in. We needed to aim Ariose’s bow straight toward surf breaking on the rocks, trusting the plotted course that then took us on a 90 degree turn moments before fearing a crash … Oops. I guess if this Ariose Note is going to adhere to the initial pledge of being rather adrenaline-free, I’d better stop here. I’ll just leave it at saying that we had a fabulous sail over and did safely navigate in. Period.
I’ll end this Ariose Note, instead, by sharing some images of spring. Although it has felt to us Canucks rather summer-like since we’ve arrived in the Bahamas, vegetation is noticeably greening up and more and more flowers are blossoming every day. Spring is emerging and it’s gorgeous here. Click on the first photo to enlarge and scroll through if you’d like to enjoy a taste of some spring flora, Bahamian style.
Disclaimer: The biologist on board doesn’t know that I’m publishing these photos without proper plant identification vetting from him. 😉