Thompson Bay, Long Island

Kelly penning this one…

Eric has been itching to leave for Long Island, well, really he’s been just been itching to leave. Admittedly, he’s gotten better, but the man can’t stay in one place longer than a few days before feeling the urge to sail somewhere…anywhere. God help us when we move back to land-life!

Our sail to Long Island is pretty uneventful, minimal waves, which is good, but a lot of tacking. (To my non-sailing friends, ‘tacking’ means ‘turning’. So instead of going in a straight line to your destination, you zig-zag your way there. A sailing necessity when you use the wind to get where you’re going, but super annoying when you’re trying to simply enjoy a ‘leisurely’ sail. Not with captain speedo here! I love him dearly, but the man is constantly messing with the sails. A little trim here, a little out there because ‘we can go .25 knots faster. Enter eye-roll here.) So, this time we’re tacking an insane amount not because we need to. It’s because there is a boat behind us, obviously going to the same anchorage, and Eric, being the competitor that he is, decides, unbeknownst to this other guy, that they are racing, and he is going to get there first. Enter another eye-roll here. That being said, we do ‘win’ and find a great spot to anchor in this almost empty anchorage. A nice change from George Town.

The water here is weirdly milky. When Eric checks our anchor, has says its because the sand is silty and previous winds have likely agitated things. 

Long Island has more of that laid-back feeling that we love. The grocery store here isn’t crazily expensive, and it’s well stocked, which is a nice surprise. We meet other cruisers here: a veteran cruiser couple who have been cruising for 10+ years (SV Reach), and, surprisingly, two other cruising families with kids (SV Hindsight & SV ?). There are a handful of kid boat outings, one to the west side of the island to snorkel the banks, another to the ocean side beach to play in the waves. Our last day here, we visit the Farmer’s Market and score some onions and potatoes! They aren’t the biggest potatoes, but they sure are tasty – surprisingly sweet. We also get a jar of homemade pepper jelly for Eric and some coconut cake for the girls. Since it’s our last day here, we also stop by the grocery store to stock up on a few things. We even find some fairly priced tomatoes. Score! One of the things that we really miss while cruising in the Bahamas is fresh produce. It’s just too expensive here. But today, we enjoy some awesome tomato sandwiches for lunch.

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Three kid boats represented here!

George Town

Eric writes…

A new wind picks up from the southwest. Our anchorage at Little Farmers is exposed, and I know if we are going to sleep tonight I need to find a more protected anchorage. I figure we can move to the east side of Little Farmers and be fairly protected. Unfortunately as we cross over to the eastern channel there is a fairly brisk current. The wind is against the current and that leaves us hovering over our anchor. There looks like some other areas that may provide a protected anchorage without the current, so we lift anchor and explore the other options. Unfortunately they are equally ill suited for us. We putt around for an hour and end up right back at the same spot. The wind picks up as we settle into our cabins, and I’m glad we’ve moved. From where we are anchored I can see the mast head light of a boat at our old anchor site and they are bouncing around like a top. 

We wake up to a calm morning. The wind has settled and Kelly and I decide it looks like a good day to make the trip out of the banks, into the ocean, and down to George Town, i.e. the hub of cruising in the Exumas. Soon after we clear out of the Little Farmers Cut, the wind picks up nicely and I raise the sails. The sail down to George Town is fantastic.  We have 10 -15 knots on a close reach. As we head down the islands the wind starts to back and we trim the sails to a beam reach then a broad reach. Finally the wind settles and I put up our jenniker. The jenniker came off of my parents 38 foot boat, so it is woefully undersized, however, it’s colorful and pretty. Unfortunately after an hour or so, the wind veers on us and I have to take it down. We sail at 5-7 knots on calm seas all the way into George Town. Everyone is pleased with the sail. (I agree, this sail was much better than the last one. 🙂

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Rainbow over George Town

Getting into George Town harbor is no issue at all. The water is clear and easy to read, however finding a place to anchor can be a challenge. We motor along the west side of Stocking Island looking for some space. There are well over a hundred boats here. The place has changed a lot since I was here in 1991. We head past Chat n Chill, and find a good spot off Black Rock. As we let out the anchor and settle in, our stern is only about 30 feet from a nice sand bar that extends from the beach. Cloe and I decide to swim in and see how much the ol’ cruising area has changed. 

Before that, let me add how impressed I am with the water clarity. A happy surprise. I assumed with the amount of boats anchored here, the harbor would be a mess, but it’s not. Must be the massive amount of water that flushes the harbor with the changing tide. Thank goodness for that. Ok…back to Eric…

It is sad to see the march of time trample over some of your childhood memories, but nothing lasts. When I was in Georgetown in 1991 the area, now called Chat n Chill, was nothing more than a peninsula of sand with a few trees and a couple of makeshift volleyball courts. There were driftwood benches, a bonfire pit, and the “weather rock”, which was a rock hanging from a branch by a string. The weather rock was notable for its ability to tell you the weather. There was a sign next to it to understand the complex meteorology of the weather rock. It went something like this.

If the rock is hot, it’s sunny.
If the rock is wet, it’s rainy.
If the rock is swinging, it’s windy.
If the rock is blowing straight out, it’s a gale.
If you can’t see the rock, it’s dark.

I’m sure there was more, but you get the gist. 

Commercialism has made it to the ol’ cruising spot in the form of a bar/restaurant/gift shop named Chat n Chill. There is still a volleyball court and cruisers still play a form of volleyball with rules that are nearly volleyball, but more suited to the laid-back cruising life. Like you can hit the ball as many times as you need to get it back over the net, even so it rarely makes it back to the server’s side, if the server can get it across in the first place. The old driftwood benches have been replaced by picnic tables of questionable strength. The weather rock doesn’t seem to have made it through. There are signs discouraging one from bringing their own food and drink. It’s a commercial place with commercial goals. That’s not a bad thing, just different.  

However, some things don’t change, and while I’m throwing Cloe into the water, another kid comes over and wants to be thrown as well. I tell him he needs to ask his parents if it’s OK, to which the child runs away and promptly comes back saying it was. I doubt very seriously that he even found a parent to ask, but for the next 45 minutes I throw Cloe and him as high as I can into the water and nary a person came by to wonder why I was throwing their kid. Even thought it saddens me to see the commercialism take over this cruising spot, the vibe is still the same. People are still just hanging out, and that’s really what it was always about anyway.

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Looking out at the harbor

We make our trips to town and find the library. It’s manned by cruisers and is a great book exchange. 

To be honest, we didn’t find anything compelling about George Town. Groceries are the most expensive we’ve seen in the Bahamas. No interesting sites to be found. That being said, the best thing George Town has going for it are the people. The locals are super nice, and the cruiser community is the best we’ve found. There is a morning vhf net where local weather and events are shared. It also happens to be ‘kid boat central’ for cruisers in the Bahamas, and although most would consider our trek to George Town past peak season, thanks to Kids4Sail, a Facebook community for cruising families, we do find a few other kids running around. One of the things that is both endearing and kind of gross are Chat and Chill’s island cats. There are a handful of cats that wander around looking for food and love. Of course the girls love it, meanwhile I notice the cats also lounge around on the tables that the people eat on…don’t think they’d be able to get away with that in the U.S. There’s also a HUGE conch shell pile outside their beach conch shack. I can’t imagine the amount they go through in a season. No wonder we haven’t been able to find any conch while we’ve been snorkeling!

While in George Town, we hang out at the beaches, but our last couple of days the wind picks up. I get some great windsurfing in, but the nights are not that smooth. We stay for a little over a week, and though we’re having fun, I’m ready to move out. The forecast is calling for wind out of the southwest which will be perfect to sail to the next island, Long Island.  

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Eric’s sailing gloves have seen better days

Little Farmers

The wind is blowing from the east, and we decide to make a sail for Little Farmers. The sail down to Little Farmers is a classic ‘on the banks’ sail. The wind is blowing about 15 knots and we are loving a close hauled sweep with little to no waves. The sail is so comforting that while the wind starts to shift south we decide to role with it and accept that we will have to take a couple tacks. I look forward to honing my skills upwind.  Sailing the big cat is a dance of wind and balance. I have to be ever diligent with the wind angle. Our jib doesn’t haul in as much as a monohull and abrupt changes in the apparent wind direction can cause it to luff and loose power. I constantly pinch a little upwind to get some ground, but then as my momentum slows I fall off 5 degrees and get speed and power into the jib. Purrfect and I continue this dance for hours. It is great fun to watch the progress of an upwind tack finding the balance between the velocity made good (speed into the wind), and boat speed. I find that I can maintain my best performance oscillating slowly between 40 and 45 degrees apparent, however, if I loose my focus and pinch just a little too long then I have to fall off to 50 degrees to get the boat speed back up.

As we get closer to Little Farmers, I have to define when we will tack. I hope for a 100 to 105 degree tack, but I am woefully optimistic. In reality the tack is closer to 115 to 120 degrees. As you can expect my calculations are therefor way off, and we have to tack twice more to get to within what I feel is a good finish for the day and we motor to our intended anchorage on the west side of Little Farmers.

The water at Little Farmers is deceptively clear. It is like hovering in air above the sandy bottom. The only indication of the water are the ripples that show on the surface. We drop anchor in 7’ of water and when I jump in to check the anchor I can actually see it from the stern of the boat. The anchor is over 100’ away and I can actually see the curved steel bar that identifies the end of the anchor. It is incredible.

The beach we anchor off is located adjacent to the runway and houses a small bar/restaurant. The sail was beautiful but there are some scattered rain clouds to the west. We watch them slowly move away from the comfort of our sandy chairs. Some of the locals invite us to their church’s Easter barbecue going on there right now. The kids play with some of the local kids and we meet a few veteran cruisers who gladly share their cruising knowledge. One guys tells us of a must-see cave on the neighboring island. We are definitely going to check it out.  

After getting schoolwork done we set our sights on this rumored cave. We dinghy the mile or so over to Big Guana Cay in search of the cave. There is a long beach just north of two large rock coves. Here we anchor the dinghy in search of the path. This expedition feels like treasure hunting, because our only guidance was to take the path to the right at the “Y”. It turns out there are several “Y”s in the path and after we find at least two ways not to get to the cave, we find one path that goes up a steep hill and ends at a dark overgrown shadow.  

After plucking through some undergrowth we are met with a large mouth like opening. It is a fairly impressive sight. As we walk down a steep entrance a shadowed cathedral opens up in front of us. The space is about 70’ across and 70’ deep with a good 20’+ arched ceiling. The floor is made up of large rocks that were once attached to the top of the cave. Around the edge are scattered stalactites and stalagmites with the occasional connection that makes a pillar. The area between the large boulders that make up the floor is filled with water.  

The water is crystal clear without a hint of movement at first, but as we inspect the deep dark pools with our flashlight there are small shrimp that dance around. We had brought our snorkel gear and I put mine on to get a better look at these little creatures and see how deep these pools go. Unfortunately we don’t have a dive light and while I convince Cloe to join me, Tali gets about knee deep into the water and that is about as far as she will venture. Kelly will have none of it and is our lookout. Tali takes our flash light and heads to the top of one of the boulders. She tells me that she will try to illuminate the area in front of me while I dive.

Using Tali as my light I swim into the dark water. Cloe follows me like a remora. I know she is afraid, but she is doing it. Tali does her best to illuminate the area around us while we snorkel, but a dive light is needed. The shrimp are so cool to look at. They swim around us and even land on our skin. Cloe is not a fan and eventually abandons the water. I make a couple of dives into the depth of the pool, but can’t see the bottom and return to the surface.  

We pack up our gear and head out of the cave. The hot sun is a welcome friend on our cold and wet skin. As we take the path back to the dinghy, we decide to do a little more exploring and take a turn that heads us to the ocean side of the island. Following the path through the shadows and underbrush we spill out into an inspiring horseshoe beach. The ocean waves are breaking out a few hundred feet and the beach is calm and beautiful. Cloe immediately runs the length of the beach, just dancing around. I take a walk away from the beach on the weathered limestone rock bluff that shoulders the beach. We try a little bodysurfing with mixed results before deciding to head back. The trip to the boat is quiet as we all are contemplative of the blessings we’ve seen.

Getting To The Exumas

This time I (Kelly) have written the post and Eric has added his thoughts in italics.

Leaving Rock Sound means leaving the protection of the banks. I love sailing on the banks because it gives me the minimal waves that I like and allows Eric to sail in the 20 knots of wind that he likes. HOWEVER jumping from Eleuthera to the Exumas means a deep water sail which warrants some caution. It’s not dangerous, it’s just…deep. This means higher winds = higher seas. Now, it also means that we’ll be able to throw our fishing lines off the stern and, hopefully, catch something yummy for dinner, so yea! (We don’t troll on the banks…you only catch barracuda, and those aren’t safe to eat.) 

So, we leave Rock Sound with the predicted wind at 20 knots, higher than I would like, but Eric is happy. With a 20 knot wind the boat really gets up and goes.  I find much greater enjoyment sailing at 8+ knots than 5.  We plan to sail to Highbourne or Staniel, not sure which. It just depend on the conditions. Coming out of the sound is great. Eric reefs the mainsail, just in case the gust are above predicted wind, and we do a few jibes to get around the point. No problems. Since all is well, we decide to head for the further destination, Staniel. Then one of the fishing lines takes off as we sail over the wall (where the sea bed goes from 2000 to 60 feet). Eric fights with the fish for a bit, but it’s so darn big that it snaps the line! We can’t fathom how big the fish is because we’ve caught a 50+ pound mahi on that same line. I’m pretty sure I caught the Kraken! Now we’re down to one rod for the sail. Needless to say, we’re bummed, but the wind and wave conditions are about to become a huge distraction.

Once we clear Eleuthera, the wave angle changes and the height picks up. This is to be expected because the land is no longer acting as a buffer, however they continue to grow and are now ~ eight feet. For the record, I’m not lovin’ it. Another solid passage of single handing with my family.  One wave crashes on our stern and nearly washes our beach chairs overboard. This is startling because we have them lashed down! The waves are powerful and growing because the wind is much higher than forecasted now, consistently blowing in the low 30s and gusting in the high 30s…i.e. not Kelly conditions, but we are moving, and surfing some of the waves at 15 knots, woohoo. A few hours into our sail, when the conditions don’t let up, I reel in the other fishing line cause we’re not slowing down or turning around for anything…we’re just going to get there…and a lot quicker than expected. What should have taken 9 hours has only taken us 5 because all this wind is making us fly. My nerves get the best of me and I may or may not have ‘fed the fishes’. I join the kids who are laying down in the salon, handling the conditions like champs, i.e. much better than me. At this point it’s gusting ~ high 30s and the waves are averaging ten feet.  It’s slightly discomforting looking up as the waves break, but I can see the sets and get the boat into a good surfing angle for the ride.

We get close to our destination, and Eric has to go on the bow to bring down the mainsail. In these conditions, this simple task is nerve-wracking. Thank goodness we religiously get the boat ready for sea before we head out (i.e. putting stuff in secure places where they won’t fall and come crashing down if the boat rocks and rolls). Let’s just say that there is PLENTY of rocking and rolling going on while the sail is going down right now. Eric gets back to the cockpit and now we have a new challenge…getting through the cut.  It looks…savage. Waves are slamming into the rocks throwing spray up on either side. Eric calls on the VHF radio for anyone listening to impart any local knowledge of going through the cut in these conditions. He gets one smart ass telling us to ‘look at your charts’. Thanks buddy. (eye roll) Anyone else? Thankfully a super helpful guy gives Eric some pointers, one of which is that there is a better cut further down, but we’re done. We’ve already made the turn and have committed to doing this. Lots of prayers are said. Eric surfs our 47 foot boat down 10 foot waves through the cut then, per our VHF angel’s wisdom, takes an immediate hard turn to port. The waves drop down to nothing. We’re in. We both breathe massive sighs of relief and ride the current the rest of the way past Staniel Cay.

We choose to anchor as far away from the ocean side as we can, and find ourselves anchoring at the famous ‘pig beach’ at Big Majors. A nice surprise! There are a ton of boats here. Many are huge mega yachts. It makes for good ‘harbor TV’. One morning we watch one of the bigger yachts conduct a spinning class on the highest deck. Another has crew members prepping kiteboarding equipment for their guests, launching them, then chasing their guests in their tender (i.e. small boat, like our dingy, but 20+ feet). There are also a lot of cruiser boats here. We meet many and swap stories. Some we meet on ‘cruisers beach’, the small beach next to the ‘pig beach’, and others we meet on ‘pig beach’. The kids fall in love with those pigs, specifically, one of the smallest , Coco. The kids enjoying feeding the pigs, kind of. Some of them are huge and there are signs warning visitors about being bitten, so the kids are leery at first. Dad to the rescue! Eric feeds many pigs our produce scraps. The biggest of the pigs, Big Mama Karma, has figured out the system. She opens up her mouth really big for you and you just toss the food in. No worrying about her biting off your fingers. The pigs are so domesticated. They like scratches and belly rubs. During our time here, we visit the ‘pig beach’ four times. We also visit ‘the grotto’. It’s an interesting cave where one of the old 007 movies filmed a scene. It’s Thunderball and they call it Thunderball Grotto. It’s become a popular tourist attraction. You can swim in, feed the fish, and ride the current out. We bring some stale crackers and feed the fish. The kids decide the fish get uncomfortably close and swarm so, again, they let Eric finish feeding them.

We spend Easter here at Big Majors. Rest assured, the bunny can make it out to boats. We hid eggs like usual, but this time, it was around the deck of the boat. The kids are kind enough to share their candy stash with us and we enjoy some while hanging out at ‘cruisers beach’. Eric and the girls also drift snorkel the cut between ‘cruisers beach’ and Fowl Cay. The current is swift and you pretty much fly along and don’t see very much…but they love it. Eric tows the dingy behind him and they ride the current, then when they get through and slow down, they all hop in the dingy, motor back up, and do it all over again. Highly recommend it!

The Berry Islands and Eleuthera

It in now March and we’re finding places exactly how I expected the Bahamas to be. Secluded. Crystal clear water. And some of the best shelling we’ve ever had. 

We are on the south side of Chub Key in the Berry Islands. It is incredible, but like all things, it must come to an end because the wind is going to switch direction and if we stay, we’ll be in a bad spot. Unfortunately there aren’t many anchorages on the south side of the Berry Islands. We choose a new gorgeous anchorage, but it’s shallow so we can’t quite tuck in as well as we’d hoped. Thankfully we have time to explore the beautiful beach before the weather turns. There are conch everywhere! I. mean. everywhere. And lots of sand dollars too. The kids and I are in beach combing heaven! 

Unfortunately once the wind shifts to the south, and the tide changes, the boat rocks and rolls. We have never rocked so much. It’s nauseating. No one sleeps. Eric is hopeful the rocking will subside with the tide change. I’m skeptical. Turns out I’m right, it doesn’t. Everyone is unhappy with our anchorage choice, so at first light, we’re off to find another one. Of course the wind picks up and the waves are getting big. We have to plow through them to get around the island. I stupidly forgot to prep for sea, so crap is falling all over the place. The only casualty is the butter dish. It’s at this point I decide that I don’t like The Berry Islands very much.

When Eric pulls into the new anchorage the waves almost disappear. Hallelujah! It’s much better than the last anchorage, still not great, but we make the best of it. Eric finds some lobster under the boat when snorkeling on our anchor (he does this every time we anchor to make sure it digs in well) so he grabs them and gives us a great dinner. It’s the little things in life, right?

The next day the wind shifts direction (again) but this time it’s in our favor! It makes for a speedy sail to Eleuthera, across the Tongue of the Ocean (which is a real thing, who knew), which is really deep water, so…out go the fishing rods! Sure enough, in no time…we catch a tuna! I’m at the helm for almost an hour while Eric filets it. Dinner will be awesome tonight too!

We reach the cut around 4 and are anchored just outside of Spanish Wells by 4:30. The water is a bit milky looking, but the anchor is in good, and there are zero waves, so we’ll be able to sleep well tonight. (Thank God!) We eat grilled tuna and have an excitable game of Farkel. Life is good.

The next morning we’re super excited because the girls and I get to explore our first Bahamian town, Spanish Wells! We tie up our dingy up to a wall, like everyone else, and find…there are no sidewalks! People drive right there next to you while you’re walking. It’s a bit unnerving with kids, but thankfully, there isn’t a lot of road traffic, so it’s not that big of a deal. Also, most of the cars are golf carts, so there’s that.

Eric find a part he needs at a decent boat parts store and we are free to explore the island. We climb up a substantial hill to get to the north side of the island and boy, the view, it takes your breath away. The sand is pure white and the water, crystal clear. Gorgeous. We hang out on the beach just taking it all in. This. is. the. Bahamas.

After a fair amount of walking, our bellies tell us that it’s lunchtime, so we find the local hangout called, Budda’s. It has no walls, but has good food, great people, it’s own liquor store, and wifi. We do our part to help the local economy and head back to the boat.

We know we have to change anchorages because the wind will be changing direction and strengthening, so we pick an anchorage not too far from where we are with good protection near Meeks Island. When we leave it starts to blow 40 knots and by the time we anchor it settles to 20 knots. Go figure. It’s still a good decision and once the girls finish school we check out the new beach and find another cruising family! The kids are about Cloe’s age, but they know very little English and we speak zero French, BUT somehow we understand that they’ve found baby pigs on the other side of the island and go check them out. Turns out it’s a guy running a tourist attraction on the beach. Most of the pigs are medium sized and friendly. The babies are super cute, but very shy. The kids really enjoyed the experience.

We leave bright and early to catch Current Cut as close to slack tide as possible. It is a beautiful sail. The cut is a crazy experience. At full speed it rips at 6 knots, so catching it at slack tide is best. It’s also very narrow, so only one boat can go through at a time. We go through without problem, and reach the Glass Window in no time.

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Current Cut. Yes, it’s tiny, but we made it!

The Glass Window is a place where the ocean waves crash through a substantial crevice in the rocks into the still water on the other side. It’s a sight for sure. We hike up to the bridge, which is an experience in and of itself. Again, no sidewalks, but this time you’re walking on a main thoroughfare between towns with cars buzzing by you. Real cars, not golf carts. Nerve-wracking. Across from where we land the dingy on the beach, we find something called The Queen’s Bath, which looks like a spa built for Greek Gods. They are pool sized holes that have been carved by water over a long time. When the waves crash on the rocks, the pools fill with aerated water which makes them look like big hot tubs. We also find a blowhole at the top of the hill! When a wave crashes through the gap, water rushes up through the blowhole and sprays water all over us. Refreshing. We finally make it to the bridge overlaying the window. The waves sound so powerful. We learn from a local that at one point there was a natural land bridge connecting the rocks, but it eroded and the man made bridges they put in it’s place get washed out every so often. The force of mother nature is mighty indeed.

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The Glass Window

We spend the afternoon at the beach and find another slice of heaven. We pull our beach chairs down to the water line, have a few adult beverages, and soak up the sun. Gosh, it’s beautiful here. We wish we can stay longer, but we know there are many islands to explore so we make plans to sail further down the island and to the Exumas.

We finally make it to the Bahamas!

We had a quick visit with Les & Carl and their friends the Hoys. They were attending the Miami Boat Show and since we were anchored in north Key Largo, we weren’t too far from there. We met at a local seafood shack called Alabama Jacks and had a good meal with great conversation. The next days the kids were super disappointed because they thought they were going to get a few days with their grandparents, but they couldn’t stay, but they were able to stop by the boat for lunch before heading back home.

So now we’re prepped for the Bahamas, and a weather window has finally arrived! Bahamas…here we come!

From Eric: 

We get up early to cross over to the Bahamas, 0600.  We have no issues going out Angel Fish Creek. We go straight out to the reef and cross into the Florida Straights. The waves are only about 2-4’, but they are at a close interval and we take a fair amount of water over the bow. The forecast calls for a SE wind, but we never see anything better then a ESE, so we have to motor sail the entire way. I am able to get the main up to stabilize us. My calculations are almost dead on. We sail on a heading of 85-90 deg the entire trip save for one fishing incident.

About half way through the Gulf Stream the fishing pays off.   hear the big real sing.  By the time I get to it 1/3 of the line has been peeled off. I tell Kelly to bring in the other real. Just as she gets the real it starts to sing with a fish on.  About that time a huge mahi mahi on my rod jumps out of the water. Then a smaller one jumps out of the water on the other rod. We have two fish on! Kelly is able to reel her’s in while mine is still taking out line. I’m not able to pull it in and need the fighting belt. I’ve never used a fighting belt before and to be quite honest, without it, I’m surprised I didn’t just pull myself into the water.  (When he came back from the store with the fighting belt awhile back, I balked. I now stand corrected.) 

The girls get me the belt and the fight is on. We need to idle the boat in an effort to start reeling it in. The fish is jumping and pulling and I am impressed. I continue to reel the fish in, but it is a fight. The fish heads over to the starboard side and I am sure our lines are going to get tangled, but then it jumps and I pull the rod and it comes back over to port.  Just as I get the fish back to my side, Kelly, who has reeled her’s in, shouts that she can’t get it on the boat and the fish escapes. (Which, in hindsight, was a blessing because I can’t imagine we had enough room in the freezer.) 

After about 10 minutes of fighting I am able to get my mahi mahi up to the boat. I have Tali get the gaff. On my second strike I get the gaff in good, just behind the eye. I bring the 5’+ fish onto the back steps, and just then, the gaff brakes. I grab the fishing line out of the air and drag the fish back up. Kelly gives me the cutting board and a knife that I plunge into where I figure the brain and spine is; however, the fish is still thrashing, so I have Kelly hand me the spicy vodka. (It was quiet awful, and we couldn’t drink it.) I pour that down it’s gills and the fish slows down. I finish cutting through the spine and need both hands to bring it over to my fillet table. An unanticipated problem is that my fillet table is only 4’ long. The fish drapes over both sides. I want to weigh the fish, but our scale isn’t meant for fish of this size. I’m intimately familiar with the feel of a 45 lb plate at the gym, and this fish feels about the same weight.

As I carve out the fillets, I feel the muscles still twitching. That’s the sign of a fresh fish!  Kelly comes up with some great marinades and I overstuff 3 gallon ziplocks full of fish. I toss the carcass back to the deep and we head back on course. (I was on the helm for a good hour while he was filleting.) We put the fishing poles away because we have all the fish we can use for a while. We sail into Bimini at around 1500 where I get off the boat, go to customs and immigration, and come back in time to take a swim with the girls and grill some really good fish.

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Our first swim in the crystal clear water of the Bahamas!

We are finally in the Bahamas, and have new concerns. The waves rock us all night and our sleep isn’t great. (true) The next day we decide to move to find more settled water, and so begins the constant search for calm water while we’re at anchor. (At this point the girls and I have nicked the Bahamas, ‘The Bumpy Bahamas’.) Most of the time this means finding the lee side of an island, but as we find out, this isn’t always easy. At Bimini we move up to the northern end, and that settles things down a little.  

Bimini is home to the Bimini Road which is a coral reef formation where the sections look like paving stones. I am able to convince the girls to go on a drift snorkel.  It is our first snorkeling experience in the Bahamas, and it doesn’t disappoint. When I first jump in I see a morey eel and a couple lobster.  It is great to drift around and see the life.  The visibility is good at 50+ feet and the current is going our direction so we can drift with the reef. We get to see grouper and all kinds of fish. The girls really like the snorkel. This is the kind of experience the girls need to enjoy the snorkeling ahead.  

We go back to the boat which is still rocking unacceptably for some of the crew (true) and we move around the north end of Bimini where the waves are calm. We spend the night in calm seas and wake to a glass calm sunrise. (It really was. I think I took 20 pictures of the water this morning because you could see right down to the bottom 10 feet away, but you’d swear it was less than a foot. That water clarity. Amazing.) Unfortunately the calm is short lived and by the time we finish school, the wind has started to pick up out of the north east. It doesn’t appear to be much of a wind, and I don’t mind it much. I tell the crew in ignorance that the wind will die with the sun and we will have a fine night. I was wrong. (Yes. Yes, he was.) The wind increases with the sunset and the waves come with it. There is exactly zero protection from a northern swell on the north side of an island. My crew is quick to point out the I have misjudged the sea condition and they quickly turn on me. (true) Unfortunately there is nothing we can do about it as we are not going to move to a new anchorage at night so I settle in for an uncomfortable night brought on by the near mutinous state of the crew. The night is bumpy and the waves grow to a few feet. I get up before sunrise, or more appropriately, I get out of bed before sunrise as I have been up many times from wave motion or the occasional elbow “accidentally” hitting my ribs. (None of us slept. It was gonna be a long day.)  

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Yes, that water is 10 feet deep. Crazy, right?

The anchor comes up with the sun and we sail south to the next island called Gun Cay. The sail is brief at only a couple hours but it is glorious. It seems so long since we could really shut down the engines and hear the waves lap against the hull. (At this point, I could care less. As long as we were heading somewhere where we will NOT rock all day and night, I’ll be a happy camper.) We speed south to Gun Cay with the wind and waves behind us. We are heading to Gun Cay for two reasons, looking at the chart it has protection from a north swell, and there are supposed to be friendly stingrays that let you touch them. Anchoring in the lee of the island proves a little difficult as there is a rock/coral bottom under a few inches of sand. We have to search around for a sand hole that will allow our anchor to dig in well. Once the anchor is set we are able to teach school and have a nap. 

After our well deserved rest, the girls and I go to see if we can find the friendly stingrays. And find them we did. The stingrays usually get fed by tourists and come right up to your feet. I find this very cool, but the girls are a little timid at first. The stingrays swim up and nuzzle around your feet and ankles then swim away. They return again minutes later and do it again. Cloe desperately wants to touch one, but her legs just don’t let her. It is as if her body parts have their own brain. Just as a stingray comes close, she bends down but her legs run away. Several times I watch her face light up with excitement as a stingray starts to glide toward her. She starts to bend over to touch it and then her legs say, “Hey what’s going on here! That thing is coming right for us.  Quick run away!” And as she dashes up the sand, her face looks confused as if to say, “What’s happening? The stingray was so close we almost touched it. Why is it getting further away?” It was interesting to watch such conflicted actions.  

After a few minutes of Cloe’s deceptive dance, she comes up with a different plan. Because her legs are keeping her from touching the stingray, she surmises that I should become the replacement for those insubordinate legs, and hold her. I pick her up in my arms laying her horizontally a few feet above the water. As the stingrays come to circle around my ankles, she reaches her hand into the water and pets the stingray! It is so great to see her reach down and, against her fear, touch the smooth slimy skin of the stingray; however even as I hold her, when she reaches down, her legs still to move about like they can still get away. 

We hang out like this for several minutes. Tali on the other hand is able to get in the water and after touching the skin of one stingray feels that the task is complete and has little desire to do it again. She decides her time is better spent wandering around and seeing what has drifted up on the beach. Eventually Cloe is able to get comfortable enough and stand on her own. We then go into the water and snorkel with the rays.  (I have a 5 min. video, that I will post below when we have good wifi, that we clipped from our GoPro during this snorkel. Admittedly, it’s not very good, but it was our first time using it & we’ve figured a few things out since then.) There are about a dozen of them around us and we even see some small sharks and a sizable barracuda. With the introduction of the sharks and barracuda, there is no amount of coaxing that will keep the girls in the water and we go back to the boat. We spend four days at Gun Cay, and each day we go and play with the stingrays and watch the sharks. It is a great spot.

The wind swings from the northeast to the northwest and we move to the other side of the island.  As I go snorkeling, I find an old oven that someone has thrown away, and in it are half a dozen lion fish. All right, kill on sight fish. I grab my spear and go back down. The lion fish is not an illusive creature to kill. They basically just hang out. So I go down with my spear and skewer the largest one.  Just to paint a picture for you, there are 6 fish in the open area of an oven. I’m literally shooting fish in a barrel. The best part is, they don’t even move. I shoot one, bring it up and put it in a bucket, go back down, shoot another, come up, put it in a bucket. I get all six of them.

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This was one of the bigger ones.

 Then comes the real question, “what to do with them?” Three of them were good size and can be filleted and grilled. The other three will have to be gutted, and cooked.  My crew tells me with no uncertainty that they will not be eating lion fish, something about the poison. (true) No amount of my arguing that the poison is only in the barbs changes their minds. (also true) In the end, after gutting one of the smaller ones, I determine that any fish you have to gut is too small and too much work to eat, so I throw the small ones overboard. I fillet two of the larger ones and accidentally drop the third in the water. That night I grill up my catch and, in contrary to my naive crew, I eat the fish and have no ill side effects. As a mater of fact, it is a light tasting white fish and quite pleasant. I definitely recommend eating lion fish, the only problem is that they don’t seem to get that big.  

Through the night the wind picks up to about 20 knots and we decide to take advantage and sail across the Great Bahama Bank to Chub Cay. The sail is epic. (It really is. We also know that we will be playing ‘beat the sun’ sailing from sunrise to sunset.) We cruise across the bank at 8-9 knots and, because the bank is about 12’ deep, there are no waves to speak of. It is just wind and the hulls cutting through the water.  About half way through the bank, the wind is gusting and I decide to take a reef. With the increase in wind we are still making 8-9 knots. It is glorious. We pull into Chub Cay at about 1630 and, after a wonderful sail, we tuck in behind the island for a calm drink with the sunset and a peaceful nights sleep.  

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Tali blowing the conch horn @ sunset. (The kids do this every night.)

The Florida Keys & Dry Tortugas

We’ve finally made it to the Keys! We’re so excited…clear water…sand beaches…well, not so much. Every new anchorage we’d pump the kids up, “…and this one will have a great beach”…and it wouldn’t. Then a few days later…”well, this one will certainly have a great beach”…and it doesn’t. Come to find out, we were a bit ignorant to the fact that there really aren’t any sand beaches here. Oops.

From Eric:
Looking into the weather I see that we are supposed to get a blow from the NE.  The anchorage we were at has very little protection from the NE so it is time to find a new place to be.  The Keys are split up rather clearly.  There is the inside which runs north of the keys and south of mainland Florida, and an outside route called Hawks Channel and it runs south of the Keys and north of a barrier reef.  The inside route is well protected, however shallow, while Hawks Channel is deeper, but less protected from the ocean.  In both courses there are limited anchorages that are protected, but the inside route will definitely have less waves.  Unfortunately for us there are several bridges that go from Florida to Key Largo that have a 65 foot vertical clearance, so we can’t head down the inside route from our anchorage.

Looking at the charts in detail reveals only one place that we can pass from the outside to the inside.  All the other bridges that connect the Keys are way to low for us to get underneath.  The chart shows one bascule bridge that can open for us, however, right next to the bridge wan overhead power cable is listed that says it has a clearance of 75 feet.  The top of our mast is supposed to be 72 feet off the water.  There is an antenna on top, but it can bend.  I figure we’ll give it a shot.  I know Kelly will be much happier on the inside with smaller waves.  (However, at the time, I didn’t fully grasp how shallow it is on the inside.)  

Snake Creek, with the lift bridge, is about 30 miles down the Keys.  We get up early and head back through the creek and out to Hawks Channel.  The sail down is fairly calm with a light wind from the SSE and we motersail with one engine running.  I bring the sails down as we approach the bridge.  I can see the cable and it looks low.  I call the bridge operator to check for the next opening time.  He informs me that we are just in time and the bridge will open in about 10 minutes.  I then ask him what the cable clearance is just on the other side of the bridge.  He tells me he doesn’t.  I tell him the chart says its 75 feet and he says that sounds about right.  Not comforting.

The current is going with us as we line up to go under the bridge.  If that cable is low, or our mast is high, we are screwed.  I wonder what the expense is for tearing down an overhead cable.  As we navigate under the bridge, I favor the west side because it looks like the cable is higher there.  I ask the bridge operator if we will clear the cable.  He is very informative and replies that he can’t tell.  Then, as we are just under the cable, he radioes back that it looks like we have almost a foot of clearance.  For once I am glad it is low tide. 

It’s at this point I inform Eric that we will NOT be returning this way. WAY too stressful.

From Eric:
My pleasure with the tide is short lived.  Once we are under the cable, the other end of Snake Creek forks and both forks show a depth of 4.5 feet.  Excellent. We draw 4.5 feet, plenty of water.  (Oh boy!) With no better knowledge I take the one to the right and we head out to the designated channel on the inside which is shown to have 5.5 foot depths.  We motor slowly, and the entire time the depth sounder read that there is less than 6 inches of water under the boat.  

When we are successfully on the inside we head for a place called Barley Basin.  The chart shows that it has an incredible depth of 8 feet.  Unfortunately ,to get there the path is about 5 feet deep.  It’s quite amazing that after looking at a depth sounder that reads 1 foot of water under the keel for a few hours you get used to it.  You don’t even get concerned until it reads less then 0.5 feet, and 2 feet is quite comfortable.  Once in Barley Basin we have good holding and good protection from the forecasted weather. 

The wind howls for a few days and I’m able to continue my windsurfing education.  The wind shifts to the SE and I am able to convince Kelly that it will be a great sail to Bahia Honda.  The guide claims that it has a great beach and is a beautiful park.  Looking at the chart there are a couple areas of shallow concern, but there isn’t much I can do about them.  We plan to follow Steamboat Channel all the way down.  The wind is up to 20+ and I plan to sail the entire way.  What I don’t plan on are the lobster pots.  

The lobster pots are relentless.  They are in the channel, and everywhere.  Kelly won’t take the helm for me to put up the sails because of their density.  I finally find a stretch that will allow us to comfortably put up the main and we sail all the way to Bahia Honda at 7-8 knots.  At one point the chart shows deeper water just south of the channel so I head for it because I have grown tired of seeing less then a foot on the depth sounder.  My boldness is rewarded with the depth sounder telling me there is only 0.1 feet, so I promptly go back to the channel.  

We anchor on the north side of Bahia Honda by 2:00, plenty of time to explore the park.  We jump into the dinghy and head to the landing.  We find the landing is closed and most of the park has been destroyed from hurricane Irma.  We end up tying up the dinghy at some ranger dock and have to cross some caution tape to get to the park. Once in the park it is a fairly abysmal failure.  Most of the park is closed off because there is still debris around, and the beach is mostly just rock.  Needless to say, the kids are not impressed. 

We only stay in the area a couple of days waiting for the wind to break.  We get an opening and have a downwind run to Key West.  It would have been a nice motorsail save for the lobster pots.  They are so thick you could walk on the buoys from Big Pine Key to Key West.  The charted course that we are supposed to take would have been 40 miles, but I’m sure that we travel closer to 60 avoiding buoys.  

We finally make it to the NW channel of Key West without wrapping a lobster pot around the prop.  Once in the channel there aren’t any pots.  We motor up to the north end of Fleming Key and drop the hook.  There are a bunch of boats here and at least a third are unseaworthy.  

Looking at the weather, it appears that we will only stay in Key West for a couple of days and then head out to the Dry Tortugas.  I want to go while there is some wind.  The forecast calls for near 20 knots and the seas are down.  The day starts off with 20 knots out of the east and we have a dead run to the Tortugas.  I put up the genniker and we are cruising at 8+ with the occasional 9.  Unfortunately, the waves grow and before long we get into seas that are 7-9 feet.  Kelly isn’t happy.  The waves are from the northeast and we are able to take them on the quarter.  Unfortunately a couple hours out the wind dies on us and we have to continue with the engines.  

We arrive at the Dry Tortugas at around 1530.  With the wind up and the waves a little rough so we anchor at the entrance to Ft. Jefferson.  There are 6 boats here and we are able to use our shallow draft to get up and away from everyone. When I dive on the anchor there is about 10 feet visibility and nothing remarkable to see.  I fail at getting the park rangers on the radio, so the girls and I go check in with the dinghy.  We find the ranger station inside the fort.  

The next day I look forward to exploring the fort because I want to know why it was built.  However my curiosity was put on hold because as I start washing our breakfast dishes off the stern a huge, 6 foot+, Goliath Grouper comes up to meet me.  It is awesome.  I call the girls.  As we watch two more join him.  I am so taken by them I get my snorkeling gear on and sneak into the water from the bow.  Once in the water it is awesome.  The Grouper just hang there in the shade under the boat.  Each one of them bigger than me.  I am able to swim right up to them and they don’t move.  It is a little disconcerting, but great.  After about a half hour I am getting cold and climb back onto the boat and then we go to the fort.

The fort dominates the entire island.  Though its an engineering marvel and I appreciate the effort that went into its construction, it seems to be tactically pointless.  The massive brick structure dwarfs the likes of Ft. Sumter or Ft Clinch.  Its incredible to think about the logistics of the construction.  Bringing over all the brick must have been monumental and then there were huge stone slabs that were used for spiral stair case treads.  Its just amazing, and only trumped by its complete uselessness.  Not only was it tactically useless, but there were some significant engineering failures.  The Dry Tortugas are aptly named because there is no fresh water on the islands, therefore Fort Jefferson had to rely on cisterns for water.  They built the cisterns as the foundation of the fort.  This was a huge failure because they were built of stone and brick on top of sand.  When the sand shifted under the weight, the foundation cracked, as the foundation was under the sea level, salt water contaminated the cisterns.  Of the projected 1.5 million gallons of fresh water capacity over 93% was contaminated before the construction was complete. Another intriguing fact was that nearly all of the labor to make the fort was prison or slave.  It just builds on the question, “Why does Fort Jefferson exist?”  

We go through the fort and my initial impression of its uselessness seams to be further confirmed.  General Patton must have visited Ft. Jefferson when he noted that, “fixed fortifications are monuments to the stupidity of man”. The biggest guns on the fort had a range of 3 miles.  Just enough range to reach out to Loggerhead Key and not even enough range to cover all of the deep water harbors in the area.  The literature at the fort would have you believe that it was to protect trade routs in the area, which seems ridiculous.  The range of the cannons is 3 miles anyone could just sail around it, heck you could anchor a ship at the Dry Tortugas and be out of range.  It’s like saying that the dog in the house at the end of the street protects the neighborhood.  Forts of that era were built to protect a harbor.  They had interlocking fire, and could deny an enemies access to a harbor. Ft Jefferson, is the most ambitious and expensive Listening Post Observation Post (LPOP) that I’ve ever heard of.   At best, if they saw an enemy armada heading to Tampa or Key West they could get in a fast sail/steamboat and give a few hours notice of the impending invasion.  After spending the morning exploring and reading about the fort, I dismiss the idea that this fort was a tactical resource. So now the question is, what other reason would the government need to have spent millions excavating and building?  If it was built in the 1950’s I would have guessed that there was a large uranium deposit on the islands and the building of the fort was just a facade to extract the uranium, but what could have been so valuable in the 1840s that would justify the cost of millions of dollars for this useless fort?

With few of my questions answered, we go back to the boat for lunch.  As we are prepping lunch, the girls frantically looked over the side for the grouper.  They find them.  The goliath grouper are still under the boat.  I take the GoPro into the water and swim with them for another half hour.  There are now five goliath groupers under the boat, every one of them is bigger than me.  It is cool.  The video isn’t that good, but it is amazing to swim with these giant fish.  

After lunch we go snorkeling and hang out at the beach.  It is a great day at the fort the girls and we are able to talk to the rangers and have fun running around.  As the sun goes down we move out to the boat for supper and get ready to head back to Key West.  

The next morning is calm as predicted.  The trip back to Key West is uneventful…in the beginning.  After a couple hours of a light breeze from the northeast a fog settles in.  A thick fog. Our visibility is reduced to less then 100 yds in a few minutes.  As it settles in, our visibility goes through areas that are down to 100ft.  The light wind and lack of visibility is very disorienting.  I have to constantly check the gauges for reference.  

The lobster pot threat really escalates as our detection time has been significantly reduced.  However, after 4 hours or so of intense concentration, the fog starts to lift just as we get close to Key West.  We are able to get the hook down back where we were just before sundown.  We relax with sundowners and have fun trying to figure out why they really built Ft. Jefferson.

We leave Key West and head back up the Keys with the intent of getting over to the Bahamas.  Our first stop is a small spit of an island called Molasses Key.  It is just large enough to protect us from the 2-4’ waves that we’ve sailed against.  The girls and I explore the island and find a bunch of sponges washed up around the island.  There were thousands of hermit crabs moving shells everywhere.  The best part is that we see a baby hammer head shark, and Cloe nearly walks on water to get away from it. Between the two, I’m not sure who was more scared.  

We make a quick stop over at Marathon Key for some items and head back to Key Largo.  I am surprised by how many boats are in Boot Key harbor.  It is packed.  The real surprise comes when I found no place to tie up a dinghy.  I talk to a couple of people who suggest the city dock but it is $20; are you F’n kidding me?  In the end I end up anchoring my dinghy down one of the little finger canals within jumping distance of the shore.  I figure if anyone gives me problems I’ll fake engine problems.  As beat up as our dinghy looks, anyone would believe it.  It doesn’t seam that Marathon is at all hospitable to transients.  

The long haul from Marathon to the top of Key Largo is a long motorsail.  The crab pots are an ever present danger, and somehow we make it through without getting caught.  After 9.5 hrs of traveling we are ready to set down the hook and have a beverage.  Soon we’ll be heading to the Bahamas.