The Abacos, our last stop in the Bahamas
Updated: Apr 2, 2019
March 15 - 31, 2019
Like all Bahamian islands, Great Abaco Island and its cays are situated on shallow banks––essentially huge underwater plateaus which rise thousands of feet from the ocean floor and have only 10-40 feet of water over their flat tops, or, at low tide, much less. As a "deep-draught" boat (6'4") we were leery of navigating here, but we have found enough water, at high tide, to traverse many of the channels and harbors. The Abacos are considered part of the Near Bahamas. Like the Far Bahamas and Out Islands islands where we spent most of our time, they comprise a semi-protected natural environment, offering spectacular diving and snorkeling on healthy coral reefs. However, the social reality here is very different from what we previously experienced. The Abacos are much more developed, with resorts, vacation homes, and even gated communities. The 15% of the Bahamian population that is white descend either from white Puritans who left Bermuda in the 1600's, seeking religious freedom, or British Loyalists, primarily from Charleston and New York, who left the U.S. shortly after independence, in the 1780's. Many of them settled here, and for generations, earned their livelihood through farming, fishing, sponging and salvaging wrecks. There are also many Haitian immigrants.
The Bahamas remained a British Colony until 1973; since then they have been an independent member of the British Commonwealth with a parliamentary democratic system of government. The Hopetown Museum exhibited this article on black and white Abaconians who fought to remain under the Crown.
Local government was only introduced in the 1990's, and is still under development. The Abaconians pride themselves on being the economic engine of the Bahamas.
We made the sixty-mile crossing from Meeks Patch near Spanish Wells to Lynyard Cay in the Abacos on a glorious sailing day in moderate East and Southeast winds that eventually dissipated. We were anchored by 3:30 p.m., joining four other boats at the pristine anchorage. We headed out to swim at a nearby beach where a private home was under construction, and had the palm-lined shore all to ourselves.
The next morning, Christoph spent a couple of hours troubleshooting the generator, a frequent maintenance requirement. It turned out to have a variety of problems, all of which he was able to resolve, except for the intermittently functioning fuel pump, which needed to be replaced. We have found that even with 430 watts of solar power, we depend on the generator to keep the batteries charged sufficiently to run the freezer and fridge.
We motored to a day anchorage with big ocean swells at the Pelican Cays near Sandy Cay, a massive protected coral reef that is part of the Pelican Cays National Land and Sea Park. Since all the dinghy moorings were occupied when we arrived, we shared a mooring ball with Will and Rebecca of S/V Artemis. We each headed out in different directions to snorkel one of the most acclaimed coral reefs in the world. After so much fabulous snorkeling in the Exumas, we hadn't expected to be bowled over in the Abacos, but the natural underwater beauty at the reefs, and the clear, turquoise waters are just as breathtaking. After about an hour of snorkeling through the purple, orange, and pink coral and thousands of neon-colored reef fish, we spotted the unmistakable gray hunters lurking nearby: a 6 foot long barracuda and a massive reef shark. Even though the ocean is their natural habitat, I can't help hyperventilating when I see either of them. We returned to the dinghy and drove by Rebecca to let her know that a large reef shark was in the vicinity. Just at that moment she saw the barracuda, and realized she had forgotten to remove her earrings––barracudas are attracted by the glint of sun on jewelry. She climbed in, and we gave her a ride back to her dinghy.
Weighing anchor once more, we set out on the Sea of Abaco to Tilloo Cay, along a shore of private homes. It took seven attempts to get good holding in a mostly grassy bottom. During one attempt, the anchor picked up an underwater cable. We finally found a favorable spot, and once the anchor was set, we enjoyed a lovely, quiet night on board. In the morning, a pod of seven dolphins surfaced and dove off our beam.
Our next destination was Marsh Harbor, on Great Abaco Island, the third largest city in the Bahamas, behind Nassau and Freeport. Marsh Harbor provides every service a cruiser might need, as well as a protected, but very crowded harbor, and a season-long cruiser community. We hadn't realized it was St. Patrick's Day. There was a rollicking party at Snappa's, where it seemed the entire harbor of cruisers had gathered, but we opted for a quiet and tasty tuna dinner on the terrace at Colors of the Harbor. We only spent one night in the harbor, because the next front was approaching, and the packed harbor did not seem like the best best place for us to ride it out at anchor. We opted to join Asana and Brin de Folie at the Treasure Cay Resort marina. In addition to a mooring field and slips, the resort offers residence cottages, several restaurants, laundry and a small shopping strip. It was our first stay at a marina in the Bahamas. Our three vessels motored north together in light wind under gathering clouds, which developed into a brief squall just as we approached the entrance channel.
An inviting natural feature of Treasure Cay is its three mile stretch of beautiful, sandy ocean beach. Once Jamal, the dock master, assisted us in tying up securely at the dock, we set out to explore. As we walked on the beach, a giant sea turtle swam swiftly by in the surf, which was already a bit rough. The next day, the front arrived full force, bringing torrential downpours and strong winds. Christoph had another intense game of chess with Daniel (of Asana), by text, because he didn't want to leave the boat, which strained against the dock lines as wind gusts reached 35 knots.
Our 90-day immigration cards were due to expire on March 23. We thought it would be easier to extend them at sparsely populated Treasure Cay than at busy Marsh Harbor. This was a good call––we got a personal appointment for 10 a.m. the day after the front passed (and 2 days prior to expiration). Extensions in hand, we drove the half-hour to Marsh Harbor to fill our propane tank, buy groceries, and find a new generator fuel pump. All missions were handily accomplished.
After three nights at Treasure Cay, we left the slip, bound for Great Guana Cay. On our way out of the marina, we stopped to fuel up at the fuel dock, just outside the channel. There was no room for us at the dock, and no place to wait, so the dock hand asked us to return to the mooring field, and promised to hail us when a space opened up. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to us, he was also responsible for pumping gas for cars. After about 20 minutes, he told us to come down the channel to the dock, but when we arrived, he was busy pumping gas and was unavailable to take our lines. Before I could step onto the dock, two guys on a motor boat, already tied on, offered to take our lines. I tossed our bow line to the captain, but his friend had no idea what to do with our spring line and the current swung us around until we were perpendicular to the dock. I quickly changed all lines from starboard to port, and we eventually got Delfina alongside, only facing the opposite direction.
We caught up to our buddy-boats, and joined them in Fisher's Bay, outside Great Guana Cay. This cay is largely developed with rental properties, vacation homes, a few resorts, and beach restaurants. We walked past the dive shop, boutiques, and the market, and checked out Nippers, a beachfront restaurant on the ocean with a small pool, lounge chairs, gift shop and great views. While the ocean beach has extensive offshore reefs, the wind and sea were too rough for snorkeling.
In the quiet of early morning, I watched seven white-tailed tropicbirds as they swooped and dove over the water, calling sharply to one another, their long thin tails dipping down far behind them as they flew. We wanted to take advantage of this sunny post-front day to snorkel, but we weren't sure about the sea state, which remains agitated after a big front. We headed for Fowl Cay, another preserve, and anchored near the reefs. We jumped in the dinghy and headed for the day moorings around the point, but the swell was still strong; we turned back in lieu of being swamped. We landed at at the cay and watched the breakers spray as they met the reef. A family played in the shallow pools formed by limestone cays.
Seeking calmer waters, we headed for Mermaid Cay, a small reef just north of Marsh Harbor. There we swam among hundreds of fish, including snapper, grouper, grunts, parrot fish, trigger fish, and angel fish. The fish seemed to swim right towards us, leading us to wonder whether they were fed. Artificial reefs in memory of loved ones are scattered on the sea bed here, and over time, coral and fish are attracted to them too.
We continued on to Parrot Cay, an anchorage outside Hopetown, on Elbow Cay. We opted to anchor out, because the channel to the Hopetown harbor is quite shallow and the moorings are very close set. The Hopetown museum provides a wonderful cross-section of island history through family artifacts and exhibits on the history of the settlement and its inhabitants since their post-Revolutionary arrival in the 1780's. Climbing the candy-striped Hopetown lighthouse, the last kerosene powered lighthouse in the world, we gazed out over views of the tranquil harbor and vast turquoise blue landscapes formed by the Sea of Abaco and the Atlantic Ocean. Local inhabitants had opposed construction of the lighthouse in 1863, since the initially fixed light illuminated salvage activities, diminishing their financial return for the locals. Bill, a resident of Annapolis and Hopetown, volunteers at the lighthouse gift shop and teaches pickleball. We chatted amiably about his past sailing days on a Little Harbor. He described the Hopetown vacation community as Harbor Island without the investment bankers.
From Hopetown, we had an hour sail on a beam reach to Man O'War Cay, where the famous family of Albury boat-builders still builds fiberglass runabout boats that are extremely popular in the Abacos. Locally made Bahamian crafts are sold in numerous gift shops, including Joe's Studio, which features Joe Albury's hand-carved wooden boat models; Albury's Sail Shop, which now sells souvenir bags sewn from sailcloth; and Sally's, which sells pillows, clothing and fabrics in brightly-colored Androsia hand-prints and batiks. Most of the cay's local population are descendants of an original settler couple, Pappy Ben and Mammy Nellie.
The name of a motor boat tied up in the harbor caught my eye.
With yet another front about to blow through, we returned to Great Guana Cay to tie up at Orchid Bay Marina. We were snug and secure through the 30 knot squalls and torrential downpours. When the front passed, we rode our bikes all around the island, and relaxed by the pool. Sir Eden, a local organic farm, holds a farmers' market at the marina on Saturday mornings, so we stocked up on incredibly fresh and delicious arugula, greens, tomatoes, papaya, and cucumbers while sipping spicy Bloody Mary's.
We are back in Marsh Harbor, waiting to meet my step-son Owen, who arrives on April 1 to crew with us on the journey home, as soon as a suitable window for a Gulf Stream crossing appears.
This afternoon, we had a chance encounter with a single-handed sailor out of Newfoundland, that illustrates the generous and helpful spirit with which we have been met throughout our journey. On the way to shore with our bikes, prepared to ride to the supermarket, our dinghy motor conked out. We had been having trouble with the fuel line connector. When Christoph attempted to pull out and reconnect the fuel line to the gas tank, the connector completely fell apart. We pulled out the oars, and Christoph rowed us to a dinghy dock near the laundry.
Christoph suddenly realized that he had left his wallet on board, so I remained on shore with the bikes while he rowed back to Delfina to retrieve it. Unfortunately, both the hand-held radio and Christoph's cell phone were still in my back-pack. After a long while, Christoph still hadn't retuned. Frank, an old Irish salt, emerged from the laundromat and asked if I could hand his laundry down from the dock to his dinghy. As I did, I told him what had happened to our dinghy, and explained that I was waiting for Christoph to row back, but that I had no way to reach him. Frank promptly offered to ferry me out to Christoph so he could explain how to put the hose directly into the fuel tank, and hand pump the fuel.
We intercepted Christoph, who had tied up at a dinghy dock closer to Delfina, and was now walking along the road towards the laundromat. We picked him up at the nearest dock. Christoph showed Frank the broken connector, and it turned out that Frank had on board the exact Yamaha hose connector that we needed, and said he would gladly give it to us. This was welcome news, because all the engine and marine stores are closed on Sunday. Frank further explained that he had been taken, because he was told that this Yamaha part would fit his Mercury outboard, and it didn't. Of course, we told him we'd be more than happy to buy it from him. So I rode with Frank in his dinghy, and we towed Christoph, riding in our dinghy, out to Frank's boat, also at anchor in the harbor. Christoph told Frank all about the time he had set out to crew with Don Johnson from Newfoundland to Iceland. Frank knew exactly where they had been. Christoph attached the connector, and with the dinghy motor nicely humming along, we set out once more towards shore.
My thoughts have been turning increasingly to home, ever since a pipe burst at our house in Lambertville, NJ in mid-March, flooding our newly- renovated bedroom. The task of managing an insurance claim from abroad invaded the sense of timeless presence in which I had been floating. For encouragement, I contemplate the unending fortitude and resilience of Bahamians, forced by relentless hurricanes to rebuild year after year.