17 January 2016… Back in the USA
St. John is a tough place to land without local knowledge. Because it’s two-thirds national park, anchoring is difficult. Even finding a place to put your boat while you do your check-in is sticky: they have one tiny, unmarked area where you can stay for 3 hours but if your draft is 6ft or more, forget it. It’s too shallow. Once you manage the miracle of checking in, they want you to be on mooring balls and they’ve just upped their fees from $15/night to $26! No big deal for charter boat customers who are here for a couple of weeks and going back to work -in most cases they’re even splitting that cost with several other people. Small beans, and definitely cheaper than a hotel. But for people like us who are long-range cruising and on a tighter budget, they’re pricing themselves out. We went into the Park Services office, twice, to try and sort out where we can “be” and were misinformed both times about locations they list as anchorages within the park. It seems that their own people aren’t even clear on the issue. We finally flagged down a park ranger on the water and found out the deal: the moorings are only rated to handle boats of up to 60ft in length and if you’re more than that, you have your choice of three anchorages to set your hook. What this effectively amounts to is that the richer people with the bigger boats and the bigger pocketbooks are getting to stay for free. Pffft. Insanity. And no place for a boat our size to anchor within the park. But this ranger proved to be a valuable source of information in a more favourable capacity, as well. He wasn’t very forthcoming at first but when we chatted him up a little and told him about our trip he confessed to having lived aboard himself for two years and gave us the skinny on a couple of places we can drop the hook for free, outside the park boundaries. Granted, they aren’t all ideal locations -the one that is has you rocked by ferryboat wakes all day!- but we were grateful for the tip all the same. Finally someone was throwing us a bone!
But what we’re even more grateful for are our local friends who’ve also been providing us with the inside scoop. Some of them are cruising friends, others are from Key West and we’ve even had one surprise appearance –a lot of Key West connections here. It’s been great catching up. Troy & Lauren operate a successful term charter business with their own boat so they’re out on charter a lot and as I write this, we’re sitting on their mooring in lovely, calm Great Cruz Bay. They’ve given us a place to “be” in St. John and we consider ourselves extremely lucky! This is where most of the liveaboards call home and there’s a grocery store nearby and it’s only a 30-minute walk into town –even if it is over a herculean hill called Jacob’s Ladder. More than one local has told us that they shed weight when they first arrived, thanks to that hill!
So it’s taken a bit to get our feet under us in St. John and while there are plenty of free anchorages over in St. Thomas, this is where we want to be. Here it’s all about natural beauty and it has a fun, relaxed vibe. St. Thomas is the “big city”. We go over there to do our shopping as prices are generally cheaper and it has a number of big chain stores to suit every need. Our first foray into Kmart was downright strange and I felt like a hick standing in downtown New York City. Wowww. The size of it! The selection! We haven’t seen the likes of it in some time.
Getting back to “civilization” means getting used to having a phone again, too. We routinely forget the thing at home and sometimes when it rings we’re like, “What’s that sound?” or “Why doesn’t that idiot answer his phone? Oh wait –it’s ours.” Sure, we’ve had phones in other countries but we’ve only had a few contacts to ring up. Now that we have service to Canada and the mainland US, we’ve been catching up with friends and family back home so this thing rings more than we’re used to!
Another thing that proves that we’re back to “civilization” is that we’re more reachable physically, too. Tomorrow we take off for St. Thomas again where we’ll rendezvous with our second batch of guests. Brent only stayed for 6 days which limited our explorations of the British side but we enjoyed New Year’s celebrations in St. John and squeezed in some cruising, kayaking, hiking and snorkeling -yep, you DID IT Brent!! Even if you were green from time to time!
(Brent was none-too-sure about this whole snorkeling thing. Until we got him in!)
Leigh is visiting us for the second time on this trip (she was our very first guest in Panama 3 years ago!) and will be staying for two weeks so we’ll cover a lot more ground, taking in some of the attractions further afield. Of note is the fact that she’s bringing her new guy with her -this will be their 8th date! So we’ll be welcoming a stranger aboard but it should be all good fun. Provided he doesn’t turn out to be an axe murderer or something.
10 February 2016… Bye Bye VIs
Well, our foray into the British Virgin Islands with Leigh and Trevor was just great. We started out at Jost Van Dyke which has a reputation for being the party island. Many a daytripper tops off their afternoon here at either Foxy’s or The Soggy Dollar Bar –home of the (in)famous Painkiller cocktail. Additionally, Jost is touted to have the 3rd best New Year’s Eve celebration in the world (so says the New York Times, anyway) and while we had been around at the right time, it sounded like mayhem we didn’t want to get into. Apparently hundreds of boats cram into the harbour and it’s a real cluster that’s detrimental to one’s paint job (the fact that we’re not particularly proud of our paint job right now might have made it the perfect time to go, though!). When we arrived, it was just an average weekend which was fine with us! We still did Foxy’s proud. Then we headed over to Cane Garden Bay on Tortola where we visited a 400-year-old old rum factory and sampled the wares among which is their (in)famous Horny Rum a.k.a. the Panty Dropper. They said it makes you want to take off all your clothes! Well, maybe later… we only had a small sampling but we took a bottle with, ha ha! Then we found a fun little beach bar where they were celebrating the full moon. Or so we thought. We’re still not sure when the full moon actually was but no matter: the band was great and it was a fantastic little bay to visit on the only day that conditions were good to do so that week. It was like it was meant to be.
Onward to the iconic Baths, one of the popular attractions in the BVIs. Nature has laid out a jumble of granite rocks upon the southern shore of Virgin Gorda and it’s a playground of caves and pools to run around in like little kids! We scuffed knees and banged heads climbing around, both on and away from the marked trails. We were fortunate in that there weren’t many people visiting that day as the narrow ramps and passageways can get pretty crowded with cruise-shippers. Our luck ran out later that day, though, as a bad batch of eggs (what a nightmare!) and a northwesterly swell in the anchorage had us running for the toilet and calmer waters (what doesn’t kill you
Back on the US side, we enjoyed our last days at Cruz Bay and at Cinnamon Bay (made famous by Kenny Chesney’s “Old Blue Chair”) where we did some hiking and swimming and chilling out; and before we knew it, it was time to head back over to Red Hook to drop these kids off. It was a fun 2 weeks of good food & drinks & company, some good old-fashioned fun in the sun. The 8th Date, we’re calling it. Trevor has been put in charge of Date #9… no pressure, buddy!
As predicted, our time here in the Virgin Islands has gone quickly as it’s now been 6 weeks since our arrival! But this was always in the plans. We had a line on a few job opportunities several months back and at the time we thought it would be great to slide in here for a 6-month season, make some coin, and arrive back home in Key West with some money in our pockets. The timing didn’t work out, though, and “season” is much longer than we thought –working here would mean actually moving here. That’s not in the cards right now but it doesn’t hurt to check it out, so our goal was to spend enough time to get a real feel for it, beyond the tourist vibe. Every place has its seedy side that you never quite fully see as a visitor (especially in the islands!) and we wanted to familiarize ourselves with the ins and outs of living here. Our conclusion? It’s not an easy place to break into and, like many islands, it could very easily chew you up and spit you out if you’re not resilient. It’s expensive; it takes an act of God to get your boat into the best places; and it takes some time to get accepted into the scene as a true local. It’s been so great having the help of our friends (we can’t imagine what we would have done without them!) but it’s still hard being the new guy with no place to “be”. Getting stink-eye from other boaters as you cruise through or, God forbid, drop anchor in “their” neighbourhood. Ferry boats that wake the crap out of the anchorage when another 5 seconds before gearing up would have them clear of us. And more. There can be such a sense of entitlement among some of the locals. And yet there are the random acts of kindness, too, and the friendliness of strangers; then there’s the general laissez-faire attitude of islanders that’s hard to beat. We’ve seen both sides of it and we’re not crossing the Virgin Islands off the list as a maybe-someday place to move to. We’ve had a great time here.
But for the moment we’re ready to go. Tonight we’ll have dinner with friends on the St. Thomas side, bidding our farewells for now. Special thanks and shout-outs to all our friends here: Doug, Troy & Lauren and Sharp & Margie on St. John for good company and all their help in making things easier for us. In Red Hook, thanks to Marc & Wendy and Eric & Claire for their hospitality –and all that fish! It’s been great catching up with you guys and we’ll see you again next time!
makes you stronger, right?). Unfavourable weather conditions made diving the RMS Rhone impossible, too, which was disappointing but we still got these kids in the water with some snorkelling at such locations as The Caves on Norman Island and The Indians. Travis even gave Leigh a refresher course in diving (like riding a bike!) and Trevor was breathing underwater for the very first time which he thought was pretty cool. Of course, no trip to Norman Island is complete without a plate of BBQ ribs and a Dark & Stormy at Willy T’s! This bar/restaurant is afloat on a 70-odd foot-old commercial vessel and it can turn into quite the party. As the evenings heat up, daredevils jump off the top deck into the water below! Never a dull moment at Willy T’s…
(Snorkelling The Caves at Norman Island)
p.s. Fun Feature: We decided to take a day off this week and we headed to Christmas Cove for some space and relaxation –read: an easy place to anchor! But moreover, we needed to check out this Pizza Pie we kept hearing on the radio. We had asked friends about it but only later did we truly get to appreciate it. It turns out that it’s actually Pizza Pi and they do takeaway hand-tossed pizzas out of a converted sailboat! The back of it opens up with a big window and you can dinghy right up to place your order, or radio in ahead of time. They’ll tie you off while you wait and we were lucky enough to just catch the tail end of happy hour, too. The girls were super-cheerful and our pizza was almost done too soon as we were enjoying chatting with them so we chewed on our first slices right there as we traded stories. What a fun experience (I know, it doesn’t take much with us, does it?).
17 February 2016… Bathroom Talk
So I was offered a shower last week. A real one: inside a stall that’s not pitching and rolling and with hot, unlimited water (well, as much as my conscience could stand, anyway!). If the logistics hadn’t been so difficult I most definitely would have taken them up on the offer. After all, I haven’t had a hot shower since we left the east coast of Africa. Eleven months ago!! This will seem incredible to most of you. Cripes, a woman can create a whole human being in her belly in less time! But it’s true. While Travis has been unfaithful in hotels rooms in both Fort Lauderdale and Suriname, it’s been almost a year since I’ve had a taste of the good life in this regard. Our bathing experience is an outdoor one which at times can be chilly and/or inconvenient.
For someone who’s crabbing for a lack of a proper bathroom, you might think that we’re far from experts on the subject but that’s not so. We have visited more facilities in the last 3+ years than you can imagine and we’ve become quite discerning about them! Stainless steel vs. tile, curtains or none, benches, shelves and number of hooks are all important factors apart from hot water (and the pressure thereof). Is it coin-operated? Are the stalls roomy enough or do you have to squeeze through a narrow door to get inside the tiny coffin? Does it drain properly or are you left in ankle-deep soapy water? So many factors and it often works out to a tradeoff of some sort: really hot water but YMCA-style open room; decent pressure but cold water; nice, roomy stalls but nowhere to place or hang your things so they stay dry. Or coin-operated ones where the pay box is outside the stall -and you’re out there often, trust me, as your quarter only gets you about 3 minutes! Then there was the shower I took in what looked like the janitor’s closet: 2 stalls with translucent walls directly adjacent to one another; don’t mind the brooms and mop buckets you need to hurdle to get inside. Not to be outdone by the shower I finished in the dark because the timer lights went out. But I think my all-time favourite was the cold shower in the dilapidated, dirty stall I shared with the hornets. They had the decency to mind their own business in their little nest, though. It was an honour system as there was no door.
Now toilets are a completely different matter, literally. Yep, I said “toilet”. This is what most of the rest of the world calls it. For North Americans (and most South Americans, as far as I know) this is a tough one because asking for the toilet sounds so crass. I mean, you picture that big white throne and it’s just a bit too graphic, you know? TMI. Isn’t it much more genteel to ask for the “bathroom” or the “restroom”? Not elsewhere. They consider it ridiculous. “Why are you wanting to take a bath in my restaurant?” Or the “restroom”… what exactly are you planning on doing in there, anyway?! I guess there’s an honesty about it that I appreciate. Like how other cultures call a chicken a chicken when they eat it, not poultry. And a pig is a pig, not pork; and cow is not beef. I’m in favour of this one –respect the life sacrificed to feed you! Anyway, honesty aside, we had to get over the whole “toilet” thing just to plain be understood (and maybe not ridiculed). I mean hey, most of the rest of the world uses the metric system and it seems to be working out ok. You’d almost think they’re on to something.
But don’t take us for overly picky. We’re just happy to find one when we need it. Consider also that we’ve been living with pump toilets for the last 13 years -and we have two, so we’re quite lucky indeed! These squeaky, labour-intensive curiosities both puzzle and terrify our guests as they come with a 101 Course in their use which includes detailed instruction in how NOT to sink our boat with said toilet.
Ok, good talk.
So yes, a lot of facilities. Many marinas, a new campground every night for 15 weeks, shopping and other public areas… not to mention the homes and boats of other people. And I’ve always said that you can tell a lot about a restaurant by the condition of its facilities, thoughtful touches like hand lotion and potpourri always being appreciated. Unique designs don’t go unnoticed, either, like tiled mosaic sinks or this sink (right) in a Bora Bora restaurant where you pull on the round wooden handle and the water falls down the stones (the pull handle in the men’s room was a carved phallus). And it turns out that I’m not the only peculiar one. We met a large group of friends who were rating facilities across the Pacific and they had some pretty demanding criteria, like cubicles that are completely enclosed so you don’t have to hear your neighbour pee!! Ha haaa! These kids concluded their trip in Australia so they were spared the “horrors” of Asia and Africa. Paper and hand soap were luxuries rarely stumbled upon as we were subjected to squat toilets that had seen all-day traffic, or simple holes in the ground. Often we just waited until there was a place to pull the truck over and we all went “bushy bushy”. It was the nicer alternative even if you had to watch your back -and backside- for lions (quite the way to go, if you think about it).
(The palm tree adds a little something, don't you think?)
("Don't pee in the shower or demons will come up out of the drain and chastise you".)
24 February 2016… “It’s an Unusual Year”
Arriving in Culebra was like entering another world. We had left behind the manic glut of charter boats and speed boats and ferry boats in the Virgin Islands and had dropped the hook in the middle of a bonafide cruising community again. There were international flags aplenty: Australia, France, Belgium, Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Austria… And to hammer the point home, we recognized our neighbour-boat from the marina at our very first landfall in Africa! We went over to greet them and while we had never actually met back in November 2014 (seems like ages ago), they remembered Calico Jack from Richard’s Bay, too! It’s a small world, especially on the water.
The island of Vieques lies south-southwest and we had two reasons to go there: another visit with Travis’ old Key West friends (we shared Thanksgiving with them in 2007!) and a paddle around the most bioluminescent bay IN THE WORLD. So said Guinness Book in 2008 and we were looking forward to it as the weather kept us from it last time. But when we called Greg to announce our imminent arrival, we learned that we were actually ringing his phone in Florida –he moved there 3 years ago! He also informed us that the bioluminescent bay isn’t what it used to be and may not even be accepting visitors at this time. We needed to find out. There was quite some effort in getting information about the bay -whether it was even open and whether or not we could tour it in our own kayak- and all the while the clock was ticking as we were coming up on the full moon. Not the best time for viewing the phosphorescent plankton. In the end, there were too many variables and not enough information about them. To boot, the wind direction was unfavourable so it would have been a long slog to get there, beating ourselves up to an uncertain end; bioluminescent bay aside, we weren’t even sure if we could get a decent anchorage there. It just didn’t work out but we always say that we have to leave something to see on our next visit!
Culebra is one of the 3 main islands of Puerto Rico and when we last visited in 2007 we simply loved it. “Simply” = there’s not a lot to do, but what a great place to pause and relax for a few days. There’s a nice little community of both locals and expats with a few mini-marts for basic supplies and several fun bars/restaurants. What more to you need to unwind? The last time we arrived here we spotted “The Dinghy Dock” through the binoculars and made our way over to do our check-in. Nowadays, they sport a new paint job and sign: “The Dinghy Dock… Restaurant”! So after checking in at the appropriate location this time, we ambled over to the bar and discovered it’s just as much fun as it ever was, maybe even more so. The anchorage 9 years ago had us among only a half-dozen other boats while now we were in the company of maybe four times that many and it made for lively afternoons at the pub. We found some new friends, had some great tacos at Zaco’s and just generally enjoyed some chill-out time. We’re happy that this little gem of an island hasn’t lost its charm.
(True to its name, you can dinghy right up for happy hour.
Great bar, great staff.)
Our next crossing would be 3.5 days, our last “long” one –the rest would be simple overnight passages at most. Picking the window was tough as this is the time of year that the cold fronts roll down from the northwest and you want to be in a hidey hole when they arrive! This is all normal, but it’s taken a long time for the eastern trade winds to set in this year and we’re hearing that old refrain again: “It’s an Unusual Year.” It’s been a joke among our cruising friends, how everywhere we go seems to be unusual! In the Pacific, it was a season of unusually light winds. In Australia, the dry season saw more rain than The Wet (“Very unusual!”). The Atlantic and Caribbean have seen an unusual amount of sargasum weed this year and it piles up on the windward shores and fouls up fishing nets and lines. Not good for the locals, not good for our stockpile (read: our lack thereof). And most recently, it was an unusual southerly wind that kept us from Vieques. In the bigger picture, consider that we’ve already had a named storm for the Atlantic Hurricane Season! Tropical Storm Alex reared his head in mid-January, the earliest such storm since Alice in January 1955. In the Pacific, Cyclone Winston surprised everyone by changing course and devastating Fiji on February 20th with sustained winds of 200mph and reported gusts of up to 300mph! This is the strongest ever storm on record in the Southern Hemisphere. Anyone who’s not seriously concerned about climate change needs to have their head examined.
2 March 2016… Out-Islands and Ghost Towns, Part 1: Turks & Caicos
Our last multi-day passage was a bit of a slog: from rolly to “washing machine” to no wind at all and it made for a lot of motoring and a bit of a wet mess. Even poor Spike got a saltwater shower -good thing mint is hardy! But it wasn’t so terrible, all in all. We were treated to a blood-orange full-moonrise that was spectacular and we even caught a couple of fish to fill our bellies and the freezer, effectively ending fishing for the rest of the passage. It’s not very often we have no-fishing days on Calico Jack!
We were treated to the best sailing of the trip just as we were making our approach to Grand Turk and we thought about blowing it off and taking the opportunity to head straight to The Bahamas. As it was, we had already given some consideration to skipping Turks & Caicos because they’ve just upped their fees on cruising permits to match The Bahamas ($300, even though they offer far less). But one gaze into the crystal clear waters changed our minds: we could see the bottom in 60+ feet. We had really enjoyed our last visit here and some of that had to do with how great the diving is; add in some old friends, some new ones, and an unhurried island pace and it had made for a great stop. So, we decided to confirm (or disprove) the rumour that there was a pass available for $50/week and we dropped the hook to check it out.
So instead, we took the weather conditions for an easy passage to the big island and dropped the hook at Fajardo. This little point on the east end of Puerto Rico is a decent place to hole up and wait for weather but unlike lovely Culebra, it sure is different than it was 9 years ago! You needed two hands and one foot to count the sunken boats both in the shallows and tangled up in the mangroves. Add the other foot to count the number of floaters –derelict vessels, neglected and sad. It was like a boat graveyard, probably the aftermath of a serious storm. Still, it served our purposes and we hung out for a few days both for weather and to catch up with another Key West friend. Ike has been here for two years and is really loving it as he’s been able to make a living doing what he enjoys: playing music. We joined him for a day, had a great visit and got to play roadies as we helped him cart around his gear for his gig that afternoon. We were high rollers at the Wyndham Margaritaville Rio Mar Resort, nursing our $12 drinks!
(Ike plays at the resort 4 days plus other various gigs throughout the week. It's great seeing a friend doing so well with something they love!)
Old information had us taking part in a sort of involuntary island excursion when it came to checking in. It’s a good thing we like to walk because we marched across half the island to get to customs! Once there, we were lucky enough to connect with Travis’ old friend from Cayman; we had a quick visit with him and he gave us a much-appreciated ride back! But other than that, T & C was a bit of a bust for us for a couple of reasons, but mostly weather. By Day 3 we couldn’t even land the dinghy ashore safely, ruining our cool museum visit, and the anchorage was so lumpy that when we finally threw in the towel we found that it was much nicer at sea. We did salvage the day on our entry into South Caicos, though, with an impromptu dive at The Arch where we easily had 100ft of visibility. Nice, but what we were really after were the whales we’d seen frolicking on our way in (!) but alas, not even whale song. It was a pretty dive, though.
We were happy to see that not a lot has changed in Grand Turk in nine years, but also surprised. Hurricane Ike swept through here back in 2008 and judging by how much Cayman morphed after a major storm, we were expecting the same for this little rock, but not so. It remains completely unchanged as far as we could tell; just as gloriously sleepy as ever.
(Wee Calico Jack all by herself off
Cockburn Town, Grand Turk)
Now don’t get the idea that we demand a lot of a town because we really do appreciate tiny, sparse places like this (until we need something, anyway!) but there was something a little sad about South Caicos and I think it was the amount of trash. Empty bottles lined the streetsides, plastic bags were caught up in the trees around the bay and the worst offenders by far were the plastic bottle caps –so, so many of them. And yet can the people be blamed where there’s not a single trash can to be found? Anywhere?! We walked an awfully long way to properly dispose of our one small bag and along the way, we noticed that private bins were pretty obviously coveted -covered with palettes and such- and it led us to believe that trash disposal must be expensive here. Had we known how dire the situation was, we would have kept our little bag onboard. This is where I have trouble paying a $300 cruising fee (note: while check-in was indeed $50, it is also $50 to check out!). We’re told that this money is collected to offset the impact of so many cruisers and to build better amenities. Hogwash. For my cruising fees, I’d like to see a trash bin at every dinghy dock, nay, recycling bins!! That the locals also have access to! Taps for cruisers to get water would be nice, too (dreamer!). However, it’s obvious that these little islands see none of what the government collects. It makes me angry, especially when it’s impacting the environment, but this is not a new thing. Around the world, recycling facilities have been scarce –and we certainly do look for them. Australia and New Zealand were great. The Galapagos had systems in place. But I think the most impressive was St. Barth where the people voted years ago to pay a little more in taxes to invest in a state-of-the-art recycling system that also creates energy to power the island’s desalinator! Brilliant! So far it’s only for cans and glass, but it’s certainly a forward-thinking effort we’ve seldom seen elsewhere.
Anyway, rant over. If nothing else, South Caicos was an amusing reminder that we were getting back into these out-of-the-way places where nothing should be taken for granted. If there’s a trash can, dump it. A spigot, fill it. Internet, post it. A bathroom… well, you get it. And this was only the first such stop of many to come.
We crossed the Caicos Bank all day in about 8ft of water. The last time we ran this stretch it was under idyllic conditions: sunshine, flat-calm water, starfish and dolphins (yes, in 8ft!); this time it was rainy and choppy. Oh well, at least we got to sail! We were spit out the other side a couple of hours before sunset and we looked around for a place to anchor but found nothing suitable which is pretty much what we were anticipating anyway. The only good option was to continue on to The Bahamas but we had to slow our roll considerably to arrive in daylight. We hate reining in our girl when she wants to gallop! But we stuck out our handkerchief and arrived with good sunshine to negotiate the reef into The Bahamas’ first port of call, Mayaguana. (If you have trouble remembering the name, just do what I do: think “M-M-M-My Iguana”. Ha haaa! Now you’ll have Sharona stuck in your head all day. You’re welcome!!).
12 March 2016… Out-Islands and Ghost Towns, Part 2: The Southern Bahamas
This is our third visit to The Bahamas and we’ve been looking forward to the opportunity to explore some new territory. We’ve barely scratched the surface of what this country has to offer –so much diving, snorkeling, kayaking… And so many remote islands to discover.
South Caicos itself was both amusing and sad (I know –weird). We went ashore in the late morning and were met with a ghost town. It was again one of those times where we wondered if there’d been an international event of some sort that we were unaware of as the streets were deserted, homes were quiet, businesses were closed… there weren’t even any stray dogs in the streets (although there were horses!). This was all very funny because we’d been told that South Caicos was actually quite boisterous! Well, compared to Salt Cay, anyway (which doesn’t say a whole lot for Salt Cay, does it?). Eventually we happened across a “market” (she says, generously) and we asked the nice lady where the town centre was. “You’re in it,” was the response. Okay!
With yet another cold front coming in, it was difficult to plan our next movements; again, there seemed to be no good windows or timing. And yet for all this bad weather we’ve been experiencing -as far back as Puerto Rico and Turks & Caicos- there’s hardly been a drop of rain! We were getting pretty desperate at this point and were praying for the clouds to open up and fill our tanks, but to no avail. On the up-side, Travis does all the dishes when we’re low on water so there IS that. Apparently somebody uses too many bubbles = too much rinsing water!
One more cloudless night before the cold front rolled in meant another great opportunity for stargazing and West Plana Cay was just the place to do it. How often do you get to spend time in a place so remote that it seems like Man has never even been there? This little slice of sand has to be THE most “out” of the out-islands and, naturally, we had it all to ourselves.
We checked into Mayaguana, reputedly one of the least-visited of the least-visited islands. The locals call it “Retirement Island” and warned us that we would get bored very quickly! We argued that we like quiet and that all we need is some clear water and friendly people to make us happy. Good thing, too. This little ghost town did have a restaurant/bar, but it was closed until the following week. If you needed groceries, you had to pretty much make an appointment because nothing was just “open”. Quiet. But we did get our friendly people and clear water. In 8ft, our anchor light at night would cast a glow on the sandy bottom around us; it was like floating on a cloud. Throw in a stunning Milky Way and it was heaven on earth.
(The bustling main drag of
Abraham Bay Settlement, Mayaguana)
The island was clearly not back on its feet but Kay’s was open. It’s a funky, colourful hangout for locals and visitors alike with seats under the big almond tree outside. Inside was a sand floor, a pool table and a warm welcome as we bellied up to the bar and ordered 2 rums (duh!). Kay’s doubles as the grocery store post-storm so there were people (there you are!) in and out and everyone was friendly and chatty. It made for a nice time and so we ordered a second round, but that was it –we’d officially drunk Rum Cay out of rum. Haaa! No big achievement but it makes for a good story befitting an island full of good stories. Regarding the origin of its name, there are a couple of versions of the tale but the most popular says that a ship wrecked here with a cargo of the good stuff during the rum-running days in the 1800s. Good enough for us. Anyway, there’s no way this pirate ship was going to bypass Rum Cay! It was a cool little stop but once we’d relieved them of all their rum, we sat on the boat for 2 days waiting for the weather to pass. After all, we have our own stash. PIRATES!! ARRRRGGGHH!!! The locals would have to settle for vodka and Miller Lite until the supply ship arrived –or another cargo ship crashed ashore!
It was still pretty sporty for the morning passage to Conception Island but the stiff wind made it quick and we arrived to another shallow anchorage with that beautiful pristine sand that Fang just loves. “Try and find me a sandy spot, wouldja?” I joked from the bow, poised to deploy the anchor. Dodging coral heads, entry into these shallow anchorages requires a sharp lookout but the holding inside makes for a great night’s sleep when the wind is cranking!
A little further north is Rum Cay, the weirdest of the weird in terms of ghost towns. We again considered the possibility of a zombie apocalypse as it felt like we were walking around inside an episode of The Walking Dead. Seriously. Most homes were tidy enough to indicate that there was someone living in them –at least recently. Laundry hung on the lines and cars were parked in the driveways… but there wasn’t a soul around. Stranger still was this car that was abandoned on the side of the road, overgrown by grass and bush. It wasn’t a derelict vehicle by any means; it looked rather like someone had just walked away from it and had never returned. Creepy. Then as we neared the seaside homes on the other end of town it all started to make sense when we saw a house that looked washed clean off its foundation. This had been one of the islands hardest hit by Hurricane Joaquin last fall, a Category 4 that had stalled over The Southern Bahamas, grinding away. It certainly explained the sunken boat we’d spotted in the “marina” earlier.
The following day, we decided to brave the sandbar entrance to the mangrove estuary. With the weather conditions, it was a helluva a paddle to make it past sand, rocks and swell and we were applauded by our neighbour who’d made the entry with his dinghy! Inside, we explored the mangrove flats and spotted turtles and sharks but our movements were hampered by the howling wind. We’d be willing to try Conception again on a better day -can’t blame the island for bad weather!- but one sure disappointment was the diving. This is supposed to be THE destination in The Bahamas for wall-diving however… where are the mooring balls? There was no place to leave the boat or dinghy. And with the distance from the anchorage to… anywhere!...snorkelling wasn’t even feasible. What a bust. The same goes for Rum Cay: the HMS Conquerer, a 101-gun British warship, sank here in 1861 in 30ft of water and they’ve declared it an Underwater Museum of The Bahamas but again, no buoy. Even getting the coordinates for it proved to be impossible -we looked for numbers and searched for the ship itself upon arrival but never found it. Shall I get into another tirade about where our $300 cruising fee goes?! I’ll spare you, but at this point we were beginning to feel frustrated. What with dodging cold fronts and then disappointment at destinations once we got there, we were really fighting the feeling that the trip was already over; that this last leg was exclusively about getting home and there were no adventures left to be had. Whiny, but true. When we looked back at the miles we’d made just between Puerto Rico and Turks & Caicos, they were equivalent to those between, say, the Virgin Islands and Martinique! But with far fewer adventures. I suppose this sadness was bound to crop up at some point.
Onward to Georgetown, Great Exuma, a.k.a. Chicken Harbour. Its nickname is well-earned: for those southbound, this is the last “easy” stop. From here, it’s overnight passages and a more challenging wind direction demanding more diligent route planning and “better” weather windows (I say “better” because the day we arrived was deemed pretty scary by the net controller!). So some people just lose their nerve and never leave! Others who winter in The Bahamas make Georgetown their home away from home and never venture away from it. Regardless, it makes for crowded anchorages, the complete opposite of what we’ve been encountering. At night, it looked like Christmas with all the hundreds of anchor lights on!
I can see how one might get stuck in Georgetown, though. It’s the same as Grenada: easy amenities and a long-term group of cruisers that can make a place feel like home with its weekly social engagements and activities. Card tournaments, volleyball games, yoga… you name it. But to transients like us, it seems cliquey. Maybe one day we’ll give it a chance but this time around, it was a stop for provisioning and water only. We finished our chores in very short order and were gone with a parade of other boats waiting on the weather. It’s been a long time since we’ve seen so many sails on the horizon at once!
Tonight we find ourselves anchored off Cave Cay. Appropriately, it’s supposed to have some neat caves to explore but we’re met with a sign on the beach stating, “Private Property”. Domain of the rich. (Sigh!). Things are looking up for next week, though. A forecast for lights winds and flat calm seas will make for great water-activity days and the beautiful Exumas are just the place to spend them!
Sporty, too, was getting ashore so we decided to use the kayak rather than risk stuffing the dinghy & outboard. We were a surfboard as we skated onto the trick sandbar that preceded the beach proper and we arrived soaked but we were prepared, camera tucked securely away inside Pelican box! As it turns out, that was to be all our excitement for the day. Conception Island is a National Park that gets great reviews from cruisers and daytrippers alike but frankly, we couldn’t see what all the fuss is about. There were supposed to be hiking trails to explore but it turned out to be just a shoreside walk not worthy of “hiking trail” status as far as we were concerned.
(Yeah, I know. Wah wah, right?)