Intentions and Hydraulic Fluid

Luke carried on for several weeks with the air conditioning compressor project – we had to remove the new compressors to install a new rack as well – apparently they don’t make the 4 ton any longer, so they sent us three 5 ton compressors which called for a different mounting rack and manifold.

Paul, Jacob and Tyler came into town for the holidays and we spent some time entertaining with Luke escaping to the engine room whenever he could and I at my desk catching up on programming work. We locked onto a weather window to cross the gulf stream and it was the usual scramble to prepare: running around town buying parts and provisioning for 6-8 weeks in the Bahamas.

At around 2AM on the 8th we cast off the lines and made our way down the New River. The stretch of river that once brought me to a borderline breakdown with it’s narrow, winding waterway, has become a pretty relaxing cruise, particularly in the quiet hours of late night or early morning, depending on your perspective.

We crossed to Bimini, arriving at 10AM and anchored just south of South Bimini, given the swell from the north. Luke took our passports in to clear customs while Jacob and I had a swim around the boat and made breakfast. We immediately headed north to round Bimini to the bank and make our way across the shallow waters, past the Berry Islands and around the west side of Nassau then along it’s south coast to cross the White Bank for the Exumas. Evening was upon on by the time we could see Norman’s Cay so we anchored just south and in the morning, traversed the cut to anchor near the plane wreck.

We geared up and took Jacob and Justin to free dive the downed drug plane, then over to the pristine beaches on Norman’s, which Jacob refers to as ‘fake beaches’ – due to their postcard-perfection.

We moved south to Shroud Cay and were delighted to find deep enough water to get within a few hundred yards of shore. Luke jumped on the radio to arrange for a mooring at Warderick Wells the following morning. The weather was a slightly cooler but still comfortable enough to take the tender to explore the tidal river that cuts through Shroud and Jacob and I enjoyed swimming with the current back to the sea.

The next morning we motored another hour south and began to negotiate our way into the narrow channel at Warderick Wells, littered with a few sailboats on their assigned moorings. I stood on the bow with the hook ready to fish the mooring line when Luke called down that the bow thruster was not responding. I raced to the lower helm to see if the controls there would illicit a response. Nothing.

Now at the stern, I watched the shallows behind us as Luke negotiated a tight turn with only the single prop and rudder, around a larger sailboat and back out to open waters. Upon investigating the forward bilge, a hydraulic line to the bow thruster had given out, dumping nearly 50 gallons of fluid into the bilge and rendering our hydraulic driven systems offline. No anchors, no crane to the pick the tender, no bow thruster, no windlass winches for docking. Fortunately the steering is on it’s own hydraulic system or we would have been hand tilling the hefty bird!

We radioed back to the Exumas National Park office and they suggested a first-come-first-served mooring back at Shroud. Upon approach we could see that these tie-ups are another 100 yards closer than we had anchored the night before. Those further out were already taken by very shallow-draft catamarans, but the charts indicated similar depths, so we carefully worked our way in and secured to a mooring within 50 yards of shore.

Luke spent that afternoon on the phone with his hydraulics contact back in Fort Lauderdale. He decided we needed to remove the hydraulic pump and seal the opening that would be left. The next morning Luke manufactured an aluminum plate and gasket and we used a come-a-long to hoist the heavy pump off the engine so we could get the engine running without ruining the expensive pump and avoid the $7,000-$10,000 towing back to Nassau.

It was late by the time we had everything ready and crossed the banks. The hour made it challenging to watch for coral heads – a required duty when crossing. Typically one makes this move in the mid-day, with the sun high, so these massive coral out-croppings are clearly visible, as dark black areas below the surface. With some luck and a keen eye, we made it into Nassau around 7pm with dead calm conditions, perfect for docking sans bow-thruster.

Two weeks in, the hydraulics are adequately repaired for now. A local outfit created new hoses, cleaned up the bilges and loaded new fluid. The weather was initially near perfect and then turned quite intense, with strong winds and in the meantime Luke cut the end of his thumb off testing a generator fan he was replacing.

Today we wait for UPS to deliver a final generator part and then.. south to Georgetown.

More than just pigs

Every time we researched ‘things to do in the Exumas’ the number one hit was pig beach. If you haven’t heard of it, it’s exactly what it sounds like: a beach on an island called Big Major that is occupied, dare I say infested with, pigs.

Rumors fly about the origin of said pigs, including something to do with shipwrecked pirates, but the most plausible is that they’re there to lure in tourists — and lure they do, as there is often in excess of 20-40 boats in the well protected bay and at least as many hungry pigs of all sizes.

We avoided the pigs for as long as possible, instead exploring the natural beauty of the Exumas over transplanted farm animals that some claim are ‘incredibly clean’ but I can tell you first-hand, from raising one as a kid for FFA, pigs are not clean animals. In any case, my sister was visiting and wanted to see the pigs, so we obliged.

She, her husband Cliff and my niece Evaline came for about a week and they picked the absolute best possible stretch of days. The intermittent winds we had experienced since December completely gave way to just a few knots here and there – I think the wind meter peak memory may have logged a whopping 10.

Our first stop was a night at the Exumas Land and Sea National Park just off Shroud Cay where we spent the next day cruising in the tender through the northern cross-island, tidal river, from the banks to the sound.

We followed up the peaceful float with an exhilarating free-dive through a narrow channel at maximum ebb tide – something my friend Lucas thought up while visiting a couple weeks before. Luke dropped us off on the up-stream, banks side of the channel and followed us as we drifted with the fast-moving tidal flow. Looking down at the terrain flying past and diving 15-20 feet with the tidal push, I think we got a taste of what it’s like to be a dolphin!

The timing works out perfectly if you do the river float at high slack tide and then cruise to the channel north of Shroud and float from the banks to the sound side when the flow is moving at top speed.

That afternoon we headed south and slightly back west onto the banks and found one of those dark spots between Nassau and the Exumas and dropped anchor off a pretty large reef about half the size of a football field.

While we snorkeled around, showing my niece how to free dive and observing sea turtles, skates and abundant fish, Luke busied himself by catching a massive yellow-tail Jack. The fish, combined with the lobster we snagged the previous week on the last day of the season, made for a meal fresh from the sea.

I prepared the jack the same way I had a couple days earlier using some snapper: baked with salt, pepper and paprika and then topped with a lemon-herb butter, but the fish was quite dense and hearty, more akin to swordfish or the like and may have been better off thinly sliced and done up another way. A couple days later I treated the family to the last of the snapper for comparison and we all agreed the flakey, delicate, white fish was better with that preparation.

As we prepared to pull up the port anchor an odd noise came from the winch. You become accustomed to the various ship noises how things should sound. A strange drip or motor draws immediate attention. This clunking, grinding sound was bad news. Luke and I spent the next hour-and-a-half using a hand-cranked come-a-long winch to pull the 400 pound anchor and 75 feet of heavy chain up. Luke would pull winch the tackle up a few feet and I would turn the massive chain reel, lock it down, then we’d move the hook a few feet down and start again. Thankfully Wanderbird has two of most every system otherwise we’d have been headed right back to port.

We carried on down to Bitter Guana where we gave the family a taste of island life on Staniel Cay with some lunch and light provisioning at the Pink Pearl. We realized that the tide was right that afternoon for Thunderball Grotto and everyone agreed that snorkeling through the cave, with the beam of light streaming through the opening above, was quite a treat. The cave was filled with fish and the coral outside the east entrance was still abundant, though clearly suffering a bit from careless boaters and snorkelers.

Sunset on Bitter Guana with a short hike amongst the Iguanas rounded out our day and we were free the next morning to head north, back into the Exumas Land and Sea Park, this time picking up a mooring ball at Warderick Wells.

Arriving at Warderick we radioed to the park headquarters and were assigned a mooring ball directly in front of the office. This meant we needed to navigate the narrow, populated channel to ball 17. Tide was in our favor at slack high tide, but it was tough to tell which route we should maneuver around the other boats. We asked for advice from the ranger but she was unable to provide any advice as the shifting tides dictate the best route.

We worked our way in, past the first stretch along the right side and as we shifted to the left for the second line of boats, I found Molly laying on the floor of the upper deck – her way of dealing with the stressful situation.

We made our way around the shallow shoal in the middle of the bay and spun 360 to line up with the mooring ball. A couple of attempts with the hook – a bit of a challenge from the high bow of Wanderbird and we were tied up in a beautiful spot, close to a brilliant snorkeling area.

While checking in we were happy to discover that Saturday evenings the park hosts a pot-luck and we really enjoyed meeting folks from all over and learning about their travels around the globe.

We spent a couple days exploring Warderick Wells and left our mark on the famed Boo-Boo Hill. On the far side of the island, I was lucky to experience a low tide that allowed me to swim into the caves that drive the blow holes. A tiny, private, sandy beach accessible only by jumping off a cliff into the sea and lit only by a skylight in the sandstone, formed by thousands of years of pounding waves.

Our last night there I made a batch of spaghetti using some ground, grass-fed beef. The scent of the blood from the beef attracted some attention below the surface and we discovered a black-tipped reef shark and a large school of jack swimming around the back deck.

We made our way back, stopping for a night at Allen Cay where we watched the Yankee Clipper sail off in a spectacular sunset. With much sadness my sister and her family departed the next afternoon and Luke and I headed immediately back to Fort Lauderdale via brief stops at the Berry Islands and Bimini for rest and to allow a massive storm to pass.

We waited for the north wind to shift around to the east before we attempted to cross the Gulf Stream and while it was likely far better one day later, it was still a wild ride with a healthy northern swell.

Back up the river, the Fort Lauderdale New River docks welcomed us back into our same slip near Avenue of the Arts and the next morning we couldn’t wait to get back to our favorite OB Breakfast House where the staff greeted us like old friends.

Spirit of Adventure

Perhaps it was a different tidal shift or more favorable weather – or it could have been the company, but the beach we found off Norman’s Cay was as picturesque as the finest postcard on the revolving rack at the best gift shop in Nassau. If it wasn’t for Paul’s penchant for routine, tracing the same pattern step-for-step, I may not have realized we had visited this beach before, only last time it was littered with garbage washed by the prevailing Eastern wind off Exuma sound and an excessively low tide had rendered the sand with an unpleasant odor.

The ocean has a way of constantly changing, both itself on the surface and the shores it touches. Paul’s two top company employees had joined us with their wives and we spent several days back on the northern Exumas, first anchoring between Allen Cay and Highbourne. We picked that spot because the winds were predicted to shift from the south and it provided better protection. That evening everyone decided they wanted to try Xuma, the restaurant on Highbourne, though as we made the crossing I worried they regretted the decision.

The only reservation available was 8:30 which meant a pitch-dark ride with a cross wind and a potentially treacherous run, part-way through the cut to reach the marina, or at the very least, a very wet ride. Donna was quick to realize that her seat, on the front, left of the rigid-inflatable tender, was the wettest and Lisa did her best to stay low in the bow of the boat. While we had the Garmin GPS to find our way, we found that the iPad with Navionics was better suited to work our way between the rocks and shoals that provided protection at the popular anchorage and before long we were winding our way between mega-yachts to the docks.

Dinner at Xuma’s was quality as expected but we were disappointed our friends couldn’t get the full experience of the view in the dark. The tender ride back was equally wet but everyone enjoyed the sense of adventure you get from successfully charting across a dark expanse, until we could find the lone, incandescent anchor light in a web of LEDs, then clamor off the dinghy back into the security of the Wanderbird at anchor.

The next morning the winds had indeed shifted and we made our way along the sound where we tried our hand at anchoring south of Norman’s, between it, Wax Cay and Boot Cay. We weren’t sure just how the Bird would shift in what we expected to be fairly strong tidal currents given the deep and narrow channel so we anchored slightly out from the crowd.

Luke and I dropped our friends at the beach and headed back down to Highbourne with the tender to fuel up. Along the way, as we cruised at top speed, two globs of dark, black ink shot up from the shallow water, nearly hitting us in the face! We circled around to see if we could tell what sea creature had fired a shot across our bow, but found nothing and speculated it was an octopus startled by our passing.

At the marina our tender continued to give us grievance and the fuel line broke. The helpful dock attendant gave us a rag to allow us to run the fuel line directly into the can, which worked surprisingly well and we made a quick stop at the boat for repairs before picking everyone up.

The sea floor in the area looked less than ideal with some rocks so the next morning I donned the free-diving kit and jumped in to have a look around. The current was indeed significant and it was a struggle to swim forward where the chain was along some rocks but the anchor appeared well seated. As I drifted swiftly past the boat, admiring the fish and terrain below, I saw two enormous antenna leering from a small cave. Our friend Dustin had instructed us to watch for this tell-tale sign of a lobster and this one looked to be large enough to collect free-diving, albeit about 25 feet or more below the boat in a strong current.

The next 30 minutes are a saga best illustrated by photo and followed up with generous application of butter and garlic. Lisa and Donna took care of preparing an excellent lobster appetizer while I worked on dinner and I think we all enjoyed being provided for, at least the first course, by the surrounding sea.

The next day we explored the aforementioned pristine beach and snorkeled the nearby drug-runner plane wreck which was quite a treat – alive with a plethora of aquatic inhabitants. A popular but highly recommended stop if ever in the area.

As evening approached we put forth the idea of trying the nearby MacDuff’s restaurant. The guidebook suggested either a walk around the airport to the west-facing beach or a short ride around the point where we could beach the tender. We opted for the latter and encountered small waves hiding a consistent smattering of rocks.

Once we had everyone wet, but onto shore, we were presented with the task of securing the tender for a couple of hours for dinner. Beaching it was out of the question and anchoring past the waves and swimming in would prove for a wet and uncomfortable dinner in the cool evening air.

Luke and I headed back around the point where a marina was under construction and we found a quiet corner to stash the boat and walk along the runway back to the restaurant.

After a pleasant meal we all proceeded back in the dark along the air-strip, myself now bare-foot having donated my flip-flops to Paul whose shoes had been left behind. Unsure about the sea conditions rounding the point, we tried to find a route to the beach on the leeward side and while searching, we stumbled upon a Doosan trackhoe which delighted Pat and Todd who insisted on getting a photo for their heavy equipment dealer, even while in the dark, wind-swept shores of Norman’s Cay.

As he posed for the photo, the ground gave way under Pat and he fell some eight-feed into a hole, thankfully filled with soft dirt. Once Pat had been pulled from the ditch we found our way back to the tender, loaded everyone up and skirted the shore, barely dodging the break along the rocks.

We wrapped up the trip by motoring back to Nassau where everyone wanted to make generous donations to the Atlantis casino, ride the not-so-lazy river and engage in the comforts of the massive Nassau resort.

Family and Invasive Species

My parents arrived in Nassau with a few days overlap before Paul returned to the bitter cold spell passing through Washington State. Dad was particularly excited about visiting, having already wished people ‘happy holidays from the Bahamas’ a month earlier, while still in Southern Oregon.

Once provisioned we departed East from Nassau just as the winds let up for the first time in a few days for a nice, calm run across the bank towards the Exumas. We pushed a little further south than our last excursion, directly to a spot off Pipe Cay. We spent a couple days exploring the area – the waters between Pipe and the other nearby Cays is shallow and was a good spot for Mom’s first attempt at snorkeling, though there isn’t a great deal to see in that particular spot.

After pouring over the maps we found what looked like a better protected anchorage further south off Bitter Guana Cay, but we’d be relying heavily on the navigation charts to work our way past an outer shallow shoal to the slightly deeper spot closer to the island. We approached the cut from the north then turned south towards the visible cliffs on Bitter Guana, hugging the shore within about 100 feet, which is a little nerve-wracking in a large boat in 25 knot winds, though they were fortunately easterly, pushing us off-shore, albeit towards the shoal.

All went as planned and we scooted in with just a couple feet below the keel to drop anchor in what turned out to be one of the most lovely spots we’ve stayed yet.

The next few days I felt like we might have been in the Galapagos. The island is home to rare Iguanas that surrounded our afternoon beach encampment and the snorkeling along the rocks brought the folks closer to fish, coral and other sea-life. I crossed the island to the east side and marveled at the heavier seas crashing on the harsh limestone shores.

It was here that we first encountered the invasive Lion-fish, several of which were hovering around the coral heads near shore. Having recently purchased some Hawaiian slings, a legal type of spear-fishing pole, Luke cleared one fish which was hanging out near a very full fish trap that we left untouched. Had we done the research earlier, we would have taken it back for Lion-fish tacos (more on that later).

After enjoying Bitter Guana and the food and grocery stores at nearby Staniel, we moved further south to the bay at Black Point off Great Guana Cay. We indulged in some Pizza at Dushaun’s and the next morning went looking for the bread maker we’d read about. On the way in I helped retrieve a local man’s bicycle which had rolled off the pier into the sea as children gathered around a man cutting slices of coconut for a Saturday morning treat.

At Lorraine’s Cafe we asked a local woman about the bread and she pointed to the small, white house behind Lorraine’s and instructed us to knock. A voice beckoned us into the small, homey kitchen of an elderly Bahamian woman pulling fresh bread from the oven. Several loaves were lined up on the counter, of which we purchased two at $7 each, one supposedly coconut and one cinnamon, though in the incredible French toast they produced the next few days we tasted both coconut and cinnamon in both loaves.

We anchored next between Little Farmer’s Cay and Little Galliot Cay and set about hunting for Lion Fish, with the intention of indulging in fish tacos while basking in the good deed of clearing reefs of this invasive fish. Apparently a single fish can reduce the reef population by 70% or more, as it has no natural predators in these waters.

Luke was successful our first evening and came up with a large, red striped specimen which he set about carefully cleaning, avoiding the toxic spines that protect the fish from nearly every conceivable angle. After removing one very nice looking, white fillet, the fish slipped off the back deck, so our dream of fish tacos was relegated to a tasting.

I marinated the fish in lime, cumin, garlic powder, salt and a dash of chili powder for 15 minutes, then pan fried the fish for 2-3 minutes per side until opaque. It was excellent and we were hungry for more!

The next day we tried again, first in the same location then scouring the local area but came up empty handed. Disappointing since our first encounter up north we had seen at least 4 among their rocks and reefs, but equally comforting that the area is not entirely overrun.

At one point I noticed a tender hovering near the back deck and emerged to meet a couple from the sailboat Foxy Lady. The husband in this duo had apparently been a captain-representative of George Baker, the original builder of Wanderbird. What a surprise it must have been for them to see her profile across these azure waters, thousands of miles from their last sighting: a boat show in Rhode Island many months earlier. And to see her now fulfilling her mission of exploring distant shores after having been intricately involved in her build so many years ago. We chatted a bit and they headed off to tag sea turtles for the University of Florida on a nearby island. What a wonderful way to spend the day!

We’re now two weeks into my parent’s 3-week visit. The tidal current shuffled us around and last night we moved a hundred feet to deeper water before the very likely event that we’d end up sitting keel-in-the-sand. We’re now contemplating Georgetown or Long Island before making our way back to Nassau next week.

I’d sure like some lion-fish tacos.

Fortuitous Friends

It had been a rough week, the kind that seemed like a nightmare and as I’m scrubbing diesel off my hands and talking the police, no amount of pinching seems to do the trick.

We’d also run aground, this time in a more significant way. After fueling at the city dock (we highly recommend the fine people at Anchor Petroleum), I had cast off the lines, called ‘all clear’ and realized we had a significant list to the port side. Glancing down at the waterline, the growth on the hull was already visible and just then Luke looked down and confirmed my suspicion, the ebbing tide had left us stranded.

Fortunately the city didn’t have anyone else scheduled to fuel that afternoon – if they had it wouldn’t have mattered. No amount of coaxing was going to get Wanderbird into deeper water and back up the river to our slip.We left her there, ran some errands and returned up river to our temporary home by the 4th Ave bridge in the cover of dark.

Photo of cupboards emptied for provisioning
Photo of Damon and Gina in the tender

Paul arrived the next day and we started the painful process of provisioning for a month-long-or-more trip. In addition Luke was caching parts for various repairs he hoped to make along the way. Software and computer updates for the navigation, bilge pumps the surveyor checked off as working but were in various states of repair and countless other tasks.

Late at night, on the eve of departure we finally made it to Whole Foods for provisioning. I’ve since decided that in the future, we need to save an entire day for that project. After loading three carts beyond capacity, and learning that they have ‘yacht boxes’ at the grocery store, we got back to the boat and I proceeded to empty every cupboard and food store in order to organize and re-stock in my own way.

A last minute schedule change put our guests, Damon and Gina, joining us in Fort Lauderdale rather than meeting us in Nassau, giving us a leisurely voyage to the Bahamas rather than a frantic run, which was ideal since Luke was now on antibiotics to fight off an earache and nasal infection.

We cast off at slack tide around noon, made our way out to the Atlantic looking at a forecast of calm seas and Westerly winds. This was one of those times when the forecast was way off. With winds from the Northeast clashing with the Gulf Stream we slogged our way towards the Bahamas at a mere 6 knots. This put us onto the bank in the dark and we chose a spot just south of our previous anchorage, off South Bimini, protected from the East and North.

In the morning I woke before the others, as usual, and headed up to wipe down the boat and consider breakfast. As I worked my way back from the bow a small sailing vessel was passing about 50 yards towards shore, standing on the bow were two figures whose wave was unmistakable: arm fully extended, moving from both the shoulder and elbow, a welcome the likes I have seen only once before from a passing vessel.

My reply was half-hearted, mostly from shock. A moment later the radio crackled to life with the words ‘Velocir, Wanderbird, come in’.

It couldn’t be! What are the odds? Over a month had passed since meeting this lovely family of farmers from Ohio in the Northern Exumas over 100 miles away and now here they were, arriving in the same spot, a day apart in a chain of fortuitous chances that brought us together.

We made plans to congregate and do some fishing. Dustin was a farmer, with no prior fishing experience, but had taught himself and his girls to fish, in order to feed his family.

Late morning the next day we picked Dustin up and headed out, first to some grassy seabeds to find conch for bait, then to a rocky, coral area where we found a large school of Bahama Chub cruising around. After a some attempts at spear fishing we positioned ourselves over the school and resorted to the slightly more laborious method of cutting chunks of conch and hand-line fishing, or as the fish seemed to interpret it:free lunch.

After some trial and error we found that smaller pieces of bait, positioned well on the hook would snag us our dinner and ended up with 7 fish, one lobster and a about 12 welp, a type of sea snail.

Photo of Dustin cleaning fish on the swim-step
Plied with sufficient quantities of Krakin Rum, Dustin is an efficient, self-taught fish processing machine

Converting freshly caught fish into read-to-cook fillets requires some skill and Dustin, having taught himself over the last couple months, set at the task while I willingly provided a glass of his favorite rum, Krakin. The scent of fish drew the sharks we had seen earlier to the back of the boat. Being circled in this way certainly added a level of excitement to the dinner preparations and I was glad he waited to clean the fish until after Luke and I had done a quick cleaning of the bulbous bow and waterline as a couple of reef sharks had joined the docile nurse sharks for the chumming. A local in the harbor told us these were Bull Sharks, but I’m pretty convinced they were the former.

Back at the Wanderbird we joined Erin, Sierra, Morgan and Gina to cook up a feast. Dustin went to the messy task of cleaning the bounty with the skill of someone who had lived off the sea for months while Erin showed me a simple and delicious recipe for the fish, using ghee, salt, pepper and Bahamanian Ginger White wine. While I wasn’t up for eating the Welp, I have to say I did try the broth and it was phenomenal.

Photo of sharks circling the Wanderbird
Photo of sharks circling

We talked into the night of family, the fortune of experiences, of increasingly connecting with other beings emotionally, physically and mentally, and when it came time to say good night they left us with a gift a local artisan had carved: a wooden dolphin with the date and location where we’d met written on it’s stomach.

Our first gift – from strangers with a willingness to wave and experience something unique, something blessed. Different families leading different lives, coming together and connecting.

Fortuitous friends. What are the odds?

Gale winds and new friends

I wonder why it is that I feel awkward and embarrassed when I wave at someone passing and get no response – chances are they simply didn’t see. When passing another vessel it’s often a courtesy to acknowledge the other with a friendly wave. We try to adhere to this gesture and sometimes the report is, let’s say, casual or non-existent.

As we cruised past one sailboat at a lone anchorage back at Norman Cay we were taken by the exuberance of the wave from those on board, not merely a raising of the arm, but a full extension, with articulation at the elbow – surely an invitation to say hello.

After a few minutes chatting; four on board, farmers from Ohio, out for three months; we left them with an open invitation to stop by – they had noticed the Wanderbird while out fishing, and being sailors, commented that if they did ever go “motor”, ours was the type of boat they’d go for.

The topic turned to weather, as is often the case for ocean travelers, and the impending weather system on the approach.

Two days later, south at Norman Cay, a tender approaches from the stern and we’re happy to see our Ohio friends and we happily entertain a tour. They talk about living off the sea and comment about ‘missing some red meat in the diet’ and we arrange a pot-luck; we provide the burgers and they bring the freshly caught conch ceviche.

The next afternoon they come calling with their two, teenage daughters and we’re quite pleased to offer what we can to a family traveling so far, for so long. The girls are quite excited about the showers and everyone seems to delight in the extra bacon I prepared that morning on their burgers from Bush Brothers Provisioners in Palm Beach. We can’t get enough of that conch salad and are excited when they leave the left-overs after several hours of conversation while the wind builds to gale outside.

When it’s time to bid farewell we have offer a very wet and windy shuttle for several of our guests back and Dustin (the dad) manages to coerce their under powered tender to their cozy, well selected anchorage much closer to the beach.

Wanderbird proves fabulously stable and comfortable in this weather but there’s something to be said for simplicity and shallow draft, as I watch the Velocir anchored calmly in her protected nook.

Our time at Norman’s Cay was spent in equal parts exploring neighboring islands, including Highborne Cay, the areas super-yacht marina of choice. The restaurant here is quite good and expectedly high-priced. Don’t expect to explore the island except via the marina and restaurant; our Ohio friends were told the island is private when the came ashore to a beach using their dinghy.

Photo of the beach in front of Exuma Restaurant, Highborne Cay
Beachfront at Exuma restaurant on Highborne Cay

At anchor at Norman’s Cay to weather the heavy winds

Once the winds died we started our journey back to Fort Lauderdale by running North and West, first heading through the cut at Highborne and across the bank, to the West Bay on Nassau, just off Clifton Heritage Park. I desperately wanted to dive the submerge statues here, but the weather and timing were not conducive and it was stressful just winding our way through very shallow, rocky waters to the anchorage.

Once there we called on the radio for advice on getting ashore and a friendly motor-cat nearby gave us general directions to the dinghy dock. We motored across the dark back on a hunt for a few provisions to last us until Florida. On the south end we found a small channel with a well-lit dock that lead to a dirty lot, that seemed to be at the fenced-in end of a cul-de-sac. We flagged down a passing security vehicle who provided us further instructions away from the private dock to the crumbling public one across the channel. He was kind enough to call a taxi, which was fortunate, as the public dock, on ‘Jaws beach’ was 30 minutes from town, down a dark highway.

Once Miss Dawkins, our taxi driver found us, we provisioned at the local equivalent of Whole Foods, Solomon’s Fresh Market and after Miss Desiree gouged us for $100 taxi, we were loaded the tender and crossed back to the Bird for a late night dinner.

The following morning we pulled the anchor and began a rough slog north to the Berry Islands. It was a good test of how well we had secured the boat as we listed quite heavily between the swell and 20 knot winds. By mid-day we had slipped back into our little anchorage between Little Harbor and Frozen Cays, launched the tender and set out to explore the Blue Hole on Hoffman’s Cay, about a 30-minute tender ride north.

Beaching the tender on Hoffman’s Cay to explore the Blue Hole

Photo of the Blue Hole on Hoffman's Cay
Blue Holes are formed by limestone, volcanic sink holes and are found throughout the Bahamas

Had it been a nicer day, the Blue Hole would have been a dream for me, with it’s high, rocky, volcanic ledges and deep, blue waters, but the strong wind and cooler temperatures from the weather system hammering the Northeast kept me from jumping into the deep. Instead we explored the shoreline and it’s scatter conch shells and numerous echinoderms.

After a night at the Berry’s we had a rough hour cruising to the protection of the North winds by Chubb Cay before we crossed into relatively calm waters of the Great Banks. We weren’t sure about crossing the banks in such winds but it proved reasonable and a good opportunity to deploy the passive stabilization system, comprised of a set of poles and ‘birds’ – metal plates on tethered lines that restrict the listing of the boat in heavier seas on the beam. We also tested the mainsail as a means of propulsion having only used it previously to orient the boat in a windy anchorage.

Photo of stabilization
The passive stabilization system comprised of support poles and birds

Image of the mainsail
The mainsail can be used to orient the boat in a windy anchorage or to aid the engines in propulsion

Into the night we rounded Bimini and looked at Nixon Bay south of South Bimini but the winds had shifted East so we considered the West coast before we decided the swell might be a little much, despite a mid-sized catamaran anchored in the area. We decided to have a go at the crossing, having reviewed the latest weather.

About an hour into the venture things were getting a little wild. I had things pretty well secured from our earlier battle with the winds off the Berry Islands, but the swell from the Gulf Stream was just too much. We turned back sometime before 2AM and joined the catamaran for a somewhat rocky but comfortable few hours at anchor off Bimini.

Photo of stove top
Cooking bechamel on the French Ring

Photo of the bulbous bow
The bow thruster in the bulbous bow

In the morning after employing the French ring for Croque Madame, I free dove along the boat with the most fish I’ve seen yet in the Bahamas and two nurse sharks at least as long as I am tall.

The Northern Exumas

On the 29th we squeezed off the dock at Harbour Club Marina. Whomever designed those slips should have added another foot at least – every boat coming and going was struggling with the narrow dimensions and our poor fenders took a beating again on the way out.

Photo at anchor
Photo of the boat at Allen Cay, Exumas

The channel east out of Nassau proved marginal and it took some time to wind around uncharted shoals and into deeper water, across the Yellow Banks. It was optimum timing however, with the sun nearly overhead, illuminating the turquoise seas and revealing dark black coral heads which requiring constant monitoring and avoidance.

Early afternoon we could see Allen Cay and after some jockeying, we chose to avoid the crowded southern entrance and make our way through the narrow northern opening. Surrounded by shoals we were fortunate to find a deep enough pocket for the bird and we set anchor and monitored the tidal flow to be sure we wouldn’t be pushed into too-shallow waters.

Photo of Wanderbird and full moon

Having settled in we were able to test the tender again. Luke was able to surmise that our issues were related to vapor lock from poor airflow on the fuel tanks and by the second day, after several rescue swims with a rope, we were gaining confidence in the T/T Wanderbird (Tender To Wanderbird), though I like ‘Little Bird’ as a name for our dinghy.

Paul was missing his ‘steps’ so we ventured to some islands and put him ashore to walk, the first time in the evening as the no-see-ums swarmed and bit.

Our next landing was on Allen Cay where endangered Exuma Igaunas were scattered along the shore like some indigenous tribe. Also reminiscent of the island landing scene in Jurassic Park, where tiny dinosaurs eat the red-shirt ensign. Our greeting party was vegetarian, and while we brought an offering of grapes as suggested by the guidebook, the official signage on the beach warned not to feed the natives.

On the 31st as we pulled up anchor a tender approached from the aft with four people. They had apparently been on the boat with the previous owner, Andy and expressed their admiration for the Bird.

We pulled the hook and proceeded briefly out the very narrow entrace around shallow rocks and around another large rock then East towards the Exuma bank. At one point we grazed the sea floor and had a moment of stress as we evaluated the accuracy of the depth sounder. Shortly after we paused so I could dive below and check the rudder, prop and hull. All was well and we turned south a few hours to Norman’s Cay.

Photo at Anchor off Normans Cay

We crossed south of Norman’s to the west side of the Exumas to check out the entrance at Battery Point to possibly anchor between Norman and Boot Cays. Things were looking iffy so we backed out and settled on a bay just outside the entrance to Norman’s Pond, our New Year’s Eve home.

We realized we had traveled to an area with spotty cellular reception and Paul, still having no ticket home, needed to connect long enough to secure passage. Now feeling quite confident in the Little Bird, we headed north on the outside of the Exumas to Highborne for some Internet and lunch at the Marina. Although expensive, as is everything out here, the Citrus Wahoo salad was exceptional.

We made our way back along the west side of the islands and could see just how shallow it is on that side, at one point nearly grounding out the tender and at times experiencing the white water effect created by tidal shift in the narrow passages between the islands.

It is now Tuesday the second of January and the winds have been practically nill for several days, however the National Weather Service says something is brewing. We expect some East winds kicking up tonight and tomorrow things shift South then Sw and finally NorthWest up to 30 knots on Wednesday night. We’re in a good place for a NW blow but we’ll have to decide if we should ride out the earlier winds from the opposite direction.

Photo of Shell
Photo of the bird at anchor

This is when I thank George Baker and West Isle Marine’s foresight in equipping the Wanderbird with substantial ground tackle – twin 400 pound anchors and 75 feet of very hefty chain.

The Bird will hold.

Bahama Bound

On Friday, Dec 22 we threw off the lines and headed down the New River towards the Atlantic. We would have preferred to leave one hour after high tide, which is optimal slack tide, according to our resident expert Jonathan aboard the nearby Mobjack. We were fortunate to meet this long-time Florida captain who gave us some insight into navigating the river and crossing to the Bahamas.

The joke is that the Wanderbird truly wanders – the boat leads with it’s massive bulbous bow and the stern sometimes drifts along behind. This is an issue when navigating down a narrow river with tidal currents and numerous large and anxious vessels under tow, bearing down from behind as well as two bridges that must be negotiated to accommodate our 47 foot mast.

Luke was a champion of the day however and by sunset we were witness to a spectacular view of a solar, back-lit Miami.

Photo of Sunset behind Miami Skyline
Photo of Sunset behind Miami Skyline

Into the night with placid seas allowed for a comfortable dinner and by midnight we were past Bimini and onto the Banks, the shallow water between various Bahama island chains and our anchoring ground for the night.

Choosing a spot rather at random, we struggled into the wee hours with the ground tackle, having only seen the equipment demonstrated briefly. At one point the 400 pound anchor hung roughly 10 feet off the bow and we weren’t sure just how to engage the winch to bring it back!

Persistance, along with Luke’s mechanical nature prevailed and soon we had the system mastered – raising the starboard anchor back into it’s pocket and choosing the Port due to the direction of the prevailing winds.

It was a restful but brief night with that hefty anchor and 75 feet of monstrous chain to keep us grounded. After a mere 2 hours sleep we were up at 5AM, pulling the anchor and continuing on towards Chubb Cay, where we needed to clear into the Bahamas before 5PM

Chubb appeared in the distance and we slipped between rocks and wrecks along the Northwest Passage and into the harbor. About an hour to clear in, along with $407 (roughly $300 to clear and $107 landing fee) and we were back out, making our way north to a spot Jonathan suggested between Little Harbor Cay and Frozen Cay, in the Berry Islands.

By the time the lumbering Bird got us there, it was dark and we were specifically instructed NOT to hit the exposed rock awash in the entrance, which certainly would have been easier in the daylight. With me on the bow and Luke operating from the fly-bridge we crept slowly through the deep but narrow channel, listening carefully for the sound of the break on the rocks just off our port side.

At dawn we peered into the crystal clear waters at the turquoise glow from white side and sea grass to see our rather circuitous placement of the anchor and chain. A bit of a weave, but sufficient given the calm conditions. Next time we’ll put more effort into arriving in the light and perhaps practice our night deployment of the ground tackle when possible.

Anchored just south of Little Harbor Cay, Berry Islands, DEC 24, 2017
Photo of Wanderbird at Anchor
Wanderbird facing the Atlantic towards Nassau from the Berry Islands

With a light wind from the North Luke was anxious to test the mainsail, which can be used to keep the boat oriented into the wind to prevent a side-roll. We were quite pleased with the result and slept soundly.

That morning, being Christmas Eve, we had a hearty breakfast and launched the tender for the first time. It’s a different endeavor than we are used to, the crane serving both the mainsail and davit. It launched well enough but the poor rigid inflatable has seen better days and it was a rough start.

As I’m cleaning up from breakfast Nathan summons me to the stern saying I need to swim a rope to Luke, who I find paddling furiously against the tide fifty feet off the back. I find a suitable rope, secure the end to the main boat and dive in to retrieve our tender.. and my husband.

After a couple hours of failed test runs, the tender seemed to be gaining reliability when the skies darkened and a bit of clouds and light rain and wind rolled in. We decided it’s was against our better judgement to test fate and delayed exploring the Blue Hole on Hoffman’s Cay to our next visit.

On Christmas morning we pulled the anchor, stowed the tender and headed towards the Bahamas for a few days of maintenance, where I write this now, as Luke flushes the sea-chest in the hopes that it will improve the performance of various reliant systems.