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.

Provisioning and Repairs

Wanderbird was launched in 2004 and was built to travel the world. For some time she sat dormant, mired in various legal issues and controversy. Ships, especially those with the customization like she has, don’t like to sit idle.

The previous captain had kept her well, though their missions was more sedate than ideal. When we moved her south it was a test of her resolve in some way. The boat began to show signs of her age, first with an autopilot failure, a string of other minor issues and then a burst ice maker hose that drained 1,700 gallons of water into the river.

Thankfully, her new Captain is a natural engineer, perhaps to his chagrin. As we provision and prepare to head to the Bahamas on Friday he’s replaced the galley faucet with an updated, more suitable Koehler unit, re-engineered the ice maker cabinet for better air flow, remounted the other ice maker and many other small projects.

The propane tanks required refilling, having not been touched in five years, but we expect to use more volume than the previous owners who only employed the French ring on the Wolf range once, to warm some plates. Having tested the grill with friends on Sunday and confirmed that our documentation is sufficiently in order, we’ll be off on Friday for our first time in the Bahamas.

Rhode Island to Fort Lauderdale:: the Delivery

Barrington, Rhode Island to Fort Lauderdale :: the Delivery

We set out from Barrington on Friday, December 1st as a cold front made it’s way to the region. We’d had a couple days of beautiful, sunny weather but knew it couldn’t last. New England in fall is rarely this forgiving.

Just before dawn we headed down the river and into Long Island Sound, cruising through the night in the wide open waters. At dawn we could see the New York City skyline peering through the fog to the south as we turned West long enough to fuel up in Norwalk, Connecticut.

By mid-day we were cruising past the city and saw over an hours delay just before the Manhattan bridge while the president’s helicopter was standing by along the river. Eventually it and two Osprey VTOL aircraft departed and we were able to see Lady Liberty at sunset.

Another over-nighter and full day brought us to Norfolk, Virginia – a military town where it seemed half the Navy fleet was docked. The Lincoln, Truman and George Washington were three of the carriers I recall passing on our way up the river. We found space at a transient dock and departed the next morning up the IntraCoastal Waterway (ICW).

Through a lock that lowered us barely a few feet into the channel, we continued to Coinjock Marina where we chatted with the lovely owners of the Nordhavn Emmanou. We’ve been following their progress to Florida on the Marine Traffic app ever since.

Another day cruising the ICW put us on the Neuse River where we found a calm anchorage spot for the evening and the next morning, after a quick flight on the DJI Mavic Drone, progressed through another channel to Beaufort, North Carolina. We spent the day provisioning and running errands and departed early back to the Atlantic for a run down to Charleston, SC.

Mike, the previous captain of Wanderbird has been along for the ride and show us the boat and needed to fly back for a wedding, so we docked at Patriot’s Point and explored Charlotte for a couple days despite what everyone says was unusually cold weather. Being on the end tie has it’s disadvantages when the wind kicks up, but was nice when the holiday boat parade went by and we were able to watch with the Aqua Hot furnace running!
Image of Wanderbird at anchor
As I write this, Wednesday, Dec 13, having waited an extra day for the winds to calm; we’re now on a 50 – 60 hour run to Fort Lauderdale, where we are lucky to have finally found a transient slip on the New River.