February found Duet's crew basking at anchor at Norman's Cay, in the northern section of the Exumas. Paradise at last, but eventually the real world intruded, in the form of needing to get real mail from home, so from Norman's we journeyed south to Staniel Cay. Staniel has a weekly flight from Ft. Lauderdale and the mail arrived just fine. Staniel turned out to be a very nice town, our first experience with just how friendly Bahamians can really be. The Isles General Store held our mail for us, the Staniel Cay Yacht Club let us tie up the dinghy at their dock for as long as we wanted and everyone in town made us feel very welcome. We even attended the annual fund raiser for the library, where we had some truly great cheeseburgers, most definitely in paradise.
From Staniel we returned north to the Exuma Land and Sea Park, which contains some 20 Cays spread over about 20 miles. All marine and land life is protected in the Park, so it serves as a nursery for the rest of the islands. We anchored at Cambridge Cay (aka Little Bell), which was far and away the most beautiful anchorage we'd visited yet. We were guided through the entrance to Cambridge by friends from Staniel, Randy, Sherri and Pepper (a 10 year old female black lab), shown here sailing out of the Staniel Cay anchorage on their gorgeous Gozzard 44, Procyon. We then settled in for a prolonged stay although even we couldn't have guessed how prolonged; we stayed at Cambridge for nearly 3 weeks. During that time we met cruisers from various locales, explored every beach in the area, photographed the scenery and generally had a marvelous time.
During our stay we also decided that the time had come to catch a fish. This dedication was brought on by the presence in the anchorage of two boats we dubbed "The Hunters". These folks, from the Grand Banks 42 Europa Miss Pris and the Tayana 37 Driftwood, were serious spearfishers. They traveled out of the Park each day and returned with various crustaceans, including a slipper lobster, which we'd never seen before. One memorable night they invited all the boats in the anchorage (4 of us) to join them for lobster sushi, which was much enjoyed by all. After this, Captain Ron decided the time had come to demonstrate our prowess, or at least make a serious attempt.
First, lures had to be prepared. Then we set off, early one morning, into Exuma Sound. We picked a rather rough day, with winds of 10-15 on the nose, but we weren't to be deterred. After exiting the Park boundaries, we began dragging lures, first one, then another, all with no success. After three hours of pounding we'd had enough and turned for home. Nancy decided to take one last try, with one of our larger lures, trolled very far behind the boat at full cruising speed of about 7 knots. No sooner had it gone in there came the thrilling noise of line spooling off the reel, at a hell of a rate. We put Duet at forward idle with the autopilot holding a course (we hoped) and rushed to the stern. Ron grabbed the rod and the fight was on.
For the first 30 minutes we had no idea what was on the other end of the line, all we knew was it was large, strong and didn't want to come to the boat. Finally, we got our first sight of the fish; bright blue, green and yellow, a dolphin (mahi mahi) for sure. Another 15 minutes of reeling and resting (us and the fish) got him (male mahi mahi are clearly distinguished by their flat forehead) close enough to gaff. Now it got interesting. We'd never boarded a fish before and Duet has no swim transom. Further, our fish had no desire to come aboard and was thrashing and fighting right off the stern, a procedure sure to attract predators.
The thought of losing him now galvanized us into action. Nancy held the line (with the leather BBQ gloves which worked beautifully) while Ron gaffed the fish and sprayed his gills with vodka, which we'd been told would quiet him down. It did, but it didn't kill him. That required bashing him with our fish billy, a heavy club made of fiberglass. He succumbed after several whacks and we pulled him in over the transom. By this time Duet was rolling all over the place and everyone was feeling a little weak, what with the sea conditions, the fight and the blood (mahi mahi are a rather bloody fish) so we covered him with a wet towel to keep him cool and headed for home.
We regained the Cambridge Cay anchorage with no problems, reset the hook and examined our prize He was 46 inches long and weighed, we guess, around 20 pounds. But he was in need of butchering, so we got out the knives, the forceps, the clamps, the hemostats and our trusty fishing book (The Cruiser's Handbook of Fishing by Scott and Wendy Bannerot which we can highly recommend) and Dr. Ron set to work. We're sure the first time is always the worst, yet we managed to get about 7 pounds of great fillets from our prize. We were also able to contribute to the next gathering on the Hunters' boat, which made us feel quite proud. Fishing does have it's disadvantages, though, as we found out. First, we're not happy with our preserving method right after we catch one. We wrap the fish in wet towels, which works beautifully but produces some of the smelliest towels it has ever been Nancy's misfortune to have to wash. Even soaking them in bleach overnight and then rinsing them by jumping on them in a bucket (rather like the grapejuicers do in France during the harvest) didn't help, although it was a lot of fun. Second, cleaning fish attracts friends, shown here circling the boat. This specimen was one of two 6-7 foot sharks which we identified as Bull sharks, although no one had the nerve to ask them. They set up residence at Cambridge the entire time we were there and made us very careful getting Tristan and Maggie in and out of the dinghy. Swimming off the stern was also out, as these predators were definitely faster than we were. They are quite majestic, actually, provided you are viewing them from a safe vantage point.
After three idyllic weeks at Cambridge we moved back to Staniel, as we'd run out of jam for PB&J sandwiches. Prior to our departure however, Tristan distinguished himself by chasing a large iguana all over a small Cay. Fortunately he didn't catch it, (despite much huffing, puffing, barking and crashing about in the bushes) as iguanas are protected. There are severe penalties even for disturbing them so we recaptured Tristan (which also involved much huffing, puffing, shouting and crashing through the bushes) and departed post haste before a Park Ranger could appear. We felt that our rationalization that iguanas didn't get much exercise and Tristan was doing it a favor wouldn't cut much ice.
Upon our return to Staniel we ate out at Fowl Cay with some friends on Sandpiper, a beautiful Tayana 48. Fowl Cay only opened recently but we gathered from the VHF traffic that it was the place to go. As an aside on the VHF, it is the primary means of communication throughout the islands and is similar to the old party line telephones. Everyone knows everyone else's business, including what you have ordered for dinner when reservations are made. Radio etiquette varies, like anything else. Some folks follow American law by hailing on channel 16 and quickly switching to another frequency to talk. Others forget to change channels, so you get to hear about their entire day! Unfortunately some cruisers like to impersonate the Radio Police and lecture everyone on the rules pertaining to radio usage in the US, but thankfully these folk are few and far between. We left our radio on all the time we were awake, in case of emergencies, either ours or someone else's. The cruising community is very responsive, whenever someone asks for help (usually a dragging anchor or guidance into a tight entrance) someone was there within minutes. Nancy finds the radio very entertaining and tracks multiple conversations with valuable information, for example who caught what (fish) where or who needs what part. Ron, on the other hand, regards it as a necessary evil and only talks when absolutely necessary.
Back to Fowl Cay. Dinner was fixed price at $50 per head but included liquor. Needless to say, we were sure to show up right when the bar opened, in the interest of maximizing the value of our dollar. A great time was had by all, with a good mix of company including guests from the Cay itself, cruisers from the anchorage and boaters from other Cays. The food, for the Islands, was very good and the ambiance couldn't be beat. In particular, we met the Honda King of New Jersey, who keeps an 80 footer at Samson Cay and had popped over in his 40 foot tender for dinner. Nancy's entire family have been Honda owners so there was plenty of food for conversation, although she didn't point out that her sister recently bought a Toyota. We're still unclear whether he sells 8,000 Hondas per month or per year, but either way it's a lot of Hondas.
After replenishing our essential reserve of Bahamian guava jelly (the reason for our return to Staniel!) we moved south about 10 miles to Great Guana Cay. As you may gather from this narrative, distances in the Exumas lend themselves to short days, which is our favorite kind of cruising. It is only about 90 miles from one end of the Cays to the other, yet it is possible to spend an entire winter there and not experience more than a few Cays. There are said to be 365 Cays in the Exumas and the natives say "pick one". We figure that after 10 years of cruising down here, we might actually have seen enough to be able to "pick one."
Great Guana is a long Cay with many deserted beaches. We sampled a few over several days, walking for miles on beaches which appeared to never have been visited before, and bathed in turquoise bath temperature water. It's tough duty but someone has to do it. The only disadvantage of Great Guana is that all it's anchorages are in the lee , so with the possibility of an advancing front and associated south westerly winds, we upped the hook and headed further south to Rat Cay. During our journey, accomplished on Exuma Sound, we caught another mahi mahi, proving (thank goodness) that the first one wasn't a fluke. This one was slightly smaller at about 3 feet long and 15 pounds, but yielded multiple delicious dinners, most done with our Berry Island Cajun spice on the grill.
Rat Cay is off Rat Cay Cut (nomenclature in the Bahamas is relatively straightforward) and this is the last major cut before Georgetown where boats of our draft (5 feet) can enter and exit safely. It has a well protected anchorage and plenty of small Cays for gunkholing. Immediately north of Rat Cay is Children's Bay Cay, once owned by Jessica Tandy and Hume Cronyn, so we felt we were in good company. Rat Cay is home to a blow hole. Blows holes are created by underground caves with two openings, one under Exuma sound, near the shore, and another somewhere inland on the cay. Wave action from the sound channels through the cave and creates a geyser of water bursting up through the inland cave opening. Rat Cay's blow hole was located next to a natural occurring bath, made possible by the sand formations between two small Cays. The bath area appeared during high tide and was surrounded by sand on all sides except the one facing the Sound, which was sheltered by a reef. Thus, you could sit in the warm clear bath, with waves rushing towards you and stopping at the last moment on the reef. The amount of water coming over the reef was just enough to give the bath a gentle surf. Periodically, you get showered as the nearby blow hole spurts, and a small rainbow gets created in the resulting mist. Not a bad way to spend an afternoon. This was definitely one of (if not the most) beautiful sights we saw during our entire journey. It was so beautiful, in fact, that Nancy was too distracted to take a picture of it. The bath was always empty when we went there, prompting Ron to remark that if it had been located in the Virgin Islands you would have to take a number to get in and there would have been people selling T-shirts everywhere. Truly the Exumas are marvelous.
We moved down to Childrens Bay after several nights off Rat, traversing some of the shallowest waters we'd tried to date. We traveled north of Childrens trying for a sheltered anchorage off Williams Cay, but chickened out when we had steady depths of under 7 feet at better than half tide (tides are about 3 feet in the islands). Duet draws a solid 5 feet, and we'd no desire to find out just how solid. The waters in the Bahamas are clear and relatively easy to read with the right light, but it is hard to distinguish between 5 and 7 feet by eye. Some areas are so clear that Ron said it was like traveling on a glass floor above a blue abyss, which Nancy thought was quite poetic. Its so beautiful it actually often looks fake, you expect to see "water by Walt Disney" signs everywhere. We stayed at Childrens for several days, waiting for mild weather to continue our journey south to Georgetown. Prevailing wind in this area are Southeast, right on our nose for this trip, so we wanted them under 10 knots if possible. Children's is a quiet anchorage, with few boats but one rather noisy occupant, which fortunately only appeared once.
We departed Childrens early one morning, bound for that Cruising Mecca, Georgetown. During the journey we carefully deployed our fishing gear, using a previously untried lure known as an Australian runner, in bold red and black. We got a strike within minutes, and the line spooled out noisily. Ron grabbed the rod and it was immediately apparent that this was a big fish. We got him close to the boat and could easily see the bright colors of the mature mahi mahi. Once he was at the stern, however, his size became more apparent. He was easily 4 feet long (like our last one) but much thicker through the body than our previous record holder. Nancy grabbed the line and gave him a shot of vodka in the gills, while Ron gaffed him. After that our well laid landing plan went right out the window. Normally our next step is to lift him out of the water and club him into submission with our fish billy, but he was so heavy we couldn't get him more than halfway out of the water (we'd guess he was at least 40 pounds, if not more).
In the meantime he was doing his best to escape, despite repeated sprays with the vodka. As we were trying to figure out what to do next, he spat out the hook, wriggled off the gaff and made for greener pastures. So that was the one that got away, giving us, and him, a story to tell. Our landing procedures obviously need revision so we'll test some new ideas on the next volunteer as we journey north again. As an aside, part of our problem may be that we didn't tire him out enough before trying to board him. Our friends on Sandpiper, after hearing this story, suggested that we should let the fish swim around for a bit, close to the boat, to tire him out before we try to get him on board. This makes good sense to us so we'll try it out next time. Nancy has also challenged Ron to figure out a chemical way to knock the fish out prior to bringing him on board. She figures that an anesthesiologist should be able to come up with a drug of some kind which would be kinder to the fish than our bludgeoning method and a lot easier on us, both physically and psychologically.
After the big fish, our arrival in Georgetown was somewhat of an anticlimax. We negotiated the famous Conch Cut with aplomb (and no current and good visibility) and anchored off Sand Dollar Beach. There seemed to be hundreds of boats at anchor in the harbor (actually the count was around 250) but there was plenty of room with good holding in sand. We took the dogs ashore on Stocking Island, where the beach on the Sound side stretches for miles and is virtually unoccupied. So far Georgetown looked pretty good.
The next day we went into town while Tristan and Maggie guarded the boat. We've taken to leaving them on the boat during town trips, as they get hot waiting while we do our errands and they much prefer the beach anyway. Their only problem with the beach is a pronounced desire on the part of the labs to play lifeguard for us and anyone else who might be in the water. They rush into the water and swim anxiously around the chosen person, until he or she sees the light and returns safely to shore. This usually results in them repeatedly getting hit on the head by waves, as they don't understand the principles of wave action. Anyway, back to leaving them on the boat. As far as we can tell they sit on the foredeck while we're gone, keeping an eye on anchorage activities and evaluating every passing dinghy to see if it's us returning. Their curiosity is understandable, as they always get a biscuit when we get back. We actually spent a great deal of time in the dinghy during our Georgetown stay. After a number of very wet trips Ron installed a 2 1/2 foot piece of PVC pipe as a tiller extender (Nancy eventually stopped telling rude jokes about it) so he could stand up while steering. Nancy also stands, holding onto a rope attached to the dinghy's front. The spray may get our ankles, but at least our derrieres stay dry.
Georgetown was a bit of a shock as they actually have cars there, which we hadn't seen since we'd left the states two months previously. We managed to avoid getting run over (they drive on the left hand side of the road) and went to the Batelco office to see if we could get email. We'd joined the Batelco Internet service in Staniel, which, at $10/month for 5 hours of access, is a real bargain compared to getting access via a phone card. The systems worked and we spent several hours downloading the hundreds of messages which had accumulated since our departure. 90% were junk mail but some were from friends and family, which made it a worthwhile exercise. We've decided that we're going to replace our Single Sideband Radio so we can get email on the boat; this going ashore stuff is far too much work and can only be done in major settlements.
So we settled into anchorage life, Georgetown style. Georgetown is very organized, with an extensive early morning radio broadcast covering everything from water color painting classes to the daily prayer. Some folks seem to be active in everything while others, like us, observe from afar and use the town as a place to provision and catch up with friends. We actually found it all a little overwhelming, possibly because we'd been off the beaten track for some time. Many people spend the entire winter in Georgetown, particularly those with kids, as there is a ready made community with plenty to do and easy access to water, food, etc. The community might make an interesting study for an anthropologist, so established are the rituals and the communications network on the VHF.
Our biggest excitement in Georgetown came as the result of unsettled weather, which brings spice to every cruisers' life. We had a rather nasty line squall one night, complete with lightening and winds gusting to 40 knots. It lasted over an hour, which seems a long time in the dark. Our anchor held just fine, as Ron had put out 200 feet of chain which gave us a scope of nearly 8 to one, but one of our neighbors wasn't so lucky. Everyone in the anchorage turned on their running lights to see each other better and we could clearly see his bow pounding up and down. We had watched him anchor shortly before the squall and knew that he was not on much scope. Nor had he tested the set by backing down hard. At the height of the squall he started to drag towards a lee reef. Apparently, he had difficulty starting his engine but finally managed to get the situation under control by letting out more scope. It was a close call both for him and for other boats that were near his path.
Waves can be a set anchor's worst enemy since the dynamic loads are extremely high and if elasticity in the rode is insufficient (whether by chain catenary or by rope stretch) even a well set hook can be yanked free. If we expect bad weather we usually deploy considerably more scope than the typical 3:1 to 5:1 suggested for all-chain rode in standard texts. We think that the additional weight of chain improves the catenary and therefore shock absorbing power. Also, in very high winds, when all the catenary is used up, high scope means a low angle of pull on our anchor, which optimizes its holding power. We always use a triple-strand nylon chain snubber (with a devil's claw) to provide additional elasticity. Finally, we always set our hook by backing down hard. Lately, we've been using about half-throttle from our 140 hp main engine. Exactly how many knots of this wind this emulates we are not sure, but we have successfully weathered 40 knots with this strategy. We are big believers in carrying and deploying one very large anchor (our main anchor is a 105 pound CQR, storm sized for our boat) rather than setting a multitude of smaller anchors which can drag in to each other and create a tangled mess.
We listened to the radio during the storm, and our neighbor wasn't the only one who had a difficult night. At least two other boats dragged, including one up on to the rocks off Hamburger Beach, and one unoccupied catamaran got loose of it's mooring and went careening through the Kidd Cove area. A cruiser boarded the wayward cat and managed to re-anchor it, once again proving how close knit and helpful the cruising community can be. Some other unfortunate folks were in a dinghy, on their way back from dinner in town when the squall struck. We could hear them on the radio trying to find their boat with the help of neighbors shining spots lights, etc. Given that there was a rough 3-4 foot chop throughout the harbor, this must not have been a fun journey. But everyone survived the night, no one was hurt, and even the boat on the rocks was back in her place the next day.
After 10 days of socializing (including a memorable stretch of 5 nights out in a row), another set of squalls and some great ribs at the Two Turtles, we departed Georgetown bound for Florida, via the Northern Exumas. It was time to come back and, while we'll miss the islands, we are ready to return, do some work on the boat and take a break from cruising for the summer. We have changed our plans and decided to leave Duet in Jacksonville, Florida this summer, rather than make the 2,000 mile roundtrip on the ICW. We'll rent a place ashore while Ron works and we'll return south (by car) in October. We're worried about leaving her but have talked to many folks who've done the same and their boats are none the worse for wear. We're leaving Duet in the water as we plan to spend some time on her during the summer, whittling down the endless project list. So our journey north is far shorter and less stressful.
We moved directly from Georgetown to Staniel, where we spent several days waiting for a major front to materialize. The anchorage off Big Major's Cay near Staniel has great holding but is exposed to the south west so we rolled rather harshly. After 48 hours of this enough was enough, and we moved back to the sheltered anchorage off Cambridge Cay. While there we had one of those classic cruising meetings, with our good friends Harry and Shirley on The Good Life. We've always met Harry and Shirley unexpectedly, including our first meeting when they tied up at our marina in Deale, MD. They were dealing with a family illness and their cell phone wasn't working, so Nancy loaned them hers. So began a friendship nourished by chance meetings, including one memorable one where Duet pulled into the marina in Vero Beach and there was Harry waiting to catch our lines, as The Good Life was tied up in the next slip.
This time Nancy was (as usual) monitoring Channel 16 for interesting conversations and heard Harry calling the Samson Cay Marina. To make a long story short, The Good Life was anchored next to Duet at Cambridge within an hour or two and we all settled down to wait for the front. According to the weather maps this one was going to be a doozy (Weatherman Ron's technical term) but we were all well set and Cambridge is very sheltered so no one was too worried. Our primary concern was how many other boats would enter the anchorage as everyone in the islands sought shelter from the gathering storm, but LIttle Cambridge is not too well known (nor do we want you to tell anyone) so it wasn't crowded.
As an aside on the weather, in the Bahamas we get the weather faxes and the November Mike November NOAA broadcasts via the SSB. During March the NOAA broadcasts had deteriorated to the point where we were only getting partial forecasts. November Mike would start on our area and then stop in the middle or skip us entirely. Once he skipped all of New England, which must have been frustrating for the fisherman. We're going to contact NOAA when we return, as they solicit feedback, and see if we can determine what the issue is. Recently the automated voice has been intermittently replaced by a live human, who has our sympathy, as reading the weather is a complex and boring task. The human does OK, except he sometimes seems to not understand what's being read so the listener gets weird combinations of wind speed with no direction or announcements of frontal locations with only a latitude but no longitude. November Mike has been as regular as clockwork during our 18 months of listening so it seemed odd that he'd suddenly developed a case of amnesia. We think it might be the result of an attempted software upgrade to introduce the new voices, but we don't know for sure. We've also had some weird interference on the weather fax frequency, where we were interrupted by an obviously military conversation emulating from who knows where. So the weather has offered more than the usual challenges this year.
Back to the gathering storm. Folks on the radio gave this one a big buildup, talking of gale force winds (which could be anything from 28 to 55) and dispensing endless conflicting advice on exactly where to anchor to avoid it. Weatherman Ron remained steadfast; yes it is a big front and the front itself was coming to visit us, not just the tail end of it. Yes it would blow, probably more on the back end (as the high built in) rather than the front end. Yes we might see gusts in the low 30's and higher in squalls, which could be plentiful. This qualifies as a Moderate Gale, in the mid range of Gale force. No it wasn't really that big a deal, it was less ominous looking than the one we weathered in Dollar Harbor during our first week in the islands. So Nancy the Worrier stayed pretty calm. Also, having survived multiple fronts and squalls during our island stay, she is now a bit more able to assume a Zen like attitude (even if it is false), in the face of impending disaster.
The front arrived at 2AM, which is when they always arrive, regardless of when they are supposed to come. It was heralded by a squall, blowing in the low thirties with torrential rain. After 45 minutes of that, the real thing hove onto the scene, with wind in the high 20's out of the northwest but little rain. After an hour of watching everyone swing around their hooks but no one move, we decided to return to our air conditioned cabin and get some shut eye. This brings up an interesting point: In our experience discomfort is cumulative. Therefore, if you are anxious about the weather and also hot because it's raining and the windows are closed, you'll feel better (and probably make better decisions) with air conditioning than without. So we run our air conditioning during squalls rather than sit in the closed up boat sweating. We also sleep with it on during unsettled weather, because otherwise, every time a squall comes we have to run around the boat shutting hatches and windows. We tend to try to sleep whenever we can in times like this, because you can never tell when it will be too uncomfortable to sleep. We used to worry that the noise of the generator and A/C would mask changes in the weather but as our cabin is forward, the increase in wave slap and boat motion wakes us. We are going to install a repeater for our wind alarm in our cabin just to be sure, as we can't hear the pilot house wind alarm with the generator on.
By dawn, dog feeding time, it was still blowing a steady 25 with gusts in the low 30's and with wind against current producing the usual rock and roll motion. Duet responds more to current than wind until the wind gets over 25 knots, so in these medium wind conditions we sit sideways to the swell, while wind and current fight for possession. We had some great demonstrations of how different hulls behave in current in this anchorage. Ahead of us was a full keel Tayana 37, which literally sailed backwards (particularly interesting) and forwards around it's hook. The Good Life, on the other hand, has almost no underbody (she is a semi displacement hull) with lots of windage aft, so she sits completely to the wind. Fin keeled sailboats end up somewhere in between. We had an example of everything so everyone ended up every which way, but no one bumped. One boat (out of 7) dragged, the late arrival from the night before. He drove around for a bit and then re-anchored, unfortunately ahead of us, so we kept a close eye on him until it became apparent that this time the hook had taken hold.
During the day things settled down to a steady northwest blow in the mid to high twenties, gradually dying down to the teens. Little systems passed over, raising the wind speeds intermittently.We had a temporary guest, who stayed about an hour to recover and then moved on. It didn't rain much, which made life much easier. Ron installed relays for an automatic engine shut-down which is triggered if our engine room fire extinguisher discharges (this prevents engine air intake from exhausting the halon-like material from the engine room), while Nancy made bread and then watched Braveheart, with Mel Gibson. Life on the hook in a storm had a lot to recommend it, compared to the conditions prevailing in the 12the century. This brings up a brief aside on TV reception in the islands. We like to watch TV, particularly the news and movies, so we pushed our trusty Follow Me TV pretty hard. It hung tough until we got south of the Exuma Land and Sea Park, when reception became problematic, and we, of course, blamed the Follow Me unit. Extensive interviews of folks with the much more expensive KVH units, however, convinced us that the KVH did no better; the problems are due to the strength of the signal, not the unit. So we watched tapes, which fortunately Nancy had the foresight to make prior to our departure. We also swapped tapes with other cruisers, thereby staying almost as current as we would have with real TV.
Back to the front. The people who had the worst time were the kayakers, five boatloads of whom arrived the night of the front, set up tents on the beach and proceeded to get drenched when the squalls came. Prior to the squalls they were engulfed by mosquitos and definitely were hot, as it was humid and still. We, on the other hand, watched HBO in air conditioned comfort and remembered our days of camping, without any real desire to return to them. The tents held, but in our experience, tents leak, so we weren't surprised to see flashlights around 3AM. The kayakers all seemed young and resilient as the next day they climbed the local hills, went snorkeling and generally carried on. The award for carrying a good thing a little too far went to the Germans on the boat next to Duet. These folks were avid bathers, enthusiastically showering each morning in their cockpit. They were out as usual at 6:30AM, in gusts of 30 knots and temperatures in the 60's, carrying out their morning ablutions with the focus Germans bring to any task. Given they had about 25 years on us and we wouldn't go outside without a foul weather jacket, never mind in the nude, we were truly impressed.
After a comfortable week we departed Cambridge for the north. We tried a new route, an overnight trip via the old US Navy Decca Channel , which is marked by 3 stanchions on a direct path from Pipe Cay (where the old Decca station used to be) to the Tongue of the Ocean. This path is uniformly deep and contains few, if any, coral heads. The Tongue of the Ocean, which is over 1,000 fathoms (6,000 feet) deep, sits between the Exumas to the east and the island of Andros to the west. The northern end of the Tongue opens in to the North East Providence channel leading to the Berries and the Great Bahama Bank. The Tongue of the Ocean is home to another US establishment, the AUTEC (Atlantic UnderSea Test and Evaluation Center) Bases. The US Navy conducts tests of submarines and surface ships, and, to quote Steve Pavlidas in his great Bahamas cruising guide On and Off the Beaten Path, "if you happen to be in the area during testing you won't even know it". We actually found this not to be true, but more on that later. Our plan was to travel across the shallow water west of the Exumas in the day and then traverse the Tongue of the Ocean at night, arriving at the NW Channel light to enter the Great Bahama Bank at daylight. From the light we'd cross the Bank in daylight and then cross the Gulf Stream the next night, arriving in Florida the next day. Like all plans, this one changed almost as soon as it was formulated.
The trip across the Banks west of the Exumas was uneventful, with the Decca markers all appearing as predicted. The wind began to pick up as we entered the Tongue of the Ocean. It was behind us as we began the trip but as our course changed it shifted to mid ships, which increased Duet's rolling motion. Initially all was well, but around mid night Nancy began to feel rather unwell. In the meantime, we were entertained by the Navy, which was conducting submarine tests within several miles of our position. First, we heard them on the radio, which we found interesting as they were using Channel 16 as a primary method of communication.The plus of this was we could get a handle on all the players, prior to our arrival on the battlefield. Coordinating was AUTEC Operations, searching were at least one and possibly two warships with accompanying helicopters and hiding was what we assume to be a submarine, named Hammerhead. We, reassured by the cruising guide that the Navy would stop testing while we were in the area, or would at least let us know to get out of the way, steamed innocently onward.
It soon became apparent that such was not to be, the exercise continued at full pace, with Duet bracketed neatly between the two warships, which were on a reciprocal course to ours. The helicopter circled repeatedly overhead, with and without lights, while Hammerhead was presumably somewhere beneath us, perhaps using us as cover to escape. It was all very exciting (particularly for Nancy who is an avid Tom Clancy fan), although the Navy seemed to take it much in stride. No words were exchanged with our neighbors, although we felt sure they must see us, as we could see them clearly as they passed within two miles of us.
We exited the wargames area at around 2AM and Nancy took over the watch. We were now out of the Tongue and into the North East Channel, out of the lee of Providence Island. Conditions got steadily rougher, with breezes in the mid teens, gusting higher and a solid 6 foot sea on Duet's beam. Nancy hung tough until around 4AM, at which point she had to be replaced by Ron, while she hung off the stern, donating her dinner to Neptune. This was a first, as she'd never actually gotten sick before and cannot recommend it, although many people say you feel better afterwards. A dose of Zofran, the miracle drug, restored her to some semblance of life, and we continued on.
The next engine room check revealed something far more upsetting than a little seasickness, namely the water pump which cools the Naiad stabilizes was leaking like a sieve. This pump had failed before, in Key West, but that time we'd been tied to the dock, not 20 miles offshore in a freshening breeze with good sized seas. An immediate diversion to Frazers Hog Cay, the closest anchorage, was dialed into the navigator. Meantime, we hoped the pump would hold together as traveling in these seas without stabilization was not something anyone, particularly Nancy, was volunteering for. Fortunately, the pump held and we anchored off Frazers Hog just after dawn. This was familiar ground as the scene of our first Bahamian break down, and we anchored close to our friends at the Berry Islands Club. Given the situation we decided to wait out the next front, due in 24 to 48 hours and proceed to Florida when all systems (including Nancy's) were back in order. The stabilizer pump problem will be remedied this summer when two pumps will be plumbed in parallel, so that if (when!) one fails, a valve can be opened at the spare pump switched on. Ron is also looking for alternate pumps which won't fail so often but so far hasn't found a better solution.
The front came in due time, complete with attendant squalls at 2AM. Prior to it's arrival however, we did get some boat work done, including painting the teak, which seems rather like the Brooklyn Bridge to Nancy as she had just completed it in Hilton Head. Ron, on the other hand, became immersed in a favorite task, shopping for parts for the boat. Those who say women are the shoppers haven't ever seen Ron loose in the catalogues. So a pleasant week was spent waiting for the weather to clear.Eventually it did, but not before the front passed through. This one was a middle level type, with winds in the mid twenties for several days and gusts into the low 30's. Duet was, fortunately, anchored about half a mile from the general anchorage where all the other boats were snuggled together. We chose our spot for the good holding, even though it was further from shore. It turns out this was a good decision, as a boat in the closer anchorage dragged during the night and ripped off it's bowsprit when it hit another boat. We slept through all this excitement, but heard all about it the next day when we went into the Berry Islands Club for dinner.
Soon enough it was time to go and we upped anchor, bound for Florida via the Banks and the Gulf Stream. We left in the afternoon, to cross the Banks at night and the Gulf Stream during the day. We actually crossed the Stream in the early morning hours, having made better time than we expected. The weather smiled on us, with little wind and calm seas, presumably to make up for the tough crossing we'd had from the Exumas. This particular trip was distinguished by a pod of about 6 whales just south of the NW Channel Light. Whales in the wild were a first for us, and we thought they were dolphins until they were within 50 feet of the boat, at which point it became obvious that they were much larger than dolphins and black rather than gray. They were 20-25 feet long, with high domed foreheads and big curved dorsal fins. They seemed oblivious to Duet and swam right by, within about 15 feet of our stern. Nancy was so excited she forgot to take a picture. This was to be a memorable journey for marine mammals, as not only did we see the whales ,but also half a dozen large sea turtles, which we believe to be Loggerheads, in the Gulf Stream.
We arrived in Ft. Pierce after 24 hours and 200 miles and anchored in basically the same spot we'd started from some 3 months earlier. It was interesting to be back among the high rises, heavy boat traffic, lights and sounds of Florida, after so long in the out islands. We had a bottle of champagne to celebrate our return and a good night's sleep. We then spent several days enjoying the company of Bill and Julin Lynn (previous owners of Duet) who are based in Ft. Pierce on the their beautiful steel trawler, Oceantide. Ron made a new friend, Jabber, the Lynn's 9 month old Macaw. He's just learned to say 'Hello' (Jabber that is, not Ron) but all he can say is 'Hello', regardless of the circumstances, which leads to some entertaining juxtapositions. We also caught up with civilization by getting our cell phone working and began the process of reassimilation.
We then journeyed from Ft. Pierce to Jacksonville up the ICW as there was considerable swell building offshore. This trip, like most of our ICW passages, was plauged by bridges, shallow water and passing boats. It also featured the narrowest channel (Matanzas Inlet) that we've ever passed through, as well as some rather tight bridges on the Jacksonville end. Fortunately, however, it was enlivened by an impromptu meeting with Bill and Ellen of Chicory, who regular readers will recall we first met at TrawlerFest on the Bay last year. Chicory is an early model N46 with a full ketch rig and Bill and Ellen have done a great job refurbishing her. They are bound for the Bahamas so we gave them lots of useless advice and much enjoyed a pleasant evening in their company. This evening was further differentiated by a lively lady in her late 70's who was recently widowed and had taken up Kareoke in a major way. For reasons which are somewhat murky, she dedicated her uncannily realistic rendition of 'Hello Dolly' to the crews of Chicory and Duet, which made for a fun end to our evening. We departed very early the next morning, somewhat worse for wear but looking forward to seeing Bill and Ellen again on their return to the Chesapeake.
Duet will spend the summer resting in Jacksonville, while her crew journeys north to Maryland and Captain Ron returns, temporarily, to the working world as Dr. Ron. This break is welcome after 18 months and about 4,000 miles of cruising, but we're sure we'll be glad to be back aboard in the fall, preparing for our return to the Bahamas next winter. We will not be writing logs during the summer, as our life ashore is much like anyone else's, but we can be reached at email@example.com. We wish everyone a very happy summer.