Having sold our Sparkman and Stephens yawl, Fairwyn, in December and being boatless for the first time since 1971, we were delighted to be invited to cruise in the Bahamas last March. In fact, before he had even finished reading the email invitation, Stephen had said “Yes”.
The invitation came from Bob Benner and Connie Van Bussel, an Ontario couple we had met in 2012 in the Mediterranean, on their Cabo Rico 38’, Meredith. In fact, we celebrated Canada Day with them at Hammamet Marina in Tunisia. The photo of Fairwyn, dressed for the occasion, was on the cover of the print version of Currents in October of 2012.
After that first meeting, we enjoyed several encounters with Meredith, including a winter at Marina de Ragusa, Sicily, and stops in Rabat, Morocco, Santa Cruz in Tenerife, Canary Islands, and Jolly Harbour in Antigua.
Since 2014, Meredith has spent summers in Florida or North Carolina while her owners returned to Ontario. In winter they sail to the Bahamas and thus know the islands well.
Their invitation to cruise offered us various areas to explore: the Exumas, in the centre of the Bahamas, where we could join them by flying to Georgetown; or Eleuthera and the Abacos, both in the northeast. We decided on the Abacos because we knew Bob and Connie wanted to start returning north in mid-April. The Abacos are just over 100 miles northeast of Nassau, the Bahamian capital on New Providence Island. The Bahamas are a 120-mile string of islands and cays, stretching from Latitudes 23 to 28 degrees north in the western Atlantic off Florida. They have a scattered population of 400,000.
To join Meredith we flew from Vancouver to Toronto, on to Nassau, and then by small plane to Marsh Harbour, Abaco. Before our departure, Bob asked us if we would be willing to carry a new linear drive for their autopilot. They didn’t need an autopilot to cruise around the Bahamas, but they wanted it to be operational on their overnight crossing of the Gulf Stream.
It was easy to pick up the drive in Vancouver and, despite its carton’s 44’’ length, to carry it as regular baggage. The drive came into the Bahamas duty-free for a yacht in transit (we had to show copies of the invoice and Meredith’s registration), but Customs charged VAT of 5%, apparently a deal since it is usually 7%.
Meredith came into a marina in Marsh Harbour to meet us and we set off to cruise the Sea of Abaco, a body of water ranging from two to four nautical miles wide between Great Abaco and the line of narrow cays that protect it from the Atlantic. The first stop was Hope Town on Elbow Cay, with its 1862 red-and-white striped lighthouse, that has a rare kerosene fired light. Two light keepers share the night shifts, cranking the weight up to the top once every few hours to keep the light turning.
Hope Town is one of the towns settled by Loyalists after the War of Independence in the U.S.A. It is now a place where many tourists have bought property and built houses. The harbour is surrounded by restaurants, resorts, dive shops, ferry landings, and boat rental agencies. Cruisers who want a spot in the harbour need to rent a mooring buoy. If they do not have one, the anchorage just outside the bay is safe in settled weather.
Like Hope Town, nearby Man-o-War Cay was settled by United Empire Loyalists. Among them the Albury family became known for boat building. They successfully made the transition from wood to fibreglass, and Albury 20’ and 23’ boats abound, used by Bahamians and tourists alike.
Both cays are so narrow that a less than five-minute walk takes you across the Island to the Atlantic. On my first walk across Elbow Cay, I saw the turquoise water of the ocean framed by palm trees – just like all those ads for tropical vacations – but the colour was real, not photo-shopped. Near the north end of Man-o-War Cay, a two-metre wide path of coral rock is all that separates the Bay from the sea. The day we were there, Atlantic waves burst right over the path. We restricted our swimming to inside.
As we made our way south, we carefully navigated the passage between Lubbers Cay and Elbow Cay. The water in the whole of the Sea of Abaco is shallow, rarely more than twelve feet, but this passage was about six feet. Skipper Bob sent Connie and me up to the bow to redistribute weight and to watch for shallowing. It was a bit tense for the bow watchers, but we made our way through without touching bottom.
Our goal was the Tilloo Bank, a huge sandy bank that almost dries. We anchored off the bank in ten feet of water and took the dinghy to the bank where we, as Skipper Bob said, “cavorted” in the shallow water over the white sand bottom. The next day we tried to find a blue hole (underwater sink hole) reported to be in the Bight of Old Robinson (great name, eh?). Unfortunately, the tide was falling to such an extent that it was pouring out of the lagoon that is supposed to be the site of the blue hole, and we kept hitting the bottom with the dinghy motor.
In the middle of the night, the chicken-baited hook lying on the bottom enticed an Abacore tuna. No sooner was that packed away in the fridge and Bob and Connie back to sleep in the quarter berth, than another fish struck. The fish were delicious both grilled and later cold in sandwiches.
With short passages and shallow water, we did not get much sailing in, but we pulled out the Genoa a couple of times. This was not a disappointment since our motive for the cruise was to see and experience Abaco cays and islands.
Almost all the food in the Bahamas is imported. Exceptions are conch, pineapples from Eleuthera, and the recent growing of market vegetables available in farmers’ markets. As a result, food is expensive both in supermarkets and in restaurants. For Canadians, it is even more expensive because the Bahamian dollar is linked to the American dollar. We understand why Meredith was provisioned in the US before they sailed to the Bahamas. It is difficult to get a meal in a restaurant for less than $CAD 60 per person.
There are two main Bahamian breweries, Kalik and Sands, that have a variety of types of beer and ale. We particularly liked “66”, a pale ale named for the 66 steps in the Nassau Queen’s Staircase that leads from downtown to Fort Fincastle. Local beers range from $CAD 8 to 11 in a pub and are three for $CAD 8 in a beer store.
Conch, a giant sea snail with a beautiful shell, is available directly from fishermen. It is prepared as a salad, with lime juice, onions, and hot peppers (like a Ceviche), grilled, deep fried in a hamburger bun, or in conch fritters with a spicy dipping sauce. Macaroni and cheese is very popular, supposedly dating from the arrival of English colonists in the mid-1700s. Because many Bahamians could not afford fresh milk, the mac-and-cheese was made with evaporated milk. Bahamians have also adapted mac-and-cheese to their taste, so you will find it with chicken, hot sauce, or peppers, and people sometimes eat it with ketchup. Also popular as side dishes are fried plantains, peas and rice, potato salad, and coleslaw.
We were very appreciative of escaping some of the wet March weather in Vancouver and of having a chance to cruise in another area of the Bahamas (we had rather rapidly cruised through the Exuma Cays on our way to Florida in 2014). Thanks again to Skipper Bob and redoubtable first mate Connie for a relaxing and warm holiday.