23 February, 2008

Another week in paradise

Location: Cambridge Cay, Exumas
Position: N24 18.185 W076 32.418

We finally managed to have a happy hour on the little sandy island – about 25-30 people came and they all considered it a great success. During the party, Mark tried to drum up some help to work on the trail the next morning.

About 9 people showed up the following morning, some with machetes. We then proceeded to whack, clear, and mark the trail. Within hours, dinghies began arriving to check it out. One fellow plotted the track on his GPS and then printed it out on a chart showing the island. We gave this to the park warden for inclusion in future guide maps. We’re thinking about naming the trail “Volunteer Trail” because everyone who has worked on it thus far has been a volunteer. Of course, “Rachel Trail” is also in the running and has a certain ring to it… and the warden suggested “Mark & Julie Trail”. We actually have no idea if they’ll ask us for input on the name or not, but it’s fun to think about.

The day before yesterday the warden told us he’d never seen so many boats in the anchorage. Things really cleared out yesterday, though. About 5 boats at anchor joined 10 boats that were on moorings and headed on. Now there are only 4 boats including us in this beautiful spot. We expect more in the next day or two as another front approaches.

Yesterday the highlight of the day was a trip to Staniel Cay with the warden to pick up some groceries. We were down and back in a couple of hours in his fast little runabout. Staniel has a lovely little community with 3 stores. It is also the home of the Thunderball Grotto – this is the underwater cave that was used in the filming of the James Bond movie “Thunderball” – it’s a “must visit” attraction. We will return to Staniel Cay when we leave here to begin our explorations further south. For now, we’re satisfied that the vegetable bin is again bursting with scrumptious fresh veggies, fruit and fresh milk

We’ve borrowed a friend’s “hookah” (a scuba outfit that uses a pump with a long hose instead of tanks) and are planning a relaxing day scraping barnacles off Rachel’s bottom. We still haven’t decided how long we’ll stay here. We’ll probably find some sweet spot that lies between balancing our strong attraction for this beautiful place and our need to do laundry and reprovision – it’s looking like that might happen sometime around next weekend.

Today we hitched a ride back to park HQ with the warden for a few hours of Internet connectivity before we return to Rachel and get back to the old grind....

Working hard in paradise,

20 February, 2008

Park rangers

Location: Cambridge Cay, Exumas
Position: N24 18.185 W076 32.418

We have really been enjoying our duties as volunteer park rangers. A typical day begins with getting up at 6:30 to listen to the weather on the SSB radio, followed by a leisurely breakfast and a bit of tidying up.

Then, if the tide is right, we go snorkeling on one of the beautiful reefs around. If it’s not, we’ll try and get in a walk before it gets too hot.

The park warden usually stops by in the late morning or early afternoon to see how we’re doing, collect the mooring fees (and our trash – one of the real bonuses of this job!!), maybe even drop off a couple of DVDs so we can watch a movie on the computer in the evening. While we’re waiting, we usually try to fit in a boat job or two – tinkering with a recalcitrant outboard, refinishing a locker door, maintaining the water maker, or performing miscellaneous other maintenance and repair jobs. As we do this we chat and listen to the ham and/or VHF radio. Once he arrives, the warden usually sits and chats with us for a bit, then heads out and leaves us to our own devices again.

There’s supposed to be an old path from the southern beach to another beach on the seaward side of the island. We’ve spent a few afternoons searching and think we may have found it on our last visit. The next step is to see if we can follow it to the other side of the island, overgrown as it is, and if so, to begin clearing and marking it so others after us can enjoy it and continue to improve it.

We’ve tried to organize a happy hour on a small sandy islet near us, but it’s pretty exposed and the wind hasn’t been cooperating. Most evenings we manage to get together with another boat or two for happy hour.

On Sunday the weather got a bit windy and squally so the mooring field filled up quickly. With 14 moorings to manage we spent most of the afternoon dinghying around in the chop writing receipts, trying to keep straight who was who, when they arrived, and how much they owed. Wow, there’s a lot of pressure involved in this job!! We earned our keep on Sunday, for sure – must have worked at least 2 hours!!

Evenings that we don’t get together with other boaters are usually spent making dinner and doing the dishes, followed by dominos, cards, reading, watching the occasional movie, or just chatting and enjoying each other’s company.

Most days we have one or two boats arriving and leaving. When this occurs, we leisurely visit each and chat, spending the rest of the day walking, swimming, snorkeling, doing boat jobs, reading, playing dominos etc.

14 February, 2008

Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

Location: Cambridge Cay, Exumas
Position: N24 18.185 W076 32.418

Rachel spends the last couple of days bouncing around on the mooring at Warderick Wells as southwesterly winds push some seas into this normally quiet anchorage.
Julie laying in a hammock made from old fish nets found washed up on the shore
Rachel’s crew elects to spend much of this time ashore, walking the island’s beautiful and well-maintained trails. These trails wander across the island and around its perimeter, a study in contrasts. One moment we find ourselves walking through sere and bizarrely shaped sandstone formations, watching our steps as we avoid vertical holes tens of feet deep, crevices, and sharp unstable rocks. We have to concentrate on our footing so much that we must stop walking just to look around. The next moment, we’re on a smooth, sandy path that winds its way through palms and palmettos to the beach. We get a bit hot in the sun, and then we’re on a shady path winding its way through the mangrove forest with a lovely breeze cooling us.

On the rocky seaward shore we find a few small beaches and an undocumented blowhole in the rocks that spews mist high into the air and huffs like a whale. We also find driftwood, shells (none of which we take, as it’s against park rules to remove anything), and unfortunately, loads of plastic. We’re amazed and disappointed to find shoes, bottles, pieces of siding, toys, packing crate bits, buckets, you name it - if it’s made of plastic it can probably be found here. We make a half-hearted effort to clean some of it up, piling it near where the path enters the shore, but it’s really frustrating – the one blemish on an otherwise pristine island – and there’s so much of it.

We manage to cover nearly all the trails during our stay except for a couple of short stretches on the seaward side. We see hardly anyone else – during these walks it’s almost like we have the island to ourselves. One of the trails on Warderick Wells

The wind shifts overnight and things are much calmer on Valentine’s Day morning, allowing us to get the dinghy up in the davits with relative ease. We slip the mooring and, after clearing some shallows and a few rocks, shut off the engine and have a nice, leisurely sail south to Cambridge Cay. Our first non-motorsail for months!! The approach to Cambridge Cay requires us to round Bell Island through a pass between rocks to starboard and a sandbar to port – it seems barely wider than the boat and we’re relieved when we pass through and see nothing shallower than 11 feet.

We pick up a mooring and are greeted by the park warden who comes by to tell us about our responsibilities as the new volunteer mooring hosts. Two other boats show up for the night. We practice our routine with them, collecting their fees, and making sure they tie off to the moorings properly and know the park rules. We invite them over for a Valentines Day dessert after dinner (chocolate fudge cake – yum – what a treat!) and have a wonderful evening getting to know each other. Both of these boats have sailed the Bahamas for years and are a fund of stories and information for us.

Sitting in paradise,

10 February, 2008

Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

Location: Warderick Wells, Exumas, Bahamas
Position: N24 23.070 W076 37.496

With some pretty high winds forecast for the next 3 or 4 days we pore over the charts looking for a safe harbor with plenty of shelter from the north, east, and south. Problem is that everyone else is doing the same thing and good anchorages get full very quickly. There are a lot of good spots from here down, but we don’t want to get too far south too soon or we’ll miss some of the best stuff in the island chain. The Allen’s and Highborne Cay anchorages to the north are already pretty full (we know this from eavesdropping on other people’s conversations on the VHF radio – VHF is like the old “party lines” – everyone in range can listen – noone expects privacy). And our current anchorage, while protected from the east, is exposed to the north and south.

We decide that our first choice is the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park which has several well protected mooring fields. The drill is that you call them on the radio a day ahead and get on the list, then listen at 9am the next morning when they announce who was successful in getting a place.

We spend the morning, starting at 6:30, listening to the weather over ham radio and looking at the charts to figure out where we’ll go if we don’t get a spot. 9am rolls around and we sit glued to the radio listening, hoping, and waiting to hear Rachel’s name. Finally right at the end of the list, almost as an afterthought, we hear “Rachel, we can fit you in at Emerald Rock mooring field, is that OK?” Woohoo, breathing a sigh of relief we respond “Yes, we’ll take it”.

Emerald Rock is on the west side of the island of Warderick Wells and a 20 mile trip from Normans Cay. True to form for us the wind is once again dead on the nose. When we took our swim in this clear water yesterday, we noticed that Rachel’s bottom has a distinct white tinge rather than the expected blue of her bottom paint – barnacles! That probably explains why she’s seemed a bit sluggish since we left Florida. We’ll have to give her bottom a good scraping one day soon. At any rate, we arrive safely, albeit a bit later than expected, and pick up our assigned mooring.

The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park is made up of 15 major cays (islands, pronounced “keys”) and many more minor cays encompassing 176 square miles. There are no commercial developments and it is a designated replenishment area for plant, animal and marine life. As a result it’s relatively unspoiled and absolutely beautiful.

We have spent the last two days enjoying the trails and snorkeling. Some of the visit’s highlights so far are:

Boo Boo Hill, 70ft elevation, where cruisers are allowed to leave a natural memento of their visit, boat and crew names carved into pieces of driftwood, pebbles glued onto palm stalks, even a sailing galleon made from a coconut shell and sticks;

The Blow Holes, where we could hear the air making eerie sounds as it whooshes through holes in the limestone rocks, pushed upward by waves flowing into caves at sea level. At high tide water is pushed all the way through and up out of these holes, spraying like a fountain. Boo Boo Hill is named for the sounds made by ghosts of shipwrecked sailors, likely attributable to these blow holes;

Musical rocks that ring as you walk on them. These seemingly semi-hollow rocks each emit a distinct note. By hitting them with a stick you can play a tune, like a prehistoric drum kit, and as you walk you can hear the occasional note as your foot drops onto a stone, tilting it into it’s neighbor;

Feeding the bananaquits. These cute little birds with a bright yellow chest similar to a hummingbird are so tame they’ll land right on your hand to feast on sugar you hold out to them.

Snorkeling! We’ve already managed to snorkel several reefs in the area. In this beautiful crystal clear water, we’ve looked down upon many species of fish ranging in size and color, colonies of coral that have taken years to form (also many varieties and colors), and loads of different underwater landscapes.

We’re expecting to spend the next couple of days aboard Rachel on the mooring as the winds will be around 30 knots and it won’t be very easy to get ashore. This enforced downtime will give us a chance to finally finish up a couple of Khronicles we’ve been working on and get them out via a day’s worth of the “pay-per-day” Internet access available here. Of course, if the wind is a bit weaker than predicted, we’ll head in to the beach just east of the mooring field and check out more of the trails.

See Rachel’s blog for a few new pictures.

Mark & Julie
s/v Rachel

08 February, 2008

The Yellow Banks

Location: Norman Cay
Position: N24 36.108 W076 49.388

After almost a week in Nassau we finally escaped. Mark got the steering all fixed up, got the water maker cranking out gallons of delicious water and we even got to do some sightseeing and socializing. We aren’t big fans of the big city so when a weather window showed up we high tailed it out of there. Especially as Friday was probably the last good weather for us for another whole week and it seems the weekend’s loud, thumping, all night music begins on Thursday night!!

Of course the wind was dead on the nose (again!!) so we ended up motoring across the Exuma Banks. One section of the trip involved passing over the dreaded ‘Yellow Banks’. The bottom is only about 10-12 feet deep and is sprinkled with shallow coral heads, some only 3-4 feet below the surface. The charts for the Bahamas are not 100% accurate nor all that detailed for this area, so you don’t really know the exact locations of these corals and you definitely don’t want to run into one.

We were told by friends “Oh it’s no problem! One of you just stands on the bow and looks. If you see a really dark brown spot you steer away from it!” Okay, great. So off Julie trots up to the bow wearing her life jacket and harness, armed with no real idea what to look for except for this vague “brown spot” description. She stands hanging on to the rail, squinting into the water, wondering just how big a coral head will be. And just how brown is it anyway? There’s a lot of brown stuff down there!

After standing at the bow for what seems like an eternity (in reality it’s maybe 15 or 20 minutes), she sees the first big brown spot. It‘s maybe 12-15 feet across and very dark! And it’s right in front of the boat! We had already agreed on specific hand signals for communication as it is impossible to hear each other when one is at the helm and the other is on the bow. She points to port and Mark quickly steers the boat to port. Phew that was close!! At least we know what they look like now. We manage to successfully maneuver around 4 or 5 more in the next half hour before we get through and, thank goodness, the rest of the day is fairly uneventful.

We arrive at the anchorage at Normans Cay around 4pm, feeling our way in through just over 6 feet of water, have a quick swim around the boat to cool off and then head off to Normans Cay Beach Club for a couple of beers with friends from 3 other boats. We feel like we’ve finally arrived!

Historical note: this island gained notoriety 30 years ago when it was the base for a cocaine smuggling operation run by the infamous Carlos Lehder. A wrecked plane in the anchorage on the eastern side of the island, just shy of the runway bears testament to this portion of the island’s history.

We had a great evening except for Julie falling into the sea as she tried to push the dinghy off the beach and leap in all at the same time. Julie says we shouldn’t blame it on the beer (Mark notes: “Uh, okay.”), she just needs more practice at this much used maneuver.

Mark & Julie
s/v Rachel

04 February, 2008

Crazy Johnny

Location: Nassau
Position: N25 04.737 W077 19.855

We had an early start on Saturday, just as dawn was starting to break. With 60 miles ahead of us and winds on the nose we knew it would be a long day. We moved off the shallow Grand Bahama Bank and back into deep water named The Tongue of the Ocean. Mark was inspired and decided to get out his fishing gear. We had a nice sail in increasingly strengthening winds all the way to Nassau. Not wanting to strain the temporary steering repair, we motor-sailed and kept our sails reefed.

As we got closer to Nassau Mark decided to reel in his line and as he did a fish took the lure! Finally! We had a few minutes of excitement as he reeled it in, but alas, it got away before we managed to get it aboard. We’d have had a difficult time getting it up and dressed, anyway, as the boat was healed about 20 degrees by this time. Our new friends on ‘Suzanne’ managed to catch 2 15lb Mahi Mahi!! After we arrived, they invited us over to share some. They were absolutely delicious, giving Mark added incentive to work further on his fishing skills.

We’re currently anchored out in Nassau. We arrived here at about 3:30pm on Saturday then spent the next two hours looking for, and finally finding a place to anchor.

On Sunday we dinghied ashore and had a lovely walk through town. We’re expecting to explore some more as we will probably be here for a couple of days fixing our steering gear.

A bunch of us who all came over from Miami in the same weather window decided to get together at a local bar to watch the Super Bowl. Several of the crews were from the Boston area and were hoping to see history made. We picked a bar named “Crazy Johnny’s”, mostly because it was a short walk from the marinas where some of the boats were staying, had a big screen TV, was running a special – three Budweisers for $10 (beer is more expensive than rum here), and promised free appetizers at half-time.

We got settled in and the owner (hairy, tattooed, wiry, and surprisingly named Johnny) came over, introduced himself, and thanked us for coming. He didn’t seem too crazy. Then, just before the game started, he jumped from a balcony to the rafters and did 10 chin ups about 15 feet above from the floor , hung from his knees, and shouted “The night’s still young!” We knew then that we were in for an interesting evening.

At various points during the game he would jump up on the bar, take a huge swig of rum, and, with butane torch in hand, spout a huge fireball out over the floor. Or he’d jump up onto the frame holding a speaker and do inverted sit ups. Or more pull ups. Or flop himself on the floor and go spasmodic, hollering and whistling all the while. Or jump on the bar and parade up and down, shouting “Go Jets!” (for those of you not in America, the Jets and the Giants are both New York teams. The Giants were playing, the Jets weren’t. This made his “Go Jets!” funny).

We’d planned to leave at half time, but the game was so good, the beer was ice cold, and the ‘entertainment’ was so interesting, we decided to stay put until the end. We’re glad we did! Even though the Patriots lost, it was one of the best Super Bowl games we can remember. Julie is even starting to get the hang of some of the rules – finally.

After the game, Crazy Johnny came over and gave our table a ‘consolation’ bottle of champagne, thanked us again for coming, and once again appeared to be sane and gentlemanly. Then he turned off the TV, cranked up the music, jumped up on the bar, and started marching around shouting, whistling, and screaming again. It was time for us to leave ending a fun and entertaining evening.

Go Jets!

Mark & Julie
s/v Rachel


01 February, 2008

Anchored out. Way out.

Location: Great Bahama Bank, about 5 miles NE of the Northwest Shoal light
Position: N 25 32.956 W 078 09.364

It’s a mass exodus from Bimini harbor Friday morning with everyone wanting to get across the banks while the weather holds for the next two days. When you are cruising whatever schedule you may or may not have is almost always governed by the weather. If you need to get somewhere and the wind is good, you go, or you may have to sit around for another couple of weeks waiting for another weather window!

The Great Bahama Bank is an enormous area of shallow water, surrounded by DEEP ocean water. We are heading for the Exumas, which is completely on the other side of the banks from Bimini. We could go around in the deep water but it’s much further. The banks were a bit intimidating for us ‘first timers’ as they are only about 25 feet deep in the deep bits and 0 (or less!) feet deep in the shallow bits. The good thing is that the water is so clear that you can always see the bottom and the deeper water is a darker shade of azure. As long as we stay in the darker water we are fine. So we spend the day, most of it out of sight of land, traversing the Banks along with several other sailboats and two trawlers. We holler at each other from time to time over the VHF radio, sharing stories of fish caught, wind strength and direction etc. Alone but still together!

Not long after we pull out of Bimini we notice that the steering feels a bit funny. Nothing really bad, but Mark goes down to check it out anyway. He doesn’t see anything obviously wrong so we carry on. The steering gradually worsens, but with nowhere to go by this time except the anchorage with the other boats, we carry on. At least it’s calm and there’s almost no strain on it.

After 12 hours and 70 miles we pull off the main route and several of us drop anchor for the night, the remainder carry on through the night to Nassau. We dig everything out of the ‘basement’ to get better access to the steering quadrant and Mark dives down headfirst to see if he can figure out the problem.

Mark: “Holly molies!!”

Julie: “What?”

Mark: “Two of the four bolts that hold the steering quadrant together are hanging loose! They’ve stripped out and only the two on the other side are holding it all together!”

Julie: “How could that have happened?”

Mark: “Hmm… Remember that clunk we heard in Bimini when the tug’s prop wash was pushing us around? I bet it slammed the rudder all the way over, and the strain stripped the bolts out.”

Julie: “It’s a wonder it lasted as long as it did.”

Mark: “Yeah. Whew. Hope we can fix it.”

We drag out all the spares and dig through the piles to see if there are 2 bolts with the same thread that are a bit longer than the stripped ones. We find one that should work perfectly and another that we think can be rigged to work. Off Mark goes back down and somehow manages to get the whole thing back together. We think it should last long enough to get us to Nassau, anyway. We arrange to make a pre-dawn departure so we can accompany a couple of other boats for safety’s sake.

We tidy up the tools and stow all the stuff from the basement down below in the cabin so we can maintain quick access to the quadrant in case something goes wrong again. We finally get to eat dinner sitting in the cockpit looking up at the stars. It is so dark here away from any civilization - the stars are really bright and we can see skillions of them!! If we weren’t so worn out we’d get out our constellation book and lie on deck and identify them. But we’re pretty beat so we’ll have to save that for another night.