Florida Keys, Post-Irma

The Florida Keys, post-Irma, are still a mess, and could use your help.

I’m not going to sugarcoat it – the Florida Keys are suffering badly from the damage caused by Hurricane Irma on September 10, and will be for months and months, maybe even years in some places. By now, I’m guessing the rest of the world isn’t hearing about it too much – there are so many other horrible things happening, after all. But if you’re a fan of the Keys – if you’ve loved visiting here, or maybe you’ve even lived here – don’t forget about the places and the people here. They need your help.

Small debris pile on US 1

Driving on US Highway 1 – the only road going through the Keys – is encouraging at some points, and a stark reminder of just how much work there still is to be done at most other points. Fran and I have been up and down US 1 between Key West and Marathon several times since we returned to Smartini on September 21. We’ve been doing various post-hurricane aid stuff several times each week, all along that stretch. Initially it was helping distribute much needed supplies (ice, water, food, diapers, etc., etc.), and recently it’s been cleaning up yards and homes for individuals. And every time we go somewhere, and get even 1/2 block away from US 1, we see it – the endless piles of debris, piled along every single street, representing the pre-Irma lives of thousands of people. In some neighborhoods, looking at the washers, dryers, water heaters, stoves and microwaves at the curb, you wonder if there’s a single home there that wasn’t destroyed. In Marathon, there is a mountain of debris at least twenty feet tall that looks like it’s the size of a football field. We heard that 160,000 cubic yards of debris has already been taken away – but you’d never know it.

Keys Strong – the slogan of the Keys since Irma

But the Keys are inhabited by a bunch of hardy folk, people not unaccustomed to hardship. The ones who’ve been here the longest seem to be the ones who are the least affected by it – they just put their heads down and do whatever is necessary to clean up and start moving back toward normal. And as soon as their own immediate needs are met, they start helping others do the same.

It’s not all bad news – Key West got lucky, and ended up on the good side of Irma. By being west of the eye (by about 15 – 20 miles), it was spared the strongest winds, which are usually on the northeast side of a hurricane’s eye. Although there are many, many destroyed homes here, and many more that are severely damaged, all in all, it’s much better than in the rest of the Lower Keys. Most businesses are open again – in fact, we were on Duvall Street last evening, and almost every storefront was open. Cruise ships – an important part of the economy here – started arriving early last week, and every one brings a much needed cash infusion to the businesses, and just as important, to the employees of those businesses.

Speaking of employees – if you come to the Keys, for whatever reason – bring plenty of cash, and be prepared to spend it. There are so many people here whose normal life is paycheck-to-paycheck, and many of them have not had a paycheck since early September. Those who are back to work are, for the most part, back at less than normal hours, making less then normal wages and tips. The absolute best way for you to help with recovery in the Keys is to donate money to an appropriate organization. The second best way is to come for a visit and spend lots of money. Buy things you wouldn’t normally buy, go on an excursion you wouldn’t normally pay for, and by all means, tip the heck out of everyone you would normally tip. They all need it, and you’ll feel great doing it.

Lucy's Retired Surfers Bar and Grill - last place we ate before we evacuated, first place we ate when we came back

 

 

First Official Visitors – Dee and Heather

Two days after Smartini finally made it to Marathon in the Florida Keys, our first real guests showed up for four days. (Sorry UCB, Curt, Sondra, Robin, Cathy, and anyone else who’s spent the night on Smartini – until we made it to the Keys, it hasn’t felt “official”. Very much enjoyed, but not official.)

DedeAnn is Fran’s best friend since middle school in Southern California. Heather is one of my absolute favorite humans on the planet for reasons too numerous to list. They live in Fort Collins, CO, coincidentally where Fran’s sister Ingrid lives, so we get to see them whenever we visit there, but it’s not often – once or twice a year at most. We’ve been eagerly looking forward to their visit, especially since neither of them had ever been to the Keys before.

They came during the hottest, most humid time of year, and we’re still having intermittent generator issues (translation: not as much air conditioning as we all would have liked), so they got the full Keys experience. But they pretended not to notice, and we all just sweated together!

We took Teeny (short for Smarteeny, our new dinghy) out to the Sombrero Reef Lighthouse for some snorkeling. Fran took them under the Seven Mile Bridge to the bayside of the Keys for some snorkeling and a tour of the area. We drove to Key West for a whole day, and on their last morning, we visited the Sea Turtle Hospital. Not nearly as long a visit as we would have liked with these two, but we’re happy to have any time we can get with them!

(Click on any image below to open a slideshow of all images.)

Unexpected Fort Pierce

Our six month stay in Fort Pierce is over. A lot of unexpected things happened while we were there!

A week ago, Fran, May, and I steered Smartini out the Fort Pierce Inlet, turned south, and if things go according to plans (which they almost never do!), we won’t see Fort Pierce from the deck of Smartini ever again. Not that we didn’t like Fort Pierce – we actually liked it quite a lot. We just hope to spend the rest of our time on Smartini farther south.

A lot of unexpected things happened while we were in Fort Pierce, starting with the main reason we were there in the first place – the need to completely re-do the “down to bare metal” paint job on the bottom of Smartini. As I’m sure I’ve written before, we had a total bottom job done right after we took possession of the boat in January 2016. With routine cleanings, and a new coat of anti-fouling paint every year or so, it should have lasted 8 – 10 years. Instead, it didn’t last 8 months. In short, it was done badly, and by the time we hauled the boat out of the water for another reason in mid-December 2016, there were already good sized patches of bare metal showing, and hundreds (thousands?) of little water-filled paint bubbles all over the bottom. Unexpected Thing #1 – we’d have to haul out again and completely re-do the bottom job – and this time, we’d do it ourselves, to make sure it was done right.

Maddie (left) and her girlfriend, Brenna

We had been in Fort Pierce less than a month when Unexpected Thing #2 happened – the passing of our daughter, Maddie. I can’t write about that yet, other than what I already wrote, but needless to say, our whole world changed that day. Among those changes were our plans to head for the Bahamas ASAP (we’d be holding off on that indefinitely), and our motivation to throw ourselves into Smartini projects with much enthusiasm – we had none.

Once we realized we’d be in Fort Pierce for much longer than expected, we started exploring the town (translation: looking for places to eat and drink). Unexpected Thing #3 was that we really liked it! Here’s this town, only an hour’s drive from Satellite Beach (where we lived for the past 12 years), that we knew nothing about. Its little downtown area is home to a great brewery (Sailfish Brewing), a nice “tiki pub” at the marina (Cobb’s Landing), a tiki bar (also in the marina – The Original Tiki Bar), a tasty, funky little taco dive (called, conveniently – The Taco Dive), and at least four other restaurants at which we had good sushi or breakfast. Leave downtown, and drive just a mile or so to the hard-to-find but do-not-be-missed restaurant called 12 A Buoy (home of the best fried oysters I’ve ever had, and the best appetizer menu I’ve ever seen), Lenzi’s Diner (crunchy fish for breakfast? yep!), or Captain’s Galley (excellent straight-up American breakfast). Drive across the South Bridge to beachside for cheap beer, decent food, live music and a funky beachside vibe at Archie’s Seaside. Or breakfast at Dave’s Diner (open 24 / 7!). Or a great brunch buffet at Manatee Island (at least, it was there on Mother’s Day – as good as it was, I hope they do it every weekend.) Suffice it to say, we did not go hungry or thirsty in Fort Pierce.

Me, Fran, Christina and Chris

Unexpected Thing #4 was the friends we made. Keep in mind, we expected to be there two weeks, so we weren’t looking to make any real friends. As with all boating activities, you can’t help but meet people you like to spend time with, but usually it’s like two ships passing in the night – brief encounters, probably never to be repeated. But we were there 6 months, and we made some real friends. Chris and Christina Bryan started out as the people who would guide us through the new bottom paint job (them advising , Fran and me painting – and painting – and painting). By the time we left, we had been to their house for dinner three times (once to celebrate Christina’s brand new US Citizenship!), had met their two great kids (Elizabeth and Mathias), had them onboard Smartini for fish tacos, been out to dinner with them twice – and they now have an open invitation to come spend time with us on Smartini, wherever we may be! I’m sure we haven’t laughed harder in the last six months than listening to Chris and Christina tell almost any funny story from their past – especially if it involved Christina’s sister, Valentina.

And then there’s Ben Baker. A quiet, unassuming man (so quiet and unassuming, I never got a picture of him) who knows more about boats than anyone I’ve ever met, and who freely shares that knowledge. Yes, his business is fixing boats (or as he prefers to describe it, making people fall in love with their boat again), but he gives away more expertise than he charges for, and as we found when he was helping troubleshoot a problem with our generator, he’s thinking about your problem instead of sleeping sometimes! In the 6 months we were in Fort Pierce, I honestly don’t recall asking Ben a single question about an issue with Smartini that he didn’t either know exactly how to address, or he knew who we needed to talk to who did. His shop is a wonderland of tools, parts, and supplies that is also his happy place. And after hours, when he finally relaxes enough to enjoy a Scotch and water with you, he’s got an endless supply of boat stories, starting with the story of how we was born in a rowboat, right up to the boat that limped into the marina that morning. He, too, has an open invitation to visit us on Smartini anywhere, any time, but I doubt he’ll take us up on it – I think he’d be afraid of leaving someone stranded in Fort Pierce if he weren’t there to help them out.

Leanne visiting us in Riviera Beach

We met Leanne Grant through Ben. Leanne came from Australia to Connecticut to buy her dreamboat – a big, beautiful sailboat named Caprice. On her way back to Australia with it, she ended up in Fort Pierce for some repairs, and like us, she ended up staying a lot longer than expected. Also like us, she met Ben Baker, who has helped get Caprice ready to resume the long journey Down Under – and the two of them have been enjoying each others company. Leanne’s wonderful – but her trip must continue – she’s in a 6-week countdown to launching from Fort Pierce, through the Panama Canal, and home to Australia. Leanne, we hope to join you somewhere on your journey! (We’ll be flying, though.)

Major rust around porthole
Fran in full prep-and-paint gear

Unexpected Things #5 through ??? include all the things we learned about Smartini during our time in Fort Pierce, many of which, unfortunately, were issues that needed to be addressed, and which added to our extended stay. I’ll list the big ones: significant rust around one of the portholes in the Master Stateroom and less significant rust around several others; significant rust around the anchor windlass; a pinhole leak in the main engine exhaust elbow (requiring removal and repair); rust around 4 of the 8 hawse holes (through which dock lines pass); a completely clogged heat exchanger on the generator that (through a series of events I won’t bother to explain) lead to me letting 8 gallons of hydraulic fluid leak into the bilge (hey, it was past time to replace that fluid anyway!); a “galvanic survey” of the boat, indicating that somewhere onboard, a major appliance may be wired improperly. (I know, I know… you’re thinking we bought a real piece of crap boat, what with all the work we’ve had to do on it, right? But we actually bought an awesome boat, which had been allowed to sit unused for almost two years – and ask any boat owner – boats need a lot of attention, and if they sit for long periods without being used, they need a lot more. We’re about to the end of all those things – we hope!)

No story about our time in Fort Pierce would be complete without mentioning the amazing crew at Cracker Boy Boat Works, the Do It Yourself yard where Smartini was hauled out for 5 months. Cindy, Woody, Rick, Fred, Teak (or “Ted”, as I called him for months), Tip Tip, and Sean. The amazing ship’s carpenter shop (The Ship Shop) of Philip and Dave, who repaired the cherrywood panels in our master stateroom with hand-made replacement tongue and groove that you can NOT tell from the original. The ever-present Hazel Lopez, who’s smiling face and “Alright, alright!” were there to brighten your day, almost EVERY day, as he made tired old boats all shiny and new again.

Unexpected Fort Pierce – maybe it should be their tourism promotion slogan. Certainly, if you ever find yourself in the area around lunch time, or if you just want to go try someplace different for a Saturday or a whole weekend, head for the Fort Pierce City Marina, park the car nearby, and prepare to be surprised. We certainly were!

Christmas in the Bahamas

(If you just want to see all the pictures from the trip, click here.)

Like all ocean crossings (I know – it’s only 54 miles from FL to the Bahamas, but it’s still an ocean crossing!), we spent a good bit of time planning this one. Weather and sea condition forecasts, fuel planning, provisions, and the hundred other details that must be considered for an eleven day trip. But this one was actually in the planning stages for over five years! Because this trip was going to be the first time that all three of the original dreamers got to go somewhere on a big boat together. It was at least five years ago, in the warm comfort of our living room in Indianapolis, drinking good homebrew, that Fran, me, and our dear friend and neighbor Steve Powers started dreaming about traveling the sea on a trawler.

Steve actually introduced us to trawlers – we literally didn’t know what one was until he brought over a couple issues of Passagemaker Magazine. We immediately took to the idea of a big, slow, comfortable, “apartment on a barge” kind of boat on which we could explore the Bahamas and Caribbean for a good, long time. The three of us looked at boats, and destinations, and dreamed of the day we could be living those magazine articles. TrawlerFest became something to eagerly look forward to. Steve and his wife Challen went to one in Baltimore and returned with a bag o’ goodies that fueled our conversations and imaginations for weeks. Then Fran and I went to one in FL and brought back more dream fodder. Then we’d start looking at the calendar to find the next one that one of us could attend.

Then one day, it happened – somebody said “We should buy a boat together – an older, not-too-expensive one, that we can learn on, and try out the trawler life on, and if we don’t love it, we’ll just sell it and find something else to dream about.” Their middle son, Brady, was going to college near us in Florida, and was a certified boat nut who wanted to live on one, instead of in an apartment, so the whole idea was really practical – even financially responsible, don’t you think? Thus, the idea of “the Practice Boat” was born. Our dreaming immediately turned to scheming – what would we get? how big? one engine or two? how much would we have to pay? what brands should we look at? should we wear a captain’s hat or a pirate’s hat when we’re driving it? www.yachtworld.com experienced an increase in load that must have puzzled their sys admins: “What’s with all the search activity in Indianapolis all of a sudden? We’re going to need to bring another server online just to handle it!”

Turtle E. Awesome at anchor at Little Harbor, Abacos, May 2015.

The short version of the ensuing 3+ years is that we threw our money together, bought the Practice Boat, named it Turtle E. Awesome, and it did, and still does, live up to its name. Fran and I took it to the Bahamas three times, decided we were going all-in on the trawler thing, bought Smartini, and sold our half of Turtle E. Awesome to Steve and Challen. But here it was, at least five years after the seeds were originally sown, and Steve and Challen had still not been able to be on a boat they owned, crossing an ocean to a tropical island. That was all about to change with this trip, and Fran and I were at least as excited for Steve and Challen – especially Steve – as we were about taking Smartini on an ocean voyage for the first time.

We had plenty of time for the trip: the Powers (Steve, Challen, Brady and their youngest, Bennett – yes, they have a son named Bennett, too – he and my son Bennett are best buddies) would leave Melbourne, FL on the Turtle on December 17 and didn’t have to be back in Melbourne until January 1 for their flight back to Indy. Factoring in the cruise south on the ICW to Lake Worth, both crossings, and the cruise back north to Melbourne, we’d have nine full days in the Bahamas. Assuming we could do the crossings on the days we wanted to, of course. But at any time of year, especially winter, you can’t rely on good weather (hence good sea conditions) for the crossings. We were fully prepared to wait two or three days on each end of the trip for a decent weather window. But I think Santa Claus, Mother Nature, and Poseidon must have gotten together and decided that Steve had been a good boy all year, and that he had waited long enough, so they told Boreas (Greek god of the North Wind) to take a few days off. We were able to cross over on the first day of our weather window (and later, to cross back on our last), giving us the maximum amount of island time for the adventure.

We staged in North Lake Worth, a nice, big, calm anchorage a few miles north of the Lake Worth Inlet, the night of December 18. Steve served us all jambalaya on the Turtle, we checked every weather source for the thirty-seventh time that day, and made plans to pull anchor before sunrise and be leaving the inlet as BOB (the Big Orange Ball) poked his nose over the Eastern horizon. Fran and I slept well on Smartini, but I’m guessing Steve’s sleep was like that of a six year old on Christmas Eve, every fiber of his being tingling with anticipation for what the morning would bring.

Day One: The Crossing
6:00 a.m. alarm, make coffee, check everything one last time, pull anchor, head for the inlet. Make the turn around Peanut Island, head for the middle of the inlet, and cross fingers and toes that all our preparations would be adequate, and that Boreas had, in fact, taken the day off. At the mouth of the inlet, the waves are way bigger and closer together, than had been forecast. Damn! But wait – it’s always worse at the inlet with wind from the East, as the waves and swell pile up in the relatively shallow water – don’t panic. There’s BOB, lighting our way – no, just piercing our retinas, making it almost impossible to see in front of us. “Turtle E. Awesome, Turtle E. Awesome, this is Smartini – how you guys doing back there?” “Turtle E. Awesome, doing fine!” It’s official – we’re heading to the Bahamas.

Leaving Lake Worth Inlet for the Bahamas, from the flybridge of Smartini
Leaving Lake Worth Inlet for the Bahamas, from the flybridge of Turtle E. Awesome

It was lumpy / bouncy / sporty / snotty / <fill in your favorite term for a little uncomfortable on the water> for thirty minutes or so, and then settled into about what the forecast had been: 2 foot waves on a 5-6 second period. (The period is how often the peaks of the waves come – the shorter the period, the bumpier it is. 2 foot waves every 3 seconds is way, way worse than 4 foot waves every 10 seconds.) We all concluded it was doable for the 7 hours we had in front of us, but we’d be glad when we were in the marina at Old Bahama Bay. Throughout the day, as the wind would change a little in direction and intensity, it would get slightly better or slightly worse, but it ended up being pretty consistent. Both Smartini and the Turtle are very happy cruising at 7 to 8 knots (a knot is 15% more than a land-based mile per hour), and fuel economy is always better when slower, so we settled in at about 7.5, and watched the miles and the minutes churn away under our hulls.

Good news: Smartini’s stabilizer system, which is supposed to significantly reduce rolling (the side to side motion of a boat), works! Although the waves were mostly on our nose all day, there was enough of a side component to set up some noticeable rolling – just ask the crew of the Turtle. But with the stabilizers on, we experienced almost none of it. Later in the trip, when we had bigger seas, from behind us at an angle – the real test of a stabilizer system – it performed as expected. Yay!!

May the Boat Kitty, looking much happier in this photo than when we arrived in the Bahamas

There was one member of the crew who didn’t have such a great crossing – May the Boat Kitty. Seven hours of non-stop pitching (and a little rolling) left her green around the gills. She didn’t hurl, but we’re guessing she felt like it, from the look on her little black furry face. The good news is, that was the last time she seemed to have that happen, including on the crossing back to Florida, which was about the same in the seasickness-inducing department. She’s a real boat kitty now.

Old Bahama Bay from Turtle E. Awesome

We pulled into Old Bahama Bay Marina, at West End, which is the settlement on the very west end of Grand Bahama Island, where Freeport is. There’s not much at Old Bahama Bay except the marina, but it was exactly what we wanted at the end of a long day of bumping across the Atlantic. It’s a great marina, protected on all sides from waves, tides, and even wind for the most part. That day (December 19) was literally their first day open since Hurricane Matthew. They had suffered a lot of damage, but fortunately, none of it major. The docks were all in perfect shape, but there was no power to them yet. The restaurant was open and served us a delicious dinner that evening, and their beach can be fun for a day or so – but there’s really not much to do from that spot. So we decided, since we still had nine days before we had to get back, that we’d keep heading East to the heart of the Abacos – Green Turtle, Great Guana, and Hopetown, planning to be in the Lighthouse Marina for Christmas.

Cruising across the Little Bahama Bank

Days Two and Three: Across the Little Bahama Bank
It’s seven or eight hours from Lake Worth to West End, but still another fourteen hours to Green Turtle Cay. (Throughout this story, when you see “cay”, say “key”. After only a dozen years or so, it may become habit.) There’s a really cool island, Great Sale, about halfway there, with excellent anchoring. After a good night’s sleep at Old Bahama Bay, we set our course for Great Sale, and motored across the Little Bahama Bank on almost flat calm water, with full sun and just enough breeze to keep us from sweating. We reached Great Sale, tried unsuccessfully to find the blue hole that’s supposed to be on the south end of the island, then moved into the huge anchorage on the west side for a good night’s rest. The next day, from Great Sale to Green Turtle, was the same, only calmer. We saw a turtle or two, a single dolphin, and a few sea birds. But this part of the trip – aside from the beautiful turquoise water stretching to the horizon in every direction for much of the day – is actually kind of boring. If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship, it was like the days on the itinerary called “At sea” – but without the buffet.

The Little Bahama Bank

The Little Bahama Bank is a huge area in the northwest Bahamas with very few islands, and a typical depth of less than ten feet, with lots of areas where it’s less than five feet. See the picture. (By the way, the dark blue surrounding the Bank is a few thousand fee deep!) So although it feels like you’re in the middle of the ocean because you can’t see land anywhere, you better stay on one of the charted courses across the Bank, or risk running aground. It’s virtually all sand – that’s what gives it that color, but it’s also what makes it kind of boring. A flat sandy bottom doesn’t typically attract much sea life, and that’s very much the case on the Bank. So you turn on the autopilot, pick an XM Radio station you like, and just enjoy being on the water. Surprisingly, it can kick up and be quite uncomfortable, as Fran, Brady and I found on our very first trip across the Bank in the Turtle, almost two years ago – but not this time. It was like being on a lake.

Flat calm crossing the Little Bahama Bank

We pulled into the anchorage on the south side of Green Turtle Cay as the sun was getting low in the sky. We maneuvered Smartini into a spot among the half dozen boats already anchored, dropped the hook – and thus began our intense dislike of the anchor that came with the boat. It’s a 66 pound Bruce anchor (aka “claw”). It’s way undersized for a boat as heavy as Smartini (83,000 lbs), and with its three rounded flukes, it won’t set in a grassy bottom, no matter how much you swear at it. Brady dove on it (only about nine feet deep, thankfully), managed to get it into a small sandy area, and finally, we were hung. And not for the last time did we wish we had gotten our new anchor before leaving on this trip. Meanwhile, the Turtle dropped its properly sized CQR anchor, and they were hung like the stockings by the chimney with care.

Christmas ornaments on a palm tree – why not?

We decided to go ashore, explore the little settlement of New Plymouth, and find somewhere for dinner. It was a bit odd seeing Christmas decorations in this tropical locale, especially the snowmen – but why not? We had a very fine dinner at The Wrecking Tree, took the dinghies back to our floating homes, and made plans for the next day’s adventure – Around the Whale!

Day Four: Around the Whale, and Sweet House
Look at the picture above of the Little Bahama Bank. On the right edge, just southeast of Green Turtle Cay, you’ll see a small spot of turquoise. That’s the spot where the entire width of the Sea of Abaco is no more than about three feet deep at low tide, about five feet at high tide, but only in a few spots. The Turtle has been across that area four times on two previous trips – always at mid to high tide, and usually with slightly tightened sphincters as we passed the shallowest point, near Don’t Rock. But the Turtle draws only 3 ½ feet. Smartini draws six, so there ain’t no way, no how, we’re getting across there. The only alternative is to go “around the Whale”, referring to the route around Whale Cay, which is plenty deep – and which can be plenty dangerous. Because on the outside of Whale Cay is the open ocean. With big waves coming from the Northeast, you can get what they call “rage seas”, as those big waves break over the barrier reef and start piling up in the much shallower water inside the reef. Not even very large yachts – 100 feet and more – will go around the Whale when that’s happening. We had told the crew of the Turtle that we might not be able to make it past Green Turtle, and they’d have to go on to Hopetown without us. But for the second time on this adventure, conditions were conducive to a safe, even comfortable, ocean journey (albeit one of only about three miles in total), and around the Whale we went!

Sweet House Beach, NW tip of Great Guana Cay

At the end of the Whale Cay passage is the northwest tip of Great Guana Cay, a seven mile long island with a lot going on. Just off that tip is a gorgeous beach, some shallow coral reef, and a little farther out, the actual barrier reef. On that day, the barrier reef was almost totally flattening the four to five foot seas that were crashing into it, making the inner reef nice and calm. It’s a dive site we named Sweet House on a previous Abacos trip with my longtime business partner Joel Kozikowski and his boat, eSea Street. We had decided, with the Turtle crew, that if the conditions were good, we’d meet there, anchor, and see if we could shoot some dinner – with lobster, grouper, and hogfish all in season. We anchored in sand in about eighteen feet of water, radio’d the Turtle to come join us (they had taken the inside passage past the Whale), and got out the snorkel gear.

This picture was not taken on this trip.

I’d love to tell you that we shot a Nassau grouper perfectly sized to make fish tacos for six, along with six lobsters. But I’d be lying. The truth is, we saw a lot of groupers, but didn’t have the skills to skewer any of them, and we saw no lobsters nor hogfish. But the snorkeling was excellent, Steve and Bennett got their first taste of real Bahamas coral reef, and we had plenty of dinner fare in the freezer, so no one was disappointed. We motored down to Fisher’s Bay, dropped the hook, and all piled in the Turtle’s dinghy to Grabber’s Sunset Grill for cocktails and a beautiful Bahamian (not Bohemian, Brady!) sunset.

Day Five: Great Guana Cay
Great Guana is about seven miles long and runs NW to SE. It’s the first island in the Sea of Abaco after Whale Cay, so represents one end of Smartini’s no-worries cruising area in the Abacos. (Little Harbor is the other end.) It’s home to world famous Nipper’s Bar, Grabber’s Sunset Bar, Dive Guana, Orchid Bay Marina, the very hoity-toity Baker’s Bay Resort (did you really need to build a freakin’ golf course?!?!), an assortment of other small businesses, and a lot of homes, most of which are apparently rentals. On its NW tip is the aforementioned Sweet House dive site, off its SE tip is a beautiful and protected (i.e., “no take zone”), dive area called the Fowl Cays (where our adopted niece Katie Stanhouse officially became a scuba diver in 2015!), and on the SW side, just off Grabber’s beach, is one of our favorite anchorages in the Abacos, Fisher’s Bay. It’s protected from the prevailing winds, it’s deep enough for Smartini to anchor at low tide, it’s a short dinghy ride to Grabber’s beach, and there are lobsters there! With all that going on, and Hopetown less than two hours away, we decided to anchor here for two nights, so we could spend an entire day exploring.

Three bugs in the bucket: half way to dinner for six

The Turtle crew dinghied in to explore the island and found some of the amazing Bahamian bread that is, all by itself, enough to get me to visit the Abacos again. After they returned, the menfolk on the Turtle started hunting for dinner among the small rocks and ledges near the anchorage. Fairly shortly, word came that they’d located some, but weren’t sure if they were of legal size, and not sure how to get them out of the rocks. It didn’t take me long to drop what I was doing and suit up, and in short order we had six of them in the bucket – fresh lobster for dinner! We were never more than a few hundred feet from where we were anchored, right there in Fisher’s Bay.

A grill full of lobster

We spent the rest of the day just putzing around the island, and ended it with cocktails at Grabber’s, watching one of their gorgeous sunsets.

Sunset at Grabbers

 

 

Day Six: Christmas Eve – Hopetown
We left Fisher’s Bay about 9:00 a.m. for the two hour run to Hopetown. We wanted to get to the Lighthouse Marina before 11:00, thinking they closed then (they didn’t), and hoping they had slips available (they did). In fact, the marina was empty when we arrived, and we were the only two boats in it the whole day and night. Paul, the very nice dockmaster there, welcomed us back (the Turtle had been there a few nights on each of our previous Abacos trips) and directed Smartini into the only slip they have that’s deep enough to accommodate our 6 foot draft. A few minutes later, Steve pulled the Turtle into the slip opposite us.

When we first got the Turtle, none of us had any big boat experience. (At 43′, and with twin diesel engines, the Turtle is definitely a “big boat” by our definition, since all previous boating had been on 20′ lake boats.) Fran, Brady, and I were able to get some experience pretty quickly, as we all lived where the boat was. But Steve’s time on it was extremely limited, so each time he came to Florida and took the helm, he was kinda back at Square One. Handling the boat in close quarters – in and out of the slip, with other boats only a few feet away – wasn’t something he had much opportunity to gain confidence at. But here he was, pulling the Turtle into the slip with wind from one direction, current from slightly another, and a very shallow spot just off his starboard stern to worry about, with total confidence and competence. For just a moment, I felt a great sense of pride for him, and then I realized that he was just doing what Fran, Brady, and I had done before him only because we’d had the opportunity. My feeling of pride gave way to a feeling of incredible happiness for him. He was, after all these years, finally seeing his dream come true: he had just captained his boat a hundred miles south on the ICW, then across the Atlantic Ocean to the Bahamas, then across the Little Bahama Bank and the Sea of Abaco, and was pulling it into a marina at the base of a hundred year old lighthouse, in a cozy little Bahamian settlement, with his family, on Christmas Eve. “You pretty happy, Steve?”, I asked from the dock. “Freakin’ ecstatic!” was his understated reply.

While Fran and I gave Smartini a top to bottom rinse, the Turtle crew dropped their dink in the water and headed across the harbor to town. (You can’t walk from the marina to town – you can only go by boat.) They returned a few hours later with some fresh bread from Vernon’s Bakery and keys to bikes they had rented. Meanwhile, Fran and I made new friends! I was on the upper deck, putting away the hose after rinsing Smartini, when a man stepped onto the dock looking for Paul to get fuel for his runabout. I noticed he was wearing a hat with the AOPA logo on it (Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association), so I said “What do you fly?”. He looked up at me, puzzled, but answered “A Baron, among other things.” We immediately started chatting about airplanes and flying, and were five minutes into the conversation when he said “The hat!”, realizing that’s how I knew he was a pilot. “You know, I’ve had this hat for probably ten years, and this is literally the first time I’ve ever worn it.” Not the first time that a seemingly insignificant decision sparked a conversation that led to a friendship (right, Richard and Beth?), and a reminder to me to continue to engage new people. Especially if they’re boaters, or pilots, and absolutely without fail if they’re both.

Our new friends Mark and Diana

Mark and Diana are from Orlando, and have spent a week or two in Hopetown every year, often over Christmas, for the last dozen years. They fly the Baron into Marsh Harbour, rent a small boat and a house, and remind themselves what keeps bringing them back. We ended up spending a few hours with them, and with Steve and Challen, having cocktails at the Hopetown Inn’s poolside bar on Christmas afternoon. I could write several paragraphs about them just from that conversation, but I’ll summarize by saying these are people we want to hang out with some more! Having a Baron and not being afraid to use it will hopefully facilitate that.

After we gave Mark and Diana a tour of Smartini, Fran and I put our dink in the water and putted over to Hopetown. As we were walking away from the dinghy, I heard “You’re Brian, right? And you’re Fran?”. What? Someone in Hopetown knew us? It was Caleb McDaniel, a fishing buddy of our dear friend Charlie Tudor, there with his family for the holidays. The next day, elsewhere in Hopetown, the same thing happened when his dad, Chris, saw us. Small world!

Hopetown Harbor, viewed from the top of the lighthouse

We love Hopetown, and the whole island it’s on, Elbow Cay. It’s small, but has everything we’re looking for when vacationing. It’s got great history, which is apparent when walking around town. On one side is the ocean, and on the other side is the harbor, so it’s a water lover’s paradise. There are plenty of restaurants from bare bones to barbecue to elegant, and plenty of places to get a cocktail. And there’s Vernon’s Bakery and Grocery. Trust me, if you’re in Hopetown, you want to go to Vernon’s. He makes bread that’ll make the gluten-intolerant among you question your very existence.

That evening, on the dock at Lighthouse Marina, we watched the Christmas classic, “Pirates of the Caribbean”. Steve and Brady projected it onto one of Steve’s Christmas presents, a high tech stretchy screen strung between the two tall antennas of the Turtle. Over our left shoulders was the Hopetown Lighthouse, with strings of Christmas lights strung from the ground to the top, making the biggest Christmas tree in the Abacos. It was warm enough for shorts and t-shirts. You know – pretty much like any ol’ Christmas Eve in Indianapolis.

Day Seven: Christmas Day
On Christmas morning, there were no presents to open, but there was the next best thing – Vernon’s Cinnamon bread that Steve made into French

Christmas breakfast on the dock – Bahamian bread French toast!

toast, on the dock, in brilliant sunshine and perfect temperatures. (I know I keep talking about Vernon’s bread, but if you’ve ever had it, you know why!) The only thing that would have made it a better Christmas morning for me would have been for Maddie and Bennett to be there with us. That’s one of the costs of this lifestyle Fran and I have chosen – being away from friends and family. I guess life is full of compromises, and always will be.

After breakfast, we all rode bikes to the southern tip of Elbow Cay, stopping along the way for pictures by the ocean, and a cocktail at Sea Spray, a very nice restaurant / bar / marina on White Sound. We stopped the bikes at the gate that said “Private Property”, and walked on the beach, picking up shells, chunks of cool coral, and beach glass for Steve to take home to their lake house in Indiana. Brady and Bennett stayed with us for a bit, and then decided to push on to the very tip of the island, which happens to be one of the most beautiful stretches of sand I’ve ever seen, Tahiti Beach.

Merry Christmas from Hopetown!

After a grueling 18 minute bike ride back to Hopetown (hey – they have a hill!), we returned to the boats to find Mark and Diana looking for us, wanting to go have cocktails at the Hopetown Inn. We don’t normally drink so early in the day, but it was Christmas, so what the heck! Over the next few hours, we learned that Mark was a fighter pilot, a flight instructor specializing in professional athletes and celebrities, and is now a top secret scientist for the NSA. Diana is the head of the animation studio at Disney. They have a talking pterodactyl named Sammy. At least, that’s how I remember the conversation. As I said earlier, we wanna hang out with those two some more!

Christmas dinner was a buffet at Sea Spray, but rather than risk bikes in the dark, they sent their limo for us – a 6 seat golf cart. The driver was a nice man named Robert (I think). When we were going through the buffet line later, Robert was refreshing the pan of fried grouper and I said, “Robert, you’re a man of many talents – what exactly is your role here?” “Umm… I sign the checks”, he replied. We all thought it was pretty cool that the owner drove the golf cart, kept the buffet line full, and was also probably the chief cook and bottle washer. Dinner was excellent, although just a bit windy (we were outside under the coconut palm trees), and the ride back to Hopetown was uneventful. We had a different driver – I’m pretty sure he was just a regular customer of Robert’s who was happy to help out. You meet some nice people in the Bahamas.

The only negative about Hopetown that I can think of is that, at Smartini speed, it’s three full days from Florida. Given that Steve, Challen and Bennett had to be on a flight back to Indy on New Year’s Day, we couldn’t linger in Hopetown. By 10:00 a.m. on Boxing Day (they really call it that there), we were saying goodbye to Paul at the Lighthouse Marina and heading west. The forecast for the crossing was excellent for the 29th and horrible for the 30th, so as much as we wanted to, we just couldn’t stay. The rest of the trip was, with a few exceptions, unremarkable, so I won’t bore you with the details (more beautiful water, bright sun, great food, blah, blah, blah), but here’s a summary:

Day Eight Our third lucky weather and sea state let us go back around the Whale, giving us a better test of the stabilizers. We ended the day in a perfectly protected little cove on Munjack Cay, a favorite of our friends Beth and Richard, so we were a little sad we didn’t have to time to explore it.

The start of a full day crossing the Little Bahama Bank

Day Nine Up before BOB, motor all the way to Mangrove Cay, anchor just before sunset. We did that long day so that our last day crossing the Bank would be short, and we’d have all afternoon at Old Bahama Bay.

Day Ten Three hours to Old Bahama Bay, with a quick stop along the way on a textbook Bahamian coral head, where we were able to decimate the lionfish population. (But still no grouper.) All afternoon exploring the coastline and tide pools around Old Bahama Bay, and the absolute best octopus experience any of us may ever have. (That’ll be a separate post, with great pictures and video!) Smoked brisket dinner on Smartini that night – that Fran smoked while we were underway!

Smoked brisket dinner – smoked onboard!

Day Eleven: Going Home
Fran and I needed to get to Lake Worth to be hauled out for a new bottom job (that’s a whole other story that we’re in the middle of as I write this). The Turtle crew wanted to get as close to Melbourne as they could that day, so they were heading for the Fort Pierce Inlet. This meant we wouldn’t be crossing back together, but after this long, everyone was confident in their abilities on the water, and in their boat’s reliability. For the fourth and final time on this trip, we needed good weather and seas to get somewhere, and we got it – the forecast had only gotten better over the past three days. At 6:00 a.m on the 29th, the Turtle pulled out of Old Bahama Bay, followed an hour later by Smartini. We were able to maintain radio contact until about 10:30, and both boats were within sight of land a few hours after that. Smartini pulled into the Riviera Beach City Marina by mid-afternoon, and Turtle E. Awesome, apparently eager for some night time navigation practice, motored into the ICW at Fort Pierce, then all the way home, pulling into their slip at Anchorage Yacht Basin about 10:00 p.m.

The look on his face says it all!

When you want something for a very long time, and you finally get it, it may let you down a little – may not live up to your expectations. Let’s see if that’s the case here: “Steve, was it everything you hoped for?”

At Anchor, Green Turtle Cay, Bahamas

A quick photographic update. We (Smartini and Turtle E. Awesome) arrived at Green Turtle Cay, Abacos, Bahamas, yesterday afternoon and are anchored just outside of New Plymouth.

(I tried to post this yesterday, so the description is a day behind.)

At anchor, Green Turtle Cay, Abacos, Bahamas, Dec 21, 2016.