In the middle of June, we had a two week stretch between guests to get from George Town on Great Exuma to Governor’s Harbour on Eleuthera. The weather was mostly favorable for travel, so we were able to spend all the time we wanted at each of those places. This post tells just a little bit about those two weeks, with a whole lotta pictures at the end of it.
The North end of Long Island is about 53 nm from George Town, and that was our first stop. We had heard that Calabash Bay is very nice, with one of the most beautiful beaches in all of the Bahamas. We made it there easily in one day, and found (surprise!) a beautiful bay and beach, and a nice calm anchorage. Long Island is long (duh!) – about 80 miles – so one of the days we rented a car and drove about 2/3 of the way down it to Clarence Town. There, there are two churches that were designed and built by a man called Father Jerome – one church is Catholic, the other Protestant (Church of England). He was an interesting guy, but I won’t spend much Smartini Life time on him – if you’re interested, his real name was John Hawes. Near the end of his life, he built “The Hermitage” on Cat Island, of which there are a lot of pictures in the photo gallery at the end of this post.
We visited world famous Dean’s Blue Hole, a 600-foot deep blue hole (and underwater sink hole) where the annual freediving championships are held. We snorkeled around the edge of it, but neither of us could bring ourselves to swim out over the middle of it. (What? We’re going to suddenly plummet to the bottom just because it’s deep? I didn’t say it made sense.)
We found the house of one of our long-time clients from when we had jobs, Dr. Larry Levin. He flies to Long Island from his home in Rhode Island in his Socata Trinidad (single engine airplane) about once a month to run the only dental clinic on the island. Unfortunately, we keep missing him – he zigs when we zag – and this time was no different.
We met a couple from North Carolina on the beach one day, and they told us they have a house overlooking the ocean, and that we should stop by for coffee the next day, before we took off on our rental car exploration of the island. So we did. What a cool place they’ve built! It’s tiny, it’s high on the rocky shore of the East side of the island, it has no electricity nor running water, near-constant sea breeze, and an incredible view! They have scrounged the beach for years and build stuff with their found treasures – furniture, decorations, etc. They fly down in their Mooney (single engine airplane) pretty regularly and just relax, and enjoy their little paradise. And we can’t for the life of us remember their names. But that’s the way it’s been on this trip more often than not – we meet people, spend a little time with them, usually learn some really interesting stuff about them, and then we never see them again.
Next stop was the tiny island of Conception, about 20 nm NE of Long Island. It’s a national park, with no one and nothing on it, and it has the most beautiful bay and beach of any we’ve seen in the Bahamas. When we arrived, there wasn’t another soul to be seen – and in June in the Bahamas, that’s saying something. We spent only a day or so there, did a little snorkeling, saw the biggest Nassau Grouper ever (I swear he was the size of a suitcase!), walked on both sides of the island, and then when another boat showed up, it was time to move on.
The southern tip of Cat Island is only about 30 miles from Conception, but where we were headed, it was a total of about 45, which we did on another beautiful day for being on the ocean. Our first stop on Cat was New Bight, a tiny settlement on the West side of the island. (All of our time on Long, Cat, Conception, and Eleuthera was on the West side – the East side is often too rough for us to travel there, and almost all of the settlements are on the West sides.) We simply had to stop at New Bight, so that we could climb Mount Alvernia – the highest point in the Bahamas! For one thing, we needed some exercise, so a little mountain climbing seemed like a good idea. But the real attraction of Mount Alvernia is The Hermitage – a tiny compound built by the aforementioned Father Jerome to spend the waning years of his life. It has everything one needs to live and worship – a chapel, a place to cook, and sleep, and shower, and everything else – all built for one, single person. He also built a monument of sorts on the steep, rocky path up to it – all of the “Stations of the Cross” are represented along the way. I can imagine for someone who is Catholic, especially a devout Catholic, that it would be a moving experience to hike it. There’s a picture of each one of the surviving stations in the gallery at the end of this post, along with many other pictures of The Hermitage. By the way, our mountain climbing wasn’t as strenuous as most – it turns out that the highest point in all of the Bahamas is only 206 feet above sea level!
We rented a car on Cat, too, and drove around much of the island. One of our stops was the Bat Cave (see pictures). Since all of the Bahamas is made of limestone, there are lots of caves, sink holes, and other natural formations that happen when limestone erodes. This particular cave is right on the side of the road, so we just had to go in. Takes all of three minutes to see it all, but if you go all the way to the back, there are bats! Interestingly, this was our second cave with bats in the Bahamas, the first being on Cave Cay.
Fun Fact: Cat Island is the only place in the Bahamas to ever have a railroad. In the 1800’s, when there was significant agriculture on Cat, the railroad was used to transport produce to a port for loading on ships to Europe and the US. There’s almost none of it left now – we didn’t find any of it. Just another tidbit in the long, strange history of these islands.
After a couple nights anchored at New Bight, we moved a few hours north to Bennett’s Harbour. We found some nice reefs to snorkel, harvested a few of their groupers, spent a night or two, but apparently, didn’t take many pictures. No big deal – it was just another beautiful bay, with beautiful water, overlooking a beautiful beach. Nuthin’ special.
Just south of Bennett’s Harbour, a little north of Alligator Point, we took Killer about a mile and a half up into a big tidal creek. It was beautiful up in there, but the main attraction is turtles – juveniles who aren’t yet big enough to be out in the ocean full time. We saw a lot on the way in, so on the way out, we counted them – nineteen! Plus two or three sharks, and a big stingray or two.
The day we left Bennett’s Harbour was maybe the flattest, calmest, smoothest, pick-your-favorite-adjective-for-good-boating-est day we’ve yet experienced. The picture of Killer in our wake, with every wave distinct and undisturbed to the horizon, says it all. A rare day indeed.
Our last stop before Governor’s Harbour on Eleuthera was to be Tarpum Bay, but it was farther than we wanted to go in one day, so we made a quick overnight stop at Little San Salvador, a tiny island with a big bay, all of it owned by one of the cruise ship lines. Fortunately, we got there after the ship had left, and we left before the next one arrived, so we had it pretty much to ourselves for the few waking hours we were there. Unfortunately, while maneuvering to anchor, Captain Fran heard an unfamiliar noise and put it in neutral, but not before Killer’s tow line had gotten wrapped around the prop. Ugh! Several breath-hold dives later, the prop was clear, the tow line was only about 10 feet shorter, and we had learned a very valuable lesson – tie Killer CLOSE to Smartini before doing any maneuvering.
Tarpum Bay, on Eleuthere, is home to the Bahamas Plastic Movement, whose mission it is to reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in the environment. Their major achievement so far is helping to get plastic bags banned in the Bahamas (to take effect in 2020). Fran learned of them through a Pike High School student named Molly Denning. (Pike is where my daughter Maddie went, along with all of her friends, and the kids of many of our friends in Indy.) Molly did an internship with BPM during college. Molly is friends with the BenHameda family, who are dear friends of ours. The connection was made, and Fran started communicating with Kristal Ambrose, the founder of the organization. Kristal was to be off island, doing an internship of her own in the Netherlands, while we were there, so she arranged for Michael, a local teacher who is deeply involved in BPM, to meet us. He was a fantastic host, giving us a tour of their part of Eleuthera, telling us about all the cool things BPM is doing, and showing us one of the most impressive trees we’ve ever seen! (And spiders – see pictures.)
After a night or two at Tarpum Bay, this chapter of our story came to a close as we headed for Governor’s Harbour to await the arrival of our next guests, Ingrid, Penelope, and Porter (Fran’s sister, niece, and nephew). I’ll write that Visit Report next!
It was a wonderful two weeks, the first long stretch that we’d been able to do what we thought we’d be doing most of the time – leisurely cruising from island to island, exploring each one as much or little as we like, and then moving on. Don’t get me wrong – we love having guests, and getting to share some of our adventures with them – but “Fran and Brian” time is special, and this little adventure was definitely special.
I originally wrote this post on April 28, and then promptly forgot about it, and never posted it – oops! It’s about our first foray into the Exumas, the chain of islands that’s kind of in the middle of the Bahamas. It runs about 100 miles north to south, and is no more than 1/2 mile wide for much of that. It consists of over 365 mostly-small islands (“cays” – pronounced “keys”, not “cays”), with lots of cuts between them that connect the “big water” (the Exuma Sound) on the east side to the shallow bank on the west side. In the middle is Staniel Cay, near the famous Bahamas Swimming Pigs. Great Exuma is the southernmost island, and that’s where George Town and Elizabeth Harbour are. Literally hundreds of cruisers spend their winters there.
What follows is from our first visit to any of the Exumas – the northern part, most easily reached from Nassau. If you want only the pictures, scroll to the end.
Click here to see the path we’ve taken so far. Click the “+” next to Fran’s name.
We anchored just off a beautiful beach, put Killer (our dinghy) in the water, and explored around the island. This would become almost a ritual as we moved from cay to cay. Norman’s was the home of some serious drug smuggling in the late 70’s and early 80’s, run by a guy named Carlos Lehder. Drugs came and went by plane and boat. There’s a rusted out hulk of an airplane in the harbour, and some bullet holes in a few of the buildings from those days. Now, Norman’s is home to a small restaurant and bar, a few rental bungalos, and one of the best hamburgers I’ve ever had, anywhere. (For $25, it better be!) They don’t make this claim, but if they did say it was the inspiration for “Cheeseburger in Paradise”, it would not be hard to believe.
We didn’t find any great snorkeling around Norman’s, so the next day, we moved north a few miles to Highborne Cay. Highborne is home to a fancy-schmancy resort, a very nice, but very small, well sheltered marina, and a restaurant. We took Killer into the marina to fill his gas tanks, and had some lunch at the restaurant. While we were there, a barge was bringing in a massive amount of stuff for some rich dude’s birthday party. Apparently he had rented out the whole island for a week, and it was going to be a real blow out! We were not invited – can you imagine? We did find a few small places to snorkel, but still, nothing we would go out of our way for. Unfortunately, this has been our experience so far in the Exumas – most places, as beautiful as they are above water, don’t have much to look at under the water. We’ve found exceptions, and we certainly haven’t stopped searching yet – but it’s not like there are beautiful coral reefs off the shore of every cay. We’ve really had to search.
There’s supposed to be great fishing for mahi mahi on the outside of Highborne, and the seas weren’t too bad, so out we went. (“outside” refers to the east side of the islands – the ocean side – and the west side is the “inside”, where it’s shallow and protected from the ocean waves and swell, for the most part.) We took Killer. A little small for ocean fishing, but we weren’t going to be more than about a half-mile offshore, so it was OK. We trolled up and down the drop-off in about 100 feet of water for 45 minutes or so, and then decided that we really should have either a bigger boat, or calmer seas, for trolling in the ocean.
There are native iguanas on a small number of cays in the Exumas, but Allan’s is probably the most famous one, because when you beach your dinghy, the iguanas come to greet you. Well, not really – they come expecting you to feed them, which most people do, so they keep coming. Within minutes of us arriving, we could see 15 of these prehistoric-looking lizards on the beach, most of them within throwing distance (the distance we could throw the lettuce, not the iguanas). But apparently they’re accustomed to grapes, and we had none, so most of them turned their nose up and showed us their tail as they retreated to the shade of the scrub.
And then we found beautiful coral reef! We were buzzing along the inside in Killer, in search of coral heads as always, and Fran noticed a white float ahead of us. We pulled up to it and realized it was a mooring ball, and under it was coral reef – lots and lots of coral reef! At least an acre of it. There were actually three mooring balls on it, and the next day, at slack tide, we came back with our scuba gear. It wasn’t very deep (28′ if you laid on the bottom in the deepest spots), but we had a wonderul hour and twenty minute dive. It was exactly what we’d been looking for – and parts of it were shallow enough to snorkel. If we’re in the northern Exumas again, you can bet we’ll be back to this spot! (We learned later the reef is called “Lobster No Lobster” – and no, we didn’t see any. If you go there, the current is totally slack for over an hour, starting about 30 minutes after low or high tide at Nassau. At mid-tide, the current is ripping so fast you don’t even want to attempt it.)
Ship Channel Cay
This is the farthest north cay in the Exumas. North of it, the chain becomes just rocks sticking out of the water, too small to be called cays. (There’s supposed to be some nice coral reef up there, but it’s a long dinghy ride to reach it.) We anchored near the remains of an old house that had been made from limestone blocks, cut from the island. (Interesting tidbit – the only native rock or stone in the Bahamas is limestone. No granite, marble, slate – nothing but limestone. It’s what all the islands are made of, and why it’s so difficult to do any serious farming.) The house seems like it was built at least 50 years ago, maybe 100. Long since abandoned, it looked to still be structurally sound. There are so many abandoned homes throughout the Bahamas – one day, we’ll do a picture gallery of them.
A very long, wet tour all around the island in Killer revealed nothing at all that we wanted to snorkel on.
At this point, we needed to get back to Nassau. The repair parts for our watermaker were due to arrive, and we needed to have them installed before continuing. (That didn’t actually happen at that time, but that’s another story!)
Summary: We’ve heard many people say the Exumas are their favorite part of the Bahamas. At this point, we’ve explored only the northernmost 10 – 15% of them, but if the rest are as beautiful as this part, it’s easy to see why people feel that way. The beaches are absolutely beautiful, as is the water in front of them. Our only disappointment was the lack of excellent diving and snorkeling. There’s probably a lot of that on the outside – we know of at least four live-aboard dive boats that come to this area from Nassau over and over – but with the wind blowing like it was, we didn’t get a chance to see for ourselves.
In case you’ve been wondering what the crew of Smartini (Fran and me, but not May the Cat) has been up to lately – we went to Italy! For two weeks with Bennett (my son, Fran’s step-son), and Bennett’s mom, Terri Henderson (yes, that’s my ex-wife – we get along great these days), then just Fran and me for another week.
I’d love to give you all the details, but in the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride, “No, it’s too much – lemme sum up.” We left the USA on May 12 (Terri and Bennett from NYC, Fran and me from Miami) and flew to Rome. A few days there, then a few days in Venice, then a few days in Florence, then some more days in the countryside of Tuscany, a few miles from Siena. Terri and Bennet had to go home at that point, but Fran and I stayed for almost another week, driving a few days to Rome, and then flying to the island of Sicily for four days.
It was a great trip. Bennett is in art school, and Terri was a fine arts / art history graduate from Indiana University, so the art we saw in person, that they had been seeing only in books for years, was enough to make the trip a success for them. (Fran and I really enjoyed that part, too – except maybe for all the pushing and shoving in the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel – that was a bit much!) The four days hanging out at the old (OLD! Everything is old there! Like, hundreds, even thousands, of years old!) house in Tuscany was relaxing, and beautiful, and fun as we explored nearby Siena, and the countryside.
We really loved every place we went: Rome, Pompeii / Amalfi Coast, Venice, Florence, Tuscany / Siena, and Sicily. The people were, almost without exception, welcoming and wonderful, in spite of our many, many utterances of “Mi dispiaci – non parlo Italiano.” (I’m sorry, I don’t speak Italian.)
It’s too much to write about, and even if I did, you’d still need to go yourself to really understand what it’s all about. If you’ve ever fantasized about going – do it! I can’t imagine you won’t love it!
Here is a small selection of the hundreds of pictures we took, with comments describing a lot of them. (You have to click on the little “thought bubble” icon to read the comments – sorry!) https://photos.app.goo.gl/UDgWLtQxscsiyGwL9
No description of this trip would be complete without sending a huge “Thank you!” to Paul and Denise Magnus, who flew all the way from Minnesota to George Town, in the Bahamas, to spend almost a month onboard Smartini, to take care of May the Cat. We met Paul and Denise while we were in the marina in Titusville, FL for a few weeks back in 2016. They lived on their boat for a very long time, but sadly, lost it to Hurricane Irma. When Denise found out we were looking for a cat-sitter for three weeks, she immediately volunteered. Thanks so much, Paul and Denise!
Fran and I have known Robin since 2009 or 2010. Like most of our Florida friends, we met her through Crossfit. She’s been a dear friend almost since the beginning. She’s been to Indianapolis for Winterfest, so she’s met a bunch of our Indy friends, too. She met Cathy a year ago (they celebrated that anniversary while onboard, in fact), and Fran and I have been able to spend some time with Cathy during that time, so we figured she would probably make a good guest.
They arrived early on Friday the 23rd for a four night stay. We spent the first night in Nassau Harbour Club (our new marina-of-choice in Nassau), because Robin needed to get to a local Crossfit gym to complete the last of the five Open workouts, which had been announced just the night before. (Thrusters! Robin’s favorite!) We found Happy Hour Crossfit (is that a great name, or what?) and its most gracious owner, Mario Jordan, less than a mile from the marina. He met us there 30 minutes before his first afternoon class, so he could devote his total attention to judging Robin. What a great guy, and a great gym! Not huge, but bigger than I expected, and well equipped. (The gym, not Mario. Well, Mario, too, I guess!) A perfect place for Robin to complete her last Open workout, as it was less than a three minute walk to the Green Parrot Bar, where we had some appropriate post-workout beverages (Tito’s Recovery Drink for Robin), and some quite tasty dinner.
The next morning (after much sleeping in by the guests), we headed out to Rose Island, where we had spent a couple nights with Bennett, to spend the next two days and nights. There’s really nothing to do there other than relax and snorkel, so that’s what we did. Cathy had never snorkeled before and was a bit anxious about it, but within five minutes of getting in the water, she was as comfortable as she could be. We were on a shallow, healthy reef, so there was plenty to see, and after another five minutes, she was hooked! We stayed in the water until all four of us were starting to shiver, and when we got out, she couldn’t stop talking about how cool it was. Yep – hooked for sure!
Over the next 48 hours we were in a rythm: sleep late, leisurely breakfast with Bloody Marys, snorkel until we got cold, cocktails, lobster for dinner, more cocktails, and sleep. Wash, rinse, repeat. We snorkeled on the north and south sides of Rose Island, and both were equally nice. It’s surprising how healthy the reefs are in this area, since they’re visited by literally hundreds of tourists from Nassau every day. Fran and I were able to demonstrate some of our hunting skills, getting a lobster or two on each dive, and I shot a snapper with my new Hawaiian sling (I need a LOT of practice!) Robin and Cathy think Fran is some kind of lobster ninja, after watching her sprint to the bottom and skewer a big bug that I had chased out of its hole. Ask one of them to tell you the story – it gets better every time!
Our last snorkel before heading back into the marina yesterday afternoon was one for the books. Fran, Robin, and Cathy practically ran into a loggerhead turtle who couldn’t have cared less about them being there, and saw two other smaller turtles. I surprised Robin and Cathy with a nurse shark that I poked out from under a ledge. Fran found some giant sea hares, and we learned that they squirt purple ink if they feel threatened (i.e., if you poke them with a spear tip). The women found a total of five lobsters (I have apparently lost my ability to find them, as I saw only the ones they found), but we caught only two – another nice spiny, and yet another big slipper. One was too small, and we simply couldn’t get the other two. There was a big Atlantic stingray. And of course, countless little tropicals that cover the spectrum of colors, shapes, and sizes.
One afternoon, we had cocktail hour with our new Canadian friends on Dances with Dolphins, Janice and Wes, along with Wes’s sister Karen and her girlfriend Karen. We spent a good bit of time each day on the flybridge, enjoying the nearly perfect weather, and being entertained by Cathy’s non-stop exclamations of how beautiful the water was, or how delicious the lobster was, or how fantastically she slept every night, or how much she LOVED snorkeling. (Robin, you were a wonderful guest, too, but I keep mentioning Cathy because she never stopped acting like a kid on Christmas morning!)
Our last evening, back in the marina, we took a cab across the bridge to Paradise Island and Atlantis, just to see it. If you like Las Vegas and Disney, you’d probably like Atlantis – it feels like a marriage of those two. Pirate Republic Brewing (the only craft brewery in the Bahamas) has a tasting room there, and we enjoyed their IPA and stout. (Nothing to write home about, but for beer lovers like Fran and me, it was heads and shoulders above all other Bahamian beer.) We really enjoyed the huge aquarium in Atlantis – the manta rays, spotted eagle rays, Atlantic stingrays, and literally thousands of fish, were quite impressive, and the tank itself is ginourmous. But Fran noted that anyone coming to the Bahamas and experiencing only Atlantis is, sadly, totally missing what the Bahamas are really like.
Traveler’s Tip: In Nassau, if you take a cab, be prepared to feel like you’re getting screwed almost every time. Some of them have meters, but we never saw one turned on. One driver said they use them for the locals, but they have “fixed prices” for tourists. Translation: they make up the price every time you get in the cab, probably based on everything they can ascertain about you during the ride. When Bennett arrived, we took a cab to the airport to get him, and then brought him back to the marina in the same cab. The fare was NINETY DOLLARS!!!! (It was maybe 20 minutes each way.) The last evening Bennett was here, we took a cab back from a restaurant one night. (We walked there, but didn’t walk home because the street was very busy, with no sidewalk and no lighting, and after dinner it was very dark out.) The fare was TWELVE DOLLARS for THREE MINUTES! Just last night, we paid $20 for the maybe six minute ride to Atlantis, but when we came home – a shorter trip, because it had all the one way streets in the right direction – it was $23. The driver took a full ten seconds to come up with that amount when I asked her what it was going to be, and then defended it like a mother defends her offspring when I told her we paid only $20 to get there. If there’s a way to make it seem like less of a rip-off, I haven’t figured it out yet.
OK, enough bellyaching!
At 7:00 this morning, they hopped into a cab for the airport. We crammed a lot of fun into four days and nights with Robin and Cathy, and they’re already scheming to get back onboard. They’re certainly welcome any time!
Katie is my almost-kinda-sorta niece. Actually, she’s the second child of my best friend since high school, Ron Stanhouse and his wife Liz, but I’ve known her since the day she was born (literally), and we’ve spent so many holidays together in the last 23 years, she and her older sister Abigail seem like nieces. Katie started her first post-college job last December, and in August, finally got some vacation time. Fran and I were thrilled that she chose to spend it with us on Smartini!
We were still moored in Boot Key Harbor (Marathon) when she flew into Key West, so we drove down to pick her up, stopped for lunch at the Southernmost Cafe, then a beer at The Hog Snapper on Stock Island, before driving back to Boot Key. We spent a day in Marathon getting ready for some offshore travel, then off we went towards Key West and the Dry Tortugas.
We stopped at Looe Key a few hours after leaving Boot Key for some snorkeling. Katie had finished her scuba certification with us in the Bahamas a couple years ago, aboard the Turtle E. Awesome, but hadn’t been underwater since then, so she was eager for a refresher. Looe Key was the perfect opportunity to get used to breathing with her face underwater, with no pressure: a nice, long snorkel tour of the reef. We would have liked to stay longer, but we wanted to get to Key West well before dark, so after about an hour, we headed southwest. But we learned that we can use the mooring balls on Looe Key, so we hope to go back for some scuba diving!
We arrived in Key West with at least an hour of sunlight left and anchored a little north of the Key West Bight on the west side of Fleming Key. We would be returning to Key West a few days later, so we didn’t even leave the boat that evening – just enjoyed the sunset and got ready to depart in the morning for the Dry Tortugas. Katie had fully adapted to the “island time” pace on Smartini – it was such a change from her last eight months spending most days behind the counter at Enterprise Car Rental.
The next morning we pulled anchor and headed west for the 60 nm run to the Dry Tortugas. Weather, wind, and waves were all favorable, and we had dolphins with us several times during the day, including a threesome that rode the bow wave for at least five minutes. Katie was thrilled to no end, and took lots of pictures and some video. (Fran and I were, too, but we tried to act nonchalant about it – you know, being the cool boat people that we are.)
The only challenge about that run is the lobster pots – they are the bane of most boaters in the Keys, even as far away from the populated areas as the Dry Tortugas. A lobster “pot” is a lobster trap, that sits on the bottom, and is marked by a small styrofoam buoy at the surface. We don’t ever want to run over one, because the rope between the trap and the buoy can snag on our stabilizer fins and get pulled into the propeller, possibly with damage to the prop, shaft, rudder, or hull. But they’re EVERYWHERE!!! At times, it’s like playing Whack-a-Mole – you dodge one buoy, and seconds later, you’re changing course to dodge another, then another, then another. It’s honestly a little stressful, especially when the sun is low in front of you, and the glare makes the buoys hard to see even when you’re almost on top of them.
Eight and a half hours after leaving Key West, with all the lobster pots safely behind us, we pulled into the northside anchorage at Garden Key, the island in the Dry Tortugas on which Fort Jefferson stands. The fort is a huge six-sided brick structure that covers almost the entire island. Begun in 1846, it was worked on for decades, but never really finished. The history of it is fascinating, especially given its remote location, but I won’t delve into it here. Wikipedia is a decent place to start, if you’re interested.
We wanted to be back in Key West for Katie’s birthday, so we’d have only one full day in the Dry Tortugas. (By the way, they’re “Dry” because none of them has any source of fresh water, and they’re “Tortugas” – Spanish for “turtles” – because the earliest explorers of the area saw and caught lots and lots of turtles there.) We wanted to get some more snorkeling in, as well as a couple of scuba dives to get Katie refamiliarized, so that would be our plan for our one day there. Unfortunately, there are very strict rules about where you can take a boat, where you can beach a boat, and where you can anchor, which didn’t leave us with many options. Smartini draws 6 feet (i.e., she needs at least 6 feet of water depth to stay off the bottom), and our dinghy isn’t very fast, especially with three people and dive gear, so there weren’t many places we could go. (We finally named the dinghy – SmarTeeny, or “Teeny” for short.) We managed to get in an hour-long scuba dive, and Katie did great (in spite of her feeling a little anxious about it, as we learned later). Then we took Teeny to the northwest side of Loggerhead Key, looking for the wreck of an old boat that’s supposed to be fun to snorkel on. We didn’t find the wreck, but Fran and Katie had some really nice snorkeling in 6 – 10 feet. (I had to stay on Teeny, as anchoring in the area is prohibited.)
When we returned to Smartini, Katie was ready for some relaxation and Fran and I wanted to finish cleaning the bottom of the boat, so that’s what happened. Man – we need to be a lot more aware of when the barnacles start growing on Smartini. What should have been a 30 minute job for one of us turned into an hour for both of us. Lesson learned!
This was our first opportunity to use the scuba tank filler (air compressor) we had installed over a year ago. We fired it up and started filling tanks, used two of them to clean the bottom, and then kept filling them so all four would be full. On about the third one, the compressor started making a funny noise, and within seconds turned into a not-at-all-funny noise – the belt that turns the compressor was screaming, as the compressor itself seized up. WTH?!?! Well, that’s what happens when you let a piece of machinery operate without the correct amount of oil. DOH! (We got lucky – a $400 rebuild of the compressor head and we’re back in business.) Lesson learned!
After another relaxing evening, we went to bed for a not-so-relaxing night. Our generator was still not fixed, so although I could run it, I could do so only with all the safeties disarmed. That meant that if we happened to suck up a plastic bag into the cooling water intake, for example, the engine would quickly overheat and quite possibly be seriously damaged, because the overheat shutdown was disabled. But it was hot – the weather, I mean – and going to sleep without some air conditioning was going to be damned near impossible. So we ran the generator and a/c, cooled things off to a nice sleeping temp, and I set an alarm for three hours later so I could shut off the generator, limiting the exposure to an overheat. Not my most restful night onboard, for sure. (FYI, right after we returned to Key West, I finally was able to fix the generator myself, for what should be a permanent fix.)
In the morning, we started the 8 1/2 hour run back to Key West, but planned to stop short at one of the islands that’s about an hour west of Key West – the Marquesas, or Boca Grande. We wanted to snorkel a bit and enjoy another afternoon of total boat laziness. We ended up just off the southern tip of Boca Grande, put Teeny in the water, and headed for shallow water for some snorkeling. The water was warm, and almost flat calm, great for snorkeling. We didn’t find any amazing reef to snorkel on, but it was just nice being in the water. And dolphins swam near Smartini while we were anchored!
That night, there was a really nice breeze and the temperature dropped just a few degrees, so we all slept outside; Fran and I on an air mattress on the flybridge (plenty of room with Teeny still in the water), Katie on one of our super comfy deck chairs on the foredeck. The sky was mostly clear, we were 10 miles from the lights of Key West, and the stars were beautiful! Sleeping was excellent, until the wind increased to the point of making us chilly, so we all went back inside.
The next morning was Katie’s 23rd Birthday, and she wanted to spend it in Key West – a fine idea, especially since she’d never been there before. We motored into the Key West Bight Marina, tied up about 11:00, and while Fran and I tidied up Smartini, Katie walked three minutes to the Waterfront Brewery for lunch, and to meet an old friend from middle school who just started working there recently. Fran and I joined her shortly, and we spent the rest of the day showing Katie the parts of Key West that we were familiar with. Weather was sunny and hot, so of course there were lots of stops for drinks – to cool off, you know? We walked by the Southernmost Buoy, and the Hemingway House. Fran and Katie went up the lighthouse. We walked down Duvall, found Mile Marker 0, made it to Mallory Square before sunset, and crammed as much Key West into a day as we could. It was Katie’s last day of vacation – her flight left the next day about noon.
She was with us for a whole week, but it went by so quickly, we couldn’t believe when it was over. We didn’t get to dive as much as we all wanted, but Katie didn’t seem to mind. I think a week full of days that were mostly doing nothing was pretty much what she had in mind for her vacation.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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!
(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!”
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.
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!!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?”