Sailing to Panama: Bahamas, the gateway to the Windward Passage

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Following the adage “stay North to go East” we crossed the Gulf Stream and sailed across the northern part of the Abacos, to take advantage of the protected waters of the Little Bahama Bank and the Sea of Abaco. Here, even if seas get choppy when winds exceed 15kts there are plenty of places to anchor and rest waiting for the right conditions.

When sailing upwind, we ideally wait for winds between 5 and 15 knots. When it blow less or more than that we prefer to stay put at anchor and find something else to do.

Crossing the Gulf Stream in calm weather

 

 

ACROSS THE GULF STREAM

Our route across the Abacos

May 11th Leaving Florida, the night trip was comfortable with enough wind from the SE to move, and barely no waves. We adjusted our heading to compensate for the Gulf Stream pushing us north at around 2 knots: for the 12 hours that we estimated to spend in the current, we will be pushed 24 miles to the north.

LOG: 366 nm

May 12th Our calculations were a bit too pessimistic (or too conservative if you wish), and we expected more drift than what we really had. Even if we could have sailed a little more off the wind, in the early morning we were already watching the different tones of blue that brightened gradually as the ocean floor raised to form the Little Bahamas Bank. These sand banks and occasional coral reefs create an incredible spectrum of tones of blue and azure when the light reverberates on them.

Of course, right when we were transiting  from the ocean to shallower waters, the wind died, leaving us sailing at about 2knots. I was worried we would not make it to the closest anchorage before dark, and being my first time in this area I didn’t know how much I could trust the charts for night navigation.

The wind picked up later in the afternoon as forecasted: the wind at 15 knots from the SSW sent us flying to Mangrove Cay on a beam reach. We got to the lee of the island just after dusk and while Kate was at the helm I used our spot light to make sure we were dropping the anchor in a spot free of obstructions.

Quarantine (yellow) flag signals that we have not been cleared into the country by officers

 

LOG 389 nm

May 13th Early in the morning, with a fresh southerly wind we sailed north under jib alone to Grand Cay, the island where we cleared customs and immigration. The officer didn’t have a proper office, he was just walking around the village with a backpack and came to me when I rowed ashore alone. We ended up filling the paperwork inside a local restaurant.

Officially checked in the country, we took a stroll to see the island. In hindsight I noticed that Grand Cay’s population live a different life compare to other islands in the Bahamas. The remoteness of Grand Cay does not seem to help its inhabitants though, and the sign of a recent Tropical Storm are still visible on buildings.

It looked like the few tourists there were in mainly for game fishing and while we were boarding our dinghy we bummed some scraps of snapper fillet from gringos that were cleaning fish to feed Beta. It turned out that our cat is so addicted to can food that he didn’t even consider eating fresh snapper. That was not a problem for us and we used the scraps for bait.

Kate is definitely the best fisherman onboard and this time she almost immediately had a big nurse shark on the hand line. Luckily the shark wasn’t really hooked to the line, it had just sucked the bait in without biting and when we got it to the surface it let go of it. That spared us from the trouble of unhooking the unfortunate creature.

Rowing to check in the Bahamas

 

May 14th and May15th

Next we moved to Double Breasted Cay, just a couple of miles to the east. Winds were light so the open anchorage was very calm. Here we finally got our snorkeling gear out and went for a celebratory swim. At the beginning it felt awkward, but after few minutes I regained all my aquaticity and I couldn’t stop exploring the coral reef. I also grabbed some dinner along the way: one lobster and two conch. The lobster made a perfect pasta sauce and the conch ended up in a ceviche.

Conch out of the shell, the first step of a very laborious preparation

Being a true planktoneer at heart, Kate would shine the spot light at night  from the deck to the water underneath the boat to peek at marine night life. We saw a lot of different and colorful fish, until, out of nowhere, a huge loggerhead turtle, the size of a truck wheel, swam under the boat. Kate was extremely excited, as she felt this was a reward for her loyal years spent in “turtle patrol”, making actions that protects the life of turtles, from saving them from crossing Georgia causeways to remove plastic from the ocean.

Kate tests ankle high Bahamas water

The weather kept favoring the anchorage conditions and so we stayed for more swimming and we also walked over a low lying limestone island. More marine life visited us in the form of a sting ray and a small shark that followed us in the dinghy.

LOG 426 nm

May 16th After the well deserved celebration it was time to go back to work and to make some miles towards our destination. Sailing on a close-hauled SE course we arrived in Foxtown, not before occasional tacks to avoid shoals and shifting sands, that put us behind schedule with the sunset.

We read that the anchorage was well protected from the easterlies, and with a forecast of winds increasing to 20 kts from the east for few days, we needed a quiet spot to wait for better conditions. Looking closely at the charts I wasn’t convinced Foxtown would be a good place to be during stronger easterlies and so the very next morning we moved further.

LOG 433 nm

May 17th to 20th. Allan’s Cay which was very close looked better, not only for the wide bay protected from E and S, but it also has nicer waters and few trails on the island. We comfortably settled in our temporary neighborhood having a bit of leisure time, catching fish and exploring the island.

LOG: 458nm

May 20th to 22nd As soon as we had an opportunity we set sail E and S heading towards Manjack Cay. The winds were blowing 10-15kts from the ESE, and during this leg we had to deal not only with headwinds but again with islands, reefs, shoals, and occasional traffic on our way.  It took us an entire day to cover 25 miles and after so much tacking we entered the bay and dropped the hook under full sail as if it was a joke.

 

Of the little area we visited in the Abacos, Manjack Cay was our favorite spot. We anchored in the southeast part of the bay, close to the wreck of a freighter, a nice snorkeling point. On the other side of the island, we enjoyed to walk the trails that were maintained by the friendly owners of a private home, which cruisers refers to as “the homestead”.

May 22nd to 24th After focusing our time and attention to the more isolated and natural part of these islands, it was time to seek for civilization to fulfill some needs. After a brief sail in light air we approached Black Sound in Green Turtle Cay, the very next door island.

This island was a favorite spot for pirates during the golden age of piracy. The protected harbors offered good shelter and privacy, the shallow waters helped servicing vessels, and the once thriving population of Green Turtles provided food.

Sailing to Green Turtle Cay

Black sound is a narrow stretch of water with a shallow inlet. Inside there are few marinas and two mooring fields, and it seems to be very popular among cruisers. It is indeed very well protected from any weather. After barely passing the shoal bar at low tide (5 ft or less at MLW), we anchored between two mooring fields with plenty of water. The anchor set very well, and we enjoyed exploring the village of New Plymouth and the vicinity.

After a couple of days and some costs comparisons, we picked Leeward Yacht Club, as a place to dock and perform our marina routine: showers, laundry, washing, filling up water. We also had a couple of day of strong winds with several squalls but Black Sound is a very protected spot so we barely felt it.

The rates of the Marina are high, comparable to the US, so the stop was not very affordable, but considering that we only visit marinas for a couple of days every month the budget is affected only partially. Groceries and supplies were also very expensive in New Plymouth, and there was not a lot to choose from. Before leaving for the Bahamas we did a huge provisioning, so really what’s left for us to buy is bread and fresh fruit and vegetables.

May 26th to 28th After we successfully completed all our chores, we left Black Sound to stave some bucks, but also to be ready to leave whenever the weather looked good. We anchored in the bay just south of the village of New Plymouth, and prepared to sail offshore, but we didn’t have any good weather window for a couple more days.

OFFSHORE TO CAT ISLAND

May 28th to 30th We left the Abacos through the Whale Cay passage and entered the Atlantic Ocean again. At the beginning we had southerly winds. The forecast was for light air so we couldn’t achieve our usual ludicrous speed, but life aboard Tranquility was comfortable and jovial. Only when later the wind turned to the SE and increased we started our upwind tack in a general ESE direction in the open Atlantic, and we were catapulted back to the reality of our home accelerating and decelerating in multiple directions under the influence of wind and waves.

We planned two long tacks, a starboard tack to go East using SE winds and a port tack to go South. Sailing upwind is like following the contour of a wall with your hand. Different boats have different upwind performance, so that imaginary hand can slice a into the imaginary wall or be a little distant. But every boat have a limit she cannot surpass, an invisible wall that can only follow very closely. Tranquility’s limit is  perhaps 50 degrees off the True Wind Direction (TWD), and with stronger winds and pounding waves we probably get as much as 55 degrees.

Typical view of an upwind passage

 

We had picked the best possible conditions to do this trip, with headwinds at about 10 to 15 knots, and as light as 7 knots at a time. The Atlantic swell was big, but somehow more comfortable than the choppy waves of the shallow Abacos. Tranquility would ride some of the more round waves with no much fuss, till she crashed into one or few bigger or steeper ones that would bring her almost to a stop. We spent a couple of days of slow and uncomfortable sailing and with our world heeled 25 to 30 degrees from the horizontal line.

LOG 658 nm

May 30th to June 3rd During the last part of the trip the SE wind had backed a little to the ESE and picked up in intensity. We reached cat Island in full daylight and dealt with the strong gusts that were fueled by the interaction between wind and land.

The profile of Cat Island is very hilly, which is uncommon for the low lying islands of the Bahamas. Most of the times the interaction between headlands and ocean waters generates gusty conditions, and we had a couple of stronger gusts sending our rails well below the water line, even with reefed sails.

We chose to anchor near Bennet Harbor, where we stayed by ourselves for few days. It was an incredible treat to be the only boat (and humans) in sight, especially because the water and the beach were incredibly beautiful. Even if we don’t don’t live in very luxurious accommodation we felt like we like VIP as we had the most esclusive beach at our disposal.

Tranquility alone at anchor near Bennet’s Harbor

We fell into a long restful routine. Kate recovered promptly from the offshore leg and she was excited to explore this new environment. Instead I was feeling a little weak. The sensation was so subtle that at the beginning I thought I was being lazy. But when I noticed that washing dishes in the cockpit was feeling like lifting stones, I realized something was wrong. We soon discovered that I had a strong fever, and when checking my temperature the thermometer read 104F (40 Celsius).

For two days I could barely leave the the bed and suffered from muscle aches and from cold chills and hot flashes that would alternatively come and go. When you are far away from the reach of a doctor, any weird symptom becomes a source of concern.

Thanks to Kate’s good care and to my immune system the fever dissipated quickly. It took a couple more days to feel completely recovered, but we were also in such a nice spot that we couldn’t feel any rush to move on.

June 3rd I am from Italy, where soccer is more important than religion, but I rarely watch a soccer game. This time though, maybe because I am so far from home, and because Juventus (my dad’s team) was playing the Uefa Champions League Final, we tried to find a place to watch the game.

Thanks to the internet we found Yardie’s, a Gas Station/Restaurant owned by a Jamaican woman. Kate called her on the phone and she assured her we could come see the game. We moved the boat closer to Bennett’s harbor, and jumped in the dinghy to get ashore in time for the game. While the game was on we had very tasty Jerk Chicken while drinking Kalik (the Bahamian beer), and chatted with Walter, a 10 year old employee that told us everything about Cat Island.

Juventus lost the game badly, so maybe I should have stayed on the boat.

Walter, the gas man, and our guy on Cat Island

June 4th The day after I was feeling fully recovered and so we started moving again. We sailed south along Cat Island to New Bight, sailing a slightly longer course in order to avoid a few nasty looking squalls, coming up from the SE . Our intended destination was New Bight, from where it is possible to climb Mt. Alvernia, the highest point in the Bahamas towering at 206ft (63mt.). It is also the best place on the island for provisioning.  We arrived to the anchorage later in the afternoon and prepared to have a restful night.

A water spout by the downburst of a cloud. Not on our trajectory.

June 5th First thing in the morning Kate tried to turn me in at the local Police Station that was right in from of our boat as we stopped to ask for directions. The officer said she had plenty of space for me in the Police Station, as apparently crime is not very common on the island. After extracting as many information as we could from the kind officer we proceeded to Mount Alvernia,where we visited the hermitage.

Built by sculptor, architect and catholic priest John Hawes (aka Fra Jerome) in 1939, the building is a monument to minimalism and simple living. Dedicated to St.Francis of Assisi and carved from local stones, the hermitage has interesting features, like a wind tunnel for cooling and everything one need to live a simple life: a dormitory, a pantry, an outdoor bathroom, a cistern with a hand pump for rain water, a church with steeple and bell. A short person like myself could almost pass through the small doors without ducking.

The foot of the hill
The hermitage built by Father Jerome

After the ascension we went back to sea level and hiked to the grocery store. It was a mile and a half walk but the sun was already high and ferocious. We got few supplies but we were not able to refill our propane bottle, as no recent shipment had come to the island.

Walking back to our dinghy we noticed Tranquility bobbing in the anchorage: with the wind now from the south the anchorage became a little choppy, so we had to leave for a more protected one down south in the bay, closer to Old Bight.

June 7th At this point, with some more food in our pantry, we started to study the weather to decide how our next leg would look like. We were shooting for Great Inagua, which is the doorway to the Windward Passage and the place where we would check out from the Bahamas. We had a lot of options for stops along the way and studying the weather we tried to compute a passage plan, and its possible alternatives.

When we thought we had a reasonable combination of wind angle and intensity to make progress we set out to anchor at the tip of Cat Island. To kill time, and to look for a little pleasure, we walked a mile or so down the beach to Hawk’s Nest Resort, where we visited the bar, used the wifi and sit by the pool. All at no charge.

CAT ISLAND TO GREAT INAGUA

As Beta teaches us, sometimes there is nothing you can do but rest and prepare for the next leg

June 9th: Departure was set for 12 PM and we commenced the series of tack that would let us clear Cat Island and start sailing East. The first part of this leg saw us following the imaginary yet so real wall of headwinds as we tried our best to make ESE progress.

We were able to pass well south of San Salvador Island (the place where Columbus made landfall in the New World) without the need to tack and we kept sailing ESE until we were north of Samana Cay. At that point we turned south, trying to squeeze in between Acklins Island and Samana Cay.

We had mostly ESE winds so we could sail a little off the wind, but once we reached the passage between Acklins and Samana the wind again turned to the SE and we were tempted to cut the trip a little shorter and find some rest visiting Attwood Harbor, which seemed a well protected anchorage where to catch some rest.

I was on watch while approaching the harbor. As soon as we had some phone reception I was able to catch a little bit of internet connection to check the weather and download some political news about Trump for Kate’s entertainment.

Looking at the weather forecast I realized that if we stopped there we could potentially be stuck for few days as wind would turn east and increase. Considering this new information I steered back east and cleared the shoal of Northeast Point before turning south and head straight to Great Inagua. We had another 80 miles to go but we were expecting the forecasted eastearlies that would put our course on a less strenuous beam reach.

LOG 964 nm

June 11th to 13th: At 8 am, after a fast night sail, I anchored in Man-O-War Bay in Great Inagua. Kate woke up to the sight of a beach with palm trees, crystal clear waters and an old concrete dock. Few people came to relax and to catch a sunday swim, but other than that, we barely saw anybody else for the rest of our stay.

June 12th and 13th It was a beautiful resting time, we completed few minor boat repairs and walked to explore a dismissed surveillance site used by the US Coast Guard and DEA to monitor the waters around the Windward Passage.  Around the boat there were nice shallow corals where I practiced some spearfishing, until I spotted a big black tip shark, six feet or so long. At that moment I  immediately left the premises. Luckily it was a pretty unsuccessful hunt so I did not have any catch with me.

When spearfishing I use the precaution to tow the dinghy and anchor it close to where I am, so in case I get a fish I can quickly raise it above the water and unload it into the dinghy to avoid any close encounter with sharks. These fantastic creatures are usually pretty shy. In Inagua waters I had two encounters with black tips sharks and in both occasions the shark disappeared not to come back.

Haitian vessel manouvering in the harbor under sail

 

June 14th to 18th We moved to Matthew Town for provisioning and to do a final preparation before sailing across the Windward Passage and onto Panama. Our first idea of multiple stops in Haiti and Jamaica changed when we started to analyze the tropical weather. Bret, the first named storm of the 2017 Hurricane Season, was moving west passing to the south of Hispaniola and Cuba, reminding us that lingering in this area longer would inevitably bring to keep a worrisome outlook to any developing weather system.

With all our easting completed, we could now count on the push of reasonable steady trade winds all the way to Panama, which lies at about 750 nautical miles to the the SW of Great Inagua. A trip with stops in Haiti and Jamaica would definitely mean shorter hops and shelter from weather but also dealing with authorities and unknown local conditions.

In Matthew’s Town, we first tried to anchor outside the harbor but the anchorage was extremely rolly because of the surge from the South. There is a small basin with flat waters and good wind shelter in Town. The harbor is under construction, and now used mainly by Haitians sailing vessel that come for trading goods and government ships. Because of the work in progress there is no real place to tie up for a pleasure vessel. However, after a brief dinghy reconnaissance we decided to come in and moor the same way the Haitians do, with a stern anchor and a line to shore from the bow. We then ferried ashore using the dinghy to cover the few feet that separated us from the boulders ashore.

Here I had an opportunity to use good internet signal to participate live to a Radio Show in Italy. I had a phone chat with Matteo Caccia the host of the radio show where we talked a little bit about our trip.

Pascal is one of our favorite Radio Show, and we downloaded many episodes that we enjoyed when we had no internet coverage. They collect stories sent from listeners and read them on air, then they try to call the authors on the phone to learn more about them. For me is a way to stay in contact with my mother tongue, and for Kate to keep learning italian.

I had sent a short story of our trip right when we left, and the staff contacted us while we were in Cat Island to arranged a phone call. Thanks to Great Inagua’s good internet reception, it all went smooth, and Matteo was very funny and entertaining on the phone. If you have some familiarity with italian language you can listen to the podcast on their website.

We spent four days in the dusty noisy and hot basin, but it was worth the discomfort because we could replenish our propane supply, get drinking water, buy cheap fruit and vegetables from the Haitians and get few supplies from the grocery store. People in Matthew Town are very friendly and not used to see cruisers or tourists.

The Island hosts a big Morton Salt Company site, for the production of sea salt. Almost all the inhabitans are employed by the corporation

June 18th to 23rd 

When we felt like we were self-sufficient for a three week period, we went to immigration to clear out of the country and sailed back to Man-O-War cay to anchor and set into passage mode. This time we anchored close to the Morton Salt company site, which is a bit more protected from wind shifts.

There we were in the company of other boats. We knew one of those boat because they have a very popular website among people who want to go cruise with their family,  and they have a very good social media presence. It’s the Totem Crew, a family of five that have been sailing for 9 years now, and they are planning to end the circumnavigation on the West Coast of the US where they originally departed.

For few days we shared the common destiny of cruisers, which can be summarized by the expression “waiting for the weather”. We often check weather forecast and discussion from different sources before deciding to set sail. Then we analyze our needs and judgments to foresee how a passage would look like, and if it’s going to be reasonably safe and/or comfortable. Then at a certain moment we need to weigh anchor, as perfect conditions may not ever appear.

Nowadays with internet access in most of the places it is definitely easier than in the past, but the reality is that weather patterns are still very little understood by mathematicians and the computer models seems to do a good job only most of the times. The navigator’s judgement is still important, and weather routing is still much like an art.

New way, new life

17th May 2017, Allen’s Cay, Northern Bahamas

Tranquility rests in the wide anchorage, dressed in her full cruising gear, hanging from a 22lbs Bruce anchor clawed into the seabed. Bed cushions, laundry and anything that would benefit from the touch of the hot Bahamian sun and the fresh airs are out on deck or hanging from the lifelines. The wind-scoop (a spoon shaped nylon chute) hovers on top the front hatch funneling the breeze into the cabin, while the boom tent increases the shade surface on the deck and shields the cockpit from view. 

The wind generator spins happily, replenishing our motor’s battery bank. At its side, the solar panel chugs the photons that hit its surface and sends them down below, where our electronics line up on the chart table to receive the precious juice. Charles Vane, our faithful wind vane self steering apparatus, hangs folded up on the stern. He is off duty, and probably dreams about the times when he was a feared pirate. The white dinghy bobs around in the wavelets just few feet off the stern, secured to the mother ship by a black painter line.

This is a typical scene that recurs every time we reach a new anchorage where we plan to spend few nights. We are in Allen’s Cay (or Allan’s Cay, depending on who you ask), a beautiful island in the Northern Abacos. The reason for our stay, beside the obvious experience of the marvelous nature in this uninhabited island, is a dab of strong easterly winds that are supposed to blow for a couple of days with peaks at 25 knots. Allen’s Cay is well sheltered from all the weather coming from the Eastern quadrant, so it checks both leisure and safety boxes.

We are traveling SE so every time the weather shows its angry face either from the E or the S we have to take a knee. Tranquility is happy to beat upwind. Us not so much, especially when the winds exceed 15 knots. We can handle and endure everything below that but we don’t put ourselves voluntarily into the business of making upwind progress when the breeze is too brisk. 

Because of stronger winds we have to stay put for a couple of days and we would have to do the work of snorkeling, forage for conch and fish as well as taking care of never ending repairs and upgrades.

This waiting time is filled with interesting activities. We dug out our entire food supply for inspection, cleaning, inventory and organization purposes. We finally learned what we hoarded in weeks of constant access to groceries store. We are well off for a long time and we just need to get few perishables along the way and harvest the rest ourselves from the ocean.

Kate also caught three small fishes, which I quickly cleaned, scaled and cooked. They appeared to be small Whitebone Porgies and they were delicious. It reminded me of the simplicity of the life I was living in Venezuela and Panama, where most of the commodities where scarce, but where very little was needed at the same time.