We stayed five days in Andros and the wind howled out of the east most of that time so we sat back, enjoyed the remoteness of Andros and watched the weather with an eye to heading across the Gulf Stream. I’d talked to weather guy, Chris Parker, every day (embarrassingly sometimes twice a day) for a whole week, starting from our departure from Staniel Cay right through to when we left Andros Island. Because of poor propagation, Chris often can’t clearly hear boats calling him and throughout our whole time in the Bahamas he’d usually acknowledge me by saying something like “the lady calling” or “Strath Spray“. But by the time we left Andros, I’d called Chris so many times that he had the pronunciation of Strathspey down pat. As the week progressed, the forecast got more and more fine tuned; weather’s like that – 100% probability of correctness for today, 70% for the tomorrow and who knows after that. I kept checking and double checking that there would be a break in the high winds to let us sail out of Andros and make our way towards Florida. Chris’s initial forecast was that Thursday we’d get out of Andros to at least Chub Cay in the Berry Islands and maybe even as far as Bimini but Saturday didn’t look good for a crossing to Florida.
One thing we’ve become accustomed to in the Bahamas is that you take one day at a time and stage all your passages. According to Chris, we’d have a “brisk” sail from Andros Island up to Chub Cay on Thursday. But gazing out at the Fresh Creek inlet that morning, Blair and I looked at each other sceptically and we both agreed that if we got out there and either one of us wasn’t happy, we’d do a 180 and come back to dock. We pounded out of the harbour into high winds and big waves, moving pretty slowly until we turned Strathspey north and caught the wind. Surprisingly, it was a comfortable and fast sail due north to Chub Cay and when we slid into its small bay and dropped anchor, we looked over our shoulder and saw SeaYa II from Trident Yacht Club anchoring right behind us. We’d been looking for Sharon and Byrne on SeaYa II all winter so it was too funny to see them here and catch up with all the news at the end of both boats’ sojourn in the Bahamas.
Friday morning, we up-anchored from Chub Cay at 5 am, sailed across the shallow Bahamas banks in 12-14 feet and pulled into Bimini at 7 pm; a long sail but an easy one. Halfway over the banks, I called Chris Parker once again and was happy to hear that the forecast for the next day had changed and was for fair winds and most importantly, flat seas all the way across to Florida. All we saw of Bimini, despite Ernest Hemmingway fame, was a low-lying island and our last Bahamian sunset ten minutes after we anchored. The next morning, we left Bimini in pre-dawn darkness and settled into a 9-hour sail up to Lake Worth, Florida. In the first two hours, we saw quite a few fishing boats, cruise ships and tankers and at one point in the dark, we were close enough to a tanker that it warranted a call to its caption to verify that he could see us on his port side. Once again, we’re glad we have the AIS system that shows us other boats, their trajectories and most importantly their boat names so we can call them. Happily, once the sun came up, the wind freshened, we got caught up in the Gulf Stream and averaged 9.5 knots (peaking at 10.5 knots) all the way into Lake Worth.
Lake Worth was a shock to us after the laid back Bahamas. It was spring break for high school students plus the Palm Beach Boat Show was in full swing. Talk about sensory overload! All the way in through the ocean inlet and up to our anchorage, we were flanked by roaring power boats, seadoos spraying rooster tails and rap music blaring from sound systems left and right. We followed the buoys in from the ocean, bobbing from side to side in huge wakes and found our way to the quieter anchorage at the northern end of Lake Worth. We cleared customs at the small private plane airport in Palm Beach, picked up some spare parts at the West Marine and hit the Publix grocery store for some welcome groceries.
After topping up with diesel Sunday morning, we fell into line and started up the ICW. What a shakeup to poor Strathspey and crew! It was Sunday, a hot sunny day in the mid 80′s and every one and their boat was doing the Sunday drive thing on water. We were rocked and rolled for a good 30 miles until we pulled into Peck Lake to drop anchor. The good thing about the ICW is that the traffic stops completely once night falls as there are few lighted buoys. We spent a quiet night at anchor despite a heavy rain and left at 7 am the next day trying to make good mileage north to Fernandina Beach and our refrigerator parts. We’d ordered both a compressor and a evaporator to replace the units that had failed in late February. A good number of phone calls and internet searches later, Blair concluded that the unit was undersized for the refrigerator to begin with. Our ice box holds 250 litres, while the system was intended for volumes up to 100 litres in temperate climates. The added strain of trying to keep the fridge cool in such constant hot weather finally did it in.
Despite the hubbub of our first few days on the ICW, we’re glad to be back in the USA and heading northward to Ottawa, home and family and friends. We feel pretty competent to have kept Strathspey running well in the hot Bahamas sun and salt and feel pretty lucky to have a good weather window back to the mainland present itself to us just when we were ready to start heading home.
Hindsight is mostly 20/20 of course and after almost four months in the Bahamas, we think we have better perspective as to how well we planned and provisioned for our time there. There were some things we were glad we did and some things we’d have done differently; as usual there are quite a few coulda, shoulda, woulda’s.
Things we did right:
1. We left the Abacos in mid-December, cruised straight south to the Exumas and Long Island and then worked our way back up to the central Exumas by mid February to meet our visitors. Because of this, we enjoyed mostly deserted anchorages for two months before we started running into larger number of cruisers. The weather in the Northern Bahamas tends to be windier with more cold fronts December through February but most of these cold fronts don’t reach as far south as the southern Exumas and Long Island.
2. We paid for a subscription to Chris Parker’s SSB weather service back in Lake Worth before we crossed the Gulf Stream. You can listen to him for free but if you are a sponsoring vessel, you can call him and get a forecast specifically for your current location and where you’re heading. We listened to Chris every morning and called for our personal forecast at least 20 times over the four months we were in the Bahamas. We made our return Gulf Stream crossing by ourselves without a buddy boat and in planning for this, I called Chris every morning for a whole week (sometimes twice a day on different frequencies) to verify the forecast for the crossing. At $195/subscription, these personal forecasts were less than $10/call: cheap insurance for a safe passage.
3. We purchased a wifi antenna booster which meant that we didn’t have to lug our computer ashore to find a wifi hotspot where we could send and receive emails.
4. We brought a minor rebuild kit for everything onboard plus spare pumps, switches and filters. In the most extreme case, because of calcium buildup caused by the salt water, Blair had our toilet apart twice over this past year and was glad of the spare parts he’d stored in Strathspey‘s hideyholes.
5. Blair brought just about every tool he owned so he was able to diagnose and fix problems immediately. These tools took up a lot of valuable storage space but we were never able to say, “Geez, we should have left that one at home…”.
6. We had the best digital camera we could afford so as to record all the neat stuff we saw. The Christmas before we left, Blair bought me a Nikon D80 and it was one of the best investments in this trip. I’m amazed at the quality of pictures that we took. On my to-do list when we get home is to take the camera in for servicing and hope that all the precautions I took to protect it from the salt air have helped.
7. I made weather cloths for Strathspey. I whipped them up at the last minute, not thinking we’d need them but they provided excellent protection from wind and waves on longer rough water passages and much needed privacy in anchorages.
Things we’d change next time:
1. We’d clear into the Bahamas at a location that has both Customs and Immigration officials. That way we’d get a six-month visitor permit rather than the shorter three-month one provided by Customs agents. We wasted a lot of time in Georgetown trying to get our visitor permits extended.
2. I’d bring fewer clothes/Blair would bring more (but that goes for any holiday we take).
3. We would purchase a more powerful wifi antenna booster. We had a 9 db booster but Yagi directional antennas are available that would provide more powerful coverage.
4. We’d buy a hard bottom dinghy….. well the jury is still out on this one because they’re so heavy to lift but when you’re in one, you’re dry and you’re moving quickly through the rough seas.
5. We’d definitely buy or rent a satellite phone. Our cell phone bills were astronomical! On the other hand, our family was able to reach us in emergencies which was a relief.
On the whole, the lists balance out so we’re inclined to give ourselves a good pat on the back. No matter how well the trip across was planned, the important thing was that we made it across, sailed all the way down past the Tropic of Cancer, tested our mettle and were well found. Now there’s a whole new ball game ahead of us as we face the prospect of another 1700 miles home to Trident Yacht Club in Kingston.