February 10, 2023

Here we are in the Bahamas, where we’ve been for just over a month, in what feels like a world apart from the two plus months of travel to get here. “Where are you headed?” people asked along the way. “The Bahamas,” we replied instinctively, not really knowing much about what that means in reality, just that it’s our destination. We have been all too destination driven, and now we feel like we have “arrived.” For more than the place—the Bahamas—it’s about the experiences unfolding as we follow what’s in front of us moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour, and day-by-day. Needless to say, it’s a very different mode of travel.

Key Biscayne

While this mode feels more low-key and enjoyable than the mode we were in, the passage from Florida required some serious planning. First you need to decide where you’re going to check into customs and immigration. That dictates where you leave from, taking into account the effects of the Gulf Stream pushing you north at 2.5 knots as you sail east. Then you need to wait for the right wind conditions to cross the stream, some 50 miles, depending on how far north it pushes you. And finally, you need to ensure reasonable conditions for crossing the Great Bahama Bank—another 90-some miles—to get to the islands.

And in our case, before all that happened, we had to wait for some important stuff to arrive—a new pump for our head, two new AGM batteries since ours were shot, and two new SIM cards so our phones would work in the Bahamas. This waiting period afforded us some much needed down time in Key Biscayne where we anchored for a week, going ashore most days for a walk in the delightful 400-acre state park—thankfully saved from development by Bill Baggs, editor of the Miami news, in 1967—and taking dips in the ocean along with enjoying the park’s outdoor showers. It also gave us time to take on the installation of our new autopilot, which had been sitting in our aft cabin since North Carolina! Working side-by-side, Will and I installed the pilot together, which was very satisfying as it went swimmingly well, yet we thanked ourselves at every step of the way that we weren’t paying someone to do it as it took us close to two full days! And still, we needed two additional cables that we didn’t have…

Coconut Grove

We lucked out and spent a night on a mooring at the Coconut Grove Sailing Club, which had agreed to accept some of our packages. What a delightful place it was too, with dozens of small racing dinghies, a mooring field full of only sailboats, and hints of how Miami might have been fifty years ago. Everything went like clockwork as we Uber-ed to Home Depot to collect the batteries and dispose of the old ones and on to West Marine for the cables, and then to stock up on what we feared might be our last fresh vegetables. However, late in the day we learned the SIM cards we’d been waiting for had been shipped to Maine (!), so we took yet another Uber to collect them at a local store. By then it was dark, and we still needed to fill up our water tank and motor across Biscayne Bay for an early morning departure, which we did with aplomb.

Great Bahama Bank

On January 5, we left Key Biscayne at 7 am to cross the Gulf Stream with ESE winds at about 8-10 knots. This meant we were able to sail about a third of the way across—the first time sailing in a month!!—until the stream started pushing us north and the winds diminished, at which point we motor sailed to keep on course. Given extremely calm wind and seas, as well as a full moon, we opted for a really long day and motored most of the way across the bank at night, and then anchored. It’s a strange thing to drop anchor in 13’ in the middle of a huge expanse of open water, but other boats had the same idea, and we saw them off in the distance as we motored past, finally stopping at 11:30pm. Waking up to the brilliant aquamarine water over white sand and not a breath of wind was extraordinary! We immediately stripped down and jumped in with a delight that only we will know—the other-worldly beauty, our accomplishment at having traveled 103 miles in 16 hours, and our first night passage!

Chub Cay

Just as the wind picked up, we raised sails and had a delightful five-hour sail to Chub Cay (pronounced “key”), anchored, and set about attempting to finish filling out our online forms, not entirely successfully. Next morning, we motored into the marina, our yellow Quarantine flag flying, and were driven a short distance to a small landing strip they call an airport to check in with customs and immigration, receive our 90-day cruising permit, and pay our $300 for the privilege. Back at the marina, we raised our Bahamas courtesy flag and were officially checked in, happy it went so smoothly. We were told we had to pay a $100 “landing fee” to check in, but it was only another $50 to stay the night, so we decided to splurge. However, when we went inside the resort lobby, we learned it was another $40 each for a membership to their exclusive club (which we were told was cheap for the Bahamas), so we turned on our heels and booked it out of there…

But not before having a delightful conversation with Malcolm, our driver, who it turns out was from Andros, the largest Bahamian island only 30 miles away. He said if we wanted to see “the real Bahamas,” we should go there. And so, because we were so turned off by the exclusivity of the Texas tycoon-owned Chub Cay and because we met the delightful, down-to-earth Malcolm, we hoisted sails once again and headed west for Morgan’s Bluff at the north tip of Andros, having no idea what to expect.

At which point, the shifting of modes from one focused on boat repair and destination planning to one more focused on following where the boat leads us had officially begun! YAY!!!

Morgan’s Bluff

After a delightful four-hour sail across the Tongue of the Ocean where depths get up to 6000’, we anchored in the huge harbor, one of only two anchored boats plus a few rusty wrecks. Rowing ashore to explore, we encountered Gregory and his wife who were preparing for the next day’s gathering in their food stall. We said we’d like to see the island and wondered if they knew someone who might be able to show us around. We assured her we’d be back the next day to try her conch fritters.

Ten minutes later while walking up the hill a car pulled up. It was Michael, their friend, who picked us up and gave us a driving  tour that magically ended at  his wife’s take-out place attached to their home in Nicholls Town. He shared a wealth of information about his native Andros, where he was happy to return after years in Nassau, to serve as head of the labor department. Cynthia served up cracked (fried) lobster, cracked conch, rice and pigeon peas, guava duff, and Kalik beer. Needless to say, after a diet of mostly salad, homemade bread, fish, and vegetables, we were stuffed. Michael then happily drove us back to the harbor. We were incredibly touched by his generosity of spirit.

In the morning I heard the cheerful voices of children coming from the other boat in the harbor, so we hopped in the dinghy and rowed over to say hi. Turns out this family of five has been living aboard in Andros for the past two months, having fled—you’ll never believe—Moldova, which borders Ukraine. Marianna, her American husband, Neil, and their three wonderful daughters ages 5, 8, and 9 live on a 52’ boat that they keep in Florida. Because of the war, they’ll be returning to California until things settle down in their home country. What a delight it was hanging out with this family, especially those three girls who used every handhold as monkeys use branches!

We then hauled out our folding bikes for the first time, rowed them ashore, and took off to explore the nearest settlement, Nicholls Town. There was not much to it except a couple blocks of houses, a few very nondescript stores, and a bar on stilts. We did have a couple of interesting encounters along the way, one with a proselytizing Rastafarian, which raised Will’s heckles, another with a guy who said, “Are you the people on the boat?” Word gets around quick at this end of the island!

Back at the harbor, two stalls were open for business, and the conch fritters and roasted root vegetables were indeed delicious. Even more fun was playing Red Light Green Light and Simon Says with the girls on the beach. I’m so looking forward to having a grandchild, who arrives in April!

Another day of hanging out on the boat saw us dragging anchor for the first time ever. We reset and all was well until after dark when we started dragging again, at which point we motored into the very tiny commercial harbor and tied up to the cement wall, just in front of a sunken boat, once again with great aplomb. Morgan’s Bluff is not your average Bahamian destination with its somewhat run-down looking commercial harbor, several sunken vessels in both the inner and outer harbor, and not much happening most of the time. That said, when you dig a little deeper, we found it to be a delightful place to spend some time.

Kamalame Cay

Next stop was Kamalame Cay, 25 miles down the coast, again not your average Bahamian destination as the anchorage has room for about one boat and there’s nothing there except a “ferry” that shuttles dozens of workers back and forth to the exclusive resort, hidden from the harbor. Once there, we discovered we weren’t far from the Blue Holes National Park, so we loaded our bikes into the dinghy once again and set out in search of a blue hole. What are blue holes, you might ask? They’re underwater caves filled with water, which can be 1000’ deep and are home to prehistoric creatures that can survive without oxygen. Turns out Andros has one of the largest number of these blue holes on the planet, along with the third largest barrier reef in the world! We asked person after person as to where we might find a blue hole within biking distance and following their clues came to a small sign on the side of the road that said, Rainbow Blue Hole. We stashed the bikes and started walking on a narrow trail with signs hanging from various trees marking their species, most of which were unknown to us. After a half a mile or so, we came to what looked like a small pond, stripped down, and went for a refreshing dip! We saw no prehistoric creatures however. Apparently, the tiny fish will nibble the callouses from your feet if you hang out in the water, but we didn’t know that yet.

On the bike ride back, we stopped at a hardware store and two very small and not well-stocked grocery stores, chatting with the owners to learn about life on Andros. There’s not much to buy except when the mail boat comes with supplies once a week, and what’s there is very expensive. No wonder rice and beans are a staple here. Many locals here make their living working at Kamalame Cay resort, or they leave, like Malcolm did, and go to work on another island, most commonly in Nassau, the big city on Providence Island. But for those who’ve stayed or come back, there’s a love of place and people that is nothing short of devoted.

Fresh Creek

Next stop was Fresh Creek, once again not your typical Bahamian cruiser’s destination as the anchorage is poor, there’s only room for a couple of boats, and the marina has been closed since Hurricane Matthew in 2016, although it is reopening this year. What is there is a commercial dock where supply boats come twice a week, a government dock where you can tie up for $5.20 per night, and a cadre of colorful and generous people who are delighted to share who they are and what they know. We stayed three days and loved it!

Our first encounter was with David Moxie, a German-speaking, published poet who shared his manuscript in exchange for a beer, which he left with us to read. Returning it several days later, I followed the breadcrumbs to his brother’s compound overlooking the ocean. He was squarely middle class, working part-time as a contractor at AUTEC, a US military base that conducts “research” and testing of “maritime warfare” readiness in the deep ocean off Andros. Even here we have a military presence!

We next asked the lovely woman in the pink harbor office where we might find some conch salad. Next thing you know, the preacher, who was engaged in a rousing game of dominos on the dock, said he’d be happy to make us some in an hour or so. Two hours later, we walked up to his shack and watched him skillfully extract the live conch from its shell and create a delicious fresh salad with green tomatoes, onions, and citrus. Finally, a cracked conch that wasn’t fried!

Getting the bikes ashore here was easy at the government dock, so the next day we had a nice ride to a public beach which we had to ourselves where I had a chance to dance on the beach and Will caught sight of a turtle swimming in close. We stopped at a roadside stand and chatted with another Bahamian who had returned home after years as a taxi driver in Nassau, now making his living selling fresh coconut and other vegetables. Nearby was the Small Hope Bay Lodge, a dive resort that was started by an American in 1960, now being run by his son and grandson, which still had the feel of the old Bahamas. For fun, they feed the sharks with “fish popsicles” so divers can watch the feeding frenzy.

We heard that the Mennonite farmers have a farm stand on Friday mornings at 8:00 am where all the locals go for vegetables and fresh eggs, but get there early or they run out. We were there at 7:15, helped him and his young daughter set up when they arrived, and then bought an abundance of fantastic vegetables for a mere $40. Many Mennonite families moved to the island in the70s and have been there ever since, integrating with the native Bahamians, for the most part…

Our next stop was the Adrosia Batik Factory, which was started in the 70s by the same guy who started the diving lodge and is now run by a group of local women. We had a long chat with Shanika, who it turns out had been raised Mennonite when her mother converted twenty years prior, until what she described as a racist preacher came to the island and basically forced all the Bahamians out of their church! Growing up, she had been best friends with David, the farmer’s daughter, David having missed becoming preacher by one vote. While said preacher has since been removed from the position, those who left the church have not returned. It was a sad story indeed from this otherwise very hospitable place.

The high winds and seas having died down, it was time to cross the Tongue of the Ocean once again and head to the Exumas after an unexpectedly delightful week on Andros.

The Exumas

The Exumas are a chain of over 365 islands that stretch 130 miles north to south and home to the Exuma National Land and Sea Park, consisting of dozens of uninhabited, protected cays that are a destination for many cruisers. The park provides inexpensive moorings at many of the islands, with Park Headquarters in Warderick Wells in the middle of the chain.

It’s what you imagine the Bahamas to be—calm, white sandy beaches on the shallow bank side, rugged crashing beaches on the deeper sound side, and a variety of marine wildlife. Although not in abundance, we’ve seen turtles swimming in the mangroves, huge rays buried under the sand on shallow beaches, and colorful tropical fish and coral while snorkeling. We’ve enjoyed some great hikes on the rocky shores and delightful sailing to get from one island to the next. We’ve also stopped at a few islands outside the park that have “settlements” where we’ve enjoyed some local fare and provisioned in the very expensive grocery stores—$14 for a package of romaine, $8 for a quart of cottage cheese, $10 for a bunch of broccoli, $8 for a dozen eggs, etc. We wonder how the Bahamians survive with these prices. While many are earning a very good living working at all the high-class resorts, many are not and appear somewhat impoverished. That said, everyone we’ve met seems more than content and has been beyond friendly.

With so many islands to explore, we enjoyed sailing short distances in mostly favorable winds followed recommendations and discovered some on our own, stopping at some of the highlights.

Highbourne Cay where we unknowingly went ashore and got kicked off the private beach, so we moved 3 miles south to Long Cay with its gorgeous inland lagoon where we harvested conch in 2′ of water and bushwhacked our way to a stunning rocky path.

Shrouds Cay with its 1.5 mile inland mangrove creek cutting across the island, where we saw several 3’  turtles at the entrance and which we rowed most of the way in and back, catching a tow for the last leg.

The row inspired this poem:

Azure ribbon
divides the land.
Mangrove roots
submerged and exposed
in a twice daily dance.
The two of us
floating in between
following the current.

Warderick Wells with its long hiking paths up and down the island, stunning vistas, park HQ, and our first cruiser’s happy hour social gathering.

O’Brien Cay where we snorkeled in “the aquarium” and saw some super cool fish and coral. Staniel Cay where we tanked up and did some provisioning, including a quart of chocolate ice cream for lunch and then on to Blackpoint settlement on Great Guana Cay where we scored some fresh grouper and snapper from a fisherman on the dock and rode out some high winds with dozens of other boats.

Little Farmer’s Cay, a super low-key island owned for generations by a handful of local families so thankfully no grand-scale development will happen. We hung out for an hour in Little Harbor while Dino made us conch salad, which involved picking up the conch from his stash in the harbor, waiting while he took some people snorkeling with the turtles, going to a local shop to buy the necessary ingredients, and assisting him by walking over to his restaurant to bring back salt, pepper, and a knife. We also had a long chat with an old timer who has been building and racing Bahamian sloops his whole life and a local wood carver who receives his artistic gift from God.

Next it was time to make tracks toward George Town where cousin Joanna was due to arrive in a couple of days for a visit.

George Town and Stocking Island

After a 45-mile sail, we arrived in Elizabeth Harbor, where we were greeted by over 300 boats anchored off Stocking Island, the barrier island providing excellent shelter from the prevailing winds and seas. When the first conch horn sounded to signal sundown and all the anchor lights went on, it literally felt like New York City with masts in all directions—quite a contrast from the quiet anchorages we’ve been experiencing. This harbor is The Destination for many cruising boats in the Bahamas, many of whom stay here for the whole winter. And why not? It’s like adult summer camp with endless opportunities for socializing, volleyball, playing music, and meeting up with other sailors at Chat ‘n Chill.

Each morning at 8AM, Mark on Puff gets on channel 72 and gives the weather, asks for new boat arrivals, asks if anyone needs information about anything, and gives a chance for people to buy and sell stuff that’s laying around their boats. So far, we’ve scored a ham radio, wifi booster antenna, and a can of red paint. We also helped some Canadians order some stuff online for their broken windlass since apparently American companies make it hard for Canadians to do so. To thank us, these folks took us in their fancy rubber dinghy the 1.5 miles across the harbor in what turned out to be a very wet ride, nonetheless; we took the water taxi back. In fact, we’ve encountered many of the Canadians we’d met along the way, chatted up some Mainers at a social gathering, complete with Whoopie pies, and connected with other sailors we know with one-degree of separation. I also organized a couple of beach dances which I’ve been sorely missing. All in all, it’s a pretty cool place that can definitely suck you in when you’re not watching.

Lee Stocking Cay

After a few days in the harbor, we did some more provisioning and then set out 30 miles back up the chain to Lee Stocking Cay, a beautiful anchorage and island where we did some snorkeling, swimming, and walking the dramatic island paths. It was fun having another person on board to share our world, inspire a change of focus, and get us in the water to do more snorkeling, which we all enjoyed.

We dropped Joanna off at Emerald Bay Marina, where we were catapulted into another world as we had a farewell meal at a poolside resort—major culture shock! After a couple of nights at the marina where we enjoyed long showers, did some laundry, and I sat in rocking chair on land for hours on end, we agreed it was time to move on, so we headed back to George Town to ride out a long stretch of high winds and seas in the sheltered harbor.

* * *

So here we are again, chatting and chilling, and having some down time from all that this life entails—deciding where to go next, looking at the weather, route planning, and being both prepared for and open to all that you can’t predict, which is pretty much everything. For Will, it’s all an adventure that he’s happy to engage in all of the time. For me, I feel a sense of adventure, curiosity, enthusiasm, exhaustion, and trepidation, in different measure, depending on what the day brings. This requires a periodic recharging of my internal batteries as they become depleted over time with all the physical, mental, and emotional demands on my system. Luckily, Will is very sensitive, responsive, and accommodating as we shift, balance, and dance together on the rolling seas with Nirvana.

One thing we agree on: there’s a lot to love about the Bahamas! It’s immensely beautiful—the weather and water—the constant breezes dissipate the heat, and the people are super friendly. That said, it’s always painful to see how wealth and development affect a place like this with so much natural beauty. With the economy based on tourism and off-shore banking for what appears to be largely uber-rich Americans, it’s a double-edged sword that spurs more and more development that can seriously change a place, and has. As just one example, the uninhabited island of Little San Salvador was purchased 26 years ago by a cruise ship corporation that has developed 50 acres of what was a pristine landscape, disgorging tens of thousands of people each year. It’s pretty clear that the number of large and small boats visiting these islands has killed much of the coral, so we’re grateful for the protected areas. But we too are part of the problem, the thousands of people on boats who flood these waters each year. I’m sure the Bahamians would have a lot to say on the matter as their standard of living has increased over the decades, but we are left wondering whether the Bahamians need all the economic security our development dollars bring or were they better off 50 years ago before tourism ruled the day. But these are bigger questions for another day.

6 thoughts on “NIRVANA S4:E4

  1. Sounds lovely yet can understand getting depleted too! Jim really wants to know what you do for self-protection, in the event of encountering not-so-benign types.


  2. Hi Tasha! This is my first email
    From you about your fabulous adventure! So many missing pieces for me but I’m beyond thrilled you let go of the dock lines and headed off.
    You know Charlie & I took the same route. Got married at Pete’s Pub in Little Harbor Abaco. We were gone 4 years- let keep in touch.


  3. Dino on Little Farmers made us a conch salad too! Will you go back there for the festival & regatta? We’re inching towards Florida and it breaks are heart to leave. Enjoy the rest of your time in this beautiful country. – C & A


  4. Alas we missed the Little Farmers regatta as it was too much of a push to get our guest back to her plane. Just came across your Grapenuts article in Points East as we sort thru stuff. Good one! Safe travels.


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