Yes, after 4-plus months, we've finally left the Abacos and are back in the good ol' U.S. of A. We had a fantastic time and made some friends that we know we'll keep for life.
Initially we had planned to island-hop to a few deserted spots before we crossed back to Florida. As luck would have it, Green Turtle Cay ran out of diesel fuel around March 30th. Not just the Green Turtle Club Marina...the WHOLE island. Between two or three mega-yachts and about 20 departing cruisers, GTC just couldn't keep up with the demand. Shame on us, we didn't get fuel when we first arrived. Two mega-yachts parked on the fuel dock soon after and didn't leave until the club ran out of fuel. The repeat cruisers knew the secret: don't wait for the fuel dock to free up - bring your jerry cans to the dock and fill up. Otherwise, you're SOL like us! Anyway, it didn't seem like a major problem at the time, since the fuel barge was expected to arrive two days later. Florida and the Bahamas were in the middle of one of the longest crossing-weather windows in years, so we thought we had plenty of time. One problem...on Thursday, we were told that the barge would instead arrive on Saturday or Sunday. On Friday, that became Monday or Tuesday. And our perfect weather window? It was beginning to close over the next week. Now what? Rene walked over to the marina on Saturday to see what was really going on. The dock master told him the barge would likely arrive on Easter Sunday or the following Tuesday, but not Monday - Monday was a holiday in the Bahamas. A few hours later, a guy in the marina office told Rene he had spoken to the barge that morning, and it would definitely be here Monday. What??? Saturday evening we heard the dock master talking to an incoming boat on the VHF: "we don't have fuel right now, but we'll have it tonight or tomorrow morning at the latest." WE GIVE UP!!! In the meantime, we were working on all kinds of contingency plans: if the barge arrives on X, we'll do Y. And if the barge doesn't arrive by Z? Then the weather window closes and we're totally screwed! After three days of Stacy panicking (it's what I do best), the Easter Bunny brought us the golden egg: the barge was on the dock when we woke up Sunday morning. Yippee!!! We refueled at high tide, did some last-minute laundry at Nicki's, and motored out of White Sound...all the way to our new anchoring spot right outside the channel entrance. (We wanted to leave early the next morning, and wouldn't have been able to get out of White Sound until 11am or later due to the depths.) After dinner and a shoreside visit with Nicki, Larry, and the kids, we dinghied back to the boat for our last overnight at Green Turtle. We've loved it there and will really miss everyone we've met on the island.
Monday morning we hauled up the anchor and started our 50nm journey to Great Sale Cay. Great Sale is a popular anchorage for boats first arriving in the Bahamas from Florida (which we did), as well as those about to jump off the bank for the return trip. We made great time en route (gotta love motor-sailing), and dropped anchor by 5pm. We enjoyed our last sundowner in the Bahamas, took a bunch of sunset pictures, had a quiet dinner and some TV, and went to bed early. Tomorrow the real journey would begin: almost 300nm and two overnights to Fernandina Beach, Florida.
Tuesday morning began with some final boat prep (dishes, putting breakables away) and an update by weather-guru, Chris Parker. We usually listen to Chris's SSB broadcast even if we do have access to the internet, but his reports were especially cruicial now that we were in the middle of nowhere. The forecast hadn't changed much over the past few days: 10-15kt winds from the east to southeast and 3-4' seas. There was a chance of 20kt winds on Thursday morning, but we expected to be close to our destination by then and weren't worried. Pipe really comes alive when winds exceed 15kts, and she's a very happy boat at 20-25kts. We also got to hear the voice of an old friend during Chris Parker's broadcast: Chris from Toucan Dream was anchored in Lake Worth waiting to cross to the Abacos; talk about timing! We're sorry we missed Chris and his wife, RObin, while in the Abacos, but hopefully we'll get to see them on our southbound trip later this summer.
We left Great Sale just after 8am. Winds were right behind us at 5-10kts, giving us a chance to run wing-and-wing (i.e. the main is on one side and the jib is kept on the opposite side with a whisker pole). We wanted to maintain at least 5kts of boat speed until we reached the faster currents of the gulf stream, so we motor-sailed the 53nm to Mantanilla Shoals. A pod of dolphins greeted us about 20 miles before the edge of the Little Bahamas Bank, zig-zagging under the bow and leaping out of the water. What a send-off! We reached the edge of the bank near sunset, and started feeling the effects of the gulf stream 2-3 hours later. The gulf stream's current typically runs 2-3kts in a northerly direction, giving boats a nice push on the return trip back to the States. We soon found ourselves doing 9.5kts of boat speed...if only it had lasted! Once again, the winds decided to play with us. Our northerly turn into the gulf stream changed the wind angle, so we had to change the sail plan from wing and wing to a more traditional starboard tack (both sails on the port side). Rene harnessed himself to the boat as he went to the foredeck to bring down the whisker pole. After fighting with the pole and sails for 20 minutes, we had everything in place for the next leg of the trip. Of course...an hour later, the winds shifted back behind us...a perfect configuration for wing-and-wing again! By this time it was about 2am and there was no way Rene was going back to the foredeck in the dark; we managed to do 6kts on the main alone, and that's how it would stay until the sun came up on Wednesday morning.
For those of you who haven't done any overnight sailing, a friend of ours recently described an overnight crossing as being "as much fun as a root canal with only a Kalik beer for a painkiller." Ginger, you're absolutely right! First of all, we only travel at night if we have to, meaning it's too far or would take too long to get to our destination in short, daylight hops. The trip from Great Sale to Fernandina Beach is nearly 300nm and 45-55 hours long, so we know we're dealing with a two-day (and night) trip. At the end of the day, you know it won't be fun, but you suck it up because it's only two nights and you've waited for good weather to cross. Of course, Before you actually make the crossing, you have to prepare for the crossing. That means getting out the PFDs (personal flotation devices) that are worn at all times when offshore at night; getting out the tethers that run from your PFD to a jackline (heavy nylon straps) or other fixed point to keep you from going too far if you fall overboard; running the jacklines from bow to stern on either side of the boat to give you something to tether to...you get the gist.
Now that you've got everything ready, it's time to take the plunge. At this time of year in our current location, it gets light around 6:45am and is completely dark by 8:15pm. How do you kill 10.5 hours in the dark? No, the answer isn't nearly as fun as some of you may be thinking. Since there are only two of us on the boat, we take turns sleeping and keeping watch. We've heard stories of people who do 3-4 hour shifts, and one woman (she's a saint) even lets her husband sleep through the night while she keeps watch because she's a better "night person". (Rene, don't you dare get any ideas!) For us, two-hour shifts are the norm; we can't stay focused at 2am for much longer than that. And what, exactly, do you focus on? Where the cats are (they still like to travel in the cockpit; thank god for the full enclosure); where the other boats are (radar is worth every penny during the overnight crossings); the chartplotter (are we still going in the right direction?); the wind angle (you don't want to accidentally jibe if the wind shifts to the other side...accidental jibes are BAD); your boat speed (only 3.8kts? seriously??); the cats again (why does Tawny insist on lying against the flimsy enclosure, with nothing but a tie-wrap between her and the Atlantic?); other boats again (where the hell did HE come from??); the clock (is it time for shift change yet?); the waypoints on the chartplotter (are we there yet?); and if you remember to do so, check out the night sky. In the middle of nowhere, it's amazing how clear the stars are. Ahhhh....gorgeous! And then it's back to looking for other boats. "-)
We finally arrived at St. Mary's channel entrance around noon on Thursday, and it took another 90 minutes to get to Fernandina Harbor Marina. Customs & Border Patrol met us at the fuel dock and did their inspection, and we were finally allowed off the boat. After getting tied to our mooring ball, making a few calls to family, and some minor boat clean-up, we were more than ready for showers and dinner. We had pub grub at our favorite Fernandina Beach Irish pub, and enjoyed our first Smithwicks in over four months. There'll be a lot of "first in four months" visits over the next few days/weeks...Starbucks, big grocery stores, ice cream, regular internet access, cell phone coverage... It's good to be back!
Some pictures to go with the story:
3 years ago