Sunday, January 23, 2011

Shroud, Warderick Wells, & Staniel Cays, Exumas, Bahamas

Monday, January 17 – Sunday, January 23, 2011

Please help us welcome our very first boat visitor of 2011! Geoie is one of our friends from our Rowdy racing crew in Texas, who also joined us for the Galveston-Veracruz race in 2008 and our Texas-Florida crossing in 2009. This was his first trip to the Bahamas, and we wanted to show him some of the out islands and all their rugged beauty.

We made the trip from Norman’s Cay to Nassau on Sunday and got a slip at the Nassau Harbour Club. We found ourselves docked right next to Alice and Steve on Ocean Star, another Kemah couple we’d met on Norman’s Cay who also know our friends Deana and Troy from Storyville. Geoie flew into Nassau on Monday, and we gave him the grand tour via the city’s bus system. We saw parts of Nassau that most tourists don’t get to see, and finally hopped off in downtown Nassau near the straw market. What a difference a week makes! Having been down here with LA and Susan the previous week when the market was filled with cruise passengers, we couldn’t believe how quiet it was this time. There weren’t any cruise ships in port on Monday afternoon, and many of the shops and stalls were closed. We walked around a bit looking for an Indian restaurant that had been recommended by a marina neighbor (it turned out to be closed as well), and finally ended up at Senior Frog’s on the waterfront. It was a total tourist trap, but a fun one! We wandered to the bar to a row of thong-clad stools (we’re not talking footwear here), and enjoyed a selection of local bevvies. (Stacy’s mango and Nassau Royal frozen daiquiri was the hands-down favorite!) Soon after, a waitress began pushing a stall around the restaurant offering freshly-made guacamole…how could we refuse?! The party soon began in true Senior Frog’s form, with drinking contests, karaoke, and shooters. A corporate group on a boondoggle kept us all entertained, and we ended up staying through dinner. We were back on Pipe in time to prep the boat for a series of approaching squalls, and were quite happy to be securely tied to the dock when the 30-knot winds came through.

We planned for a busy week of sightseeing and moving around since Geoie was leaving Friday morning. We convinced him to get a flight out of Staniel Cay to allow him to see more of the area, which meant we could hit a few islands on the way south. Tuesday morning we left Nassau to meet up with Genesis on Shroud Cay. We had an easy trip motoring thanks to winds on the nose, and Susan had dinner waiting for us when we reached the anchorage (what a sweetheart!). We dinghied through some beautiful mangroves on Wednesday morning and arrived at a beach facing the Atlantic. The currents raced through a small cut to a sand bank, and swimmers were floating through the chutes. After watching LA ride the chutes, we all hiked up to Camp Driftwood and its gorgeous 360-degree views of the area. You can’t imagine the incredible colors that stretch from the beach to the reef and the ocean beyond; as LA said, “it’s like a blue rainbow”. We jumped in our dinghies and followed the shoreline around the north side of Shroud Cay to the Atlantic-facing beaches. The scenery was absolutely breath-taking, and we wished we had brought along picnic lunches and towels for some serious time on the beach…alas, no time! Instead, we returned to the boats by 1pm for the 3-hour trip to Warderick Wells Cay, but promised ourselves we’d come back to Shroud for more quality time.

Warderick Wells Cay is home to the headquarters of the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park, a 176-square-mile marine sanctuary. The park offers mooring balls for a fee, and you can only reserve them a day in advance. Someone from the park comes on the VHF at 9am daily to let you know whether a mooring is available for you. It’s a popular spot, and there’s often a lengthy waiting list. Susan was able to get us on the list, and we were lucky enough to get two moorings side-by-side for Wednesday night. We arrived in the park around 4pm and went ashore to take advantage of what little time we had there. We hiked to Boo Boo Hill, an overlook filled with pieces of driftwood that have been decorated with boat names and left by cruisers over the years. The path continued on to Boo Boo Beach, a small patch of sand with nothing between it and Africa but thousands of miles of ocean. We stuck our toes in the water and barely made it back to the boat before sunset. LA and Susan joined us aboard Pipe for grilled steaks, potatoes, and home-made key lime pie, and 11pm rolled around before we knew what had happened.

Thursday morning Rene dug out the snorkel gear and he, Geoie, and LA tried to snorkel the coral gardens near the park HQ building. They’d been warned that the current was incredibly strong there, and it made hovering pretty much impossible. Susan and Stacy borrowed a two-person kayak from the park, and paddled out to meet up with the guys. We were hanging onto one of the dinghies when the kayak began to heel to starboard; before we could stop it, we were soon rolling into the water! Geoie and Rene helped Susan get into the dinghy, and Rene stabilized the kayak long enough for Stacy to climb aboard. She stayed on for about 30 seconds before the damn thing rolled over again. It turns out that there was a crack in the shell that allowed water to seep inside; with the kayak shell full of water, there was no way to keep it upright. Stacy, Susan, and the kayak moved over to the dinghy with LA, and we tried to tow the kayak back to shore. Simple, right? Not so much… The kayak flipped over a few times and even went stern-up at one point (picture the scene in Titanic when the ship breaks in half and the back of the boat sticks out of the water…only with a pink kayak instead of a cruise ship). We finally made it back to the beach, drained enough water from the kayak to muscle it back on its rack, and got back to the boats for the 18nm trip down to Staniel Cay.

So you know that old saying about “when pigs fly”? Well how about “when pigs swim”?! Brandon and Carryn (Sol Mate) had told us about swimming pigs in the Big Major’s Spot anchorage near Staniel Cay, but we were having a hard time believing we’d actually see it. Consider us believers, because we weren’t anchored for more than a half-hour before we saw a couple in a dinghy approach the beach and two massive spotted pigs come running out to greet them. You’ve GOT to be kidding! We jumped in our dinks, leftover pineapple in hand (we’ve heard the piggy’s like treats), and zoomed to the beach. Another dinghy was already there with a couple and their two kids, but the pigs were nowhere to be seen. Suddenly the pigs came racing down the beach into the water, swimming right up against the other dinghy to the delight (or maybe horror?) of the kids. We became an item of interest when we threw the pineapple into the water, but found ourselves shunned when the pigs turned their noses up at the pineapple. (Granted, it wasn’t very ripe – which was why there was any left from our own breakfast!) LA and Susan soon joined us with baby carrots. Those were more successful than the pineapple, but weren’t received quite as well as the bread from a third dinghy. These pigs are finicky!

LA and Susan joined us for a final dinner with Geoie on Thursday, and we woke up early Friday morning to get him to the airport on Staniel Cay. He had had such a great time so far…if only his vacation could’ve ended as well as it had begun. When Geoie and Rene reached the airport, they were told that the airline couldn’t find his reservation and the flight to Nassau was full. Nooooo! Geoie was able to buy a ticket on the afternoon flight, but it would mean his missing his connection back to Houston. Without any alternatives, Geoie and Rene came back to Pipe – only to learn that there was a westerly blow coming through and that we had to move the boat NOW (we’d passed high tide and were losing water to get through the shallow cut to the new anchorage). With Stacy at the helm, Rene headed to the bow to pull up the anchor…and dropped his walkie-talkie. It floated for a couple of seconds and then went glug, glug, glug down to the bottom. Noooo! Okay…something to ask Mom to bring down when she visits. Reverting to hand signals, we got the anchor up and followed Genesis through a very narrow cut on the north side of Big Major’s. It was nearly two hours past high tide and the current was ripping through the cut. We were doing 8kts as we passed through the 40-foot-wide opening, jagged coral heads seeming dangerously close. On the plus side, we were in the protected anchorage between Big Major’s and Little Major’s in under 15 minutes – much faster than if we’d gone around the south side of Big Major’s and past Staniel Cay. It took us a few minutes to find a good anchoring spot, but we finally found a sandy patch that allowed plenty of swinging room between us and the other boats. Genesis wasn’t so lucky, and re-anchored four times before finding a better spot on the north side of the island. We dinghied in to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club for lunch and some internet, with the intention of taking Geoie to the airport after lunch. We’d just ordered our burgers when we heard an unknown voice calling Pipe Muh Bligh over the VHF. Never a good sign. Wouldn’t you know, with opposing current and wind, we were “sailing” on our anchor. We managed to get within a few feet of our neighbor boat and they understandably got nervous. Rene tore off in the dinghy back to Pipe, and Geoie and Stacy rushed to finish lunch and get Geoie to his 2:45pm flight. We made it by 2pm, and couldn’t understand why there were no other customers there – or even a plane – at 3pm. Island time, mon! What they didn’t tell us was that the plane actually made three stops en route to Nassau. Depending on the loads, Staniel Cay could be the first stop…or the last. Apparently the rest of the passengers knew this, because golf carts full of people began arriving around 3pm. The plane finally showed up after 3:30pm, and Geoie was on his way. We feel absolutely awful that he had such a tough time getting home, and hope he can eventually remember the good parts of his visit!

We had a bit too much excitement on Saturday night. The big storm finally came through with high winds and rain, causing everyone in the anchorage to keep a sharp eye on the distance between them and their neighbors. One boat drug around 10pm, first getting its anchor caught on one boat’s chain, and later brushing up against a trawler in the back of the anchorage. Air horns were blaring to alert of dragging, and the “drag-ee” (aka the trawler captain) could be heard on the VHF talking about his injuries following the collision. It’s always a little scary to be involved in a dragging incident, and we were fortunate to be out of the line of fire this time.

After hiding out between Big and Little Major’s for the blow, we’ve returned to our anchorage west of Big Major’s Spot for another night. We’ll likely head north again on Monday or Tuesday – back to Shroud or Warderick Wells – before another blow comes through on Wednesday. We’re hoping to connect with Storyville and Anchor Management this week (they arrived in Nassau last Thursday), and will spend some more time exploring the central Exumas. Til next time!

P.S. Enjoy more pictures here!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Allan’s, Highbourne, & Norman’s Cays, Exumas, Bahamas

Saturday, January 8 – Saturday, January 15, 2010

Welcome to our first stop in the Exumas chain of islands, and what a beautiful stop it is! We’ve joined 10 other boats in the anchorage nestled between Allan’s and Leaf Cays, surrounded by white sand beaches, rocky limestone outcroppings, and gorgeous turquoise waters.

The area’s claim to fame is a group of prehistoric iguanas that live on two of the islands. As the guidebooks say, all you have to do is dinghy over and stand on the beach, and iguanas begin to come out of the proverbial woodwork. The guidebooks also recommend that you do NOT feed them (they may bite), but that doesn’t stop the fast boats that bring inebriated tourists from Nassau offering fruits and vegetables planted on sticks. (Hey – at least they’re not quite so stupid as to risk their digits hand-feeding the iguanas!) We wait for the tour boats to leave, and make our way to the beach on Leaf Cay. As predicted, we’re barely out of the dinghy before a handful of iguanas start wandering towards us looking for handouts. Apparently they haven’t stuffed themselves on the tour boat offerings, because many of them come within mere inches of us. The iguanas are anywhere from 18” to three feet long, and have red and blue coloring on their faces and spines/scales. We’re soon joined by over 30 of these creatures, and some are quite aggressive. All you have to do is wiggle your fingers and they come running. What a bizarre sight!

Our next dinghy stop is a small beach on SW Allen’s Cay with its lone palm tree swaying above the brush. It’s a gorgeous setting, and we make our way (avoiding more iguanas along the path) to the Atlantic-facing beach on the other side. There are smaller, 6’-tall palm trees all over the island, but only one tree that can be seen from a distance. We have no idea what causes this phenomenon, but it certainly makes for a good picture. We really can’t believe we’re in such a beautiful spot, and can only imagine what the rest of the Exumas have in store for us.

On Monday we’re off to Highbourne Cay, which is a whopping four-mile trip from Allan’s. Highbourne is the most northerly inhabited island in the Exuma chain, but visitors must ask permission to venture beyond the marina on this three-mile-long, privately-owned island. The marina itself provides us with our first grocery store since leaving Nassau, and the prices remind us why we’re so heavily weighed down with provisions from the States: $6.50 for a dozen eggs, $8.50 for a bag of cookies, and $9.30 for a small box of cereal. Ouch! Fortunately we don’t need anything but a couple of limes for sundowners, and manage to depart without any serious damage to our wallets. Next up is a dinghy tour of the far side of the island to see some of Highbourne’s eight gorgeous beaches…or at least that’s the plan. The wind has kicked up some rough seas (at least it feels that way in the dinghy), so we turn back to explore a protected cove on the lee side of the island. LA and Susan are more adventurous than we are, and continue on around the island before meeting us at the cove. Once again, we’re floored by the color of the water. We’d been told that the Exumas were even prettier than the Abacos, but had a hard time believing it until the proof was right in front of us. Everywhere we turn, we see postcard-perfect scenery. The sea is made up of a dozen different shades of turquoise, depending on depths, sunlight, and bottom conditions. There’s a single house high on the hill above the cove, and we can only imagine the views that the owners enjoy from their wrap-around porch. Heavenly!

As gorgeous as the cove is, there really isn’t much to do on Highbourne if you’re not staying at the marina. We don’t need the grocery store yet, and we can’t use the marina’s internet access if we aren’t paying for a slip. There isn’t a restaurant or bar on the island, and exploration beyond the ship store isn’t exactly encouraged. After one night anchored out, we make a last-minute decision to motor 8 miles down to Norman’s Cay. There’s a north-northeasterly blow coming through Wednesday-Friday, and Norman’s seems to offer as much protection – or more – as Highbourne Cay. Better yet, Norman has plenty of snorkeling and kayaking opportunities, not to mention MacDuff’s Bar & Grille. Some of you may have heard of Norman’s Cay in the 1980s, when it became somewhat notorious thanks to the…uhhh…”extracurricular activities” of its owner, alleged drug lord Carlos Lehder. Being on the island now, you’d never know that it was once the target of various drug enforcement agencies. The only remnant of the “bad old days” is (or was) an old DC-3 drug plane that crashed near the southern anchorage just short of the runway; very little of the plane remains visible today, but you can still snorkel the wreck and let your imagination run wild.

The weather kept us on board for our first couple of days in Norman, but we were finally able to go exploring on Saturday in the dink. Norman's Cay has a bight (think "big horseshoe-shaped bay") with mangroves and a blue hole. We had to maneuver our way through the shallows, but it was so worth it! We saw stingrays, sandbars, and gorgeous colors. The waves from the Atlantic were crashing against the outer reef, but we were completely protected. We turned back before we wanted to, but we really didn't want to get stuck on an outgoing tide. If we grounded, it would be a long walk back - towing a 200lb dinghy - to the boat!

We’re heading back to Nassau on Sunday to meet up with a friend from Kemah. Geoie will be our first boat visitor of the year, and we’re excited to show him some of the beautiful sights down here. Nassau will also give us a chance to get back online; we haven’t had internet in over a week, and have been told not to expect much before we arrive in Staniel Cay. We’ll be in Staniel on Friday so that Geoie can catch his flight back to the US, so we’ll try to post another blog then. Cheers!

Pictures with this Blog chapter:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Back in the Bahamas!

Sunday, January 2 - Friday, January 7, 2011

We’re in the Bahamas!!! We’ve finally made it, and are currently in Nassau at the Harbor Club marina. We’re sharing a 100’ slip with friends, LA and Susan, from Genesis, and plan to leave for the Exumas in the morning.

Our weather window came through for us, and we were able to leave Miami’s Government Cut at 7pm Sunday evening. We had an incredibly calm crossing; the journey from our anchorage in the Venetian Causeway to the end of the ship channel was more stressful than the rest of the 160nm to Nassau! If you aren’t familiar with Miami, it’s a massive port city filled with cruise ships and commercial vessels. We had six cruise ships in port on Sunday, all of whom headed out to sea shortly before we did. We also found ourselves racing a container ship as it left its dock in Fisherman’s Channel. One minute it was still tied to the dock, and the next – just as we were alongside it, mind you – it was on its way to the inlet. Yikes! We managed to get over to the far side of the channel ahead of the freighter, only to end up dodging speedboats, ferries, tugs, and jet skis en route to the fuel dock. After the requisite fuel, water, and pump-out, we motored over to Fisher Island to await Genesis. We watched the progression of cruise ships leave the port, along with another container ship, and felt better about our departure time; at least we wouldn’t be dodging those things on the way out! Silly us, we forgot one simple thing: as long as the cruise ships were leaving the port, none of the commercial vessels could come in. Where were they? Waiting at the end of the inlet, of course! The first monster turned into the channel just as we approached the jetties. Apparently the captain didn’t like having to share the inlet with a couple of sailboats; five loud horn blasts, the boating signal warning of a potential collision, soon filled our ears. We were already trying to get outside of the channel to give him plenty of room. LA and Susan were right behind us, and they too got their five-horn salute from the freighter. Oh, well…crisis averted…right? Nope! This commercial ship was simply the first in a very long line. Looking to the north, we could see a dozen other behemoths waiting to come in. We quickly set a course south of the channel and out of the way. Next stop, the Bahamas!

After the initial excitement of our Miami departure, we enjoyed calm seas all the way to the Bahamas Bank. We reached Mackie Shoal around 9am and anchored on the bank to sleep and fix a few things. Rene had noticed a sharp decline in RPMs and speed at one point overnight and figured it was likely a fuel filter problem. LA gave him a few suggestions over the VHF that gave us a temporary fix, and Rene pulled out the filter once we were anchored on the bank. Obviously it had been awhile since we had replaced the filter, because that thing was nasty! We spent the day at anchor and left at 8pm for the 80nm trip to Nassau. We had another calm trip through the “Tongue of the Ocean” (quite a feat considering its 9,000’ depths), and reached the Nassau Harbor Club marina at 10am. The customs and immigration process was much easier than expected, and we were declared “legal” by noon. First up: take down the yellow quarantine flag and raise the Bahamian visitor flag. Woo hoo!

Most people visiting Nassau for the first time would probably do the usual touristy things: go to the Atlantis resort, see the beach on Paradise Island, go to the straw market, etc. What do cruisers do? Take advantage of a fresh-water source and clean the boat! We thought it would be a two-hour job. Seven hours later, we finally called it a day. There was a Starbucks across the street from the marina that had wi-fi (not easy to come by in the Bahamas), so we spent some time calling our families, checking weather, and updating the blog.

We have a weather front coming our way on Thursday, so we’ll leave Nassau for a protected anchorage in Allan Cay and will likely be holed up there for 2-3 days. We won't have internet until we get further south in the Exumas, but will send SPOT updates whenever we reach a new anchorage. Hopefully we'll also find some good internet connectivity that lets us upload photos. We know we have some beautiful islands coming our way, and want to share them with everyone. :-)

Pictures with this Blog chapter:

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bienvenidos a Miami

Thursday, December 30, 2010 – Sunday, January 2, 2011

Bienvenidos a Miami! We’ve finally made it to our jumping-off point of Miami, Florida – Pipe Muh Bligh’s last US port of call (we hope) for the foreseeable future! We’ll definitely fly back to the States for visits with family and friends, but we plan to keep the boat in the Caribbean for the next 5+ years.

We left Palm Beach on Wednesday afternoon with friends and buddy boaters, LA & Susan. Winds were mostly on the nose, but the forecasters predicted relatively calm seas and 10-15kt winds – perfect for an easy overnight motor to Miami’s Government Cut. The forecast even proved accurate for the first six hours of the trip, and we enjoyed a beautiful night remaining 2-3 mile offshore. Soon after midnight, however, the winds piped up to a steady 18-20 knots, often gusting to 25kts. The waves joined in the fun, and we all found ourselves getting bounced from side to side by 4-6’ rollers. Susan and the two cats (our Tux and their Lulu) were all seasick, and LA and Susan were likely wondering whether they’d made the right decision to make the trip with us. :-)

We arrived at the Miami inlet around 5:30am and tried to avoid the freighters and other big ships coming and going through the channel. Not long before, we’d heard the Coast Guard put out a securité for a 430’ mega-yacht; they’d placed a temporary restriction zone 100 yards around the vessel, and no one was allowed to come within that zone until it was docked. We later discovered that this yacht was owned by either the Prime Minister or the Emir of Qatar (depends on which website you believe), and it’s one of the largest private yachts in the world. We don’t know whether the PM was on board, but we’re guessing the USGC doesn’t create restricted zones for just anyone!

We reached our anchorage in the Venetian Causeway and dropped the hook near Belle Island. It’s a well-protected spot and offers a short dinghy ride to South Beach and its many shops, restaurants, and opportunities for people-watching (not to mention the 25-cent bus service). After spending the day touring the area and enjoying Cuban food at David’s Café, we all rang in the New Year aboard Pipe Muh Bligh. We were surrounded by at least four different fireworks displays at midnight, and it felt like we had front-row seats. What a great way to celebrate New Year’s Eve! We also got some terrific news – our friends from Kemah who began their cruising adventure just before Christmas have made it safely to Key West. Hopefully they’ll take some time to decompress and enjoy the Florida Keys before they cross over to the Bahamas.

Speaking of the Bahamas…it looks like we’re finally getting our weather window for a Gulf Stream crossing! The winds are right and the seas are supposed to calm down beginning Sunday. There isn’t another cold front in the forecast for at least a week, which means we should have a benign crossing to the Exumas. We plan to leave Miami Sunday night, working our way north of Bimini to Mackie Shoal. We’ll likely stop there for a short rest (you can anchor on the Bahamas Bank if the winds are calm), and will continue on to Nassau to check in with Customs and Immigration. We hope to stay in a marina there for a couple of days, and then it’s on to the top of the Exumas chain. We can’t wait!

We know that internet will be a bit harder to come by once we leave Nassau, but we’ll send SPOT messages during the crossing and each time we anchor off of a new island in the Exumas. Our SPOT messages are automatically posted to Rene’s Facebook page, so hopefully everyone can follow our progress as we move south. We feel like we’re starting a new chapter of our cruising life, finally embarking on a route we’d initially planned to follow when we first left Kemah. We’re so glad we’ve had an opportunity to explore the East Coast and Abacos for the past 22 months, and wouldn’t give it up for anything. Still, we’re so excited to begin our journey down to the Caribbean…maybe we’ll see some of you there!

Pictures with this Blog chapter: