Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Here little piggy!

With only the northern end of the Exumas covered, we headed south for our next stop in Staniel Cay.  We dropped the anchor on the west side of Big Majors and dinghied over to Staniel Cay Yacht Club (somewhat of a misnomer as it’s more just a dock and a bar) to get online and wish my Mom a very happy birthday!  I went to dump the trash while Baxter tied the dinghy to the dock.  When I came back, he motioned for me to come out to the dinghy…Uh-oh – never a good thing.  When I looked in the water at the eight sharks currently swimming under the dock, my jaw dropped.  Completely a normal happenstance in Staniel Cay but I needed a moment to adjust. 

A few minutes after we sat down at a table, we met a couple who are friends of John Neal and Amanda Swan-Neal who we sailed with this summer in the South Pacific.  We also caught up with our friends Hutch and Linda on Sandcastle (who we met at our marina in New Bern).  We had a couple beers and our other friends on Sojourner walked in.  It was great to catch up with everyone and hear about the different islands they’d been to and their favorite spots (maybe we’ll catch those on our way back.)  It wasn’t only Baxter and Molly meeting up with friends, Kala got to play with a big chocolate lab named Kayla and they chased each other round and round, went swimming and played on the beach until they both had enough and were completely worn out.  When we got back to Stella Blue, Van from Gratitude (who we met in Marathon) stopped by in the dinghy to say hello and also gave Baxter a great gift of a spear from which he can make a Hawaiian sling.

The next day was for playing.  First, we went to Pig Beach where the wild pigs will swim out to your dinghy and ask for food.  When we arrived, pig #1 was walking on the beach.  We were slightly disappointed because we wanted to see them swim.  So, my brilliant husband says “Here piggy piggy piggy” and out he came, swimming about 100 yards right up to our bow.  And then out from the woods comes pig #2, #3, and #4 all just swimming around!  If we didn’t have pictures, you probably wouldn’t believe us. 

Next on the list, stopping at a local grocery store.  I had read they didn’t have much since they stock up on the boat that comes from Nassau on Wednesday and it was Monday, but we gave it a shot.  They had the major necessities like Ramen noodles, Pringles, and an ice cream cone we could eat before we got back to the dinghy.  In all seriousness, my grocery shopping would just have to wait a few days until we get to the big “city” in Georgetown. 

Back to the fun….Staniel Cay is also home to Thunderball Grotto (where the James Bond movie of the same name was filmed.)  We gathered our snorkeling gear and moored the dinghy and over the side we went.  We also took a bag of corn to feed the fish as everyone suggested it was a good idea.  Those fish know you are bringing them food and they are not shy about asking for it – talk about a school of fish.  It was like attack of the hungry nemo’s.  The reefs in the grotto were beautiful and the light coming through the underwater caves was a unique and incredible experience. 

With the wildlife encounters and provisioning (or lack thereof), we said goodbye to Staniel Cay and made plans to keep heading south the next day.  

Diving the anchor to make sure it's set - while Kala gives direction.
All set - just like we like it.

Three of eight sharks at the dinghy dock.  Yes, that is our dinghy.

Entrance to Thunderball grotto.

Feeding the fish.
Snorkeling off the dinghy is the best.

Underwater view of entrance to Thunderball grotto.

Thunderball grotto - the lights are other cave entrances.

My attempt at island cuisine - ham with plantains, apples, ginger, and garlic.

The locals at Pig Beach.

Touring Staniel Cay in the dinghy.

Staniel Cay grocery/hardware/gift store.

Kala is a sucker for sunrises.

Sunset on Big Majors.

Such a great life.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Exceptional Exumas

We left Nassau on Tuesday, as did five other boats.  Some of them were headed to the northern Exumas (Allen’s Cay and Highbourne) but since Kala wouldn’t be able to go ashore there, our destination was Norman’s Cay (pronounced “key”).  As we made the passage, we talked to a couple people we knew on the radio that were coming and going and it was fun to catch up with old friends. 

The Exumas are a chain in the eastern Bahamas that stretch basically from east of Nassau down to just above the Tropic of Cancer (20 degrees latitude).  You could spend years here checking out every tiny island but since our time is limited (though we will be coming back to check out what we’ve missed), we have to choose a couple along the way.

Norman’s Cay was our first stop.  There is not much on the island except one single room thatch-roofed shack that serves as the local watering hole and one airstrip only large enough to land a single engine plane.  It is the old stomping grounds of drug lord Carlos Lehder.  We anchored about 100 yards from a plane that crashed in 15 feet of water, and jumped in the dinghy and snorkeled in and around it.  There were beautiful Seargent Majors and enormous groupers.  It was fun to stand on the wing of a plane and dive into the water.  Kala loved the beaches at Norman’s and she would chase me as we swam together.  Something we couldn’t do in the mountain lakes in Utah.

Warderick Wells, about 20 miles south of Norman’s, was next.  It is in the Exuma Land and Sea Park that is a protected area and the wildlife is thriving! After an exciting sail on a good broad reach, we picked up a mooring ball and I can tell you that as I type this (and it is uploaded via shared satellite connection), with the view from our cockpit – THIS is why we bought a sailboat.  This is one of the most beautiful landscapes ever.  Kala is not allowed inland (to protect the native species) but when the tide goes out she can run on the exposed sand bars until her heart’s content.  Then the tide comes back in and all her little footprints are washed away. 

Tomorrow we will be leaving Warderick Wells and anchoring near Staniel Cay.  We would like to snorkel Thunderball grotto (yes, where the James Bond movie was filmed).  Hopefully we’ll get that chance.  There is also a grocery store there (a luxury in this part of the world) so we’ll pick up provisions too.

It’s also sad for us because we are saying goodbye to our wonderful Aussie friends on S/V Island Girl.  We have been traveling together since we’ve left Marathon but they are headed south a bit faster than we are, so we will keep in touch and maybe meet again in an anchorage on the other side of the world. 
Boo Boo Hill on Warderick Wells - with a marker for SV Stella Blue.

Kala Beach (until the tide comes back in and washes it away)

Thank you Momma for bringing me here.

HUGE lobster we saw while snorkeling Ranger Gardens

Beaches don't get much closer to your boat.

Kala swimming with me at Norman's Cay.

Baxter snorkeling the DC-6 plane wreck.

Warderick Wells.
Inge and Rocky on Island Girl

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Great Bahama Bank

While we were in Bimini, we were able to catch up with boats we had last seen in Marathon as well as meet new friends.  Our original plan was to stop at Frazier’s Hog Cay in the Berry Islands, but with forecasted winds we decided to head across the banks straight to Nassau – about 125 miles.  At 6 a.m. on Thursday morning, the Bimini Big Game Marina had four sailboats on their docks – by 10:05, they had 0.

Crossing the Great Bahama Bank was amazing.  I could see the bottom in 45 feet of water, and in 20 feet of water you could still see sand ripples, starfish and coral heads.  After a couple hours of going, we were settled into a groove and moving right along.  Baxter thought this would probably be a good time to see if there was a clog in the bilge exhaust tubing.  Out came everything from the lazarette and pretty soon all I could see were his toes as he was buried deep in the hull. He made progress on diagnosing the issue and by night everything was back in order and we watched a beautiful sunset and moonrise across the banks. 

During long passages, Baxter and I take turns at watch while the other takes a short cat nap in the cockpit.   We stay in the cockpit just so we can be accessible in case the other one needs us.  Kala also is always in the cockpit, but she stands every watch, without any breaks.  She keeps us company and is diligent in her duty. 

We pulled into Nassau after requesting permission from the Harbor Control and being asked to standby while Carnival Cruise Line’s Disney Dream pulled into port.  We followed behind and made our way to Nassau Harbor Club.  We would have preferred to anchor, but the holding in Nassau is reportedly poor and with strong winds coming, we were interested in something more secure.  We weren’t here long before our friends from Marathon on Gratitude pulled in a slip.  It was great to see them again as they were our original “buddy boat” but had to stay behind in Miami to repair chain plates (something that you do not want to happen after you leave the states.)

We will be in Nassau for a few days and then heading down the Exumas.  There are surf sports we’ve heard about and beaches for Kala to run and chase birds all day.  We are excited about the adventures to come and the friends we will be sharing them with.

Our slip at Bimini Big Game Marina

Spotting the route through the shallow depths

Baxter looking for star fish

One of the star fish in about 15 feet of water
Zing went the fishing line...5 minutes later - fresh kelp!
Just a little maintenance while we're underway.

The ships and harbor on our chart plotter as we pulled into Nassau (Disney Dream on left)

Disney Dream

Pullling into Nassau at sunrise (Atlantis hotel in shadows)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Crossing Over

We left No Name Harbor at 3:30 a.m. in order to get an early start.  The winds were forecasted on our nose and since we would be fighting the Gulf Stream a bit, we wanted to have daylight on our side.  As with any inlet, you always have to fight the battle between coastal waters and ocean swell but after we got to a depth of about 300 feet the ocean won and there was a nice rhythm to the waves.  We have been watching the weather for months and wanted to pick the right day with good conditions and other than maybe a better sail angle, we certainly had a great crossing!  Seas were mellow at only about 1 - 3 feet and winds never got above 15 knots.  And...just about the time we forgot the fishing line was in the water, we caught a 3 ft barracuda.  He tried to steal our lure, but we negotiated the lure or his life so he spit it out, wiggled his tail and jumped overboard.

Getting into Bimini was another story.  The Bimini approach has shoaled and chart plotters, paper charts, and even captain's reports from a couple months ago cannot be considered reliable.  If we had used only those to navigate, we would have run aground.  In fact, one of the four boats that we approached Bimini with, did run aground.  I stood on the bow pulpit and helped Baxter navigate through the shoals turn by turn.  With that behind us, we headed to the channel behind two other boats.  Who knew that they thought Monday afternoon would be a great day to lay a pipe across the middle of the channel?  All three boats had to turn around precariously with only 7' of water under the keel.  Finally as they lifted the pipes, we headed into the inlet like a parade.  The boat who previously ran aground pulled into the marina and we followed him.  Well, wouldn't you know he ran aground again?  As we tried to avoid him, our depth sounder started screaming (yes, its just a beep but it sounds like a scream to us).  We got out of there by the skin of our teeth and headed to the next marina, Bimini Big Game Marina.  This place is great.  The wifi here is better than any marina we've stayed at in the U.S.  They have all the amenities including guest housing, a pool, swim up bar, ping pong, billiards, darts and nice slips.

We will only stay for a day or so.  We are off to the Grand Bahama Banks with four or five other boats - all with different destinations, but celebrating and relishing our experiences together along the way.

Sunrise as we sail away from Miami into the Gulf Stream
A great day to cross.
We want to avoid big ships like this one!

The "Q" (quarantine) flag.
Cleared in the Bahamas and raising the courtesy flag. 
I love the beach in Bimini.

Dropping The Ball

It was a sad day, but we said goodbye to Marathon.  City Marina is a vacuum and we were definitely sucked in.  We could have stayed there for a very long time but we knew that we wanted to travel on the boat, so we dropped our mooring and sailed to Rodriguez Key.  We were close hauled most of the day and had to motor sail.  Rodriguez doesn't offer much protection from anchoring in winds but that was okay because it was only forecasted to be about 4.5 knots throughout the night.  So at 12 a.m., as the winds gusted to 25 knots, we couldn't fall asleep because of the howling and the boat was pitching with the bow slamming all night.  By 4 a.m., we couldn't take it.  Neither of us had slept but an hour but we weren't going to so we pulled up the anchor and headed north to Key Biscayne.  We knew that we wouldn't be crossing the Gulf Stream in those conditions and we certainly weren't going to spend another night in Rodriguez Key, so left.

At sunrise, we raised the sails turned off the engine and screamed north.  It was sooo nice to sail!

The forecast for a Gulfstream crossing looked great if you left that night.  We arrived at No Name Harbor anchorage to take Kala ashore.  We then put the dinghy on the deck and fixed the high life lines.  Everything was set for an ocean passage - now we just had to hope the weather would cooperate.

Goodbye Boot Key Harbor

A regatta off Isla Morada - we had the best seat in the house as they rounded the mark.

Sunset at Rodriguez.

Rodriguez Key anchorage - completely exposed to east winds.

Back at Bill Baggs State Park.  Stella Blue in background.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Going Where The Climate Suits Our Clothes

Being in Boot Key Harbor with 240 other boats has its advantages.  Boats are here from all over the world including Australia to Nova Scotia – there is even a boat from the Saskatchewan province.  They not only arrive here from around the world, but everyone is going in a different direction.  Some are going to Belize, Mexico, and Honduras area.  Others are going to Jamaica, Caymans, Cuba (mostly Canadians since Americans still aren’t permitted.)  And others, like us, are going to the Bahamas and then maybe onto the Eastern Caribbean.  

As a means to help coordinate safe travels, the City Marina has a buddy board where people can sign-up and indicate their future destinations and maybe find another boat going their way.  There is a feeling of comfort in looking on the horizon and knowing that someone is out there, not too far off, just in case.  Well, as it turns out, we have about 7-8 boats in the harbor who have all gathered waiting for a Bahama crossing weather window.  The buddy boats are different shapes and sizes – which means different speeds.  Also, personal comfort for varied winds and wave heights is another variable that has to be matched. 

Baxter and I would love to have a buddy boat to travel with but we also know the conditions we would prefer and will make the best decision for Stella Blue including where we leave from as well as the conditions we’ll accept. 

Based on the current forecast, our plan is to leave Marathon on Sunday morning and sail north to Rodriguez Key.  From there, instead of continuing to head north to Miami, we will head east across Hawk Channel, into the Atlantic, catching the Gulf Stream.  That should push us north with the current and then we can jump off as we arrive at Bimini.  It is about 80 miles from Rodriguez to Bimini and with reefs and a new island (as well as country) we would like to arrive in the early afternoon with the sun overhead and plenty of daylight.  That means leaving Rodriguez around 1 a.m.  

As always, the plan is subject to change and probably will given that we have two more days.  Tomorrow, we are heading back to the grocery store for a few more provisions and we’ll take one last hot shower and one last load of laundry.  
Beautiful sunsets were just one advantage of Boot Key Harbor.

Even Kala appreciated the beauty of the Florida Keys.

Lots of boats to look at and play with but staying in the mooring field is not where we want to be all season.


Every boat needs a good hammock.

Kookoo for Coconuts!

Kala has found a new toy – it’s cheap, it’s easy, and it’s all natural.  She has become obsessed with all things coconut!  She loves to shred them to pieces and I’m pretty sure she can’t crack the inner nut, so we let her play as long as she would like.  She wears herself out.  It’s great!