We sailed from Nova Scotia aboard our sturdy little motorsailer Magnus in July, 2004 – Marjorie and I, and our Brave and Faithful Dog, Leo. We were bound for points south – for Abaco, in the northern Bahamas, as it turned out. I would (and did) write a book about the trip: Sailing Away from Winter (McClelland and Stewart, 2007).
By Christmas we were in Florida. In January, our friend John Pratt joined us for the passage across the Gulf Stream to West End, on Grand Bahama Island. From there we would sail down the Abaco cays to the protected sea known as The Hub of Abaco. There we would spend the rest of the winter based in Marsh Harbour, Abaco’s largest town.
Abaco is the part of the Bahamas that was pulverized in early September by Hurricane Dorian, a Category 5 storm that simply parked over the Abacos for four days. Hurricanes are nothing new in Abaco — Frances and Jeanne had lashed the Abacos the autumn before we got there — but Dorian left dozens dead and almost every building damaged or demolished. The footage from Abaco is heartbreaking.
Marjorie and I are among the privileged people who knew Abaco well enough to understand what has been lost. So I want to share with you the beginning of the final section of Sailing Away from Winter. We pick up the story with our first full day of sailing in the Bahamas after crossing the Gulf Stream from Florida.
Champagne cruising. The kind of sailing you get in your dreams.
A warm southerly breeze presses the stout little ketch with its burgundy canvas across the dancing light turquoise water. She is bound for a deserted tropical island. The boat heels slightly under a tall azure sky. The sun is brilliant but not burning. The horizon is a complete circle, without a speck of land in sight. The water is twelve feet deep, and so clean that you can see the sand and the weeds on the bottom.
You don’t have to follow a channel. There are no rocks or reefs anywhere nearby. No bridges, no drying sandbars, no narrow land-cuts. Nothing to worry about. You can sail any course you like. Up ahead of you, you can see just one other boat – and the skipper is fishing as he sails. It’s late January.
This is one of the most memorable days of your life. Soak up every moment. When you are old, you will remember this day and smile. A voice inside scoffs: Bubba, you’re old now. Another voice answers: not today.
We almost didn’t go. This morning in West End Magnus seemed to have quite a lot of water in the bilge, and I thought the fresh-water tank was emptier than it should have been. The stuffing box was seeping too much. The computer was cranky, and though the forecast was uncertain, it appeared that another cold front would blast through shortly. Our route would lead us north of Grand Bahama Island (of which the west end is West End) and into the Sea of Abaco. Our destination was the eastern end of that sea, an area known as The Hub of Abaco, an inland sea ringed by a necklace of islands, the Abaco cays – pronounced “keys,” as in Florida. It would be a 100-mile two-day run, broken by an overnight stop at remote and isolated Great Sale Cay. We could be weather-bound at Great Sale. Should we wait out the front with Easy Time and Calypso? Or should we emulate Bill and Tina on ZigZag, and go on?
“Look, the weather is gorgeous,” said Bill, “and if we wind up with a rolly anchorage in Great Sale, so what? This is a go-day. If it blows hard tomorrow, it won’t kick up much of a sea, because you’re in shallow water on the banks, and the wind is supposed to be north-west, which is just going to push you where you’re going.”
John assessed the issues with implacable logic. Even if the fresh-water tank emptied itself, we had enough water that we wouldn’t die of thirst, check. The stuffing box was leaking a bit, but it was nothing that the pumps couldn’t handle easily, check. The computer was nice to have, but we could easily navigate without it, check. Nothing we’d heard about the weather sounded threatening, and right now the weather was gorgeous, check. Good old John. We cast off, threaded our way through Indian Cay Passage behind Bill and Tina, and entered a fragment of paradise.
Although the Abacos were new to John, the Bahamas were not; he owns a home in Harbour Island, Eleuthera. The country consists of 300,000 people living on 700 islands strewn over 1000 miles of ocean. The islands are actually hilltops standing on two enormous plateaux, the Great Bahama Bank to the south and the Little Bahama Bank to the north. The barely-submerged banks are separated by a trench of water a thousand feet deep, but the water over the banks is shallow. Plenty of watah in de Bahamas, mon, runs a local saying, but some of it spread mighty thin.
Ambitious to a fault, I had originally planned for us to visit Nassau, the capital, and also the Exuma chain and Eleuthera – all on the Great Bahama Bank – as well as the Abaco chain, on the Little Bahama Bank. The best authorities advised against it. Too much charging around, not enough enjoyment. The first-timer should just go to the Abacos, said Skipper Bob’s Bahamas Bound, and save the rest for later. The advice fit our mood. After six months of plugging south, we were ready to stop and smell the frangipani.
Great sale cay
The south-facing anchorage at Great Sale Cay looks like the gap between a forefinger and a thumb. Four boats were already there, and ZigZag went in ahead of us. We tucked in behind the thumb, ran over close to the finger and anchored. Marjorie and I took the BFD ashore. We had never seen such a shoreline – rough, jagged limestone rock which would easily have ripped a hole in an inflatable dinghy. Leo picked his way along and did his business. We heard a splash, and looked around. John had plunged off the swim platform and was vigorously swimming around the boat.
I set the GPS to warn us if the anchor dragged, and left the mizzen up to hold the boat into whatever wind might blow. At bedtime, Leo wanted to go ashore again – not a great idea in the pitch dark, on a vicious rocky shore. I took him for a walk on deck, up to the bow and back – and when he hopped back into the cockpit, he stopped abruptly.
“He’s peeing!” cried Marjorie. “Good dog! Oh, good dog.” He had hardly ever done it before, and – despite our constant encouragement – he never did it again.
In the middle of the night, the wind came up ahead of the front, whining in the rigging – 35 knots, we heard later – and I checked our position several times during the night. Magnus never budged. The sea was choppy in the morning, the wind blowing hard from the northwest, just as predicted. John and I carefully took Leo ashore, and assessed the situation. ZigZag was going on? We would go on.
We rolled and crashed to windward under power till we cleared the cay, then made sail and began a roaring downwind passage into a narrowing funnel between the islands. High gunmetal and charcoal clouds chased across the sky, and the sea was a turquoise tumult, whitecaps foaming over pastel waves. The chart was peppered with exotic names: Strangers Cay, Double-Breasted Cays, Paw-Paw Cays. As we squared away for Hawksbill Cay, John pointed astern. A bulging wall of cloud was bearing down on us. Ahead of it, the wind picked up.
“There’s the front,” he said.
The front rolled over us and onward to the south, bringing a bit more gusty wind and intermittent rain. But the boat was belting along at more than eight knots. Umbrella Cay slipped by. Allans-Pensacola Cay. We passed Centre of the World Rock, altered course to pass between Hog Cay and Crab Cay, and steered into the marina at Spanish Cay.
While we took the BFD ashore, John vanished. He came back a few minutes later, grinning, with a bottle of amber liquid in his hand.
“Try this,” he said. “I think you’ll like it.”
Like it? It was called “Nassau Royale,” and it was ambrosial. Like it? It was smooth, flavourful, appallingly easy to drink . “The Spirit of the Islands,” said the bottle. “A delicate blend of exotic ingredients with a hint of vanilla… it’s light as the Bahama breeze, as enticing as the Nassau sunshine.” Like it?
“John,” I said, just before I slid off my seat and into my berth, “it’sh a good – good thing I didn’ know about thish before now. Where has thish been all my life?”
Spanish Cay – which was named for a pair of Spanish galleons which sank offshore in the 17th century – had been hard-hit by Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne, which followed almost identical tracks down the Abaco chain. Jeanne in particular had moved very slowly, stalling for 52 hours near Spanish Cay and subjecting the area to 15 straight hours of winds above 100 mph. We had seen heavy damage at West End, where the sea had punched through a big piece of the breakwater and closed the hotel. The hurricane damage to the Spanish Cay marina had been pretty well repaired, but on the offshore side of the island we saw eroded shorelines and badly-damaged buildings – including the carcass of Wreckers Bar, right on the white sand beach, which the hurricanes had wrecked.
The marina provided wireless internet service, so we stayed a second day while I caught up with business. Marjorie cleaned and organized, and John moseyed around the boat repairing things. He examined all the running rigging, tightened the stuffing box, filled the gas tank on the dinghy, fixed the broken drawers and designed restrainers to keep them permanently in place. We went walking, and were stunned by the beauty of the beaches and the water, and by the lush vegetation – coconut palms, royal poincianas, frangipani, bougainvillea, hibiscus.
The Bahamas – we soon began to see – are often an emulsion of poverty and plutocracy, without a whole lot of folks in between. Spanish Cay once belonged to Queen Elizabeth II, and later to the Texas investor Clint Murchinson, sometime owner of the Dallas Cowboys. Since Murchison’s death the island has changed hands several times, and the current owner is developing it both as a private resort and also as a site for exclusive homes. His name was Don, and we found him making a pot of excellent she-crab soup in the kitchen of the restaurant when we went up for dinner. As well as Spanish Cay, he owned restaurant chains in Florida, Texas and Louisiana. The island has its own 5000-foot airport, and Don commuted by private jet. He also owned a boatbuilding business in British Columbia, where he was having his own mega-yacht built. Such boats, he confided, cost “about $14 million, but you can make a couple of million on em if you manage things well.”
Green turtle cay
Green Turtle Cay, just 12 miles on, was another world. Green Turtle has two anchorages, White Sound to the north and Black Sound to the south. White Sound is the tourist district, with hotels, lodges and modern marinas. We took the very shallow passage into Black Sound. We filled up with diesel at The Other Shore Club, a small, rickety marina which also showed some storm damage. The dockmater, Kevin, is – according to the sign on his truck – the Bahamas greatest rock star, leader of a band called The Gully Roosters. We were in shorts, but Kevin was wearing a toque; he thought it was cold.
“You look like a Canadian,” said Marjorie.
“What, a black Canadian?” said Kevin. “Oh, I don’t think so!”
“There are plenty of black Canadians,” said Marjorie. But Kevin clearly didn’t believe it. For him, presumably, Canadians are white, and live on boats.
It was an easy walk to New Plymouth, a picture-perfect village of 500 souls with narrow concrete streets, a shallow green harbour and a range of shops and services. Tiny houses on tiny lots, painted aqua, peach, lime green, deep coral, vivid pink, dandelion yellow. Tidy little stores, decently stocked. A century-old gaol. Dogs and chickens and kids. Golf carts and miniature Suzuki pickup trucks and vans. An historic Loyalist cemetery.
Loyalist? Yes, indeed. The Bahamas are predominantly a black nation, but in the Abacos the proportion is roughly 50/50 – and the whites, known as “Conchy Joes,” are the descendants of Loyalists who left the United States after the Revolution, settling in British colonies like Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Ontario – and the Abacos. These Loyalists, unlike the Canadian ones, came from the South – from Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. Many black Bahamians are descended from Loyalist slaves.
“Let me buy you your first conch fritters,” said John, leading us to a tiny restaurant with an outdoor gallery.
Conch – a huge underwater snail – is a staple food in the Bahamas. The meat is tough but tasty; it’s beaten flat and fried to make “cracked conch,” or diced and served raw with citrus juices, pepper and on ions as a conch salad. Conch fritters are made of ground conch deep-fried in batter. They look a little like deep-fried scallops, and they are simply delicious, especially with a Kalick (pronounced “click”), “the beer of the Bahamas.”
The whale cay passage
Green Turtle is not quite in the Hub of Abaco. The major settlements – Hope Town, Man-O-War, Marsh Harbour — lay a bit further southeast. To reach them, we had to transit the only really treacherous passage in the Abacos, the Whale Cay passage.
The cays stand on the very edge of the Little Bahama Bank, and the tides force roughly half the volume of water in the Bahamas to flow between the cays when the tide changes. In addition, waves from distant storms rear up into great combers when they suddenly encounter the steep wall of the banks, and crash into the narrow cuts between the cays, a condition known in the Bahamas as a “rage.” Most of the time, small craft can avoid the cuts – but the water between Whale Cay and Great Abaco Island is too shallow for most boats to negotiate. Deeper boats have to go out into the open ocean to get around Whale Cay – and in a rage, the passage can be rough enough to roll a freighter over and sink it.
We motor-sailed through the passage on a glorious sunny day. It was challenging enough, with swells of 10 to 12 feet. Approaching boats – and there were several – simply vanished when they dropped down into the troughs. The swells were breaking all around, presumably on nearby reefs – but no; a closer look at the chart showed they were simply big breakers. The route led out to seaward and then parallel to the rounded bump of Whale Cay. It re-entered the Sea of Abaco through a narrow but well-marked passage behind Great Guana Cay, and led back into protected open water – the Hub of Abaco.
The seas flattened out. Tropical islands lay all around the horizon, boat sailing serenely between them, tiny ferries hustling back and forth. We raised all the sails, cut the engine and sailed quietly through the turquoise water. Marjorie sat on a cockpit seat with Leo on her lap, both of them gazing off across the water. Ahead was Marsh Harbour, the largest town in the Abacos, the third-largest in the country, where John would catch a plane, and we would catch our breaths.
helping the abacos
The Canadian Red Cross is collecting contributions for the relief effort for the Abacos, here. The American Red Cross and the Salvation Army are also accepting donations. If you can, please give.
And — if you want to read more — new copies of Sailing Away from Winter are still available here. For the rest of 2019, all proceeds from sales of this book will be contributed to Bahamas relief.