So, here we are. Two and a half weeks into our new life as sea gypsies, and we’ve already amassed enough adventures for it to feel like a year. The days go much slower in this world, and the absence of an agenda eliminates a whole category of stress. It’s been about a month since I’ve worn shoes.
It’s also been more than a year since the maiden voyage I wrote about in our last post. We’ve logged much adventure aboard La Vie Dansante since then, including an ill-advised shakedown Christmas cruise to the Dry Tortugas and a piecemeal journey up the East Coast to escape hurricane season, but all that’ll have to wait. Rather than tell those stories now, Barbara and I thought it best to start publishing this blog in real-time. I’ll tell the earlier stories in throwback pieces some time down the road, as they add relevance to things we’re doing at the time.
… which brings us up to right now!
Happy New Life!
The current chapter opens with the New Year. After closing out our apartment, my job and 2019, I rejoined Barbara in Fort Lauderdale as La Vie Dansante was nearing completion of her final cruising modifications (see our “Meet La Vie Dansante” page for details on the new gear). We bounced around Fort Lauderdale a bit, staying in a couple of marinas then dropping the hook in New River Sound (Marinas are expensive in America’s yachting capital, but anchoring is free and we were now living on a retirement budget!) awaiting good weather for a Gulf Stream crossing to the Bahamas.
The Gulf Stream is a sometimes volatile river in the ocean, running due North tight along the South Florida coast and proceeding up the East Coast through Canada’s Maritime Provinces before hooking a right into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean. With warmer temps than the surrounding water and a momentum all its own, the Stream can beat you up pretty bad if you pick the wrong combination of wind, weather and sea state for a crossing; so we watched all of these closely and made careful plans to head out during the next “weather window”.
That window opened on January 15th. Anxious to get out of Fort Lauderdale and end the seemingly endless South Florida financial blood-letting, we left US waters as sunset approached on the evening of January 15th, headed east for Port Lucaya to clear Bahamian customs and start our island adventure!
A lot of cruisers (the accepted label for folks sailing boats around specific regions as a way of life) check in at Bimini or West End because they’re the closest points to the US, but high winds were moving in within a day of our expected January 16th arrival and we didn’t want to wind up stuck and exposed on West End.
As it turned out, our overnight passage was easy and uneventful. We tried to harness the wind, but the peaceful seas came at the expense of usable wind, so we wound up motoring most of the way. Still, it was exciting to call “land ho!” as we spotted the Bahamian Islands just as the sun was coming up – a pretty cool way to begin international cruising.
Although a big chunk of the island of Grand Bahama was hit pretty hard by Hurricane Dorian, Lucaya – located on the southern shore near Freeport – escaped with relatively minor damage.
Most Bahamian ports require a stop in a marina to clear customs, and Lucaya was no exception. We pulled up to the Grand Bahama Yacht Club’s fuel dock flying our yellow “quarantine” flag, standard practice when sailing into a country’s waters prior to clearing customs, and were cheerfully met by Fabian, who may just be the most welcoming dockmaster in the islands.
Customs and Immigration was a breeze, taking about 15 minutes to clear right there on the dock. We now had all the paperwork we needed – cruising permit, fishing license and immigration forms. Now it was time to make a celebratory drink, lower our quarantine flag and hoist the Bahamian courtesy flag. We had made it!
GBYC had reasonable rates and nice facilities, so we decided to tie up there for a couple of days to ride out the coming winds. Our short stay in Port Lucaya included the discovery of conch salad, a small purchase for the grandson, our first trip to a Bahamian grocery and the rescue of my Tilley hat after it had drifted a quarter of a mile toward the inlet.
Still, the best time in Lucaya may have been dinner with Fabian and his wife Rosie at Pier One, a nice little place in Freeport where they feed a pack of nurse sharks every hour on the hour during dinner time.
Excited to continue exploring and facing another relatively short weather window between “blows”, we decided to make the run to Royal Island anchorage, just west of Spanish Wells, overnight.
Techie Corner:Barbara and I have done overnight passages several times along the US coast and, of course, on the way over; so sailing at night is something we’ve developed some skill – if not comfort – with. The tools we use include visual recognition of running lights, radar and a system called AIS to give us “eyes” in the dark. AIS, or Automatic Identification System, uses VHF transponders to report vessel details like position, name, size, course, speed, etc. to any other boat with an AIS receiver within VHF radio range. It helps a LOT and offers a pretty nice sense of security in what is otherwise a pretty scary situation – sailing at night.
We anchored off the southern shore of a small cay called Royal Island which, as Barbara and I discovered when we took the Mirages ashore, is a private resort island for those who can afford to book … an island. Anyway, the resort people were quite friendly in denying us access to their manicured beach and we continued exploring the shore until it was time to get back and secure La Vie Dansante for the impending winds.
Gone With The Wind!
The blow came and went, but almost took us with it in the process!
Our Rocna anchor is generally very reliable in a variety of bottom types, but the force and angle of this wind managed to dislodge it and set off our anchor alarm! The race was on to get the engines started and re-anchor before drifting into rocks, another boat or out to sea!
Barbara started the engines and I went forward to raise the anchor so we could reset it in a safe location. As I was attempting to raise the anchor, the windlass (the spool that lifts the anchor and chain off the sea floor) stopped. Simultaneously Barbara yelled back “starboard engine is out” … then “port engine is out too!”
What on earth could cause this to happen? The engines are completely independent, even having their own unique sources for starting power. How could they now fail at the same time?
It was Barbara who spotted the problem. We had left our Mirage Eclipse paddle boards tied up behind the boat for the evening, and the line tying them to the boat got sucked underneath as Barbara put the engines in gear, tangling around the props and stopping the engines in near unison. We were drifting with absolutely no way to control where our boat was heading. Two things kept this from being a disaster … well, it was probably one thing – divine intervention (a theme for us at this point). The intervention came in two happy cirucmstances – First, the wind was pushing us away from the line of boats anchored in the harbor and second, after about 500 feet the anchor re-caught in the grassy sand bottom and held fast. We hadn’t yet noticed the anchor had caught again when Barbara excitedly pointed out that I’d have to dive the boat to free the props from the lines. This may seem obvious to you, but I was really trying to come up with other options more comfortable than an impromptu skin diving adventure in the dark under an uncontrollably drifting boat but, alas, there was no alternative and down I went.
As it turned out, the lines came free fairly easily and we both noticed during my “swim” that the boat had stopped moving. We had survived yet another brush with disaster … with another one just around the corner.
Lesson Learned:Leave nothing tied up to the boat when expecting high winds. You’ll need to move quickly in many directions should the anchor drag under the stress.
The “Those Who Have” Club
We had intended for our stay anchored off of Royal Island to be a short one, preferring a reported anchorage in crystal water with a sandy bottom near a reputed snorkeling location, so we fired up the engines and headed the short distance through Spanish Wells to check it out. It was, in fact, quite a nice setting, but the sea was rolling there making for an uncomfortable anchorage and, probably, a sleepless night … and we’d had enough of those … so we turned around and headed La Vie Dansante back through Spanish Wells to an anchorage on the side through which we’d come. It was a 20-minute trip that would take us eight hours to complete.
There are those who have and those who will … and those who lie about it. What am I talking about? Running aground.
Running aground is when you lodge your boat into something other than water – grass, sand, rocks, etc. It can ruin or significantly damage a boat and draw an unsettling end to the dream of cruising the Caribbean.
As I rounded the turn from Gun Point into the Spanish Wells ferry channel, I started to notice that my visual cues weren’t lining up with my chart. Before I could react, though, I rounded the first channel marker on the wrong side and felt the boat slide into sand as Barbara read aloud “zero” on the depth gauge.
Fortunately, we had slid into soft sand (the owner of the local boatyard later told us “if you were going to run aground, that would be the place to do it”), which we thought would be easy to back out of. As it turned out, the tide fell quickly, and we found ourselves stranded – keels resting on the bottom – for about eight hours. As high tide approached, a local ferry owner named Thaddeus Underwood made repeated attempts to toss us with enough wake to lift us off the bank. Just as he was about to give up, his wake broke us free, we turned off our anchor light, lit up our running lights and made our way back through Spanish Wells in the pitch dark, moonless night.
Barbara was on the bow with our spotlight illuminating obstacles as we gingerly picked our way through the channel. At one point, she had been illuminating a red channel marker to our left (port) side, then turned the light onto the upcoming green marker on our right (starboard) side, to reveal it dead ahead! A quick turn to port and we eluded disaster again and proceeded into the anchorage to involuntarily complete our first nighttime anchoring evolution.
When dawn met us, we saw that we had, in fact, done a pretty good job of positioning ourselves among the boats already at anchor – not too close to anyone and not too far from the protection of shore. I dove the boat and was relieved to discover no damage to our hull, keel, rudder or saildrives. In fact, the only casualty our grounding had yielded was losing a horn that snapped off our starboard cleat when a well-meaning fisherman attempted to drag us off the sand bank with his 300 hp outboard. Well, add one more item to the growing list of repairs to La Vie Dansante!
Lesson Learned:Always move slowly when piloting in a new area. If there’s any confusion between what’s on the chart and what’s in the water, throttle back and figure it out before continuing.
That day saw us join the “Those Who Have” club – not a club I was particularly anxious to join, but considering its inevitability, I was happy to join under these benign circumstances.
With narrowly dodged bullets behind us, we now set a hopeful course to Current Cut and adventures along the skinny Bahamian Island of Eleuthera.