La Vie Dansante departed chilly Saint Augustine shortly after I posted the story of our brutal Christmas shakedown cruise to the Dry Tortugas and sailed on a brisk beam reach to Fort Lauderdale – our preferred launch point for departing the US East Coast for the island nation of the Bahamas. Of course, we’d only done it once before – almost exactly a year earlier on the heels of a haulout and some major boat improvements.
This year, having hauled out in Annapolis in October, we found ourselves returning to the familiar intracoastal waters of South Florida primarily to pick up some packages we had shipped to our friends John and Daniella in nearby Dania Beach, then make the short run to the islands at the soonest weather window.
At least, that’s what we planned.
In The Clutches
Since Charleston, we had been experiencing an intermittent delay in engine response that regularly, but not always, tested my boat handling skills. After some pretty amateurish troubleshooting, I attributed the issue to a control cable that apparently … sometimes … might not be engaging the transmission and throttle properly. My hypothesis was confirmed, in my mind, when working the throttle back and forth enabled me to eventually coax our starboard engine into gear every time.
Once we got to Fort Lauderdale, however, I found my workaround no longer worked! Unable to cajole the starboard transmission into gear while trying to get off a winded (and expensive) pier at Las Olas Marina, I enlisted the help of a couple from a neighboring boat, retied our dock lines and pondered my situation. I had simultaneously reached the limit of our marina budget and the limit of my diesel engine troubleshooting know-how. I needed to find a solution.
Fortunately, I know a guy.
The mechanic who had worked on our engines during last year’s haulout lived nearby and, since the boatyard that employed him was closed for the holidays, might be available to assist. I liked his work when he serviced our boat, and had called him several months later looking for his advice with a raw water cooling problem I was having with my port engine. His remote help got me back up and running, so I shipped him a bottle of my favorite sipping rum as a token of appreciation – a gesture I was very happy with as he now found the time, despite it being the holidays and over his wife’s objections, to help me get La Vie Dansante fully operational again.
He suspected the clutches from my phone description and verified this diagnosis when he got to the boat. My starboard clutch had been slipping more and more as the plates that compose the business part of the mechanism wore smooth. In the cooler temperatures, the higher oil viscosity helped the plates get a grip on each other, but the higher temps of Florida – the very thing we had been pursuing – were thinning the oil to the point where its viscosity was no longer enough to do the trick. I needed a new clutch – not a cheap part. Since the port engine had about the same hours, and Barbara even reported a similar slipping while anchoring, I made the decision to go ahead and replace both clutches – even more not cheap.
Still, getting this problem fixed by an expert while we were stateside, rather than trying to unbolt the engine block, prop it up, remove the shaft, ship it overseas, pay the higher cost and delay our travel further was an alternative we were settled with. We ordered the clutches and, after less than a week’s delay, had both engines up and running again.
The few days’ delay also gave us the chance to visit some family before heading out for what may be several years. My Mom spent a few days with us between Christmas and the New Year then, just as she pulled away from the curb, we enjoyed a brief visit from Barbara’s Mom and her man Dan as they were heading back to North Carolina from the Keys. At the same time, our friends John and Daniella visited and dropped off some fishing gear John no longer needed after selling his boat a few months earlier. We felt like we were getting a pretty robust send off!
With visits complete, repairs made, COVID-19 tests negative, documents in place and provisions for a good couple of months stored securely below decks, we were finally ready to set sail for our known and trusted check-in point, Grand Bahama Yacht Club in Port Lucaya on the south side of Grand Bahama.
This time we chose to make the trip in daylight, calling for openings from the Las Olas and 17th Street bridges at 3:45 am and 4:00 am respectively, when the only other boats going out were early-rising fishermen bound for the reefs. Depending on how the wind developed, we expected the trip to take between twelve and fifteen hours.
Wind conditions were awesome, if a bit stiff, and after a swift, sporty sail we arrived at Grand Bahama Yacht Club exactly twelve hours after leaving Florida. Our favorite dockmaster, Fabian, had even assigned us the exact same slip as last year. It was like the entire year in between was a dream … except we had awoken smarter and better prepared for the adventure and challenges ahead.
Not only does the Bahamas require you to have a negative COVID-19 PCR test in order to get a “health visa”, they also require you to follow it up with a negative quick-test on your 5th day in the islands. We passed up some great sailing weather to ensure we were able to meet this commitment, remaining at Port Lucaya where there is a testing facility within walking distance of the marina.
The Bahamas’ island construct means a case can spread pretty quickly, and the Bahamian health care system could easily get overwhelmed. In fact, even after we had a clean quick-test, we had to continue to take a short online health survey for the first fourteen days of our visit!
As soon as we cleared our quick-test, we got underway for the next leg of our adventure – a short journey across Little Bahama Bank to the Abacos.
The Edge of the Bahamas
We had skipped the Abacos last year because they had recently been flattened by Hurricane Dorian when it stalled over the island chain for several hours, hammering them with 200 mph winds. The devastation was reported to be severe; so much so that vessels were warned to remain clear of submerged obstructions and cruisers, long a mainstay of the local economy, were replaced by coastal freighters bringing needed relief supplies from the US mainland. We wanted to get a look at how the recovery was coming and, in our small way, contribute to the rebounding economy.
After a short sail up to West End, we had no wind – none for our trip across Little Bahama Bank, so we fired up Patsy and Sammy (our port and starboard engines) and slowly motored onto the shallow, skinny bank.
The water was flat and a cloudy pastel blue-grey that day. With the skies lumpy and of a similar color, the horizon was often tough to distinguishfrom sky. The environment made for a surreal crossing, with barely enough motion in the water to tell it wasn’t solid. It felt eerie, like we were motoring to the edge of the world.
As we neared Mangrove Cay and prepared to make the slight course change to our intended overnight anchorage at Great Sale Cay, we decided to alter course more to the north and drop the hook off Grande Cay, where the chart showed a Bahamian Telecommunications Company (BTC) tower. A data signal would help Barbara keep up with some photographic consulting she had taken on, as well as keeping us up-to-date on our required daily health survey.
At Grande Cay, we were the only boat in the anchorage. This would turn out to be a regular occurrence in the Abacos, preferred cruising ground of thousands before Dorian, but now sparsely visited as island communities continue the slow process of acquiring resources and enlisting the labor necessary to rebound. As if Dorian wasn’t bad enough, the subsequent pandemic crippled recovery efforts and tragically slowed relief.
Deciding to spend another night at anchor to await better winds, we took the dinghy in to the small harbor on Little Grande Cay to, among other things, find Rosey’s Place – purportedly the only place on the island to grab a drink and meet folks.
Entering the harbor at Little Grande Cay, I felt like I was outboarding into a ghost town. There were signs of the remote tropical paradise it must’ve been before the storm, including a couple of beautifully laid out resorts tucked into little estuaries off the main channel, but there was nothing going on here now. As we approached a section of dock that looked sturdy enough to tie up to, we were met by the local immigration official.
“Have you checked in to the Bahamas?” she asked
“Yes” we replied
“Do you have your papers with you?”
“No, we were advised to keep them on the boat”
“What is your boat name”?
After a little more back and forth, she bid us good day. We asked if there was anywhere on the island open to visit, she replied “the bar” and motioned to what must have been Rosey’s Place, only nobody was there and the place didn’t even really look much like a place.
Sorrowful for the loss this place suffered, we stayed in the dinghy, brought her around, headed back to our boat and prepared to continue our journey south through the Abacos the next morning.
Business Rules in the Bahamas
As the sun rose, we found ourselves with perfect wind and weather to continue toward the one island in the Abacos that was reportedly on the road to recovery – Green Turtle Cay. GTC has two small bays on it’s western shore – White Sound and Black Sound. The prevailing winds made White Sound the better choice for tying up that first night, so we pulled up ActiveCaptain – a sailing community info sharing site – and found the number for Phil Roberts, a local who owned a few mooring balls in both bays. Phil gave us directions to one of his moorings and we tied up to it. We’d made it to our next stop!
… only there wasn’t much here either. The banks of White Sound had no place to tie up ashore and no sign of any business that might benefit from our patronage. This particular part of Green Turtle Cay appeared to be residential, and recovering residential at that. We decided to ride out the wind here for a night and relocate to Black Sound, just 15 minutes away, the next morning.
With the rising sun, we fired up Patsy and Sammy (our port and starboard engines) and motored through another narrow, shallow channel into Black Sound. Phil had given us directions to one of his mooring balls on this side too; but we really didn’t think we’d found it when we tied up. I decided that, if this wasn’t Phil’s ball, I’d find out whose it was in the morning when they came by to collect.
Black Sound also had nowhere to go ashore. We had to dinghy around to the outside to find the public piers at New Plymouth – the island’s “town”. Here we found a place to tie up, a single grocery store open, some guys doing light work on a place and … nothing else.
While not quite as sad as what we’d found on Grand Cay, GTC hadn’t recovered anywhere close to the extent we’d been led to believe. Boats still littered the landscape where buildings should be, and buildings that appeared on the map were mere shells – some without walls or roofs. After a respectful walk around, we headed back to our boat and began making plans to move on.
At high tide the next morning, we headed out. Nobody had ever come by to collect, so I was reaching for my phone to call Phil and ask him who I should send my $20 (a night’s mooring at GTC and most other places in the Abacos) to when it rang. It was Phil!
“Hey, how’s it going” he asked
“Good man” I replied “We had to head out with the tide, so do you know who I should send my money to?”
“Oh yeah, you tied up to my ball”
“OK, cool! We thought it was someone else’s, but that’s great. How do I get you the money? Should I mail it or do you have Venmo or something?”
“So, you said you were headed to Hope Town”
“OK, so just go to Captain Jacks …”
“Yeah, we were planning to grab a drink there anyway”
“OK, so go to Captain Jacks and ask for Lana or Jenny. They’ll take it and get it to my grandson Jaden”
“Lana or Jenny … and they’ll give it to who?”
“My grandson Jaden”
“Will do! Thanks Phil, we appreciated tying up to your moorings”
“No problem, mate! Good sailing!”
… and we were on our way.
Hope in Hope Town
Even amidst the lingering devastation, we found plenty of signs the Abacos are gradually returning to normal. In fact, Hope Town had no less than four grocery stores open, as well as several bars and a few restaurants. Dozens of vacation cottages have been reborn – sporting new walls, fresh paint and even rebuilt docks.
We found Captain Jack’s pretty quickly, although it wasn’t what we expected. An open-air wholesale liquor store with a few souvenir shirts hanging in the breezeway, it would eventually include the return of the kitchen, but that was still a couple of months away. A leather skinned local in sunglasses was selling bottles to someone when we arrived. When he’s finished his business I learned that he was Captain Jack.
“Captain”, I said, “I’m looking for Lana or Jenny”
“I don’t know who Lana is, but Jen lives down the street”
“Will Jen be here tomorrow, because I have some money I owe Phil Roberts, and I’m supposed to give it to her so she can get it to his grandson Jared”
“Jaden” he corrected.
“Well, Jen’ll be here tomorrow. You can give it to her then.”
When we showed up the next day, Jen still wasn’t around, but Jack was talking with a guy in a golf cart.
“Jen’s not here, but this is her husband-to-be, Clint. He can take it”
“OK, Clint, nice to meet you. Can you make sure this gets to Jaden?”
“Yeah, I know him. I’ll make sure he gets it.”
After giving Clint Phil’s $20, I called Phil.
“Hey Phil, do you know Clint, Jen’s fiance?”
“Oh, yeah, I know him”
“Good, ’cause he has your $20”
“Great! That’s fine!”
Having made good on our mooring debt, we bought a couple of bottles from Captain Jack and went on our way.
As it turns out, Hope Town is a great place to visit even today. In fact, we’ve elected to stay here for another week or so to wait out some approaching weather, then we exit this charming little harbor, snake our way through the passage in the reefs and set our course west southwest to the remote Berry Islands.
In the meantime, the wait gives me plenty of time to finish my sand Barbara …