From Nassau to the Berry Islands

We pulled into our slip at Palm Cay Marina just in time before an afternoon thunderstorm began. We were happy to see the familiar faces of SV Elysian and thankful that they were willing to catch lines for us as we docked. I don’t think any sailors turn down extra hands for catching lines when docking!20180611_164837

The marina had just reduced their rates for the summer season, so we decided to stay a total of four nights, rather than two, like we had planned. Our four days were spent enjoying land-comforts…laundry, hot showers, wi-fi, and grocery stores. A full-size grocery store was built since our last visit, just a mile or so down the road, so we walked and brought our rolly-cart to carry groceries. We reprovisioned on essentials and bought a few special items…deli subs, Alexia sweet potato fries, and a few cartons of strawberries.

Back on solid ground, I decided to give running a go for the first time in months. I hadn’t run since we left home back in February. Early on the second morning in Nassau, I dug out my running shoes and went for it. My old pace (8:35/mi) was long gone, but I was shooting to keep in under 10-minute miles…I succeeded, barely, at 9:45/mile. I ran a total of four miles over our stay at Palm Cay…my legs were like jello!20180609_081810

We walked the dogs around the marina…Ginnie wasn’t so sure what the leashes were all about since she’s gotten used to being off-leash, but both dogs seemed to enjoy the grass!

Troy and I made one trip into Nassau by taxi. We picked up a new handheld radio and the Near Bahamas Explore Chartbook. Since we knew exactly what we needed and from only one store, our taxi driver agreed to wait for us…he was so nice and friendly…telling us all about his life growing up in the Bahamas.

While we had wi-fi, I downloaded the CBP ROAM app in preparation for our arrival in the states. This app is very new and after reading a description about it from the Boat Galley blog, I decided to give it a try. This app will allow us to check-in to the United States without having to go to a face-to-face appointment with Customs and Border Patrol. I entered our passport information and pictures along with our boat information. When we arrive in the states, to check-in, all I would need to do is complete a facetime appointment with a Customs and Border Patrol officer.

After our fourth night, we woke up and left early, to begin the trip 50 miles north to the Berry Islands. The winds were a bit stronger than we expected as we moved around New Providence; this made the first leg pretty choppy. Soon, we were aiming for Little Harbor and Devil’s Cay in calmer conditions. We realized, early on, that we were in for a stormy trip. We watched as dark clouds built up around us in the distance. Lightning was everywhere…but luckily nothing too close. It still made me nervous; as we got further and further offshore, the amount of lightning strikes seemed to increase. We got rain on and off our whole trip, but with the rain, came no wind. We moved SO SLOW. Eventually, we motored, being chased by storm cells in every direction.20180612_13350220180612_134531

Finally, we could see land as we approached the Berries, but we still had a ways to go. The cockpit was soaked from rain blowing in from the sides. Everything was wet, but at least the lightning was diminishing. Soon, thankfully, the storms subsided, and we made it through the cut to the shallow, protected interior of the islands. Once inside, it’s as if we’re in a sanctuary…we got the same feeling after surfing down waves for our first arrival here. We anchored behind Fowl Cay for our first night and then moved over to our favorite spot, Devil’s Cay, the next morning on a rising tide. The interior of the Berry Islands are shallow, so we moved over to our new spot when we had more water under the keel. We dropped anchor in a sandy patch among the seagrass about halfway down the cay.20180613_061518

Calm, protected, and HOT. We were really starting to feel the heat. With little breeze, we cooled off in the water many times throughout the day. Flip-flop hiking and dinghy exploring filled up our itinerary. The views are unspoiled…sugary sand, rocks and grasses, surrounded by blue crystal-clear water…perfection!20180614_12544420180615_152848

Ginnie was lucky enough to score an evening dinghy ride and I finally took a video. You can see her pure joy. I’m telling you, there is nothing that makes this dog happier than perching herself on the front of the dinghy…the faster, the better!

At this point in our trip, we were starting to make plans for our arrival in the United States. It is hard to believe our time in the Bahamas was coming to an end. It had been over four months since we were in Florida. At this point, we planned on moving from Devil’s Cay to Great Harbor Cay in the Berry Islands. From there, we’d make an overnight trip to Bimini and wait for a weather window to cross back over to Miami. Our weather information from Chris Parker told us that we’d be in for light and variable winds…more motoring, most likely. So, with that knowledge, we made our way out and around towards Great Harbor.

 

Cambridge Cay and Warderick Wells

Just 14 miles north of Staniel Cay is the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Waiting for us there are restful nights of sleep because, well…mooring balls. We made the short hop to Cambridge Cay. On our way, I pulled lines out of the lazarette and set them up on deck so we were ready to grab a mooring. We have a few specific lines that we use for moorings, that we’ve equipped with some homemade chafe protection (aka cut up water hose).

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From the southern end of the cay, we carefully approach the mooring field. The entrance narrows with shallows and rocks on either side. We come uncomfortably close to the rocks on our starboard, but that’s where the deepest water is. It’s a funny thing when we’re purposely bringing our boat that close to sharp, jagged rocks, but we made it through with no problem.

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We stayed a few days in the park, and like the last few anchorages, the mooring field was much less crowded than our visit back at the end of March. Then, all mooring balls were in use (about a dozen of them, plus some vessels anchored) and now no more than five other boats were moored.

We spent most of our time in the water snorkeling and exploring the nearby cays. Our dinghy got a workout here. From the mooring field, we traveled to O’brien Cay, Soldier Cay, Halls Pond Cay, and Little Halls Pond (Johnny Depp’s Island). One of our favorite things to do is exploring by dinghy. We love finding hidden coves, sandbars, and snorkel spots.

Along the south side of O’brien Cay, we slowed the dinghy down, found several coral heads along the island, and decided to drift dive, letting the current carry us as we swam. We like to snorkel mid-day, if the weather is right. Because the sun is straight overhead, the visibility is best. The sun illuminates the water and creates spotlights over the coral. The colors are unreal! I know I’ve said it before, but the water is crystal-clear, like a swimming pool. We’re so lucky we get to live in and explore such an amazing place!

We made two trips to “The Aquarium”. This tiny rock island sits between O’Brien Cay and Soldier Cay. Above the waterline, it looks like any other rock…but below is a water wonderland, full of bright coral and endless amounts of sea life.

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We tied up to the dinghy moorings and hopped off the dinghy. We are instantly surrounded by fish. This trip, I brought a few Ritz crackers to crumble up for fish food. These little guys aren’t shy!

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Since we arrived at slack tide, the current is almost nonexistent. We leisurely made our way around the entire perimeter of the island. Occasionally, Troy and I would have to pause to find each other, we often slowed down to get closer looks at all the tropical fish. Out a way from the aquarium, Troy spotted a group of ocean triggerfish and a sea turtle and snorkeled to check them out. I stayed, poking my nose in the nooks and crannies of the coral, seeing what I could find.

Afterwards, we motored over and took a slow stroll around Johnny Depp’s Island, Little Hall’s Pond Cay, just west of O’brien Cay. Unfortunately, we had no star-sightings! We also made another trip to the plane wreck nearby. Out in the open, away from any island, we picked up the dinghy mooring and snorkeled the wreck. I spotted a few barracuda lurking nearby… I kept my eye on them! I think my fingers stayed permanently pruned, but I never get tired of being in the water!

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After three days, we headed 12 miles north to Warderick Wells, the headquarters of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. We snagged a mooring ball in the Emerald Rock mooring field…Salty Tails was the only boat when we arrived! We expected to have fewer neighbors at this point in the season, it was becoming a common theme.

We checked on our sign at the top of Boo Boo Hill…it still looked great! I was a little nervous because the salty air and relentless wind is so rough on things…it was a little faded, but intact! The hike to and from Boo Boo Hill is a short one, but the heat had really ramped up and Troy and I were both sweating, A LOT!

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The next day, was a little dreary so Troy decided to take care of some dinghy motor maintenance. He installed a new water pump and replaced the lower unit oil. For Troy, these tasks are extremely simple under normal circumstances, like in a garage. BUT, the winds picked up a little out of the west and we were rocking. Imagine lifting an awkwardly shaped 60-pound weight up from the dinghy into the back of the sailboat…both of which are moving up and down with the waves. Sheesh! Thank goodness we didn’t drop it! It was a messy job, and somehow, we both ended up oil-stained, but the dinghy had fresh oil by the time he finished!

20180603_200405We enjoyed one of the most spectacular sunsets of our trip on our last night at Warderick Wells. The sky shone every color of pink, orange, and blue…breathtaking! In the morning, we’d be heading to Hawksbill Cay.

South, South, and North Again

The following Monday, we left Allans Cay and headed to Normans Cay. At just under ten miles and two hours, this would be a quick hop south. Even though the trip was speedy, I was still able to count over 50 colorful starfish along the way (Yes, I kept count)!
We chose to anchor on the western shore of Normans Cay, just south of Skipjack Point. We had good depths here, compared to the shallow depth we anchored in at our last stop. We dropped the anchor in about 15 feet. The water was incredibly calm that day. Although we were open and exposed to nearly everything except the east, the water was flat, we could see straight to the bottom. When we set the anchor, we could see it biting into the sand, as if it were just inches underneath us. After lunch, we hopped in the dinghy and rode to the other side of the island (where many cruising boats chose to anchor). On our trip over, we slowed every so often to observe the stingrays, giant needle fish, and coral heads.

Once inside, around the southern tip, we idled through the anchored cruising boats, over to the sunken airplane (said to be from drug-running days). We hadn’t brought our snorkel gear with us, so we were unable to dive the site, but with the water as clear as it was, we managed to get a good look from inside the dinghy. We headed to the island’s “hurricane hole” next. Norman’s Pond is accessible from the eastern side of the island and is for shallow draft boats only. We considered anchoring inside as we planned this leg, but knowing how shallow the entry was, we weren’t going to chance running aground. We were free to explore by dinghy, however. We entered the “pond” between two large rocks and it became shallow almost immediately. At the current tide, the depth could have been no more than a few feet. Once clearing the shoal just inside, the depths increased as we followed a deeper contour into the pond where depths are reported to be well over ten feet. The pond was more than what we considered a “pond”, it was quite large actually. The water was just as blue as the outside, but opaque and two neat caves rose above the water along one side. We drove around in the dinghy…only one sailboat was inside. We decided that it might be a good spot to escape bad weather, if we could enter at a high tide; but for now, we were happy with our anchorage on the west side of the island.
The next day we headed south to Shroud Cay, the first cay in the Exuma Land and Sea Park. This hop was even shorter at only six miles and under 90 minutes. We arrived fairly early in the day and opted to anchor rather than pick up one of the mooring balls. Since we arrived before midday, many boats had not left from the previous night; we anchored as close to shore as we could, without crowding other boats. We hiked a few trails around Shroud Cay and explored some of the mangrove creeks.

Later that day, we hopped in the dinghy, loaded up the dogs and then tossed the anchor in knee-deep water with drinks in hand so the dogs could play. After Ginnie got her fair share of running around, we headed back for sunset on board. That night was rolly. We didn’t sleep much since the boat didn’t really stop moving. We had protection from only the east and winds had shifted to the southwest, so waves rolled in from that direction.

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We headed back up to Allans Cay that morning to wait for the winds to subside. We learned what it means for Allans Cay to be a “fair weather anchorage”: it was quite different this time than when we were last here. Strong current and swell from the bank rolled through, not always matching the wind. This lead to some interesting moments in the anchorage. Usually, boats point into the wind, so typically all boats point in the same direction. This was not the case now. Because the current moved differently depending on which side of the anchorage one was anchored, boats danced around their anchor, often pointing in different directions. At one point our anchor (which thankfully held secure) was behind us rather than at the bow. The combination of current and swell was uncomfortable. One night, I had to remain holding onto a pot of boiling water so it wouldn’t topple.

Obviously, we took anchor watch shifts. During my shift, I watched Pitch Perfect (singing along quietly so Troy wouldn’t hear me), drank too much coffee, and made mini homemade cherry pies…because, why not? We tried to make the best of the several nights we were there. We hiked around Leaf Cay to a beach on the east side (which was remarkably calm) and climbed rocky hills of Allans Cay to check out the Exuma Bank which was incredibly rough from days of western winds. We decided to stay put until the Bank settled.


Thankfully, it finally did…we were itching to move on!

Exumas, Here We Come!

Exumas Day, Exumas Day! Today was finally the day! We woke up early that morning…mostly from excitement, but Troy would say it was to get out at high tide. We would be crossing the Yellow Bank, a shallow expanse of water between New Providence and the Exumas that is littered with coral heads. Crossing the bank at high tide meant that we would have the most water beneath our keel to avoid the coral. So, with that in mind, we took the dogs out to do their business just as the sun rose and began preparing to depart our slip at Palm Cay Marina. We untied the lines, said good-bye to wi-fi (and the friendly staff, of course), and we were on our way.
We were scheduled to arrive at Allans Cay in under five hours; the trip was just shy of 30 miles. For our first time crossing an area with known large coral heads, we weren’t taking any chances. More than likely, we’d be fine since our boat has a shallow draft and we were crossing at high tide. In any case, as we approached the bank, Troy made his way to the bow and I took the helm. The plan was for Troy to keep a lookout for coral heads and guide me as I steer through any potential hazards. Before we left for our trip, we picked up a set of two-way radios, and I’m glad we did. Over the wind noise, we wouldn’t have been able to hear each other, unless we wanted to shout like lunatics. We backed down to about 1500 rpms, just enough to give us time to dodge a coral head, if needed. Just like crossing the Gulf Stream, the Yellow Bank was not nearly as scary as I had made it out to be in my head. Troy easily guided me a little to the left or a little to the right to pass coral heads safely. They were not too difficult to spot. Every so often, a dark mass appeared in the jewel-toned blue water. Soon, we were passed any potential hazards and the first cays of the Exumas came into view.

We picked Allans Cay as our first stopping point in the Exumas. This wasn’t the first of the Exuma Cays, but it was one of the first places that many cruisers stop on their journey south…plus there are iguanas! What is known collectively as “Allans Cay” is actually made up of three small, separate cays: Allans Cay, Leaf Cay (aka Iguana Beach), and Southwest Allans Cay. These three cays are arranged closely together in somewhat of a triangle shape, with a channel in between.

As we entered the cays, we did two things, almost simultaneously. First, marveled at the absolutely stunning scenery (endless shades of crystal clear blue water, white sand beaches, palm trees, boats anchored and swinging lazily in the breeze). Second, we had to decide where we were going to drop anchor. Most boats anchor in between Allans Cay and Leaf Cay. Southwest Allans Cay has a little shallow bay, where only two to three shallow draft boats can fit. There were about six to seven boats in the main anchorage, but the little bay was empty. That was our spot! Slowly, very slowly, we inched our way in as shallow as we could manage. The further in we crept, the shallower it became, but that also meant more protection from wind and sea swell. We dropped the hook in about six feet of water, at about mid-tide. Once we shut off the diesel, Troy and I just looked at each with big dopey grins…we were finally here!

Our anchorage was picture perfect: Salty Tails sat in the middle of the shallow crystal-clear bay surrounded by land on three sides. Two sides, opposite to one another were rocky with shrubs and low trees growing on top, the third side was a white sand beach…one that we had all to ourselves! However, we did notice a few iguanas poking around; surely waiting on handouts of fruits and veggies.

We dropped the dinghy soon after we recovered from our Exumas arrival shock. Ginnie, Bella, Troy, and I were off to explore the cays. The water was calm that day, so we were able to go wherever we pleased. Ginnie took her typical spot on the bow of the dinghy, paws stretch over the side and her face as close to the water as she could manage to reach. Bella instead, opted to lay on the floor, her eyes barely open, enjoying the warm sunshine. Troy and I poked around each of the cays, taking note of where we’d like to go ashore in the next few days.

Through the weekend, we spent time soaking up every minute…enjoying our typical taco night, swimming, sunbathing, and exploring by dinghy.

On Saturday, we ventured over to iguana beach (Leaf Cay). We went empty handed, just to observe, not to feed. Part of me hoped that if the iguanas saw our hands were empty, they’d keep their distance. Thankfully, they were pretty slow moving and didn’t seem too interested in us. They did however, let us snap a few close-ups.

The iguanas on Leaf Cay were enormous! And, they were everywhere. I don’t think I’d be exaggerating if I said we saw at least 50 iguanas: either lounging on the sand, sleeping on rocks, or scurrying around the shrubbery. We noticed that what got their attention most were the loads of tour boats that came in. Many giant center console boats packed with tourists would arrive throughout the day, offering handouts to the iguanas. That is probably why they weren’t too concerned with us: we didn’t have the goods! In the next few days, I did hold on to a few apple cores…and tossed them from a distance.

The weather remained calm and placid over the weekend, we enjoyed every moment! This could not have been a better first stop in the Exumas!
Next stop…Normans Cay.

Berry Scary

We were a little groggy the next day, but ready to head to Little Harbor. We would be taking the outside route on the Northwest Providence Channel to reach our destination. This leg would take approximately four hours and the winds we were dodging had finally subsided. Once we began rounding Little Stirrup Cay we noticed the sea swell had not. In the Northwest Channel, waves were still significant…we estimated around 8-10 feet. We had originally planned to start under motor since there was very little wind. But, sailboats are made to sail, and in these conditions, the boat teeter-tottered, making the ride very uncomfortable, not to mention, cans of peas and carrots were rolling around down below. The direction of the waves in comparison to the direction of our track had the waves hitting us right on our beam, throwing us side to side. Troy decided to let out some of our headsail. WOW! What a difference! This balanced out the boat nicely, no more heaving. Just in time…no one lost their breakfast! What wind there was filled the sail nicely as we rode up and down the swells, catching glimpses of only the masts of other sailboats as they too rose and fell with the sea.
The Berry Islands are a chain of over 100 cays and islands that separate the Great Bahama Bank and the Northwest Providence Channel. We traveled the outside (Northwest Channel) route over deeper water. Anchorages along the Berry Islands are generally located on the bank side. This means that sailboats must pass through cuts, a pass between islands to travel from one body of water to another. We would need to pass through a cut to reach our anchorage on the protected and shallow bank side. We knew this was going to pose a challenge. The water that moves between cuts can be agreeable or your worst enemy. Since the angry sea swell from the deeper water would be funneling through the cut, we were going to experience the latter. Since we were unable to capture the events on camera, below is an accurate representation of the moment.

With the binoculars, I surprisingly spotted Delphinus far in the distance. We hadn’t planned on traveling with them, but here they were…small world. They were nearing the cut well before us, so I watched as intently as I could manage, hopefully getting some sense of what we would be up against. Keeping binoculars steady while underway in dicey conditions is harder than you might expect! But, I was able to see their mast pass though the cut. It soon would be our turn.
I was white-knuckled; Troy was focused as we approached. Because of the funnel effect and the depths decreasing rapidly, the ocean became even more churned up. We got closer and closer, finally at the point of no return…we couldn’t turn around even if we wanted to with the waves building around us. The waves picked us up and surfed us in. I finally started breathing again, we made it through the cut. Soon enough though, the depths on our depth finder decreased suddenly as we approached a reef, much shallower than our charts indicated. Although we were through the cut at this point, the force of the water would not allow us to retreat. The bottom became visible, too visible. We could see the rocky bottom and coral heads below as if we had just inches of water beneath us. If we grounded, we were going to be in serious trouble. Thankfully, what felt like an eternity, really only lasted seconds. No grounding, we cleared by just 18 inches; depths rose quickly as we entered the calm anchorage.

As if we had entered another world, the water in front of us was calm and flat, glassy even, while over our shoulders the angry sea raged on. The calm waters also brought quiet, no more crashing waves buffeting our ears. It was truly an idyllic place…just like a postcard. Delphinus was anchored just inside along the first beach. We stopped for a moment and they began to tell us that they had grounded badly while crossing the reef. This I could obviously not see through my binoculars earlier. Their 5.7 foot draft was just too much in comparison to our 4 foot draft. Paul was getting ready to dive and inspect the damage. Later, they let us know that the damage was only superficial, and no real harm was done. To this point in our journey, I don’t think I have been more thankful to drop anchor. We were exhausted, hungry, and in need of stillness.

We stayed a total of nine nights at Little Harbor. Our anchorage perfectly suited us to ride out two spells of high winds. We were protected from eastern and southern winds by the island and from northern and western winds by shallow waters. The strongest winds, around 35 knots, came out of the west. The shallow waters kept large waves or swell from building, so conditions were tolerable. During the days of poor weather, I made homemade bread and we watched the Back to the Future trilogy! And of course, Troy got a few boat projects done.

We kept busy the entire time we stayed. We were able to explore several places by dinghy, including the blue hole at Hoffman’s Cay, multiple pristine beaches at Devil’s and Comfort Cays, and the shallow waters that formed a hurricane hole near Flo’s restaurant (a popular cruiser destination). Stingrays, starfish, and sea turtles were everywhere. Our dinghy rides were always spent admiring the sea life.

Delphinus was finally able to leave after depth sounding several exit options by hand. They too, were weary of the charted depths that proved to be inaccurate. We said goodbye to our friends as they headed to Nassau.

A few days later, we left Little Harbor for our next stop, Chub Cay, one of the most southern islands in the Berry Island chain. The Northwest Providence Channel was a totally different ball game. The waters were calm, and we made it out of the cut with no problem. Five minutes in, we decided to stretch our trip and head straight for Nassau, skipping Chub Cay altogether. This would eliminate an entire stop for us, making us one step closer to reaching the Exumas.
The weather was sunny and warm that day, with very light winds. We motored and eventually could see the towers of the Atlantis Resort. Rather than entering the busy Nassau Harbor, we decided to make our way to the southwest side of New Providence Island and dock at Palm Cay Marina. Another cut lie ahead of us. The swell rose as the deep waters of the Northwest Providence Channel funneled down between Nassau and Rose Island. Unsure if the swell was too great (it felt like it was), we changed directions and entered through a wider cut. This took more time, but was a much safer option.

Troy guided us through the narrow channel into Palm Cay Marina. Upon our entry, we filled up on diesel at the fuel dock before heading to our slip. Without wasting any time, we took advantage of the marina’s Wi-Fi, hot showers, and laundry facility. I hadn’t used a washer and dryer in nearly two months…I savored the smell of freshly done laundry. We spent two days in Nassau, taking time to provision, fill our water tanks, and pick up a few marine supplies, including a spare Fortress anchor. Our cab driver made our errands more fun. She happily told us about growing up in the Bahamas and all the places we needed to visit.

On our second night, we made homemade pizza and discussed our next stop, the Exumas. We were so excited for our next leg of the trip. The Exumas are the reason we decided to travel to the Bahamas and couldn’t wait to start exploring!