Crossing the Gulf Stream

Crossing the Gulf Stream this season felt much less daunting than last: we knew what to expect having crossed twice last year (to and from the Bahamas). After spending about a month making our way around Florida, we sat in Key Largo waiting on a weather window to cross over to the Bahamas. We had enjoyed our time in the Keys, spending Thanksgiving in Islamorada and sampling beer at the Islamorada Beer Company. It was early December and since we were sitting smack in the middle of winter, cold fronts were making appearances pretty often. We needed to wait until the weather cooperated before leaving the protection of the ICW at Key Biscayne.

Taking lessons learned from last year, this year we decided to cross from Key Biscayne, bypass Bimini and head straight to Great Harbor in the Berry Islands (a total of about 125 nautical miles). We didn’t particularly like the anchoring options in Bimini (we ended up taking a marina last year) so we decided to skip it altogether.

When to cross the Gulf Stream? The Gulf Stream is an ocean current running south to north off the coast of Florida (and continues north up along the eastern coastline) at about 2.5 knots. When choosing a weather window to cross, you do not want to cross with a northern component wind (this includes northwest and northeast). When wind opposes current there is rough, choppy seas and if the northern wind is strong enough, “elephants” form. These high, jagged square waves are dangerous. Last year we waited until there was no wind, so that we could motor across in flat, calm water for our first time. This time was different. We watched the weather carefully and saw a window coming in which the winds would be out of the south at about 10-15 knots.

The morning we left Key Biscayne (anchored just outside of No Name Harbor), we were one of about five other boats staged for the crossing. Just as the sun rose, we got underway. The first hour or so was a bit rough. Until a few miles out, the water was shallow (under 100 feet) and the waves were choppy. Once we crossed into deeper water, the seas seemed to become less confused and we rode up and down waves smoothly. We shut the diesel off after the first hour or so. After that, we sailed the next 24 hours on the same tack!

Once the sun fully rose that morning, the skies were clear and blue. It was a beautiful day. We moved along between five and six knots. The flow of the Gulf Stream would eventually move us north on our easterly heading. That worked out perfectly for us since we were not aiming straight for Bimini. We aimed for North Rock, a waypoint north of the Bimini islands. The deep blue color of the water is breathtaking, seemingly becoming more and more blue as the water depth increased. Our charts indicate the deepest water was over 3,000 feet (of course our depth display cannot read such great depths).

We crossed from the Atlantic onto the Bahama bank after about ten hours, just as the sun began to set. We had just enough daylight to notice the change in water color as the depth became shallower, from 2,000 feet, to 500, and settling around 30 feet. We were now sailing over the crystal-clear blue water of the Bahamas. Two pods of dolphin joined us before dark. First, what we believe were a pod of striped dolphin darted back and forth between the port and starboard side. This group was fast, agile, and playful. Within ten minutes of the first pod leaving us, a group of bottlenose dolphin joined us. Bottlenose dolphins, who seemed always to be with us in Florida, found us in the Bahamas! These dolphins were much larger than the first group, moving gracefully alongside us.

Once dark settled in, we had about seventy miles before reaching Great Harbor. We took shifts overnight, keeping on course and monitoring the radar to track passing vessels. The night was uneventful, but we were thankful when the sky began to lighten. Although we took shifts and napped when we were off-duty, we were tired and ready to be still. We had also hand steered the entire way (our autopilot failed soon after we left Punta Gorda).

We arrived in Great Harbor around 8:00 am, 25 hours after leaving Key Biscayne. At 8:05, I radioed the marina…thankfully they answered and were open! As soon as we tied off to the dock at the marina, we plugged in to shore power (it was hot!) and turned on the AC…next, we slept!

Refitting Salty Tails

Before casting off in November for our current cruising season, we spent four months at our marina in Punta Gorda refitting the boat. Four months of nonstop work, from sunup to sundown. We loved every minute of it. Blood, sweat, and tears were shed, but there’s something hugely rewarding in spending our waking hours getting in to the bones of our boat. After this summer, she feels more our home now and we feel that we know every inch of her!

We began the summer with a few cosmetic projects in the cabin. We relished working in the cool AC…the heat of the Florida summer is brutal. Within the first few weeks, we…

-Replaced the cabin sole (floor)
We decided to use a vinyl wood plank floor from Home Depot. Since we wanted something very durable, waterproof, and relatively inexpensive, this served our purpose and looks great.

-Removed all carpet and old wallpaper
We ripped out old carpet that lined the hull sides in storage spaces and painted with a clean white epoxy paint. In the head, vanity, and quarter berth, we updated the wallpaper to something bright and modern.

-Revarnished/painted interior wood
To lighten the interior, nearly every piece of wood was stripped of the old dark varnish. We chose to either varnish with a clear satin finish or paint with gray exterior latex paint.

Projects outside of the boat were done in between daily thunderstorms with lots of breaks for water. Outside, we…

-Waxed hull sides
Troy used the dinghy as a floating dock to maneuver his way around the boat within our slip. This was a pretty quick and easy task, only taking him a day or so.

-Repainted the decks, toe rail, and hatches
This was our most extensive exterior project, taking careful planning and patience with the daily rainstorms. Prep was the most time-consuming part of this project. All 37 feet of the deck, cabin top, and cockpit needed to be sanded and meticulously cleaned before any primer and paint could be rolled on. We must have used 10 rolls of blue painter’s tape taping off corners and edges, separating the white topside paint and blue nonskid Kiwi grip. We painted the aluminum toe rail with a durable, UV resistant bedliner paint. At the end, Troy had paint on every piece of clothing he owns, and I had gotten plenty in my hair, but the boat looked fantastic.

-Replaced all masthead electronics
Because of the lightning strike, everything on top of the mast needed to be replaced. Troy and I took turns being hauled up the mast to work. The VHF antenna, VHF cable (ran down through mast), wind transducer (and rewiring), and LED anchor light all were replaced.

A ton of time during our summer refit was spent working on wiring and electronics. Projects included…

-Installing new sailing/cruising electronics
We added new Raymarine electronics, including Raymarine Axiom 7 chart plotter, Raymarine Quantum radar, Raymarine i60 wind speed/direction, Raymarine i40 depth display, and Standard Horizon VHF radio (with GPS and cockpit RAM mic)

-Installing a new battery monitor
Ours simply failed, so we swapped it out with an updated version (Victron BMV 700). This allows us to monitor our house battery status (intake, state of charge, volts, amp hours remaining)

-Installed LED lighting
We replaced any standard lights with LED bulbs inside the cabin. In the cockpit, Troy installed four LED courtesy lights and added LED lighting to the dinghy davits.

-Overhauled 12V and 120V wiring
Removed 40 years of stray and abandoned wiring. Troy also improved wiring and connections throughout the boat including completely reorganizing wiring behind the main distribution panel and in the engine room. We also replaced our house battery bank with four new 6V house batteries.

Some of our final projects included an overhaul of the diesel cooling system and regular maintenance
-Troy replaced all parts of the cooling system for the diesel: mixing elbow, heat exchanger, fresh water pump, raw water pump, thermostat, and cooling system hoses. We saved a ton of money here when Troy discovered that our Westerbeke diesel is related to a Mitsubishi tractor motor and share many components. He was able to source parts much more affordably this way, rather than having to order directly from Westerbeke. After the cooling system was complete, he cleaned and painted the engine which helps prevent corrosion.

We chose to add a watermaker for this cruising season. We ordered our watermaker from Sea Water Pro. It is a 120V system that produces about 20 gallons per hour. We use a Predator generator to run the watermaker (after doing some math, we figured that we can make 100 gallons of water with one gallon of gas).

Last but not least, we decided on a new dinghy…a Zodiac aluminum hull RIB.

“Welcome back to Florida,” says Lightning Strike

We arrived at our marina on a Wednesday. On Thursday, less than 24 hours later, we were struck by lightning…well, not us, the mast.

Before the storm, we had had a great 24 hours! We scarfed down amazing dinner at Scotty’s Brewhouse. Spicy BBQ chicken wrap with pineapple, mmmmmm. We found and bought our summer car, a Ford Focus.

Thursday afternoon, a pretty typical scenario for an afternoon summer thunderstorm in Florida ensued. A nasty cell moved in quickly and the winds picked up, giving us a nice heel in our slip. According to our wind speed gauge, gusts were nearing 40 knots (about 46 mph). The sky was an ominous black. And as usual, there was a ton of lightning. Troy went outside on the dock to adjust a fender…not having been in the marina for even 24 hours, he wanted to make sure we weren’t rubbing the dock. I stood in the companion way watching the lightning flash from every direction.

The loudest clap of lightning happened while Troy was still on the dock. I yelled at him to get inside. But before I could get the words out, I began smelling a burning/electrical smell. As he climbed back aboard, I immediately shouted, “Something’s burning!” We quickly shut off anything powered…the house battery bank, the outlets, the ac, and the shore power.

Once we realized nothing was on fire, Troy immediately went into search mode. He was looking for any signs of damage. The burning smell was coming from the air conditioning in the forward hanging locker. No smoke or fried wires. Instead, the burning came from the electrical board.

20180628_202127

At this point, we still didn’t for certain know we were struck by lightning. When that giant clap of lightning happened, my hair wasn’t standing on end and nothing exploded, shook …or whatever is supposed to happen when a boat gets struck by lightning. We thought it might have been a power surge from the shore power.

Next, Troy got on the phone with a company who had the replacement electrical board for the a/c. It would be here by 5:00 the next day! That was AMAZING…since the boat was already getting hot!

Troy continued searching for damage. After checking all systems, we discovered that these items weren’t working…

-a/c electrical board

-refrigerator

-mast light

-wind speed transducer and display

-autopilot

-depth display

-VHF antenna

-propane on/off switch

-spreader and steaming light

-a few random lightbulbs in the cabin

-Wi-Fi antenna and router

-TV antenna

All in all, we thought we got pretty lucky. No severe damage to the boat itself. No fried wires. No blown through hulls. We were fine…and the sunset that evening was not too shabby.

20180629_203815

The next day, the harbormaster emailed me a video of the strike from the surveillance cameras. And there you can see it…a clear lightning strike to a mast at our side of the marina. After the strike, we can see a nice fiery spark off the side, which we presume was our VHF antenna going for a ride. The camera was far away, so we couldn’t not see that it was our boat specifically, but no one else reported any damage…so it had to be us.

Over the next several days, Troy went to work diagnosing each non-working system. Thankfully, we found that many things could be narrowed down to smaller parts and it wasn’t that we had lost the entire system. For example, the depth transducer was fine, we just needed a new display. And the propane solenoid needed to be replaced…we didn’t lose the wiring. When the fridge went out, Troy discovered that the only thing that needed to be replaced was the cooling fan…which we found at Best Buy for $10.00. The cooling fan is EXACTLY the same as a computer fan.

At this point, we only have the autopilot left to be addressed. As long as we don’t have to replace it entirely, we’ve estimated total damage to not reach more than $1,000.00. Yes, it stinks to lose a grand…but it could’ve been a lot worse. I think it is pretty safe to say, I HATE thunderstorms now!

The Marathon

It was time to say goodbye to the Bahamas and get on our way back to the states. Over the next 11 days, we traveled 411 nautical miles from Devil’s Cay in the Berry Islands all the way back to Punta Gorda, on the west coast of Florida. We flew back, especially considering this included a five day stop in Miami where we spent time trying to figure out what we wanted to do for the summer…go home to the west coast? Travel up the east coast of the United States? Haul out in Jacksonville? We really weren’t sure, but as we left the Berry Islands, we said we’d figure it out along the way. That was kind of a strange feeling: not knowing where we’d spend the next several months. Before cruising, we had every day planned, a predictable routine…work, weekends, etc. Before cruising, I would have freaked out if I didn’t know where I’d be living in a few days…it’s strange how our mindsets have changed. I’ve definitely got a Type A personality…planning is my thing. But with this new lifestyle, it’s easier, and more exciting, to just go with it; we were going to figure it out along the way. Don’t get me wrong, I still love to make lists and I’d still consider myself a planner; I’ve just loosened the reins, a little.

The first leg…

On our way to Great Harbor, we noticed immediately that the winds were basically nonexistent: the water was like glass and it was H-O-T. Because the water was flat, not even a ripple on the surface, we could see straight to the bottom as we motored around the northern end of the Berries. I spent a lot of time perched on the bow rail, watching ocean triggerfish swim slowly out of our way as we passed.

We were making good time and once we cleared the cruise ships anchored off Great Stirrup Cay, we made the decision to make an overnight passage back to Miami. This would entail skipping the stop at Great Harbor (still in the Berries), bypassing Bimini (rather than stopping at Brown’s Marina) and crossing the Gulf Stream in the dead of night. We would be underway for just shy of thirty hours and almost 130 more miles, but since the weather was so calm, we decided to cover as much ground as possible.

Our passage was uneventful. We motored the entire way. It began to get dark and we enjoyed a great sunset as we grilled burgers in the cockpit. There is always a worry that the weather could change overnight…would we continue to make way over flat seas or would winds pick up? Thankfully, everything stayed calm, but we were able to at least put out the headsail for a bit and gained some speed. Overnight, we took turns between the helm and napping below deck. Whoever the helmsman was, kept a keen eye out for other vessels. Without radar, whenever we spotted lights of another boat, as quickly as possible, we’d determine their direction, coming or going based on their running lights. We saw a handful of other boats off in the distance as we made our way west. Troy was at the helm as we crossed the Gulf Stream…we moved along very well until after daybreak, when we slowed to about three knots. We fought the current a bit since we needed to head a tad south to Miami. But, soon enough the city’s skyline started to just barely come into view. By this time, we were back to just motoring, still about 20 miles offshore. We passed a group of about a dozen jet skis who we presumed were en route to Bimini.

We rounded the lighthouse at Key Biscayne and made our way to Crandon Park Marina to pick up a mooring ball for a few days. The Key Biscayne area on a Sunday was busy! Boats everywhere. We made our way into the marina’s mooring field and checked in with Customs and Border Patrol, using the CBP App. Using the app was so easy! We had a Facetime with an agent (well, she could see us, we couldn’t see her) after waiting just a few minutes. She confirmed we were who we said we were by comparing our faces to our passports photos we had previously submitted and were checked back into the country and napping in no time.

Over the next five days, we contemplated where we’d like to be for hurricane season. We knew we had projects to tackle, but also wanted to have some fun. Finally, we settled on coming back to the west coast of Florida, and settled on Punta Gorda, where we’d purchased the boat. Here, we’d be a couple of hours from family and friends and be able to hammer away at our list of projects. We took an Uber to Winn-Dixie…our first American grocery store in four months…so many choices! We couldn’t say no to a 6-pack of Kalik, the Bahamian beer we had come to love.

Moving on…

We left Key Biscayne and traveled South via the Hawk Channel towards Rodriguez Key. We stayed just one night at Rodriguez Kay, eager to move on.

20180622_201118

The next day was a long haul, beginning promptly at 8:00 am. Initially, we planned to continue south, pass under the Channel Five bridge at Islamorada, and anchor for the night at Matecumbe Bight (essentially retracing our steps from our trip back in February). Again though, the weather was so calm, we pushed on…and on and on.

We made our way all the way from Rodriguez Key on the east coast to Little Shark River on the west coast…a total of 70 miles and 12 hours underway. By the time we entered the river, my eyes were burning from staring in the water in search of crab traps to avoid for so many consecutive hours…I may have also been keeping my eyes peeled for dolphins.

Little Shark River in February was an oasis. Little Shark River in June was…mosquito, horse fly, and no-see-ums GALORE. Arriving at 8:00pm, we barely had time to unroll the cockpit enclosure and zip up. We were eaten alive! With that said, instead of staying a few days (which we had considered), we hightailed it out of there as soon as the sun came up! Bugs trailed us for several miles.

Marco Island was our next stop. 57 miles and 9 hours later, we were being chased into the anchorage by a thunderstorm. Capri Pass was busy coming into Marco Island. Tons of boats coming and going make this inlet incredibly crowded. Thankfully, we were able to get settled before the rain came.

Since Marco Island had a West Marine and Napa within walking distance, we went ahead and did an oil change on the diesel. After a few chores and two nights, we departed Marco Island.

The water wasn’t as inviting as last time. This is where we began seeing signs of the red tide. Sludge and dead fish littered the area.

Final stretch…

Our final leg of our trip home was from Marco Island to Punta Gorda via the intercoastal waterway through Fort Myers. We made the trip in two days. The first day we traveled 61 miles from Marco Island to Cayo Costa. The second day brought us from Cayo Costa to our marina in Punta Gorda, just 20 miles away.

The trip to Cayo Costa was without crab traps…Yay! And, it was with lots and lots of dolphins, especially once we entered the intercoastal at Fort Myers. We had done so much motoring since we left the Berry Islands, we were excited to get the sails up. We kept the diesel fired up since we were traveling through the channel, but in neutral. We made excellent progress towards Cayo Costa. Ginnie had the time of her life. Dolphins seemed to ride with us most of the way from Fort Myers to Cayo Costa… maybe they like the hum of the diesel? When Ginnie first spotted the dolphin, the surprise on her face was hysterical; she was dumbfounded. From that point forward, she wouldn’t leave her seat in the cockpit, paws up on the combing, searching for the next sighting.

We dropped anchor at Cayo Costa in the late afternoon. We knew right away, it wasn’t the same place that we had fell in love with back in February. Dead fish were everywhere. When we took the dogs to play on the sandbar, we were dodging dead fish left and right. We stayed for only a few minutes before we decided to give our marina a call. We were hoping our slip was available a few days early. The impact of the red tide was becoming obvious. We wondered if the red tide had reached our marina.

20180626_204057

After a single stunning sunset, we got the all clear from the dockmaster and headed twenty miles into Charlotte Harbor to our marina. Winds began picking up as we entered the marina’s channel…this seems to have become a theme for us…being chased by thunderstorms. Well, I guess that’s summer for you. We docked in our slip without issue. After over 400 miles, it was time to settle in to our summer home…and plug in to shore power for the first time for some ice-cold AC!20180627_191125

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).

20180529_131040

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.

20180729_120206

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.

6955A6457057A23262C2507D26B456D7

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!

9479C7A1BE4D7BB81E388BC238367E81

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!

7BBD3C2A9DF3E3EECCEF0C9986C979CB

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!

20180601_141517

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.

Staniel Cay and Thunderball Grotto

Our sail north from Black Point to Big Majors was easy breezy…with a following sea on a nice beam reach. As we pulled into Big Majors for the second time, we sailed in further to the anchorage before firing up the engine and pulling in the sails. We weaved our way to the front of the anchorage, just north of pig beach. Compared to our first time here, on our way south, now there were fewer boats, especially sailboats. There were still a handful, but the anchorage was occupied predominately by trawlers and mega yachts.
We made our usual trip in to Staniel Cay by dinghy to fill up on water, gas/diesel, and groceries. We made sure to do laundry as well. If I haven’t mentioned before, the laundromat here is also a bar/liquor store. Rather than making trips back and forth to switch laundry from the washer and dryer, we decided to grab a few drinks and stay put.

At the laundromat, we met another cruiser, traveling with her husband and teenage daughter, heading south with their goal being to reach Grenada for hurricane season. They were on the move, making very few stops along the way since they began their journey late in the season. The couple had been sailing for years, once cruising full time about 20 years ago. They had just recently sold their home near Miami, quit their jobs, and decided to cruiser full time again, now with their daughter. We really love meeting and talking with other cruisers. I am always curious to learn each sailor’s story and what inspired them to head out on their journey. Despite meeting people from so many different places, with widely-varying backgrounds and experiences, we all seem to have core similarities: adventurers with a desire to see and experience new places while living a more simple, slower paced life.
We spotted an especially exciting boat in the Big Major anchorage…La Vagabonde! Riley and Elayna’s channel on YouTube was the first vlog we began watching when we became interested in sailing/cruising. They have been a huge source of inspiration and information for us. While still living our “normal lives” we watched their videos weekly. We can, with conviction, say that the glimpse into the sailing life from their vlogs, truly gave us the “we can do this” push! It was wild to see them anchored just a hundred or so yards away from us! Pretty remarkable!

IMG_0098

We did not get a chance to snorkel Thunderball Grotto as we headed south, so we were excited to check out the spot made famous by the James Bond movie. Between Staniel Cay and Big Majors are a group of rock formations. The most western one is Thunderball Grotto. We had heard that it can become crowded with tour boats during the day, so we were relieved when we arrived to see only one other boat. We tossed the dinghy anchor, grabbed the GoPro, and got our masks and fins on. By the time we were ready to hop in, the other boat had left…we would have the grotto to ourselves!8A597BD0347FBAF9A3292807E31EEC22

The entrance to the cave is not obvious, initially. We couldn’t see where to enter until we swam from the boat, right up alongside the rocks. In the narrow, hallway-like entrance, we were entering on a mid-tide and had to swim underwater to get inside. Right away, the area was teeming with fish…it was like having private escorts swimming alongside us through the entrance.

grotto snorkeling

We popped our heads up to look around once inside. It was a breathtaking sight! The cave’s ceiling stretched high overhead, forming a dome, enclosing us in shade. There is a round, jagged opening in the top, allowing sunlight to shine down and illuminate a portion of the cave. Snorkeling below it, the water is illuminated like a spotlight.
We saw a variety of fish: from yellowtail snapper to angel fish, swimming among colorful coral.

grotto cave

52A9EABE16A78C6827F7A37BFB0B46CA

yellow fish

After swimming the perimeter, admiring the coral, and diving to check out the fish, we looked for the exit. On the opposite side of the cave is a wide opening to exit. Taking a deep breath, we dove down and swam under the rock ledge. We came up for air outside of the cave. Coral and fish surrounded the exterior of the grotto. The strong current allowed us to drift-dive all the way around, back to the dinghy. With nicely pruned fingers, we climbed back in the dinghy and headed back to the boat for hotdogs on the grill, celebrating Memorial Day.

The next day, while we were in town, we ran into some other cruiser friends who invited us to a potluck on the beach. After stopping to pet the nurse sharks at the yacht club, we headed back to the boat. Later, we got quite a laugh as those same cruisers towed a pallet behind their dinghy…they’d be making a new table for cruiser beach (Pirate Beach). Talk about being resourceful!

20180523_151221

20180528_152630.jpg

That night, I cooked up a giant pot of yellow rice to share at the cruiser’s potluck. We all gathered and shared lots of yummy food and even brought fireworks to celebrate Memorial Day. Once the bugs made their appearance, we headed back to take Ginnie and Bella for a potty run.
Over the next few days, in between rain showers, we relaxed and snorkeled some of the coral heads around Big Majors. We also bathed the dogs on the beach. It had been a while…they needed it!

coral

stingray

Once we were ready to move on, we made our way north, back the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park!

Little Farmers and Black Point Round 2

We arrived back at Little Farmer’s Cay after motor-sailing north from George Town. Seas were fairly calm with extremely light winds…it wasn’t as hot as our trip down, so we were thankful for that.

0

After roughly seven hours, we anchored in the same spot as last…strong current, but excellent holding in between Little Farmers Cay and Great Guana Cay, right out in front of Little Farmers Yacht Club. Summer was approaching: we had a few strong squalls over the few days we stayed. Riding out the storms proved extra interesting since current controlled the boat’s direction rather than the wind. When the rain and winds passed through, the cockpit often got soaked because winds came from the sides or behind.
1We heard from other cruisers that there was a population of sea turtles that lived in the harbor of Little Farmers Cay. We decided to scope it out and took our GoPro with us in the dinghy, hoping to get some underwater footage. The day prior, we noticed a handful of dime sized jellyfish passing the boat. On this day, we stumbled upon several huge masses of the jellyfish near the shore. At first, it looked like a bunch of seaweed floating along the top of the water. Upon further inspection, we discovered that we found hundreds of thousands of the little jellyfish floating in the water.

Although the water was only five or so feet deep and crystal clear, there were so many jellyfish in spots that you couldn’t see through to the bottom. And that’s where we found the sea turtles. It was as if we stumbled upon a jellyfish buffet. We didn’t need to enter the harbor to see the turtles, they swam among the jellyfish and coral. We got some great GoPro footage and the turtles didn’t seem to mind our company.


After a few days, we headed back to our second home, aka Black Point! We were excited to head back and had a fun 10 mile trip north under sail. The winds were pretty piped up from the southeast. In about 15 knots of wind with a following sea, we got up to 7.5 knots…with just the headsail! Troy and I shared the helm this trip…I was really starting to feel more comfortable at the helm while under sail.

3
And after a few hours, we were approaching Black Point, this time from the south. The winds really picked up, blowing over 20 knots…it felt like we were flying! This time, for two reasons, we could tell the cruising season was coming to an end. First, there were fewer boats than our first time in the anchorage. Many people had probably already headed back to the states. And secondly, the spring/summer weather pattern of thunderstorms was obvious. During our second day, we had another day of scattered showers. Sometimes these showers brought along wind, and others just rain.

3a
Black Point meant we were going to have a chance to do laundry…with the best view! While doing laundry, we met another couple about our age, Rylie and Allie on SV Generations. We got to talking and became fast friends! We decided to meet up at Scorpio’s (for 2 for 1 rum punches, of course). Cruisers gathered at Scorprio’s, the nightly ritual. After most headed back to their boats, Troy, Rylie, Allie, and myself decided to stay and hang out with the locals. Many rum punches were consumed…along with sharing stories and plenty of dancing. I do not dance in public…but I did that night.

20180518_222337

We decorated a few dollar bills to hang above the bar, leaving our “We’ve been here” mark. We climbed up and stuck them on the ceiling…we’ll definitely check to see if they’re still there next year! That was a pretty late night…even the dogs slept in the next morning.

20180519_102635
Over the next week or so, we hiked the island and snorkeled several places nearby. The reefs and coral heads in the area are healthy and thriving. Most are colorful and teeming with fish and sea life. We spent most of our time snorkeling just outside and south of the Black Point anchorage. These spots aren’t marked on any of our guides, we found them just by dinghying (I may have just made that word up) around and dropping the anchor when we found a spot with a few coral heads. The water is warming up…each day it gets easier and easier to hop in.


When I wrote about Black Point last, I mentioned that our favorite part of Black Point was the people…the feeling has now increased exponentially. From the late nights hanging out at Scorprio’s to the kids climbing the ladders on the dock to the simple daily interactions in the street, the people of Black Point make you feel like you’re at home.
A prime example of their hospitality was when we met Bread Boi, owner of several vacation rental homes. He knew we weren’t ready to leave Black Point, but we had a package to pick up at Staniel Cay, a few islands north. Rather than charging us to rent one of his Boston Whaler skiffs, he let us borrow it for the afternoon! We just had to replace the gas we used. We were blown away by his generosity…and frankly his trust in letting four strangers (Allie and Rylie came with us for a day trip, of course) take his boat.
When we left Black Point in the skiff, the four of us were laughing when the boat jumped up out of the water. The 115hp engine moved the skiff A LOT faster than the four of us had gotten used to in our sailboats. We returned after several hours with our package. My mom had sent us a care package with some things we were missing and couldn’t get here in the Bahamas…protein bars, Crystal Light, 3M boat wax, and the icing on the cake…an XM satellite radio adapter for our stereo.

20180520_145928
We spent a total of over 25 days at Black Point…and we loved every one of them! We made new friends and slowed down, island style. We can’t wait to reach Black Point next year.

French Fries, Sharks, and Piggies, Oh My!

Staniel Cay, our first island outside of the Land and Sea Park, is a bustling settlement with the epicenter being Staniel Cay Yacht Club. We headed south from Cambridge Cay to reprovision: we needed gas, water, and groceries…and planned on treating ourselves to lunch at the yacht club. We decided to anchor on the western side of Big Majors Spot, the cay just northwest of Staniel Cay. Here, rather than be in the be in the path of boats entering the yacht club, we’d be a 10-minute dinghy ride from Staniel Cay. We would be able to resupply and fill up our jerry cans while being anchored in a place that offered several pretty beaches as well as Pig Beach!

We entered the anchorage from the east and settled in the back of the pack: this was the most crowded anchorage we have experienced so far. Cruising boats dominated the anchorage, but there were quite a few large mega yachts off the southern point. Now that we’ve been cruising for a few months, we are beginning to recognize sailboats we have seen along our way south. Several of these familiar “faces” were anchored here as well.
Our first full day was spent doing chores. First up: filling the water cans and gas cans and getting rid of trash. We took the dinghy…full of cans and trash bags over to the yacht club. Our dinghy may not have been a pretty sight, but the views along the way were! The water was crystal clear, we spotted coral heads and several nurse sharks along the way. We paid $0.40 per gallon for water and $7.00 per bag of trash…expensive, but a necessity. The yacht club seems to be a haven for nurse sharks; countless sharks hang around the docks regularly until the fish cleaning station is in use (aka feeding time).

We were just thankful to have full water tanks and be free of trash (nowhere in the Land and Sea Park is there a place to dispose of trash). Diesel and gas were priced as we expected, roughly $5.00 per gallon. Loading and unloading 20 gallons worth or gas/diesel was a sweaty workout!
Next up: laundry, groceries, and propane! Three convenience stores can be found on Staniel Cay: Isles General (conveniently located in a canal with its own dock), the Blue Store, and the Pink Store. We visited all three…you never know what one store may carry and the others may not. All three stores are well-stocked with staples. We loaded up on fresh fruits and veggies at Isles General, along with dropping off one propane tank to be filled. Isles General also has some basic marine supplies and DVD rentals. We found our favorite tortilla chips and other necessities at the Blue and Pink stores. We noticed these stores had more of a variety than Isles General but were a further walk.

The yacht club has a beach just for landing dinghies. This was great: it was free, near the laundromat, and just outside the restaurant (French fries, here we come!). The laundromat on Staniel Cay is clean and in a newer building just a short walk from the yacht club. We hadn’t done laundry since Nassau, so we had two big loads needing to be washed. We paid about $20 for both. Do you know what else is at the laundromat? The liquor store! We restocked our rum supply while our clothes finished up then headed over to the yacht club for lunch.

In preparation for our trip, we ate all meals at home…this would be our first meal out in over six months! We took a seat in the bar area, tucked our clean laundry under our seats, and immediately ordered drinks: Troy had a Kalik (Bahamian beer) and I had a frozen mango daquiri…heaven! Next up: a cheeseburger and fries for Troy and a giant Chef Salad for me. We probably looked like starving sailors; we scarfed our food down, barely speaking. That hit the spot!

That evening, feeling like little piggies, we headed over to the beach on Big Majors Spot to see the famous swimming pigs. After watching tour boat after tour boat unload tourists onto Pig Beach to feed them, we decided the evening would be a safe time to go…my hope was that the pigs would be nice and full and therefore, less pushy. Armed with apple cores, carrots, and other veggie scraps, we climbed out of the dinghy. Most of the bigger pigs lay passed out on the beach, not seeming too interested in us, thankfully.

We noticed a sign on the beach that says: Mama Karma will bite your butt! Hopefully Mama Karma was somewhere sleeping and dreaming of tomorrow’s visitors! One large, wiry, gray-haired pig approached and was surprisingly, very patient. She opened her mouth and waited for food to be dropped down without stepping on my toes.

The baby piglets were our favorite and since they are often pushed out of the way by bigger pigs, we made sure they got a fair helping! The beach was really a sight: pigs lay scattered over the beach sleeping and grunting, roosters peck around at scraps, other pigs find anything they can to rub and scratch their bodies along, and baby piglets hop in and out of their raised wooden pen.

We spent five nights at Big Majors and we had guests under the boat every night. Five large remora called our bottom home. The stayed suctioned to our keel (and had blue paint on their heads to prove it) until I dropped crackers in the water to feed them. Soon, expecting crackers regularly, anytime we’d walk on deck, they’d come out circling and splashing.

The remora took off for a bit on the afternoon we cleaned Salty Tails’ bottom. That’s when we met Stanley! He was another resident who lived in our rudder shaft during our time here. He’d circle our swim ladder before darting back to safety.

That afternoon was the first time we had cleaned the bottom. Even after three months, all that was needed was a light scrubbing; no barnacles and hard growth needed to be removed. I helped for a while, but Troy did the vast majority of the work. Soon, she was nice and clean!
We enjoyed our final night with the dogs on the cruiser’s beach at the northern end of Big Majors. Over time, cruisers have added a swing, picnic table, chairs, and a grill to the beach, for all to use. No one was there that evening, so we enjoyed the sunset with just the four of us.

Exuma Land and Sea Park, Part II

Next up in the Land and Sea Park: Cambridge Cay! Cambridge is the last major cay of the Exuma Land and Sea Park. We set sail southbound and since it was a smooth ride, we decided to investigate a little “problem” we had been experiencing while underway. For the last few sails, our bilge pump would cut on and expel some water. We weren’t sure where the water was getting in, but we had our fingers crossed that it would be a simple fix. Something like that could potentially be a major issue, but since the bilge cut on only while underway and only pumped out a small amount of water, Troy had a hunch that it may be one of a few minor problems. We emptied two of the lazarettes in the cockpit, allowing us to see the hoses to our cockpit floor drains. A small stream of water (imagine a water fountain), came through a pinhole in one hose.

Since water only comes that far up the hose when heeled, it only leaked while underway. YES! We had found our problem…and it was by far the easiest fix. Troy repaired the leak: now the water would stay outside! After reorganizing the cockpit, we enjoyed the rest of our sail to Cambridge Cay.

As we entered the protected anchorage, we were hailed on our VHF radio by the mooring attendants…all the mooring balls were taken, except for a mooring ball meant for vessels up to 150 feet. Since the park operates on a first come, first served basis, we would take it until a standard sized ball became available. This was our first experience with mooring attendants. Chuck and Carmen on SV Soul Mates were cruisers who volunteered to oversee the moorings. During the months of March and April, they lived aboard their catamaran at Cambridge Cay. Chuck and Carmen were incredibly hospitable and made Cambridge Cay feel like a close-knit community! They invited us aboard their boat to tell us all about Cambridge Cay and the places to go nearby.

That afternoon, they arranged a group to ride over to Rocky Dundas, a set of caves across the channel. We immediately agreed to go with the group; how nice it was to travel together with several dinghies, a buddy system. We suited up, grabbed our snorkel gear, and crossed the channel to reach the caves. It was a bit rough that afternoon; many guides suggest visiting Rocky Dundas on a calm day at low-tide. The seven or so boats tied off to the two dinghy moorings outside the caves and bounced around like bumper cars. Thankfully rubber boats don’t leave dents! Chuck described the best approach to the caves: swim under the opening and into the tall cave; quickly get your footing and climb out onto the cave floor. On a calm day, this was fairly easy, but because the afternoon turned out to be quite choppy, we had to have our wits and swimming legs on!

We didn’t expect to see such beautiful coral on our swim over to the cave. An abundance of fish and sea fans swayed with the current; the bright sun made the colors of coral pop.

We headed through the cave opening and popped our heads up once inside. We took off our fins, tossed them onto the cave floor and climbed out before getting knocked over by the waves crashing through the opening.

Once inside, it was really a sight. The cave ceiling stretched high above head and the sun’s rays shone through the opening at the top, illuminating the inside of the cave. The cave floor, although rocky, had been worn smooth by the water over time.

The pounding of the waves echoed inside. In furthest corner of the cave, we wrote our names in the sand for good luck, a tradition we all took part in. After returning to the boats, I climbed in while Troy swam and explored the second cave with others from our group.
A standard sized mooring became available after our first night. This turned out to be good timing because Chuck let us know that a large yacht was arriving hoping to take a mooring. We would be doing a bit of shuffling so that everyone could fit! Before we had a chance to move, the yacht’s tender (an impressive Everglades center console) pulled up to our port side. Graciously offering us a bottle of wine, the crew member thanked us for making room for the approaching yacht. We would have, of course, moved anyway, but we didn’t turn down a nice bottle of wine!
Over the next few days at Cambridge Cay, we met some great people! We enjoyed a sunset and drinks at the sandbar with other cruisers and played games aboard a neighboring boat. We took another group trip to “The Aquarium” and snorkeled a sunken plane. Cambridge Cay turned out to be a great staging point for some of the best snorkeling spots we’ve visited in the Bahamas.
The Aquarium is one of the most popular snorkel locations in the Land and Sea Park. Aptly named, the site is a massive shrub covered rock above the waterline, but below is an impressive coral reef teeming with a variety of fish. After our group hopped in the water, we were immediately greeted by a school of fish…clearly hoping for handouts.

We snorkeled around the wall of coral, spotting trigger fish, lobster, snapper, sea urchin, angelfish, parrotfish, just to name a few.

It had been a couple of weeks since we left Nassau so we were beginning to run low on water and gas for the dinghy. We thanked Carmen and Chuck for their hospitality and let them know that we would be leaving in the morning. A few hours later, we got a call on the radio from the neighbor boat (actually another 150+ foot yacht) letting us know they had a gift for us courtesy of Chuck and Carmen… water and gas!

We enjoyed another few days at Cambridge Cay; this was turning out to be one of our best stops yet! Soon though, we moved on to the first settlement since Nassau: Staniel Cay. We needed to do some resupplying and were going to enjoy our first meal out in six months at the yacht club!