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!

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.

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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.

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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

Home stretch in the Land and Sea Park…Hawksbill and Shroud Cays

20180604_115930After Warderick Wells, we headed north to Hawksbill Cay. We were anticipating winds out of the west, but nothing too strong…we’d take another mooring and ride it out. “Ride it out”, we said… “It’ll be fun”, we said. WRONG. The afternoon we arrived, it was calm and peaceful, just as it had been our first time. I got a workout in on deck and Troy made Ginnie’s day…with an impromptu dinghy ride. That evening as the sun started to set, we took the dinghy for a spin and explored the waterways nearby. Great night…calm, gentle rocking, comfortable. That was the end of that. The next day, winds increased out of the west; we didn’t experience anything mind-blowing, maybe 10-15 knots. It was just enough to get the waves rolling in. Since we were completely exposed from the West, that day and the next 48 hours were pretty much like hanging out on a roller coaster. You don’t want to know how many f-bombs were dropped. Don’t get me wrong, we were totally safe on our mooring…it was just beyond annoying! One of the nights, I bet we didn’t get more than one hour of sleep. We ROCKED and ROCKED and ROCKED. Each wave rolled through, jostling the boat as we laid on the settees in the salon, staring out of the companionway, hoping it would slow. Instead, we had quite a show: we got a glimpse of the stars through the companionway…then they’d disappear…then a view of the stars again…and they’d disappear, and on and on and on. We continued to ride up and down the waves throughout the night. It is funny…as I began to write this blog, I went looking for pictures to add…but there aren’t any; I guess we weren’t really in the mood to capture those turbulent moments.

The next day was my birthday and we decided to make the best of it. Troy was such a trooper…he was determined to turn our time around. It felt like we were at a theme park, so why not top it off by swinging from the halyard? Troy rigged up our whisker pole and the halyard to serve as a swing. We lowered the life-lines and went for it. We spent a few hours swinging like monkeys and crashing into the water. The waves were still rocking, but it made for a fun entry!

Later that afternoon, I decided it was finally time for a haircut. I hadn’t had a haircut in months and months…with all the swimming, salt water, and wind, my hair tangled so easily, and it was long! I enlisted Troy as my stylist. Last time we had a cell signal, I googled “how to give a haircut” and screenshot the directions. Maybe this wasn’t the best time, with the boat rocking and all, but what the heck? Why not? I think Troy was more nervous than I was; I promised not to get upset, no matter how it turned out. I sat down on the lazarette and Troy sat behind me, scissors in hand. Snip, snip, snip…Troy did great! No bald spots, no zig-zags, just a nice even cut. Three inches chopped off…awesome!

20180806_150421Finally, we headed north eight miles to Shroud Cay, the last island in the Land and Sea Park. We were the only cruising sailboat in the mooring field, but we chose to anchor anyway. We were surrounded by mega yachts, but still felt as if we were in a secluded spot since we were able to get much closer to shore than those deeper-draft vessels. By the time we settled in for our first night, the waves finally relaxed and so did we. Sleep…we needed it, and we got it!

One of the best-known features of Shroud Cay is the mangrove trail through the interior of the island. We didn’t get to explore the cay when we headed south back in March, so we were excited to check it out. The trail must be explored at high tide since places dry out completely. It was cloudy, but no rain in sight so we were nice and cool. It was a rising tide when we headed into the trail.

20180606_145726The setting was beautiful! The trail was about 15-20 feet wide and was so clear and calm that it felt like we were flying on top of a water highway. Even underway, we could see tiny fish swimming through the water among the mangrove roots. The trail opened wide and we were now in a vast open space of shallow water. A little too shallow through, we putted along until we skimmed the bottom. Then, we took turns walking and pushing. I wouldn’t rather get stuck anywhere else! As we pushed along, we were checked out by several baby lemon sharks. Seeming curious about who was in their territory, their fin skimmed the top of the water towards us and at the last moment would turn and head back in the other direction. This happened a half dozen times in the shin deep water.

20180606_13592320180606_14542420180607_132914After a few days of peace and exploring, we departed Shroud Cay and headed straight for New Providence Island. Skipping the rest of the northern Exumas, we made the 42-mile trip north. Extremely overcast and severely lacking wind, we tried our best to sail, but ended up motoring as a last resort.

Luckily, we dodged any rain showers and approached the coral-head filled Yellow Bank as the clouds parted. We were very thankful for the sudden onslaught of sunshine and heat. Visibility increased so that we could spot the coral heads. Just like last time, we were going to spot from the bow. I grabbed our 2-way radios, passed one to Troy and I took the other one with me up on deck. At the helm, Troy opened our track on Navionics and planned to follow along our path from last time. We figured that since we passed with no issue back in March, we should take the same route. I still kept watch out on deck, taking a seat on the bow rail and calling to Troy when we approached coral. The sun was brutal…I scurried back to the cockpit to grab Troy’s giant straw hat to give me some shade. As expected, we cleared the Yellow Bank with no issue.

20180608_155823Soon, the southern end of New Providence came into view.

Home Away from Home

Our next stop heading south was the anchorage at Black Point on the northern end of Great Guana Cay. It is the second most populated settlement in the Exumas after George Town, home to about 250 residents. The anchorage itself is quite roomy, we counted thirty-five boats on the busiest night during our stay. Strong northeast winds were in the forecast, so this spot would provide us with the protection we needed. Although we couldn’t get tucked up close to the beach, waves did not have the opportunity to build and rock us around because of the shallow sandbar that extended far out from the beach.

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We hadn’t made it to shore before a squall hit the area. Lasting only twenty minutes, the dark clouds encroached upon us, dropped some heavy rain, and cleared up in time for sunset. I was looking forward to checking out the laundry facility; we had heard that it is the best in the Exumas. The next morning, we arrived at the laundry facility with two loads to do…we also brought along our laptop, iPad, and cell phones hoping to connect to the free Wi-Fi. We learned that the laundromat also sells basic marine supplies, snacks, and T-shirts. The shaded pavilion just outside the laundromat seemed to be a cruiser’s hangout. We met several cruiser couples and families and made plans to meet for Happy Hour at Scorpio’s that evening. We chatted and surfed the net while we waited for our laundry…all with a great view of the anchorage.

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That night and the next night were spent at Scorpio’s enjoying 2 for 1 Rum Punches, sharing stories and experiences with other cruisers. On Saturday, cruisers met again for the cruiser dinner at Lorraine’s café. We had a great time hanging out with our new friends and enjoying hamburgers, hotdogs, wings, fries, rum punch, vodka lemonade…all you can eat/drink…for only $20 per person! It was dark out by the time we left Lorraine’s, but rather than heading back to Salty Tails, we decided to entertain an offer from another boat in the anchorage. Along with Jess and Brent from SV Seaduction, we headed over to Beacon Won in our dinghies. After tying up amongst several other dinghies, we climbed aboard. Captain Bruce built the nearly 70-foot vessel himself five years ago. The sailboat is used to charter youth groups, educational trips, and mission trips, etc. We toured this fascinating vessel and explored everything from the galley, helm, engine room, and sleeping accommodations and then swapped stories on the stern upper deck. Finally, we headed back to the boat to settle in for the windiest night.

After the weekend concluded, we were really starting to feel at home. The friendly people of Black Point were warm and welcoming. We often found ourselves stopped in the street talking with the locals about the island, our plans, sailing, the upcoming regatta in George Town…just like old friends. Even the kids of Black Point share the adults’ charming qualities. Dressed in their green school uniforms, they always waved, smiled, and said hi on their way to or from school. And on weekends, boys and girls often played near the water or on the docks, fearless of the nurse sharks swimming nearby. The settlement was much more laid back and quiet compared to Staniel Cay, no mega yachts here. The settlement offers free RO water (reverse osmosis) for cruisers, just another example of their great hospitality. We had plans to leave early in the next week, but we ended up staying for a total of 15 nights! The next week was spent exploring the town, completing maintenance jobs, and hanging out with friends. Between the awesome cruiser community and the locals, we definitely recommend Black Point!

Since we had tried out the two restaurants, we of course, had to try out the third: Deshamons. I tried the conch burger, Troy had a hamburger…both excellent! That afternoon, we stopped by the home of Lorraine’s Mom. She baked and sold the most delectable homemade bread, renowned around the Exumas. We enjoyed eating pieces of the coconut bread on our walk back to the dinghy dock. I froze a few pieces in effort to make it last longer!

A day or two later, the mailboat arrived. When you read mailboat, think floating semi-truck, for size comparison. Because the Exumas are far from Nassau, island communities receive their goods via mailboats that come approximately three times per month. When the mailboat arrives, everyone comes out to unload. Trucks, golf carts, and helpful hands work into the night unloading and sorting goods and supplies. I even spotted a little guy walk away with a new pet bunny! I was just as excited, the next day we rode over and loaded up on fresh fruits and veggies from Adderley’s Friendly store.

Nearing the end of our time in Black Point, we decided to take a dinghy ride north to Gaulin Cay to visit the caves and iguanas. We crossed over Dotham cut, which was still pretty churned up from the strong winds that had been blowing through. We drug the dinghy ashore and enjoyed the beach to ourselves. Afterwards, on our way back to the boat, we explored the mangroves just inside the cut and discovered a beached sailboat. The last registration sticker dated 2015, but the harsh saltwater had taken its toll, making it appear the boat had been there for quite some time.

After some planning, we decided that our next stop would be Little Farmers Cay, just at the southern end of Great Guana, 10 miles south. We were sad to leave; Black Point has made a special place in our hearts…we will be back!

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 I

We were beginning to go stir-crazy at Allans Cay…so thankfully, the bank finally showed enough improvement that we felt comfortable moving on. No mutiny…phew! We had two things going for us that Saturday morning: calm seas AND winds from the east. As soon as we hauled up the dinghy, we were on our way. Just about 20 miles south was Hawksbill Cay, our second stop in the Exuma Land and Sea Park.

Our three-hour trip was a blast…nothing like Gilligan’s! 10 to 15 knot winds kept our sails full on a beam reach. We got on a pretty good lean as the wind heeled us over, but not too much to knock over my sun-tea warming on deck. As we approached Hawksbill, I replayed the instructional YouTube video in my head…I was about to pick up my first mooring ball; we wouldn’t be dropping the anchor here. I walked up on deck with the boat hook in hand. Troy slowly guided us up to the mooring ball. All I needed to do was use the boat hook to pick up the pendant attached to the mooring in the water and feed our already-prepared line through, tying it back to the forward cleat on the bow. It seemed pretty easy on YouTube…as long as I didn’t miss stretching down to the water with the boat hook! This was a nail biter, but I got it! I quickly tied us off as Troy shut off the engine. We were one of three other boats in the mooring field: two sailboats, including us, and one mega-yacht. For our sized vessel, mooring in the Land and Sea Park cost $20 per night.

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The water was spectacular. Turquoise blue surrounded us below while puffy white clouds filled the light blue sky above. The island in front of us boasted several white sand beaches and once we explored by dinghy, we discovered a wide, dry at high-tide, beach around the backside.

The area was pristine, picturesque, unspoiled, breathtaking…none of these adjectives really do the island justice! During our second day, we hiked to the top of the island, a rocky trail is visible from the main beach. We were treated with panoramic views and got some great shots of Salty Tails! Later, we rode to the northern end of the island and hiked to ruins once occupied by British Loyalists. As we stood within the ruins, we commented that the views we were enjoying probably looked almost identical to the landscape the Loyalists called home so long ago.

After two nights at Hawksbill, we made our way south 13 miles to Warderick Wells, the headquarters of the Exuma Land and Sea Park and the anticipated pinnacle of our trip. There are three mooring fields here, all of which require reservations by radio with the park headquarters. The North mooring field and Emerald Rock mooring field each have many mooring balls available, but over the nights we stayed, they were nearly full. We arrived around lunchtime and chose to stay at Emerald Rock. Cherry, the park attendant we spoke to over the radio, told us to pick any mooring and report to her which one we took upon check-in. We were glad I didn’t insist on that second cup of coffee while still at Hawksbill that morning because as we approached, about a mile out, we suddenly noticed an armada of boats lining up behind us on their way in. I counted seven boats to our stern…thankfully we were just ahead, so we were able to beat the scramble to find a mooring.

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Warderick Wells has so much to offer. Once we checked in with Terri and purchased wifi at the office (where they also have a book exchange and gift shop), we were ready to check out what the island had to offer! Aside from enjoying the unspoiled beauty, we were able to hike several trails, snorkel nearby coral heads, relax at several beaches, and add our sign atop Boo Boo Hill. There is even a sunken boat hull in the North field (which we didn’t get a chance to see, but we will on our way back North).

Our first night was pretty windy; winds clocked at over 30 knots. We were content knowing that the park mooring balls are well maintained…we trusted our mooring just as much as our Rocna! After a restful night of sleep, we awoke ready to explore. First, our sights were set on the trail to Boo Boo Hill. It’s said that in order to appease King Neptune, cruisers are to leave a token atop Boo Boo Hill…typically this means a wooden plaque decorated with your boat’s name. We wanted some inspiration before painting our own sign, so we decided to check it out first. The enormous mound of signs is pretty impressive; years upon years of offerings lay piled, some bright and colorful and others weathered by the relentless sun and salty sea spray. Ideas were brewing in my head for our sign as we headed over to the blowholes. The Exuma Sound was pretty rough so waves crashed against the rocky wall of the island, making the blowholes extra active! I decided sticking my head over top would give a pretty good idea of the force of air…I had knots for days. The next day, we made our sign using on hand materials…black chalkboard paint, red spray paint, a few screws, and a couple feet of extra rope. As best as we could manage, we snapped a picture of our sign with our three salty tails and headed back to Boo Boo Hill to leave our offering for Neptune.

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Snorkeling the nearby coral heads was next on our must-do list. Several snorkel spots are equipped with dinghy moorings, so once we tied off, we were ready to jump in. It was COLD, but I ignored my goosebumps. There were all kinds of fish and coral on the reefs. The reefs themselves weren’t huge, but they offered plenty to look at. Tropical fish of all shapes and colors called the reef home. We were even able to get nice and cozy with a nurse shark who rested at the bottom. This would make many people nervous, but we know nurse sharks are docile; it didn’t mind that we swam alongside as it got moving again.

After five nights at Warderick Wells, we were ready to say good-bye…well, sort of. We really loved spending time here and will definitely be stopping here on our way back!

10 things we’ve learned in 90 days…

We’ve been cruising and living aboard for just over 90 days now. It is hard to believe three months have already gone by. This has been an experience unlike any other. It has been challenging, physical, tiring, stressful, but also rewarding, relaxing, full of adventure, and downright satisfying. We’re new sailors and cruisers, so of course we had a steep learning curve…talk about “on the job training”! We prepared for our trip while still living our “normal” lives: scouring the internet to learn about sailing, cruising, living aboard, life on the water, weather, anchoring, and the list goes on and on. We found a wealth of information and inspiration on blogs, YouTube videos, websites, forums, all thanks to the many cruisers who document and share their journey. Every day Troy and I talk about how we’re adjusting to this life, what we have learned, things we wish we had known, things we’re proud of, and even what we’d change if we started from the beginning again. I have compiled this list as a means of capturing a summary of what we’ve learned so far. Honestly, the list is much longer than this…I could expand each of these infinitely and add many more nitty-gritty details. But for your sake, we’re keeping it to the “Big Ten”.

1. What we prefer to eat doesn’t change just because we’re living aboard.

I suppose I thought we would be living on a diet of beans and rice or soup. It was important for us to provision and stock up on foods that are shelf stable. We took major advantage of BOGO deals at Publix…canned soup, canned veggies, pasta, rice, canned tuna and chicken. We wanted to make sure we would have food that would last…while preparing, we didn’t know how long we would have to wait to visit a market or grocery store as we explored the Bahamas. Plus, we read and heard that buying food in the Bahamas can be very expensive. But guess what…there are grocery stores in the Bahamas and the many staple items are not bank breakers. Lots of our provisioning staples are still in our storage compartments…we haven’t eaten all 48 cans of soup, nor the 80+ cans of vegetables. But, we did begin running low on our favorites. About six weeks into our trip, we were just about out of cheese, bacon, deli meat (we love a yummy hot ham and cheese for lunch)…which we had already picked up more of in Miami. Our favorite tortilla chips ($2 in the states) are at least $6-$8 here…but we love them, so we buy them. I try to eat as healthy as possible…looking back, I’d stock up more on lean meats, protein bars, frozen chicken (3 chicken breasts cost upwards of $13.00 in the Bahamas). Thankfully, fresh fruits and veggies (although sometimes tricky to come by) are not overly expensive, depending on which island we’re visiting and the ease of deliveries. I’m also happy to report that we’ve found brand alternatives to snacks we enjoy…because I just can’t splurge for Oreos when they cost $9.00!

2. Weather dictates EVERYTHING.

We definitely already knew that weather would play the biggest role in our decision making. I suppose the new learning was that weather plays the biggest role in our decision making AND it is always changing! When we boated during the summers in Tampa, all we needed to know was the chance of rain and waves/chop. Now, the focus of our planning is wind. Wind speed, wind direction, the effect of the wind on the sea state (wave height, wave direction, current, tide, swell, etc.). This information answers several questions we constantly ask and assess…Can we safely travel to a new location? Will we be able to sail? Will our sail require few or many maneuvers? How will tide and current affect our travel? Will we have protection from wind/ocean swell in our anchorage? If the weather changes, how will our anchorage serve us? By no means have we become weather experts, we are far from it. What we have become is aware. Awareness and a respect for weather will keep us safe…and hopefully smiling.

3. The boat is always moving.

After a long, exhausting day at work, there is nothing better than coming home. Your home is your sanctuary: the place where you are safe, protected, and STILL. Well, the boat is our moving sanctuary…even at anchor. Weather affects the water, water affects the boat…and the boat NEVER stops moving. Whether the movement is caused by wind, current, waves/swell…we can always expect the boat to be in motion. Even on the calmest of nights, we can expect tide changes or 180° rotations which we may not feel, but will affect our anchoring decisions. Generally, we stay pretty comfortable; this is simply a feeling that took some getting used to.

4. Hardy ground tackle is an absolute MUST.

We were fortunate to purchase Salty Tails with extremely good ground tackle. Our boat is equipped with a 55lb Rocna anchor, oversized for our boat. When it comes to anchors, bigger is always better. And we’ve got it, thankfully. She is also equipped with strong 3/8” G4 chain…well over 100 feet of it. Now that we’re 90 days in, we’ve had the opportunity to talk to many other cruisers about ground tackle…what works, what doesn’t, stories of dragging, etc. When other sailors hear what kind of ground tackle we’ve got aboard, their response is always, “Oh! You’re not going anywhere.” This always feels good to hear. We are incredibly thankful the previous owners set her up so stoutly. We trust our anchor and heavy chain. We’ve also learned to read the type of bottom we’re anchoring in; we know what will hold well and what may not (soft sand is our favorite). Troy always dives on the anchor to check that it’s set. Last night during a squall with 30 knot winds, we were still able to sleep soundly.

5. Our dinghy is our “car”.

The grocery store, restaurants, laundromat, hardware store, marine supply store, access to water and diesel/gas, visiting friends on other boats, taking the dogs ashore…anything away from our boat…requires a trip in the dinghy. Just days before leaving Punta Gorda, we made the decision to purchase a new dinghy so that we would not have to worry about waking up to a flat dinghy. This was probably one of the best purchases we made before taking off. We decided to buy a 9.5-foot West Marine dinghy that could get on a plane. With our 9.8 Nissan 2-stroke motor, we’re able to zip around anywhere, in favorable conditions, at around 12-14 knots. It would have been cheaper to buy a smaller, non-planing dinghy, but our range would have decreased immensely. We can cut across a larger body of water or get to that cave on the next island in less than half the time it would take if we weren’t able to plane up. Our new dinghy is without a doubt, money well spent.

6. In the Bahamas/Caribbean, we really don’t need a huge wardrobe.

More than half of the clothes I’ve brought, I have never worn. Troy and I have an entire cabinet in the v-berth, just in front of our bed, packed full of clothes that neither of us have touched. Swimsuits, gym shorts, t-shirts, and tank tops are our main attire. It is warm and humid; to keep cool, we do not need or want to put on many clothes. Same goes for shoes, we’re usually barefoot…but obviously flip-flops are the footwear of choice. I’ve even hiked some pretty rocky trails in my Reef flip-flops…they’re still holding strong! Another motive for needing so few clothes is laundry. More clothes equal more dirty laundry. Since we do not have easy access to a laundromat most of the time, it means I do laundry by hand, in a five gallon bucket. I “encourage” poor Troy to wear the same shirt until we both can’t stand it. Soon my forearms are going to look like Popeye’s from wringing out t-shirts and towels. We try our best to wear clothing that dries easily…the less cotton the better. Next time around, we’ll leave many articles of clothing behind…I guess I don’t need five sweater options or over a dozen pairs of shoes.

7. We can do MORE with LESS.

Troy and I live simply these days…we can go for days without the internet when we’re out of cell service range. 100 gallons of water can last us a surprising while…at least two weeks. Our only power source comes from the sun (we haven’t even connected shore power when we’re docked at a marina). We only see live TV if we’re at a bar that has a television. We’ve learned to fix boat issues with on-hand items…like the time we noticed our lines were chafing when we were on a mooring ball. We cut up an old water hose, zip-tied the hose around our lines, and voilà homemade chafe protection! Basically, we’ve learned to appreciate our resources. It is amazing to me to think back to our land-lives and how much water, electricity, and food we wasted on a regular basis. Out here, we’ve adapted quickly to conserving, we’re totally happy to do so. We hope that by making a smaller footprint, we’re doing our part to protect our vulnerable environment.

8. Stop and smell the roses.

Cruising is a major change of pace from our land lives. While we were working, it was always go, go, go. Work, chores, traffic are just a few things that kept us on the move. We were lucky if we got to simply relax, even on the weekends. Leading up to our departure, our days stretched 12+ hours as we worked to prepare Salty Tails. Now that we’re cruising, if our chores and boat maintenance are done, our time is OURS. We can explore, swim, hike, snorkel, visit new friends, nap, read, watch a movie. Sometimes I still find it difficult to sit still. After years and years of always being on the go, at work and at home, I find myself getting anxious if I’m sitting for too long. Slowly, we’re adapting. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of work to do; maintaining a sailboat is not a walk in the park. But we definitely have more time for us!

9. Weather it out and learn to adapt.

We have faced countless unexpected challenges and sleepless nights in these first 90 days. I’m not going to lie, there have been a few instances when we’ve questioned what the hell we’re doing. We’ve misinterpreted the weather, rode out storms, drug anchor (only once, thankfully!), found ourselves in rough seas, and lost engine power completely…all in just 90 days. Things rarely go as expected; we’ve learned to adapt to situations and circumstances that are down right scary or uncomfortable. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about ourselves, how we problem solve together as a couple, and what we are capable of. We aren’t free of challenges…but we are full of rewards. There is no greater feeling than thinking about how far we’ve come and what we have accomplished in such a short amount of time. We are rewarded by being able to call one of the most beautiful, unspoiled places in the world our home. The Bahamas have become a place that we’ll cherish forever.

10. The dogs will always lay in the middle of any tight space, causing plenty of bruises.

When we began looking for a sailboat, a 37-foot boat seemed HUGE, especially since we began our search with our sights set on a boat in the 32-34-foot range. Now, we’re totally comfortable maneuvering our 20,000lb girl. She keeps us safe and comfortable. The dogs are comfortable too, maybe too comfortable. While the cat curls up in the v-berth or on a salon settee, the dogs prefer sprawling out across the middle of the salon. Even though Salty Tails is plenty big for us, it is still a monohulled sailboat with a finite amount of floor space. A 60lb lab mix can take up quite a bit of space if she chooses…and so can Bella. I’m always knocking my knees or toes on things moving about the boat and you can bet in the middle of the night, I’ve tripped over Ginnie and Bella…and have the bruises to prove it.

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!