Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Westering Home

To pick up where I left off, My Life had to weigh anchor and head into Spanish Wells to find internet access, as they had a friend flying in from Canada, whom they’d been unable to communicate with for a couple of weeks.

Not being able to bear the thoughts of a third night out in these unruly seas, especially alone, it occurred to me I might make more of an effort to find the trouble-shooting manual for my Perkins diesel. After tearing every leaf of paper from bookshelves, drawers, cupboards and cubbies, I finally found the book. It was only a matter of bleeding 2 valves I had missed on my fuel pump, and within an hour, the engine was running like a champ. I somehow managed to haul up the 2 anchors simultaneously while the engine was in slow ahead, and I called Road to the Isles to say I was on my way. Three hours later I dropped my anchor beside them, in much calmer waters.

I’m still not sure why exactly Annie began to take on so much water during those few days. As is typical of boats, the actual source of the leak is in a space that is too small to crawl to, so while I could see the water pouring down the inside of the hull, the precise origin of the leak remains a mystery.

With more strong southerly winds in the forecast, most boats within a 20 mile radius moved to one of the few protected anchorages in the area from southerly winds, Royal Island. There, I spent some time in the water attempting to caulk the area around the shaft that holds the rudder in place. I couldn’t think of any other explanation of how the water was getting in. Don from Road to the Isles offered to help, so I accepted. He donned his wetsuit, and once we were both in the water I handed him strands of oakum (a traditional caulking item, like a lightly-tarred cotton, which is hammered into seams with a mallet and a wedge of some sort, in this case, a flathead screwdriver). After perhaps an hour in the water, the leak didn’t appear to slow significantly. What else could we do.

Over the next day or two, I thought long and hard about packing it in. It wasn’t just the leak… there were a multitude of troubles that been systematically arising, all seeming to indicate that a decision to begin heading north now would be wise. I had become overwhelmed with the amount of maintenance on the boat that I had not yet found the time to attend to, my cookstove was preparing to throw in the towel for good, no longer tolerating the low-grade kerosene I’d been feeding it, and kerosene is not available in this part of the Bahamas. With most things aboard either canned or dried, and the fresh produce available being extortionate, I knew my days would be numbered once the stove drew its final breath.

After much pep-talking to myself, I decided I would soldier on. The bilge-pump was maintaining the leak, the stove wasn’t completely useless just yet, and I had no one to blame but myself on the maintenance issue. All of it still needs to be tackled, no matter where I go.

I headed down to Current Cut for a couple of days, where I saw again what a small ocean it can be. On my second evening there, a large turquoise schooner anchored beside me, with my friend Jay from Key West aboard. We had shared an evening of music (his fiddle, my smallpipes) at a campfire gathering of sailors on the deserted Christmas Tree Island just off the shores of Key West. It was good to be reminded of some of the fonder memories I have of my months in Key West last year.

Next stop was Hatchett Bay, which eventually became known to us as Hotel Hatchett Bay (you can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave!). The relentless high winds kept us in lock-down in this small anchorage for a couple of weeks. It used to be a salt-water pond, being fed by blue holes (underwater caves) that lead out to the Atlantic ocean. A few sticks of dynamite later, the pond became a bay, accessible by a new opening on its western side. The holding (ability of an anchor to grab the bottom) is poor throughout the bay, so the local government, in an attempt to attract more boaters, had placed an array of free moorings to make things easier. With another front forecast, and trusting that the moorings we were tied to were strong, we decided to abandon the discomfort of small boats in storms, and to do some exploring ashore.

I had read about the Hatchett Bay Caves in an old Lonely Planet guide that had come with a bundle of charts and guidebooks in a trade for my Cuba charts and guides while I was in Mexico. The directions in the guide were vague, and as we asked around town, the first few locals had no idea what we were talking about. Even if they had never visited the site, you’d expect that they would have at least heard of its existence. It runs half a mile underground, inhabited by a flock (?) of leaf-nosed bats, and displays charcoal signatures from as far back as the early 1800’s. The earliest date I saw was 1832, and to put that in my own personal context, those names were scrawled the same year my ancestors set out from Greenock, Scotland, on a ship bound for Nova Scotia.

There was little more than an old weathered sign propped up against a small stone wall off the main road. If you weren’t looking for it, you’d probably miss it. I thought if a similar cave were in Canada or the States, there’d been a woman collecting an admission fee at the opening, and we’d be broken into groups of 8 and led through by a guide, and a proper concrete surface would have paved the bottom for concern of safety (more accurately, lawsuits) and all of our possible graffiti implements would have been confiscated. As it was, we tripped our way over limestone ledges and fallen stalactites and avoided leg-breaking holes with our one dim headlamp, and I was able to use burned sticks from the field around the cave to leave my mark, “Laura and Effie, Annie Laurie, 2009”.

After a hair-raising 140 km/hr hitched ride in the back of a truck to Hatchett Bay, we returned to our respective boats. Shortly thereafter, a boat named Fabled Past entered the cut, and sometimes the smallest gestures can be the beginning of the greatest friendships. All the moorings were occupied and the wind was howling (well, if it wasn’t at the moment, it would be soon!). My Life came and rafted up to me and my mooring, leaving one free mooring, which resulted in rum punches with Beth and Tom aboard Fabled Past that evening. The rest, as they say, is history.

We all stayed in Hatchett Bay for another week or so. The small opening to escape the bay looked neither inviting nor hospitable with constant breaking waves converging and compressing into a space no more than 50 feet across.

Tom, Beth, and I took an afternoon and hitched a ride to a saltwater pond where Beth had seen rock crabs the day before. This time she came prepared with a net and a cooler, and between the two of them, they rounded up nine or ten good size crab from knee-deep water. I tried spear-fishing, swimming out a ways into the foggy water, but naturally lost my nerve quickly, as I do in water lately. A local told Beth a story, that is probably little more than folklore, that Jacques Cousteau once explored the pond, and after descending into one of the blue holes within it, was horrified by some of the creatures he witnessed, to the point of being unable (or unwilling) to talk about them. I’d like to do some research on that claim. The tactic most suited to me would be from browsing the shelves of a local library, and not swimming around the blue hole itself.

Once liberated from Hotel Hatchett Bay, we all sailed 20 miles south to Governors Harbor. It seemed to be geared more towards tourists than our other stops in Eleuthera. The town was tiny and attractive, well kept and well provisioned (four liquor stores). I hit up the local bakery for some specialty coconut and cinnamon bread, and the grocery store had the sweetest tomatoes I’ve had since the ones from the vine of mom’s tomato plant at the cottage. The town had decent water from many available taps along the road, which was a rarity in Eleuthera. Most available water is salty well-water, and though many locals are brought up on it, I could not stomach it. It was well worth hanging around Governors Harbor a few extra hours to ferry jugs back and forth to top up my tanks while the opportunity was there (Tom helped with his motor-dingy and numerous jugs). Before Tom arrived with his assistance, I was leaning over to the tap suspended from a wall of tiles. The upward draft at this position was blowing my skirt skyward, Marylin Monroe-style. It was a quiet morning, and not seeing anyone around, I made little effort to do anything about it; I was busy, one hand on the tap, and the other holding the jug. When the jug was full, I turned to make my way to the beach, only to see a rolly-polly teenager leaning against a tree, holding up his camera-phone. He displayed a wide smile as he nodded his head approvingly, and although he didn’t say a word, I could hear the voice of Austin Powers uttering ‘Yeah, baby. Yeah!’.

Fast-forward another couple of weeks, and My Life, Fabled Past, and Annie Laurie are now in Rock Sound, near the southern end of Eleuthera. The liquor store was perfectly placed for grabbing a beer on your way to the grocery store, which they gladly opened for you at the counter, and placed it in a small brown paper bag. Anywhere else, we may have looked like alcoholics, but not in the Bahamas. In Rock Sound, we would have felt conspicuous walking around with our hands empty.

One of Rock Sound’s attractions is Ocean Hole Park, a landlocked blue hole. It’s a big round crater with some shear cliffs for diving, with a depth that rises and falls with the tide. Fish flipped and snapped at bread crumbs we tossed on the surface, as Bahamian laughing-gulls tried their best to intercept the tosses.

As you’ve surly heard me say before though, the best parts of this journey is never the guidebook attractions. Tom and Beth made us feel right at home in their company. They were fairly well-equipped cruisers compared to myself (and even moreso when compared to My Life), and we had great times aboard Fabled Past. Pizza night, burger and chips night, movies and frozen blended drinks. I didn’t want it to end, but with an upcoming weather window, they would be heading north, and I would be heading south. I take comfort in knowing it is not true in sailing that all good things come to an end. The good times are just postponed until you meet again. I now have a great incentive to make a stop in Baltimore on my way home.

Somewhere around the beginning of May, we departed Eleuthera and by sunset were anchored north of Highbourne Cay in the Exumas. En route, My Life caught a huge dolphin, which they repeatedly broadcast their excitement over on the VHF. They didn’t have a boathook to get the approximately 35-lb fish aboard, so I offered to do a quick sail-by and pass them my hook. Bad idea in 3 to 4 foot seas, and a minor collision resulted, but they got the fish aboard (turns out without the help of my hook) and it was the sushi I have long been waiting for.

The Exumas are all they’re cracked up to be. Unlike Eleuthera, the cays are sparsely inhabited, and the water is crystal clear (you can see the sharks coming). While anchored west of Highbourne, I watched as a 9 foot bull shark skirted the edge of my underwater visibility, the same type of shark that took the arm (along with the spear and the fish it was holding) of a Venezuelan tourist a hundred miles south of here 2 weeks ago. Without a speared fish and its associated blood trail, these sharks are considered to be of little threat to humans.

Highbourne Cay caters primarily to yachts and sportsfishing boats (read people with money) so anything of interest to us was really below the surface. We found an excellent shallow reef (a couple of feet at low tide) for snorkeling. On some charts, it was known as the Octopus’ Garden. On other charts, it didn’t exist; the same area was apparently more than 12 feet deep and nothing but sand. A good example of why it’s inadvisable to travel after dark. Such misprints are easily read in the daylight by keeping a sharp lookout from behind a good pair of polarized lenses.

I had heard much of the lore of Normans Cay, where the drug lord Carlos Lehder ran his operation and subsequently earned a life sentence without parol plus 132 years in a U.S. prison. Stories abound of cruising sailboats during the 70’s and 80’s being chased by machinegun-wielding guards when they ventured too close to the island. I went ashore to find villas pocked with bullet holes (like my guidebook recommended) and went for what would become an epic row around the south of the island (it didn’t seem so far when I glanced at the chart) to find the airplane destined to pick up a load of cocaine from Lehder that missed the runway in the 80’s. It sits in about 10 feet of water, and sinks a little lower with every passing year. Just a few years ago, the wreck was still in decent enough shape that you could sit in the cockpit as fish swam around your feet. Most of the fuselage is underwater now, and I was able to snorkel through its coral-encrusted casing.

I met a wonderful couple and their young son aboard a catamaran while anchored at Normans Cay. Along with great conversation and much-needed stimulation for some positive introspection on where it is this journey is taking me, Hyde offered his expertise with any problems I had aboard. I mentioned my autopilot, and how my friend Banff had determined the motor was the weak link. Hyde spent the better part of the following day disassembling the motor, soldering broken connections, calibrating the compass, and going for test runs. By the end of the day, Annie Laurie had an autopilot! Three years and thousands of miles, and always a hand at the helm. I’m looking forwards to my first overnight trip (though somewhat anxiously) where I can take catnaps while the autopilot keeps the course. This opens up a whole new world of possibilities of just how far I can travel on my own. Perhaps all the way back to Nova Scotia on my own (right mom!?)

The next couple of weeks were memorable for me, as I spent much time in the Exumas Land and Sea Park. It’s a relatively small area (about 180 square miles) where all fishing is prohibited. Wardwick Wells is home of the park headquarters. Moorings were available in various locations around the cay, either for a nightly fee, or in exchange for a few hours of volunteer work. I’m not sure why, but Brendon from My Life seemed to jump at the chance to mix (by hand and shovel) and pour concrete, which the three of us did on our first day, creating another slab of the cellar floor of the headquarters. My back has been in such pain ever since, I couldn’t have done the same work the next day had I wanted to. I believe Brendon and Trevor spent the next 2 days on the same chore. I can’t say I envied them.

The following day, the warden, Andrew, allowed me to go on the high-speed Contender as he patrolled the north and south extents of the park with 2 members of the Royal Bahamian Defense Force, in an attempt to enforce the no-fishing regulations and collect mooring fees. He pointed out all the good snorkel spots and moorings and sights to see, which was a great orientation for the following week when I headed further south with my own boat.

The highlight of my stay in the park though was meeting Phil and Zach who run a small and beautiful steel cargo boat called the Retriever between Miami and the Exumas. For two days, Effie and I joined them as we traveled around offloading cargo to various private cays in the park. We delivered everything from food, to generators, to cedar shingles. I spent much of those 2 days laughing more than I have for quite some time, and meeting the local caretakers of the islands, and just being in some generally unique situations. I’d like to have those days back again.

When the time came to leave the Park, I set my destination to Staniel Cay, home of the Thunderball grotto (where part of the James Bond movie was filmed), which I was told was not to be missed. After close to 6 hours of motorsailing, the wind increased to 25kts from directly ahead. I gave up when I realized I was making less than one mile an hour towards my destination. I turned off the engine, swung the boat around and sheeted out the main. I headed for a nearby anchorage I had spotted when traveling on Retriever, next to Bell Island. Here, I met Laurel and Mike, who invited me over for dinner just moments after I dropped the anchor.

Laurel has been coming to the Bahamas for years, and had taken on Mike as crew. Mike was much younger and very eager to check out all the snorkeling sites, whereas Laurel seemed to posses the ‘been there, done that’ attitude. So with Laurel’s fast dingy, Mike and I were able to check out some cool spots over a 2 mile radius of the anchorage. Rocky Dundas was our first stop; a small cave, which at low tide you can swim into, but at high tide, you would have to dive under the wall to come up into the round cave with 2 storey walls and a hole in the top, where beams of sunshine descend to illuminate the stalactite and stalagmite formations. It was rough that day, a strong surge trying to take our feet out from beneath us as we struggled to stand on the shallow rocks with our flippers on. Next, we wanted to check out a reef at the south end of Cambridge Cay, which was supposed to have some impressive elkhorn coral. This area, as it turned out, was very exposed to the strong southeasterly winds, and 4 to 5 foot swells, some of them breaking, were barreling in from Exuma Sound. Concerned of swamping Laurel’s dingy, we decided to forego the elkhorn coral, and head into protected waters. A small airplane that crashed while allegedly running drugs was in 15 feet of water just west of O’Briens Cay. It was tiny, and after a quick look, Mike and I ascended at the same time, and simulatenously exclaimed, “That’s it?!”. We quickly moved on to a tiny rocky outcrop known at the Sea Aquarium, where hundreds of tame fish quickly congregate on any snorkler, expecting to be fed, I guess. It was a popular spot. Many dingys came and went as we took our time taking in all the details of the fish, coral, and even one rather large turtle.

It took me some time to realize that the moment I had decided to turn Annie Laurie north the previous day, that was to be the southernmost position of my journey. As long as I had been heading south, I was avoiding thoughts of the return journey, the accumulating responsibilities of what life back home is going to bring. As I left the anchorage at Bell Island, I watched Mike and Laurel make the turn south for Georgetown, as I made my turn back to Wardwick Wells. I felt I had reached a milestone; no more new ground to cover, as far as navigatable waters go at least. It was, and still is, depressing. I spent 2 more days at Wardwick Wells, thinking too much, and finding it a great effort to be social. How much I miss out on when my thoughts overcome my ability to see what joy can still exist at any given moment, especially with so many new (though perhaps only temporary) friends around.

I awoke early and got underway at 0700 on the day of my departure from Wardwick Wells, with an absence of farewells. Once I decide it’s time to go, there’s no waiting for anyone. I sailed for Highbourne Cay once again, through hours of thunder and lightning storms. It seemed to be just one storm, settling over the boat early in the day and relentlessly following me all the way to my next anchorage. I couldn’t have been less concerned about the lightning strikes, even as one bolt struck the water less than half a mile off my stern. It seemed like childs play after sailing the coastal waters of Florida last July.

I stopped at Highbourne Cay again, hoping to get to the store before it closed for the afternoon. It was a long row from the anchorage, against a strong incoming tide, and I began to doubt I was going to make it. A couple from a boat called Independence were taking their dog Blue ashore, and offered me a tow. I gladly accepted. In the course of conversation, they asked where I was headed, and I said the Abacos, though I was recently considering Miami, but I didn’t have good charts between the Exumas and southern Florida. They said it just so happened they had an extra set of Explorer Charts for the area, including Nassau, Andros, and Bimini, and I was welcome to have them. I made my final decision at that very moment, I was going to Miami.

Before leaving the northern Exumas, there was one more anchorage to check out. Just a stones throw from Highbourne lays Allan Cays, a bit of an attraction for its resident iguana population. Besides that, it’s reasonably protected from all wind directions. It would be my last adventure with Brendon and Trevor, going ashore to feed the iguanas. They were aggressive and intimidating (the iguanas) and would come barreling towards us in an awkward fashion, threatening to chew on our toes it seemed, if we weren’t careful. I had watched high-speed tourboats from Nassau take people ashore throughout the day before I ventured in, and I was quietly scoffing at all the girls in bikinis who would squeal whenever the prehistoric creatures approached. I was embarrassed when I learned it too was my natural reaction, to scream like a girl, when a big one came running towards me.

I made the executive decision to change my fuel filter before it got too clogged up (I usually just wait until it’s so clogged that it shuts the engine down, but I was trying to be proactive this time). I didn’t want to face changing the filter while alone in a rolling sea. I was so sure I had it figured out this time… ‘don’t forget the 2 valves on the fuel pump, and everything will be just fine!’. I was thinking too far ahead. I forgot to fill the new filter with fuel before putting it on, and I subsequently ended up with so much air in the fuel lines, it was next to impossible to bleed all the air out. I was frustrated to tears, literally. I started thinking that the ruins on the adjacent island would make a nice little fixer-upper, and I tried to convince myself Allans Cay would be an alright place to live out the rest of my days.

To bleed the air, it really is a 2 person job to begin with, as the manually lever to pump the fuel is on one side, and the valves are on the other. I tried reaching over the top, while I cracked the valves with my wrench on the other side, and eventually realized I had lost all feeling in my reaching forearm. I worry I let too much fuel get on my arm, and the biocide additive in the fuel has done permanent damage. I hope it’s a result of the awkward pressure I was putting on my arm, and it’s only temporary.

So as could be expected, I eventually killed my batteries trying to start the engine. Friends from a trawler in the anchorage did their best to help, but once the batteries were dead, there was little more they could do. That’s when fellow Canadians Wanda and Corstiaan came on the scene, saying they had a little portable generator, and not to worry, they would be over in the morning and we would get my engine going.

It didn’t take long the next morning, and we didn’t do anything different than I’d been doing the last few days. It was just a matter of getting every last microscopic air bubble out of the lines, and it cranked right up. So many people, when I say I have a Perkins 4-108, say, ‘Ah, right on. Great little engine!’. I no longer think it’s a great little engine if I can never get it going after each filter change.

More to come. To be continued very shortly.


Effie evaded almost certain death at Wardwick Wells. She came along as a group of us went over to hang out on a houseboat named Owl for the evening. Someone spooked her with a life-size and very realistic toy turtle, after which she disappeared into the night. At 0500 the following morning, it was obvious she had disappeared into the water. She was in the park wardens skiff, living up to her nickname Muskrat Willie, floating a few feet off the stern of the houseboat. The little trooper sure can swim. And, ahem... I guess to protect the innocent, I should admit now that someone was actually me.