Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Sheila and Paul Visit the Abacos

Once I knew my sister, Sheila, and her husband, Paul, were coming to visit I could think of little else until they arrived. I was once again seeing the sites through fresh eyes as I imagined how much they would love it here. I was not wrong…they did love it here.

Sheila and Paul arrived in Marsh Harbour on a beautiful afternoon where we met them and had lunch at Mangos before boarding Coyote and heading out into the Sea of Abaco. We anchored for the night off Man-o-War Cay and went for a lovely evening stroll along the beach. The next day we toured the town and then moved to Hope Town as it was getting rather bumpy in the anchorage due to a west wind that had picked up throughout the day. On the way Sheila and Paul had fun riding on the bow of the boat.

Hope Town did not disappoint either. They fit right into the relaxed lifestyle and thoroughly enjoyed
wandering throughout the quaint town, having latt├ęs in the coffee house, ice cream at the Sugar Shack and swimming or strolling along the beautiful beaches.

On one of our perfect days, Sheila and I went to yoga in the morning and then met the boys for coffee before heading to the beach for a swim. On another perfect day we rented a golf cart to tour Elbow Cay, stopping at Tahiti Beach for a picnic lunch. Later that night we went to Firefly for dinner, Sheila and Paul’s birthday treat to me. Yet another perfect day included a trip to Lynyard Cay on Harold’s run-about with a stop at Sandy Cay for snorkeling and then Pete’s Pub for lunch. Needless to say they were all perfect days, even including the big thunder storm in Hope Town!

Their trip was a last minute decision so we couldn’t really believe they were actually here. Sheila and I kept pinching each other because it didn’t seem real. It was all so wonderful that we decided we could not describe it to anyone without seeming to be completely obnoxious. So, I will just say that I am so happy they came to visit. It was a most brilliant birthday present and I will always remember our perfect week.

We were sad to see them go, but it marked the point at which we felt it was time to start for home. We spent a few more days in Hope Town
that included my actual birthday for which we had dinner with friends and then cake (baked by Lynn) on the boat. Since this was a milestone birthday year I have been milking it for several months…I guess I need to accept that it is finally over.

We have now crossed through the Whale and are in Green Turtle Cay where we have waited out a front. Tomorrow we are heading further north to either Manjack or Powell Cay and soon we will cross the Gulf Stream headed for home. I always find this time somewhat stressful as we look for the best opportunity to make the crossing. In the meanwhile we are planning to explore some new northern cays, which is always exciting. And then we will be close to home and our family and friends, which is always wonderful.

We Love the Abacos

Lynn and I have spent much of our time in Hope Town since arriving back to the Abacos. Staying in one place instead of cruising around the islands is quite different and creates a tranquil, laid back feeling. Although finding nice anchorages can be wonderful, you are also concerned with anchoring, moving the boat about, weather influences and so on. When on a mooring you can just kick back, chill and relax (my sister refers to this activity as “chillaxing”.)

Chillaxing for us means some lazy mornings on the boat, walking the beautiful Hope Town beaches, swimming, yoga on the beach (me that is…can you picture Lynn doing yoga?!), hanging out with friends, and watching movies in the evening.

One day we did a sewing project for Harold, a local Hope Town friend who owns Cat’s Paw Boat Rentals, to mend the Bimini top of his run-about boat that had torn on the corners. It was actually a lot of fun…Lynn, Chuck and I worked on the project outside under a shady tree. When finished a few hours later I felt gratified to have finally paid forward the favor done for us by George when he fixed our freezer and main sail. But, later Harold gave us one of his rental boats for the day in return for our help, so now I am back to looking for opportunities to assist…but, I guess that is exactly how the pay-it-forward concept is supposed to work.

We also had some time to hang out with Chuck and Dale. They were house sitting for several weeks so had access to a golf cart for buzzing around the island.

We went to On Da Beach for lunch one afternoon. This is my new official favorite spot to eat on Elbow Cay because of the spectacular view and their delicious grilled chicken kabobs. They have only open-air seating which is fine on nice days, but unfortunately, the day we went was threatening rain. We sat down anyway and watched the clouds approach, reassuring each other that it would either pass us by or would be over quickly. We were WRONG! As soon as our meals arrived, the deluge started. We tried to seek shelter under the eaves but eventually our food was getting soaked. I finally asked if we could hide out inside their bar/food prep area, the only place with a roof. They said no problem, so we ended up eating our lunch alongside the cook and bartender.

Another afternoon Dale and I decided we needed our hair dyed. So we enlisted Lynn’s help who was happy to act as our hairdresser for the day. We went to the backyard of the house they were watching, donned garbage bags and let Lynn do his work. After waiting the prescribed 10 minutes, Lynn washed us off with the garden hose! We were both actually quite pleased with the results. Maybe Lynn should think about a new career in the beauty industry!

During a few calm weather stretches we ventured out to anchor in more isolated areas where we met up with Makani for some snorkeling, diving, sea glass hunting, good eating and cards. We first anchored at Armstrong Cay and then at Lynyard Cay, both secluded spots that offer excellent island and water exploring.

We were excited to finally dive a few times and have a chance to try out our new gear. After arriving back from my first dive off Sandy Cay I discovered that I had lost my brand new dive knife. The holster was still on my leg, but the knife was long gone. About a week after my sad loss, Makani were passing by the spot where we had been diving and decided to go on a search and rescue mission…and they found it! I probably wouldn’t have bothered to look, but it was just the kind of challenge they like.

Our favorite dive was at Lynyard just outside the cut where there were tall coral heads from the bottom, about 30 feet down, all the way to the surface. Lynn said he felt like we were meandering through a big coral garden.

After a few gorgeous days at Lynyard we made our way back to Marsh Harbour where we re-provisioned the boat while awaiting the much anticipated arrival of my sister and her husband.

Since returning from the Exumas we have decided that, while the Exumas are incredibly beautiful, we really are more Abacos people. We love the combination of onshore activities, like touring Hope Town and other areas, and quiet anchorages, like Lynyard and Armstrong Cay, where the beaches are very often clothing optional.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Treking Back to the Abacos

After two lovely weeks in the Staniel/Compass Cays area we decided to start our trek back to the Abacos. On our northern passage through the Exumas we stopped once again in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, anchored off Bell Island. We spent a nice day exploring the area…including snorkeling in the Rocky Dundas, another hollow island with a cave that rivals the Thunderball Grotto. We took a short hike to Rachel’s Bubble Bath, which is a natural “spa” created by the surf crashing through a little rocky opening and filling a sandy pool with frothy salt water. It was fun trying to stand up against the water surge and being tossed head over heels more than once.

Then it was back to Highborne Cay to await a good day to cross back through the Tongue of the Ocean to the island of Eleuthera. We crossed on a very calm day, motoring directly to Rock Sound. On the way we passed some of the time perched on the bow as the boat rose and fell through the swells…it feels a little like flying since you are hanging out over the water and dropping about 6 feet (imagine the feeling of a gentle roller coaster). We love when the conditions make that a relaxing place to sit.

We had a nice time in Rock Sound sprinkled with a few highlights, like exploring the caverns just outside of town. On the path into the cavern you pass a big blue hole before coming upon a ladder that leads down to the caves. Once underground you can wander through several large caverns with stalactites and long tree roots reaching down from above. It was quite cool and just a little creepy. The cave ceilings were covered with rather large spider webs and you definitely had the feeling something might crawl out of a dark corner at any moment. Friends later told us they found a dead tarantula in there…which I am glad I didn’t know until after we had been there.

Another day we dingied ashore to get a few groceries and, as we were tying up, met a couple from the UK named Helen and Peter. They had just started their global circumnavigation on a sailboat named Common Crossing. In the way of cruisers, we quickly became friends and planned to go for lunch the following day at a place called Da Nort’ Side. This little excursion turned out to be a unique experience. The proprietor is a woman named Rose who picked us up in her beat up old van to drive us to her restaurant on the windward side of the island. She was about a half hour late because she was coming from church and she said the preacher was a little long winded that day. By the way, the Bahamians are very devout people, with seven churches in the Rock Sound area for a relatively small population. We piled into the back of the van by climbing over the seats since the only door that would open was the front passenger side door. On the drive she played loud gospel music from the radio and recreated the sermon for us.

When we arrived at our destination we entered a quaint little restaurant with a sand-floor bar and a separate eating area festooned with brightly colored floral tablecloths and an endless array of beach finds on the walls and ceiling. It couldn’t have been better! We were also joined by the preacher (from South Africa) and a third couple named Kerri and George traveling on a boat named Marquesa (which turned out to be a very serendipitous meeting for us…but more on the later). Rose told us our dining options and proudly declared that we would all love anything we ordered (including a skeptical Lynn to whom she said “just taste it, you will be begging for more”.) Lunch was served about an hour later and was a mix of Bahamian specialties, like grilled whole snapper and their peas n’ rice. We didn’t mind waiting though, since we were seated on her lovely deck overlooking a spectacular and very secluded beach. While eating, Rose regaled us with stories of her children, all very successful people living in other parts of the world. She even gave us all some precious sea beans she found and, when we tried to refuse, sang a little song that went something like this…

“If you love something set it free, set it free, set it free…If you love something set it free, and more will come back to you…”

All in all it was a lovely day that led to more excellent days…which brings me back to George and Kerri. While chatting before lunch, Lynn and I happened to mention some of our boat woes, such as our broken freezer. George asked a few questions about the nature of the problem clearly showing he was somewhat knowledgeable on the subject. He offered to drop by the next day to diagnose the problem and we happily accepted. Well, within about 15 minutes he had identified the cause, which had an easy solution that Lynn could do on his own (we now have a working freezer.) As George was packing up I just happened to mention our inoperative furling main. George felt confident he could fix that too with a few hours of work. He came over again the next day and this time brought his wife, Kerri, along. While the boys worked, the girls chatted in the cockpit. We laughed so much that Lynn said he could hardly hear George talking! Well, he also figured out the issue with the furler and we now have a working mainsail too!!

Although we gave them lunch, we in no way felt we had repaid George for his help. Not surprisingly, he refused our offer to pay for his services saying he was happy just helping fellow cruisers. He explained that his definition of a successful day is one in which he had fun, felt passionate about something and helped someone out…a philosophy on life I definitely admire. So, now we are looking for an opportunity to “Pay it Forward.”

We continued northbound from Rock Sound the following day and headed back to Royal Island and Spanish Wells. We hopped between these two places for about 5 days waiting for a window to cross back to the Abacos. While waiting, we finally managed to snorkel on the huge reef north of the island on a rare calm day and were treated to a beautiful assortment of vibrant coral and fish (even spotting another sea turtle.)

Another afternoon we were with John from Makani snorkeling in a sandy bay on the north shore of Royal Island. John was hunting and had managed to spear two lobster, a red snapper and a grunt. He asked me to fetch his bag so I was swimming at full speed to the shore. Also swimming directly towards me was an octopus! We simultaneously spotted each other and both stopped in our tracks about 2 feet apart. I’m not sure which of us was more shocked, but the octopus immediately plopped to the sea bottom (which was only about 2 feet deep where we were) and poured himself into a little hollow in the sand, gathering his eight legs underneath his body until he was almost perfectly camouflaged in the sand. I doubt anyone would have spied him if they didn’t know he was there. I was not able to camouflage myself nearly so well, but I suppose I had size on my side. I floated there for about 10 minutes keeping a sharp eye on his hiding place lest I lose him in his disguise. He finally built up the courage to creep out, one leg at a time. He was obviously not completely comfortable with his precarious position and started slowly looking for another hideout. I followed him until he found a rocky crevice into which he completely melded his body until only his little eyes were visible. Nobody would have ever seen him there…it was so cool!

On what was promised to be a “terrific sailing day” we ventured back into the ocean on our final leg back to the Abacos. It did start out terrifically and we were sailing at about 7.5 knots on a beam reach in about 20 knots of wind, with BOTH sails out thanks to George. The wind was supposed to die down throughout the day, but in typical weather prediction fashion, it built up instead. As the wind approached 25 knots sustained we felt we had too much sail out, so we shortened the genoa and started the motor to maintain a reasonable speed. OK, some people like our companions on Makani would have continued to sail, but the seas had also picked up to probably 8-foot swells with a 5-foot wind driven chop, and we just wanted to get there as quickly as possible. So, once again we rocked and rolled uncomfortably for a few hours. And, once again our fridge door popped open and spewed its’ contents on the floor. Thankfully, no broken jar of garlic this time.

Meanwhile on Makani, as Lynn and I were hanging on and complaining about the conditions, John was single handing and fishing (Kathi had to fly home on some business.) In the same 8-foot seas he managed to hook, land and filet a 51-inch Mahi Mahi! The three of us ate two meals and he still has frozen Mahi Mahi for at least two more meals!

Reaching the Abacos felt a little like coming home. We stopped at Lynyard Cay for a few days of sea glass hunting and the usual snorkeling. Then we sought out the protection of Marsh Harbour for what turned out to be the biggest weather event of the season. The wind blew over 25 knots for 5 days, with one day of clocking wind in excess of 35 knots sustained and gusting over 40 knots. That is REALLY a lot of wind! It was certainly not all bad though because we met up with Harriet and Mike on Duel Dreams and Cindy and Jeff on Salty Dog, friends from our first cruise who we have not seen for more than four years. It was fantastic to hang out with them again. We also did some boat chores to pass the time. Once again I attempted to re-stow boat contents so nothing will fly about while underway in rough seas…an endless and never completely successful endeavor. Most importantly, Lynn cleverly fixed the fridge-door-popping-open problem.

Now we are back on a mooring in Hope Town, still probably my personal favorite place. It just has the right mix of quaint village and beautiful beaches. We will stay here for about a month with short excursions to other favorite anchorages. In the good news department, Kathi is back from her stateside travels and so we are reunited as our foursome again. And, my sister, Sheila, just sent me a note that she and her husband, Paul, will be visiting at the beginning of April…I am so excited about that. We definitely find that homesickness starts to set in about now so visits from family are very welcome. We are still hopeful that Lynn’s daughters will be coming too.

That’s all for now!

Monday, February 13, 2012

Oh, What Wonderful Water!

People kept telling us how beautiful the water is in the Exumas, and I thought…How can it be any nicer than the blue water in the Abacos? Well, it can, and it is! The water here is almost indescribable. The color ranges from the palest blue to a deep jade with exquisite shade variations depending on the depth of the water. It is so clear you can see to the bottom in 30 feet. On a moonlit night you can still see the sand and grass below the boat. Anchoring is a breeze because you can check that the anchor is dug in from the surface. Snorkeling feels like you are hardly looking through water at all, making all the coral and sea creatures appear clear and bright. Plus, it is probably 5 degrees warmer than in the Abacos, so you don’t squeal every time you dive in. You really can’t get enough of gazing into this deep blue sea.

The islands are more scenic too…literally hundreds ranging in size from a rock to a proper land mass. They are hillier and lined with many secluded beaches or rugged rocky shores. We have really enjoyed arriving at new anchorages and checking out the nearby sights.

When I last left off we were just leaving Eleuthera. We motor sailed across Exuma Sound arriving at the north end of the Exumas to anchor off Highborne Cay. We could see why people rave so much about the water as soon as we came through the cut to the leeward side. We were a little apprehensive about entering our first cut in the Exumas as we had been told to be cautious of the often fast moving current through narrow openings…But, all that left my mind when I saw the stunning, meandering entrance to the Cay. We anchored just off a sandy beach and smiled at each other, feeling very happy to have arrived at our first Exumas anchorage.

Over the next few days we explored the area and did our first snorkeling in the crystal clear water. One excursion brought us to Allens Cay, famous for being the residence of hundreds of iguanas. They range in length from about 6 inches to about 3 feet and live only on this particular island in the Bahamas. Kathi jokingly remarked that it would be a nice place for a picnic as the prehistoric creatures crawled around the beach, with many more rustling about in the bushes.

One afternoon Kathi and I launched her paddle board for a little fun and exercise. It is a great workout (for my much needed core) and we had a blast trying to stay balanced. It really isn’t so hard except that it was a windy day and the water was quite rough, which made balancing trickier. We even attempted to stand together on the board at the same time. After about 20 tries we finally gave up, but laughed and screamed for a good hour!

When we first arrived at Highborne I said to Lynn, “Look, a cruise ship!” He said, “That’s not a cruise ship, it’s a private yacht!” And indeed it was a 200-foot mega yacht anchored off the same beach we had chosen. It’s not often you get to be voyeurs into the life of the very rich, but we did, for three days. We watched in amazement as they shuttled back and forth from the ship to the beach in their half-million dollar Hinkley “runabout”. They would send their staff to set up for an evening bonfire or an afternoon picnic, complete with tents, linen tablecloths and beach games. They behaved like they owned the place with very little thought for their neighbors as they blasted around the anchored boats in their various watercrafts. All weekend they flew people in and out in their private sea plane, sometimes landing right between the sailboats. I really was glad to say goodbye to them when we left. But, I did remark that we didn’t need all that money to enjoy the same sights from our comparatively little boat.

After Highborne we headed to Warderick Wells, the central cay in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, which is a national land and marine protected area. We chose a rather blustery day and had to motor into wind crashing through about 5-foot waves.

We picked up a mooring for two nights and explored the island. There are lots of trails and we chose the most popular one that crossed through a desert-like area to the top of Boo Boo Hill where we were treated to a spectacular view of the surrounding area. The name of the hill comes from a legend that a ship sunk off the nearby reef. All aboard perished and their bodies were never found. Their ghosts now haunt the island whose calls can be heard at night from the top of the hill. On the way back we stopped at a Blow Hole where the underground wave action causes wind to puff in and out…you can’t help saying “whooo!” when a big gust blasts out at you.

Later that night Makani came over for our usual dinner and games and spotted a Nurse Shark under our boat. He circled there for about an hour. I was wondering why he chose to hang around our vessel when I remembered that I had actually chummed the water. Earlier I had prepared beef stew and washed the drippings from the meat down the drain. I estimate it was no more than a quarter cup of blood that he smelled from who knows how far away…amazing.

Next stop was Sampson Cay just north of Staniel Cay, where we are still anchored. We love it here…definitely our favorite place in the Exumas…so far! But I think it will be hard to beat. We are located amongst many large and small islands with no end of spots to explore in and out of the water. We have dingied up to Pipe Creek to snorkel in lots of lovely reefy areas, or down to Staniel Cay to tour the town and get provisions.

We have been snorkeling almost every day, either hunting or just enjoying the underwater panoramas. Our friends from Havre de Grace, Joe and Carol on Just Ducky, spend the entire season anchored in Pipe Creek just north of where we are. They know all the good spots to snorkel and kindly shared their secrets (about which we have been sworn to secrecy.)

Joe came diving with us three times when the conditions were calm enough to get to the outside. There we found at least 10 lobster and caught 5 so far. Well, to be honest, John and Joe have done the lobster catching. This involves diving 10 to 15 feet and holding your breath for at least 30 seconds while you search under any little cave where the lobsters hang out. If you find one, you then have to dive back down, grab a rock and manage to fire a spear one-handed from your Hawaiian sling before he retreats too far into his hidey hole. Then you wrestle him back up to the boat. I don’t really like this part, but I do like the results! After catching four 2-pounders and up (Joe speared a 6-pounder!), we have been feasting on lobster many nights, finding lots of new ways to prepare the crustacean. Like Bubba on Forest Gump, we have had steamed lobster, lobster with drawn butter, grilled lobster, seasoned lobster, lobster newburg, lobster stew…..

I love to snorkel! Sometimes I feel like I am wandering through an underwater sea garden with pretty little crops of coral and a wide variety of fish swimming about. Just one small coral head will offer a little vignette with a huge diversity of sea life. When I find one I just float on top and gaze at it, like looking into an aquarium. Exciting sightings so far include a Sea Turtle, several large Manta Rays (they have huge heads and Lynn says they look like a 747 as they glide past), Southern Rays, Puffer Fish, Queen Trigger Fish, lots of gorgeous Angel Fish and other little vibrantly colored fish, and a Shark!

Sharks are plentiful around here and gather where there is food (near a dock where fishermen toss the carcasses of cleaned fish or under our boat where I have inadvertently chummed the water). We have fun watching from above the water. But, the other day we were snorkeling and a shark passed me about 20 feet away, probably looking for dinner. It was either a Caribbean Reef Shark or a Nurse Shark, both are non-aggressive. Nevertheless, I would have been alarmed if he was coming towards me, but since he was swimming away Lynn and I took a good look before prudently heading in the other direction.

Another snorkeling adventure was exploring the “Thunderball Grotto” on nearby Staniel Cay. Used in a scene from Thunderball, a 1960’s James Bond movie starring Sean Connery, it is a rock with underwater tunnels leading to a big cave in the center open to the sky. We watched the movie before going and discovered that it is now quite outdated and pretty hokey. But the real thing is very cool inside where tons of fish are used to being fed and will nibble at your fingers looking for a treat. We had about 20 minutes to look around before a boat dropped off about 30 tourists who quickly filled up the area. It made me realize how fortunate we are to experience all we do without being bothered with any crowds, any other people at all for that matter!

The rest of our time has been spent playing cards, reading on the boat, swimming, napping, doing boat chores, meeting and chatting with cruisers and locals, and simply enjoying life. The weather has been fantastic. This has been an unusual winter with very few cold fronts. There has been hardly any rain and the temps are in the high 70s to low 80s. We have had mostly wind out of the east, which is perfect for anchoring in the Exumas. We just had a front over the last few days that brought higher wind (20-25 knots) and for a while it was out of the west, which meant we rocked and rolled in the harbour for about a day. No problem, we just went ashore and played some cribbage for the afternoon! It is calm again and we are not expecting another front for at least a week.

I continue to feel so very lucky to be doing this. And not only that, but I have a wonderful husband to enjoy it with.