Sailing Viento Azul from Islamorada to the Sea of Abaco

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We’d been sailing Viento Azul for only sixteen days but it felt like a month or longer. I’d nearly forgotten about our topside home and I wasn’t ready to leave and go back. Our trip had started on a Tuesday afternoon in Islamorada. We left the dock after a year of working on the boat and a couple of frantic last days getting ready for a summer in the Sea of Abaco. The boat was filled to the rafters with stuff for Eleuthera. Mark and Susan had put a couple of orders in at Amazon and I had a few things to take, as well.

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Thursday delivery for Mark and Susan.

Besides Steve and me, we had John “Walker” Woodward, our First Mate for the summer, and Joseph “Joe”, nephew of Nancy, along for the ride.

Ted stopped by to help with the lines and to see us off (or maybe he just wanted to make sure we were actually leaving). We got underway shortly before 2 pm, in time to get to Snake Creek drawbridge, a single-leafed bascule bridge, in time for the hourly opening.

When we reached the bridge, at about 1:55, I hailed the bridge tender lady on channel 9 to let her know we needed an opening. We had to hang back for about ten minutes until the bridge leaf was high enough to let us through, so we circled around for a while before navigating through.

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There was a lot to do during the day, like cleaning out all the galley cupboards, so I got busy. I took an inventory of dishes and collected everything I didn’t want to use during the scout trips. Then I got the staterooms organized, in a way there’s lot’s of storage available but then again, not really much at all. We made steak (I seasoned, the guys grilled) and salad for dinner. Everything worked great, the BBQ, the stove, the fridges and freezer. Considering the condition of the boat a year ago, I can’t believe everything is actually working. Steve’s a hero!!

After dinner, we discussed the shifts for the first night. Steve decided to keep going instead of anchoring for the night. I had already told him I wouldn’t pull any night shifts, though. (Some background here: I had to get up at 3:15 am for two years at the helm of R/V Nancy Foster and I never recovered from it–and I swore to never do that to myself every again.) Instead, I took the 8-12 shift, so around 20:00 (8 pm) Joe and I parked ourselves on the doublewide seat at the wheel and picked up from our last conversation.

The sun had just set so it wasn’t totally dark, yet. There was lightning at the horizon north-northwest of us but I figured it would pass east ahead of us. No storm was going as slow as we were.

Steve and Walker had gone to sleep and Joe and I chatted and watched the lights of other ships glide through the night. A large cargo vessel that had been overtaking us for some time finally crossed our bow less than a mile ahead, which spooked Joe a bit. I wish I would have taken a picture—it was pretty cool to see that behemoth advance in the dark. (Probably there wouldn’t have been enough light for a good shot, but still…) I’ve never been closer than three miles from a large vessel so this was eerie yet cool.

I pulled the throttle back momentarily to allow for more space, and then we were back to making about five knots. Things stayed calm after that until about 11 pm when we started to head right into the storm, which inexplicably had stalled. Without radar or wifi I had no idea of the extent, the speed, or the direction of the storm but the lightning was now much closer and the rigging became restless and started to bang around. We watched the spectacle around us for a while. The sky lit up at shorter and shorter intervals and suddenly the boom yanked hard against the preventer. The anemometer showed 20 knot winds with nearly 30 knot gusts.

I didn’t like this development so I sent Joe to wake Steve. I stayed at the helm, ready to maneuver, hoping nothing would break before Steve showed up. I felt bad about waking him early but I didn’t want to handle the sails in those gusts—I had no clue what the rigging could handle or which lines needed trimming.

Joe came back without Steve but the wind had momentarily laid down so I was willing to stick it out a bit longer. Still, I was relieved when Steve finally showed up. I looked at my watch—surprised to see it was midnight already. I was glad we hadn’t woken him too early and glad I didn’t have to deal with the storm any longer. I said good night and headed down below. No storm would bother me in my cocoon and the rolling motion quickly rocked me to sleep. I was out all night, even as the guys at the helm battled 40 knot winds (sustained) around 4 am. I never woke.

Wednesday still had me busy cleaning and sorting and cleaning some more and cooking three hot meals for the crew. I had a spot of trouble with the double fridge. It kept freezing the lettuce and scallions, even though I had it at the lowest setting. I thought maybe it’s working too hard for a full fridge so I turned it up (lowered the temperature). This netted me frozen milk and crunchy yoghurt and was clearly not the solution. We decided to turn the fridge off for a while and let it defrost—a lot of ice and snow had accumulated near the inside top.

We had one brief drizzle during the day but otherwise the weather had improved. Towards the evening, the clouds starting building again, however.

Orange, sunlit cumulunimbis cloud in back, pinkish stratocumulus below.
Cumulus exploding in the sky after sunset.

We reached Eleuthera on Thursday morning and approached Spanish Wells on St. George’s Cay from the west side. At this point we were still considering Harbour Island for customs but as we motored past the downtown docks we changed our minds. A few hundred yards on was the mooring field so we tied up there and put the dinghy in the water. On our way to the pier, the mooring field manager approached us. We negotiated a brief stay with him and he grumpily complied.

Checking in with customs was pretty painless, aside from the twenty forms we had to fill out. We paid our fees: $300 for the cruising permit (and the boarding that never happened), including fishing license and three passengers; plus $20 for the fourth person. It was somewhere between rainy and humid outside and the young customs officer clearly had no intention of leaving his air-conditioned office. Great for us and for all our Amazon goodies.

Back on Viento Azul and freshly checked in, we lowered the yellow quarantine (immigration) flag and hoisted the Bahamian civil ensign on the starboard spreader as is custom.

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Curtesy flag of the Bahamas for civil maritime vessels. (The old British Commonwealth curtesy ensign is defaced by the modern Bahamian flag in the top left corner.)

We headed out of the anchorage and started carefully weaving our way around the coral heads and shallows between Devil’s Backbone and the north shore of Eleuthera before sailing down the bay and anchoring at Bottom Harbour. This area was rather tricky to navigate as depth rapidly fluctuated between 16 feet to half a foot below the keel.

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This is the same area where a ship collided with a sharp rock during a stormy October day in 1648. This rock would later become known as the Devil’s Backbone. Capt. William Sayles had been taking a group of about 70 expelled Puritans from Bermuda to the Bahamas on the S/V Williams. The group had lost all supplies in the grounding so they stayed and started over on Eleuthera.

According to the Sailing Directions for the area, a pilot is highly recommended to assist in navigating the Devil’s Backbone. We either got lucky or it’s not that difficult on a clear day with shallow draft and good lookouts.

During the afternoon and the next morning we unloaded Mark and Susan’s Amazon orders and a few of our own, including a mattress and Adirondack-style plastic chairs (un-rustable!!) for the porch.

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Anchored at Bottom Harbour before loading up the dinghy.

In the house, we discovered that termites had made a meal out of one of the kitchen cabinets. They’d snacked their way through three drawers and were working on the door. This necessitated some minor construction/extraction work on the kitchen, some mixing and spraying of the appropriate poison, and some washing of dishes which I never really got to.

Mark and Susan had made us dinner (spaghetti and tomato sauce with sausage—super yummy!!). We enjoyed that and Mark’s amazing bread and a bottle of wine. After that, Steve and I were too content to dinghy to shore so we spent the night on the boat. 

The next day Steve took Joe and Walker to the little reef for a short snorkel. He wanted to show Joe a bit of Harbour Island, too, but the dinghy motor crapped out. Joe had to go home so around 11 am Mark took Joe to the airport. Meanwhile, we continued to off-load. My personal favorite was lowering two Hobie masts onto the dinghy. That was fun.

Mark and Susan came for dinner. I made hamburgers (my mom’s recipe: ground beef, minced onions, an egg, bread crumbs, cajun seasoning, fresh garlic). I sautéed mushrooms and onions in butter and red wine (Susan’s suggestion) to top the burgers with, plus, of course, onion rings, lettuce, tomatoes, and havarti cheese, plus plus Hawaiian Sweet Bread burger buns. Delish!!

Saturday morning we got underway on our last leg to Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island.

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Spanish Wells to Bottom Harbour track in black. Bottom Harbour north towards Great Abaco in red.

Along the way, we caught our first fish. Not sure why we bothered, though. The fish went right back in the water. I certainly wasn’t going to do culinary surgery on this beautiful creature. Plus, I had stocked the freezer to the brim with rib eye steaks, Dakota grass-fed ground beef, and other goodies. Yum! Who wants to bleed a fish when you can eat a steak?!

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Steve trying to decide what to do with this rare Almaco Jack.
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Actually, I’m not totally sure what kind of Jack this is. The black band across the eye and the unusually long dorsal fin point to an Almaco. However, those are usually more silvery. This guy is either a dark color variation or maybe we discovered a new species!? Seriola niger?

We finally arrived in Marsh Harbour that evening. A full moon was rising while we anchored, which made the marina look romantic and mysterious. Definitely a great first impression.

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Full moon rising over Marsh Harbour anchorage.

We dinghy’d ashore in the dark and had dinner at Mango’s. I ordered curry seafood (incredible!) and the guys had cracked conch. The next day, Walker showed us around and we checked in with Kim Cansler who runs the Scouts of America Bahamas operation. A get-together of captains and mates Sunday morning produced a few familiar faces and provided a nice introduction of things to come. Everybody was excited and eager to share their experiences from previous seasons.

We had three days to ourselves so we decided to explore a few of the places we were going to take the scouts to. We already were in Marsh Harbour so we walked around to check it out. Everything was closed on Sundays so we didn’t have much luck with shopping. The grocery store was open, though, and then we saw a trashcan that looked like a shark so we headed that way to investigate.

Monday morning we set sail and headed east around Matt Lowe Cay and on south to Hope Town on Elbow Cay.

Elbow Cay Lighthouse is one of the last manually operated, kerosene-fueled lighthouses still in operation. Built in 1862, the lighthouse has been operational since 1864, a good twenty years before the town was founded. One gallon of kerosene per night fuels the wick and creates a focused light that passes through a Fresnel lens that floats on mercury. The light flashes white at a rate of five times every 15 seconds and can be seen from 23 nautical miles away.

The view from the top of the lighthouse is spectacular:

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Hope Town is the most attractive Bahamian town I’ve seen yet. Narrow, sometimes cobble-stoned streets (but fast moving golf carts), colorful cottages (with cute names), and very friendly people.

Fowl Reef National Park came highly recommended so we sailed over on Tuesday to take a look-see. We passed Man-O-War Cay (pronounced “key”) and headed towards the Atlantic before weaving our way over and around a patchwork of coral heads to reach a good spot inside Fowl Reef.

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The tide was going out and the current made me work for the pleasure. The first patch I snorkeled turned out to be sea grass so I headed west and came to another dark spot. This one was an actual patch reef and I enjoyed exploring it for a while until I got too tired fighting the current. My camera showed a memory card error so I was unable to take any pictures and my mask was leaking the whole time. I quickly lost interest in struggling with things and started to head back. I had an unexpectedly hard time crossing the reef against the current and at some point I had to fight the urge to find a shallow spot to stand on to rest.

When I finally reached the other side I found Walker, so I asked him to swim back to the boat with me because I wasn’t sure I could make it. The open water was easier to cross, however, and we reached the boat without any problem. I was a bit winded, so I rested, and then switched to a Mares mask, which I tested while snorkeling close to the starboard ladder. I moved around, shook my head side to side—no leakage whatsoever. I was happy again.

I put a new SD card into the camera and this time everything worked. Walker and I decided to give it another try so I told Steve to come and get us with the dinghy in about thirty minutes—I figured I’d be beat after that. Walker and I jumped back in and aimed for a dark spot east of the boat. The current was still going out and took us with so we flew to the reef, which was bigger and healthier than the first one. I was able to take a bunch of pictures and Walker was just as content exploring holes and crevasses.

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Steve never came for us so we headed back after a while to see if he wanted to get out and explore as well. The tides had changed and there was almost no current now. The water was warm and turquoise and the sky was flecked with fair-weather cumulous. It couldn’t have been a more perfect day.

We mostly hung out and relaxed the last morning before the first scout troop would arrive.

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Cup of coffee and a sunrise. All is well with the world this morning.
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Steve in the galley… making tea perhaps.
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Yup. We did bring a bike. You never know…

2 Replies to “Sailing Viento Azul from Islamorada to the Sea of Abaco”

  1. Hello Steve, I did not get any contact information from you? I was with the Boy Scouts Troop 15 from Montgomery Alabama. We had a blast.
    Thanks too you and Walker.
    Billy McLemore

    Like

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