Monday, May 18, 2009

Bahamas - A Blast!

We're back in the US now, and as we treat ourselves to a few of the goodies not available in the islands, we've been reflecting back on all the fun we had with the wonderful people, beaches, towns and beautiful anchorages we were privileged to enjoy in the Bahamas.

To help with my reflection, I thought I'd pour myself a touch of the delicious island rum... in the form of a tasty Bahama Mama. But it's COLD here in Charleston today! When we arrived two days ago it was as warm as it was in the Bahamas... but it was a TRICK! Today we're being pummeled by a strong Nor'easter with 50 degree temps and 30 knot winds. Brrrrrrrr. I think I'll make that rum drink a hot buttered rum... be right back.

Mmmm yummy. Even better with the rum we brought back. Great stuff.

Where was I... oh yeah, the Bahamas. For us, the Bahamas were a big surprise, even with all the research we did. If you've ever been to Nassau or Lucaya, that's only a very small aspect of the islands. What you see there is Cruise Ship Strip Malls and resort facilities. It isn't at all what the Bahamas are about. Once you get away from the easy to get to tourist areas, the Bahamas are exquisitely lovely.

The Exumas are a chain of tiny islands they call Cays (pronounced keys), about 180 of them. They run in a line roughly northwest to southeast. On the east side of the cays is the Exuma Sound / Atlantic Ocean. Within a half mile of shore you are in thousands of feet of water. On the west side of the cays you are on the Great Bahama Bank. The Bank is thousands of square miles of emerald water less than 25' deep. Most of the time we were sailing in water between 8' and 12' deep. This added a little excitement to the whole thing since scattered around the banks are coral heads that grow to within 3' of the surface. Our boat draws 4' 2". Fortunately, most coral heads are more than 6' below the water. When in shallower water, it pays to have someone on the bow "reading the water", looking for the telltale black circles that means a coral head, or the light tan color of an unmarked sand bore.

To get between the banks and the ocean you must pass through one of many "cuts" between the cays. There are a handful that are navigable in good weather and with the tide. None are to be risked in strong winds or large swells from distant weather systems. In those conditions, called a "rage", the breaking seas are extremely dangerous.

Many islands in the Exumas have someone living there, but there are many uninhabited. There are a few cays that have small towns, such as Black Point on Great Guana Cay, Staniel Cay, and Little Farmers Cay. These towns generally have two or three grocery stores (generally about the size of a 1 or 2 car garage in the US), one school (all ages), a one or two room municipal office, one or two restaurant/bars, and maybe a laundry. There are no banks in the Exumas with the exception of George Town at the southern tip of the chain, everyone else runs on a cash and barter basis. Some businesses take a credit card, but there is a 5% fee to do so, and their phone has to be working at the time.

All the houses and buildings are painted pastel colors. Conch shells are the favorite yard decoration, and there's usually at least one woman baking bread for the islanders and cruisers out of her house. If you wanted to eat a a restaurant, you needed to make reservations, not so that you could get a seat, but so that they would make enough (delicious) food. The people were without exception gracious and friendly.

Just about every cay had at least one beach on either the ocean or banks side, or both. On the ocean side, the waves are big and there's lots of shells. On the banks side, there are usually little or no waves and the sand is white and is often almost as fine as talcum powder. We almost always had the entire beach to ourselves.

We spent two very happy months in the Exumas, almost exclusively at anchor. We only stayed a a marina once, for two days. Beaches, snorkeling, exploring the cays kept us plenty busy.

We also wanted to see the Abaco Islands, on the northeast side of the Bahamas. We sailed from the Exumas to Nassau, re-provisioned in Nassau and then on to the Abacos. The Abacos have a busy tourism industry with most of the islands having lots of small villas for rent. People fly in to the Bahamas via Nassau and then take a 6 or 8-seater prop plane to one of the islands, and then a ferry (25' motorboat) to their cay. Lots of charter power and sailboats are available as well. This area is more what you probably were thinking the out islands of the Bahamas are like. There's plenty of infrastructure support, Internet is easily available and the phones usually work. Groceries and restaurants are bigger and better supplied. However, the water isn't as clear and it's harder to get a beach or anchorage to yourself.

Between the two, we liked the Exumas the best, but it's picking between two wonderful places for sure. I hope they remain as wonderful for years to come. It helps that its difficult to get there, especially the Exumas. Maybe next time we'll check out the Ragged Islands south of the Exumas. Now those are REALLY the out islands.

Bermuda Triangle or another @#$%! Raymarine product failure?

So there were were in the Abaco Islands preparing for our passage back to the States when Jen turned on the navigation system and noticed that our wind instrument was not working... AGAIN. This time it was the wind speed piece of the instrument. We'd already replaced the system twice, once for a bad wind vane and one for a bad base unit. I checked wiring, etc down on deck and found nothing wrong, so up the mast I went looking for trouble at the masthead connection. Sure enough (and happily) the problem was with salt water in the connector at the masthead. Salt water at the top of a 65' mast you wonder? Well, we "enjoyed" some breezy weather at times over the winter, especially in January, and the sea spray evidently gets everywhere. A little compressed air and WD-40 (wonderful stuff) later, the water was chased away and the unit was working properly. Don't ask me why Raymarine has such a lame connector on such an exposed piece of equipment. I can tell by the design that I'll be up there many times doing this maintenance.

Anyway, the day before departure, our Raymaine flux gate electronic compass that is hooked up to the autopilot (Francios) seemed to be askew. The GPS, our old fashioned compass and the sun all agreed we were sailing East, while the electronic compass insisted we were sailing South. "Hmmph... that's not right" Jen said. I was somewhat less civil in expressing my feelings about the matter.

The next day we spent a half hour motoring in painfully slow circles to re-swing the electronic compass. With it pointing in the right direction once again, we turned Northwest towards the Gulf Stream and the US.

That night, sometime around dark o'clock, the compass started playing games again, only this time it was completely lost. Instead of just pointing in the wrong direction, it would slowly swing around westerly, counting down around all points of the compass, around and around and around. I started thinking about those old Bermuda Triangle movies where boaters/pilots experienced spinning compasses. Yikes, what next, a rotating time-warp tunnel and UFOs? Strange things seem plausible at night in the middle of ocean. I glanced up to confirm our trusty old fashioned mechanical compass was behaving properly, which it was, and the hairs on my neck laid back down.

Jen suggested that rebooting the navigation system might clear things up. No such luck... at first anyway. After powering up, the compass resumed it's sedate countdown around the compass one or two more times and then picked a random heading and stopped. 8 button-presses later I had the thing realigned to read in the correct direction and our autopilot was functional again. This happened about a half dozen times throughout the three-day passage. Our first warning would be a beeping error message from Francios, followed by the boat rapidly veering off in one direction or another.

I suppose it's likely to be a bad connection (crossing fingers here) or a faulty Raymarine compass, not aliens or spooky geography or Atlantis. While we're here here in Charleston, I'll check out the connections and then get Raymarine on the phone... again.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Island Living

Before we left for our little adventure in the Bahamas, one of the things I read in a few different places was not to expect customer service to be on par with the US... actually I think one author said "not even close". The customer is almost never right here (exception, I assume, is the service at the big resorts). That's OK, it's just a different way of doing things. Armed with this information, I have kept a very cool head in situations where I might have lost it in the States. That being said, the Bahamians, adults & children alike, have been some of the friendliest and most kind people we have ever met.

Anyway, this poor non-local guy in line in front of me at one of the Island Roots Fest conch salad booths was obviously used to the way things work here. He orders a medium conch salad, which was $8 (a large was $10). The guy hands the vendor a $10 bill and waits for his food & change. Vendor hands him his salad goes back to mixing. A few minutes later, the vendor looks at the guy and asks if he wanted something else. Guy says "No, just my change. I ordered a medium and I gave you $10." Vendor tells the guy, "well, I gave you a large" and he returns to the mixing. Guy hangs his head, says "ok" and walks away.

Another thing you learn quickly is to schedule your errands during the appropriate times. For example, where there are banks (there weren't any in the Exumas except for George Town), the hours can be limited. This photo is of the sign on the bank at Man-O-War Cay. The bank is open one day a week for 4 hours.