Monthly Archives: January 2011

Favorite Place

I have a new favorite place on Planet Earth. There are many lovely places, of course, and among my favorites are Rocky Mountain National Park, Corkscrew Swamp, the Loire Valley in France, the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, and others too numerous to name. But the current favorite is a small anchorage in Red Shanks off of Crab Cay in the Exumas, near Georgetown. It is the favorite of many “Old Timers,” folks who come back year after year to the Bahamas and have found its quiet beauty and protection from winter blows an enviable spot. Where we were, it is shallow and trickier to get into than some places, so it doesn’t fill up with boats. There was only one other boat near us when we dropped the hook. It also boasts a small but pristine beach at Moss Cay, and is home of the “Red Shanks Yacht and Tennis Club,” of which we have met several card-carrying members.

We were cordially invited by Fred and Elaine, previously of Clearwater, Fl, to join the Red Shanks club members for drinks and hors d-oeuvres one evening. If you are picturing a posh, private clubhouse with folks our parents’ age chatting about golf or tennis, abolish the idea immediately. The “Club” is a sandy beach which barely fits all the members (a couple dozen with standing room only) furnished with a few broken down chairs and a plank table. There may have been a tiki hut there at one point, but a storm has long since blown it down. Meetings are sporadic and can only be held at low tide and before sunset, when the bugs come out. The people are unpretentious and welcoming and the drinks and snacks simple and unassuming. We were greeted by friendly faces and warm welcomes. (Bringing freshly-baked cookies probably helped.) We sometimes tire of answering the same questions, but once the formalities were put aside, we had great conversations that did not necessarily follow the standard formula.

The Red Shanks Anchorage itself is beautiful—with its crystal-clear cerulean water, rocky cliffs topped with a profusion of greenery and palm fronds, small islands and white-sand crescent beaches. We found a little cove into which we tucked for five nights (our longest stay anywhere since Boot Key Harbor), and where we could swim, kayak, and zip to Moss Cay beach, where the kids and I built an enormous sand castle, played in water that looks like a giant swimming pool, and sat around in the shade of the Australian Pines (Casuarinas) reading books. We were also able to get to town by a back route that made the anchorage convenient as well, and I stopped at the Exuma Markets, one of the best grocery stores I’ve seen since Publix.

In fact, the only drawback to Red Shanks was that Jay couldn’t access high-speed internet, so it isn’t a good place for him to work. We are moving the boat today to try to find a protected spot where he can work, but where we don’t necessarily have to be in the middle of a boat parking lot. In the end, I see that we are hard to please. We want seclusion, paradisiacal beauty, protection from unpleasant weather, pristine water, a nice grocery store, a place to meet friends and high speed internet. In short, we want it all. Instead, we will have to settle for a few of those things at a time. Although we are surrounded by folks living the retired lifestyle, we are still young, ambitious and hard-working, so lounging around and exploring every day doesn’t suit us long-term. Jay funds this expedition and I use the internet to educate the crew, so we must find a spot where we can work at least some of the time! And keeping in touch with friends and family is important, too. Since you are reading this right now, you can assume we have found a spot where we can get connected, and maybe even stay awhile.



We saw a lot of the same boats in the Abacos, many of them charters.  The Sea of Abaco is like a swimming pool.  People occasionally get in or get out, but otherwise they just swim around with no particular destination.  The Exumas are like a river and there are only two directions: north or south.  I guess it’s inevitable that packs would form.

At Warderick Wells there is a hill covered with driftwood monuments left by passing boats.  One piece that caught our eye had, along with the boat name, “2004 05 06 07 08 09 10”.  We were struck not only that this boat had returned six years in a row to the same place, but also that he routed his graffiti into a piece of hardi-plank.  Tanya and I have been to several places where we’ve said, “this is nice, let’s come back sometime,” but we never do.

When we got to Staniel Cay we were amazed and dismayed at the number of boats already there.  Our anchorage contained no less than six 100+ foot megayachts.  Apparently Staniel was the place to be for New Year’s.  We later learned that Johnny Depp was in attendance at a pirate-themed party at the yacht club.  Apparently he owns one of these islands, so many of which seem to be private.

That wasn’t quite what we were looking for, so we spent one night, did some shopping, snorkeled in the Thunderball Grotto and moved on.  The chart described Black Point as “an excellent example of a real out-island ‘non-touristy’ settlement”, which sounded promising.  There were six boats anchored at Black Point when we arrived, which was still a bit much.  Up until Warderick Wells we hadn’t shared an anchorage with a single boat, but six was at least better than fifty.

We had an excellent night’s sleep at Black Point, and then went ashore to find groceries and an Internet connection, all rarities in the northern Exumas.  So far when we have found Internet, it has been via satellite uplink, meaning a 44,000 mile round-trip.  The laws of physics prevent this type of connection from ever approaching what we are used to calling “high speed”.  It is also very pricey, and thus well-protected, and we hadn’t previously been able to avail ourselves of it.  We eventually found usable Internet and lunch at a café, which also had a bulletin board absolutely packed with cruisers’ boat cards, a few of which we recognized as friends.  In talking to the proprietress, we learned that she hosts a very popular Super Bowl party.  

It is now dawning on us that the boat card board was another pile of driftwood presaging an inundation of the boats we left behind at Staniel Cay.  When is the Super Bowl?  We don’t know, but we have already lost count of the boats that have arrived today from the direction of Staniel Cay, and there is another group on the horizon.

We now see that we are near a large fleet of boats that are on something of an itinerary.  We heard them on the radio jockeying to reserve moorings in the Land and Sea Park for Christmas.  We saw the whole armada at Staniel Cay for New Year’s Eve, complete with megayacht galleons.  Now we can only assume this place is next for the Super Bowl.

We are not completely anti-social, but we don’t cruise to be a part of any group.  We don’t subscribe to any herd mentality.  We prefer to celebrate holidays by ourselves and in our own way, and we don’t even know who is playing in the Super Bowl.  Finally, we don’t want to compete with these boats for scarce resources like food or sheltered anchorages.

We’re thinking it is better to lead them than follow.  We’re also starting to hatch a plan to return by a different route.  Originally, we assumed we would work down the Exumas to George Town, stay there until time to return, and them work back up the chain, across to Nassau, and then back to Florida.  Now we’ve had the idea to go down the Exumas, then east to Long Island, north to Cat Island, back to Eleuthera, through the Berry Islands, and then to Florida.  That will keep us moving, and give us a broader taste of the Bahamas.

Gimme Shelter


It seems that I was far too hasty in declaring my disdain for George Town.  I now find myself looking forward to it and planning to accelerate our pace in that direction.  The change of heart is due to the weather and the shape of these northern Exuma islands that provide so little shelter from it.  

Over the last five days we have experienced strong winds from every point of the compass.  So far we have moved every single day, and our destinations are not our own choosing but those which provide the best degree of protection.  In truth, we have not moved today and expect to spend a second night in our current location, but only because there is no other place within range that offers better shelter from the sustained 25-30 knots with prolonged gusts higher, even to 40, that we’ve had for the last 24 hours and are forecast to continue through the night.

Protection we do find is never perfect.  We learned this the hard way on our first night in the Exumas, where waves wrapped completely around the island we were sheltered behind to hit us on our beam.  It completely defied logic and made for a frustratingly miserable night.  As a catamaran, we do not roll, but instead suffer from a shorter and quicker motion, like a violent rocking, when hit sideways by these sneaky waves which would otherwise be unfelt if approaching honestly from the bow.

After that experience we select our anchorages even more carefully than usual, and so far have not shared one with a single other boat.  It seems that most cruisers gravitate to the anchorages marked on the charts, which I assume must be based on the prevailing winds, rather than considering the actual forecast.  From where we sit in moderate comfort I can see five masts rolling wildly in an anchorage the chart claims has “all-around protection”, while our location is not mentioned at all.  I have seen only two Exuma anchorages on the charts that meet my definition of “all-around” and they are over 50 miles apart.

The wind is actually the easy part to guard against.  We are receiving excellent forecasts from Chris Parker; by email when we have that and the radio when we don’t.  Wind protection is easy to see by looking at the chart and considering the forecasted direction and any overnight shift.  Protection from the waves is much harder since the forces that shape them are not always visible.  In a perfect world they would proceed straight from the direction of the wind, but it is rarely that simple.  When there is deep water around, one must consider swells that may approach from the direction of a completely different weather system hundreds of miles away.  Then there is the current, which can be considerable, and may prevent a boat from laying into the wind and thus cause it to take otherwise orderly waves on its beam.  But the last, and most insidious factor, is that the shape of an island and its surrounding reefs can very effectively bend waves around into its lee.  I can see a small island with explosions of spray erupting on all sides.

After a week of running from one poor shelter to another, I am tired.  Restful nights have been rare due to uncomfortable motion, concerns about the anchor, and watching for early signs that our position is becoming untenable.  I long for a protected harbor.  I could also wish for the weather to moderate a little.  Right now it is taking a lot of effort to remind myself that this is paradise and I would not find better conditions any place in our wake.

Abacos to Eleuthera


The passage from the Abacos to Eleuthera turned out to be a bigger ordeal than we expected.  It was short, but still rather trying.  It was only our second “big water” crossing, but unlike our trip across the Gulf Stream, this time we picked weather for sailing instead of motoring.

We were planning the trip around a cold front that came through on Sunday morning.  The first idea was to beam reach on the 20-25 knot west winds behind the front for the 50 miles south to Eleuthera.  The boat loves this point of sail, and we even found a St Francis 44 with the same plan that would have made a worthy competitor companion.  However, the Sunday idea was abandoned on Saturday afternoon as being just a tad ambitious.  The pre-frontal weather on Saturday was uglier than expected and I was having trouble contemplating a departure the next day without seeing something bearing a closer resemblance to the forecast.  Timing was also a problem since I didn’t know when the front would pass Sunday morning and I only wanted a day trip, requiring we leave nice and early.  Tanya unknowingly put a nail in it when she observed that we would probably have big beam seas.

This would be our first exposure to real Atlantic ocean waves.  The area we were to cross is 2 miles deep and has a very long fetch.  While potentially much larger, ocean waves tend to have a longer period between them, allowing the boat to rise and fall with them slowly.   It is really the steepness of a wave that causes the most danger and discomfort, especially when they get steep enough to break.  Nevertheless, I didn’t want our first taste of Atlantic waves to be on the beam.

By Monday, the winds (and seas) would have clocked North and give us a ride straight South.  If we did get big waves, we could possibly surf them.  Wind strength was forecasted at 15-20, which I felt was enough to make a dead downwind run acceptable.  Tanya is always suggesting that we sail wing-and-wing (main on one side, jib sheeted to the rail on the other side), but I have a strong distaste for this configuration.  Real boats fly spinnakers, but we’ve never tried ours in 20 knots and fear our crew isn’t up to it.

The front moved through Sunday morning and the scheduled west winds settled in by 10am.  Instead of putting miles under the keel, we went for a snorkel/kayak exploration in Old Robinson’s Bight and had a thoroughly good time.  The snorkelers found a lionfish, and the kayakers found a blue hole, both Take Two firsts.  On the way out we got a good look at the cut, which I perceived at that time to be the biggest hurdle of our trip.  The cuts are where the big ocean waves pile up and crash as the water shoals, and boats have to navigate through the narrow openings in the reef to transit to or from the ocean.  The Little Harbor cut was pretty ugly with the outgoing tide and west wind opposing the latent Atlantic swells, and I was perfectly content not to be trying to get out.  Instead, the rest of the day was spent cleaning the boat, resting, and getting mentally prepared to travel Monday.

Monday dawned clear with our expected wind from the North.  We dropped our mooring and hit the cut at the 7am slack tide.  It was perfect.  Two other boats had the same idea, a big Hunter and a little PDQ powercat. The powercat was gone almost immediately.  Once outside the cut, we turned upwind to put up the main and never saw him again.  The Hunter headed way offshore.  I assumed he was headed to the top or around the west side of Eleuthera.

Initially, the wind was 330 degrees and 13kts.  We went with a reef in the main because we expected that to build.  Our rhumb line was due south so we tried deep reaching with the jib, but with unsatisfactory results.  The wind did soon build to 15 with gusts to 20, but we were only getting about 6 knots of boat speed and it was looking to be a long day.  By 9am the wind had clocked around directly behind us.  I initially planned to tack downwind, but the deep reach was proving difficult because the seas were pushing us around and making it hard to hold a course.

The seas were… awkward.  I think overall it was “rougher” than I was expecting and not much unlike the 6-8 footers in the shallow Gulf of Mexico.  They were longer, but not really long enough to be comfortable.  They were about one boat length in fact.  As we were on the face of one, we’d be staring down at the back of the one ahead.  The troughs were barely long enough for us to fit in and the following wave could not always lift the sterns, sometimes causing the waves to crawl up one or two of our transom steps before the boat lifted free.

Occasionally the following waves would break under the boat and roll along the bottom of our bridgedeck, creating a very strange sound.  The first time this happened I thought a toolbox had fallen and the contents were clattering around on the floor below.  Actual slamming was minimal though, with only the occasional slap from converging waves bursting upward, and we never rang the bell.  

Particularly interesting were the waves that rushed under the boat and filled the aft-facing scallops over the cockpit drains, which then shot water 6 feet high in the cockpit.  Driving the boat was like being in one of those synchronized fountains.  Of course this was happening elsewhere than just the cockpit, which became clear when our propane alarm went off.  Those propane alarms, by the way, are also very effective at detecting saltwater.

Eventually I gave up and ran wing-and-wing.  It is really nice being able to do that without a pole.  The boat was actually pretty happy that way, and so were the occupants.  We were still getting slapped around by the sloppy seas and we backwinded the sails a few times.  We always sail with a preventer on the main, even when going upwind, since we find it better for controlling sail shape than using the traveler, and it saved us from a few accidental gybes.  Usually it was just a shift or a wave that the autopilot couldn’t counter fast enough, but our worst one came when the autopilot silently went into standby mode (meaning it stopped driving).  Unfortunately, this isn’t an isolated incident and I think it is some type of software flaw in the unit’s brain.  

We were about a knot faster with the wing-and-wing than deep reaching with the jib.  Wind speed averaged about 14-18 all day but varied from 10 knots up to 25 knots.  Boat speed averaged between 7 and 9 knots, roughly half of wind speed.  We only managed a few sustained surfs over 10 knots, maxing out at 13.6 knots.  To do more surfing, I think we needed either longer waves or more speed.

At times, I felt trapped with the wing-and-wing setup.  I had very little maneuverability within the angles that kept the sails from collapsing.  There were several ships about and there were a few tense moments when my bearing to a large tanker wasn’t changing.  Thankfully, he changed course and passed well off my stern.  I had the right-of-way, but generally find it better to stay as far away from ships as I can.  

The wind continued to clock east throughout the day and steered us west of our line.  Eventually, I had to gybe the main over and reach back east across the waves to my waypoint.  It was fast, and the boat handled it well, but the ride was not comfortable.  By this point, the wave tops were about level with the cabintop, so that would make them about 10 feet trough to crest.  It felt very unnatural to have the boat at that angle as the waves went under.  I’m glad we didn’t do that the whole way the day before.

The beam reach lasted for about an hour before we were in the lee of Egg Reef.  Then we were on the bank, through our cut, and anchor down in Royal Island in about 30 minutes.  The powercat was there, and probably had been for hours.  The Hunter came in right behind us.  He had gone way offshore to the east and then gybed back.  I think he did remarkably well all things considered.  In retrospect, I probably should have tried shallower angles like his before giving up on reaching.

We have little to compare this experience to, and therefore don’t know whether it is typical.  If so, we can’t imagine doing it day after day while crossing an ocean.  We tend to think that it isn’t.  Sometimes the weather, or the seafloor, or a current can make the waves worse.  With this cold front, the winds had gone from East to South to West to North and subsequently clocked back East again.  That probably contributed to a lot of the sea state confusion.  We may think twice before riding the tail of a cold front again.

Happy Birthday Tanya


The Exumas are living up to our expections for being remote.  To that end, we haven't had Internet access for 11 days.  We still don't have it on the boat and I'm typing this in a cafe.  Fear not!  We are still writing and taking pictures, but the posts may be a little bit delayed.  So bear with us.  Our location can still be viewed real-time on the Where Are We? page.  The situation should improve as we move further south.