Monday, March 16, 2009

We're Here!

Chris here... We made it to the Bahamas!!!! Yippeee!!!! Three months to get here, but we did it, and it feels like quite an accomplishment.

On Friday we met a couple of people who had boats at the marina we were staying at. The two of them spent a bunch of time with us going over the Bahama charts and telling us about the different places to visit. We've been taking every opportunity possible to chat with as many people as possible to find at as much as we can about where to visit.

On Saturday we hooked up with a wonderful person, Melissa, that I had met on a sailing message board. Melissa lent me her car (a Miata - I must have looked funny getting into and out of that thing!) while Kristen worked with her to try to replace a spinnaker halyard on her boat. I'll let Kristen tell you more about that, but she had the opportunity to use our new Topclimber contraption to climb to the top of Melissa's mast.

While Kristen was scaling steep cliffs, I headed over to West Marine and the grocery store to get some final items before we left the US. With the import duties into the Bahamas, prices on goods are often much, much higher. As I went from aisle to aisle at West, I remembered that we were missing items like replacement bulbs for our navigation lights, a stern light for our dinghy, a spare circuit breaker for our power system and other stuff. Yeah, that bill wasn't cheap. I then headed over to the Winn-Dixie on Key Biscayne. Kristen gave me a list of stuff to buy which included a lot of fresh vegetables and various other items that would be difficult to find in the Bahamas. By now it was almost 1pm and we still had to leave the marina in Key Biscayne and head to No Name.

I brought the two seater Miata back to Melissa's marina (Thank you soooo much!!!) and picked up Kristen. I figured I'd pick her up first so that she could unpack the bags while I returned the car to Melissa. Being a two seater, it takes two trips. It sure was nice to drive a stick shift though - I've missed my little sports car (don't feel too sorry for me). Anyway, I dropped Kristen off at our marina with our stuff, drove back to Melissa's marina again and then she drove me back to our marina. Lotsa lotsa driving :). Kristen had gotten Pelican pretty close to ready by the time I arrived, so a few minutes later we were able to untie our dock lines and head out.

We wanted to move to No Name Harbor so that we could shave an hour or more off of our trip. No Name Harbor is closer to the ocean, and since the trip to Bimini is a long day already, it's nice to shorten it as much as possible. Our motor to No Name was uneventful - no groundings or crashes. We passed an area called the sandbar where hundreds of power boats were anchored (one raft must have had over 30 boats), intertwined with roving police boats and fireboats. There were more women in bikinis there than I've ever seen in my life! Alas, when I slowed down and feigned engine trouble, Kristen saw right through me, so back on the throttle I went and we continued our short hop (6-7 miles or so) to No Name.

Our arrival at No Name was heralded by flashing lights and lots of fanfare. Actually, it wasn't for us - it appeared as if the wall at No Name had been set up as a staging area for processing offenders at the Sandbar. There was a huge mobile police command center on land, along with 2-3 parked ambulances, about 10 cop cars, and boats rafted 5 deep being searched by officers.

Unfortunately, what was also at No Name was a very full anchorage with a mix of sailboats waiting to cross to the Bahamas, other cruisers, power boats - large and small, and lots and lots of noise. We picked a spot between a 50 foot catamaran and an older Islander sailboat and dropped the hook. We let the anchor chain pay out, set the anchor (for those of you not familiar with anchoring - you put your anchor line out to a calculated length, let it sit for 5 minutes to "settle", and then go hard in reverse for 30 seconds - this both digs in the anchor and lets you test its holding) and then realized that we were only 10 feet from the bow of the boat in back of us. There really weren't any other places that were better to anchor, so we sat around waiting for a few of the smaller powerboats to leave.

An hour or so later, a few did, so we circled around and dropped the hook closer to the harbor entrance. When we set the anchor, we found that we were basically just dragging it backwards - it wouldn't set. We later found out that the bottom is mostly rock with a thin layer of sand, so it's best to set a fortress anchor off of the front of whatever other anchor you set in order to catch a crevice. Anyway, four resets later (maybe the last one was just so I could try to convince Kristen to get an electric windlass) we were anchored back in our original spot, this time much closer to the catamaran than the Islander. I also didn't set the anchor, I just dropped it and then paid out the rode. On top of that, because of how tight the quarters are, we didn't put out the recommended amount of anchor rode - for those in the know, we were at three to one - maximum. It gets better though...

Melissa decided to join us in No Name. She doesn't have a dinghy, and we didn't feel like launching ours since we'd just have to spend a lot of time putting it away again a few hours later, so she rafted up to us. Rafting is when someone ties their boat to yours with bumpers between you. She didn't set an anchor - she rode off of ours. So here we were, a catamaran 15 feet off of our bow, another sailboat 25 feet off our stern, poor holding, unset anchor, short rode AND another sailboat, 36ft in length, tied up to us! Kids, don't try this at home. I figured we were leaving the next day though. We had a nice dinner, hung out for a few hours and socialized (great excuse NOT to prep for passage), and then hurried to get the boat ready for the next day.

I tried to sleep that night - I really did - but all I could think about was how close we were to the Catamaran and I continued to wonder if the anchor would hold. I think it was around my 200th time of looking out the hatch to see our position - some time around 3:30am - that Kristen finally said "I'll stay up and see if we move while you get some sleep - you really need to sleep if we're leaving for the Bahamas tomorrow!" I took her up on the offer, and fell asleep about 30 seconds later.

Kristen here now - Yea, I figured one of us had better be awake while sailing the next day! I stayed up from 3:30 AM until 5:30. The boat didn't move an inch during that whole time, so I caught a few winks from 5:30 till 6:30. I used those two waking hours to finish up my half year report to the home schooling liaison. I was worrying that the kids weren't learning enough, but after writing that report, a feat that took no less than 10 hours of typing, I've been reassured that they are getting a sound education. Having that task completed has been a huge weight off my shoulders.

At 6:30, everyone was up and prepping to leave. Melissa was already awake and ready to peel off as well. She is an airline pilot and is used to odd hours. Oh, I had an awsome time climbing her mast the previous day. The Topclimber worked great, and I highly recommend it to anyone. This is coming from someone who is scared of heights! I got to the top of her mast in 15 knots of wind and felt perfectly comfortable up there. It was slow going to get up there, but once you get used to the Topclimber, it's very easy to use.

Once Melissa was off, we pulled up the anchor and followed her out to the ocean. The wind was a bit stronger than predicted (as usual), and the waves were pretty heavy. I was patting myself on the back for putting on a scopalomine patch the night before. There wasn't time for breakfast, so I just grabbed an energy bar to give me a little boost. That was a big mistake. Those energy must have been sitting around for too long, because I became quite green soon after. I thought, "That's funny, why am I getting seasick? The scopalomine has always worked before." After *loosing* the energy bar, I felt much better, but still not 100%.

The wind was ever, ever so slightly off our nose as we pointed our way across. We had full sails up, and were fighting to keep our course. While focusing on the horizon (to keep from getting more seasick) I kept a lookout for more flying fish. Chris and Kaitlin still haven't seen them, and continue to tell me that they think they are just a myth. I saw a few, but they are so fast that by the time Chris looked, they were gone. While Kaitlin was watching with me, we saw what looked like a leaf stick out of the water. We watched it and realized that it was a sea turtle! I yelled for Casey (sea turtles are his favorite), and he launched himself to our side of the cockpit. He was quick enough, and caught a glimpse of it as well. We could see its flippers and it's whole shell. That was an extra special sighting!

Other than that, we didn't see any other wildlife in the Gulf Stream. After lunch I was feeling a bit better, so we decided to put out the hand line. We tried about 4 different lures without success. It was then time to play the look for land game. Whoever sees land first gets to be the first pilot when the dinghy gets launched. The winner was Chris. He confirmed his win with the binoculars. Once he pointed out land, it was obvious, but until he did, everything looked like a light blue blur above a dark blue ocean. When we looked where he was pointing, we could make out a bunch of tall buildings. The ocean sure does play some tricks with your eyes. When we finally got close we realized that these weren't tall buildings, just 2 story hotels.

Now everyone is really excited. We're officially in Bahamian waters. We watched the depth meter as it begins to once again show depth. On the way over, the depth meter stopped reading at 504 feet. That must be the limit of how deep it can read. Which reminds me, we had something weird happen with the depth meter as we approached. When we were still in 2,000 feet of water our depth meter all of a sudden went to 25-30 feet for 5 minutes or so. We speculated that a whale, or a large school of fish was passing under us. But usually they don't stick with the boat for that long. The meter then went back to a deep reading for about a minute before returning to 25-30 for the next 15 minutes. Now we knew something weird was going on. Chris said that it could have been a submarine doing some test runs. Whatever it was, it sure freaked us out!

We approached the island of South Bimini. What a wonderful sight. This was it. The moment we had been waiting for. The kids were jumping for joy and we were all in a state of disbelief. It was now that I almost admitted that I never thought we would make it here. I had this premonition that something bad was going to happen, and prevent us from making it to the Bahamas. No, I thought, we weren't on land yet. I had better wait.

As we approached South Bimini I got on the binoculars and scouted the island for the entrance to the marina. Chris said we were heading right for it, but I couldn't see a thing until a motorboat disappeared into a small break in the rock wall. There it was! Now, how do *we* get in? I went up to the bow and watched the water color. No handy channel buoys here folks! No time like the present to test out my non-existent water reading skills. We headed straight in and everything was going fine until our nose was half way past the rocks which were 20 feet off of each side of us. Casey was calling the depth out as we approached. It's hard to read the depth meter with polarized sunglasses, so we have one of the kids call out the depth as we go through questionable areas. So Casey called out 9 feet, 8.5, 8, 7.5. Now it used to be that we would get nervous when we hit 15 feet of water. We're coming from Lake Champlain where the depth hardly ever goes under 100 feet! Our boat draws about 5 feet 10 inches. We round that up to 6 feet. Casey called out 7 feet, 6.5. Now our hearts were pumping. Our nose is just about to enter the area with rocks on both sides. The water looks the same color as it had been. I thought we just might make it. I can see dark blue water about 20 feet in front of us. If we get grounded here we are in big trouble because we could get swept into the rocks. Where was that boat hook when you needed it? Now our nose was in. Casey called out 6 feet. The blue deep water is 10 feet in front of us. Oh please let it be OK. Two inches of water lies between our keel and ground. *Bump* Ut Oh! So close and yet so far. Now there is a split second decision. Deep water no more than 10 feet ahead. Do we push forward or back? We chose back. Chris reversed us, and we didn't move. The boat is drifting to port and closer to rocks. I'm on the bow watching to see if we move. Then slowly, with the lift from each passing wave we start to reverse. The wave hits, lifts us up a bit and we bump along the ground while moving backward. Phew! That was a close one.

By now it's about 4:30, and high tide doesn't come until midnight. We decided to head south to Gun Cay where we knew of an anchorage. Morale was low because everyone was looking forward to a shower and a good nights sleep. The kids and I went swimming the day before and didn't get a chance to rinse in fresh water. We were hot and salty and cranky.

A two hour motor later we were once again navigating our way through 9 feet of water to get to the anchorage. It was an area to the East of Gun Cay. There wasn't any protection, but the winds were predicted to be light so we dropped the hook. Casey and I could see the anchor as it hit the bottom. The clarity of this water is just amazing! As Chris reversed we watched the anchor bump along the bottom. Then we let out about 50 feet of chain. The anchor dug in and we settled in for the night.

I made dinner, and we all ate like tomorrow would never come. We were famished! As soon as dinner was done, we went to bed. At some point in time I remember waking up from the boat rocking. Chris explained that he was worried we would hit bottom at low tide with all of this wind and waves. We were getting quite tossed around in our berth at the bow of the boat. I could hear the wind howling all around us, but I was still too tired let it keep me awake. Chris couldn't sleep and went to the cockpit in the rear of the boat where it was a bit less rocky.

This morning we were up early to listen to Chris Parker's forecast. We also had to be on our way to the marina by 10AM to catch high tide at 12:30. Morale was still a bit low because of the rough night. When we checked the wind speed it reported a max of 39.5 knots the night before. Wow! I guess it really had been blowing! We launched the dinghy while we were still at anchor. The plan was to head for outside of the marina, put the motor on the dinghy, and then dinghy into the marina with the handheld depth sounder. Then lead pelican into the marina. We pulled up the anchor and got underway.

The winds were favorable, so we sailed over to the marina. Things were much better now because it was high tide, and we could follow our path from yesterday and be assured of the depths. This depth thing is going to take some getting used to! We got to 1/2 mile off of the entrance at about 12:30. This was the exact reported high tide. Now came the fun of putting the motor on the dinghy in not so calm seas. As the dinghy and boat rocked up and down 2 feet or so, the motor was hoisted over the side of the boat. It's on, it's off, too high, a bit lower, oh no, now its smashing into the dinghy. Phew it's on, quick tighten the clamp, no it's off again. There, now tighten the clamp, let the hoist line go slack! Who needs a workout when adrenaline can do it for you?!

So, Casey and I were off to depth sound into the marina. We approached the frightful spot from the day before and never saw the meter go below 7 feet. Super! Plenty of depth now. We have a whole extra foot to play with. We motored back to Pelican and she followed us in. It was quite an accomplishment. After getting in and tied up, I finally admitted my fears to the rest of the family. "I can't believe we're here", I said. "I truly thought we would never make it".

The gentleman at the marina who helped us dock asked how many people were aboard and brought us the proper paperwork for entering the country. We all had a chuckle at the questions on the paperwork. Have any members of your crew died on the passage here? Have any rats been sick or died on the way here? I wasn't positive if we had rats aboard, and if we did I'm not quite sure how to ask them how they felt during the passage. There was a shuttle service to the airport where customs was located. Chris checked us in while the rest of us remained quarantined to the boat. Darn, stuck with the food and air conditioning. Bummer.

We made lunch and played Wheel of Fortune while waiting for Chris to come back. It wasn't long before we heard the boat rock and saw feet pass by the window. Chris poked his head in and asked for the Bahamas flag! YAY! It's official.

Now we could leave the boat and explore. Casey started to secure the dinghy while I cleaned up the boat. "Um mom....I just dropped the dinghy lock into the water". "Are you serious?" I answered. "Yes, completely". No problem I thought. No time like to present to test out the diving gear. I donned my mask and flippers and sat at the edge of the dock. Have I ever mentioned that I am quite afraid of sea creatures? I know that most people jump into the ocean and swim. But there are creatures down there that can *eat* me! Whenever I talk to cruisers who snorkel, the first question out of my mouth is, "How do you know it's safe?". The last response I got was that sharks only feed at dawn and dusk, so as long as you don't swim then, you'll be fine. It's also easier to see in the water when the sun is high, so snorkel around noon time. As I was sitting at the edge of the dock, about to dive 15 feet into murky water at 2:00 PM, I figured it was close enough to noon for my comfort. *Splash* In I go. To my surprise, my heart didn't even start pumping fast. I was perfectly calm. Then I looked down and saw a school of 5 or 6 large fish swim right under me. Up goes the heart rate a bit. Still nothing bigger than me, so I'm ok. I ask Casey where he dropped the lock and when I look to that spot from the surface I can see the silver flash in the sunlight. I'm intent not to make the kids nervous about snorkeling, so with them watching I plug my nose, pop my ears and go for the lock. Down, down, down. Interesting, I thought, my ears don't even hurt. I thought they would at 15 feet. I grab the lock and shoot up to the surface. After my success and hearing about the fish, the kids immediatly donned their snorkle gear and jumped in. We all had a great time cooling off and watching the tropical fish swimming around and under the dock.

When we got out, we had a whole new layer of salt encrusted on our bodies. Casey looked at me and said, "Mom, your skin is really peeling now!" I looked at my sunburnt shoulders and said, "That's not skin, that's salt!". We decided to check out the pool and showers. To our suprise, it was a fresh water pool. What a dream! I think by the time we were done swimming, and rinsing off, it was a salt water pool.

The showers were just fantastic. The little trickle of water that dropped from them felt like heaven. I only used about a penny size dollap of shampoo because I didn't think those drips would be enough to rinse my hair! But they were enough and we appreciated every man made drop. You see the difference between an island and a cay is that an island has a fresh water source and a cay doesn't. I'm not sure if South Bimini has fresh water, but we tried to conserve just in case.

We went back to the boat to grab Chris and check out the ice cream at the marina store. By then it was 5:30 and Chris suggested we hit the restaurant for dinner. I had no bread to go with the hamburger I had thawed, and the prospect of making buns was not really appealing. Dinner out sounds great Hon! I was a bit worried about the cost though. Everything we read said that everything was much more expensive here. I was estimating that an ice cream would be 3-5$ each. Who knows what a whole dinner would be. We looked at the menu and were pleasantly suprised. Prices were a bit elevated, but not exorbitant. We had fried conch, conchh fritters, conch burger, jerk chicken, chicken fingers, and spring rolls with 4 sodas for $75 including tip. The portions were quite huge too. We then hit the marina store for ice cream. Again we were suprised to find reasonable pricing. I think the ice cream was around $1.50 each. The cold beer was $4 a bottle though. And a new hat for Chris was $28. We skipped the beer and hat. Oh and Poppi, I hate to tell you, we bought a new plastic reel for the hand line. We will once again return our current reel back to the dumpster. They had an assortment of plastic reels for only $4 at the marina store, and we just couldn't pass it up!

On the way back to the boat we were attacked by no-see-ems. These were truely invisible bugs with very sharp teeth. We all hurried below deck and shut every hatch to prevent their entry. After a few minutes, I decided to take a walk along the dock and look for fish. Kaitlin came with me. We saw bunches of fish swimming around the rocks. She even saw the big ones that I had seen under me earlier. We walked along a bit and Kaitlin kept saying Whoa!, or Look at that one! Then she said, "Mom, come quick, this one is HUGE!" I ran over to her, looked over the edge of the dock and saw a nurse shark swim by. We followed along the dock and I yelled to Casey. He didn't hear me, so I went and knocked on the boat. I told him about the shark, but by the time we went back it was gone. How exciting, a shark swimming along. And only 20 feet from where we had been swimming about 4 hours earlier. Hmmm....this is going to take some getting used to.

We will probably be here a couple of days while we check out this island and North Bimini as well. We're here. I just can't believe we're here.


Anonymous said...

Hey Chris..
Congrats on your safe passage to PARADISE!!
Have a great time in the Exumas.
Hey...maybe you can make it to Staniel Cay's Thunderball Cave in time for the annual James Bond party!

"Staniel Cay is hosting their 2nd Annual Bond Party "Casino Royale" on Saturday - March 28th 2009.
Blackjack and Poker Tournaments
Real Tables & Dealers
Dress in your favourite Bond or Casino Royale attire!"

Anonymous said...

We watched you guys cross. Saw you pull back from Bimini Sands entrance and knew something was up. Really enjoy your blogs. My family has crossed several times and the water changes and excitement never changes! Hope your back is better (Iam a Chiropractor). Good luck and GOD BLESS! JC3

JC3 said...

We watched your Gulf Stream crossing. We have crossed several times and the water color and excitement never gets old. Knew something was wrong when we saw you back out of Bimini Sands sunday. If you are going to Chub, Nassua, Allens etc... We have traveled that route many times so if you have any questions just hollar as we say in KY. Hope your back got better. Iam a Chiropractor and Frm State Representative so dont hesitate to yell. We hope to cross over again mid July. Good luck and GOD BLESS! JC3

Anonymous said...

Hey guys! Gald to see you had a great crossing! It was so hard not to follow you across. Have a few conch fritters and lobsters for me. BTW I have your top climber one page manual. Let me know where to send it.