Round-trip ticket: Bahamas

Wintertime, and the livin’ is easy: Kicking back in Manjack Harbor, in the Abacos, a group of islands and cays in the northern Bahamas. Photo courtesy Albert Presgraves

Midwinter 2021

By Albert Presgraves
For Points East

My wife, Jenny Yasi, and I set sail from Peaks Island, in Casco Bay, Maine, on Sept. 6, 2016, with our two dogs, Bee and Tigerlily. The remnants of Hurricane Hermine passed offshore, causing big swells from the east. We were bound for the Bahamas, without a fixed itinerary, destination or schedule. But winter was coming, and we wanted to enjoy ourselves along the way.

We’d spent the previous year getting ready for this journey. Our boat, Magus, is an old but seaworthy 37-foot motorsailer; she steers from the pilothouse, which is a luxury. Basically, she’s a cruising trawler with sails. We had an autopilot, and plenty of spares, tools, and supplies: paper and electronic charts all the way to the Caribbean, a new EPIRB, an AIS (automatic identification system), safety equipment, medical supplies, and most of the food, beer and wine we needed for six months away.

We spent a few nights at Block Island, rented bicycles, and enjoyed the sights. From there, we could continue west into Long Island Sound, or go offshore as far as we wanted. For us, that meant no farther than Cape May, N.J., still saving many days and miles of traveling. The forecast cooperated for taking the offshore route.

We left before dawn in a thick fog that slowly cleared up. We were able to sail without the engine at times, arriving at 2 p.m. the next day – 34.5 hours, 211 miles, average speed of 6.16 knots – which is excellent for Magus. We anchored off the Coast Guard station, not going ashore.

We left early the next morning to catch the tide up Delaware Bay, and spent the night at a restaurant dock in Chesapeake City on the C&D Canal. The dogs really needed a walk. When we don’t go ashore, the dogs can use the deck for relief, which is important when sailing any distance.

We entered Chesapeake Bay, arriving in Annapolis just before the United State Sailboat Show, and the harbor was already crowded. No moorings were available, but we found a place to anchor well up in Spa Creek. There was concern that the show might be canceled because of Hurricane Matthew, but the storm veered offshore near Cape Hatteras. Still, the winds in Annapolis during the show were strong and blustery.

We volunteered at the Seven Seas Cruising Association (SSCA) booth, and our stay at the show was a social whirlwind, meeting other cruisers, fellow Mainers, and old friends. After visiting St. Michaels, Tilghman Island, Solomons, Reedville and Deltaville, we stopped at the free Portsmouth public dock, at Mile 0 of the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW), right in the heart of the city.

We departed early the next morning to make it through the 9:30 opening of the Great Bridge Lock and the 10 a.m. bridge opening. The first 200 miles of the ICW are beautiful, winding through interesting rivers and creeks, and traversing Currituck Sound, Albemarle Sound, the Alligator River, Pamlico Sound and the Neuse River to Beaufort, N.C. This year, we needed to be extra careful of floating trees and snags from the recent hurricane and upstream flooding. Two of our favorite stops were Belhaven and Oriental, with its free municipal dock, numerous marinas, a marine-supply store, coffee shop and restaurants.

From Beaufort, the ICW is mostly in dredged channels and canals, so we sailed overnight, offshore, to Wrightsville Beach. Our next stop was in Southport, at the mouth of the Cape Fear River, where we stayed on the dock at The Provision Company (a restaurant called Provisions by locals). We jumped offshore again to Charleston, S.C., and enjoyed the scenic marshes and waterways of the ICW to Beaufort, S.C.

From Beaufort, we went offshore to Jacksonville, Fla., and took the ICW to St. Augustine, where there’s a great liveaboard community at the Municipal Marina. Here, we enjoyed their big Thanksgiving potluck. About 15 miles south of St. Augustine, we stayed at Marineland, and saw the dolphin-training shows and took the tour.

About a week later, we were in Palm Beach near Lake Worth Inlet. We filled up our fuel and water tanks in preparation for an overnight sail to West End, Bahamas. West End had been hit hard by Hurricane Matthew, and the facility was still officially closed, but open for checking in to Customs.

We weighed anchor at 6:30 p.m., bound for the inlet, which we made just at dark. The wind, which had been blowing 25 knots out of the south for a couple of days, had eased to about 15, but the seas were still big. Just outside the inlet, as we were trying to settle in for the rough conditions, a vessel came up to us fast and close. It was a Coast Guard patrol boat. It hailed us on Channel 16, and we soon realized our main VHF radio was not transmitting. We responded on the other VHF, answered all their questions, and continued on our way.

It’s 55 miles east to West End, but the Gulf Stream flows at about 2.5 knots due north, so we needed to travel 30 degrees or more off the direct course, and about 72 miles farther. We sailed at five to six knots for the first part of the night, and, around midnight, the wind became light out of the west and we motorsailed.

We typically carry some sails when motoring to help stabilize the rolling of the boat, so the mainsail was taking a beating in the swells. Early in the morning, the boom came loose from the mast and was stressing the mainsail tack and the lower sail-track slides. I went on deck to the mast, hoping a bolt was loose, or something reasonable, but the gooseneck was stress-cracked, and the 5/8-inch pin had completely sheared off.

I tied a line securely from a remaining piece of the fitting to the mast so the mainsail could hold some tension. After we cleared in, I jury rigged a replacement. A week later, in Green Turtle Cay, a welder repaired the old hardware, which has been fine ever since.

The clearing process was straightforward, and there was no concern about the permits and the dog’s health documentation we’d dutifully obtained. The docks were still damaged from the hurricane, and there was no electricity, with a portable generator running during the day at the Customs office.

Before entering the breakwater channel we saw a sailboat lying low in the water, beyond the rocks south of Indian Cay, with her mainsail luffing and not moving. Later that day, I met her skipper, who said he’d run his 32-foot catamaran onto the rocks the previous morning, trying to find the West End Channel in the dark. She sank and was awash, and it was only a matter time before she broke up completely. His wife had recently moved aboard, and all their worldly possessions were aboard. Locals were helping them with some logistics and a place to stay. He had been living on sailboats for most of his adult life, and they’d raised their now-adult children on a different boat.

From West End, we needed to go north a few miles to find water deep enough to turn east onto the Little Bahama Bank. Once on the bank, the water is crystal clear, generally no more than 20 feet deep, and warm. We were really in the Bahamas!

It took us a few days to reach Green Turtle Cay (GTC), about 120 miles from East End. By the time we reached GTC, we’d met people at anchorages who we’d continue to encounter during our stay, and the list continued to grow.

We attended a wonderful Christmas potluck afternoon event at an expatriate’s off-grid house on an outlying island. Jenny sang and played guitar at jams on the beach and at various social clubs. I helped Jenny with her dog-and-guitar presentations at schools on all the settled islands, and some on the mainland of Abaco. Almost every day, we swam and snorkeled. We spent most of our time at GTC because we loved the community, and we’d volunteered at the school.

The Abacos comprise the closest Bahamas cruising area to the U.S., so I thought they’d be crowded and touristy, but I soon realized that the Abacos are special and remote. They are the classic Bahamas, with a 100-mile-long barrier reef to the north and east of the cays on the ocean side of the Sea of Abaco. The snorkeling and abundance of sea life in the warm, clear water is astounding. I understand that, in some years, frequent cold fronts and less-than-perfect weather are the norm, but that was not the case in 2016.

The people in the Abacos were laid-back and friendly. At the restaurants and marinas, no one seemed to care about getting paid until you made them give you an accounting. Food, and everything else, was fairly expensive, but good marina deals could be found. There were also plenty of fancy places that wanted more than $2 per foot per night, too, but we didn’t go to those places in the U.S., either. We paid $75 per week for a mooring in a protected harbor on Green Turtle Cay, and we anchored out a lot, too.

The Out Islands in the Abacos were charming – including Man-O-War Cay, Hopetown, and Little Harbor, at the southern end of the Sea of Abaco – for walking or riding golf carts past neat, landscaped yards. Restaurants had outside decks, some with roofs and windscreens. The regular restaurants were surprisingly inexpensive, considering the cost of food at the stores; the fancy places had fancy prices.

We had our favorite spots to buy conch fritters, and we ate plenty of grouper with rice and peas and coleslaw. Souse is a delicious chicken-soup breakfast that we had to purchase early before it was gone. Other than basic stuff, supplies were hard to get, even in Marsh Harbor. So, as close the Abacos are to the U.S., it felt like a world away.

Too soon it was late March, so we said goodbye to our friends on GTC and started island-hopping to the west. We made it to Grand Cay, at the northwest edge of the Abacos, staying at the only marina, Rosie’s Place, and watched the conch divers bring in their catch, to be shipped out from this remote settlement. We were often checking the forecasts for a weather window to cross to the states, hoping for one that would let us make it all the way to Beaufort, N.C., about 550 miles, taking three and a half or four days.

We left on Sunday, April 16, 2017, and went faster than we’d planned. We reached the coast of North Carolina in three days, and ran into a cold front, with confused seas and rolly conditions, so we diverted to Southport, N.C. The total distance/time was about 536 miles in 73.5 hours, average speed of 7.3 knots. Our boat speed was only five to six knots, but the Gulf Stream pushed us at times to a speed of nine knots. The last 12 hours were miserable, and the dogs were not happy, either.

We arrived before noon on Wednesday, April 19, at Southport Marina. This allowed the U.S. Customs to visit that afternoon (instead of us figuring out how to get to Wilmington, about an hour away by car). The next day, we motored over to the little basin at the town, tying up to the dock at Provisions. We essentially followed our fall route back north, jumping offshore between Wrightsville Beach and Beaufort Inlet, this time staying at a marina in Morehead City, N.C.

We made plans to stop at Zimmerman Marine in Mathews, Va., for some transmission work. We arrived on April 30, staying a few days on the dock as we learned that more work was needed than we’d anticipated. We left the boat for a week or so and visited family and friends, and when we returned to Zimmerman’s, we knew Magus wouldn’t be ready to sail north for a few more weeks. We decided to pack up and drive back to Maine, planning to come back in August or September and sail Magus the rest of the way home. Or maybe we’d just go back in November and sail again to the Bahamas.

On the way north, we visited more family before we endured a miserable day of driving through New York City and Connecticut. When we arrived at our house in Freeport on Thursday, May 25, the trees had still not completely leafed out.

Albert and Jenny continue to have fun, living and gardening in Freeport, Maine, on Bliss Woods Farm, where Jenny trains dogs at her Whole Dog Camp. See more about their adventures and plans at www.alpeaks.blogspot.com.