SHALLOW WATERS, REEFS AND SPIRALLING COSTS
POSTION: N24:18.18 W76:32.4 CAMBRIDGE CAY, EXUMAS, BAHAMAS
Prices for the marina were a shock. $36 for the boat per day - not too bad - ah but then there's the compulsory minimum of another $20 for electricity and water.
'But I dont want electricity and water' I protested. Blank stare. Shaking of heads. Got to pay for it, even if you dont use it. Its says so here..
'But I haven't even got a lead that will fit your plug point' I continued, indignation rising..
So a not too unreasonable $36 became a very unreasonable $56 per day with no electricity anyway.
Turks and Caicos Islands are British. Says so in the Philips World Atlas. Providenciales - the westernmost island - was the second British island Pinball has visited and the welcome was similar - last time (in BVI) it was 'you can stay for 17 days then we'll sting for importation of your boat (negotiated out to 30 days). Here it was 'you can stay for 7 days and then we'll sting you for importation of your boat. $300. Yes, we would soon be leaving then. So next day we hired a car to at least have a look round one of the five main islands - Provo being the one the book says all the cruisers go to.
Its a tourist island. Totally. Main business besides stinging tourists is estate management, overpriced luxury houses overlooking idyllic beaches and that unique aqua coloured water that the Bahamas are so famous for (clearly visible from space) There are no centres, no meeting places, just strip developments for sale linked by the motor car. And the prices are tourist prices. Nothing is produced locally, its all imported, paid for by the good ole tourist - mainly American of course.
It didn't take long to 'do' the island, as in truth there's not much to see from the land side, and we scuttled back to PW. My driving was pretty awful my co-pilot informed me, but those tiny little roundabouts in the middle of the one and only four lane highway are impossible to see until its too late. Well ok I did lock all four wheels but I didn't hit him. And the other two roundabouts well they should signpost them, I'm not psychic. Can't help still being in boat mode..
There was a Fish Festival Week going on back in the Marina. This involved big guys wearing dayglo logo'd T-shirts standing around all day, but later next day the auction got going. We wandered into the marquee tent and soon got caught up in the excitement. Yes excitement! Well it was exciting for two reasons, the fish being auctioned were huge, and the prices being bid were even bigger, and the Auctioneer - a large shiny faced American with specs who looked like an accountant on holiday - was brilliant at pumping up the prices and managed to make even me feel like bidding a few hundred dollars for a fish just to join in. I didn't of course, but thats the skill of an auctioneer and he had it in spades. To illustrate, the last and biggest fish - we think it was a 5' Wahoo - was sold for $700.
There were no cruisers here in the marina either, but this is an expensive island with expensive marinas and not a whole lot for cruisers to do. Well, there was the one boat in the beautiful Sapodilla Bay - best bit by far with its beautiful beach and warm lapping waters, and relatively unspoilt too apart from the expensive beach houses brimming the bay. In our marina there were none either, just half a dozen boats all of whom had been there for months and virtually lived there. The trouble is, and the reason we were in a marina and not anchored out somewhere, is TCI is surrounded by a pretty shallow reef which goes out for miles and unless you're pretty familiar with where the really shallow bits are its a risk going anywhere! I chose Turtle Cove Marina even though it had a tortuous 2 mile route in over the reef, because the route was supposedly marked by buoys, and the marina will send a boat out to pilot you in if you ask. Good job they did! When we arrived it was blowing hard and quite impossible to 'read' the water with the chop on top. Having been led in once, I had our safe route automatically marked on the chartplotter to follow when we left, which we did at high tide four days after arriving, at 0800.
The afternoon before I went to the office and asked to clear out with Customs, Immigration, and the Marina. Come back in half an hour the guy said, which I did. Come back in half an hour, the guy said, which I did. Still not Customs.
'He'll come to your boat' the guy said. Which he did, 2 hours later, very friendly, $65 please. 'Another $65?' I queried. It was $65 to clear in too.
Next morning I was back in the office early to pay for the berth. After about 20 minutes of searching the desk for something, talking to his mate, and shuffling papers, I was presented with the bill.
'This can't be right' I protested.
'This is twice as much as I was told it would be!'
'You have to pay for water and electricity' he said, looking uncomfortable.
'Yes I know that, even though I haven't used any electricity. But this is still twice as much as I was told'. (in fact three times as much).
Big Boss man came over. I continued my complaint, then when I saw he was going to check it, left them to it to give him room to manoeuvre.
'Its a mistake' he said simply, handing me a bill for $227. It seems like the numbers 65 are the favourite numbers round here.
Thoroughly rattled, I paid up and was soon casting off lines on our bow. The shallowest water had been just in the entrance to the marina when we came in and I didn't' want to miss the high tide at 0800 especially as it would be lower than on arrival.
It was the usual Caribbean set up - one end tied on to the jetty, the other on a long line to a pole in the water behind us, and a small pontoon for access. The plan was simple, with the wind coming from the pontoon and pole side, let go for'd, reverse out and with a boat hook lift the looped stern-line off the pole as we passed.
It didn't work.
Ali leg go forw'd and climbed on, we started reversing but straight away PW's bow began to swing across to starboard, propelled by both the wind and PW's propensity to prop-walk the stern to port in reverse gear. From where I was in the cockpit, this meant PW's stern was now turning across in front of the post nicely so that we jammed up against it, nearly snapping the flagstaff and threatening to bend the windvane steering. Pushing off, I had the boathook on the loop of rope to lift if off the pole - some 12 feet tall - but would it come off? Not a bit of it. Demons hung on grimly to it on the other side of the post By the time they let go, the bow had swung right across so PW was now positioned diagonally across the berth and I looked an idiot. Which of course I was.
What I should have done is keep the bowline around a pole midships, led back to the boat, and only released once free at the stern.
This means I can never go back to Turtle Cove again.
Actually, I don't think I want to. TCI was a disappointment.
We learn from our mistakes.
THROUGH THE SOUTHERN BAHAMAS TO GEORGETOWN, EXUMA
It wasn't until we were safely through the reef passage and out in open water that I began to realise just how stressed TCI has made me. With costs of nearly $60 a day, plus living expenses, we could not afford to stay there. Ok we leave. But the weather forecast was not great - quite strong winds for the two days we would be travelling NW to the Exumas, ie not ideal. OK, anchor for a bit somewhere. Can't. We had to clear out with Customs, and hence leave TCI waters within a max of 24 hours. And there were no 'safe' anchorages that didn't require intensive eyeball navigation looking for keel -ripping coral heads to get there, nor did i have a decent chart of the area - not that it had been surveyed since Columbus anyway. All these pressures were not good, and were pushing us into actions that, given the choice, I would have delayed. It all added up to a great sense of relief that we were leaving these soulless, expensive islands.
The route was NW passing south of MAYAGUANA, turning more northerly to get round the top of ACKLING ISLAND and then back onto NW for the long broad reach up LONG ISLAND, and incidentally crossing the Tropic of Cancer in the process. The thing about Long Island is its really long. So most of this was a broad reach but with winds around 30kts from just north of east and 2-3m of swell on the beam, increasing to 3-4m by day two, it was a hard ride making it difficult for Ali to sleep - I rarely had to wake her for her watch. Mid morning the mainsail was dropped - it had been triple reefed - to balance the boat better, which worked just fine with hardly any reduction in speed, and with 1.5kts of Antilles Current helping us on our way, speed wasn't important anyway. But the problem was the quite steep swell on our beam which every now and then would push the nose round into wind about 40 degrees, completely overpowering the windvane steering which would then have to be reset. This overpowering is unusual, it is a rarity for the windvane steering not to be able to cope but cope it could not, so in the end it was autopilot ON and that did the job beautifully, all day , with sufficient sun on the solar panels to power it. There is something very gratifying about the sun being able to steer an 8 ton boat, not to mention charging up two computers, running a fridge, radio, chartplotter, and a load of instruments.
Come nightfall on the second night we finally rounded the north end of LONG ISLAND and in doing so escaped the Atlantic swell that caused all this luffing up, so could re-engage the windvane steering. Just as well, as the autopilot uses too much power if not provided by solar panels, and these wretched solar panels are rubbish at night, not sure why. I might take them back.
Of note I can claim to have received my first good proper goffering in the cockpit whilst running up LONG ISLAND, and narrowly missed another, far worse, soaking at night by being below at just the right moment, by pure chance. Heh I must be lucky right?
Daybreak found us hove to, a mile off the long sheltered sound protected by Elizabeth Island and Stocking Island, at the end of which the Cruiser’s haven of GEORGE TOWN can be found. 9nm long and a mile wide, this natural harbour hosts many hundreds of yachts each winter, mainly from the USA. But it is shallow. One learns two things - to take an interest in the tides, and to 'read' the water. I'm still learning the latter.
To negotiate these shallow waters and make our way up the sound to Georgetown to clear in with Bahamian Customs, we needed good sunlight, and overhead, hence being hove to at daybreak. Being 'hove to' means having the foresail on the ‘wrong’ side so the wind is on the outside, with the rudder locked hard up into wind and the mainsail central. Like this, a ship will slowly ‘forereach’ very slowly sideways, across and slightly down wind, leaving a wake of calm water upwind caused by the keel ploughing sideways through it.
Whats the point?
Like this the ship is quiet, doesn’t go very far, needs no helmsman and is quite comfortable even in a blow. For the singlehander, time for a kip. For us here, it saves the hassle of finding somewhere to anchor for a few hours.
Every winter hordes of US boats escape south to the warm waters of the Bahamas, and GEORGETOWN in particular, thanks to its 9 nm long natural harbour and numerous hidey holes from most wind directions. To get there they only have to brave the crossing of the Gulf Stream - which can be vicious and dangerous in any north wind - to make landfall in the Bimini Islands, and from there cross the vast swimming pool deep Great Bahama Bank which provides wonderful protection from Atlantic swell, cross the Tongue of the Ocean and be back on the Bank heading SE for Georgetown.
They call it 'The Thorny Path' due to the adverse winds and currents en route, being a trade wind area.
To go south from Georgetown for the Turks and Caicos, Virgin Islands or beyond to the Leeward and Windward Islands requires a greater sense of adventure as added to the trials of headwinds and currents can be added Atlantic swell. 3000 miles of it. Thats the bit that turns a tidy boat into a trash can. So most stop at Georgetown.
The locals there have reacted by providing what Cruisers need - fuel, water, gash disposal, provisioning, cafes, restaurants, and wifi. For example, water is free, on tap right by the dinghy dock. Not bad considering all water is 'RO' - reverse osmosis.
Inside the barrier islands of Elizabeth Island and Stocking Island the water is calm, aqua blue, and dead shallow. Too shallow in many places for Pinball's 6 foot draught, so I followed Dozier's Waterway Guide to the Bahamas advice on precise routing and entered across the gap in the reef at the western end and motored slowly up the sound the 7 miles to Georgetown, one eye on the depth gauge ranging from 4m to 2m. Most boats were anchored off the north side, opposite George Town, but Customs were in George Town. There were a few boats anchored over there so we had a go at getting across there but it was way too shallow for my liking so chickened out, turned around and drop the hook next to the other boats. This meant a dinghy ride of about a mile, and usually a good soaking on the way. If not, you got it on the way back. Heh, but its the tropics..
Your welcome from Bahamian Customs consists of the usual form filling, plus a bill for $300. Not funny, especially having just forked out $357 in TCI for just four days. They justify it of course by saying it 'covers everything', and includes a cruising permit valid for a year and fishing permit, but.... if you leave and come back more than 3 months later you have to pay again. Its just another revenue collection point for the State, but the closer we get to the USA, the bigger the charges are getting it seems.
The Bahamas are like a sunken continent, most of the landmass being underwater and are geographically speaking just a continuation of Florida, the Keys etc, were it not for the Florida Passage in between swept by the Gulf Stream. The underwater bits - which we are about to cross - are about 4m deep, 60nm across and extend down to Cuba and almost to the Turks and Caicos Islands. If the sea level dropped about 10m there'd just be three main islands, North Bahamas, a massive South Bahamas the size of Florida in a huge U shape around the Tongue of the Ocean, and Ackling Island. Florida itself would be substantially bigger too, extending right down to Key West. To avoid the Banks would mean a considerably longer trip right round the eastern islands and up the Northwest Providence Channel. Crossing the Banks is much more direct, but also gives flat water in the main, or at least takes away the Atlantic swell and provides many sheltered anchorages in the lee of islands and reefs in a blow.
But these same shallow waters are also incredibly beautiful. The colours have to be seen to be believed - pure aqua blue like swimming pools try to be - with a deepening of colour with increasing depth and changes of hue from green to blue. Learning to 'read' these colours with regard to likely depth is something that has to be done when navigating, and to do so one needs the sun high and not in the eyes. When the wind is up, the surface is disturbed and it is not possible to read the water, so getting around here - much of which is unsurveyed, and subject to shifting sands anyway - is not easy when you draw 6 feet. Especially when you haven't any decent charts, which I haven't. No one sells them in the Caribbean, as its assumed that you're an American who's sailed down from Florida and therefore have all the charts.
But, we bumped into a Canadian boat appropriately called HOPE (not literally) who out of pity adopted us and have been leading us around the difficult bits, giving access to their charts and acting generally as our personal tour guides. Thanks Kevin and Velma!
Met in George Town, Exumas, they talked us into following them up inside the Exumas to Black Point - a small settlement grown out of cruiser's needs - with an uncrowded anchorage about 9 feet deep. The water colour there is just spectacular, brilliant aqua, the biggest swimming pool in the world. Given a sweltering tour of the island to the windward coast then left to our own devices as Kevin went back to rejoin his wife in the laundrymat, we flip-flopped back passing the odd ex golf buggy used as island transport. Next we were talked into following them up the inside passage to Cambridge Cay - a national underwater park with mooring buoys, and very shallow entrance. We made it at high tide, with not much to spare. Snorkelling on the reef amongst fish who knew no fear of humanoids was amazing, mainly because the shoals were so close they were inside my focal range. Before that we were taken to dive on a light aircraft that didn't make it.
Saturday, 20 April 2013
And today we are supposed to be leaving first thing, but the winds are strong, the exit shallow, so I have delayed until the tide is right to take the longer but deeper passage back out into the ocean and then back inside the reefs again via Conch Cut. From here we will head up the inside passage to Shroud Cay anchorage - recommended by our tour guides - where we hope to meet up again before using this as our jumping off point northwest to Providence Island, Chubb Cay, the Biminis, and finally West Palm Beach. All recommended routeing from HOPE, of course.
The sun is shining..
Watch this space!
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