Chubbs Cay, Berry Islands, Bahamas
Position: 25:24.563N 77:54.630W
Date: Saturday 20th December 2014
We enjoyed our short stay in Alice Town, but if we were to get back to the Eastern Caribbean we still had around a thousand miles of sailing to windward ahead of us so we would have to take advantage of every weather window that presented itself. And Saturday looked like a good day, so we could not afford to stay any longer.
But we were back to the different sailing strategies that characterise sailing in The Bahamas. To proceed further east we would need to cross the Grand Bahama Bank, a stretch of around 60 or 70 miles of shallow water (typically 6 to 15 feet deep) with the potential for coral heads lurking close to the surface to cause considerable damage should we be unfortunate enough to hit one. When the sun is high in the sky it is easy to see these heads and avoid them. Our intended destination was new to us so it would also be a good idea to arrive in daylight. Also leaving Bimini with its narrow, shallow entrance and strong tides should also best be undertaken in daylight. Leaving at slack tide would not be a bad idea.
But it would take us a good 11 hours of sailing to cover a distance of 70 miles, maybe more if we made slow progress and at this time of year there were less than 11 hours of daylight, so combining all of the above requirements would be an impossibility. It would help if we could have some confidence that our route was free of uncharted coral heads, but experience has shown us that charts are rarely 100% accurate. Anchoring half way across on The Banks would be an option, but the pilot books were not too encouraging with comments such as ‘hope you don’t get any night time visitors’!
We were in a bit of a quandary until we hit upon the idea of talking to the local mail boat skipper who plies these waters day in/day out, so we waited until the boat arrived and wandered down to the docks to look up the captain. Once we had explained ourselves to the crew we were escorted up to the bridge to talk to the captain. Sean was a real gent, and was keen to offer his advice. He gave us a list of waypoints, which comfortingly were close to the route that our charts suggested, and reassured us that we would encounter no coral heads.
So very early Saturday morning, well before daybreak we slipped our lines at Brown’s Marina and very slowly edged our way out. There was no moon and it was completely black. I could not see anything so I was forced to follow the line we had followed when we had entered a couple of days before and which had been recorded on my chart plotter. There was a current of about 2 or 3 knots pushing us out of the harbour and navigating in such circumstances was completely dis-orienting. I just had to blindly follow my instruments even though all of my instincts told me that I was off course. And any slight deviation was punished by the fierce current that wanted to sweep me straight into shallow water. The few unlit navigational markers in the channel were unseen until we were just about to hit them and they rushed past the boat as the current carried us on.
As we left Bimini heading south there was a shallow sandbank on our starboard side, but once we were clear of it we had to turn sharply to the west and sail south of it to enter deep water. My instruments told me that we had reached the point at which we should turn, but I was sure that I could still see a strip of white sand ahead that was dimly reflecting the small amount of starlight that was the only illumination that the heavens were providing that morning. I pressed on with my heart in my mouth. Half of me was scared we were about to run aground; the other half said “follow your instruments”. Strangely the ‘sand bank’ continued to keep the same distance from us as we continued westwards. Soon my depth gauge confirmed we were back in deep water, but the ‘sand bank’ was still there. Only then did it dawn on my that what I thought was a sand bank was actually a narrow strip of faint light originating from the east coast of Florida some 50 miles away across the horizon. I can safely say that that was one of the trickiest exits from a port that I have ever had to do and I made a mental not to never again leave harbour in the dark with no moon.
We headed northwards up the west coast of North Bimini, still in the dark making for the point where we could turn eastwards again and enter the Grand Bahama Bank. Just as the sky started to lighten before sunrise we turned right and entered shallow water again. The sun was still far too low in the sky to provide enough light to see any lurking coral heads, but based upon the information provided by three different charts and the reassurance of Sean the mail boat captain we motored onwards at a good speed, as we had a lot of ground to cover before sunset.
There was a gentle headwind all of the way across so we motored the entire day. Once the sun was fully up we could see the brilliant turquoise waters surrounding us on all sides, and were pleased to see no tell-tale dark patches that meant coral heads. At about 3 o’clock in the afternoon I saw something black directly ahead. I was just about to turn off the autohelm to steer around it when the object moved. We were soon right on top of it and I was a little startled to realise that it was a small whale. It was completely black, about 15 feet long, and quite sluggish. It only just avoided the boat and passed about 4 feet away from us on our port side. As we looked behind us we could see a long thin pointed fin protruding from the water. I’m no expert but it did look like the dorsal fin of killer whales I had seen in The Atlantic. But there were no white patches on its body, and what would a killer whale be doing in 12 feet of water in the middle of the Bahamas Bank? Later someone suggested that it could be a False Killer Whale that inhabits tropical waters.
Under normal circumstances I would have doubled back to take a closer look but we were very pressed for time. Any delay would mean that we would not reach our intended destination before nightfall. So we carried on leaving the whale to enjoy its solitude again.
We eventually reached Chub Cay about half an hour after sunset and just as the night was descending into inky blackness again. We found a good spot to anchor in shallow water over sand and settled in for the night.