NOTE: This post was written January 4th. Our connectivity prevented me from uploading the photos at this time. Sorry about that. I posted the photos here on January 19th.
We’re using the Explorer Chartbook series for as main resource and charts for the Bahamas. They're the best available and very good, but this navigator has had a few problems. The most serious was the entrance to Devil’s Cay harbor.
We’d already bumped bottom three times, twice in Bimini in sand and once heading west to the Berry Islands. The first time was my fault , the second due to shifting sand in a channel. The third grounding was practically planned when we crossed Mackie Shoal on a rising tide in the deepest water possible at that location. On paper, La Luna draws 6 feet 2 inches, but we’ve now decided that a fully loaded La Luna draws 6 feet 5 inches and figure that into all plans. (This photo is at the “planned” grounding, where the monitor shows .1 foot below the keel. The depth sounder thinks we draw 6 feet 2 inches. The depth sounder didn’t load or provision the boat.)
We didn’t like Bimini, though we met some nice folks there. If I were to make this crossing from Florida to the Bahamas again and had a larger weather window I would definitely not stop at Bimini. The name conjures up sandy beaches and lovely turquoise waters and (for some reason) pink colored buildings. They have the sandy beaches and the turquoise waters, but must of the buildings are run down, cobbled together, or in total disrepair. I think Hurricane Andrew hit them hard and the island as a whole hasn’t recovered. (I’d check the Internet for Bimini information, but as you may recall – I’m not connected as i write this.) To me, Bimini is largely uninviting and it’s a shame. There is litter everywhere and, more tragically, apparently an island wide problem with alcohol abuse. Perhaps we caught the island on a bad week during the holidays, but it certainly wasn’t what we imagined when we left Key Biscayne.
So we left North Bimini to anchor off of North Cat Cay with Dave and Linda (and Jack) on Choctaw Brave. It was the first of three nights in which we anchored and didn’t go ashore. The next day we traveled for over 30 miles in 8 – 15 feet of water (except for that one spot early in the day) across Mackie Shoals. That night we went north for a bit over a half mile and simply dropped the hook. In the middle of nowhere. Nothing. We anchored in 13 feet of water with nothing around us for 30 miles. It was eerie. And beautiful. It was a three day passage like no other we’ve undertaken and much more restful than keeping watch overnight every three hours.
(Jack is a miniature Doberman Pincher. He is a good boy. He and his folks, Linda and Dave, visited for Christmas dinner on the 26th. He “goes” on the boat. Good dog.)
Our third night out, we anchored 10 miles east/southeast of Great Harbor Cay. Again, we could see no land. David and Linda’s boat holds less fuel and water than La Luna, and Linda had planned on doing laundry back at Bimini before deciding to join us at the last minute, so they wanted to spend a couple of nights at the marina on Great Harbor Cay. We’re trying to avoid marinas, didn’t need fuel and water and have to get propane – which we can only do at Nassau – so that will be our marina stop before the Exumas. In the meantime we wanted to visit the Berry Islands. (The photo at the left was taken at anchor.)
NOTE To Cruisers: (J & D – this means you!) Dave and Linda loved Great Harbor Cay and you can check into the Bahamas there. If you have a 3 day weather window from Florida, I’d go across Mackie Shoals, anchor like we did and clear the country in Great Harbor Cay. You just can’t get off the boat until you check in. Since there is no place to go, that isn’t a problem.
The Explorer Chartbook says:
The lovely cays and harbours of the Berrys are generally underutilized as a cruising area. If the enticement of fewer boats and a better chance of finding a secluded anchorage appeal to you, this is a sojourn to jot down on your itinerary. … Several anchorages are accessible by entering the cut between White Cay and Devil’s Cay. Your draft and the state of the tide will be factors in how far you can go behind Saddleback to the south or Hoffman’s to the north.
EW and I thought we were being very, very cautious on December 31st when entering the cut between Devil’s Cay and the breakers off White Cay.
I screwed up. Big time. I totally misread the directions and the channel. (The key phrase that I misread was in that paragraph above: .. you can go behind Saddleback …
I thought the entrance was south of Saddleback, but we were very, very cautious. We weren’t sure that this channel would work for our vessel and had contingencies. We discussed it at length and agreed to enter the cut – a nice wide one with deep water – and take a moment to look things over. We knew we could safely go north to an anchorage inside White Cay – but could we get to the preferred anchorage behind Devil’s?
We got here the hard way. And I do mean hard. There’s a coral and rock bar between Devil’s and Saddleback – the direction I had charted for us. EW could see the ripples at high tide signifying a strong current and shallow water, so he immediately knew we couldn’t go through there. He saw we were being sucked onto the ridge and put the engine into full reverse. The tide and incredible current were against us. At one moment we were in our safe zone in six meters of water and at the next we were swept onto the southern end of the bar off of Devil’s. Crunch!
Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god! EW could look down to port (easily since the boat was over on her side) and see deep water not 2 feet away. We couldn’t get there. He tried using the engine until Pine Top overheated, and then we turned off our trusty Perkins for a rest and sat there, wondering what to do next. Who would we call? How long would it take them to come? What could they (whoever they were) do?
We knew the winds were going to increase that evening and that the safe cut would be transformed into a “rage”. The Explorer Chartbooks talk about “a rage over the bar”. That is not a good thing. We had timed our entrance for high tide, favorable winds, and calm waters. If we were stuck for four hours all of those would disappear and La Luna would be grinding on the coral and rock in very bad conditions.
(NOTE: This was not living coral. This was rock. No live coral was harmed in this grounding.)
EW knew we had to get over the bar as there was no way the current and incoming tide would allow us to get back to our safe spot and head north to the other anchorage. But how?
He was so calm. He was upset and worried, but he was calm. He kept thinking of the possible ways out of this mess. I could see none. He kept looking at the deep water on the other side of the bar. I couldn’t make out what he was seeing. La Luna would almost float and then fall back on the coral. We had failed her. She didn’t deserve this.
I’m not sure how long we were stuck. EW thinks 40 minutes. How long does it take to overheat a Perkins and let it cool down enough to use again? I truly don’t think it was 40 minutes but it was definitely too long. I assured him that once we got to deep water, we were home free – though I also said that I had no idea if (or how) we would be able to get safely out of the harbor.
EW could see deep water to our port side, and I could tell that La Luna was pointing toward the deeper end of the bar. If we could get her to go forward and slightly to port, we would have a chance. He directed me to unfurled the jib, and started Pine Top, and the coming tide and very strong current all worked in our favor to push us over the bar into safe harbor.
(At Anchor in behind Devil's Cay)
We calmed down. Gradually.
I didn’t sleep that night until well after 3:00 AM. The winds picked up and I had a great view of the rage in the cut and over the bar. I was sickened. If we had come into the cut and immediately turned up to the right, we would have been fine. I have gone over the instructions and the chart numerous times and discovered most (hopefully all) of my mistakes. Having run aground 4 times between December 24th and December 31 our theme for 2011 is “nothing but water”. La Luna will touch nothing but water from here on. We’ve promised her.
EW was determined that we would find a way out of this harbor. I was pessimistic. We checked tide tables and watched the rise and fall of the water for two days. We poured over the charts. We took the dinghy out with a small anchor and marked the rode at 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 feet. We found the channel along the inside of Saddleback Cay. We hailed 4 young men on a sport fishing boat and asked for confirmation. We went back out in the dinghy at high tide with the GPS and marked over 50 waypoints from La Luna’s anchorage to the safe exit out of this cut.
We took the dinghy to Flo’s Conch Bar and talked with Chester, owner, proprietor, and the “they” who would have appeared had we called for help on the radio. According to Chester and the young guys on the fishing boat, this happens with some regularity. Sailboats come safely through the cut, slow down and get swept over the bar. Chester saw an 80-foot sailboat with a draft of over 8 feet do the same thing. Eighty feet! I don’t think the coral bar is 80 feet wide! Chester had to help pilot that vessel out of the harbor at deep water and there were times he was praying they would make it. (Chester does not take praying lightly.)
(EW and His Coconut)
Deep breath. We are in a beautiful anchorage.
We celebrated New Year’s Eve on January 1st (once we had calmed down) with grilled steak, incredible red wine (a gift from C & L in Maine – thank you very much) proceeded by pina coladas made in part from a coconut that EW had harvested.
Life is good. I am very thankful. Every day I am becoming a better navigator.
And the Berry Islands are beautiful.