23 April 2017

April in the Bahamas

Despite the popularity of the Bahamas to many Americans, we had little knowledge and even less expectation of this expansive stretch of islands just east of the Florida coast. We were pleasantly surprised at the vastness of wonderful anchorages, beautiful waters, and lovely shorelines. Below is a photo summary of the highlights of Argon's travels through some of the Bahamian islands.

Captain Linda Perry Riera 

Bahamas consists of over 700 islands and thousands of cays spanning more than 500 miles northeast of Cuba and east of Florida. We explored a small fraction landing initially at Long Island, then on the the Exumas, New Providence, Berry Islands, and finishing up on Grand Bahama. We are spending our final days in Grand Bahama before we sail back to the US landing in North Carolina in a week or so.


The Bahamas has lots of skinny (shallow) water.  Most of the island chains have a "sound side" and a "bank side".  The sound or ocean side quickly drops off to thousands of feet within a couple miles.  The bank side can be 10 or 12 feet deep as far as the eye can see. We did much of our exploration on the banks in the shallower water making careful navigation very important. It is common knowledge among sailors that Navionics Charts, although excellent everywhere else, are just about useless in the Bahamas. The cartography is fine (the islands are where they should be), but the soundings are usually very inaccurate. We always have paper charts for anywhere we sail and here in the Bahamas, we were 100% paper plotting on our NV Charts. The NV Charts also include digital versions of all their charts so we were able to load them into OpenCPN as well. It was fun getting out the rulers and pencils again! And, importantly, eyeball navigation or reading the water colors, will sometimes trump all of the charts. Multi-modal navigation became the norm.

We quickly learned that to successfully sail the shallow waters of Bahamas, we needed to decrease our reliance on our Chartplotter (which uses Navionics) and also leverage Explorer and NV Charts as well as the important visual navigation and reading water colors.  Bob is plotting progress on paper while the electronic version of NV charts is on a laptop next to him. In the foreground is our main charplotter with Navionics charts.

As we explored more areas, we became more adept at reading water colors. And over simplified but helpful saying goes something like “Brown, brown, run aground. White, white, you just might. Blue, blue, sail on through. Green, green, nice and clean.” Green can be the most challenging water to read.
Eyeball navigation is more challenging when it is windy and the water is choppy and definitely when it is overcast. 

Approaching a coral head. Some of these can rise up from the bottom to be within a few feet of the surface. You don't want to hit one doing eight knots!

Long Island

Long Island is not a popular Bahamian destination for cruisers and is considered part of the "Out Islands" (along with Mayaguana, Crooked and Ragged Islands). This area of Bahamas was hit hard in 2015 by hurricane Joaquin and is still recovering. Only a few thousand people live here with the economy based on fishing, farming (bananas, corn and livestock) and just a bit of tourism.

We were happy to leave Turks & Caicos in late March after a longer than planned stay and enjoyed an easy and fast 180nm sail overnight passing Mayaguana and Crooked Islands on the way.

A forecast of very high winds chased us from the anchorage in to a marina as it would have been impossible to dinghy to shore for several days. We tucked in behind a breakwater at Flying Fish Marina in Clarence Town, Long Island.

Long Island land exploration lead us to Dean's Blue Hole... the second largest salt water blue hole in the world plunging to nearly 700 feet deep (and it's only about 80 feet wide at the surface). Some divers were practicing out on the platform. The World Free Diving Competitions are held here each April.

We put aside our vegetarian leaning diets to join a pig roast at the nearby Rowdy Boy's Bar and Restaurant which included a bit of live music. Bob lusted over this guy's original late 1950's Stratocaster. Bob has a '74.

We were able to dinghy over to Strachan Cay to explore the beautiful and empty beaches.
Back out on the hook for the final couple of nights in Clarence Town.
Fun beam reach up the east coast of Long Island.
Anchored in Calabash Bay on the northwest tip of Long Island before leaving for southern Exuma.


Exuma consists of a thin chain of nearly 400 islands and cays stretching 130 miles. This is an extremely popular area for cruisers and is well known for the stunning Exuma National Land and Sea Park including Warderick Wells. Anchored at the southern and northern tips by Geroge Town and Highbourne Cay respectively, there are a myriad of spectacular anchorages, endless pristine water, ragged caves to snorkel, and pearly beaches. Exuma proved to be one of my favorite places of this entire sailing trip so far.

First stop for us in Exuma was George Town which is supposedly "the place to be" with many cruisers settling in here for months at a time. It was a perfectly fine logistical stop for provisioning, water (jerry jugs only), disposing of garbage, accessing ATM, etc. but after next seeing the other wonderful places in Exuma, I was puzzled why so many cruisers park it in George Town.

Sailing further north up Exumas on the eastern Bahama Sound side.

Argon anchored in the distance at the secluded Black Cay. Priceless.
We kind of stumbled upon this anchorage as it was not mentioned in the guide books with no other boats anchored in sight.

Our fishing skills (or luck) have most definitely improved. And when we are out of our own fresh mahi mahi, I have gotten better at securing fresh fish from the locals when they bring in their daily catch.

Bob is even trying out a hand line. No luck with this yet but trolling with the pole continues to yield regular catches.
Fresh fish has thankfully become a regular for our on board dining options.
Another spectacular anchorage at Rudder Cay.

Enjoying evening cocktails on a deserted beach at Rudder Cay with John and Melinda (and family) from s/v Amulet. We met John in Clarence Town and enjoyed meeting up at many stops including George Town, Staniel Cay, Cambridge Cay, and Highbourne Cay.
Securing a bit of much needed gasoline for our dinghy at funky and friendly Black Point settlement further up the Exuma chain. We were directed to find Bernard who brings in gasoline by boat for the handful of cars on this tiny settlement. We also scored some fantastic homemade coconut bread.

More good, free R/O (reverse osmosis) drinking water was found at Black Point. We kept our on board water tanks fairly full with regular jerry jug trips when we came upon available water.
Staniel Cay is a popular place to visit and there is a huge anchorage with good holding nearby at Big Major Spot. The many pigs that inhabit this tiny island are a major attraction and they will swim out to your dinghy hoping you have brought any and all variety of table scraps.

No visit to Staniel Cay would be complete with out a snorkeling excursion to the famous Thunderball Grotto. This underwater cave system teems with fish and bright coral. There are two small entrances almost hidden and best explored at low slack tide. It was a bit intimidating to dive down and swim in to this cave but once inside, it is expansive and with small openings up above brightening up the space. The 1965 James Bond movie, Thunderball, was set in the Bahamas and had a major scene filmed here thus giving the cave its name. And this was the site of a later Bond movie in 1983 Never Say Never Again.

Inside Thurderball Grotto.

Outside Thunderball Grotto.

Further north from the busy Staniel Cay we returned to the quiet seclusion of Cambridge Cay, part of the national park waters.
Enjoying another isolated beach in the Cambridge Cay area trying not to think of the limited number of days left here.

Enjoying a relaxing, flat sail up the Bahama Sound of the Exuma chain to Shroud Cay.
Dingy exploration around Shroud Cay. Argon is anchored in the background.

Magical Shroud Cay.
I'm liking Bob's new island look. Hope he keeps it when we are back up north.

We spent a day exploring Highbourne Cay by bicycle discovering side paths and intriguing views.

Crossing Yellow Bank required a bow look out to watch for coral heads in the shallow waters en route to New Providence (Nassau area). Check out our video on Crossing the Yellow Banks.

New Providence (Nassau Area)

New Providence is by far the most populated island in the Bahamas and holds the nation's capital, Nassau. Many equate Nassau generally with the entire island of New Providence. There is a major cruise ship terminal in Nassau between the city and Paradise Island. We opted to stay on the southeast coast of the island outside of the city at Palm Cay Marina but we traveled in to Nassau to sample some local flavor.

Potter's Cay Dock is an eclectic stretch of Bahamian food vendors in the unfortunate location of under the major bridge between Nassau and Paradise Island. I am so glad we stumbled on this area and enjoyed the most delicious spicy conch salad (and even fresh conch penis which is reportedly an aphrodisiac).

Berry Islands

This relatively undeveloped portion of the Bahamas has only a few hundred inhabitants but is often referred to as "the fish bowl of the Bahamas". There is a major fishing tournament based out of Great Harbor each May that attracts sports fishermen from far away. A couple of the major cruise ship companies own cays at the northern part of the Berry's to bring passengers for a secluded island experience. And some of the numerous cays are privately owned and there are a handful of tiny boutique hotels and resorts.

While in a rolly anchorage in Chub Cay, southern part of the Berry Islands, a large fishing boat approached us yelling over "Hey Argon, want some fish?". We did not hesitate to say yes as he threw a 30 pound mahi mahi in to our dinghy.

Enjoying the night skies anchored near Bullocks Harbor.

Exploring eastern beaches of Berry Islands.

I will miss these sunsets at anchor tremendously.

Sunset off Little Stirrup Cay northern Berry Islands and likely our final night at anchor in the Bahamas. From here we sailed to Great Bahama with sparse options for anchoring thus we may be in marinas until we set off on our off-shore passage up to Beaufort, North Carolina sometime around 1 May.

Matthew's Presence 

Last Fall during the first part of our voyage, Hurricane Matthew roared across the Bahamas and up the east coast.  We were in the Chesapeake at the time and only felt the tail end of it (which was enough). The Bahamas were not so lucky. Grand Bahama and the Berrys are still showing signs of damage. Seven months later, much of their infrastructure, services, resorts and restaurants are still closed.

Making Friends

Meeting other cruisers and learning their stories is always fun. We have enjoyed meeting so many people over the miles. Below are a few from the Bahamas.

We enjoyed several meet ups at different harbors with John & Melinda from s/v Amulet starting in Turks & Caicos all the way up through Long Island and Exumas. John is finishing up ten years of around the world cruising and exploring and returning home to northwest of the US.
One of the few other Tartans we have seen in the Caribbean was s/v Holiday owned by Zach and Lindy who have just started an extended / open ended cruising life a few months ago. Zach came over early one morning to help us with our SSB receiver.
While walking along a secluded beach on the east side of the Berry Island chain, we saw a beached dinghy and two people way off in the distance. A conversation quickly started and we met up again a couple nights later in the same anchorage. Steve and Cindy are from Michigan sailing Slip Away.

Grand Bahama

This is the northern most island of the Bahamas and a major transit point for the many cruisers going to and from Florida. (Bimini is the other popular landing point from the eastern Florida coast.) Freeport, Luchaya and West End are the main settlements and the major industry is clearly tourism. This is the first Bahamian island where we have seen high rise condos and there is definitely a made for American and Canadian tourist feel. Gone are our enchanting private anchorages. But this will be a good staging point to provision, prepare, and rest up before our off-shore passage to North Carolina.

Until next time..... We AReGONe!

28 March 2017

It's All Fun and Games Until Somebody Goes Sailing

Sailing sucks, or perhaps more accurately, there are many aspects of sailing and long term cruising that are the opposite of paradise and bliss.

Captain Linda Perry Riera

I am immensely grateful for this spectacular temporary lifestyle and for the major role sailing has played in my life for the past 10+ years. Sailing provides physical and mental exercise, connection with interesting places and people, and intimacy with nature. These aspects of sailing dominate this blog. Perhaps it is only fair that I share a more rounded view, including some of the crappier aspects, of the the experience.

Most of what we share on this blog are the beautiful and fun parts of cruising. Below will be a glimpse in to the other side of sailing.

The Head

Speaking of crappy aspects... a few weeks ago in St. John (ha, St John... get it?!) we experienced our first head clog and spent a smelly morning taking apart the toilet to clear out built-up calcification in the hoses and pump. Hose constriction caused by thick calcification is a common problem. We are now treating regularly with a mild muriatic acid solution. When we get back to a home base, we're in for a total replacement of all the sanitation hoses.We have also had to replace the macerator.

Installing the new macerator was my job. Bob got to pull up the entire toilet to get to the clogged pipes a bit later. No, we do not call a plumber.

Many places in the US are very strict about managing water quality and enforce rules around pumping out holding tanks - especially in harbors and marinas. This is not the case in much of the Caribbean. Locals cock their head in confusion when asked how one gets "pumped out"; it is commonplace, unfortunately, to dump overboard. This makes swimming in some harbors not only gross but unhealthy. The seemingly most polluted harbor we were anchored in was a mostly land locked lagoon in Saint Martaan.

The US tends to have much more strict laws and better services regarding handling of waste compared to many areas of the Caribbean. There are some exceptions such as Turks and Caicos and designated protected waters in the US Virgin Island (mainly St. John). This is a pump out boat that comes out to an anchorage to empty holding tanks.

Managing Gunk

Gunk is the nautical term for slimy stuff that builds up in strainers, on the bottom of the boat and dinghy, in the bilge and sump, etc. It takes constant vigilance to keep gunk in check.

Build up in a water strainer.

Scrubbing Argon's bottom...

... and the bottom of the keel. Build up of algae and barnacles substantially reduces speed.

Spending, Drinking and Eating

Of course money, alcohol, and food can all be great fun. But when cruising long term, it is important to manage ones spending, drinking and eating wisely. This can be difficult when often surrounded by cruisers who are just on a week or two vacation and understandably partying it up for their brief reprieve. Unfortunately our spending burn rate has been higher than budgeted in part due to exorbitant data costs (more on this below) and spending more on docking than planned.

With plentiful beach bars it can be devilishly tempting to join vacationers in the party atmosphere regardless of the day of the week. So we (usually) avoid imbibing.

Tempting two for one happy hours.

Polishing, Waxing, Cleaning

It can be extra challenging keeping Argon looking good in the constant low latitude sun with scant access to fresh water for regular, deep cleaning. The salt really bakes on the hull requiring elbow grease in addition to just rinsing. Water is often metered at up to $0.35 per gallon making a good deck or hull wash expensive. Managing dampness can be a challenge especially during humid spells. We occasionally splurge and fire up the air conditioner when plugged in to shore power at a marina (metered usually) to dry out the boat. This is also a good time for a thorough cleaning down below.

Waxing the hull from the dinghy while anchored in Simpson Bay, Saint Maarten.

Messy teak cleaning while docked in San Juan.

Polishing the stainless steel bow roller.

Looking way too happy waxing the gelcoat in the heat.

Repairing and Maintaining

As any boat owner knows, there is always something to repair, upgrade, or maintain on a boat. Although we stocked up generously on supplies and spares before our trip, we occasionally need to source something locally. This is often a challenge as there just is not access to a wide variety of supplies across most islands. Luckily, Argon has been performing splendidly and has needed very little. Tartan quality overall has been superb.

Ah... finally a well stocked chandlery in Guadeloupe where we could secure the elusive sail drive anodes.

Wiring job...
... more wiring for new windlass switches ...

... and wiring in the new refrigerator compressor pump. Notice that Bob has to crawl down in to lots of small spaces.

The most recent project was to replace the refrigerator compressor pump while in Turks and Caicos. This was the one pump we had not secured a spare for in advance. Thus instead of a quick trip to West Marine for a $135 replacement, it cost nearly $400 including express shipping, import taxes and mark ups. Oh, and $40 for the cab ride to pick up the pump. Plus we had to stay in the marina an extra few days waiting for the part.


Reliable WiFi while island and country hoping has been a major challenge. We probably require a bit more connectivity that the average cruiser as Bob is working half time (but checks in much more often) and needs reliable connectivity just about whenever in port. Occasional accessing of e mails from on shore restaurant WiFi a few times a week just will not cut it. In addition, we rely heavily on the internet for information, documents, writings, and just our lifestyle. We have spent and learned a lot along the way that is outlined in this recent blog post about connecting in the Caribbean.

Securing data options upon arrival in a new country has become a priority, second only to customs and immigration check in.

Argon's data requirements are probably a bit more than the average cruiser.

Rough Conditions

We have encountered some challenging conditions both while sailing and in harbor ranging from uncomfortable to somewhat dangerous. Sailing off shore is never taken lightly and always challenging.

Tethered in during the six day off shore passage from Bermuda to Antigua.

Sometimes the shorter hops between islands can be difficult. A few of the more challenging ones have included:

A squally 100nm overnight sail from Antigua to Dominica brought several periods of short but intense rain storms with high winds to manage in the dark. We were extremely happy when daybreak unveiled our destination.

A very short five mile hop from English Harbor Antigua just over to Mamora Bay should have been a piece of cake. But winds and seas were high and transiting the narrow, shallow opening through the reefs in high swells was terrifying with rocks perilously close as Argon got tossed about. Once inside Mamora Bay all was calm.

Anchoring vs. Mooring vs. Docking

If measuring time we probably anchor 60%, moor 20% and dock 20%. If measuring spend, then it is 0%, 10% 90%. 

Anchoring of course is the most economical, often be the most beautiful, and feels most like genuine cruising.

But in rough conditions or when there is not good holding or swing room, it can be difficult to have peace of mind when at anchor. And it can be challenging or impossible to get to shore via dinghy when winds are really high.

When we find a place to drop the hook, it has become commonplace for one of us to jump in the water with fins and snorkel to examine the anchor set, how the chain is lying, and all the area around the anchor for holding strength and risk of fouling. Here the anchor is buried and holding tight in the sand. The chain skips along the bottom when the wind gusts and yanks Argon's bow pulling back on the tackle.

The most difficult anchorages for us have been:
  • Dehaise, Guadeloupe - With 30kt winds and gusts to 40kts we had a very nerve wracking and uncomfortable couple of days. We dragged anchor just a little bit but mostly held.
  • Prince Rupert Bay, Dominica - Rollers came in unexpectedly causing dramatic rocking of all the boats. After a couple of days of this we cut our visit short and headed to Les Saintes.
  • Gustavia, St. Barts - Anchoring area is interspersed among a very crowded and deep mooring field making it quite difficult to find a spot allowing sufficient scope.
  • Grand Turk was challenging to find a large enough sandy spot among the rock and coral in shallow waters to lay down enough chain; this was made more interesting by being very close to a the famous Grand Turk Ledge that plummets immediately to 2000 feet.
The conditions in the beautiful anchorage of Dehaise, Guadeloupe would soon become snotty with 20-30kt winds and much higher gusts for a couple of days. It was difficult to sleep and we were not able to leave the boat during this time.

The best anchorages have been:
  • Pigeon Island, Guadeloupe
  • English Harbor, Antigua
  • Little Bay, Montserrat (although the reputation is that of a difficult anchorage but conditions were calm when we were there)
  • Simpson Bay, Saint Maarten
Some places that would have been too deep to safely anchor but offered well-maintained moorings included:
  • Les Saintes, Guadeloupe
  • West Bay, Saba
Moored along the stunning western cliffs of Saba.

Docking: Overall we have spent more time and money (cha-ching) in dock slips than planned. Docking proved to be convenient during visits from our kids but most of our marina stays were to escape rough weather. (I know... the truly hardy sailors are saying to hell with dock slips.)

Several times we opted to tie up at marinas to escape high winds.

Dinghy Management

Our dinghy is necessary, and wonderful, and a pain in the ass.

Hoisting on the davits and taking down from the davits has become a regular routine.

Traveling by dinghy can sometimes be a cold and wet ride.

Prior to off shore legs, the outboard has to be taken off the dinghy and mounted on the stern rail, and the dinghy is secured upside down on the foredeck.
Busy dinghy docks sometimes add to the fun of getting ashore.

Water Management 

Many on extended cruisers opt for a water maker on board. We toiled for months about whether or not to invest in one. On the upside, they can provide one with a good supply of good water for extended cruising. On the down side, they are energy hogs, expensive, and requirement regular maintenance to avoid clogging. Living on the boat for 18 months prior to our trip provided an opportunity to monitor our water usage and practice being more frugal. Ultimately we opted not to go the water maker route. We can go 2 to 3 weeks between boat tank fills with careful usage and mostly bathing in the ocean. It has become a bit more difficult to get (free) potable water in the more arid islands thus we have begun to do manual top offs of our tanks with our portable jerry jugs when there is good and free water available. Thus far we are doing just fine without a watermaker.

We have mostly been able to fill our on board water tanks, that hold 135 gallons in total, at convenient places along the way. Occasionally, however, we find ourselves needing to "jug it"... filling portable jugs on shore, dinghying back to Argon, and dumping in to our water tanks.

Adding good R/O (reverse osmosis) water to our tanks from jerry jugs carted from shore.

Customs and Immigration

Customs and Immigration is always different... where and when, how, fees, etc. Cruising guides and Noonsite are an excellent resources although there always seems to be nuances that one just has to figure out along the way. Fees range widely with more expensive places including Turks & Caicos and Bahamas. Some countries are quite complicated requiring paperwork and check ins at customs, then immigration and also port authority. Others are much more straightforward.

Very informal (but expensive) customs and immigration check-in on a stoop outdoor near the government dock in Bahamas with a friendly man in shorts and a T shirt. Often times it is much more official looking with offices, computers, uniforms and badges.

Life Stuff

Although we have greatly simplified our lives with no home, cars, etc back stateside (see former blog post), there are still plenty of normal life logistics. We can do most banking and other paperwork on line. Often we are in places that accept only cash so we must find ATMs and I have noticed that ATM fees tend to be high and there is an added foreign exchange fee making accessing ones own money quite expensive. And then there is shopping and laundry which have to be figured out every time we arrive someplace new.

Provisioning (stocking up on groceries and other supplies) is done where we can access stores and stands. Sometimes this will be right near a harbor within an easy walk, other times it requires a cab or rental car. Some of the best places for provisioning (prices, quality, and accessibility) have been Les Saintes, Guadeloupe, Saint Maarten, and Saint Thomas. Difficult or limited places included Dominica (except for their open fresh fruit market), Montserrat & Saba (expected as these are very small and remote islands), Turks and Caicos (definitely need a rental car and prices are high), British Virgin Islands (except for major harbor in Road Town Tortola where charters provision for their week).

Tiny market with very sparse selection at Black Point in the Exumas. Ester was extremely helpful in hooking us up with Bernard for a bit of gasoline (see below.)

Groceries are gathered at stands, mini marts, and larger supermarkets. Sometimes we can access via dinghy and a short walk, other times it requires a longer walk or rental car. When easy to get to with decent prices (not the norm) we stock up.

Lately I have been more resourceful in approaching some of the fisherman at the docks to buy or barter some of their catch. We continue to work on our fishing skills, too.

Provisioning day: Dinghy loaded with groceries, filled water jugs, and a bit of wine.

Happily we do not burn much diesel but we need to ensure we have access to reliable fuel when needed. More frequently we need to be able to fill our water tanks (we do not have a water maker) which is about every two to three weeks. Sometimes the water tastes, well, a little funky. I think our immune systems are getting a workout and are extra strong these days.

Laundry needs to be done every couple of weeks. It is easy to go two weeks especially since we currently mostly live in shorts, T shirts, and swim suits. But one needs to figure where and how to get it done. Occasionally there are laundromats nearby or pay washing machines at marinas. Other times one can have it done by a local for a reasonable price.

Laundry is accomplished in a variety of ways.

Sometimes I resort to old fashion hand washing in our galley sink and hanging out to dry on the life lines

Transportation has taken a variety of shapes and sizes. This was an island taxi tour in St. Kitts.
This particular rental car in Nevis was missing at least one lug nut on every tire. No paperwork or even our names were required to rent... just some cash exchanged in someones side yard.

New Places Require Lots of Homework

A major upside to cruising is learning about and experiencing new islands and countries. This certainly does not suck but does take time, attention and planning. With our frequent hopping around and everywhere being fresh to us, much time spent studying charts, cruising guides, weather, ActiveCaptain.com, other on line resources, and picking the brains of fellow cruisers. We tend to start with a high level penciled in plan (for instance aiming to be Puerto Rico by early March), fill in with more details, and adjust along the way. All sailing plans are in pencil.

Where to go next?
Paper charts in addition to electronic.

I spend many hours in the cockpit figuring out where to go to next and how to get there.

We examine charts, Navionics, Open CPN, Active Captain, Cruising Guides, and ask the opinions of other cruisers to develop and hone our itinerary.

And all of the difficulties are worth it a hundred times over!

Sailing away to somewhere new.