As we headed for Nassau, we had visitors in the middle of the oecan. It was far from the only excitement on that trip, but it was the highlight.

First published in Telltales Magazine In the November 1999 issue. Read, print for your friends, share it, but please don't publish it without written permission.

Gene Gruender
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com


 

Hitchhikers at Sea
Gene Gruender
Copyright 1999

 

We left Key West heading for Bimini, but bad weather drove us into the Channel 5 entrance at the north end of Long Key in the Florida Keys. We had waited a week when we finally saw a weather window big enough to slip through. It wasn’t a big window, but if we played it right, we could cross the Gulf Stream with no problems.

We were traveling on Rainbow Chaser, our Hunter 37 Cutter. Ron and Bobbie were traveling with us on their 41 Gulfstar, Anticipation. This would be our second crossing to Bimini, it would be the first for Ron and Bobbie.

The weather window was only about 18 hours, so we had to be careful. The wind was supposed to get lighter all day, be fairly light overnight, then sometime the next day it would pick up again as a front approached. Our plan was to go north about 30 miles in the Hawk Channel that day, staying in the shallow waters off the Keys, then anchor on the leeward side of Rodreguiz Key. We’d rest up there, wait until about 8 PM, then begin our crossing. We hoped to arrive at Bimini early in the morning, putting us there in both daylight and working hours, avoiding overtime charges and beat the front that was coming.

Our trip up the Hawk Channel started out pretty fast. As the day wore on the winds got lighter, just as predicted. Mid afternoon we slowly sailed into the lee of Rodriguez Key and dropped the hook. About 8 we picked up the anchor and started to work our way out to the open ocean in a pitch-black night. We had to go out around the island, missing a large shallow area, pass on the right of a green marker, then we made a straight 3-mile run out between two shoals. For once, we made it without a hitch. We were out into the black open ocean.

We went on a course of due east, letting the Gulf Stream take us north. Plotting our position as we went, it was taking us at about a 45-degree angle northeast. If we kept our easterly heading we would end up about at Bimini.

About 2 hours out I saw a boat coming toward us, it was probably 3 miles away. We were crossing his path and should be the other side of it long before he got there. As it got closer I could see it was a sailboat going under motor power and he was taking a crooked course. He had on his running light, masthead light and anchor light. I could see his red, and then his green, it kept going back and forth. I knew that if I could see both he was heading directly for me. It kept changing from red to green, indicating that, even though I was crossing his path, he was changing course and heading toward me. Now, that didn't make sense, as I should have just crossed in front of him a mile or more. The closer we got, the more he headed straight for me. We finally got so close I started shining my spotlight on him. I couldn't see anyone in the cockpit, they must have been below. I couldn't raise them on the radio - it was really getting stupid. I finally stopped, put it in reverse, made a 90-degree turn and passed just behind them. I don't know what their problem was, but they motored on as we went on our way. I guess they were down below eating or taking a nap, thinking all their lights would give them away and they wouldn't be hit. I hope for their sake it worked.

We just continued on through a long uneventful night. As daylight came Ron put out his rod and caught a big Dauphin (the fish type, not Flipper). He didn't feel like cleaning it, so he took a picture and let it go.

We arrived at the entrance to Bimini about 8:30 or so, just about the time we wanted. Customs was open, it was daylight, and the wind was just picking up. Our window of good calm weather was just closing. After a couple times getting in close trying to find the entrance we saw a sailboat coming out. We watched where he turned from the beach, then we spotted the plastic pipe driven into the beach to mark where to enter. That is the extent of the navigation aids here.

After pulling into the dock, we went to customs and immigration. Last time I checked in here there was no place on their forms to indicate that you had an animal on board. That time, after we finished all the paperwork, I mentioned that we had a cat and asked what I needed to do? They said I should have mentioned if first. Since I didn’t, I had to go to Nassau to take care of it. They stamped our papers that we had a cat and we just went on our way. We never mentioned it in Nassau.

This time I told them right up front we had a cat. Did I have an import permit for the animal? According to them, I should have gotten an import permit before leaving the States. I pointed out that there were several different conflicting things that we were told we had to do, some of them impossible, like having a veterinary certificate less than 24 hours old when we arrived. That wasn’t even possible. He said, yes, he knew it was confusing and you couldn't even do all they asked, but we really should get the import permit next time. For this time we'd have to go to Nassau again. He put the fact that we had a cat on our cruising permit, stamped her shot papers with his custom stamp, and we were in. Once again, we’ll blow off going to the officials in Nassau. Once again, Ninja is a stowaway.

The next morning we woke up to a nice sunny day. The wind was about 10 knots out of the north, just what we need to get to Nassau. It was about time - we need a dose of good weather and good luck. Near us in the anchorage someone else’s day wasn’t going quite as good. There was a big Bahamian fishing boat anchored behind us. They pull about 8 fiberglass fishing boats behind them and go out for weeks at a time. They were leaving for an extended fishing trip as they passed to the right of us. Just as they passed they hit a shallow spot. It was really kind of comical for once - someone else running around. When they hit, the boat just stopped at once. There were guys all over the boat tumbling forward. The smaller boats they were towing all crashed and banged into the back of the big boat.

Then they started trying to get unstuck. I could tell they didn't get stuck often, as they didn't have any idea what they were doing. We could teach them a thing or two about getting unstuck, since that is one area we have plenty of experience in.. Their first problem was they had 8 guys leaning over the front to watch what was going on. If all that weight was at the back of the boat, they probably could have just backed off. With them all on the front they were just pushing it down into the sand. After a while they set an anchor to kedge off and used all the fishing boats to help push. Eventually they got it off and went out fishing.

We knew it would be another long night doing an overnight sail to Nassau. Some people sail part of the way, then anchor on the banks in15 feet of water out in the open ocean rather than sailing at night. We'd prefer to sail on through the night than to get beat up at anchor in the middle of the ocean. We also didn't want to arrive in Nassau in the dark, so we left Bimini about noon. Even if we got very good winds, we wouldn't get there before daylight. Since we had winds out of the north, they would allow us to sail instead of motoring again like we've done so much lately. To get to Nassau, you leave Bimini, sail north about 6 miles, go around North Rock light, then sail on a heading of about 90 degrees for 3.5 miles. Then you turn to about 108 degrees until you get to Mackie Shoal light, then go about 122 degrees or so until you get to the Northwest Channel light. Simple navigation, plenty of water - 18 or so feet except around the Mackie Shoal area were it gets down to about 10 - as long as you stay on course.

We went around North Rock, went our 3.5 miles east, and were on our way to Mackie Shoal. The wind was just right for sailing, right on the beam, about 10 knots. We were able to sail in nearly flat seas at around 6.5 knots, real comfortable, right out of a nice storybook. With bright sunshine overhead the water was just the clearest, pretty blue you could ever imagine. It was quite a contrast to a lot of our earlier passages.

About 10 miles down this leg we were sailing along and Nellie started yelling at someone. I looked back to see what was going on and saw we had a fishing boat, a 20 foot long Bahamian boat with about a 200 hp motor and two guys aboard, motoring across behind us. They had just realized we had lines trailing behind the boat, but turned too late. They’d already caught one on their lower unit. They got that loose and then came alongside to talk to us. They asked if I had seen a large fishing boat, the one they worked off of. We'd seen no one and told them so. They asked if we could try to call their boat on our radio. They couldn’t get them on their radio and assumed it wasn’t working. I had a real tough time understanding the boat name, as their accent is quite different. I finally handed across my hand held radio to let them call. While they tried to reach them I climbed the mast to look around, but we couldn't locate them either way. I asked if he wanted to come aboard to try my fixed radio, as it should have a longer range. They maneuvered next to us and he jumped across while we were still doing about 6.5 knots. He had no better luck getting them on the big radio. He explained that he'd been to Florida to buy supplies for a store he owned in the Abacos, then flew back to Bimini. His son, the other guy in the boat, had waited there with the outboard powered boat to meet him. The main boat went on with the rest of the crew and the rest of the smaller boats. They planned to meet them, however they had been unable to locate them and were getting low on gas. They had about 20 miles worth of gas left. It was 15 miles back to Bimini. Even if they went back, they still needed to find the main boat. We talked a few minutes and I told him he was welcome to travel with us. They could just tie their boat on the back and I'd tow them. If they didn't locate their boat as we crossed, at least we could get them to Chub Cay, about 60 miles away. There they could fuel up and continue on their way. We headed up into the wind to slow down, then tied their boat up with a long line. His son also climbed aboard, then we turned back to catch the wind and took off. About a mile back Ron was following on Anticipation. He called on the radio, as he didn't know what the heck was happening. I told him we'd picked up some guests, they'd be traveling with us for a time. It was really an interesting evening. Thousands of cruisers cross the banks, but I'll bet very few have Bahamian fishermen as guests when they do.

Our guests were Herman Walker, who prefers to just go by the name "Walker", and his son Shawn. They told us a lot of stuff we found quite enlightening. They use GPS units, as do we. In fact, he had an identical unit to mine on his console, a Magellan DLX-10. However, they mainly use them for waypoints. They will talk to the mother ship or another small boat that they want to meet up with and get the position from them. Then they punch it into their GPS as a waypoint and go to it. Or, they put in a waypoint of where they've left boxes in the water to attract lobsters, then use that waypoint to find them again out in the middle of the banks. They don't even use charts, they hardly know how to read them. They mainly go after crawfish, as they call them, or lobsters as we would know them.. They have compressors in their boats - he had one in the boat I was towing - and go down with a hose and a spear. Some days they get a few pounds, some days hundreds of pounds. Walker said that most of their catch goes to the U.S. and those lobster must be perfect before it will be accepted. Apparently if the lobster has what's called "black belly" or a black mark on its underside the meat will not be "pretty". When they find black belly lobsters they clean them and sell the meat separate from the shell locally.

They've been doing this all their lives, and GPS hasn't been around that long. I asked how they found their way around before GPS? "Well, we just sort of felt our way around. We would know how far some place was so we'd go the right direction on the compass, know how many hours it should be at the speed we went, we'd usually find it. We'd also know which stars to watch and we could find our way most of the time." Now, keep in mind that this is in an open boat about 20' long, making 50 mile trips in the open ocean, with only one outboard motor. Pretty brave, and pretty dangerous, I'd say.

As it was getting dark we noticed two powerboats coming toward us, one following the other by about a quarter mile. One of them called us, the "two sailboats heading east across the banks". It was a “Towboat US” boat out of Ft. Lauderdale, towing a big scarab from Chub Cay back to Ft. Lauderdale. He was curious if we'd just crossed the Gulf Stream. He wanted to know what he was facing. We wondered what it cost to get a tow for hundreds of miles, from one country to another. We didn't ask, though. We did ask if he'd seen any Bahamian fishing boats behind him. He'd seen nothing, so we still didn't know where Walker's boat was.

They'd been with us about 4 hours when we got near the Mackie Shoal area where we should find a light and make a turn. Besides the light, there are some pilings shown on the chart just to the north of it. Even though it was a perfectly clear night and the light should have been visible for many miles, we couldn't see it. I didn't really need the light to navigate, I just didn't want to hit the darn thing as it as I passed it. The chart is not a lot of good, as the charts for the Bahamas may be off as much as a mile. They only get you close enough to see it - then you have to be careful.

As we got near the area, I got pretty nervous. We got our big battery powered spotlight out and I went to the bow of Rainbow Chaser to search for the light, or the remains of it. I started making a sweep around the front of the boat every 30 seconds or so. If anything appeared, I could run back and make a course change, even though I thought I'd taken a course far enough south to miss it. Walker seemed puzzled at what I was doing. I asked if he’d seen the light last time he was there. He said they didn’t go around the lights, they didn’t use them. After running forward and shining the light around for a half hour I was finally far enough away that I felt safe and was sure we'd missed it. (Some weeks later we learned that a big powerboat had hit it dead center months before and it landed on the deck. They continued to Nassau with it on the foredeck and turned it in.)

It was getting cool by now, Walker and his son only had on shorts, Walker had on a tee shirt, his son was shirtless. They had clothes in their boat, but it was a pain to get to them, so we dug out some clothes to keep them from freezing. Soon Nellie went below and appeared with supper for everyone. Walker would call on our radio every now and then, trying to get in touch with any Bahamian fishermen. He was having no luck reaching anyone, and I think a part of the problem was that my radio is not set up very good. Soon another boat came from the east and I called him to see if he'd seen anything. Tug Samantha answered that he'd not seen a thing. His radio about blew me right out of the cockpit, it came in so loud and clear. I thought maybe he could get enough range to reach them, so I asked if he'd try to reach Walker’s boat on his powerful radio. I tried to repeat the name of the boat Walker was looking for, but couldn't get it right, due to the accent differences.

I gave the mike to Walker and he eventually got the name across to the captain of Samantha. Then, just booming on the radio, he started calling for - I think it was - Ja Linn. He called numerous times. No answer. They must have been a lot farther away than Walker thought, because that radio was going way out. Walker asked if he could ask for a couple more boats, maybe he could locate another he could get fuel from. Soon Samantha was calling all over the Bahamas for ... Bahama Mama. I can remember that one! He also didn't get any answer from them. A bit later, though, he called us back to tell us that Ja Linn had answered his call, it was weak, but he could hear them. We told him that what we needed most was their coordinates, where they were. We listened for about 15 minutes while Samantha tried to understand the coordinates. He got 25 37, or 25 47 North, but never could be sure. He never could understand the longitude. We'd given up and were studying the chart to see if what we had would give Walker a clue as to where they might have gone, when Samantha came back and said another boat named Snowbird was trying to call us, he could hear Ja Linn and would relay for us. We couldn't hear Snowbird, so Ja Linn told Snowbird, Snowbird told Samantha, Samantha told us, and we found they were about 40 miles northeast of us.

Between us, we didn't have enough gas to get Walker to them, even though he seriously considered heading in their direction. He could get close enough, maybe, that he could get them on the radio, then they could bring him some gas. It was pretty scary to me, and we talked him out of going. Along about midnight Walker and his son were sleeping while I was driving. I saw some bright lights on a boat north east of us, which would most likely be a commercial fishing boat. I woke Walker and asked if he wanted to try to call them. He was pretty excited, hoping it might even be his boat. After a dozen failed tries to contact them on the radio, they got in their boat to go see what it was. I started to say goodbye, but he said he'd be back regardless, he'd come back and let us know what it was. This was a moonless night. You couldn't see a thing out there if it had no light on it. Walker stood in the front, leaning back holding a rope tied to the front, Shawn drove at full speed right into the dark. Nellie was about to have kittens; she was sure they'd be killed. I assured her that this was nothing new to them, they'd been operating like this forever.

About 20 minutes passed and suddenly they came, full bore, right out of the dark. Walker handed me my foul weather jacket I'd loaned him and told us it wasn't his boat, but they could spend the night, get fuel and go on to their boat in the morning. We said our good-byes, he promised to send us a letter telling how it turned out, and they were off. To tell you the truth, I was sorry to see them go. We really enjoyed their company. However, we have their address and phone number, and we have an invitation to come visit in the Abacos. Nellie mentioned that she'd tried to make a Bahamian dish called "Rice and Peas" and hers never came out right. Walker said if we'd come visit, she'd know how to make them when she left. I expect our next trip will include the Abacos.

Nellie went back to sleep and I continued to drive the boat across the banks. We had to go past the Northwest Channel light, where there is a narrow place to get off the banks without going through shallow water, then it was open deep water on to Nassau. I planned to get us to deep water, which would take until about 2 am, then let Nellie take over. For the next several hours I had it to myself. Smooth sailing, the only lights were those of Anticipation about a mile behind us.

There was a completely clear sky and no moon. Looking around the view was like nothing I’d ever seen. In the sky were stars everywhere, just like a dome over us. As you looked lower, near the horizon, it slowly turned to black. As you got to the water, the starlight was reflected up from the white sand below in about 15 feet of water. It didn’t look like water, though, it looked like steam. It just looked and felt like we were floating along on some mist, surrounded by a halo of dark, with a sparkly dome over us. It was more awesome than any special effects ever put on at a concert.

As I got nearer to the Northwest Channel Light the traffic got much heavier, or more accurately, there started to be traffic. This light was working, and there were several boats around us. There was even a sailboat anchored right out there in the busiest part. Somehow, I think navigating across the banks at night is safer than anchoring in a busy shipping area.

I noticed that one boat was moving a bit faster than me and was getting a little closer than I felt was comfortable. I thought he was going on a parallel path, but was passing a bit too close. I got my high powered spotlight again and shined it on him to see just how far away he was and where he was going. It was a good thing because it was a big motor yacht and it was heading directly at me. It seemed like he should have seen me. I had my tricolor light on, which is on top of the mast and indicates a sailing boat. It's actually pretty bright. A couple seconds after I shined my light, his spotlight came on, flashed across my boat and the sails and then he turned a bit and went by on the right. A bit farther he crossed my path and went on ahead.

A few minutes later Ron called on the radio and was talking about all the traffic. I mentioned the boat that came so close and he asked what had happened. I explained that some idiot had nearly run into me, that he only turned when I put my spotlight on him. As Ron said something, someone else came on the radio and said "Break, break, this is the idiot." I said go ahead, and he apologized. He said he had confused my white light - the back of my tricolor - for an anchored boat far in the distance. He said that he had 72-mile radar and could see numerous boats, and could clearly see Nassau harbor over 30 miles away, but I didn't make the slightest blip on his radar. He said it was his fault and apologized again for coming so close.

We talked some more and he mentioned that all the navigation lights on the banks had all been out for some time. Only the Northwest Channel light had been replaced recently, the rest still weren't there. That was why I couldn't find the Mackie Shoal light, and why we couldn’t see the Russell light that should have been in the distance. Well, I learned I should turn on the normal lower running lights when in congested areas, it is in my best interests, even though my tri-color was a legal configuration. I also learned that I need to shop for a radar reflector, since I don't show up at all. I guess I have a Stealth Sailboat.

The rest of the trip into Nassau was a nice sail trip, no problems, just good sailing. We got anchored, rested up and got prepared to continue to the Exumas. Finally, good weather, interesting things happening, and, hopefully, no more unwanted excitement. Cruising is looking up!


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