First published in Telltales Magazine , December, 2000. Read, print for your friends, share it, but please don't publish it without written permission.
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com
The transition – Traveling Turns to Cruising
By Gene Gruender
If you’ve followed our adventures aboard Rainbow Chaser, you may have noticed that we’ve done a lot of traveling. Leaving from Texas requires a lot of travel, there is no easy way to get out. We dueled with towboats, groundings, dealt with breakdowns and always watched for that weather window. It’s all part of traveling. Once we arrived in Nassau, Bahamas we shifted gears. We were no longer traveling. We started cruising.
Nassau is a sort of staging area for a lot of cruisers. We were no exception. We looked for supplies while we waited for a guest to arrive. My niece Jessi was flying in to join us for 2 weeks.
Two years before we had sailed to Nassau and met Jessi’s brother, Jason, in Nassau. That time we cut it close. We ignored one of the golden rules of cruising: “Never make plans to meet someone at a place you are not at”. Traveling as fast as we could from the west side of Florida we made it by one day. This time we ignored the rule again, but we did better. We made it with about 4 days to spare!
Ron and Bobbie, our traveling companions aboard Anticipation, made it to Nassau with us. They anchored nearby while they waited for their guest. Bobbie’s daughter and son-in-law were coming to visit for a few days. The different schedules of our guests meant that we would split up for a time.
Even sitting in a quiet harbor can be exciting. Sunday morning there was a bit of excitement, and this time I wasn't even in on it. Ron, on Anticipation, was sitting on his boat about 75 yards behind us. He watched as a local fisherman's boat drifted through the anchorage, carried by about 2 ½ knots of tidal current and 15 knots of wind, all in the same direction. It banged into the hull of an aluminum Canadian boat anchored next to us. The lady flew to the top to see what was going on, just to see it continue through the anchorage. Ron figured it would be in the Atlantic soon, so he fired up his dinghy motor to get it. He made it to the fishing boat, grabbed the rope, and began towing it back. Part of the way back he stopped to talk to someone on another boat and a line on the fishing boat got in his prop. Now he and the local's boat were drifting towards the Atlantic.
A fellow on a small blue sailboat down stream saw this and jumped in his dinghy. He rescued Ron with the local fishing boat hanging behind him. Now a flotilla of three boats were making their way back into the anchorage.
Suddenly the third boat ran out of gas! Now there were 3 boats going back towards the Atlantic, all hanging together. As they passed a large catamaran whose occupants were busy trying to recover from a dragging anchor, they were tossed a line. They hung on the line until someone brought some gas. Ron got his prop all untangled, and everyone recovered. Ron towed the boat back to Anticipation, and just as he was tying up, a local came to recover the first boat. What entertainment - especially since I was not involved!
Monday morning a front came through, bringing rain and some wind. Monday afternoon, after the rain stopped we went shopping and sightseeing. We bought several bags of groceries and carried them about ten blocks to the dingy dock. We'd just gotten to Rainbow Chaser and were unloading the groceries when the rain started again and the wind picked up. I was watching another Hunter 37 that was anchored next to us - it just took off when it’s anchor let loose. Unfortunately, we'd just seen the owner in town so we knew there was no one aboard. A big power boat down wind was all prepared to keep him off their boat when one of the 3 anchors on the Hunter caught, leaving them about 15 feet apart.
About then, I noticed that we were moving. Our up-wind anchor, the 33 Bruce, just let loose. A 25-knot puff of wind, along with the 3 knots of current in the same direction was just more than it could take in the thin sand in the anchorage. Now we were headed towards the boat downwind of us. With two anchor lines in the water, it wasn't as easy as starting the motor and driving back up. If I did I'd end up with my own anchor line in my own prop. Then I would really be in trouble. Looking around us, many other boats were dragging on that puff. There were about 6 boats in the anchorage right then that were dragging and heading down through the rest of the anchored boats.
I jumped in the dinghy and raced around the front and grabbed the flopping anchor line. I tried to use the outboard motor and my arm to pull it back, but against the current and wind, there wasn't a chance. I had Zach start the motor, making sure the anchor line was clear of the bottom of our boat, then he slowly motored forward. The Bruce seemed to catch a bit, and since I had about a 15 to one scope out, I just pulled in the slack and tied it off. Then Nellie took over on the helm, Zach dug the 22 lb. Bruce out of the rear anchor locker and brought it to the front. I took it out with the dinghy and dropped it. Once it was snugged up, I pulled the 33 Bruce up, took it out farther and reset it.
Setting an anchor in Nassau really is not possible. The sand isn't deep enough for an anchor to sink in. It sort of drags on the hard bottom that is just under the sand, piles some sand and trash in front of it and you hope it holds. I had two anchors out that looked just like that, and it didn't look very good.
Our 60-lb. CQR anchor was already set going the other way. The tide goes one way for a few hours, then it goes the other way. You hang on one anchor for a while, then when the tide goes the other way, you hang on the other anchor . We still had two more anchors on board and I dug out the fisherman - the one that looks like a double fishhook. I tied on another piece of ¾" line and took it out. After pulling it tight, I put on my goggles and took a look at them. None of the three were really set; they'd just pulled through the sand and made a pile in front of them. The only good thing I could see about it was the fish were having a field day going through all the stuff the anchors uncovered as they drug, but it looked like we’d stay put.
My niece arrived in Nassau on Tuesday and we left to meet her. The airport is about 15 miles out of town and there is no bus service. Taxis are pretty expensive, but there are guys known as “hackers”. “Hackers” take their own car and use it as a cab, charging less than the real cabs. We’d met a young man named Derrick a few days before who was on vacation and using his Jeep station wagon as a cab. We’d negotiated a price for him to take us out, wait for my niece to arrive, then bring us back. During the time we spent with Derrick he told us about his original home on Acklins Island in a community called Lovely Bay. We told him we’d check the charts and we might go there. We found my niece and made arrangements to meet him again in 2 weeks to make another trip to the airport. The next morning we took off for Allan's Cay, about 35 miles away.
We had clawed our way upwind for 1500 miles. I don't know why I thought we'd have a downwind sail to Allan's. The wind had been out of the north the day before but just for us it clocked around to the east. We left sailing with it on our nose. We were lucky, though. It only got to about 15 knots, with gusts just a bit higher at times. Although Jessi was a bit nervous about it, we didn't have all that bad a ride.
We left Nassau late enough that we knew it would be almost dark when we got there. As we approached Allans it wasn’t dark, but it was very close to it. We didn't have time to mess around, as it really gets dark quickly and we certainly didn't want to get grounded taking our time working our way into the anchorage.
Now, I need to tell you a short story for the next part to make any sense. If you've read Herb Payson's book, "Blown Away", you'll already know what I'm talking about. If you haven't read it and are interested in cruising, you should read it. In it he tells of when they first started cruising, when they very naive and very broke. They learned that if they did a good job if entering an anchorage and a good job of anchoring, they didn't get many invitations to visit other boats. The more they blundered, the less threatened the other cruisers felt. The other cruisers would feel sorry for them and invite them over for food and drinks.
They used this to their advantage. The less food and booze they had (more a booze problem than food, I think) the worse they'd do at anchoring. If they were really out of food - well, booze - they'd put on a real show of poor boating and anchoring, making a mess of it all, then be invited to other boats for food - and booze - for days.
They then told of a fancy racing sailboat that came in one day, sailed up to the dock, dropped the sails and without using the motor, swung around and the crewmen actually lassoed the pilings. They pulled it up, never even having to say a word to one another. Nobody talked to them!
As we came into the anchorage area, we picked our route and went in against the current, passing all the anchored boats, going all the way to the end of the anchorage. I cut back on the throttle, put it in neutral, drifted to a stop, went to the front and kicked off one anchor. As I did this I was thinking of Herb‘s anchoring story. As we drifted back on that anchor, I motioned to Nellie to put it in gear, which headed us right across the current to the spot where we wanted to be. A slash across my throat with my hand and she killed the motor, I kicked off the other anchor, heaved in on the first line to pull us up right between the anchors, and we were done. 5 minutes. One try, perfect. I turned to Nellie and said, "There won't be a person here who'll talk to us!". We'd never anchored so well.
By the time we got up in the morning all but 2 boats had gone and they were getting ready to leave . Could it have been my anchoring? I doubt it, but....
While we were anchored in Allans we developed a "squeak" when the motor was running. Investigating, I discovered that a rear motor mount was broken. We modified all four when we installed the new transmission back in Louisiana. It appeared that one wasn’t welded very well. We needed to motor as little as possible until we could repair it, which would probably be back in Nassau. There is a machine shop near the anchorage that welded my alternator bracket after it cracked last time we were here. We just had to be easy on it until we got there. I figured we’d sail a lot.
The last time we were in the Bahamas we met a couple with 3 kids, the Higgs. We all became good friends and Zach had kids to play with. They had a Pan Oceanic 46 named Royal Lyon then, but we knew they sold it and bought a 35-foot catamaran named Moongate. We knew they had been south of us in the George Town area from email we exchanged occasionally. We found from one of the cruiser's nets on the SSB radio that they'd left George Town the day before and were heading north. We were sitting eating supper when we heard Moongate call someone else on the radio! They were anchored a quarter mile away on the other side of the island. We arranged a big reunion for the next day!
After our reunion had a couple days of very hard work. Mike, from Moongate, and I spent a whole morning looking for a fish to stick with our spears. We snorkeled over many coral heads and a lot of rocks searching for fish and lobsters (called crawfish by the locals). Mike stuck a couple small fish, most got away. I wasn’t having any luck at all.
I was floating over a large coral head and all of a sudden I was looking a big grouper right in the eye. We just floated there, looking at each other for a minute or two. He was probably wondering if I was a threat. I was trying to figure out how I'd get him out of the hole he was in if I did stick him. I realized I might stick him, but there was no way I'd ever pull him out of that hole. He backed up, then disappeared into his lair. Maybe next time.
After lunch we went on to our next hard job - catching fish with a rod. Mike and I took a smaller fish that he'd stuck that morning and we used it for bait. It was a rough afternoon, but we managed to use up the whole fish and afternoon trying to catch something. Mike caught a couple little ones while I just fed them. Meanwhile, back at the boats, the women were cooking up a big supper.
In the middle of the afternoon Nellie was on the boat when a fellow came by. He said he knew our boat name from somewhere. He asked Nellie if we had been to Mexico? That wasn’t it. They were trying to figure out where we might have met when Nellie told him our names, and it hit - he knew my name. He'd been reading about our travels on our web page recently. He told her about her broken ankle, that she was a nurse - he knew all about us. I guess some people do read our stories! He introduced himself as Gene Autrey, (really!) and his wife Deborah. They were traveling on their catamaran Deborah Lynn. Our reputation had preceded us, we will have to be careful what we do in the future.
The night before some Bahamian fishermen had brought their catch in. Calling them fishermen may not be exactly right since they catch mostly conch (a snail) and some lobster. They spend all day diving for them, then string the conch together on a string and drop them in the corner of the lagoon in Allans. When they have enough they take them to Nassau and sell them. They sell them some of their catch to cruisers in the anchorage at times, especially the lobster.
They came by the night before and had 6 lobsters. Mike came over to Rainbow Chaser and we came up with a plan. We didn't know exactly how much they'd want for them, but we were going to offer them $10 and half a chocolate cake for one. Mike went down later with the cake and a ten-dollar bill.
Now, you need to understand exactly who we were dealing with. These are very hard working, honest people. They live subsistence living on an old wooden boat. They have no electricity and no appliances. They cook in an old metal drum on driftwood fires. I expect they eat mainly what they catch. Anything more than fish and conch is unusual. A chocolate cake is unheard of.
When Mike got there he found out that another boat bought all the lobsters. There were none to be had. Mike gave them the cake anyway and said they were really excited to get it. I figured it also got us on the priority list for some lobster another day.
The next night the fishermen came to our boat. They had 3 lobsters
for us. The price was $25 for all 3, which was pretty good. They also
got a tray of chocolate chip cookies. That really brought a smile to their
Each evening the fishermen would start a fire in a barrel on their boat. This was their stove, sort of like a campfire. They put a little drift wood in it, then they used a bit of diesel to get it started. Then they cooked over it. We were sitting relaxing after dark and all of a sudden their boat burst into flames! Giant orange flames shooting 15 feet in the air. We jumped up and tried to decide what to do. It would take us a few minutes to get there, and as we started to get in the dinghy we watched so see if anyone jumped overboard or looked like they were on fire.
By the time we got our dinghy untied, we realized that the flames were dying down, the fishermen were still onboard and nobody seemed to be concerned. They’d probably just put way too much diesel on their driftwood and had a flare up. Scared the heck out of us!
The next morning we left Allan's and moved on down a couple Cays to Norman's Cay. There used to be a big drug operation on Norman's Cay in the 70's and 80's. The drug operation is gone, but one of their big airplanes is still in the harbor. It is about half covered with water, and the wings still spread just as it landed. I'd never dinghied over an airplane before.
We didn't anchor in the main anchorage where most people anchor. We went south of it about half a mile. We went across 6 feet of water at nearly low tide to anchor in about 10 feet. Nearby was a large sand area that ranged from 3 feet to about 8 feet deep and was just full of sand dollars. We collected hundreds. We had saved all our empty cardboard cans for this, the round ones like Cheetos come in. We layered the sandollars up inside with a bit paper towel between each, taped them shut and stored them. They could travel that way without breakage.
After a day at Norman’s we took off again, heading for Shroud Cay. Shroud is a bit unusual. It's a large limestone circle with a flat center full of marsh and creeks. You can dingy all over it in shallow creeks, and can go almost to the ocean on the other side. Before we got there, though, we had one of our normal times - keel in the sand.
We tried to find the same route out of the pool we had taken in, but it was low tide and it was obvious we missed. We bumped along for a while, then we just stopped. The tide was rising, so we knew it wasn't serious. In the worst case, we’d just have to wait. It just wasn't what we wanted to do at the time, though.
We could tell that deeper water was about a quarter mile away. We needed about 6" more to pass across, and it might take several hours to get that 6”. I got the sails out crossways to the wind, but there just wasn't much of it. The tidal current was going under us pretty swiftly, so wherever our keel was touching, the current ate away at the sand. I kept the motor going in gear, hoping the broken motor mount wouldn’t move too much, and let the keel work it's way through the sand towards a trench that was ahead.
We didn't measure our speed in knots. Counting feet wasn't exactly the right measurement, either. It took about an hour to work us about a hundred yards, but we finally dropped into the trench and off we went, this time following a very crooked path along the trench to deeper water.
Once we got to Shroud Cay about 3 miles away we anchored in 12 feet and relaxed. Later in the afternoon I took a brush under Rainbow Chaser to get the last of the Texas and Louisiana scuz off of the bottom. Since I'd hauled and powerwashed her a couple days before leaving I didn't expect much crud on the bottom. Surprise! There was quite a bit. I also found my zinc had disappeared from my propshaft. Then I noticed that there were only ground off remains of barnacles on the bottom of my keel. At least all the time spent grinding through the sand did something for us. I didn't have to scrape anything.
Thursday we listened to the weather. Saturday there would be a front coming through. There was some disagreement as to how it would affect the area, but we had to get to Nassau to make plane connections for my niece, who was leaving, and my son and his friend, who were flying in. We didn't want to risk having to pound back in nasty weather, so we elected to go back to Nassau on Friday.
Friday was a nice motor sail back to Nassau, with bright sun and 80 degrees, and light wind blowing the direction we were going. We got back in time to have supper at the Burger King and send the email.
Saturday Morning I took off the motor mount and took it to Sawyer’s machine shop to try to get it welded up. I told him I’d prefer to do it myself if I could. No problem, he just showed me to the welder and handed me a helmet. With no concerns about lawsuits, it’s a whole new world! If it breaks now, I know who to blame.
Sunday we woke up to find a nearby boat anchored too close. As time went along, they got even closer. I knew we weren't dragging anchor, as we were downwind and down current. You just don't drag into the wind and current. The people on the other boat didn't seem concerned. In this anchorage, like most in The Bahamas with tidal currents, it is almost mandatory that you use two anchors set in opposite directions. When the current is going one way, you hang on one anchor, when it changes and goes the other, you hang on the other anchor. If you don't use two, your anchor will be changing direction about 4 times a day and will most certainly just pull out with one of the swings. In addition, most boats are on two anchors and they move very little. If a boat is out there with only one anchor, it will swing in a big half circle, sweeping into all the nearby boats.
A little later I went up and let out some more anchor line on both anchors. The other boat still got closer. By now, Nellie was getting a bit worried. I noticed that the guy on the other boat was getting into his dinghy. I told Nellie that it was OK, he was going to fix their anchor.
Surprise - he just left! And the woman on the boat didn't seem to care at all. I went on deck and got her attention, then explained that they may have a problem with their anchor. They seemed to be getting closer and closer. She said no, she didn't think so, they were where they'd been all day. I asked if they had 2 anchors out, as I could only see one chain. She said that they never used 2 anchors, they got tangled up too much.
Soon they were about 10 feet from hitting Rainbow Chaser and getting closer. What could I do, go set another one of their anchors? Not likely. The only thing I could do was move, even if I wasn't the offender. I was real proud of myself, I didn't say anything to the old bat, I just started pulling up anchors. We just about had the second anchor up when her husband came back. Nellie and Zach heard her telling him what an idiot I was. What a bunch of morons! We moved away, I kept my cool quite well, and re-anchored about 200 feet away. Let the other people in that area worry about them, I could sleep well after moving. I was out of her reach.
Later I was talking to Mike on Moongate about the episode. Mike said what he’d do was call them on the radio. He would say something like "I'd like to talk to you about your anchoring problem. Let's go to channel 68". Everyone in the anchorage will go to 68 also, just to hear what is going on. They probably won't do anything differently after he talked to them about their poor anchoring, but everyone will know what they are doing. Word will spread, and the rest of the time they are in The Bahamas, people will know about them before they get there. People won't anchor near them if they are already there, and nobody will let them anchor nearby if they show up somewhere. I'll remember that next time.
We found our friend Derrick, the hacker and got my niece shipped out on the airplane. We left her at the outbound gate, then walked over to the inbound gate to get my son James and his friend, Paul.
On the way back to the harbor in Nassua Derrick told us more about Acklin's Island, his home island way south in the Family Islands. As we talked, I learned he would rather be back on the island. In fact, planned to go back in a week or two and hoped to stay. He was burning up all his vacation time "hacking". His family members are all fishermen, and are especially fond of bonefishing. By the time we parted, we had an invitation to come to Acklin's Island on our way through. We made plans to visit Lovely Bay, Acklin's Island and go bonefishing.
We got back to Rainbow Chaser sitting in Nassau Harbor and listened to the weather report. They were forecasting 15 to 20 out of the east for the next day, and about the same for the day after. We were going southeast. Once again, we'd be hard on the wind, pounding to weather. Even though it was enough that it wouldn’t be comfortable, we really didn't have time to wait on a nice weather window. My son and his friend had to be in George Town to fly out about 10 days later. If we spent half our time in Nassau, all we'd do is make a flying trip to George Town and they wouldn't get to see anything.
The next morning we sent email, then headed out for a return to Allans Cay. I noticed that most boats were just sitting, nobody was moving. Wimps! A little 15 to 20 was scaring them into staying snug in the harbor. Not us. We motored out the east entrance, then turned south. We'd go south about 15 miles, clear the Yellow Banks, an area full of coral heads, and then turn nearly east. The 35-mile trip should take about 6 hours, we'd be there about 4pm.
It really wasn't too bad when we started. We were sailing with the wind just in front of the beam, climbing over waves that were not that bad. But before too long Paul, my son's friend, started getting seasick. I fired up the motor to speed us up, as well as give a bit steadier ride. He did OK for a time.
Once we reached the point where we should turn nearly east, it was getting a bit rougher. The 15 to 20 had turned into 20 to 25. The waves on the banks were short and steep. We were sticking our nose into the water, and we couldn't sail on that heading. We could motor, but only make about 2 knots. That would put us into Allans Cay about 10 PM, long after dark. That wasn't a good plan - we'd end up hitting a coral head. We turned a bit more south so that we could sail. If necessary, we'd pick a new destination.
The waves kept getting steeper and closer together. Soon we were taking them over the front of the boat. Paul was still sick, Ninja the cat was puking and mad, and then Zachary started getting sick. I wasn't real popular for setting sail that morning. As it kept getting worse, we started sticking the bowsprit so deep into the waves we were taking green water all the way back to the cockpit. The deck was covered with conch shells and they were washing everywhere. Soon my son James was getting sick. I could tell from the look in his face that he was sorry he ever heard I had a sailboat. He never said anything but I know he was really sorry he ever left Missouri. Nellie was telling me what fools we were to have ever started.
The farther we went, the worse it got. I was really surprised, because it was supposed to have lightened up as the afternoon went on. We were getting closer to the islands and they should have blocked the waves and kept them down even more. We finally tacked back towards Allans Cay. After another hours pounding we arrived there about 7 PM, just as it got very dark. I motored up close the lee side of the island and just dropped the anchor for the night. We'd go inside the next day in daylight. I wondered of anyone would talk to me.
I told James and Paul I was sorry about the way the weather turned out. It was the worst trip we'd had since leaving Texas in January. I assured them that the next day or two would help them forget it. I don't think they were impressed.
The next morning before anyone else woke up I pulled up the anchor and
motored into the little inner area between the Cays. Soon James woke up
and came on deck. He looked down into the 12-foot deep water
and saw shells on the bottom. He looked around at the clear, blue tinted
water and white sand and got a big grin. The bad trip started fading from
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