Sunday, January 15, 2006

Bahamas Getaway - MacGregor 26M

The last trip Joyce and I took with a Macgregor powersailor was to Maine in 2003. Since then demand for the boat had made it difficult to secure one for my personal use. When the first 2006 model boats arrived I was determined to claim one of them myself. It has been 5 years since the last Bahamas adventure ( see Millennium tour 2000) and we were excited and ready to get started.

1/3/06 – Day One – Depart 3pm from our home in Mayo, Md., after baby sitting detail for Joyce and last minute packing for Jim. Just crossed into North Carolina on I95 when an increased vibration alerted me to a bad tire. Time to unhook the boat and head off in search of a new tire. Found a motel room instead.

Day 2 – Fast repairs, had 2 new tires installed with the extra tire as a spare, and back on I95 by 08:30. Made it to just south of Daytona Beach and camped out in the boat at a shopping center parking lot. Chilly but comfy with 2 blankets.

Day 3 – Arrive West Palm Beach 0900 Waste some time at Crackerboy and Riviera Beach Marinas looking for parking for the van and trailer. No luck so decided to leave it at the ramp. It was suggested that we call local storage lots, but I was in a hurry. I’m sure fenced storage could have been arranged. Things have changed a lot since I was here 10 years ago, new condos everywhere. Launched, fueled, watered, and departed, clearing the inlet at 1pm.
As predicted, nice and calm at sea, so we motored at 12-14 mph. Things got a little bumpier and I slowed a bit. Later that afternoon I decided to add the water ballast and slow even further, to 7 mph. Made it to West End Grand Bahama just after dark but unfortunately could not find the marina entrance (no lights) in the dark. With the rough conditions with the 15 knot south wind piling waves up on the beach, we decided to head for Freeport, whose commercial harbor has an easier entrance. It was a lumpy, bumpy 15 miles down the coast, but we arrived and tied up at the Bradford Marina at 10pm. A large historic looking but beat up sailing ship was also docked. Turned out to be the replica ship being used in the “Pirate’s of the Caribbean II” starring Johnny Depp. Very cool. We had put in a long day and quickly fell asleep, after assuring the guard we would check in with the marina office (pay) in the morning.

Day 4 – Called customs at 7:30 am, waited and waited – immigration arrived 10:30, customs at 1:30. Spent the morning tidying up, reading, and watching a busy work crew imported from Vancouver, Canada, overhaul the lifeboats from a cruise ship. We finally got underway at 2pm to do the 9 miles to Port Lucaya. Out past the Pirate ship, the channel had 4’ waves and whitecaps everywhere. Took a real bouncing for a while until we squared away downwind in 100’ of water. Joyce knew it was bad when I asked for a life preserver, something most of my sailing buddies have never heard me do. Things settled down and we motorsailed with a little jib out, pulling into Port Lucaya at 4pm, just in time for a quick dip in the hot tub before a really nice dinner at the Harbour Club restaurant while watching a “Cirque du Soliel”tape on the big screen TV.

Day 5 - Touristing day. Walk to grocery and back (3 miles) snooze on beach, weather cool but sunny. As a surprise for Joyce I got a room at the hotel (mostly to watch the Redskins/Buccaneers playoff game. We drank rum punch and cheered the Redskins on in their win.

 Day 6 – Beautiful, calm morning. Said goodbye to our luxurious hotel room, departed 0900 for Peter Island, where Mark and I stopped in 1995. The Island has been virtually wiped out by hurricanes since then, so we kept on and 15 miles further East peeked into the new commercial fuel oil port, gritty but a great harbor of refuge. We busily entered the entrance in the GPS for future use. 17 miles further we made it to the Deep Cay Club. The entrance was anything but deep, however, and we were glad for the shallow draft of the MacGregor. The club manager and his wife, Kent and Helen, were very nice. They live there with their two children and manage the club, which is a bone fishing club for the wealthy, with private airstrip. We enjoyed our look around , got some fuel, and headed down shallow Runner creek, with instructions from Kent. Runner Creek was very treacherous, and we scraped the bottom several times during the 3-4 miles to the north “ Bight of Abaco” side. Near the exit of the creek we tossed the lunch hook out in the quiet, shallow water and enjoyed a great sunset complete with happy hour. After dark I slid back the hatch to take a look around. Surprise! We had dragged our little anchor with the incoming tide and had quietly nestled into the mangroves. I had never felt it! A good push with the spinnaker pole and we backed out under power and re-anchored, this time with the larger anchor.

 Day 7 –  Mirror calm images mesmerized us as the sun gradually revealed itself. A passing powerboat, one of a fleet that transport locals to jobs on other islands, showed us the preferred route out of the creek and onto the Abaco bight. This is an amazing area, about 20 x 50 miles, with 10 to 24 ft depths and no navigational hazards. There are few inhabitants and virtually no cruising boats, probably due to the popularity of the outer Abacos. We enjoyed the relative solitude, however, and after an hour or so of powering hoisted sails in the light winds for a close reach to Basin Cay, even going out on the trapeze while Joyce steered. With a little fine tuning I was able to steer the boat by shifting body weight while Joyce read in the cockpit.
We hoped to visit Cooperstown, the largest settlement on Great Abaco island, by approaching a shallow dock, but due to low tide it seemed a bit too shallow, and the charts were not very helpful. After an approach from around Randall Cay failed also. We gave up and headed for Mangrove Cay, basically an unprotected lee in shallow water surrounded by reefs. Water temperature had dropped 10 degrees to 65 from the south side of Grand Bahama Island, reminding me why I had gone further south on other trips. We moved to a spot closer to a long sandbar, which was a little more protected, almost anchoring on top of a sand shark. I tried to snag him with a few casts from my spinning rod. Joyce fixed spaghetti and we watched a movie on the VCR. There was plenty of storage space aboard and I’m sure we carried at least twice as much as we needed. I still do that despite many years experience.

Day 8 – Departed peaceful Mangrove Cay near high tide at 8am, and tried the risky, uncharted back passage to the “haulover”. The haulover was a narrow cut blasted through the rock, said to be no more than 20 feet wide and navigable for small boats only at slack high water. The reason to risk such a passage was to cut 20 miles off the regular route around Little Abaco Island to Foxtown. We passed a hurricane demolished hotel and a large fishing boat blown up on a desolate beach. The brown shoals showed up well enough despite the overcast sky, as we rushed along at top speed in mostly 3-4’ with some 6-7’ in places. The haulover was not marked exactly so when I saw it, it looked impossibly narrow, with a little rocky clump almost in the approach. The water was already sluicing through the cut at an estimated 5-6kts, but the water deepened to 5’ so I lined up and shot through the gap, squirting out the other side into the choppy tidal waves and quickly gaining the deeper water on the north side. It was an exhilarating experience, as there really was no more the 6’ on either side of the boat as we passed through. The guide books did not recommend this passage for good reason.
Foxtown was a dreary, hurricane battered place, but active with fishermen unloading their catches and various ferry boats. We fueled and iced up and headed out, intending to anchor in the Hawksbill cays, but there were no attractive beaches.  With more time available, I would have headed south in the Abacos. We saw several other cruising boats slogging to windward under power so with SE winds of 15-20 we decided to sail downwind to Great Sale Cay, about 28 miles. This was the longest pure sail of the trip. While underway we deployed the trolling lines, put up the bimini top, and enjoyed the sail over sparkling, azure blue water. We felt like we were on a highway of sorts, as all traffic rounds Great and Little Sale Cays before heading southeast into the Abacos. Several sail and powerboats passed close, with friendly waves.
Suddenly one of the reels started singing. Fish on ! Furling the jib, luffing up, dropping the bimini, and winding in the fish, finding the bucket and hauling it aboard diverted our attention from the shoaling waters and we almost sailed onto a sandbar. Regaining out bearings and again back in deeper water, I took a GPS fix and charted a safe course to Little Sale Cay, arriving and anchoring in the lee of Great Sale Cay about 4pm. There was time to wade ashore for a beach walk and then clean the fish (a Kingfish or possibly a Mackerel) and cook it for dinner, with buttered sweet potatoes drizzled with coconut rum and fried onions and tomatoes. What a feast! We tied the carcass alongside and never felt the shark that took the entire thing during the night.

Day 9 – Up and out by 7am, it was calmer, so with full fuel tanks we motored the 23 miles to Mangrove Cay II, the turning point for the entrance to the Grand Lucayan Canal, another 17 miles distant. At that point the broad reach would have yielded a boat speed of about 3 kts under sail, so we continued to motor at 14kts and, of course, overshot the entrance by a mile or two. Not bothering with a GPS waypoint for the canal entrance was a mistake, but not a costly one. The canal was newly dredged and marked and had 5’ at mid tide. We pulled into a side canal, tied to a convenient tree, and enjoyed a refreshing sun shower in the cockpit. The canal was a pleasant change from the vastness of the ocean. Mark Svenson and I passed through ten years earlier, and little had changed. There were a few more houses, but lot development is still no more than 5%. Sailing buddy Fritz Wray owns a lot here somewhere, purchased in the 60’s.
Near the south end we saw the film crew for the “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie with more of the pirate ships, including the “death ship” and several partial decks mounted on barges. They did not appear to welcome star-struck gawkers, so we passed by and out onto the ocean again. It was a little lumpy, especially compared to the canal, and we were glad to regain the sanctuary of Port Lucaya. Soon we were happily back in the hot tub. Dinner plans were almost short –circuited by an untimely power outage. We had a drink at Rumrunner’s bar and chatted with other yachties until the power came back on. We weren’t worried, there was no shortage of fish aboard A-1 Express. With the forecast for deteriorating weather it looked like tomorrow would be the best time to cross the Gulfstream for a few days, so we turned in after dinner, anticipating an early departure.

 Day 10 – Up at 4am and on the ocean at 5am, we motored west, passing several boats which were slowly approaching Port Lucaya, and later several ships near Freeport’s commercial harbor. As the sky began to lighten, I increased speed and we hurried towards our destination, gradually putting all signs of Grand Bahama behind us. The NE wind against the stream built the waves into lumps, abaft the beam, and soon we were skittering down, twisting and turning, fighting the wheel for control. By 8am Joyce found it a bit much so we stopped and filled the ballast tank, then hoisted full sail. It’s always fun to sail a bit, even though the reality is the slower speed adds too much to the crossing time. Who wants to get in after dark? Even the US coast appears less friendly after dark, so we motorsailed, a good compromise, making 7-8kts, more when surfing down waves. We took turns steering in 1 hour shifts. As it got gradually rougher Joyce began to tire so I took the last 3 hours, homing in on the GPS coordinates of Lake Worth inlet, arriving back at our launch point about 4pm. 78 miles in 11 hours, across a lumpy sea, for an average of 7 kts in a lightweight trailerable boat, was not bad. The Macgregor 65 would not have made better time in the same conditions. We were glad to be back across, and looking forward to a couple days on the Florida waterways.
With some relief we found the van and trailer intact, but when the van failed to start due to a totally dead battery it took the efforts of a friendly local fisherman and a jump start to get it going. The culprit was a reading lamp over the passenger seat had been left on. Oops!, said Joyce. We charged it up by driving to our favorite restaurant, The Holiday House, for a sumptuous buffet feast to celebrate our safe trip. We could have stayed tied to the pier but we had an experience a few years ago when the wind shifted and the boat began to bump the dock in the middle of the night, so we elect to anchor out whenever possible. We had not counted on the wakes from passing boats far out on the ICW, however, and had to set the 2nd anchor to keep the stern into the wakes.

Day 11 – We awoke early, due to needing a reset of the biological clocks, and headed over to newly restored “Peanut Island”, which lies in the middle of the harbor. The park service has done a remarkable job, with new walkways, a snorkeling lagoon, manicured beaches and a day use marina where we tied up. Very restful. At noon we motored over to the Tiki bar at nearby Riviera Beach marina, for a great fish sandwich. The weather report was for severe thunderstorms and rain in the afternoon, so it was back to the ramp and out for A-1 Express. The versatile powersailor had done its job again, with a mid-winter break in the Bahamas accomplished in comfort and safety. We headed back up I95 about 3pm and continued late into the night, with a few hours rest aboard in another friendly parking lot.

Day 12 – Drove up past Savannah and stopped to visit some friends who have retired to “Sun City”, and to watch the last playoff games before the Super Bowl. We spent a relaxing day touring the area and the amenities of the resort community. Annapolis will take another 12 hours on I95, for a total of about 2200 miles of trailering and about 400 miles of ocean cruising in 14 days, an adventure only a trailersailor can have. Soon we will be back in Maryland, but we will have the memories forever.

--Cheers and happy sailing from Capt Jim and first mate Joyce!