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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Leaving Marathon, Florida was like leaving home. We were anxious to go, but knew it would be a long time, if ever, before we again saw the good friends we met there. Boot Key Harbor, in Marathon had been our home from December 29, 1999 to March 28, 2000. For several days before we left, a couple we had anchored next to for nearly a month tried to persuade us to accompanying them to Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and other countries in the Southwestern Caribbean. We almost went with them. It was very tempting, because they spoke Spanish and had been there before, but we really wanted to see the Bahamas first and weren't quite ready to leave the United States for nearly a year. Once as far South as Belize, the threat of hurricanes from June through November keeps sailors as far South as possible. South of 12 degrees North latitude, which is about the Northeast border of Costa Rica on the West side of the Caribbean and Grenada on the East side, is South of hurricane territory. We will eventually visit the area, but not until next year at the earliest. We figure once we get that far South, we might as well transit the Panama Canal and spend some time in the Pacific. We'll do that after we've seen the East coast of the U.S.
An absolutely perfect weather window opened for us to head for the Bahamas, which consisted of a 10 to 15 knot South to Southwest breeze. We have a weather FAX receiver onboard that prints out weather maps transmitted from the National Weather Service in Boston. So we had a good understanding of the current and predicted weather for the next 48 hours. We left Marathon at noon and sailed out beyond the reef into the Gulf Stream. We had discussed with many cruisers, who had been to the Bahamas, about the best route to take and the consensus was that if we had the right weather, the most efficient way would be to leave Marathon on a heading of 090 degrees (due East) and sail for 18 hours and we would arrive at North Cat Cay (pronounced key), where we could clear customs, rest and begin our adventure in the Bahamas. Our destination was 110 miles Northeast of Marathon, but because of the Gulf Stream, which carried us North at nearly three knots, combined with our Easterly heading, we actually traveled Northeast.
Night passages are not our first choice, but we felt we could handle it without difficulty. We take two-hour shifts at night and our rules are that for safety reasons we do not venture out of the cabin without waking the other person. If we do leave the cabin at night, we wear a harness and tether that limits our movements, but will prevent us from falling overboard. Plus, we wear an automatic inflatable life jacket with a strobe light that will flash a bright white light so we can be seen and picked up.
This particular trip was very interesting because of the beautiful stars, the glow of lights from Florida way off to the West and the other boat traffic. To aid our navigation, and give us something to monitor at night, we have some very useful pieces of equipment. First, the boat steered herself via the autopilot, next we always knew exactly where we were thanks to the GPS or global positioning satellite receiver, which gives us a constant readout of our latitude, longitude, distance to destination, time to destination, speed and cross track reference, which tells us if we are left or right of our intended course. We also have radar, which helps us keep track of the distance and position of other boats in the area and the shoreline when we are within 16 miles of land. In addition, we have a depth finder; good only in less than 500 feet of water, and a radar detector, that lets us know when other boats are scanning us with their radar. For communications, we have both VHF and HF transceivers, which allow us to communicate short distances or hundreds of miles. For example, during most of the night we monitored 14,300 megahertz, which is the HAM maritime net. The conversation that night was about an emergency medical evacuation of an American child off the coast of Honduras. We could clearly hear the family on board the boat, the Honduran Coast Guard, the American Coast Guard and the HAM maritime net operator in Washington D.C., who was coordinating it all. Quite fascinating.
During the night we were passed by several very large oceangoing tugs that were pushing or pulling very large barges. Most were loaded with containers. We surmised that because of the relatively shallow water on the Great Bahamas Bank, that barges are a practical vehicle for shipping in the area because of their shallow draft. We also saw one cruise ship that was lighted up like Times Square on New Years Eve. Numerous fishing boats of various types were also seen. Jan was on watch when we arrived off North Cat Cay and she woke me at 0530 while we were five miles offshore. We had to wait for daylight before attempting the approach in the shallow and coral populated channel to the island. When the sun had risen high enough to see well, I looked over the side and saw the bottom clearly. We were in 58 feet of water! Not only was the water clean, but just a few miles West of us, in the Gulf Stream, the depth was 2,400 feet.
We had breakfast and at 0730 we started our approach to North Cat Cay. Even though we were moving Easterly and the sun was still not very high, we saw several boats entering and leaving through the unmarked channel, so we decided to follow them. That worked well, but without the depth finder it would have been nerve wracking. The water is so clear that 20 feet looks like two feet. Jan also stood on the bow and gave me steering directions around coral heads.
Safely in, we anchored outside the marina and raised our yellow quarantine flag on the starboard spreader, which is required until the boat and crew are cleared by customs. We flew Old Glory from the radar post in the stern. After clearing customs, the Bahamian courtesy flag is flown from the starboard spreader instead of the quarantine flag. According to our guidebooks, only the captain can go ashore with the ship's and crew's papers to clear customs. So I got all the paperwork together, got in the dinghy and went ashore. I was directed to the dock master, who informed me that I would have to bring Sojourner to the transient pier for inspection. And since the pier was privately owned there would be a $50.00 transient use fee. Many of the islands in the Bahamas are privately owned and we were told and read in our guidebook to expect a use fee. So I paid the $50.00 and dinghied back to Sojourner to bring her to the transient pier. Once we were tied up, the dock master gave me a large envelope full of papers to fill out. He told me to fill them out and then take them to the customs agent in a different office. How clever. If you don't pay the $50.00 you don't get the papers to fill out. So I filled out the papers and took them to the customs agent, who stamped them all very vigorously, charged me $100.00, which included a fishing license and then told me he accepted tips. I gave him $5.00. He never inspected Sojourner so I guess the tip was adequate, or he just didn't want to leave his air-conditioned office. So, for $155.00 we got fishing licenses and a cruising permit for one year in the Bahamas. Really not a bad deal, when you consider the red tape and delays one would probably endure at a government run facility. We spent the rest of the day swimming, napping and getting ready for crossing the Great Bahamas bank to our next destination, Chub Cay.
The passage from the Western-most islands of the Bahamas, which include Bimini and North Cat Cay requires crossing the Great Bahamas bank, which is a huge geographic area with very shallow water. The average depth on the bank is 15 feet and the water is crystal clear. The distance across from North Cat Cay to Chub Cay is 75 miles. Normally, one would want to cross that distance in a single day, which would mean getting a pretty early start, but the weather was so good that we chose to sleep in, get a later start and spend the night on the bank by anchoring a few miles off the straight line route.
The trip was delightful. The wind was out of the South at 15 knots and we were traveling East - a perfect point of sail. The sun was bright and the air was clear. It couldn't have been better. Sailing all day in 15 feet of shockingly clear water is an incredible experience. Once out of sight of land it is like any other passage until you look over the side and see the sandy bottom with occasional coral heads and sponges of various types drifting by under the boat. It is a popular route and lots of sail and powerboats were encountered. Toward evening, we overtook two ketches (sailboats with two masts). They had the same plan we did, so we anchored together for the night, feeling that three anchor lights would be easier to see than one or two. Jan had trailed a lure behind us and when she reeled it in, she had a two-foot long Spanish mackerel. There is nothing like fresh fish, and a beautiful sunset after an incredible day of sailing. We even picked up a Bahamas radio station that welcomed us with "island" music replete with steel drums. So far the Bahamas were everything we had hoped they would be.
The next morning we weighed anchor at 0700
and headed for Chub Cay. Two hours later we passed the Northwest
channel marker, which is a buoy floating in 14 feet of water. It marks a
narrow channel, which leads to the "Tongue of the Ocean" - one of the
many trenches that cut through the Bahamas banks. Less than a mile
from the marker the sea floor descends to over 500 feet and in another ten
miles it is over 6,000 feet deep. It is like floating over an area much larger
than the Grand Canyon. There are areas in the trench that are nearly
10,000 feet deep. Two and a half hours later we approached Chub Cay.
The water was so clear there that we saw the bottom clearly 115 feet below
us. Chub Cay is a sport fisherman's paradise because of the proximity to
deep clear water. Stay tuned.