George Town, Exumas, December, 2017 and January 2018

After traveling 1735 miles from Grenada to the Bahamas in just over a month, we decided to stay anchored in George Town for 2 weeks to catch our breath, de-salt Pilgrim, make minor repairs, and celebrate Christmas. The cooler, less humid temperature and calm sparkling azure waters were welcome. The fear of petty crime slowly melted away as we found many cruisers did not even lock their dinghies at the dock when they were in town shopping. We started leaving our hatches open at night so we could enjoy the cool evening breeze. We began to wonder why we struggled to get to the East Caribbean.

Sand Dollar Beach anchorage at Georgetown

We enjoyed the camaraderie of cruisers from about 100 boats for a Christmas Pot Luck celebration.

The last two weeks of December blessed us with perfect weather for beach gatherings. But then the cold front that caused the extreme cold on the US east coast after Christmas finally moved SE and began hammering the northern Bahamas with wind up to 50 knots. For the next 2 weeks we had a combination of strong wind and heavy rain, keeping us stuck in George Town, often with both the Rocna and Danforth anchors deployed.

Storm incoming at Georgetown weird colour on the water (not retouched)

A couple of exciting events happened in George Town. When we tried to back on our anchor to set it after a wind shift, we discovered the throttle cable was broken. Fortunately the tiny hardware store carried a replacement part. We also discovered that our aging, much used Honda Generator was feeling cranky. Last year at Christmas in Bequia, Brian had to basically take the whole machine apart and clean it. This year, right on schedule, it balked and needed a full day of Brians attention.

Fixing the generator (again)

We call it “The laying on of hands.” We are still very happy with our new dinghy and outboard, although the same day the cable broke and the Honda generator refused to work, the outboard low oil light came on halfway across George Town harbour. The problem has not been resolved but may be a warning of over-revving the motor when there are high waves that can cause propeller cavitation.

Weather forecaster Chris Parker was scratching his head most of this past winter trying to make sense of conflicting weather models and a weather pattern that forecasters had never seen before. In early January we watched the changing weather maps on an hourly basis and we were astounded at the non-tropical hurricane that traveled up the US east coast to the Canadian Maritimes.

There was a mega yacht (Revelry) in our anchorage in early January when one of the cold fronts came through. Mega yacht = power cruiser over 70 feet long with 3 to 5 decks above the waterline. They have tenders (not dinghies) and the tender was returning to the mother ship for lunch with the owners / guests. The tender radioed the mother ship to get lunch ready and turn up the heat on the hot tub.We were unaware that hot tubs were standard equipment on such vessels.

George Town is sometimes referred to as Chicken Harbour. Once you get into the 10 mile by 2 mile protection of Stocking Island and the other small Cays, you tend to shuffle back and forth to various anchorages in the harbour depending on the wind direction, but become overly cautious about venturing out into the rough seas of Exuma Sound. We stayed in George Town for just about 1 month, which is twice as long as a normal harbour stay for us, but the weather the first 2 weeks of 2018 was highly unusual. We had 8 consecutive days of rain, one dumping over 4 inches in one 24-hour period. During 2 downpours on that day, our enclosure was like a sieve, and we found one potential small chainplate leak, but below decks remained thankfully dry.

Lee Stocking Island. January 20, 2018

There was one day of moderate wind to sail NW up the Exuma chain of islands to Lee Stocking. The sail was beautiful with a reefed main and both headsails. We had 3-4 foot seas, so splattered the starboard side of the boat with salt water. Brian had a line out, but there was very little weed floating on the waters surface, which is indication there may be small fish hiding and larger fish (Mahi-Mahi) hunting. The cuts / channels from Exuma Sound into the cays / anchorages can be difficult, and Adderly Cut is no exception. When the tide is going out and the east winds and seas are blowing in, a dangerous set of waves makes the narrow entrance treacherous. And the tide tables tell you when the high and low water should occur, but do not help identify when the current is going to be the strongest, which usually does not correspond exactly with the high and low water time. We always breathe a sigh of relief when we get through a cut, no matter what the wind, waves and current are doing.

Lee Stocking cut with wind against current

There were just a few cruising boats that anchored at Lee Stocking during our 4-day stay. The water is clear and on a previous visit we saw a hammerhead shark swimming around our boat. The marine research station at Lee Stocking closed a decade ago, and although cruisers are warned to stay off the island, we took a few walks on the beaches far from the abandoned buildings to look for shells.

Keep Out signs and an unguarded beach at Lee Stocking

There are very few birds in the Bahamas, so we get excited when we see them. One lonely Osprey came to rest from the strong wind close to Pilgrim. We also spotted an Osprey, Royal Terns and 2 Oystercatchers in February on Eleuthera. In the settlements we would see Bahamian Mockingbirds, doves and sparrows.

Black Point, January 25, 2018

We sailed 25 miles NW from Lee Stocking in Exuma Sound to Black Point, a small settlement on Great Guana Cay halfway up the Exuma chain of islands. Black Point is a small settlement and rather depressed economically. No industry other than tourism, which is quite slow this year in the Bahamas. We waited out two more cold fronts here. The Black Point anchorage can be dangerous in strong west wind because of a sand bar that augments rather than suppresses waves from the Exuma Bank, but the fronts did not bring strong westerly winds during our stay. One day the Flamingo Airlines flight from Nassau could not land at Staniel Cay because of the high wind, but was able to land at Black Point. We saw the plane come in for a landing and were really glad we were on Pilgrim instead of the puddle-jumping plane.

We hiked the roads and beaches on Great Guana, finding some wonderful shells and flotsam. There continue to be new foundations begun for buildings that are then abandoned. There must be some funding formula that gives settlements extra dollars for new developments, with no consequences if the buildings are never completed.

Two of the many partially built structures at Black Point

Warderick Wells Land and Sea Park, January 31, 2018

The forecast was for NE to E wind around 20 knots, so we decided to sail the 25 miles NW on the calmer Exuma Bank side of the islands to Warderick Wells on the last day of January. It was a brisk close reach with just head sails.

We anchored off Emerald Rock rather than take one of the park’s moorings, and dinghied to the beaches on the west / bank side of the island to explore including the beach with the sign Owl Danger.” We are still not sure who is in danger, the owl or us. We also snorkeled the coral heads at Emerald Rock, where there are dinghy moorings.

The initiative to create the park and the Bahamas National Trust came in the 1950’s from US conservationists. It appeared to us in 2014 when we first visited the park that the staff was many US young adults. We hope the US influence in the Bahamas National Trust does not dominate its mission and work and that Bahamians can enjoy the bounty of the park’s resources, both by visiting it and sharing in the income the park generates from cruisers.

Cape Eleuthera, February 2, 2018

Making the passage east from the Exumas to Eleuthera can be a challenge with the dominant east wind, but February 2 there was virtually no wind, so we made the 30-mile passage across the Exeuma Sound to Cape Eleuthera under engine power. During our passage, Brian caught a Mahi-Mahi and we made water. Mahi-Mahi are large fish, so we did not weigh it until fillets and steaks were cut. 5 pounds of dressed fish.

We spent 2 nights at the Cape Eleuthera Marina and enjoyed our first hot showers since early November. Back in 2016 this marina was our jump-off spot to make the 1000 mile passage to the East Caribbean (St. Martin). The slips are designed for sport fishing boats rather than sailboats, the fuel price seemed high, and the restaurant meal was disappointing. We know why sailors do not stop here.

Rock Sound, Eleuthera, February 4

Chris Parker, the weather forecaster, continued to be puzzled by conflicting weather models during February, as the entire Caribbean was hammered with strong east winds generating seas in the Leeward Islands up to 16 feet. Many cruisers, especially in the East Caribbean (Windward / Leeward Islands) or trying to get there, were trapped in harbours for days, or had to brave difficult or dangerous conditions to meet schedules and deadlines. Rock Sound has places to anchor with protection from all wind directions. The grocery store is better than any in the Exumas, and the restaurant at the north end of the anchorage has put in a new dinghy dock. The old dock could not be used during low tide and the settlement dock south of the main part of the settlement is crumbling.

We hiked to the east / Atlantic side of Eleuthera to scour the beach for shells. It was a pleasant walk, but few shells were found. The settlement seemed to be in decline. Some of the stores were closed and the restaurant on the waterfront with the new dinghy dock did not have many diners.

Rock Sound beach on the Atlantic side

Hatchet Bay (Alice Town), Eleuthera, February 7, 2018

With uncertain weather continuing in the forecast, we decided to move north on Eleuthera to Hatchet Bay, an even more secure harbour than Rock Sound. The bay was a salt pond in the 19th century, but a 90-foot-wide channel to the bank was blasted by an English immigrant farmer to allow the development (and shipments) of a dairy industry that failed long ago. The channel still exists, which makes Hatchet Bay the safest anchorage in all the Bahamas. During our 2-week stay the wind howled at 20 knots from the east, keeping our wind generator going constantly. We did some hiking and beach combing, but there is little to do in Alice Town, the settlement on Hatchet Bay. We spent time making progress on our projects.

Osprey Hatchet Bay channel

We encountered another Whitby 42 (Ever After, #45) in Hatchet Bay, the only one in our entire Bahamas trip this year. We also spent time aboard a Countess 44, Rociante, that had been extensively refurbished. The cruising traffic was much lighter than we expected. It was a difficult year for many cruisers to get across the Gulf Stream from Florida to the Bahamas because of the uncertain and short weather windows.

Restored Countess 44, Rociante

Royal Island, February 23, 2018

Royal Island is the jump-off anchorage to go north, to the Abacos, Freeport or Florida. The 35-mile passage north from Hatchet Bay to Royal Island takes you through Current Cut. It is a natural channel with tidal currents up to 5 knots, so you must plan to make the passage at slack water. Weather forecasts for the end of February seemed favourable for the passage across the Gulf Stream, but leaving Hatchet Bay later than February 23 would mean going through Current Cut with a strong current in daylight or slack water after dark. Since Royal Island has good protection, we knew we could stay there until a good weather window presented itself. The passage was easy, sailing all the way except for motoring through the cut.

Sunset on our Gulf Stream crossing

Fort Pierce, Florida, February 26, 2018

We had a safe, uneventful Gulf Stream Crossing on Saturday and Sunday (Feb 24-25) arriving at Fort Pierce at 7:30 on Monday morning. We had a reasonably good sail for the first 14 hours, then had to rely on the motor for most of the rest of the way. Seas were reasonable, but made sleep almost impossible because of the jerky motion of Pilgrim.

We docked at Harbortown Marina. We needed to get to the St. Lucie County Airport to check in with Homeland Security and get a new US cruising permit. This entailed learning the ins and outs of using Uber since taxis are a thing of the past in Fort Pierce. Our coffee supply was topped up at Publix, the local grocery chain. We had coveted warm showers The marina has a very good restaurant, so we treated ourselves to seared tuna dinners before collapsing into our bunk.

View from the anchorage at Fort Pierce

February 27 we checked with Chris Parker to see if Wednesday / Thursday was a good weather window for making the 185-mile passage up the Florida coast to the St. John River on the border between Florida and Georgia. Chris indicated it would be good, and maybe the last opportunity for an easy Atlantic passage north for a number of days. We checked the current table for both the Fort Pierce Inlet and the St. John River, since we wanted to avoid strong tidal currents at both ends of the passage. We left Fort Pierce during slack water at 2AM on February 28, hoisted the double-reefed main and began our last long passage, hoping to arrive at slack water on the St. John River at 4PM on March 1.

St. John River, Blount Island, Florida, March 1, 2018

Once we were clear of the Fort Pierce Inlet, we were delighted to find east wind strong enough to sail north to the bulge at Cape Canaveral, 60 miles north. At noon when we reached the Cape, the wind dropped and we needed to use the engine to keep to our schedule. We were surprised to notice our tachometer was not registering our RPM. Brian did some investigation, and we determined that the alternator had failed, so we fired up the Honda generator and charged batteries that way while we used the motor to propel us forward. At midnight we we were ahead of schedule, so we turned off the motor and ghosted along at 4 knots with an 8-10 know SW breeze. On Thursday morning we turned the engine back on to time our arrival at the St. John River inlet at 4:30 PM. At 3PM the wind picked up from the west and was gusting to 20 knots. We arrived at the inlet at 4:30 PM and entered the breakwater with a tanker barge pushed by a tugboat. The St. John River is lined with terminal ports, and we encountered 2 large cargo and one cruise ship down bound, a car ferry and several tug boats while we struggled against the strong west headwind.

We traveled 5 miles up the river to our anchorage and set the anchor at sunset. The wind kept our wind generator working (when the tidal current kept us in the wind) so that we did not need to use the Honda generator. We stayed at anchor for the weekend.

opening bridge at Jacksonville Jacksonville city scape

Green Cove Springs, Florida, March 5, 2018

On Monday (March 5) the wind died and we traveled the last 25 miles up the St. John River to Green Cove Springs. We had a delay at the opening bridge at Jacksonville, since the bridge is undergoing a 2-year rebuild. We passed many cargo ships and tugboats nudging them in and out of their terminal berths.

Cargo offload Riverboat undergoing river trials

Pilgrim on the hard at Green Cove Springs

The weather in Fort Pierce was warm, in the 80’s during the day and high 60’s at night. The water temperature was 75° F. By the time we got to Cape Canaveral the water temperature was 70° F and in the St. John River was 65° F. The air temperature in northern Florida was cool, getting to the 30s-40’s at night. We found our warm quilt, deeply buried for the past 4 years.

We spent 2 weeks before hauling out on major projects.

Our plans are to spend June - September on our Nordic Tug 26, Tuglet, in northern Lake Huron (the North Channel), and return to Pilgrim in November.