Sunday, October 25, 2015

Back in the USA - Catching Up (Part 3: Royal Island, Eleuthera to Abacos Islands to Florida)

On the third evening at the most northern part of Eleuthera there were six of us anchored in Royal Harbor anchorage preparing to do the 60 nautical mile (69 regular miles for you landlubbers) open ocean run to the entrance to the Sea of Abaco part way up the Abaco Islands.

There is always a tradeoff when making these open ocean passages. First you wait for the seas to be somewhat calm. Then you wait and hope that the wind is heading in the right direction to sail. Finally, when you get out there you hope all your data that you base your decision on works out as planned. If not, then you either decide to push on, or just turn around and wait for better conditions.

All day while hiking and swimming and then meeting for cocktails at the end of the day the discussion was what each of us was going to do. Some of us planned on leaving the next morning because there would be wind but it might be too much on the nose. Some decided they would wait and leave a day later because the wind direction would be more favorable. Just after daybreak a convoy of sailboats and powerboats headed out. We had the lead spot although nothing is a race and Pearl is not one to ever be the fastest vessel out there.

The winds were a little on the nose but we could keep the sail up the whole way. At times we had to motor sail, luffing a bit to get back on course but it worked out fine and we arrived safely anchoring just off Lynyard Cay. We later learned the folks that waited a day had no wind at all and had to motor the whole way up.

The Bahamas has so much to offer and different parts and different islands appeal to different kinds of cruisers. We arrived at the Abacos Islands and settled in. This was our second time through there. We prefer the southern islands in the Exuma chain. For us, the Exumas are less commercialized and we find the small Bahamian  settlements to be more friendly and relaxing. On top of that, the water in the Exumas is by far clearer than in the Abacos. Passing through the Abaocos on the way back to the states puts us in good position to cross the Gulf Stream and arrive at Ft Pierce, Florida which is where we like to check back into the country.

Other than stopping to renew our visas and provisioning in Marsh Harbor we just quickly worked our way north over a week or two to get to Great Sale Cay. Except for a rescue story I will talk about later, pictures tell the tale the best.

After one night anchored with our friends at Lynyard Cay we all scattered and went our own way. Our first stop was our favorite harbor town in the Abacos, Hope Town. It always reminds us of Provincetown on Cape Cod. The kerosene powered lighthouse that is still lit every night.

** If you click on the photos you can see the full size version **

After refueling and filling our water tanks at 40 cents a gallon we headed to Marsh Harbor to buy some food to get us home. The water is reverse osmosis (RO) water made by taking the salt and impurities out of sea water. RO water has not taste and no smell. After one night at Marsh Harbor we were on our way north to Guyana Cay to anchor in a couple of spots waiting for the proper weather to pop out in the ocean and back in the Sea of Abaco get to the upper islands of the Abaco Islands.

.Memories......we are anchored off the beaches on the north end of Guana Cay. This is the beach that they took us into when we took the kids on the Big Red Boat cruise many years ago. The Big Red Boat was the cruise ship associated with Disney World before Disney had its own cruise ships. It is now a private development of mansions and the beaches are private so we can't go ashore.

Next was a day stop at Green Turtle Cay to get some gasoline for the dinghy engine and then we anchored at our favorite non-commercial island, Manjack Cay. Manjack Cay is a provate island but the owners that live there invite the cruisers to come on shore and enjoy their beaches, gardens and hiking trails. We spent a two nights there followed by one night at Powell Cay just to the north.

The private trails on Manjack led to this wonderful beach.

In June, the weather brings many daily thunderstorms. They can be quite intimidating especially when they spawn small tornados over the water called Water Spouts. Gayleen loves watching the clouds and storms and water spouts. I kept telling her that if she keeps talking about how interesting they were she would attract them to us! We heard on the radio a boat describing how they watched one go ashore on an island and rip up some small trees. This is when we decided that the sooner we got back to Florida, the better.

Dodging thunderstorms and lightening our next stop was an uninhabited island named Great Sale Cay. We would overnight there before we made the long passage across the Bahama Bank, across the Gulf Stream and back to Ft Pierce, Florida.

We passed a typical Bahamian fishing operation. The mother duck ship travels with a number of small duckling fishing boats that get sent out to catch and bring back fish, lobster and conch.

When we got there we were sharing the anchorage with 2 other boats that were also headed back to the states. It was late so we ate and went to sleep knowing the next day would be the start of a long trip.


The next day the other two boats left in the morning because they were going to follow a more northerly route to Port Canaveral. Our plan was to leave around 3 P.M. and travel overnight to arrive at the Ft Pierce inlet early afternoon at slack tide so we didn't have to worry about the strong currents that flow in and out of the inlet. Keep in mind that by the middle of June, most of the snow bird cruisers have already arrived back in the states and are someplace north for the summer. There are very few boats crossing and especially very few heading a more northerly route like our neighbors at the anchorage.

We left mid afternoon as planned. It was good sailing weather for once and Pearl was humming along at just about the right pace under full sail. A little over two hours into our trip, the radio which had been silent due to the lack of boats in the area squawked loudly with a call to the US Coast Guard. It was one of the boats that left our anchorage in the morning relaying a Mayday call for a vessel that was in distress that they could hear on their radio. A Mayday call is the highest level of severity call for assistance. You only send out a Mayday call when lives are in danger!

It turned out that a 26 foot power boat named the Sandra Gale was disabled and taking on water. They evidently had a very weak radio or handheld radio and the only people that could hear them were the two sailboats that were about 5 miles away from them. The Coast Guard could hear the relay call from the sailboats and said they would send a helicopter to them but it may take a while and there were no Coast Guard boats in the area. They were sending one from Florida right away but it would take hours to get there. Lots of information was exchanged including the GPS coordinates of the Sandra Gale.

We plotted the location on our chart plotter and although they weren't that far off our plotted course, we had not gone far enough and were more than 25 miles away.

As we listened to the radio conversation the other boat was having with the Coast Guard, the Sandra Gale was taking on water quickly and even the helicopter would not make it there in time. The sailboats agreed to take down their sails and motor the 4 or 5 miles off course to help out. The Sandra Gale has three people on board and was going from Stuart Florida to the northern Abacos for the weekend. As the sailboat approach it was starting to get dark. The Sandra Gale was low in the water. They pulled up next to it, two people climbed on board the sailboat and the Sandra Gale sunk. The third person had to be retrieved from the water.

Those people were very very very lucky. This was a less traveled time of year and most cruising sailboats do not take that northerly route even in the busy times. If those two sailboats were not there to hear the weak Mayday call those people would have been lost. We could hear the sailboats and the Coast Guard but never heard a word of what the folks on the Sandra Gale were saying.

The Coast Guard helicopter arrived but had to head back for fuel. The rescuing sailboats agreed to head west and meet the Coast Guard Cutter out in the Gulf Stream to transfer the 3 saved people over to the Coast Guard so they could continue their trip.

It got dark quickly and Pearl continued to sail along while we watched thunderstorms with lightening all around us. Fortunately they all either dissipated before they reached us or turned another direction.

We did have a challenging section of the crossing. At about midnight Pearl was leaving the shallow waters of the Bahama Banks into the very deep waters leading to the Gulf Stream. The currents and winds created a confused sea state that tossed and turned Pearl in all directions. There was no moon and it was pitch black so it felt more violent than it probably would have in the daylight. Gayleen was convince the mast was slapping on the water back and forth. After about 45 minutes things settled down and the sunrise several hours later was calming.

Later the next afternoon Pearl completed a 122 nm 23 hour passage from Great Sale Cay, Bahamas to Ft Pierce, FL...Back in the USA!

You can see on the recording of the trip the affect of the Gulf Stream. We knew from the last time we crossed from the Abacos that when we left the Bahamas Bank we should aim at a point about 20 miles south of our FT Pierce destination. If we held that compass direction the Gulf Stream current would whisk us north to the Ft Pierce inlet. You can see how our course over ground bent north as we entered the current of the Gulf Stream. The crossing went well with no major shipping to deal with. We arrived about 40 minutes before slack current in the inlet so you can see our zig zag as we killed some time before heading in.

It was good to be back at our home marina and tied to a dock with electricity and hot unlimited showers. In the end we decided to stay there for the summer and wait out hurricane season.

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