Life in the fruit bowl

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Sunday’s forecast: Wind 9 knots, ESE all day with overcast skies, little chance of rain and a high of 33 (that’s 91 for my American friends).

I slept in the salon Saturday night until the mosquitoes started buzzing in my ear at day break, that’s when I moved to the cockpit.  I started out in the aft cabin, but when I woke in the middle of the night and realized how bloody hot it was in there, I had to get out. As I lay in the pre-sunrise twilight under the bimini, I listened for the dolphins arriving.  They’ve been coming by the boat most morning for the last week.  You hear them before you see them as they let out a short explosive “chuff” sound which leads to us jumping to our feet and running up and down the deck looking to see where they went.  They are on the surface for such a short period of time, if you’re not quick they dive and are gone.  Saturday we were lucky as one spend a period of time scratching it’s back on the mooring line of the ball behind us.  Dolphins are a great way to start the morning.

We’ve started to find our routine again, listening to the weather in the mornings and making the day’s plans accordingly.  Is the harbour too choppy to go to town today?  If no, then we better go today and get some chores done as later in the week, we won’t be able to go without getting wet.  While very small, George Town has lots of services to offer.  A choice of laundry mats, liquor stores, grocery stores (2!), gift shopping opportunities, propane on Wednesdays and several bars and restaurants offering music a few times a week.  If you buy a beer or even a bottle of water, you can use the free wifi at Red Boone Cafe, they even have power points for your laptop. This is luxury.

Since we went to town on Saturday and have all the supplies we need for the next 5 or more days, we’ll spend some time today prepping the boat for our next move.  We plan  to leave George Town next weekend and start heading north.  Hurricane season is officially here and we need to be mindful of where we are and where we’re going.  The Chesapeake Bay is the current plan, but we’ll take our time getting there.

Yesterday was our last day on our mooring in the fruit bowl.  It’s called the fruit bowl because of the numerous house boats in the morning field; Tangelo, Mango, Pineapple and Cantaloupe.

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Mooring field off Chat n’ Chill – The fruit bowl is to the left.

We put Grace on a mooring ball here back in March while I went home to work so Tim wouldn’t have to worry about moving the boat if bad weather came.  The moorings are well maintained and located in one of the better protected areas of Elizabeth Harbour.  I’ve been back a week now and have come to love our little neighbourhood.  We won’t be moving far, but it’s time to stop paying rent and get back on the hook.

We hope that by moving out of our protected bay, we might get some more airflow through the boat and then maybe I will be able to sleep in my bed for the whole night.

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Houseboats for rent – fancy a vacation in the fruit bowl?

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Chat n’ Chill Beach

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Cruising Plans are written in the sand

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“Cruising plans are written in the sand at low tide”…this is a very popular adage in the world we live in and it’s been VERY true for us.  We’ve made all sorts of plans in the last six months and it seems that five minutes later we’re changing them.

For instance…  When we left Toronto, we had hoped to be in the Bahamas for Christmas, but that didn’t happen.  In November we made an unplanned trip home and following our return to the boat we had an ongoing, difficult to resolve, dinghy engine issue.  These two events slowed our progress down and forced us to change our plans.  Because of these two events – three amazing things happened.  We made new and amazing friends with the crew of Scheherazade, we were able to spend Christmas Week with Scheherazade, Mighty Fine and Stray Cat (how lucky we were!) and ended up in Bimini at the same time as Mar-a-Largo in January, who we’d last seen two months prior!  If we hadn’t been delayed, these wonderful things wouldn’t have happened and I am so grateful for these changes and delays that altered our plans.

Good things can happen when you change your plans.

Our original “big” plan was to spend the winter in the Bahamas and if we liked cruising (and the money held out) we’d go further south and *maybe* summer in Grenada during hurricane season.  As fate would have it, that’s not happening and it’s not because we don’t like cruising  or because we ran out of money (not quite yet at least…).

Back in February, Tim and I were sitting in the cockpit, looking out over the beautiful aquamarine water surrounding us in the Exuma Island chain and trying to work out what we were going to do for the summer and hurricane season.  Do we head south to Grenada, Island of Spice?  Head north to the Chesapeake and explore an area we rushed through last fall? Or make for the Dominican Republic and spend the summer/fall in the Caribbean’s best hurricane hole?  All the considered locations have benefits and drawbacks.  I think Tim was leaning towards the DR and I was torn between heading back to the US and moving forward to the DR.  And then I got a Facebook message… My former boss, colleague and friend sent me the following…

Hi Karen! How are you?!!! Are you loving your trip? Any chance you might be interested in some work remotely? Like, from your boat?  

I was kinda surprised that my immediate reaction was – YES!!  Taking a job would definitely change our cruising plans, but the unexpected income would be a huge blessing for us.  To make a long story short, it turned out the contract would need to be done from Toronto, but as it was only 10 weeks long, Tim and I decided it was a good move and I should take the job.  Less than 3 weeks later, on March 10th, I was on a plane to Toronto.  Working was definitely not in the plan, but again, the benefits and opportunities have been huge.

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I was home for my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary!  (photo credit to my sister Rachel)

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I once again had the priviledge of working for a company I love with people I respect and enjoy being with.

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I was extremely lucky to be able to spend the weekend in Grand Bend on Lake Huron, with my best girlfriends from high school.

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And the time spent with my nieces and nephews was priceless. (Best bed head ever!)

 

A final road trip to CT and NYC was the icing on the cake.  (sorry no photos, they are MIA)

There were so many dinners, lunches, movies and wine drinking with countless treasured and supportive friends.  All of whom made me feel so proud to have cast off the dock lines to follow our travel dreams.

I’m now back with Tim (and Poppy) in the Bahamas and its amazing to be back on the boat and home again.  I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to have spent time in Toronto visiting with friends and family and earning some cruising $$.

 

 

 

 

Cat out of Water

Every morning at 9am Sherri from the Exuma Park office comes on the VHF and arranges the assignment of mooring balls for the day.  You can call in on the radio and request a ball one day in advance of your arrival and you will be put on the waiting list for the next day.  If you are lucky, they may have space that day and you can make your way that morning.  Sherri starts by calling for boats that are leaving their mooring that day so she knows how many are available and then starts assigning those balls to the boats on the waiting list.  We liked listening each morning to hear if there were any boats coming in that we knew.

Part way through our stay in the park we were in the dinghy on the way back to the big boat, when we noticed there were a few dinghies circling this Catamaran, just behind Grace V.  We headed over to see what was happening and if we could help.  As it turns out they had been making an approach to the mooring ball behind us and missed catching the mooring line.  They put the boat in reverse to try to pick up the line when they backed over their dinghy painter and wrapped the line around their prop taking their Starboard engine out of commission. Without the starboard engine, they drifted quickly and ran aground on the sandbar surrounding the mooring field.  Along with three other small boats we tried to push and pull the Cat off the sandbar as the tide was falling.  We finally gave up and the crew on the Cat put out a couple of anchors and settled in to wait for high tide.

 

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Kite surfer doing a fly by the marooned Cat.

 

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You can see the sandbar revelling itself.

 

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This is dead low tide. High tide came at 9pm that night and the crew retrieved their two anchors and this time picked up the mooring ball, in the dark.

A Walk in the Park

The Exuma Land and Sea Park has been one of our favourite places so far.  We hiked around the park on most days as the wind was too strong to make swimming and snorkeling fun. The park office has hiking maps for all the trails on Wardrick Wells as well as information sheets on the wildlife that can be found there.  They sell identification cards for birds, reef fish and sharks that you are likely to find in the Bahamas – handy for knowing what you’re looking at!  But being the cheap cruisers we are we didn’t buy any and so don’t know the specifics of what we were looking at.

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The sign reads… “This was once a Pirate’s Lair.  The anchorage was hidden from view and water found in the natural well was fresh and sweet.  When the pirates came ashore to scamp by the well, they brought their sleeping mats and other possessions.  Stuck to these items were seeds from distant places.  Some of the seeds grew leaving a selection of plants not native to the Bahamas. Unknown to the pirates, this sweet water collects under the island as a fresh water lens.  The well is a natural sinkhole, refreshed by rain that percolates down through the limestone.  The fresh water lens id easily polluted or destroyed.  Please avoid contamination and use it sparingly.”

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We decided to pass on sampling the water, it didn’t have that “fresh and sweet” look.

This is a Bahamas Hutia – it’s not a great pic as they scurry away under the brush as soon as they hear you coming.

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BooBoo Hill on Wardrick Wells isn’t that high or challenging to climb, but it is one of the highest points in the Bahamas!  It offers a great view of the Bahamas Banks as well as the Exuma Sound, Ocean side of the island.

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To get to BooBoo Hill, you need to cross Banshee Creek. Best to do it at low tide as see here. When we came earlier that day there was three feet of water covering this piece of land – a wet hike it would make.

 

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This entire sandy area is covered with water at high tide.

At the top of BooBoo Hill, boats tradionally leave a piece of driftwood with their boats name.  We were not prepared and didn’t make a sign to leave behind.  We’ll make one for our next visit to BooBoo Hill.

 

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Looking out over the ocean side of the island.

 

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LahoWind was one of my favourite blogs when we were dreaming about this trip. It was fun to see their sign on BooBoo Hill.

 

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The wind was out of the west during our time in the park and the Blow Holes are all on the east side – so with no significant waves on the ocean side, the Blow Holes, were a bit of a let down.

 

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A small ray taking a rest in the sand nearing low tide.

 

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These critters are everywhere! Some make the noise of a large animal as the scurry away into the brush (and if you didn’t see them go, you wonder what the heck was that noise!), others don’t bother to move off the trail as you approach and you risk stepping on them.

 

The El Nino Tour!

 

I read a blog post recently of a boat that had t-shirts made up a number of years ago with their boat name and the slogan “The El Nino Tour”. I’m thinking of having some made up for the crew of Grace V as El Nino seems to be in charge this year and we have no choice but to tailor our plans to the whims of the weather. This trip is truly one of “where the wind takes us”.

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We planned to leave Great Harbour Cay and spend a few days exploring the other islands that make up ‘The Berry Islands’ before making our way to New Providence and onto the Exumas, but weather dictated that we make tracks south to find new and safe harbours – quickly.

We required two days to travel from the Berry’s to New Providence Island, and elected to anchor out at the west end of the island instead of the popular east end where Nassau is found. We’d heard enough stories of crime in the Nassau area (both in marinas and at anchor) to make us want to give the place a wide berth. We’ve met many people who have traveled to and stayed in Nassau this season and had a great time and were perfectly safe. They all stayed in marinas, as far as we know, but since we are way over budget on THAT line item we didn’t feel we could afford the expensive marinas of Nassau, so we made sure we weren’t even tempted by heading to the other side of the island!

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The storm in the distance – doesn’t look like it’s gonna get us here in West Bay.

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The sky was so striking with colours of blue, green and pink.  If I could paint, I would paint this scene.

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Not our boat, but a beautiful sunset.

We anchored for 2 nights in the West Bay, surrounded by houses that cost 8 million and up! There is not much to do at this end of the island although there is a national park and it was a great place to take Poppy for her twice-daily shore leave. There is also an interesting house on Lyford Cay that is owned by Canadian Millionaire Nygard. It looks like a Mayan village and is lit up at night with green coloured lights. We weren’t close enough to get good photos though. If you want to know more about the property check out this interesting article from Vanity Fair.

The only thing now that stood between us and the hallowed cruising grounds of the Exumas were the White and Yellow banks! All the cruising guides suggest you not to cross the Yellow banks before 11:30 am, that is, wait until the sun is high enough in the sky so you can see the coral heads clearly. When you are looking right into the sun and it’s low in the sky you cant see anything in the water until you are directly over top of it and then it’s too late! We arrived at the Yellow banks about noon and had no difficulty seeing the corals heads dotted around. Because we came from West Bay instead of Nassau, we only crossed a small piece of this bank, those that came from Nassau would have had a longer run over this tricky ground.

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This isn’t a picture of the White or Yellow banks, but it is a good illustration of what a coral head looks like.  This could be 6 or more feet below the surface, but you don’t take that chance, dodge around it!

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Passed the Yellow Bank!

We could see 15 boats dotting the horizon all around us, some looked to be headed in the same direction as us and other appeared to be pointed further south. Our intention was to visit Allens Cay and see the iguanas that live there for a day or two before moving on. However, once we got there, the was no room for us, there were some spots for boats with a shallower draft, but not for us. We’d known this was a possibility (given the number of boats we saw travelling) and had planned a backup. We went to Highbourne Cay instead (2 miles further south) hoping that we could dinghy back to Allens to see the famed iguanas the next day in our dinghy.  We spent two nights at Highbourne, but to get back to Allens meant we had to cross one of the cuts that joins the Exuma Banks with Exuma Sound – the wind blowing though this cut was fierce and the waves made a dinghy trip wet and uncomfortable.  Bye bye iguanas – maybe another time.

We stopped for one night at Hawksbill Cay and explored the ruins of the former settlement on the now deserted island.

With the west winds coming we made the jump to the southern end of the Exuma Land and Sea Park to hide behind Bell Island.  We are still learning about how to interpret our charts and decide which anchorages are safe in which kind of winds so we arrived at Bell two days before the expected weather to make sure we liked the anchorage and ensure we could get a good spot.  On arrival, we saw that there was TONS of room in this anchorage.  We dropped our anchor with lots of room around us and settled in to enjoy the Exuma Park while we waited for the bad weather.  That first night we discovered why there was so much room here… there was a significant swell that made its way into the anchorage and rocked our boat leeft and right ALL NIGHT LONG, for THREE NIGHTS STRAIGHT.  I can not explain how uncomfortable this is, there are no words to describe what it’s like.

Luckily the days were pretty nice and we got to do some exploring.

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A beach all to ourselves.  It’s not actually that had to find here.

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I LOVED this shell and wanted it sooo badly.  However the Exuma Land and Sea Park is a “No Take Zone”.  No fishing, hunting or shelling is allowed in the park.  Their motto is “Take only pictures and leave only footprints.”  I left the shell on the beach where I found it.

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Tim went snorkling at the “Aquarium” – which has dinghy mooring balls to tie up to while you check out the reef here.  They don’t want you anchoring in this fragile area of the park.

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He’s looking for fish, but they keep chasing behind him, he has to turn around fast to catch them.

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These are the guys that were following Tim around – I think they might be Sargent Majors.

 

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Beach day!

We ended up staying in the park for 10 days.  More to come!

Tim’s Bahamas Birthday

Lucky Tim had a magnificent birthday on a white sand beach surrounded by palm trees! We were still in Great Harbour Cay in the anchorage and the weather on January 25th was the best day we’d had in FOREVER!   We went for a bike ride over to the beaches and to look at the ruins of a place rumored to have been a winter party hangout owned by the Rat Pack – Frank Sinatra etc! We rode along the road looking for the signs that read “Beach Access” to have a quick stroll along the water. We found one, but the path was very overgrown and we didn’t want to fight our way to the beach, so we kept going, the next path was wide and beckoned us to the beach! We parked our bikes and headed for the water.

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We walked along the beach for almost an hour when we realized it was getting late and there was a group dinghy tour at 1pm – the ruins would have to wait we had to get back and grab a bite to eat before the flotilla set off.

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Dinghies waiting to set off.

There were maybe 10 dinghies that showed up for the adventure and we set off to see our first blue hole. The water went from about 15 feet to 80 feet over a cliff in the seabed floor. You could easily see the edges of where it was looking at the colour of the water. (I thought I had a picture of this, but can’t locate it!)

The group then moved on to see a small sunken airplane that had been in the water for so long it was now an artificial reef and was supposed to be a great place to snorkel or dive to see the local sea life.

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You can just see a small part of the plane above the water.

Next, we headed north up the coast of the island to see two houses that were former drug headquarters. I could picture the dwellings as they once were, rather pretty with huge windows overlooking the turquoise water and charming stone fireplaces (not sure why you need a fireplace in the Bahamas…). We joked that it would be hilarious to build a house back home based on the floor plans of the drug lord’s house it was such a fantastic layout!

 

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Landing near the drug houses.

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We had to hike a ways to reach the two houses.

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Great view from what was once a deck over looking the water.

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Large main living space.

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Cool fireplace.  See where the wall of windows used to be on the right?

Just beyond the tip of Great Harbour Cay is Great Stirrup Cay with a spot where the cruise ships park for the day and let their passengers off for lunch on the beach and a bit of beach fun. Each morning we see the Parasailing boats and Glass Bottom tour boats leaving our harbour and heading north along the island, they come here to entertain cruise ship passengers for the day. We tried to get across the sand flats to get closer to the cruise ship, but the tide was falling and we didn’t make it in time. We struggled to drag our boats for a bit, but the water almost completely disappeared and we finally gave up and headed home.

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Very shallow.

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Brian found a starfish.

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Tim doesn’t seem to mind that I’m still in the dinghy as he drags it.

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Doesn’t matter that our mission was a failure, Tim still had a great time.

As it was a Monday night, there was the weekly potluck cruisers dinner at the marina! I had baked Tim a chocolate cake that morning (super fancy Duncan Hines Devils Food Cake Mix, with chocolate frosting!) and brought the cake and some grilled meat to the party. Apparently there was another birthday to be celebrated as well, Phyllis has the same birthday as Tim and they sat together at the special birthday table. Phyllis got to wear a crown and someone had brought her a cake too.

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Phyllis wearing her tiara. 

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The box cake I made for Tim.

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Guess whose cake?

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Tim even got a birthday card from Brian & Jane!  Who has cards on their boat?  Amazing.

It was an exceptionally special birthday celebrated with new friends, but very much missing friends and family back home.

A few days later it was time for us to move further south after 10 days in Great Harbour Cay, which means we had to say goodbye to Mar-a-Largo as they would be heading north to the Abacos.  Brian and Jane have been so generous to us and we will miss travelling with them.  Happily, they live in Toronto so a reunion is guaranteed.

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Tim, Jane, Me & Brian – We’ll miss you guys!!!!

Bimini and Beyond

Yet another fierce storm was forecast to blow through on our first full day in Bimini with winds possibly reaching 50 knots (round about 90 km/hr). Blows like those are one way to meet your dock neighbours! Early in the morning, before 8am, on what looked like a beautiful sunny day, everyone in the marina was up and out on the fixed docks weaving and tying extra lines to give extra security to their boats, the wind had already picked up to 25 knots and was gusting over 30, more was expected. People were offering us, here on Grace, extra lines ’cause I guess it didn’t look like we had enough! Truthfully, we didn’t. We brought some extra line with us, but we never expected to be in storms of this force and tied to a dock very often. Back in Toronto we rarely got this kind of wind and usually only in winter. We always had extra lines securing the boat during the winters at Marina Quay West, but we had to make choices about what gear was necessary and what was not before leaving home and left some of our lines behind. With the kinds of storms we’ve been seeing, it may be time for an upgrade to Grace’s dock lines!

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Grace with all her lines on ready for more wind.

 

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You can see how windy it is by the palm trees in the background.

After everyone was certain their boat was secure, many of us went for a walk over to the beach side of the island (the island is not very wide so this took all of about ten minutes) to see what the surf looked like on the beach. It was definitely building and I couldn’t believe we’d been out there in the open ocean just the day before. The waves were now over 6 feet in height and it was suggested they would continue to build to over 9 feet, we saw nothing like this yesterday crossing the Gulf Stream!

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The waves are bigger than the picture illustrates!

We had planned on spending only two nights at the docks at Browns Marina in North Bimini and then moving to an anchorage until we wanted, or the weather allowed us, to move to the Berry Islands. However, there are not many anchorages around this part of the Bahamas and none we felt safe in with the weather the way it was. We actually had planned to get off the dock one afternoon, but were invited out on a dinghy tour to see a Martin Luther King, Jr bust hidden out in the mangroves. Since it was Martin Luther King, Jr Day we decided it sounded appropriate and moving to an anchorage was a low priority when there was something fun to do! Our guide was another boater at Browns who spends part of each winter here in Bimini, it had taken him a few years to actually find the bust and now he was eager to show other cruisers where it was. Mar-a-Largo had not yet launched their dinghy from the bow of their boat so they hopped in with us and we set out to find the mysterious bust of Martin Luther King, Jr deep in the mangroves.

 

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Following the leader in the Mangroves

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Jane & Brian looking for sea life

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These are the mangroves that surround the bust as far as the eye can see in all directions!

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Martin Luther King, Jr 

By the time we got back from our dinghy excursion, the current had reversed and we were once again trapped on the dock. Oh well, why fight it? We gave up and stayed at the dock for another two nights.

There was some settled weather coming and a possible opportunity to jump across the Grand Bahamas Bank to the Berry Islands. Brian and Jane were headed there too so we made plans to travel together – I love travelling with another boat. We got together the night before to look at the different routes and discuss what each of us thought about the weather and course options; there is a north option and a south option. The north option is about 13 nm shorter, but since the wind had been out of the north for a few days, we were concerned about the sea state if we tried to head north before making the eastwardly turn towards the Berrys. We decide to make the final decision in the morning once we were out of the harbor and could see for ourselves what the waves were like. Tim and I were told once the only way to really know if the conditions are right for you is to go out and have a look. If you don’t like it, you can always come back into the harbour.

We left the dock the next morning at 7am with lots of help from our neighbours; we needed it as we were once again pinned to the dock! Four or five people walked us back using our lines to help us avoid the pilings – Tim did a great job at the helm, all I had to do was collect lines as they were dropped! Mar-a-Largo was off the dock a few minutes later and we head out out the channel towards the Straits of Florida. We recorded our GPS track on our iPad chart plotter as we traveled into Bimini as we usually do and this has become helpful when exiting a harbor that required visual navigation to get into, a safe track to follow back out as long as the tide is the same or higher than when we entered! We turned our boats north and decided the waves were very manageable and both Mar-a-Largo and Grace V voted to take the shorter, north route. There were a few boats ahead of us and a few behind. Some were headed for the Berrys and some for Nassau. You know you have the first good weather window in a while when that many people head out on the same day!

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As the sun set over the banks we still had another 2 1/2 hours to go.

We had a pretty uneventful day, which is a good thing! We chatted back and forth on the radio with Jane and Brian as we made the 13-hour trip and anchored in Bullocks Harbour before 9pm. We saw many other anchor lights on in the huge open anchorage, all of them waiting for daylight before making their way into Great Harbour Cay Marina.

We spent 3 nights at the marina (more exciting weather that drove us into the very protected basin) before moving just outside into the Bay of Five Pirates for another 7 nights. Great Harbour Cay is an amazing marina and we loved staying here. Several of the boats we met said they originally came into the marina for a week and had now been there for between one and two months! If I only wanted to stay in one place for the entire winter and not travel, Great Harbour Cay would be top of the list. The marina is in a VERY protected basin, the settlement is only a short bike ride away and there are white sand beaches close by. The marina management is excellent and some very active boaters keep the community tight. Almost everyday there is an activity or something scheduled, conch shell horn making, pot luck suppers, pizza night and fresh bread delivered three times a week!

 

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A very windy day!

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Manatee in the marina.  It was HUGE!

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Manatees love fresh water and will drink and play in it.

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Poppy loves the sea and will dash into the waves at every opportunity.

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And she still loves to fetch sticks.

 

Waiting for a Weather Window

Before we left Canada we understood that making the jump from Florida to the Bahamas takes some patience.  Unless you are a “Salty Sailor” you have to be ready to wait for the right weather window to cross the Gulf Stream.  We are not Salty Sailors; at least I’m not! We’ve heard of people waiting for three weeks or more for the “right” weather to make the jump.  We were confident that wouldn’t happen to us, I don’t know why we thought we were so special we wouldn’t have to wait long, but there you go.  However, we were prepared to wait if we had to.

The cruising books all say that the “right” weather is when the wind is out of the south and has been for 24 hours prior to your crossing.  Since the Gulf Stream runs from south to north, you want to ensure the wind and waves are travelling in the same direction (wind against waves can create dangerous standing waves, especially in the Gulf Stream).  At this time of year (winter months) the wind is typically from the east, which makes it difficult to get across the stream as our boat would be heading directly into the wind, but the wind clocks round when a northerner blows through and makes sailing across possible.  Simple enough right?  Not so much.  This year the weather has been horrible and through December & January there has been roughly one day a week that was acceptable for crossing the Gulf Stream.  Notice I said “acceptable”? The windows have been short and sometimes without much notice. They also have not been textbook perfect – each window required compromise. Either the wind direction was not great, the waves a bit bigger than we might like or the conditions were good only for a night crossing. Not my first choice.

We listen to Chris Parker’s Marine Weather Forecast on our single sideband radio six days a week at 6:30am (he takes Sundays off and we do too!). We set our alarm for 6:15 in order to make sure we’re up and give us time to make coffee and tea before it starts.  We then set up our iPhone to record the broadcast and settle in for what we call “The Chris Parker Show”. It’s an entertaining 1 hour program that can leave us on an high (good weather forecasts for what we want to do that day) or a crushing low and results in studying charts trying to find a safe harbour to ride out the nasty storm he has predicted for the coming days. We always follow up the broadcast by checking a number of online weather sites and apps to confirm or challenge the marine forecast Chris has given for the day and sometimes go back and re-listen to the broadcast as recoded on our iPhone to confirm the location/timing of storms and problem weather events.

We started listening for a possible weather window to cross the Gulf Stream about a week before Christmas.  It sounded like there might be a small window possibly on Christmas Eve.  We decided that crossing on Christmas Eve was not for us and we dismissed the window.  Around the 26th of December, all our weather sources started to indicate that maybe Dec 30, 31 or Jan 1 could work.  So we started to plan and make the boat ready to cross. How great it was that a good window came up just a week after we started looking for one! I knew we wouldn’t have to wait long!

Spoiler alert…   In the end we missed or bailed on four “windows” before finally crossing on January 16th.

Weather Window #1 – January 1st

This was probably the best of the weather windows we were to see and later we were bummed we had bailed on our plans to cross this day. We were in West Palm Beach and had just taken possession of our, new to us, outboard engine. We bailed on our plans to make the crossing at 9:30pm on New Years Eve, because we felt unprepared. We were pinned to the town dock by the current with a huge Fireworks display due to begin in less than 3 hours just off our starboard side. To make the crossing, we needed to be in an anchorage an hour north of the town dock at 4:00 in the morning – that evening it did not look likely we could make this happen.  Our next window appeared to be a week away. This time we vowed to be ready!

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New engine on New Years Eve

Weather Window #2 – January 8th

We continued to listen to weather reports and study our online sources.  The afternoon of January 7th we moved the boat north to the Lake Worth anchorage near the inlet and made sure everything was stowed and ready to go.  We found ourselves with some time on our hands so we decided to visit Peanut Island to give Poppy one last bathroom break before leaving the US – she wouldn’t be getting one at 4am prior to departure!  We didn’t have long as the sun was setting, but the park was very cool and really beautiful.  The island has a blast shelter that was built for JFK!

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Peanut Island

Sadly we didn’t have time to do a full tour. We got up at 3am the next morning (Jan 8th) and checked the weather, things had deteriorated overnight and it was now looking like we should have left at 7pm the night before and done a night crossing. The window was closing fast. We decided to go out into the ocean and have a look for ourselves, knowing if the conditions were not good, we could come back. On the way out we heard a Coast Guard weather announcement with a forecast worse than anything we had found in our other sources that morning. We aborted the plan and returned to our anchorage and dropped the hook once more. We went back to bed and when we got up, we made the bold decision to head further south rather than sit around for a week and wait for another window. At 8:10am we picked up our anchor and started for Fort Lauderdale.

Weather Window #3 – January 9th

There are a gazillion bridges in South Florida and they are all too low for our mast to sneak under, which means we have to wait for an opening. Some open on the hour and some on the half hour, a rare few open on demand.

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Just one of the 15 or 20 bridges we had to have open for us between West Palm and Fort Lauderdale.

Waiting for bridge openings slowed us down and we did not make it to Fort Lauderdale in one day as we had planned. So we called Lighthouse Point Marina and booked a luxury slip – laundry and showers here we come!

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Many marinas welcome pets, but this one had a menu especially for dogs!  

When we awoke the next morning we were listening to Chris Parker and he said today would be a good day to cross…. What?!? We had found no indication the night before that today could be a possibility for crossing, what did we miss in our weather research? We were landlocked and nowhere near an inlet to get out into the ocean. Shortly after this, we got an email from Mar-a-Largo who had left No Name Harbour in Miami at 6:15 am and was now headed for Bimini. Rats, opportunity number three – lost. I was really bummed, I was hoping to make it to Miami and cross the Gulf with Mar-A-Largo as I was worried about making the crossing on our own and crossing with friends would have been a big comfort. A few tears were shed.

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Some of the Real Estate in Fort Lauderdale – you can park your boat right in front!

Weather Window #4 – January 10th

We made it to Fort Lauderdale the same day as Mar-A-Largo crossed to Bimini (January 9th) and made our way to Lake Sylvia where they had recommended we stay. It is a perfect little harbour and there were many boats there when we arrived. Several more arrived before sunset and it was a crowded place overnight! The next morning we checked all our sources and it seemed another crossing was possible – TODAY. We scrambled to get the boat in order and headed out of the anchorage. A few boats had left ahead of us, but we were the only ones leaving around 8:30am. We did not time our arrival at the bridge properly and had to wait until 9:30 for it to open to allow us access to the inlet… Opportunity number 4, LOST! We were uncertain we could cross to West End, Bahamas and arrive before dark with such a late start so we decided to head for Miami on the outside instead.

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Squall approaching from Miami as we moved south from Fort Lauderdale.

Window #5 – January 16th

By this time, Tim was certain that I was somehow sabotaging our efforts to get to the Bahamas. Even my niece, Avery, told me her mother, my sister Joanne, said I liked it too much in Florida and she thought we’d end up spending the winter there instead! NO!!! I really wanted to get to the Bahamas, but the weather had to be good. I was willing to compromise, but not if it affected our safety – so sailing at night or trying to cross before bad weather struck in a tight window were off the table. (I know loads of people sail at night and it’s no big deal, but since we’ve not done this yet, crossing the Gulf Stream at night was not an option for us this time.) We sailed from Fort Lauderdale to Miami and entered via Government Cut – the boats were huge!! It’s a massive commercial shipping harbour with tons of Cruise ships – Toronto and Hamilton harbours have nothing on Miami! We spent a couple of nights at Stadium Harbour before moving to No Name Harbour.

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No Name is a popular place for boats to stage their crossing to the Bahamas from. We decided to go and anchor four days before our crossing to ensure we had a spot in the small anchorage, since it costs $20 a night to anchor there, this was a tough decision. But, having easy access to the ocean and not having to worry about the current Florida anchoring conflicts made it the right choice and worth the expenditure.

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Mast tops in No Name Harbour as seen from the Lighthouse. Miami in the distance.

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No Name Harbour

We woke at 4:30 and wouldn’t you know it… the harbour was completely fogged in!!! We waited until 6:30 to pull up our anchor and the fog was not as dense, but still there. Other boats in the mist were pulling up their anchors and you could see navigation lights throughout the habour. We made our way very very slowly out of the harbour with our radar on and me at the bow as a lookout for the anchored boats that were in the bay outside the harbour. The crossing was exactly as forecast, wind was under 10 knots and waves were 4 to 6 feet on our beam, we motor sailed the entire way and the crossing took 8 hours anchor to dock!

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Sun coming up as we cross the Straits of Florida.

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Where Poppy spent most of the crossing.

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Ipad chart plotter – it looks like we’re starting out too far south, but it all works out in the end with the stream carrying you northward.

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Flying the Q flag and the Bahamas courtesy flag as we enter Bahamian waters.

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Our first shark sighting about 1 hour after arrival in Bimini!

By 2:30pm we were tied up at Brown’s Marina in Alice Town, Bimini. Brian & Jane from Mar-A-Largo were waiting on the dock to catch our lines!  So fabulous to see them again.

Is it better in the Bahamas?  We’ll see!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mighty Jack’s Last Days

 

Around the 26th of December, all our weather sources started to suggest that maybe Dec 30, 31 or Jan 1 could work for crossing from Florida to the Bahamas in good weather conditions.  So we started to plan and make the boat ready to cross.

There was one small hiccup.  Our dinghy engine, aka The Mighty Jack (MJ), died.  It had been giving us trouble since we were in Annapolis and we had tried many times to fix it ourselves and finally decided it was time for some professional help.   While we were in St. Augustine we found a mechanic to fix it, we described the issues and diagnosed the problem, parts were ordered and the night before we were to leave St Augustine, the engine was returned to us and seemed to be in great working order!  Less than three days later it started to give us problems again.  Sigh. By the time we got to Stuart it was really going down hill.  Craig & Allan helped Tim replace the head gasket and for a few days again, it seemed to be running well.  It truly gave up on us as we returned from doing laundry in town – we were out on the St. Lucie river and a good distance from shore when it dramatically reduced in power but we managed to limp back to the boat.  Tim could not get it started again and once again Stray Cat & Mighty Fine were on the case.

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Tim, Allan & Craig cajoling MJ to start.  Dylan (the dog) supervises.

After at least two hours working on it in the rain they all decided MJ was dead and gone – RIP.  We needed a new engine.  It was two days after Christmas and we were planning on crossing the gulf stream in 4 days.  What now?

Tim started calling everyone in the yellow pages who dealt outboard motors.  Most places were closed for the holidays and would not reopen until Jan 4.  Tim found a flyer on the marina bulletin board for “Dirks’s Outboards”.  He called the number and Dirk answered – it was Sunday morning and Dirk was on his way to church, he’d call us back after the service.  We took this as a very good sign, the man went to church AND he was willing to work on a Sunday two days after Christmas!

There were many calls between Dirk and Tim over the next few days as Dirk searched Florida to find a suitable used 2 stroke engine for us.  He found one and then dismissed it as not being good enough.  Then he found another and drove several hours inland to check it out.  He liked it, bought it and confirmed it was in good shape.  It all checked out great!  It was now New Year’s Eve and Dirk said he could be at our boat in West Palm Beach mid afternoon and we could test the engine ourselves and decide if we wanted to buy it.  It was now a crush to get the engine and move Grace five miles north to stage ourselves for a crossing of the Gulf Stream the next day.  Yep, a weather window for crossing was confirmed for New Years Day.

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Dirk arrives with the new engine!

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Dirk & Tim on the town dock at West Palm Beach.  The Mighty Jack is resting on the dock.

The engine tested out great.  Right from the get go it had more power than the old one ever did.  We decided to buy it.

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Tim crosses the bay to see Scheherazade and test the new engine.

By this time it was almost 5pm and the tide had turned, pinning Grace V to the town dock and making it impossible for us to move the boat to our planned anchorage.  UGH!  After a few lengthy discussions we decided to give up, sit back and enjoy the planned fireworks for New Year’s Eve.  We would not take this weather window, we’d wait for another day. Scheherazade pulled up their anchor and headed north to the inlet, they would be making their crossing on New Years Day.  Regrettably, we said goodbye.

As it was New Years Eve, it was also my birthday!  It looked like I had got a new dinghy engine for my birthday and while it was not exactly what I wished for, I was very very happy we now seemed to have a working, reliable engine.

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The Mighty Jack II

As it turned out though, I also got a pair of super cute water shoes!  Thanks Honey! We celebrated with a rare take-out pizza and started to enjoy the activity around us as everyone was celebrating New Years.

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Great Pizza and my new cute shoes.

The fireworks in West Palm Beach are apparently not put on by the city, but are paid for by a local private resident who lives alongside the waterway (real estate is rumoured to be in the $30 million dollar range for this section of the waterway!).  The show began just after midnight and it was by far the BEST fireworks I have ever seen.  We had a prime spot on the town docks as all the anchored boats between the dock and the fireworks barge had been cleared out during the afternoon for safety.  We had a front row seat!

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A perfect view with the fireworks reflected in the water.

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These pictures don’t due the show justice.

 

We stayed on the town dock over night and then moved to the anchorage to spend the next few days.  Next time we’re in Florida, we’ll make a point of staying here in West Palm again.  Easy access to shopping, restaurants and the beautiful ocean side beach. Loads of places to ride your bike safely and beautiful neighbours to walk through.

 

 

Cruisers Christmas

It was a week before Christmas and we had no plans for where to spend Christmas Day.  We’d never spent time on the south east coast of Florida before and didn’t have a clue where cruisers hung out at Christmas.   We were headed to Stuart, FL where our friends on Mighty Fine and Stray Cat had been staying for more than a week.  It was the Sunday before Christmas and they all planned to leave Stuart the next day and start moving towards Fort Myers for Christmas and we wanted to see them one more time before heading in different directions for the winter.  The only fault in our plan was that Jane & Brian on Mar-A-Largo were leaving Stuart on Sunday morning to head south for Fort Lauderdale as they were headed back to Canada for Christmas.  Since we knew Jane & Brian would be in the Bahamas in the new year we hoped we could catch up with them there.   Deb & Ron decided they wanted to see Stuart too, so Scheherazade & Grace set out together.

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Scheherazade on the ICW

 

Craig had told us where we could anchor close to them and we found the spot easily enough – in fact we dropped our anchor right in front of Mighty Fine, within yelling distance!  Scheherazade found a spot just a little bit further away.   As we were doing our chores and tidying up, we saw a dinghy zooming through the mooring field, one of the three people was wearing a pink wind jacket and a pink baseball cap… that had to be Donna!  Along with Donna were Geraldine and Allan from Stray Cat!  It was so exciting to see them all again.  Quickly we made plans to meet them all ashore and head into town for drinks and dinner.

As soon as we got ashore, Craig said “ok, we’ll stay here for Christmas if you will”.  You bet we will!  I made him shake on it just to make sure.  We spoke with Scheherazade the next morning and they too decided to stay.  Awesome.  Christmas plans made.

We spent the next few days riding bikes, shopping and hanging out with everyone.  It was nice to be in one spot for long enough to get to know the place and really enjoy all it had to offer.

On Christmas Day all the cruisers gathered at the marina for a pot luck Christmas Day dinner.  There was tons of food – turkey, ham, stuffing, pasta salads, broccoli salad, pies etc..

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The buffet line behind Craig, Ron & Deb

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From left – Deb, me, Tim, Geraldine, Craig, Allan and Donna

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It wouldn’t be Christmas without my grandmothers Carrot Pudding and Rum Sauce (aka, butter and rum)

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Allan & Tim

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Allan & Geraldine 

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Me & Tim

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Christmas Day sunset