During our Mid-Life Cruising Sabbatical we wrote eight letters back to our friends on shore as well as to the people we met along the way. I am reproducing the letters here just as we wrote them. You'll notice how our attitudes changed and how we lost some of our naivete along the way. The italicized blue comments are ones that I have added now in 2003 in retrospect.
The first letter we wrote before leaving Florida. The second was written in the Virgins and covered the trip for Florida to the Virgins. Because of its length I have broken the second letter into two parts: the first covers the trip from Florida to George Town and the second from George Town to the Virgins.
December 29, 1990
Dear Family and Friends,
After replacing or overhauling everything on the boat that could be replaced or overhauled, studying for months weather patterns, current flows, provisioning requirements, etc., and surviving the very tedious process of identifying and tying up all the bureaucratic loose ends of life ashore, the great "see the Caribbean" boat trip is about to set sail.
This is the first of what we intend to be regular updates on the progress of the good ship Down Time. We hope this will maintain contact with family and friends for the 15 months we intend to be gone. We also hope it will encourage visits from those of you who don't get sick at the mere thought of a boat floating on the sea. Just think of us as a no cost bed and breakfast wandering between islands in one of the most idyllic cruising grounds in the world.
We will be leaving Miami the last weekend of 1990, heading off to the Bahamas across the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is one of the great bodies of water of the world; more water flows through this ocean river than flows through all the rivers of the world combined. Next to Florida the Stream flow is 30,000,000 cubic feet of water per second, farther north it increases to 200,000,000 cubic feet per second. (See, this could be educational occasionally.) We will leave at night from Miami so that the sun will be high when we arrive in the Bahamas. Most of the world doesn't have well marked channels, so it is safer to arrive in places during daylight.
While we are gone we will be getting mail, so please do write and let us know how you are doing. Once we get to the Virgin Islands we will have cellular telephone service on board for those last minute impulse vacationers who want to join us. The only cost to come for a week or two is that you have to call first for the grocery list.
Our cards are enclosed with the address where you can write to us. The mail will be forwarded whenever we are some place long enough to receive it. For emergencies, the AT&T High Seas operators can be called. You can reach them at 1-800-SEA-CALL. Tell them the name of the boat (Down Time), where we are (Caribbean) and give them our call sign (WTA 2000) which in boat speak is Whiskey Tango Alpha Two Zero Zero Zero. (The call sign is on the card.) AT&T High Seas publishes an electronic list of boats with traffic waiting. We will check the list daily with the computer and call you back if you leave a message with the operator.
Stay tuned for the next installment.
LETTER 2 (first half)
Lat. 18 degrees 20 minutes N 65 degrees 55 minutes W
September 23, 1991
Dear Family and Friends,
Well, I guess most of you had thought we had fallen off the edge of the earth, been eaten by a sea monster, or disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle. None of these things happened. A far worse fate befell us; we were attacked by the weather gods.
As our last (and only) letter said we had planned to leave Miami the
last weekend of 1990. We did not actually leave Miami until February 6. Here's a short version of what happened during those
first five weeks of 1991:
Weather no good until January 2.
Discovered one alternator not working. This took until January 7.
Weather bad until January 20. Started to cross Gulf Stream, but before we got out of channel the seas had already gotten too rough so we turned back.
Started out again on January 23. Seas were very heavy on the nose, making very little progress. George (our GPS) fell and its case broke. We decided to turn back. We later learned that people we had left with had taken 16 hours to travel the 40 miles to the nearest of the Bahamas.
Success finally! Left Miami on February 6 and had a lovely crossing to Gun Cay.
Our Gulf stream crossing was quite uneventful. We left from No Name Harbor in the company of several other boats. Since we had made this crossing twice before we were elected to lead the pack out of No Name. There was a lot of freighter traffic but the winds were light and the seas calm. Thank God for radar. You really have no other way of judging the speed of and distance to a freighter at night.
We left No Name about midnight and by 9:00am we were in sight of Gun and Cat Cays. It is really quite striking to see the water color transition from the midnight blue of the Gulf Stream to the aqua of the Grand Bahama Bank. It is quite literally a line as distinct as one you could draw on a chart.
You approach Gun on a particular heading to a Batelco tower (at least you did until Andrew knocked it down). You come very close to the western shore of Gun and navigate by eyeball a dogleg path through a reef that lies in the passage between Gun and Cat. Once through, you turn and anchor behind Gun.
Diane was doing the eyeball stuff and Jim was steering. All of a sudden Diane thought we were going to hit a rock because it looked so close to the surface. She yelled a warning and asked the depth. Well, the top of that old rock was 80 feet below us! That's how clear the water is.
Jim had made this particular entry into the Bahamas twice before and Diane once. Although not a requirement, we have always cleared customs and immigration at Cat. Technically, you do not have to clear customs until you actually come ashore. So you could sail on to Chub or even Nassau before clearing in. I like Cat because, well, it's so weird.
Cat like Bimini (a few miles to the north) exists for two reasons: easy access to the Gulf Stream and the big game fish there; and prohibition. The first reason speaks for itself and the second becomes obvious when you realize that they were only 45 miles from Miami and booze was legal in the Bahamas when it was not in the US.
The rules change between each of our visits so now 8 years later I'm not even going to guess what they are. Sometimes you could dingy over from the Gun anchorage, sometimes you had to bring your boat over. Sometimes there was a charge and sometimes there was not.
We spent a few days at Gun then moved on to Chub Cay where we were once again caught by weather. We had a storm there one night with 50 knot winds. However, we did get in our first snorkeling of the trip. We left Chub on February 22 and after a couple of days in the Berry Islands (a chain of islands in the Bahamas) ended up in Nassau. By the way, our computer printer broke in Chub and we did not get it back from being repaired until May which is one reason you have not heard from us.
Chub exists at least for one of the reasons that Cat does -- access to game fish. Chub is open to the public while all of Cat is a private club. There's a marina, fuel dock, restaurant and store. It was here that a Bahamian taught us how to clean conch and that we made our first conch salad.
There is excellent shelling on one of the Chub beaches a short walk from the marina.
It was here that we got the first of our free fish from sports fishermen. It seems these guys come over for the States and catch way more fish than they can possibly take home so they give it away to the yachties --- already cleaned by their boat crew. Here it was blue marlin.
When we left Chub we actually sailed up into the Berry Islands (Frozen and Alder Cays) for a few days. It was here that Jim got the ear infection discussed later.
Once again the weather caught us. We stayed in Nassau until March 6. Finally left and sailed to Royal Island. This is a private island with a wonderful harbor about 30 miles NE of Nassau. The story has it that Jackie Onassis wants to buy the place but they won't give her permission to land her seaplane in the harbor.
Nassau actually lies on two islands -- New Providence and Paradise. The harbor is the water between the two and is spanned by the high bridge you see in all the pictures. All the marinas lie in this harbor. Although you can anchor, I would not recommend it. The harbor is busy, the current swift and changes direction with the tides and the bottom is littered with junk and even a couple of old hurricane chains. Get your anchor fouled and you'll be diving in some really ugly water.
This time we docked at East Bay Marina. We have also used Yacht Haven in the past.
There used to be a great deal on outboards in the Bahamas -- don't know if it still exists. It seems that the government subsidized the purchase of Yamaha outboards so that they would be more affordable for the locals. However, anyone could buy at the subsidized price.
Royal Island is quite a treat. At one time people lived on it but now the houses are abandoned. It has a wonderfully protected harbor. The entrance is small and faces south. The harbor itself is huge with good holding and protection.
On March 11 we sailed the few miles to Spanish Wells (so named because the Spanish said it had the best fresh water in the Bahamas). Entering the harbor was the only time (so far) that we ran aground. This is a very strange place. Much inbreeding here and everybody looks like everybody else. The principle industry is lobstering and the people are very wealthy (at least by Bahamian standards). While in Spanish Wells we hitched a ride on a private motor yacht going to Harbor Island and back. This is a very dangerous passage requiring a pilot and we were just as glad to ride with someone else. Dunmore Town (the only town on Harbor Island) looks just like a New England village and there are many retired Americans there. Here we saw our first pink sand beaches (caused by coral being pulverized by the Atlantic surf).
Actually it was the only time on the whole trip that we ran aground and it wasn't exactly our fault. You see we were right in the middle of a marked channel when it happened. Seems years ago the residents used to put up false lights to lure ships on the rocks so they could plunder them. Must still be some of that spirit around since no sooner had we stuck than up came a guy offering to pull us off for $20. We managed by ourselves.
We spent until April 6 exploring the island of Eleuthera, stopping at Hatchet Bay, Governor's Harbor and Cape Eleuthera. Cape Eleuthera bears some description. It seems this was a 6000 acre Florida based development that went bust and sold out to an Iraqi. The Iraqi had labor problems and just closed the place which is how it has stood since 1984. Of course now it is run down but all the while someone has paid for security guards and so there has been no vandalism. There were villas, restaurants, tennis courts, swimming pool, golf course, marina and an airport that could handle 727's. The marina has no services, but for a one time fee of $10 you can stay as long as you like. We stayed long enough to get our dockage down to $.015 per day per foot (you figure out how long we stayed; Down Time is 40 feet long).
Our run from Spanish Wells to Hatchet Bay took us through Current Cut -- a narrow passage with such swift currents that a sailboat must take them into account to make the passage. Hatchet Bay is a completely enclosed harbor with a 90 foot wide entrance channel blasted through the rock. Here we had our first experience renting a "marina car". Many marinas in the Bahamas and Caribbean have one or two old junkers to rent to the yachties. You pay the money and take the keys -- no paper work. I don't think that they even asked for a driver's license. Anyway, we along with another yachtie couple rented one for the day and went exploring.
Now you really meet an interesting crowd at Cape E. Some people have been there for years; some come over from Florida every year and spend the entire season.
While in Cape Eleuthera Jim had his first experience with socialized medicine. Way back in March he had gotten an ear infection which came and went and finally got bad enough to seek medical attention. We went to a clinic in Rock Sound (the closest town to Cape Eleuthera). The examination and seven days worth of two antibiotics cost $15. Compare that with stateside medical costs!
Easter was spent in the marina at Cape Eleuthera with a pot luck party by all the cruisers. (The guards let us open and use one of the restaurants. All the tables and chairs were still there.)
Another interesting Cape Eleuthera note is that it is used by the US Navy as a shore base for testing nuclear submarines.
There even a tender based at Cape E and run by an enterprising ex pat. This whole submarine thing is quite interesting. It seems that the Navy has (or at least had) a vessel called MONAB (Motorized Noise Barge). This thing can give itself a noise signature of any vessel in the world. This it does and the submarines see if they can track it. MONAB can also apparently listen to the noise generated by the subs. Every time a sub is modified it is sent back to the Exuma Sound to see if the modification has made it noisy.
We left Cape E and sailed across the Exuma sound to Highborne Cay in the Exumas. We sailed from here to Georgetown with stops at Norman's Cay (of Carlos Lehderer fame), Wardwick Wells, Staniel Cay (where the "Thunderball" and "Splash" movies were filmed), and Lee Stocking Island.
Highborne was supposedly a favorite place for Jackie O. While anchored there we saw a space shuttle launch. It was about sundown and we were having cocktail hour. We listened to the launch on shortwave and about 5 minutes later there it was. We also had a local bring fresh grouper to the boat and trade for beer. BTW if you are a beer drinker take all you can to the Bahamas -- it costs $35 a case.
Apparently in Lehderer's time Norman's was quite a place. There's still a fresh water well where you can jerry jug your water. There's a crashed DC3 in the harbor you can dingy out to.
Wardwick Wells is a national park (Exumas Land and Sea Park). There's a park headquarters and a resident ranger who lives on his/her boat. There are usually a horde of resident volunteers as well. Moorings are available and there is a tradition of adding your boats name to a pile on a hill (see our pictures page).
Staniel is a thriving settlement and worth the visit. We had been there before and did not stay long this time. In fact, once when we were still working in Boston, we had friends bring Down Time over from Florida and we flew into Staniel (charter from Nassau) to meet them. We have also stopped at Sampson Cay in the past.
The Exumas are a chain of islands running northwest to southeast. To the west is a shallow bank and to the east is the Exuma Sound which is thousands of feet deep. The passage between the bank and the sound can be quite treacherous. There are lots of stories of boats big and small that came to grief in these cuts.
GPS has made a lot more of the Bahamas accessible. There really are no markers as you would know them anywhere. A good marker in the Bahamas is a piece of white PVC pipe stuck in a reef. Now that sailors have published accurate GPS waypoints, new routes are possible. For example, the "old" way to get to Georgetown form the States is the one we took. Now with a set of GPS waypoints you can bypass Nassau by going south between Andros and New Providence and approaching Staniel area directly from the west.
This letter is continued in the next chapter.
Jim & Diane
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This page last changed on: Monday, June 02, 2003