Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Uncharted waters

We drifted the 30 miles across the channel between Crooked Island and Long Island under spinnaker, turned right and dropped anchor for the night. On turning north, we're homeward bound at last. We've travelled west for hundreds and thousands of miles in the tropics, and now, we're following the wind and current as it turns northward, and soon we'll be out of the tropics. We're already at the limits of the trade wind belt. It'll stay warm for a while. It'll be the sub-tropics after all, but still, the northward journey has begun with the turn around the appropriately named South Point of Long Island.

The turn north marks a new phase. It's on the outward journey that noses are pressed to windows, and scenery absorbed and wonders romanticised. But the homeward journey is inevitably a time of reflection on what the journey has brought, and where we stand now, and of what that home is we are returning to - how it looks after all the water under the bridgedeck and from this furthest distance. Even though the scenery here is as fabulous as any, with turquoise clear water and coral, flat seas and gentle warm winds, the essence of a journey is the romance, and the romance of going home has a different flavour to the romance of leaving for foreign tropical parts. This part of the journey seems to be a job that needs doing, though it would be very remiss of me to wish myself ahead of myself, and to reduce these cays and bays and coral islands to stepping stones to somewhere more familiar.

As we are on the limits of the trade wind belt, I guess I can't complain that as soon as we'd gone to bed the wind turned to the south. The shelter from the easterly swell we'd taken round Southern Point was no shelter from the south, and we had a noisy and bouncy night. The anchor would hold, and it made no sense to sail amongst the coral in the dark looking for more sheltered water so we had to put up with it.

We were still keen to buy some fresh food, and Dick had told us about the farmer's market at Clarence Town, 15 miles north. Clarence Town is on the opposite side of the island, but most of it is only 2 miles wide, so it wouldn't be too far to walk. We sailed up and anchored as close as we dared to the shore. But the wind had increased, and it was clear that we wouldn't be able to land the dinghy on the beach without risking damage. Jack pulled the long straw and paddled ashore in the kayak. It turns out it that the source of food isn't a farmer's market, but a government warehouse, that gets filled with produce and shipped on to the smaller islands round about. The ship leaves on a Wednesday. The farmers bring their produce on a Tuesday. This being Monday, all there was in the warehouse was one box of peppers and one box of onions. And the supermarket described in the cruising guide had closed down. Jack did a little better, with the generous assistance of a local, who drove him the 8 miles to the nearest shop, and then drove him back to the beach (the Bahamas is like that!).

It was too late to move on - we always need to arrive places in good light, so that we can pick our way amongst the reefs - so we stayed where we were for the night, determined anyway to sail to Sandy Cay and cut north through there towards Georgetown (where all manner of food is available, so we're told). Dick had pointed out Sandy Cay as an island full of peculiar trees and many iguanas. That's what made it a reasonable destination.

Half way, we came across shoals of fish feeding,

making the water boil around the boat. We dropped sails and motored about amongst the fish. It was clear that the fish were eating tiny fish, no more than an inch long. I didn't have a lure that I thought could work, but there were so many fish, I hoped to drop a lure directly onto one and snag it.

After half an hour of that, it became obvious the fish - though massed in a feeding frenzy with hardly any water between them - were still too agile to allow my hook anywhere near them. We sailed away, and straight away, we caught a fish.

Another bloody barracuda,

 which we released.

We'd started later than I'd hoped, and the fishing diversion delayed us further, so it was already past high tide when we arrived at the cut by Sandy Cay.

The current was beginning to flow out of the channel, and I didn't fancy spending much time anchoring there. We threw the anchor down anyway, and quickly rowed over to Sandy Cay. There were no signs of any iguanas and the trees looked pretty normal too. I guess there is more than one Sandy Cay in the Bahamas. This wasn't the one we were looking for.

The waters north of Sandy Cay are uncharted, a blue blank, in the navigation package I have on my laptop, and there's little more detail on my Navionics chart on my phone. 'Shallow sandy area' about covers it. I'd figured that even if it was marked as wet sand, at high tide (3 feet) we'd be able to sail across it.

The best detail I had of the area was from google Earth. Though the tide was falling, and the current in the channel against us and increasing in speed, I decided we'd go ahead anyway.

We made it to the end of the channel with a little assistance from the outboard to help in the dying wind and increasing current. I was half way up the mast to spy a route beyond the end of the channel when the rudders caught the bottom and we came to a halt.

The rudders were designed to swing up when they hit the bottom, but the builder of this boat did a half-hearted job of following that design, and they'd only swing up a couple of inches before the tiller hit the deck and prevented the required amount of swinging. I'd sliced the rudder shafts and had articulating joints built into the system, and made some cassettes to fill the slots. But I was in too much of a hurry to leave the boat yard back in the UK and this is the job that still didn't get done properly. The rudders can lift, but only by removing a couple of bolts first, then lifting the rudders a little, then pulling them hard. The one thing I'd wanted to be sure of in my hurry was that the rudders would never swing up as we were surfing down a wave. I thought that if I didn't have time to perfect the system, I'd err on the side of keeping the rudders down, rather than have them swing up easily. That was all very good surfing across the Atlantic. Now we were sitting on the rudders and the tide was falling.

We dropped sail and got out the toolbox and undid the bolts holding the rudders. We jumped overboard and with a little heaving and grunting and the odd curse from the port side (the side that was most awkward, and the one I was dealing with). At last, we got the rudders raised, and with no damage.

The boat was now free of the bottom, and I waded out to set the anchor, and we sat on deck to consider the options. We could dry out here on the sand quite safely, but the next high tide would be between 2-3 in the morning, and the following on, the next afternoon. That's a long time to mostly sit on wet sand. And the tide being a spring tide, the following high tides wouldn't be as high as this one. Jack suggested that since the water was so shallow, we could simply drag that boat. I laughed. To where? How far? And then I waded out to retrieve the anchor.

Towing the boat was easier than it sounds - the wind, such as it was, was behind us. If we could get the rudders far enough down to provide some steerage, but able to swing up it we hit the ground again, maybe we could sail after all? A little more work:

Now we had it easy again, sailing downwind, but it was hot in the afternoon sun sailing with downwind with the little breeze.

It's not safe, usually, to be towed behind a yacht. But in these circumstances it seemed an excellent idea. If Sif happened to let go of the rope, there was no danger of sailing off without her. All we would have to do is drop the sail - and she could walk back to the boat!

As we approached the anchorage I remembered Hans, who I'd met in the Algarve. I was sitting on the deck when he sailed into the lagoon on one of the most extraordinary boats I've ever seen. He was sailing a 70 foot polynesian asymmetric catamaran he'd built in the Gambia in 3 months. He sailed onto the sand bank ahead of me, and jumped off the bow with an anchor. He walked up the bank, stuck the anchor in the ground, climbed back aboard and continued his cup of coffee.

I got to know Hans over the next few weeks, and he would sail that huge boat about perfectly easily single-handed as if it was a dinghy, and would sometimes tack around where I was anchored (often in a crowded anchorage) to inform me of where we might meet again or to swap opnions on the weather, sailing about like that with a cup of coffee in his hand as if he was born to it. (He was in fact born into it.)

Anyway, we sailed into the anchorage north of Lower Channel Cay. It must have been a surprise to the other yacht, for us to appear from the south side of that island.

Nobody sails about here with so little wind, and we'd just sailed across a large expanse of uncharted wet sand. As we approached the anchorage, Sif steered the boat into the wind, I dropped the sail, Jack lowered the anchor, I picked up my cup of tea, and remembered Hans.


  1. Loving your story. Great descriptions and fantastic pictures!


  2. Yes great story. I signed up to your blog a few weeks back and now always look forward to the next installment. Love to have done a similar (life) journey. Good luck for the journey back home. You write very well. T