Girls Gone Sailing in the Abacos

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The Abaco chain in the northern Bahamas offers lots of beautiful harbors and plenty of flat-water sailing  (published March 2017)

Sometimes when planning a charter you start with a series of constraints rather than a destination in mind. In our case recently, we had an important crew member who was prone to seasickness and had a fixed open week at the end of November. Only one charter base came to mind: the very sheltered sea of the Abacos in the Bahamas. Just 185 miles east of West Palm Beach, the area is easy to get to and has all the important features needed for an island sailing vacation: sea, sun, sand and palm trees.

I checked with The Moorings and Sunsail for monohulls and none were available. The Moorings had power cats, but for Amy’s birthday the idea was to have a sailing trip. Cruise Abaco did have a Jeanneau 43, with a five and a half-foot draft, which made me nervous. For me, the ultimate boat for the Abacos, with an average low tide harbor depth of around five or six feet, is a wing keel monohull or a smaller cat. Sunsail had a fleet of small monohulls that were retired some time ago. Mark Gonsalves, the owner of Cruise Abaco, told us his business has moved largely to cats, and “a few monohulls were kept around for traditionalists.”

The Abacos is great for a crew of mostly rookies. If you stay inside the enclosed area (about 25 miles by four miles, specified in the charter contract) you can pretty much take seasickness off the table. Mooring balls are plentiful, which are for me a low stress way to secure a charter boat for the night. As sometimes happens with my crews of women new to ocean sailing and chartering, a persistent rumor started around the suitability for use of marine plumbing fixtures, and I was informed we needed to be in marinas every night.

Amy scheduled our stops around a destination guide for the area she found online. This is not in my comfort zone, as I like to take all route advice from the pre-departure chart briefing based on local knowledge and weather conditions.

Arriving at the base on Great Abaco Island on a regional jet nonstop from Atlanta, we met Joe Cetner, who looked faintly like a pirate. We messed up the normal checkout process by announcing we were going on a parrot spotting tour (see sidebar) the next morning. But Joe handed us a handwritten list of suggested ports with wind direction and tide. This was a first for me after 17 charters and was much appreciated.

The one rule down here is that if you draw more than five feet, for many harbors and some passages, you should plan on leaving or departing within an hour or so of high tide. The tidal range in the area is three feet. The tide also impacts how you tie up the boat in a marina. The standard practice is to use spring lines all the time; this gives you a better chance to use angles and stretch to account for the rising and lowing of the tide. The shortest distance from the boat to the piling or dock should not be your dock line.

The policy at Cruise Abaco has the checkout skipper take you out of the base the first time. This was good as we were wedged in tightly behind an ill placed piling; plus, there was a healthy breeze and I had passengers aboard who were not able bodied crew at this point. Right outside of Boat Harbor Marina, I glanced at the wind indicator and saw a gust of 33 knots. The crew was thrilled as it was kind of exciting, and they had their hearts set on the Nipper’s Pig Roast 12 miles or so away.

We were scheduled to dock at the pretty but compact Orchid Bay Marina by 3 pm, and I knew I would face mutiny or worse (trust me there is worse) if we had to turn back. I asked Joe if he could stay aboard and get us safely docked up there. He agreed it would be dicey, but I smiled, looked over and told him he was the professional here. He called his boss and they had an amusing conversation about whether I was competent to dock by myself and what were we thinking to be heading out in that much wind to begin with. Cruise Abaco actually offers this as an innovative service; they will assign a day captain who goes home by chase boat or ferry every night, saving you an extra person aboard overnight.

   Despite being on many lists of top beach bars, Nippers on Great Guana Cay is still going strong. The food was good, the staff was friendly, and they had a real DJ who only went off the rails once (sad Neil Diamond songs), which was quickly remedied with a $20 bill. The bar has an amazing setting overlooking a fabulous beach.

The crew pestered Joe with questions while he waited for his ferry and we learned he actually was a pirate, having played one in a Disney movie. He was also a rockstar, as a bass player for a metal band in Holland in the 1980s. The Abacos are a place filled with great personalities.

Treasure Cay was our next stop. The harbor entrance is best described as well hidden. You follow some pilings impossibly close to shore. I can’t imagine bringing a 120-foot megayacht in here but they do it. There is a tiny photo in the excellent Steve Dodge guide that holds the key. Once inside we saw a well-appointed, large marina. They directed us first to a tiny inside slip which we rejected. Dock S was the easiest to get into. It is a short walk to an outstanding beach with nice facilities. There was a bakery and market nearby.

I like a basic bar and restaurant in the marina itself. This one specialized in pizza and conch fritters, the latter have become a basic food group for me. We made instant friends with the owner of a huge motor yacht, who openly admitted I was “the luckiest man on earth” with my all woman crew. In a deep draft boat you will need a bit of tide help here. In one section of the marina, we had every depth alarm go off in low tide.

   The beach was so good we stayed an extra day. Marina guests get the use of an umbrella and two chairs free of charge. My crew entertained themselves going for walks, spotting sea life, doing beach yoga, and performing headstands on paddleboards, which is as hard as it looks. It was here we found Trevor, who arranged the pig tour (see sidebar).

The extra day here got us off our plan so we had to motor to Hope Town, dead to windward, in order to make the high tide close to noon. It is customary in a deep draft boat to follow the established routes between major waypoints. My crew figured out the chartplotter and it was good navigation practice. I taught them the process backwards: electronic first, paper later. There was a hand-made sticker on the chartplotter that said “use the current Dodge guide first”, as it is updated annually.

The boat, a Jeanneau 439, was gadget laden for us. It had a bow thruster, folding swim platform (great for paddleboard launching) and in-mast furling as well as a power winch. I had a terrifying moment with the combination of rookie crew, in-mast furling and a power winch; you need to leave a little bit of sail out when you are done furling in the mainsail! There was another sticker on the dash, “Don’t exceed 2200 RPM.” It was correct. I sent Mark a cheerful email that it was time for a new engine heat exchanger.

I credit Richard Spindler (founder of Latitude 38 magazine) with the idea that quality shore leave is good for crew morale with many women aboard. Ours found the Hope Town Inn and Marina tidy and welcoming and we ended up staying three nights. The design elements, colors and grounds reminded us of the Disney Grand Floridian Hotel.

The hilly bike ride down to Tahiti Beach was very pretty (spring for the six speed bike upgrade) and I made a note to hire a personal trainer before trying to keep up with a pack of yoga enthusiasts. We stopped at the stunning Abacos Inn for an excellent lunch. Along the road a handwritten sign in front of a house announced that the key lime pies were done at noon. We brought one in a bike basket to the Hope Town Harbor Lodge, where the charming bartender Gary set us up with plates and forks.

For fine dining and creative menu choices, we can recommend Firefly Sunset Resort (which also has stunning views) and the Abacos Inn. Most of these places will send a golf cart to fetch you from the Hope Town ferry dock.

All in all it was a great week. I was able to train a new crew, and I am now struggling with the job description and duties for a new crew position: Staff Pirate. Ours “found” essential minor items during the week: clothes pins, drinking water and paper towels. She also arranged for rounds of drinks to be purchased for us in two bars. The guys on the superyacht feared for their silverware.

Erik Westgard is a retired member of the US Coast Guard Auxiliary who lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Fun Things to Do in the Abacos

Birding in Marsh Harbor

One of the travel sites we studied suggested going on a parrot and bird tour in Marsh Harbor, Great Abaco. Cruise Abaco recommended Reginald Patterson, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of local birds, plants and trees. We visited the Abacos National Park, which was more pine forest than jungle. As it turns out, the local parrots nest underground and eat pine nuts for protein. We did see and photograph some pretty green Bahama Parrots, tiny Bahama Woodstar hummingbirds and other species on our half day excursion. There were actually parrots in the trees in Boat Harbor back by the main offices. One of the highlights of the tour was a struggling housing development, which had a duck marsh and an amazing beachfront. We met the owner, who sensibly decided to start building a beach bar for sailors to try and improve the sales of lots.

Feed the Pigs

No Name Cay near Treasure Cay has a population of swimming pigs. Our superyacht neighbors went in their tender and were unimpressed, seeing only a few. We hired Trevor (his mom runs the bakery) who possessed secret knowledge. He blasted music from his boat and many pigs and piglets came running. They need regular deliveries of food and fresh water as there is none on their island.

Hope Town Music Festival

Noted Nashville song writer Chris Farren bought a house years ago in Hope Town. Every so often he brings a planeload of his fellow top songwriters (Ashley Gorley was featured) down for a few days of benefit shows. The event takes place at several venues so you can arrange to make one or more of the shows. The proceeds go to local charities like the fire and rescue service. We found ourselves in the front row to an amazing acoustic song and storytelling festival. It was free, but they appreciate a donation.

Author: Erik Westgard

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