Deciding the best possible route to leave the Bahamas (published May 2016)
As we proceeded south through the Bahamas, we made the inevitable stopover in George Town. It was still early in the season, but the forest of masts that greeted us was immense already. The self-appointed statistician of the cruisers’ network proudly declared the “official count” at 271 as a front approached. With the Derecho event of January a fresh memory for all, forecasts for a pretty vanilla front passing were “enhanced” as second hand reports from Chris Parker were “quoted” on the net and the nerves of cruisers were frothed into a near frenzy. Lake Victoria was hopping with “pre-storm” activity of grocery shopping, laundry, fuel purchasing, and shuttling RO water from the free tap at the dinghy dock. Yoga on the beach was to be cancelled for a few days.
We moved our boat to Red Shanks, a bay well-protected from westerlies and found it very full with boaters on deck, hands on hips, defending the space around their boats. We anchored just outside the inner harbor and had no one around to drag down on us. The passing of the front was mostly a non-event and we enjoyed a movie on the PC as Regina Oceani rocked a bit fore and aft that evening.
The next morning we headed out for a fast sail over Cape Santa Maria of Long Island, named for Columbus’s ship that came on the reef there, to Conception Island. We encountered a few boats sailing to Long Island but arrived at the west anchorage of Conception to find only one other boat in the anchorage. We shared this paradise for several days with just the family on that catamaran and quickly became fast friends as we explored the mangrove conch lake of the island in our dinghies and shared a few meals together. This lake takes up a significant portion of the interior of the island and is the nursery of turtles and any number of zooplankton species at the bottom of the food chain. Conception Island is that paradise sailor’s dream of—clean, isolated, tremendous healthy reefs, beautiful birds, pink sand beaches—but oddly few cruisers stop here on their way to find some other paradise further south and further east in the Caribbean. Conception Island has an anchorage on either side. Theoretically, one could stay there through passing fronts by moving between the two anchorages. What we found when we circumnavigated the island in our strong and sturdy aluminum RIB with 15 HP motor is that the seas on the windward side of the island can be very rough and that they take a while to calm down after the winds change.
After several days we could see a front approaching. Three other boats entered the anchorage, having first checked out the eastern anchorage and found it untenable despite the SW winds. We planned our departure for early the next morning.
By sunrise, the western anchorage was rolling with steep standing waves. It was time to get underway before conditions deteriorated further. Jill masterfully motored us up on the anchor so I could bring 150 feet of chain and our 85 pound Mantus anchor aboard with minimal stress on the bowsprit as the bow bobbed up and down at times taking the bow and me underwater up to my knees. We motorsailed with a double reefed main and slight jib to make offing from Conception. By the time we were in the lee of Long Island, the seas and wind calmed a bit, we killed the engine and began a lovely downwind 150 mile sail to Start Bay at Mayaguana.
Abraham Bay lies on the south side of Mayaguana behind a reef to the south. The entrance for deeper draft vessels to this several mile long bay is on the west end though there is a narrow and shallow cut at the southeast end near the town of Abraham’s Bay. The west end of the bay is known as Start Bay. Mayaguana once held a U.S. missile tracking station that employed 3,000 personnel. That is all gone now and the town is pretty sleepy with minimal infrastructure. The bay though is lovely, has minimal surge, and plenty of reef all along the south edge for snorkeling.
PLANNING OUR EXIT
While resting here we started to plan our exit from the Bahamas. So far we had been following Bruce Van Sant’s, Passages South and enjoying the “thornless path to windward”.
With the Dominican Republic just over our southern horizon, we also started studying Frank Virgintino’s Free Cruising Guide to the Dominican Republic (edition 7.0 published in November 2015). We had so far planned to continue “Brucing it” through the Turks and Caicos, down to Luperon, and across the northern side of the DR to the Mona Passage and the southwest side of Puerto Rico. Why not? Bruce has done it dozens of times and untold numbers of cruisers have followed in his wake.
Frank though makes an argument for avoiding the northern coast of the DR and instead taking the Windward Passage around Haiti, cruising the southern coast of the DR, and transiting to Puerto Rico on the southern edge of the Mona Passage, which he figures may not even be in the Mona Passage itself. Not having a lee shore subject the Northers, avoiding the graft of the made-up fees of the port captains of Luperon and Samama, sailing and anchoring in clean clear waters, and even getting to visit the gem of Haiti, Ile a’ Vache, all appealed to us. The distances would be longer but we were not in a hurry. Frank’s argument won us over and we made plans for an overnight to Great Iguana and a 48 hour passage from there, down the Windward Passage to Ile a’ Vache.
Great Iguana is all about the Morton Salt Company which runs the world’s second largest solar salt ponds there. The company is the great provider on the island with most all public spaces funded or donated by them including the library, museum and ballpark. Like most of the towns we visited in the Bahamas, Matthew’s Town has clearly seen better days but as with all towns in the Bahamas, the people there were welcoming and very friendly. Although the third largest island in the country, Great Iguana maintains an “out island” mentality and the $6.95/gallon diesel (just down from $7.40) is clear evidence of this. Fortunately, we only needed 17 gallons to top up our jerry jugs. We had hoped to visit the national park there to see the flamingoes but we failed at several attempts to connect with the warden, Henry Nixon.
We departed the anchorage at 7:30 a.m. and once around the tip of the island deployed our Parasailor for a relaxing broad reach. About 30 nautical miles northeast of Cuba, Jill heard a rumbling and shortly thereafter we were circled by a bright orange U.S. Coast Guard helicopter. They did not respond to our hail on channel 16 and we suspect they just wanted to see the pretty sail. Similarly, a northbound cruise ship seemed to divert to run close to us so their passengers could see the pretty sailboat. Jill would not let me use the VHF to order a takeout pizza from the cruise ship.
We sighted the land of Cuba at approximately midnight and proceeded south just west of the shipping lanes and separation zone on the northwest corner of Cuba, well outside of Cuba’s territorial waters. (We hope to visit Cuba next year by which time we are optimistic our insurance will cover us there).
Around sunrise of the second day at sea, the winds had clocked and died down while the sea state grew more confused. We moved to just the mainsail to stabilize some of the rolling and motored for most of the next 26 hours. The coast of the southwestern peninsula of Haiti was striking—tall mountains falling off into the sea with green fields and woods as far as we could see. We would love to visit more of Haiti if not for the political instability and recent violence experienced by cruisers in some of the coastal towns.
We arrived at the island of Ile ‘a Vache on a Sunday at about 8:30 a.m. and were met by a bevy of boat boys who clung to the toe rail as we entered the anchorage, found our spot, and set the anchor. They were working hard to establish which of them was the first to make contact with us as that seems to determine first rights to any work we might dole out to them later.
Monday and Thursday are market days in Madame Bernard, the main town on the eight mile long island of Ile ‘a Vache. We made arrangements with one of the boat boys, Kiki, a real gentlemen amongst the boat boys, to serve as our guide to the island. We, along with two other couples, met Kiki at 8 a.m. at his home on the northeast shore of Baie ‘a Feret for the four mile (seemed much farther) walk to Madam Bernard Town. The three couples employed one of the boat boys to be “security” for our three boats for the day ($10) and one couple employed two younger boat boys as photographers.
As we walked along we could see evidence of change on the island. The government of Haiti declared Ile ‘a Vache to be a “public utility” subject to eminent domain in order to create a far flung tourist resort on the island. (More on this: http://time.com/4192693/haiti-tourism/). An international airport was mostly completed amidst protests and some locals had been displaced to the mainland. The project, funded in partnership with Venezuelan and Chinese investors seems to have stalled a bit but the locals we spoke with expected it to continue by and by. We saw various public works projects, seemingly aimed at demonstrating to the locals the benefits that development of the island would bring them. These included solar-powered street lights along the paths in and near the towns, a new playground with modern play structures, and billboards outlining the development areas and conservation zones. The time to visit Ile a’ Vache may soon pass, so go quickly if you can.
The path to Madam Bernard narrowed and became more challenging to walk—steeper slopes and washed out trails—then suddenly it opened up and we could see and hear the busy market ahead of us. Many have written that visiting this market is one of those “National Geographic” moments. Indeed it is full of local color and energy and not something to miss.
All manner of things were for sale. Kiki helped us pick out and negotiate for fruits and vegetables, items we mostly lacked in the Bahamas. Dogs waited patiently under the butcher tables for the occasional falling scrap. Bulk spices were portioned down to small bags for the shoppers seeking just enough for the next few meals. Candied nuts, fried fish and pasties were on offer for snacking. We did not spend nearly enough time there.
Passing through the market we moved up the hill to visit Canadian Sister Flora at the hospital and orphanage she founded. Kiki and I met with the sister and she explained in French that the children there were not only abandoned by their families but that their illnesses or birth defects were so severe that the hospitals of Haiti had also abandoned them. She told us that she welcomed the supplies we had brought but above all their greatest challenge was the cost of transporting the worst off of the children to Canada for advanced treatment and for that donations were needed.
Sister Flora invited the six of us to visit with the physical therapists treating the youngest of the children. This was a situation that tore at each of our hearts and could only be borne for so long before we all were quietly in tears. The world is blessed by those rare angels on earth who can and do day after day tend to these unfortunate children. We were all humbled and happy to do the little we could to support their efforts.
It was a slow walk back down the hill into town as we each gathered our thoughts. We passed a donkey parking lot of sorts just outside the market and Kiki led us to a restaurant/bar in the middle of the market. Here we had some cold drinks (banana soda for me) and some fried fish and pasties which Kiki retrieved from a market vendor. Afterward Kiki told us, “Your boat is ready!”
We worked our way through the market to the anchorage full of local sail boats. Eleven of us (our three couples, a French couple also needing a ride back, Kiki and the two other boat boys) were shuttled two or three at a time in a dugout canoe to a waiting boat, already seemingly full of locals and their market purchases. This sailboat with only a few inches of freeboard quickly made way with just the foresail for the downwind run back to Baie ‘a Feret. Truth be told, Jill and I were ready for a really wet ride with lots of baling as the mainsail was tacked but that was not to be on this day. Nonetheless it was a great time and we enjoyed hearing tales of the circumnavigation of the French couple who joined us for the ride.
The next day we just rested, reflected on the fullness of our Monday, and made preparations for the sail to Isla Beata in the Dominican Republic.
Over the last several years we have watched Pete and Jill Dubler’s restoration and refit of their Pearson 424. In December, they began their new life as cruisers aboard S/V Regina Oceani.
We encountered three types of boat boys at Ile ‘a Vache: 1) the young hard workers trying to earn anything they can to pay for schooling; 2) the older men and woman selling fish or offering dinner at their homes; and 3) those just begging for money or other handouts who will hang on your boat until one of you is exhausted. We found the first two categories, though persistent, mostly very pleasant and offering good service or products (fruit, fish, art). Polishing your stainless or your hull is a popular offering and the young men seem to do very good work on the boats who engaged them. While I was cleaning the light soft growth off our Coppercoat bottom with a plastic putty knife, Winston came by insisting he could do the job. I was pretty beat after doing about 1/5 of the boat myself with just a mask and snorkel and told him that it was a very hard job. I had to work with him for about half an hour to train him on how to do the job properly but once he had it down, he worked hard for two hours to complete the job. His fee was two dollars per hour. We also provided him some school supplies and he promised to work hard in school until we see him the next time.
How to Support the Orphanage at Ile’A Vache
Donations to L’Oeuvre Saint Francois on Ile ‘a Vache may be arranged by contacting the administrator of the orphanage, Huguette Calix by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Sister Flora at email@example.com. You can also mail the orphanage at: L’Oeuvre Saint Francois, Ile-‘a-Vache, Mme Bernard, Cayes, Haiti (W.I.). Sister Flora Blanchette