Beyond Nassau

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March 24-31, 2018

    Nassau had allowed us the opportunity to see our best friends again, as well as provided the chance encounter with our new friend Ray.  Nevertheless, after nearly a month at New Providence, to say we were chomping at the bit to move on would be a vast understatement.

     The Exumas, a long line of small cays stretching southeast for over a hundred miles, just southeast of us, seemed like the most logical choice for us to visit next.  Many people we had spoken with had raved about them, and photos provided further evidence of what appeared to be the quintessential Bahamian paradise.

     Tucked in between the Exuma Sound (essentially the open Atlantic Ocean) on the east, and the Tongue of the Ocean to the west, the Exumas are comprised of a tiny thread of cays and landmasses that barely emerge above the water, dotting the easternmost edge of the Great Bahama Bank.  In fact, very few of the cays have elevations that exceed fifty feet above sea level. 

     We decided Rose Island would make for a perfect launching point to head south.  It was twenty two miles east of West Bay, which gave us a head start in the direction we needed to go, as well as got us away from much of the boat traffic surrounding Nassau and New Providence.

     We often joke that we can determine the direction we intend to go by the wind direction.  It seems to always be coming from the direction we’re trying to head… not ideal from a sailing standpoint, for sure.

     Heading for Rose Island, we struggled to gain an angle we could sail under without pushing ridiculously far off course which would also just add additional distance to travel. 

     As we pressed further offshore than we initially intended, we were perplexed by what appeared to be land sitting barely above the waterline in the distance, maybe a mile off our port side.  The perplexing part was that there was not supposed to be any land in that direction… certainly not so close.  We could still see New Providence clearly to our right… evidence that we, in fact, were where we thought we were; but also evidence that the nearest land to our left should be well over the horizon.

     We edged closer to investigate.  Surprisingly, what we discovered was that our land was actually an island of sargassum seaweed, floating on the surface of the water, covering an area that had to be nearly the size of a football field.  As we got closer, we saw an additional road of sargassum seaweed leading both to and from the sargassum island as far as we could see in either direction.

     Not wanting to suck a giant mound of sargassum seaweed into our raw water pump, we avoided plowing right through the middle, though the idea was certainly a bit tempting.  We juked back and forth for the next hour or so, avoiding additional seaweed congregations, or choosing a narrow point when we had to cut across a road of seaweed that blocked our path.

     Finally the water appeared clear in all directions, and it seemed we had left the bizarre highways and islands of living plants behind us.  

     However, during that time, we began to notice that our engine tachometer, on the helm pedestal in the cockpit, had  begun to swing erratically, bouncing up and down from the actual engine speed, at times even spinning completely around.  Another Twilight Zone situation unfolding.

     Even stranger, the volt dummy light on the main panel at the top of the companionway steps had begun flashing on and off intermittently.  The battery voltage appeared fine at the main switch panel, the solar panels were charging, and everything on the engine seemed to be running perfectly fine, so we decided to continue heading for Rose Island, which was still two to three hours away, monitoring things while we were underway.

     The voltage dummy light (which should have indicated a lack of charging when lit), continued flashing on and off, becoming more and more incessant and staying on for longer periods of time.  Also, we noticed when the light came on, the temperature gauge and engine tach on the companionway panel also stopped working.

     Still, the engine seemed to be running perfectly fine.  Not wanting to shut things down and risk the engine not starting back up, we pressed on.

     By 5:00pm, we had safely arrived at Rose Island and set the anchor.  However, an hour later, when we tried to start the engine to see if the voltage light was still acting up, we got nothing… no warning buzzer, no engine starting.  It wouldn’t even turn over.

     Fuck.

     The following day was a game of chasing down the electrical ghost in the machine.  Taking off panels.  Identifying, following, and tracing wire paths.  Checking connections.  Testing for continuity and voltage from point to point with a multimeter.  Wires disappearing into a hole in the wall or a bundle of other wires, only to emerge again who knows where else.

     Troubleshooting electrical problems are a bitch.  Not only because I am NOT an electrician.  That doesn’t help.  But, also because electricity goes beyond science, and even magic… into the realm of voodoo.  

     Not just protons, neutrons, and electrons following the laws of physics.  Not just the magic and spells of sorcerers.  But full on chicken bone, snake eyes, and pig’s blood voodoo kinda shit.

     After consulting by phone with our electrical witchdoctor Tom (the electrical engineer who had installed our solar setup) for advice, the standing theory was that the likely source of the problem was either: a faulty connection somewhere, a failing ignition switch, an alternator belt that needed tightening or a problem with the alternator itself, or possibly we had not offered a sufficient blood sacrifice.

     Every wire path and connection we could get ahold of was checked (finding two suspect loose terminals along the way).  We tightened the alternator belts.  For the time being, we opted to hold off on the blood sacrifice.

     When we turned the key in the ignition, the warning buzzer sounded.  When we pressed the Start button, the old Perkins fired up immediately.  No charge fault light on the panel.  After shutting everything down and trying again, we got the same result.  All good.

     Fucking voodoo…

     With the electrical spirits seeming to be content, we now just had to placate the weather spirits.  

     Sitting at anchor just off Rose Island for a week awaiting a change in the wind direction, we came to thoroughly enjoy our remote location.  The lights of Nassau still spread across the horizon.  Yet, we had only a handful of other boats at anchor around us.   

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     We could go ashore and take in the breathtaking colors of the water on the opposite side of the island, dinghy around the shallow bay that separated the mangroves at the shore of Rose Island from a narrow spit of land just opposite, or hang out on the beach of that spit, typically the only people ashore at any given time.

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Outside the barrier

     Finally, on the last day of March, we hoisted anchor and headed out.  The Bimini Islands were now behind us and in front, across the shallows of the Bahama Banks, lie the Exumas.

Our Bahamian Guardian Angel

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March 22, 2018

     With it’s ultra-aggressive hawkers, cruise ship cattle, and upper crust mega-yacht twat aficionados, it would be incredibly easy to completely write off Nassau as shallow and superfluous.  

     Yet, deep down, that would be an unfair characterization.  Most of those people are irrelevant travelers passing through; and many of the locals are largely just trying to play a weak hand dealt to them, the best way they can.

     Oftentimes, it is when you delve off the beaten path, risking life and limb (more than one travel source we referenced warned of the potential danger of straying away from the crowds), that you actually stand a chance at finding the real heart and soul of a location.

    Though we had staved off the emergency situation of having our fuel tank leaking diesel all over the inside of our home, we still needed to find gasket material to sort out our fuel tank sending unit for the long term.  We suspected that the material we had used was not really fit for diesel applications; consequently, the breakdown of the rubber would eventually lead to more grief.

     After calling a dozen marine or more repair facilities, auto parts or hardware stores, we still had no confirmation that the material we needed was in stock at any of them.  As is often the case, the best tactic is simply to hit the streets.

     On the phone, one woman had indicated that they had two kinds of gasket material in stock, but she knew nothing about gaskets beyond that.  The problem was, after a dozen calls, I had lost track of which facility this was.

     So, we set out on foot, hoping that we would stumble across the gasket material.  Either sheer luck or tenacity would do.

     As we waited in line at one parts supply store, we were approached by a Bahamian who asked us what we were trying to find.  Hinging between suspicion and desperation, we explained the situation.  Much to the chagrin of the woman behind the counter, he indicated we my be able to find the material at a different location – one at which he was headed to next.

     After the employee confirmed that they, in fact, did not have the gasket material we were trying to find, the guy told us he would be happy to give us a ride to the parts store he thought would have what we were looking for.  

     Though our experience thus far had not given us a great deal of confidence in the good will of Nassau locals, with a bit of trepidation we accepted the offer.  When another person behind the counter asked the guy if he actually knew where the store in question was, as well as warned us that, if he tried to take us by the airport, we were being taken for a ride, we became even more skeptical.

     Yet, no serious danger alarms triggered, so we followed the lead we were offered.  After climbing in his car, the man introduced himself as Ray Cunningham, a mechanic who worked for ICS of the Bahamas (an armored car company similar to Brinks).

     He went to a couple of other shops he needed to visit before bringing us to AID, the massive parts store he had recommended trying.  Sure enough, they had what we were looking for; and, because of his help we walked out the door with the gasket material in hand in short order.

     Afterwards, he was kind enough to drop us off at a nearby grocery store where he offered to wait for us while we went shopping for provisions so he could give us a ride back to the marina.  Considering the marina was only a few blocks away, we declined the offer, not wanting to take advantage of the situation.

     He happily gave us his phone number and promised, if we found ourselves in another bind, he would help us out again. 

    A couple of days later, one of our propane tanks ran out.  When we asked the marina dock-master, as well as other cruisers at the marina, about getting tanks filled, no one had a definitive solution.

    So… we called Ray. 

     Sure enough, he picked up the empty tank from us at the marina, drove thirty or so minutes to a location that filled propane, and then brought us the full tank the next day.  As before, he asked for nothing in return; he simply said he wanted to do what he could to help us out.

     After Shannan and Vicki departed Nassau, bound for home, we headed back to West Bay to anchor in our old location.  

     Earlier, when we cleared Customs in Bimini (our first stop in the Bahamas), we had received an eight month cruising permit for the Bahamas.  However, for some reason we never quite understood, when I went to clear Immigration at a different location, they only issued us forty days on our passports.  Now we were down to less than ten days remaining.

     We had already visited the immigration office in Nassau a couple of days earlier to try to sort this out.  But when we explained the situation to the officer behind the window, we were told we needed to get our visa extension once we arrived in Georgetown, where we were planning on heading to anyway.

     Unfortunately, weather had prevented us from departing New Providence as soon as we had hoped we would.  As we approached only a week left on our visas, we knew we would be hard pressed to make Georgetown before the visas expired, which would cause us all kinds of trouble.  As a general rule, overstaying the date stamped on your visa rarely turns out well.  Georgetown was the nearest location outside Nassau that could issue that extension; furthermore, the last thing we wanted to do was race straight to Georgetown, missing everything in between, simply to beat the deadline.

     Trying to be pro-active to avoid a visa disaster, we decided to give it one more try in Nassau.  We had already spoken to another immigration official on the phone (seemingly farther up the command chain but located somewhere else), and they had assured us that we should be able to take care of this at the Nassau location if we went back and explained the circumstances.

     The problem was now we were at West Bay – a fifty dollar one-way taxi ride into Nassau.  And apparently the local buses didn’t come that far out on their normal routes.

     So, desperate once again, we called our new friend Ray.  He warned us to be extremely cautious; there may be people at the park we could dinghy to, but not to trust them to give us a ride.  Instead, he called us back shortly thereafter, informing us that he had already spoken with a bus driver who had agreed to come out the extra distance to pick us up at the park entrance.  The bus fare would be five dollars each.  He left us with the driver’s phone number, to verify the pickup time the next morning.  Not only that, he also assured us that if, for any reason, the bus didn’t pick us up, he would come out and get us himself… golden!

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DefCon1… photo of license plate in case our dinghy turned up missing

     The following morning, our phone rang.  It was Ray, wanting to confirm everything was ok.

     When we arrived at the immigration office this time, there was quite a line.  We waited over an hour outside, just to get into the main office.  During that time Ray called again, checking on our progress.

     Once inside, we had to wait even longer before talking to an official.  While we waited, Ray actually showed up with a big smile on his face, just wanting to see how things were going.  He had a brief word with the person behind the office window, to try to expedite things, as well as make sure they understood our situation.  Good old Ray… greasing the wheels of the snail’s paced government office on our behalf!  Soon after, our passports were stamped and we were out the door, this time good for three additional months.

     We couldn’t thank Ray enough for all his assistance.  He told us if we got into trouble anytime while we were in the Bahamas, call him and he would do whatever he could to help us out again.  We don’t doubt that for an instant. 

     Individuals like Ray are the embodiment of human potential – a truly friendly person of limited means who just wants to do good and help out whenever possible.  His motivations are not greed or ambition, but merely pure kindness.  For cruisers like us, his efforts make the journey we’re on not only more feasible, but also incredibly enjoyable.  

     We can only take his lead as an example to follow ourselves.  Hopefully, if we are fortunate, our paths will cross again.  And if we find ourselves in a situation we can’t resolve, we have absolutely no doubt that Ray will pick up the phone and move the world for us with a smile on his face.  Cheers to you Ray, our Bahamian Guardian Angel… you are a diamond!!!

Rendezvous With Old Friends

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If Cancun & Miami Beach had a baby… it would be Nassau

March 7-20, 2018

     The magic of a lifelong friendship is both a rare and precious treasure.  In some ways, it transcends family relationships in that it is a chosen endeavor requiring tremendous effort and even sacrifice, as opposed to a genetic certainty.

     Shannan and Vicki Schulhauser are two such lifelong friends.  I have known Shannan since 1980 as a classmate, a bandmate, and a best friend.  Likewise, we have known Vicki for more than thirty years.  

     They are the only two people who traveled halfway around the world to visit us while we were working as dive instructors in Borneo.  It only seems fitting that they be the first guests we have staying aboard Exit; and, once again, they have to travel thousands of miles to do so.

     Our strategy was to arrive in Nassau well ahead of them, in time to have an opportunity to scope things out, do some reconnaissance on potential places to go, and become more familiar with the area in general.  

     We did make it to New Providence in advance of their arrival.  However, the same winds that threatened to trap us at Fort Lauderdale finally caught up with us and, for the entire week, we were unable to get out of West Bay.  Furthermore, West Bay’s remote location prevented us from even venturing into Nassau itself to explore ahead of time.

     In fact, we had just arrived at Harbour Central Marina in Nassau and were still securing our dock lines as Shannan and Vicki’s plane touched down at the Nassau Airport.

     We had planned on spending a few days at the marina, allowing Shannan and Vicki to acclimate to Exit.  As this would be their first visit ever aboard a sailboat, we thought it prudent to take things slowly.  A bit of time, secure in a slip, would give them a chance to get used to simply being on a boat – boat movement, boat noises, boat space, boat operations…

     Nassau is not exactly representative of the tropical Bahamas paradise you might find on a post card.  Take a city of 250,000 people with a distinctly high crime rate, add a smidgeon of Bahamian culture, and drop in ten to twenty thousand tourists who have just stepped off one of five cruise ships sitting in the harbor for a few hours as well as one of the densest congregations of multi-million dollar mega-yachts I have ever seen and, in a nutshell, you have Nassau.

     It became easy to distinguish at what point of their cruise people were at by the color of exposed skin walking around… lots of fish belly white if the cruise had just begun versus painful looking lobster red if the cruise was nearing an end.

     It’s impossible to get any real sense of the true size of the cruise boats themselves without seeing them in person.  As we passed by them in the harbor, we were flabbergasted… enormous and audacious structures ten stories high that occupied the equivalent of a city block, each carrying three thousand or more guests.

     Sadly, the cruise ships must be a large percentage of the economic base of Nassau, and it shows when you walk down the sidewalk, like an eternal spring break destination.  Each store, bar, restaurant, and street vendor has a small window of opportunity to entice every person walking past to leave some money at their establishment before climbing back on the cruise ship and taking their money on to the next port.  Everyone is both greeted and treated like they are on a cruise… and most of them are.  

     We were told by many locals how frustrating it can be, as many of the cruise ships pack their guests on pre-arranged tours and activities, never venturing further from the boat than an awaiting shuttle.

     Likewise, the mega-yacht crowd provides an equally unique population to be observed.  Surrounding us at the marina at any given time were no less than half a dozen floating pleasure palaces, ranging in value from probably three million to well over twenty-five million dollars, often with only the crew aboard, awaiting the next rendezvous instructions from the owner.

     Though it was a nice break to enjoy restaurant food, bar drinks, and a bit of wandering around, by day three, we were more than ready to say farewell to the marina, as well as Nassau.  We looked forward to getting back at anchor, using West Bay as a launching point to further explore the area with Shannan and Vicki.

     Our previous three hour motor from West Bay to Nassau Harbor to meet them had been in fair weather without major waves.  However, the drastic and quick change in depth from over a thousand feet to exposed rock and reefs less than a mile off the beach, in tandem with the wind, generated the biggest swells we have ever encountered as we traversed the coastline.  

     Though not rough and messy, like five foot waves stacked on top of each other, the swells were more than a little bit intimidating.  Spaced maybe thirty seconds apart, we repeatedly found ourselves at the crest of a massive swell, looking more than twenty feet down into the trough preceding the next swell.  Then we were in the trough, looking up at the next swell as it approached.  

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Breaking swells along the reef
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Safety boat for surfers barely visible to right
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That’s not looking out at the horizon… that’s looking up a twenty foot swell from the trough

     It was unnerving enough that we quickly adjusted course to take us a bit further offshore where the swells diminished in size.  To our amazement, we could see surfers much closer to shore, making what looked like suicide runs down the massive walls of water.

     Despite encountering no such swells returning to West Bay with Shannan and Vicki aboard, the journey was still enough to make Shannan more than a little green in the face.

     While our first day at anchor was comfortable, unfortunately, the weather refused to cooperate with us.

 

Fifteen to twenty knot winds kicked up for a number of days, making any hope of a day-trip sailing excursion (or even moving to another anchorage) out of the question.  

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No sailing… but still incredible sunsets

     Furthermore, the direction in which the wind was coming from was at a right angle to the swells entering the bay, causing Exit to sit at anchor facing the wind, but take all of the swells directly on our beam.  This resulted in a pronounced and unrelenting rolling of the boat, back and forth from side to side… uncomfortable to say the least.

     Considering the fact that Shannan had undergone surgery on both hips over the past two years and was still coping with extensive back problems, it was incredibly difficult for him to navigate around the tight confines of the boat as well as up and down the companionway steps in the best of conditions.  Exit’s continuous rolling motion only exasperated the situation.

     Finally, after four days of non-stop wind and rolling, Shannan and Vicki opted for a hotel in Nassau.  We took them ashore where they caught a taxi that delivered them to accommodations on solid ground.

     For the next week, the weather remained uncooperative.  Sadly, in the end, we were unable to take them out for even a day trip of sailing.  

     We spent five additional days tied up at Harbour Central Marina so we could meet with them each day in a more accessible manner.  

     Ultimately, it was fantastic to see them again, and we appreciated all the effort they went through to meet us all the way in the Bahamas.  However, we couldn’t help but feel like we had fallen well short as hosts at our home for our  friends.

     In hindsight, it was truly a learning experience for us regarding having people come to visit us.

     While Nassau was a logical hub to access from the U.S., it really did not provide a very conducive location for a boat at anchor.  West Bay was in the middle of nowhere, making it nearly impossible for daily rendezvous; and Nassau Harbor was far from ideal for anchoring.  Inside the bay, accessibility to land by dinghy was difficult; furthermore, currents, constant boat traffic, and very poor holding (a number of boats trying to anchor just outside the marina dragged at night) meant that paying to stay in a marina was really the only viable option.  

     Once committed to staying in the harbor, we lost most of the ability to attempt short, enjoyable daysailing trips.  Strong currents limited the windows of opportunity to get in and out of the marina slip.  Even if the wind was favorable, just getting out and back into the harbor (past the cruise ships, boat traffic, and outer channel) required a couple of hours at the least.

     Our lack of familiarity with the area made things incredibly difficult.  We learned that, in order to host visitors, we would need ample time to first suss a place out.  Given that opportunity, we could have made better decisions.  This includes both land and water based familiarity.

 

     In retrospect, it would have made much more sense having guests unfamiliar with sailing to stay at a hotel from the beginning, initially utilizing a safer strategy of short day trips instead of total immersion.  Already knowing where we could go, depending upon conditions, to allow them exposure in small doses would have probably given them a much more enjoyable sailboat experience. 

     Instead, without that foresight and knowledge, we were flying blind.  

     In the future, we need to choose a location in which we already have a great deal of knowledge, or give ourselves far more time to do the reconnaissance necessary so we can plan and adjust much more effectively.

     Hopefully, our shortcomings as hosts for Shannan and Vicki on this trip don’t dissuade them from another visit in the future.  They are our lifelong friends and we eagerly look forward to every opportunity to see them.

     A friend is a friend, and nothing can change that, but it’s also extremely important to recognize that not all friends are sailors themselves, or even want to be.  Given that fact, we sincerely look forward to having them come to visit us again at some point in the future. 

     As is the case with so much aboard Exit, we learn an immense amount every time we try something for the first time.  But we have to try in order to learn.

     Thanks to Shannan and Vicki for being our first time guests… next time around we promise more sailing and less rolling!

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Contemplating the world’s mysteries over a beer
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