May 30, 2018
Our Eleuthera experience had been quite limited.
Before arriving at Spanish Wells, located on St. George’s Cay in the northernmost area of the Eleutheras, we had thoroughly enjoyed four relaxing nights at anchor just off the beach of tiny Egg Island, the only boat there for almost the entire time.
At the far eastern edge of an impressive fifteen mile long reef system wrapping around the northern tip off the Eleutheras, Egg Island is nothing more than a pinpoint on the charts. Only a mile long and less than half a mile wide, it is roughly a five hundred foot ribbon of inhospitable rocky and overgrown land encircling a salt water pond and marsh.
But along the southwest edge is a small bay, it’s final five hundred feet stretching at depths of less than ten feet, which funnels onto a sandy beach. At night, an army of mosquitos patrol it, but during daylight hours it provides a perfect setting for afternoons on the beach.
As long as the southeast winds held, we had good protection, and could tuck ourselves far enough in to minimize the swell felt farther out.
Largely alone, aside from the occasional passing charter fishing or snorkeling boat, anchored just off an isolated island, we savored both the isolation and the view.
During one excursion to the island, Kris discovered a fascinating small bird scurrying about on the beach. Every time Kris would move in one direction the bird commenced with a very pronounced show, feigning injury to try to distract Kris and hold her attention. It appeared to be acting as a live decoy, we could only surmise it was trying to keep us away from its nest and probably young… amazing.
But as the winds began to shift, we quickly felt the change in surge. It became evident that a forecasted increase in winds needed to be heeded as fair warning to relocate.
In fact, the last night we spent at anchor at Egg Island, both a catamaran and a squall passed through that gave us our first real feel for just how quickly thunderstorms can build and how intense they can be. The ominous clouds materialized and stacked up within minutes, giving very little warning. Then, within seconds of feeling a cool breeze pick up, Mother Nature unleashed a maelstrom of wind and rain upon our location. The wind speed increased from single digits to thirty knots in less than a minute, and the torrent of rain dumping down reduced our visibility to less than one hundred feet.
Caught out with full sails up, the result could be catastrophic. Fortunately, we were already at anchor. Our anchor chain and snubber line, pulled as taut as if we were backing down on it with our engine revved to 2500rpms, groaned and creaked.
Yet still, Exit held fast.
Fifteen minutes later there was an eerie, dead calm all around us. But the message was loud and clear… don’t get caught out here when the weather conditions shift.
Five miles to the east, not quite halfway between Egg Island and Spanish Wells, Royal Harbor was the easy choice. It was not as picturesque as our surroundings at Egg Island but the half-mile by thousand foot harbor, accessed through a small inlet, offered three hundred sixty degree protection with land reaching up nearly fifty feet all the way around it.
We had dropped anchor in Royal Harbor for a night before heading to Egg Island, so we returned and waited out the overnight winds with a small handful of other boats.
However, aside from the appeal of isolation, we found very little that grabbed our attention.
It also didn’t help that it had taken us so long to get favorable enough winds to jump over from the Exumas. Upon our arrival, we were already at the northern most point of Eleuthera running out of land that we could point our bow towards.
We hoped to do some diving. But a wreck just to the south of Egg Island we had considered had been all but pulverized by hurricanes, and the reef system we were next to had proven quite challenging to suss out by dinghy. The diving would still have to wait.
For us, Spanish Wells seemed to be the catalyst for our decision that the Abacos offered more appeal.
Our cruising friends Tami and Jay had already been exploring Eleuthera before we arrived, having made the leap across the Sound nearly directly from Georgetown. And exchanging texts with them regularly, we found that their perspective was that Eleuthera had largely been a disappointment. They had already concluded that, unfortunately, Eleuthera seemed to be much more like Florida than the Bahamas and they were ready to move on as well.
From Spanish Wells, we had two options.
The first was to take a slightly longer route, which involved returning to Egg Island for a night and then leaving early the following morning. This route would afford us the ability to circumvent the extensive and reputedly treacherous reef system which stretched across the northern side of Royal Island.
From where we were at anchor, just outside Spanish Wells, the Abacos lie just over fifty miles away. With an early start, we could sail there by nightfall. But we would have to pass through the shallow reef system fringing the north side of St George’s Cay before reaching the relative safety of the deep water just beyond.
An ominous sounding section of that reef reputed to have claimed many boats had been given the name The Devil’s Backbone.
We had read numerous warnings that navigating this area without a hired local pilot was to give fate the finger, and even the most capable captain unfamiliar with the navigable channels was begging to run aground or sink their boat.
We were quite dubious about the idea of ignoring the emphatic warnings of mariners.
Yet Ridley Head Cut, the small section of reef we needed to get through, was just at the outside edge of the Devil’s Backbone; everything we saw on both paper charts and our Navionics software seemed to indicate that there was nothing that warranted any particular concern.
The channel, though unmarked and narrow, was straightforward enough. At it’s narrowest point, it bottlenecked briefly to a width of about seventy five feet wide between the coral heads…Wouldn’t want to try it using exclusively a line of sight and paper charts; but our Navionics gives us pretty spot-on live reference of exactly where we are, relative to the charts. Also wouldn’t be foolish enough to try in poor conditions or poor visibility.
But, on the morning of our departure, the sun was shining and the surface of the water was absolutely smooth.
Possibly a momentary lapse of reason in which we succumbed to the dangerously slippery slope of cocky complacence; or possible evidence of a moment of evolutionary advancement having occurred in our sailing self-confidence…
As I stood lookout from the bow, Kris stood at the helm, carefully adjusting the wheel as she compared what she saw on the iPad in front of her running Navionics to what she saw in front of and around us.
A couple of minor turns here and there… the dark coral heads seemed far below…
Fifteen minutes later we were through the cut with depths below us quickly progressing from a hundred to beyond a thousand feet. Inside the cut, our depth had never registered shallower than twenty feet.
By avoiding the other route… a day saved.
Under the right conditions, trusting your instincts can be better than listening to the herd.
I’m sure the Spanish Wells pilots are a knowledgable and experienced lot, and I’d not sail inside the Devil’s Backbone without their assistance. But I would have felt pretty damn stupid coughing up one or two hundred bucks to have gotten piloted through there.