Monday, May 18, 2015

In Search of Sunshine Part IV: Cruising the Abacos

After departing Staniel Cay on the morning of March 31st, the six of us in my Piper Pacer and our rented Piper Warrior headed northeast to the island of Eleuthera, site of the Bahamas' oldest settlement (in 1646, by Pilgrims expelled from Bermuda). Ours was a short visit: we flew low up the island's rocky eastern coast, checked out the impressive reef just offshore, buzzed the quaint colonial houses of Harbour Island, and landed at the nearby North Eleuthera Airport for a closer look. I'll confess that I found Harbour Island's pink sand beach a bit overhyped: it's essentially just a really nice white sand beach with a slight pinkish hue. But we enjoyed lounging on it for a bit, and I liked the island's 18th-century architecture bedecked in bright Bahamian pastels.


After lunch, we hightailed it out to the airport and took off for our destination for the afternoon, and the next four days: Abaco. It was another quick bluewater crossing in loose formation at 3500 feet, then we dropped low and tightened up as we approached Little Harbour, an eastern promontory of Great Abaco Island. From there we flew up the chain of cays on the eastern side of the Sea of Abaco; the beautiful, shallow waters and myriad islets made an excellent photographic background that kept Steve busily snapping away from his temporary perch in the Warrior (Jacquie rode in the Pacer for this leg).

After landing in Marsh Harbour and tying down the planes securely, we took a taxi into town to the Conch Inn & Marina, which doubles as the base for The Moorings boat charter company. We checked in and got a thorough cruising area & chart briefing, then boarded our home for the next few days. Tack-A-Cardia is a Moorings 4600 (Leopard 46) sailing catamaran with four double cabins and two singles, plus a large saloon & galley and generous communal areas abovedecks. We'd need all that space, for we were joined by five new friends for this portion of the adventure. Andy and Ivy are fellow airline pilots and dear friends of mine who've been on several Interline Regattas and other sailing trips with me. Jeff, Sarah, and Hailey were Steve's Californian friends who I'd never met before. The first night we stayed on the dock unpacking and provisioning, enjoying a delicious dinner of jerk chicken grilled on the stern barbeque, and talking and laughing around the deck table late into the night.


The next morning we got underway at a reasonable hour, and were rewarded with a nice shore breeze as soon as we left Marsh Harbor despite a forecast of calm winds for the next several days. It built steadily as we tacked northward until we were close-reaching at an impressive eight knots. It only took a bit over two hours to reach Treasure Cay, where we winded our way through the narrow, shallow harbor entrance. The reward, after we anchored and ate lunch, was a visit to the most incredibly beautiful beach I've ever seen, a shock to the senses with the purest white sand and electric blue water straight out of a Bombay Sapphire bottle. We lingered long enough that we ended up skipping the reef we were planning to snorkel at and proceeded straight to our anchorage for the night, Fischer's Bay on Great Guana Island. We swam a bit after anchoring, piled into the dinghy (no small feat with 11 people!) to watch the sunset among cruisers at Grabbers Bar, then walked across the island for dinner at the famous/infamous Nipper's Bar.


 Thursday morning, the forecast for calm winds proved woefully correct, and we motored out from Fischer's Bay and several miles southward to Fowl Cay Marine Park. This took us slightly outside the Sea of Abaco, between Fowl Cay and a very large barrier reef. We anchored in sand and took the dinghy to a mooring ball closer to the reef, and spent several hours snorkeling. That afternoon, as we steamed further south to Elbow Cay, we were transiting an area about a half-mile east of a cut to the open ocean when I noticed that the water ahead looked shallow. Mind you, it's shallow everywhere in the Sea of Abaco, it's something you just get used to. Anyways, the chartplotter as well as my newly-published cruising guide showed 7-9 feet of depth in the surrounding area. Should have listened to my gut - we plowed into a 3' sandbar doing six knots under power. Apparently, a storm had recently shifted the sand inland from the cut. It wasn't a big deal - we had everyone jump into the waist-high water and I was able to back the boat off the sandbar with no damage to the keels. Had I been only 100 feet west, the water was much deeper.

We spent the afternoon and night at Tahiti Beach on the south end of Elbow Cay. A few of us took the dinghy to explore the nearby Tilloo Cut and adjacent shallow waters, and others in our group went hiking on Elbow Cay. They unknowingly wandered onto private property, but the owner was nice about it and invited us all to a party that night at the marina she and her husband own. It was a long dinghy ride there at sunset - and even longer returning in the dark!

On Friday we got underway shortly after 8am to transit the very shallow Lubbers Quarters Channel just before high tide, and the early start plus lovely 20-knot winds meant we were able to sail further south than originally planned, all the way down to Little Harbour. This rocky outpost on the Abaco mainland was originally settled by Canadian artist Randolph Johnson and his family, who initially lived in a cave; it grew into something of an artists' commune, and today the centerpiece of the little settlement is Pete's Pub, also a metalworks foundry and gallery owned by Randolph's son. Unfortunately a falling tide and a very shallow harbor entrance meant we couldn't stay for too long.

It was a long sail northward that afternoon, with an enroute stop at Sandy Cay, so it was after 5pm when we entered Hope Town Harbour. Hope Town is a beautiful, quaint colonial village founded by loyalists from the southern United States after the Revolutionary War. We climbed its iconic candy-striped lighthouse to watch the sunset, then dinghied across the harbour to explore the town and have dinner and drinks at the waterside Captain Jack's.


April 4th was our last day in the Bahamas. We woke early, made breakfast, and cleaned the boat while steaming back to Marsh Harbour. After returning the boat, we said goodbye to our old and new friends who were flying out via airlines the next day; the rest of us headed back to the airport's GA terminal. It took a while to file our flight plans, notify U.S. customs, clear Bahamian customs, and pay for our fuel and parking, but we were taxiing out by 11:15am. The Marsh Harbour airport was notably busy on this Saturday morning, but we were able to sneak out between arrivals and formed up for our flight up the Abaco chain all the way out to Walker Cay. Initially this took us over the northern Sea of Abaco where we'd sailed on Wednesday, including Treasure Cay; the beach didn't look quite as amazing from the air. The rest of the Abacos were quite nice, and I noticed a few airstrips on isolated cays. Over Walker Cay we called Miami Radio and got our transponder codes for transiting the ADIZ, and a bit later got VFR flight following with Miami Center. Two hours after takeoff we landed in Fort Pierce, cleared customs, returned our life rafts at the FBO, and hopped over to Sebastian to return the Warrior. Kevin and Jeannie were driving back to Atlanta from Sebastian, and they gave Jacquie and Dawn a ride to the Orlando airport.

Steve and I continued on with the Pacer, stopping in Sebring to visit an airline friend and then at Tampa for the night. On Sunday we flew to Clarksville TN, where we spent the night with my good friends Sylv & Hugh, and on Monday we landed at Flying Cloud Airport in the early afternoon. Incredibly, we had a tailwind the entire way home - it only took 10.3 hours from Tampa to Minneapolis. All told, I'd put 33 hours on the Pacer since leaving FCM the month prior, and she performed splendidly without missing a beat. It was a fantastic first adventure with my airplane, and all the better that I shared it with Dawn, Steve, and a literal boatload of friends. I'll be taking the plane to Oshkosh in July and Montana/Idaho in September; next spring break I'm thinking Baja, and then Alaska awaits! It's not exactly cheap owning an airplane - but it sure is fun!

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

In Search of Sunshine, Part III: Flying the Bahamas

Never having flown a small plane to a foreign country or across a long stretch of open water, I expected the flying portion of our flying/sailing trip to be a challenge. I'm not sure what I expected - paperwork hassles, mostly, and ATC communications difficulties, maybe some substandard airports, perhaps even unscheduled maintenance in the middle of nowhere. In fact, the flying turned out to be a breeze. Bahamian officials were welcoming and helpful, flying procedures were easy, communication was straightforward once we left U.S. airspace (!), and the airports were all lovely, if a bit busy at times. My Pacer and our rented Piper Warrior didn't so much as hiccup for the nine hours. Everyone in our group - me, Dawn, my brother Steve, his friend Jacquie, my friend & erstwhile sim partner Kevin, and his wife Jeannie - really enjoyed our time flying through the islands.

In fact the hardest part turned out to be getting Dawn down to Florida in the first place. Kevin and Jeannie drove from Atlanta, Steve and Jacquie used buddy passes several days in advance, and I was able to jumpseat - but Dawn found herself trying to non-rev out of Minneapolis on the first day of spring break for many Minnesotan kids. We came within one seat of getting out several times on Friday, were left at the gate that night with 32 seats open to Grand Rapids due to a gate agent's incompetence, and the next day found ourselves far down several standby lists of over 100 nonrevs. I finally took the jumpseat through Atlanta, arriving in Melbourne in the early afternoon. Dawn went home and instead flew directly to Nassau the next day. Thus, she missed the first day of our adventure - but was rewarded with a fairly memorable arrival.

We took off from Sebastian only two hours after I landed at Melbourne; my non-rev hassles meant a fairly hasty departure, which added considerably to my stress level. I refiled my eAPIS manifest with U.S. Customs & Border Patrol to reflect Dawn's absence from the Pacer, got a weather briefing from FSS, and filed international flight plans for both the Pacer and Warrior. There was a TFR out for President Obama's visit/golfing vacation to Fort Pierce; Sebastian was just outside the 30 mile ring, and by flying due east for 20 miles before turning towards Freeport we would remain clear. When ready to launch, I called FSS to open our flight plans, only to be told Sebastian was within the TFR boundaries (it actually wasn't active until the President's departure the next day; there was a steady stream of airplanes clearly not "squawking and talking") and put on an apparently indefinite hold for a squawk code. After 15 minutes I lost patience, decided we'd open in the air, and hung up. After takeoff, though, neither I in the Pacer nor Kevin in Warrior 27K could raise Miami Radio on any of the published frequencies! An active flight plan is an absolute must for crossing an active ADIZ, but because of the TFR, we couldn't turn south to delay crossing the ADIZ. I slowed down and called Miami Center, who said they couldn't open the flight plan but gave me an alternate frequency to contact Miami Radio. Thankfully this one worked, and just in time to enter the ADIZ.

By the time I had it all sorted out, we were nearly halfway to Freeport, pushed along by a 25 knot tailwind on the tail end of a cold front. We landed at 5:05PM, officially five minutes after customs closes. They cheerfully waited for us, but charged us a $50/airplane late fee in addition to the usual $50 cruising permit free. We spent the night at the cheap-but-cheerful Bell Channel Inn, walking to the Port Lucaya Marketplace for dinner and sneaking onto the Grand Lucayan's palatial grounds to access the beach. The next morning we departed Freeport early for the 60 mile crossing to the Berry Islands, where we overflew several cruise ships at Great and Little Stirrup Cays before cruising down miles of beautiful deserted beach at Great Harbour Cay. We landed here and took a short cab ride to Carriearl Boutique Hotel for their famous Sunday Brunch.

After brunch, we took off again for some low altitude air-to-air photography down the Berries before climbing for the 40-mile crossing to New Providence Island - better known by the name of its bustling city, Nassau. Here we had decided to split up; Steve and I would stop at the busy Lynden Pindling International Airport to pick up Dawn while the other three continued on in the Warrior to Norman's Cay, at the north end of the Exumas, for some beach time. This worked well as Nassau was extremely busy on this Sunday afternoon; it would have been much more stressful if I hadn't been here several times with the Mad Dog. We landed right after the Airbus from Minneapolis on which Dawn was sitting in First Class, sipping mimosas; upon exiting customs, she was met by her personal pilot and whisked off to her private airplane!


Thirty minutes later we were climbing southeastbound for the 44nm crossing to Norman's Cay, once the private lair of an infamous international drug kingpin. I was relieved to see Warrior 27K sitting safely on the ramp; I buzzed the beach to alert our friends to our arrival, circled over the visible wreckage of a DC-3 in the shallow lagoon, and landed for a few minutes to bask in the warm sunshine. Then we took off together and flew formation for 32 stunning miles of the Exuma Islands chain: the turquoise of the Grand Bahama Bank to the west, bleached cays and scrub-covered islets, shallow lagoons, narrow cuts, pristine reefs, empty sugar-sand beaches, and the deep dark blue of the Atlantic to the east. Staniel Cay came into view, and we entered the right downwind for Runway 35. The wind was blowing stink out of the northeast (as it had been all day), making for a rough ride down final and a last-minute sinker that resulted in a bad bounce and go-around. The second attempt was more successful and we shut down at the southernmost point of our adventure - over 1500nm from my Pacer's home base of Flying Cloud Airport.


We stayed two nights on Staniel Cay, renting a brand-new 3BR villa at the still-unfinished Embrace Resort steps away from the airport. The island is very small and remote, though it is the most developed settlement between Georgetown and Nassau. There are a few stores with limited hours and stock and quite expensive prices, making us wish we'd done more provisioning in Freeport (you can bring some provisions in from the U.S., and we did, but fresh fruits & veggies must be acquired locally). The famous Staniel Cay Yacht Club, with its large coterie of resident nurse sharks and stingrays, is a pleasant 10-minute walk from the villa. Overall, though, there's not a ton to do on Staniel Cay; like most of the Bahamas, the main action is on the water, making a boat a near-necessity. To this end we rented a 17' Boston Whaler to explore the beautiful, shallow surrounding waters on our "lay day." The nearly-mandatory first stop was Big Major's Spot, home to the infamous swimming pigs. Legend has it that passing sailors deposited a couple of porkers on the uninhabited islet about 40 years ago, intending to return for a feast that never materialized. Instead the pigs went feral, multiplied, learned to swim, and rooted out a lucrative niche hamming it up for tourists and cruisers in exchange for food scraps. Indeed, we weren't even to the beach when several large sows and boars boldly swam up, hoisting their torsos onto the gunwhales as they noisily begged for leftovers! They turned out to be very friendly pigs, and we spent a pleasant hour on their beach.

After that we explored a few small sandy cays with gorgeous beaches, and then powered on over to Thunderball Grotto, made famous by the James Bond movie of the same name. This is an island with a large sea-cave hidden inside; you access it by swimming through a low entrance, hidden at high tide, or jumping through a hole in the roof into water 25 feet below. It's a nice spot for snorkeling with a plethora of small fish at the entrances, and we had a lot of fun filming our jumps into the dark cave. By now it was 1pm so we had lunch in the boat, stopped at SCYC to stock up on (expensive!) cold Kalik beers, and motored a few miles south to Bitter Guana Cay to spend the afternoon exploring and checking out the endangered Exuma Island Iguanas. As the shadows got longer we returned the Boston Whaler and walked down to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club for conch fritters and sundowners. I wouldn't have minded another night or two at Staniel Cay to better explore the Exumas, but the next day we'd be flying north to start the next phase of our adventures aloft and afloat.