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!