Learning to See Islands

Bimini to Great Harbor Cay

With the goal of crossing the Gulf Stream achieved, our perspective changed. We’d braved the open sea, and made it to a Bahamian island. The accomplishment obliterated self doubt about our seamanship skills – momentarily – while we soaked in new experiences of an unfamiliar land. Islands now claimed our attention.

But to go on to further adventures, on other islands, we had to cross the Bahama Banks. Making this 18 hour (+/-) passage would get us to the Berry Islands, recommended by our friends Lori and David who chartered there aboard their catamaran, Ubuntu.

With a set of expectations built from beguiling stories, we completed all our preparations, and sat on the end of the dock with our glasses of rum punch to watch Bahamians refuel their island. Island life seems idyllic, but so many things mainlanders take for granted are unavailable or difficult. The refueling crew worked late into the night to make sure drivers can get around the tiny island, and boaters can make the next leg of their journey. 

Route Planning

There are two routes across the shallow, coral head dotted banks. The southern route around Bimini is great for those heading to Nassau, but it is slightly longer, and might result in staying overnight mid-way across. Our friends Jesse and Stacey, on SV Smitty, went that way and told us how surreal it was to wake up in the middle of water, with no land to be seen.

Headed for the Berries, we decided on the northern route across the banks to Great Harbor Cay, which we might be able to do all in one day. Given a long enough day.

Though we bedded down early for a 4 AM departure, I only got a couple of hours sleep. First mosquitos attacked. Once awake, I worried about the tide for exiting the inlet. We would be passing the shallowest part on the outgoing tide, and this area was not coated in that soft, forgiving pluff mud we’d become used to on the Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). If we hit bottom here, we’d hit rock. Last, I fretted about the weather. The forecast held potential for thunderstorms.

The morning was calmer than expected, and the tide higher. We rode the current out the opening, with me on the bow scanning for markers in the darkness.

At Paradise Point, the north end of Bimini, there is supposed to be a light on a rocky island. Again I peered out into the night, this time hunting for a three second flash pattern, but found nothing. Luckily, we’d been warned of this challenge in the Bahamas, where storms wreak havoc, and repairs of anything can be difficult.

“You shall find it all around best to flat distrust all markers in the Caribbean and the Bahamas.”

Bruce Van Sant, The Thornless Path 

This is not a condition unique to these islands. Markers on the Intra-Coastal Waterway (ICW) of the US east coast get wiped out by ships all the time. Not only is it normal to find that an expected marker has been swept away, but it’s also not surprising to find a marker washed up on the beach, where it’s no use at all. Coming into the very busy port of Stamford, Connecticut one evening, we searched in vain for the lights on The Cows, a famously dangerous rock pile. When it finally glided past in the darkness, unlit, my hair stood on end a little.

The Bahama Banks

Apricot and peach colored Sunrise over the Bahama Banks, puffy white clouds

The sun came up as we reached the banks. Full daylight brought a light chop, one foot swells, and wind of about five knots on our beam – not enough to sail. The water was clear enough to see details of the bottom. Watching it slide by seemingly so close beneath us was spooky beautiful. Thunderheads graced the horizon all morning. Twice storms threatened, but then moved off.

About five hours into our day at sea, the wind picked up a little and we raised sails. But after a little while it fell off, and the sails just flogged, so we took them down again.

View forward over the deck of a sailboat, morning sun and storm clouds ahead.

About eight hours in, the engine slowed, then surged. Tom had changed the oil in Bimini, topped off the coolant, and cleaned the water filter, so our concern was something in the fuel system. But it could be overheating – which would be bad. Domino’s water is heated by the engine cooling system so Tom asked me to wash the breakfast dishes and fill a couple of jugs with hot water. It seemed better after that.

There was a tiny bit of wind, so we put up the jib, hoping to ease the work the engine had to do. Meanwhile, a thunderstorm sat directly in our path making me nervous.

Then, off to our starboard side about 50 yards, a disturbed patch of water, and a puff of spray distracted me.

First I thought it was a whale, and excitedly pointed it out to Tom. As we studied the spot, hoping to see a breach, the spout continued, and then seemed to increase from 12 inches above the surface to 24 inches as we went by. It remained, and didn’t dissipate in a few seconds as a whale’s breath would. This was not a sudden exhalation, but a long smoulder. It looked more like steam.

The vapor was behind us a couple hundred yards, when the wisp twirled up ten feet above the surface and I realized it might actually be the start of a waterspout.

We were going as fast as we could. All I could do was keep on going. But I also kept my eyes on that thing until it fell well astern and disappeared in the distance.

Next, a small island appeared on the horizon. Land Ho! Wait, is that … a ship? Sure enough, a cruise ship sat out in the middle of the banks. Anchored, with no one visible on board.

Sailboat deck in the foreground, hump looking like an island on the horizon.
White cruise ship anchored on the shallow Bahama Banks. Blue water, blue sky and puffy white clouds

The cruise ship faded into the distance, our motor droned, the t-storm sat waiting for us, and Tom fell asleep.

We’d been up since 3:00, so I let him sleep while I sailed under the thunderhead and the wind started to pick up. It slowly increased to the upper teens, and then twenty, and then mid-twenties, and then the upper twenties. When it hit thirty knots I was going to wake him, but at about twenty-nine knots he woke up at the motion of the boat. We were close enough to our destination that it was time to tack straight into the wind and find the entrance to Great Harbor Cay, which had appeared on the horizon a couple of hours before, a low line of trees peeking below the clouds. So we took down the sails and motored on, looking for the row of markers that would lead us in. We couldn’t find them. We passed right over where the chart said they should be.

Had we sailed to the wrong island?

Also, this was a rock. Weren’t The Bahamas supposed to be mostly sandy beaches?

We double checked the electronic chart and the paper chart. I even marked down our GPS position. Everything was right. But it looked like we were motoring toward a rock wall. And then a small opening appeared, was that it? No, that was a tiny indentation in the rock. When we were on the verge of turning around, a rock channel opened, with walls sheer as a Medieval fortress, This was not what we had expected. As we ventured into the gap, I wondered if it would clap shut behind us, a scene I remembered from Jason and the Argonauts, an old movie about Greek Mythology. Instead, just inside the opening, a spacious, enclosed anchorage appeared. We picked a spot and dropped anchor.

The narrow, rock lined opening that leads Great Harbor Cay anchorage and Marina.
Rock wall at the entry to Great Harbor Cay.

Great Harbor Cay

We had found another island in the middle of nowhere, and had another excuse to raise a toast.

It was only after we’d been at Great Harbor for a few days and were beginning to plan for the next leg of our voyage, that I noticed the notation on our 2001 version of the Bahamas Explorer Charts. Those entrance markers we’d been searching for had already been missing at the time the chart book was printed. But they appear on the current Navionics electronic chart. This was not the first time, and it would not be the last time, that our cruise caused a discussion of the concept of perception, and the nature of reality.

Ever since that day, we’ve followed Van Sant’s advice. “You shall find it all around best to flat distrust all markers in the Caribbean and the Bahamas.” The phantoms of them, though, can sometimes be quite useful.

The inner bay at Great Harbor Cay is a fortress. Completely ringed with rock, it’s a perfect hurricane hole, protected on all sides from everything except storm surge. Settlements dot the island, with small stores, beach front restaurants, Bahamas Telephone Company towers, and churches. On each island – or in the case of the Berry archipelago, the largest island in the group – one settlement has a Government Dock. This is where the mailboat loads and unloads cargo, mail, and passengers.

One Special Feature of This Particular Island – Shark River

My friend Leah on SV Brio II told me to do the Shark River excursion, a dinghy ride through a mangrove forest to the outside of Great Harbor Cay. To get there, we picked our way across the flats, where mangrove sprigs indicate areas too shallow for even our little inflatable.

A mangrove sprig ticking out of shallow water Great Harbor Cay, The Bahamas

As the mangroves began to close in a tunnel over our heads, we saw needle fish, then a barracuda, hiding among submerged limbs. A few other smaller fish flitted by. We putted through this intriguing creek, fending off from branches under the water, and branches overhead. I sat on the bow with an oar stuck straight down, turning the blade to steer the bow around obstacles and into deeper water and wondering, once again, if we were going the right way..

Opening of Shark River, a creek between the mangroves, Great Harbor Cay Bahamas
Shallow water tinted orange with tannins, Shark River, Great Harbor Cay, The Bahamas.
mangrove tunnel, shark river, Great Harbor Cay, Bahamas

And then – MAGIC
We came out into a completely different world – a wide turquoise bay full of turtles, and rays.

Sea turtles swimming under the surface of clear turquoise water, The Bahamas
rocky reef showing through the clear turqoise waters of The Bahamas.
turquoise water, breakers, The Bahamas
Dinghy on the beach, turquoise water, The Bahamas

Overcome by the beauty of the water, the surprising speed of turtles, and our first time snorkeling with the tiny, animated jewels called reef fish, we wanted to play here forever. But the the tide dictates how long you can stay with the turtles, as it does so many other things in a boater’s life. Shark River was only deep enough for our dinghy when the tide was high. We had to get on our way back by three, or risk spending the night high and dry, in a mangrove marsh full of biting bugs.

A nurse shark guided us back through the shallow channel, taking care of us no doubt, living up to its name. It couldn’t have been running from our noisy motor.

Diving on a Drug Plane Crash

Just north of the township on Great Harbor Cay are two diving attractions we couldn’t resist. A blue hole, and a plane that was downed in 1983, carrying a cargo of weed rumored to have belonged to Pablo Escobar.

The blue hole is in a shallow bay. We anchored near it and I swam over, looking down into the cool, deep blue depths. Tom tried diving down into it a bit with his spear, searching for fish big enough to be dinner. He came back with nothing, which I didn’t mind, actually.

Next we dinghied over to the wrecked plane. It was high tide, and the jagged metal edges were just below the surface. Anchoring a safe distance away, we plunged into a strange kind of reef, where corals grow on motor parts, and puffer fish hide under riveted wings. I apologize for not having learned to use the Go Pro yet. If we ever get back to The Bahamas, there will be video.

On to the Other Berry Islands

Cruising sailors are not made to bask in the comfort of protective harbors for too long, so after a week, we headed north around the top of the Berry archipelago to visit the rest of the Berries. We passed the cruise ship theme park at Little Stirrup Cay, then turned south along Great Harbor Cay’s Atlantic coast, and entered the shallow side of the Berries, behind Market Fish Cay. There we found meandering turquoise channels, sheltered by the outer barrier islands. And this time the islands were indeed mostly sand bars – but the ones that weren’t made us start a new habit of keeping shoes in the dinghy at all times.

An endless expanse of turquoise water, The Bahamas

Bahamas beach showing pristine sand and clear, turquoise water
Sailing vessel Domino at anchor in turquoise waters, The Bahamas
black and gray lava rock beach in The Bahamas

As we took down the sails, Tom noticed that one of our longest battens – fiberglass slats that help the sail hold its shape, was missing from the main sail. Somehow it had slipped past the strap that holds it in its pocket, and shot out the back as we sailed south. Our eyes on the beauty of the islands, we’d not even noticed a 17 foot long arrow whistling over our heads.

woman in a red shirt looking down into the depths of Hoffman's Blue Hole, Hoffman's Cay, Bahamas
Navy blue mega yacht at anchor in the Berry Islands. blue water, blue sky with puffy white clouds, floating water toys.
three brown and green sea turtle bones laying on the beige sand of a Bahamas beach

Over the next few days we peered down into Hoffman’s Blue Hole, ran across our first Mega Yacht surrounded by all its toys, and found the bones of a sea turtle. Wending our way through the channels behind Hoffman’s Cay, Devil’s Cay, Little Harbor Cay, and Bond’s Cay, in just barely enough water to float our boat, the stunning beauty of Bahamian waters really took hold of us, and we decided to stay a while. Rather than head back to Florida after just a few weeks, we would explore more islands.

shades of turquoise water in The Bahamas
two glasses of rum punch in front of turquoise water in The Bahamas.
scarlet sunset seen through black storm clouds over the sea.

Typically, tropical storms, and hurricanes don’t hit The Bahamas until August at least, So we had a couple of months to go as far south as Georgetown, in the Exumas. That would be our turnaround point. And all places between the Berries and Georgetown were close enough to Florida that we could run back in a few days if an early storm threatened.

But first – Nassau.

4 thoughts on “Learning to See Islands”

  1. The sapphire water and white sandy beaches are stunning. By now you have probably left Nassau and are on your way to the Exumas. So many islands to choose from there. Are you planning a stop at Pig Island to see the swimming pigs?
    You and Tom have lots to be proud of. You persevered and are living your dream.

  2. Water world will be so much bigger and you will be prepared for it. Such beautiful things to see out there. I hope you get to encounter some of those underwater (ufo/uso) , from a safe distance of course. Alien pirates???

    1. Being prepared is an ever shifting target! Every time I think I’ve mastered some skill or experienced some condition, along comes a variation, or something I’ve never had to do before and the learning starts again. No UFOs please.

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