We’re sailing through the Bahamas – actually the Exumas, the chain of little island jewels to the east of Nassau, to be precise – on a clear-sky, no-wind day, eating freshly barbecued crayfish and swigging chilled pinot grigio. And it’s only our second day out.
Fantazia, the boat we’re on, is a 55-foot catamaran, similar to ours, owned by our friend John Woodruff. He’s shipped it (yes, put his boat on a ship) from Brisbane to Fort Lauderdale as the starting point for an adventure that will see him sail from the east coast of the US, through the Caribbean and Panama into the Pacific and, eventually, back to Australia. He’s very kindly asked us (Damian, me, Garth and Mick) along for the first stage of the trip, to help him sail the boat from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Antigua in the Caribbean.
The transporter ship arrived loaded with a dozen or so boats, ranging from smaller cruising yachts up to 60-metre super yachts. It’s remarkable in that all the ‘cargo’ boards the ship on its own bottom: the entire ship sinks to a depth of five metres; the cargo deck floods and all the boats motor on board, where steel supports are individually welded in place by a team of divers. The ship then re-surfaces, the cargo is raised high and dry, and off it goes.
We (very gladly) left Fort Lauderdale after 10 days of humidity, ferocious no-see-ums (sand flies) and a false start thanks to fuel filter issues, that saw us return to port for an extra night.
Problems fixed, we headed out of the Intracoastal canal system and turned south – passing the towering high-rises along the Miami beaches – hugging the coast to stay inside the four-knot south-north Gulf Stream current, which will push us northward 2.5 miles for every hour we’re at sea. Then we headed east, motoring hard across the current as it took us easterly on a diagonal track towards the Bahamas.
This 130nm passage to the clearance port of Chub Cay can be pretty unpleasant if the wind decides to contradict the tide and current.
A local cruising guidebook describes the Gulf Stream off Florida as “…a 45-mile wide river, more powerful than you can imagine. You can’t see the speed of its wash like standing on a river bank, but it is there, flowing northward at an average speed of 2.5 knots, day and night, in every season.”
When you get a ‘norther’ blowing, the sea horizon is often ‘jagged and saw-toothed’. “That,” says the guide, “Is when there are ‘elephants’ out there; giant square waves…kicked up by the Stream’s determination to win its way north against the wind, come what may.”
After all the holdups, we managed to sync our passage with a forecast for calm seas and light winds. We motored into a soft evening and a clear warm night: we’re back in the tropics!
We crossed onto the Great Bahama Bank – the broad, shallow plateau that backs the leeward side of the islands of the Bahamas and the depth went from 300 metres to three. At around 2:00 am we stopped and dropped anchor – not in a safe harbour, but in the middle of nowhere…
I woke to a silent, beautiful dawn: swirls of watercolour clouds reflected in a seamless bubble encompassing horizon-less ocean in every direction. It was the weirdest feeling: I’ve spent many days surrounded by 360 degrees of sea, but I’d never anchored in the middle of the ocean before – nor anchored in three metres of water out of sight of land.
As the sun rose, we weighed anchor and motored for Chub Cay, docking in the small marina by mid-afternoon.
Chub Cay typifies the boom and bust history of the Bahamas: a dozen gelato-coloured, Hamptons-style, two-storey condos with massive, twin air conditioning compressors plumbed in like artificial lungs, stand empty. A white wedding cake of a building that at first glance looked complete, but on closer inspection had electrical wires hanging out of the walls, also appeared abandoned. The place felt dead: flattened and bleached by the relentless, breathless heat.
John went to the airport to clear Customs, while the rest of us went to the perfectly clean, wet-edge pool attached to the abandoned wedding cake and spent the rest of the afternoon chilling.
We went for dinner at the Marina restaurant, where the bar was full of Floridian game fishermen, looking for Ernest Hemingway in the bottom of their Heinekin bottles. There were some black and white photos on the walls from the sixties, of enormous marlin flanked by the triumphant fisherman and his other trophy, the long-legged wife in short shorts and matching mules.
The timing of our trip down the Exumas is tied to weather and tides: the tidal range is only a metre, but it creates fierce currents through the passes between the cays, so passages have to be planned to coincide with slack water.
Hence, we left Chub Cay in the almost-still-dark. Dark enough that we nearly hit the sea wall of the marina on the way out… So much for ‘eyeballing’ the route!
The previous afternoon, Mick managed to acquire a dozen crayfish tails for US$70 from a local fisherman in Chub Cay: the dude was sorting through a tall bucket full of tails, about half of which appeared to be undersized.
And so, as we motor across what feels like the centre-page spread of the Bahamas tourism brochure, we fire up the Webber, I knock up a cheeky little lime butter dressing and we gorge on mouth-watering fresh crayfish: jus gettin’ in de swing of t’ings, mon.
~~~ ><(((°> ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~