Bahamas-Oct. 2005 187

VOYAGING: SUMMER 2006

“BAHAMAS BEGINNERS”

 

As we left the Sea of Abaco and motored into Hope Town Harbour’s narrow channel, Kyle carefully made his way forward to join Melissa at the bow. Once we reached the moorings, one would provide hand signals to the helmsman while the other snared the chosen mooring ball’s line with the boathook.

As with any maneuver aboard a large yacht, this would be a team effort. Jen, Kyle’s wife and my best friend, sat next to me and watched with interest.

“Go up there if you want,” I encouraged her. “Missy’ll show you what to do.”

Jen quickly shook her head.

“I’d rather watch for now,” she told me with a nervous giggle. “Every time I stand up I feel like I’m going to tip over, and I don’t want them to have to fish me out of the water too.”

We were nearing the end of our first day aboard Never Say Never, a 47-foot catamaran chartered from the Moorings’ Marsh Harbour base. This weeklong charter in the Abacos was the first-ever live-aboard cruise for Jen and Kyle. The rest of the crew comprised Ken, our captain and an experienced boater who had chartered in Abaco many times; Melissa, his wife and first mate; and this boating writer and her photographer-fiancé.

The Abacos are an ideal location for a first-time cruise. This sparkling necklace of tropical islands lies at the Bahamas’ northernmost end, just an hour away from Florida by air. The Sea of Abaco, in the lee of the Abaco Cays, is a boater’s playground with flat cerulean waters and numerous protected anchorages. Here, we hoped to show our newbie friends the many joys of cruising, from getting into the rhythm of onboard life to sampling the sights, sounds and flavors of island ports – and, of course, acquiring sea legs.

Casting Off

Jen and Kyle were exuberant when we first saw Never Say Never shining brightly in the late-morning sun. A welcome sign hung in the cockpit, a basket of fresh fruit sat on the salon table and Moorings crew bustled aboard with the provisions we’d ordered through the base.

“Look how beautiful she is,” Jen said softly. “Is she really ours for a week?”

The glow didn’t wear off. While Ken did his captain’s briefing, Kyle and Richard cheerfully unloaded our gear, and we showed Jen how to stow provisions. She quickly got the hang of it, and before long our well-organized galley had produced sandwiches for lunch under way.

By the time we were ready to cast off, all mainland clothes had disappeared below and swimsuits reigned supreme as Capt. Ken called his crew on deck. Everyone had a job, and we discussed the process for leaving the dock so everyone would be ready when the twin engines roared to life.

Although we did inadvertently snag one line on a piling, resulting in a few tense moments, Marsh Harbour quickly disappeared in our wake as the dreamlike Sea of Abaco spread out in front of us.

The cruise was on.

Hope Town to Little Harbour

After we’d picked up our mooring in Hope Town Harbour, we were eager to see the town. Hope Town, founded in 1785 by Loyalists from South Carolina, is nestled at the north end of Elbow Cay six miles east of Marsh Harbour. This is one of the most picturesque communities in the Caribbean, boasting more than 100 brightly painted, gingerbread-trim cottages and the celebrated red-and-white-striped Hope Town lighthouse.

As it was still hurricane season, many buildings were shuttered and the streets lay silent. We strolled through the community’s quaint alleys then, following the sound of waves roaring ashore on the cay’s Atlantic side, we discovered a long stretch of windswept beach that was perfect for body-surfing.

The next morning, Jen, Kyle, Richard and I took the dinghy to the lighthouse, a maritime treasure completed in 1863. Visitors can climb the 120-foot tower to the lantern room, where they will see the revolving Fresnel lens that reflects light from a classic kerosene mantle

Kyle offered to steer the dinghy. He had never driven one before, which was evident as we veered in one direction then careened in another. After a good-natured tutorial with Richard, Kyle drove a more-or-less straight line back to Never Say Never and the broad grins of our shipmates.

Our destination that day was Little Harbour, far to the south. We took a midmorning break and anchored at Sandy Cay, part of the Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park, where a sea turtle briefly joined our snorkeling excursion – another first for our friends.

Bearing in mind that Little Harbour is only accessible at half-tide, we arrived at the anchorage by early afternoon. After a quick swim, Jen and I read our books on the large trampoline until we fell asleep. Ken and Melissa took the beach kayak for a spin around the harbor, and then Richard and Kyle paddled off to explore the sea caves.

That night we dined al fresco in the enormous cockpit and played cards in the golden lamplight. Before bed, Jen and I wandered down to the swim platform and stared at a night sky blazing with stars. I glanced down.

“Look!” I whispered, almost reverently.

Kneeling down, I took her hand and swirled it in the warm, dark water. She gasped. A million tiny blue stars exploded around her fingers. Phosphorescence. Mesmerized by this liquid brilliance, we sat there for a long time without saying a word.

Treasure & Guana Cays

Over coffee the next morning, we learned from Barometer Bob on the Cruiser’s Net that a new hurricane, Wilma, was churning in the western Caribbean. Along with the other cruisers, we decided to continue with our float plan for now – while keeping a close eye on Wilma.

It was a long cruising day as we motored from Little Harbour to Treasure Cay, a peninsula on Great Abaco north of Marsh Harbour. Already we had settled into the onboard rhythm. Once we’d tidied the galley and staterooms, closed all the hatches and portlights and stowed anything that wasn’t being used, each person settled into his or her own space to nap, read, listen to music or contemplate the sea and sky. Occasionally we took turns at the helm, and Ken showed Jen and Kyle how to hold a course and read the charts.

Pulling into Treasure Cay Marina, it felt odd to be tying up at a dock rather than anchoring out. So, as soon as Never Say Never was buttoned up for the night, we escaped the marina-and-condo complex for the beach: a world-famous, four-mile, crescent-shaped stretch of sugar sand broken into named segments.

We enjoyed strolling Buckingham and Brigantine beaches, and the cold Kalik beer and piping hot conch fritters in the Coco Beach Bar were mouth-watering, but we were already looking forward to our final destination – Great Guana Cay. With a population of roughly 150, it is the least developed of the Loyalist Cays. Although tourism is on the rise here, most islanders still make a living by lobstering.

Rather than anchoring at the Settlement in Kidd’s Cove, Ken chose to catch a mooring ball in quiet Fisher’s Bay. We spotted a dinghy dock at the Guana Beach Sunset Resort and Sunset Grill.

Jerry, the proprietor of this quintessential beach bar, took a liking to us. He plied us with his signature Guana Grabbers – a smooth, strong, headache-guaranteed concoction – and taught us how to play the ring-toss game called “Bimini rings.” Jen and I quickly decided that we were terrible at it and retired to a nearby table; Kyle and Jerry played until the sun went down.

At the end of the night, Jerry gave us one of his custom, hand-painted mooring balls as a gift: “Never Say Never, Great Guana Cay, 2005 – Ken, Melissa, Kyle, Jen, Richard, Heather – and Wilma.”

The Cruising Life

It was clear by now that Wilma was on the way. According to the Cruiser’s Net the following morning, she was expected to hit the Abacos within days. We unanimously agreed to cut the cruise a day short, and the Moorings staff worked hard to reschedule all our flights.

Richard and I had planned to go scuba diving, but as it was suddenly our last day in the islands, we opted instead to join the rest of our crew on a snorkeling excursion to Fowl Cay Reef. The reef was swarming with yellowtail snapper, and we spotted barracuda and another sea turtle among the healthy riot of coral.

We rose early on the last morning to motor back to Marsh Harbour, where we discovered that Wilma’s outer rain bands were already drenching Great Abaco. Then, as a Moorings captain climbed aboard to maneuver the big cat into her slip, I saw Jen jump up with Kyle to help with lines and fenders.

In this week, they’d definitely savored the pleasures of cruising. They also absorbed what the cruising life has to teach: first, the importance of planning, from having a captain who’s comfortable with the boat and the area to having a well-thought-out schedule and up-to-date navigational information; second, the importance of flexibility and always having feasible backup plans; and finally, the importance of a positive attitude when learning new skills in an unfamiliar environment and when sharing close quarters with others.

Our friends had indeed found their sea legs.