Sailing Weather or Not
Trip Start Dec 09, 2006
224Trip End Ongoing
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Over several days, squalls would come and go occasionally as part of the overall blustery wind conditions. Finally, on December 21 winds abated sufficiently for visiting the settlements of Pirate’s Well within the island’s northwest reef. The reef entrance near Northwest Point is fairly narrow and it proved helpful to have our electronic charts to confirm the opening. We would have preferred a south-component wind to the ENE we were given, but we knew that this might be our only opportunity to see this area in moderate wind, so we made the venture.
We went ashore the next day to visit Lower Pirate’s Well—a very quiet place with a seemingly inactive resort. Upper Pirates Well is a short distance down the main road, and we stopped to see the “well” as identified by a road side sign. It’s a real well and must have been the source of the settlement’s name from the days of Pirates. With regard to “Upper” and “Lower” Pirates Well, their labels do not come from any difference in elevation…perhaps just their position a short distance apart on a chart.
We saw very few people and only a couple of vehicles passed us while walking. We stopped to chat will a cheerful elderly woman who asked us, “Do you live on the sea?” We described what we had seen of her island and remarked how beautiful the southeast point was and how it was possible to walk from the mainland to Booby Cay on a low tide. She said she had done that when she was young. Now she weaves baskets to take occasionally to Nassau to sell.
We departed the following late afternoon, on December 23, on the necessary high tide for a comfortable passage through the shallows of the northwest reef, and in good daylight to weave through coral heads, generally following our chart plotter bread crumb trail created during our arrival inside the reef to the reef exit near Northwest Point. Our destination would be the Bight of Acklins, approximately 75 nm distant (or more depending on where we could safely rest upon arrival). Our ocean route would be directly downwind. For the forecast wind conditions – east northeast at 15 to 25 knots - this passage distance is both too long, and too short – too long for the available daylight hours for a day passage, and too short for a late daylight departure to arrive in daylight the following day. So, we would either have to anchor outside the Northwest Point reef exit to stage for a later evening departure, or otherwise slow our passage speed to arrive on the Bight of Acklins in daylight the following morning. The Bight of Acklins is a large, very shallow lagoon requiring daylight and a reasonable tide level to safely pilot through the shallows. Our first choice was to temporarily anchor outside the reef until late evening, then depart for Acklins in the dark.
Unfortunately, we did not like the conditions along the western shore of Mayaguana for staging, so we departed directly from the reef exit at Northwest Point at 1545 hours and began sailing downwind under genoa alone. In doing so we were committed to an overnight passage with an arrival at the southern end of Acklins before daylight and would have to loiter someplace before entering the shallow Bight of Acklins. But this late daylight departure time did have a significant benefit – we soon hooked a fish and landed a 34 inch cow mahi! Early daylight mornings and late afternoons seem the best fishing times. For Dave to land the fish, Donna furled the genoa to slow the boat.
After landing the fish we resumed sailing with the genoa deeply reefed, directly downwind, to slow our speed since we’d arrive at our desired entry point on the Bight before dawn. This also would require rounding the southern tip of Acklins, at Castle Island, in the dark. The famous lighthouse on Castle Island – constructed to guide ships around this treacherous area – is no longer operating and no other lights existed to help guide our way. With the wind speed in the upper 20’s, we finally fully furled the genoa and “sailed” on “bare poles”, which is the sailing term for having no sails deployed at all – just the wind acting on the mast, rigging, and boat structure. Due to our direct downwind course, this allowed us to go as slow as possible, while still “sailing” normally. Our boat speed settled to 4 to 6 kts.
We reached the southern tip of Acklins around 0330 the next morning, December 24, in pitch dark – the thin crescent moon was mostly hidden by clouds - and turned north along the west coast of the island, finally using an engine because our “bare poles” would no longer serve us. We never saw the abandoned light house as it was too dark. From here we had about 11 nm to go to get to our desired entry point onto the shallow Bight, where we arrived at 0730 – too early in daylight to safely see what the shallows with their sprinkled patch reefs presented us sailing somewhat into the wind. We would also be challenged by the fact that our course onto the Bight would be ESE, right into the rising sun. So, to kill some time we trolled in the deep water north, then south and entered the shallows at 0915, after the sun had risen sufficiently and moved a bit west to allow us to see through the clear water. No early morning fish today. From this entry point, we had almost 20nm miles to meander through the shallows to get to our targeted anchorage near Camel Point in Delectable Bay on the western shore of Acklins. We arrived at 1253 hours, the end of a 23 hour, 53 minute passage. As expected, no other cruising boats were visible to us on the Bight on this Christmas Eve.
Christmas Day brought brisk wind in the 20’s and we stayed aboard to enjoy a traditional Christmas meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, stuffing and cranberry sauce…just like home! The following day brought even more brisk winds with gusts in the low 30’s. We were not too concerned when the anchor dragged three times, but did start an engine briefly to slow our drift enough to give the anchor a chance to solidly re-set. We had miles of shallow unobstructed water over sand to drag through. The following day, still too brisk to go ashore, Dave oiled the teak molding around the companionway doorway and window, which had been thoroughly cleaned some days earlier. Dave also did some troubleshooting over the next two days related to issues we were having with the anchor light/tri-color light.
On December 29, the wind finally settled under 10 kts and we took the dinghy into the mangrove flats to do some bone fishing and exploring. The tide was high in the morning and we saw no bone fish – we usually see them on a rising tide. Dave tried to lure some snappers out of the mangrove thickets, having seen one about, but no luck. We spent about 5 hours out amidst multiple squalls in the area, but none hit us. On the route toward the boat we anchored the dinghy in a creek on what was now an ebb tide and Dave hooked one “departing” bone fish. Quick as they are, the fish took off for the thicket of mangroves lining this narrow creek and got off the line which had become tangled on branches.
The next day we relocated to Snug Corner in the northeast corner of the Bight in anticipation of a cold front that would be arriving during the overnight hours. A Leopard 40 arrived in the anchorage late in the day and departed the following day downwind. We continued to spend this New Year’s Eve at Snug Corner. Cruisers may want to revisit our earlier blog post describing our visit four years earlier to the Bight of Acklins for more details and delightful pictures.
On New Year’s Day we sailed southward to Jamaica Cay to explore this area a bit. We had not visited here on our prior exploration of the Bight. Jamaica Cay is a small island about a mile long which looks on a chart somewhat like a chicken drumstick. It has an inviting sand beach running along the length of its western shore, facing the open Bight (where we were anchored) and shallows on its opposite side facing the mainland across a narrow, too-shallow-to-navigate stretch of flats. It was too windy to go ashore to explore until January 4. During this interval we defrosted the freezer and conducted our routine inventory of frozen goods and Dave checked the engines’ timing belt tension and tightened all the alternator belts.
We were finally able to get ashore to explore Jamaica Cay on January 4 when the wind dropped below 15 knots. We landed the dinghy on the southern tip of the beach side directly under the “Distinct Casuarina” depicted on nautical charts – a Bight landmark that can be seen for many miles away. Casuarinas are common trees/shrubs in the Bahamas with needles like pine trees. This one is very large. The Cay turned out to be very pleasant with lush vegetation and the beach side is very walkable. We set out to circumnavigate the island on foot, but made it only about 2/3 of the way around before being blocked by mangrove thickets on the east (back) side
After exploring Jamaica Cay and returning to the boat we moved a short distance south to anchor off the Binnacle Hill/Cotton Bay Cay area in anticipation of light winds the next day, which would enable some bonefishing in the expansive flats and mangrove swamps just beyond the shore line. Access to the flats and swamps is via a cut near where we anchored. We had visited this area four years ago and wanted to return as it is one of the most exotic landscapes to be found on this island. We took the dinghy into the area the next morning at low tide rising and explored and fished until about 1330 hours. Dave caught one bonefish on a light spinning rod.
We knew that the light wind we were enjoying would only favor one more day of exploration; the subsequent days would bring a severe cold front trailing from a low pressure system that would drop significant snowfall on the eastern United States. This was predicted to be an unusually strong cold front that would launch off the continent and blast across the Bahamas with clocking gale force winds, the most significant of which would affect the southeastern islands (including Acklins). Thus it was, unfortunately and prematurely, time to plan a departure from Acklins.
We decided that the nearest and safest hideaway for our vessel would be on the adjacent Long Island at Little Harbour, some 37 nm distant to the north west from the east side of the Bight. We were familiar with that harbour from a prior year and could only hope that we would not encounter any other boat seeking refuge there as well, since there is limited anchorage in the area suitable for enduring a significant cold front. We would plan a daytime passage leaving from the western edge of the Bight.
The following day of mild wind would give us a chance to cross the Bight from east to west, and traverse its edge along deep water, spotting along the way some clusters of patch reefs to evaluate whether they were snorkeling candidates. This would take us past one of our favorite anchorages at Fish Cay. We would not overnight there as it would not allow for a dawn departure through this reef-strewn area. We instead took closer looks at South Cay and reef clusters near North Cay. We anchored near a shallow reef and took a quick look at small corals and fish but found the current in that area to be too strong to venture from the boat. So we re-boarded and set off for our earmarked anchorage in open water at the edge of the Bight near what would be our departure point the following morning. While protected to some degree by significant sand bores, an opposing current largely interfered with laying to the wind and hence we were rolling all night offset from the wind by the tidal flow.
We departed at 0721 the following morning, January 7, after listening to the weather forecast, rounding the corner of the Bight to take up a northwest course to the southern end of Long Island. The wind was essentially directly behind us, largely in the forecasted range of 12-15 knots which was expected to decrease further when we reached the island. We had initially rolled out the genoa when departing Acklins but we were not getting sufficient speed with the SE wind directly behind us. It was really ideal conditions for flying our spinnaker and, given that we could have some 6 - 8 hours of sailing ahead of us, we quickly altered our game plan and hauled out the spinnaker from the sail locker. It didn’t take long for all lines to be prepared and all setup complete. We sailed at 7 kts (or better with gusts) toward our destination with two fishing rods in the water. We had no fish strikes, but the moderate wind upon arrival gave us the lull we needed for Dave to haul down the spinnaker. As we had hoped, no other boats were in this little harbor. We entered the familiar cut through the reef with expected depths and found our way to drop our anchor in the area best suited for the conditions we could expect with the approaching front that was due the next day.
The following morning, January 8, at 1015 we reset our anchor to orient best for what would become the strongest north and northeast winds and allow us the shortest reasonable distance from the protective shoreline in the cleanest sand available. Dave swam the anchor to be sure he was comfortable that the new set now almost buried in sand would stand up to gale force winds.
We did not have to wait long for the arrival of the pre-frontal squalls and significant increase in winds which were now clocking to the NNW. The north wind and the front arrived approximately 1145 with sudden velocity increase from a sustained 25 kts to sustained 30+ kts and gusts into the 40s by around 1330 hours. This would persist through the afternoon. By sunset the wind was sustained around 30 kts and gusts some five or so knots higher. We made a batch of chili for dinner and settled in for the long haul. The front passed as forecast late in the day and the winds settled to a northeasterly direction by dawn on Jan. 9, but were still in the upper 20’s. Strong NE winds are typical immediately following the passage of a front, but other weather features would keep the wind speeds up for a week or more – very strong high pressure to the north, off the US coast, and the usual low pressure over South America, created a combined effect of very strong trade winds.
The following ten days brought significant easterly trade winds and swell crashing against the reefs and islands protecting us. Nights were noisy with strong wind, but we were in a safe position. We would need to wait until wind and seas subsided sufficiently to exit through the reef entrance. Our day finally came January 18, with a green flash sunrise seeming to confirm our decision to go. So with the green light we pulled anchor at 0730 following the weather forecast, knowing that an early start would improve our chances of sailing a good length of the journey on what would become diminishing winds later in the day. We were through the reef and sailing under full main and genoa by 0752.
We sailed northbound along the coast of Long Island on initially brisk east winds but within a couple of hours switched out the genoa for our Code 0 sail as the wind speed decreased and veered to the south east. This kept our speed up for a while for the 57 nm journey to the northern point of Long Island before losing wind entirely. Fortunately, when the wind died we only had another 90 minutes of motoring the remaining distance around the point and into Calabash Bay on the northwestern tip of Long Island. We trolled two baits the entire distance but only caught one barracuda over the shallow section passing Clarence Town.
It was calm in Calabash where we had arranged to meet up with friends Bob and Beckie on sister ship S/V Our White Magic. With a resort on the nearby shoreline, we found our first encounter with dense population and vessels since departing Norfolk. That evening we had Bob and Beckie over for a pork tenderloin dinner to catch up on all adventures since both vessels departed Norfolk in November. Being on the west side of the island afforded us the opportunity to see a green flash sunset, thus we saw both a green flash sunrise and sunset on the same day, a first for us.
The following day we explored by dinghy the expansive shallows and mangroves in this area of the island, hoping to catch either bonefish or snapper, but with no luck. We visited the resort for dinner that evening in celebration of Bob and Beckie’s 32nd wedding anniversary. The following morning, we all went snorkeling at the mouth of Hoosie Harbour where a group of seven spotted eagle rays have apparently taken up residence. Following that we spent more time angling for fish to no avail.
In anticipation of another cold front, Pas de Deux and Our White Magic departed together at 0705 hours the following Saturday morning, January 21, motoring in light ESE winds 4-8 kts the 27 nm to George Town, Great Exuma where we could shelter from winds that included a significant westerly component. The front would be preceded by significant southerly winds, clocking to the west, then northwest, creating the need for both south and west protection which is not available on the northwest side of Long Island. We left early with the intention of finding an ideal spot for weathering winds forecast to peak above 40 kts in the coming days. The northernmost portions of the Bahamas would experience peaks above 50kts (we learned later that on Eleuthera wind reached 68 kts). Arriving two days early in George Town would hopefully give us the chance to get a good spot before the significant number of cruising boats present in the area sought their own protection. We trolled the distance with four lines this time and were successful in snagging a 36” bull mahi. For the last half of the journey we were able to roll out the genoa with light wind to continue motor sailing. We anchored in Kidd’s Cove within Elizabeth Harbour with Our White Magic, an easy dinghy distance to town and our first choice for good protection. We picked up a few groceries that afternoon, then enjoyed a fresh fish dinner aboard Pas de Deux with our friends.
The front arrived on Monday, January 23. The winds grew from dawn onward until reaching their peak. The front passed around 1515 with heavy rain. Winds continued to clock after the passing of the front and the rain continued for some time. The significant winds continued through the night but had abated by dawn, then built again in the morning hours only to the upper teens. With the significant weather over, we returned to town to get dinghy gas and restore our internet access for another month with Batelco. We also stopped by the grocery to pick up a few dozen eggs before we would leave “civilization” once again for more remote destinations. Friends Rich and Jen and their son Conrad from Allegro and Bob and Beckie joined us on Pas de Deux for Happy Hour to discuss the plans each had made for departing George Town the following morning.