When we arrived in March, we were the only Union Jack red ensign flag flying boat to be seen anchored off Athol Island in view of Fort Montague, although the British historical links to Nassau are everywhere.
As the capital “city” of the Bahamas, Nassau is actually on New Providence Island – a place we were comprehensively warned about by the quiet living country folk on other islands who had found the “crazy” pace of life here just too much. Seems like everyone in the Bahamas has either worked there or has left children, parents or husbands there to earn money in the honey pot. The economic contrast with most other islands is stark.
Our expectations were pretty low having also had assorted drama queens paint a picture of endless cruise ships disgorging and rampant tourist muggings.
Turns out you can avoid all that by parking up at the quieter eastern end and not shopping at the “I went to Nassau…” rum & T-shirt shop.
Our stay here was measured out not in lunches, sunsets or sightseeing but with visits to the USA Embassy. We needed to get proper visas to enter the USA by boat and although I can reveal there is a happy ending there was a lot of pain along the way!
Step 1. Walk 2 miles each way to the Embassy expecting to fill out some forms and pop them in a box, thank you very much. Nope. Come away with 2 web addresses, an 0800 phone number and some vague instructions from the guy who is in charge of lifting the swing barrier up and down.
Who should we pass literally dinghy to dinghy on the way out of busy Nassau harbour but young David, our lobster obsessed French-Canadian friend, whom we had never managed to catch up since Christmas back in Sapodilla Bay!
Armed with 3 top-tips for sightseeing in Nassau provided by our Eleuthera friends Christopher & Robin, I joined up with David later that week, his good friend Caroline and a few others – all Canadian French speakers who kindly chucked in as much English as they could manage for my benefit.
We had a lovely wander through Nassau, taking in the historic pink painted government buildings and Bougainvillea flower decorated streets, the genteel Graycliffe Hotel gardens and the Watlings Rum distillery, where we drank flights of rum samplers while watching two enormous fluffy cockerels have a lovers spat on the lawn.
We ended the evening by stopping off to drink a beer and pick up Michel some fresh conch salad – one of the national dishes of the Bahamas – at the frankly scary Potters Cay area of town.
The balconies of multiple restaurant and bar shacks extend over the filthy harbour water, held up at crazy angles by rotting wooden poles, an accumulation of styrofoam boxes and small mountains of discarded conch shells. “Keep Bahamas Tidy” and proper rubbish collection is in its infancy as a concept and litter-phobes like me have many opportunities to face our nightmares here.
When I say “fresh” conch salad, I mean that a bloke in wellies walks out to the back of the balcony to the water where these huge sea snails are held, tied together 5 at a time so they can’t crawl away.
A quick bash with a claw hammer at a strategic spot on the shell and they are loosened. He walks back past holding something white and floppy out of Alien for approval. It is then simply skinned and chopped – no one knows how to kill these beasts other than but simply chopping them up, as they don’t appear to have a brain. Mix ceviche style with citrus juices, onions, peppers, cucumber, tomatoes etc. Voila!
Step 2. Fill out and submit two extensive online visa application forms, apply for interviews 4 days hence and search for somewhere to get passport quality photos done in Nassau.
We knew we had met our match when our 83 year old taxi driver haggled us into a corner for our trip down island to the passport photo shop. However, considering how slowly he drove maybe his flat rate approach was a good deal!
Along the way he held back nothing in terms of advice on marriage (only for me though..), how to season and cook fish (a complicated garlicky poaching broth), staying fit and active at 83 (soup) as well as reminiscences of his time working in the USA in army supplies shipping, and as a butler in a high-end hotel.
He was prepared for an afternoon of ferrying us about with a raw cassava root to munch (full of iron), a large dog-eared Bible and an obliviousness to any other car that was impressively complete.
Photos done, we waited for the visa appointment date and amused ourselves doing fibreglass repairs (me), servicing bits of engines (L) exploring and having lunch at the venerable and charmingly named Poop Deck restaurant.
I was pleased to be able to explain to French Canadian chum David that it is named after a part on a large boat by the way, not…
We also moved the boat to a spot closer to the shore, which proved to be right on the start line of the New Providence Regatta that weekend.
These popular regattas happen on most of the islands and were started in the 1950’s as a way to revive and maintain the traditional wooden boat building skills.
Strings of colourful pimped-up boats were towed into the bay, tested and anchored up in readiness as the sound system and party atmosphere on shore ramped up the decibels.
The boats sailed off around us, narrowly missing our tethered dinghy, and headed gracefully for the course markers with quite a lot of swearing and some collisions of the crew sitting out over the water on planks for balance. Half an hour later they would back for more entanglements as they went round the marker bouy, with more encouraging swearing for lap 2.
The spectacle was watched by crowds of locals drinking and eating in the beach side park and from the water around us by the local racers in some of the fastest, pointiest, longest speed boats I have ever seen. They would arrive loaded with girls, music blasting and do a few very noisy circuits of the bay together while the sailing boats were far off.
By day 2 of the regatta on Sunday afternoon, the sound of all the jollity and deep-frying smells were too much so I took off in the kayak to join in. I drank a sky juice (coconut and gin), loaned my kayak to a keen 3 year old and his mum for a paddle, had my insides seriously vibrated by the sound system, ate some conch fritters and chatted to some locals who turned out to be family of the winning team!
Step 3. Walk 2 miles each way for Embassy interview. Be advised that you have left out the husbands middle name thus invalidating application until you have corrected it and applied for another interview a week later. Also their website is shit.
In other news…
The big tourist draw here in Nassau is the Atlantis resort, a Disney style fantasy of pointy towers, 100’s of rooms, water parks, casinos, beaches, local musicians with dead eyes and 35 Starbucks outlets.
It also has an amazing aquarium built in the style of a lost world of Atlantis/Indiana Jones etc. The rumour is among David and his French Canadian chums that if you have the balls to arrive in the Atlantis marina after 6pm in a rubber dinghy, park up next to the massive twinkly gin palaces and ask to see the fishies, they take pity and let you in. We decided to give it a try!
After a nice dinner with David and his lovely girlfriend Nadine at the Green Parrot in the harbour – just in case the rest of the night was a bust – we headed into the marina entrance feeling like burglars.
Nassau harbour is busy with dredgers, cargo ships, mailboats, tourist booze cruises, fishermen, cruising yachts, 6 marinas and a 4 lane flyover bridge heading onto Paradise Island, where the Atlantis resort is located.
It truly felt like passing through some kind of portal to another world as we put-putted into the calm of Atlantis marina, past the ornate towers, bizarre sculptures and fairy lit mega yachts.
David was confident he could handle anything with the $5 bill he had up his sleeve. Fortunately the only security guard who spotted us directed us to the dinghy dock, without the need for such high stakes bribery.
We walked through the mall and casino and I was disappointed not to feel the pure oxygen being pumped through the casino – I have been sold a myth!
The aquarium was designed as an impressive underground fantasy of stone ruins, dark passageways, clanking sound effects and massive tanks full of Caribbean fish including surreal flying manta rays overhead, bottom resting nurse sharks, enormous stone-like goliath groupers and a tank of hideous green gaping moray eels that made me feel quite queasy!
As a fisherman and gourmet, David had mostly only two comments on what we saw. “You can eat them” and “You can’t eat them” so when we walked through the overhead arch full of huge local lobsters he went into a bit of a dream. A jolly good adventure!
Step 4.Follow the well-worn route to Embassy and join the seated queue of 25 people for a 9.45am appointment. Be told that you have your dates mixed up and your appointment is tomorrow. Ooops.
Step 5. Return the next day. Funnily the lady who pointed out the errors on our original application was the same lady we had for our second appointment. After teasing us that we do all look the same she stamped our forms and passed us on to the next lady who did likewise. The stamping that is. Now all we had to do was wait to get our passports back with visas in ’em.
The bogey-man of sailing from the Bahamas to America is crossing the Gulf Stream, a warm, northwards flowing, powerful ocean river within the Atlantic, that may carry you faster towards your destination or may give you a horrible time if you try to cross it in the wrong weather.
Many other cruising yachts in Nassau were also closely watching the wind and weather forecast for a crossing and early one morning we waved David and Nadine goodbye, feeling rather glum.
Foolishly I had already bought a plane ticket for a visit to the UK from Charleston, South Carolina and as the days ticked over and other boats left we knew we were not going to make it that far north in time without too many risks. I bought another ticket, so as to start my journey further south from Miami, Florida instead.
We decided to see a bit more of historic Nassau while we waited, including some of the other forts built by the British to defend this desirable and strategically positioned Caribbean island from the French, Spanish, pirates, locals, et al!
During a lovely chat with the very pro-British lady on the entrance gate, about how to fry crabs in their own fat (who knew crabs have fat..) and some of the ups and downs in the economics of the islands between hurricanes, my Bahamas phone rang! The man at the Embassy had taken pity on us and we could collect our passports at 1pm that very Friday!
There was nothing to do but enjoy a few hours at the fort, pick up our papers and then get back to the boat to see if we could still get out of the Bahamas before sunset and on our way – literally our last opportunity before the Embassy and our 2 day weather window would close again and I would miss my Miami flight.
We steamed out of Nassau – our pleasant home for over 3 weeks – past Athol Island and up north through the Bahamian Islands chain, stopping for nothing.
When I say that we were never sure when we actually entered the Gulf Stream currents that is a very good thing. And after about 30 hours at sea we started to see the skyscrapers and condos of the Florida coast.
Unbeknownst to us, we were entering one of the busiest boating channels and major ports in Florida on the Sunday afternoon of a massive boat show – the worst possible end to our trip.
Clearly the coastguard thought we were trying to sneak in, hidden amongst a thousand speeding jet skis and fishing boats full of a#*@holes.
Their inflatable boat, chock full of muscled, tattooed “officers” bounced off our beam as they asked questions about where we had come from, why we were traveling, could we remember our own names and whether we had brought any conch or fish with us. L concentrated on not hitting the massive red marker bouy about 15 feet away from the front of the boat.
When I replied that we did have tinned tuna I think they realised they were dealing with some pretty vanilla types and buzzed off, leaving us to struggle our way in, find a quiet-ish spot to anchor up in the greeny brown tidal waters of Lake Worth and collapse.
We had made it! How we wished we were still in the Bahamas…