Cumberland Island, a Georgia wilderness

 

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Way off the beaten track on Cumberland Island

Some natural places are so unique and so distinctive, they are easily identified, especially by those that love them. The maritime forests and salt marshes of the southern Atlantic coast of the USA (the lower right hand edge in case you are struggling to visualise) are just such places.

Add to that mix wild horses, ruined mansions, a history involving some of Americas wealthiest families and access only by boat and it makes for a pretty special experience.

..fortunately we had the foresight to clean off the chain the previous day as it was encrusted in shaggy river weed and fattened into a stinky, crab infested rope 3 times its normal size!

Whilst in the comfortable, practical city of St. Augustine, Florida we ticked a significant number of boat jobs off of our big list, ate a generous amount of cake, pizza and shrimp and decided on a plan to move north up the long and varied US coast, one short trip at a time.

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Red channel marker on the Georgia ICW

The first hop in mid June would take us over the border from Florida to Georgia, a state line which runs down the middle of the St Marys river inlet. On the Florida side is the Fort Clinch State Park, on the Georgia side is the Cumberland Island National Seashore and somewhere in the middle is a massive submarine base.

As we had been looking at a fort for the past 5 weeks in St. Augustine, turning right into Cumberland Sound, Georgia was an easy choice!

We pulled up the anchor – fortunately we had the foresight to clean off the chain the previous day as it was encrusted in shaggy river weed and fattened into a stinky, crab infested rope 3 times its normal size!

We finally motored out of St. Augustine at 6 am on a still June morning, looking forward to new sights and fresh anchorages. We headed out to the clearer water 3 miles offshore, where less of the small fishing boats would be buzzing about and found ourselves once again in a dreamscape of rolling, liquid silver seas and blue skies.

Anything that pops its head up or breaks the surface is easily spotted in such tranquility and we kept a lookout for rippling shoals of tuna catching the light with their fins, curious sea turtle heads and maybe a manatee nose…who knows…

A pleasant sail with no dramas made a nice change! and After travelling inshore a few miles to Cumberland Island we put our anchor down close to the visitors ferry dock.

We had just experienced our first foray along the Intracoastal Waterway, the 3,000 mile network of linked waterways, rivers, lakes and canals that runs from Boston to Texas. Key skills are telling red from green numbered bouys, left from right (port and starboard) and counting them up or down. We did OK.

The next morning we took a walk ashore, tying up our dinghy as the ferry arrived with day visitors and the campers – hardy types prepared to battle mosquitos, racoons, heat and to bring every scrap of food with them too as there are no shops, only water taps.

There are also no paved roads on the island – roughly 14 miles long and 3 miles wide and we wandered in the peaceful shady forests of spiky Palmetto, huge live oaks dripping with hanging moss, wild passion flowers and other vines, sand dunes and sandy meadows full of flowers, spectacular long beaches, long vistas of greeney-yellow salt marsh and the grounds of a ruined mansion.

Most of the sandy lanes seemed suitable for cycling and we looked forward to freewheeling and exploring further with our bikes the next day.

My bicycle with coral coloured and flower patterned frame, two tone wheels and white wicker basket doesn’t exactly project “experienced off road cyclist” vibes. More “popping to the shops for a bunch of flowers and a baguette” vibes actually.

Our ride the next day would probably have been about half as long had we not been invited to visit one of the residents, an offer that proved hard to resist despite the heat and the extra work of trying to cycle in soft sand!

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Stunning palmetto and live oak forests. Hard cycling though!

Much of the island is designated wilderness and the park managers and locals alike are pretty keen to make sure that no hikers or campers expire while on the island through lack of water, getting lost or the intense summer heat.

As we cycled up the island we had several trucks pause to stop and check that we knew where we were and that we had enough water. My bicycle with coral coloured and flower patterned frame, two tone wheels and white wicker basket doesn’t exactly project “experienced off road cyclist” vibes. More “popping to the shops for a bunch of flowers and a baguette” vibes actually.

Oh how appearances can be deceptive!

One such enquiry from a resident with two small children and a dog in the bed of the truck sparked a conversation and an invitation to call at his house for a rest, a chat and to fill up our water bottles if we got that far up the island. He also promised a gift. Assuming that this was perhaps a rare opportunity to visit a Carnegie millionaire at home or at least someone who knew lots about this fascinating place, we were spurred on over soft sandy tracks for miles and miles…

When we arrived at said homestead, he wasn’t home! S*#t!

Fortunately his caretaker was and she filled our bottles and invited us to wait, look at the stunning views across the salt marsh and cool off in the shade.

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Wild horses grazing on the salt marsh. The view from the porch.

In a short while the truck returned and we met the owner, his wife, and several visiting cousins and assorted dogs. We enjoyed some lively company on their porch, watching a small herd of wild horses in the distance grazing on the sandy marshes.

Not a Coca-Cola heir or a Carnegie as it turns out, but a Georgia lawyer who fell in love with this special place while helping set up the land preservation and in return has a home here. Our gift is a beautiful signed picture book which he wrote about the island, its residents, history, stories and his own quite spiritual relationship with this place.

20180703_185717I have always felt there must be some resemblance between these waterbound, primeval forests and parts of Africa although I have never been there myself.

I was amazed to read later in said book that a group of African Pygmy had actually visited. While on tour in the USA as part of a show featuring their tribal dances, they were visiting a dance studio on the mainland that was owned by Mikhail Baryshnikov in the 1990’s. They were persuaded to take the boat trip to Cumberland Island by a resident, where the palmetto forests were seen to havean immediate effect on the Pygmies. There is apparently a videotape of them joyously running amongst the palmettos, hugging them and waving fronds like flags, apparently reminded somehow of home. What I would give to see that video!

The cycle back was even worse frankly and if someone had come past in a truck we would have asked to throw the bikes in the back and ride with them. We made it back hot and tired and finished the day with an exhausted dip in the tea-brown waters of the river. After checking the map we realise we had done about 15 miles!

a bit of food rationing was starting kick in at this point – grapes, lettuce, milk, toms’ – not salt beef and ships biscuits exactly but still!

We finished our last evening at Cumberland Island watching a manatee (or seacow) roll awkwardly on the nearby muddy sandbank. So we phoned Clay, a delightful and knowledgeable chap at the Georgia Wildlife Service, so that he could decide if the beast was in trouble. He thought not – it had probably got beached and was too lazy to struggle off when the high tide later would float it off soon with no effort required! Phew.

Having had no shops for a few days meant that a bit of food rationing was starting kick in at this point  – grapes, lettuce, milk, toms’ – not salt beef and ships biscuits exactly, but still! We headed back out to the North Atlantic the next morning feeling peaceful and rested and ready for a little civilisation in Edisto Island, South Carolina which was a 23 hour overnight sail up the coast.

Last time we were there 3 years ago, we had arrived by plane and had a wonderful holiday. Anticipation of arriving in such a happy place by yacht this time around was running high.

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Fat and happy in St Augustine

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A short trip in my kayak to the beach by the Fort

The daily sounds of gunfire have taken some getting used to during our stay in St Augustine, Florida. And the cannons. And the pirate battles.

Which is what you get if you park your yacht in Americas’ “oldest city” founded by the Spanish in 1565 (others may dispute their claim..) in a prime spot overlooked by the old San Marcos fort.

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A couple of times a day enthusiasts wearing the blue uniforms from the War of Independence from England, load and then fire their muskets from the fort, in our general direction.

After that they mould a couple of cannon balls out of squished up Wonder-loaf, wrap them in tin foil and fire them very loudly from the big cannons on the battlements of the fort, in our general direction.

Just down the river bank at the Fountain of Youth original Spanish barracks, archaeological site and ancient spring (a bit whiffy) they are also keen to demonstrate their historic firearms and daily, surrounded by shrieking peacocks and tourists they fire their muskets with clouds of white smoke. In our general direction.

The battling pirates don’t seem to have spotted our English flag and are still firing at each other!

He agreed to adjust his course by a couple of degrees and we wished each other a good night, just like I was a proper sailor. So civilised!

Our 2 night sail from Palm Beach, Florida in May took us past Cape Canaveral with its spacey looking buildings outlined against the bald coast and we watched as a vertical con-trail plumed up from the area. On closer inspection through the binos’ it seemed to be a military plan at a funny angle, but still…

We also had the best dolphin escort to date on this trip, with three large freckled beasts enjoying crossing and recrossing our bows and making eye contact, just out of reach of my fingertips as I dangled my arms over one of the bows.

I also did another new thing!

While I tracked other vessels around us at 3am on my night watch I spotted something on a similar track to us. So I took a deep breath and called up the captain on the VHF radio to chat about the fact that we would bump into each other in about 35 minutes and what would he like to do.

He agreed to adjust his course by a couple of degrees and we wished each other a good night, just like I was a proper sailor. So civilised!

Jazzy coral for me, blue for L, we have put some serious miles on these babies with trips…

As we sailed towards the inlet in the coast that would bring us into the Matanzas and Tolomato Rivers of St Augustine we enjoyed hearing real Southern voices on the VHF radio, discussing how close they should be to the dredger. This mysterious conversation became very relevant when we realised that none of the crucial red and green markers on the inlet to show the safe way in was placed where the chart said it would be!

This dredger is a hellish machine – a giant platform, spouting water, with terrific noise, flashing lights, floating booms and cranes. It was deepening the channel that the rivers were constantly trying to silt up and moving the entry markers around as it went, like the bollards on a motorway contra-flow, except if you went the wrong side of one you would hit the bottom!

After tackling that particular challenge we could be forgiven for thinking we had taken a wrong turn and arrived in Spain or maybe Copenhagen.

With its river frontage of wooden and colourfully painted houses and shops, St Augustine is reputed to be the most European feeling city in the USA. That European feel is nicely mixed with the Southern atmosphere of old North Florida with masses of trees, shaggy hanging Spanish moss, tropical flowers, an obsession with all things boats and fishing and masses of birds.

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The view from The Bridge of Lions, which lifts open to let the pirates and other boats out throughout the day

After spending too many $ on hire cars just to get supplies in Palm Beach we decided that bicycles were the way to go – having a roomy catamaran we have the space to stow them too.

We spent a lovely couple of hours with Jim of Island Bikes, kitting out a couple of aluminium framed cruisers – the preferred bike of hipsters and cruising sailors ‘cos they have no messy gears, brake levers, wires or other stuff to snag as you try to manhandle them from the dock into the dinghy and back up onto the boat without dropping them to the bottom of the river!

Jazzy coral for me, blue for L, we have put some serious miles on these babies with trips up and down US-1 for groceries, to the Anastasia Island state beach park, the lighthouse, various boat yards and suppliers, the iconic A1A Florida highway with its shady neighbourhoods of old beach houses and ALL over the peaceful, picturesque back streets of the old town.

This town was certainly not what we were expecting from Florida. It has narrow cobbled streets of old houses and garden walls built from coquina stone – ancient compressed seashells mined by the Spanish colonial settlers.

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The old Spanish coquina stone quarry, now become a boggy meadow
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Spider lilies

This coarse and quite soft stone was formed over millions of years of the sea levels first rising and laying down banks of little shells, then falling again to expose them. As the rain water fell onto these exposed banks the chemistry gradually changed and fused them together into stone.

One of its unique properties is that it is not brittle, so a cannonball fired into a fort for example, will either bounce off the wall or plug in, to be levered out and fired back again – recycling!

The town has thriving tourist industry dating back to Henry Flagler – the originator of Florida tourism  – around the beautiful old hotels, museums,  garden squares and preserved buildings that in many USA towns would have made way for the new.

There are also a lot of nice places to eat.

The more time we spent in the extreme civilisation of St Augustine, the easier it became to stay a bit longer.

  • Can we get the steel pulpit repairs done which we had been putting off since Puerto Rico plus get the weed scrubbed off the boat bottom by a diver? Yes!
  • Can we replace that mainsail block that exploded on the way here? Yes!
  • Can L get the parts to service both of the Yanmar engines from “The Yanmar Lady”? Yes!
  • Can we go out to eat practically every day for fabulous local fish, shrimp, pizza, ice cream, flat whites, cake etcetera so putting back on half the weight we lost since we started? Yes!

The living is certainly easy here and it makes a very nice change to be indulging in a bit of “normal life” in between the usual catalogue of jobs.

What we though were pink flamingos turned out to be streaky pink and red roseate spoonbills, which sieve methodically through the muddy shallows…

Our anchorage just off the marshes and sandbanks by the fort has proved to be a beauty, with a gorgeous views of the sunset and the boat activities in the channel.

We are daringly close to the shallow sandbanks and little beach, so mostly we have it to ourselves as other yachts travel through looking at their depth sounders, decide we are a bit crazy and clear off to find a nice mooring buoy!

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Did I mention the massive crucifix? No?

Wherever you have a river flowing into the sea you also have fish breeding, which means things for birds to eat, which means a great view of the constant comings and goings of many and varied birds, catching food in their own particular way.

The undulating flight of long strings of brown pelicans individually plunking into the water; the impossibly elegant swallow-tailed kites; majestic, wide-winged osprey; tiny, acrobatic diving terns; herons, egrets and huge woodstorks on long legs at the water’s edges. What we though were pink flamingos turned out to be streaky pink and red roseate spoonbills, which sieve methodically through the muddy shallows for shrimp and small fish with their weirdly flat, spoon-shaped beaks.

Also chasing this abundance of fishies are the dolphins mooching up and down and round our boat, alerting us to their presence with their regular “pscht” noises as they come up to breathe.

There were a few days when all the local dolphin families seemed to be out together, doing laps of the bay chaperoning at least 3 marvellously uncoordinated baby dolphins which was magical. We watched the little ones poke their bodies out of the water at clumsy angles and flop over again, while trying to master that smooth dolphin arc through the water. Not as easy as it looks apparently. What a show!

With all this easy living and luxury it was time to stretch myself a bit and make friends… with the dinghy.

That afternoon I tacked fairly competently up and down by the stripey lighthouse, with Stephanie laid out horizontally across the front of the little boat for balance and Bubba snoozing in the cockpit under my feet.

Not having had a motorbike/ratty Ford Capri as a youth, the inflatable dinghy with its pull-cord starter, petrol engine and whirring propeller blades scared me I admit. The day I mastered starting it myself, heading off alone round the moored boats, under the bridge and bumped it gently onto the dinghy dock to tie up was epic for me.

Even more “normal life” stuff followed with L waving me off, such as going to the pictures, shopping, getting a haircut and going down river a bit for a (it’s never too late) sailing lesson with Stephanie.

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St Augustine lighthouse

Stephanie we met when she drifted past our boat in a small, slowly sinking, sailing dinghy along with her marvellous Tibetan Spaniel “Bubba”. After 4 coffees, 6 fags and some colourful episodes from her life, she convinced me to buy a bottle of her Neem tincture mosquito repellant and a sailing lesson later that day.

That afternoon I tacked fairly competently up and down by the stripey lighthouse, with Stephanie laid out horizontally across the front of the little boat for balance and Bubba snoozing in the cockpit under my feet.

The gracious and relaxed nature of Americans in the Southern states is a wonderful thing. They step to the side of the pavement to let you cycle past and actually apologise for being in your way. They call out “Hey, I like your bike, be safe!” from their massive trucks. They remember you and welcome you back to their cafe with a smile after a week. They laugh and joke with work colleagues as though they actually like what they do!

At some point soon we will leave this cool and beautiful little city and the many nice people we have met here to discover and enjoy the next place.

But meantime we are very happy to be stuck here.

Chop and Change

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An anchorage on the edge of the city. Palm Beach and West Palm Beach.

I’m all about the contrast me…I love the way contrast and change keep life interesting and your eyes and mind open. The wonder and privilege of travelling of course is masses of contrast and change!

..if you think you can hold your boat somewhere by dropping your anchor no one will stop you, as long as you are not in the way or doing something stupid.

We accidentally timed our arrival at the very end of March 2018 from the sleepy Bahamas into Palm Beach, Florida with an outbreak of the water-borne disease known as “boat show craziness”, but by Monday morning and after a good dose of sleep things looked better.

The amazing thing about parking your boat on its anchor is that it free.  Usually – for better or worse – if you think you can hold your boat somewhere by dropping your anchor no one will stop you, as long as you are not in the way or somewhere stupid.

This allows you to experience life in some amazing places such as Palm Beach for example, which is home to 29 billionaires. Rent free.

..we listened to disaster tales of slipped anchors, hurricanes and the time a boat was nearly scheduled for destruction by a zealous young new US Customs Officer over the matter of a Cuban pineapple.

All around our modest 39 foot catamaran were state of the art multi-million $ motor yachts perhaps 200 feet long and classically elegant, navy hulled, wooden sailing yachts.

The huge marinas on the opposite bank were aglow each night, rammed full of huge vessels pulsing with underwater LED trims, cranes for lifting their launches and jet skis and 4 decks of cabins, lounges and sun decks. My favourite had huge water level doors that slid open to reveal a cavernous lit interior, like its very own underground car park! An insurance hot spot to be sure.

Time to wash all our oldest underwear and hang it out on the boat to dry methinks.

The facilities at the Palm Beach Port Authority building (modern, shaped like a cruise ship), where we had to check in to the USA as new arrivals, was in stark contrast with the Bahamas.

However cruisers and yachties seem to be the same everywhere, so while we waited for our turn we listened to disaster tales of slipped anchors, hurricanes and the time a boat was nearly scheduled for destruction by a zealous young new US Customs Officer over the matter of a Cuban pineapple. Fortunately his Boss came back from lunch in the nick of time and she told the sailor to go back to his boat and eat the pineapple. Problem solved.

My time to leave the USA temporarily was close, with (multiple) flights booked to visit my family in the UK.  By the time I got onto the TriRail train to start my epic journey L had equipped himself with a Garmin satnav, a hire car, a working phone and the number of a local UBER lady.

When I got back to Palm Beach 2 weeks later the anchor had held and L was where I had left him! He had been very busy sorting out the new composting toilet, trying to find some Krispy Kreme Doughnuts and rescuing 6 small children and 3 women from a sinking boat on a very rough and windy Saturday.

Palm Beach is named after a shipwrecked load of coconuts that washed up and were planted adding to the mangos, bananas, royal palms and other beautiful trees lining the streets and gardens in this incredibly lush and landscaped sliver of Florida.

Our boat sat on Lake Worth, part of a long, long navigable waterway called the IntraCoastal Waterway which runs 3000 miles from Boston down to Florida and round the Gulf Coast to Texas. It is accessed at various points from the sea, lakes or other rivers and locals call it “the ditch”. At Lake Worth it sits just a mile inland from the beach, behind the long narrow finger of land that makes up the Palm Beach coast.

It was suspended off the concrete wall at a crazy angle by a rope tied to one handle which threatened to rip out altogether, while the fuel tank leaked petrol into the bottom. WTF!

It is fascinating to watch the traffic of sailing and motor yachts passing north and south up this watery passageway, waiting for the bridges to open up twice per hour if their masts require, all following their own travel plans whether near or far.

We first started noticing the facelifts in Palm Beach during lunch at Greens Pharmacy and Luncheonette in town, as well as the cars waiting for you at the crossing which went like this….Bentley, Rolls, Rolls, Porsche, Maserati, Bentley, Lexus (cheapskates..) We also noticed that rather than the multiple “good morning, good morning!” of the Bahamians the locals looked at you a little fearfully, perhaps expecting you to kidnap and ransom their King Charles Spaniel or worst of all strike up a conversation and slow down their scheduled power walk.

It is however a beautiful and historic area of old Florida and we have probably the stupidest policeman in town to thank for introducing us to the old-fashioned charm of the Palm Beach Sailing Club and their super dinghy dock facilities.

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Where to get ashore is always #1 challenge on arrival at a new place and the public boat launching ramps in the nearby park, with steps up for dinghy access, was the logical place to tie up for the day while we went ashore to do jobs and spend our tourist dollars.

On returning to the dinghy one day however we could see a big orange sticker on it. It had also been re-tied by an idiot, without regard for the fact that the water drops here about 3 feet at low tide. It was suspended off the concrete wall at a crazy angle by a rope tied to one corner handle which threatened to rip out altogether, while the fuel tank leaked petrol into the bottom. WTF!!

We phoned officer #1977 several times to find out more but he was never available – probably too busy breaking the boat speed limit in the manatee protection zones. Harrumph..

..when one on my shoulder stood up on its back legs and looked at me I practically levitated back onto the boat

L searched for alternatives and came up with the Palm Beach Sailing Club. Est. 1966 it is the kind of venerable local institution which has pot luck dinners, dark wooden floors and furniture, and pennant flags all over the ceilings. For $16 a day we had parking for our hire car, free water, WiFi and loos.

We spent our last few days with a quick day trip into the Everglades, looking out for dolphins mooching up and down the lake and kayaking the 200 metres to the shore of the beautiful North Lake Way. A popular 4 mile walk past the private docks, golf course and lush gardens this is the perfect place to get some exercise amongst the rollerbladers, dog walkers and evening fisherman.

One of the fabulous things about America is it so jam-packed full of wildlife and on our last kayak we watch as a group of guys on the narrow beach reeled in and then released a sizeable nurse shark. L’s next job that afternoon was to swim under the boat to try to get the weeds out of our clogged boat speedo!

My least favourite job a few days earlier fortunately (I know, nurse sharks are harmless but I still don’t want to meet one underwater thanks) turned out to be going for a swim and giving the hull a scrub. Suddenly, I realised that all the little brown bits of goop I was scrubbing off the boat were collecting on me…when one on my shoulder stood up on its back legs and looked at me I practically levitated back onto the boat and into a hot shower!

Our exit out of Lake Worth back along the ICW, cutting across the deep turning basin for the cruise ships, following the green and red markers along the channel and back out to sea was super simple.

As we headed north that evening towards Cape Canaveral and our next stop of historic St. Augustine we raised up the mainsail. Then the block holding the top corner of the mainsail up exploded and it all came sliding down the mast again.

Fortunately we have another sail!

And two engines!

The forecast wind direction was pretty much opposite to the reality and much slow chugging on the engines was involved in our 32 hour journey. When we had a real lull in the wind and waves though, we did something I have always imagined doing.

We took a break, stopped the boat and jumped off for a swim.

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Going Down to Nassau Town

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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.

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Little Fort Montague at the quieter end, the popular local beach park and some of our yachtie neighbours

Our stay 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 a 2 web addresses, an 800 phone number and some vague instructions from the guy who is in charge of lifting the swing barrier up and down.

Meantime…

Who should we pass 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 from Rock Sound friends Christopher & Robin, I joined David later that week, with his good friend Caroline and a few others – all French speakers who kindly chucked in as much English as they could manage for my benefit.

..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

We had a lovely wander through Nassau, taking in the historic pink painted government buildings and Bougainvillea 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 lawns.

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 styrofoam boxes and small mountains of discarded conch shells. “Keep Bahamas Tidy” 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.

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.

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.

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That stringy, sad palm thing from every office lobby doing its thing properly in its native land. Cool.

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. It is named after a part on a large boat btw…

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Pretty full on flowers!

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..

We also moved the boat to a spot closer to the shore, which happened to be right on what was to be the start line of the New Providence Regatta.

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.

As strings of colourful pimped-up boats were towed into the bay, tested and anchored up in readiness 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. Half an hour later they would back for more entanglements as they went round the marker bouy, with more encouraging swearing for lap 2.

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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 was 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!

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Champions from years past no doubt

Step 3. Walk 2 miles each way for Embassy interview. Be advised 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…

As a fisherman, David had mostly only two comments on what we saw. “You can eat them” and “You can’t eat them”…

The big tourist draw here 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. Rumour has it amongst 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.

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It’s another world!

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.

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David and Nadine

We walked through the mall and casino and I was disappointed not to feel 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, 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.

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Bye bye Bahamas

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 travelling, could we remember our own names and whether we had brought any conch or fish with us.

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 travelling, 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…

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View of Paradise Island and Montague Bay, Nassau

Three Times Elated in Eleuthera

I started a day of thankfulness for (probably) the best year of my life with a large papaya wiv’ a candle stuck in it.

Sometimes sleeping on a boat is like the best kind of camping, that special feeling of almost sleeping outside and nature being very close. If you like that feeling you will know it makes you sleep very contentedly, even if you do wake in the night with the noises of animals, rain or sloshing wavelets and changing sea breezes. If you don’t like that feeling…why on earth not?!

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Pretty and peaceful Rock Sound, Eleuthera Island

We awoke in the 3 mile long, picturesque natural harbour of Rock Sound, Eleuthera on a calm and sunny day.

A bit of a landmark day for me, being not only my late February birthday but the 1 year anniversary of giving up working for a living. I started a day of thankfulness for (probably) the best year of my life with a large papaya wiv’ a little candle stuck in it.

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My birthday papaya, lovingly transported from Long Island!

Rock Sound is an old-fashioned town, well loved by cruisers for its warm welcome, decent shops, restaurants, spacious and sheltered anchoring and a selection of nice things to do. We started with a walk about, admiring the brilliant garden flowers and brightly painted colonial cottages.

An attraction called the Ocean Hole was sign posted so we followed.

Surrounded by trees and shrubs, a perfect circle of depth unknown, Ocean Hole is the local swimming hole, picnic spot and petting zoo for fish. Jacques Cousteau once tried and failed to find the entry point of its tidal waters, which have a fresh water layer on top and on the day we visited a few snorkelers were floating about exploring the rocky edges.

 

Having read a tip in the guidebook I had some cream crackers with me and a few pieces attracted a well fed shoal of mixed tropical fish. Not having got stuck into the whole snorkeling thing yet they were fascinating to watch.

Fortunately John can sense alcohol from a long way off..

Also fascinating was to hear L call over to me “Sue, we need to go, this American couple have invited us to go to the pub” (Thrust remaining crackers into hands of closest child and go before he changes his mind!)

So began one memorable afternoon and evening in the company of Candis and John.

The walk to the pub was not entirely straight forward as it involved getting directions from a taxi driver to 3 possible bar options and a lot of wandering chickens and dogs. Fortunately John can sense alcohol from a long way off and just a glimpse of a beer advert seen through a derelict fence was enough to tell him we had arrived.

The bar was dark and cavernous with a purple pool table and the kind of sturdy wrap around bar stools that will keep you upright after way too many Kaliks (the best Bahamiam beer IMHO).

After John had disarmed the jolly regulars by telling them that the taxi driver had asked them not to beat us up please, we had beers and birthday “fruit champagne”! L and I earned much kudos by being the only people who had ever heard of Echoes, the Pink Floyd album track after which John and Candis’ beautiful Catalina yacht was named.

By the end of the day we had enjoyed a gift of delicious guava “birthday cake” from Candis, had a lobster lunch and had joined with their friends for dinner at the groovy waterfront restaurant Frigates.

Well travelled Anglophiles Christopher and Robin and charming super-sailors John and Diana were great company. After (surprisingly little!) liquid encouragement John started his loving recreation of all the best bits from Monty Pythons Holy Grail and The Life of Brian in some pretty convincing British accents.

Our table resounded to his cries of “they say they’ve already got one!” and “what have the Romans ever done for us?” until we wobbled back into our dinghys and across the calmest of waters on a beautiful moonlit night after a most special day.

I fail to buy some local fish (all sold) but manage to spend $110 in the grocery shop. Stuff here in the Bahamas is very expensive

More delightful calm greeted us in the morning as we reluctantly pulled up the anchor early and motored out of the bay to make progress up the island, which was needed if I was to catch my Easter flight from the USA to the UK.

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A dream-scape of sea and sky

We motored north up the leeward West coast of Eleuthera Island, to a quick stop in historic Governor’s Harbour.

Travelling across a sparkling smooth sea with reflections of clouds and even of our boat, the pale blue horizon blended seamlessly into the sea like a dream. The rocky coast line was full of strangely eroded cliffs with shadowy overhangs and cave like holes, as well as enticing coves and beaches dotted with anchored yachts.

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A slightly too close for comfort encounter with a ferry rushing out of Governor’s Harbour from behind the sea wall did not detract from the loveliness of the scene for too long!

We managed to get ashore that afternoon for a short walk round some lush tree lined streets. I fail to buy some local fish (all sold) but manage to spend $110 in the grocery shop. Stuff here in the Bahamas is very expensive.

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Governors Harbour – it’s hot work dragging a dinghy, a bit more water would have been good!

Opening the cruisers guide book we pick another stop for the next day, the quirkily named Glass Window.

A narrow point on the island where the Atlantic and Caribbean seas are separated by just 30 feet of rock, which has a hole in it like a “window”, there can be no more vivid demonstration of the benefits of sailing on the “lee” or wind sheltered side of an island.

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Don’t go there…

The contrast between the foaming, pounding rollers flinging up mists of sea spray and hissing like the Devil through blow holes in the ground on the Atlantic side versus the gin-clear waters and peaceful beaches on the Caribbean side was stark.

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Fortunately this is the side we were anchored on! That is us and one other yacht on the darker blue bit.

We kayaked ashore and walked through a little woodland to have a good look at the amazing views on both sides – L as always skipped towards the spray-soaked cliff edges in a manner calculated to make me light headed with fear.

Also on the calm side we enjoyed our first proper little snorkle in the shallows of our anchorage off Twin Sisters beach, with some actual brightly coloured tropical reef fishies and even a small sting ray, which was staying very still camouflaged amongst the yellow brown sea grass beds.

Another spot for our “spend more time next year” list and our 3rd happy day in Eleuthera Island.

Next morning we reluctantly pull up the anchor again and head North West for New Providence Island and the reported craziness of the Bahamian capital Nassau, USA visa applications, reported crime waves, multiple marinas and massive resorts with some anxiety as to what we would find. Just how crazy it would be…

Calabash to Cat, a hill and a Hermitage

Our time in gorgeous, photogenic Calabash Bay was only 2 memorable nights, before we needed to truck on out in the good weather, to get up to Cat Island.

Every time we have a mammoth, wet, choppy dinghy ride or sweaty kayak trip to get ashore I am reminded how nice it would be to get in much closer. About 1/4 mile closer in fact.

We steeled our nerves and put down the anchor in 5 feet of jade green water, knowing we could bump down on the sandy bottom if we had miscalculated how much the tide was going to drop. Catamarans don’t fall over. Yay!

New Bight at Cat Island was the perfect opportunity to give this a go. Several yachts – and a potty looking racing trimaran suitable for tiny people only – were already parked so close to the beach in this massive, shallow bay (bight: a curve or recess in a coastline, river or other geographical feature) that they could have swum ashore.

We steeled our nerves and put down the anchor in 5 feet of jade green water, knowing we could bump down on the sandy bottom if we had miscalculated how much the tide was going to drop. Catamarans don’t fall over – yay!

 

The view from our spot was picture perfect – the lush green Mount Alverina peaks at 206 feet above sea level and is the highest point in the whole of the Bahamas. On top is perched a dinky looking monastery with white roofs, which reminded us of somewhere else – Italy? Austria? Croatia?

The novelty of watching car headlights move along the beachfront made us realise how long we had been away from such thrilling sophistication, as did the brightly painted fish fry restaurants along the beach.

Proprietor of one such restaurant, the lovely Denise, managed to convince me there was actually a point to eating conch (a massive sea snail basically that lives inside a big pink shell) with her delicious conch stew. Plus the woman can blend a giant frozen papaya daquiri like you wouldn’t believe!

 

We had a good chat about her farming and produce shipping ambitions for the fertile Cat Island and the pros and cons of your husband living on another island. We also had a slight misunderstanding about how many of her homegrown tomatoes I wanted to buy and she came in to work the next day with 5 buckets full from her “field”.

I was so happy to be buying local fruit and veg though and my next purchase included peppers, okra, beans and corn from a very deaf grandma shelling beans on her porch. She was very keen to pass on the bad weather forecast she somehow heard on the radio – these people really value their visitors!

Our walk up Mount Alvernia didn’t disappoint, although it was nearly called off when L decided he might not have the right shoes on for stony paths. Not an objection that I would get away with I can assure you…

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Birds and butterflys around us, rising past scrubby allotments of pumpkin vines with yellow flowers, strange climbing peas, maize stalks and many papaya trees we reached the bottom of the hill proper and took up one of the rough walking sticks provided in the manner of proper pilgrims/Nordic walkers.

At the top was wonderful new perspective on the island, with long views of rolling green wooded hills and distant blue bays.

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The Hermitage itself is one of the final works of the prodigiously productive and multi-talented Father Jerome originally of Richmond, UK. An architect who experienced a religious conversion during a commission to build a church, he was also a Church of England priest, arts and crafts movement influenced, labourer, Canadian Pacific railroad worker, later a Roman Catholic missionary and a builder of many churches in Australia and the Bahamas.

He finally built this retreat on Cat Island and was allowed to live there by the Bishop. After his death in Miami in the 1950’s he was buried under it.

A trip to Olive’s local bakery – Bahamian bread turns out to be rather sweet and not entirely suitable for a long anticipated cheddar sandwich. The two massive papaya I bought from Olive and her retired teacher husband the baker, were top notch however, the larger one ripening over a week from green to orange in our fruit bowl.

…I don’t think he is going to the enjoy classic Ealing comedies The Ladykillers and The Lavender Hill Mob as much as we did!!

The need for some diesel bought a typically helpful Bahamian solution from the girl at the garage, as she didn’t stock it. We arranged to come back at 4pm when her cousin could run us round to the other end of the Bight where the other gas station was.

Cousin Glen was fascinated with all things British, and he especially wanted to know if there was any truth in their reputation for hard-drinking and brawling, as witnessed in all his favourite British films which seemed to consist of Pirates of The Caribbean 1 – 12…

We told him this was EXACTLY what the British were like, although we later realised we were probably enabling his habit of driving (fortunately slowly) while drinking bottles of Guinness Export 7.5%. He asked us to suggest some more British films he could rent but we had a bit of a brain freeze and I don’t think he is going to enjoy the classic Ealing comedies The Lady Killers and The Lavender Hill Mob as much as we did!!

He asked if we had a gun he could borrow to sort out the wild dogs that were attacking his goats and fortunately the answer was no…

 

After drinking as many of Denise frozen treats (leaded with rum for me) as we could fit in over the next few days we made plans for our next stop. We needed a stop-over to shorten the trip between Cat Island and Eleuthera Island to daylight sailing only if possible, and we picked Little San Salvador.

A small island which was actually bought by a cruise ship line, there is space at the top of the beach for a few yachts if you don’t get in their way. Fine we thought!

After putting the anchor down, up, down, up and down again (some of these attempts with an audience of not more than 5,000 cruise shippers) we resigned ourselves to it.

We arrived in pretty choppy seas and found two massive blocks of flats – I mean cruise ships – were parked in front. Plus a couple of glass bottom boats which were buzzing about and a small ferry taking guests back and forth. Bugger.

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Why did we come here again?

It was too late to get anywhere else before dark so we squeezed in and tried to find a decent spot. Unfortunately, the Atlantic ocean swell rolls round the corner of the island and right to where we were anchored, giving the most unpleasant rolling, juddering and bumping and in a different direction from the wind which was still quite blowy.

After putting the anchor down, up, down, up and down again (some of these attempts with an audience of up to 5,000 cruise shippers) we resigned ourselves to it. We tried to eat something, took a seasickness pill and went to bed.

When your feet lift off the mattress as the boat pitches in the night it is quite hard to sleep, but we managed a bit. We left at first light next morning, throwing curses at the island over our shoulders as we sailed on to Rock Sound, Eleuthera.

Our navigation skills were tested as we got closer, passing through the amazing shifting sands of the Davis Channel, a huge area to the west of the island with electric blue water 10 – 20 feet deep and passable channels through the exposed sand bars. You could actually anchor out here if you wanted to, in the middle of this sea but in 15 feet of water, a bit like floating in space.

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A fisherman travelling in small circles round his divers down, to stop them getting hit by passing yachts

We passed many divers and small boats out hunting for conch and lobster on isolated corals heads and admired as yachts more familiar with this intriguing area, sailed all the way through it rather than motoring.

Arriving at the Rock Sound after a 7 hour trip was like a wonderful dream.

Calm water, a few yachts sprinkled in a gorgeous 3 mile long natural harbour, a sandy bottom, pretty churches and houses lining the peaceful shore. We smiled and went to sleep.

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Beautiful, peaceful, calm Rock Sound on Eleuthera Island, Bahamas

Look away now

Warning: This post is heavy on the lovely photos, simply because we have visited the most beautiful beach we have ever seen.

However, we had to go though a few trials and tribulations first so I hope this pic’ will keep you going until those are out of the way.

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Anchored off Calabash Bay, Long Island

A trip to the loo down below in rough weather is always a trial, but when you hear someone on deck shouting for you halfway through you have the makings of a phobia

Clarence Town had been marvellous in many ways and was certainly a safe port in a storm.  (You are allowed to use sailing clichés when you are actually sailing by the way. So many to choose from!! Anyway.)

Our island hopping plan through the Bahamas was roughly to work up to the north of an island, hop up to the next one up, etc, etc. The hopping off point to leave Long Island was to be Calabash Bay, a long day’s sail from Clarence Town but do-able before sunset – all being well.

L set his phone alarm for 6am – I don’t use mine as I will just wake up thinking I need to drive down the motorway to sell someone some desks. By 7am I was doing my bit which is to get the anchor up our of the sandy bottom using the electric winch and then start giving the course to steer to L on the wheel.

Being open to the Atlantic ocean swell which builds for 1000’s of miles, the east coast is pretty bumpy and that day was no exception despite an OK wind forecast. As the hours passed we slammed up and down, safe in our sturdy catamaran and clipped on with harnesses at all times, but uncomfortable all the same.

What made this journey extra tiresome was things kept falling over, first being the big table in the salon which apparently was not bolted to the floor! We righted it and wedged it with cushions temporarily – fortunately the only casualty was an orange, which we ate.

A trip to the loo down below in rough weather is always a trial, but when you hear someone on deck shouting for you halfway through you have the makings of a phobia. I came back up to find L trying to keep our wind generator upright after it had “bounced” off its 15 foot aluminium pole, presumably when we had dropped off the side of a wave with a slam.

…even our shallow kayaks were sliding along the powder soft, palest pink sandy bottom as we pushed through the crystal water

With much swearing, lashing with ropes and tying it to anything else solid we managed to hang on to it.  Amazingly the blades continued to turn and make electric juice from all that wind, even though it was now at a drunken 45 degree angle. We glanced at it nervously for the rest of the trip.

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A few hotel beach cottages and our neighbouring catamaran

What a welcome sight were the calm, turquoise waters of Calabash Bay. A few other cruisers boats, a sprinkling of hotel beach cottages, green wooded hills and the most divine smell of flowers wafting out to us.

After we had fixed all the falling-over-crap, we lowered our kayaks and paddled towards the beaches and the intriguingly named Hoosie Harbour.

Many Bahamian islands, most famously the Exumas, have miles of very shallow sand bars which are fabulous for exploring and also for chasing Bonefish – an exciting sporty fish that loves these shallow water flats and breeds in the strange mangroves that sprout around their edges.

The natural inlet of Hoosie Harbour, with a depth of only a few feet at its mouth had just a couple of small fishing boats in it and even our shallow kayaks were sliding along the powder soft, palest pink sandy bottom as we pushed through the crystal water.

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There is something about mangroves. They sprout straight out of the clean sand and sea water and the long stalks and leaves remind me of pictures on an Egyptian hieroglyph of lotus shoots.

Plus they are home to loads of baby fish, so we watched as schools of tiddly silver Bonefish were chased around by a baby Barracuda in 6 inches of water. Amazing.

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Striking mangroves – nursery and hiding spot for thousands of fish

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The source of the wonderful smell is still without a name (my Google fail there) but the bush looks like this, with masses of pink fluffy flowers. It grows thickly along the beach edges, along with feathery casuarina trees, seagrapes, coconuts and many other beautiful shrubs.

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The divine smelling pink fluffy bush


After cooling off with a long swim we made our way back to the boat. Hopefully we will be anchored up back at Calabash Bay next year to explore this most idyllic spot some more.

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Hoosie Harbour with only one deeper channel. Just enough depth for a posh fishing boat that roared a fast lap round the edge of the bay under the green wooded hills