Monday, April 13, 2009

Bimini Magic

The Riley's and I had a fabulous time exploring Bimini together. For being so small an island, it offered a wide variety of things to do including a beautiful Atlantic beach and quaint little shops and restaurants, none of which escaped Karen's astute curiosity. 

The touristy side of Bimini was conveniently isolated to the point of being quarantined on the northernmost part of the island hemmed in by a large gate, presumably to keep the poor locals out--or the rich yachties in. The locals who are all Caribbean immigrants were very welcoming to us. A perfect example is our experience at the local laundromat. On our second visit, the woman who ran the place recognized us. She noticed that my favorite white dress had an appalling stain that I had been unable to remove, so she took the dress herself saying in all seriousness, "I love whites, and I hate seeing them done improperly." She promptly treated, washed and dried the thing for me in fifteen minutes. My dress is better than new. 

(Overwhelmed by the beach vacation stereotype, we took prom-esque pictures together.)

Karen, who could snorkel for days without tiring, gave us all the water bug and got me to do some introductory snorkeling, Patrick worked as my breathing coach. I kept forgetting that I could still breathe through the snorkeler when my head was submerged. Unfortunately every time I spotted something other than sand underwater, I would panic and climb back into the boat. It's about as fun to see underwater as it is in a scary movie when the camera finally pans and shows you who the killer is. Some things are better left unknown. 

After several glorious days of feasting on conch fritters and drinking gin and tonics, the four of us parted ways. With Ed and Karen gone, along with our ticket to civilized living, we find ourselves dining primarily on baked beans out of a can and pancakes. Patrick only barely managed to lure me into a Bahamas crossing with promises of bountiful tropical fruits, something our pecuniary limitations have long deprived me of. Unfortunately no one told the Bahamian vegetation that an underfed, uninformed couple from the states were about to arrive with coconut dreams. There is never a coconut that hasn't already been mostly eaten, or a little gnawed on, or spoilt all together. Don't even get me started on the subject of fresh fish that we were supposed to be catching and eating in abundance. As it turns out even paradise isn't so paradisical.

We spent more than a week in Bimini. Patrick is neither used to or content with being stationary for so long, meaning we had overstayed our visit and it was time to head for another island. Of the plethora of islands and cays that comprise the Bahamas, we chose the least appealing and most touristy Grand Bahama. We decided to suck it up and make the sixty mile trip north because it would set us up at a great approach angle for our eventual return to the states. Also, Grand Bahama is a good staging point for the Abacos which is a chain of uninhabited islands tucked into the protected Bahama banks, surrounded by twenty feet or less of water with pristine beaches and coral reefs. In so many words, they are archetypal of the tropics.  
Before leaving Bimini, which I had really grown fond of, we visited the local library. There is no attendant. The way it works is you bring a book of your own and trade it in for a book of your choice. We traded one of our books it for a sweet 'choose your own adventure' book. It's perfect for reading out loud to entertain whomever is taking his or her shift at the helm since its only about a 5th grade reading level and its interactive. 

The day before we planned on leaving I came down with the usual case of nerves that precede any new voyage. We had just met a young couple in our anchorage who were planing to make the same trip as ourselves. Paul and Piper, on their 29 foot Columbia Delphine. We rarely meet sailors who are under 50, so we were pretty excited when they pulled up next to us. Paul and Piper had been living on Delphine for two years, and had several liveaboard insights to share with us. They called us to let us know that they had made it safely to Grand Bahama by leaving before sunrise and arriving half an hour before sunset. That is cutting it close. As I've said before, it is dangerous to enter any of these exposed ocean inlets at night. However, their boat is around the same speed as ours and they had light winds the day they left so we were pretty sure we could make it. Plus we were tempted by the possibility of keeping good company in the Abacos.  

At this point I had grown so accustomed to lounging on the beach that 12 to 13 hours of being tossed around in the Atlantic seemed even less attractive than usual. So I did something that I rarely do. I made Patrick feel bad for whisking me all around the seas until he decided we would just stay in Bimini. Patrick even tried to alleviate my fears by distracting me with a dress I had been admiring in town as an early birthday present. I had my way, but that night going to bed I felt guilty. I didn't want to be responsible for holding us back from new experiences, or the Cape Dory from doing what she does best out on the water. I had a plagued nights' sleep and woke around 5am to a tranquil predawn stillness. I knew the inlet would be easy to exit in such conditions, even in low light. I knew what needed to be done. We were going to have to get back out on the Atlantic sooner or later in order to return home, so I had better gather my courage and face me fears. I woke up Patrick rather sheepishly saying, "It's 5am and we can make it to Grand Bahama if we leave now." Patrick responded by laughing out loud and saying that I was crazy. We ran around the boat prepping her to leave filled with excitement over our own spontaneity. 

As usual, the forecast was wrong about everything except for the wind direction. It was southeast alright, but 5 knots instead of 15. We had to motor all morning and afternoon. Though modest for the ocean, the swells felt enormous and the Cape Dory didn't ride them as well as she could because we couldn't put the sails up. It was twelve grueling hours of surfing four to six footers coupled with the deafening grind of the diesel engine. We only averaged the minimum speed that would get us to the inlet before sundown, and that put a considerable strain on us. If anything went wrong or if slowed at all we wouldn't make it in time. By the time we could see land the sun was low in the sky and we were feeling pretty nervous. As we drew nearer to the shelf that gradually inclines to form the island the waves had doubled in size. Everywhere white foamy caps had formed on the crests and countercurrent caused rogue waves at regular intervals that would knock us over on our side. Patrick was lashed to the boat, and down below I was crashing from one wall to the other trying to read the chart. Patrick felt seasick when he went below so it was up to me to navigate into the inlet, something I had never done before. The depths diminished so dramatically as we drew nearer to land that the seas became tumultuous. We had our first exposure to ten and twelve foot waves. From the top of the wave you look down into a steep valley and feel as though you might topple off right into it. The Cape Dory performed marvelously for having to motor, but we were scared out of our wits. By the time we made it to the inlet, even the usual concern of running aground had diminished in light of the huge merciless seas. 

(Pat was at the helm all day. He is wearing his safety harness and REI hat Ed left behind for him. Notice how he looks like one of those Zoo volunteers.)
All day long we had looked forward to a night at a marina in West End, Grand Bahama only to arrive and discover that their slips are 130$ a night, and there were none available anyway. The only alternative was to anchor. Now, there is only one possible anchorage at West End, and its pretty horrible. There is no considerable land mass that divorces it from the Atlantic, but so many shoals and sandbars that cut the swells down enough to give you a decent night's sleep if the weather's calm. 

We came careening into the anchorage just as the sun was setting. As our luck would have it several enormous power yachts had arrived first and messed everything up by dropping one hook. As a rule, you have to anchor in the same fashion as everyone else so that you all swing the same way. Unfortunately, in this anchorage the tidal currents surge in and out so dramatically that no two boats lay on their anchor in the same way. Thus defeating the one-hook method of anchoring. Just before sunset two other small sailboats tucked in close to us, and one belonged to the couple we met earlier in Bimini. We were all a little wary of our anchoring situation and by midnight all of our fears were confirmed. The wind kicked up to about 20 knots with higher gusts and each boat was swiveling madly in incongruous directions. Everyone was on deck with flashlights calling to each other in an attempt to decipher whether or not we were going to drag anchor, collide, or both. Patrick and I were swinging so close to another sailboat, Madeline that we were able to chat without shouting to her Captain and Skipper, Pat and Jen. We needed to do a Bahamian moor to hold against the changing current. Patrick rowed out in the pitch blackness to drop a second anchor. I was terrified that he wouldn't be able to row against the current and each time he put down the oars so that he might drop the anchor he was immediately whisked away and lost the spot where he needed to drop it. A neighboring boat flashed a high beam light on him at intervals to make sure he wasn't being washed out to sea. He ended up throwing the anchor over in a less than ideal location, leaving me to pull in the rode at the bow. Before he could take up his oars again the current had already taken him as far as Pat and Jen's boat. He grabbed onto the side of their boat where they discussed at length what was the best option to keep them from swinging into us. Their inflatable dinghy wasn't inflated so they didn't have a good way to lay a second anchor, and they hadn't done a bahamian moor before anyway, so Patrick rowed out their anchor as well. We all felt more secure than before and the wind was beginning to settle. Patrick managed to row back, but not before inviting Pat and Jen over for coffee in the morning. 

Let me just say that if you have not had to have a dinghy powwow with strangers in the middle of the night in order to keep yourself and your neighbors safe from the elements, you haven't lived. 

By the next day we were all fast friends and we are making tentative plans to make our trip to the Abacos as a small, friendly flotilla.

The last few days of extreme adventure and more than a little danger have left me with a lot of material for reflection. My most profound insight however has been this. Sailing has rendered us unto a lifestyle that can only be described as soft barbarism. Over our dinner of tuna casserole, made exclusively out of canned goods, we realized that neither of us have had a proper shower in over a week. Saltwater seems to mask most smells but I think it does more to dilute our memories. We didn't remember that we hadn't been bathing until just yesterday. I haven't looked in a mirror in days. I haven't brushed my hair. We don't know what we look like and I think we have stopped seeing each other altogether. Our situation is entirely reminiscent of a Mad Max movie. Our can opener broke so we have to smash into our cans to get anything out. We eat meals straight out of the pot, wash our dishes in the ocean and wear bathing suits everyday so as not to dirty our laundry. Patrick quit shaving and I might have head lice. A piece of my tooth chipped off the other day so why not? These days we look suspiciously more like poor farm hands, or survivors of the apocalypse than anything else. And yet we are deliciously happy. I've been devouring books (Patrick is still stuck on Gravity's Rainbow, I don't know what he sees in Thomas Pynchon) naming fish, braiding my hair, and experimenting with new recipes based on four ingredients: rice, canned green beans, corn starch, peanut butter. 

Here are some sample recipes:

"Crazy Corn Cloggers"
Prep time: 30 seconds
Cook time: 10 minutes

Jiffy cornbread mix sans all other cornbread-like ingredients
Canned Corn
Corn Starch  

Mix together in pot, heat up.

"Tuna Surprise"
Prep time: 1 minute
Cook time: 5 minutes

Canned Tuna


  1. From West End, you will maake a careful transit to Great Sale Key to anchor for the niht before proceeding to the Abacos! Enjoy the turquoise waters!


  2. Frank, we were just getting ready to call you up at west marine to check in again! It's nice to hear from you. We will keep the updates coming and let you know how we fair in the Abacos.

  3. Thanks for the reply.... Kathy and I work together tomorrow (Wed)... you are probably on your way across the Banks as I write and about to enter the land (or rather, sea) of beautiful, but shallow waters. You will quickly learn to read the depths very accurately as long as the sun is high or behind you.... happy cruising to both of you!

  4. B-S the only way to be finished with Gravity's Rainbow is death.

    Also nice photos, v. windows wallpaper.

    PS Europe is pretty good now, too, though not much sailing @ St. Paul's Cathedral.

    -John P

  5. Hello dear friends!
    Give us a call when you get the chance. I am sorry I have not been in closer contact with you. I have been traveling a lot--just got back from Cairo on Tuesday, and Ryan and I are getting married in 20 days! We love you and miss you!