DAY 6: January 16, 2013
Marsh Harbor to Fowl Cay Preserve, to Great Guana Cay, Fishers Harbor
Nadine, Shana and I took Dinghy Bob to shore for the morning while the boys stayed aboard the FHP to take care of a few projects. Nadine met up with Brian Higgs, a former Island School student to run errands including filling the propane tank ($25), filling water jugs and the scuba tanks we use to keep Dinghy Bob afloat. The Higgs made their water and air compressor available to our crew, and explained to Nadine a few items about resources on the Abacos. Apparently they have an “endless” supply of water, or at least more water than most islands due to a larger fresh water “lens”- an aquifer that sits on top of a salt water aquifer.
In the meantime, Shana and I made use of the Internet at “Java” coffee shop, a homey spot near the harbor that hosts local artists works and provides homemade baked goods and quiche. We met up with Nadine, ran a few more errands, then headed back to the boat.
The guys were ready to get going and we pulled out of the harbor around mid-day, headed for some of the best snorkeling in the Bahamas at Fowl Cay Land and Sea Park, an hour east.
No sooner had we left the harbor than Rob handed the helm over to Shana, our newest sailor. She stepped up to the plate admits an onslaught of instructions from various enthusiastic other 1st time sailors (myself included!) She managed to dodge various oncoming boat traffic, as Rob led the other crewmembers in hoisting the sails. It is a credit to Captain Rob and First Mate Nadine, that they so easily hand over control to us newcomers, inviting us to jump in with our feet first, allowing us to feel comfortable and have fun learning in what could easily be a stressful environment with anyone else in charge.
We made it to Fowl Cay in no time, quickly lunched and suited up for our snorkeling adventure. Dinghy Bob was fully inflated and ready to go, but unfortunately the GoPro I had attached to my head in an underwater housing was out of batteries!! Bummer, because when then 6 of us jumped out of the dinghy into the wavey turquoise ocean surges, we were treated to a pristine fortress of elkhorn coral, supporting a multitude of fish and coral species. This protected area is some of the most productive and undisturbed coral reef environments in the Bahamas and is virtually unaffected by fishing and boat traffic. Although some species of coral look similar to trees or plants, it is actually a colony of tiny animals that build communities and apartment buildings out of minerals. Coral itself is incredibly fragile, and grows only a few inches a year. We had to be careful not to touch or bump the branches and fingers reaching out towards the surface.
We observed a multitude of different fish species, some swimming in schools, some in groups of two or three, others alone. Species observed included trumpet fish, a huge black margate, Nassau grouper, schoolmaster snapper, enormous 3ft rainbow parrotfish, various phases of other parrotfish (likely stoplight and rainbow), a green turtle, blue heads, another juvenile damselfish, yellow checked rasse, foureye butterflyfish (that looks like a feather), fairy basslets, and sergeant majors. Coral observed included lots of elkhorn, brain corals, and common and venus fans. Also lots of beautiful purple sponges, whos long arms and branches waved gently in the current, and various aquatic plants.
We snorkeled for about 1.5 hrs, then headed back to the FHP. It’s amazing how snorkeling can sap your energy, although at the time one feels quite absorbed in all the amazing visual sensory information. You swim along, sometimes only inches above the complex of coral, sometimes crossing between reefs over sandy bottoms 20 ft below, and everywhere dozens of fish species retreat a few feet away as you approach, some fish as big as your hand or arm, many smaller than your finger, and occasionally, a huge fish the size of your leg. Have you ever seen one of those tanks at an aquarium, with all the fish packed in there swimming this way and that? Now picture yourself in that tank, and you have the reef at Fowl Cay.
As our snorkeling adventure wrapped up, we traveled northwest to Great Guana Cay and harbored for the night. Nadine and I hadn’t made our daily painting yet, so we broke out the paints as the sun sank below the horizon, and shed an intensely orange glow on the quaint pastel houses lining the harbor. We furiously put paint on paper, but soon it was dark. By the light of our headlamps we tried to imagine the scene we had just viewed, and recreate it on the paper. Or at the very least, try to push our paintings out of the realm of middle-school art, and towards something more polished we wouldn’t be embarrassed admitting was ours! That is the challenge of plein air- work fast to capture the light and mood of a scene before it changes.
DAY 7: January 17, 2013
Guana Cay to Hope Town, Elbow Cay
We were getting reports of strong winds moving in over the next few days, and decided to look for a more sheltered harbor. We took off from our anchorage at Great Guana and headed southeast a few hours to Elbow Cay and Hope Town. Dinghy Bob needed some more work…
We approached the harbor at high tide, which turned out to be a good thing, as we weren’t keen on running the Fishers Hornpipe aground. The FHP draws 7” of water, whereas a typical sailboat of this length would draw 6”, and there was only a narrow shallow path we could take to enter the harbor. At high tide we were only inches from scraping bottom. The channel into the harbor turned out to be magical, and many “oos and ahhs” emanated from the camera snapping crew.
We pulled up to a mooring in the tight secluded harbor. Not long after we arrived, we saw a small dingy motoring up to the boat. The skipper greeted us, and Rob and Nadine invited him aboard. The first thing he said was, “I haven’t seen this boat since 1978!” Turned out he was just glancing out in the harbor when he saw the FHP moored amongst the dozens of other boats. He wasn’t 100% sure, and did a reconnaissance ride around her stern, where her original name is clearly written. “Would you say this boat is well known?” inquired Rob. “Heck yes!” cried our new friend, “this boat is world-famous!” Brad Gunn was his name, and he proceeded to tell us how he had met Reuel Parker (pronounced “Rule”), the boats builder, at a marina in Norfolk, VA back in the day. After Brad took off, our crew headed into town to check out the snorkeling on the Atlantic side.
We walked through the narrow streets of Hope Town, many only wide enough for a golf-cart, and soon came to a beach where a bulldozer plowed sand up to the rocky shoreline. The sun was out, and it was hot. We snorkeled around for a few hours without wetsuits for once. The reefs were not nearly as gorgeous and teaming with fish as Fowl Cay had been, and I began to realize we may have been a bit spoiled by that paradise. These reefs were pretty typical, with some elkhorn coral, and brain coral, and various common species of fish swimming around. It was still beautiful and fun.
Towards the end, I spotted a shark swimming over a sandy patch between the reef I was exploring and the next one over. He was about 4” long, grey with a pointy-head and pointy fins. I had the GoPro camera rolling, and thought I got a shot. He was about 15 yds away. I calmly watched him swim past, and then the adrenaline kicked in, and I bee-lined it the other direction! Looking back, I wish I had followed him at a distance for a little ways just to get a better look. Rob apparently saw the same shark, and identified him as a reef shark. It was pretty exciting!
Nadine and I got out our paints and made a quick sketch before the bulldozer started disturbing the scene. We all packed up and set off to explore the town. Curtis, Ted, Shana and I explored for a while, fascinated by the beautiful pastel colored cottages, all with quaint, brightly colored shutters. We stumbled on a cute public park/garden with titled stepping-stones and huge coconut trees. One wall was lined with coconuts, and we took one for dinner. Another highlight was the brand new art center, a gallery space featuring paintings of local scenes. The two adorable pink buildings were worked over with teak and cedar, and Curtis was beside himself with excitement at the gorgeous carpentry.
Back at the boat, Nadine and Rob had another visit from guests who knew Reuel Parker and had partied on the FHP back in the day. After the guests motored away, Rob picked the crew up from the dinghy dock, and we all returned to the boat, where Nadine and I made a coconut-tofu curry with the fresh coconut. Nadine and Rob were excited to have met so many people who knew the boat. When they bought the boat, they knew it was a one-of-kind vessel, and the accompanying book written by Reuel which documents the early adventures of the FHP indicates what a wild ride it had been on. But surprisingly they had never met anyone who knew the boat. Finally, here was solid evidence that the Fishers Hornpipe is indeed a celebrity, akin to Michael Jackson white glove, or Jimmy Hendrix’s fender guitar.
DAY 8: January 18, 2013
Rest Day, Hope Town, Elbow Cay
Although the weather wasn’t bad in harbor (only overcast and a bit windy,) reports were rocky outside the haven of Hope Town, and we gladly took a rest day to further explore the cute town.
We started the day with a morning jog through town and south along the paved island road. I hung back at my own pace, while Rob, Nadine and Curtis powered ahead to check out some potential surf spots. I returned to the Hope Town Coffee House, a very nice establishment offering wi-fi, but no power outlets for customers. I was starving, and had a smoothie, quiche, and one of the best cups of coffee I have ever tasted. The crew met up with me there after their run, and spent some time on the Internet.
We returned to the boat, us ladies changed into skirts, and headed out again. Curtis, Nadine, Rob and I climbed to the tope of the Hope Town lighthouse, one of the most picturesque lighthouses in the Bahamas. It actually runs on kerosene, and at night flashes a gentle light in a circle through several huge glass lenses. We climbed the steep steps and a ladder all the way to the top, where a circular balcony wrapped completely around the top. It didn’t cost any money, there were no security guards, and we didn’t have to sign a waver to climb it. Hard to imagine this policy going over in the states…
Ted and Shana rented bikes, and biked the length of the island, stopping for a picnic lunch of conch fritters on a picturesque beach. Rob and Curtis set off with wetsuits and spears in hand to catch some dinner.
Nadine and I spent a couple hours scrubbing the rust stains from the side of the Fishers Hornpipe. I learned that one of the marks distinguishing this boat as Ferro Cement, is the tell tale rust stains sprouting from the rebar and chicken wire which comprise the boats structure underneath ¾” cement. Indeed, we were the only boat in the harbor with rust stains. We used a (highly toxic) chemical compound that reacted with the iron oxide to remove it. After 2 hours, the FHP was looking better than it had in the 3 years since it’s last paint job. I cleaned of a substance that looked like bird poop, but which we identified as vomit from some unfortunate sailor…
After the major cleaning job, Nadine and I were desperate for a rinse, and although it was getting chilly and overcast, we headed across town with our soaps and shampoo for a dip in the Atlantic. First we stopped in the newly completed art center to admire the oils and watercolors of several traveling artists who come to Hope Town to paint and teach workshops. We particularly enjoyed the work of Arnie Casavant and Walt Bartman. The most common subjects were the adorable cottages and house of town, and moody evening paintings of sky and clouds. If only Nadine and I had more time to paint amidst all the fun outdoor activities we so love to do! It was good for us to see some other interpretations of the landscape we have been working on capturing with our plein aire on this trip. We said goodbye and thanks to the gallery attendant, Robbie, who was freezing in the 75-degree weather! He was headed home to make a fire, and we had to laugh.
The ocean was cool, but not so cold that it makes you cry out in shock. It was just a huge bathtub for us, and it felt great to get cleaned up after a great day.
I don’t remember what we had for dinner, but I’m sure it was good! We were pretty exhausted after a long day.
DAY 9: January 19, 2013
Hope Town, Elbow Cay to Tilloo Cay
We carefully motored out of the narrow Hope Town harbor at high tide. We said goodbye to the sweet little town we all enjoyed so much. We had a pretty good wind, and hoisted the sails. We sailed first west back towards Marsh Harbor, then cut south and southeast sticking to a deeper channel in the Sea of Abaco. We watched other sailboats, passing some, and being passed by others. Catamarans seem to be pretty popular although they don’t look as classic and single hulled boats. They have more room and more stability, but are more expensive with two engines.
It took several hours of zig-zagging through the channel to get to Tilloo Cay, but I loved the sailing. Nadine continued her project sanding the main companionway doors which each have a seahorse inlayed in the front. They were covered with countless layers of varnish, which after many years of weathering now looked dark and crackly. She worked with a palm sander to get down to the bare wood. Our motor began to overheat, and we shut it off while Rob and Curtis got out the wrenches to start tinkering. At that point we had a pretty nice headwind, and opted for tacking back and forth to make way. The boys cleaned out the water intake valve that feeds cold seawater into the engine to cool it. Rob turned off the inverter that powered the sander and computers, and the engine began to cool off.
Towards late afternoon we reached Tilloo Cay, and as usual Rob dove into the water to check the anchor. He continued on with his spear gun towards some rocky islets. Ted and Curtis joined him on a spear-fishing expedition. Right away, they speared several lionfish, that pesky, but tasty invasive species. Nadine took the standup paddleboard out to shoot some pictures, then Shana took it for a run, and I snorkeled around a bit checking out the reefs.
When the guys returned from fishing, they had several lionfish, as well as two beautiful conchs! One was only a few years old, but was mature enough to harvest. The other must have been 15 years old, with a huge worn grey shell that was the most beautiful shade of magenta pink and soft yellow. Ted astutely noted the shells similarity to a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. Rob demonstrated how to harvest these mollusks with a hammer, and cut out the large muscle considered to be a Bahamian delicacy.
The conch muscle itself looked rather like an organ, and was the size of human heart. It was pretty tough meat, and needed to be prepared prior to cooking by hammering gently with a mallet. This task happily fell to me, and I enjoyed pounding the meat, which gently broke apart into soft stringy flakes. Rob then battered them and deep-fried them to a golden crisp. They were delicious! A very delicate, almost sweet flavor, and a wonderfully unique, softly chewy texture. Rob also deep-fried the lion-fish, and French fries- a truly delicious deep fried Bahamian meal!
DAY 10: January 20, 2013
Tilloo Cay to Snake Cay (Snake Cay Dock)
Some of the crew jumped in the water for a morning exercise swim. I took the standup paddleboard out for a trial run. I found I was able to balance in the calm, still morning, and paddled around for a while. I saw a barracuda, a turtle poke it’s head up, and small stingray.
When I returned, we set off east towards Snake Cay where the boys hoped to spend some time bone-fishing. As we approached the Cay, all hands were on deck looking out at the beautiful clear water. Someone saw a turtle swimming by. That was soon trumped when Shana cried out “sharks!” Up ahead we saw two dorsal fins poking in and out of the water, and they turned out to belong to a bottlenose dolphin and her half-grown calf. We slowed the boat and approached, and the two dolphins swam up to the boat and checked us out. Several crewmembers jumped in with snorkel gear, but the mother and calf weren’t too interested in communicating, and swam away. It was a lucky sighting.
As we approached the shallow anchor area, Rob cut the engine, and said, “we’re probably going to run aground…” A moment later the boat rose up a bit, leaned to the starboard side and stopped bobbing. We had run aground on the sandy bottom. We spent some time putting the engine in reverse with three crewmembers standing on the bowsprit. Rob swam to the nearby rocky shore with a climbing rope attached to the bow, secured the line, and three of us heaved on the stretchy cord, slowly spinning the bow the boat into deeper water. She was free, and we motored back to deeper water and set the anchor.
Rob and Ted took off in Dinghy Bob hoping to catch some bonefish in the shallow mangrove lagoon just east of the cay. Bone-fishing is supposedly similar to fly-fishing for trout, and bonefish are reputed to be one of the most difficult fish to catch. Shana got on the standup paddleboard and also headed over to explore the lagoon. When they returned, they reporting sighting several large Eagle Rays in the narrow cut between the Sea of Abaco to the east and the lagoon to the west.
Curtis, Nadine and I got our snorkel gear on and jumped in the water on a spear-fishing expedition. We soon found a bunch of lionfish hanging around to gobble up all the tiny fish fry that congregated in the shallows. Curtis set his sights on one, while Nadine discovered two large lobsters under a rock only 3 ft down. She managed to spear the first one right away, and Curtis got his first lionfish. They held them up in triumph, and I filmed with the GoPro. Nadine worked hard, and was able to get the second lobster! They were huge and beautiful. Curtis found he had a knack for spearing the lionfish, and nailed 4 more. The rest of the crew returned from bone-fishing, and were impressed with our catch so far. But it had only just begun! The guys set themselves to rid the area of all lionfish, no matter how small, as a gesture of goodwill towards the indigenous fish fry that would undoubtedly be gobbled down by the invasive.
Ted and Rob suited up and attempted to spear several more lionfish hanging around a rock under the FHP. One spear got stuck in the rock, and Rob had to get his scuba gear out to retrieve it. Nadine and I headed up the lagoon on Dinghy Bob, while everyone else continued spear-fishing in the cut. As we blasted around the shallow mangrove lagoon, we saw a great blue heron, and some flying fish. I spotted the silhouette of a turtle out of the corner of my eye, and we turned around to follow him for a few minutes. Nadine said he was a really big green turtle specimen, about two feet across. She wasn’t too surprised, as this is great turtle habitat. He could sure swim fast, and he wasn’t interested in us, so we left him alone.
We returned to the cut where everyone else was snorkeling, and we started searching for the Eagle Rays. Towards the mouth of the cut, we finally saw one, a huge sting-ray covered in white spots like a leopard! It was easily 4-5 ft across, with a very long strait tail like a fencing sword. I had the GoPro out in the water, and we followed the ray for a minute, at one point motoring directly above it. I got a fantastic shot with the GoPro. It was really exciting to see such a big, beautiful creature.
The guys had speared several more lionfish, as well as FOUR more huge lobster!! (All of us are covered by a fishing permit that applies to the whole boat.) Rob had seen 5 or 6 more lobster, but we had plenty for the night, so we left them. What a tremendously productive wildlife area!
Nadine and I were on dinner duty, and we cooked up a feast. We boiled the lobster tails for 13 minutes, blackened the lionfish fillets in an iron skillet with paprika and chili powder, with a side of penne noodles and alfredo sauce. For an appetizer, we made a lionfish ceviche salsa. Ceviche is made by chopping the fish very small, then soaking it in lime juice for 30 minutes. The acidic juice cures the meat, which turns white and firm. It is a technique I will take home with me for sure. This huge meal and busy day induced food comas all around, and we struggled to get to bed before we fell asleep around the table.
DAY 11: January 21, 2013
Snake Cay to Pelican Cays Land and Sea Park,
Pelican Cays to Marsh Harbor, Great Abaco
My last day in the Bahamas… for now!
We got out of Snake Cay as quickly as possible in the morning as the no-see um flies (biting midges) were excruciating in the still air. The sea was a glassy pancake. We motored towards Pelican Cays were we hoped to fit in some more snorkeling.
Once there, the waves were so roll-y, that Nadine suited up and was in the water right away, the rest of us soon after. We snorkeled for a good hour or so, the reef was quite nice. The biggest find was by Nadine- she saw 5 eagle rays swimming in an arrow formation like a flock of birds!! The huge 6-ft wide spotted stingrays moved along the seafloor, some 30 ft down, sifting food from the sandy bottom. She tried to flag some of the other snorkelers down, but most of us were far away with our faces pointed down in the water. Rob saw her from the boat, and jumped in with his GoPro. He was able to one great shot of an eagle ray close up by diving down close to it. It was pretty amazing!!
After our snorkel, we headed around the bend to a small island where the waves were calm and boat settled down. As we approached the anchorage, I stood on the bow sprit, and saw a nurse shark lurking on the seafloor. We anchored nearby, and I took the standup paddleboard to look for the shark, but never found him. Rob took his surfboard to the far side of the island where the Atlantic waves might be surf-able. Ted, Shana and Curtis all went ashore to explore the little islet. Nadine and I opted to stay aboard, realizing it was probably our best chance to make a painting that day. We painted the islet, and the white-capped waves lapping against the shore. I feel I’ve gotten better over the last two weeks at capturing the colors and texture of this watery world, and I was happy with my sketch, realizing it would be my last painting for this trip.
With no wind to speak of, sailing was out of the question, so we had a few hours to motor. As we pulled away from the Pelican Cays area, Rob noticed the engine was again overheating. We turned it off, and drifted for about 15 minutes, waiting for it cool off, while Curtis and Rob tinkered again, and added more coolant. Then we were off, and headed for Marsh Harbor. I worked on this blog below deck for much of the trip. Nadine and Curtis varnished the two doors to the main companionway. She had sanded the old varnish all the way off to the bare wood, which now glowed red with 6 inch dark brown (mahogany?) seahorses inlayed.
As we approached Marsh Harbor, Rob hoisted me up the mast in a small seat. “If it feels good, do it!” The view from 30 ft up was fabulous, and the flat seas made for a calm ride, even though every inch of movement down below translates to a foot of movement at the top of the mast. I shot some great pics of the boat, said goodbye to the gorgeous blue water and pastel clouds, and was lowered back down.
Once in Marsh Harbor, Rob noticed a small sailboat to our starboard side that looked to him like a Reuel Parker design. When we were close enough, Nadine read the name and realized “Island Girl” was indeed a Reuel Parker boat! She took the standup paddleboard over and visited with the sailors aboard. What a fun coincidence. Then, Nadine, Curtis and I went to town for some errands. Ted and Shana fixed up a great meal on the FHP, and I wrapped the evening with some packing.
Nadine would drop me off in the morning on shore, where a taxi would carry me to the airport, and I would begin my long journey back north to Canada, where cold temps promised eternal sweaters and long-johns, long nights and skiing.
Living an island life might be one of the best places to get in touch with the serenity inside ourselves. There seems to be a flow to life here that is unhurried, conscientious, restful and low stress. (Isn’t that what the resorts are selling?) But it turned out to be the most practical way to slip into life on a sailboat, where our days flowed by in fluid continuum. I had to remind myself on the flight down here to detach myself from the many stressful circumstances in my own life, shed them like a second skin and slide into a simpler, more meditative mentality. I wonder- will I step back into that skin upon my return to reality? Or can I maintain some of the peaceful aura of life in the islands? But for now, I was still on the Fishers Hornpipe, rocking slowing to and fro in my bunk, absorbing the rocking of the water, the subtle movement seeping into my mind and my bones, as the sound of the ocean is preserved forever inside the shell of a conch.