Monday, March 16, 2015

The Devil made me do it - surviving paradise

All the bravado of the day before has vanished along with the weather prediction of calm seas, low winds and clear skies.
We are about to navigate The Devil’s Backbone – an aptly named 8 mile route along the northern coast of Eleuthera. 
Eleuthera, the island that got it’s name from the 70 Eleutherian puritans, first from England and then Bermuda, who crashed into this set of reefs in 1609 and colonized the little island, living in a huge cave for years along the Devil’s Backbone, where they lost the ship and all supplies.
We had met this community 400 years later, the same 5 families whose names can be traced back directly, on the tiny island of Spanish Wells. 2 miles long. Populated now by 1500 people, mostly white even here in the middle of the Bahamas. Mostly church going folk whose accent can apparently also be traced back to their forefathers. We were intrigued by this little place where the all ages school loses it’s male pupils at the age of 14 when they join the tradition of lobster fishermen, making between $80,000 and $350,000 annually. 

We marveled at how the pristine beachfront is unoccupied. No beach bars, no hotels, no holiday making at all. This community are ‘god-fearing’ and simple. But they have money. Lots of it. The largest exporter of seafood in the Bahamas. And it is quaint. The Pinders own everything. And Bandit will rent you a mooring ball. But we’d been there for days now. Time for a change.

We want to visit the exclusive Harbour Island – land of the rich and famous. The island where mega yachts are routinely brought through by hired local captains like Bandit with lifetime’s worth of knowledge about the coral obstacle course along this treacherous path.
“I hope you’ve got a pilot to lead you through!” we heard from many well meaning friends and boaters as we sipped well poured rum-n’-cokes at Happy Hour (at the Shipdeck – the island’s only true bar) the night before. Ha! Us? No problem, we can do this.
Turns out the bravery was somewhat rum induced and even more misdirected.
When we woke the next morning, the sky was riddled with clouds. Hmmm. That means low visibility. Or rather it means you can’t see the coral heads under water that could shred the bottom of your boat to pieces.
Then we decided to carry on with the plan anyway. And tried to lift the anchor. It’s something we’ve done probably 1000 times. But not today. It wasn’t budging. Something was stuck on it. Holding it down. It was a sign. But we ignored that too and spent the better part of 30 minutes fighting with the engines and dragging Shiloh around in circles as the chain groaned and fought back, making us lurch forward and threatening to tug the windlass right out of the boat. And then suddenly we had won this particular battle, and the chain came up, and we were off.
With all our electronics charged up and ready, we headed out of the safety of the bay and out around the corner. Within minutes we realised that our two chart plotters (the non verbal GPS mainstays of modern boating navigation) did not agree. One of them would have us sailing along a carefully mapped out line through the dangers, while the other showed that if we followed that path, we’d be on top of the coral heads.
Which to trust? Can’t see anything in the water. And then the small non-threatening clouds gathered together and halfway along became a freak storm. The skies along the coast were deep fuzzy grey. The ocean responded as she does, waves rising to meet the shore. And there we were in the middle of this ominous dance, but a fly in the soup, about to be swatted away.
We were a few feet away from the waves that broke with thundering vigour, onto the rocks and what lie ahead was a stretch of this devilish spine that would have us only feet from the actual shore. With possibly inaccurate charts to guide us. And a storm overhead.
And so, halfway up the spine we made the most last minute, boat jerking decision to veer away, through a clear patch outward, to the ocean.
And there we were, two catamarans escaping the Devil, motoring against the coming waves, our buddy boat doing a disappearing act between the massive swells.
And we stayed like this, enduring the extra 10 miles or two hours of ocean sailing that would take us out and around Harbour Island.
Alley Cat fought and caught a huge fish. A strange grey creature that was subdued while the boats undulated along. At least we would have fish for supper!
We would just come through the inlet below the island. Fillet the fish there. Go for Happy Hour somewhere… No problem.
Only what happens after a storm? The surge through a narrow inlet is agitated. It wants more. It throws white foamy waves through the break in the rocks. And we chose then to approach.
I could see it, just a mile away through the violent waves at the mouth, it was calm turquoise shallow water. It beckoned. So tranquil in there!
But the reality as we approached was that as each mounting wave grabbed us, Shiloh was lifted at the back, high! – we slid down the wave at 10 knots and fell into the lull between. And again! Meanwhile on both sides of us the waves crashed onto rocks, threatening to smash them to pieces. 
But the rocks survived, and as we came down our 10th surfing wave we found we’d also survived. Dumped into a big flat basin of blue. Clear clear water and sunshine everywhere. The storm? Gone. No trace.
We motored in awe to an approved anchorage and Alley filleted his fish. Two hours later we were on a dock.
“What a day!” we said.
“Well at least we’ve got a fresh gorgeous fish fillet for supper!” we said.
And then we asked the fishermen and the locals.
Turns out the mysterious fish was an Amberjack. At worst it is poisonous. Best case scenario they carry worms and the dreaded disease Ciguatera. Hmmm.
So, fillets overboard then.
By that time we needed a drink. And so apparently did the couples who are chartering Moonraker, a 165 ft mega yacht for $217,000 a week. We nodded across the tables in a friendly display of ‘cheers!’.

As we choked on the food prices on the menu, in this town of the rich and richer, we decided to share a basket of sweet potatoes. Maybe they had caviar.
When we realised that each of our rum drinks cost more than a whole bottle of Bahamian rum we concluded that one pays for hobnobbing…
We went home with no fish to eat. But we’d survived another day in paradise.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Turquoise is a state of mind

The silence is golden. Well it’s pure turquoise actually, pierced only by the tiny far off songs of birds. The boat is still. The air is still. It’s Saturday morning in an unnamed bay on the lee shore of Eleuthera. Shiloh’s anchor is perched and dug in only slightly on a huge undersea rock. For now it’s holding and all is calm.
Yesterday we arrived here and familiarized ourselves with the unyielding inhospitable coral dotted shale that poses as soft sand. In squalls we tried and tried to drop anchor but found it only bounced and dragged along the surface. At the end of our patience the anchor suddenly held. Hard. I dived the clear cool water to confirm it was in. Barely. We prayed for low winds.
We’ve got that. Sweat trickles down my temples. It’s 9 am.
Last night we navigated the rocky unwelcoming shore, leaping up on green slime,  pants wet, shoes thrown ashore, while the boys tried to keep the dinghy from being chewed by the rocks from below. Then they tied it out and waded in. A cruiser’s arrival to the party.
Up the hill at the Buttonwood Reserve, we met the wedding party and the blow up doll from the previous night’s stag. Given our own box of wine and red solo cups, started the night off right.

Music, languages from around the world. Noise. After a golf cart ride across the private undeveloped lands and a visit to the ocean side we arrived back and joined the school bus. Lots more noise.

As we danced in the streets and digested chicken and rice (welcome back to the islands!), I pondered what it meant to be here. From Miami it’s been a two week journey. Ten hour sailing days broken by days of engine repair and frustration, grocery shopping, laundry and a bit of rest. It’s typical. Makes a quick flight sound like a piece of cake. 
Engine repairs in exotic places

Chub Cay Club - a stop en route

The exotic places...

Finding a beer at a local bar - Chub Cay

But this is not a ‘trip’. Not in that ‘get-away-or-to-an-event’ kind of way.
Last night we were explaining our ‘lifestyle’ to some American landlubbers holidaying at the fish fry. They were very curious and animated and said they’d love to do the same ‘one day’. Then as they left us they said “Enjoy your trip!”. Oh well. It’s difficult to find a point of reference. What we do is odd. It doesn’t fit in a box. It doesn’t follow the prescribed life of work - get paid – get a well deserved holiday – go back to work. We’ve been out here three years now. When will our ‘trip’ become something else?
It’s true that it’s very difficult to make plans. This wedding has been a destination, a deadline looming for weeks and because the weather is our master and commander, we are helpless in a way land lubbers couldn’t possibly understand. We are now less than 200 miles from Miami but it has taken two full weeks and with that life experiences, good and bad.
But we are back in the Bahamas. And that means turquoise. And that makes me happy.
Current Cut - pushing against 5 knots of current through a narrow cut -and THIS view

Did I mention turquoise?

Tomorrow we will be at a barefoot wedding on the beach. We will sleep on clear water and count the coral heads below us under the full moon. We might wake to gale force winds and have to reanchor in the dark, in rain, after arriving back from an all day party. These things are sobering and at all times possible. But mornings like this make it all worthwhile.
The silence is golden. No city sounds, no rush to be anywhere. No slush and sleet and soul sucking cold. As the sweat trickles down my spine. Turquoise. YES.