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We woke up at high tide—all sorts of little boats loaded with local people were departing the harbor dressed in the equivalent of Sunday clothes. Where would they go? The only other land in sight is South Bomini, across the narrow canal, some two miles away. We went into the village for some shopping. I particularly wanted a taste of the famous Bimini bread, but all the little boutiques were still closed. Tried my bank card at the money machine and it was rejected. Swell! But the gas attendant was willing to accept it and we filled out the two red canisters paying the stiff price of $6.10 a gallon (plus surtax). We left the canal around 10:00 in the morning, heading south, rounded the South Bimini and heading straight East over the Bahamian Bank.
The Bahamian bank is a wide expanse of area between the Bimini shore and Andros, some fifty miles by one hundred. The map shows surprisingly shallow depths of 6-8 feet; one could practically stand up in the middle of the ocean, at times. The waters are so clear that even when deeper than that, the bottom looks closer than that. Most of the time the bottom was sandy, with tufts of seaweed, clumps that look like sea urchins but I suspect they,re not, and an occasional, conspicuous sea star. Not a fish in sight, so I didn’t bother throwing a line behind us. We set the engine at 1500 RPMs and motored East at a cozy 3.5 KTS. We didn’t bother with the ail—the wind was practically absent.
In the afternoon, we found ourselves right in the middle of the Bahamian bank. Water, water everywhere—a flat unreal sea, the color of mercury or molten lead. The sun was blasting overhead, the engine was purring steadily, and there was nothing to do but keep the Easterly heading, with minor adjustments. Two dolphins appeared from nowhere, dove under the boat, and passed us to the right. Standing at the prow (aptly termed ‘the pulpit) gave you an eerie sensation as you glanced over the wide expanse of indifferent waters. We ate as we motored along, and opened a chilled bottle of wine to celebrate the event, whatever it may have been. Since there was a touch of south-westerly wind, we pulled out the sails that flapped lazily and settled in a relative configuration; a couple of decimals were added to our ambling speed. Behind us, the Western horizon was strangely misty, but skies were clear ahead of us.
I fired up the satellite Weather program (we could barely reach the Miami VHF radio weather anymore). A powerful storm was brewing over central Florida. Snatches of broadcasting on the radio announced powerful winds and hail. That didn’t bother me too much, since the storm was way across the GulfStream. Another minor one was gathering momentum south of Bimini (the source of the misty horizon) moving North East. I( wondered if it would catch up with us, but on the screen, it looked like it was slowly dissipating. Good thing we didn’t head South. Our aim was Andros, the largest island in the Bahamas, that we couldn’t miss. Andros became our destination for the day—but we still had some 40 miles to go. Naturally, we didn’t even consider what we would find in Andros, a mistake that would cost us dearly in the future.
A full moon was rising in the East, some ten degrees right to the mast. We decided to continue motoring at night, since the visibility was good and one could see shadows in the cockpit. We turned on the position lights and kept moving at around three knots. The feeling of navigating at night by the light of the moon was overpowering. I imagined a scenario of a man tossed overboard in the middle of the shallow seas, with the bottom close enough to reach standing on tiptoes. I had a cup of hot cocoa, trying to shake off the weird feeling. It was getting chilly,
Mihai took the first shift and I went below deck to snatch a little nap. It seemed like I had only been asleep for minutes, when the engine surged, and then died. I went on deck—the engine quit on us, like it did on Coralville reservoir. The starboard tank was still half full; we pumped the rubber pear which was stiff, but the engine still wouldn’t start. We changed the feeding line to the port tank and finally, the Etec started. Looks like the siphoning tube in the tank doesn’t reach all the way to the bottom. That’s a good thing to know. I took over and motor for another couple of hours, while Mihai went below deck. I was too wound up to nod at the helm, but the engine purred steadily and I relaxed, little by little. The horizons were again clear in the moonlight. The storm over Bimini had dissipated.
When the sun came up in front of us, we still had some 20 miles to go. The wind was picking up and holding an easterly course was becoming problematic. We passed a couple of ships (or rather they passed us) to the left and I was again experiencing the same itchy feeling, wondering when the land would show up. When it finally did, I went below deck to double-check the charts and do a little reading on Andros, and the report was none too encouraging.
Andros hardly appears on any yachtsman’s itinerary. The island is mostly uninhabited and covered with swamps and mangrove marshes. The Americans have a few research bases along the Eastern shore, but the chart authors snidely point out that no one is welcome to use their facilities, or even anchor at their buoys. There are only two settlements, , Nichols Town at the northern tip of the island, the other one, somewhere in the middle, a little north of the estuaries that slice across the middle section of the island, Even those estuaries , grandly dubbed “Sweet Water”, are unmarked, brackish, and sprouting dead ends. Vandals have been reported in the area and Ostrogoths too, maybe, in case they left anyone alive to report. Worse still, Andros was the only island where infamous “doctor flies” have made the travelers’ life a burning hell, unless (as the chart authors commented) one is an insect lover. That didn’t sound good at all. At this point, we still had some options: head for Nichols Town to fuel up and continue along the Easterly shore, or veer North East and head for the Berry islands. The first option had the disadvantage of taking us to a shore bristling with dangerous reefs and strong currents that made it unfriendly for shore navigation. The other one required a change in heading that would presumably take us across some shallow waters which both SeaClear and Garmin charts specifically mark as “unexplored” and “sandbars showing at low tide”. The typical depth was around two feet.
I was so pissed that we hadn’t checked all this information earlier. We could have taken advantage of the wind and sailed straight into the Berry island, instead of fighting it all the way. We had wasted at least three hours heading for a promised land that we were now keen to avoid. So I kept the SeaClear computer program on, below deck, doublechecking against the helm Garmin and the paper charts. We made our way slowly into the sand bars. The water dropped quickly at four feet—then at three. The bottom was a mixture of sands and rocks—not too appealing if it came to beaching the boat. We pulled the fins and the centerboard up and I stood at the prow, grabbing the furler, and trying to read the bottom by its colors (mostly a murky yellow). I could see several bands of a lighter hue in the distance, and a dark blue belt at the horizon—that’s where we wanted to go.
We motored slowly over the Joulter Cay’s sandbanks for what felt like (and most probably were) hours. I tried to pilot Mihai, avoiding the bright yellow spots) but they seemed to be shifting in the sunlight. Looking behind, I could see several sandbanks already emerging. The boat icon on the SeaClear GPS was moving maddeningly slow on the screen. Since it was so large on the chart, that added to my sense of frustration. Finally, we made our way safely to the canal north of the sandbanks (where we should have been navigating all along and from the get-go). We took and East course and headed into the Tongue of the Ocean; the depth became 10 feet, then 20, then abruptly fell to 100 and then to nothing. The Tongue of the Ocean is a deep trench East of Andros, one of the reasons why researches established their bases there, for it is the meeting place of all sorts of marine life. Knowing that we had 1800 feet of aquamarine water under our keel felt pretty reassuring.
This time I made sure I took in all the information on Berry Islands, ahead of time. According to the guide, the string of islands east of Bimini are sorely under-appreciated and worth exploring. The book mentions reefs, deep sea fishing, and all the goodies one typically associates with the Bahamas. We aimed for Chub Cays, a southerly island boasting a thriving, prosperous community (vacationers mostly, I warrant) with a number of good anchorages and a fuel marina. We could already see the two antennas in the distance. We approached the island, passing Mama Rhonda Rock to our portside (another promising place to anchor, I thought) and got closer to the bay at the south-western end of the island that marks the entrance to the canal. A couple of other ships were anchored in the bay, but the guide indicated the position of another promising spot: the Berry Island Club, situated into the canal between Chub Cay and Frazer Hog Kay. Apparently friendly and helpful, the marina also has fuel.
We first decided to anchor close to the wide beach that expands from the southwesterly points all the way to Frazer Hog; getting closer to the land, the colors of the waters change back to the bright turquoise hue of shallow Bahamian waters. We got closer to the white-sanded beach beyond which one could see a couple of villas tucked among palm trees, a reassuring sight since the rest of the vegetations looked very un-tropical—dwarfish pine trees and shrubbery. The Cays worth exploring look mostly like hunks of barren rock. Whatever. We pulled close to the beach and anchored in an unexpectedly strong breeze. I idn’t want a replay of the beach anchoring experience at Naples, five years before, so we decided not to stick around. We headed for the Berry Island club instead—we had to get fuel anyways.
The canal we took was well-marked, large and deep. The club marina had a huge dock with four hopeful-looking tanks. Two other boats were moored at the buoys, but there was plenty of room around and more buoys to spare. We approached the dock carefully and found a place in a little cove upwind. We cast anchor in three feet of water; the bottom was strewn with rocks. I hailed the marina on the radio, but there was no reply, so I took the dinghy and rowed ashore. The tide was low, the edge of the water was hard and reefy.
The marina itself looked deserted; an clean, well-kept building that looked abandoned “for the winter,” with a sandy bath leading to the wharf, among some palm trees and a huge pile of empty conchs (another good sign, I thought) Behind the marina, a couple of “duplexes” (motel-type buildings with two apartments in front and two in the back, several hammocks (within metal frames) some sparse bushes sprouting a few solitary blossoms and an abandoned truck with no license plate. No one in sight. The dock did have indeed several tanks labeled “Diesel” and “gas”. The only unlocked outbuilding was a wooden box with two shower stalls, off the marina—but the water was turned off. I returned to the boat and tried to raise on the radio either the marina, or the two anchored boats, for more information. A voice responded, informing me that the club was closed and there was no gas. After a short pause, the voice inquired how much gas we needed; finding out that we lust6ed for only eight gallons, the man said he would be there in the morning, invited us to moor at one of the buoys, and signed off.
We still decided to stay in the little bay, away from the other two boats. The nearer was a sail ship with a couple who took there smart-looking dinghy (with its own motor) to the dock every couple of hours to allow their marine dog to make its rounds and pee. The tide came rushing inland Hai-Hui started bobbing in six feet of water. Everything looked slightly more inviting at high tide. At sunset we heard some strange, wailing sounds wafting across the bay, the woman stood at the prow blowing into a bagpipe and “maken” the most dismal “melodye” ever since the times of Chaucer: I vaguely recognized Amazing Grace, Oh, Danny Boy and “Little Taffin” medley. After the performance, her companion duly applauded. I briefly considered bringing up my guitar for a jam session, but thought better of it.
Mosquitoes came in droves at night. By this time, we had eaten a Spartan dinner, noticing again that the grill refused to stay lit (we ended up tossing the sausages into the frying pan, and onto our trusty Swedish Origo alcohol stove) and were ready to hit the sack. We stretched the mosquito net a tad too late, trapping several within, and smoke a final pipe, admiring the full moon over the tranquil bay. I had a hard time falling asleep. Woken up at two o’clock in the morning with a sense of foreboding. Looking overboard, I saw the waters have dwindled again with the low tide, and the rocks at the bottom looks disquietingly close. I woke up Mihai and we double-checked on the Garmin. Low tide was scheduled two hours hence, and the graph showed that we would lose another half-foot of water past the lowest point when we anchored. But the depth was still over three feet, so we felt safe enough. We went back to bed—in the morning, we would get our gas supplies and head for Nassau. Our supplies have dwindled amazingly fast (especially in the beverage category) and there seem to be no grocery in sight for miles. Maybe we should get used to that thought. Wish I had brought around some instant tea sachets, so we could make our own soft drinks. We might find some in Nassau though.
We’re anchored 200 feet off Angelfish Bay, pointing into the Easterly wind. Ahead of us stretches the Atlantic; first a 15 mile wide reef with its depth varying between 20 and 2 feet, then the 40 mile wide expanse of the Gulf Stream flowing northwards at a speed of 3 knots. Behind us, a curved shore line laced with the ubiquitous mangroves, tufts of palm trees, and imposing mansions half buried in vegetation. There seems to be no beach to speak of. The ocean waves have been tamed by the wide coral belt and gently lap the abrupt shoreline. The houseowner right behind us has built a small platform that doesn’t deserve the appellation of a “dock”, with a little gazebo and a round stone table, Roman-style, devoid of any marine flavor whatsoever. The sky is overcast, especially in the West. We’re biding our time, waiting for three o’clock in the morning, when we will take the great leap. Eight more hours to go—and it’s hard to stay off the cold beer.
The past couple of days have been spent at the South Dade marina, waiting for a change in weather. We finally saw the manatees romping around early in the morning—imposing creatures as large as cows, moving underwater with unexpected grace. They seem to be grazing the submarine pastures and minding their own business. I am a little leery about slicing them with the propeller, as we motor out of the Marina, but Rafael says they are accustomed to moving away when they sense engine vibrations. Rafael is fond of his manatees; he told us that he heard a mother go “wooo! Wooo!” when she lost her calf, just like a human being would. Indians considered manatees sacred, and I was eager to read a good omen in their sighting
I tried fishing a little off the dock, but it was too windy even for that. Besides, I seem to be lacking the right bait. Rafael asked me what kind of lure I was using, and I said, “salami.” “That’s not right,” he said. Come with me and I will give you some bits of fish. You eat the salami.” He gave me a frozen package of small dish filets which I stuffed into the freezer—it may come in handy later on.
In the afternoon, Bob showed up too and we had a little conference. There seemed to be a glimpse of hope, as the weather services predicted an unexpectedly positive change; winds shifting to the south on Sunday, then a couple of days with light and variable winds, as a low pressure trough moves over Southern Florida. Looks like close to ideal conditions for crossing—a south westerly wind component would have been even better, but we cannot be too picky. So we would probably hang around the marina for another day, motor across a string of bays to Angel-creek (the closest passage from the inner bays to the Ocean) wait at the mouth of the creek for the opportune time (traditionally, 4:00 in the morning) and get going on Sunday.
Rafael came over to the boat later in the evening. He had a couple of shots of rum while we nursed our beers under the mosquito net, and told us improbable tall tales (which may well be true, given their outlandishness) involving the Mafia, guns, his own un-breveted mechanical inventions and the like. In the end, he insisted on showing us an excellent place to eat where two guys “like us” would eat their fill for 20 dollars. That still sounds pretty steep to me, but what the hell, this is Florida, vacation-land, so other rules might well apply. Since we were hungry anyways, we decided to follow suit. We jumped into Rafael’s Honda SUV (which he had bought for $175 as part of some shady deal) and left for Key Largo. The restaurant he had in mind turned out to be closed by then, so he furiously slammed the pedal to the metal and took us to a Cuban Café, (waitressed by a big-assed Mexican, as he quickly informed us). They still had some food available (except for Salsa, which Rafael highly deplored) but we ate a sort of schnitzel, Mihai had some beef in tomato sauce (he wouldn’t share it, the rat!) rice and beans, French fries, some exotic version of the homey potato, and a salad devoid of personality. We returned close to midnight, and we went straight to bed. There were a few nightly showers, but we felt safe at the dock.
The following morning the weather was still muggy. We drove into Miami, for our appointment with the Customs services. I also grabbed a bag of dirty clothes, hoping to hit a Laundromat on the way back. The Tom-Tom GPS took us into the harbor by a tortuous route (or maybe we missed the right exit, I don’t know) we parked at terminal H paying a stiff fee of 7 dollars for no less than 2 hours. The offices were located in a derelict building that had the unmistakable “immigrant” air about it. Numerous signs informing the visitors that the building has no toilets, as if the first trademark of an immigrant were to hasten and relieve himself. It had A/C though which again makers a lot of sense. The two ladies at the conspicuously empty counter looked anything but busy; most immigrants might well be illegal, and hence, in no need of any official services, or toilets, even. She quickly punched into the computer the data I had already provided on line, courtesy of Starbuck in Key Largo, and handed me a plastic card. When it came to registering Mihai (who has no American passport) the lady shrugged; apparently, we will have do to it ourselves, the traditional way, upon our return. I was so mad that nobody deigned to inform us over the telephone that this was the procedure, but eventually, I had to admit that we couldn’t have left earlier in the week anyway, on account of the weather. So we returned downtown looking for a Starbuck and an internet hotspot, which we found in a coquettish little mall, by the beach.
We returned to the Marina in the afternoon, once we did some last moment shopping in the Homestead friendly Walmart store. It was getting hot and the wind was still strong, and shifting to the North. To the North? That’s not what the weatherman said. We were expecting Southerly winds—but then again, we still had one more day to go. Who knows?
We hauled all the additional crap to the boat, by way of two handy marine carts, and we hastened to launch. It was getting late in the afternoon and our plan was to go to Sandy Beach (a nifty anchoring spot that Bob had recommended ever since day one, but which we had missed on our first outing). The docking ropes we had attached several night before were hopelessly entangled. It took me forever to straighten them out and the thought that we had squandered so much time at the dock and failed to coil the ropes “professionally” irritated me to no end. The wind was still blowing strong along the canal. I pulled the anchor rode, Hai Hui followed obediently in tow, and I hauled anchor. But the fins and the centerboard were not down and a hale gust of wind pushed us into the mangroves. Another botched departure. Nothing was compromised save for our sense of self-worth which dwindled even more when we found out that the depth finder had not been set properly and the solar panels were slightly askew after our unexpected encounter with the mangroves. We anchored in the middle of the main canal to remedy these glitches and finally, we were able to leave, hoping again that no one had witnessed our hasty departure.
We motored all the way to Flat point, in the shelter of the island that we knew. Once we rounded the point, the bay became really choppy—and shallow (a pretty bad combination) But I could see in the distance the area that Bob had suggested and we headed in that direction, until we finally reached another prelude to Paradise.
I was enthralled. We anchored in a sheltered cove, well protected from three sides by overgrown mangroves. It looked like an Amazonian lagoon to me. The bottom was grassy and the water clear. We attached another rope to the poop and tied the boat to the mangroves. There were no mosquitoes. A half-moon made everything look so peaceful that I felt like pulling out the guitar and crooning some old songs, in case I still remembered them. In between songs, we listened to the tropical frogs until late at night. … a thoroughly promising overture.
In the morning, I took a dinghy trip round the point. Everything was as peaceful as could be. The “sandy beach” turned out to be a minuscule stretch of gravel at the foot of some tropical pines and mangroves. The water was warm and shallow, so I saw around a little and took some pictures with the waterproof camera. See what would come out, since the button doesn’t seem to promptly respond. Around ten o’clock, we decided to haul anchor and slowly move towards Pumpkin Island, a place this side of Angelfish Creek that Bob Recommended. It’s a 15 mile trip to the pumpkin and I was curious how the Etec would handle it. We set off trailering the dinghy behind. The morning was already hot and muggy. We followed the BlueChart indications (the helm Garmin GPS showed next to nothing) and Passed under Barnes point bridge, heading NorthEast until we hit Pumpkin Island—a private rock about two miles long, with an imposing dock, warning signs, and colonial-style buildings hidden in the bushy vegetation. We ate on board, I swam a little, and in the afternoon, we decided to go to Angelfish Creek and cross it anyways—the sooner the better. It will probably take us more than 10 hours to cross the Gulf Stream, and we need to reach Bimini in the daylight, for the customs and immigration formalities. Besides, we were warned that the entry in the Bimini canal was sanded up and may be treacherous.
I set the cellphone alarm clock for 3:00 in the morning, even though I doubted that we either of us would get much sleep that night. Mihai took the first shift and I went below deck but couldn’t sleep much on account of the mosquitoes. What the hell?! We were anchored more than 500 feet away from the shore and mosquitoes were already buzzing like crazy in the cockpit. The previous night, we had anchored next to the mangroves and there had been none. Mihai was all wrapped up in his rags and he went below deck, while I took over. Around midnight I couldn’t stand it anymore so I went below deck too. I might have dozed off a little, but when I woke up with a start and checked the phone, it was two minutes past three and the phone had inevitably failed to ring. We made some coffee and last minute preparations, donned our life vests, and we left into the moonless night. According to the available charts, the safest way to get off the reefline would go south east, up to a “flashing green light” that I seemed to perceive dimly in the respective direction—only that it was neither flashing, nor green. Other lights could be seen in the area, but I had no way to assess the distance, so I went by guesstimnates and by water depths; there were two shallow areas (around 2 feet) to be avoided on our plotted course. Mihai was worried about that, but I didn’t think it was such a big deal. Two feet leaves us plenty of room to float in, and there was plenty of elbow room to maneuver in anyways. There was no reason why unmarked reefheads would show above the waterline. We got closer to the light but the depth no longer corresponded, so we veered East, aiming for a bobbing light in the general direction of what was charted as “borderline to the Natural Preserve territory” It turned out to be a boat, but it still took us closer to a conspicuous red light marker. The helm GPS was beginning to show more elaborate details, but according to it, we were still over the reef. I had my laptop fired up in the cockpit, strapped with an elastic bungee cord to the table, but the BlueChart program did not show our positions—only the general mapping. So I had to constantly extrapolate. It was getting close to 5;30 it was still; dark, and we were still motoring into the overcast, bleak east. The depthfinder started showing more and more depth, so it looked like we were out of the reef and into the Gulfstream, at long last…
It was a bleak first encounter: the Florida coastline behind us, with the conspicuous grid of four strobe lights flashing off Miami, and a murky easterly line ahead of us. The sea was flat—the wind, a mere 5 kts from the North East. The engine was turning smoothly. No biggie. The sun was peeking from behind the clouds so we managed to snatch a couple of pictures. None too soon, for the seas started to swell. I wasn’t too worried about that either, since the weather forecast had predicted 1 foot swells off shore… but these swells looked definitely larger. Not sure whether they measure the swells from the median line, or from the bottom of the trough to the top, but these ones were oftentimes cockpit-level. They were coming from the North East, against the grain of the GulfStream, hitting us sideways, so we often had to abandon our Easterly course and turn portside into the waves. Sometimes, the boat would slam down, making the anchor chains rattle. We were still advancing and trying to stick to an easterly course. Even though we had started off 40 miles south of Biminis, by my calculations, an Easterly course would take us right on the dot, due to the North-floating Gulfstream.
By ten o’clock we were right in the middle of it. The most striking feature aside from the swells, of course, is its notorious color: a deep aquamarine akin to the Romanian “sineala de rufe” It’s truly unbelievable, that any water in the world be colored exactly the way a 5 year old would, resorting to his felt-tip pen. Tufts of golden seaweed were still floating around. I saw a couple of flying fish, skimming the surface like iridescent skipping stones, but not much else, marine-life wise at all. The Ocean itself seemed like a giant creature, none too friendly, but neither overtly threatening.
I took the helm allowing Mihai to go below deck to snatch a nap. Keeping an easterly course was difficult. I was trying to slice obliquely through the oncoming waves, which made for a lot of heavy rocking and rolling. By 11 o’clock, though, we seemed to enjoy a lull, or maybe we got used to the rocking pattern. By my computations, we should reach Bimini by 13 hours. And, sure enough, peeking ahead, I thought I saw a tall antenna poking the horizon. Mihai was doubtful that we would reach Bimini so soon, but I was confident that this was indeed a possibility—after all, the speed gauge often showed 7 knots, when motoring down the wave slopes.
Unfortunately, Mihai was right. The antenna proved to be the mast of a lonely sailship, motoring like us against the current. Such a disappointment. You could still see several powerboats flying majestically in the direction of Bimini and leaving us behind in the dust. With such a boat, one could reach Bimini in three hours. In the meanwhile, we were bobbing like an overgrown cork of a heavenly bottle in the aquamarine waters of the Gulf Stream.
I switched on the Marine radio on channel 16 and, sure enough, someone attempted a radio-check, just like in my old pilot days. I muttered, “Read you loud and clear” to which the interlocutor retorted with a “Thank You, Cap’tain,” which made me feel a little better. A couple of gigantic tankers crossed our path, moving leisurely at a cozy 25 KTS. I went below deck to start up the SeaClear program and double-check our position. The little Garmin GPS took a long time to spot us (the last time we checked was in the South Dade Marina) and when it did, it turned out that we were barely half way across the Gulf Stream. I realized that Mihai had been using the zoom-in function, presumably to see us better on the map, while the big picture looked totally different, in stark agreement with SeaClear. Four more hours to go.
The wind started to pick up again. Being below the deck made me feel hot and sweaty; was I getting sea-sick? It would have been the first time ever. But then again, I had never crossed the GulfStream before. We drank some juice and I chewed on some granola, without any noticeable improvement. The sky was still overcast, the waters the same shade of intense aquamarine, no more flying fish in sight. Now that I saw how far we still were from our destination, was worried about running out of gas from the service tank (we had two eight gallon tanks, and two three gallon spares, so gas was not lacking—usable gas was) We had to switch tanks, an operation entailing several awkward moves in a crouched position, squeezed between the cockpit seat and the steering column. Gas was still sloshing in the tank, but I preferred to do the switch now, rather than run the Etec engine dry. We stopped the engine and started twirling around powerlessly as the waves came at us from all sides, but managed all right in the end. I was afraid I had busted the gas valve, but the engine started right away and we resumed our course
When the Bimini coast finally appeared in the distance, it was a little farther to the South than I expected. The current had been pushing us relentlessly North, even though we had been striving to keep an Easterly heading since early morning. I pulled out the paper charts down below, just to make sure, and reviewed the markers. We had to hit the canal between North and South Bimini, and then turn left and follow another narrow waterway spiked with Marinas, into Alice town, for legal formalities—and fuel. I retrieved the Anmerican flag, while Mihai started digging up for the quarantine and Bimini flags which, of course, had been stored elsewhere. We attached the flags with bits of rotten rope I had wisely saved from the trailer, even though we had a couple of spools of high-quality string stored somewhere below deck. As we monkeyed with the flags, the solar panels came down from one bracket. Again, we had to pull the tools out and fix the panels (two large flat surfaces mounted on a cross bar that one person can hardly lift) while the boat was ponderously swaying with each swell. The radio was broadcasting on channel 16; the coast guards in Miami were trying to help a boat in trouble, but I couldn’t catch the details
Bimini was getting larger in the distance—but where the hell were the palm trees? I spotted immediately the pink-roofed government building. Five miles out and the depth finder still showed the bottomless trench of the Florida Straits. We approached at 2500 RPMS, eager to hit the land. Finally we sighted the bottom. The colors changed dramatically to the typical turquoise hue of the Bahamian waters; what I eyeballed as a 6 foot depth was in fact 15. We picked our way into the entrance of the canal, avoiding the shoals (unnecessarily, as it turned out, since Hai Hui would have passed effortlessly over them) and advanced cautiously to the first marina. I tried to hail the owner on channel 18 (advertised in the guide) but there was no answer. Finally, a guy saw us approach the dock and signed us to pull in the second slot. I took the wheel and, after a couple of strained maneuvers owing to the dinghy that was riding on top of the hatch, under the boom, effectively blocking our view, we tossed him a line; he seemed to be enjoying himself immensely advising us to pull up the fins and changing the docking location several times just to keep us on our toes, yelling at us in an incomprehensible reggae dialect. Another good Samaritan showed up on the dock and grabbed the nose line. We were finally anchored safely at Weech’s marina, in Bimini.
Contrary to what the Nautical guide advertised about the Bimini marinas, the guy who received us was far from friendly; a stocky black dude sporting a gold front tooth and bean-shaped, brand-new sneakers, with beefy, tattooed arms and an arrogant way of avoiding to meet one’s gaze. I asked him about availability of gas and he muttered “two marinas down.”: He immediately asked us how long we wanted to stay (I initially thought that we would do the formalities, gas up, and sleep south of Bimini in a sheltered cove). I told him that we would perhaps stop on our way back. I went to the marina office with him to fill out the forms; I complimented him on the marina which was pretty clean and picturesque, with empty docking places over clean, transparent, 8 foot deep waters, with conk shells skillfully placed in strategic points, several slothful- looking cats and real green parrot that took me by surprise by saying “Hello!” in a perfect human voice). There was a bar next to the marina where a wild altercation was in progress. The unfriendly dude hastened to inform us that they would have live music at night but he probably sensed my disapproval and added… “but I’m not sure…”
I ran to the customs office which was several houses down and struggled with the local bureaucracy. The bill of health was duly granted and we were allowed to remove the yellow quarantine flag (another 27 wasted dollars, for I do not foresee using it any time soon again) The lady granted us the visas and collected $150 (in cash) so we were finally legal. By this time it was getting too late to buy gas, so we decided to stayt overnight at the marina with the unfriendly guy and the green parrot, for the measly price of $35 a night (water included). In the meanwhile, local cops armed with machine guns had appeared at the bar and things were tolerably quiet—maybe we would get a good night sleep, for a change…
We went to check out Alice town (the only one and capital city of this little nation that has its own currency, as well as an efficient police force). The unmistakable sense of Vama veche , a place in its own time slot. There was a garden in particular that threw me back 40 years in time—the same fence built of marine rock, the barren soil where the grass struggles to keep alive, some remnants of old masonry, and a resilient tree or two—coconut trees in Bimini, and a similarly exotic-looking tree in Vama Veche which makes clusters of seeds and whose name I do not know. It was as if I was in a time loop. But looking down the narrow lane (pompously named “King’s Way”) I saw a couple of modest boutiques (closed) the minuscule Bimini museum (pretty spruced up) the Canadian Bank with a teller machine (that was inoperable as it turned out). People were still driving nice SUVS with Bahamian license plates (small numbers, every each one) and golf carts. We went all the way to the end of King’s road, admired the buildings and the numerous marinas, and returned in ten minutes, starved and tired.
At the boat, we enjoyed tortellini and a cold beer, along with David’s company, who showed up right in time. David is the Good Samaritan who helped us dock—an Australian by birth and brogue, sailing on a superb two-masted schooner that we had admired en passant (all expensive wood and trademark of neat electronics, plus two ladies who seemed to own the place.) I was hoping to visit the boat, but David sheepishly acknowledged that he was simply renting it, and the girls were officially “in charge,” manning and crewing the boat from Florida to Nova Scotia. The girls have a lot of experience in tugboats and this is how they got the job, David says, but they know little about sails. He didn’t think that visiting the boat was a good idea—the girls were asleep by now. Together.
After David left, I couldn’t help myself but take a dip in the inviting, unbelievably clear waters. The current was quite strong, so I had to get a hold of a line. I topped the day with a hot shower at the marina, another piper and a beer, and then—dodo! The music wafting from the bar was exclusively reggae and calypso and I slept like a rock until the next morning, when the obnoxious early risers left the canal at fool speed, making the boats buck like so many wild stallions against the dock lines.
After six weeks of intensive preparations, the boat is somewhat ready for a test drive, on Coralville Reservoir--or so we hope. We have added a mast antenna, a Tacktick weathervane that broadcasts wind speed and wind direction from the top of the mast, an Edgestar extra fridge, a circuit for a laptop loaded with WXWORKS (Satellite weather service) and SeaClear (an additional GPS), desalinators, and many other things that I must have forgotten already The weather has been unpredictable, forcing us to work in spurts, either outside (scrubbing the boat clean, stretching out soggy cushions and drenched pieces of equipment in the sporadic sunshine, and hoping to get the ever-present moldy smell out of the fabric) or inside, finishing the spearguns. I took care of the humiliating chores, while Mihai worked on the loftier ends of speargunning, Hawaiian style. The Bahamians allow no triggered guns in their waters, so Mihai designed two slings with heavy wooden handles that shoot two-foot spears by way of bungee cords. The rest of the equipment includes underwater cameras, marine radios, snorkeling equipment, maps and charts, and other impressive odds and ends that litter the living-room floor at home, making us hopscotch across the temporary warehouse. And we haven't even started packing up yet.
The initial plan was to launch on Thursday, but the weather had been so drizzly that we decided to postpone. On Friday, we loaded up the boat with some of the equipment (judiciously chosen, but insufficiently so, as we would soon find out) which took us the better part of the day. We found ourselves at the Bobbers' Marina around 5 in the afternoon, surrounded by screaming crowds of vacationers, beer cans in hand and bemused expressions on their blanched, pre-seasoned faces. Arming the boat took us more than an hour. Mihai mounted the weathervane which goes on the top of the mast by unhitching the trailer and driving the Nissan to the back of the precariously balanced boat. He then scrambled atop of the car, looking very much as a victor, only to find out that the weathervane interferes with the solar panels, when the mast is in the down position. No matter. Everything is mobilis in mobili, as capt'n Nemo used to say--and much good it did to him in the end. We straightened the panels by brute force, realizing that we forgot to bring along the proper hex key. We raised the mast under the stares of an awed and mildly inebriated crowd and called Rod on the cell to come and pick up the Nissan and shove us away.
The engine purred to life at the first touch. I dropped one of my sneakers into the water as I boarded at the prow (a bad omen, as everybody who has done it at some point will hasten to acknowledge) and, with some gentle rocking from side to side, the boat separated from the trailer and we were finally off. The water had an unbecoming cocoa-brown hue (a far cry from what we expected to sail on in the Bahamas), with bits of blackened driftwood bobbing ominously in the powerboats' wake of which there were but a few; the forecast called for occasional rainstorms on the morrow. The old cove where we used to anchor seemed shallower and smaller and the mud banks ever more conspicuous; we couldn't motor all the way to the Rodney's shore as we initially planned, so we dropped anchor in 5 feet of muddy water and breathed a sigh of relief. The ETEC engine sounded smooth and the boat still floated aright--what else may a sailor wish for?
As it turns out, plenty. After we straightened out below deck and mounted the grills in the cockpit, we had a hasty supper (traditional grilled sausages and ice-cold beer) and became aware of the long string of things that we forgot to pack: no mosquito net. No paper towels. No cleaning rags. No bread. No spare socks for Mihai (I had my thick woolen socks just by accident). But the sunset on the lonely lake was beautiful, and the stars soon started twinkling encouragingly; we might, just might have a good next day. We savored a pipe in the cockpit, noticing gleefully that the cushions were covered with dew which (at least in the old country) bespeaks of fair weather the following day.
Our sense of well-being was short-lived. When I opened the fridge to take out another set of beers, I noticed that it had stopped working. I pulled it out and Mihai checked the fuse--it was blown. No spare fuse either. We took the fuse from the GPS (thereby rendering the depthfinder inoperable) and rigged the fridge back to life; the dreaded red light came on, in three-blink cycles, which surely meant something--but there was no way to check what, since the bulky compilation of various manuals was left safely at Rodney's. Both batteries already showed half-empty, even though we had run the fridge for only a short length of time and they were full when we stopped the engine. A dull sense of pointlessness seemed to pervade the cockpit; if we couldn't get the boat going for a measly lake escapade, how are we going to manage across the Gulf Stream? But we reminded ourselves that this test-ride was supposed to enable us debug the systems, so debugging them we will. We went to bed more hopeful and slept soundly, with the boat underneath barely swaying in a gentle, cool breeze. It was cold below deck and my sleeping bag zipper was broken.
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