Adventures in the Abacos

Rather than return to his usual Bahamian haunts, a sailor veers north after crossing the Gulf Stream and finds new adventures amid the Abaco Islands.

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Stunning turquoise waters cover the shallows surrounding Lyford Cay, which lies in the distance off the western tip of New Providence Island, in the Bahamas.Billy Black

As I headed into the wind to drop anchor in the lee of Allans-Pensacola Cay, in the Bahamas’ Abaco Islands, a 7-foot nurse shark swam toward the boat. The cruisers here must feed them, I thought, as it nosed the bottom searching for food. A swim to break the 90-degree heat was now out of the question. While nurse sharks aren’t particularly dangerous, this one might have had cousins in the neighborhood I wouldn’t want to meet.

That didn’t stop the sailor anchored 50 yards away. He was in the water with mask and snorkel, Hawaiian sling in hand and, like the shark, looking for a meal. I hoped he wouldn’t become dinner.

Shark aside, as lovely as the harbor was, I wasn’t all that happy to be there, because it meant that this particular journey was coming to an end. In two more days, I would be back in Florida, heading north to the Chesapeake.

No more gorgeous turquoise water. No more laid-back and polite locals smiling as they passed by. No more anchoring off the beautiful beaches, nor quiet starlit nights without a soul for miles and just my pup, Aduana, for company.

My biggest anchoring test this winter had been finding a spot in one harbor where my chain wouldn’t drag over the many starfish littering the bottom. I can handle that sort of challenge!

Like many cruisers, I spend winters in the Bahamas, and with the new anchoring restrictions recently enacted in Florida, I will be spending a lot more time there in the future. This past winter, I chose to go north to the Abacos rather than follow my usual route south via Nassau to the Exumas. I had heard much about these more northern islands and was curious to see just what they were like.

Most people heading for the Abacos leave Florida from Fort Lauderdale or Palm Beach and cross over to West End, at the very tip of Grand Bahama Island, or set a waypoint farther north on the Little Bahama Bank. From Fort Lauderdale, West End is a 68-nautical-mile trip with a good angle to the Gulf Stream, making it a fast passage.

Instead I made my usual crossing to Bimini from Miami, cleared in, and then overnighted on the Great Bahama Bank. It’s always a special evening anchoring on the Bank, with no land in sight, the sun setting and then rising from the water in the morning. There are few places on Earth you can see this.

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Visitors to Water Cay, in the Jumentos, are rewarded with a spectacular sunset.Wally Moran

My plan was to take a look at the Berry Islands, starting at southernmost Chub Cay, on my way up to the Abacos. For no reason I can discern, the Berrys are not overrun with cruisers. I don’t understand, because it’s a beautiful region, with lots of great anchorages and cays to explore, excellent snorkeling, and deserted beaches. (Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this?)

One of those beaches is at Chub Cay, a private island with huge homes on it. I’ve rarely seen a place with more starfish, rays and other fish swimming about. It’s glorious. But they’re building a hotel on the beach, and dinghying in is not permitted, thank you — please go back to your boat while we finish paving paradise.

If you do need to feel welcome somewhere, go north to Great Harbour Cay Marina. It’s one of the most enjoyable marinas I’ve ever stopped in, and a great hurricane hole if you are there late in the season.

That’s what I chose to do. I went west from Chub a few miles back through the Northwest Channel to come up the western side of the Berrys. With the wind out of the east at about 15 knots, I got to sail, albeit closehauled, for the last 20 miles to the Bullocks Harbour waypoint. Even then, it was my favorite kind of sailing — flat and fast — as the sand bores and shallows to the east keep the seas down.

It was, of course, too good to last. Ten miles out of Great Harbour Cay and heading into shallow and tricky waters, my chart plotter quit, due to a bad fuse, it later turned out. Since I was turning into the wind shortly anyway, I doused sails and grabbed my handheld GPS and the paper charts. I rapidly plotted a course and set a waypoint. The channel to Great Harbour Cay is narrow and shoal, with just one daymark shown, and it would be a race between the sun and my anchor for which would set first.

It ended up being a tie, with the anchor down in 11 feet of water just outside Cistern Cay and the entrance to Great Harbour’s inner harbor as the sun set. I raised a glass of wine to the rose and purple hues that my competitor had left as a tribute on the western horizon. Talk about a class act. The next morning I ventured into the marina and discovered three cruising friends there, two of them having spent the winter and the third just arrived from Nassau on his catamaran. The marina has an active social calendar and several good restaurants nearby, grocery stores, and a fabulous beach. There is excellent fishing, lobstering and snorkeling in the area.

My friends were having a great time and showed no indication of leaving soon, if at all, so I joined them and spent two weeks there checking it out. It was every bit as good as they said. I even had some success spearfishing — not something I excel at — on a nearby reef. Leaving Great Harbour Cay, I slowly sailed in light winds north to Great Stirrup Cay, and the next morning, in flat-calm waters, motored over to Sandy Point, on Great Abaco Island.

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The harbor at Hope Town, on Elbow Cay ­attracts cruisers of every stripe.Onne van der Wal

Most people do a single passage from Great Stirrup, going around the bottom of Great Abaco, and then head north along its east coast to Great Cherokee or Little Harbour, about 65 nautical miles away, missing Sandy Point. I was in the mood to explore, and what I’d read about the area piqued my curiosity.

It wasn’t so many years ago that the only way to get to Sandy Point was by water, and the men of the community still make their living from the sea, fishing, lobstering or shrimping. There’s nothing touristy about the place at all, no glitzy shops or restaurants, but there was a great little beach bar right in front of where I was anchored.

Needing a cold brew, I wandered over only to find that no one on the island could accept credit cards. There was no ATM, either, and I had no cash. I turned to leave, wondering if I had enough leftover quarters on board from the last laundry run, when the bartender put a cold Kalik in front of me and said: “First time to Sandy Point? Welcome. Beer’s on the house.”

I spent the next day wandering the town, enjoying its out-­island feel, and carried the pocketful of quarters I’d scrounged from the bilge for later. Little Harbour was my next stop. I was fortunate in arriving close to high tide, because the channel shoals to 4.5 feet at mean low. The harbor is well protected, with moorings and good holding for anchors, as I learned when the winds gusted to 35 knots one evening.

There’s also Pete’s Pub, quite different from the bar at Sandy Point, a world away on the other side of the island. Pete’s is plainly geared toward tourists, and the difference in prices reflected that. Fortunately, they accepted credit cards; the last of my quarters were left in Sandy Point.

Coming north in the Abacos is comparable to sailing inside the Exumas. You’re protected from the ocean by a line of cays and reefs, and the depths are anywhere from 12 to 20 feet. As long as you pay attention to the waypoints in your Explorer Chartbook, you can’t go wrong.

The main difference between the Exumas, where I’ve spent many winters, and the Abacos — as I was soon to discover in Hope Town and elsewhere — is that the Abacos are very much oriented toward shoreside vacationers rather than off-the-beaten-track voyagers.

There are many more marinas in the Abacos, and they are much more American-styled than what you find in the Exumas. It’s the same with pubs and restaurants; in some places, you’d think you were in the Florida Keys, not the Bahamas. That’s a feeling you’ll not ever have in the Exumas, which feel like the Bahamas should feel: foreign and tropical, pulsing with the local rake-and-scrape or soca beats instead of pop music.

A big part of the reason for this difference is that the Abacos are easy for tourists to reach, whether by plane or powerboat. These folks don’t want local tunes; they want to be catered to. I overheard one woman complaining about the difficulties of where to house the captain of her 75-foot Hatteras: the condo in Marsh Harbour, the house in St. Augustine, or the summer place in Ponte Vedra?

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Nancy’s Bar at Sandy Point, on Abaco Island, is just a short row from the anchorage.Wally Moran

A fast powerboat or sport-fishing vessel can get there from the Lake Worth Inlet in six or seven hours. In two days, I probably saw a dozen or more big powerboats fly past me going east, and as many or more smaller powerboats. On the same passage, I spied maybe a half-dozen sailboats.

To sail the Exumas, on the other hand, you’ve got to show some determination just to get there. First you have the Gulf Stream crossing, which is a minimum of 48 nautical miles. Then you sail at least 65 nautical miles to cross Great Bahama Bank, which can be unpleasant if the winds kick up. On the other side, there’s the open-water run down to Nassau, another 47 nautical miles, before hopping from cay to cay to get to George Town, on Great Exuma Island. Nassau to George Town alone is 155 nautical miles, greater than the distance from Palm Beach to Green Turtle Cay.

Add to that the challenges of finding safe harbor. Anchorages in the Exumas are often exposed to the north and west, making boats at anchor vulnerable when a Canadian clipper, or norther, comes through. In George Town, a storm forecast sees people shifting anchorages for better protection. The Abacos’ busy season is in late spring and summer, completely avoiding the northers that blow through in the winter and early spring, although summer thunderstorms can be nasty. Plus there’s lots of dockage and mooring balls, both conspicuously absent in the Exumas.

One thing the Abacos do have that you don’t find in the Exumas is decent shopping, although goods are not cheap. There’s a for-real grocery store in Marsh Harbour, with great variety, and it’s reasonably priced for the Bahamas. A gallon of milk was $6 and bread was about $4 during my visit, but if you think that’s pricey, try buying those same items on Green Turtle Cay. Those same goods cost $8.40 and $6, respectively, in one of the small grocery stores, plus the VAT of 7.5 percent. You’re well advised to stock up on food before leaving the States.

As I moved farther west in the Abacos, I found the area becoming both less settled and more of what I look for while cruising. Hope Town was pristine and perfect, but lots of fly-ins and charter boats added to the crowd ashore. Marsh Harbour was considerably more commercial but had more cruisers anchored out in addition to a strong charter-boat presence.

Great Guana Cay (“It’s better in the Bahamas, but it’s gooder in Guana!” is its slogan) was totally covered in tourists, especially on Sunday for the weekly pig roast, when dozens of 20- to 30-foot boats roar into the harbor, complete with people drinking and dancing on the decks. New Plymouth, on Green Turtle Cay, was far less touristy and much more relaxed.

It sounds like I didn’t enjoy the Abacos, but that’s not the case. I did — very much so, in fact. They’re just different, and this coming winter, I plan on seeing those places I missed: Walker’s Cay and Treasure Cay, and places like Man O’ War Cay and Tahiti Beach.

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A tranquil evening settles over the anchorage off Great Guana Cay. It’s one of several popular destinations in the Abacos, the Bahamas’ northern islands that lie across the Gulf Stream, directly east of several Florida ports, making them a relatively easy-to-reach destination from Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Biscayne Bay.Onne van der Wal

With that in mind, I’ve now made a plan, something to help me through the coming bleak months. I’ll be traveling south with the Sail to the Sun ICW Rally to Miami in late fall. From there, I’ll return to Fort Lauderdale and cross over to West End, a 62-nautical-mile run. Then I’ll dawdle my way through the Abacos and jump down to explore Eleuthera, something I’ve been promising myself I’d do for years.

From Eleuthera, it’s a short trip down to the Exumas, where I’ll island-hop down to George Town. Then it’s on to the Jumentos, a completely uncivilized, unpopulated and beautiful group of islands.

In other words, it’ll be the best of all worlds, a cruiser’s smorgasbord of anchorages, oceans, beautiful beaches and glorious sunsets. But meanwhile, here I am in early summer at West End, stealing one day more to enjoy this warm-weather paradise and its amazing beauty as friends on Facebook try to convince me to turn back east.

I wish I were brave enough to do a Moitessier and answer the call of my soul rather than that of commerce. But I will return. The islands will welcome me again, and the starfish will still be here, waiting.

Canadian snowbird and wanderer Wally Moran leads the Sail to the Sun ICW Rally, which departs Chesapeake Bay for Florida each fall. You can read his musings about the Bahamas and other travels at www.bloggingtheicw.blogspot.com.