Sailing Totem: Bahamas Cruising post-Dorian

Here’s what to know about cruising the Bahamas in 2020.

map of Abacos
Dorian trackBehan Gifford

In early September, hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas and became the most devastating natural disaster on record for the islands. Savage winds flipped boats, leveled homes, and traumatized an otherwise peaceful corner of this beautiful country. On the cusp of cruising season, the dramatic headlines put plans in flux for many. Here’s what to know about cruising the Bahamas in 2020.

The Bahamas are open! …mostly

First it’s important to know that overwhelmingly, the islands of the Bahamas are unaffected. Dorian’s impact was focused on the very north: Grand Bahama, and Abaco. Grand Bahama is officially open for tourism again; only Abaco is not. We spent three memorable months cruising through the Bahamas, and none of the miles we sailed were in the path of Dorian.

However, for many seasonal visitors, the Abacos are the Bahamas. While they’re not open for general tourism, the Abacos are an opportunity for the right boat/crew to contribute to recovery. Hopeful cruisers often say they want to give back through voluntourism or otherwise contributing to improving life in the communities they visit: this is your chance! If your seasonal path winds back to the USA, consider routing via Abaco.

Green Turtle Cay
Anjulia Sue‘s crew playing in the Green Turtle Cay shallows; January, 2020Matt/Bonnie Thornington

Who should go to impacted areas?

If you are self-sufficient, AND willing and able to help, by all means – sail to the Abacos! Volunteer workers are encouraged. However, relief organizations and the government tourism board are aligned that this area is not open to tourism. Services are minimal and as residents return, meeting local needs come first.

The first word we heard from post-Doran Abaco came from our friend Justin Smith, who charters his 72’ custom sloop, Kai, based from the USVI. He has deep ties to Abaco and when delivering Kai from the USA down to Bahamas the month after Dorian hit, turned his trip into a relief mission. Justin survived Irma and Maria on St John, USVI; his experience rebuilding informed the cargo he knew would be most needed in the near-term aftermath. Kai was loaded heavily with tarps, nails, roofing tar, paint, and tools.

What Justin experienced in October had sobering notes, but on balance was more encouraging: both for the resilience of island communities, and the opportunity for independent cruisers to safely come and lend a hand. Conditions varied by Cay and port, and recovery related to dock condition (the lifeblood of Bahamas commerce are the mail boats and barges bringing everything from diesel to toilet paper, and you can’t land one if the town dock is gone), yet conditions exceeded his expectations.

Be part of the recovery!

You don’t have to go to Abaco to help. Just being in the Bahamas and putting your funds into communities makes you part of the bigger solution for helping Bahamians. The economy benefits; pictures and messages sent home helps demonstrate that overwhelmingly, the islands are open for business to the wider world…encouraging instead of discouraging visitors. The bottom of this post includes a link to recommended relief organizations.

If you can contribute to recovery by sailing to Abaco and offering services, it’s warmly welcomed. The need for this help is ongoing. Specialized skills such as plumbing, electrical, carpentry, roofing, mechanics or operation of heavy equipment are especially welcomed, but grunt labor is helpful too.

Man-O-War
The family aboard Sargo joining a cleanup crew in Man-O-War; December, 2019Jayme Lee

Contributing to recovery can be tremendously rewarding. The family on SV Anjulia Sue started cruising from Nova Scotia last spring; they arrived in Green Turtle Cay on New Years Eve. Bonnie related a few days ago that “we have been having probably the best time since starting cruising! It is all down to forming the relationships with fellow hard working and very well-meaning cruisers, and a community completely and utterly welcomes you and your help.”

Green Turtle Cay
Community mural unveiled this week at Green Turtle CayMatt/Bonnie Thornington

FAQs for cruisers on Dorian-hit areas

Plan ahead: try to connect with a locally-based person or organization in advance of arrival, so that 1) you can have guidance on what’s needed to bring, and 2) you can be clear on their need of your aid. Even volunteers can be overburdening to communities.

Clearance: Most boats headed to Abaco to help are clearing in at Cooperstown. You’re still on a tourist visa, and this port has grown accustomed to managing duty-free importing of relief goods; Grand Bahama (or Bimini) are options too.

Power: electricity is still widely unavailable in Abaco, with generators on shore; this presents obvious complications on everything that electricity is helpful for from powering pumps for fuel or water to keeping things cold that need it to avoid spoilage.

Fresh water: varies, but largely you must be self-sustaining; no problem for boats with watermakers.

Water hazards: Yes, there’s sunken debris in the water in some places, but remember this is the Bahamas. Gin clear water, if there’s a hazard – you can almost certainly see it.

Security: It’s safe. Justin wondered as he arrived in October with Kai if there might be issues, and was extra watchful. Taking safe entrance into a back side anchorage in the weeks after the storm, he admitted twinges of fear, which heightened when a boat came running straight towards him. As he mentally prepared a plan, the boat passed by with a greeting waved from the helmsman, who proceeded to anchor and dive over and to look for conch. OK then!

Phone/internet: coverage is widely available, with some variation based on US carrier roaming plans.

Attitude: you may see some things that are upsetting; be prepared and don’t overreact. Bring positivity and a forward-looking view. If you arrive saying – “hey, I have some stuff and I can donate some time. What can I do to help?” – you’ll never regret it.

Boat kids
Boat kids from SV Sargo help make coleslaw for a community barbecue at Man-O-WarBehan Gifford

Avoid being a burden

Anyone traveling to Dorian-impacted islands should expect to be completely self-sufficient. For most cruisers, that’s a natural inclination, and just means a little extra planning. You might be able to get water, fuel, and other supplies – but just because they are there, doesn’t mean you should avail yourself; locals need these scarce resources too. It’s always incumbent on us to be good guests in the countries we visit; there and now, the importance is heightened.

Not being a burden means sensitivity to feelings of people you meet, too. The trauma of surviving a hurricane like Dorian is unimaginable for most of us. Asking someone about their survival experience – no matter how well intentioned –may only cause them further pain. Don’t assume anyone wishes to engage on this topic! Let them bring it up, or leave it off the table.

Justin survived the two 2017 hurricanes on St John, and speaks from experience when he says “being emotional or apologetic only brings it back; it may even invite animosity.”

USVI
Justin and friends arriving in USVI on Kai after bringing aid to the AbacosJustin Smith

A few destination details

Notes below for a couple popular destinations to help baseline, with links to local resources for the latest updates to help planners…accurate as I could glean on January 14, 2020. Updates welcomed in comments! Meanwhile, an excellent site for the latest on what’s open in Abaco is maintained at Little House by the Ferry’s website; her Little House page on Facebook is also a good resource.

Green Turtle Cay

Anjulia Sue’s crew has been here two weeks already and thrown their effort into the mix. “Restaurants and stores are open. The Green Turtle Cay Marina is opening officially March 1.” Meanwhile, moorings are in place; check in with Donny’s/Brendal’s for availability and logistical questions.

Reports are the marina has already begun selling fuel and water, basic provisions aren’t hard to acquire on shore (Sid’s grocery is open!), and trash service is available. The morning VHF net helps organize volunteers, and cruisers potluck weekly.

Man-O-War

One of the families we’ve worked with as coaching clients has roots here; the Lee family arrived in November on their boat, Sargo, and left only recently. “It’s NOT a vacation,” says Jayme Lee. Demolition to clear houses and buildings that aren’t recoverable, roofing to protect those that are; a lot of manual labor. “That doesn’t mean you don’t get to go swimming and enjoy nice weather sometimes and have fun,” she adds. Her kids are helping, too, from clearing debris to cooking meals for the community.

Man-O-War harbor
Sargo’s orange mast stands out in Man-O-War harbor; December, 2019.Jayme Lee

There are grocery and hardware stores open. The generous team at Watermission is steadily pumping out fresh RO for anyone who needs it – including cruisers who are there to help. An excellent contact before coming here is Beth Browne: she’s a powerhouse of organization, coordinate volunteers and groups. She reported there are currently moorings available, but they are limited in number and prioritized to volunteers. Those with mechanical skills, carpentry, electrical, or plumbing are given priority. Beth underscored Jayme’s comment that while tasks are varied, “all require physical labor and some stamina.” Full time volunteers even get fed at the Hibiscus cafe! Across the water, Marsh Harbor was hardest hit, but even there provisions are available.

Research before you go!

These local-based outlets are good sources of information.

Aid groups making a difference

These NGOs need a shoutout for their exemplary response in the Bahamas. If you would like to assist from afar, consider a donation.

Fundraisers and other disaster relief organizations changing lives for the better:

Team Otter

Our friend captain Judy Hildebrand, has been bringing supplies to Grand Bahama for distribution. She’s bringing a boatload on each run and getting ready for her 6th (7th? I’m losing count!) trip. Personal ties to her beloved Abacos mean she’s been able to source specific things to fill needs. She’s got some stories! “The best, for me anyway, was a freezer for a woman who has a generator to run it while living in her tent with the kitten she refused to abandon during the storm while in water to her neck! The freezer kept cold drinks for the kids in her tent city during hot weeks.“

loading up supplies
Judy loading up supplies from a truck, and sailing home later with a Sands Pink from West End friendsJudy Hildebrand

Later this month, Judy’s heading back to Abaco on Otter with supplies to teach residents how to build their own solar stills to make fresh water, among other things. “What we do is a drop in the bucket but it feels right and with enough drops the bucket will eventually be full.” If you’d like to help her fill the bucket, contact Judy directly.

Thanks to Justin Smith, Matt & Bonnie Thornington, Jayme Lee, and especially Man-O-War resident Beth Browne for helping provide local insights; see also Beth’s article in Cruising World.