Winter in The Bahamas

Having spent the summer and fall in Tampa Bay (catch up here), it was time to get moving on our late start to the season. It was now early December, and with Omicron heating up, we knew border restrictions would be increasing and so we wanted to get to The Bahamas as quickly as we could.

But a serious lack of wind was causing waves of fog to cover Tampa Bay and the west coast of Florida all morning for days on end. Eventually, we just had to go for it and carefully navigate in the heavy fog. This means going very slow, using radar to identify channel markers and other vessels, and sounding (and listening for) fog signals on a horn. We were covered in fog all the way to the Sunshine Skyway bridge, then managed to get out of the bay under clear skies, before being enveloped in fog yet again on the west coast in the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Nonetheless we otherwise uneventfully overnighted direct from Tampa Bay to Key West. 

Mishema scouting the horizon between patches of fog
Our online proctored COVID test in action

We approached Key West about mid day and, negotiating the thousands of crab pots, passed right on through and turned up the Hawk Channel and went another 20 miles or so and pulled into Loggerhead Key just at last light to rest for the night. We were pretty tired as the sloppy seas, fog navigation and crab pot dodging had kept us at attention more than a typical near coastal passage. But, before bed we had to take COVID tests (using a proctored home kit) and complete some pretty long and complicated Customs and Immigration forms for The Bahamas. We finally got it all done and passed out hard!

We were not looking forward to the next morning, but we had to make progress or be pinned down in Florida for another week. Mid-morning we started motoring up the Hawk Channel straight into 15 knots of wind while dodging crab pots hiding behind the waves. It was pretty unenjoyable and hand steering was necessary. Late in the afternoon we hopped over the reef and into the deep water of the Straits of Florida and the Gulf Stream where there would be no crab pots. By sundown the wind and seas were beginning to calm as we also made progress north. Overnight it got downright calm and all we had to do was keep tabs on all the cruise ships and commercial traffic as we slowly came across the Gulf Stream and pointed our bows to Freeport. You can’t miss their flashy, blinding lights that shine for quite a distance – a perk for navigating at night.

Sun setting in the Gulf Stream
All smiles as our destination approaches

The next morning we had passed Bimini and we closed on Freeport around noon. We were headed to Bradford Marine in Freeport Harbor where the cargo ships and cruise ships dock and offload. We had to call on the radio to request permission to enter, which was granted after Port Control confirmed there were no large ships entering or exiting, then proceeded to our slip where the security guard welcomed us (it being a Sunday he was the only person in the yard). He called for Customs and Immigration who came right to our boat at no charge and cleared us in. In 4 days we had gone from Tampa Bay to Freeport, a total of 425nm with a brief stop to sleep half way.

The next day the project manager at Bradford Marine, Steve, came by the boat to make a plan with us. We hauled out Galatea the following day, rented a rental, and checked into a hotel. Technically we could have stayed on the boat in the yard, but without a water and power hook up, we’d be scrambling to the not-nearly-close-enough Marina bathrooms too often for comfort, and for more than a week living off dried, packaged food. We opted to treat ourselves instead with a nice hotel room. While on the hard, we completely replaced our rudder bearing system which had corroded and seized over the last 15 years (for the DIY nerds, here’s a link to Frank’s video explaining that miserable process), serviced our props and sail drives, installed a forward looking sonar, and had the yard paint the bottom. By doing most of the work ourselves we saved on the order of $10,000. But it was messy and sweaty and having a nice hotel room to go back to made all the difference!

Galatea in the slings
Happy 80th Birthday Joe!

Another highlight of Freeport is hanging out with the friends we have there. Rashema and Joe who work at Waterkeepers Bahamas along with Jensen, Andi, Fred, Ruth, and Javan made us feel so welcome and invited us to so many fun gatherings. The first was Joe’s surprise 80th birthday dinner which was such a special night (complete with an incredible Junkanoo rush out, amazing food and company)! Then there was the Waterkeepers Bahamas office Christmas party which was so much fun and featured some amazing home cooked food and games. On Christmas Day, Jensen invited us to join his family and friends on Xanadu Beach. It was really great to catch up with these old friends but sad to say goodbye (for now).

We worked on the boat in the yard every single day for two weeks, except for Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, which we took off. We enjoyed some great meals at the hotel, and at the Port Lucaya Marketplace down the road. We also explored the Lucayan National Park which was very cool! We video chatted with our families and watched all the Christmas movies we had (we have quite an impressive list). We’ve always managed to have a good time when we put Galatea on the hard and become yard dogs. It’s a good mix of hard work and play, and this time did not disappoint as we treated ourselves during the holidays with equal parts work and play.

Xanadu Beach Christmas Day crew with bottomless mimosas, silly accessories and mince pies
In the Lucayan National Park mangrove boardwalk
The cave at Lucayan National Park
What looks like a nice Bahamian beach front village is really just a cruise ship fantasy

As soon as the yard came back from Christmas break we splashed Galatea and luckily had a bit of weather to go two days later. We made for Cat Island. Our plan for the season is to spend it almost entirely in The Bahamas, but to get pretty far south in The Bahamas quickly, and then slowly work our way north. This is because the cold fronts are more vicious further north, while the waters are warmer and the weather more pleasant further south in the early months. The overnight passage of 215nm to Little San Sal or Half Moon Cay was uneventful and pleasant. Half Moon Cay is a beautiful beach but it is owned by a cruise line and so there are cruise ships there every day and we are not allowed to do anything on the island but walk on the beach.

From Half Moon Cay we set sail for a day hop down to the Bight of Cat Island. We were having a good sail but the gooseneck fitting at the mast was making some uncomfortable sounds, and after some investigation it was moving quite a bit. The rivets were quite simply wearing out. Unfortunately our rivet stock had been depleted during summer projects and not replenished! Luckily our sailmaker Dave Calvert who has a house on Cat Island happened to be in St. Pete so our friends at The Yacht Rigger gave him a bag of the right size rivets to bring back to Cat Island a few days later and problem solved! What luck!

We enjoyed a lunch on the beach with Dave, his wife, and some friends at the Old Bight fish fry. We also enjoyed a hike to the highest point in The Bahamas – a whooping 206 feet (great altitude training)! We met Elpis, with an Australian couple on board, with whom we made fast friends and enjoyed our first of many beach fires of the season. 

Some of the finest beach art we've seen!
Beach fires are our favorite evening entertainment!
A beautiful sunset at Cat Island
The Hermitage is located at the highest point in The Bahamas

The next week the rude winter weather pattern was set to start and we had no anchorage nearby with good protection. We went to Port Howe on the south coast of Cat Island, which is where Dave lives, and although it was beautiful and we had a lovely dinner with them, it was quite rolly and uncomfortable. Before we left Port Howe though we enjoyed a lovely lightening show … whose loveliness turned into terror as it starting moving our direction. We were spared but you can never be too careful! That night was sleepless as we kept tabs on the slow moving lightning storm. As soon as that nasty front passed, we were racing south to Long Island!

A lovely sunset at Dave's
Dean's Blue Hole on Long Island

At Long Island we set up camp at Thompson Bay in the town of Salt Pond, where we planned to wait for some parts to be sent it; little did we know just how slow Bahamian shipping is. Thompson Bay is a good anchorage with better than average wind and swell protection for The Bahamas. Plus, there’s a really good grocery, a phenomenal farmer’s market on the weekend, and a pretty good marine supply store. There’s a beach that’s not so bad, and a quaint restaurant and bar. There are also rental cars right at the dinghy dock so it is easy to go see all the many things Long Island has to offer. That’s good because we would end up waiting three weeks for packages to arrive, but we made the most of it! One of our favorite stops was Dean’s Blue Hole, the world’s second deepest. Freedivers come here to train and compete all the time. So far, we can only manage to dive about 30′ but continue practicing to improve!

At one of the many spots people claim Colombus discovered the New World
Max making his famous conch salad at Max's Conch Bar

After the first week we made a few friends on the boats La Vagabonde and Sea Wolf and we all became fast friends, playing on the beach, having dinners and sundowners together and watching movies on our projector. It was really nice to meet some people who were our age, like minded, and really fun to hang out with. After a week of hanging in Thompson Bay while the weather was a bit stiff, it was time to go separate ways. Sea Wolf needed to get back to Florida within the next three weeks. We cruised up the coast with Vagabonde a few more days, stopping at the seldom visited Morris Bay and then Calabash Bay, which we had been to once before in our first season cruising.

A lovely sail on the bank to Calabash
Sunset dinner in Calabash

At Calabash we toured the mangrove by dinghy, got a freediving lesson from our friend Riley, and had a few meals together before saying our goodbyes for now as they set sail west to the Exumas and we turned back for Thompson Bay to finally claim our packages. We also bumped into friends we made in Tampa Bay on Motu and made some new friends on Starry Horizons. When you find friends you really connect with while cruising you really have to live it up because you all know one day very soon you will go separate ways and not see each other for some while. These were all some really great friendships forged in a short time that we will be sure to maintain. Little did we know at the time that many of these friends were destined for the same islands we were eyeing next, so the “see-ya-laters” were more sweet than bitter in the end.

At this point it was mid February. Our next blog post will pick up as we head to one of the more remote group of islands in The Bahamas – The Jumentos and Raggeds! Stay tuned!

4 thoughts on “Winter in The Bahamas”

  1. Hi Frank, this is Jerry & Judy Chitwood. Debbie had forwarded this post to us and it was so interesting. Would you please put us on your email list? Thanks, Jerry & Judy

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