Training (and relaxing) in the Exumas

The Freedman family has been busy over the last 3 weeks or so, learning a lot about operating our trawler, and getting to know one of the most wonderful cruising grounds in the world -- the Exuma islands of the Bahamas. Truly, I don't think I could have asked for a better training ground.

The narrow West mooring field at Warderick Wells

Why is it so good here? Let me give a list:

Shallow water -- Moving between destinations here means moving among waters that are in the 10 to 20 feet range for miles at a time. Paying attention to the depth sounder is a must, as is correlating its readings to the charts. "Reading the water" is also important, since there are coral heads, sand bars that move, and other hazards including shifting currents. The water here is very clear, so one can develop the habits of a lifetime, while still being able to actually see the bottom. No doubt, it will become somewhat harder to read the water when it is opaque as it is in most cruising grounds. But there's simply no alternative to water-reading here, so it's a good place to learn how to do it.

Shallow water (part II) -- There are many interesting places to go here, where the water is either impassable or barely passable at low tide. We went into the beautiful Compass Cay Marina at low tide, for example, and while we have yet to run aground, we did calculate that at one point we had less than a foot of water beneath us. Needless to say, this sharpens one's focus tremendously. Even though Sea Spirit's running gear (propellor and rudder) is fully protected by her substantial keel, we'd prefer not to kiss the bottom. Why did we go at low tide rather than high tide? The days we wanted to be at Compass were days when the high tides fell right at dawn and dusk, and the channel into the marina has substantial currents at anything other than "slack tide" (see below). Our only options were to go at low tide, or not to go at all. In our case, we chose to go, and went very slowly! In fairness to the marina, the days we were there were the days of that "super moon" (where the moon was the closest to the Earth that it ever gets to be), and tides were about a foot more extreme than normal.

Here's a photo of the kids feeding the resident nurse sharks at Compass Cay marina. At high tide, there is one dock that is submerged -- the dock with the fish cutting table at the end of it. Every marina has a fish cutting table, but not every one is submerged at high tide. At this one, the nurse sharks come and shimmy on top of the dock, nestle up to your feet, and await being fed (and petted)!

Nurse sharks being fed at Compass Cay Marina

There is another important point about the shallowness of the water in the Bahamas. Sea Spirit's draft (the amount that the lowest part of the boat sticks down below the water line) is specified as 4' 11", which we simply round to five feet. This puts the boat squarely in the middle of the pack for boats of her length, with planing fast-boats having less, and some heavy-keeled sailboats having more. We took note of a beautiful Nordhavn 55 in the area, whose draft was 6' 6". While her owners were just as happy to be aboard that boat as we were to be aboard Sea Spirit, the fact of the matter is that there are places Sea Spirit could go that she could not. While too little draft is probably an indication of a boat not intended for rough seas, too much draft is a problem at times too. In many respects, having too much draft probably just affects one's timing more than anything. That Nordhavn would have had no problem getting into Compass Cay Marina, just not on the day we went in. A couple of days later, she could have chosen a high tide that occurred during the daylight hours, and would have been fine.

Current, and current reversals -- Virtually all of the interesting places to go involve getting in and out of some sort of cut. A "cut" is simply a space between islands, where the ocean can and does flow through, providing passage for vessels who want to cross from one side to another. However, depending on the topography, these cuts can be benign or treacherous, involving significant currents, turbulence, shallows, and so on. This makes for great training.

Pick how high you want the waves to be -- At least in the Exuma Islands, which run Northwest to Southeast starting from just Southeast of Nassau, it is possible to go on the "inside" or the "outside" when moving from point to point. The "outside" means going down the East side, where one is exposed to prevailing Northeasterly winds that seem to often be in the 10 to 15 knot range, and pick up seas from 2 to 6 feet (with 3 to 4 feet being what we've mostly seen). But for a more leisurely ride in those prevailing winds, simply stick to the "inside", which is the West side of the island chain, where the islands themselves serve as a giant breakwater to flatten out the waves. We've been in our dinghy in a flat calm, only to run across a "cut" between islands where the waves can sneak through. In a matter of moments, we were in very choppy and windy seas. Then, once past the cut, it's back to flat calm. The downside of traveling on the "inside" is that it is very shallow, with 20 feet being a rare depth to achieve, and 10 to 12 being more common. Once again, this brings one back to reading the water (not to mention the charts and the depth finder) -- very good for training.

It doesn't get much more peaceful than this

Learn a lot from other boaters -- The Bahamas are clearly a boating paradise, and many people come here year after year after year. There are many "snowbirds" from northerly latitudes, who spend months at a time in places where we spent a few days. These people know every nook and cranny, every worthwhile place to visit, and every lurking danger. Learning the environment from these fine people has been our pleasure.

Learn a lot from other boaters (part II) -- We've seen some very interesting "reality" shows unfold before us, with each episode carrying some sort of lesson that we try to learn. For example:

- We saw an elderly gentleman fall off his dinghy while adjusting his mooring lines. As he fell overboard, he somehow put the boat into gear and the boat careened off at full throttle. The dinghy proceeded to go in erratic circles while we and a couple of other boats got our dinghies into the water. A pair of seasoned pros from another boat performed what appeared to be a very dangerous procedure, and matched circles with the wild dinghy, ultimately getting "inside" its turning circle. From there, one of them was able to use an oar to knock the boat to idle, and then out of gear. The rogue dinghy had fortunately not hit its owner, but on one of its circles it did run at full speed into the side of its owner's trawler. The front of the dinghy was destroyed and deflated, but it still kept going round and round in circles at full speed. Thank goodness it never ran over its owner, which would have been a tragedy. The owner had swum around his trawler to the swim step to climb back aboard, and literally moments earlier had swum right past the point where the dinghy hit the trawler. His trawler was aluminum, and had a huge dent in it, but was not holed. Lessons learned: When alone in the dinghy, the "kill" switch must be attached to the driver, not the key (as ours is usually); turn off the dinghy when not sitting at the wheel. After it was neutered by the other two sailors, we helped bring the now-useless dinghy back to its owner, who was keen to get it back aboard before it sank. Probably due to the adrenalin and excitement, the dinghy-raising procedure was haphazard. For those of us who helped out, we encouraged the owner to slow down, take a half hour off, return to the task after calming down, but of course there is only so much one can do when talking to an owner on his own boat. The final lesson learned from this was that there really should be no hurry to do things once the boat is secure.

Thankfully, neither the operator nor the rescuers were injured

- We saw many couples do a stellar job of communicating with each other while docking, but many others who didn't. Those who didn't seemed to end up bashing the dock with their yachts a lot more than those who communicated well. Aboard Sea Spirit, we have the "Eartec" brand of two-way radios, and use them while docking and anchoring. They allow my wife and I to both speak and listen at the same time, without pushing any buttons at all. This leaves our hands completely free for operating the boat's controls and dealing with tying up the boat. But it was interesting to watch other couples scream and yell, or worse, say nothing, as things unraveled dockside. Many couples did a great job even without the headsets. Somehow, their yelling was much briefer but more frequent, and seemed to convey information to the driver ahead of when it was needed. For others, the information seemed more like "whoa, Whoa, WHOA!", as the boat bounced off a piling.

- One gentleman accidentally hit our boat with his 23' fishing boat. Fortunately, the damage to Sea Spirit was virtually nonexistent -- just a couple of chips in the paint -- and his boat was not damaged either. But what happened is that he put the boat into reverse thinking that all his lines had been cast loose, when in fact one line remained attached to the dock. Once the slack on that line ran out, the boat pivoted around it, causing the incident. His comment, and our lesson, is to "never put the boat in gear until my wife says we are free".

- One morning, one of the trawlers moored next to ours awoke to find its tender missing. Whether it was stolen or just floated away is unclear. But it was very distressing to the owner. By and large, we put our dinghy up atop Sea Spirit when anchoring or mooring. We have this down to about 10 minutes total, so it's really no big deal. We are fortunate to have a hydraulic davit that has its own electric pump. This means we can run the davit without running the boat's main engine -- many other boats use the main engine to provide hydraulic power for the davit. So, our raisings and lowerings are very silent and peaceful.

Good fishing -- Jasper, our 10 year old, was nicknamed "The Fish Slayer" by the captain of our very first cruise (aboard M/V Due North, a Nordhavn 40 based in Vancouver, Canada -- highly recommended). True to form, he and his mum have been catching mahi mahi (very tasty), grouper (very tasty), and barracuda (may be tasty, but can carry Ciguatera toxin, so we don't eat them) left right and center. For example, the same fellow whose boat chipped a bit of Sea Spirit's paint (see above) took us out for some fishing in his Grady White. In two hours, here are the results -- 6 mahi mahi. The whole marina ate fish that night.

Even his sister was impressed!

Being close to the US, while still being somewhere very exotic
-- Twice now, we've sent our training captain home to Fort Lauderdale. Once it was because of a broken tooth, the second time for a few days off around her birthday. Doing this from Nassau or from various places in the Exumas is very easy. Each time, she brought back spare parts and supplies, which was also easy.

No language barrier -- English is the language of the Bahamas, eliminating language as a barrier (at least for us).

No currency issues -- The Bahamian dollar is pegged 1 for 1 with the US dollar. Both currencies are used interchangeably here. Paying for things in US dollars is universally accepted.

Anchorages, mooring fields, and marinas, Oh My! --In our case, we have focused mostly on marinas, since I needed to learn close quarters maneuvering and docking/undocking in current/wind situations. But if I had wanted to practice anchoring or mooring, there are plenty of places to do that too, with any combination of conditions that one might want to seek. And, they are so close together, yet all so different. On the days when we move the boat, we've been traveling 5 to 20 miles, which takes from less than an hour up to about 3 hours (including docking/undocking). This is a very leisurely pace, yet every destination is unique in its own ways. Some are quiet and remote (Highbourne Cay, Shroud Cay, Little Farmer's Cay), some are lively and perhaps even too populated (Staniel Cay), and some are in between (Warderick Wells, Compass Cay, Sampson Cay). But they are all close, and it is possible to back up to a previous location without feeling that one is going very far the wrong way. We did this once when the wind became unfavorable for the anchorage we'd chosen.

Friendly people -- I'm sure there are unfriendly Bahamians, but we haven't met one yet.

Great snorkeling and diving -- We have enjoyed wonderful snorkeling and diving opportunities mere moments away from where we have been docked or anchored. Sometimes, as in this photo, it was possible to snorkel right off the dock in the marina!

No need to bring the dinghy down - just snorkel off the dock!

Stunningly beautiful scenery -- I'm not quite sure how to convey this best. Perhaps a picture.

The view from the office

How about Sea Spirit? I am very happy to report that Sea Spirit has completely settled down, with only the most minor of issues cropping up from time to time. Naturally, I have a "to do" list for the boat, but it has been gradually diminishing in size as items get picked off one at a time. In truth, the boat has been a perfect host, with no new surprises recently. Of course, this could all change tomorrow, but I am getting the feeling that there has been enough "shaking" on this "shakedown cruise", and that the boat is in very good shape. I know that might not make for the most exciting reading, but there you have it.

It's not about the boat -- As you know from reading this blog, I have spent a LOT of time dealing with perfectly normal new boat issues since last August. Some of these have included selecting navigation equipment, dinghies, watermakers, Internet systems, and so on. Others have included making improvements to the boat in a few areas, and then equipping it for living purposes (furniture, housewares, and so on). Around the time we started cruising, I was madly busy learning the boat's systems, and discovering various "boat secrets" that needed to be taken into account (all boats have secrets). However, the last 3 or 4 weeks, I have been doing none of that. Instead, Sea Spirit has become a silent partner, a provider of wonderful circumstances, always there, always faithful, always reliable. She has carried us in comfort and style, and asked very little of us in return. In many respects, it is true to say that the last several weeks have been not about the boat, but about the cruising grounds we have traveled. In this way, I feel the last month has been a wonderful experience, and all the preparation that led to it has been a complete success. 

Final note -- Even though we started out this season thinking we'd go all the way through to the Pacific (and we will at some point), the reality is that our experiences in the Bahamas have been so wonderful that we are in no hurry to press forward south. Mid-April, we will return to Fort Lauderdale and then fly home to Honolulu. We will return to Sea Spirit for some summer and fall cruising, possibly up the East coast, and possibly back to the Bahamas. There is a slim chance that we'll ship the boat on a freighter to the Pacific Northwest, but we have made no final decisions yet. We do know that we have grown to love the slowness of cruising 10 to 30 miles in a day, and then spending a few days in a new and interesting place. This is quite different from what we imagined, which was moving 100 miles or so every few days. Cruising has slowed us down, and we're better off for it. Sure, there will be occasional long runs, but in the mean time, we are enjoying the slow life with short runs very much! We have run Sea Spirit in 7 to 9 foot seas, and our captain has been aboard a sister ship that was in very rough 25 foot confused seas. We are absolutely confident in the capabilities of Sea Spirit, but are in no hurry to make "roughing it" a part of our daily routine. So, for us, for now, we look at Sea Spirit as an exceedingly comfortable and forgiving platform upon which we can explore interesting nooks and crannies up and down the coast. From here, we continue South to George Town, where we pick up my parents for a visit, and a trip up through the Exumas to Nassau. Ocean crossing can wait for a while.

No need to get the dinghy down -- snorkel off the dock in some places


Dan: Great blog!!!! I wish I was there. -Ken Williams

 unknown  3/29/2011


It looks like you all are having such a fabulous time and learning so much too! I'm impressed by the shark-petting. I know nurse sharks are pretty docile - but still, quite impressive :) Thanks for sharing it with us!

 Stephanie  3/29/2011


Good read, and nice photos! I'm looking forward to following your blog.

 Dave Gibson  3/29/2011


Dan, Quick technical Question. Is there a reason that your Blog is formatted to extreme right justified. It makes it hard to read at times IMHO. Either way it is a great read, I really appreciate the honesty in truly getting used to "living the dream".

 Grant T  3/30/2011


What a great entry. Very Happy things are settling down for you and your family and you are getting to really enjoy the boat. As a side note, I do not have the text right justified issue when I read your entries or the entries by others. Safe flight back home..

 Mark V  3/30/2011


Grant - I'm not sure what you are seeing on your screen. The text doesn't show up right justified on any of the computers we have here. Is it possible for you to try looking at it from another computer, or perhaps another browser? I know that sometimes, browser settings can get into a weird state, and web sites can look strange as a result. However, if you are referring to the strip of photograph down the left side of the page, that's just a facet of the page layout that I chose. As you make your browser window wider or narrower, you'll see more or less of the photograph. Dan

 Dan Freedman  3/30/2011


Sounds positively idyllic! Still waiting for spring to happen here at home.... Your section on lessons learned was interesting. It is tempting to think that operating a boat is like driving a car but it just ain't so. I nearly ended up as a fender when docking on one occasion. Then there was the message we heard over the VHF radio during Chester Race Week last year: someone was reporting a speedboat cruising around with no one on board - I gather that was a merry chase although I never did get the end of that story. When it comes to boating safety I'm not far short of paranoid, which will doubtless not surprise you one bit :-) Love to all.

 Boob  3/31/2011

Winter 2011: Training from Lauderdale to Georgetown and back!