Tuesday, January 21, 2014

It really is Better in the Bahamas

Most of us think of Nassau when we hear of someone travelling to the Bahamas, and a few people we know have gone on cruises through a few of the islands.  The Bahamas are actually an archipelago of thousands of islands covering over 700 miles.  Only 22 of these islands are inhabited which makes this country a sailor’s paradise.  Made up of tertiary limestone, the islands are low and flat and at first appear desert-like with wind-blown sand dunes in contrast to the volcanic up bursts of the lush, green Caribbean Islands to the south.  Geo-politically, The Bahamas are arranged in ten clusters, municipalities so to speak, with unique histories and ambiance.  Within those clusters, each island has a distinct character based on how it was settled and by whom.  While we revel in the history and anthropology of each cay, the water colours and textures are what catch our breath.  In her book An Embarrassment of Mangoes, Ann Vanderhoof describes her boat Receta at anchor:

Receta sits in liquid air off Allan’s Cay, casting a shadow on the sand beneath us.  The water is placid, soft, blazingly turquoise-a pool of melted gemstones that seduces us into forgetting the other days, when Receta was corralled at one cay or another, bucking in the waves.

We had planned to spend this year in the Bahamas and head back to the Caribbean next season.  We now realize that we will see a very small fraction of this vast country over the next few months.   We are in the Exumas, a group of over 365 islands that are mostly uninhabited.  They stretch over 120 miles from southeast of Nassau on New Providence Island to Grand Exuma Island.  The islands are called “Cays” from the ancient Arawak  (the first known people here) “cairi” meaning island.  It is pronounced “Kee”.    

Tomorrow we are heading back to Staniel Cay in our dance between Cays to ride out the parade of north blows that are hitting us every 4-5 days.  The Exuma Islands chain runs northwest to southeast, with some of the deepest parts of the Atlantic ocean to the east and the shallow, teal green Bahama Banks on the west side.  The Banks average 15 to 20 feet deep but provide very little protection from north or west winds.  Boats move about like chess pieces, trying to find little coves or bays during the choppy rides these systems bring.  Last week, a squall roared through in the middle of the night, bringing gusts of up to 35 knots whipping and howling over the water.  We held just fine, and are usually not too worried about staying put.  We do worry about the other boats around us and heard air horns and yelling on the radio as another boat in our anchorage dragged, narrowly missing its neighbour. 

The Bahamas thus far have delivered two very special and surprising guests.  The first was my sailing instructor and mentor, Valma Brenton who hails from Nanaimo, British Columbia.  Before we bought our boat, I took sailing lessons on my own from Valma, who is the founder of Herizen Life Adventures.  Valma’s patient and persistent coaching and instruction changed my perspective on the complexities of the sailing life.  I was delighted when her email popped up saying she was only a few miles away coaching a new catamaran owner through the boat’s shakedown cruise.  It was a thrill to show Valma our Alberta Crewed.

The second surprise was to anchor next to our sister Antares, Leap of Faith.  This boat was the first Antares we had stepped on to, and we decided then back in 2007 to put a deposit down on a new one.  The owners at the time generously showed us around the boat and we loved the design so much that we even ordered the same colours.  The current owners, Susan and Craig (how fitting!) have been patient with our excitement of seeing her again, and those in the harbour here I’m sure are doing double takes with the almost identical Antares boats anchored next to one another.  

So it looks like Alberta Crewed and Leap of Faith will make a strategic move from Great Guana Cay back to Big Major Spot, home of the famous swimming pigs and Thunderball Grotto (from the James Bond movie, Thunderball) but more urgent for us, surrounded in the north and north west by a few small islands that can hold some of the swells from the Banks at bay.  Blow away, you northerlies.  Like kids in Red Rover, we are ready and holding tight.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

To Lock or Not to Lock

My view from the laundromat.  Alberta Crewed is the last boat on the left. 
We are anchored in a quiet bay on the north end of Great Guana Cay in the Exumas Bahamas.  It is just 5 miles from Staniel Cay harbour that is lined with dozens of +100 foot power yachts, and several +200 footers with accompanying run about boats that are larger that Alberta Crewed.   Great Guana is filled with our folk, the sailors.

Before our anchor had the chance to set Craig declared, “I really love this place.  I might not leave.”  He continued this mantra as we explored Black Point, the village in our bay, which is not unlike others we have explored in the past.  It has one paved road running parallel to the bay, a few low-roofed houses, a small school, a grocery store with a few canned goods and lots of cabbages, two small bars where locals and sailors mingle, and Lorraine’s Restaurant where we can get her mother’s coconut bread.  Bread in general is hard to find and these tasty loaves are infamous. 

Although we have enjoyed every destination over the past four seasons on our boat, this is one of a few we are inexplicably drawn to.  It has a peaceful energy and we have since come to know some of the people who live here.  We had a delicious New Years’ Eve buffet dinner Lorraine had cooked for the sailing community.  Her children and young grandchildren sat with us and visited as we enjoyed some musical entertainment.  They smiled and welcomed us in spite of our noisy and sometimes obnoxious North American customs.

When arriving to a new place, a dilemma we encounter is whether or not to lock up the dinghy.  We cruisers zoom noisily around harbours in our little grey pontoon boats leaving wakes that can rock dishes off shelves, stir up bottoms and break corals, and scar and injure wildlife.  Most people we know are careful not to ride with such carelessness but we have seen more than a few scarred manatees, dolphins, and sea stars.

As we tied up our dinghy to the dock for the first time last Monday, I eyed our lock.  We use it because we are fearful of strangers.  We think they will rob us of our precious dinghies.  How do the residents feel when we arrive?  We are strangers to them.  How do they know we are not here to rob them?  We arrive daily to these islands dumping our garbage, using their precious power and water, and relying on their supply ships for food.  If a cruiser is robbed (which is extremely rare) or there is even a rumor of a violation, the bay empties out and the community loses a primary source of revenue.   In Trinidad, there were a couple of dinghy thefts and the local business people hired private security to try to keep cruisers from fleeing.  These are small businesses with very little profit margins.

So what do we do about the lock to the dock?  It is only one small symbol of the bigger need to observe and listen, and tread as softly as we can when we arrive as the Stranger.  These islands have long histories of invasions from the sea.  I prefer to be the curious kind who may humbly learn about another way to live.  I cannot leave a place better than I found it because my presence of privilege already impacts life here.  We at least try not to make it worse and instead watch and listen for local conventions and practices.  There are places we avoid not because they are unsafe but because they are the private spaces of people who live here.  Sometimes we are invited into homes, which we gladly and gratefully accept.   I picked up several loaves of Lorraine’s mom’s bread right from her kitchen and we chatted at length about our families and life on the island.  As I left, she told me how she bakes the bread with with love.  Her kindness will be carried on Alberta Crewed for several delicious weeks.

As for the dinghy, we didn’t lock it.   I think we’re safe. 

A squall passing at sunset.