April 15, 2005
Separation At Mayaguana
By Bernadette Bernon
For us, though we didn’t know it then, our Bahamas experience would best be defined by our time at Samana Cay. I had a faint sense of this the day we pulled our anchor out of the island’s deep sand, that held us tight. We threaded our way out the narrow cut in the reef – now not quite as daunting as it was when we’d first arrived 10 days before, but a scary crawl nonetheless, especially when, in the middle of the cut, a cloud blocked the sun and eliminated our ability to see the coral heads below the surface.
As the well-defined shallows completely disappeared into a cloud-induce darkness, I inched Ithaka forward, one eye on the depth sounder, praying that the skies would clear again, and sunlight would reveal our path, but it didn’t. Our fathometer read 15 feet, then 10, then 9, and I felt my stomach tighten, wondering if we were headed for one of the gigantic Elkhorn coral formations I knew were only a few feet to our left and right. We draw 6 feet; suddenly there were only two feet beneath our keel. I’d snorkeled this cut a few times, and now relied on my memory of how things looked from underwater, how wide was the cut -- and of course our GPS track -- to twist and turn us the rest of the way through. It was a weak-kneed 10 minutes.
When we were free of the shallow coral reef, depths began dropping almost instantly to 20 feet, then 45, then 100, then off soundings– all within minutes as we headed toward open water. I looked back toward the island, and the cove where we’d weathered three powerful cold fronts; harvested numerous conch; rolled back and forth as the ocean swell gripped us for a few hours every day or so; hiked the interior; strolled the white beaches; snorkeled hither and yon in search of dinner; and kayaked all around the outer cays with their leeward turquoise shallows dappled with coral, and their windward ocean surge bashing against the forbidding limestone cliffs. For us, Samana epitomizes the best of the Bahamas.
Once outside the reef, we brought Ithaka to the west end of Samana, in anticipation of the 62-mile sail to Mayaguana the next day, and dropped the hook for an afternoon and evening nap in a shallow, rolly exposed anchorage called Columbus Bay – where some naval historians believe the great explorer rested his ships four centuries before. Our friends Ilana and Britt, on Windom, did the same. The two boats staged ourselves this way for two reasons: First, we needed to get out of that Samana cut during a period of sunshine from astern in order to see the reef. That’s why we left mid-day. Second, we needed to arrive in our next destination, Mayaguana, with good light behind us to pass through the reefs there, too. We estimate passage times based on speeds of five knots, and six knots. If we only made five knots, it would be a 12-hour trip, or more, and for that we figured it was best to leave no later than 2:00 a.m.. Columbus Bay, exposed as it was, had no reefs to smack into, and offered a clean get-away for a dark departure.
Just before 2:00 a.m., we turned on the deck lights, raised our mainsail, upped Ithaka’s anchor, and sailed out toward Mayaguana. Windom did the same. The wind was gentle through the night, and as dawn emerged on the eastern horizon – always a magical moment at sea – the breeze strengthened seriously. By 9:00 a.m., we had 25 knots from astern. Both boats poled out their genoas and flew along wing-and-wing, the main out to one side and the genny to the other. We made dazzling speeds—sometimes faster than 8 knots, and the miles between Samana and Mayaguana quickly slipped away.
It was a lot of fun traveling with Windom. Ilana and Britt always like to stretch themselves, and that was good for Douglas and me. Poling out the genoa was a good example; without our friends alongside, probably we’d have sailed under genoa alone – less work, and a tad slower. With Windom tearing along under both sails, the gauntlet was thrown down, and we wrestled our own whisker pole into position to hold out the genoa, and used preventer lines to hold out the boom on the opposite side of the boat. The result was that Ithaka’s speed, with her skirts held out, jumped two full knots!
Douglas and I have discovered in our cruising that we effect chameleon-like qualities. When we’re with energetic people who try things that ordinarily give us pause, we kick up our heels with the best of them – whether we’re talking sailing, risk-taking, exploring, or going out and about. When we’re with more conservative people, we probably play it safer and quieter than usual. Somewhere in between the two is where we most naturally find ourselves when we travel alone.
When you’ve been out cruising awhile, and meet like-minded people, you grab the chance to hang out together. Surprisingly enough, despite having cruising in common, you don’t find copasetic people every place you go. Just like any gathering of folks, you’ll find some people too loud, some people drinking too much, some people dolts, and some perfectly fabulous people who just won’t like you for whatever reason. So when you encounter another couple with whom you connect, you learn to change your plan, slow down, speed up, do whatever it takes to maximize and enjoy your time together. You learn quickly that it’s the relationships you make along the way – with locals and with other cruisers -- that are the crux of the cruising experience.
We had much in common with Britt and Ilana. We liked the same books and foods. We were on the same page philosophically. We all loved being in the water for hours, the excitement of spear fishing, and the beauty of the reefs. We liked packing picnics and walking all day. We liked to cook. We loved working on our underwater photography-- and Britt was proving to be quite a master at it. Many evenings, we’d gather on Windom or on Ithaka, compare our day’s newest pictures, and become inspired by what each of us had taken.
Britt is an engineer by training and has evolved a high-level consulting practice in on-line computer technologies. Most significantly, he’s a creative engineer, and Windom is a marvel of clever systems he’s put in place. The son of a game warden, he grew up on a ranch in Colorado, and his passion is the mountains. In cruising, he’s found much of the same sense of freedom he encounters as a mountaineer and rock climber.
“Britt never likes to turn around and go back the same way he came,” said Ilana one day as we bushwhacked our way through the scrubby interior of Samana, sweat pouring off us in the heat of mid-day, searching for a way over the crests of the hills. “He gets determined.”
Ilana is a meteorologist by profession, and an avid hiker and diver. She and Britt met when the two were competitive skiers. After working in their careers long enough to build up their savings, they bought a Caliber 40 LRC, named it Windom after one of the Colorado mountains they’d often summited, and set off to explore the Caribbean. They went through the Bahamas to the Dominican Republic, down the eastern Caribbean chain to Venezuela, over to Cartagena, up through the San Blas Islands of Panama, Honduras, Belize, and back to the United States.
“After four years of sailing, we craved the seasons, and being part of a community again,” said Ilana. They left Windom in an east-coast boatyard, bought a camper, and returned home, to Durango, Colorado, the long way, via visits throughout the US and Canada to friends they’d met along the way on their cruise. When they got home, they continued their consulting, continued their hiking, and, oh, Ilana ran her first marathon. Eventually, they began to talk about where they wanted to cruise next, and of all the places they’d visited during their four years out, it was the Bahamas that drew them back.
“We wanted to do a lot of spear fishing, and diving,” said Britt. “We wanted anchorages all to ourselves; great sailing; spectacular, clear water; and terrific coral beds. We wanted adventure and seclusion. It was all right here.” They came back for the season, with the idea that they’d spend their time in the less-traveled, more out-of-the-way islands. Luckily for us, that was exactly our plan too. Although we’d only planned to spend a few weeks racing through the Bahamas, being with Windom changed that.
None of us were drawn to the more traveled hives of Georgetown, or Staniel, or the Abacos or the Berries, where we knew people go, and stay, and never leave until hurricane season sweeps them north and home again. On the radio one day, we’d heard that there were almost 400 boats in Georgetown harbor in the Exumas, and another 200 expected there for the upcoming Family Island Regatta. The idea of being among so many other boats horrified us. That evening, over sundowners, we talked about how amazing it was that there were so many people clustered not all that far away from us, and yet our two boats were virtually alone everywhere we went.
We raised our glasses, and toasted how lucky all four of us were that we liked being one of two, instead of one of 400, and that we’d found each other to hang out with. Ilana and I had discovered that we shared a passion for the theater, and for writing. She writes a regular weather column for a Colorado newspaper, and so we both shared the joys and challenges of filing stories from the field. We both had websites. Indeed, Ilana’s website (http:Windom@netrack.net) is extraordinarily comprehensive. She writes with great style and energy of their adventures, what they spend every month, recommendations on where to go, what’s needed in a boat, and she wrote revealingly about the biggest challenges and joys of the cruising life. We had lots to talk about.
Douglas and I were savoring our time together with Windom because, after two months seeing each other anchored nearby in different variations of paradise, the days where we played together were drawing to a close. At Mayaguana, our destination after Samana, Ithaka would head south toward the Turks and Caicos and Jamaica, and Windom would head west to the Jumentos Islands, and in the early summer back to the States. The prospect of separating was distressing enough, and the lure of more Bahamas exploration attractive enough, that Douglas and I talked several times about changing our plans and staying in the Bahamas for the rest of the season. The Jumentos, after all, were a destination we’d also longed to see for ourselves. But, ultimately—and reluctantly—we decided we needed to move along so that we could get below the hurricane belt, to Panama, before hurricane season begins in earnest.
Because we scooted along so quickly, we made an easy and early landfall on the southwestern coast of Mayaguana, in Abraham Bay. We rested there in the lee of the big island and watched the wind die completely. Next morning, we upped anchor and on flat seas motored to the northwest point of the island, where the charts showed terrific-looking reefs that would only be available to us in the super-calm conditions. With Windom, this would be our last landfall together this season.
Northwest Point was a bony finger of limestone pointing out from the beach, and on it was a solitary lighthouse. The wind got lighter and lighter, and although there was a bit of a roll leftover from all the wind the day before, we anchored in the lee of the point, and felt our hook grab the same wonderful sand we’d felt everywhere we’d sailed in the Bahamas. Within the hour, we’d pulled on our wetsuits, jumped in the two dinghies, and set out to the reef to find some dinner.
The reef was alive and the fish were accessible in ways that are only evident in remote places where they don’t see too many folks looking to kill them with spears. Within the hour, Douglas nabbed two giant lobsters; Ilana bagged another, and there was enough meat for several dinners. Britt concentrated on photography, and I had had the rare excitement of seeing a spotted scorpion fish up close, and watching it transform itself before my eyes into what looked like a rock the size of a loaf of olive bread. After a few minutes went by, and he thought he was safe enough, I gasped within myself to watch my horny-looking fish open his wings -- as colorful as any butterfly’s -- and slowly swim off.
Windom and Ithaka stayed anchored together off Northwest Point for three days of swimming and hunting, and three peaceful nights. Then the forecast came, both welcome and dreaded at the same time – stronger southeast winds in the morning—perfect for Windom to head west to Dollar Harbor, and fine for us to return to Abraham’s Bay, where we’d wait for a window to head to the Turks & Caicos.
Before we shared our last dinner together, we each went through our boats to find those borrowed CDs and reference books and tools and odds and ends that had migrated back and forth over two months of traveling together. We copied down promised recipes, and addresses of people and places we’d recommended to one another – all part of the unhappy ritual of two boats who’d been together awhile struggling to say good-bye.
In mountain climbing, Britt and Ilana once told us, when things go very wrong, it’s called an epic. Living out in Colorado, there are lots of people who spend a great deal of time pulling themselves up sheer cliffs. Some climbers were always recounting harrowing epics they’ve lived through; Britt and Ilana work hard to avoid them. That night, over Lobster Roumaki followed by steamed lobster, we raised our glasses in a toast to the happy circumstance of meeting one another.
“Here’s to the journey ahead,” said Britt, raising his glass. “May it be epic-free.”
“And here’s to more Samanas, for us all,” said Douglas.
In the morning, we set sail. Behind us, Windom got smaller and smaller as Ithaka moved south and they moved west. These are friends who’d inspired us, who’d pushed out the walls of our season, who’d made us grow.