One of the big carrots that have been dangling before us, ever since we left Charlevoix in September, is the chance to cross over the Gulf Stream to the Abaco Islands, and soak up some of the warm, tropical sun while letting the cool island breezes caress our bodies and soothe our minds. We first saw this group of islands as we flew over them while returning from a cruise-ship vacation four years ago. The shallow turquoise water and white sand caught our attention and, as we always do when we see an interesting water destination spot, we fantasized about what it would be like to visit these islands on our own boat. Well we were fortunate enough to make that dream a reality on our first Loop, and even now we’re feeling that excitement all over again as we put our plan into motion and return for a longer stay this time around.
The Abacos are an archipelago within the Bahamas Out Islands, located a short 69 miles from the Port Everglades Inlet, in Fort Lauderdale, to the West End of Grand Bahama Island. Great Abaco Island and Little Abaco are on the “mainland” and a string of barrier islands, which include Great Guana Cay, Green Turtle and Elbow Cays, line the Atlantic side. In the middle of these islands is the Sea of Abaco. The water is warm, calm, crystal clear with a sandy shallow bottom, and a well-protected body of water, which makes this area paradise for boaters. The population of these islands is about 13,000 and the capital is Marsh Harbour. The ethnic make up is about half black and half white.
Planning a trip to the Abacos by boat requires a little bit of forethought in timing the crossing to a good weather window. This planning is of utmost importance so that you don’t find yourself in a situation to which you’d rather not be subjected. Provisioning is another concern, and it can take some time to remember all the things you may not want to do without during your stay. It’s much less expensive to provision before you enter the Bahamas, unless it’s rum or fresh fish you need. Communications with the world you left behind can be complicated and requires some thought and commitment to doing without or accepting the added expense required to maintain the level of access you currently enjoy.
Although this part of our trip has always been in the back of our minds, and some rough planning had been sketched out as far as time and places, the real focus began as we neared the end of our stay on Stock Island near Key West. Jim began in earnest to research marinas in the southern part of the islands, looking for which ones had the best deals and the most to offer in terms of facilities, access to town, and availability. Our plan is to take six to eight weeks to meander down the Sea of Abaco, returning to some favorite spots while exploring some places we missed the last time through.
When we get to Hopetown we want to find a place to stay for a month and take advantage of a lower monthly rate most marinas offer. We figure we’ll use this marina as a base to take some side trips. It’s important to us to be in an area that offers some interest and culture. We’re going off-season, the busy season doesn’t really start until April, so availability is not much of a concern. We enjoy visiting places off-season with less tourist traffic, marinas that are not full, and the weather is milder and more consistently middle of the road in February and March – not too hot, not too cold. Just right.
We decided on a marina on Elbow Cay, just a few miles south of Hopetown, called Sea Spray Marina. We’d visited this marina during our last trip to Hopetown and we knew it would be an excellent location with access to golf-cart trips into town during the day. Marsh Harbour and Lubbers Quarters are only a short dinghy ride away, along with excellent snorkeling and lobster hunting spots nearby. It’s also close to a beautiful beach on the ocean side and has a very nice freshwater pool for cooling off.
Once the process of securing dockage for a month was completed, our thoughts turned to provisioning the boat with the seemingly endless list of wants and needs. It turned out that this was not as easy a task this time mostly because we were in the Keys for the whole month of January. When doing a major provisioning task, our favorite place is a Sam’s Club because of the bulk pricing and familiarity with their goods. While docked in Sarasota back in December, we checked on locations of Sam’s Clubs and discovered that Sarasota would be our last opportunity. So when we were there and had access to a rental car, due to picking our son up from the airport, we visited Sam’s with a list consisting mostly of non-perishables as it was way too early to get much else. So most of our actual work began in the Keys. We had to borrow a car from a friend a couple of times to get to the store as our predominant mode of transportation in January was by bus. In the end we also decided that we actually paid a premium for the groceries we bought as everything is a little more expensive in the Keys.
Jim and I have vastly differing opinions on what we should stock in the pantry to cover a time period of 6-8 weeks. This is more in my realm, as I’m the provisioner and cook, so Jim hung in there with me as I kept thinking of just a few more things we needed all the way up the keys to Fort Lauderdale. We remember that in the Bahamas food choices were limited, that the meat, mostly frozen, looked odd, and that most items were just plain expensive. We planned to stock all the paper products we could, including lots of paper plates, because washing dishes uses a lot of water, which you have to pay for in the Bahamas, and we figured we’d save time and money by mostly using paper plates and bowls. We bought all the soap products we would use in this time period, and added a couple cases of bottled water, which we normally don’t consume. We filled the freezer with meat and poultry. The provisioning process took a long time and because we were delayed over a week due to weather, I had to restock as we went along because Jim kept eating what I’d bought.
Communications while in the Bahamas is something to think about. We decided to turn our phones off, pull the batteries out and suspend the service. We’ll only activate them in case of an emergency because of the high expense. We also turned off our Verizon Internet card. Many people use Skype to communicate with family and friends. It’s free for simple video calls and is a great tool if you have Internet available. We just don’t care if we have this technology all the time while in the Bahamas. We sent out an email to family and close friends explaining that we turned our phones off for the duration of our stay in this area and provided them with emergency contact information at places we knew we’d be staying at for any length of time. We’ll still have sporadic Wi-Fi Internet service when it presents itself and that’s fine with us. We’ll work with this situation rather than pay a premium price for the convenience. We’re here to soak up the experience and sometimes you just have to get rid of some excess baggage.
At the same time as the provisioning began, we started to keep an eye on the weather patterns so we’d have a better knowledge about the current situation. We left Stock Island on the second day in February to head up to Marathon for a night. Our plan was to inch our way up the Keys while watching the weather as we traveled. We either speeded up or slowed down depending on how the weather was shaping up.
Well, as you all know, sometimes plan A becomes plan B. Shortly after we made it to Marathon, in unfavorable seas, we had a series of nasty storms followed by a long cold front so we ended up having to stay in Marathon for a whole week before the weather shifted favorably again. When we resumed our move north, up the Keys, we stopped at Tavernier, Key Largo and Boca Chita Island. Once in the mainland waters we headed to Fort Lauderdale, through Biscayne Bay and Miami, where we would sit until the ideal day to cross over to the West End presented itself to us.
We were looking forward to using Fort Lauderdale as our waiting spot and enjoyed a fun couple of days with our Looper friends Charlie and Linda on Freedom’s Turn; they’re also our “buddy boat” for the crossing. We also met up with some friends from home, Scott and Angie, who just happened to be visiting the area on our Plan B delay day to leave Fort Lauderdale (Plan A was to leave on Thursday but as nighttime approached the winds shifted and it started to look like north winds for Thursday instead of the expected Southeast).
You should never make a crossing with winds from any part of the north quadrant. North winds converging against the northern flowing Gulf Stream create large waves and large waves make boating dangerous. When making a crossing, wait until, at minimum, 24 hours have passed with no north winds and then have winds preferably from the south at 10 knots or less. When going to the Abacos you never want to go during anything with north winds in it. It’s an important rule to remember if you want a pleasant and uneventful cruise.
As I write this, we’re more than half way across the Gulf Stream. We are pleased with ourselves for successfully predicting the right day to cross, as the seas began with rolling waves but not choppy, and smoothed out to a very gentle roll half way across. The water has changed from a dark greenish blue to a deep indigo blue. At 2,300 feet it’s unusually bright, but still a dark-blue color with streaks of turquoise running through. We also began to see the marine life we so often enjoy, including several schools of tiny flying fish with wings that jump and fly over the water in unison like a flock of busy hummingbirds. We also saw a few dolphins and a couple of Portuguese man-of-war jellyfish.
We’re looking forward to everything about the Abacos. The contrast of the rusty colored starfish against the turquoise water and bright swirly sand, the nurse sharks swimming below our dinghy, stingrays hovering just below the water and the friendly laughter and music of the locals who add their own flavor to the Bahamas spectrum. We feel blessed to be returning to this island oasis that once we discovered from far above and increasingly we feel that our time here was meant to be and as we always love to say… It’s Kismet.