A Royal Place
January 29, 2004
The most direct route from the Abacos, in the northern Bahamas, to the Exumas, in the southern Bahamas, is to leave the shelter of the Sea of Abaco and head south in the open Atlantic to Northeast Providence Channel, between Great Abaco Island and Eleuthera Island. Northeast Providence Channel is the deep water route leading directly to Nassau (on New Providence Island). Mid-distance on the way to Nassau, you'll encounter Fleeming Channel leading to the southeast, providing access across shallow Middle Ground to Exuma Sound. Many cruisers opt to visit Nassau before heading off to the relatively remote Exuma islands, and pass right by Fleeming Channel in their haste to hit the duty free shops and well stocked supermarkets of Bahamas' principal city. Falling prey to the big city lights, however, means you'll have to backtrack against the prevailing winds and cross the reef strewn Yellow Bank to reach the Exumas. For us it's not a tough choice. We usually spare our pocketbooks and give Nassau a miss.
Royal Island is located on the south side of Northeast Providence Channel about eighteen miles northeast of the junction with Fleeming Channel. It makes a convenient stop, whether you're bound directly to the Exumas or intending to take the detour to Nassau. But for some cruisers, Royal is more than a temporary way station, it's a destination all of its own. Whenever we've visited the island, there are a few boats who have been hanging there for weeks -- and for good reasons. It's one of our favourite anchorages.
Most cruisers heading for Royal from the Abacos leave from the southern limit of the Sea of Abaco, near Little Harbour; it's a trip of almost 60 miles, doable during daylight hours if conditions are co-operative. Unfortunately, "Little Gidding" is no speed demon in light winds, which means if the conditions were NOT co-operative, we'd have to motor to make the distance before nightfall. David hates motoring. Last year, instead of leaving at dawn like everyone else making the jump, we left at dusk. "We'll make our landfall at first light," David predicted, "and won't have to worry about being too slow and having to start the engine."
Of course, it goes without saying that we had great wind and arrived off Egg Reef, a couple of miles north of Royal Island, at four in the morning. As a general rule, we don't enter harbours in the dark, even ones we know well. We definitely do not enter harbours in the dark when there's an intervening reef in the way. Eileen turned to David, "Well, Perfect Passage Planner, do we wait here until daylight or continue onwards?" Our schedule wasn't going to permit us to stay for long anyway -- and the sailing conditions were as good as they get -- so we continued on to Fleeming Channel and beyond.
This year we revised our strategy. We didn't want to miss Royal again. Last Friday, instead of leaving from Little Harbour, we stayed further north in the Sea of Abaco and exited via Man O'War Channel, adding twenty miles to the offshore trip. We enjoyed a nice broad reach under moderate northwesterlies and arrived off Egg Reef around 10 AM.
Royal is a skinny island about three and a half miles long. On the middle of the south side is an almost landlocked harbour providing all weather protection. Entering the harbour through a narrow but deep cut, we noted the concrete dock immediately in front of us on the harbour's north shore. Behind the dock, a flag mast and the roofs of buildings poked out from among the trees. If this had been our first visit to the island, we probably would have concluded that we had just arrived at a marina and resort complex. In fact, a decade ago the Royal Island Yacht Club maintained 40-odd rental moorings in the harbour and provided minimal services like water and propane refills. The buildings, however, were mostly abandoned even then, and predated the short-lived marina operation by half a century. When we first visited Royal in 1999, some of the moorings remained -- available for use at your own risk -- but everything on shore was deserted and derelict.
The history of the Bahamas is replete with examples of failed settlements and bankrupt development schemes, beginning in 1648 with the arrival of the ill-fated Eleuthera Adventurers, a group of English Puritans who piled their ship on the aptly named Devil's Backbone, only a half dozen miles east of Royal Island (the 157 shipwreck victims ended up living for two years in caves on the northern tip of Eleuthera Island before eventually settling in what is now Spanish Wells and Harbour Island). Our January 15th entry ("Phantom Vacation") described the modern day ruins of a doomed cruise ship resort in the Abacos. Royal Island falls firmly within this dubious tradition of Bahamian business failures.
The island was initially purchased in the 1930's and developed as a plantation by a well heeled Floridian. Even today, enough of the architectural detailing, impressive stone block construction, and intricate tile work remain to suggest the developer spared no expense. Concrete roads and walkways extend through the bush; overgrown stone walls define abandoned gardens. In addition to the substantial dock on the main harbour, there's a manmade basin for small boats on the north side of the island. Water cisterns are still semi-functional; a PVC water pipe conveniently extends down to the harbour dock.
The ruined buildings are now nowhere near to being habitable, but the complex isn't as trashed as you would expect after being abandoned for a generation. The cruising community deserves much of the credit for keeping the structures reasonably free from vandalism and litter. Cruisers value the place; the buildings overlooking the dock are a favourite location for potluck get-togethers. Hand lettered signs admonish visitors to treat the ruins with respect and not leave garbage behind. It seems that most people comply.
When we dropped the anchor in Royal Island harbour Saturday morning we didn't think we'd be staying long. However, the wind promptly shifted to the south during the course of the day. "Not good for sailing to the Exumas," David said. "But these are ideal conditions for snorkelling on Egg Reef. It's time to get some fresh fish and lobster."
Sunday morning, David loaded the inflatable dinghy with his snorkelling equipment and an extra container of gas and headed out for the reef. It was pretty rough along the south coast of the island with the wind and the waves, unimpeded, on the beam. As soon as he rounded the western tip of the island and headed into its lee, the water smoothed out, as expected. A mile north of Royal Island, there was only a gentle ocean swell; David could easily identify dark coral patches in the calm, clear water. He dropped the dinghy's anchor in the sand next to a large cluster of coral heads and donned his snorkel and fins. He looked around for his spear and discovered that on the bouncy ride out it had got itself wedged against one of pontoons. He worked it free. Something went "psssssst".
When David got back to the boat, Eileen said, "You're back early. You must have had good luck." Then she looked down at the dinghy. The port pontoon was deflated and David was sitting halfway in the water.
"Yeah," David replied, "I speared the biggest thing yet -- nine feet long. Unfortunately, it's not edible. Too rubbery."
David hauled the dinghy on to the foredeck and put a patch on the hole. We decided it was a sign: we should stay longer at Royal Island, at least until the glue cures. Not a problem; we're happy to make up for last year's miss.