Sailing The Great Bahama Bank

Have you ever dreamt of an infinite underwater desert?

 

Have you ever seen in your sleep the bottom of the sea stretching for miles and miles beneath you, abandoned, all life gone someplace else, only you floating like a sleepy butterfly with your white wings spread just a few feet above it, always in the center of a vast blue circle formed around you by the unbroken horizon, for miles and miles, for hours and hours; and even at night under the sad cold light of the full moon you still see the underneath, this time not a flooded desert of sand but of snow (because the moon does this trick especially in dreams), for miles and miles?

Yes?

You had a Bahamian dream.

.

.

You dreamt you were sailing across the Great Bahama Bank, this unique vast stretch of sand submerged in just a few feet of crystal turquoise waters, which explains the origin of the region’s name: Bahamas-Baja Mar-Shallow Sea.

The Great Bahama Bank in the west portion of the Bahamas stretches for more than 300 miles from north to southeast and 100 miles across from west to east, some 30,000 square miles of shallow tropical sea. The depths here vary from 6 to 30 feet and the water is so clear, so transparent, many times when you look down you doubt it is there at all. As if you are hovering in the air above sand dunes.

We sail from Bimini to the Berry Islands, some 80 miles to the east, across the great Bahama Bank starting around four in the afternoon. All night the winds are from south-southeast, light, and the full moon is out to watch over us. We sail on a close reach doing 6 to 7 knots, a couple of long tacks. Early the next morning we approach the first Berry Islands and cays.

The dawn reveals a strange view: a gathering of giants, silent, dreamy, floating in the sea. It is a cruise ship anchorage, here the giants sleep.  Fata Morgana gently, very quietly, passes between them, not to disturb their slumber. How big they are, completely deserted ghost towns. Where have all the people gone? One wakes up, makes a grand unhurried turn and heads east to Nassau. Another arrives with the same royal movement, and becomes still. We sail on.

.

.

Half an hour later we arrive in Great Harbor, Berry Islands and drop anchor in a broad bay in front of a spectacular white-sand beach.

Share

Bimini, Gateway to the Bahamas

Beach, North Bimini

Beach, North Bimini, Bahamas

 

The Bahamas is truly a fascinating place. It is a country made of water, ancient lava, and sand. Of its 470,000 km2 of territory less than 5% is land: a chain of over 700 bizarre-shaped flat tropical islands and cays.

Bimini, the closest island to the United States mainland only 40 miles east of Miami, is our gateway to the Bahamas. We drop anchor in front of Big Game marina and clear customs and immigration in under one hour. None of the Bahamian officials has any intention of inspecting the boat; it is only a question of filling a few forms and paying the entry fee of $320 (even though it is printed $300 on the receipt).

We spend two days walking around South Bimini and visiting Alice Town on North Bimini.

Bahamian lizard

Bahamian lizard

In the Bahamas we were expecting to find luxurious hotels and resorts, crowds of vacationing tourists, and Johnny Depp chilling on the beach. Instead, we find ourselves in a sleepy settlement of a few hundred inhabitants surrounded by vast sandbanks, its small houses with boarded windows painted pale blue yellow and pink, the cars driving on the wrong side of the narrow streets without sidewalks.

Bimini Big Game Club

Bimini Big Game Club

There are about five or six shops in Alice Town of which four sell alcohol, a church, a school, a bank, and a little dark library, totally abandoned, with piles of wet books lying all over the place, the librarian is nowhere to be found.

Bimini library

Bimini library

Hardly any other tourists but us are to be seen walking around and the locals all smile and say hi, how are you. They look chill, and slowly, without pressure, decorate the town for the Christmas festival which begins at noon.

A small stage with huge speakers on both sides is being installed in front of the church. Across the street, on a vast green loan, a trampoline for the kids and tables where women sell homemade delicacies out of pans and pots are already set. Grilled fish, rice and beans, fried chicken, ox tail in tomato sauce: everything 10 dollars. Men are standing by in the shades sipping beers, waiting for the music to begin. There will be a live performance organized by the school and later, when the sun goes down in the Gulf Stream, everyone will dance and have fun.

Stage for the Christmas festival

Stage for the Christmas festival

We like this place. After almost a month of intense work on the boat we switch into a chill mode.

South Bimini beach and anchorage.  The boat anchored in the distance is Fata Morgana

South Bimini beach and anchorage.
The boat anchored in the distance is Fata Morgana

 

Ivo and a Bahamian friend talking about life on Mars in the little boat crossing from South to North Bimini

Ivo and a Bahamian friend talking about life on Mars in the little boat crossing from South to North Bimini

 

.

.

 

 

Old house destroyed by storm, Alice Town, Bimini

Old house destroyed by storm, Alice Town, Bimini

 

 

Share

On Anchors and Chains

On Monday, December 9, we are ready to lift anchor and sail away from the Key West anchorage direction Bahamas. But the anchor is not coming out. Something is holding it. We are pulling in every direction but it’s no use. Ivo puts on his snorkeling gear and dives to investigate. There are about 26 feet of murky water below the keels. Turns out the chain is all tangled in ropes from the crab traps. Commercial fishermen this time of the year put their crab traps, wooden crates with a hole for the crabs to crawl in, everywhere in the shallow waters of the Florida Keys, even in anchorages. Here the traps are in a succession one after another on a long rope going all around the place without floaties on top; impossible to know where the rope and the traps are.

Thus, we are firmly attached to a messy ball of chain, rope and traps. It is too deep and the current is too strong for Ivo to dive down, cut the ropes and untangle the heavy chain without diving gear. He tries to dive down with the hose that we use to collect water holding one end in his mouth to breathe but it doesn’t work. Finally, he attaches a rope to the chain as far down as he can and slowly pulls it with the winch. This works. It takes us three hours to bring the ball of tangled chain with a crab trap stuck to it close to the surface. Ivo cuts the ropes and Fata Morgana is finally free, although the anchor and chain come out in a mess.

.

.

All those hours of diving, pulling, dragging, and fighting with chain and ropes, no one from the neighboring boats comes to offer any help. During the entire operation I often look around in desperation to see if someone will come to the rescue. I see people on the boats anchored around us sitting in their cockpits, slowly sipping drinks, watching the reality show. Some use binoculars for better view. The thought to come over and help doesn’t even cross their minds. Makes me angry.

In every other country we have been to: Bulgaria, Cuba, Mexico, Guatemala, there would be a bunch of strangers showing up with whatever inadequate ideas and tools, trying to help, for free, but not in America. In America, people do not intervene. They are thought not to act but to report. If you witness something suspicious, call the police. If someone gets injured do not try to help, call the ambulance. Call the insurance company, call the fire department, call a professional, call an official, call your lawyer. That is why in America most people don’t help each other anymore; neighbors become estranged and the very word community has lost its meaning. That is also why they die in their own houses after a storm, waiting for someone whose job is to save people to come and save them. Ultimately, this imposed mentality of non-intervention and relying on some designated professional in case of anything out of the ordinary trains an entire nation in subordination to the government and officials. If there is a conflict, national or international, it is not the people’s business, but the government’s, even if the government’s actions are wrong. And this is wrong. People need to think and act for themselves more, and help each other the best they can. Do-It-Yourself, or even better: Do-It-Together, as a good friend of mine likes to say.

We manage to pull out the chain and the anchor thanks to Ivo’s ingenuity and strong back. Almost at the end of the operation a guy comes from his boat standing up in his dinghy like a savior. He says:

“I have been watching you for the past few hours and figured you have a problem. I have diving gear and can offer you my professional services if you need to hire a diver.”

No, thanks, we already solved the problem ourselves.

Ivo bringing up the chain with a crab trap on it

Ivo bringing up the chain with a crab trap on it

Next, we sail north-northeast direction Key Largo keeping close to shore. After 24 hours, near Alligator Reef, as we are about to tack and begin the crossing of the Gulf Stream, the coastguard’s grey-and-red boat quickly catches up with us. Two coastguards board Fata Morgana for a routine inspection. They check the registration of the boat, look in all bilge spaces under the floors, and in the two engine rooms. They don’t check our passports, immigration and customs papers, and cruising permit, which is a good thing. They ask if we have guns or any illegal things on board. I am not exactly sure if all the stuff we brought from Cuba: two bottles of Havana Club, a bag full of cigars and another bag with condoms, are legal or not so I say no.

“And what is that type of soda drinks, I…don’t seem to recognize it?” asks one of the guys staring at the cases of Brahva stacked up in one of the engine rooms.

“Oh, this is Guatemalan beer, the cheapest beer you can find”, I say with a guilty smile. But they are not impressed.

“Have a safe trip.”

And we are good to go. No irregularities found.

Next day we drop anchor in The Bahamas, making sure there are no crab traps around.

Ivo, happy, with 10 cases of Brahva, El Estor, Guatemala

Ivo, happy, with 10 cases of Brahva, El Estor, Guatemala

Share

Solar Power Rangers

 

Viktor and Ivo installing solar panels.

Viktor and Ivo installing solar panels.

 

We sailed back to Florida all the way from Guatemala, braving currents and winds, risking our lives, in pursuit of one thing and one thing only: energy. Turned out we need more solar panels and more batteries in order to produce enough electricity for the fridge, lights and ventilators,  watermaker, electrical heads, and electronics without using the engines or a generator (which we don’t have anyway), or any other fuel-consuming machine. It also turned out, that outside of the United States everything is a lot more expensive if you find it at all. So here we are, back in Key West, installing solar panels.

Our fridge, which has two compartments: one is a fridge and the other a freezer with two cold plates, is the biggest consumer of electricity on board; it draws somewhere between 8 and 10 amps per hour (Ah).

The electronics: GPS, autopilot, radar, sonar, wind vane, AIS, and VHF radio take roughly somewhere between 10 and 15 Ah when in use while sailing. When at anchor, they are tuned off.

The lights: salon, cabin, anchor, cockpit, and deck lights are all LED and consume very little electricity, using one tenth the power of conventional lighting. For example, the anchor light will take 3 amps, not per hour but for the entire night.

Our watermaker, Catalina MK II, takes 16 Ah producing 16 gallons of water per hour, 1 amp-1 gallon. But we use it very rarely, as we also collect rainwater every time it rains through an extremely efficient system Ivo came up with: two hoses attached to the hard top (the roof of the boat) run down to the water tanks. When it rains hard all night, we fill up the two tanks: 220 gallons of pure rainwater. But when it doesn’t rain for a while, then we turn on the watermaker which we bought and installed ourselves. This is a fun little contraption that takes the salty water from the sea and separate’s the liquid from everything else thus producing pure drinkable freshwater without any salts and minerals in it.

Maya collecting rainwater in a bucket. When we want to fill up the water tanks we plug hoses to the opening on the hard top.

Maya collecting rainwater in a bucket. When we want to fill up the water tanks we plug hoses to the opening on the hard top.

The electrical heads, two of them, which we installed first thing after we came back from Guatemala replacing the old regular ones, consume 16 Ah (but of course, we don’t use them constantly).

The air conditioning system which came with the boat went in the garbage with all its bulky tubes and insulations as soon as we moved in. ACs on boats need lots of electricity and the people who use them are usually those who stay plugged at the marinas and pay marina and electricity bills. We are not such people. Except in Havana Cuba where we had no choice, we have never stayed at a marina; always at anchor. And when it gets too hot, we turn on the small ventilators which consume 0.5 Ah, or jump in the water.

When we bought the boat she came with two solar panels 170 watts and 3 AGM house batteries 300 Ah. Initially, we bought and installed 3 more Kyocera solar panels, adding 750 watts, and we replaced the 3 AGM batteries with 10 deep cycle led acid batteries 6V, 370 Ah. Thus, when we started cruising, we were producing almost enough electricity for our needs, but had to be very cautious about it, constantly monitoring the amperage in the battery bank. What’s more, after two or three overcast days and when sailing and using all the electronics, we had to turn off the fridge or we risked the battery bank dropping below 50%.

Now, we solved our electricity shortage problem by buying two more humongous solar panels, 320 watts each, and replacing the 10 deep cycle batteries with four lithium batteries, all together  700 Ah. Total of 7 solar panels: 1390 watts of pure solar energy. That should be enough! Seen from above, Fata Morgana looks like a solar panel field floating in the sea. With so many panels, we produce electricity even at night, when the full moon illuminates the liquid world around us.

Fata Morgana from above

Fata Morgana from above

We got the new panels from eMarine Systems located in Miami Florida. They specialize in alternative energy systems and have some of the most competitive prices on the market. After spending much time answering our questions and helping us take the right decision as to which panels, how many to buy, and how to install them, Bob Everhard the sales manager of eMarine Systems, agreed also to become one of our sponsors by giving us a bit of a discount from the price. Thank you, Bob, for supporting our journey and our goals: to achieve self-sufficiency, to travel without polluting the environment, to live off the grid entirely.

A BIG thank you goes also to Balqon and their staff for all the patience and professional service in dealing with us; corresponding with Ivo via E-mail over a thousand times, answering all his questions. These are the guys who have the best and the cheapest lithium batteries in this part of the world.

And finally, we would not be able to do so much work on the boat in so little time without the help of the guys at the new West Maine store in Key West. Thank you all!

Next stop: Bahamas!

Share

Waters of Chaos

This is the story of how we almost died one night when the sea was not there anymore, but a black raging mass of liquid walls and howling winds; when the whole world had disappeared and our small boat left all alone in the entire universe was doomed. This is the story of how we passed Neptune’s first test on our way to becoming sailors.

 

 

.

.

After two months in Guatemala, we begin a long passage north, 500 miles from Rio Dulce back to Key West Florida, where we planned to do some work and improvements on our 38-feet 2001 Leopard catamaran Fata Morgana. We start in rainy weather with unstable north winds and high seas in the Gulf of Honduras.

The very first day two of the blocks, old and rusty, which hold the boom attached to the traveler break. Ivo uses a rope to tie the boom immobilizing it in the center of the boat. This causes the mainsail to rip off from the base where it is attached to the boom, about two feet. We reef it to the first reef and thus we are able to sail. From now on, for two weeks and a half, we sail with a crippled main and a boom stuck in a central position.

For the next 17 days and nights, the wind is always coming from the direction where we want to go: north-northeast. The good thing about it is that we don’t have to play with the boom much. The bad part is that we have to tack constantly climbing against the wind at a very slow speed, thus covering at least three times the distance.

Many cruisers turn on the engines in such situations in order to go faster motorsailing. Not us. We never use the engines. If there is no wind, we wait. If there is little wind, we drift slowly. If the wind is too much, we reef. We drop anchor and lift anchor under sail most of the time. The two engines on our boat are for emergency situations only, and this is not an emergency situation. Yet. This is just a part of it, part of sailing.

It takes us a week to get to Isla Mujeres Mexico as we make the big mistake of choosing the Belize Inner Channel instead of the offshore route. The current in the 100-mile long channel running between the shore of Belize and the barrier reef is going south, flowing against us like a river, robbing us of at least 2-3 knots. The waves, 4-5 feet coming at an angle from northeast, are stopping us some more. Add to this not one but two mean winds, one northwest descending from the Belize mountains, and one northeast pushing from the sea, and try to sail between them, going north, tacking a hundred times per day with a reefed main and no engine! Not fun.

Our progress is between 1 and 3 miles per hour. We cover about 20-30 miles per day and anchor at night. Being able to stop and get some rest at night is the sole reward we get for sailing in the channel, but it’s not worth it.

After three days of this struggle we are finally out of the channel and sail for three more days and nights nonstop to Isla Mujeres. The plan is to anchor there and get some rest, a day or two, stock up on provisions, check the weather forecast, and cross to Key West: 300 miles northeast of Isla, where the current of the Yucatan Channel and the Gulfstream merge.

In the morning on the seventh day of sailing, we arrive in the familiar anchorage in Isla Mujeres in front of El Milagro Marina, exhausted, but happy we made it. The day is beautiful. We plan to go shopping first thing after we check our E-mails, and then we can sleep all night; sleep like babies.

While the rest of us are checking E-mails, Ivo is checking the weather.

“Strong north winds and big waves are coming soon,“ he announces, „we can’t sail directly to Florida. The best thing would be to sail east to Cabo San Antonio, Cuba, then to Havana, and cross the Gulfstream from there, the same way we came. But we have to go now, immediately, before the weather hits, or wait here for a week or who knows how long. We only have a few-hours window, we have to hurry up, let’s go!”

I take a look at the forecast and maps on the PassageWeather website. “Let’s wait. It doesn’t look too good. What if we cannot make it inside your ‘few-hours window’ and we hit a storm? I am not doing this! Haven’t you learned yet? In sailing the most important thing is waiting. Waiting for good weather. A week, a month, doesn’t matter, we wait here!”

We start a huge fight, like always, and the kids interfere. Both Viktor and Maya want to get to Key West as soon as possible; they don’t want to wait. Three against one.

We lift anchor one hour after we dropped it, without setting foot on land, without shopping or getting any rest, and we begin the 100 miles passage east-northeast across the Yucatan Cannel, trying to run in front of bad weather with a mainsail that doesn’t work quite well. There is your classic recipe for disaster.

Twenty miles offshore, the north winds pick up. The sky becomes thick with dark clouds and the first squall hits, rain and all. We reef the main to the second reef and the jib, and ride it out, 40-knot winds. It pushes us south. All night we fight with three more of these squalls. No one sleeps, we wait for the day. The day comes but it doesn’t look good. The north wind doesn’t drop below 25 knots. The powerful Yucatan current is flowing north, against the wind. When you have a strong current and strong wind in opposite directions, you get enormous waves, taller than the boat, from the direction of the wind. Not long, slow, sleek waves, but sharp, quick, confused ones. These are the worst possible conditions, and small crafts should not go out in the middle of such a mess.

Ivo is at the helm hand-steering since more than 30 hours and we are still in the middle of nowhere. We get pushed south after each squall and coming back north is impossible. We are so much off course, we start looking at the charts to see if we can go somewhere else, south, but there is nothing south of Cuba.

As the second night of this passage approaches, the north winds pick up even more reaching 30-35 knots, steady. We are now begging for those 20-25 knot winds which terrified us in the beginning. With the enormous waves charging at us, and the boat heading off course in a direction where there is no land any time soon, it becomes one of these ‘emergency situations’ when the engine is your only hope. We bring down the sails, turn on the two motors and abandon the boat in the hands of the autopilot, direction Cuba.

It’s only the beginning of the night; only the beginning of our worst nightmare. We find ourselves between two worlds: the above and the below, the air and the water, the living and the dead.

The world above has become a black rampaging monster. The monster is facing us with its cold mouth gaping wide open, and deep from its infinite entrails comes a powerful endless roar. Its breath is loaded with the screams of thousand flying witches, his fury is sublime. Thus is the wind.

The world below has gone mad too. All the underwater invisibles have gathered below the surface of the sea around our boat and are restlessly pushing and pulling us, throwing walls at us: a bizarre sadistic game. Each wall is the last. Will the boat go through it? Will it pass? Or will it turn over? That’s it! This time we won’t make it. How about this one? And the next? We have loads and loads of these, even worst, even bigger, coming from everywhere. Thus are the waves.

 Viktor, Maya, and I sit in the cockpit, protected from the outside hell by the thin plastic enclosure. Our lifejackets are stowed away in the starboard engine room, not accessible under the present conditions. So if the boat turns over and sinks we will find ourselves floating in the middle of the sea without lifejackets, in the dark. I promise myself that from now on, if we survive this, the lifejackets will always be close to us when sailing. Viktor has a whistle hanging on his neck, a submergible flashlight, and a knife. Maya is armed with another flashlight and the flare gun. I am holding the submergible VHF radio and a glowing stick. We count: Nine more hours of darkness. Eight and a half more hours of darkness. The time is slowing down, stopping, going backwards, laughing at us. The night is here to stay.

Ivo is out on the deck holding on to the rigging, screaming at the world above and the world below, losing it:

“Why, Night, why? I can’t see anything! I can’t do anything! That’s enough! Stop! There is nothing I can do; I don’t see! I hate you Night; how can I fight if I see nothing, if I’m blind? This is not fair. I am sorry. I didn’t know… I don’t see, I see nothing…” His hopeless howls are terrifying us more than the storm.

Maya is crying. “Mum, let’s call someone on the VHF, let’s ask for help. Let’s call!”

“There is no one around us, there is no one to call, we are all alone,“ I cry back. „Plus, we are not sinking yet, so we have no reason to call for help.”

We can only call nearby vessels on the VHF radio, we don’t have a satellite phone (we don’t have any phone), and there are no vessels near by. We have never been more alone, more abandoned.

We are also beyond exhaustion, especially Ivo who has broken all records for staying awake up on his feet, night after night after night.

“You deserve it,“ I yell at him, „but we don’t!”

The port engine suddenly stops. We are left with only the starboard engine, but the boat keeps going. The boat, our Fata Morgana, keeps going, against the wind, against the waves, against all odds: she takes it. She is like a brick house, they told us, heavy and stable. Such are the Leopard catamarans built in 2001, you will see when you hit bad weather.

Sometime after midnight on the third night, Ivo falls asleep in the cockpit. Viktor and I take turns at the helm, although we do nothing, just sit there and stare at the GPS and the wind-speed indicator. Wind is still the same. The autopilot is navigating and the starboard engine is slowly pushing us towards Cuba. Twelve miles left. Six more hours of darkness. How many more waves?

By this time, we are beyond fear. You can only feel fear for so long. After some time, you just get used to it, accept your situation, prepare mentally for all the imaginable possibilities, for the worst, and ride it out. You kind of become numb. But you never stop hoping. We came so far, why not getting all the way to the shores of Cabo San Antonio? Why not getting to the shallow calm waters where our anchor can reach down and grab the sand? Can you imagine? Land, safety.

Then I fall asleep.

The next morning is the most beautiful perfect morning in our lives. Fata Morgana is anchored, gently swaying on top of crystal blue waters. I can see the bottom underneath. The shore is so close. We sit in the cockpit in silence and look at each other smiling. We breathe. We breathe as if it is the first time we are breathing in our lives, like if we are being born, but realizing it and enjoying it so much, big gulps of air, can’t get enough of it.

Share