Ten days passed with us marooned at Andros Island. Leaving Honeymoon Island and making our way across the Great Bahama Bank was 73 miles worth of travel that took Joel, Sterling, Mancha, and I to Morgan’s Bluff. A tiny harbor and protected anchorage cove, where we seem to threaten taking up residency. The only structures on shore are a tiny pink government building, where boaters may check in and file papers with the lone attendant, and a bar, where cruisers and locals alike mingle for conversation, dominos, $3 beers, and most importantly, billiards.
Crossing The Bank was a fabulous experience as far as Chak’s engine was concerned. Never have I seen her run better than she did in those two days. The new alternator proved itself to be a game changer. We hummed right along motoring under full sail, completely transfixed by the wonder of the Great Bahama Bank. A shallow sea of aquamarine that reaches farther than the eyeball can stretch in every direction. We could see the sandy bottoms clearly, a vast underwater desert sporadically marked by plant and animal life. A bright tropical sun and fair winds accompanied us along the way as we played leapfrog with Sterling. Chuckling to ourselves as he would go for another pot of coffee. Abandoning the helm for minutes at a time, his yellow trimaran would spin wildly in any direction she chose. Mancha, his faithful and beloved companion, earns her keep many times over as a watchful guard dog but she hasnt quite mastered handling the wheel or brewing coffee. Amusing though we may have found Sterling’s plight, there’s no denying the reverent respect we felt for him and the humble appreciation we felt for having each other. Noting all along that single-handers are in a league of their own and Sterling, without autopilot or winches, is a true legend.
By noon on that first day of travel, I was actually quite worthless. Apparently still adapting to the tropical climate and relentless sun, I became dizzy and unnaturally fatigued. Luckily, things were going so well with Chak Joel didn’t need much help. He stayed at the helm the whole time. As darkness settled in, we dropped anchor right in the middle of the open Bank. After being on the move for 13 hours, we planned to finish the journey and reach Morgan’s Bluff by early afternoon of the next day.
That night I woke abruptly out of a fitful sleep. Less than a minute later I was kneeling over to hug the toilet, allowing my system to evacuate itself. It seems I even passed out for a minute or two while mid-retch, because I woke up still hugging the porcelain pot and covered head to toe in a cold sweat. Must’ve been some wicked sun poisoning. Or maybe a result from all the sea water I inhaled while learning to snorkel just the day before..
Intuitive though it may seem to some, I figured out the hard way you’re supposed to blow the saltwater OUT of the breathing-tube-thing after diving below the surface . . . I had actually been quite cautious at first. Having never snorkeled before, I swam near the top with just my face submerged. But I quickly gained confidence, watching with envy the ease with which Sterling moved around in the water. He dove down repeatedly and seemed to hold his breath for minutes at a time. Before long I was ready to follow his lead, quite anxious for a closer look at the bottoms. The rusted frame of a sunken boat hull was down below, where a couple stingrays played hide-and-seek. Joel and Sterling had been underwater this whole time and were making it look easy. Joel with the GoPro strapped to his face, capturing every moment, and Sterling with his tickle-stick in hand.
“Never grab for a lobster with your bare hand, you gotta use a tickle-stick or the eels will get ya. They bite down and they wrap their tail fast around a rock, holding you there til ya drown! More divers die by eels than sharks.”
I didn’t have a tickle-stick or anything, but I didn’t plan on grabbing at any hiding lobsters either.
Suddenly, Sterling appeared out of nowhere, 10 feet below me, on the other side of the rusty boat frame and in close pursuit of a stingray! Unable to resist, I seized my chance. Using flippered feet to shove myself down, I excitedly dove for a better look. It was so awesome. In another world, I was a fish with my vision perfectly clear and these fins strapped to my feet. I swam directly above the stingray, not close enough to touch but close enough to feel thrills crawl down my spine. By the time I was ready to come back up I was desperate for air, having stayed down below for as long as I possibly could. I headed for the surface and came up like a bobber. As soon as my face broke free my burning lungs expanded and I sucked in hard through the snorkel, ready to receive that sweet relief of oxygen.
What I got instead was nasty, briny water down my windpipe. Not what I bargained for. In an instant, I was hacking and coughing and choking up salt water. But I’m sure plenty still found it’s way into my system. Another lesson: either ask questions when you’re ignorant, or be prepared to learn the hard way.
Anyways, we made it to Morgan’s Bluff the next day no problem. Actually, that’s not true. We’d been running Chak’s engine constantly for almost 2 full days. Which was fabulous, don’t get me wrong. Everything was working like magic, or like it’s actually supposed to. You can imagine how pleasantly surprised we were! Finally able to match Sterling’s pace and unable to contain the excitement of having a properly functioning motor, once again, we pretended to be on a trawler.
Nearing the channel to Morgan’s Bluff, the finish line finally coming into sight, she made the noise again. The horrible bogging down noise. We knew with a sinking feeling in our hearts that the engine was being starved of fuel. Assuming it was the bad fuel we’ve been battling all along, we quickly prepared for the drill. Only this time the water/fuel separator was completely full of diesel.
It hadn’t been bad fuel. No, the fuel was great, so great in fact that we had burned through the entire tank. Joel poured the remaining dregs from our last five-gallon jug into the tank and we crossed our fingers.
What a close call! Affirming yet again, that things only go wrong because of our own innocent negligence. We vowed: from here on out, we’re sailors, nothing would convince us to burn through precious diesel like that again.
True to our word, we haven’t even sipped so much as a pint of diesel since that day. Because we’ve been stuck.
Stranded in Morgan’s Bluff for 10 days now, while the wind howls outside the bay and kicks up rollers in the deep that no one dares contend with.
The first night we rolled in, dropped anchor, helped Sterling get the outboard onto his dinghy, and went straight to land to chill out with some cold beers. The bar was a cool atmosphere, one we would appreciate many more times in the next week. The only structure near the harbor, it was one room, with a bar and some stools along the front and just two tables. One was reserved for 4 person games of dominos. A raucous islander favorite, they gleefully slam down tiles every other turn. The other table was for pool. This was clearly center stage.
We watched a few games while sipping our blissfully cold $3 beers, Kalik – what can only be assumed is the Bud Light of the Bahamas. A few games observed was enough to note that these locals could play. Always the competitor, Joel lined up for his turn. But one game was all he got.
“I can hang with these guys! Just need to get warmed up.” He later insisted.
Sterling and I chuckled, being the more reserved types, happy to flip shit from the sidelines without putting ourselves out there.
After a couple beers a piece we were tired enough to call it a night and head back to the boats. The sun was long down and we were getting eaten up by the no-see-ums. They were vicious, biting like crazy.
That was the only night I managed to sleep peacefully, totally unaware of what morning would bring.
I woke with the sun. Sitting up carefully, to avoid slamming my forehead into the hatch-openers that dangle menacingly from the ceiling, I drowsily scooted myself out of the v-berth. Time to begin the morning ritual of hunting down a water bottle and rinsing out the morning breath. It was then that I looked down at my legs, and let out a gasp.
“What?!” Joel’s voice came from the bench.
I moved into the cabin to show him. From hip socket to pinky toe I was covered in angry red spots. Bites upon bites, hardly any skin had been spared. They started to swell over night and would only become worse in the next few days.
“Oh my god.”
I remembered, too late, back in Marathon having gone through something similar though not quite as extreme as this.
“I’m allergic.” I moaned.
He let out a low whistle, “Do they itch?”
“Not yet.” I replied, knowing it was only a matter of time. “They just hurt, especially my ankles where the skin is all swollen and stretched out!”
This was the second day in Andros. Other noteworthy things happened that day, like Tasmanian Dave and Marta from Minnesota arriving on their yacht, Antigone. They too took up residency in Morgan’s Bluff with us for the next week and a half.
And later that night Joel got his second chance at the pool table. He did manage to hang with those guys. Better than hang, they couldn’t get him beat! He ran the table for most of the night.
But I was stuck in my own little world of self-pity, so the bites were the focus. Especially after Dave came to my rescue with a small stash of Benadryl.
“I take them preemptively.” He told me, in his casual Aussie accent, “If I know I’m going to be ashore for the evening, just pop a couple ahead of time, really helps keep the reaction under control.”
I nearly got down on my knees to thank him, before hastily washing down a little pink miracle-pill with my beer.
My second beer. Yeah, I know, big mistake.
It might as well have been a sleeping pill combined with my 10th beer. Less than an hour later I was completely toasted. Try as I might to hang in there, it was hopeless. I may not know much, but at least I can recognize a losing battle when I’m fighting it. I cashed in. Sterling took me back to the boat, where I went directly to the v-berth and passed out. I guess I actually did get more than one night of peaceful sleep.
The third and fourth days in Andros, we explored. It all started with a trip into shore where we stopped in at the bar. (A reoccurring theme, I’m finding) But good thing we did, because that’s where we met Harold Butler.
“H.B., that’s me.”
I don’t remember if we were even looking for a ride into town, but he offered, he was adamant, and that’s what happened. Joel was wearing one of his hats, one that makes him look a little bit like a cowboy. Well, that is, a cowboy who wears sandals, swim trunks, and braids.
H.B. was determined to get himself a cowboy hat, ideally he was going for a black Stetson. But was willing to settle for something like Joel’s, so he made a deal with us. A ride to the grocery in exchange for a hat. Joel couldn’t part with the Panama Jack, but assured H.B. we had other hats to choose from and surely one would tickle his fancy. We struck a bargain.
H.B. turned up a few more times in the remaining saga of Andros, again to ferry us around and provide a tour of his corner of the world. Lowe Sound and Nicholls Town, two charming and obviously close-knit communities but showing evidence of hurricane devastation. Then, we saw him once more during our last night on the island. A quality character and a farmer, just like my dad. H.B. was someone we felt fortunate to have come in contact with and a genuine friend by the time we parted.
The next day, Sterling took us to explore Morgan’s Cave. As legend has it, notorious pirate Henry Morgan – for whom the bluff is named – used the secret cave to stash his treasure and his rum. No longer such a secret, the cave is 20 paces from a main highway and totally empty. It was still a sweet spot to check out, and would’ve been the perfect pirate hangout back in the day. Sterling lead us to the entrance. We eagerly got the camera rolling and started crawling inside. He told us that back then people were way smaller, your average pirate well below 5 ft. They wouldn’t have had such a hard time getting into the tight spot. (Still don’t know if he was pulling our leg on the midget pirates or not) “Oh, and when the bats get in your hair don’t freak out and hit em, cause they carry rabies.” He snickered.
Once we were in through the initial 2 ft opening, I was able to stand up in a halfway upright position. It was actually a pretty big creepy, dark, cobweb filled space. It opened into a larger underground cavern and became more spacious the further in we went. There’s something about being underground in a confined space that is both thrilling and supremely terrifying. Kind of like living on the water, it’s not a natural human habitat, so your hairs have a tendency to stand on end and all senses go to high alert. We could see sunlight coming from up ahead, the cave opened up into an even bigger cavern hall and found the surface of the earth once again.
We were relieved to be walking rather than crawling and were making our way towards the light, when we heard it. A growl that made my blood run cold and I stopped dead in my tracks. “What was that?” Obviously, it had to be Sterling, right?
It came again, much louder and more vicious. Like a cross between a bear, a wolf, and the devil itself.
“Lets get outta here.” Joel’s voice.
I started laughing, like I always do when I’m actually scared shitless. Not my normal laugh though, a nervous, high-pitched giggle.
“It’s gotta be Sterling.” Joel was nervous too, “But if it’s not… it’s not worth it. I’m outta here!” He didn’t hesitate, leaving me alone to make a decision. It didn’t take long. I didn’t need to be the hero. Tease us as much as you want Sterling, I’ve never heard a human make a noise like that before!
Later that evening, we joined Martha and David on their boat for dinner… Homemade pizza..! Oh my gosh, it was unreal. I’ll just leave it at that.
The next day we hunted down some more coconuts. Sterling had found a secluded spot on the top of the bluff where someone once lived. All that remained now was the shell of their dwelling, but it looked out across the deep blue waters. An incredible view of wave slammed coastline and wild natural flora. Most importantly, two coconut trees bearing 20 or more fruits apiece. Much more than we could carry, even with three huge backpacks, but no matter we would make a couple trips.
We sat down to sip a coconut each in preparation for getting our haul back to the waiting dinghy. The flat concrete slab of what must have once been a fabulous patio was the perfect place to enjoy some electrolytes and the view. But when I tore my eyes away from the horizon, bloody paw prints were everywhere. They were all around me, across the patio.
As she danced around refusing to stand still, more and more blood poured from her foot. I called to Sterling that his baby had been hurt, badly. He responded with an urgency such that I had never seen in him.
Joel sacrificed his boxers for me to cut into makeshift bandages, but she wouldn’t let Sterling wrap her up. She was still moving around easily enough, though blood was everywhere, her foot wouldn’t stop bleeding.
He got her back to the boat as quickly as he could, while Joel and I got the pile of coconuts to the beach. With a little difficulty, we were able to patch Mancha up for the night. Though she isn’t a huge dog, Mancha is all muscle. And when she’s mad, or scared, she’s teeth too.
By now she is doing so much better. A good scare for Sterling, but with a little antibiotics and fresh wrap jobs every few days she will soon be good as new. It was a shocking reminder for all of us that some of the shenanigans we get up to become dangerous without taking proper care. We are pretty sure she must’ve slipped on some of the broken panes of glass that littered the patio. Either way, it was a dangerous amount of blood that Mancha lost and she’s lucky to keep that foot!
As I’m sure you are beginning to notice, each day out here is a crazy adventure. Totally unpredictable. Even when we aren’t traveling, I never know when I wake up how the day is going to unfold.
The last few days in Andros went quickly though, we were getting restless to move on. I’ll try to wrap them up with a bit more brevity. These blog posts only seem to be getting longer…
We returned to the cave once more, this time just Joel and I, to do some filming of a musical production. If you haven’t seen it yet, Rainbow Connection is a fabulous cover collaboration by Joel (vocals) and Ben (ukulele) from Sailboat Story – available on YouTube of course.
There were two more dinner parties enjoyed by us three, with David and Martha. A spaghetti feed, hosted by Sterling on his boat We Don’t Neaux. And the night after, a campfire hot dog roast on the beach. Two unforgettable opportunities to swap stories, enjoying the company and camaraderie of other cruisers. David, Marda, if you ever get a chance to read this, it was so awesome to meet you guys and share your company for the time we had in Morgan’s Bluff. Thank you Marda, for the English muffin tip and the supplies! I’ve since made a couple batches and homemade muffins are sure to become a staple of the “Bum’s Diet Plan.”
On the last Friday, we did some hitchhiking. Successfully, I might add, only walking half the distance to the store before getting picked up.
Saturday, we attended a party. But a party like I have never seen before. The whole night was as if from a dream. Our bartender friend, Crisco, told us the day before that this party was an opportunity we couldn’t miss. There would be a van to pick people up from the bar and drop us off at the end of the night – free of charge. There would be amazing food, drinks, live rake n scrape music, and dancing. We followed her advice and were so happy to have done so.
The party was held in the garden of the Pineville Motel. Eugene, was the name of the driver who picked us up from the bar. Later we found out that he was also the owner of the motel and organizer of this weekly event. Eugene really knows how to throw a party. The garden was amazing, unlike any I’ve ever seen. A stone path lead the way from the parking lot, into the trees and onto a carpet of grass. It was a calming and natural atmosphere, with an outdoor bar and welcoming picnic area. Tables lit by candle light were flanked by tropical plants and strategically placed throughout the garden in intimate corners. A beautiful canopy of stars and moonlight added to the enchantment of this place. On a small wooden stage, a live band played the kind of music your toes can’t help but tap along to. The place and the music made your body want to let go of the mind’s inhibitions and just move.
We ate amazing food, drank too much coconut rum, and danced the night away. The highlight of this whole dream was a small parade of the Bahamian festival tradition. As part of the scheme, Eugene pulled a few individuals from their tables – Joel included. They were lead away to the edge of the garden where an assortment of instruments, costumes, and headdresses lay waiting. As soon as enough people had been assembled with their respective instruments in hand, they lined up and began playing. Forming a conga line of music and merry makers, they wandered and danced among us, weaving their way through the garden. The music that erupted from the shakers and drums kept time with my heartbeat – or more likely the other way around – it struck to the core. The gigantic base drums lead the beat, two young Bahamian boys played those drums so fiercely that by the time the song ended and the moment was over they were covered in a lather of perspiration. I can still hear it: bom, BOM! ……bom, BOM! ……bom, BOM!
Many of us members of the audience were given shakers made out of hollow leaves and beans, wanting to actively participate in the experience we added to the chaos of sound. No one knew the song, it was one that had never been played or heard before. The whole production was one of genuine human connection through sound and spontaneity, it was magic, it was unforgettable.
Two mornings after, we finally caught a window and sailed away from Andros, covering the distance to Georgetown in just five days. Roughly speaking, nearly 200 nautical miles. The Exumas are easily the best cruising grounds in the Bahamas, some would say the best in the whole world. We basically waved hello and goodbye at once as we travelled past them. Spotting endangered iguanas from the binoculars as we navigated the Cave Cay Cut, and appreciating the many colors of blue water from our boat but never jumping in. Perhaps we’ve done it wrong. Most would shake their head in bewilderment at the pace we took in the last five days. But we got a late start to the cruising season, and unlike most we have a timeframe as well as a destination: the Dominican Republic. Sterling is adamant that we must keep moving before the wind switches to the south for good and all of the weather windows close.
All I know is we are with this guy for better or worse, and the D.R. sounds like a sweet spot to park for hurricane season. Having had an unsatisfying appetizer of the Exumas, I know we’ll be back one day to experience it slowly and properly. For now, we are in Georgetown (a month ago, leaving Marathon I never would have believed it) to party it up, recoup, and wait it out for another window. After this, onward! We’ve made it halfway, the easy half. Sterling says for those daring to push past Georgetown, this stretch separates the cruisers from the real sailors. Actually, he said it separates the boys from the girls, but I like it better my way.
Here’s to hoping we might actually be sailors!