It was a rocky night, as we thought it would be. Fran couldn’t sleep in the v-berth. She tried sleeping in the aft cabin. That was a little better.
We decide to move to calmer waters, east of the islands. We call George on the radio and he had the same idea.
We try to crank the engine. It turns a little, but not enough to start. We turn the battery switch from “1” to “All” and try it again. It still doesn’t start. We start-up the Honda 2000 generator and turn on the battery charger. After a few minutes, we finally get it cranked on “2”, the house batteries only.
We raft up to Steel Lady in the spot labeled “A3”.
When you look at our track in the above diagram you may think that we went out of our way to get from A2 to A3. We did this because our 2014 Garmin chart shows a big shoal here. Later we notice that the new Garmin chart on Nancy’s iPad does not show the shoal.
This anchorage is much calmer than the last one. We put down our dinghy and mount the outboard. George and Nancy lower their dinghy with their platform. We take the dinghy to the sandy beach just east of us.
This island is mostly mangroves with sandy beach on the north, west and south. We land the dinghy near the north side of the island and walk as far as we can. Then we walk south as far as we can.
There are a lot of sponges here. Part-way down the beach we see a sponge sculpture that someone has made by putting sponges in a tree.
This island was a popular spot for Cuban refugees to land and it was cluttered with trash and refugee boats. It seems cleaner after the “wet feet, dry feet” policy ended in January 2017.
We walk around the south side of the island into the harbor and see a conch in the shallow water.
After that we get in the dinghy and go in the deep channel between the two islands.
Here is a snip of Google Earth showing locations of our anchorages and photos. You can explore Marquesas Key by down-loading track20170510.kmz and opening it with Google Earth.
Later we are invited to eat lobster, fish and shrimp with George and Nancy on Steel Lady. A great meal and fun day.
We have a great night at anchor. I get up at 6:00 and catch the tail end of a gorgeous moon set. The moon will be full in two days.
We make coffee using the inverter and the house batteries are fine afterwards. The engine barely starts on the starting battery.
Instead of going directly to Marquesas Keys, we head southwest towards American Shoal Lighthouse and try to catch some Mahi-Mahi.
We get south of American Shoal Lighthouse and follow the reef, staying in about 150 feet of water. George and Nancy catch a bunch of tuna. They don’t eat tuna, but they bleed and save two for us. We don’t catch anything.
When we pass Sand Key Light we start heading inshore towards Marquesas. George and Nancy stay out to bottom fish directly south of Marquesas.
We arrive at Marquesas at 4:15. George told us he would anchor “between the two rocks” but we are not sure where he means. We want to be close to him so we can get our tuna. We drop the anchor at the “A1” mark on the chart shown below.
We wait for George to anchor and anchor right behind him, in the spot labeled “A2”. We are a little concerned about how rocky this anchorage might be in the east wind.
After we anchor he brings us two tunas, already bled and chilled. He also give us some lures like what he used to catch the tuna.
We have seared tuna for dinner. Yum!
Marquesas Keys is one of our favorite anchorages. Its location is an ideal stop before Dry Tortugas and we love the isolation. There is no light pollution so we get a great view of the moon and stars.
We watch a great sunset and blow the conch shell. Tomorrow we plan to stay here and explore with the dinghy.
We set an alarm for 5:30. We want to leave the marina by 7:00 and have some things to do in preparation. We pump out the holding tank, top off the water tank and empty our trash and recycling. George and Nancy have more things to do, so we are going to leave ahead of them and meet up in Newfound Harbor.
We turn the key to crank the engine and nothing happens. Some how our battery switch was off. We turn it to “1”, which is our starting battery, and try it again. It turns over, but not enough to start. We turn it to “All”, which is the starting battery and the three house banks, and it starts.
We are underway at 8:30. Our friend Tracy takes our picture as we leave the marina. We are going to anchor in Newfound Harbor for the night, but first we will go to Looe Key, grab a mooring ball, and go snorkeling.
We hadn’t taken Questeria out for a while, but on April 1st we went out just to see how our engine would do. That day we ran at 6 knots for an hour at 19.5 RPM and never got above 165°. Today, after 20 minutes, we are doing 5.5 knots at 19.5 RPM and the engine is 170°. Maybe we should have cleaned the prop before we left.
We have a little wind and put up the sails. As we are raising the mainsail, we see an Island Packet that looks familiar. She is Imagine, one of our buddy boats on our Bahama trip two years ago. They are headed to our marina to use George’s slip for a few days while they provision for the Bahamas.
We get to Looe Key at 1:20 and grab a mooring ball. Looe Key is a reef. According to www.floridakeys.com/lowerkeys it gets its name from the HMS Looe, which supposedly ran aground there in 1744. I don’t know why it’s not named “Looe Reef”. Probably because “Looe Key” sounds better.
Whatever the name, it’s a great spot for snorkeling, and that’s what we do.
When we jump in the water we notice barnacles on the prop. We swim around, looking at the reef and then get scrapers and clean the prop and hull as best we can.
Then we untie from the mooring and motor to Newfound Harbor. Scraping the hull and prop has made a noticeable difference. At 5:00 we drop the anchor in 7 feet of water, east of red “4”. Normally we would go further into the harbor, but we don’t expect much wind or seas tonight.
We have fajitas on the grill. The chicken breasts are marinated and the onions and pepper are already cooked. We wrap the onions and peppers in foil to heat them on the grill while we cook the chicken. We get the last of aluminum foil off the roll. After dinner we wash and save the foil if we need it for something else.
In cruiser tradition I blow a conch shell at sunset (after taking a picture). I was curious about how this tradition started, so I Googled it.
Blowing the conch shell, or Pū, is an ancient Hawaiian tradition. Pū, pronounced ‘poo’ is the Hawaiian Name for Conch Shell. (eww, I blew Pū)
In modern days some blow the Pū to say Goodbye at sunset to end the day and to say Mahalo (thanks). Tonight we were also saying goodbye to cell phone and internet service, since we will be out of range of any towers before this time tomorrow. And thanks for the great day sailing and snorkeling.
We intended to take Questeria to the Bahamas this year, but we ran out of time. So we went to Dry Tortugas instead.
The plan is to leave on Monday May 8th, anchor in Newfound Harbor overnight, spend a couple of nights in Marquesas, spend three nights in Dry Tortugas and return by Tuesday May 16th, stopping in Marquesas and Newfound Harbor again.
We took Questeria to Dry Tortugas in 2013. See questeria.info/jframe5.html and questeria.info/tortugas.html. We had a great time, but we cut the trip short due to weather. We talked about going back. The weather looked good for the next ten days and George and Nancy were going on Steel Lady.
We didn’t prepare for this trip like we have done in the past. We only had a couple of days to prepare because Fran came back from North Carolina on Saturday and we left on Monday. We went to the grocery store, washed the boat, pulled the outboard motor from the dinghy and mounted it on the back rail, strapped the dinghy down on the davits, pumped out the holding tank, filled the water tank, and bought gas for the dinghy and generator. We also informed family that we would be out of touch for a few days after we got out of cell phone range.
Between painting the boat and weather, we hadn’t taken Questeria out for a while. We hadn’t even recently started the engine or cleaned the prop. The AIS and anemometer were not working.
We have some new, or almost new things to try. We have a Rocna anchor that we used a couple of times. We have a new windlass wireless remote. It’s actually a winch remote that cost $15 versus the Lewmar wireless remote for over $300, that didn’t last a year. We also have an EarTec Ultra Lite Headset system that we haven’t tried yet. And we have a new AB inflatable dinghy. We got tired of patching a inflating our old Caribe dinghy so we splurged and bought a brand new one.
We have a freezer full of meat and fish, a watermaker and plenty of beer. We will be fine.
We painted Questeria’s topsides in 2011. I was still working at the time, so Fran’s uncle Ben helped. (See questeria.info/jframe5.html) The boat looked great for a while, but its long overdue for a new paint job.
Last time we used Interlux Brightside one-part enamel. We wanted an off-white color. We tried Hatteras off-white Y4208, but we thought it was too dark. Next we tried Hatteras off-white Y4218, but that was too light. We ended up mixing them 50/50 to get the color we wanted. For the non-skid we used KiwiGrip. We bought white and had it tinted to match our enamel.
This time we decided to paint it white. It was easier and we felt it would keep the deck cooler in the sun. We also decided to use a two-part polyurethane paint. They say you can’t put two-part paint over one-part paint but we talked to people who had done it successfully.
They make about a dozen variations of white. We decided to use Interlux Perfection, Mediterranean White because West Marine had two quarts in stock.
There were many cracks in the gelcoat. We repaired them by widening them with an xacto knife and a chisel. To stop the cracks from spreading we drilled a bevel at both sides with a bevel drill bit. We filled them with West System G/flex and sanded it smooth.
There were many places where the old paint had worn off or peeled. We sanded the old paint with 60 grit paper. Then we applied three coats of Interlux Pre-Kote primer. We used a foam roller in large areas and a brush in small or tight areas.
Next we applied three coats of paint. We used a badger hair brush and foam roller. When we ran out of paint we went to West Marine in Marathon, but they were out of it. So we went to the West Marines in Key West and Stock Island to get more. After that we found it on Amazon.com for a cheaper price.
For the non-skid we used white KiwiGrip. We used a nappy roller where we already had enough or too much texture and a textured roller (the one that comes with the KiwiGrip) when we needed more texture.
It didn’t come out perfect, not even close, but Questeria looks so much better than before. We can start enjoying her now.
We haven’t been completely idle. We spent some time on other boats. In October 2015 we helped Fran’s uncle deliver a boat from Boothbay, Maine to Cocoa Beach Florida, with a week stop over in Boston, Massachusetts. In March and April of 2016, we helped our friends, Gary and Ellen, take their boat, Gypsea, from Marathon, Florida to Chattanooga Tennessee. We also helped deliver a boat from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to Sandusky, Ohio in May of 2016. The boat broke down and we had to leave it in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Most of our traveling has been by RV. See our RV Adventure pages for more details.
We take a break from the RV in September 2016 and drive from North Carolina to Marathon, Florida. On September 4 we try to take Questeria to Newfound Harbor. The engine overheats. We stop, let it cool down, and barely made it back to the marina.
I don’t know if Questeria is mad at us, but we now have a list of things to fix:
Starter solenoid not working
Tachometer is erratic
AIS is not showing other vessels on chart plotter
Anemometer is not working
Transmission is leaking fluid
Besides the above, we have to fix deck leaks, repair deck cracks and paint the topside.
It is time to descale the engine. We drain the coolant and take off the heat exchanger, the coolant tank, and all associated hoses. Next we put it all back together, except for the heat exchanger and thermostat. We borrow an air-conditioner pump from a friend and run Barnacle Buster through the engine via the heat exchanger hoses. We also soak the heat exchanger in Barnacle Buster. We finish by flushing with fresh water.
While we have all the hoses off, we replace the starting solenoid and an old oil line. We also replace the impeller and clean and tighten the alternator contacts. We tighten up the transmission coupling and add Lucas transmission fix to it.
On September 20 we have everything put back together and we are ready to test it out. We go to Burdines fuel dock and get 45 gallons of diesel. Then we go to Newfound Harbor for a few days.
The engine does fine at first. It stays below 170° until we leave the fuel dock. After that it creeps up to 180°. The starter, anemometer and tachometer mostly work, but the AIS doesn’t work at all.
We anchor in Newfound Harbor for three nights. It is very hot and we run our A/C using our Honda 2000 generator. The power for the A/C is near the limit of the Honda 2000. Occasionally the generator goes into overload and we have to restart it. We lower the inside temperature a few degrees at a time and get it from 91° to 75° with two tanks of gasoline.
We also have problems with our refrigerator. The yellow light blinks, which indicates that the voltage is low, but our batteries are above 12 volts. We use our Honda 2000 generator for charging the batteries and running the refrigerator and freezer.
We leave on the fourth day. The engine gets up to 185° and we notice there is no raw water pumping out of the exhaust. We drop the anchor and let it cool off. The raw water starts pumping out of the exhaust again, but it is still running hotter than is should. We run at 1800 RPM and get home, but the engine is just below overheating temperature.
When the engine cools down we notice the coolant is gray. We drain it, fill it with distilled water, run the engine and drain it. We repeat this until we get most of the gray stuff out. The gray stuff looks like fine sand. We guess it is from the descaling. We remove the coolant tank and heat exchanger and flush them with water. We put it all back together and fill the system with 50/50 coolant and distilled water. It seems better now.
With the engine running cool, we now can start working on repairing deck cracks. These are many stress cracks in the old gelcoat. We start with an xacto knife, then widen the crack with a chisel and bevel out each end with a drill bit. Then we fill it with West System G/flex. Next we sand it smooth. We work on this some each day.
The National Hurricane Center is predicting Matthew to go up the east coast. It looks like the Florida Keys are not at risk, but our RV is in North Carolina and it might be at risk. So we pack up, leave Questeria, and drive to North Carolina.
We have fixed the engine overheating problem and the starter solenoid. The AIS and anemometer are still not working. The transmission still leaks, but is a little better. We have started deck repairs, but this will take a lot more time.
We did get one boat trip to Newfound Harbor. We return to Florida for the rest of the year, so that will be our one and only boat trip on Questeria in 2016.
I don’t remember when we started thinking about taking a sailboat to the Bahamas. It was probably about the time that we bought Questeriain 2005. The previous owners had already taken her to the Bahamas so we knew she was capable. But it would take us a while to gain confidence in ourselves and the boat before we would feel comfortable making the trip. We also felt we needed to make some changes to the boat for our comfort and safety. We finally made it to the Bahamas in the spring of 2015. We hope this will be the first of many trips for us.
When we bought Questeria in 2005, the previous owners had lived aboard and they set her up for full-time cruising. We had full-time jobs so we started as part-time cruisers. Eventually we retired and became full-time cruisers. Part-time or full-time, we continually used and made improvements.
During the time between buying the boat and making the trip we talked to many cruisers who had sailed to the Bahamas. Some had gone once and others had made the trip many times. We also read books and online blogs. We saw many opinions. The only conclusion we came to was that we would have to decide for ourselves how, what, when and where in the Bahamas to go.
Why the Bahamas
When we talk to other cruisers we hear many reasons why they go to the Bahamas. Most cruisers go to escape cold weather in the winter. We live in the Florida Keys so this doesn’t apply to us. In fact, we thought the water was chilly in Cat Cay on the second day of April.
Another reason cruisers say they go is for great fishing, lobstering and conching. This was part of our reason, but we didn’t catch anything. We didn’t fish much, lobsters were out of season and we spent most of our time in the Exumas Land and Sea Park, which is a no-take area. We did get some fresh fish from one of our buddy boats though.
Another reason we hear is the clear blue water and pristine sandy beaches. This is definitely one of our reasons for going. We love beaches. We can sit on a beach day-after-day and not get tired of it. The water in the Bahamas is so clear that on a calm day it looks like the boats are floating in air. A cynical cruiser friend of ours described the Bahamas as a toilet. Twice a day it gets flushed by the tide and all the s**t goes to Florida. But seriously, the water and the beaches in the Bahamas are the among prettiest that we’ve seen anywhere.
Our main reason for going to the Bahamas was to experience the people and their culture. The Bahamian people we met were mostly in the tourism trade, so this was probably very limited. We did get to meet some people from the Bahamas Defense Force when they politely asked if they could board our vessel. Everyone we met was very friendly and would take time to talk to us, even the officers from the Bahamas Defense Force.
Planning for Bahamas
When we talked to people who had cruised in the Bahamas, they usually went to either the Abacos or the Exumas. Each area seemed to have its advantages and disadvantages. The Abacos have more stores and marinas and are better for newer cruisers. The Exumas are less populated, but have prettier beaches and snorkeling. At first we were thinking Abacos for our first time, but finally decided on Exumas. One reason was the Exumas being south, and therefore warmer than the Abacos.
Before we decided on going to the Exumas we bought guide books and charts for Abacos. Then later we bought charts and books for the Exumas. We also had to have books and charts for the crossing, which is the same for either set of islands. We found out early that you can never have too many charts or guidebooks. You can go to our Books page on our website to see the books we used for our cruise.
We planned to go as far south as Staniel Cay and then start heading back to our home marina in the Florida Keys. We planned to take 4-6 weeks. We would start looking for a weather window in mid-March and return in April or May.
We felt from the beginning that we would feel safer crossing with another sailboat. We ended up crossing with two buddy boats from our marina. The other cruisers had been to the Bahamas on other boats, but it was the first time any of us had taken our own boat to the Bahamas.
The first boat we planned to buddy was a 52’ Island Packet. They are a married couple who keep their boat in the same marina as us. We talked to them for over a year before we left.
The second boat was a 42’ Island Packet. They came into the marina a few months before the trip and decided to join us. They were a family of six, mom, dad, two grown sons and their girlfriends. Both boats were faster than us. We would cross together but did not stick together the entire time.
There was another couple from our marina with a 47’ Catalina who have taken their sailboat to the Bahamas many times. They talked to us when we started planning the trip and helped us plan the trip. They didn’t leave with us. They left a few days after us, passed us, and met up with us in Nassau.
Our first stop was Molasses Reef, which is a mooring field just past Rodriquez Key. It is not protected from winds or seas.
Molasses Reef sounded good on paper, but was terrible in practice. Our plan was to leave for the Bahamas at 3:00 am so we would get to Gun Cay cut in daylight. Tieing up at Molasses Reef put us about 5 miles closer to Gun Cay and meant that we wouldn’t be crossing any coral reefs in the dark. We knew ahead of time that there is no protection from wind or seas on the mooring ball, but we were planning for light winds, so we thought that would be fine. The problem was that the winds weren’t that light.
We had perfect weather a week or so earlier, but nobody was ready. Once we were ready the winds were out of the north and the seas were 4-6 feet. When our weather window got here it was very short. Our plan was to get to Molasses Reef early, check to see how calm it was, and move to the protected anchorage at Rodriguez Key if it was too rough.
We are up early and ready to leave the marina at 8:00 am. Many others from the marina are here to see us off. Another boat from our marina has just returned from Bimini. They say it is calm out there.
We expected light winds, but we have about 15 knots out of the north. We are also cold.
We were the first of three of our buddy boats to leave the marina, but now they pass us. We put up our sails and are on a close reach. We are making about 6 knots with the engine, we put it in idle to see how we do under sail alone and we slow down to 4.5 knots. We go back to motor sailing.
We take down the sails. We are doing 1800 RPM and we notice the engine is at 185° Fahrenheit. That is too hot.
We get to the mooring ball at 4:00 pm. Our two buddy boats got here earlier and the crew are swimming in the water. It looks like staying here will be fine.
It gets dark and the wind and seas pick up. The boats are rocking like crazy. We roll 20 degrees to port and then 20 degrees to starboard. Everything is well secured, but that doesn’t stop things from rattling.
Fran and I sit in the cockpit, trying not to fall. We can’t sleep. We want to go to a protected anchorage, but we don’t want to go in the dark. We would start heading to Gun Cay, but we told our buddy boats we would wait until 3:00 am.
Crossing the Gulf Stream
For us, crossing the Gulf Stream was the most intimidating part when we were planning the trip. We consider ourselves fair-weather sailors. We were looking for a few days of light wind with no northerly component. If the wind is blowing against the flow of the Gulf Stream current, you will get rough seas. On the other hand, light wind does not make for fast sailing. That’s why they put engines in sailboats.
Other items to consider about the Gulf Stream crossing are starting and ending points. After much debate we decided to cross from Rodriguez Key to Gun Cay. The distance is about 70 nautical miles, which takes over 11.5 hours at 6 knots. When planning, we don’t usually count on doing 6 knots, but we knew we would get some help from the Gulf Stream. Besides, we are travelling with boats that are faster than us.
We stick it out on the mooring ball at Molasses Reef until 3:00 am. We may have dozed off for a few minutes here and there but we didn’t really sleep. We untie from the mooring and we are on our way in minutes. It is rough at first, then the seas start to calm down.
One of our buddy boats, the 52’ Island Packet, calls on the phone and says they have decided to wait until later and they will catch up to us. The other buddy boat, the 42’ Island Packet plans to stay within sight of us.
We see a gorgeous sunrise. We decide to put up our sails. We turn into the wind, which is the same direction that the Gulf Stream is pushing us and we go too far north. We see the 52’ Island Packet way to the south of us. We try hailing them on the radio but get no answer. The 42’ Island Packet is still within sight of us and tries to hail them as well. They could go faster, but they are staying with us. We talk to them on the radio and they have caught a fish.
We are approaching Cat Cay cut. We hear our buddy boat, the 52’ Island Packet on the radio. They have anchored and give us their position. Cat Cay cut will be the trickiest part today. If we don’t stay in the cut, we could hit dangerous coral. The 42’ Island Packet’s chart plotter isn’t working so they follow us through the cut.
We make it through Gun Cay cut and anchor off Cat Cay airport at 3:00 pm. The crossing turns out uneventful.
Set and Drift
We learn in school that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. This is not exactly true when crossing the Gulf Stream. The current will push you sideways, making your track look like a stretched out letter S. The books call this set and drift. Set is the direction the current is flowing and drift is the speed of the current. You can compensate for this in one of two ways; you can continually adjust your course and force your track to a straight line, or you can head for a point south of your destination and let the current help you instead of fighting it. We chose the latter.
We learned how to compensate for set and drift when we took Advanced Piloting classes from US Power Squadrons. The books say the Gulf Stream runs at about 2.5 knots in the center, but the speed is slower at the edges. The speed and width vary over time, so all you can do is estimate what your set and drift will be. We used 1.25 knots for our calculations on the way there and that turned out too low. We had to adjust to the south after about 30 miles. I’m guessing we should have used 1.8 knots.
Coming back, we left Gun Cay cut and headed for Biscayne Bay. That time we over compensated and had to adjust to the north after about 35 miles. We headed for a waypoint 20 nautical miles south of where we wanted to end up. We over compensated because our time in the Gulf Stream was less. This time it should have been more like 15 nautical miles.
You can plot the waypoints or use the Location, Distance, Bearing (LDB) calculator on www.questeria.info to get the distance from Molasses Reef to Gun Cay. It is 67.3 nautical miles. At our planned speed of 6 knots it would take 11.2 hours. In that time a current of 1.25 knots would push us 14.0 nautical miles, a current of 1.8 knots would push us 20.2 nautical miles. Plot or use the LDB calculator to get a new waypoint, GCWP1 (or GCWP2), using a distance of 14.0 (or 20.2) nautical miles and a bearing of 204° from the Gun Cay waypoint. (The Gulf Stream is pushing at 24° true so we need to adjust our course by 180°, giving us 204° true.) Plotting a course between the Molasses Reef waypoint and GCWP1 (or GCWP2) gives you a true bearing of 67° (or 72°). Magnetic variation is about 7° degrees West, so we will need to steer to a compass course of 74° (or 79°).
We didn’t do all the calculations on the way back. We just chose a waypoint that is 20 nautical miles south of Biscayne Bay waypoint (BBWP1: N25 19.125 W080 7.908). Using waypoint BBWP1, we steered to 251 degrees true, or 258 degrees magnetic. But the distance to Biscayne Bay was less than Molasses Reef, 45 versus 67 nautical miles, so our crossing time at 5.5 knots should take 8.2 hours. Our waypoint should have been 14.8 nautical miles (BBWP2: N25 24.539 W080 10.748). Plotting or plugging the numbers into the LDB calculator tells us we should have steered to 258° true, 265° magnetic.
When planning the trip, we had a lot of discussion about where to cross. We finally decided to cross from Molasses Reef to Gun Cay. Once across the Gulf Stream we would go through Gun Cay cut and choose from several nice anchorages. We anchored in Cat Cay near the airport.
We celebrate after we anchor in Cat Cay. We finally made it to the Bahamas. We’ve gone 70 nautical miles today, averaging 6 knots. We motored all the way, but we put up our sails for part of the trip.
We put up our yellow quarantine flag to show that we have not yet checked-in, then we jump in the water. It is cold compared to the water in Marathon. We swim over to our buddy boats. One of them, the 42’ Island Packet brings us fish they caught that day. We make plans to leave at 7:30 am the next day.
Our celebration is short. We are exhausted from the sleepless night before. We decide to save our bottle of champagne until we make it to the Exumas. We nap in the cockpit, breathing in the fresh ocean breeze.
The Bahama Banks
After deciding on crossing to Cat Cay we had to decide where we would check-in with Bahamian customs and immigration. Cat Cay is a port of entry, but the marina charges an extra $100 to check-in there. Chub Cay is also a port of entry, but they also charge an extra $100. Many cruisers check-in in Bimini but it’s not on the way to Exumas from Cat Cay. We decided to check-in in Nassau. We have to go through there anyway to get to the Exumas.
Nassau is about 110 nautical miles from Cat Cay. It would take us two days to get there and we would probably get there late and anchor out until the next morning to check-in with customs and immigration. We decided to take an extra day and anchor in Bird Cay. This way we should arrive in Nassau around mid-day. We planned to head towards Northwest Channel Light. (There is no light here but it is a convenient waypoint.) Northwest Channel light is about 60 nautical miles from Cat Cay so we planned to anchor out on the banks overnight. We discussed going some ways south of the recommended route to lessen our chances of being hit by another boat in the dark. We thought about leaving our AIS on, but it would drain our batteries. Instead, we decided to hoist our radar reflector so other boats can see us on their radar.
We are in the Bahama Banks. We had agreed with our buddy boats to leave Cat Cay at 7:30 am. It’s 7:15 am we see them leaving. We pull our anchor but they are already ahead of us and they can travel faster than us. We try hailing them on the VHF but we get no answer. Eventually we lose sight of them. We continue trying to hail them on the VHF radio, but hear no reply.
We are motoring into a 14 knot wind and our engine is running hot. We are going slow, only averaging about 5 knots. We had not agreed on an exact spot to anchor. The wind is picking up and we think we might find a calmer place to anchor if we change course more to the south and get in front of some shoals. It doesn’t help much. We travel 57 nautical miles that day and anchor in 11 feet of water at 6:30 pm. We hoist our radar reflector on the spinnaker halyard.
We connect with our buddy boat, the 52’ Island Packet, on the Single Sideband (SSB) later that evening. We make plans to meet the next morning. We also hear the 47’ Catalina from our marina hail us on the VHF radio. They had left two days after us and have caught up. We make plans to meet them in Nassau in two days.
The wind has increased all day and now we have anchored in the middle of the banks with no protection from wind or current. We are rocking and rolling. It isn’t as bad as the night at Molasses Reef. We put cushions on the floor of the main salon and try to sleep there.
Tongue of the Ocean
The next day we planned to go through Northwest Channel, enter Tongue of the Ocean, and anchor in Bird Cay. From there we planned to go to Nassau, arriving with plenty of time to get a slip and check-in with customs and immigration.
All routes from the banks to Nassau head through Northwest Channel. There are coral heads on either side of the channel. After that you are in the Tongue of the Ocean. Depths quickly go from 15 feet to thousands of feet. It looks like a big tongue on nautical charts, hence the name.
The next morning, we get up before dawn. The wind wrapped our radar reflector around the forestay overnight. It takes some time to unwrap it. We start to pull the anchor at first light. We have a hard time pulling the anchor because of the high wind and seas. We get it, but it takes more time than we thought it would.
Once again we are motoring into wind and waves at 4 knots. We talk to our buddy boats on the VHF and decide we will meet in Bird Cay.
We motor into waves and wind. We are hobby-horsing, going up and down. Sometimes we crash right into huge waves. We are wearing our PFDs and tethered in. We knew it would be like this and tried to prepare. We don’t have to leave the cockpit. We have snack crackers and other handheld foods. We have cups with lids so they don’t spill.
We pass through Northwest Channel and enter Tongue of the Ocean. Our depth sounder is blinking 145 feet, the last depth before it became too deep for our sonar to measure. The waves are higher than before. We see a sailboat coming towards us with their spinnaker out. With the wind behind them they are having a much nicer day than us.
When we got Questeria she had a bimini top, but no front, side or back panels. If it rained, we would get wet. Later we had an enclosure made with strat-o-glass so we could close it when it rained or got cold. It worked, but it was not ideal. It let in rain and was hard to see through. Over the years we made improvements until it was mostly rain proof, but we still could not see well enough through the front panels to drive the boat when they were down. We had to choose whether to see or get wet/cold when driving the boat in rain/cold.
Right before our Bahamas trip we paid someone to make new front panels for us. He replaced the three front panels of strato-o-glass with panels of makrolon-ar, they are clear. Now we can drive the boat, see where we were going and not get wet or cold. But, sometimes they get covered in salt.
Our enclosure panels are down on the front and sides. They are getting sprayed with salt water. We have a hard time seeing where we are going. We have them down so we don’t get soaked. We try cleaning them with a watering can. We unzip the top part way and pour some water down the front, but it is difficult with the wind on the nose and the boat hobby-horsing. At least it isn’t raining.
Bird Cay is in the Berry Islands. Some cruisers wait out bad weather in Bird Cay or Chub Cay (also in the Berry’s) but we plan to anchor there for the night so we can get to Nassau around midday instead of anchoring overnight.
We turn and enter the channel to Bird Cay. The winds and seas are lower as we get behind the land. It is a relief to finally be in a protected anchorage. We traveled only 26 nautical miles today, averaging 4 knots. Our buddy boats are already here. We check the strainer for our engine raw water cooler. It is broken and letting weeds get in the heat exchanger. We make a temporary fix with a fishing weight and clean it out as best wecan.
We think tomorrow may be rough like today. This anchorage is easy to get in and out of and we are confident that we can safely leave when it’s still dark. We plan to leave before our buddy boats. Maybe we will get to Nassau about the same time.
Before we left FL we decided on Nassau as our port of entry. Our friends on the 47’ Catalina got there the day before us and anchored until morning. They checked in to the Nassau Yacht Haven marina and let them know there would be three more boats coming.
We get up early, pull the anchor and are underway by 6:10 am. The seas have calmed down and we know this will be a great day. Days like today are why people sail. One of our buddy boats, the 52’ Island Packet, passes us, but the other one hangs back. They are probably fishing or maybe their chartplotter is still not working.
When we decided on a departure date we realized that we would be getting into Nassau on a Saturday. It was also Easter weekend. We checked and it seemed checking-in on that day would not be a problem. We planned to stay at Nassau Yacht Haven. There would be four boats from our marina, the 47’ Catalina, the 52’ and 42’ Island Packets and us. We informed the marina that we planned to be there on Saturday, but had not secured any type of reservation.
We are approaching Nassau harbor. It is a beautiful day and we are having a great trip. Cleaning the engine cooling strainer in Bird Cay helped a little, but the engine is still running hotter than it should. We hear one of our buddy boats hailing Nassau Yacht Haven marina on VHF channel 16. There is no reply. They passed us a while ago, but we think they must still be too far away from the marina to get them on the radio.
We hear other vessels hailing Nassau Harbor Control. That reminds us that we need to get permission to enter the harbor. We listen in to hear what questions they ask. They ask information about your vessel, like documentation number, your last port, your destination, etc. They also ask you where you are staying. When we get closer we hail Nassau Harbor Control. We answer all of their questions. We will tell them we will be staying at Nassau Yacht Haven, hoping that they do indeed have room for us. We get permission to enter the harbor.
We hear the 52’ Island Packet hail the marina again. We can tell that they get a reply but we can’t hear it because they are further ahead of us. Our other buddy boat is right behind us. They are following us because their chartplotter is not working.
We try calling the marina on the VHF once we enter the harbor. They don’t respond, but the 47’ Catalina from our marina hears us and calls us. They say we are coming in very faint and we should call back after we pass under the bridge.
We get confused in the harbor and take a wrong turn. We usually have routes everywhere but we only have routes between major waypoints on our chart plotter. No harm done but now we are behind the 42’ Island Packet. They contact the Nassau Yacht Haven marina get a slip for them and for us. We wait for them to dock. The current is strong but we circle while they tie up. The dock hand cautions us that the water is shallow if we circle out too far.
Nassau Yacht Haven
We needed to check-in in Nassau and decided we would get slips at Nassau Yacht Haven marina. Our friends on the 47’ Catalina had stayed there before and said it is the marina they prefer. There is a popular bar and restaurant on site named The Poop Deck. There are also some places close by to buy groceries and marine supplies.
Once they tie the 42’ Island Packet up on a face dock, the dock hand directs us past them. It is tight but we have started and now we are committed. It is low tide and a bit scary getting in, but the dock hand takes care of us. As we pull into the slip I see something fall into the water.
We check into customs and immigration. It costs $30 for immigration (bring exact change in cash) and $300 for customs (also cash). The agents come right to the marina. It goes smoothly. The dock hand comes in and says he can’t find his handheld VHF radio. I know what I saw fall in the water.
I go back to Questeria, take down our yellow quarantine flag and raise our Bahamian courtesy flag. Then I look over the side. Sure enough there is a VHF radio on the bottom.
We call the dockhand over and point out his lost radio. He does not seem too worried. We start talking to him and say how clear the water is. He says “That’s nothing. Wait until you get to the Exumas.” We talk for a while. A diver eventually comes and gets the radio.
We have some food and drink at The Poop Deck restaurant. Then we decide to take a walk. A taxi driver offers to take us anywhere we want, but what we really want to see is what is in walking distance. We should have taken a taxi.
We walk for a while and stop at a place that makes rum cakes. We taste some samples and buy some rum cakes to go. Then we walk to the straw market. It is almost 2 miles from the marina. We find restrooms and take a taxi back to the marina. It is too late because Fran’s ankle is hurting her. She has sprained it and it will hurt for the rest of the trip.
We go back to The Poop Deck for happy hour with our friends from our marina. There is no water pressure during the day, but after dark we get enough water to wash the salt off of our boat.
We get up and do some laundry on our boat. It hasn’t been long since we left Florida, but we are paying for water and electricity, whether we use it or not. We have a washer/dryer aboard. Some of our friends don’t and are using washers and dryers at the marina.
Fran’s ankle is hurting. We want to do something with less walking. We take a taxi to a place called the “Fish Fry”. This is an area with many restaurants near Arawak Cay. As we walk by the restaurants each owner tells us why their place is the best. We decide to try a restaurant owned by “Mr. Happy”. We have some beers, a “Sands” and “Kalik”, Bahamian beers. We also split a “snack” of fried grouper, conch and shrimp. The “snack” is more than enough for the two of us and we are full. We really wanted a conch salad. We order one to go from another restaurant. We watch the guy make it from scratch. He even takes the conch out of the shell. One has a pistol. He eats it. He says it is good for sex. We take the conch salad home.
Earlier in the day we asked the marina about getting out of our slip at 8:00 am the next morning. They said, because of the current, it would be nearly impossible at that time. They suggest we move to the face dock at slack tide that day. We take a taxi back from the Fish Fry. We call the dock hand and he helps us get out of the slip. It isn’t easy with a boat right behind us but we make it out and go to the face dock. Normally they do not put sailboats on this dock, and now we know why. When the tide starts running we are rocking like we were at anchor. It is not a smooth night, but we have an easy time getting out the next morning.
Questeria uses about 0.7 gallons of diesel fuel per hour and holds about 70 gallons in her tank. We also have four jerry cans which hold over 24 gallons. We filled the tank and jerry cans before we left. We knew this wouldn’t be enough for the trip. We also had about 18 gallons of gasoline. We needed this for our Honda generator and 15 hp dinghy outboard. We didn’t need more gasoline for the rest of the trip.
We had put 52 hours on the engine since filling up in Marathon. Knowing this might be the last chance to get fuel for a while we want to fill up before we leave Nassau. The Nassau Yacht Haven marina doesn’t sell fuel. They suggest we to go to Rubis, at Harbor View Marina. When we get there there are a couple of boats waiting ahead of us. We circle the harbor a few times before the dock is free. We tie up to the fuel dock and get 36 gallons of diesel. It costs $144 plus tip. The wind and current are pretty strong but the dockhand acts as our bow-thruster and helps us get away from the dock.
Most of our planning involved the Gulf Stream crossing and checking-in. We didn’t make detailed plans past Nassau. Most cruisers go to either Allen’s Cay or Highborne Cay. The attraction to Allen’s Cay is the iguanas. Highborne Cay seemed like a better anchorage to us. Living in the Florida Keys we see our share of iguanas so we were not that interested in seeing them. If we changed our minds we could take the dinghy there or stop there on our way back home.
We are leaving Nassau harbor. This time we have a route out of the harbor so we don’t make any wrong turns or run-a-ground. Once we’re out of the harbor we switch the chartplotter to our Nassau-Highborne route. It says it’s 34 nautical miles until we make our turn into the anchorage. That should take around seven hours at 5 knots. There are a lot boats going from Nassau to Highborne Cay today. Most of them are ahead of us because we stopped to get fuel. We can see one of our buddy boats, the 42’ Island Packet, off to our starboard.
We put up the sails and motor sail with our main reefed. We are doing 6 knots. We see storms ahead of us. We take down the sails and close the enclosure. Now that we don’t have wind helping us we slow down to 4 knots. We are in the squall and the wind is on our nose. We have slowed down to 2 knots. We don’t want to push our engine any harder and overheat. The rain is whipping around and we see wind gusts of 30 knots. At least we are staying dry with our enclosure down.
The squall passes. We see the 42’ Island Packet going in circles. They had to change a fuel filter in the middle of the squall, but everyone is okay. There is another squall but it isn’t as bad as the last. It passes and we open up our enclosure. We put out some sails and now we are doing 5 knots again.
We turn into the anchorage. We see our buddy boats and anchor near them. Today was not an easy day. We went 37 nautical miles. We averaged a little over 4 knots, not counting the stop at the fuel dock. But we are in the Exumas. We celebrate with champagne and caviar.
We sit in the cockpit and watch the moon rise. It is a full moon. Awesome! It doesn’t get any better than this.
Our dinghy is a 10.5 foot Caribe inflatable with a rigid bottom. We have a 15 hp Honda outboard for it. We keep the outboard on the dinghy while at dock, but take it off when traveling long distances. We have a rail mount on the stern for the outboard when not on the dinghy. Many cruisers put their dinghy on deck when underway. We don’t have a lot of room on deck. We strapped our dinghy up with ratchet straps before leaving Marathon. This works better if the dinghy doesn’t lose much air. We spent some time patching it but eventually we get more leaks.
When the seas are rough, the dinghy swings back and forth. It puts lots of stress on the boat, the davits and itself. We constantly try to find a better way.
Some cruisers tow their dinghy. We tried this before. The dinghy bobs up and down and fills with water. The outboard sometimes gets dunked. This can’t be good. We are afraid of the painter giving way. We would lose the dinghy for sure. Even though it’s not ideal, keeping the dinghy on the davits without the motor is the best solution for us.
We get up in the morning and put our dinghy down. We put the Honda 15 hp outboard on it and connect the gas tank. It starts up after a few pulls. It was tied up since leaving Marathon. We go to the marina. There isn’t a lot around Highborne Cay. It is a private island, except for the marina. The marina has a small grocery store and a restaurant. We buy an ace bandage and a couple of Sand Light beers.
They tell us we can pay to walk on the island or use the beach. We wouldn’t pay even if Fran’s ankle wasn’t sprained. Instead we take our dinghy to the beach near the anchorage and drink our Sand Lights.
Bahamas Defense Force
It’s our second morning in Highborne Cay. A Bahamas Defense Force boat comes alongside of us and asks permission to board. We say yes. They approach us with one person holding a fender. The first person boards with no problem. The second person almost falls in the water and the third person aborts the attempt. Four people board the boat anchored next to us.
They check our papers and look around. They ask us several times if we have any firearms. We don’t. They don’t see anything suspicious, other than an LED work light that they mistake for a stun gun. The Bahamas Defense boat comes back, with the fender holder, and picks up the two people they dropped off. They continue on through the anchorage, checking other boats.
We always make routes before cruising. We use Home Port and/or OpenCPN, and load the route to our Garmin chartplotter before we leave. We can’t plan everything out exactly, but we make routes for as many possible options we can foresee. For this trip we had a few routes from the Keys to Nassau, a route to Highborne Cay and a route from Highborne Cay to Staniel Cay. The last route had waypoints at several islands we thought we might want to visit. These stops included Norman’s Cay, Exuma Land and Sea Park, Compass Cay and Staniel Cay. We didn’t make routes past Staniel Cay but we thought we might want to go to Black Point. We could always make new routes if we changed our mind.
Home Port, from Garmin, uses the electronic charts built into our Garmin chartplotter, but OpenCPN does not come with charts. For the Bahamas charts we ordered NV chart combo packs. These come with paper charts and a CD of electronic charts that work with OpenCPN.
We have been in Highborne Cay for two days. It’s time to move on. One of our buddy boats, the 42’ Island Packet, will head to Georgetown. They need to fix their generator and get one of their crew on a plane. We are going to Norman’s Cay. Our other buddy boat is going there as well.
Once we get out of the anchorage and get on course we have 14 knots of wind on the beam, perfect sailing conditions. We put up our sails and turn off the engine. It’s always feels great to sail without hearing the noisy diesel engine.
The guidebooks say that Norman’s Cay was the center of a drug smuggling operation during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. A DEA organized task force made arrests and ended the drug smuggling operation. Wreckage of a plane for smuggling cocaine remains north of the southern anchorage.
We anchor in Norman’s Cay. We only went 12 nautical miles today and averaged about 4 knots since part of the trip was sails only. It’s only 1:40 pm so we have plenty of time to explore. Our buddy boat, the 52’ Island Packet, has a deeper draft and they choose a different anchorage.
We hear another boat hailing us on VHF channel 16. It is the boat anchored next to us. We agree to watch their boat while they explore with their dinghy and they will do the same for us. After that we will go over to their boat for drinks.
When they come back we take our dinghy around the point looking for the sunken plane. We go almost 2 miles, see the plane in the distance and turn around. We head back. We stop at our neighbor’s boat and have a beer. We recognize them from Highborne Cay. They crossed from Key West to Bimini and will be heading to Georgetown.
Shroud Cay is in the Exuma Land and Sea Park. It is known for its creeks. Some of them are restricted or motor vessels, but you can use your dinghy in the northern creek to go to Driftwood Beach, on the Exuma sound (eastern side of the cay).
There is a trail on the beach that leads to Camp Driftwood. A hermit built Camp Driftwood while living on his sailboat in the 1960’s. It became a tradition for cruisers to leave a piece of driftwood or write a note. Today they ask people to not leave anything behind.
We head to Shroud Cay. It is about 7 nautical miles from Norman’s Cay so we don’t bother with the sails. We grab a mooring ball in Shroud Cay.
It’s still early in the day so we take our dinghy to explore. We take Sanctuary Creek to Driftwood Beach, which is on the Exuma Sound side of the cay. What a beautiful beach. We walk up the trail to Camp Driftwood. There is a sign telling us not to leave anything behind. The view from here is breathtaking.
Hot Water for Showers
We have a water heater that works great when connected to shore power. When we’re away from the dock we can heat water by running the generator for about 5 minutes, but it’s noisy. We don’t like it and I’m sure our neighbors are not very happy hearing it either.
When cruising we have an alternative – a solar shower. We bought it in the camping section of Wal-Mart. It’s basically a plastic bag that holds five gallons of water. One side is clear, the other is black. You fill it with water and set it in the sun. Sometimes the water gets too hot and we have to add cool water before we take a shower. If we want to take a shower after sunset, we put the bag in an insulated cooler and it stays warm until we are ready.
When we want to take a shower we hang it up and twist the spigot at the end of the hose. The water is gravity fed. The hose it came with was short so we replaced it with a longer hose. We take either indoor or outdoor showers. Outdoor showers are nice when we come back from swimming. We hang the shower on the dinghy davits and stand on the swim platform. We do not take outdoor showers in the nude, we wear swimsuits. Indoor showers are nice when it is cooler. We hang the shower bag outside the window and feed the hose through. We don’t wear swimsuits when taking indoor showers.
The solar shower became even more important to us on our Bahamas trip because the shower head we normally use broke before we got to Nassau.
Hawksbill Cay is also in the Exuma Land and Sea Park. The books say it’s the most beautiful cay in the park, or possibly in the entire Exumas.
We have spent two days in Shroud Cay. We really like it here but some big charter boats have come in. We decide it is time to move on and head to Hawksbill Cay. This is a short trip, about 7.5 nautical miles. We grab a mooring ball. We take the dinghy to the closest beach, inflate the floaties and just hang out on the beach. It’s a great day in paradise.
The forecast is calling for winds and seas to pick up. The wind and waves are coming from different directions. We are rolling and have a hard time sleeping.
We get up and try to adjust our mooring line so the boat is not side into the waves. We have read about people doing this on anchor so we think it is also possible on a mooring ball. Instead of just attaching our bow to the mooring, we attach a line to the stern to form a triangle. It’s not working.
We hear a horn. It is our buddy boat trying to get our attention. They have decided to go to Sampson Cay. We decide to go to Warderick Wells.
Warderick Wells is the park headquarters. You must call ahead to reserve a mooring in the north mooring field.
The Exuma Land and Sea Park has no restaurants or stores, only a park office in Warderick Wells that sells souvenirs. This is why we came to the Bahamas. (Not to buy souvenirs, but to get away from crowded grocery stores and restaurants.)
We call the Exuma Land and Sea park on the VHF radio. They have a mooring in the north mooring field for us.
The trip to Warderick Wells is windy and rough. We call when we get close and get our mooring assignment. We turn into the mooring field and feel protection from the wind. There is a strong current here. It is pushing us faster. This makes it hard to grab the mooring, but there is not a lot of room to turn around without going aground. We approach the mooring, Fran hooks it with a boat hook but Ron cannot hold the boat in place long enough and the boat hook pulls out of her hand.
We have another boat hook. We turn around, without running aground, and aim for the mooring from the opposite direction. With the current going against us it is easier to hold the boat close long enough for Fran to tie up to the mooring. In the meantime, another boat has started their dinghy and retrieved our boat hook.
This is the best anchorage yet! We say that every time, but this anchorage is very well protected from the wind. It’s also very scenic here. The beaches are calling our names. Being tired, we will wait until the morning.
It’s morning and we take the dinghy to the dinghy dock at the park headquarters. We pay for two nights on the mooring, plus the three past nights at Shroud Cay and Hawksbill Cay.
We walk the trail to Boo-Boo Hill. It is customary for cruisers to leave a piece of driftwood with their boat name on it. We didn’t plan ahead so we don’t have anything to leave. We hike back down and have a picnic lunch on Powerful Beach.
We go back to the boat and rest for a while after our hike.
We take the dinghy and go snorkeling. The current is pretty strong. We should come back at slack tide. We see lots of marine life, including the biggest lobster we’ve ever seen. He seems to know he out of season and in a no-take zone. We take the dinghy and anchor off a sandy beach. Life is good.
Questeria had a watermaker before we bought her. The previous owner negotiated to keep it. We didn’t like that one anyway because we needed a generator to use it. We wanted one that ran on 12 volts.
We did fine without a watermaker for years. We had to come to marinas and fill our water tanks occasionally and we didn’t want to do that in the Bahamas. We bought a new watermaker a few years before our trip and installed it ourselves. We used it on our Dry Tortugas trip and on our trip to Fernandina Beach the year before and it worked great.
It makes about 8 gallons of fresh water an hour. It has a display that tells us how much water it makes. This is good because our water tank doesn’t have a sensor to tell us when it is low.
We like to run it when it’s sunny and our solar panels can charge the batteries or when we are using the engine and our alternator can charge the batteries.
We are getting ready to watch the sunset. We turn on the faucet to get some water. The water stops but the pump keeps running. We are out of water. We need to run the watermaker.
We had estimated that we normally use 12 gallons a day. If that were true we would not be out of water. Now we figure it must be more like 20. Also, we did splurge and rinse the salt off the boat yesterday, but we thought we had plenty of water in the tank.
We run the watermaker for 3 hours. We also run the generator for part of that time so the batteries won’t get too low. At least we have hot water in our solar shower.
It’s morning and we decide to stay in Warderick Wells one more day. We dinghy to the office and pay $20 for another night. We come back and do some boat projects; we change the fuel filter and tighten the v-belt. We run the watermaker for 5 hours. We run the generator for two hours to charge our batteries and charge the freezer cold plate.
We like to think we are self-sufficient on Questeria. We know we can’t live off the grid forever, but we strive for as long as possible. We refer to electrical power as juice. Our house batteries are six 6-volt deep cycle AGM batteries. They are 220 amp-hours each, giving us a total of 660 amp-hours at 12 volts. It’s bad to discharge deep cycle batteries more than 50% so it’s like we have a “juice tank” that holds 330 amp-hours of juice.
Things that drain our juice include refrigeration, inverter, chartplotter, anemometer, autopilot, watermaker, radios, lights and fans. Things that add juice are solar panels, engine alternator and battery charger along with shore power or gasoline generator. We monitor juice by looking at the battery voltage. Our refrigerator control panel also warns us if the batteries are low by blinking lights before it shuts down completely.
Our biggest drain of juice is refrigeration. Our refrigerator has a feature called ASU which slows the compressor when the voltage gets low. This option uses less juice, but we don’t like it because our food doesn’t stay cold enough. If the voltage drops too much the compressor will shut off and the food inside will get warm. When this happens we run the Honda generator.
This was our first trip with our 12-volt freezer so it took a while to figure how much juice this would use. If we ran low on juice, we ran our Honda generator to freeze the cold plate.
Another drain is our inverter. The inverter allows us to use household appliances using battery power. It uses a lot of juice so we don’t use it for long periods of time. We use it to make coffee in the morning and sometimes for the microwave oven or toaster. The inverter also warns us if the batteries are low with an annoying buzz. The battery voltage drops while using the inverter but comes back a little once we turn it off. Often the refrigerator control panel blinks when making coffee. When the coffee maker finishes (about 10 minutes) the battery voltage goes higher. Sometimes it not enough for the refrigerator compressor to restart. If that happens we wait for the sun to rise and shine on the solar panels, or we run the generator.
Another juice drain is our watermaker. We try to run it when we are motoring so the alternator keeps the batteries up. If we need to make water when anchored and the batteries are low, we run the generator.
In 2010 we replaced our single 100-watt solar panel with three 135 watt solar panels and an MPPT Xantrax controller. The MPPT controller charges the batteries more efficiently than a normal controller. The controller display gives us lots of information about amps, volts, amp-hours etc., but we have no control over the sun. It’s either enough or it’s not.
When there’s not enough sun we have to run the generator. Our generator is a Honda 2000. It runs on gasoline. It can run the battery charger, refrigerator, freezer, water heater and more. Sometimes we even run our air conditioner. It’s pretty quiet when you first start it but gets louder as you draw more juice. We don’t like to run it unless we have to.
We finish working on the boat and take the dinghy to the beach. We inflate our floaties and relax in crystal clear water. We watch the sunset and have another great night in Warderick Wells.
Compass Cay was on our must-stop list. A friend from our marina stayed there on his boat and told us about it.
After three nights in Warderick Wells we decide to move on and anchor near Compass Cay. The chart shows a channel through shifting sandbars. Navigating the channel is a bit intimidating. The wind has stirred the water so it is murky and we can’t see the bottom. We make it with no problem. There is a marina at Compass Cay with a lot of big boats. We think the marina must keep up the channel for its mega-yacht customers.
We get close to Compass Cay and anchor. We pass some boats coming in, but now we have this anchorage to ourselves.
We come in range of a cell tower and we get some text messages. They are from my sisters and say that my mom is in the hospital and had to get a pacemaker.
We put down our dinghy and go into the marina. We try to communicate over Wi-Fi. It costs $10 for 100MB. My phone has been offline for weeks and we go through 100MB in about 5 minutes trying to update without getting a single message out. We end up sending text messages anyway.
Communications in the Bahamas
We were forewarned about how easy it is to run up cell phone charges in the Bahamas. Before we left we purchased an unlocked international phone from Amazon for $22. All we need to make phone calls is a SIM card from BTC, the Bahamas Telecommunications Company. This took a lot longer than we thought it would.
At first we thought about turning our US phones off completely. The problem with that is that we rely on our phones for a lot more than making telephone calls. They are our cameras, back-up chartplotters, anchor alarms and more. Furthermore, if we have Wi-Fi we can communicate without paying any charges.
Our next thought was to put our phones in Airplane Mode, but we could not get the anchor alarm app to work in airplane mode. So our next option was to turn off cellular data.
We also turned off automatic backups, updates and everything else that might incur charges. We would get text messages that we could make phone calls for $1.99 a minute, send/receive text messages for $0.50/$0.05 and use data for $20.48/MB. We sent and received some important message as texts. It ended up costing only $2.65 for the entire six weeks, on top of our normal $190/month phone bill which wasn’t used at all during the six weeks we were outside of the US.
The problem with our $22 unlocked phone was that we needed to buy a SIM card, and we could only buy one in the Bahamas. Our first port was Nassau on April 4. This was the Saturday before Easter. In the Bahamas the people celebrate Easter from Friday through Monday. We left on Monday, so we didn’t have a chance to get a SIM card in Nassau. The next stop with a BTC office was Staniel Cay, on April 17. We bought a prepaid SIM card and made and received phone calls when we were near a cell tower (which isn’t often).
Compass Cay is an interesting place. We tie up the dinghy at the dinghy dock. There are nurse sharks under us. They all have names. There is a sign telling us that we should not feed the sharks when we are swimming with them. That makes sense.
The marina is full of expensive mega-yachts. Everyone is very friendly. They don’t know we are from a sailboat anchored outside the marina.
We have entertainment. It is the marina people trying to fix the watermaker. The intake is full of barnacles. Some people come out of their mega-yacht. The daughter wants to swim with the sharks. We move our dinghy so she can climb down the ladder. It is okay because she doesn’t feed them. We go back to Questeria.
No other boats come into the anchorage. We are here alone. We watch the sunset. It is beautiful beyond description. The current starts to turn around. We are spinning on anchor. It’s scary, but we do not drag. Still, we are wary of dragging anchor. After a few revolutions we stop spinning.
Anchoring is one of the first boating skills that we learned. When we got Questeria she had a 35 lb. CQR. There was a 45 lb. CQR on the deck but it wouldn’t fit in the anchor chute of the bowsprit. Our rode was 35 feet of chain and 300 feet of nylon line. We had a windless that was on its last leg. Our bowsprit was also on its last leg.
We replaced the bowsprit with one fabricated from stainless steel. It had two universal anchor chutes. Then we replaced the windlass. With the windlass we replaced the rode with 100 feet of chain and 150 feet of nylon line. We used a 45 lb. CQR for our main anchor and 35 lb. Danforth as backup.
Discussing which anchor is best among cruisers is like discussing which religion is best. We’ve heard a lot of cruisers criticize CQR anchors, but we never had a problem with ours. We would talk ourselves into thinking we needed a newer design, like Rocna or Mantas, but then someone would talk us out of it.
We are very particular about how we anchor. It goes like this; When we set out we have an idea where we will anchor. As the day goes on we decide on a particular anchorage. When we get to the anchorage we look around and decide where to anchor. Then we get into our positions. Ron is at the helm and Fran is at the bow. All the controls are at the helm, including the windlass buttons, but Fran is the one in control.
We decide which way the wind and current will push us and approach from the opposite direction. We slow down and use the wind and current to stop us. Fran unties the anchor and gets it ready to drop. When boat speed drops to zero Ron presses the windlass switch to lower the anchor. Fran watches the anchor drop. When it “kisses” the bottom she signals Ron to stop lowering. Fran asks Ron what the depth is. She adds six and multiplies by five. Adding six accounts for the distance from the bow roller to the water surface and five is for 5:1 scope. Next, she signals Ron to continue lowering, making sure that the chain is being laid out in a line. If not she instructs Ron to put the boat in reverse. When we have at least 5:1 scope out we pause. We ask ourselves some questions; What will the tide do to our depth? How much wind do we have? Do we think the wind will increase or change direction? What about the current? Are we holding? How far are we from the nearest anchored vessel.
We may put out more scope, depending on the answers to these questions. When we think we have enough scope out, Fran will snub the rode and ask Ron to back down. If the anchor doesn’t hold, we start over. We set an anchor alarm on our phone and open a couple of beers. I think the beers are the key to our anchoring success.
Here is a list of common mistakes we think people make when anchoring:
Not enough scope – Books tell us in normal conditions you need 7:1 scope for all nylon rode and 5:1 scope for all chain rode. You must use the depth of the water, plus the distance from your bow roller to the water, plus any possible tide in this calculation. If the wind or current is higher you should put out more scope.
Not letting the anchor “kiss” the bottom – Some anchors, like CQR, take time to dig in. If you don’t pause before backing down, the anchor may not hold.
Not paying out rode – You should pay out your rode in a line. I have seen cruisers lay their rode in a pile on the bottom.
Not backing down – Backing down on your anchor digs it in and tests the holding. If it doesn’t hold when you back down it won’t hold when the wind blows.
We did talk ourselves into buying a Rocna anchor after we got back from the Bahamas. We didn’t do it because the CQR wasn’t working for us, we just thought the Rocna would work better. We notice that the Rocna digs in right away compared to the CQR.
The anchor holds and we have a good night in Compass Cay, despite going in circles around our anchor. It’s time to move on. We head to Staniel Cay. We follow yesterday’s track to get out of the anchorage.
Our friends told us about Staniel Cay. We plan to make it our southernmost anchorage. Then we will turn around and start heading back home. Other than Nassau this was the most populated place we stopped. Staniel Cay is different from what we expected. We thought it would be a busier place, but it is very laid-back. The only vehicles we see are golf carts.
They have an airport, but it is closed because of pot holes on the runway. People we talk to say this is all political. The planes are now flying into Black Point, which is the next island south of Staniel Cay.
We get to Staniel Cay and anchor in Big Major, close to our buddy boat. We have not bought any provisions since leaving the FL Keys and we are in need of groceries. Our other goals are to visit the medical clinic for Fran’s sprained ankle and go to the BTC office and buy a prepaid SIM card for our phone. We also want to get lunch.
We take our dinghy to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, which is about 1.5 miles from where we anchored. After tieing it up, we check with themarina to get directions. They give us a really nice map of the village. They tell us that if the medical clinic is closed, the nurse will be on the beach.
We walk to medical clinic. It is closed. We don’t see anyone the beach. Maybe it isn’t the right beach. We go to the Taste and Sea Cafe to get something to eat while we wait for the medical clinic to open. But it is closing as we get there. We discover that the Taste and Sea Cafe has free Wi-Fi, even when closed.
Next we walk to the Pink Pearl Grocery store. The owner tells us that the Mail boat has arrived, but they haven’t unloaded the fresh produce yet. She doesn’t know why the medical clinic is closed, but she tells us that the BTC office is closed for lunch for a few hours. We do what any resourceful cruisers would do. We go to the yacht club bar for beers and fried conch.
After that, we walk to the BTC office. There are other people waiting ahead of us. They are all cruisers like us. Most of them are having trouble using their phones for internet access. We buy a prepaid SIM card with $50 of calling minutes.
We walk to the Pink Pearl Grocery store. The produce just came in. We buy lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, green pepper, eggs and yogurt.
It’s a new day, Saturday, and we make plans with our buddy boat to go a festival on Staniel Cay. We wait for a squall to pass and take the dinghy to Staniel Cay Yacht Club and meet up with our friends. The festival has people selling arts and crafts and baked goods. They are selling food but we aren’t ready for lunch. We explore more of the village. We go to the Blue Wing Grocery store and get some bread, english muffins, zucchini and a mango. We go back to the festival for lunch. We split a meal of fried grouper that is more than the two of us can eat.
We take our dinghy to Thunderball Grotto. Part of the James Bond movie Thunderball was filmed here in 1965. It’s low tide and we can snorkel into the grotto. The view is awesome. We try to take pictures with our phone, which is in a waterproof case, but they don’t turn out very well. I need my reading glasses to see what I’m doing and they don’t fit inside of my mask.
Most items are more expensive in the Bahamas than in the US. We came expecting this and brought most of what we needed with us. We were surprised when we bought diesel fuel in Nassau that we paid about the same per gallon that we did in the FL keys.
At home we pay for most things with credit cards. Most establishments in the Bahamas do not accept credit cards. If they do many credit card companies will charge you a foreign transaction fee. We prepared for this and carried a lot of cash in different denominations. US currency was gladly accepted everywhere we went in the Bahamas. They usually try to give you change in US currency if they can.
Its Sunday and we take the dinghy to Staniel Cay Yacht Club. We go to the Taste and Sea Cafe. The restaurant is closed, but we use the free Wi-Fi. We meet our buddy boat crew for lunch at the yacht club. Fran and I split an order of conch fritters and a conch po’ boy sandwich. It is delicious. We notice that portion sizes in the Bahamas are bigger than what we are used to in the US.
On the way back to the boat we take the dinghy to Pig Beach. We don’t want to swim with the pigs, but we can’t miss this famous Bahama landmark. There is one pig here today. He swims out as we approach the beach. He wants food, but we don’t have any. We take some pictures and head back to Questeria. We inflate our floaties and float off the back of the boat. This would make a great Corona Light commercial.
Today is Monday, chore day. We start the generator and do laundry. We drain the heat exchanger, remove it, and flush it out with vinegar and carbonated water. We hope it will run cooler after this.
We gather all the trash and recycling from the two weeks since we left Nassau and put it in the dinghy. It all fits in a single trash compactor bag, but it is really heavy.
You have to pay to dump your trash in many places in the Bahamas. We left as much packaging at home as practical. We bought beer (Corona Light) in cans. Afterwards we rinsed them out, crushed them and put them in a plastic bag for recycling. We threw unwanted food items overboard. We threw other trash, such as plastic and paper in plastic bags. When we filled the plastic bags, we put them in a large plastic trash compactor bag and compacted them by hand (foot).
At Nassau Yacht Haven we dumped our trash for free. We paid to dump it in Staniel Cay. We also paid to dump trash in Highborne Cay on the way back. In Highborne Cay you can leave recycling for free.
We take the dinghy to Staniel Cay Yacht Club. We pay $7 plus tax to dump a large bag of trash. We buy some more groceries and add another $100 to the prepaid SIM card. We look for the post office.
Mailing a Letter
Our son’s birthday is a week away. We think he will enjoy getting a letter postmarked in the Bahamas. We see a post office on the tourist map we got from the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. It doesn’t look like too far of a walk. The distance concerns us because Fran’s sprained ankle is still bothering her. We follow the map but the post office is not there. We go to the Pink Pearl grocery store. The owner explains that we need to go to Isles General Store. We had been to the “pink” store and the “blue” store and had read about the general store, but thought it too far away from everything else. It is a longer walk than Fran is up for. She stays in the air-conditioned “pink” store while I walk to the general store.
I find the general store with no problem. The screen door is locked from the inside. I knock and call out “Is anyone here?” There is a radio playing but nobody answers my calls. I walk around to see if there is another way in. There is a man sitting outside. He says I need to walk over to the big house and find someone. I walk over there and see a woman hanging up laundry. She says to go back and she will be right there.
I walk back to the store. There are some locals, a mother and child waiting to get in. A boy unlocks the door and lets us all in. He is probably about 14. I ask about mailing a letter. He says “you have to wait for the lady”. I look through the entire store several times.
They have groceries like the other stores on the island, but they have other things as well. They have birthday cards, hardware and some marine supplies. I don’t see anything we need.
The “lady” shows up and I pay for the postage. She takes my letter and puts it on a shelf. My son gets it about four weeks later.
In the meantime, Fran thinks Ron is lost. The owner of the “pink” store assures Fran that I’m okay. We buy more groceries.
More on Communications in the Bahamas
We paid $66 for a prepaid SIM card; $16 for the card and $50 towards calling minutes. The BTC prepaid SIM card worked great in our $22 phone while in Staniel Cay. We called family members to tell them our phone number and let them know we were okay. It looked like we would go through the $50 pretty quickly. Four days later we added $100 to the card so we would not run out. This turned out to be a bad idea.
After we left Staniel Cay we went to Emerald Rock in the Land and Sea Park. There was no phone service. We didn’t get phone service until 16 days later, when we anchored in Highborne Cay. We were able to use it the next day when we anchored outside Nassau and two days later, anchored outside Cat Cay. When we got back home we still had a lot of minutes left. The problem is that the prepaid card expires unless you add more minutes and you can’t add minutes if you are not near a BTC office.
Now there is service that lets you buy and renew a BTC SIM card online. It is http://mrsimcard.com. We haven’t tried this yet, but next time we will.
Many cruisers buy SIM cards with data packages to get access to internet. We didn’t think we needed it. We got free Wi-Fi at the Taste and Sea Cafe in Staniel Cay. You can also get it 100MB for $10 in places like Compass Cay and Warderick Wells. The problem with that is that our phones would try to update and backup as soon as we connected them and we went through the 100MB in no time. After that we turned automatic backup and updates off. We didn’t get our phones back to normal until we had been home awhile.
Our best mode of communication was email via our SSB radio and pactor modem. We were usually able to get email once a day, even if we had to make several attempts. The initial cost was high because we purchased a new icom m802 radio system with pactor modem. We installed it ourselves, but it still cost us $4,600 for the radio, tuner, antenna parts, ground plane, pactor modem, etc. After that we subscribed to SailMail for $250 a year.
We have been in Staniel Cay for four days and we never saw the medical clinic open.
We have been away for three weeks. We decide it is time to head back the way we came. There are places further south we haven’t seen yet, but we want to go back to revisit some places on the way home.
We are motoring north. Our engine is running much cooler since we flushed our heat exchanger in Staniel Cay. We plan to stop at Sampson Cay. We heard the anchorage is beautiful. There was a marina there, but we know it closed and no one is allowed on the island. We want to go to beaches so we change our minds and go to Emerald Rock.
Emerald Rock is a mooring field in Warderick Wells. It is a longer dinghy ride to the park office and not as well protected as the north mooring field, but has some great snorkeling spots and beaches.
We get to Emerald Rock mooring field and see our buddy boat. We grab a mooring near them. A squall comes through and we don’t make it to the beach today.
Squallier weather today. We run the generator to charge the batteries.
Finally, the sun comes out and we do make it to the beach. The weather looks good for tomorrow. We will stay another day.
We find some great snorkeling spots. Some of them have a mooring for a dinghy. The current isn’t as strong here as it is in the north Warderick Wells mooring field so we don’t have to wait for slack current. We also explore some small beautiful beaches. It was well worth the wait for good weather.
We stay at Emerald Rock three days and think about staying another day. It is raining and rougher than yesterday so we decide to move on and go to Hawksbill Cay.
Hawksbill Cay and Shroud Cay
We get a mooring in Hawksbill Cay North, a different mooring than on the way down. It starts to rain as soon as we get here. The forecast for tomorrow says it will be nice.
We wake up to calm winds and decide to explore around Hawksbill Cay with the dinghy. There are some small sandy beaches with small caves, like Smugglers Cave and Russell Ruins Beach. We explore them. We take the dinghy back to Questeria, pull it up on the davits and head to Shroud Cay. It is less than 5 nautical miles.
We want to go back to Driftwood Beach. It was so beautiful last time and we want to see it again. This time there are several charter boats using the beach. They have set up canopies and buffets and brought in jet skis and powerboats for their rich clientele. We make the best of it. We dinghy back down the creek and find a deserted beach. It’s not as scenic, but much quieter.
We decide to take the dinghy to some coral patches and go snorkeling. There are some fish here but it’s not the best we’ve seen. We get back in the dinghy and try to start it. Nothing. I pull the rope a few more times but it doesn’t even try to start. We have paddles but we are about 3/4 of a mile from Questeria. We aren’t panicking because the motor has done this before. It might be flooded. We’ll wait a few minutes.
Some other cruisers were watching us try to crank the dinghy and come by to see if we would like a tow. Yes, thank you.
They are moored next to us. They are also from Marathon. We invite them for beer. After they leave I try to crank the dinghy motor again. It doesn’t crank. I think I’ll leave it right there in the water and look at it in the morning. Bad idea.
It’s about 2:00 am and the winds and seas have picked up. We have noprotection here. Later in the morning we call Highborne Cay marina on the VHF radio. They have no room for us. We know Warderick Wells offers good protection but it is in the opposite direction from where we want to go. They do have a mooring for us so we will go there anyway.
We have a problem. I left the dinghy in the water, tied to Questeria. It is bobbing up and down. So is Questeria, but not at the same time. We need to get in the dinghy to clip it to the davit lines, but that looks very dangerous. Even if I got in I would not be able to safely get back.
We do manage to get hold of the anchor line with a boat hook. Now we have a backup if the painter gives way.
We let go of the mooring line and head toward Warderick Wells. It is rough going. We are tired and the seas are rough. Periodically we check and make sure the dinghy is behind us. It’s bouncing around and full of water, but it’s still there. We are heading straight into 15 knot winds and 3 to 5 foot seas. We only go 18 nautical miles, but it takes us over 3 hours.
We are not new to provisioning the boat for long trips. The difference this time was that we planned to be gone longer, 4-8 weeks. Also, we might not find what we needed locally, or it would be overly expensive. We did not bring water, except what was in our 100-gallon tank. When that ran low we would run our watermaker, which can make about 8 gallons an hour.
In the weeks before we left we packed our 2.5 cubic foot freezer full. We packed most items in vacuum seal bags, in portion sizes for the two of us. We had at least 35 meals. We had a rough plan of meals and kept track of our frozen food with a Google Sheet when we had internet and on paper after that.
We packed our 4.6 cubic foot refrigerator with perishables like lettuce, eggs and yogurt. We also had lots of dry goods. One item we feel we can’t live without is coffee. You don’t want to talk with us before our first morning cup of coffee. We made sure we had more than enough of that.
We also had plenty of adult beverages. We brought 9 cases of beer. We started out thinking we would need about 4-5 cases, but people talked us into bringing more. We came home with about 4 cases. We bought only Corona Light in cans. That way we could stack them easier. (We did end up throwing most of the cardboard away in Nassau.) Buying cans allowed us to keep our recycling and trash more compact. We had beer stashed all over the boat. (We found hidden beer even after we got back.) In the morning we would put just enough cans in the refrigerator for that day.
For wine we bought boxes. We removed the bags of wine and threw away the cardboard boxes, except for one that we would reuse. We had other liquor such as vodka, rum and tequila. For mixers we brought a few cans of ginger beer and some Bloody Mary mix, but mostly we made our own mixers with our SodaStream machine.
We also had plenty of dry goods, like canned goods, flour and pasta. We were bored one rainy day when we realized that we didn’t have the ingredients to bake cookies or other sweets. We failed there.
We had plenty of toilet paper. We started with 6 rolls, but people convinced us we needed more. We bought 12 more rolls, but we only used 6.
We bought provisions in Staniel Cay and Highborne Cay. That was perishables like bread, yogurt, eggs, fruits and vegetables.
Warderick Wells Again
We make it to Warderick Wells. It’s much calmer here. The dinghy is a mess. It’s full of water. The fuel filter has come apart. We will take care of it in the morning.
We bail the water out of the dinghy and clean it up. We put the fuel filter back together. It had come unscrewed. The outboard still doesn’t start. It’s time to get out the book. We go through the troubleshooting steps for the 15 hp model. It looks like the ignition coil is bad. No chance of getting a new one here. Maybe we can patch it up until we get home. It can’t get any worse.
We take it apart, spray it with contact cleaner, add some wire and tape it back together. The ohmmeter readings look better than before, but they are not what the book says they should be. The sun has come out, we go swimming now and will try the ignition coil tomorrow.
We finish swimming and get back on our boat. A dinghy comes by. They are moored next to us and are coming back from a gathering of cruisers on the beach. They invite us to go snorkeling tomorrow.
Dave comes over in his dinghy to go snorkeling. His wife doesn’t snorkel so he is happy for the company. We are happy because we don’t have a dinghy. The tide is low, we see a variety of sea creatures and we have an awesome time. He offers to pick us up at 5:00 for the cruiser happy hour on the beach.
We meet lots of other cruisers, like Robin and Corbett. Some are headed home, like us, and others are headed farther south. Most of them are here waiting for the bad weather to pass. We agree to have a morning net on the VHF radio to discuss weather.
When cruising we fall into a morning ritual which is different from at home. This trip was no exception. We set the alarm for 6:00 am (we are not morning people by nature). We would get up and start coffee by; 1) turning off the refrigerator 2) turning on the inverter 3) turning on the coffee maker. (We always prepare the coffee maker before going to bed.) When coffee is ready we turn off the inverter and turn on the refrigerator. If the batteries are low the refrigerator will not come on so we wait for the sun to rise and charge the solar panels. If that’s not enough we run the generator.
Now that the important stuff is complete we go outside and look at weather, particularly wind speed, wind direction and clouds.
Next we tune the SSB to Chris Parker. The Bahamas synopsis starts about 7:00 am. While waiting for the Bahamas synopsis we make notes of the previous night’s email from NOAA offshore weather forecast so we can compare it to what Chris Parker says.
After Chris Parker we tune into any VHF radio nets that have weather. Later in the day we might receive weather faxes for the Caribbean. In the evening we receive our emails which includes a subscription to NOAA offshore weather.
Chris Parker says that this cold front we are experiencing could become a named storm. We are over a month away from hurricane season. In any case it doesn’t sound like we will be leaving Warderick Wells in the next few days, as it will be windy with many squalls.
We get on the VHF radio channel 68 at 8:00 am. Fred, one of the other cruisers, gets Chris Parker’s email and summarizes it. It’s about the same as we heard earlier. There is a storm moving south from the Abacos with 50 to 60 knots of winds. Everyone is staying here today.
Again today, we listen to Chris Parker at 7:00 am. Then we have the weather discussion on VHF 68 at 8:00 and the Staniel Cay weather net on VHF 12 at 8:30. We will stay here 3 or 4 more days at least, unless things drastically improve. The good news is we can’t think of being stuck in any better place.
Having another day with thunderstorms. We wish we had the ingredients to bake some sweets. We are still without a dinghy. We patched the ignition coil a few days ago, but we are not up for the disappointment when it doesn’t work. Maybe we’ll try it tomorrow.
Every day at 9:00 the Exuma Land and Sea Park comes on the radio and asks for any vessels who are leaving. Today it’s nobody. Everyone is staying here waiting for the weather to improve. After that we call and explain that we don’t have a dinghy and ask if someone can come out to collect our money for the mooring. We also ask if we can get closer to the office so we can row to the beach and office.
It has been three days since we messed with the ignition coil for the dinghy outboard. We are having fun here and we aren’t ready to face that we are without a dinghy for the rest of the trip, but it doesn’t make sense that we don’t at least give it a chance. Okay I give it a try. It works after two cranks!
We have been here five days and the weather is not looking good. We move to mooring ball 14, which is close to the beach and office, but now we have a working dinghy so that’s not as much as a problem as it was before.
We baked bread yesterday. It tastes good but looks funny. Now we make the recipe that we tried back in Marathon. It doesn’t rise as much and doesn’t turn out like we remember it.
We pay for three more days. Based on the weather forecasts, we will probably be here longer.
We have a 4.6 cubic foot 12-volt refrigerator. When on shore power it will switch to 115 volts AC to save the batteries. It has a small freezer which we use mostly for ice-cube trays. We also have a 2.5 cubic foot freezer. Up until recently this freezer would only run on shore power or our Honda generator. It has a cold plate so it only needs to run a couple of times a day to stay below freezing. When cruising in the past we would run our Honda generator once a day until the cold plate froze and the compressor stopped running. Before we left we installed a 12-volt compressor with a separate evaporator. We can run one, the other or both to keep our food frozen.
Because we have limited refrigerator space we find ways to make the most of it. For example, we only cool enough beer for one day. We put the warm beer in the refrigerator when the sun is shining and our solar panels are putting out the most amps, or when we are running the engine or generator.
Another way we maximize space is by not refrigerating items that we normally would. We use Laughing Cow spreadable cheese on bagels instead of cream cheese. It’s not cold in the grocery store and we ignore the “refrigerate after purchase” instructions. We use Nestle Media Crema, in a can, mixed with vinegar to make our own sour cream. We use Italian Seasoning salad dressing. We also don’t refrigerate our mustard, ketchup or mayonnaise.
That’s right, I said we don’t refrigerate our mayonnaise. We were skeptical at first, but we read in The Boat Galley that unrefrigerated mayonnaise won’t go bad if it’s not contaminated by double dipping a knife or spoon. To avoid this, we used a squeeze bottle of mayonnaise.
We take our dinghy to the beach. We see the people in the boat moored next to us trying to row their dinghy. The current is against them and they are fighting a losing battle. We tow them back to the boat. What goes around comes around.
We are rocking a lot more on this mooring ball. We should have stayed on mooring ball five. It is cold and windy. We stay on the boat.
Another windy day. it rains most of the day. We stay on the boat again.
We plan on leaving today. We have been here for over a week. We expected the weather to improve, but it is raining. We have thunder, lightning and wind gusts to 31 knots. The rain clears and we take our noodle chairs to the beach. We should be able to leave here tomorrow.
The cold front lasted for ten days. We were glad to not be paying $2.50 a foot per day at Highborne Cay Marina. The cold front forms tropical storm Anna, the first named storm of 2015. Thankfully it formed north of us and headed to South Carolina.
We head out of Warderick Wells. We see some squalls in the distance. We anchor in Highborne Cay a little after 1:00 pm. It is rough and rainy. We need to put the dinghy down and go to the store at the marina. We will wait for things to calm down.
We take our dinghy to the marina store to get some much-needed provisions. We pay $5 to dump our trash and leave our recycling for free. We buy some groceries and get a chance to talk to Fred and Caroline, cruisers we met in Warderick Wells. We had wanted to go to the restaurant in Highborne Cay, but that didn’t work out.
We are in the dinghy, headed back to Questeria. We are going very slow. When we increase throttle, the motor revs up but the speed doesn’t increase. We have spun our prop. Fortunately, the current is helping us and we are headed towards Questeria. I am nursing the throttle and Fran is using the paddle to help. We might have one chance to stop at Questeria. We grab the lines and stop the dinghy. We make it.
We have some fresh Bahamian bread we got at the store in Highborne Cay. This bread is so much better than what we baked in Warderick Wells. We throw our old bread overboard. The birds come by and don’t even try it.
Winds and seas calm down for a bit, but we start rocking again at 3:30 am. We pull anchor and head towards Nassau. Things calm down as we approach Nassau harbor. We get permission to enter the harbor and go straight through and anchor in Cable Beach, just outside of Nassau harbor. This is a nice, isolated anchorage, except for the powerboats and jet skis that whiz by us.
A fuel gauge on a sailboat is a luxury. But before our Bahamas trip we had to pull out our aluminum fuel tank and have it repaired. Before we could do that we had to drain it. If the tank had a sending unit for a fuel gauge they would remove the sending unit and pump it out from there. Ours did not have a sending unit so they drilled a hole that was the correct size for a sending unit.
They pumped about 43 gallons of diesel fuel into two 50 gallon drums. We disconnected all the fittings, sawed out the fiberglass straps and wood that was holding the tank in place and manhandled it out of the boat.
Finding a welder to repair the tank was a challenge. The first welder didn’t return our calls. We thought we might have the wrong number so we drove to his place of business. There was a sign on the door to call the same number. The second welder was out to lunch. He did return our call, but we already found the third welder who was busy, but said he could fit us in. He fixed it in a couple of days.
Next we brought it to a place to clean it and install a sending unit. They took longer than the welder. When they finished we manhandled it back into the boat, secured it and reconnected the fuel lines. We called about having the fuel pumped back into the tank, but they were busy and wouldn’t be able to come out for a while.
We were scheduled to take Questeria to the boatyard to have the bottom sanded and painted and didn’t have time to pump the fuel back into the tank so we bought 12 gallons in jerry cans, siphoned it into the tank and bled the fuel lines.
Whenever we put fuel in our tank from jerry cans we use a self-starting siphon and a Baja filter. We used to pour from the jerry can into the Baja filter, but that was usually messy. The self-starting siphon works great. We shake one end to start it and then let gravity do the rest. The Baja filter acts as a funnel, strainer and water separator all-in-one.
After the boatyard, we siphoned some of the fuel from the 50-gallon drums into the tank by adding an extension hose to our self-starting siphon. When the level in the 50-gallon drum dropped too much the siphoning stopped. We poured the rest of fuel into jerry cans and siphoned them into the tank.
After that we added the fuel gauge and connected it to our new sending unit. We added 12 gallons, from jerry cans, to fill the tank before we left for the Bahamas and filled four jerry cans to bring on our trip. We only bought fuel once in the Bahamas.
We are getting ready for our long trips across the banks and across the Gulf Stream. We siphon 27 gallons of diesel fuel into the tank. The fuel gauge goes from 3/4 to full. Then we pull the outboard off the dinghy and onto the stern mount. We pull the dinghy up on the davits and secure it the best we can. It has not been holding air lately and we haven’t been able to find where the air is leaking out. We do the best we can to secure it.
The wind and current are coming at us from different directions. This is similar to what happened in Hawksbill Cay, when we tried to add a line from our mooring line to our stern. It didn’t work out then so we ended up moving to Warderick Wells. That time it was a mooring and we were not far from a protected anchorage. This time we are at anchor and we don’t have anywhere we can go until morning.
We have all 100’ of chain out and about 6’ of nylon line. We hook a dock line to the chain and fasten the other end to a cleat on the stern. Then we let out more anchor line until the boat is facing into the swells. It’s much more comfortable than before. After a while the current changes and we are no longer facing into the swells, but we make adjustments and it get better again.
We pull the anchor at 6:30 am and head towards Northwest Channel. We put up the jib and are doing 6.5 to 7.2 knots. We must have some current helping us.
We are ready to drop the anchor, but are concerned about other boats. Many of them follow the recommended route, the same route we are on. We go south of the rhumb line and drop the anchor. We have gone 66 nautical miles in 11 and 1/2 hours. This is fast for us. We drop the anchor at 6:00 pm.
We keep the AIS on. At 8:30 pm we hear a call from one the sailboats we met in Warderick Wells. They are headed to Bimini and see us on the AIS. They should get to Bimini by dawn.
The AIS drains the batteries so we run the generator for a while.
We wake up at 5:30 am and pull the anchor at 6:30 am. We head towards Cat Cay. We put out the jib, but there is not enough wind so we furl it in. We anchor at Cat Cay airport, where we anchored almost six weeks ago. Tonight will be our last night in the Bahamas. Tomorrow we will cross the Gulf Stream. NOAA is calling for East to Southeast winds at 10-15 knots, with 2-3 foot seas and slight chance of showers and thunderstorms. It’s not ideal, but doable.
We wake up before dawn, make coffee and check the wind. It is blowing about 10 knots at 130 degrees. We wait until it is light enough to see to safely navigate through Gun Cay cut. Other boats are doing the same.
Once we’re through the cut and in deep water the winds are Southeast 9-13 knots. We head into the wind to put up the mainsail. Earlier, we had experimented with our downhaul and now it is completely tangled and is preventing us from raising the sail. We spend about 30 minutes getting it right.
We motor sail for a while, but the wind is now from behind us and the apparent wind speed has dropped to 4 knots. The jib is flopping around. We furl it in.
We get to Biscayne Bay. It is Sunday afternoon and there are hundreds of small boats out here. We know from experience they will all be gone at dark. We anchor in Key Biscayne Bight, away from most of the boats. Today we traveled 54 nautical miles in 10 hours.
We have a good night at anchor. We are still two days from home. The winds and seas are supposed to increase so we decide to take the ICW to Channel 5 bridge and then take Hawk Channel to our marina in Marathon.
You are required to check-in when you return to the US. Previously you would have to go to the nearest customs and border protection location to check-in in person, but now you can do it by phone if you take the right steps before you leave.
The first step is to register for Small Vessel Reporting System (SVRS). Previously this was called the local boater option and some people still refer to it with that name. You need to go the website https://svrs.cbp.dhs.gov and schedule an appointment for all crew. We did this in Key West. Our appointment was at the courthouse but when we got there they told us everybody was at the airport. We went to the airport.
We had to wait until someone was available. Eventually a uniformed officer came into the waiting area. He was putting on rubber gloves and said “Who’s first”. Fran immediately pointed to me and said “He is”.
The officer directed me into another room to take my fingerprints. There was no cavity search involved. He wore the rubber gloves to avoid taking his own fingerprints with the electronic device. When finished they assigned a number to each of us.
We received notification about a month or two later that our background checks were complete and we could create an online account.
Before leaving you must register your vessel and file a float plan with SVRS. The vessel information includes registration number, hull id, vessel length, manufacturer, model, etc. You also list your decal number. I’m not sure what the decal is for. All I know is that it is required. You buy it online at https://dtops.cbp.dhs.gov. The decal costs $27.50 and must be renewed each year.
The float plan is very simple. You list a registered vessel, all SVRS passengers and non-SVRS passengers, date leaving, date returning, departure location and destination location. You can add the float plan anytime, but you must activate it right before leaving. I had problems with the website. It would not let me enter Fran’s SVRS number. I emailed them and they fixed it.
We call SVRS and report that we are back in the US. They tell us that we don’t have to check-in in person.
The Bahamian People
I have read accounts of cruisers comparing customer service in the Bahamas to that in the US. These accounts are usually negative. I will agree with them that the attitude to customer service in the Bahamas is different to that of the US, but not necessarily better or worse. Most people in the Bahamas are on “Island Time”. We found that if we start a conversation with an employee of a marina or restaurant they will often sit down and talk to us for as long as we want. In the US they would be in a hurry to get back to work. If we were in a hurry, we wouldn’t be traveling on a sailboat.
We were gone for six weeks. Some of those days we sat waiting for weather, but overall most days were wonderful. We started in Marathon FL on March 31 and went as far as Staniel Cay, turned around on April 21, spent some time in Warderick Wells waiting out bad weather and got home on May 12.
We had some issues with the boat, but we were able to work through them. We would have been shocked if there were no problems. We learned a lot from the day we started planning to the day we got back home.
Our only regrets about our first Bahamas trip is that we didn’t spend more time and visit more places.
I’ve included some pictures in this post. If you want to see more pictures from our trip, go to our Bahamas Photo page.
Will we do it again? Definitely! We would have gone back in 2016 except for other commitments. We intend to go back in the spring of 2017.
We have owned Questeria, our 37′ 1976 Irwin, for ten years now. On November 18, 2005 we signed the papers and purchased Questeria from George and Nancy.
How it All Started
A few months earlier we had no idea we would be buying a sailboat. It all started in our living room in Raleigh, NC…
The only time we used our living room in Raleigh was on Sunday mornings. The sun would shine through the front window and we would read the paper and drink coffee.
On one of those Sunday mornings we were sitting in our living room, drinking coffee and reading the paper. We saw an article saying that you could get tax breaks by owning a boat. If the boat has a head (bathroom) and galley (kitchen) you can call it a second home and take deductions from the loan. We thought we could use some tax breaks and it might be fun to have a sailboat.
A few weeks later, on another Sunday morning, we were sitting in our living room, drinking coffee and reading the paper. We saw an ad for a Caribbean cruise and decided we should go. After booking a cruise we started thinking about shore activities that we would like to do. One of the activities that caught our interest was a scuba diving trip. I should say Ron was interested because Fran had no interest in scuba diving at that time. Ron had not been scuba diving for many years and decided to take a refresher class. After the class he was reminded of how much he enjoyed diving and wanted to go visit Fran’s Uncle George in the FL Keys.
We never did take that cruise.
We went down to Marathon, FL for a week vacation. It was Ron, Fran, Mildred (Fran’s mom) and James (Fran’s brother). We had a great time diving swimming and sightseeing. George and Nancy were looking for a bigger boat and Questeria was for sale. We left for home and hadn’t even made it out of the Raleigh airport when we started negotiating a deal to buy Questeria.
Diving Right In
There was a steep learning curve. Neither Fran nor Ron had ever owned a boat and now we had a 37′ sailboat. Fortunately George knew the boat and is a very good teacher. Ron also started taking online boating classes. One Sunday morning, after drinking coffee and reading the paper we went to the boat show and found the Raleigh Sail and Power Squadron. We signed up for their boating safety class and made lots of new friends while learning boating skills. We would eventually join the squadron, go on many cruises and take most of the classes they offered.
Between November and May we made several short trips to the keys to visit our sailboat, which was anchored in Newfound Harbor. We were both employed. Fran was working for SAS and Ron was working for IBM. We had both been working for our respective companies for a while and enjoyed lots of vacation time. We used this time to learn the boat and how to drive it.
Questeria‘s New Home
In the spring of 2006 it was time to take Questeria to NC. We called this “The Big Trip“. It would not be our last time taking Questeria between FL and NC. We learned a lot making this trip; 1) we had a lot more to learn about boating, 2) we could live on a boat for three weeks without killing each other, and 3) We really like the FL keys. The important thing was that we made it from FL keys to New Bern, NC and we had a great time doing it. (Click here to view photos.)
Now that Questeria was in NC we would spend most weekends working on her. At first we would hire people to do the work, but eventually we tried to do as much for ourselves as we could. There were very few Sunday mornings spent in the living room, drinking coffee and reading the paper. We continued to take classes with the Raleigh Sail and Power Squadron and we read many books about boating and boat repair.
We were spending almost every weekend on Questeria in New Bern (about two hours from Raleigh). We seldom had time to use our living room on Sunday mornings.
We started making short cruises by ourselves and with the power squadron. We also continued to make improvements to Questeria. We took Questeria to Duck Creek and had the standing rigging replaced. We replaced the Kenmore dorm fridge with a 12v marine fridge as well as many other projects.
All this time while we are enjoying cruising and working on Questeria in North Carolina, we are thinking of how much we like the keys. In September 2009 we got the opportunity to take a boat from NC to the FL keys, not Questeria, but Fran’s uncle Ben’s boat Molly Marie II . (Click here for photos.) It wasn’t the same as taking our own boat, but we were still working and felt that we were at least a couple of years away from retirement – or so we thought.
When we get back to Raleigh Fran finds out that her company’s plans to cut some medical insurance benefits unless she retires by the end of 2009. That is what she does. Ron is not ready to retire but IBM has a much more liberal attitude about working remotely than SAS. This sets us up for selling our house in Raleigh and becoming liveaboards in New Bern, NC.
We easily adapt to living aboard, but realize that winter in North Carolina may be too cold for us. We decide to take Questeriaback to the keys for the winter. We take Questeria to Bonefish Marina in Marathon and spend the winter in the keys. We are not quite ready to stay during hurricane season so we make our way back to NC in May 2011.
There were no hurricanes in the keys that year, but on August 27 hurricane Irene came through New Bern, NC. Questeria was in Northwest Creek Marina and had no damage. We stayed in Adam’s house in New Bern and were also undamaged. In October we head to the keys again. We decide that we will not leave the keys next summer and become Florida residents.
If you come to the keys you take a chance that you might catch something called “Keys Disease”. The symptoms may cause you to never return to work. Instead you will have strong urges to go fishing, diving or just hang out at the sandbar. On June 30, 2012 Ron gets a bad case of “Keys Disease” and retires from IBM. This sets the stage for planning longer cruises like the Bahamas.
We plan to go to the Bahamas in Spring of 2013. Instead we go to NC to watch Jackson while Alicia and Jeff go to Hawaii. In 2014 we drop our Bahamas plans because Alicia is expecting our fifth grandchild. Instead we plan to go to NC. In early April we make it to Fernandina Beach, FL and we get called up to NC to help. Oliver is born on June 3 and we have to decide which direction to go. We can continue to take Questeria north to NC or turn back to the keys. We decide to take Questeriaback south to the keys.
Boat projects continue between cruises and our list seems like it is never ending. But Questeria is looking better every year with improvements like new bimini/enclosure and counter tops.
In 2015 our Bahama plans come to fruition and we make it to the Exumas. It was a great trip and we promise ourselves we will do it again. (Click here for photos.)
It’s Been a Great Ten Years
I’ve just scratched the surface describing the last ten years on Questeria. We’ve made mistakes, but we have had a great time and learned so much. When we sold our house and moved aboard we agreed that we would give it a year and if we were not happy we would go back to living on dirt. That has not happened and we don’t see it happening for a while. We spent six weeks in the Bahamas and wish we had been there longer.
Yes, we’ve spent a lot of money making Questeria what she is today. She serves us well and takes us to places we never thought about ten years ago. We expect that she will continue to take us on amazing adventures.
Previously in this BLOG I talked about weather services we use while cruising. The most basic service is the marine weather forecasts from NOAA’s National Weather Service. The marine forecasts are categorized as Coastal/Great Lakes, Offshore and High Seas. These are further subdivided into areas and zones. Each zone has a unique Zone ID. Coastal/Great Lakes forecasts are broadcast on VHF radio and Offshore and High Seas forecasts are broadcast on HF radio. All of them are also available from the internet and email as well.
In The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South: The Thornless Path to Windward, by Bruce Van Sant, he talks about using the NWS offshore report exclusively to watch and plan for weather. He recommends a short hand notation for copying the HF broadcasts, but we find it easier to have them emailed to us. The NOAA website explains how to get the email, but we have found an easier way using SailMail.
Finding the marine forecast when connected to the internet is pretty straight forward. You just enter a location or click on a map. When you are planning to cruise offshore, you need to know which zones you will be cruising in. It’s a good idea to start looking at the forecasts before leaving so you are familiar with the conditions.
Zone IDs are six characters; two letters, the letter “z” and three digits. The numbers for each area are closely grouped. In this case 111 to 127. Each area has a synopsis, which is not shown. The synopsis is the lowest number in the group. In this case it is amz101.
You might notice that the offshore zones don’t cover the Gulf Stream crossing that we need to cross from Molasses Reef to Gun Cay. In this case we go to the Coastal/Great Lakes forecast by Zone page and click on South, followed by Miami to get the following clickable map.
Now that we know the zone IDs we can get access to the data directly. Each forecast and synopsis is a .txt file stored on the NWS website. Start by going to http://tgftp.nws.noaa.gov/. Click on data, then forecasts, marine and either coastal or offshore. Next click on the directory with the two letter name that matches your zone ID, such as am. You will see a list of .txt files. Click on amz101.txt to see the synopsis and amz117.txt to see the five-day forecast for the Bahamas.
These files are updated periodically to contain the most current forecast. We like to look at them each day at about the same time. It’s a good idea to look over previous forecasts to see how they change. We could make copies each day, but we find it easier to write it down in a small notebook. Also make sure to check the date and time in the file.
Getting Forecasts by email
You can have the forecasts and synopses emailed to you. Here is the way as described in the NWS website. Address your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The subject is ignored and you put commands in the body similar to below:
!REM send to email@example.com
!REM Atlantic Coastal Waters Synopsis
!REM Atlantic Coastal Waters Forecast
!REM Bahamas Synopsis
!REM Bahamas Offshore Waters Forecast
It uses the FTP protocol. The lines starting with “!REM ” are ignored and can be used as comments in a file that you copy and paste into your email. The biggest disadvantage with this is that it is very easy to make an error and all or part of your request will fail without explaining why.
An easier way is to use SailDocs . Send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. The subject is ignored and the body looks as follows:
This format is easier to write and you can change the word “send” to “subscribe” to get an email everyday. The default subscription is for 14 days, but you can change that.
Note: The above email is formatted as a single line. You can substitute “Subscribe” for “Send” and get a file everyday for two weeks.
We use AirMail, with SailMail on our SSB while cruising, but you can use any email service to get these forecasts from SailMail.
Using Marine Forecasts
The format of the marine zone forecast is pretty obvious. It goes out for five-days, or ten 12 hour periods. We like to compare them to other weather resources that are labeled by hour so we note the days and hours when we copy it. Times are noted in local time of the reporting office, which is EST or EDT for all Atlantic zones. Some other weather resources are in UTC (Universal Coordinated Time), but we have gotten used to converting.
The format of the forecast is straightforward. Both the synopsis and five-day forecast have dates and times, descriptions of what they are and the area covered. They use a limited set of characters – all uppercase letters, numbers and very few punctuation marks. This is a holdover from years ago when there were devices that could not display all the characters.
The synopsis has a few sentences, describing current patterns and what’s expected in the next coming days.
We use the synopsis to verify our analysis of weather faxes and other weather resources. The weather faxes are like snapshots that are 24 hours apart, the synopsis explains what happens in between. If you want more detailed information about the forecast, look at the discussion for the area.
The five-day forecast has wind direction, wind speed, sea height and precipitation forecasts for five days. Wind speeds are in knots and seas are in feet. We copy the forecast to a small notebook along with notes from weather faxes and other resources. We have one page a day and generally go back to see how forecasts change. We also compare actual conditions to what was forecast.
Here’s a page of our weather log. It starts out with the date and location. Next are notes from the Surface Analysis and 24, 48, 72 and 96 hour Surface Forecast weather faxes. Refer to Weather, Part 6 for more information about weather faxes. Next is the five-day forecast. When we are actually cruising there will be more on this page, such as observed conditions and notes from Chris Parker and other weather resources. I will discuss our weather log in more detail in future posts.
In this post I discussed different ways to get marine forecasts. The method we use depends on whether we have access to the internet. When we are cruising in the Bahamas we use SailMail to get our forecasts by email, otherwise we access them directly. Some cruisers prefer to listen to the broadcasts on their HF or VHF radio. Whatever you decide, you can’t say that marine forecasts are not a valuable weather service when cruising.
Marine Weather Faxes from NOAA are a valuable resource while cruising. In Weather, Part 3 I discussed how we use weather charts that we down-load from the internet. In this post I talk about how we get weather faxes on Questeria when we have no internet or cell phone service, such as our last Bahamas cruise.
What You Need to Get Weather Faxes
To receive weather faxes you need a SSB (single side band) receiver (you don’t need a transmitter), a way to decode the signal and a way to display the fax. We currently decode the signal with a pactor modem but we have also used our smart phones and tablets to decode weather faxes. You can display the fax on a computer screen, mobile device or print it on paper. We generally like to look at the fax on a large screen tablet.
Getting Ready to Use Weather Faxes
We got ready for our Bahamas cruise by going on-line deciding what data we needed to look at. We started by going to http://tgftp.nws.noaa.gov/fax/marine.shtml and deciding what station was best for our cruising area. For us it was GULF of MEXICO, CARIB, TROP ATLANTIC, and SE PAC (New Orleans/NMG). Next we looked at the Hyperlinked Schedule and made note of the broadcast times and frequencies. All times are in UTC (Universal Coordinated Time) and all broadcasts are in the USB (Upper Side Band) mode.
Why All the Frequencies?
The faxes are broadcast on multiple frequencies for different propagation conditions. Propagation is the principle that allows HF radio signals to travel long distances. Propagation is complicated, but for our purposes we just listen to each frequency and decide which one is clearest. You must tune your receiver 1.9 kHz. lower than the frequency on the schedule. For example, if you want to receive a fax on 4317.9 kHz, set your receiver to 4316.0 kHz. Make sure your radio is programmed to receive all frequencies so you can quickly scan through them and listen for the clearest signal. My ICOM M802 came with weather stations already programmed in. New Orleans station 4316.0 kHz. is channel 54.
What Charts Should I Get?
There are many charts available, but what do you really need to understand the forecast? We rely on the Surface Analysis charts, to see what is happening and Surface Forecast charts to see what will happen. The four charts that are most interesting for the Bahamas are the U.S./TROPICAL SURFACE ANALYSIS (W HALF) and 24, 48 and 72 HR SURFACE FORECAST charts.
Sometimes we look at the WIND/WAVE charts to verify our analysis of the surface forecast charts. These charts have wind barbs that show wind speed and direction, but wind speed is only in 5 knot increments. Also, the charts don’t always have wind barbs in the exact locations you care about. With practice you can extract the wind speed and direction from the SA/SF charts and use WIND/WAVE charts to verify your analysis.
Familiarize yourself with these charts before you start cruising. You can click on the times or contents of the Hyperlinked Schedule to see what each transmission looks like. The charts you get over the air will not be as clear as what you down-load and there will be times when you can’t get readable charts at all.
Decoding the Signal
Once we have the SSB receiving the signal, we need to decode it. On Questeria we have decoded it two ways; with an iPhone/iPad or with a pactor modem. Before we had a pactor modem we used the HF FAX app with an iPad or iPhone. At first we would hold the device next to the speaker or an ear bud. Later I built a an interface based on the instructions at this website.
We found it easier to decode weather faxes when we got a pactor modem. We installed the Viewfax software, which comes with the AirMail program. We got AirMail on a CD that came with the pactor modem we bought from DockSide Radio. We highly recommend DockSide Radio. They sell systems already set-up with the right cables, software and documentation for your SSB and they will help you resolve any problems.
If you have AirMail on your computer you just open the GetFax window, select your station and frequency, and start receiving faxes. We listen to each frequency and choose the clearest. We periodically listen to make sure we are receiving the clearest signal, as propagation condition change over time.
Viewing the Weather Fax
When we have decoded the faxes that we want, we need to view the files. The files are in one of several formats, depending on how you receive and decode them. If downloaded from the internet they could be in .gif (Graphics Interchange Format) or .tif (Tagged Image File Format). If decoded with HF FAX they will be in .png (Portable Network Graphics) format. When received with a pactor modem they will be in .tif format. Files in .gif and .png format are easily viewed as photos, but files in .tif format need a special viewer. AIrMail includes a TIFF viewer, but we like to transfer the files to an android tablet so we can easily rotate and zoom into the image. There are many android apps to view TIFF files, but we use Multi-TIFF Viewer.
When we use HF Fax on the iPad we use the iPad to display the charts. The displays on our iPhones are too small, so we transfer the files to the computer with iTunes. Make sure your iTunes is up to date before you start cruising off the grid. When we were in Dry Tortugas we were unable to transfer files until we got back home because we had a back level version of iTunes on our computer which refused to talk to our phones.
Examples of Weather Faxes
In Weather, Part 5 I talked about tropical storm Ana forming on top of us. Here are some real weather charts we received while in the Bahamas showing this forecast.
In this chart you can see the surface trough at about 25N 76W.
This chart shows the low starting to form at 30N 76W.
In this chart the low continues to form.
Receiving weather faxes on your SSB radio is pretty simple once you get started. Analyzing them is a bit more difficult, but with practice it becomes easier and easier. We started treating it like a hobby and now they have become a resource that we rely on while cruising. In a later post I’ll talk about how we practice analyzing weather faxes. I’ll also talk about how we use zone forecasts, synopsis-es, GRIB files and make weather observations while cruising.