Bahamas Charter: out of Marsh Harbour in the Abacos
Blame it on Ernest Hemingway and Islands in the Stream. Blame it on the fact that the island group is so close—just 70 miles east of Palm Beach, Florida—yet still very much off the beaten path. For whatever reason, I’ve wanted to visit the Bahamas for decades, and when the opportunity finally arose to charter for a week with Dream Yacht Charter out of Marsh Harbour in the Abacos, I jumped at the chance.
If there was a fly in the ointment, it was that we were going there in late August. Not only is this hurricane season, it’s a time of year known for sweltering temps and dead winds. We would also be exploring the area aboard a monohull: a Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 42i named Little Darling. For years I’ve heard the only way to explore the thin water of the Bahamas is by catamaran, and the idea of plowing around with a 5ft 6in keel underfoot struck me as risky, to say the least. Luckily, as events proved, my concerns were not only unfounded, they were so off the mark as to be almost laughable.
Regarding timing: August may not have the best wind, but you also have the place all to yourself. During the short cab ride from the airport over to the Dream Yacht Charter base in Mangoes Marina, we not only didn’t see any other tourists, we saw almost no one else, period.
It was the same when we arrived at the marina. Base manager Terriance Edgecombe said he had one other boat out, but that was it. Like the rest of the charter/tourist trade in the Bahamas, he planned to pretty much shut down for the month of September. In the meantime, he was at our service.
This proved especially convenient, since the Dream Yacht Charter base in Marsh Harbour is still fairly small, allowing for a kind of personal touch is almost nonexistent in this day and age. In fact, Terriance not only helped us through our checkout, he accompanied us to the grocery store, where he chatted with friends while we did our provisioning. An Abaco native, he also provided us with a wealth of information on where it was best to explore and how best to get there.
Later, the entire crew, including my wife, Shelly, our intrepid 8-year-old daughter, Bridget, and our friends Les and Masha, from Washington D.C., all walked to Snappas Grill and Chill for dinner. Shelly, Les and I all met as Peace Corps volunteers in Western Samoa, and looking out over the nearly empty anchorage we agreed there was something about Marsh Harbour that reminded us of our time in the South Pacific—high praise indeed! I could hardly wait to set sail.
ON OUR WAY
Our sailing schedule was dictated by three factors: the forecast wind; the fact that we had to swing by Marsh Harbour again midway through our charter to pick up my sister Sara; and the basic layout of the Sea of Abaco, which was to be our stomping grounds for the next few days.
Extending northwest to southeast, the “sea” is basically an oversized 60-mile-long lagoon, separating the north half of Great Abaco Island and a chain of barrier islands facing the open Atlantic. The winds were forecast to blow light from the south shifting east-southeast, which would be perfect for making the trip out to Great Guana Cay. They were then expected to back into the northeast and then east-northeast, which I hoped would carry us back down the sea toward Hope Town and then Marsh Harbour again.
Picking our way out of Marsh Harbour, we made sure to skirt its northern edge. The shoal waters of the Bahamas are poorly marked, even in high-traffic areas, and Terriance strongly recommended we avoid the middle of the bay. Once we rounded the reefs guarding the headland, though, it was smooth sailing straight up the middle of the sea, albeit in depths of about 12 feet. In fact, it was fascinating sailing on such shallow, crystal-clear water. Peering through the ripples we could clearly make out not only the weeds, sand and coral alternately covering the bottom, but also starfish and rays. Bridget—a veteran marine-life spotter—even saw a couple of sea turtles.
An hour before sunset, we arrived at the anchorage at Great Guana Cay, where we experienced the most hair-raising moment of our trip, as the bottom suddenly lunged up at us—with soundings of first 5 and then 4.8 feet—while we were looking for a place to drop the hook. (I later learned that Terriance had dialed in an extra foot or two of cushion on the depthsounder, which explained why we didn’t come to a grinding halt.) After that, we went back out in the “deep” water (about 8 feet) a little farther offshore and grabbed one of about a half-dozen unoccupied moorings in front of a small scuba-diving outfit. A quick plunge with snorkel gear on revealed that the chain and other gear were all in good shape, and we settled down for some dinner followed by a spot of beachcombing.
Next morning the entire crew dinghied ashore to hike across the narrow cay to a magnificent white-sand beach with a great bar called Nipper’s perched on the bluff overhead. I’ve often heard the expression “gin clear” water, but never really understood what it meant until that day. The swells coming in off the open Atlantic really did look like liquid glass as they rolled over the shallows with sunlight glinting off their undulating faces. With a mask on underwater it felt like you could see forever. Later, munching on fries and sipping rum drinks at the brightly painted Nipper’s, we could easily see a large ray poking among the coral heads in the distance. Incredible!
So incredible, in fact, that we decided to spend a second night on the same mooring instead of moving on. I felt one or two pangs of guilt about this, but hey, it’s hard work being a sailing journalist, so I figured I deserved a break—and life on a mooring in that cozy little anchorage was just so dang easy…
Not surprisingly, everyone was ready and raring to go the next morning, and after breakfast—which was accompanied by a couple of mild squalls—we immediately cast off and sailed southeast toward our next destination, Man of War Cay. The entrance to the harbor there is both shallow and incredibly narrow, with a pair of menacing ledges to either side. Terriance had warned us not to enter on anything other than a rising tide, and I kept a close eye on the depthsounder, as the crew stood lookout up on the bow.
The anchorage itself is close and extremely well sheltered, with an abundance of mangroves along the western shore. I’d been worried it might be stuffy, but the breeze held and a light overcast kept the temperature under control. That afternoon we walked through the nearly deserted town to yet another endless beach on the Atlantic side, where we again had the entire place to ourselves. Along the way, we picked up fresh bread from Lola’s bakery, located in one of the village’s many small, brightly painted homes.
The following morning it was off to Marsh Harbour to pick up my sister. Once again, we timed our departure so we could transit Man of War channel on a rising tide. As is often the case, those same ledges that seemed so terrifying the day before appeared far less so the second time around. Not only was Little Darling’s 5ft 6in draft just fine, but it was nice only having to squeeze a single hull through that channel, as opposed to two.
The southeasterly was now well established, blowing in the low teens, and we had a fantastic sail on the Sea of Abaco, leaving Garden Cay to port and then romping along on a broad reach to Marsh Harbour. According to the daily weather report on the cruiser’s net that morning, a tropical storm named Isaac was now threatening the area, but Terriance said it was too soon to start worrying, and that we should keep sailing.
Sara arrived at the dock just as we finished topping off our water tanks, and as soon as we were done, we set out again: sailing on a close reach to Matt Lowe’s Cay, where we fired up the auxiliary and motored directly into the wind toward our destination for the day, Hope Town on Elbow Cay.
Terriance had warned us about the shallows surrounding the twisting channel into Hope Town Harbour (and it was high time we practiced our anchoring skills anyway!) so we dropped the hook in about 7 feet of calm, clear water between Elbow and Parrot cays, under the watchful eye of the red-and-white-striped Elbow Reef Lighthouse.
According to Terriance, this anchorage, though expansive, can get crowded in the high season. And if the hundreds of “divots” I saw stretching off into the murky distance when I dove on our hook are any indication, crowded is an understatement. But in late August, we were the only ones around.
It was the same in Hope Town proper, a beautiful multicolored hamlet originally founded by British loyalists after the American Revolution. That night we had dinner at the Harbour’s Edge restaurant, perched on a dock in the heart of town. Then bright and early the next day we climbed to the top of the old lighthouse, meandered about town, and picked up burgers and conch fritters at a little open-air place called Munchies. Afterward, we were splashing in the surf on the other side of the island, when Shelly happened to notice a 5-foot nurse shark meandering along between the shore and Sara and me. “Shark! Shark!” she yelled—the first time I’ve ever heard those pulse-rattling words uttered in earnest.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and with just one more night to go, we weighed anchor and set sail for Matt Lowe’s Cay, so we’d be within striking distance of Marsh Harbour. Isaac was now a hurricane and bearing down on Cuba, with the Abacos still very much within NOAA’s cone of uncertainty. But Terriance said there was no need to be concerned just yet, although he appreciated our keeping close, just in case.
Motoring around to the sheltered bight on the southwest side of the island—which lies just off Great Abaco—we again had the place to ourselves, but with a twist. Developers have cut out a number of plots in the island’s interior and laid an electrical cable right down the middle of the anchorage. According to the sailing directions we had on board, this unburied cable is located in the “northern third” of the anchorage. However, when I happened to glance over the side after we dropped our hook halfway down the shore, I couldn’t help noticing two straight and parallel lines running along the bottom directly under our keel! Luckily, we reanchored without incident, and had a wonderful evening snorkeling and enjoying another great dinner out in the cockpit under the stars.
The following morning, we managed to squeeze in an extended excursion ashore before sailing back to Marsh Harbour, where we planned to spend the night before catching our various flights home the next day. By now, Isaac was headed for the Gulf of Mexico, and it appeared the Bahamas would suffer nothing more than some strong wind and rain as the storm set its sights on South Florida and the Republican National Convention.
There were a few tense moments as we wondered if we’d make our connections. But we managed to keep our wits about us and stayed in “vacation mode” right until the end. There are, after all, many worse places to be stuck in the world than in the Bahamas.
Executive Editor Adam Cort sails in Boston when not exploring the Bahamas