Safety, Friendship, and the Handling of Messages

When the five of us— Dana, Bird, Pip, Laura and I—left Boston, Massachusetts, last April for a week’s charter in the Abacos, we thought we were in for a week of easy sailing and stress-free sunbathing. We certainly didn’t expect to become part of a sailing community. That hadn’t happened on any of our previous “girls' trip” charters together in St. Martin and the British Virgin Islands. Why would
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When the five of us— Dana, Bird, Pip, Laura and I—left Boston, Massachusetts, last April for a week’s charter in the Abacos, we thought we were in for a week of easy sailing and stress-free sunbathing. We certainly didn’t expect to become part of a sailing community. That hadn’t happened on any of our previous “girls' trip” charters together in St. Martin and the British Virgin Islands. Why would it happen in the Bahamas?

They say ignorance is bliss, and by that measure we were certainly ready to be blissed-out by the Bahamas. None of us had been there before, and despite devouring assorted cruising guides on the long haul down from Boston, we had not agreed on a cruise plan. The chart briefing at the Moorings base in Marsh Harbour didn’t help: every anchorage sounded sublime, every cove promised hidden delights. There was only one solution. We would sleep on it. First, we had to provision our Moorings 40 catamaran, appropriately named Imagine. None of us had sailed a catamaran before. We were excited at the prospect of not heeling, as this meant we needn’t stow everything before setting sail, and we were blown away by the amount of space aboard.

Sleeping on it turned out to be the right move. At the previous day’s briefing, the base manager had recommended we tune in to the Abaco Cruiser’s Net on Channel 68 at 0815 to hear the local weather forecast. As we crowded round the VHF, it soon became obvious that the Cruiser’s Net could provide more than a weather forecast; it was a great source of information about local anchorages, restaurants and entertainment, and about general goings-on around the islands. Patti, the radio-net controller, greeted us every morning with weather information and cheery advice on what to do that day. She also provided a communication service “for cruisers and dirt dwellers alike.” Later, we discovered that Patti is Patti Toler; she lives in Marsh Harbour and has been the mainstay of the cruiser’s net since 1992. Her broadcasts quickly became the mainstay of our vacation.

On our first day Patti told us about the Bahamian May Festival on Green Cay. That seemed as good a place to go as any, so off we went, stopping en route at Spoil Bank Cay for a swim and the first of many breathtaking snorkels. By late afternoon we were anchored off Settlement Harbor and headed ashore for a fun-filled evening highlighted by a fantastic marching band, a parade of princesses from the local kindergarten, local arts and crafts and a selection of delicious fried lobster and conch.

Next morning Patti told us about a pig roast at the Nippers beach bar on Great Guana. We pulled into another picture-perfect anchorage and, after snorkeling on the reef, boarded a small shuttle bus to Nippers, perched high up on a hill with panoramic views over crystal-clear waters and a pristine beach. We settled in to enjoy great music, good food and scary pitchers of frozen “Nippers.” As the T-shirt says, “If you haven’t been Nipped you haven’t been to Guana.”

It became our morning ritual to prepare tea and wait patiently to see where Patti would send us. There was some excitement on Day Three—Sally Smith had left her pocketbook on a bench on the main street on Man o’ War Cay. That was all the inspiration we needed, and up went the anchor. Man o’ War Cay was perfect—a sleepy island with no cars or alcohol and a quiet anchorage surrounded by mangroves. We wandered down quiet streets where we found some men building a boat, a small grocery store and a group of women working in a small bag and batik factory. The swimming was fantastic and we spent a peaceful night at anchor, enjoying the amazing phosphorescence around the mangroves.

Next morning, the fifth of May (“Drinko De Mayo,” Bird chirped gleefully), Patti told us the weather would be a balmy 78 degrees, with winds SSE at 10-12 knots and flat seas—the same as it had been the day before, and the day before that! After reminding us of the Cruiser Net mottos—“Safety, friendship and the handling of messages” and “Remember, you are the boss of your boat”—she announced there would be dinner and a movie in Hope Town that evening. So far Patti had not failed us, so we headed to Hope Town on Elbow Cay, a beautiful harbor with a candy-cane lighthouse. There were plenty of moorings to choose from, and we had an opportunity to top up our water tanks on the fuel dock before wandering along charming streets past pastel-colored cottages and manicured gardens abundant with bougainevillea. Later that afternoon a fellow cruiser, Kenny, took us on a tour of the botanical gardens at Hope Town Hideaways. We had a hankering for fresh fish, so Laura and Bird went to see if we could charm some out of one of the sportfishing boats near by. A couple of cocktails later they returned with the freshest mahi-mahi I’ve ever seen. Delicious!

For Day Five Patti forecast SSE winds at 10-12 knots with flat seas (surprise) and told us about Milanne Rehor and her quest to save the wild horses of Abaco (www.arkwild.org). Laura, a horse fiend, was keen to learn more. The trip’s end was now in sight, so we had to come up with a plan to cram in everywhere we hoped to go. Everyone we spoke to said we had to see Tahiti Beach and Fowl Cay, so we figured we could get to both places that day then back to Treasure Cay, which would enable Laura to see the horses the following morning.

What an amazing day. Tahiti Beach is basically a huge sandbar. We took the dinghy ashore and walked around, mesmerized by this beautiful, almost apocalyptic landscape. Then we motorsailed over to Fowl Cay, dropped the hook again, had a swift lunch, and hopped in the dinghy to check out the snorkeling on the huge reef. Wow! The colors of the water were incredible—turquoise, greens and blues that were almost translucent and extended to the horizon. Beneath us clown fish, parrot fish, gigantic brain coral, fans, trumpet fish and enormous groupers competed for attention.

Next morning we took Laura ashore at Treasure Cay, where she met with the crew of a local schooner to visit the horses on their 8,300-acre preserve. These horses are unique; there has been no cross-breeding with introduced animals and they are directly descended from their Spanish colonial ancestors. Meanwhile, the rest of us were checking out Coco Beach, which National Geographic has named one of the top 10 beaches in the world. It has miles of fine white sand that squeaks when you walk on it, plus turtles and manta rays swimming in water so clear and inviting that we all ran in for a swim like a bunch of excited children.

That evening we anchored in a secluded cove not far from Marsh Harbour. After motorsailing through a rain squall we emerged under a rainbow in a gorgeous bay and were greeted by two huge manta rays that jumped clear out of the water as we were setting the anchor. That night we all slept under the stars on the trampoline and reflected on the marvelous week we’d had.

We spent our last morning snorkeling on Mermaid's Reef. The fish here are used to being fed and the parrot fish were somewhat intimidating. Again the water was very clear and the sea life was abundant. With heavy hearts we made our way back to Marsh Harbour, fueled up the boat and packed our bags. It had been a charter with a difference. We were welcomed everywhere we went by friendly and charming Bahamians, and Patti and the Cruiser’s Net really made us feel part of a community. We were tempted to stay, but the Moorings needed the boat back. Another time, hopefully.

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