Work Hard, Play Hard Page 2

After four years of college sailing, I thought I knew a thing or two about sailboat racing: hit hard, hike hard, trim well and yell loudly enough to intimidate the competition. Then I stepped aboard my first big keelboat, where I found winches, heavy lines, an electrical panel and a loud, frightening engine. Though I understood the principles of sailing, this was a very different animal from a
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PLAY HARD

Except for when we didn’t. Truthfully, we were still in the islands, mon. There were still beaches to comb, sun to soak up and gorgeous stretches of water to sail on. Our route began in Marsh Harbour, Great Abaco, at Fair Wind Sailing’s newest charter base. With convenient provisioning and easy access to the airport, Marsh Harbour is an ideal jumping-off point for a week in the Abacos. We celebrated the first day of sailing school with live music and fresh snapper at Mango’s restaurant, just a short walk from the Fair Wind base.

We began our journey on an unseasonably cold February morning, sailing up the Sea of Abaco toward Great Guana Cay. This was our first glance at the teal waters and white sand that set the Abacos apart as a cruising ground. The Sea of Abaco is essentially a lagoon between Great Abaco to the west and a series of cays and reefs to the east that form a barrier against the untamed waters of the Atlantic. Though this makes for calmer water and better snorkeling, it also translates into shallow depths and tricky holding ground that, in many places, had us holding our breath.

That night presented a classic Bahamian challenge, and we received our first lesson in resetting an anchor in the dark. We also received our second. But the next morning shone bright and we continued north, this time cutting out into the Atlantic to round Whale Cay and enter the Sea of Abaco back at Green Turtle Cay. Pat and I reveled in the thrill of sailing in the open ocean, and also enjoyed the challenge of navigating through old cruise ship channels, reefs and ever-changing shoals.

The channel leading into Green Turtle Cay is narrow and shallow enough to make the most experienced of mariners nervous. While Pat stood watch, I white-knuckled the helm all the way to the mooring, but it was well worth it. After a lesson on compass bearings and fixing positions, we dinghied ashore, rented bikes and rode into New Plymouth. Though we passed several spots for snorkel rentals, provisioning and dining, the island still felt peaceful and undeveloped.

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Next morning we motored out of that nerve-wracking little channel and were relieved to round Whale Cay and set our sails back into the Sea of Abaco. This was our first truly sunny day, so Dave cranked up the Bob Marley, and we soared all the way to Treasure Cay. When I return to the Bahamas, it will be for Treasure Cay. This is truly a cruiser’s dream: protected dockage, pristine facilities, WiFi, a pool, a restaurant and, just past the marina, Coco Beach, a scene worthy of any “Top Ten Prettiest Beaches” superlative. Pat and I gladly left our charts and parallel rules on board in favor of grilled grouper, live music and dancing near the beachside bonfire. We also experienced our first Goombay Smash, a local favorite that we swore by for the remainder of the trip. We enjoyed Treasure Cay so much, in fact, that we stayed there another night.

ALL GOOD THINGS MUST END

Our final day at sea brought the rowdiest winds yet. The day’s lessons were on reefing, heaving-to and man-overboard drills, all of which would have been challenging even in light breeze. There were times when Island Retreat felt like too much to handle, but Dave instructed us in a way that made it seem we’d known how to sail a big boat all along. His confidence as a teacher made Pat and me feel confident as students, and just one week after arriving as rookies, we were scooping up man-overboard beacons in 25 knots of breeze like seasoned pros.

Looking back, there is one evening that stands out as the epitome of the experience. On our final afternoon, after an exhausting day of drilling in heavy weather, Dave sat on his hands and watched Pat and me sail Island Retreat by ourselves. We pulled her snugly into her slip, tied up her lines and tidied the deck, feeling proud of our newly acquired skills. We then took our third and toughest test to Curly Tails restaurant, sat at the bar and opened our test books. Then, with the island breeze on our backs, pencil in one hand, conch fritter in the other, we opened our ASA Bareboat Chartering 104 tests. It wasn’t easy, but after a couple of hours of plotting courses and racking our brains, Pat and I both passed with flying colors. We ordered a Goombay Smash to celebrate. Work hard, play hard.

Note: Fair Wind Sailing now uses the US SAILING certification courses.

THE IDEAL CLASSROOM When Dave Bello decided to build Fair Wind Sailing School’s seventh and newest base in the Bahamas, he said it was because it was “the ideal classroom.” It wasn’t until I experienced the challenging navigation, tricky anchorages and charming Abacos that I agreed. Unlike the BVI, the Abacos are reasonably untouched. You’re never fighting for a mooring in a crowded field; rather, you’re practicing your anchoring skills in secluded areas. The wind, water and sun are just as lovely, but the lack of crowds creates an entirely different feeling. Even Treasure Cay and Green Turtle Cay, among the best known of the Abacos, are relatively secluded. Sure, sailing in shallow waters with tricky holding is a challenge, but when you’re learning to be a charter captain, the more challenging, the better.

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