Sailing the Sea of Abaco, Disneyland of the Bahamas

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Hope Town harbor seen from its lighthouse, with the “Rage” frothing in the background. Photo by Jon Nickson

Hope Town harbor seen from its lighthouse, with the “Rage” frothing in the background. Photos by Jon Nickson

I have often finished a yacht charter thinking that I missed more than I saw and find myself planning to come back even as I board the plane home. It’s not easy to find the perfect weeklong charter destination—one where you can see everything but are kept busy every day—but the Sea of Abaco in the Bahamas is about as close as any.

After a 45-minute flight from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, we landed in Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island. We may have only traveled a couple of hundred miles, but the Sea of Abaco is a place where time stops, or at least moves really slowly, so life changes—entirely.

Home to nearly 6,000 people, Marsh Harbour is the capital of Abaco and a launching pad for ferries to the outer cays as well as the hub for bareboat chartering. We had four catamarans and one monohull in our group, and the chart review revealed a compact body of water dotted with hundreds of little coves on the surrounding islands—plenty to keep everyone busy for a week. There was only one problem: the “Rage” was on. This local weather phenomenon with winds of more than 30 knots would keep us confined to the sea itself, where the water is nearly flat no matter what the Atlantic may be cooking up outside.

Paradise awaits in the Bahamas. Photos courtesy of Jon Nickson

Paradise awaits in the Bahamas.

The sheltered waters of this boomerang-shaped cruising ground are located at roughly 25 degrees 5 minutes north latitude, and 77 degrees 21 minutes west longitude. After checkout, we decided to head for the liveliest spot first, and so set course directly into the wind to Great Guana Cay. The nine-mile-long island seems to pull it all together to offer everything you want on vacation—from a bit of exciting nightlife to pristine natural beauty

Guana Cay is a barrier island that protects the center of the Sea of Abaco. Sheltered from the northeast and southeast, its small marina on the leeward side has a resort with docks and dinghy access. The holding ground here can be sketchy because of the grassy bottom, so it’s better to anchor overnight around the corner, although in our case we caught a mooring behind Delia’s Cay. Perhaps the most famous of Guana’s tourist attractions is Nipper’s, a colorful multi-level bar and restaurant on the windward side that hosts pig roasts on Sundays and pirate parties throughout the year.

The sign for Nippers, a nice place to stop for a libation on Big Guana Cay. Photo courtesy of Jon Nickson

The sign for Nippers, a nice place to stop for a libation on Big Guana Cay.

A short walk from the anchorage, Nipper’s is just the place to let your hair down and enjoy a rum punch at the swim-up bar on a crazy Friday night or a conch burger for lunch on a lazy Monday. Guana has a seven-mile beach on its windward side, which is spectacular when the Atlantic is calm. However, when the trades are blowing like stink, you’re likely to get a nice exfoliation from the blowing sand. But hey, what’s a little grit in your conch burger?

The next morning, we wanted to head north to Green Turtle Cay, but this involved crossing a bit of open water, which the charter base had advised against, due to the continuing Rage. So instead our group weighed anchor and headed down to Man-O-War Cay—a place with a history and a vibe like no other island I’ve ever visited. Entering Man-O-War involves a bit of needle threading. The deeper water at the entrance is only about one-catamaran wide, and our lone monohull plowed a groove right through the center due to its draft. Once inside, though, it’s as if you’ve stepped through the looking glass, because this township and cay have barely changed in the past couple hundred years.

Sunrise over Little Harbor

Sunrise over Little Harbor

We hooked up to some $20-per-night moorings, which are set close to one another. When the current shifts, boats tend to dance and bounce off one another, since there seems to be little regard as to what size boat is assigned to which mooring. However, the harbor is protected on all sides, so these boat pirouettes are relatively benign. On the other hand, the no-seeums that swarmed out of the surrounding mangroves later that evening were anything but.

Man-O-War has been known for its boatbuilding since the 1880s. You can still stroll along the waterfront and see boats like the popular Abaco dinghies in mid-build at Albury Brothers Boatyard. The community is small and tightly knit. A few last names, like Albury and Archer, are ubiquitous, as these families have been here since the settlement was established in the late 1700s. Today it seems everyone knows one another by first name, so when you’re looking for baked goods you might get a response like, “Sarah used to bake out of her house, but she’s retired now. If you know what you want, Jane can make it for tomorrow. She’s down in the yellow house by the marina.”

What to Watch For

Shoaling reefs and bugs—they can be equally problematic. The Sea of Abaco is shallow and punctuated with unexpected coral flats, which is what makes a chartering a catamaran so appealing. Keep an eye on your chartplotter and once anchored, bring out the bug spray.

A must-stop is Albury’s Sail Shop where canvas bags have been sewn by hand for three generations. Each of the colorful creations is uniquely Sojer (the name of the local residents) and they make great gifts. For handcrafted half-hull models and 3D wall hangings, we checked out Albury’s Designs in a one-room shack just south of the main district.

Water, ice, groceries and restaurant dining are all available here, but don’t expect much to happen on a Sunday, when everyone is attending the dozen or so churches of just about every denomination. This two-mile island is dry, which means you can’t buy alcohol, although you are welcome to bring your own beer or wine to the Hibiscus restaurant and enjoy it with your meal. We opted to dine aboard, armed with our wine and bug spray.

A crew-member keeps a lookout as a charter cat cruises past Treasure Cay

A crew-member keeps a lookout as a charter cat cruises past Treasure Cay

The next morning, we took a short hop to Hope Town, which is almost literally around the corner. Tucked in a tiny harbor on Elbow Cay, colorful Hope Town seems to be where Sherwin Williams sends all the crazy house-paint colors it can’t sell anywhere else.

Settled in 1785 by British Loyalists, Hope Town boasts many fine examples of colonial architecture. A stroll along its simple two-street waterfront introduced us to many of these houses, most of which have names like Toad Hall and Wee House, and some of which feature architectural details such as lace-like wood trim and shutters decorated with bright pineapple motifs.
The centerpiece of Hope Town’s skyline is its 130-year-old candy-striped lighthouse. When the beacon went into operation in 1863, many locals opposed it because it interfered with their salvage trade, as numerous ships (ripe for pillaging) wrecked on the outer reefs. Today, it is one of only two manned kerosene-fueled lighthouses still in operation in the world. A trek up the 200-plus steps inside is a must, if only for the fantastic views from the top.

Waynnie Malone Historical Museum in Hope Town

Waynnie Malone Historical Museum in Hope Town

The Hope Town entrance is well marked, if a bit tricky. A shallow channel leads into a round harbor full of moorings. We picked up another $20 mooring and dinghied to Captain Jack’s on the waterfront for a grouper burger.
Wandering around town, I found the Wyannie Malone Historical Museum, which documents the lives of fishermen, pirates and the early settlers who stayed loyal to the British crown after the United States won its independence.

Wanting a bit of exercise, a few of us hiked along the flat road south to Tahiti Beach—about seven miles round trip. Strolling along this half-moon-shaped spit of white sand, it was as if I was transported from one Bahamian paradise to another in the South Pacific.

Gallery in Little Harbor

Gallery in Little Harbor

Although there is technically one main road that leads along the stretch of Elbow Cay, it does have a few turnouts so it’s good to grab a map before setting off. Direction poles are frequent, so that helps, and since you are on an island, you can’t get too lost. In extreme cases, you may be able to hitch a ride on one of the many golf carts rented by less physically ambitious tourists.
Having stretched our legs, we dedicated the next day to sailing. You can cover a lot of water in 30 knots of wind, so we raced up and down the sea before proceeding south under power where we had to make a few wiggly turns around virtual buoys that only appeared on the chartplotter.

Like a teardrop at the bottom of the Sea, Little Harbor sits just outside of the Bight of Old Robinson with the headland of Tom Curry Point as its sentinel. It’s a peaceful and perfectly protected bit of water where your only worries are when to go swimming and when is the high tide so you can make a safe departure. As we entered, we were met by curious dolphins, rays and turtles that swam by lazily, keeping one eye on us visitors.

Inside the Hope Town lighthouse

Inside the Hope Town lighthouse

We negotiated to buy ice from Pete’s Gallery and Pub and then, due to the size of our group, the management opened the restaurant to us for an exclusive dinner and a large bowl of the tastiest and freshest conch chowder I’ve ever eaten. Otherwise, there are no services available in Little Harbor. On the plus side, it’s so peaceful we stayed an extra day just to snorkel with dolphins and explore the caves that ring the bay. There was also a bit of unexpected shopping here, as some of our group purchased bronze castings directly from the gallery and had them shipped home. You can’t get much better than that for authentic souvenirs worthy of your coffee table.

The last day we powered half way back up the sea until we had a straight shot back to Marsh Harbour on a fine beam reach. The Rage never did let up, and that meant we never did make Green Turtle Cay all week, so in the end I once again found myself on the plane, planning how to get back to the place I was leaving to fill in the blanks. That said, one thing I most certainly didn’t have was any regrets.

Zuzana Prochazka holds a 100-ton Coast Guard license and cruises Southern California aboard Indigo, a Celestial 48. Check out her blog at talkofthedock.com

More Stories of the Bahamas:

A Southbound Cruise with the ARC Bahamas Fleet

Hatchet Bay in the Bahamas: Possibly the World’s Safest Harbor

Bahamas Charter: out of Marsh Harbour in the Abacos

More Multihull Cruising Adventures

MHS Fall 2015

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