A Road Less Traveled

Duncan town on Ragged Island in the Jumentos islands of the Bahamas is a toehold of a community at the end of a long string of small uninhabited Bahamian islands. Its closer to Cuba than other Bahamian civilization. They say these islands are so remote that boaters should not go there unless they are truly self-sufficient and able to make any needed repairs themselves. So, in other words, it sounded perfect to us. We shot over from Great Inagua to the west, another remote island with a small population hanging on. However, when we got to Duncan town, it made Matthew Town on Inagua seem like a great metropolis by comparison. Duncan town consists of several sleepy streets with far more goats wandering around than people.

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Hello, is there anybody out there

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sleepy streets of Duncantown

The locals living here are supplied by the mail boat that comes once a week, bringing mail but also all the other supplies that are needed to survive. So there is generally no surplus for cruisers and reports were that the small grocery in the town rarely had anything extra to sell. When we asked a local man flying a kite (why not?) where the store was, we experienced the true generosity of the Bahamian people.

Duncan Town school master

Duncan Town school headmaster and kite flyer

The kite man asked us what we needed and we told him: eggs, lettuce, tomato, anything fresh since we hadn’t shopped since we left Puerto Rico 2 weeks earlier. He ran inside his little house where we thought he was going to call the store owner to see if she had anything, but a few minutes later emerged with a bag containing a dozen eggs, a head of lettuce and a few tomatoes. We were astounded that he would part with his own precious supplies but even more stunned when he refused any payment for them. We could not accept that and when we found out he was the schoolmaster of the island, we insisted on making a small donation for school supplies to acknowledge his generosity.

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Duncan Town K-12 has all of 8 students

We left him to go back to his kite and wandered back to the boat marveling at the spirit of the people of the Bahamas who maintain their grace despite an always-harsh existence plagued by hurricanes, crushing heat, sparse water supplies, high prices and little opportunity for advancement. We can all learn something from the character that is ingrained in these people.

We moved on from Ragged Island and started making our way north up through the island chain back to civilization. Imagine one perfect little tropical island after another, each with gin clear water, white sandy beaches backed by palm trees and mangroves, without any sign of recent human activity.

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Dolphin leading the way

This is an area ruled by goats, sharks, turtles, sting rays and more fish than you can count. It is not fished out like the rest of the Bahamas.

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Neko only boat for miles

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Cruisers leave their mark at this “yacht club”

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Neko was here

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Gorgeous Raccoon Cay

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Barry the Barracuda joined us for a snorkel

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This late in the season you can have your pick of islands to yourself. If one other boat is too much company for you, just pick up anchor and move to the next one. But keep an eye on the weather because there is not much protection out here. After a couple weeks we were down to eating canned food and pasta, so it was time to get back to human civilization.

So we made it back to Long Island, no not THAT Long Island – there’s another one in the Bahamas. Sadly this one is still recovering from direct hits from recent hurricanes.  But they have great spirit and keep plugging along.

 

Church destroyed by hurricane

Church destroyed by hurricane

You quickly realize the far islands of the Bahamas are the forgotten step children to Papa Nassau and get more support from one another and foreign countries than their own government.  It’s a sad state of affairs, but we are all up to our eyeballs in politics, so let’s move on.   Salt Pond is a cheerful little place where everyone knows each other. The owner of the car rental place was off on another island so someone put us in touch with old Mr. Pinders, a farmer with a spare car he rented to us. Its that kind of place.

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We used his car to check out the blue hole – one of the deepest blue holes yet discovered, it descends to over 600 feet just off the beach. Its a round hole in the sand that goes down into the blue depths. We just happened to be there at the time when the world’s top free divers were there practicing for an upcoming meet. It was a strange scene for a top sporting event – very quiet as these athletes get into a zen-like state before diving for minutes at a time on a single breath. This competition aimed at the deepest dive, and the holder of the world record, a Russian who dove deeper than 400 feet, was there scoping out the location. On a casual dive, we heard the coach tick off 4+ minutes during which he dove down 300 feet and back up again.

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You can see why they call it the Blue Hole

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professional free divers practicing

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down

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up

After that, a crawl through an ancient cave used by the Lucayan indians in 500AD didn’t seem so brave.  But the Hamilton caves have been in Leonard Cartwright’s family for generations and were used by locals for hurricane protection before the local schools were built strong enough to withstand the massive storms that so often ravage these islands.

Mr. Cartwright showed us through the largest cave system in the Bahamas complete with indian graffiti, 3 species of bats and stalagmites and stalactites that had taken thousands of years to build. An amazing geological artifact that he is rightly proud to curate.

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Mr Cartwright showing us the way

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stalactites grow from the top down

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stalagmites grow from the ground up

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Thanks Pete for this lovely shot

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These guys were not happy with the flash light waking them up

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Bats, bats and more bats

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the way out

The Bahamas has many, many islands that are not touched by tourism and too remote for casual visitors, yet they are beautiful and populated by generous and happy people. It was our privilege to pass through them.

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In The Pink

Over the last year and a half we’ve benefited from the close proximity of the islands of the Caribbean, enjoying day sails to get from one to the next.  So it took a moment to put our muti-day passage routine back in action, but with full sails (well, actually quite reefed sails), full moon and full Ipods our 3 day journey zipped by without incident. We were greeted by the familiar crystal clear waters of the Bahamas as we pulled into the southernmost island of the chain, Great Inagua.

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Great Inagua Lighthouse, just a stones throw from Cuba (55 miles away)

Although the third largest island of the Bahamas its population is just at 1000 and it is no surprise they all know one another and notice a new face.  We had not walked ten feet down the road towards customs/immigration when the first of three people stopped to offer us a ride.    We politely declined because after 70 hours at sea, we desperately needed to stretch our legs.  The friendliness didn’t stop there, as the officials could not have been more welcoming.  We were thrilled to be the first official boat for their newest customs agent, Francis.

This was Francis’ first day and we were honored Neko was her first official vessel.

Great Inagua may only have 1000 human residents but it is home to roughly 60,0000 flamingos and 140 species of native and migratory birds.  They work in rare harmony with the main industry on the island-salt.

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spoon bill also pink

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sea birds

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Merlin

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Baby flamingos are born white and slowly turn pink the more shrimp they eat

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Sorry so far away, but that distant line of pink is hundreds of flamingos

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No, he isn’t plastic

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Elegant flyers

The Morton Salt Company operations cover over 300,000 acres of the island and produce about a million pounds of salt per year.

We anchored in Man o War bay – the only boat for miles around – and booked a tour out to the salt flats and were taken by the beauty of these elegant birds in this other worldly landscape.  Morton floods the flats with seawater and allows the sun and wind to evaporate the water which produces concentrated brine, which in turn grows algae which brine shrimp eat.  And who loves brine shrimp?  You guessed it – our pink pals the flamingos. The shrimp diet is what gives them their pink hue.  The birds help remove some of the impurities and the salt is harvested and ground into different sizes depending on the use , e.g. table salt, de-icing salt, etc.  Man and nature working together is a lovely thing.  DSC_0871

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The roadway between the flats, looks like winter

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Water evaporating, leaving the salt for processing.

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Harvesting the salt

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Salt mounds, beyond the flats

Who knew salt could be so interesting?   Maybe we can officially call ourselves old salts now 😉  We loved our time in Inagua.  It has been a long time since we’ve been in a place where we were the only humans for miles around.  We took long walks on the beaches and snorkeled pristine coral teeming with fish.  So far, its good to be back in the Bahamas.

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Man O War Bay, Great Inagua

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There was once a community here, but abandoned  in 1970s when the few remaining residence moved to Matthew Town

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Neko all by herself

Bahamian Rhapsody…

… well, maybe not so much.  It seems the El Nino weather pattern has had an impact on the Bahamas.  We were so looking forward to its clear waters and white sand beaches and connecting with other cruisers.

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Bahamian waters on a rare calm day

We did have that, but it was sandwiched in between waiting out the wind and rain from cold fronts.  Now, we are not Bahamas experts but it seems to us that Mother Nature has been a little harsher than usual on the Bahamas this year.  In the winter, low pressure systems routinely roll off the US coast going west to east.  These can push cold fronts into the Bahamas, which bring stronger winds and rain and cold (cold for us, not for you poor sods in the snow) weather.

 

They cause the wind to swing around the compass  and, because the Bahamas (at least in the Exumas chain) has a dearth of places to anchor to avoid west winds, require boaters to scramble around for a place to hide when the winds come from the west.  You see, it is a little uncomfortable to be anchored face into a wind that has a long distance to blow across the water.  This allows waves to build up which results in an unpleasant motion and can be dangerous if too extreme.  Much better to have an island blocking the wind in front of you.  So, each time the wind shifts around, it becomes a scramble to find a place with a new island in front of you.  And then when the wind settles back into the east, you can go about your normal boating activities.  Normally, as winter progresses, these cold fronts become fewer and weaker, resulting in more sunshine and less of this  weather strategizing. However, this year we were treated to a mild November and part of December and then in January the cold fronts kept on comin’ and the wind kept on swingin’ and the boaters kept on dancin’.  For us it got a little tiresome.  So here we sit writing this entry from the Turks & Caicos, which is just south enough to have a somewhat different weather pattern.  It will change more as we keep moving south.

So how to sum up our trip through the entire Bahamas archipelago in one blog post (I know, I know, we are way overdue)?  It’ll be to give you a quick run through the highlights of the trip (the lowlights were hit in the last post Gale!).  

We arrived at Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos, the northernmost stretch of islands.  Here we had good weather (before winter began) and enjoyed our time with Mike & Holly and Rob and Rose from R&R Kedger.  

We next transited to Eleuthera, which is a long island on the eastern outskirts of the Bahamas.  We saw very few other cruisers and it is mostly a non-touristy island.  This is the home of the famous pink sand beaches.  We were pleasantly surprised that in fact they really were pink and even better there was not a soul on them.  

From Eleuthera, we crossed over to the Exumas chain of islands – the holy grail of Bahamas cruising.  

The Exumas consist of over 300 small cays strung together on a chain about 130 miles long.  The centerpiece is the wonderful 22 mile long Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, where no taking of sea life is permitted.  Here all manner of creatures can be seen and approached because they have not developed a fear of humans.  It’s a truly wonderful experience to dive into the water and see a small Seargent Major fish swim up to your goggles to check you out just like you were planning to do to him.  Without those hunter and hunted instincts, you almost seem like equals.  The snorkeling is fantastic in the Exumas, complete with underwater caves right out of a movie (literally, in the case of the Thunderball Grotto, which featured in two James Bond movies, “Thunderball” and “Never Say Never Again”.

At the southern end of the Exumas is the cruiser mecca of Georgetown.  This is where so many cruising dreams hit their end.  There are literally hundreds of boats here and many never leave and a lot stay here for the entire season.  

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Crowded Georgetown dinghy dock (photo by R&R)

These cruisers are done seeing new places and faces, and are living a watery life in a stationery spot (well, almost stationery – they do a sort of mini mass-migration every time one of the aforementioned fronts come through from one side of the big bay to the other to avoid the wind).  We chose to anchor in the middle and just ride it all out.  If you have faith in your anchoring gear, 25 knots of wind driven waves is no big deal.  Many of these folks were affected by the Exumas Derecho and it is understandable that they would be gun shy.

Well, we were not huge fans of Georgetown (evindenced by our lack of photos of the area).  Its true the boaters there could not be nicer, but its just not our cup of tea.  Our boat buddy Charlotte says we are not cruisers, but travelers – more interested in seeing new places than staying in one place for too long – and I think she is right.  After a couple of weeks in Georgetown, we were ready to move on.  

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Familiar faces we always love seeing. James, Charlotte, Rob & Rose.

We left Georgetown and made our way to Clarencetown, a stunning little anchorage on Long Island.  We were again sitting in an anchorage waiting for a front to pass by – it was threatening 25 knot winds from the north for a day or so.  We thought why just cower here and wait.  Like everyone else, we were a little gun shy from the big winds of a few weeks ago.

However, if it blows hard we would have rocks and other boaters around us.  If there is anything we learned from the derecho, it is that being anchored where there are things to hit or be hit by is not a good idea.  So we jumped off ahead of the cold front and used its big winds to drive us 200 miles to the Turks & Caicos.  We figured at sea at least we’d have a way to fight back if Mother Nature got tough with us.  In the end, we had a great sail with a lot of wind behind us and made great time.  The front passed by us and pushed our boatspeed up to 11 knots until the wind left us and we ghosted into Providenciales.  We crossed its tricky bar and got into a marina for the first time in 3 1/2 months.  It felt good to be able to just relax and forget about the weather for a bit.

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Turks & Caicos

Gale!

We thought we were so tough, having survived wild episodes in remote parts of the world, such as the unpopulated sections of western panama, the lawless portions of eastern Nicaragua and Honduras, the whole of California, etc. In those, places we’d often be the only boat in an anchorage, relying on our own gear and wits for survival. Weather prediction would be a hazarded guess, at best. So we naturally thought that our sojourn to the Bahamas, basically in Florida’s backyard and populated by thousands of like-minded cruisers, would be a walk in the park, literally. But nothing prepared us for the once-in-a-generation freak storm we endured on January 6, 2016. Winters in the Bahamas can be tricky at times because cold fronts come off the eastern US and pass through and can bring winds that change directions and strength, along with rain and thunder on occasion. On this occasion we knew that a front was passing through, but it was not predicted to be very windy in our immediate area.

Wrong! We were taking it easy the day after a night of 30 – 40 knot easterly winds – these are strong winds, but are common in the Bahamas. They come from the East and there are many islands to hide behind to avoid the waves that such winds can generate. We usually don’t mind the wind alone because it is the waves that really move the boat around. That night was windy but not anything we were not used to. The next night was predicted to have lighter wind from the West. There are fewer places to hide from West winds in the Bahamas and we went to a location that was good for us in the recent past – just behind the large rock called Thunderball Grotto, where they filmed part of the James Bond film Thunderball (it has a really cool interior cave, which will be highlighted in the next blog post). These rocks have a small area to the East of them where you are sheltered from West winds. So we settled in thinking no big deal because winds were not predicted to be strong and in any event we had good old 007 rock to break the waves.

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Our hidey spot behind Thunderball Rock, in less crowded times

Around 6 pm we noticed the wind beginning to pick up – a normal circumstance toward the evenings here. However, it did not die down and continued to build, and rapidly. The wind quickly accelerated to 30+ knots, and then it jumped above 40 knots and stayed there. Things were getting hairy. There were 3-foot waves in the anchorage even though they only had 200 feet to develop. Whitecaps in a swimming pool it seemed like – and then they started getting blown off and the waters were white with foam and the winds were roaring.

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It never looks as bad in photos as it really is, and this looks bad.  This was when it first started; the worst of it was in the dark.

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One of the cats that dragged past us.

Then the wind increased above 50 knots and again stayed there, and we were closing in on hurricane territory.

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Instruments recorded max wind speed at 55.5kts (63mph)

Things were getting really dicey at this point. I started the engines to push the boat forward to take some strain off the anchor – after all, it was the only thing holding us from a wall of rocks ¼ mile behind us. In these sorts of winds, anchors can give up their hold and let boats go sliding off into oblivion. And it was no different this night. We saw one catamaran go sliding past us, and there was nothing we could do to help him. We just hoped his anchor dragging along the bottom didn’t snag ours and send us on our way too. I was driving the boat to move it out of the way of the dragging boat and take the strain off the anchor.

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Two young guys on this boat out in the open were dragging anchor.  They started the night in front of the rock to the right.  We were glad to see the next day that they stopped short of the rocks.

The rain was coming down so hard that I had to wear sunglasses – I couldn’t open my eyes otherwise. Then another catamaran went by – so eerie and sad to see that in the dark, knowing that those people were in for a world of hurt and you can’t do anything about it. This went on for about 2 hours, with me driving the boat – each time it got a bit sideways, the wind would grab it and I could feel it accelerate out of control sideways. It was lifting our big boat up and tilting it a bit on its side, with spray flying over the side. I gave the engines full throttle just to stand still and try to correct our angle so we wouldn’t slide off into oblivion as well. Mary kept a watch for other boats heading our way in the dark.  She handled the radio, which crackled with maydays and frenzied shouts for help or warnings about impending collisions and was running around giving me clothes to protect from the freezing rain – I started the ordeal in just swim trunks and ended up in full foul weather gear with sweatshirts and boots underneath .  At one point, I looked back and saw that our dinghy, which was hanging behind our boat on a rope, had turned upside down, flipped by the wind like a child’s toy. To add salt to the wound, a stray line from the overturned dinghy caught our starboard prop, killing that engine. I stripped the foul weather gear, dove in and removed the line. Luckily it was not wedged round tightly and I remember that the water felt lovely and warm. I just wanted to stay there and forget about the maelstrom above. But I jumped out, quickly showered, put the foulies back on and went back to the helm.

 

Finally, the winds subsided. I never thought of 30 knots of wind as “light” but it felt that way this night. All the boats were haphazardly strewn about the anchorage. One boat with a French couple and their dog were blown ashore and crashed into someone’s docks, tearing them up.  Another boat washed up against the rocks and started breaking up and taking on water. I was impressed with how calm the guy sounded in putting out his mayday – he was more sad than panicked.  One of the catamarans that slid past us ended up on the rocks with a hole in a bow, a rudder broken off and many other issues. This is the end of the cruise for some of these poor folks. Exhausted, but with hearts still pounding we tried to get some rest but continued to keep a watch throughout the night. When we heard our errant dinghy under the boat and scraping its propeller against the hulls, we went outside at 3 am and flipped it over. Easier than it sounds for 350 pounds of sodden rubber boat in a raging sea. But somehow we did it and tied it up. Next we saw that some of the boats that moved were very close to us. We would have started banging into each other if no one did anything. Now, generally when anchoring space gets too tight it’s up to the latest arrival to move. And the draggers who ended up very near us should have upped anchor to relocate to a safer place. But it became apparent to us that people were too shell shocked to take the proper action. So in the dark of night (by the way, this had to happen on a moonless night) at 4 am we fired up the engines to find a place to anchor safely away from anyone banging into us.  This accomplished, we collapsed into the bed. Surprisingly, adrenalin would not let us sleep and Mary was up at 6 am like she is every day. Its funny how bodies work that way, but the smell of coffee made its way down and I was not far behind her.

We spent the next day cleaning up and trying to save the engine of our dinghy.  An episode like this really lets you know who your friends are and can bring out the best in some. Our long time buddy-boaters, Charlotte and James, on their way to Nassau to effect their own repairs, offered to bring back a new outboard engine for us and to anchor near us and shuttle us around since we now have no way to get to shore to get provisions.

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Bob and I trying to get the waterlogged engine going.

Bob on another boat in the anchorage spent several fruitless hours with me trying to get our engine running again. After we put out a call on the radio for the stuff that fell to the bottom from our dinghy (the water is crystal clear here after all), we saw several boats trolling around looking for it. And we tried to do our part by giving parts to other boaters who needed them.

 

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The calm

It was sunny and calm now and you wouldn’t know that such danger was only 12 hours past. Some say that traveling like we do is hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror, and this was one night to prove it. We are glad we are safe and only have a waterlogged outboard motor to deal with. We are also glad that the people on those boats that went ashore are all OK. We were impressed by and proud of the way the community rallied to help others in distress.  Some people showed amazing bravery in heading out at the height of the storm to try to get to those calling for help.   Its just part of what we chose to deal with when we embarked on this crazy lifestyle, but we sincerely hope not to endure anything like that again.

This video shows the start of the storm.  When it got worse, Mary had to put down the camera.

 

 

Bahamas Bound

Season 3 starts with our longest passage to date – Deltaville, Va at the bottom of the Rapahannock River to the Abacos Islands, Bahamas.

4.5 days/800nm.  Thankfully, we had the help of our friends Mike and Holly to make watches easier and days more entertaining.

Our planned route involved heading out the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, hugging the coast until below Cape Hatteras and then making a left turn and heading about 100 miles offshore to cross the Gulf Stream.  You don’t want to linger in the Gulf Stream because it rushes north and if the wind opposes it you get big ugly seas.   Also, if you are heading south, as we were, you need to get out of it because it just keeps trying to push you back north.  So we got across in one piece and turned south for the Bahamas.

Eventually, the air and water warmed and we swapped the sweatshirts and long pants for shorts and T shirts.  The fish started biting and all was good.  We safely landed at Green Turtle Cay in the Abacos Islands of Bahamas completing our longest passage to date and immediately began enjoying the warm, clear water.   We were also greeted by Rob & Rose on R&R Kedger who had set sail from Moorehead, NC and with whom we kept in contact via SSB throughout our passage.  Big kudos to R&R for doing their passage doublehanded.

The locals in the Abacos are laid back and friendly and the pace is is deliberate and slow.  We are back on island time, and loving it.

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