January 31, 2021
(Note that this is an older post that I have just now made public.)
On Thursday, the Canadian government announced their new restrictions on travel, particularly to the Caribbean and Mexico, with mandatory hotel quarantines on return and an end to all outgoing flights starting next week. This could be a problem.
The uncertainty regarding Jinhee’s ability to return home, quarantine regulations and more means that Jinhee will return to Canada and go back to her normal seclusion on the island. Much colder than Cat Island or Long Island but, secluded and hopefully low risk just the same.
When that news finally hit, we immediately put a plan into action to get Jinhee through the hurdles of returning to Canada. We had planned to head for Rock Sound on Eleuthra to sit out the coming storm (more on that below), but that was now going to be the riskiest option.
Leaving from the North end of Cat Island, we made a beeline for Staniel Cay. We were hoping to visit the marina, the Thunderball Grotto and then move North to Warderick Wells to swim with the rays and more. From there move to Highbourne to get through the critical work of the week and then to Nassau for a PCR test and a flight home.
As has been the case so often, those plans were dashed by weather. There is a significant weather system coming in from the northwest with 25-30 knot winds and the wind was just 15 knots or so on Saturday but it will continue to worsen until peaking on Monday or Tuesday. We crossed the 55 miles to Staniel with following seas topping out around five feet which wasn’t too uncomfortable.
Arriving at Staniel, we had a tide that was near its low point, the winds were almost directly astern and lots of daylight and that made crossing the cut from Exuma Sound onto the Exuma Bank less terrifying.
The time in The Bahamas has offered many lessons about the practical aspects of navigating a boat. When crossing these cuts, three of those issues are on full display. The first is tidal flow. Being a boater from the Great Lakes tidal flow is non existent. The Great Lakes fall from their peak water levels (typically sometime between late April and early June) to their nadir (typically in December or early January). The total range is on the order of 1.5 meters or about five feet over a period of seven months. From there I went to Europe and the tidal range in the Eastern Mediterranean is usually measured in inches (but less than a foot). Now on the US eastern seaboard and Bahamas, the tidal range is often five feet or more.
The Exuma Bank is about 210 km long and about 60 km wide, it is completely open on the west side but on the east, the majority of that 210km is blocked or dotted with the hundreds of islands that make the area so beautiful. When the tide changes, the rush of water travels through the ‘cuts’ and in many places can reach phenomenal speeds. During our departure from Black Point, through Dotham Cut, the rushing water added about 4.5 knots (about 8 kph) to our boat speed on the way through. While it is obvious, the water flows are under the surface of the water, and the water on top can appear quite settled, but the currents below can be dramatic.
Winds are the other factor. Again, it is obvious that the winds affect the air above the water line, but the direction and ferocity of the wind can have a major impact. If the winds are in the same direction as the water flow, the behaviour of the water will present itself in one way, but winds in the opposite direction will present an entirely different set of circumstances. An even more confusing issue presents itself when the winds are across the flow of the water.
Frequently, particularly in heavy winds, the winds and waves are in the same direction, but this is not always the case. Water is very, very heavy and can move a boat a very long distance unexpectedly. Here is a warning on the Navionics chart for Dotham Cut: “Keep clear of Northeast point. Strong Upwellings can set you ashore”. Someone has been beached by a wave of water lifting their boat and depositing it ashore. It really happens.
On arrival at Staniel Cay (Big Rock Cut) we had following seas, following winds and the outgoing tide was near low tide, so the cut wasn’t overly dangerous. There was a catamaran preparing to exit and so we slowed to let it pass (the cut is only about 300 feet wide and due to water conditions, my target was really about 100 feet of that width). The catamaran was quite large but it was getting tossed like a toy in a bathtub as it powered into the oncoming waves. It was choppy!
When the cut was clear we pushed in, but the heft (40 tonnes) of Home Free and the following seas seemed to protect us from the torment experienced by the catamaran. Then came the real stress. While the entrance is wide, we hoped to anchor in one of the many little slivers of anchoring opportunity but manoeuvring around in those thin slivers of deep water would be stressful.
It is not apparent from the chart below, but the path into Staniel Cay (see the purple lines) passed over the ‘Crown of Thorns’ which required us to pass about 100 feet from land, about 30 feet from an exposed rock; between a rock and a hard place as it were, to get to those slivers. Luckily that low tide meant a very light current.
After trying two separate, very tight anchorage spots, we opted to tie to the dock and pay for a night at a slip, an easy walk around town and a chance for us to plug in and balance our batteries.
Our arrival at low tide meant that we had an opportunity to see the Thunderball Grotto, (you can look that up), so we launched the dinghy very quickly and went out to where the Grotto is. Unfortunately I have limited experience in diving, but more importantly the water was now rushing in from the Exuma Sound and anchoring the dinghy (unattended) would have been a massive risk. The dinghy may have simply been whisked away with Jinhee and I, being left to fend for ourselves in a massive current. We opted to leave another opportunity for another trip and traded it for a nice walk around Staniel Cay.
We spent the night and were surprised by the life at Staniel. The bar was hopping at least until the (very loud) music was turned off at 11pm. and there were plenty of dinghies at the dinghy landing, as well as many airplanes coming and going from the airport (which is just behind the marina, and is a major entry/exit point for the Exumas).
The big issue of the day, was whether to move on, to anchor out or to find shelter for the coming storm. The night’s conversation was very interesting to say the least.