Gales in the Bahamas
“Our shakedown cruise” is how we referred to the first trip from Florida to the Bahamas several years ago. We had begun our cruising life in St. Petersburg, Florida and had spent several months readying Mandalay. There were big plans for the future, but the boat and systems were relatively untested outside of the marina environment. We arranged to be away for three months and made plans to travel to George Town in the Exumas and back.
Friends George and Judy aboard Pegasus had also moved from Texas to Florida to begin their cruising life so we were in touch with them frequently. We compared notes and headed out at nearly the same time from Tampa Bay.
We sailed outside down the west coast of Florida, ducking in at Venice, Charlotte Harbor and Sanibel. Our first overnighter took us from Sanibel Island to Key West where we anchored for a few days and made our first repair. The anchor windlass motor had an intermittent short in it which meant I had to bring up the anchor and 100 ft of chain by hand. My back told me I should fix it soon!
While we were in Key West, George on Pegasus called us and suggested meeting up for a joint crossing of the Gulf Stream. We thought that was a good idea and we sailed up the Hawk Channel for Marathon and then to Rodriguez Key where we met Pegasus and another Texas cruising couple who came to wish us well. A weather window presented itself immediately and we left at 2100 hours that same night for South Riding Rock, our “landfall” in the Bahamas. The calm night crossing proved interesting in that Pegasus’ electrical system failed them and their navigation lights grew dimmer and dimmer until they shined no more. Their radio was also defunct although the handheld kept us in touch for a few more hours until its battery died. They stayed close behind us in the hope that our navigation lights would keep other boats and ships at a safe distance. We arrived on the banks early the next morning when the solar panels on Pegasus brought their batteries back to life.
Chubb Cay was our first real landfall and we entered the marina to clear into the Bahamas. The channel was a little shallow and narrow for Mandalay’s six foot draft so we were glad to get back out of the marina and into the anchorage where we dropped the 35 lb. Delta. We settled back to relax, in awe of the clear Bahamian water and the pretty beach and shoreline.
Colleen had assumed the role of official weather person and began listening to the forecasts of a forthcoming cold front. It was a day away but was beginning to sound a bit fierce. We knew that cold fronts were regular occurrences in the Bahamas and that squally northwest winds were common. As the front approached, the forecasts sounded progressively worse. During the last twenty four hours before the front arrived, Colleen announced the predicted wind speed which was increasing by 5 knots on every update of the forecast - from twenty knots to forty knots - sustained gale force winds from the north. Since the anchorage at Chubb Cay is mostly open to the north and west, we soon realized that we had better move to a safer spot and quickly! Knowing what I know now, I would have high-tailed it into the marina at high tide and tied up. At the time, we did not think of that and we looked for a protected anchorage in the Berry Islands. We found a spot on the chart between Whale Cay and Little Whale Cay that looked promising. It was only a few miles northeast of Chubb Cay and we could be there before the gale. There would be an island to the south and another to the north. To the west would be very shallow banks with very little wave action and to the east, just a small cut to the deep water beyond. So Pegasus and Mandalay started out for Little Whale Cay.
We entered the anchorage and found the water depth to be adequate as the chart showed and the anchorage looked as we expected. Both islands were described as private and there was evidence of expensive homes on Little Whale Cay as well as a small settlement. The Delta went down in 12 feet of water near the entrance, while Pegasus, taking advantage of the shallow draft of a catamaran, tucked in a little further. We set our anchor well and sat back to wait for the blow.
The weather forecasters had got it right and we soon saw the wind building to the high twenties and low thirties. By that time we had learned about the currents between Bahamian islands on the edge of the Banks. As the tide floods onto the Banks, the water rushes in from the deep North West Providence Channel. When the tide leaves the Banks, some of the shallowest spots become dry land and all that water rushes back into the North West Providence Channel. The current tore through our anchorage pulling the boat first to the east and then to the west. The wind, which was exceeding 40 knots from the north, was on the beam and the boat was rolling gunwale to gunwale. Only three days into the Bahamas and we already are learning about all night anchor watches using radar to insure that we are not dragging toward the rocky shoreline. We had not yet learned to use the drag alarm on the GPS, although the shore was so close, it probably would not have helped. Fortunately, the anchor held beautifully in the sandy bottom. As novices, we had not considered whether the bottom was scoured by the current or whether there might have been rocks or coral down below.
When the gale began to blow, we were tucked in safely, but there were other boats that were not so lucky. A call came on the radio from a boat seeking shelter as it headed toward Chubb Cay from the west. I responded and informed them they could anchor south of Frazers Hog Cay to gain protection from the northerly. The crew was grateful and found the shelter they needed. Another boat was still on the Banks and planned to anchor there for the night and ride out the gale. The crew was terrified and began transmitting phone numbers, names of relatives, and passport numbers so their next of kin could be notified! Ultimately, both boats made it to shelter unscathed but there was a whole lot of shaking going on that night. The gale blew for two days before it began to abate. We waited for the seas to lie down for another day before heading out to Nassau. Even then, we sailed in six to nine footers and lost sight of Pegasus when they were in the troughs. I
After relaxing in Nassau where the weather was perfect, it was time to leave, and head to the popular first stop in the Exumas, Allan’s Cay. A comfortable day sail away, Allan’s is popular because of the 382 rock iguanas that inhabit three of the surrounding islands and because the anchorage is mostly surrounded by small rocky islands. Typical of several Exuma anchorages, the area between the islands is quite large, however the center is occupied by a large shoal which leaves only the perimeter deep enough for most of the boats there. It reminded us of anchoring in a canal just off the rocks. As you might imagine, the canal remains deep because of the tidal current that rushes through it!
We motored slowly up the western side of the anchorage looking for a spot between the boats that were already there. The spaces all seemed small but we chose one and prepared to anchor with two anchors, one up current and one down current. The canal is about 12 feet deep and runs north and south so the Delta was dropped to the north and our second anchor, a 44 lb. Claw, went to the south. We had learned that boats usually lie to the current when it is running at two or three knots unless the wind is quite strong. Once the boat was secure, our first adventure was to jump in the dinghy and visit the iguanas.
On the second day, the weather deteriorated again. Another front was on the way and more strong winds were predicted. As luck would have it, an old medical affliction reared its ugly head and I was not feeling well. I was hoping to move south to George Town and visit the doctor there. That was not going to happen for a while because the gale warnings were up again. The first squalls hit us hard bringing strong west winds with gusts to 42 knots and driving rain. Although we had two anchors out, neither one was right for the wind which came out of the west. Mandalay was pushed eastward and when the tide was near its low point, we heard and felt a sickening thump thump as our keel bumped on the shoal which was now beneath us. Feeling light headed and weak, I jumped up and decided immediately that we would have to move to a new spot away from the shoal. By then the sustained wind had built to more than 35 knots and the rain was coming sideways. I bundled up and headed forward to retrieve the two anchors only to discover that the rodes were twisted around each other several times, caused by the boat rotating in circles as the tidal current switched directions. I tried to ignore the way I felt and untied the bitter end of the number two anchor so it could be unwound from the chain on anchor number one. After much effort, I untangled the line and headed back to the cockpit. Colleen then went forward and raised the primary anchor while I took the wheel and held the boat away from the shoal. Now we just had the Claw down. We traded places again since raising the secondary anchor was heavy work. I could wrap the line around the windlass capstan and use the windlass to assist, but the last 35 feet was chain with a 44 lb anchor on the end and the capstan no longer helped. I finally wrestled the Claw up and returned to the cockpit to catch my breath.
Colleen motored north past the line of boats in the westerly canal and came to a spot which was open and deep enough but was obviously where the tidal current was at its maximum. Having little choice we dropped the Delta while a neighbor yelled that he had 120 feet of chain out. We stayed well away from him and then set our second anchor making a Y which would limit our swing and hopefully keep us away from the rocks and the shoal. We went below and again turned on the radar preparing for another all night anchor watch. The anchors did not drag, even though we were once again in a scoured area where the current exceeded the speed of the Gulf Stream.
We were boat-bound in that spot for another two days waiting for the conditions to abate before heading south to George Town. We discovered another new phenomenon and named it the wedgy. At certain times, the combination of opposing strong wind and strong current caused our anchor rodes to stream aft down each side of the boat. The wind was blowing at 30 knots onto the stern of the boat, but the current flowing over the keel and rudder prevented the boat from swinging into the wind. Although we were not dragging anywhere, the wedgy was annoying because the rope anchor rode snagged the keel and rudder and the chain rode rubbed the topsides. We were totally unable to prevent the wedgy. If we turned the boat into the wind using the engine, the current returned us to the wedgy within a few minutes. We have since been in a half-wedgy numerous times using only one anchor.
After a couple of days, our second gale abated and Mandalay and Pegasus left for points south. We did not wait for the seas to lie down and were glad we had a strong engine when we motored out of Allan’s Cay.
We have been back to the Bahamas three times since that first shakedown cruise. We have never again experienced the prolonged gale force winds that hit us during our first two weeks there. The lessons learned were many. Our 35 lb. Delta anchor has been replaced by a 45 lb. We rarely deploy two anchors unless the others in the anchorage are on two (and we hope you will use only one whenever possible). The 35 feet of chain on the secondary anchor has been replaced by two feet (heresy to some, perhaps) so that the windlass capstan can be used to bring it all the way up, plus a snatch block has been installed to make tailing the rode easier. We move to a sheltered spot early in advance of an approaching blow and we are vigilant about knowing what the weatherguessers are predicting. Allan’s Cay is no longer on our list of desirable Exuma anchorages, although we succumbed to pressure to go there this year, only to discover it has not improved!
The concept of a shakedown cruise is a good one because problems like the faulty windlass motor come to light. We only hope your shakedown does not include two gales or Allan’s Cay!