Lessons at Morgan's Bluff

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Colin Ward

I have heard sailors say that cruising the Bahamas is a piece of cake. True, it is not the same as rounding the Horn or singlehanding across the Atlantic, however the Bahamas deserve a lot of respect when it comes to reefs, shoals, unprotected anchorages and unpredictable weather. We learn new lessons every time we go there. And every year we hear of boats that are damaged or lost, not to mention the occasional lost crew member.

This April, after several weeks exploring the Exuma Islands, it was time for Colleen and I to sail Mandalay home to Florida. We had enjoyed a brisk sail from Normans Cay to Nassau where we had taken care of our “city” business like receiving mail, paying bills and buying groceries. We were now studying the weather for the 150 mile trip over the Bahama Banks and across the Gulf Stream to make landfall in Miami. The return trip across the Gulf Stream can be intimidating because it takes a day or two to get to the Stream during which time the weather can easily change from the preferred light southerly winds. What’s more, there are few sheltered spots for a deep draft sailboat to stop and wait for the weather to improve. Crossing the Gulf Stream between the Bahamas and Florida with the wind against the current is definitely not recommended unless you like breaking square waves that quickly build to 10 – 12 feet.

A Haitian workboat contrasted with the skyline of Paradise Island, Nassau.

Our weather window was taking shape, however. A weak cold front was stalled over Florida, but the weather reports called for light winds with a southerly component for several days. Our friends on Elysium VI suggested a day sail to Morgans Bluff on Andros followed by a non-stop trip to Miami. We had never stopped at Morgans Bluff but had heard several good reports. We knew the U-shaped harbor was open to the north and protected from the east, south and west. The forecasters were predicting that we would see southeasterlies of 15 knots on Friday, southwesterlies 15 – 20 knots the next day and then several days of light southerlies.

We decided to head out to Andros on the southeasterly, sit out the southwesterly in Morgans Bluff and then finish the passage over the next day and a half in light southerlies. Our course would be essentially west, although from Bimini to Miami we would be sailing a southwesterly course to counteract the set of the Stream. The anchor was up by 0800 on departure day and we headed for the western entrance of Nassau Harbor. We waited while a cruise ship carrying 3300 passengers and 1275 crew entered the harbor and then headed out into the Northeast Providence Channel.

There was almost no wind but we raised the main in anticipation of the southeasterlies filling in shortly. Once we were clear of Nassau Harbor (and two more cruise ships that were heading that way), we eased the main and unrolled the 140% genoa. Our course was northwest until we cleared the shoals of New Providence. Then we headed up a few degrees and the sails began to draw nicely. Sure enough, by the time we were pointing towards Morgans Bluff, the sails were moving us at 4.5 knots and the engine was quiet.

It was not long before our speed increased from 4.5 to 5.5 knots, then 6, then 6.5. The wind was blowing 15 – 20 on the beam and there was a bone in Mandalay’s teeth. Before we closed on Andros, we left the lee of New Providence and felt the wind and seas building as we crossed the Tongue of the Ocean. By the time Morgans Bluff was visible, the 140% genoa was reefed to about 90 % and we were thinking about a reef in the main. The GPS told us we were sailing at seven knots over ground. We knew that our anchorage would be safe with the southerly winds but I worried that the surge would make it uncomfortable. Since we did not know how much maneuvering room there would be in the anchorage, we dropped sail before we reached the channel (actually a gap in the reef). When we headed into the wind to lower the main, the bow plowed a deep furrow in each of the large choppy waves coming toward us. We breathed a sigh of relief as we passed the bluff and saw that the water was flat inside. The first sight was a large tanker called Titas that carries drinking water from Andros to Nassau every day. We passed Titas and dropped the hook in 10 feet of water where the chart reported good holding. Knowing that Titas drew much more than 10 feet, we were quite sure that it would not come visiting in the night. Elysium VI was already tucked in close to shore. We agreed that a restful evening was in order and the exploration of town could wait until Saturday.

Both the chart and the cruising guide indicated that Morgans Bluff had a small man-made inner harbor in addition to the sizable anchorage to its north. An island freighter, the Emerald Express arrived and entered the inner harbor. We were surprised when it disappeared inside. The basin only looked to be about 400 feet square on the chart. The freighter was well over 100 feet long and carried several truck trailers on deck. A ramp at the bow allowed loading and unloading the cargo. The next morning, a second island freighter entered the inner harbor and tied up next to the Emerald Express.

Saturday arrived peacefully but the sky was cloudy and looked a bit unsettled. The wind had clocked to the southwest as predicted but we were still well protected. It crossed my mind that coming to Morgans Bluff in a norther would be a big mistake. At about midday, the sky became darker and all of a sudden, I felt a cold blast of air from the north. Almost instantly, the wind machine reading jumped up to 29 knots and the direction was due north. The boat was blown south and finally, after what felt like several minutes, I felt the anchor grab and reset. I was glad we had not anchored any closer to the beach where the water shoaled up rapidly. I secretly hoped it was a brief squall line, but there was no thunderstorm close by so “brief” would be wishful thinking. It was not long before the waves began to grow and Mandalay began bucking like a bronco. It was easy to see that with the almost unlimited fetch to the north, we could be in a lot of trouble if we stayed put.

Colleen wondered if we should head out and make for Frazer’s Hog Cay for some northerly protection. Although that would have been a better anchorage in a norther, we would have to travel directly north into the building 30 knot wind and accompanying seas for 12 miles before we felt any relief. Not a pleasant thought. In addition to riding out the norther where we were, there was one other option. The cruising guide mentioned that in a pinch, a sailboat could obtain permission to enter the small inner commercial harbor and med moor to the rocks and be protected. The book also mentioned that our present anchorage was “unsafe in northerlies”.

I jumped in the dinghy (once again thankful for a large RIB with a 15 h.p. motor), and motored between the jetties into the inner harbor. The basin was indeed small and the water was flat inside. The two island freighters were docked inside, along with a catamaran and a couple of small motor boats. I tied up the dinghy and went looking for the harbormaster. My search began at Willy’s Water Lounge, the only business in sight. Willy’s son Prince pointed out a small car near the beach and told me to look for the harbormaster in the car. I hurried over to the car only to find its occupant sound asleep on the front seat. Normally, I would not wake someone enjoying a midday nap but I was getting a bit desperate as the wind was now well over 30 and the harbor was close to untenable. The groggy harbormaster said we could come in and tie up as long as we did not obstruct the freighters. He also said I should look for Shalom at the freighter dock who would help us. He told me the water in the man-made basin was 14 feet deep. Not wishing to waste any more time, I dinghied back to the boat and told Colleen we were heading inside…..let’s get docklines ready and we would figure out how to med moor Mandalay.

We motored up to the anchor and managed to get it aboard without damaging the topsides and headed between the jetties to the inner harbor. My plan was to drop anchor in the middle of the basin and let the wind blow us towards shore where I would dinghy lines ashore to complete our med moor. We entered the basin and found that the water was indeed plenty deep enough. I steered up into the center with the anchor at the ready. A figure on shore began running and shouting to Colleen, who was on the bow, to drop anchor and back the stern up to the windward shore. Since this was not our plan, a stalemate ensued until we agreed that we would follow this man’s instructions. The anchor was dropped and I now had to reverse the boat into the 30 knot wind towards a rocky shore with tree stumps for cleats. Mandalay reverses fairly well by single screw sailboat standards and we were soon easing into an opening between two local powerboats. I told Colleen to snub the anchor while I dinghied a line ashore. I left the engine idling in reverse and jumped in the dinghy with the end of the first stern line. I handed it to the man, soon to be identified as Shalom, but it was too short to reach the casuarina tree stump that served as a cleat. I quickly retrieved another line to extend the first while Mandalay idled in gear and stayed put. Colleen began tying dock lines together to make a second stern line and two very long bow lines to extend back to the rocks. Finally, Shalom helped us tie a spare anchor line all the way across the harbor to a mooring bitt on the far shore.

Once the boat was secure, we introduced ourselves to Shalom who was surprised we had not heard of him. Although we took him to be a Bahamian, he corrected us and said he was from Jamaica and had been schooled in England. He had been around the world three times in merchant vessels, had worked for the Windjammer Cruise Lines fleet, and spoke several languages. He worked for the freight company in Andros and helped cruisers like us when necessary. Shalom said we could stay in the harbor at no charge but a tip (well earned) for him would be appreciated.

Next, our thoughts turned to Elysium VI. I jumped in the dinghy again to see how they were doing and to describe med mooring in the inner harbor. Once I passed through the jetties and saw the waves, I reconsidered the dinghy idea and headed back to use the radio on Mandalay. At first, Elysium decided to remain in the anchorage (they had seen the size of the inner harbor during a previous visit!), but it was not long before they called back having changed their minds. I rounded up Shalom who picked a spot for them, and we told them to come on in. After weighing the anchor with some difficulty, the Whitby 42 motored into the harbor and repeated the exercise we had been through. This time, I ferried their docklines to shore while they struggled to reverse the full keel vessel into its spot. Our dinghy also doubled as a tugboat as I pushed their stern where the propeller would not take it. They dropped a second anchor and were soon secure while the wind in the outer harbor blew up to forty knots from the north churning the anchorage up like a washing machine.

Med Moored in Morgans Bluff Inner Harbor

Med Moored in Morgans Bluff Inner Harbor

Med Moored in Morgans Bluff Inner Harbor

With both boats secure, we all retreated to Willy’s and enjoyed a couple of Kaliks and thanked Shalom and the dockmaster and anyone else listening for the inner harbor and their help to get in there. The water depth in the harbor was fourteen feet almost to shore so we were thankful that our rudders could be within a few feet of the ironshore rocks and not be in any danger as long as our anchors held. Of course, by the time we left Willy’s to return to our boats, the wind had dropped to 15 knots from the southwest and the outer anchorage looked inviting again.

Colleen (right) and the Elysium VI crew celebrate at Willy’s

The next morning we brushed the sand out of the cockpit that had blown over from the beach to the north of us. We heard on the radio that two boats had gone onto the reef at Mama Rhoda Rock near Chubb Cay. One was a sailboat and the other a 48’ trawler.

We stayed in Morgans Bluff until the unsettled weather passed through the area. We enjoyed the Sunday night party at Willy’s complete with disc jockey and twelve speakers about 100 feet from Mandalay. Every day, Willy’s had a loud and aggressive game of dominoes under way on the deck. We watched as the freighters came and went and we watched some local children diving from the bank into the deep basin. Elysium VI had to slacken their anchor rode to insure that a freighter cleared it when turning around in the basin. We also saw fishermen loading conch onto a ship bound for Nassau. They had caught the conch at another island and had stored it in the water off the beach until it was time to ship it to market.

Finally when we were ready to head for Bimini and Miami, light southerlies were predicted. We headed out across the Banks (80 miles in 15 feet of water with no land in sight) until we neared Bimini. We dropped anchor near Bimini’s North Rock for a few hours sleep before heading across the Gulf Stream. When we arose at 2 a.m. to begin the final leg, the weather report was calling for deteriorating conditions in the Miami area with 25 knot southwesterlies (which would be on our nose) predicted for late that day. We crabbed across the Gulf Stream at full speed and reached Miami’s Government Cut in rain and thunderstorms, but thank goodness before the wind built to 25. It was time to splurge on a marina and unwind from our interesting return trip to Florida. After clearing back in to the United States, we relaxed in the marina. A manatee and her pup came up to the dock to visit and let us scratch her head and belly. A pleasant welcome home!

Among the lessons learned were that weather forecasts are pretty reliable when conditions are stable, but can be completely wrong if there is a stationary front in the area. Also, we need a fall back plan if the conditions change. I knew the inner harbor existed at Morgans Bluff but would not have taken the boat into such a tight spot under normal conditions. My other fallback plan of heading over to Frazers Hog Cay went out the window when it became a 12 mile upwind slog into 30 to 40 knot winds. We also learned a little about Andros and its friendly people. More cruisers have been stopping there recently and we know why. Lastly, we wondered about our choice to leave Nassau on a Friday. We know it is bad luck to start a voyage on a Friday, but after all, we had been island hopping for several months and we were not sure this counted as a new voyage! Once again, we learned respect for the Bahamas and were reminded not to underestimate the conditions there.