At 8:30 AM on Sunday, March 22nd, the anchor is up in Sapodilla Bay, Providenciales for today’s 55-mile run across the Caicos Passage to Southeast Point on the island of Mayaguana. The initial nine-mile leg of this trip follows the Sandbore Channel, due west across a shallow bank, to the much deeper water of the Atlantic Ocean. From here, a course of 330 degrees takes us to the island of Mayaguana, the eastern gateway to the Bahamas for vessels arriving from the Caribbean.
In light, northeasterly winds, the sailing angle to Southeast Point is a beam reach. Not only is this a preferable point of sail, it is the shortest distance between the Turks and Caicos Islands and the island of Mayaguana. At 5:40 PM, the anchor is down in 15 feet of perfectly clear water off of a white-sand beach. A reef to the east provides a protective lee for tonight’s anchorage.
There are 700 islands in the Bahamas, only 30 of which are inhabited. In addition, there are 2,400 smaller uninhabited islands called “cays”. The island of Mayaguana is the easternmost of all of the islands and cays in the Bahamas. At Southeast Point, Cutter Loose is anchored in the easternmost point on the easternmost island in the Bahamas. In the out islands of the Bahamas, this is as “far out” as it gets.
Southeast Point is an isolated place. There has not been another vessel within eyesight since departing Provo this morning. Because the weather is quite settled tonight, the sky is clear, illuminated by a smiling moon in the eastern sky with Venus positioned conveniently nearby. Wavelets lap rhythmically on the beach. There is merely a hint of surge in the anchorage…just enough of a subtle roll to rock us gently asleep after a long day’s sail.
On Monday, dawn paints a pastel sunrise at our Southeast Point anchorage. Today’s objective is to clear Bahamian Customs at Abraham’s Bay Settlement, some 15 miles to the northwest. Departing our anchorage at 8 AM places us at the wider, deeper, western entrance to Abraham’s Bay at 11 AM.
Abraham’s Bay is a huge body of shallow water. The northern coast of the Bay is formed by a beach on Mayaguana’s south shore. A four-mile reef forms the southern boundary of the Bay, marked clearly by breaking waves. With the sun now directly overhead, it is an easy task to steer around the scattered coral heads while motoring to an anchorage near the Settlement some 4 miles to the east.
Given the ultra-shallow water near the Settlement, it is a one-mile dinghy ride from our anchorage to the town dock. The dinghy channel is defined by two range markers and a white path in the sandy bottom scoured by outboard motors. From the dinghy dock, it is a short walk to the BATELCO telephone tower and the compact “standing room only” government office.
When clearing in, newly arriving visitors are asked to sign a receipt for a cruising permit. The previous entry in the receipt book was dated March 1, 2015…23 days ago. From this, it can be deduced, that few cruising boats clear Customs at Mayaguana.
Waiting patiently outside the government office, Pat strikes up a conversation with a friendly gentleman known as “Skully” Cartwright, a local bone fishing guide. Skully tells us that a total of 300 people live on the island of Mayaguana. There are three villages or “settlements”. Naturally, everyone on the island knows one another by name.
Abraham’s Bay Settlement is a hot and dusty place. In addition to the government office and the BATELCO tower, there is one bar, a few shops and not more than a dozen homes.
Back aboard Cutter Loose with Bahamas cruising permit in hand, the Bahamian courtesy flag is raised to the spreaders.
Since the sun is still overhead, the anchor is up for the short run across the Bay, retracing our track from this morning. At 3:45 PM, the anchor is down in the deeper water near the western entrance of the Bay. This will facilitate an early departure in the morning without the need to dodge coral heads. Our reward is a fiery crimson sunset.
At 8:30 AM on Tuesday, March 24th, the anchor is up in Abraham’s Bay. Our destination today is Acklins Island, about 60 miles to the northwest. It is another day of downwind sailing in light air, augmented from time to time with an assist from the diesel auxiliary.
Along the way, a feathered visitor stops to visit. After using Cutter Loose as a rest room stop, he is on his way.
Our course today takes us past the west coast of West Plana Cay, a small uninhabited island with a gorgeous white sand beach. It is tempting to call it quits for the day, dropping the hook off this beach. Instead, we press on to Attwood Harbor…a hidden harbor on the north coast of Acklins. Once through the cut in the reef, cantilevered Umbrella Rock stands at attention like a protective sentinel, guarding the entrance to Attwood Harbor.
Inside the harbor is our home for the night…an isolated circular bay. There is no town, no buildings and no signs of civilization…just a white beach. The weather remains settled during our stay, making for a pleasant overnight anchorage.
On Wednesday, March 25th, the anchor is up in Attwood Harbor for a 36-mile run paralleling the northern coasts of Acklins Island and Crooked Island. From the water, it is difficult to discern where Acklins ends and Crooked begins. Nearing the end of our journey, the Bird Island lighthouse comes into view. This 70-foot structure warns mariners to stay clear of the shallows at the northwest tip of Crooked Island. The tiny community of Pitts Town along with its small airstrip is located nearby.
Clearing the reef at Pitts Town Point, the anchor is down at 4 PM in the crystal- clear water off of Pitts Town Beach. The water is so clear that our anchor chain lying in the sand below remains clearly visible from the foredeck. Following a late afternoon swim, a pod of whales are spotted nearby. Unfortunately, they do not pause to visit. The weather remains settled, providing another calm night at anchor.
On Thursday, March 26th, the anchor is up at Pitts Town Point for the 44-mile transit of the Crooked Island Passage to Clarence Town Harbor on the east coast of Long Island. The weather today is partly cloudy with 15 knots of wind dead astern, making for a slow, rolly downwind sail. Approaching Clarence Town, our course takes us north of Booby Rock, then south into this massive harbor leaving the ominous-looking reef at Conch Spit to port. Under increasing cloud cover, the anchor is down just south of the beautiful white sandy beach on Strachan Cay.
The settled weather pattern that we have been enjoying for nearly two weeks is coming to an end. A strong cold front is expected to pass through these waters this weekend. The selection of Clarence Town as a destination is decidedly defensive in nature. Over the next few days, it will serve as a harbor of refuge.
It has been several years since we endured the passage of cold fronts in the northern Bahamas. Our memories of these weather events are still quite vivid. As a result of this experience, we have the highest degree of respect for the powerful punch these storms can deliver. Returning to the Bahamas after a three-year hiatus in the Eastern Caribbean, requires an adjustment in our manner of seeking protection from stronger winds and squalls.
Cold fronts originating in the North Atlantic rarely reach the Eastern Caribbean. Wind direction in the Windward and Leeward Islands is nearly always from the east. The tactic for protection from robust easterly winds is simply to anchor in a harbor that provides a protective lee. There are plenty of harbors in the Eastern Caribbean that match this description. Consistent, twenty-five knot, easterly winds are entirely manageable in the lee of a large volcanic island.
Cold fronts exiting the U.S. east coast and passing through the shallow waters and low-lying islands of the Bahamas are much different. They bring winds from all directions. As the storm approaches, the wind builds gradually as it clocks from the south to the west to the northwest. As the front passes, the wind peaks in velocity as it clocks to the north and northeast. Eventually, the prevailing easterlies resume. This normally signals a return to settled weather. Completing this cycle, the boat will have swung a full 360 degrees around its anchoring point. The most significant threat stemming from the rotation of wind is that the anchor may become dislodged from the seabed as the boat spins around in a circle on the surface. A dragging anchor is always a concern when the wind shifts significantly in direction, as in the passage of a cold front.
Thankfully, cruising sailors have an asset in the person of marine weatherman extraordinaire, Chris Parker, whose daily forecasts provide information on approaching cold fronts four or five days before their arrival. Each day aboard Cutter Loose begins in the same manner. At 6:30 AM, the high- frequency, single-side band transceiver is tuned to Chris Parker’s broadcast of the marine weather forecast for the Bahamas. This is one of the highlights of our day, as weather dictates our every move.
Since there is a limited number of protected (360 degree) harbors in the Bahamas in which to seek shelter, the prudent sailor must begin to consider alternative, bail-out destinations when Chris Parker first mentions the possibility of a frontal passage in his forecast. When a storm is approaching, well-protected harbors fill rapidly with cruising boats. It is preferable to arrive a few days ahead of a frontal passage to insure an optimum anchorage spot in the harbor and to allow the anchor to settle into the seabed. Since we have been making steady progress to the northwest every day since leaving Provo, a multi-day pause in the action is most welcome.
Already, signs of an impending change in the weather have become obvious. Friday is sunny but blustery with southerly winds. With lighter winds clocking west, Saturday is devoted to exploration of Clarence Town on foot. Our first stop is at the True Value grocery store to buy bread and eggs while visiting with 81 year old proprietor, philosopher and local historian, Mr. Ancel Pratt.
Clarence Town is the capital of Long Island and is home to 350 residents. There are two churches in this town…one Anglican/Episcopal and the other Roman Catholic. Both churches were designed by John Cecil Hawes, better known as Father Jerome, an architect-turned-priest who dedicated his life to building and re-building churches and convents in the Bahamas.
Father Jerome initially designed and built the Anglican Church in Clarence Town. After an extended absence from the Bahamas, he returned here as a Catholic priest to build the Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral. His influence is felt primarily in Nassau, Cat Island and Long Island. Now deceased, Father Jerome is remembered fondly by Bahamian people everywhere.
Providing a well-deserved break for the food service director aboard Cutter Loose, our lunch stop today is at the Flying Fish Marina. This freshly painted, 18-slip marina caters primarily to sport fishing enthusiasts. The new owners of Flying Fish have made a sizeable capital investment in the facility. They promote their marina as the last stop for fuel before entering the Caribbean.
By late afternoon on Saturday, the wind has increased to 15 knots out of the northwest as darker clouds descend upon Clarence Town. Cutter Loose cannot decide whether she prefers to lie to wind or to the tidal current which enters and exits the harbor through several cuts in the reef to the east. As the wind clocks north and increases in intensity, surge wraps around Strachan Cay creating an uncomfortable roll in the anchorage. Throughout the early morning hours, we are awake frequently, checking wind speed, wind direction and our relative position in the harbor. All is well. There is no cause for concern.
Just before dawn on Sunday morning, the cold front finally passes, as evidenced by a wind shift to the northeast. Peak sustained winds from this storm are in the 20-knot range with gusts to 25. Despite the 300-degree rotation, our anchor remains securely planted due to the excellent holding afforded by the sandy seabed.
On Sunday, the sky remains filled with threatening, grey clouds and the northeast breeze remains fresh at 20 knots. The temperature and humidity have dropped considerably as cooler, dryer air settles in behind the front. Although the thermometer in the cabin reads 74 degrees, it feels downright chilly aboard Cutter Loose. Since it is too cool to lounge in the cockpit, we remain huddled below in the cabin with the hatches and ports closed. What a marked change in weather from the Eastern Caribbean! Our personal thermostats are not quite ready for the northern climate.
Despite the fact that it has been rollier than we would have preferred, this harbor has served a useful purpose. First and foremost, we are safe and refreshed. The harbor offers excellent holding. Strachan Cay blocks the full brunt of northerly and northeasterly winds in a blow. Clarence Town, albeit small, provides an opportunity for exercise, dining and other shore-side diversions.
Despite the unsettled weather, we have enjoyed our relaxing visit to Clarence Town. On Monday, Cutter Loose is bound for South Point anchorage at the southern tip of Long Island. South Point will serve as a staging area for our visit to the Jumentos Cays.