We have arrived in the Bahamas. We have crossed through the portal of the Gulf Stream and have been delivered to paradise; we are lost in the beauty, the peace, and the solitude of Great Sale Cay.
It's been four years since we sailed out of the Ragged islands and back to the States for my daughter's wedding; their anniversary is today. In that time we shared in two weddings and a funeral, and the births of six grandchildren - big, full heart, life events which we were blessed to be a part of. I can see our family growing and evolving before my eyes, and we're both enjoying this season of our lives. Hopefully, now that we have the boat systems running well again, we won't have to wait another 4 years before we get back here!
I can't count the game stoppers we encountered in the past year - we counted 40 different projects the other day. But the angst of being on a mooring ball for another summer in Vero (and the inevitable camping out with the heat and the bugs) drove us to the realization that we needed to be in the Bahamas in the hot months, where we remembered cooling trade winds and gorgeous water everywhere to launch ourselves into. We truly enjoy the solitude, and the Bahamian summers are quiet and relatively empty of tourists - live-aboard bliss. We've been very motivated to get back to that state of living :)
When we got to Great Sale, we dropped the anchor and just sat there, staring, amazed. It took a little while to digest that we'd really arrived at this heavenly place; like stepping out of the Tardis after 4 years. Now that it's been 5 weeks since we arrived, I'm beginning to get my vocabulary back; I got very stuck on Wow.
The weather moved us on to Green Turtle Cay, an incredibly friendly community of people on a picture postcard island of pale blue, coral and yellow houses, white-washed walls and picket fences. It's simply beautiful, and like all the islands here, unique. It was settled by Loyalists in the late 1700s who were being hunted down and persecuted after the War of Independence. These Settlers learned how to live on a small rock in the ocean and became excellent boat builders and hunters of the sea. The island is only about 3 miles long from tip to toe and it stands vulnerable, like all these islands, to Mother Nature. That vulnerability grows a different community of God-fearing, pragmatic people who rejoice over the quieter hurricane seasons, and patiently rebuild on bad years. They've learned how to roll with the punches.
We met our first old acquaintance when we were exploring the bar at Bluff House in White Sound. We bumped into Greg, a previous slipmate in '13 at Hidden Harbour marina in St. Augustine, and exchanged glances a few times while my brain was doing some fantastic excercises in calculating where this face belonged. Eventually we both figured it out, and he caught us up on everyone else we had mutually known there.
I'm relieved to tell you that we aren't the only ones with this problem of forgetfulnes; it's exacerbated, I think, by the migrant lifestyle. Nearly always, the people knocking on our hull begin with, "We know you won't remember us, but we're ( ..... intro)". I love it when that happens, because they're totally correct, and it takes one to know one ;)
When we left Green Turtle, we had a glorious sail south to Marsh Harbour, and were accompanied for a while by a very joyful dolphin, who leapt with glee and did belly rolls of delight while he surfed the waves from our following breeze. I was still very much locked in Wow mode, and that day burned a memory in my mind so vivid that I can hear the waves, and see the sun dancing on turquoise water, as that dolphin spread his joy to us, and we thanked him :) Awesome stuff.
Once we got to Marsh Harbour, Skip offered to be Net Control for the Cruisers' Net, which is broadcast every morning, 365 days a year, on the VHF radio. (You can listen to it at: cruisersnet.org/audio if you are curious as to what's involved). Virtually every major cruising area has a Cruisers' Net, and it's always run by volunteers, who are gifted enough at it to love doing it. Skip enjoys doing it too, has the voice to do it and a grateful audience, so it's always a pleasure to make the 8.00 am commitment. Once we move out of that VHF range to visit other cays, someone else will pick up the Net, The other benefits of being Net Anchor is that we learn what's new in the last 5 years since we've been here, and get a finger on the pulse of the present cruising community, which is ever-changing. There are a great many people a decade or two younger than us, now and it's very good to see the young moms and dads out here who are wholly or partly raising children on board. What a classroom they are providing!
We filled our fridge in Marsh Harbour, and our water tanks in the squall that came through one night, topping them up to the brim with pure, sweet, rainwater. Got the laundry done, had a few rum punches, and sailed off for Man O War Cay where we carefully ground the boat on a sand bank on a falling tide, and mowed the lawn that was growing under our waterline with drywall taping knives (think, a 10" wide spatula). It worked a treat, but best of all was the appreciation of the fairing we'd done to our hull when we did our blister job in 2011/2012. Running that spatula over a smooth hull surface is virtually a pleasure, made even more sweet by the fact there isn't a square inch under this boat that we don't know intimately. It made the chore nearly effortless.
So there's the lesson we keep running into as cruisers: it's boat repair in exotic locations. And if you don't do it properly the first time, you will revisit the repair. If you did it right the first time, you will be rewarded :) We get it.
While we were anchored off Fowl Cay in the middle of nowhere on day, hoping to enjoy some snorkeling, a commercial dinghy pulled up, hailing us as he did so - and there was Aaron beaming at us, another face from our cruising past. It was a ridiculous encounter - so far from where we'd met before - and that lead to a lovely stay anchored outside Hope Town with the crew on Dulcinea. Aaron and Greer were our marina managers in St Augustine, and it was lovely to see them and their twins, Myra and Aiden again. Aiden had some Bumblebee transformers he needed help with, which provided Skip a great deal of enjoyment successfully manipulating them back into their Camero format, and then returning them to their 7 year old owner. There weren't any toys nearly as sophisticated as transformers when we were kids, and while I could never have sat still long enough to attempt to put one together, I'm sure Skip would have been a real champion at it.
While we were still in the Hope Town area, we reunited with Madie and Phil on Susannah Gail, who were blowing through on their way south. Again, it seemed surreal to meet up with friends from our first encounter with them in Fernandina Beach, another universe ago. We had so much fun, picking right up where we left off last time we saw them, over a delicious dinner on their boat. It was yummy in every way.
It was around this time that we got the call that mum had fallen in her cottage and broken her arm in two places. Staying in touch with the office at Florida Baptist Retirement Center in Vero (absolutely the most awesome place to be when you're elderly) has been really easy, thanks to the new Bahamian wifi infrastructure since we were last here, and mum has been cared for by them as if she were their own mom. Nevertheless, we must go back and see what her needs will be when she comes out of Skilled Nursing, and give her support at home before (God willing) we turn around and come back again, to wait out the summer months in breezes and clear water. We can better assess the situation once we're home, being mindful that it's much easier to "go with the flow" and know that everything will settle out perfectly in the end :).
So we've turned the boat around, and have been moving slowly in the direction of Florida while mum's surgery was being done on her arm, and she heals in Skilled Nursing at FBRC, a stones throw from her cottage. We've island hopped towards the front door of Abaco at Great Sale Cay, back the way we came and adoring all the quieter anchorages we skipped over.
We've been showered with extravagant experiences on these remote Cays, including spending time with a family of incredibly friendly rays, who swept against our legs with their unbelievably silky skin, stroking us like a cat wrapping itself around your legs. They clearly loved Skip, who stayed bent over in the water, stroking them on their backs as they came over for some love. Eventually all the rays seemed to join in a circle, swinging by us and lining up for Skip's scritches, and then circling around for more. It was so incredibly cool - another First experience. We got to watch a rather large lemon shark join the group briefly, checking out the scene before he cruised away. His lemon color was very obvious; there was no doubt about what he was, or the tiger shark we followed in the dinghy for several minutes later in the day, who was marked along his sides just like a tiger.
The huge red cushioned starfish that lie on the sand in a few feet of water are so beautiful, and they were very much alive as we dinghied slowly over them, but the graveyard of seabiscuits we discovered was like tripping into an open vault of diamonds - begging for harvesting :) And harvest we did! We anchored the dink, and began collecting the empty shells. A couple of these shells were being occupied by other squatters, who we left in peace - and still we came home with gifts for all. Now that they've been bleached and dried, they are really wondrous and beautiful. Seabiscuits are in the same family as Sand Dollars, and the pattern on them is stunningly intricate and remarkably designed. To see them with a magnifying glass would make a believer out of the most stubborn atheist :).
I'm an insatiably enthusiastic beach-comber. I just can't help myself. It's terribly addictive for me, because I'm one of those people who always wanted to see what was around the next corner. I think it's probably a gene; I'm not the first beach-comber in my family. So I found myself the other day, wandering another pristine beach that was completely empty of humans (other than Skip) and I came across a hamburger bean. And then I came across a slew of bay beans - enough to make a bracelet or a necklace. Such treasure! So as I combed, I pondered on this treasure I was finding - thinking about how the remains of the seabiscuits, and the stray beans which floated the ocean currents for perhaps years, and the exquisite original shell habitats of other now-dead sea creatures, continue to give awe and pleasure to many, long after their "intended" purpose. The cycle is such a beautiful thing.
I'm sure I won't end up making a necklace that someone would be proud to wear from this jackpot - I'm not that gifted. There are plenty who are, however, and I'm always delighted to see their incredible creativity. Talent abounds out here among local artists and cruisers alike.
Yesterday, we stopped at Cooperstown, a small settlement on Great Abaco, and came ashore to see what had come to pass since the last time we were there in '09, with two grand-daughters. A couple of houses down from the community dock, I spotted twin girls, who were watching us soberly from their front porch where Grand-Mummy Sophia was sitting in a kitchen chair. I talked to them, and we wandered over, and suddenly the whole family was out on the porch, *remembering* our visit with the girls in '09. When I told them that we had pictures of those times, and in particular, of Skip helping some boys with their bicyles, two of the kids there were sure they would find themselves in those pictures. So, we're awaiting an email from one of them, so that we have an address. :) Meanwhile, Sophia wondered whether we would like some conch salad that she had makings for, and we told her we'd love to buy some from her. So as agreed, we wandered around the town block first, (there's a new library now!) while she prepared our salad.
On our walk, we met Everett Bootle, the 7th generation grandson of one of the original Cooperstown settlers, after whom the S. C. Bootle Highway was named, which runs the length of Great Abaco. Everett told us about the devastation after Hurricane Floyd in '99; the eye went through Cooperstown, and virtually every building on the main street was flattened. Today, he says, the shrubbery that was all killed off with the salt water flooding, is just starting to come back; lawns are less frail. The two churches at each end of town are still not fully built back, but everything in between has filled in again, slowly. These are a humble, patient people.
When we got back to Sophia's, she brought us a carry-out container filled to the brim with delicious conch salad. We tried to pay her, but she wouldn't accept our money. She just asked us to stop by the next time we come, blessed us, and told us to watch for that email so that she can see the pictures. We walked away from that woman with such love for her; these people fill your heart as if they were family.
Tomorrow, when the bulk of the rain has stopped, we'll sail on towards Vero, with a hard schedule of arriving at the mooring balls no later than the 9th June. Any day before that with great sailing conditions would be fine, too, but at the moment, it looks like wind will be so light that we could do a spinnaker run across the Gulf Stream. :)
I may not do this again for a while, but until then, I hope you stay well, happy, healthy and going with the flow :)