7 May 2012

Night Passage Across the Great Bahama Bank

We had been at anchor for several days in the shallow channel north of Chub Cay hiding from the high winds and steep seas. When at last the weather settled down we were keen to continue our return to Florida aboard our sloop Hirondelle. This next leg would have us crossing the Great Bahama Bank between the northern end of the Tongue of the Ocean and the Straits of Florida a distance of about 70 miles. However, our departure from Chub Cay was not very dignified.

There was a two-knot tidal current sweeping through the channel as I hauled up the anchor. Chris was on the tiller and we had to spin the boat around in the current to make our way out. I should have been looking for the deep water and guiding Chris in her course instead I was on my knees, head down, fussing with and trying to secure the anchor. As Hirondelle turned broadside to the current she was swept on to the shallows and went aground. With a harness on Chris dipped into the water for a look at the keel. Fortunately, the bottom was soft sand and there was no damage. Then, using the dinghy we ran out a kedge anchor but even with the two of us hauling on the rode Hirondelle would not budge against the push of the current. Trying another tack, we filled the dinghy with water to her weigh down, swung the boom to one side tying the dinghy painter to the boom’s outboard end but we could not heel the boat over far enough to get the keel off the bottom. We were going nowhere, we would have to wait for the tide to turn and a whole day would be lost, at least that's how it seemed. Little did we know but there had been an audience watching our performance, and it was the audience that saved the day.

Other boats had waited out the weather behind Chub Cay, some Florida-bound cruisers like us but also several Bahamian lobster and conch boats. Two of the Bahamian crews saw our predicament and came to our aid. The first crew sent over four huge men who, when they climbed aboard Hirondelle, towered over me. The fishermen crowded me out of the bow and I had to step back as they hauled on the kedge. But even all that muscle could not pull us off. They left defeated but were soon followed by the second crew who took a different approach to the problem. They ran one of the halyards from the top of the mast with a tied-on extension to the stern of their power boat. Using the power boat to pull on the halyard streaming from the masthead they heeled Hirondelle to an alarming angle. Then the two fellows who had come on board and I hauled on the kedge as the power boat gunned its engine. It was a bit disconcerting to heel the boat in such a manner. I prayed that the mast could take the strain but it was only a moment before Hirondelle slid into deep water. Chris and I were relieved to be on our way, and to still have the mast standing. I was embarrassed that we had nothing to thank the fishermen with, not even a beer.

At the start of all the fuss the girls, then eight- and five-years old, had been sleeping in the v-berth but had been rudely awakened when we went aground. They spent the whole time below as the commotion on deck evolved. The girls’ blind faith in their parents' abilities was tested when the boat heeled during the performance of the second Bahamian crew.

After Chris and I tidied up the ropes and bailed out the dinghy we motored out to the deep water of the Tongue of the Ocean and turned west toward Northwest Channel Light. There was a run of a few miles in the deep water parallel to the edge of the Great Bahama Bank. Under sail and with the wind blowing at 15 to 20 knots straight out of the east we went flying along at more than 5 knots, which for 27-foot long Hirondelle, was good going. It was a fair bit of wind and I wondered if we should have stayed at Chub Cay longer,but the forecast called for some moderation in the winds as the day progressed. Our plan was to head west to Northwest Channel Light, located just on the edge of the bank. From there we would steer for Russel Light half-way across the bank, and then head for the passage between Gun Cay and North Cat Cay on the western extremity of the bank. From there it is a short way north to Bimini Island, our destination. Weather permitting we hoped to anchor on the bank overnight. It may seem odd to anchor out in the open on the huge expanse of the bank and with no land in site but it is commonly done in settled weather. Several months earlier on the way into the Bahamas we had anchored overnight on the bank and in the morning found the surface as still as a pond. That day as we had motored on the girls sat on the bow gazing into the clear water looking for fish swimming over the bottom, it was like peering into an aquarium.

This time conditions were very different. The wind did not moderate, sometimes gusting to over 20 knots--so much for weather forecasts. We sailed all through the afternoon and into the evening. By the time we were abeam of Russel Light, a couple of miles to the north of it, darkness had settled in and we could just make out the light. Since we could not stop we had to change our plan. We were not familiar with the narrow passage between Gun Cay and North Cat Cay, and we did not want to go through it in the dark. However, there was the alternative route around North Rock to the north of Bimini, and we were familiar with that. It was also more prudent to take the North Rock route because the water on it was somewhat deeper compared with the Gun Cay route. Hirondelle draws less than four feet and the chances of hitting a coral head even in the dark were minimal on either route. Entering Bimini harbour in the dark was out of the question but we knew that we could approach the leeward side of the island and anchor off until daylight.

All that night Hirondelle flew with just the small jib up, surging and breasting the waves with aplomb. The wind over the shallow banks, of course, built up waves of a meter or metre and a half. There was some rolling going downwind but it was never uncomfortable. The biggest worry was the dinghy, she was literally surfing and several times caught up to Hirondelle and smacked the transom. Chris eventually lengthened the painter so that the dinghy trailed forty or fifty feet behind Hirondelle. Even then I watched several times as the dinghy came racing up to abeam of the cockpit before falling back, fortunately never again hitting. The girls took some gravol after dinner. The younger one fell asleep in Chris's arms in the cockpit, awoke when transferred to her berth but quickly fell asleep again. The older one stayed up in the cockpit until sunset then went below to Chris’ berth to read for awhile before also falling asleep.

On our crossing of the bank we had the reassuring company of a friendly three-quarter moon. It would disappear from time to time behind the scattered clouds. When the moon did disappear one would look up at the obscuring cloud and try to estimate how long it would be before its light shone on the sea again. All the while Hirondelle behaved splendidly; surging, surfing, lunging and rolling over the waves. Even with just the jib up she was easy to steer, well-balanced and always under control. Without the main up there was no worry of an accidental gybe. At times looking astern it was mesmerizing to watch the waves rushing towards us, the wave crests glistening in the moonlight and the dinghy gamely racing along.

Several miles out from Bimini Island we picked out some of its lights including those on the communications tower that stands over Alicetown and to the north of those a group of even brighter lights. At first, the latter lights confused us but they turned out to be the floodlights of a construction site at the north end of the Bimini lagoon. However, the light that we really wanted to see was that of North Rock. Lying about a mile north of Bimini the rock is a low-lying slab, a few feet above the waves, about the size of a basketball court. Navigation lights in the Bahamas are notorious for being unreliable and that night the North Rock light failed us. The problem with not finding North Rock is that the Mossell Bank lies further north of it and it is essential to thread through the narrow gap between the two obstructions. Of course we had the GPS unit working but it would have been reassuring to have had the light as a guide. As Chris steered and peered into the darkness hoping to catch sight of the damn rock, I was down below checking the GPS against the paper chart and plotting a semi-circle course around the rock. Every few minutes or so I called up the course changes to her. Even with the moonlight we never saw the rock nor the pylon that supports the light.

Once round the phantom rock we turned south and for a few minutes took the waves on the beam. Gradually the seas flattened out as we came in the lee of Bimini. We sailed past Paradise Point, a shallow cape with some off-lying islets and rocks, until the swell had moderated before taking the jib down and motoring in toward shore. With the aid of the lead line we felt our way in toward the beach until we sounded about 20 feet and dropped the anchor. In the last of the moonlight the beach sand was just visible and once the engine was off we could hear the gentle surf. With magical timing the moon set a few minutes after we had anchored. It had been a comforting companion to cross the banks with. As we sat at anchor some swell reached us round the top end of Bimini and though we rolled a bit it was not uncomfortable. In the morning we could see in the distance North Rock and its useless light. After some breakfast we motored down to the range marking the entrance to Bimini Harbour, entered the harbour and anchored just to the north of the Big Game Club. It had been a fine sail, except for the nonsense when leaving Chub Cay and we soon forgot about that.

Photograph; Hirondelle in Bimini harbour by Harman Stinson