Almost two months from our New York departure, we arrive at our first real Bahama, after a 50-mile, seven-hour motor job from Ft Lauderdale. We get a perfect window for crossing the Gulf Stream so we barely experience her more characteristic wild side. It turns out to be the last Florida/Bahama weather window for weeks.
We spend our first Bahama night at Gun Cay, named we can't imagine for what. All we see amid the general scruff is a lighthouse and the crumbling remnant of a concrete, and very pink, one-room bungalow—perhaps in some earlier incarnation a sentry post. The following morning we travel from Gun to Chub Cay, hoping the nomenclature more accurately reflects a populace of portly Bahamians, which will make us feel less porky after our shameless, month-long Ft Lauderdale restaurant rout.
En route to Chub we cross the Grand Bahama Bank, AKA, The Flats, a spot-on description of the entirely level water extending uninterrupted and in every direction. Virtually waveless, thoroughly azure: not only flat but thin—and all too often, downright anorexic. For almost an hour we edge forward with mere inches—sometimes only one, and twice none—below our keel. It gets so boring we begin to feel safe and so decide to trust the many cruisers who've insisted we can make it through "no problem." Thus, after a point whenever the depth sounder reads more than one foot, we begin charging forward at 8 knots. Deep water here, we discover, is 18 inches below keel. At various moments—when the depth drops back below one foot, we back down to a speed over ground (in fact, literally ground) of 4 ˝ knots. This unnerving passage runs 60 miles but the sky is a cloudless baby blue, the sun is shining and we're sunbathing. We break the trip into two days, anchoring overnight, completely alone and surrounded by Flats.
We’re traveling hard because we’re in a bit of a hurry to slow down. We want to make it to the Exumas where the weather is balmier and we have friends to meet. Nassau, the hub of New Providence Island, makes a perfect overnight stop.
Predicted were soothing 15 knot winds and placid 3- to 5-foot seas. Instead we get 30 knots apparent wind on our nose (which seems to be the only part of a sailboat the wind recognizes), plus rolly 6- to 8-foot seas and tons of water over the gunwales, decks, cushions, canvas, us. All 40 miles to Nassau. Misery luxuriating in company, we watch other—mainly smaller—boats toiling in the distance. One turns back after losing a staysail.
Maybe we're spoiled—correction, of course we're spoiled—but I can scarcely remember a worse passage: first night in the Gulf Stream some six years ago; first alone overnight passage to Antigua, coming north from Isla Mujeres last year. Oh, yes, there was the entire trip from Ft Lauderdale to New York, when we first took possession of LULU. Or maybe it’s just being green again. Still, it's like childbirth—you forget the pain quickly. The real truth is LULU handles these conditions beautifully; it’s the two of us that don’t
Nassau locals warned Gary about entering on the east end but most cruisers said, "No problem." Why the east-end entry when the west channel is wide open? Because entering west would consign us to a swank marina—where the megayachts and megarich park, not the regular sailor guys. Also, LULU won’t fit under the two bridges that lead to the lower-end marinas, which are also more conveniently situated in the commercial downtown—where the shopping-starved get their fix.
The score is one-nothing for the locals. We do not fare so well entering east—something about low tide. We land on the surrounding sand bar but get a chance to find out how genuinely helpful Bahamians are. Lots of people soon rally round to assist, including a big old lummox of a motorboat—which succeeds easily in pulling us off. But then we promptly don’t turn sufficiently east—lacking that local knowledge to pick our way through what seems 360 degrees of shallow water. We soon end up back on the shoals. Our bulky savior boat is by that time a mere speck in the aquamarine distance.
From the nearby beach a cute Rasta type-guy zooms over decked out in a thicket of bleach-blonde braids, a nipple ring and a teensy bathing suit. He’s driving a multicolored speedboat—brightly lettered with hosannas to all Creation—with a 75-horsepower Yamaha. He tries mightily but he just doesn’t pack enough stallions. Next the Nassau Marine Patrol arrives, better equipped for the job with two 115-horse Yamahas. Still not enough.
With archetypal island indifference to time, the varied Samaritans recommend that we anchor for three hours awaiting high tide. We point out we are, for all intents and purposes, already anchored. But Gary—habitually placid, yet a demonic ADD-guy when it comes to problems that look unsolvable—continues rocking, backing, forwarding, bowthrusting and, in general, straining our engine just short of its endurance. His persistence finally prevails—as it usually does—and he gets us off. Though I can't rightly speak for the keel, I imagine it feels remorselessly stripped of paint and looks furrowed as a newly sown field.
All in all an interesting initial hour in Nassau, a playground island for gamblers, golfers, sunbathers and revelers but not really meant for cruising folk. We need two nights to stock up on liverwurst and such, fill our various tanks and visit Atlantis—all the while steeling ourselves to pass over that damnable shoal on the way out. This time we'll try to get the tides on our side.
Round Nassau Town
"Plus ca change..." If you remember your French, “the more things change… By which we mean: it takes only a day to realize we're utterly, completely back in the islands. It's been so long we’d forgotten how things work. Or don’t.
Taxi? “Be here in 10…” Ten whats it is not a good idea to ask.
Cell phone: “Piece of cake,” said the AT&T functionary back in the States—definitively, authoritatively, beyond a doubt. Meaning our latest-generation Nokia will work in the Bahamas. Smoothly, effortlessly, glitchlessly. Once we re-up, upping the per-minute ante, she will flip the switch that will put us cellularly (in addition to existentially) on Roam. Miles out of Nassau, ready to rock and roam, we powered up. Stuck on the reef, we powered up. In dock, we powered up. We are without Roam, though we note that our battery works.
We are determined that our Nokia will Roam but this necessitates a bit of roaming on our part. We call a taxi—10 means 20, we learn—after which wait a most genial Joe appears to take us to BATELCO, the Bahama Telephone Company. But first Joe’s got some roaming to do himself: there’s perishables he’s dropping off at his sister’s; there’s a man-sized bag of dog food to buy. Won’t cost us a cent more than the agreed-upon $12, he assures us, and it’ll save him two trips to town.
Say, what else have we got to do? We’re back in the slow lane.
Turns out what Ms. Functionary told us is, well, not quite the whole story. Doubtless it’s the story AT&T headquarters gave her, but then headquarters never talks to actual Bahamians. Which can be most illuminating. When we finally do reach the desk of Mrs. Deanne Arnett, Batelco Wireless Specialist extraordinaire, she makes several confirming calls before reporting, “We’re still working on getting GSM technology to work.” Not an auspicious omen on an offshore Caribbean island.
She assures us—she’s quite confident on this—it us it will work some time. Thus we do not ask her what GSM actually means—because by now we know it won’t be in our lifetime.
“But that’s not what you want anyway,” she volunteers, “Because when GSM does work, it will only be in Nassau and Freeport.”
That means not in the serene Bahamian out-islands—those tantalizing Exumas—where we'll be hanging. “Well, what does work there?
Headset quivering, fingers flying, a virtuoso of her instrument, Mrs. Arnett researches the answer. Which is: prepaid phone cards and final-generation analog/digital phones—the cellular equivalents of victrolas and valises.
Then Gary smiles gleefully, displaying every remaining tooth in his mouth. Loathe about throwing out anything—not the rattiest t-shirt, not the most obscure receipt—he squirrels all kinds of treasures away where I can't find them. Thus, I know instantly that we have onboard an ancient Nokia or Ericcson.
We realize the only Roaming we’ll be doing is to one of those Exumas, where some Batelco someone—a Ms. Rolle, informs Mrs. Arnett—will either hook us up...or tell us the information we got in Nassau is completely erroneous. Bussing back to town Gary nudges me and says, “I just remembered that in the islands, you're only surprised IF you believe what they tell you.” Still, whatever Bahamians do tell you it’s with such spunk, such diligence and so obviously without malice that you hardly mind hearing what they have to say. Take the handsome, hennaed Bahamazon who gallops of her Massage, Health & Beauty Care spa to offer me a flyer—“No obligation, honey, just take a look.” Then—apparently taking her own advice—this giraffe of a woman glances down, gives Gary a thorough once-over, flicks over to me and says, ”Honey, where’d you find the short guy?”
Stopping us both cold, leaving us too nonplussed to even burst out laughing. Or consider an answer, something like, “Out of a Crackerjack box.” “At a Growth Workshop.” Or, “One day I felt something tugging at my skirt, I looked down and there he was…haven’t been able to shake him since.”
Never mind: she’s got more to add. “I like mine taller—and with broader shoulders.” Her eyes now hover around Gary’s midsection and I actually watch her restraining herself from adding. “And without the gut.”
Footloose and phoneless, we tour Atlantis. This fanciful, curlicued and convoluted concrete tribute to Neptune’s Realm is Paradise Island’s must-see. A humongous complex, it’s a hotel, beach, lagoon, marina, and, of course, casino. Atlantis is renowned for its seemingly unending sinewy path of two-story aquariums, populated by a breathtaking assortment of perambulating salt-water fish, eels, rays and crustaceans: the most oversized examples of their species and an array not even our Bahamazon Spa Lady could fault.
Atlantis also boasts 35 restaurants, but be warned: visit, but do not eat. Atlantis not only reigns over The Deep: it is equally master of the tepid and the lukewarm. In addition, the gloppy, bland and overdone. Better to sup on a plate of golf balls—their interior may be stringy but they’re a good workout (and no less tasteless) for aging gums.
I say this not without experience: We try the Bahamian Club—grilled steaks and chops—and the Marketplace—a many-mile buffet. Heady aromas issue from both but at neither is there anything to warm the belly or singe the tongue.
That is, until, defeated and exiting, I spot an omelet station tucked into an unobtrusive corner. Abutting an extensive array of bacon bits, onions, cheeses, mushrooms and other fixings, eight Roper burners are blasting, but not an omeleteer or any other official cooking presence in sight. The sole on-duty minion seems to be a hair-netted, aproned Bahamian, her back to the stove chopping green peppers. Ten minutes after elevating her to chef, I am served the only hot (though similarly overdone) food item to be had at Atlantis.
On to the Exumas.