“You are now free to wander aimlessly about the Abacos.” This is the sign-off we hear daily from Will, who co-moderates the Abacos VHF Radio Net on Channel 68 at 8:15 a.m. Wandering aimlessly seems to me an excellent description of cruising in these northern Bahamian islands. Like the British Virgin Islands, the Abacos lie very close together, so it is easy to hop from one cay to another in an hour or a half-day, meeting friendly locals and checking out interesting places. Also like the BVIs, there is good, bad, and ugly to discover. Let’s start with the good!
Aside from one night anchored at Sandy Point, en route, Little Harbour was our first real stop in the Abacos. It was founded sometime in the 1950s by an American couple who wanted to escape the rat race and make art in a peaceful setting. Nowadays their children run the place, which includes a dinghy dock, a bronze sculpture foundry, an art gallery, a collection of cottages owned by snowbirds who winter here, and a charming little beach bar named Pete’s Pub. The food is delicious and varied, the drinks are cold, and the snowbirds are very friendly – in our first encounter, I was invited to join a regular morning ladies’ beach walk.
The one “aw, bummer” experience we had at Little Harbour came on New Year’s Eve. We went home for Christmas and returned a couple of days before because we’d been told we “must” experience the big NYE celebration. We sailed back from Marsh Harbour to Little Harbour and went ashore at dinner time, only to find white tablecloths and name cards on every table at Pete’s Pub. Apparently reservations were required. Ooops! We dinghied back to Gratitude and grilled some steaks instead. No biggie, except for making the half-day sail down for nothing.
The upside of sailing back up to Little Harbour was our discovery of a great snorkeling area by Sandy Cay, en route. We had read that there was a day anchorage and some small-craft mooring balls around this area just for the purpose of snorkeling. They were not wrong! Hurricane Dorian washed away most of those moorings, but there’s still one left, and we enjoyed an hour’s swim with the fishes and the stunning coral reef before we headed back north for Elbow Cay, which is across the Sea of Abaco from Marsh Harbour.
Welcoming The Ranks
Our dear friends Chris and Aimee Rank joined us for more exploration of the Abacos. We figured out on this trip that we had known each other for close to 20 years. Which makes me shake my head – time really does fly faster as we get older. Chris and Aimee last visited Gratitude when we were down in Grenada, in 2019, so their visit was past due! We had hoped to do a lot of swimming and snorkeling, with a visit to Little Harbour for good measure. Alas, the weather was a bit too cool and rainy to get in the water, and Pete’s Pub had to close for a week because someone there caught Covid. So, as seasoned sailors do, we adjusted the plan.
One day we spent exploring Elbow Cay via golf cart. Of all the Abaconian cays that were hard-hit by 2019’s Hurricane Dorian, Elbow has made the most progress in rebuilding. In our day ashore there we visited Firefly (resort and restaurant), Hope Town (charming village of marinas, gift shops, a lighthouse, and cottages), On Da Beach (fun beach bar on the Atlantic side of the island), and for dinner, the Abaco Inn.
The next day we weighed anchor and motored less than 10 miles north to Fisher’s Bay, on the western side of Great Guana Cay. This is a wonderful little anchorage, well-protected from southern and easterly winds and waves, with a cute beach that is the home of Grabber’s Bar and Grill. Grabber’s was a real find, with a varied and tasty menu of appetizers, entrees, and tropical drinks. You can enjoy your meal at the bar, a picnic table, hammock, or in Adirondack chairs with your toes in the sand, while you watch others play beach chess or kayak. Everything that makes a beach bar desirable! And if that’s not enough drinking for you, the famous Nipper’s Bar and Beach Club has recently reopened. I don’t think they’re back at full strength yet, but you can order drinks and a few appetizers, gaze out over the ocean, and take a dip in their pool if you like cold water!
Our final night with the Ranks included watching the first half of the College Football National Championship game, to root for our beloved Georgia Bulldogs. We only got to see the first half, as our bar closed at 10 p.m. and that was only halftime. We rejoiced the next day to hear that the Dawgs had won! And we still have to see the footage of the final quarter, which we’ve read was quite exciting.
It Ain’t All Paradise – The Price of Cruising The Abacos
I mentioned earlier that there was “bad” and “ugly” in cruising here. Abacos took a beating by Hurricane Dorian. Friends, it was really bad. Several folks we met during our time here showed us photos they’d kept of the devastation. I wish I had one to show you. (Google it if you’re curious.) Even now, two years later, while you’re walking in Marsh Harbour, you’ll pass shredded former homes, some just foundations, others with a wall or two still standing. Whole abandoned shopping centers. Generators that run 24 hours a day because the electrical lines are not yet reliable. Sidewalks that require hopping over huge chunks of displaced concrete, if they haven’t disappeared altogether.
Our guidebook, dated 2019, described myriad businesses, resorts, marinas and restaurants that cruisers in the Abacos must visit. Most of them are permanently gone now. The ones that are rebuilding are still only partway there. The marina we stayed at when we needed a slip had new docks as well as water and electricity, but still no showers or laundry. Treasure Cay, a major resort destination on Great Abaco we had planned to visit, still has no facilities at all. Any place we wanted to visit, we had to do a little digging and asking around to see if it would be there, should we try and go. Half the time the answer was “No, not yet.”
The second caveat for cruising the Abacos is the weather. We’d been warned that the Abacos in winter time were prone to northern cold fronts with high winds, and we finally began to experience that reality after the Ranks departed. Looking ahead at the forecast, we realized we would not have time to travel further south before the next big blow. We needed a safe place to wait out some high winds.
Surprise! A Sail Maker!
In looking for a safe harbor we began to read about Man-o-War Cay. Our guidebook indicated this cay had a well-protected harbor from northerly winds. Then we read, almost accidentally, that it also had a boatyard with a resident sailmaker! This discovery was serendipitous, because we hadn’t been able to use our mainsail ever since our passage to Bimini from Ft. Lauderdale; some new and unfamiliar (to us) rigging had resulted in a sizable sail tear, and we didn’t want to chance it getting worse.
So we called Jay Manni, the sailmaker, who said he could indeed repair the tear. But we would need to take down our mainsail, remove the battens, and bundle it up so he could come pick it up in his 13-foot skiff.
TAKE DOWN OUR MAINSAIL? Are You Kidding Me?!?
Our mainsail is HUGE, and we’ve only ever hired professional riggers to remove and reinstall it. So I was intimidated at even the thought of detaching it. However, as I sat with the idea, I realized that my “Changes in Attitude” extended to taking on even so great a challenge as this one. We have collected some experience over these last three years in adjusting our rigging, reattaching parts of the sail to the mast, and removing/restoring our “stack pack,” which is a kind of bag that covers and protects the sail while it is not in use. And of course, Andy was not as daunted by this project as I was. With his encouragement (and because there really was no other choice!) we tackled it together.
First we had to move Gratitude, on a Thursday, to Man-o-War’s Eastern Harbour and pick up a mooring. This was a little bit white-knuckled, both because of the narrow, reef-bound harbor entrance and the stiff mooring pennant, which I found difficult to raise at first. Once we were secure, we then had to wait about 36 hours for the winds to subside. No one wants to wrestle a ginormous mainsail in 20+ knots! At least, no sane person does.
On Saturday we finally got a brief 24-hour respite from the winds. It was a gorgeous morning to dig into an involved project like taking down your mainsail. It took us about 2 hours of untying knots, unhooking mast cars, removing long battens (structural fiberglass poles), not dropping the battens in the ocean, pulling lines out of shackles, and stopping to photograph or video every little attachment and setting so we’d know how to get the thing put back again, eventually. Jay and his assistant arrived just as we were wrangling a line around the rolled-and-folded sail so that we could slide it over our hull and into his boat.
We spent the next few nights at a dock in Marsh Harbour, while another northerly storm passed through.
Jay finally messaged us the following Tuesday, after the weather had settled down – he was done with the sail repair. We arranged to meet him again on Man-o-War on Wednesday morning to pick up the sail. This would allow us to motor into the harbor right at high tide, giving us a little more peace of mind about that narrow entrance. Andy rigged our halyard with an extra line to hook to the wrapped sail, and we used our electric winch to haul it right up to the top deck. That part was easier and quicker than I expected. So while the tide was still high we left Man-o-War and headed south, back to Little Harbour, where we could stage our departure for Eleuthera.
Re-Rigging the Mainsail
Did I say removing the mainsail was involved? Excuse me, it was a CAKE WALK compared to reinstalling the thing. Even though we had hauled the folded sail up to the top deck, we still had to lift and maneuver it constantly in our efforts to re-rig it. If you’re interested in how we did it, keep reading. If not, you can skip this part.
We started at the bottom (foot) of the sail, securing the clew (aft corner) to the boom (the horizontal sail support that runs perpendicular to the mast) with a line called the outhaul. What’s nice about the outhaul is that it runs through the boom back to the helm, so we can use a winch to pull the line nice and tight and move the foot of the sail further back along the boom without having to pull it manually.
Next we attached the tack (foreword bottom corner) of the sail to the mast, where it meets the boom. So far, so good.
Then things began to get tricky, and slow, and laborious. The luff of the sail is the edge that runs up the mast via rail cars on a vertical track. You attach the halyard (a thick line with a shackle) to a ring at the head (top corner) of the sail, and as you pull the halyard it lifts the head, and the luff rises along the track on the mast.
Getting the luff reattached to each car was a wrestling match. Lift the sail up to the next rail car, try and hold the sail’s attachment point in place, push a pin through some tiny holes and loops, trying not to drop everything while the wind has its way with the rear folds of the sail. We started this process about 9 a.m., and except for a lunch break and a brief nap (which believe me, we needed just for stamina) we didn’t finish this attachment process until 5 p.m. Then I had to haul Andy up the mast in the bosun’s chair so that we could secure the lines of the stack pack (sail cover) to keep the sail bagged up on the boom. When we finished, just before sunset, we felt like you feel after helping someone move. Out of a 5000 square foot house. With a piano.
If you read all that and understood it, you must be a fellow sailor.
Now, two days later, we’ve put in another hour of reattaching various reefing lines and shackles. We hope – fingers crossed! – that now we can raise the main on our trip from the Abacos to Eleuthera, our next stop.