Monday, July 3, 2023

June 2023: The Bahamas (Again)

Great Fun with Lots of Batts...Damned Things
Weigh 65 Pounds Each
After spending two weeks in the Keys in May (followed by a short land trip to St. Louis for some family time in early June), planning for a 11-day sortie to the out islands in the Bahamas in mid-June probably wasn’t smart timing.  But we managed to pull it off.  The initial plan was formulated nearly a year ago by our Grady-White boat club, and long before Hurricane Ian’s prolonged strafing run forced some of our club members to opt out.  It also originated before two of Ghost Rider’s four AGM batteries died while down in the Keys, necessitating a rather hasty replacement effort; that was no fun, but with Fred Granger’s help we got it done in time.

Rick had plenty of time to plan the routes, which was fortunate as no two chart sets seemed to agree about the best routing through some of the shallow areas on the shoals and shallow banks.  In the end we always deferred to the Explorer Chartbook sets, which – as their web site clearly and accurately states (LINK) – are the gold standard for Bahamas cruising.

A few other boats from our Grady-White club joined us for the adventure:

  •               Ron & Brenda Ingram on their 335 Freedom, Open View (plus 4 guests)
  •                Bob Chapman on his 335 Freedom, Dilly Dally (plus two guests)
  •               Tony & Carla Vandenoever on their 306 Canyon, Little Bird

Open View and Little Bird in Trail Behind Ghost Rider En Route to Key Largo

And aboard Ghost Rider we were joined by Rick’s sister, Lin.  So altogether we had 14 folks join the adventure, with planned stops at Key Largo (Florida), Chub Cay (Berry Islands), Cape Eleuthera, and Staniel Cay (Exumas).

Sunday, 11-June: To Key Largo

The first day was all about getting to Key Largo in the northern Florida Keys, so we could stage our Gulf Stream crossing from there the following day.  We rendezvoused at the Sanibel Causeway at 0900, with Open View and Little Bird falling into formation behind Ghost Rider (Bob on Dilly Dally had departed the day before) and headed south in perfect weather conditions – a warm, summery day with light breezes and flat seas, and only had to deviate slightly for one heavy shower in Florida Bay.  

The Weather We Dodged as Shown on the XM Satellite Display on the Right

After clocking 155 nautical miles we were topping off fuel tanks in Key Largo by 1500, and then docking up at Marina Del Mar for the night.  We enjoyed a group dinner at Skipper’s dockside restaurant, checked the next day’s weather forecast (good enough), enjoyed a night cap, and got some sleep.

Monday, 12-June: To Chub Cay

We were off the dock by 0800 and motoring east shortly thereafter.  A few storms were draped along Florida’s southeast coast, but out in the open water we had good weather again.  But sea conditions were pretty lumpy for the first half of the crossing – quartering off the starboard bow at 2 to 3 feet, with the occasional 4 footer tossed in just to juggle your eyeballs a bit.  Initially that required deploying full trim tabs, but eventually the 15K winds clocked around to a southwesterly flow, and the ride improved (much to sister Lin’s relief.)  After we cut through the shoals at South Riding Rock (about 20NM south of Cat Cay), the ride improved even further.  We managed our route to bisect a couple of small thunderstorm cells shortly thereafter, and arrived at Chub Cay at the southern tip of the Berry Islands around 1430. 

The Long and Rather Bumpy Leg from Key Largo to Chub Cay

The check-in process there was chaotic – an impressive thunderstorm lashed the area shortly after our arrival, systems were slow and the Internet was sclerotic.  Eventually we got a ride to customs and immigration located at the nearby airport, after which we took down the Q-flag and raised the Bahamian courtesy flag.  We had dinner on the boat and crashed for the night.

It Stormed Heavily Shortly After We Arrived at Chub Cay

Tuesday, 13-June: To Cape Eleuthera

All boats spooled up at 0745 and headed to the fuel dock to take on more fuel before the next 102 NM leg to Eleuthera.  The Chub fuel dock was rationing, limiting each boat to 120 gallons, but that was more than enough for the day.  By 0900 we were underway again and headed southeast through 2-3 foot seas and sunny weather towards New Providence Island and Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas.  We skirted around Nassau Harbor via a skinny passage appropriately called “The Narrows”, going from a few thousand feet of depth to a section of the Great Bahama Bank that averaged about 14 feet deep – except where coral heads sprout upward to just a few feet below the surface.

Our Path From Chub Cay to Cape Eleuthera

But we managed to keep the boats off the bottom, and cut through another narrow passage at Highbourne Cay to cross over into Exuma Sound, where depths once again were measured in thousands of feet.  From there, a 25 NM jog to the northeast brought us to Cape Eleuthera around 1330.  Tony and Carla in Little Bird went about 10 NM further to the northeast for their lodging in Rock Sound.

Cape Eleuthera is a large, well-protected and deep harbor.  Its fixed, wooden docks were in good condition, and all facilities – guest cabins, pool, beaches, restaurant, laundry and showers – were equally well kept.  We spend a couple of relaxing days here enjoying the two beaches and pool (it was hot) with a side trip into town (not much there), and a group dinner at the marina restaurant (good food.)

An Aerial View of the Cape Eleuthera Marina Basin
The Group Dinner at Cape Eleuthera's Harbor Point Restaurant

On the second day we took Ghost Rider about 10 nautical miles to the south, near Davis Harbour on the west side of Eleuthera, to check out the fishing.  In that area the water depths drop off sharply very close to the shoreline, and trolling the ledges can produce some nice fish.  We lucked into a swarm of bait-feeding sea birds and found ourselves with a double-header hookup.  Whatever was on Chelle’s line bit the leader in half (Wahoo or Barracuda?), but Rick’s line produced a nice 30-inch Mahi.

Friday, 16-June: To Staniel Cay

Since our next leg was a short one (about 40 nautical miles to the southwest), after a mid-morning departure from Cape Eleuthera we first diverted north and east about 10 miles towards Rock Sound in search of a plane wreck site to snorkel.  The GPS coordinates that Ron had provided were accurate, and in 10 feet of very clear water the plane’s wings were easy to discern, providing structure for a variety of sea life.  From there we went a few more miles further east into Rock Sound, in search of a “blue hole” that Bob noticed on the Explorer Chart.  It took a little dead reckoning and all four boats in an impromptu search pattern, but eventually we found it – a circular sinkhole depression in an otherwise flat limestone seabed. 

The Yellow Circles on the Chart Display Mark the Plane Wreck & Blue Hole Locations

The chart indicated the hole had a 16-meter depth (50 feet vs. the surrounding 6-8 feet).  These holes occur all over the Bahamas, but generally don’t feature much sea life, as they tend to be anoxic with poor water circulation.  As blue holes go in the islands, it was quite modest – “Dean’s Blue Hole”, about 140 miles south of this one, is the world’s second deepest at 660 feet.

Snorkeling the Blue Hole

Shortly after noon all boats retrieved their snorkelers and we headed south and west to Staniel Cay in the Exumas chain.  In smooth water and pleasant weather we were at Staniel Cay Yacht Club (SCYC) in under two hours.  Once there, however, it took another hour to get dock assignments and tie off – their staff and dock hands were definitely on “island time.”  Visitors should note that the current absolutely rips through this area, and you can find yourself drifting into very shallow shoals if you don’t pay attention.

Our Track from Eleuthera/Rock Sound to Staniel Cay
An Aerial Shot of Staniel Cay Yacht Club (SCYC)

Staniel Cay is a small island – about 1.7 miles in length, a half mile wide, just big enough for a 3,000 foot runway, with a small and mostly unprotected marina (SCYC) bolted on to its west side, and some small cottages perched on its steep slopes.  It’s likely none of that would be here except for a few famous nearby attractions just to the north: the Thunderball Grotto, and Pig Beach on Big Major Cay.

Of the two, the grotto – a series of underwater caves – is definitely the better experience, and well worth the long journey to get there.  Significant tidal flows and resultant currents don’t make that simple (wait for low tide and slack water), but once inside, it is rather stunning.  We rented a small Boston Whaler skiff to make it less of a hassle, but even then the smooth limestone seabed makes setting an anchor in any kind of current a real challenge.  You can read more about the grotto at this LINK, along with some of the movies filmed there (including its namesake 007 movie.)

Inside the Thunderball Grotto

Not far away, about a 1.5 mile boat ride to the west and north, is Pig Beach (LINK).  Uninhabited (well, except for the feral pigs and transient touristas), Big Major Cay’s other significant draw is its large anchorage, protected on three sides; dozens of monstrous yachts were moored there.

As for Pig Beach, it would be more accurate to call it Hog Beach, as most of the swine there are large and very well fed, and definitely not shy; several of them were suitable for a riding saddle.  You can hand feed them, but if you don’t and have food in hand, they will come and take it anyway (as sister Lin discovered), without much regard for your desire to remain upright.  And yeah, they can swim.

The next day we were planning to join Ron aboard Open View for some fishing in Exuma Sound, but the weather didn’t cooperate.  Thunderstorms, with high winds and lightning, swept the area most of the day, and the boats got rocked pretty good by the southerly wind-driven waves.  It turned out to be a good day for a nap in the air conditioned cabin.  Since we were staying aboard the boat, and SCYC had no shower facilities, we made use of Lin’s cabin for nightly showers; while it was small, it was clean and bright, with a great view of the harbor area – she loved the idyllic setting.  We had dinner at the marina restaurant one night (good food, but you had to submit your order by 1600 and reserve either the 1830 or 2030 seating schedule), but we otherwise prepared meals on the boat.

Lin's SCYC Hillside Accommodations at the Chamberlain Cottages
And It Came with a Nice Water View

 Monday, 19-June: Back to Chub Cay

The afternoon forecast for the Chub area wasn’t promising, so we got an early start at 0730, made our way back through the narrow cut into Exuma Sound, and scooted up the east coast of the Exuma chain until we got to Highbourne Cay.  From there we joined the reversed route to Chub, cutting across the shallow banks again, back through “The Narrows” just east of Nassau, and from their motored in deep water to Chub.  Seas were a little sloppy at 2-3 feet, but following off the stern.  All boats topped off at the fuel dock (no rationing this time) and got tied up at the floating docks before storms raked the marina once again. 

Our Track from Staniel Cay Back to Chub Cay

Tuesday, 20-June: Back to Key Largo

The weather and sea forecasts for the return trip to US waters were looking very good, but all boats wanted to try some fishing in the Chub area before making that dash….so we got started early around 0730.  The four boats fanned out into the deep water – just east of the banks and north of Andros – known as “The Pocket”, supposedly renowned for holding all sorts of pelagic fish.  But as with our attempts last year, nothing materialized over the next 90 minutes.

Our Track Heading Back to Key Largo with a Deviation to Troll in "The Pocket"

All four boats rendezvoused once again at 0900 at the Northwest Shoal lighted marker, Ghost Rider took the lead, and we headed west, making good time in smooth waters at 32 MPH (about 28 knots on the GPS).  After crossing into the deeper waters of the Gulf Stream through the Riding Rock cut-through, we continued to encounter flat seas and arrived at the Largo canal entrance around 1445.  Ghost Rider had no issues taking on fuel, but the pump ran dry shortly thereafter so others had to head one canal south to the Pilothouse Marina for gas.  We had one last group dinner at Skipper’s and then slept well.

Flat Seas in the Gulf Stream Heading Back to Key Largo

Wednesday, 21-June: RTB

This was RTB (return to base) day for us, with the exception of Dilly Dally, as Bob planned to spend another day or two with friends in Key Largo.  Open View and Little Bird sortied out at 0800 since they had a longer distance to traverse back to PGI and Port Charlotte.  Ghost Rider’s crew slept in a bit and departed solo at 0900.

The run home was uneventful until we came abreast of Naples on the west coast of Florida around 1400, at which time both XM satellite weather and the radar set showed a healthy thunderstorm parked along our route near Fort Myers Beach.  There was plenty of lightning visible, so Rick slowed the boat to a crawl to give the system time to either move or dissipate – he also thought he sighted a waterspout at the storm’s trailing edge near Sanibel at one point, but kept that to himself.  (LINK to video). 

This Thunderstorm Could Not Have Parked Itself in a Worse Spot

About 45 minutes later the storm had split into two cells and dissipated enough to create an alley between them and the coastline that we could run without concern.  And by 1600 we had completed our RTB (as had Open View and Little Bird).  Bob in Dilly Dally returned home two days later (also successfully dodging a thunderstorm along the way.)


This was a fun and challenging expedition. 

We thoroughly enjoyed the company of our fellow club members, the journey and the destinations.  And as with most adventurous outings, preparation is as key as the doing.  Anyone contemplating such an excursion is advised to spend at least twice as much time in planning readiness as in anticipated execution.  Whether it’s customs and immigration requirements, or provisioning and spares, country-specific protocols, weather routing, charting and plotting, safety measures, pre-trip maintenance, whatever – there is plenty of prep and anticipation required.  The fun is in pulling it all together and making it a smooth experience once underway.

By the way, Chelle did a terrific job of provisioning our boat and crew for the travels….we had plenty of libations, fresh water, food, clothing and basic supplies all the way….not an easy feat for liveaboards on a small boat in the Bahamas.  She’s the expert for folks who want counsel on such things.  And special shout-out kudos for her “Ever*Chill” instant ice-maker – that thing was totally awesome….one cannot enjoy good scotch or a Goombay Ghost without an ample and predictable supply of ice cubes.

These Were All of the Charts Used to Plan & Plot the Trip

Over the 11-day voyage we covered nearly 900 nautical (about 1100 statute) miles, consumed more than our fair share of scotch, rum and wine (after sailing hours at the dock, of course), and burned a lot of fuel – in Ghost Rider’s case, about $5,600 worth.  We were happy to contribute to the American and Bahamian economies, and it was positively well worth it.

Our next sortie to the Bahamas will likely be back to the Abacos, timing TBD, more on that later.

We Exported Our Tracks from the inReach Tracking Site & Imported into
Google Earth for This View of the Entire Journey

Here are a few other pics from the trip....

Sister Lin Enjoying a Smooth Run Enroute to Key Largo on Day 1
Cape Eleuthera
Cape Eleuthera from the East Side (Sunrise Beach)
Lodging at Cape Eleuthera
At Cape Eleuthera Looking West at the Harbor Entry
Cape Eleuthera Pool Area at Sunset
Little Bird, Dilly Dally, Open View and Ghost Rider Docked at SCYC
The Chamberlain Cottages Near SCYC 
Our Four Grady-Whites at SCYC as Seen from the Shoreline
Feeding the Nurse Sharks in the SCYC Marina Basin
Another View Inside the Thunderball Grotto

Friday, June 30, 2023

May 2023: Two Weeks in the Florida Keys

The Florida Keys are always a good get-away, regardless of what you want to get away from.  Long before Hurricane Ian assaulted us southwest Florida, we had made plans for two boat trips for 2023, one to the Florida Keys in May, the other to the Bahamas in June.  By early May we had made reasonably good progress on storm recovery – the main exception being kitchen cabinet replacements, for which we were still awaiting permit issuance.  But we were also very much wanting a break from the various recovery projects….so we loaded up the boat and headed to Marathon on Saturday, 13-May for a needed get-away.

Good friends Dan and Juli Eisenberg joined us for our annual fish-slaying sortie, and since we would be without a car for the two-week stay, between us we loaded enough gear and supplies onto Ghost Rider to make us question whether the vessel would still float.  We believe we set a record for the heaviest Express 330 to travel that distance. 

A few other boats from our Grady-White club joined us for the 130 NM sortie south. And while the sky conditions were excellent, the sea conditions were not so friendly:  Florida Bay was a mess of square waves at 2-3 feet and short intervals, requiring significant trim-tab and engine trim settings to smooth out the ride.  Fuel efficiency suffered accordingly with the heavy load, averaging a mile to the gallon for the six hour/130NM sortie to Key Colony Beach (KCB) in Marathon. 

Four Other Boats from Our 'Tarpon Coast Grady-White Club' Flying Formation Behind Ghost Rider

Week 1: 14-May to 20-May

Overall weather for the week was excellent: sunny and hot, light breezes, with only the first day offering somewhat lumpy water; remaining days provided consistently good sea conditions, and what few showers materialized were easy to sight and avoid.

General fishing results were certainly better than last year’s experience, but nonetheless somewhere between uneven and erratic.  On some days we were lucky to boat one or two keeper dolphin fish, while our best days saw six to nine nice Mahi (aka Dorado) in the fish box.  However, we hooked a LOT of fish…it’s just that the majority of them were “shorts” – just an inch or two below the minimum size of 20” to the fork, released to fight another day. 

On Tuesday (16-May) we hosted “Taco Tuesday” at our KCB rental, joined by the other 12 members of our Grady-White Tarpon Coast boat club who had also made the journey to Marathon.  Fred Granger (our Grady expert formerly of Ingman Marine) handled the preparation and grilling of the fresh Mahi-mahi using his secret recipe, and as usual the result was outstanding.  Rick broke out his DJI drone to grab a good aerial photo of the gang posing in front of Ghost Rider.

Since we were staying in the Keys for a full two weeks this time around, we also took a couple of “down days” to relax, catch up on some sleep, and on one of those days performed the 100-hour service on Ghost Rider’s twin Yamaha outboards.  That gave us maintenance runway for another week in the Keys and for the upcoming long trip to the Bahamas in June.

Week 2: 21-May to 26-May

The weather for our second week in the Keys mirrored the meteorology from the first week, providing excellent fishing conditions.  The fish didn’t get the memo, though, as erratic results persisted – some decent days, some disappointing ones.  We finally encountered our first (and only) tuna of the sortie, with Juli reeling in a hefty little Skipjack.  And Chelle boated the biggest dolphin of the two-week stay, measuring at just under 30”.  On the troll, pink Rattlejets and small, flashy Billy Baits produced far better results than any other lures, including rigged ballyhoo.

Dan & Juli Manning the Cockpit While on the Troll

Juli and Her Skipjack Tuna
Chelle With Her Biggest Mahi of the Week

On several occasions we encountered swarms of small dolphin (“schoolies”) that would circle the boat in search of bait – typically on the edge of weed lines or patches – but more often than not, those interludes would result in many more “shorts” being released than any keepers.  Until the Feds come up with reasonable regulation for the commercial fishery (instead of picking on the paltry recreational market), we suspect that will be the case for the foreseeable future.

When We Pitch into a School of Dolphin, We Keep One on the Line to Attract Others.  The Excellent Water Clarity in the Keys Offshore Waters Makes Them Easy to See.

The last day of fishing was the only time we had to play the weather-avoidance game, and even then it wasn’t particularly difficult nor was the nearby weather system severe; it chased us back into port a tad early, but that wasn’t a bad thing given we needed time to fuel-up and pack-up for the next day’s trip home.

The XM Satellite Weather Display Helps with TRW Avoidance

Radar Confirms with Real Time Echo Returns

Our Trolling Tracks for the Two Weeks, with Most of the Fishing Time Spent in 650 to 750 Foot Depths, from 15 to 30 Miles Offshore.  The Sargassum Varied....from 'Weed Bombs' to Large Patches, and Some Reasonably Good Weed Lines for the Best Fishing Results.

Saturday, 27-May

By the time departure day rolled around, we were the only boat remaining – all others had departed some time during the past seven days.  The solo ride home was mostly smooth and uneventful.  We had a nice stash of fresh Mahi and more good memories with good friends.

And the boat performed very well.  Only two issues surfaced during the two-weeks: (1) the secondary flush hose for the port engine developed an inch-long split, which a couple of wraps of Rescue Tape solved for now; and (2) a couple of the AGM batteries finally died, and given that they're now approaching five years old, not real surprising; we had to use the "both" position on the battery switches for several days to leverage the remaining two healthy batteries for engine starts, and Rick will replace all four before the next trip to the Bahamas.

Overall, it was a nice getaway.  Stay tuned for another post on the upcoming return to the Bahamas.  In the interim, more pics from our Keys adventure follow below, with emphasis on the other boats and crews who joined us.

Rick Cundiff's "Reetirement2" Grady-White on the Troll with Tony & John Onboard.

That's a Good Day of Fishing
Same Here...the Snapper on the Left Came from the Reef
When You Can "Limit Out", That's a Fine Day
Scott Englund's Boat & Crew with Four Mahi & Two Blackfin Tuna
Fred & Julie....He Can Fish AND Cook

Rick C with John & Tony on Reeltirement2
Another Limit-Out Day.  Fred is a Good Luck Charm.
Bob Barris on "Made in the Shade" with a Nice Haul