It is a running joke aboard our boat to pronounce our boat’s name, Illusion, as Illooooosion and to occasionally sing Gob’s magician song (from the old TV show Arrested Development) as we approach our boat in the dingy. So you can only imagine our excitement upon finding this little gem just down the street from the dingy dock in Nassau. Although we did not pop into the actual establishment (we were not sure that it was still in operation), we did pass this sign on multiple occasions, pausing once to snap a photo.
We wandered along the waterfront streets, passing conch vendors and liquor stores, all the way down to the cruise ship terminal, where we visited the Straw Market. Mainly targeted at the hordes of cruise ship passengers passing through the area, it seemed a bit more staged than I remembered it as a fifteen-year-old visiting with my parents, but Brian and I did buy a sweet pair of hand-carved wooden Bahamas mugs (made in the Philippines – of course). At the Green Parrot, we sipped on ice-cold Kaliks as we typed out emails (and a blog post) and stared out into the harbour.
We spent most of our time provisioning for the Exumas, but one night, along with SV Rasmus, we joined up with another boat of young cruisers aboard SV Panacea and headed over to the casino Atlantis. Due to our tight budget (aka non-existent extraneous funds), Brian and I wandered around the labyrinthine aquarium downstairs while our friends played the nickle slots upstairs. We meandered through the maze of glass tanks that towered above our heads and dispersed blue reflections of light around our feet. The dark shapes of rays, sharks, tuna, and jacks slid silently by. It was late and the staff began turning off the lights of the exhibit. Jellyfish glowed neon white and blue in their dark tanks, and a man with a flashlight spotlighted a tiny seahorse exhibit for us to see.
It was quite a juxtaposition: the serene aquarium winding through man-made caves below a music-pumping dance bar and cathedral-like space filled with slot machines, gambling tables, and smartly dressed, intoxicated men and women. The Bahamians are not allowed to gamble at Atlantis. I find it interesting that the most extravagant architectural structure in the Bahamas is a casino that the locals cannot enjoy. Not that the small brightly painted, cinder-block houses and wooden cabins are any less appealing to my visual perception and taste. But it seems to me an accurate metaphor for the whole Bahamas: the big hotels come to the islands to build extravagant, all-inclusive resorts that pamper and impress visitors, while many of the islands’ local populations persist by humble means. The guests of the big resorts ooh and aww over the views and complain about the room service, while the tiny local communities subsist on brackish water and generators. Greeting everyone with a bright smile and a big hello, they welcome us all to their home and country.
And having arrived on a boat, I know that there is a whole underwater world of fish and plant life swimming below my feet even at this very moment. Expansive and silent, it operates on its’ own imperatives, while we humans talk politics and sip rum on the sandy shores.
Scott dove into the water and swam over to Illusion sometime around mid-morning. We had just seen him pull up a huge orange starfish from underneath his sailboat, Rasmus, to show Brittnay. The wind generator was cranking out power to the tune of about 15 knots of wind, and Illusion was bouncing about the small choppy waves. Brian and I debated whether to put the dingy, which we had stowed on deck, into the water or blow up the kayak and paddle to shore. Convenience told us to take the dingy despite the added difficulty of performing said task in windy conditions – call it a mini-adventure if you will.
We picked up our friends on Rasmus before heading into the little cove beach that was our nearest shore. With four people aboard, it was a wet ride, but we were prepared in our bikinis and swim trunks. Masks, snorkels, and blue flippers lay scattered about our feet in total disarray. When the water became clear and sandy, we stopped the motor, pulling it all the way out of the water before proceeding with the paddle. It was only a short time before the bottom was sliding through sand, and we all jumped out into ankle-deep water. To our dismay the beach was littered with trash. Brian and I wandered a short distance, crossing behind the beach to a salt pond fringed with mangroves and white birds. Mangroves also marked the far end of the cove, spewing their tanic acid into crystal water like brown dye. We wandered back up the beach where Brittnay and Scott were already paddling out.
I pulled on my mask and snorkel for the first time of the trip and yanked on my flippers. Brian splashed into the water with his yellow Hawaiian sling to join Scott on a lobster-hunting expedition. I waded out until the water splashed against my stomach before gliding all the way in. Underwater the ground appeared porous, sand dotted with small rock holes and some sea grass. The visibility was low due to our proximity to the beach where the waves churned up the sand. At first I didn’t see any fish, but then out of my peripheral vision, I noticed a pair of jacks darting behind me. Slowly I began to pick up on the small snappers that hid in the holes along the floor. It was only a matter of time before Brian had speared one. Brittnay found a spotted lobster in a hole and Scott speared it. With a couple of snapper and the lobster, we quickly realized that we were looking at dinner. We have much to learn about fishing, but we know not to take more than we can eat. In this beautiful environment, it is hard to waste anything.
Illusion and Rasmus sailed out of Bimini and rounded the North Rock onto the Bahama Banks, where the water remained a cool turquoise color (indicating a uniform depth between 14 and 25 feet) for a day and a half. We enjoyed a brisk, wet sail the first day and weighed anchor behind the Mackie Shoal at sunset, more-or-less in the middle of nowhere and totally surrounded by water. We were secluded, so far from civilization, yet anchored in the middle of a large shallow shelf of water in the Atlantic Ocean – a water wilderness. The silence was total, save the splashing of waves against our hull, and the sun set with a magnificent fiery glow. Above our heads, stars began to populate the black night, and the Milky Way Galaxy appeared in a sky bereft of light pollution. We crawled straight to bed feeling salty and tired.
The next day we planned to cross into the Tongue of the Ocean through a narrow channel located between Andros and the Berry Islands. Knowing that the best place to catch fish would be where we crossed from shallow water to deep, Brian put out two fishing lines. About halfway through the channel, Brian put a stinky piece of bonito on one of the lines. It had been given to him by a man in Bimini. In no time at all the lines were whizzing, and the fish were biting – and by fish I mean barracudas. Brian caught two in a row….oops! The first, smallish in size, freed easily, but the second barracuda was much bigger, and he was feisty! Brian hauled him up alongside Illusion and pulled him up with the gaff. His teeth looked like big canines, and he ferociously bit Brian’s pliers as he tried to rescue the the hook. When the pliers didn’t do the trick, Brian ran down below and pulled out his longest screwdriver. Using it as a lever against the top jaw, he finally managed to pop out the hook. We did not keep the barracudas, but we did keep the two jacks and a mackerel that Brian caught during our approach to the Berries. And they were delicious!
Back at Coconut Grove, another cruiser advised us not to skip Bimini (we were considering traveling straight across to Nassau at the time). Don’t miss Bimini, she said, the vibe is quite different from the rest of the Bahamas. It’s true. Alice Town feels like a border town, but the people are friendly and Charlie’s coconut bread is amazing.
We walked the two blocks to the western side of north Bimini in search of Charlie’s house. Along the way we asked several people for directions; everyone answered us with a smile. After weaving past strings of drying laundry, past a beautiful white-washed church with a sign that read: The best vitamin for a Christian is B1, and accepting a tiny straw gift from a sweet little seven-year-old Bimini kid, we finally found Charlie’s house, identified as such by a hand-painted sign in pink lettering on the side. Brian pushed open the door and walked into the living room of a modest family home. A woman on a telephone waved us to the back kitchen, where wafts of sweet coconut bread met us and a man with a big smile pulled loaves of bread out of a small domestic-size oven.
Charlie! Brian said. We hear your bread is the best in town! With a shy smile, Charlie laughed and said, oh yeah, I’ve heard some people say that, too. Ten beautiful golden loaves covered his kitchen table, cooling in the open air, as he pulled five more out of the oven. Sometimes, he told us, he woke up at 4 am to begin his baking for the day. We bought two loaves (one for us and one for our friends Brittnay and Scott on SV Rasmus), and took a different route back to the boat. Along the way, we decided to stop in at the Dolphin House.
The Dolphin House is a beautiful stone house, built from the ground up according to the artistic vision of Mr. Ashley Saunders, a local artist and the town historian. He shook our hands and showed us into his shop. Amidst the beautiful conch shell and dolphin mosaics, we found ourselves staring at relics and trinkets of by-gone days. The man himself had authored several histories of the island and impressed us with his knowledge of the island and each new relic that we looked at. If we had a few extra days to spend, we probably would have paid the $2 fee to check out the rest of his house and the art gallery that resides upstairs.
We stepped back out into the bright sunlight and carried on back to the dock. After lunch and an afternoon of relaxation (sampling a six-pack of the Bahamas beer, Kalik, aboard SV Rasmus), we ventured out again in search of a cheap bite to eat. We walked several miles of dirt roads, talking and inspecting the hand-written menus posted outside of a few little shacks. I wanted to try some conch fritters, so after a while we finally decided to test out one of the small restaurants. The woman behind the counter informed us that she was out of conch fritters and fish fillets. Hmm. Well, we would just have to carry on then. Before we left, she told us to keep walking for “a block” – meaning another mile or two – at which point we would find a woman cooking conch fritters. Dogs roamed the streets and golf carts whizzed past us on the way to the town baseball field, the happening place on a Friday night. Just as we were tiring, a man pulled over in his golf cart and offered us a ride.
In minutes, we found ourselves standing around an open fire, ordering $3 conch fritters, lobster, and a fish fillet. There was nowhere to sit, but we loaded our paper plates with condiments laid out on a plastic table, while we chatted with the woman behind the grill. Cars pulled up and golf carts stopped by to place orders on their way to the baseball field. Another woman lounged on the bumper of her car, keeping the cook company during her nightly cooking forays. They were the best conch fritters I have ever had, full of greasy goodness and topped with a secret sauce. De-licious!
We left for Bimini from an anchorage just outside of No Name Harbour on Key Biscayne at 4 am last Thursday. SV Rasmus (our buddy boat for the Gulf Stream crossing) has a good post up about finding the right weather window for the crossing. Basically, we had to wait for light winds without any northerly components, because north winds can kick up nasty choppy swell as they fight against the strong currents of the Gulf Stream that run north up the eastern coast of the US. Lucky for us, we had an easy crossing and just motored the whole 45 miles to Bimini.
As we sighted Bimini from the ocean, Brian’s fishing reel began zipping out behind us. We had been trolling across the Gulf Stream all morning, even passing through a school of feeding skipjacks at one point, with a few bites, but little in the way of luck. Then, suddenly, Brian had something on the line. Brian reeled it in as I slowed Illusion down to a crawl. When he finally gaffed the fish and pulled him on deck, we stared down at a beautiful neon-blue stripped skipjack tuna. Well, it wasn’t a Mahi, but he was a fat little fellow!
A few miles later and we had caught up to Brittnay and Scott on SV Rasmus, and the water quickly changed from a dark indigo blue to turquoise, which indicated that we were in shallow water. Although the channel was clearly marked, we could see that there was a sandbar off our port bow, which extended a short way into the channel. When SV Rasmus radioed back to say that they were in 5 feet of water, I scrambled up the ratlines to get a better view. Thanks to our new rat lines we found safe passage to the right. Our depth sounder hit 7 feet as we hugged the beach and followed Rasmus into Bimini Harbour.
Brian and Scott checked us in with customs, and we quickly set to grilling up some fish tacos and enjoying the view of the clear water beneath our keel.
Our mooring outside of the Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove placed us a short distance from a few small barrier islands called the Picnic islands – aptly named due to a number of well-maintained picnic tables found in various locations throughout the small islands. One beautiful sunny day, as Brian and I prepared for our Gulf Stream crossing, I pumped up our inflatable kayak and paddled over to the closest island to varnish the steps for our rat lines (better than getting varnish all over the deck!). Between applications of varnish, I took a leisurely stroll along the sandy pathways, where I found coconut-lined paths leading to rocky beaches and an awesome stone-lined fire pit. It was beautiful and practically our backyard!
Although rat lines seemed a bit like a non-priority amongst our other important preparations (provisioning and mounting our solar panels), they have already proven their worth. As we felt our way into the Bimini channel last Thursday, Brian manned the wheel, and I climbed up the rat lines to sight the shallow waters. Because the water is so clear in the Bahamas, you can literally see the sandbars and reefs. The rat lines gave me a nice little aerial perspective – the lay of the waters – around Illusion and allowed us to avoid some pretty shallow shoaling at the entrance. Additionally, our bathroom-garden project has provided us with many tasty and fresh herbs. It sure beats buying them at the cost of a pretty penny!