March 2007 – Weathered in at Windy Georgetown

Georgetown is also known as Chicken Harbor.  It is the last major harbor in the Exumas and the destination for many cruisers.  For most it is the end of an annual pilgrimage.  They will join the hundreds of boats that come here (many for the entire season) turning the harbor into a giant mobile home park on anchor.  It earns the name Chicken Harbor since many will talk about “going south” and heading down the Caribbean island chain but few do.  After Georgetown lies a marathon stretch of open ocean, prevailing winds blowing against you, and few harbors of refuge.  After leaving the Exumas, you don’t find great protection until you reach the Dominican Republic.  And then you have to sail the “thorny path” against the prevailing tradewinds and across the Mona Passage to reach Puerto Rico.  After Puerto Rico you start working south down the islands and no longer have to go head to head with the tradewinds.

We arrive in Georgetown and are happily greeted by our friends on Civil Twilight.  Milano Myst is right next to them.  Later we’ll also see Spoony, Rio Dulce, and Seaductress.  Everyone with kids is coming since it is Regatta Week in Georgetown.  Gerri and Alan, our friends on Civil Twilight, call Georgetown “Geriatric Day Camp” with all its organized activities for the senior crowd.  And Regatta Week is the culmination of it all.  But that is not why we’re here.  We’re here because Regatta Week also has a Kid’s Day.  The boys are very excited to see and play with other kids.  Everyday there are kids to play with on the beach.  And at the end of the week, there’s a pirate costume contest, boat races, treasure hunts and arts and crafts.  But most importantly… kids!

For Megan and I, Georgetown has become a decision point.  Do we go all the way south for the approaching hurricane season or do we go back to the U.S. which will bring us closer to the traditional life we left behind?  We go back and forth.  So many factors come into play.  Neither of us can face returning to life as it was.  But we have learned now that our 2 year budget was really a first year budget.  It was probably enough for two years of cruising provided you already had the first year behind you.  In that first year, you have to buy some things you didn’t know you needed for the boat.  And you buy things you later learn you really didn’t need.  And you don’t really learn how to get by without much until you reach the islands where you can’t get much.  We have the money to go for another year, but it would mean going further into our savings than we planned.

So we delay our decision and decide to go to Emerald Bay Marina for a few days.  Emerald Bay is a new marina affiliated with the Ritz Carleton that has taken on mythical overtones when discussed by cruisers.  The descriptions become too unbelievable to be true.  It sounds like the oasis in the desert that is really the hallucinatory mirage of the parched desert traveler… Dockage is only.75/foot… floating docks (rare in the Bahamas) with a carpeted mat laid down by the dock attendants at your arrival… free videos… luxury pool with towels and attendants… and most unbelievable of all… FREE LAUNDRY!

At the conclusion of Kid’s Day we dash to Emerald Bay to beat the rush.  It’s ALL true.  We decide to stay for 2 days.  Then as we’re getting ready to depart, the wind kicks up and we find out why they have to give this dockage away.  It is impossible to get out of Emerald Bay unless there is almost no wind.  The local spectator sport is watching unsuspecting boats try to go out against the seas through the narrow and reef-strewn entrance.  We are stuck for the rest of the week.  Fortunately it is cheap but marinas aren’t in our budget.  And also fortunately there are lots of kids to play with.  Spoony, Rio Dulce, Snow Day, Milano Myst and Intuition are all stranded with us. 

This unintended marina stay allows us to make some really good friends.  Megan really bonds with Mandy from Snow Day.  She too is a vet.  And their kids are really great.  Snow Day is another remarkable family.  They are on a 28 foot boat with two kids (8 and 10?), two big dogs (one is part Great Dane), and a cat!  And they are having a ball!  We certainly can never complain about the space we have on Grace!

We also have Dick and Marianne from Rio Dulce over to talk about going south.  They are veterans and are great cheerleaders.  We think we have arrived at a decision.  Our decision is to put off our decision.  We can sail as far as Puerto Rico and still have time to turn around before the hurricane season.  But we need to go back to Georgetown to try to collect necessary charts and guides from northbound cruisers.

After getting our fill of free laundry and a movie every night, we finally manage to escape Emerald Bay… only to get stuck in Georgetown for weeks!  The wind really kicks up.  Some of our friends are still stuck in Emerald Bay.  We safely tuck in to the Redshanks anchorage and sit for weeks.  We anchor near Amicus and later are joined by Alouette, a beautiful blue Shannon 43 ketch, with 2 kids on board.  The weeks are spent trying to connect with other cruisers on the morning VHF net to get charts for going south, waiting for a chart card for our chart plotter to arrive via UPS, making 2 mile water runs in the dinghy to fill up jerry jugs of water, making daily trips to the beach to play with the kids on Amicus and Alouette, celebrating a birthday, and talking about plans to go south with other boats contemplating the same big next step.  And very notably Finn, wearing a neoprene wetsuit given to him by Dayla and Daniel from Milano Myst, swims without a floaty for the first time.

The persistent strong wind is broken up by nasty squalls.  Of course, the day before one of the worst, a boat comes and anchors too close…  That night Megan and I are lying in bed watching an old movie that we have acquired at a video swap.  On the radio we hear “32” “40 at Monument Beach”  “42 at SandDollar” “38 at…” I want to yell out BINGO! But this “wind bingo” isn’t funny.  It’s wind speeds alerting us that a squall is hitting about a mile away.  We both go up on deck but we’re only seeing 15 knots and everything is calm.  Megan says “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”  We batten down and then her bad feeling is realized. 

We record 48 knots – the highest wind we’ll see during our adventure.  Grace is sailing back and forth on anchor, rain is pelting down and killing all visibility.  Frantic radio calls are coming on with boats dragging everywhere.  It’s about 11PM when this happens so drunk and irresponsible sailors are calling from the bar to their neighbors to keep an eye on their boats (and do what if they drag?).  I turn on the motor and keep Grace pointing into the wind.  I’m trying to take some strain off the anchor without unintentionally popping it free.  A blue Nonsuch that arrived that day is anchored too close.  With a strong flashlight we can just barely see it through the rain even though we’re closer than a boat length because they have used 2 anchors when the rest of the boats are on one.

On the radar we watch as the squall line eventually passes us and the radio begins to quiet down.  What a night!

Eventually we escape Georgetown with a plan.  We’re going to sail with Alouette to Long Island then possibly onto Conception and then the Dominican Republic.  John has some offshore experience but his wife Sue doesn’t.  We are two boats with kids and similar overall tolerance (or lack of tolerance) for rough conditions so we are reasonably well suited to sail together.  We’re also fairly independent which is a plus since neither wants to lead a dependent “buddy” boat.

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