By Scott Elder
Nassau - “Make sure you hold onto something,” I say with mock seriousness to Elena as she takes her seat at the bow.
“If we run aground, we could fly into the water.” She's not a sailor - and frankly, I'm not much of one either - but she knows I'm kidding. We've both volunteered for lookout duty on our just-rented catamaran. We're supposed to point out any hazards to the skipper.
As we exit Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, I blithely take in the colourful scenery - until I catch an extremely clear (and perilously close) glimpse of the harbour floor. I advise Elena to follow me farther back on the boat and to grab a handrail, this time not joking at all.
We skirt over the shallows by about a foot and a half (the captain, my father, was anxiously watching the depth gauge) and enter the reassuringly wide open Sea of Abaco. But even in the middle of this “sea,” about a mile from the nearest shore, the depth reading stubbornly hovers around 12.5 feet. Under a high sun, the water glows a gorgeous aquamarine. To sailors, that blue-green means shallow water, and shallow water means danger.
Our knowledge of the Bahamian Abaco Islands was as shallow as their waters when my father; his girlfriend, Elena; my brother Mark; and I chose them as the destination for a week-long sailing trip. On a map (but not a nautical chart), the Abacos look like the sailing equivalent of a bunny slope. The main island, Great Abaco, and its neighbouring arc of cays are separated by only a few miles, short hops compared with the long inter-island crossings we'd made during our previous three bareboat (that is, without a hired captain or crew) charters in the Caribbean.
The only time I'd visited the Bahamas before was a quick getaway to touristy Nassau, so I was eager to explore the natural beauty and culture of some far-flung Bahamian “out islands.” I also figured the quick and easy pinballing between harbours would leave me plenty of time to check two Bahamian attractions off my bucket list: swimming in a submerged sinkhole called a “blue hole” and eating conch I dove for myself.
However, during our pre-sail briefing, when the charter company staffer started talking about the tide - a nonissue in lower latitudes - and something called a “rage sea,” we realised we were in for some actual sailing. Instead of carefree pinball bounces, our first two entrances into harbours were more like precise and well-timed billiard shots. On the first day, we had to hustle to Man-O-War Cay's narrow, side-pocket inlet because both the tide and sun were going down. Even after we secured the boat to a mooring ball, Dad looked as if his nerves had been cranked by a sailing winch.
The tension began to ease at our next stop, Hope Town on Elbow Cay. We docked our boat in the reassuring shadow of the islet's red-and-white lighthouse, then promptly dinghied toward the nearest beach. Viewed from the sandy Atlantic shore, the turquoise water no longer caused worry, but beckoned. We dove between miniature canyons of coral, watched a rainbow of parrot fish chomp away at the reef and happily cavorted in the light surf.
Conchs litter Elbow Cay, but unfortunately for my goal of personally harvesting some, the ones I saw were on land, decorating the fringes of people's yards in charming, tidy rows. Our walk past Hope Town's cheery pastel homes led us to Cap'n Jack's, a harborside bar/restaurant with a dock/patio out back. When I overheard a server's strong New England accent, I asked him about his experiences as an expat in the Abacos.
“I'm actually from Nassau,” he politely explained. “But people always guess Boston or New Hampshire.” I later learned that many northern Loyalists and freed blacks fled to the Bahamas after the Revolutionary War, settling in Nassau and, in particular, the Abacos. (When the Bahamas also moved toward independence in the 1970s, a majority of Abaconians petitioned the British government to retain the area, without success.)
The settlers hoped to start farms on the Abacos, but that didn't pan out because of the thin, sandy soil.
In the 19th century, a curious local industry emerged that took advantage of an abundant natural resource: dangers to boats. “Wrecking,” or the salvage of ships that crashed onto the Abacos' 100-mile-long barrier reef, flourished until about 1870. That was a few years after the candy-cane lighthouse near our boat was built under orders from London. According to Abaco: The History Of An Out Island And Its Cays, by Steve Dodge, locals sabotaged its construction, rightly worried that it would scuttle the business.
From the deck of our boat, we watched the light flash five times every 15 seconds, just as it has every night since an upgrade 80 years ago. In the morning, we climbed its 101 stairs and checked out the impressive brass inner workings. It's powered like a giant grandfather clock - a keeper winds the weights every two hours. We can attest that it's a well-oiled machine: The cables and gears glistened in the sun, and a large bottle of 3-in-One Oil sat at the ready.
We were eager to power our boat in a similarly old-fashioned way. We hadn't caught the wind in our sails yet because our cautious navigation had obliged us to rely on the motors. So we reentered the windy Sea of Abaco to find out whether we still knew the ropes, or “lines,” in proper sailing-speak. We turned into the breeze, raised the main sail, eased out the boom's line and then unfurled the forward sail, the genoa. With a little cranking on the winch to trim our sails, we were moving at a respectable clip of eight knots.
“So we're doing a broad run,” I said confidently, referring to our boat's angle on the wind. “No, son,” Dad sighed with exaggerated resignation. “This is a broad reach. Broad Run is a high school in Ashburn [Virginia].”
Buoyed by our growing confidence that we could handle the waters, we ticked almost all of the planned destinations off our itinerary. At Treasure Cay, we traipsed the three-mile picture-postcard crescent beach, and I took command of a hammock slung between two palm trees. After finding placid swells in the Whale Cay Passage instead of much-dreaded rage seas, we merrily fed table scraps to the feral pigs of No Name Cay. During our ramble across Green Turtle Cay by golf cart, we watched a firetruck-led parade come together in honour of the victorious youth football team. And on Great Guana Cay, we joined the rollicking Sunday afternoon party at Nipper's beachside bar.
But not everything went smoothly. A mild storm closed the Whale Cay Passage and set us back. With only one more day until we had to return to base, the blue holes down south were out of reach. That left just conch foraging on my personal to-do list.
We tied off in Hope Town Harbour, and then Mark and I tossed our snorkel gear in the dinghy and sped out along the shore. In the water was plenty of life - a silver school of spade-like palometa, a couple skittish hawksbill turtles - but every conch I flipped was a pale empty shell. Then Mark called out, “Hey, big conch here.” I turned it over and saw bright orange, pink and, much to my relief, two freaky eyestalks. On the way home, I spotted another big one in the seagrass and snagged it.
Back aboard, I quickly realised that finding the conch is the easy part. I wasted half an hour hammering holes in the shells using a mini anchor, hoping to find the right spot to free the big resident snails. (It looks really straightforward on YouTube, by the way.) Either out of mercy or a desire to end the loud banging, a woman dinghied over from her boat and gave me some pointers. (Pointer No. 1: “You keep pounding that conch against your boat, you're going to lose your security deposit.”)
I finally removed and cleaned the white meat, Elena marinated it in lemon and garlic, and Dad fired up the grill. I gave Mark a tasty-looking strip. “Barf!” he declared before tossing it into the harbour. He was right; it tasted about as bad as you'd expect a snail found on the bottom of the sea to taste. But the check on the bucket list was sweet.
* Elder is a Washington-based freelance writer.
If you go
Where to stay
Hope Town, Elbow Cay
Formerly a fishing lodge and bar called the Fin and Tonic, this beachfront resort offers 12 spread-out bungalow rooms and eight luxury suites. It is two miles south of Hope Town on a sliver of land between the ocean and a small bay. The staff picks you up at the harbour. Rooms range from $210-$395 (about R2 500 to R4 700).
Hope Town Harbour Lodge
Hope Town, Elbow Cay
Overlooking both Hope Town Harbour and the Atlantic, this casual resort was originally built as a private home in the 1940s. The lodge features a nice restaurant and a poolside bar just steps from the beach. Rooms in the main lodge from $80-$235 a night, depending on the season.
Where to eat
Abaco Inn Restaurant
Hope Town, Elbow Cay
Located in the resort's main building, this restaurant offers excellent fresh seafood. Savor creamy conch chowder (leave it to the pros) and Bahamian “crawfish” - local for lobster - served blackened, grilled, fried or coconut fried. Open for breakfast on Saturdays and Sundays and for lunch and dinner daily. Entrees $26-$42.
Nipper's Beach Bar & Grill
Great Guana Cay, Abaco
This large, colourful oceanside bar offers potent rum drinks, good food and gorgeous views. Every Sunday from 12:30 to 4 p.m., it hosts a pig-roast party. Open daily 7 a.m. until “the last customer can dance no more.” Lunch sandwiches and platters $14-$24, dinner entrees $22-$37.
What to do
Wyannie Malone Historical Museum
Hope Town, Elbow Cay
Learn about pirates, the early settlers of the Abacos and wrecking at this volunteer-run museum, which is named after one of the town's founders, a Loyalist widow from South Carolina. A nearby plaque marks the spot where the first settlers are believed to have come ashore in 1785. Open 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Saturday from November through August. $5, ages 4-15 $2.
Elbow Reef Lighthouse
Hope Town, Elbow Cay
For a unique and stunning outlook on the area, climb the stairs to the top of this 89-foot, hand-cranked, kerosene-powered lighthouse, reportedly the last of its kind in operation. Accessible by the Lighthouse Dock in Hope Town harbour. Open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free, donations requested.