We have been out and off-grid for a while exploring the Plana Cays, where we saw only two or three boats in two weeks. Now we are back in Georgetown and there are well over 300 boats in the anchorage.
East and West Plana Cay are relatively remote as Bahamian islands go, with only two inhabited islands further east or south. Neither of the Plana Cays are currently inhabited, although there are ruins of past settlements on West Plana. There is no evidence for either permanent or temporary human occupation on East Plana.
It has been almost exactly four years since we were last at the Plana Cays, and we have been looking forward to coming back ever since. Unlike sometimes happens, this long anticipated return to a former haunt has not disappointed.
It is hard to know where to start with these islands. Beaches are amazing, beautiful and untracked by human footprints. If there were resorts here, these beaches would be on anybody’s top ten list.
Highlights of our visit are the shelling, the fishing, the turtle watching, the dark skies at night, the quiet. It is really a special place.
Even on an uninhabited island you can’t avoid evidence of humans. I think a lot of people would be surprised that the debris on the beach is NOT composed of generic household trash. Rather the vast majority of it is lost commercial fishing gear. Nets, floats, lines, even boats!
We had really hoped to get a picture of a hutia, a nocturnal guinea pig like rodent, the only mammal native to the Bahamas. We set up a camera trap and baited it with veggies, but ended up with nothing. Maybe next time!
But… all great things come to an end. We are struggling with a fuel leak in our engine, which limits our motoring. But we do have a SAILboat, so we will have to sail most all the way. We will be underway from Georgetown in the next 24 hours or so with a destination of Daytona, Florida. It should be 3 or 4 days to get there. The weather is “active” so we’ll need to keep a careful eye on it.
450 miles southeast of Miami, just 45 miles from the eastern-most tip of Cuba is the most southern of the islands of the Bahamas, Great Inagua. It is the place we checked in first with Customs and Immigration to get our Bahamian cruising permit for this season. Although it is one of the larger islands in the Bahamas in terms of land area, it is quite sparsely populated with just 900 people spread across almost 650 square miles.
It is well off the normal tourist path, no cruise ships stop here. There are a few rental properties and guest houses, but nothing that would rise to the title of “resort.” There is an airport with two scheduled flights a week to Nausau. Most of the traffic at the airport is from the US Coast Guard which maintains a joint base here with the Royal Bahamian Defense Force. Being so close to Hati, Cuba, and a major shipping route from South America drug and people smuggling is an unfortunate constant in the local waters. Like all of the “out-islands” in the Bahamas we have visited, the local people are endlessly friendly and helpful.
The basic ecology is desert scrub. No real trees other than mangroves except for some scattered casuarina trees, known locally as “Australian pines.”
What’s This??? SNOW???
No, not snow. It’s the biggest (only) industry on the island: Salt.
The flat land, warm temperatures, low rainfall, and breezy weather make ideal conditions for the rapid evaporation of seawater, and the production of large quantities of salt. Large quantities as in more than 2,000 TONS a day, a Million tons a year. Morton Salt has been producing salt here for about 75 years, and there were previous large scale operations extending back almost 100 years, and small scale operations since 1600.
The basic process is pretty simple. Water is pumped from the ocean into a large shallow “pan” where sun and wind begin to evaporate the water. Once it gets more concentrated, it is moved to a second pan where more of the water evaporates. Just before it gets so concentrated that crystals begin to form, it is moved to the final stage, where salt crystals begin to drop out of the water. Once a sufficient amount of salt is deposited, the remaining brine is drained off, the salt is plowed into windrows, and “harvested.” The whole process is an odd combination of mining and farming.
The concentrated brines of the salt ponds are full of pink algea, and tiny brine shrimp. The brine shrimp make good food for a large number of birds, including the national bird of the Bahamas:
The West Indian Flamingo. Unfortunately, on the day of our tour the birds were hunkered down in strong winds, and we couldn’t get very close.
The diet rich in brine shrimp makes these some of the pinkest flamingos anywhere. Depending on who’s count you chose to believe there are between 50,000 and 80,000 of these goofy looking birds that nest on the island. They nest on the ground on a few isolated islands in the middle of the salt lakes to avoid the wild pigs that roam the island. In addition to the pigs, there are wild horses, cattle, and donkeys. The wild pigs are hunted and prized as food.
Other common birds here are a white-headed parrot, burrowing owls, and an endemic species of hummingbird.
We’ll be heading out of here this evening heading to the uninhabited Plana Keys for some heavy duty beachcombing and fishing. We have been there before, and always enjoyed it as a stop. The weather looks great both for the passage and forecastable future.
Our trip there will be about 14 hours, so our plan is to do it overnight. That way we can arrive in the light of of the day which will help in picking our way through coral heads that are widely scattered in the anchorage.
We took a short pause on our way to the Bahamas in La Paraguera, Puerto Rico because we needed a quick provisioning stop, and we knew the grocery store there would have what we wanted. The entry is a bit convoluted, but easy to follow on the chart. The harbor is well protected from waves, and has no roll or surge.
It’s a very “boaty” town. On a weekend afternoon it seems everybody is on a boat out on one of the little islands. For all that, the town hasn’t thought of visiting cruising boats at all. The shoreline is totally packed with private docks, houses on pilings, and boat-based tourist businesses, but it has never had a dinghy dock. Last time we were here the dinghy landing was a tiny muddy gap in the mangroves, right off the main square. This has now been completely blocked by hurricane wrecked boats.
We cruised back and forth trying to locate any tiny spot that had physical access, and wasn’t obviously private. A couple queries didn’t turn up any options. Finally, we asked at one of the tour boat docks if we could tie up for an hour, “Sure, no problem, right here. Just be back before 9:00PM when we close the gate.” Success!
A successful grocery run, a dinner ashore of delicious dorado tacos, and the next morning we were off, headed west toward the Mona Passage between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico. Next stop: Great Inagua in the Bahamas.
The Mona Passage has a bad reputation among sailboats transiting this area. Even in good steady trade winds, the surrounding land can leave the winds in the passage light and shifty. Along with fast, unpredictable currents. And very lumpy waves. Add to that when the unstable air coming off the mountains in Puerto Rico hits the warm water and for much of the year it spawns a continuous set of afternoon and evening thunderstorms.
We were just flying around the southwestern corner of Puerto Rico, with 20 knots of wind behind us and a course I plotted as far from land as possible to stay in clear wind. I was feeling very proud of myself, having cheated the wind demons of Mona through skill and good planning.
Just as we settled in for a fast and furious passage, the wind changed: From 20 knots behind us, in less than a minute it shifted to 4 knots right on the nose. We are going nowhere. In the rough water without wind in the sails, the boat is rolling—a lot! We try waiting and working with what we have, but progress goes from fast to zero. We finally surrender and fire up the Volvo. We end up motoring all the across to the other side where we pick up the trades again on the north side.
Right now sailing downwind along the north coast of the Dominican Republic in ideal conditions. Relaxing, smooth. 10 knots of wind, calm seas, we are making steady, comfortable progress if not setting speed records. We expect to lose wind again for a bit in 24 hours or so as the very southern end of a cold front swings by. We should be anchored off Mattewtown, Great Inagua in a little over 48 hours.
Isla Caja de Muertos, literally “Box of the Dead Island” or Coffin Island is located about midway along the southern coast of Puerto Rico. We were last here in 2017, and the intervening years have not been kind. Ironical, “Coffin Island” is now a Ghost Town.
When we were last here it was a flourishing regional park, popular for its hiking trails and beaches with weekend day visitors who came out in large numbers by ferry from Ponce.
Since then, the park infrastructure was significantly damaged in the two hurricanes that impacted this area. Money to repair was actually allocated by the US Federal government, but the grant expired before the local authorities could initiate repairs. It’s a major loss of a recreational opportunity for the local population.
The ferry no longer comes here, and no caretakers remain. Although the main buildings are mainly intact, the outbuildings and supporting infrastructure were mostly destroyed.
Without regular care, the paths up the hill to the old lighthouse are now essentially impassable to the casual hiker, overgrown with cactus and thorn bushes. The island is slowly walling itself off from people.
On the plus side, the anchorage is still beautiful, the fish still swim, and the turtles still nest on the beaches.
We are now underway. We cleared out of customs in Sint Maarten yesterday afternoon, and were on time for the 10:30 bridge opening this morning. Back out on the ocean, we are headed west.
Instead of sailing straight to the Bahamas, we are making a stop along the way in Puerto Rico. We be spending a little time there helping a client on an Amel54 with some upgrades and repairs. A win-win arrangement. We get a few extra dollars in the cruising kitty, and they get work done without trying to sort out which of the local mechanics actually knows his stuff.
We’ll be arriving at Culebra and checking into the USA there early tomorrow morning. We will be exploring for a few days, then heading to Palmas Del Mar Marina for about a week, then continuing on to the Bahamas.
Right now we are enjoying the delight that is a downwind sail. 15 to 17 knots of wind have us sailing fast and flat. There are some rain showers around but nothing big and scary.
Simpson Bay Lagoon during “The Season” (December to May) is visited by a crowd of SuperYachts. In the world of very high end yachting it is generally agreed that a yacht becomes “super” when it is more than 40 meters (131 feet) long.
They come here because it is a well protected harbor, there is a large airport for easy access to the private jets that bring owners and guests to and from, and because the yachting infrastructure here is deep and wide. At times there can be more than a BILLION dollars worth of yachts docked around the lagoon here.
To get into the harbor here, you need to come in through the Simpson Bay Bridge, only 15 meters wide (49 feet) if can be a challenge for some of the larger yachts that can have beams of more than 12 m (40 feet).
The first star in our story here is the Motor Yacht Ecstacsea, 86 m (284 feet) long (!) and 12 m (40 feet) wide. She is huge. In this picture, note the small fold-down bridgewing on the bow, that will be important…
Another important thing to know: Right on the north side of the bridge is the open air bar of the Sint Maarten Yacht Club. Watching (and recording!) the large yachts transiting the bridge is a popular local activity. Three years ago Ecstasea was coming into the lagoon here in Simpson Bay, and for reasons I don’t understand she had her starboard side bow bridgewing open. The results were pretty spectacular…
When we were here last spring, the bridge operators were still dealing with a flimsy weather cover over a temporary control panel. If we fast forward to our arrival here in the first week of January 2023, we see there is a whole new permanent concrete shack in place.
Bright, shiny, it’s only 3 weeks old. The fancy new paint job featuring the bridge authority logo is barely dry. But… wait a second… it’s not looking too secure on its foundation. And are those scuff marks on the side? Yep… the day before we arrived it got hit, AGAIN! You can see the mechanic working there to install another “temporary” control panel. The impact not only ripped the shack loose, it also tore all the cables used to operate the bridge. The tenders have had to manually throw switches down in bowels of the bridge.
A few days later, the new control panel is in operation, and the shack is gone. The bridgetenders are back to open air operation in all weather. Hopefully, they can get a little sun and rain protection before too long.
And there is video of this one too, thanks to the bar patrons!
Maybe when they rebuild it this time they will give it a little set back from the edge? Either that or paint a bull’s eye target on it!
We have taken advantage of the local infrastructure to get some boat projects done, and once we get a few more business things complete, we’ll be sailing away. Right now our target to sail off is Wednesday, the 25th. Out next expected port of call will be Matthewtown, on Great Inagua Island in the Bahamas, about a four day sail. We hope to be exploring the Bahamas for some time.
One of the first rules of troubleshooting a complex system is:
The rational here is that if multiple symptoms appear at the same time, they always have a common cause, because that is just the way things work.
Rule Two would be:
Again, a perfectly logical rule. When something breaks, something changed. If you were messing around with the parts, it is a very good bet you did something–by mistake or by accident–that was the cause of the problem.
Here the true story of a sequence of failures we recently experienced, that proves rules are meant to be broken.
While motoring recently, we had the odd experience of all our engine instruments shutting down. Using the very sophisticated diagnostic test of wiggling the key, we determined that the problem was a bad connection inside the key switch itself. Which is actually a good thing, because these are common parts and easy to get. We actually ordered it from the Volvo dealer ahead of us on Saint Martin so it would be ready when we got there.
The next day, a new symptom appears: The engine will not stop when commanded to by the key switch. This is not too surprising since we already know the key switch is on its way out. Good thing we already have one on order! In the meantime, we just have to climb down into the engine room and push the emergency stop lever. A pain, but not anything too bad. Certainly better to have an engine that is a pain to stop, but starts on command than the other way round!
All will be better when we get the new key switch.
We arrive in Saint Martin, pick up our already paid for key switch, and install it. The problem with the instruments goes away, as expected. But the engine STILL won’t stop! Hmmmm… I must have wired things wrong. So I did a deep dive into the absolutely TERRIBLE Volvo wiring diagrams. I check, double check, and triple check everything. It is all correct.
Then I notice that the preheater is also not working. This is something we never need here in the tropics, but it is an extra clue. Careful study of the wiring diagram shows that the only common thing shared between the two systems is a ground relay. Opening up the electrical box on the engine and identifying the right relay I find that the coil of the relay shows an open circuit. How very odd. Obviously broken, but these relays are VERY reliable so this is weird. But, broken is broken! Back to Caraïbes Diesel for a relay.
And… What? A THIRD??
Install relay, and all is good. The engine starts, and stops. Except… the tachometer is not working. Well, this should be an easy one. After all, I was fussing around in the instrument panel, so I must have knocked a wire loose. I mean, see Rule 2 above. I touched it, I broke it!
It’a not a bad connection. It is actually a problem with the alternator which is where the tachometer gets its data about engine speed. I look really hard for SOMETHING connecting these problems. Because see Rule 1 and Rule 2. But there are NO connections. There is just no way ANYTHING I did could have affected the alternator. Yet, the alternator is just not working. All the tests confirm, the alternator is doing nothing. It spins, but makes no power to push into the battery. As bizarre as it seems, this is a completely separate problem not connected with the others.
We remove the alternator, and take it to the local service shop. They go through their tests, and discover a stuck brush. A simple cleaning of the internals makes it all right. In addition to having things better again, it was nice to know that if we were actually stuck in a place without the infrastructure that is here in Saint Martin, we COULD have fixed it ourselves.
In 26 years this engine has run for nearly 10,000 hours. In the time we have owned the boat, it has run for nearly 2000 hours. It has had a few minor problems, all things we could easily diagnose and repair. Yet, in the course of only three hours of operation THREE separate–and totally independent–problems came up.What are the odds? If I had been paying a professional mechanic working on my engine, who reported this sequence of events, it would have been very hard to believe him.
So I am going to rewrite Rule 1:
Trying to sort out these problems would have been a lot faster if they had occurred completely separately in time. In that case I would not have spent so much time trying to figure out how they were connected, because they HAD to be connected, right? (See Rule 1!)
We have two heroes in this story. First was Caraïbes Diesel on the French side of the island. They are the big Volvo Penta dealer in this part of the Caribbean. They had the parts we needed, and worked with us to be sure we got them. People (including me!) complain a lot about the prices of parts from Volvo Penta, but if you need them–and they have them–they are priceless. Thank you Isabelle and Xavier.
The staff at Electec on the Dutch side of the island was also fantastic. It is an amazing supplier of electrical parts, watermakers, and all kinds of engine oil and fuel filters. They have stuff on the shelf that you would never find anywhere else for retail pickup. The service department had our alternator sorted out in less than 24 hours. They also had–in stock–the parts we needed for our watermaker. If we had needed it, they even had an exact match for our alternator in stock.
In our travels we have gotten several steps ahead of our posts, so I hope you can forgive a couple quick posts to catch up.
Here are just a few more photos and historical commentary from the Iles des Saintes.
The local waters were the scene of a naval battle in 1782 between the French and British fleets that had a large impact on history in ways you probably haven’t heard of. The short version of the story is the French fleet that was heading to invade the economically vital British colony of Jamaica was routed. Its Admiral taken prisoner, and many ships of the French ships of the line sunk or captured. This was shortly after the humiliating British defeat at the hands of the Americans in Yorktown, Virginia in 1781–with French assistance—that marks the end of hostilities in the American Revolution.
In the usual American version of history, that’s the end of the story. But… The negotiations of the final arrangements were still ongoing. The Americans and their Allies—the French—started out in a superior position at the treaty negotiations. The Americans, for example, were demanding that ALL British possessions in North America were on the table, most significantly, Canada.
When word of the decisive defeat of the French fleet in the Caribbean arrived in Europe, it changed the dynamic. Suddenly the French were not the powerful ally the Americans were counting on, and the Americans decided to reach a separate peace. The colonies north of Massachusetts (i.e., British Canada) were no longer part of the deal. How would the world have been different if Newfoundland, Labrador, and Ontario had become part of the United States?
There are still existing fortifications in the Saintes, but they date from after the fall of the French monarchy, and were never actually involved in any hostilities. The largest of the forts is Fort Napoleon on Terre de Haut. Now a general history museum and botanical garden specializing in local cactus.
Speaking of botanical curiosities, on this island you occasionally see trees with a red stripe painted on the trunk.
These trees produce copious quantities of fruit resembling small green apples.
Do NOT touch! These are manchineel trees, one of the most poisonous trees in the world. So much so that just standing under one in the rain can lead to a nasty blistering rash. If you are going to explore off road in the Caribbean at all, it’s a good idea to learn what they look like.
Houses here are frequently set up to have living space flowing from indoors to outdoors. Here is a beautiful example where the kitchen and sleeping rooms are “in” and the dining and living rooms are “out.” Located close to 1000 feet up the mountain, the constant trade winds keep the living areas comfortable all year.
And what scenic set of photos would be complete without an image of our very own Harmonie at anchor?
Since we would encourage everybody cruising the Caribbean to visit this delightful place at least once, here are some practical tips that are current as of the beginning of 2023.
The red outlined areas on the charts are places with moorings, and anchoring is not allowed. The green area is where anchoring is permitted. More of the deep water in the harbor is also available for anchoring, if you are good with anchoring in 40 to 60 feet (12 to 20m).
The largest mooring field is the most convenient to town, but none of them are too far to ride in a dinghy. During busy holiday weeks with lots of charter boat activity, the main mooring field fills up rather quickly. It can be rolly, both with waves wrapping in and with the frequent ferries, the more remote fields are quieter.
The moorings are of a type we have seen around several of the islands, and they cause a lot of trouble for people who don’t know how to use them.
This is the mooring ball, and the way a lot of people tie to it. Do NOT do it this way.
First Problem: This skipper has put a line from one cleat on the boat straight through the steel ring, and back to the boat. This is a disaster ready to happen. As the boat swings back and forth in the wind and waves, the line will rub on the ring, chafing through and setting the boat adrift, much more quickly that you might expect. Solution: Tie a separate line to each side of the boat, and attach to the ring using a round turn, and a bowline. Yes, a bit harder to execute, and more of a pain when you leave, but infinitely more secure.
Second Problem: When the wind dies, as it does most nights after midnight, the buoy will drift along the boat’s hull. That big steel ring will scratch up the boat’s hull. Not a disaster, but aggravating for sure. Solution: Pull TIGHT on the ring. The ring is actually not attached to the float, but passes through it straight down to the anchor. If you pull the lines very tight, the ring will pull up, and now the boat can not drift into it in light and shifty winds. Almost nobody seems to understand that this is how these are supposed to work.
On a boat with freeboard too high for crew to reach the ring, there are two approaches that work. First, do not put the bow of the boat along side the ball, and hope your crew can get the line through–somehow. Instead, put the crew on the swim platform on the stern and BACK to the buoy. Now the ring is an easy reach. Pull the lines around to the bow, and all those people who were watching your approach in the anchorage and wondering what the heck you were doing, will see what a brilliant sailor you are! Second approach: Have a small line of about 2 fathoms in length with a monkey’s fist in the end. Throw the monkey’s fist through the ring, snag it with the boat hook, and use the light line to pull your main mooring line on through. Very salty.
If you are coming from somewhere other than Guadeloupe, you’ll need to clear customs here. Like on all the French islands, you find the customs computer, and “do-it-yourself.” Here the computer is located at Les Saintes Multiservices, located on the 2nd floor in the building just south of the ferry landing. There is no sign, you just have to know.
Of course you could also come over from Guadeloupe by ferry. There are at least two boats each making three round tips a day.
Finally, for my pilot friends, there is an airport, but no scheduled service. I am not knowledgable enough to understand for sure how complex the approach is. Here is a picture looking straight downwind. Obviously, a straight on approach isn’t possible. In the week we have been here, I have seen one plane come in, and he obviously had several turns to make during his final approach to make his way between the hills.
We are tied up in the bay of Terre-de-Haut, an island part of the Iles des Saintes group that is just south of, and part of, Guadeloupe, which is in turn an overseas department of France.
Our trip up from Martinique was about 15 hours, and was—mostly—uneventful. It varied from near calm in the lee of Martinique’s Mount Pele and the mountainous rainforests of Dominica, to howling winds of 30 knots in parts of the passages between the islands. We had some minor issues with the engine, that will hopefully be easily put to rights.
Our first impressions of this island agree with the advance reviews we got from friends who visited: It’s delightful. It’s very obviously a tourist destination, but one that is not crass or overly commercial. Most of the visitors are day-trippers from the main island of Guadeloupe and they come over on the many ferries that arrive all through the day.
Customs and immigration formalities here, like at all of the French islands are pretty… informal. A local business hosts a computer, you show up, pay €3, enter your information, and you’re done. We tried to pay for the mooring at the same time, but we were told, “A week free.” That’s certainly bettter than the €15 a day we were expecting!
We are not sure how long we’ll be staying here, but hopefully we’ll have more of interest to report.