Friday, December 23, 2011

Voyage 1 --The First Friday in February Farmer’s Cay Festival

     Well we’re home, that is we are in Nyack, still on our boat, as Randy, our house sitter moves out in a few days.  We left the Bahamas a month ago, working our way across and up the coast in stages, some inside on the IntraCoastal Waterway (ICW) and some outside on the ocean as weather dictated or permitted.  We arrived in time to lead the Blue Fleet in the Nyack Boat Club’s (NBC) opening day “SailPast.” But all that can wait, we need to fill you in on the intervening months…
It seems to me that any sailor worth his salt should be thrilled by the sight of traditional hand built boats whether working, racing, or just scudding along over crystal waters under azure skies. Of course racing ups the adrenaline ante, and racing (and winning) on the “ The Grand Master’s” most famous legendary “Tida Wave” inspired us to pursue the Family Island Regatta circuit. Little Farmers Cay is south of Staniel Cay in the Exumas, and on the way further south to George Town, one of the three destinations we anticipated visiting. The term “Family Islands,” has replaced the term Out-Islands, and encompasses the ancestral homes of most Bahamians. While employment needs have driven so many from the smaller islands to the big cities of Nassau and Freeport, their roots, their hearts and their families are often keeping the home fires burning on the small family islands from which they grew.
One guidebook refers to Farmers as the “quintessential Bahamian Cay,” with about fifty five inhabitants on its three and a half mile island, “Surviving on spunk and an independent self reliant populace.” It doesn’t hurt that the proprietors of the two main sponsors of the festival had overseas training which they used to popularize this regatta / homecoming. Mr. Roosevelt Nixon (how’s that for an oxymoron?) runs the Little Farmer’s Yacht Club, and Terry Bain runs Ocean Cabin. They each offer moorings, guest facilities, restaurants and bars. Like most everyone on the small islands, they are related.
While most islands boast an apocryphal account of the original inhabitants and the succeeding generations, in Farmers Cay, every resident can trace their forbears to a single couple and their deed to the island. In Bahamian law any descendant has a right to a piece of the undivided “Family” island. We met Sheena, kin to JR, the island’s award winning wood carver. Sheena was here from Nassau with her husband, for home coming.  They were selecting a spot on which to establish a house site for their annual visits and something for their children. They would apply to the island council and if there was no good objection, they could build and own their birthright. Like at home in the US, rural areas are withering away and here, the government would like to see a rejuvenation and development of the family islands and its subsequent relief of big city overcrowding.
       Like many Cays in the Bahamas, all weather anchorages are rare.  Little Farmers is no different. We planned to stay for a whole week, to witness the transformation of a sleepy island into a full blown festival site and then deflate again back to its normal level. We had done that at Staniel, and found it interesting to watch the crowds and activities grow and subside. The guidebooks listed only about a dozen moorings, and we wanted to avoid moving the boat every few days chased about by the circling winds. We decided that we needed to arrive in time to get a mooring for the duration.
We left Thunderball on Monday January 31st and after another pleasant sail on the bank along the western side of Great Guana Cay we arrived at Little Farmers. First Friday was still four days away, and we had heard other boats radioing in for mooring reservations for the coming week-end. We heard that the yacht club had sold out of moorings, so we radioed Terry Bain.  He said that his moorings were all rented out, but he would be happy to guide us to a secure anchorage.  As we rounded the south side of the island and turned northeast towards the cut separating Great Guana, Big Farmers and Little Farmers, Terry approached us in a 20’ open boat with a canoe shaped bow. He led us to a spot between the ship channel and a shallow bar, in line with several moorings.  We dropped the hook and he told us to visit Ocean Cabin up the hill from Little Harbor.  We were a little leery of the holding in this spot, and seeing the open moorings, we called Mr. Nixon at the Yacht Club. Fortunately he had a vacant mooring and we said we’d be here all week.  He said “no problem” and we found the ball he described.

 Unfortunately we have been without a boathook since Exuma Park, and a boat hook was the very tool we needed in order to snatch the heavy pendent from its briny float and bring it aboard to secure our vessel for the duration.  We circled a nearby red sloop with Canadian flag and asked if we could borrow their boat hook. Marilyn and Vic, Newfies from the Maritimes, sailing on “Whisper” offered one up. The other factor besides wind, which limits finding good anchorages is current or surge. Since we were tucked in between three islands, the wind was unable to build much swell.  On the other hand, we were at the confluence of the Farmers Cut, the Exuma Sound and on the edge of the ship channel in between the islands. This means significant current with a very short slack period (~ ten minutes) between reversing tides.  It was the swift current at Warderick Wells in the Park where I lost our boathook.  You may know that most boat hooks are two or three telescoping aluminum tubes with a nylon twist-lock mechanism. That mechanism was not built to hold an 11 ton boat against a four knot rip. My choice once hooked on to the pendant was to lose the boat hook or my arm.  I chose to keep my arm. We had the same problem here as at the park, but with practice and patience, Judy at the helm was able to keep the boat and mooring in synch while I secured the mooring pendant.  I was grateful to not lose this boathook borrowed from trusting strangers, but it was touch and go.
A note about moorings:
You may have surmised by our desire to have a mooring, that moorings are more reliable or safer than anchoring. Back home, you’d presumably be correct.  Anchors, anchorers and anchorages are all different, and they might not always be suited to the location and or conditions. We cruisers presume that the moorings available for a fee are suited to the location and conditions.  Mooring operators here have no such perception.  When asked about boats broken away from failed moorings, operators will tell you that it the boat owners responsibility to “inspect the mooring.” Others have gone so far as to say, “you know, you should always put down your anchor as well.” Operators contend, when asked “What  happens if my boat breaks away and is damaged?  Do you have insurance?” “Oh no, we are not responsible for your boat, but you are responsible to restore the mooring at your own expense.”
Less than a month before the festival, a boat had broken away from a mooring at Farmers Cay.  Each operator insisted it was the other operator’s mooring that had failed.  It was against this background that we put our faith in Roosevelt Nixon’s newly upgraded moorings.  I did inspect the mooring and found the rope and the shackles to be new, the attachment to the bottom weight however was not so obvious. There’s only so much you can do.  Our insurance is paid and I am happy to report that after a week, our boat was in the same place.
After returning the boat hook to “Whisper,” and putting our vessel in order, we went to Ocean Cabin to tell Terry we had made other arrangements. We dingied from the open “Big Harbour” around a craggy promontory to “Little Harbour” on which the settlement sits. The view here was like the stage set for “South Pacific.” A beach with palm trees, small open boats dragged up on the shore and a dozen brightly painted buildings. A dock with a fish cleaning station was next to the island administrator’s office.  There was a green painted Post Office and “Little Jeff’s Shop,” specializing in fresh fish, fishing guide, and all things piscatorial. “Brenda’s Kitchen” was next to the convenience store which was next to a shed named “Ali’s Bar.” Up the hill was Ocean Cabin, a neat well built masonry structure where we found Terry touching up the paint on his domain.
After finishing the last few daubs of paint we went inside for a cold beer and to introduce ourselves. Terry had spent some years in the hospitality business in Tripoli, and returned home to carry on his family’s guest house and restaurant / bar business.  We found that Terry was erudite and well spoken, although his views of the world differed from ours.  As often on this trip we have engaged knowledgeable Bahamians in deep conversations. These opportunities were some of the highlights of our trip. Terry had adopted Islam while in Libya. His first wife was Jewish, his second Muslim, and Ernestine, his current wife is Christian. I asked if the Koran prohibited the use of alcohol, and he said that the Koran warns that alcohol can lead one astray from Allah, and therefore must be kept under control.  I think he is the only Muslim on the island, but there is also the previously mentioned Ali’s Bar.            
Terry told us of the agenda for the week, and how the cruisers would help organize and run the Women’s Wet T-Shirt Contest; the Men’s Best Buns and Best Legs Contests and the Pari-mutuel Hermit Crab Races.
The next day, Terry supplied free Rum Punch and conch fritters to all the cruisers who attended the organizing meeting.  I helped with the serving of the rum punch. Each person took a cup and filled it with ice. They pumped the tap to fill their glass, and I collected the over-runs to keep from wasting any of the punch. I am happy to report that no rum was wasted, but I was!! After the organizing part, Terry showed a video promoting S.T.E.P., (Save The Exuma Park.) Terry is an outspoken environmentalist decrying private development within the boundaries of the Land and Sea Park we enjoyed so much. He asked the cruisers to voice their concern for the protection of the places which draw cruisers and tourists alike. The meeting was a big success.  Judy and I offered to sponsor and run the first Crab Race, with the “Bentaña Cup” as the trophy. I entered both of the men’s “beauty contests” but took no prizes.  We also happened to win the crab race we sponsored, betting on number one, and the clear plastic tumbler called “The Bentaña Cup” sits proudly in Terry’s bar today, (plus we won nine dollars, but I had to buy Terry a beer from his bar for four.)
Each day the festival drew closer. Ex residents and family members in Nassau, Freeport and other big cities were making their way “home” onboard the “Captain C” mail boat. The boat was not only bringing the folks together and some of the competitor’s boats, but also all the makings of a festival. Case after case of beer, rum and other spirits were unloaded by the pallet.  I asked Terry if he thought there was any chance of “running out,” and he answered with a twinkle and a smile, “I hope so.” This week end was not only the big regatta, but also Super Bowl Sunday, and Roosevelt had ordered a big screen TV for the bar. He was happy to see it loaded safely on the dock.
Roosevelt’s Yacht Club has satellite TV, but I learned that through an agreement between the government and the cable company, all the basic channels (CBS, NBC, FOX, ABC and ZNS(Bahamas))  are broadcast free in remote areas where stringing cable is not cost effective. Judy’s birthday was coming up and I thought I would surprise her by hooking up her TV card on her computer. After hacking around a while, I got it to work, but the dreariness of network programs couldn’t compete with the daily adventure that our lives have become. We made reservations for a lobster dinner to celebrate.
Around the village center, the more enterprising locals were busy building and decorating their pop-up booths with palm fronds and plastic pennants in national “Blue, Black and Yellow.” Judy and I were taking a random walk about, following a sign to JR’s Wood carving shop.  On the way we met Johnny carrying water containers.  We waved Hi, and asked him what he was doing. He was “going to water his plants” he said in his in his gentle smiling toothless patois, “Would you like to see?” Well, seeing was  why we were here, so we followed him off the road, past some wild cotton, up a rough path to what was once a house.  In the yard, there were a number of newly planted bougainvilleas, freshly watered. Johnny, it turns out at 80+ is the oldest member of this family island, and is quite the fashion plate wearing his black “Phat Farm” T, black neatly wrinkled jeans and a Gabbanna and D’someboddy hat.
    On the beach we found a huge white steel sphere which had mysteriously appeared one day and had become a local monument.  Since one of my tasks on earth is to photograph spheres randomly found in the environment, I could kill two birds with one stone and posed Judy and Johnny in front of it and snapped away. We then continued our walkabout to the high point overlooking the village, the Baptist Church, where we met Terry’s sister, the newly ordained minister, in mufti.
     All this was very good, but truly besides the point of coming here.  We came for the Bahamian Native Sloop Regatta, and the excitement was building. On the west side of the island is an air strip, and just off-shore, about one hundred forty assorted cruisers had dropped anchor, trusting in fair winds for the duration. On Friday, the first race was a distance race from White Point to the finish line here, a distance of XXX miles.  The Saturday races were on a triangular course, with the anchor start, and the finish line right in the middle of the anchored cruisers.  This made for some interesting maneuvering and tactics, and gave those anchored a ringside seat.  Judy and I arrived early in our dingy to watch the boats get set up and the crowds gather. A large well built pavilion between the air strip and the beach was being set up to serve beer and home cookin’ to the thousand or so homecomers, festival goers and spectators. The DJ was setting up his speakers and control board for some serious party music. In the center of the structure was a table filled with the glistening golden trophies the sailors had come to vie for.
     The boats were all “C” Class, smaller versions of the boats we had raced in at Staniel Cay.  With a crew of XXX they use the same principles as their big sisters.

Another couple of days in Paradise….
Just an update on where we are currently… On Sunday, April 3, the weather forecast seemed good for a sail from Spanish Wells, Eleuthera to the Abacos, so we stowed everything and set out through the north channel out of Spanish Wells (a wandering passage between shallow waters and coral heads) to arrive in the Atlantic Ocean.  Thank Goodness for the charts and chartplotter! 
We had an absolutely gorgeous sail to the Little Harbour Cut in the Abacos.  The sun was out, the breeze was steady and between 11-17 knots from the east. Ocean swells were 2-5 feet from the north east. We had the genoa, main and storm sails set and cruised along between 6 and 7 knots, sometimes more and almost never less than six.  Steph decided to put out the fishing line.  When we fish, the line is tied off to the boat and we use a bungee tied to the line leaving a slight sag to the line, so that when a fish strikes the lure, you can tell because the line straightens out.   At one point, I glanced over at the line and said, “Honey, we might have a fish….”  Steph began to bring in the line and voila…at the end of the line was a 36 inch Dorado (aka Mahi Mahi)!!  The strange thing was, it was hooked not in its mouth, but through two small holes above its mouth!  (Kind of like a nose, if fish had noses, that is J )  The fish was absolutely gorgeous with an overall golden sheen with blues and greens.
As we were estimating our arrival time at Little Harbour Cut, I discovered that my watch and the time on the chartplotter were one hour different….and the chart plotter said we would arrive around 6:30 pm and my watch said we would arrive about 7:30 pm.   Electronic items sometimes consider the Bahamas to be on Atlantic time instead of Eastern time, but all of the Bahamas are on the same time as the US east coast.  The chart plotter did not go on daylight savings time until we were about an hour out of Little Harbour, Abacos.

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