Planet Abaco, Where Life is LanguidBoating, Critters & Wildlife, ISLANDS, Scenic Wonders, SERIES, STAFF, Water — By Vicki Lathom on January 20, 2012 at 01:20
By staff writer Vicki Lathom. Photos Copyright © Vicki Lathom.
Feature photo: Starfish in a boat’s spotlight on Little Bahama Bank
THE BAHAMAS are much heard about but little understood. People think of Nassau, the hotels of Paradise Island, and giant cruise ships. The Abacos ain’t nothing like that.
The Abaco chain of islands is like its own planet and the life on it is languid.
Our first encounter came on our trip over from Florida when we anchored off Great Guana Cay at sundown. Looking over the side of the boat, we saw a lone starfish 15 feet down in clear, light-green water. We shone the boat’s spotlight on it to take a photo. The ripples of the water gave a shimmering look to this strange, hypnotic picture. It symbolizes the silent and slightly alien feel of the Abacos.
We sail over miles of this transparent water and see no fish. We sit in the marina in the evening and hear no birds. Planet Abaco’s most common occupant seems to be the Little Bahama Curly-tailed Lizard, which, at first, looks like just a piece of grass . . . until you see it move.
Despite the absence of visible fish while cruising through the islands, the Abacos are a popular destination for fishing. Boats come 175 miles to Marsh Harbor from Florida for wahoo, snapper and grouper.
The Abacos are made up of two islands, 82 cays (pronounced “keys”) and 208 rocks. The main bodies of water are Little Bahama Bank and the Sea of Abaco with its eleven to twenty feet of water, making it easy to anchor anywhere—or to go aground.
The calmness of the Sea of Abaco contrasts with a few invasions from the Atlantic, where inlets such as Whale and Man-O-War are frequently in a condition called “rage,” making it necessary to wait for a window of calm to pass through them.
As a first-timer, I had some misimpressions of the Bahamas. Despite what people told me, it is warmer than Florida. Unlike Chesapeake Bay or the British Virgin Islands (places I’m used to sailing), the distances between destinations are great.
If I were dropped in the middle of the Abacos, I’m not sure I could identify where I was. Unlike the mountainous drama of the Virgin Islands, the Abacos are flat. And if other locations are 99 percent weather, this archipelago is 99.9 percent.
I was warned that the Bahamians were rude and resented tourists, but I haven’t found that at all. In fact, these people are disarmingly cheery and friendly.
Boat Harbour Marina is what a winter home should be: elegant but comfortable. Happy people, too—both the locals and employees and the visitors. On arrival, we visited the tiki bar and got invited to dinner by a stranger.
But the color of the water is the true signature of the Abacos. The pale turquoise water has a blessed feel. In fact, the Abacos has a blessed feeling, in good part because of its unique geological structure. The Abacos, along with the rest of the Bahamas chain, sit in a big “bath tub” out in the ocean, a basin thousands of feet above the ocean floor with islands, cays and rocks resting in it.
Its other trademark is its position: you go from a water depth of more than 2,000 feet to get here, with ocean swells and breaking waves, and enter this little kingdom of islands in water only about 11 feet deep.
Tilloo Cay (pronounced til-LOO) is one of 28 cays in the Abacos. Only about five miles long, Tilloo is typical of the small islands along the barrier reef that separates Great Abaco from the Atlantic.
Visitors usually anchor in the Sea of Abaco and walk a path to the ocean, providing a contrast so typical of this part of the Bahamas: on one side you have a normally calm, light-green Sea of Abaco, on the other, a fierce, slate-blue Atlantic with dunes and scrub pine.
Memory Rock is the landmark for entering the Abacos after crossing the Gulf Stream, a challenging body of water about 30 miles across. The Gulf Stream flows like a river inside a river at three knots, making passage difficult under many conditions.
This unassuming rock indicates the entrance into the relatively mild Little Bahama Bank and the end of what can be a nerve-wracking crossing. Already eight hours from the Florida coast, boaters still have another eight (50 miles) to go to Sale Cay. The trip over the bank at night can also be unnerving since there are no lights from land or marine facilities. It’s an utterly silent experience with no VHF radio traffic.
Unlike the mostly rural islands in the southern Bahamas, the Abacos has amenities and is considered more touristy. This means it has restaurants, tiki bars, shops, and liquor and grocery stores. These are not the main interests of boating purists. To this author, the adventure of a glass of wine and the view at Curly Tails on Marsh Harbour comes in ahead of seeing an iguana, swimming pig, nurse shark or stingray.
The view at the Abaco Inn rivals any in memory. The restaurant perches on top of rocks facing the Atlantic Ocean with its rollers breaking against the shore.
One morning at sunrise we launched the Cantabile from Great Sale Cay for the 50-mile passage to Great Guana Cay. Sale is a small, uninhabited island offering a safe anchorage for cruisers midway through the Little Bahama Bank.
Last year we anchored in the little bay on the west side of Sale at sundown with nine other boats and more coming in during the night. The dinghy softly bounced up and down with a lapping sound. Beethoven’s Fifth played on the CD player. The moon was so bright it cast my shadow. The anchorage and its quiet was like being in the hand of God.
Vicki Lathom has been a writer and sailor for forty years. She retired from being director of public information for Montgomery County, Md., in 1996, and went to work for Maryland Governor William Donald Schaefer as his speechwriter. Vicki has also done freelance travel writing and photography for such publications as SAIL and Maryland Magazine. She is currently a writing instructor for two graduate schools at the University of Maryland. Vicki is a staff writer for MilliversTravels.com.