Our journey begins in Hope Town, a colorful colonial village on Elbow Cay, which is a small out island in the Sea of Abaco. Technically, every island in the Bahamas is considered an “out” island, all except for the capital island of New Providence where the capital city of Nassau is located. The Bahamian island chain includes around 700 islands or cays (the spanish word for “island”), many of which are uninhabited. We would spend most of our time in the Abacos, the most northern of the island groupings. The Abacos consist of Great Abaco Island and a number of smaller cays on the Atlantic side. This string of small cays protects the Sea of Abaco from the raging Atlantic Ocean. The result is a sea of calm, shallow (generally under 12 feet!), beautifully turquoise water.
On the map below you can see the general location of the Abacos, just east of Florida and around the same latitude as Ft. Lauderdale. At center far-right you will find Elbow Cay.
On Elbow Cay you will find the village of Hope Town, and in Hope Town Harbour you will find the Irie Joe, our home for the next few weeks.
The Irie Joe is a 41-foot sailing catamaran built by Maine Cat out of Bremen, Maine. Maine Cat is a small company producing some very innovative boat designs, most notably the open bridge deck (more on that later). My dad really enjoys owning a boat built by a small company because when he calls with a problem or question the person who answers the phone is Dick Vermulen, the very guy who designed and built this boat. Dad jokes that he’s been trying to get Mr. Evinrude on the phone for years, but he just won’t return his calls. (My dad is full of silly one-liners).
My parents purchased this boat new about a year ago and sailed it from Maine all the way to its home in Hope Town Harbour. As I mentioned in my previous post, the Irie Joe is part of the small charter fleet operated by Maine Cat out of Hope Town Harbour. This is where the boat lives full-time and where we would begin our adventure.
Well, technically the adventure began at the Austin airport. Even though the Bahamas are just a hop and a skip away from the U.S., getting to any island nation can be a bit complicated. First we flew from Austin to Miami, then spent the night at a hotel in Miami before catching a puddle-jumper flight the next morning to Marsh Harbor (the “big city” in the Abacos). Unless you live on the east coast it’s almost impossible to get to the Abacos in one day due to the ferry schedule (all public ferries stop service at 6pm). From Marsh Harbor we took a cab to the ferry dock and hopped the ferry over to Hope Town. The ferry captain dropped us off at the public dock in Hope Town and was kind enough to radio our friend Captain Ron who picked us up in his skiff and motored us over to the Irie Joe, which was moored out in the harbour. Phew! Over the next few days we would quickly adjust to island time and the complexities of transportation here, but that first day it all seemed a little nuts!
Once we had adjusted to the rhythm of the islands it all seemed like second nature. Later in this trip my parents actually spent an entire day traveling to and from a marine store on a different island just so they could buy a new deck brush. They took two ferries, two cab rides, and rented a golf cart, all to discover that the store was closed on Mondays!
Now that you’re somewhat familiar with the area, I thought I might continue orientation with a tour of the boat. (By the way, this is an excellent time to pause and pour yourself a drink, preferably something made with rum.)
The Irie Joe is truly designed as a live-aboard vessel. It has air conditioning, heat (not that you need it in the Bahamas), hot water, a full-size shower, and a very comfortable kitchen! It also has a freezer, a microwave, and a water-maker. So luxurious! Each hull has a queen-size bed as well as a smaller single berth. My parents stayed on the starboard side with the shower and we stayed on the port side with the kitchen. (For my nautical newbie readers, starboard is on your right when facing the bow or front of the boat and port is to your left). Technically the boat could sleep six people, but we all enjoyed having the forward single berths free for storage.
We had a lot of fun filming this little promotional video for Maine Cat Charters. Brandon and I were filming from the dingy (a small motor boat we carry behind the Irie Joe) while my parents sailed away from an anchorage.
Hope Town is actually a bustling little harbour, despite the fact that the local population is less than 500 people. Ferries and supply boats coming and going all day and boats of all sizes moored out in the harbour. We really enjoyed putzing around in the dingy, looking at all of the different boats. Many of the boats here are permanent residents of the harbour, or at least seasonal residents. The Bahamas are a popular winter destination for Canadian sailors. When the weather starts to turn, they sail their boats down the eastern seaboard to the Bahamas to wait out the winter weather up north.
The Elbow Cay Lighthouse stands at the entrance to the harbour. Built in 1862 and visible from 23 nautical miles away, it is one of the last remaining manually operated lighthouses in the world. Every few hours the lighthouse keeper must climb over 100 steps to the top and hand crank the mechanism that keeps up the sequence of light flashes alerting boaters that land is near, once an integral part of coastal navigation. These days, most boaters rely on GPS and radar but the lighthouse remains as a piece of living history.
Day one in Hope Town was primarily spent unpacking our bags and settling into our space on the boat. However, we had yet to do any grocery shopping so we also spent a fair amount of time hanging around Cap’n Jacks. When rum punch and conch fritters are only a short dingy ride away it’s hard to resist. In fact, we enjoyed our lunch so much that we went back for dinner! And the best part? Monday night was also bingo night and I won the first round with a cash pot of $156!
The next morning was all about provisioning the boat. We needed food, ice, paper towels, trash bags, beer, rum, etc. The only “American-size” grocery stores you will find in the Abacos are in Marsh Harbor, a 20 minute ferry ride away. However, many of the smaller cays have little markets that are surprisingly well-stocked. Between the Harbor View Grocery and Vernon’s store, we were able to find everything we needed for at least the next five days or so. The key to grocery shopping in the islands is to keep your plans flexible. If you show up to the market with a very specific list for specific dishes and ingredients you are bound to be disappointed. If you arrive with a more general idea of what you need, such as “breakfast foods” and “three dinners”, you can just plan meals as you shop based on what happens to be in stock that day. Every market is dependent on the local supply boats and the available goods change daily.
Another tip for the wise: buy the locally made bread. It’s amazing. Most of the markets either make their own bread fresh daily or have it delivered fresh from a local bakery.We bought bread from markets and bakeries all over the islands and it was to die for every time. Our first loaf was a coconut bread from Vernon’s Store in Hope Town, still hot from the oven. Heaven!
We also stopped by Munchies for a tub of conch salad, a local delicacy that is very similar to Mexican ceviche, but made with conch. The locals eat it with a spoon, straight from the container with a little hot sauce. Personally, I preferred it as a dip with tortilla chips.
And, of course, Brandon couldn’t really begin his island adventures without a fresh stash of cuban cigars and a new hat. There go my bingo winnings!
Our plan was to take off that afternoon and sail to Man-O-War, a small village on a different cay. However, the boat had other plans.
Just outside of the harbour we began having problems with the port engine. The Irie Joe had recently been run aground on a reef by a previous charter guest. He had presumably been looking for a good snorkling spot but failed to read his charts correctly and ended up somewhere he never should have been, directly on top of a reef in very shallow water. The damage to the boat is still being evaluated and will all be fixed when the boat is hauled out of the water for repairs. Perhaps there was damage to the port engine that had not yet been discovered? Perhaps it was something else entirely? Either case, we all decided that it was best if we turned around and returned to Hope Town Harbour. Captain Ron Engle, who very capably manages the Maine Cat charter fleet in Hope Town, could stop by and take a look at it.
Funny enough, Brandon and I were not the least bit disappointed when we decided to return to Hope Town. We both felt like the town deserved at least one more day of exploration. With the Irie Joe once again secured to her mooring ball, Brandon and I lowered the dingy, grabbed the camera, and took off for a walking tour of Hope Town.
Hope Town is one of the older villages in the Abacos. It was settled by British Loyalists in the late 1700s following the revolutionary war. Rather than assimilate into the newly independent United States, some of the Loyalists relocated to the British territory of the Bahamas with land grants from the crown. Many of the Loyalists had been plantation owners and brought slaves with them. However, plantation style farming would never be as profitable in the islands as it had been in the states and some slave owners chose to free their slaves and move elsewhere. The Bahamas were also a popular destination for escaped slaves fleeing captivity in Florida. Additionally, the British Navy often used the Bahamas as a place to bring freed slaves they had liberated from slave ships crossing the Atlantic bound for the United States. Although full emancipation in the British colonies would not happen until 1834, the British took a similar approach to the U.S. and outlawed the importation of new slaves through the slave trade in 1807. The result of this complex and ugly history is a population that is around 90% of African descent.
When I arrived in the Bahamas I knew very little about the history and had no idea how old some of these villages were. What I found most striking were the narrow streets and distinct lack of cars. Of course, this makes sense. When Hope Town was settled and the streets layed out, the car had not even been invented! Furthermore, on an island that is only six miles long and about a quarter-mile wide, foot transportation is more than sufficient.
Although cars most definitely exist in the Abacos (and in Hope Town), the prefered method of transportation is clearly the golf cart. They are literally everywhere! Bicycles are also popular and I saw many people employing hand-carts like the one shown below. It all makes for a quaint experience and a place perfect for exploring on foot.
Our primary mission was simply to wander around until we stumbled upon the Atlantic Ocean. On an island that is only a quarter-mile wide, that wouldn’t take long.
While wandering we found what must be the most festive house in all of the Abacos. These guys had actually carted in fresh sand from the beach and spread it over the yard to look like snow! It must have taken them days to decorate this place but it was so worth it!
Another striking feature of Hope Town is the picturesque white picket fences and cheerfully painted buildings. Everything is done is bright pastels with stark white trim. It’s just lovely.
Of course, it didn’t take us long to find the beach (and a friendly cat).
Living in the Pacific Northwest for six years really made me miss the beach. Well, more specifically, it made me miss swimming at the beach. Oregon has some of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever seen. They are rocky, wild, and full of wildlife. The water is also very cold. Although we made frequent trips to the coast while living in Portland, I never once got in the water. Growing up in Texas, I went swimming all the time. At the lake, in the rivers, on the gulf.
I felt like I had waited six years to walk out onto this beach and it was everything.
The next day we were able to take off, again headed for the settlement at Man-O-War. Ron had been by and spent some time diagnosing the port engine issue. We concluded that there was a bad seal on the port sail drive that was causing a slow water leak. Ron showed Brandon how to remedy the problem by draining the water, which would have to do for the time being. The actual repair would need to be done when the boat is hauled out of the water. Luckily we have two engines and the port engine was not completely out of service. In fact, we didn’t have a problem with it for the rest of the trip. Funny enough, boats and RVs have a lot in common. Many of the systems function similarly and in both cases there is always something that needs to be fixed but just has to wait!
But engine problems be damned, we were on our way! All aboard the Irie Joe!
My mom was the helms-person for our first sail. She’s been driving boats her whole life and makes it look effortless.
In the photo below you can see the open bridge deck layout. On many catamarans this level is designed with an enclosed salon (or living room) that often incorporates the galley (or kitchen). To the stern (or back of the boat) you often find an outdoor sitting area. The helmstation and all of the lines are often in a raised cockpit off to one side of the sitting area. We’ve sailed on boats with that design and the interior living spaces are fabulous and spacious. You can also fit far more bedrooms below deck when you move the galley up top. However, that layout also limits the fun of actually sailing the boat to one or two people because that is how many people fit in the cockpit. With an open bridge deck everyone can participate in sailing the boat because the cockpit/hang-out area is essentially the entire top deck. Furthermore, an open bridge deck provides everyone with a 360 degree view. With the more confined raised cockpit stations, only the helms person has a perfect view.
My dad was in the galley doing what he does best! We had so many amazing meals on this trip that it’s hard to remember what we ate when, but I believe he was prepping blackened snapper for lunch. One of the big benefits of a catamaran over a monohull sailboat is the ability to easily cook while underway. Unlike monohulls, catamarans don’t heel (i.e., lean over while under sail). This means that you can put a pot on the stove or chop veggies on the counter and everything stays put!
Brandon played the role of first mate, raising and adjusting the sails. Everyone was happy.
How could we not be happy? Just look at that water.
A number of factors make the water here sparkle with so many spectacular shades. First, the Sea of Abaco is unusually shallow, generally less than 12 feet deep. When water is that shallow and this clear you can see right to the bottom. Second, much of the sea floor is pure white sand. The sand reflects through the shallow water to create the stunning shades of turquoise the Abacos are known for. The darker contrasting colors you see are ocean grasses, often full of tasty conch!
Stay tuned for more views like this and more adventures aboard the Irie Joe.