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A few lessons learned the hard way

An experiment gone awry is part of the ongoing schooling provided courtesy of Bahamian waters

A few lessons learned the hard way

An experiment gone awry is part of the ongoing schooling provided courtesy of Bahamian waters

Six months after leaving the states, Rio was finally giving us the kind of rollicking ride to tickle the recesses of primal memory.

To be able to wrestle a halter across the nape of the ancient wind god and force him to push us o’er a wine-dark sea — this is why all sailors from Hannu on down have considered themselves part of an elite. I remember overhearing a marina owner in the Dominican Republic trying to explain to some natty young Don why anyone should respect the scruffy, aging, raggedly dressed and often impecunious sailors that frequented the marina bar. Speaking Spanish, the marina owner said, “You don’t understand, cousin, these people are like warriors; they are a people apart.”

Apart was how we felt all right: Under sail from the start, we had roared out of Abraham Bay on Mayaguana Island past a bare handful of foreign vessels sheltered in that isolated Bahamian outpost. We were riding the trade winds westward toward the Abacos, to the prospect of some steady work there.

Luperon in the Dominican Republic was three days behind us, the terminus of our drive eastward. The 700 nautical miles from Miami to the Dominican Republic was mostly to windward, so the return trip should have been a sailor’s dream. But the month was May, a time of year during which trade winds sometimes stall. Call it trawler weather: Calm seas, light and variable winds. With a deadline for the Abacos, our timing stunk. For 36 hours we motored, reaching Mayaguana as the setting sun shone orange behind a row of fluffy clouds above the horizon.

Trial and …

But now, finally, Rio enjoyed the 20-plus knots of wind on the quarter that she needs and a lovely following sea. The inflatable was lashed to the foredeck; our hard dinghy, towed behind. The latter was a bit of an experiment, a symptom of an old rower’s reluctance to wholeheartedly embrace “rubber rafts.” I wanted the advantages of both types of tenders.

In Luperon, the able South African canvass makers on Pennywhistle had fashioned a tarp for the hard boat with a strap that cinched the cover just beneath the rubrail. I had designed it so that the strap doubled as a bridle for the towrope. The idea was to use the strain of the tow to create a watertight seal so the dinghy wouldn’t swamp on an offshore passage. Clever huh?

Nope. I poked my head out the cockpit and saw the dinghy beginning to plow; water had gradually worked its way into a boat with no drain. A few seconds later the dinghy was a greenish white shape 10 feet below the surface, still under tow like a giant fishing lure. A sailboat with a bone in her teeth isn’t something you can just stop, nor would you want to in seas, but that is precisely what needed to happen — and fast.

My first mate, Kelly, I later learned, was actually afraid the dinghy would pull Rio under — an impossibility. My having a heart attack was the real danger so I moved slowly and deliberately. I socked in the sails, bringing Rio on the wind, then I brought her about, leaving the genoa on the windward side. With the rudder hard over, Rio hove to. By some miracle, the dinghy had not broken loose, and her new cover was still cinched on tight. With Rio barely making headway I pulled the dinghy up close and slowly hauled her over the stern rail and onto the aft cabin top using a mizzenmast halyard. I lashed it down and got the boat back on course. I was winded, covered with sweat and ready to puke.

Thinking back over all the old couples we’d met in sailboats, Kelly asked me how they could possibly manage something like what I had just done. “Easy,” I said. “They didn’t get old by being stupid enough to try towing a dinghy over the open ocean.” Which was my way of saying: experiment over.

It wasn’t our first miscalculation. If you’ve followed our journey from the beginning, you might recall that we began with ambition of cruising inside the reef that parallels the eastern coast of Andros, the biggest of the Bahamian Islands. We began with the perfect crew, a hybrid deck-ape/culinary genius in the person of Chef Charles.

The Andros plan was derailed by the relentless storms of January. By the time we had spent four days hunkered down at Frazier’s Hog Cay, then seven more sheltered in the small commercial harbor at Morgan’s Bluff, the northern terminus of the great Andros reef — by that time, Chef Charles had to get back to business in Boston. With the prospect of six more weeks of blustery winter, I decided the reef route would be imprudent for Kelly and I to attempt without help.

That’s when I decided to take the conventional route to the Dominican Republic. We headed to Nassau to get a sail mended, then down the Exuma chain, spent a month in George Town while I did some writing, continued on to Rum Cay, then Mayaguana (the first time), the Turks and Caicos and finally Luperon, where this story picks up.

Wisdom accrued

After the dinghy incident on the way back, we got back on course to Clarence Town on Long Island. In darkness and squalls we paralleled the northern coasts of Acklins and Crooked Islands. Rio had to be slowed or we’d have reached Clarence Town in darkness. I dropped the mizzen and rolled in the genoa until it was barely a working jib. We slowed from 7-1/2 knots to less than 5. We poked our bow into a slip at the Flying Fish Marina shortly after 8:30 a.m.

By the time we had reached Clarence Town, I had reached a few general conclusions. Trying to tow a small skiff was not worth the possible consequences — that was one. The other was about Bahamas cruisers and the weather. (Amigos, if you have dreams of Bahamian adventure, make a mental note here.) Without a shadow of doubt, the best time to be on a boat in the Bahamas is April through July. August through November would be just as good were it not for the nagging possibility of hurricanes and attendant insurance issues.

Despite that, Bahamas waters are most crowded during the worst months to be here. During January, February and March, vexatious “northers” roll through the archipelago like Rommel, forcing everyone into crowded anchorages for days as winds of up to 35 knots clock around the compass rose. By April the weather is settled, as good as it gets down here. But by then most cruisers are going or gone. Why don’t they come in April and leave in June, the best three months? I guess it should be obvious: They don’t come when the weather is best in the Bahamas; they come when the weather is worst back home.

Poll a Bahamian anchorage and you’ll find the place dominated by Canadians and Americans from the Midwest. For them, springtime back home is actually pretty nice, so they go and never see these islands at their weather-best. When the ranks of these northerners thin, then you notice many of the boats left behind are from Florida, where the worst weather is summertime. Though farther south, the trade winds tend to keep them cooler than they would be back on their sweltering peninsula.

As we headed through the Bahamian Out Islands en route to the Abacos, we had anchorages to ourselves. Marinas were half empty. Meet me here next month and I’ll share with you some of the places we saw and the changes we expect to see in these islands.

’Til next time.

Peter Swanson, 51, is sailing southern waters aboard his ketch-rigged Morgan Out Island 41. Besides his journalism credentials, he holds a 50-ton Coast Guard master’s license. His ambition to cruise the coast of Cuba is so premature that he founded a Web site dedicated to this virtually non-existent pastime: www.cubacruising.net .