Bonnie James and Jim Miller sailed their Newfoundland-registered Victoire yacht ‘Vagrant Sea’ from the Queen City Yacht Club in Toronto via the ICW to the Bahamas and now Jim covers the return journey
The return trip – The Bahamas to Canada – ICW North part 1
Vagrant Sea is our 34-foot fiberglass sailing sloop built in Holland in 1988. The name came from the method of delivery. Her previous owners abandoned her when she was dismasted in mid-Atlantic in 1991. A Newfoundland fishing skipper from LaScie, Keith Bath, found Sea Blue II, as she was then known, adrift off the Burin Peninsula. My wife, Bonnie James, and I purchased her from the Dutch insurance company and completed the refit for the ’92 season. We sailed her out of the Terra Nova Sailing Club in Holyrood, Conception Bay. A few years later, with the help of several friends, I sailed Vagrant Sea up the St. Lawrence River to Lake Ontario.
We lived in Toronto from 1995-97, sailing out of the Queen City Yacht Club, then took a year off to cruise south via the U.S. East Coast to the Bahamas. We returned to Newfoundland and the working world in the summer of 1998, but left Vagrant Sea in South Carolina. Since then, we have spent two to three months each winter sailing mostly in Bahamian waters. In the winter of 2002 we began a long, slow voyage to bring the boat back to Newfoundland.
I departed the snows of Newfoundland in late January and flew to Treasure Cay, Abaco, Bahamas. The Bahamas are made up of several hundred islands called cays and stretch eastward from the coast of Florida south to the Turk and Caicos Islands. Abaco is several hundred miles north east of Nassau, the capital city. We have kept the boat on Green Turtle Cay, in this remote, sparsely populated region for the past several years. The area has one interesting connection with home: the MV Duke of Topsail now brings supplies from Florida and is based in nearby Marsh Harbour. This is quite a change from its many years spent sailing to Labrador as a coastal boat
Once on land and through customs in Treasure Cay, it is off to the ferry connection to Green Turtle. I miss the regular ferry run, but there is a school ferry about to depart and I am allowed on board to join high school students on their daily commute home from the main island. One lift of my bags and the ferry driver knows I am going to a boat at the Abaco Boat Yard. It has something to do with those heavy boat parts we cruisers keep bringing on board.
Vagrant Sea has been out of the water for nine months. A quick inspection shows she has suffered no ill effects. I have one main project, to change the oil seals on the sail drive leg. I have brought the parts from home and the job is completed in several hours. When this has been completed, the yard workers bring over the travel lift and launch the boat. The hardest part is done, so I can reward myself with a meal of conch fritters and a drink of local rum.
Peter Cook from Recontre, Newfoundland, flies in to help sail Vagrant Sea to Florida. Our next few days involve shopping for food, cleaning, and sorting out sailing gear. We have to put the main and jib on the furling sail systems, run the various lines, and rig the safety equipment.
We take breaks by going into New Plymouth, the neighbouring town of 300 residents. I meet many of the shopkeepers and locals that I have become friends with over the past few years and catch up on all the latest news. United Empire Loyalists settled this area in the late 1700’s from the coast of the U.S. The housing style is very reminiscent of our salt box designs, built from local wood to withstand hurricanes. This area took a direct hit from Hurricane Floyd several years ago. The only houses that suffered serious damage were ones built by foreigners who used power nailers, plywood construction and no shutters on the windows. It was found that with no shutters, the wind destroyed the windows, and as most of the nails went straight in, they also came straight back out. When you hand nail, the nails go in at various angles and do not pull out as easily.
Green Turtle Cay has two well-protected anchorages, Black Sound and White Sound. Both have narrow dredged channels and we need the help of the tide to get our 6’6″ draft through the cuts. Our happy hour entertainment consists of waiting for the Moorings Charter fleet based in Marsh Harbour to arrive. There doesn’t seem to be a high level of experience required to rent the boats. As the channels are not well marked, vessels often go aground. The cruisers inside in the anchorage take turns going out in their dinghies to guide the charter boats into safe water. With the sandy bottom, the only damage is to the ego of the grounded skipper. Navigation aids tend to be few; you learn quickly to read the colour of the water for the proper depth.
Our first day’s sail when we leave Green Turtle Cay is north to Allen’s Pensacola Cay, 25 miles distance. We are recovering form the affects of our departure potluck, but manage to catch the morning tide. It is a beautiful reach, just using the jib we do our hull speed of six knots all the way. We are the only boat going north and it is a good shakedown cruise for the first day. Numerous dolphin and a large turtle that is about five feet across visit us. Allen’s Pensacola Cay is an abandoned U.S. Navy radar site. It is several miles long and a half-mile across. The anchorage is on the northern end and it will give us good protection for the night.
One other cruising sailboat with a homeport of Texas is at anchor. They invite us to a bonfire on the beach at dusk. Into the evening, their dog starts barking. It turns out their dog is smarter than its owners are. The Texans had not put the dinghy anchor out as you must do on a sandy beach. When the tide came up, their dinghy drifted off, causing the dog to bark. We find the dinghy up the shore a few hundred feet. Losing a dinghy would be a serious problem as it is your taxi. Most cruisers anchor off, as dockage is expensive and not always available. Without the dinghy you would have no way of getting ashore.
Our next day’s run takes us northwest to Great Sale Cay. The early morning departure gets us into the anchorage at dusk. It’s just another day sailing in paradise, following winds and fair seas. This area is known as the Great Bahamian Bank; our water depth averages 10 or 12 feet with a few shoal areas to avoid. Navigation is by GPS (Global Position System) waypoints established on previous trips. It is comical to watch newcomers. The new chart books for the area have the way points listed. These are accepted as gospel, you see boats sailing directly to that waypoint, then executing a sharp turn to the next point. Of course if you have every boat using the same point, you can see the potential for problems, especially in poor weather or at night.
Great Sale is our jumping-off point to Florida. The anchorage here is a half moon shaped bay with no community. There are several other sailboats anchored for the night. They are headed east, the beginning of their Bahamian experience. We haul anchor from seven feet of water at the crack of dawn and head for Port Canaveral. Calm weather gives us a motor sail across the banks. The light wind barely fills our sails and we see many local fishing boats diving for conch and lobster. Their Caribbean lobster is more like a cray fish with no claws and is not as sweet as our species. Peter is on the helm and we experience a power fade on the engine, time for a fuel filter change. We decide it is much better to shut the engine down and do the filter change on the banks while it is calm. We still do three knots under sail. Once we change the filters we cannot prime the engine on the lift pump. Fortunately there is a spare, so the pump is replaced, the engine purrs sweetly, we are off again. As we approach the edge of the banks, the forecasted wind shift brings a light northeast breeze. We tighten the sheets on a starboard tack and plough onward to Florida. The sounder goes from 15 feet to a blank screen. The ocean is about four thousand feet just off the edge of the banks!
The Gulf Stream flows between Florida and the Bahamas. It acts as a river that is about twenty miles wide and flows up to six knots in a northerly direction. The distance to the Florida coast is only about fifty miles from the edge of the Grand Bahamas Banks. Our course will take us about a hundred miles north to Port Canaveral. We will pick up a good kick from the stream and Canaveral is a good entry point. Large cruise ships use this port.
We motor sail all night through a few rainsqualls. Warm rain, not like Newfoundland weather in February! The moon is only a few days off full and provides good light to see around us. Several large, well-lit cruise ships pass and there is some coastal and fishing vessel traffic. Overall it is a peaceful crossing. We would normally have a four-hour watch system. Since this trip will only be one night, it breaks down into what is comfortable for both of us. Before going on watch, you make coffee and have a snack. You also fill your pockets with treats to fill in the time. We do hourly position checks and log them. Night sailing in these conditions is beautiful, the moon backlights the clouds and the water glows with phosphorescence. You glimpse passing dolphins and see flying fish illuminated by the running lights.
I awaken Peter in time for my early morning Ham Radio contacts. I keep two radio schedules I keep at sea. The Turkey Net that fellow cruisers introduced me to is based in the Carolinas. The Mississauga Net is based near Toronto. This net allows vessels at sea to communicate with others, and is mainly used by cruising Canadians. It is invaluable for me as I can get updated weather information, find others who are cruising the same area and know that someone is tracking me on a daily basis. A fellow Newfoundland Ham, Laurie Cashin, has agreed to come on several times a week and provide news from home and keep our families informed of our location.
My radio responsibilities are taken care of, Peter is complaining of the lack of breakfast. Hot coffee and the last of our good Bahamian homemade raisin bread toasted and spread with canned New Zealand butter placate him. Now we have to begin preparations for entry into the United States. The concrete hills of South Florida come into view. We track up past miles of apartment and condo buildings on shore. Port Canaveral comes into view, with the Cape Kennedy Space Center very prominent. The last time we entered here, three nuclear submarines and two supporting ships accompanied us. There was a flurry of radio traffic asking for our course. In my mind, anything that big has priority over a small fiberglass sailboat, no matter what the rules of the road are.
Entrance to the port this trip was uneventful. February is still winter and the traffic is sparse. We motored up the harbour to the yacht club. We are given space for customs clearance and even driven to the customs office. Our cruising permit costs us $19 U.S.. I pass over a $20 bill, but it has to be exact change. I scrape up the money, having to borrow the last nickel from the club member that brought me over. Immigration procedures follow, then back to the yacht club for their weekly BBQ cook out. This was a very hospitable affair with crews from several other foreign cruising boats in attendance.
Fair winds and snug harbours,
Jim Miller – Vagrant Sea
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