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The Abacos – A Calm and Shallow Sea

We’re fifteen minutes out of Marsh Harbour in the northern Bahamas’ Sea of Abaco, our chartered Sunsail monohull as happy as a Sunday morning. That’s when my heart skips beat.

The waters are the colors that you dream about – aquamarine and neon lime. But these are colors you want to admire from your beach chair, not your cockpit. Sure signs of danger.

I stare at the glittering surface – wind-ruffled in eight knots. I check our depth: ten-feet beneath the keel.  Nearest landfall is three miles off – Great Guana Cay undulating about the horizon like a Renaissance courtesan.

This can’t be good.

But there’s another boat just off our port beam, in no apparent distress. In fact, they’re doing an early morning cocktail – and they’re anchored here in the middle of the Abaco Sea, someone diving off the stern while I watch with growing understanding.

We’re sailing the shallow sea. A calm and shallow sea.

Though no one is quite sure how the Bahamas got their name – some say it means ‘Big Island’ in native Lucayan – I’d just read that it came from the Spanish Bahia Mar –  Shallow Sea.

Hopetown with its candy-cane lighthouse
Waypoints are central to Abacos’ appeal as a cruising ground. Crown jewel among them is Hopetown with its candy-cane lighthouse Photo: Sharon Matthews-Stevens/www.sherryspix.com

Maximum depths around twenty feet, average ten to fifteen. They’ve got the shallow part right. But from a geographic standpoint it’s more a sound than a sea.

Now back to the shallow part.

Late in the afternoon of our first day we make port at Great Guana Cay and look for an empty mooring ball. I think I spot one but it’s not a ball, it’s a Javex bottle – a navigational aid meaning insufficient depth, though you won’t find this one in Chart One.  I realize my error too late.

The boat shudders. Stops.

One night we anchor at Man ‘o’ War Cay – just off a little stand of mangroves, south of a village where they still build boats, where spindly docks jut into the water.  We watch a boat – shipping a full keel – zoom through the narrow passage.

An hour later a towboat kedges them off.

Then there’s Hopetown’s entrance—a gauntlet of lateral buoys. Err one way and you bond with Parrot Cays, miscue to starboard and you’re making friends with Eagle Rock.

The Abacos are more popular with the couples who’ve sold everything and said good-bye to land, than weeklong charterers. The cruising grounds are unique and strangely compelling.

The Sea of Abaco is comprised of two actual islands, eighty-two cays and more than two hundred ‘rocks’. It lies almost due east of Florida’s West Palm Beach, a mere hour-and-a-half flight from Fort Lauderdale. Cruisers most frequently cross the stream and make their way southwest from Walkers Cay, the most northerly of the Bahamas archipelago.

We don’t have that luxury, so we charter. Moorings and Sunsail both maintain fleets on the same docks in Marsh Harbour. Options include the usual choice of crewed and bareboat, monohulls and catamarans.

Sometime, on our second or third day, it strikes me, in calm waters and a reasonable breeze, that it’s basically a really flat version of Drake Passage in the British Virgin Islands.

The area is blessed by ideal conditions and waypoints right out of some expensive travel magazine.

Waypoints like Great Guana Cay, where a bunch of kids in a flock of Optis are zipping around the harbour. Ashore follow a path to a rainbow-painted tractor in the shade of casuarinas trees to a rainbowesque beachside bar called ‘Nippers’, overlooking flesh-coloured sand, home to a Sunday afternoon pig roast.

Hope Town, with its candy cane lighthouse and snug harbour fronted by homes and shops that look like they were transplanted from New England—except the buildings are more kaleidoscopic than the beach bar on Great Guana. Hope Town, home to Cap’n Jack’s with its white clapboard exterior and bubblegum-coloured trim; home to megayachts, charter boats and barely seaworthy handyman’s specials.

And then there’s the anchorage in a secret little bay in the lee of Treasure Cay where you can dinghy ashore to a beach that National Geographic rated one of the world’s top ten.

Or drop the anchor for an impromptu swim – right in the middle of the Abaco Sea – like our erstwhile neighbours.

Or sail a shallow sea as calm as a Sunday afternoon.

Mark Stevens is an award-winning travel writer whose specialties include Canada, the Caribbean and boating. Credits range from Sailing magazine and Canadian Yachting to the Washington Post.

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