From cay to shining cay: Sailing the Bahamas’ Abaco islands

5 years ago
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Elbow Reef Lighthouse rises over Hope Town on Elbow Cay.

Elbow Reef Lighthouse rises over Hope Town on Elbow Cay.

“Make sure you hold onto something,” I say with mock seriousness to Elena as she takes her seat at the bow. “If we run aground, we could fly into the water.” She’s not a sailor – and frankly, I’m not much of one either – but she knows I’m kidding. We’ve both volunteered for lookout duty on our just-rented catamaran. We’re supposed to point out any hazards to the skipper.

As we exit Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas, I blithely take in the colourful scenery – until I catch an extremely clear (and perilously close) glimpse of the harbour floor. I advise Elena to follow me farther back on the boat and to grab a handrail, this time not joking at all.

We skirt over the shallows by about half a metre (the captain, my father, was anxiously watching the depth gauge) and enter the reassuringly wide open Sea of Abaco. But even in the middle of this “sea,” about a mile from the nearest shore, the depth reading stubbornly hovers around 4m. Under a high sun, the water glows a gorgeous aquamarine. To sailors, that blue-green means shallow water, and shallow water means danger.

The author's dad, Jim Elder, sits in a dinghy at No Name Cay.
The author’s dad, Jim Elder, sits in a dinghy at No Name Cay.

Our knowledge of the Bahamian Abaco Islands was as shallow as their waters when my father; his girlfriend, Elena; my brother Mark; and I chose them as the destination for a week-long sailing trip. On a map (but not a nautical chart), the Abacos look like the sailing equivalent of a bunny slope. The main island, Great Abaco, and its neighbouring arc of cays are separated by only a few miles, short hops compared with the long inter-island crossings we’d made during our previous three bareboat (that is, without a hired captain or crew) charters in the Caribbean.

Dean's Blue Hole in the Bahamas was on the author's bucket list for the Bahamas.

Dean’s Blue Hole in the Bahamas was on the author’s bucket list for the Bahamas.

The only time I’d visited the Bahamas before was a quick getaway to touristy Nassau, so I was eager to explore the natural beauty and culture of some far-flung Bahamian “out islands.” I also figured the quick and easy pinballing between harbours would leave me plenty of time to check two Bahamian attractions off my bucket list: swimming in a submerged sinkhole called a “blue hole” and eating conch I dove for myself.

However, during our pre-sail briefing, when the charter company staffer started talking about the tide – a non-issue in lower latitudes – and something called a “rage sea,” we realised we were in for some actual sailing. Instead of carefree pinball bounces, our first two entrances into harbours were more like precise and well-timed billiard shots. On the first day, we had to hustle to Man-O-War Cay’s narrow, side-pocket inlet because the tide and sun were going down. Even after we secured the boat to a mooring ball, Dad looked as if his nerves had been cranked by a sailing winch.

The tension began to ease at our next stop, Hope Town on Elbow Cay. We docked our boat in the reassuring shadow of the islet’s red-and-white lighthouse, then promptly dinghied toward the nearest beach. Viewed from the sandy Atlantic shore, the turquoise water no longer caused worry, but beckoned. We dove between miniature canyons of coral, watched a rainbow of parrot fish chomp away at the reef and happily cavorted in the light surf.

The author found these conchs while snorkeling in the shallow water near Elbow Cay. They later grilled and ate the ...
Conchs litter Elbow Cay, but unfortunately for my goal of personally harvesting some, the ones I saw were on land, decorating the fringes of people’s yards in charming, tidy rows. Our walk past Hope Town’s cheery pastel homes led us to Cap’n Jack’s, a harbourside bar/restaurant with a dock/patio out back. When I overheard a server’s strong New England accent, I asked him about his experiences as an expat in the Abacos.

“I’m actually from Nassau,” he politely explained. “But people always guess Boston or New Hampshire.” I later learned that many northern Loyalists and freed blacks fled to the Bahamas after the Revolutionary War, settling in Nassau and, in particular, the Abacos. (When the Bahamas also moved toward independence in the 1970s, a majority of Abaconians petitioned the British government to retain the area, without success.)

The settlers hoped to start farms on the Abacos, but that didn’t pan out because of the thin, sandy soil.

The author's brother, Mark, and his dad's girlfriend, Elena, at Elbow Reef Lighthouse.

The author’s brother, Mark, and his dad’s girlfriend, Elena, at Elbow Reef Lighthouse.

In the 19th century, a curious local industry emerged that took advantage of an abundant natural resource: dangers to boats. “Wrecking,” or the salvage of ships that crashed onto the Abacos’ 100-mile-long barrier reef, flourished until about 1870. That was a few years after the candy-cane lighthouse near our boat was built under orders from London. According to Abaco: The History of an Out Island and Its Cays, by Steve Dodge, locals sabotaged its construction, rightly worried that it would scuttle the business.

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