Sailing the Abacos: A wonderful week in paradise

We love to sail and have taken bareboat cruising trips to the BVI’s (part 1 and part 2) and The Florida Keys. It all began with a great learn to sail course with Offshore Sailing School in Saint Petersburg, Florida (blog link). Our most recent adventure was to the Abacos in the Bahamas. We chartered through Navigare using Cathy who we met at the Annapolis Sailboat Show. in October 2021. She spends many weeks chartering in the Abacos and was extremely helpful in giving us personal knowledge about the area and locals we could rely on for transportation, provisioning etc.

The Abacos are a subset of islands and cays within the northern Bahamas. The two main islands are Great Abaco and Little Abaco. There are a large number of smaller inhabited and uninhabited islands and cays throughout the chain. Marsh Harbour, on the Great Island, is the commercial center of the Abacos and home to the main airport. Treasure Cay also has an airport. The islands are surrounded but the world’s third largest barrier reef. Most of the waters are fairly shallow and you must keep a close eye on depths when sailing. In 2019, Hurricane Dorian made landfall on Elbow Cay in the Abacos with 185 mph winds. Many people died and almost everything within the Abacos was destroyed. Even now, in 2022, we could still see the devastation from the hurricane but the one thing we learned was how resilient the residents are and how they are coming back better than ever. Most importantly, they can’t wait for all of us to return!

Day 1- Travel Chaos

No Wanderingkellers trip would be complete without a little unplanned adventure and this trip did not disappoint. We were set to fly American Airlines through Charlotte, NC to Marsh Harbour where we would stay, as usual, on the boat for the first night. This first night aboard allows you to spend the night in the marina getting all the systems figured out and finding any quirks or issues with the boat that need handled before we could depart. Unfortunately, American cancelled our flight to Charlotte at 8 pm the night before. It was literally all hands on deck as everyone in the family chipped in looking for flights, calling American and Delta, and finding a car to rent in case driving to Charlotte was the only way to make it. After a few hours and getting halfway to the rental car place with the plan to drive to Charlotte, we found a flight to Nassau and we booked an island hopper on Western Airlines to Marsh Harbour. Unfortunately, due to delays and customs, we missed the 3 p.m. last flight out of Nassau and had to grab one at 7:30 a.m. the next day.

We always try to look on the bright side and see this type of inconvenience as an opportunity for adventure. We booked a room while we waited to leave Philadelphia airport at the Margaritaville Hotel (post about the hotel to follow) in Nassau and made the most of it. As we were traveling with another family who did make it to the boat as originally planned, they were kind enough to get the boat settled, provisioned, and let the staff know we would be there by 9 the next morning, so we could be briefed on the boat and head out to the high seas for the real adventure. At the end of the day we didn’t miss out on much, and we were able to get some money refunded by American. At the airport we met Otis from Diamond Limo Service and he offered to give us a discounted round trip transfer from and back to the airport.

Day 2 – Arrival in Marsh Harbour (finally!) and Boarding the Boat

We woke up early and Otis was waiting as promised at 5:30 a.m. sharp for us to head to the airport. We arrived before 6 and checked our bags, having to pay $16.20 extra as we were a bit overweight altogether for our baggage (it was a tiny plane where every pound made a difference!).  The Nassau airport is nice and air-conditioned and has a a few stores as well as a Dunkin Donuts. We were amazed at the number of people who took a dozen donuts for the flight as I imagine donuts are hard to get on some of the outer islands. The plane was older but well maintained and the flight was smooth from start to finish.

We arrived, grabbed our bags, and headed out to meet Kathran (a local taxi driver recommended to us by Cathy at Navigare. Kathran’s business card is below) who was waiting to take us to the boat. The Navigare folks were efficient and very thorough getting us aboard, briefed, and ready to go in less than 3 hours. The boat (a 46 foot 2022 Lagoon catamaran) was almost brand new, but as with all boats they have their quirks which we will review at the end.

We shoved off and headed from the Navigare base in Marsh Harbour to scout out some snorkeling at Fowl Cay. It is an easy sail or motor over to Fowl Cay from Marsh Harbor with plenty of depth the whole way. Though you can motor out into the ocean and moor or anchor closer to the reef, our charter company recommended for all reefs that we planned to visit that we anchor on the Sea of Abaco inside passage and motor on the dinghy out to the reefs. As opposed to the BVIs where many of the reefs were protected, most of the reefs in the Abacos are a half mile or sometimes more off the ocean side of the Cays. The dinghy rides can be bumpy but it’s well worth protecting the reef and knowing your boat will be there when you return due to better and more consistent holding in the Sea of Abaco.

Unfortunately, on this day the weather did not cooperate and we ended up having lunch on the boat in the rain instead of snorkeling. Watching the storm come through from the boat was an awesome experience in itself. The snorkeling at Fowl Cay Preserve is great and we were determined to make a stop on the way back down to Marsh Harbour later in the trip. We made the best of it and Captain Keller braved a little rain to motor us out of the storm into blue skies and sunshine by Great Guana Cay.

We arrived at Great Guana Cay around 3 p.m. and anchored in Bakers Bay. We headed on shore and took the dinghy up to Grabbers (a beachside tiki bar) where we caught a golf cart from a local out to Nippers. These “golf cart rides” are typically done by locals for tips and it was a fun adventure. Nippers is a great beach bar that lies along the ocean and is a great place to grab a cocktail, listen to some music, and a take a swim. The kids had a ball snorkeling and swimming in the waves by the ocean and taking a dip in the pools. The adults enjoyed a swim and a few beverages before “ubering” back to the dinghy that was right where we left it thanks to a nice little boy who promised to take care of it while we were inside. We gave him a nice tip and it was back to the boat for some dinner, family games, and a good night’s sleep after a long day of travel.

Day 3 – No Name Cay and the Whale Cay Passage

We awoke to a beautiful sunrise, had some breakfast, and pulled anchor to head out to No Name Cay. This is one of the trickier sailing parts of the trip as you must travel through Whale Cay Passage. One must check the weather and wind as passing through the two bars (especially the one between Whale Cay and Channel Rock below No Name Cay) can be treacherous with raging swells and strong winds. The charter company advised that 15 knot winds were ok but anything over 2.0 knots, especially with easterly or southeasterly winds, should be avoided.

We were in luck as the winds were around 12 knots and the swells were not too significant so we were able to make a safe trip through the passage without issue. I personally recommend not relying on autopilot for the passage between the tight northern bar between Channel Rock and Whale Cay as the autopilot is a bit slow to respond and a big wind gust or swell could spell disaster. If you aren’t confident in your abilities, either wait for better weather or stay in the Southern Abacos where there is still plenty to do.

We arrived at No Name Cay where we anchored in about 10 feet of water for the first big adventure of the day, Big O’s.  Big O’s is known for the wild swimming pigs and some great Bahamian food and island beverages. Bring something for the pigs to eat but be careful to not hand feed them as sometimes the larger ones can be a little aggressive. They are fairly docile but still wild animals.

After feeding the pigs, tossing the football, and playing a little volleyball, we headed up to the restaurant for some food and drink. It was hot that day so everyone started with a water and then moved on to other beverages to keep hydrated (you can never be too hydrated on a boat, so drink plenty of water). We had conch bites, conch fritters, quesadilla, fresh fish, and nachos which were all delicious. After one last visit with the pigs we headed across the water on the dinghy to Gilliam Point at the southernmost point of Green Turtle Cay for some shelling. This beach is directly across from No Name Cay and is one of the best sand dollar collecting areas in the Caribbean. The beach is pristine, the water beautiful and temperate. We walked the beach with sand squishing between our toes, found a few huge sand dollars and had a nice swim before heading back to the boat to head off to nearby Manjack (also known as Nunjack Cay) Cay for our anchorage.

We anchored about 300 feet off Rat Cay in 10 feet of water and boarded the dinghy for a ride along Nunjack Harbor (behind Rat Cay and between Manjack and Crab Cays) where we saw sea turtles, conch, and a 3-foot shark. The water is shallow and best explored in the 3 hours before to 3 hours after high tide to avoid shallows as MLLW can be 1.5 feet in several areas. As we were at mid-tide we made a loop going through the harbor first then out into the ocean (where we encountered swells and got really wet) before heading back between Fiddle Cay and Crab Cay to explore some more beaches. There we stopped on a beach along Crab Cay and found many sea creatures including the largest hermit crab we have ever seen. After some exploration and when the bigs began to get bad we headed back to the boat around the western end of Crab Cay for some dinner aboard.

Day 4- Stingrays, sharks, reefs and Green Turtle Cay

As we arrived in Manjack too late on day 3 to snorkel at the reefs off the upper end of Manjack Cay, we hauled anchor early and headed to the bay in the northern end of Manjack Cay to anchor and explore. There are two main things to do here: (1) see the plentiful stingrays and occasional friendly sharks along the shallows of the beach, and (2) snorkel at the fabulous reefs off the north east end of the Cay.  Not ones to be deterred, we did both. The ride out to the reefs on the dinghy is fairly bumpy and about 20 minutes. It took some exploring but just look for white caps breaking in the distance and aim for those as it represents the reef. We took the trip in groups of 4 as the waves were too high to allow 8 people to comfortably and safely traverse the waters. I will say these were among the most beautiful coral reefs I have come across as the trip out and lack of mooring balls likely deters all but the most dedicated individuals from exploring them, though this is just a hunch. The reefs were heavily populated with fish, sea fans and healthy coral. After heading back to the boat we all headed ashore to see the stingrays.

Many places are billed as having wildlife, but this place delivered! There were 15 stingrays that were friendly and wanted a free handout. Take some left-over fish or bait with you to feed them. The best way to do so is to lay your hand flat palm down with the fish sticking out between your fingers. They will swim overtop and literally suck the fish out between your fingers and swim away. They are very friendly, just don’t step on them and you will have a great experience. We tell folks to do the stingray shuffle where you shuffle through the water without picking up your feet.

There were also a few 5-foot sharks who swam around in slightly deeper water looking for cast offs from the stingrays. We enjoyed watching them swim around but did not try to feed them as sharks are notoriously less friendly.

After getting our fill of wildlife for the day we headed out to Green Turtle Cay. The wind was blowing 20-25 knots and was favorable for a sail so we quickly hoisted sails and headed out. The sailing was great and the boat handled the wind with full sails without any complaint. As we approached Green Turtle Cay the sun appeared, and the wind slowed making for an easier entrance to what is a relatively narrow channel. We entered and grabbed a mooring ball in White Sound from Phil Roberts (his phone number is on the balls) as the Green Turtle Cay balls won’t handle a boat larger than 45 feet. The cost was 20 dollars a night.

As we needed some groceries, we dropped off the kiddos at the Green Turtle Club to play some games and a few grown-ups hightailed it over on the dinghy to Black Sound for the grocery store. We pulled into Donny’s Marina as we didn’t know quite where the store was. Donny himself was nice enough to ride us over to the store in his side by side and wait while we shopped. He is third generation on the island, and you won’t meet a nicer guy. He regaled us with stories of life on the island and the devastation from Hurricane Dorian. Next time we are in Green Turtle Cay we will surely anchor in Black Sound at one of its mooring balls or dock in the marina for the night. We found everything we needed at Turtley’s Convenient and we were then on our way back with groceries and ice. We thanked Donny and took the trip back to the boat to unload and meet back up with the rest of the group.

Our dinner reservation was late so we decided to grab an appetizer at the Bluff House before dinner at the Green Turtle Club. The view from the Bluff House was stunning as the sun went down and the food and service at the Green Turtle Club was great as well. Upon arriving back at the boat we hit the hay almost immediately as we were wiped after such a full day.

Day 5- Whale Cay Passage Return Trip

We awoke to a beautiful morning and came off the mooring ball to start the long journey back down south. The winds were 15 knots or so and I have to say that’s about the limit for a catamaran to comfortably pass between the rocks on the upper bar. We rode into 3-4 foot swells most of the way until we turned south into a following sea. Keep up your speed to maintain steerage and if the weather doesn’t seem right don’t attempt the passage.

We stopped at Treasure Cay to realize that it was still being rebuilt from the hurricane and was completely unrecognizable with no clubhouse, no docks and crumbling marina walls everywhere. It really was eye-opening to see the devastation firsthand. We anchored in the middle of the harbor, had some lunch and rode around on the SUPs before heading back out to Fowl Cay to make good on the snorkeling there. The trip to Fowl Cay was slow as we tried to sail but the wind direction wasn’t cooperating, so after some beating upwind we relented and dropped the sails in favor of the iron spinnaker (motor power) to anchor on the north side of Fowl Cay. Our charter company recommended we stick to the Sea of Abaco and only dinghy to the snorkeling grounds and that’s what we did. This area has mooring balls to tie your dinghy up to which is nice and very reef friendly. The reefs are about .75 miles off the coast but well worth the trip as there were many fish both big and small and beautiful coral and sea plants to enjoy.

We anchored in Man O’War Cay off North Scopley’s Rock right by a beautiful beach and made some steaks and pasta for dinner. Afterward the kids tried to fish but alas we didn’t catch anything. The water was calm and the winds light making for a gorgeous night.

Day 6- Hopetown and White Sound Elbow Cay

As there is plenty of deep water off Man O’War Cay and we had friends on board we took some time to do some slow but educational sailing lessons. The wind cooperated just enough to let some of the younger crew take the wheel, trim some sail, perform a tack or two and get us just a little closer to our first destination of Hopetown on Elbow Cay. Hopetown is home to the only operational kerosene fueled lighthouse.

There was some damage to surrounding buildings, but the lighthouse stood strong, even through Dorian. We anchored outside the harbor in the shadow of the lighthouse and took the short dinghy ride into harbor where we explored the lighthouse prior to motoring over to the upper public dock to explore the town. We had lunch at Captain Jacks, had some rolled ice cream, and took the stroll down to the beach where we swam out to the reef (150 feet offshore) and saw an enormous spotted eagle ray, an 8 foot tarpon and a lot of other fish. The ray was amazing and, per the usual, I did not have my GoPro with me.

Hopetown was hit hard by the storms, but so many new and refurbished buildings have popped up. The town is so quaint and cute with many people moving down and building there. It was by far the cutest area we have come across so far. After a great afternoon of exploration, we took the short trip down to our overnight anchorage in Aunt Pat’s Bay. After dropping anchor, we turned on some tunes, ate some snacks, showered, and talked about how great the vacation had been so far. As the sun was setting, we hopped in the dinghy to ride into White Sound for what would be our best dinner yet at the Abacos Inn. We ate tuna, lobster, conch, and filet and the boys watched the NBA draft all while watching the most amazing sunset. Tired from another long day, we rode back and turned in almost immediately.

Day 7- Tahiti Beach and the Journey Back Home

We awoke to another beautiful morning and took a very short ride down closer to Tahiti Beach for our last day on the boat. After setting the anchor, a few of us went out on the dinghy to Tiloo Cut to fish a bit while the rest got some breakfast and read on deck. We managed to catch a few fish and let them all go as we didn’t need any more food and catching them was enough for us. The cut between Elbow and Tiloo cay is a tight and deep channel with reefs. We ended up trawling with little weight on the line as the bottom had significant rocks and coral to snag your line on. Evidently, the shoreline outside the channel in the Atlantic is an even better area to catch fish but we didn’t want to bob for a hour in the dinghy so we stuck to the cut. During mid-tide the current can be strong, but the colder water on the incoming tide seems to be the best time for catching fish here.

After a few hours of successful fishing, we returned to the boat and everyone headed ashore to Tahiti Beach. There is a big sand bar here where you can anchor your dinghy in the shallows and a floating tiki bar called the Thirsty Cuda that arrives at noon to serve up drinks and some small bites. Some of the kids snorkeled the nearby reef finding ray, sharks, fish, and a lot of sand dollars. All in all, it was a great afternoon on the sand and shallows chatting with fellow boaters and soaking in the last day on the vacation. This is definitely a must do in the Abacos.

We headed back to the boat and for ease of boat return we headed out to Matt Lowe’s Cay for the night. Once there and anchored we had a feast of what was left on the boat with hamburgers, hot dogs, pasta carbonara, a meat and cheese tray, as well as bean and corn salad. We were the only ones there for the night and took advantage of the stars and the privacy to dance on the top deck and talk the night away before heading down to pack up before hitting the rack for the night.

Day 8 – Disembarkation

We awoke at 7, prepped the boat, stripped the beds, carried the bags up on deck, collected the trash, ate some breakfast, pulled the anchor and fired up the engines to head back to the marina. We radioed in before hitting the channel to find out our spot in line. We had one boat fueling ahead of us so we circled til they let us know it was our turn. Holding position in the harbor is tedious and boring so my advice is don’t come in to the harbor until they are ready for you. After a perfect approach and docking at the fuel dock we filled up and all but the captain disembarked with all the gear. Navigare parks the boat after fueling which was fine with us as it’s vacation after all. All was well with the boat, so after one last check of all the cabinets and a sign off on the boat we headed out to spend one last night at the Abaco Beach Resort.

The hotel was only a short walk from the marina and the rooms were nice and cool. We ate one last breakfast/lunch together before our friends departed for home. The Wanderingkellers headed back to the hotel for a quick nap before spending some time at the pool bar discussing our vacation with fellow boaters just finishing their sails as well. We had a great time swapping favorite memories and relaxing in the pool before we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. It is a beautiful room with wonderful views of the marina. We ate seafood fritto, chicken curry meatballs, blackened grouper, sea bass, ice cream and key lime pie before heading back to the room for some quick family games before turning in for a well-deserved rest before our travels back to Philadelphia.

Day 9 – Our Travel Day Home

Thankfully our return trip was not as eventful as the trip down. We had arranged for Kathran to pick us up at the hotel and transport us back to the airport in Marsh Harbour. We arrived home exhausted and dreaming of those Bahamian sunsets and blue waters.

Places not to miss in the Abacos:

Alhough we loved everywhere we went, there were a few places that stood out above the others:

  1. Tahiti Beach and the Thirsty Cuda
  2. Manjack Cay on the northern end for stingrays, sharks and great offshore snorkeling
  3. Hopetown lighthouse and beach

Would we do this again?

In a heartbeat. We saw so much but there are many places left to explore.

Would we use Navigare again?

If their Abacos base is an example of how they run their other bases, absolutely. The boat was beautiful and brand new. The staff was friendly, very knowledgeable, and the base was in a very accessible location. They have bases all over the world.

Parting words:

For anyone looking for a warm, inviting, and varied environment the Abacos are a great place to bareboat charter and a short flight from the United States.

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