55 Eleuthera

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The first immigrants to Eleuthera in 1649 lost their ship on the reefs guarding the entrance at Spanish Wells. Nothing has changed; the curving route through the reefs is still unmarked. Not eager to repeat history, we called Edsel Roberts one of the harbor pilots for the area on VHF 16. Edsel met us out just past the reef, tied his boat to Tranquility’s stern, climbed aboard and guided us into Spanish Wells. What a charming gentleman, in his early 60’s, pencil thin, with a sparkle in his eye and a unique Spanish Wells accent. We enjoyed the no stress ride into the harbor. We hired him again twice more to make the unmarked passage between the reefs and shore to Harbour Island and back. We discovered a fringe benefit in working with Edsel, his wife baked great bread and we were provided with a loaf each time we came into Spanish Wells.

Spanish Wells is a sharp contrast to other Bahaman tourist based towns. Instead of supporting a tourist economy all energies go into their fishing industry. The piers along the harbor were lined with large well-kept boats, just back from months of fishing. The street along the shore had a surprising amount of traffic for such a small island. We learned later that favorite recreation for returning fishermen is to ride around the island all day in their cars or motor scooters.

Lining the shore road were hundred of stacks of 2x6x8 pressure treated lumber and what looked like sheet metal roofing. Curiosity got the better of us and we inquired about the lumber thinking there might be a building boom on Spanish Wells. We learned the lumber and sheet metal was for “lobster garages.” We later found some of the garages waiting transport to the shallow reef waters off Eleuthera. Two 2x6x8’s had a sheet metal roof span of 4 feet. One end was closed off and the other end partially closed. Hundreds of garages were hauled out on large barges and sunk. Bahamian lobsters find them to be a perfect reef home and move in and multiply like crazy. Local ‘box fishermen’ as they are called have thousands of garages set and visit them in turn, harvesting by diving, turning the garages over and taking the legal size lobsters. Nice thing for boaters is that there are no lobster trap floats on the surface like we encounter in the Chesapeake and Maine.

Neat rows of nicely maintained brightly colored homes climb the steep rocky hill that starts immediately beyond the shore road. The area seems stark and sun baked. Rocky soil and hurricanes conspired to keep large trees at a minimum so there is no shade or softening of the hard edges of homes normally provided by trees. From a cruising perspective Spanish Wells was a good placed to provision and take on water, which tasted great and was free.

Edsel guided us between the Devils Backbone reef and shore to Harbour Island. In sharp contrast to Spanish Wells we were back on a tourist island. Town had a collection of brightly painted rental homes and lots of rental golf carts running around. We walked out of town and found huge beautifully maintained estates. We hiked to the north end of the island, a couple of miles and then back along the beach. The ambiance of the Pink Sand Resort couldn’t be resisted after our long walk. Ice tea on the patio overlooking the ocean was elegant, but expensive. One evening there was a party in the middle of main street. A DJ under a fig tree provided music. We joined the party and had a ball.

We rode out the next weather front in Spanish Wells before going to Royal Island. It’s uninhabited and has a great harbor. Ashore are ruins of what had been a major estate. We dropped the anchor and immediately had a problem. The anchor snagged an old mooring chain and was fouled. Luckily we were able to get the anchor and mooring chain close to the surface. Then from the dinghy, we rigged a second line to the chain to take the strain off the anchor. A few wet sloppy minutes later we had our anchor free. We relocated and set the anchor without further problems.

Tall Tales invited us to the happy hour and the potluck dinner being held that evening up in the ruins ashore. By evening there were twenty boats at anchor and everyone came. The buffet was spread out on what had once been a bar. In warm glow of oil lamps we met many of the voices we had been hearing on the radio. Now we had faces and interesting stories to accompany the voices. Banjo became Bob and Jane. The Lady Hamilton took shape as Ivan and Linda. Camelot transformed into Jim and Cheri.

Getting down decaying steps leading to a decaying wharf was an adventure on a moonless night. Then the real challenge began. Twenty anchor lights scattered around the harbor and the stars overhead were the only lights. Our flashlight was inadequate for the distances. We set out in the general direction of the anchor light we thought was Tranquility. On the third try found our snug home.

The coast of Eleuthera presented the first real change in terrain since we’d been in the Bahamas. As we approached Hatchet Bay, a sheer rock cliff about 30 feet high guarded the coast. A narrow entrance to Hatchet Bay was blasted through the cliff years earlier and is hard to see from any distance. As we got close, the narrow opening became visible and we ducked in to wait for yet another front to pass.

The stark hull of a wrecked sailboat is impaled on the rocks inside of Hatchet Bay, a remnant of hurricane Andrew. Ashore houses with missing shingles or boarded windows are common. There were many partially built or partially destroyed houses. It was hard to tell which. Everything except for a large bright yellow church on the edge of town needs a coat of paint. We walked through town looking for Mrs. Johnson’s house to buy bread. Our directions led us through someone’s back yard, under their laundry hanging on the line to a back door. Our welcome was friendly and the bread delicious.

Verbal directions led us to the grocery store also in a home. No sign on the outside indicated it was a store. We knocked and were invited inside. What used to be the living room now has wooded shelves to hold a small selection of packaged goods. A home refrigerator holds the few refrigerated items for sale. Product selection was interesting. One shelf held 2 brands and about 25 bottles of ketchup. Next to the ketchup you had your choice from any of the 3 small cans of green beans. Many shelves were empty. A box randomly filled with dollars and change served as the cash register. An open bible sat next to the cash box. We’d found the third world portion of the Bahamas where warm welcomes and friendly people compensate for a modest standard of living.

A cave you can explore is 3 miles north of Hatchet Bay. We set out with our current traveling companions: The Lady Hamilton, and Camelot to find the cave. The road north was hot and hilly. Along the road abandoned silos stood like bleached bones, the last reminder of what had once been a thriving cattle business. We found the cave and explored a short distance inside. Even with flashlights, no one was willing to go past the area where you could still see the sun to see if we could find the bats living there. Having to get down and crawl into a very narrow downward sloping passage might have had something to do with it.

We arrived at a restaurant near the cave about noon and were hungry for lunch. The waitress indicated lunch would be a little slow because the chef had just left to go shopping. She said she would cook. We were the only ones in the restaurant. We sat down and ordered. 1.5 hours later lunch arrived. Since we were tired from our walk, we didn’t mind too much. Things do move at a slower pace in the Bahamas.

The wind failed and we motored to Rock Sound. That night another front rolled in. We spent two nights and a day tucked against the western lee shore of the sound waiting for conditions to moderate so we could use the dinghy without getting completely soaked from the waves. On the second day, the wind shifted and we moved across the sound to the new lee shore off town and went ashore to reprovision. Here we found a laundromat and the best-stocked grocery store we had found in the Bahamas.

We parted company with our traveling companions and headed west to Cape Eleuthera. Here a marina and 7 condos were all that remained of a grand plan to develop the entire cape into something resembling Florida. After building 2 harbors, installing utilities, building roads and a few buildings, they discovered no one was interested and the place closed down and is now being reclaimed by nature. We spent the night, filled our water tank and headed for the Exumas.

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