Letter # 3
Our next stop on this year’s Bahamas cruise was George Town, on Great Exuma Island in the most southerly part of the Exumas.
George Town is a milestone destination for many cruisers. In the winter and early spring up to 500 boats spend several months in the huge harbor. There is decent provisioning (places to buy food and boat parts), good anchorages, and shoreside facilities better than anywhere else in this remote area.
The Bahamas are a series of 750 islands and cays, spread out in an archipelago 590 miles long and 185 miles wide. For centuries the Bahamians depended solely upon wooden sailing boats for travel between islands, and for earning a living through activities such as fishing, sponge harvesting, and trade.
George Town is the site of the annual Family Islands Regatta, the Bahamian world-series of sailboat racing. In the 1950’s a group of people recognized that the “age of working sail” was drawing to an end, and they looked for a way to preserve the boat building and sailing skills of the Bahamian people. Their plans resulted in the first Family Islands Regatta, first run in 1954. Steven Pavlidis in The Exuma Guide describes the guidelines:
“The rules that govern Bahamian sloop racing are quite clear: competing boats must be designed, built, owned and skippered by Bahamians. The overall length (LOA) may not be more than 28’3”, the sails must be of canvas, the hull must be of wood, and the single wooden mast may not bend. The rules do not permit vertical transoms, bowsprits, spreaders, winches, or any sort of wind or speed instruments including tell-tales.”
If you are a sailor, you will appreciate that these rules are quite strict, and eliminate many features found on modern sailing vessels.
“The sloops race three times around a triangular course…As the boats take the wind and heel they must shift their ballast….Each boat has prys, wooden planks which extend about 4’ or so on the windward side of the boat. The crew then climbs out onto the prys to balance the boat…..” It does happen that sometimes a crew member falls off the pry, and “any boat that does not stop for a MOB (man over board) is disqualified.” (Pavlides)
The last time we were in George Town for the Regatta was in 2011, and we had enjoyed it so much we wanted to see it again this year.
This is the boat we always root for: Tida Wave, which hails from Staniel Cay. (Boats come from all over the Bahamas to participate.)
The first thing to notice is the size of the “sail plan”. The sails are huge compared to the size of the boat. That feature makes the boats sail really fast, but it also makes them difficult to control. More on that later.
The original captain of Tida Wave was Rolly Gray, a legend of sailing in the Bahamas. He won (at least according to most people on Staniel Cay) all of his races. He died in 2007, and is buried on Staniel Cay.
Rolly Gray is so revered in the Bahamas they named one of their largest Royal Bahamas Defense Force cruisers after him. One of the most famous Bahamian pieces of music is “Sailor Man Song” by Basil Smith, which is about Rolly Gray.
A close up of Tida Wave under sail, with the ballast (men) out on the pry bars to help keep the boat level. If the boat tacks (turns into the wind to sail in a different direction), the men scamper down the pry boards into the boat, drag the boards to the other side, and climb out on them….all in a matter of ten seconds or so!
The concentration of the crew is intense.
Yes, there are collisions, and here – a near collision.
Three in a row, on the same point of sail.
Some of the crew on Tida Wave give course directions to the helmsman.
Sometimes the boats encounter significant wind gusts. In this dramatic moment the crew of Tida Wave struggles to move as much of their weight to the end the pry boards as possible, to keep the boat from tipping over on her side. Simultaneously one of the crew at the stern lets out the main sail to help keep the boat from foundering. The sail is out so far that it is dragging in the water.
Later in the day the rains arrived, but the race continued. This is a view from our boat, of ghost ships sailing in the rainstorm.
Unfortunately, Tida Wave did not take first place this year, but a boat from our next stop south, Long Island, did.
Not all of the fun is out in the harbour. The event triggers shoreside parties, food, and yes, some drinking. Kalik (rhymes with “click”) is the national beer.
Food stalls offer the best of traditional Bahamian cooking: cracked conch (conch which has been pounded and tenderized with a mallet and then deep fried); conch salad, macaroni and cheese, and peas and rice. With music loud enough to lift you off the ground.
There’s an old nautical saying: “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight; red sky at morning, sailors take warning.” This was a night sky, but….
When doing this type of cruising, hundreds of miles from the U.S. coast, it’s “all about the weather.” We are at the mercy of what mother nature throws at us, and sometimes it is not pretty. We have been watching a bad weather system which is approaching the Bahamas, with winds forecast for 30+ knots. That series of fronts is north of us, so we and our friends on Latitude have decided to run south four hours to Long Island, where there is a good anchorage at Thompson’s Bay, protected from the NE winds, and a small marina nearby if necessary. That choice is not without risk, since we may wind up being pinned down there for a while.
More to follow in the next Letter.
Greg and Barbara
Copyright, Greg Allard