Thursday, February 25, 2021

Spanish Wells, Devil's Backbone, Current Cut and Glass Bridge (Part 1)

Monday, February 22, I celebrated my 60th birthday at sea. The right place for me this year.

I had been feeling a low-key dread leading up to this chronological milestone, really not wanting to turn 60, not wanting to mark off another year. Though it's uncertain how many marks remain to be cashed in, for sure the account balance is decreasing.

Yet when the day came, all I really felt while floating on my beloved sea, under the grand expanse of blue sky, was gratitude. Grateful for my healthy body, grateful for my freedom, grateful for my good fortune, grateful to all those who care for me, who support me, who love me.

The cold front for which we had hunkered down in Royal Island Harbor had passed. The strong, blustery winds from the northeast had shifted to the east, still blowing in the teens, but a steady stable breeze rather than a stormy blow.

We motored against these winds for a few miles to anchor off the entrance to the harbor of Spanish Wells. It was a wet dinghy ride to the harbor entrance through steep chop, the wind blowing soaking spray onto us. We were pretty much wet through by the time we tied up at the dock of a waterfront grocery story in the harbor.

We walked around Spanish Wells, an old, established town of modest houses, most looking to have been built in the 60's, 70's, 80's. Many of the houses are of masonry construction, short, squat, with small windows, architecture that isn't beautiful but survives hurricanes. The choice of bright colors for exterior paint cheers them up a lot.

My mom had sent me an email wishing me a happy birthday and hoping that "Perhaps you will find a goat on some island to enhance your day."  That may sound odd to you, but anyone who knows me well knows my affinity to those creatures, cultivated through a long friendship with my daughter's goats, Lola and Daphne.  I didn't think there was much chance of my mom's hope to materialize, but, lo-and-behold, as I was walking along in Spanish Wells, what did I see? A small herd of a half-dozen somewhat friendly goats. I spoke to them for a little while, fed them some fresh weeds and found one that enjoyed being pet. What a surprise birthday present that my Mom wished into being.

I treated myself to birthday Klondike ice cream bar in the aftenoon, deliciously creamy and cold in the hot sun, my first ice cream in a long time. I made a big Thai green curry for dinner, accompanied by a nice bottle of Amarone. The crew baked me a small chocolate cake, complete with a couple of candles to cap off my humble but satisfying birthday celebration.

We moved Intermezzo to the west side of Meeks Patch, a small islet just south of Spanish Wells to get some protection from the easterly wind.  Nature decided to play with us, however, shifting the wind and swells to the west during the night. Not only were we exposed to a long fetch of waves that rocked Intermezzo, these waves reflected off the hard limestone shore of the islet to combine with the direct waves to rock and roll the boat violently at times. It wakes you up.

The next day we set off in the dinghy to navigate the ominous-sounding Devil's Backbone to visit a cave and a blue hole on land.  The Devil's Backbone passage winds through reefs and coral heads along the north coast of Eleuthera. The cruising guide describes it as "an exercise in coastal navigation that should not be undertaken lightly." Having a local pilot on board is mandatory for larger vessels. I decided that it was safe to eyeball my way through the waters in the shallow draft dinghy, as long as I did so carefully and didn't go too fast.

We moved Intermezzo back to the harbor entrance as the staging point for our dinghy adventure. Fortunately the wind had died down and was coming from the southwest, so it was a dry ride into the harbor this time. We motored slowly through the harbor and then out into the channel that runs run north between St. George Cay, on which Spanish Wells sits, and the main North Eleuthera Island. We rounded Ridley Head at the northwest corner of Eleuthera and headed east into the backbone.

It was pretty easy to spot the reefs and coral heads underwater, as their dark brown-blue-green color contrasts markedly with the deep blue and light green of the safe water. The sea breaks over the shallowest reefs and heads, only an idiot would try to cross those.

I steered a serpentine course between hazards, stopping frequently to check the Navionics charts on my iPhone. I like the Navionics charts because they allow users to upload sonar logs recorded by their chartplotters which are then assembled by Navionics to produce highly detailed crowd-sourced bathymetry. This data not only provides more detail of bottom conditions, it also maps out the frequently traveled safe channels simply by the density of data captured from vessels that "survived" their passages. 

I also admit to a form of nautical plagiarism: I watched the routes taken by the pilot boats and copied them.  So I can't take full credit for getting us safely to the beach at Preacher's Cave. I can't even take credit for landing the dinghy on the beach exactly in front to the trail leading to the cave. That was complete luck; I just chose what looked like the calmest zone in the light surf for our landing.

Preacher's Cave is a large open-faced limestone cavern where the "Eleutheran Adventurers", a cohort of puritans escaping religious persecution in Bermuda in the 1600's, took refuge after being shipwrecked. On the Devil's Backbone. Make of that what you will.

The cave is roomy, with natural chimneys, limestone tubes extending through the roof of the cave to daylight above. A decent place to take refuge. I wonder if William Sayle, the leader of the adventurers, was lucky like I was, picking the same spot in the calmer surf to land his party on the beach and blundering upon the cave right in front of him?

After wandering around the cave for bit, we hiked to the main road, the Queen's Highway, and headed west for a stretch to the Sapphire Blue Hole, a deep circular limestone pool connected to the ocean. Robin led the way down the steep side of the hole to plunge into its azure water, white rays of light reflecting off the bottom in a radiating pattern, as if there was a cut jewel sitting on the bottom. Very beautiful and a refreshing swim, followed by a hard climb 30 feet up the vertical side of the hole, with the assistance of a knotted rope, hand- and foot-holds in the limestone.

We wrapped up our adventure on the Devil's Backbone by anchoring the dinghy off a coral head and snorkeling around it, lots of nice coral, colorful fish and the impressive structure of the bommie itself, a column of coral rising vertically 30 feet from the sandy ocean bottom.

I navigated back through the backbone by memory, with a bit of guidance from a couple of passing pilot boats and we clambered back on board Intermezzo un-shipwrecked, for cold beers, hot showers and dinner.

Nature seemed to apologize for misbehaving the night before, as the sea was flat calm during the night. So calm at times that it was as if Intermezzo was sitting on the hard on land.

I'll continue soon with Part 2 of this post, covering our passage from Spanish Wells to Glass Bridge through Current Cut.

Light reflecting from "the jewel" at the bottom of Sapphire Blue Hole
House in Spanish Wells

Sand waves, St. George's Cay

One of my Birthday Goats

My Birthday Ice Cream


Preacher's Cave

Sapphire Blue Hole

Easy getting in, if you jump. Not so easy getting out.

Swimming in the sapphire water