Retiring to the Sea

By Mitch Traphagen (mitch@observernews.net)
 

GEORGE TOWN, BAHAMAS- 11/25/99 - Thanksgiving Day - @ 0300 - 26 41.7W, 82 21.7N, spd 3.6 kts, hdg 149, wind 12E, Temp 71, Baro 30.15. Perfect night! Just saw some dolphins. Arriving Boca sea buoy.

@ 1500 - Anchors finally down..again. Arrived Mantanzas Pass anchorage, Ft. Myers Beach.

(Excepts from the log book of Sailing Vessel Hetty Brace).

The air is turning cooler. It is the time that Florida comes alive, the air is filled with snowbirds, tourists and everyone who loves to be outdoors in perfect weather. It is a time for giving thanks and for preparing for the season of holidays. For some, it is a time for hearing the "putt, putt, putt" of a small diesel engine. For some, it is the time of year to head out to sea.

Sun City Center South

Each year around Thanksgiving, hundreds of boats begin a trek to a more southerly latitude. Many, if not most, of those boats end up near a small Bahamian town named George Town. Many, if not most, of those sailors are past the age of retirement.

George Town is at the southern end of the Exuma Island chain. Except for a Gulf Stream crossing just off the coast of Florida, the Exumas offer a relatively sheltered sail south. Most of the voyage is spent on the stunningly beautiful and shallow Bahamas Banks with a long series of islands offering protection from large ocean waves.

George Town is generally considered the last stop before having to cross open ocean for those venturing further south. As a result, it is also known as Chicken Harbor, a name applied for those who end up spending their season in the town despite their dreams and proclamations of conquering the untamed ocean beyond the harbor.

Despite the bravado of those sailors who scoff at the people who spend months in George Town, the reality is that for most, the small town is the destination of choice. In many ways it literally is Sun City Center South. And, despite the "relatively protected waters," just getting there is an accomplishment.

Heading Out to Sea

12/10/99 - What a day! What a night! We anchored 3.9 (then later 4.1) miles from the Northwest Channel Light. We got hit by 44 knots of wind last night - Michelle didn’t enjoy the evening much. Underway at 0700 for Chubb Cay.

(Excerpt from the log book of Hetty Brace).

The winds picked up again at dark.  More squalls came through.  The anchor alarm went off and the wind was gusting to over 40 knots.  The GPS clocked us at traveling 1.7 knots with our anchor dragging...

Mitchell saw that my adrenaline was pumping and wanted to know what I was thinking.  I told him.  I told him I don’t want to do this!  Trust me, he says, things will be better in the morning and we’ll have a laugh about this later.  He was right too.

(Excerpt from Michelle’s Personal Journal, December 13, 1999).

There are many rewards involved in spending the winter in George Town. Part of it, however, is most certainly in the journey. Along the way there are deserted islands, small towns, breathtaking beaches and even the big city life of Nassau.

A look at a large scale chart would show a funnel of sorts. Boats, some of whom began their voyage in New England, begin to cluster together as the migration moves down the Exumas. The end of the funnel spills out in George Town.

The peak begins just after Christmas. It seems that everyday the number of arriving boats increases. At night, the harbor looks like an oddly lit city with the anchor lights of nearly 500 sailboats illuminating the dark sky.

There are church services on the beach, Alcoholics Anonymous meetings on the beach, Tai Chi, Ham radio classes, bonfires, potluck dinners and jogging - all on the beach.

And then there is volleyball.

George Town Harbor is a large expanse of water bordered by Great Exuma Island on the west and Stocking Island on the east. Great Exuma is where the town is, Stocking is where the cruisers hang out. The anchorages off of Stocking Harbor are given names such as Hamburger Beach, Monument Beach and Volleyball Beach.

By the peak of the season, a couple of hundred boats will be at anchor off of Volleyball Beach alone. There is a little beach bar called the Chat ‘n Chill and there are three volleyball courts set up in the sand. Everyday at 2:30 sailors gather to play or to watch others play. Most of the play is light hearted, some as serious as death. The beach bar provides a seemingly endless supply of Kalik, the beer of the Bahamas.

George Town, Kalik and volleyball are almost synonymous - and why not? Everyone here is on vacation.

On the Great Exuma side, the town is well equipped for the seasonal influx of visitors. The town’s largest grocery store, Exuma Market, is relatively well stocked and offers mail and fax services for the visiting boats. The store even has a box to accumulate letters bound for the States that is picked up by those flying out. It is almost certainly faster, cheaper and more reliable to wait for a U.S. bound visitor to take the mail than it is to depend on the Bahamian Postal Service. That is not necessarily a slam on the Bahamians - keep in mind that the country is a series of small, relatively isolated islands. There are no interstate highways and large tractor trailers in the Bahamas. Everything, including the mail, moves by boat.

Getting Into the Groove

Ah, just another day in paradise...Each day we listen to the weather and radio nets. There’s the Cruiseheimer’s Net at 8:30am. This net is on the single side band radio. We’re able to talk to everyone we know from here to Florida. At 8:00am there’s a VHF radio net for George Town. The local businesses talk about their services or specials. Exuma Markets lists the faxes and packages they have received for boats and then boats can announce any activities they may have or request help from other boats. Some nights there are get togethers or sundowners. Other nights we are yawning by 8:30 and ready for bed. It’s a nice life.

(Excerpt from Michelle’s personal journal, January 13, 2000).

Between the months of January and April a routine begins to develop in George Town. The weather is usually beautiful with the occasional strong cold front blowing through to provide a greater sense of appreciation for how good things normally are. For the cruisers, the big goal for a day could be a three mile walk to the hardware store. Most of the time, however, a friendly local will offer a ride so the planned day-long event ends early. That means there’s time for a Kalik with some friends that you likely just met.

As the boats continue to sail in however, the lines get a little longer, the grocery store shelves empty out a little faster and, for some, the nerves begin to become a bit more raw.

The VHF radio, basically a telephone that is used by cruisers and locals alike, becomes crowded and those who dislike rule breakers, known as the radio police (a self-imposed position), start to clash with those who dislike rules.

But it is really not all that bad. The VHF is a source of entertainment for almost everyone. Since it is a radio, there are no private conversations. Many people can while away the hours eavesdropping in on the big party line. Most often it is hilarious, sometimes it is tragic.

There is a hailing channel, used for calling other boats, and there are channels used for conversation. Those who linger just a little too long on a hailing channel run the risk of hearing someone shout out "Working channel! Working channel!" in an abrupt reminder that the channel is for calling boats ONLY. When not actually talking, everyone has their radio set to the hailing channel, ready for someone to call.

When my wife and I were there in 2000, there was an unknown person that I affectionately named "Psycho." Each night, at exactly 9 p.m., Psycho would say "Good Night" on the hailing channel in a whispery and very scary voice. After a few weeks, I knew that all was right with the world when I would hear Psycho offer his twisted sign off. Psycho, however, disappeared one day. I began to worry that a posse of the radio police had spirited him away in the night and was forcing him to endure VHF etiquette lessons on the beach. After ten long nights without hearing his horror movie "Good Night", he returned as if he had never left.

A minor chaos ensued after hearing the whispery voice of Psycho wish the cruisers a good night. I may have started it because I couldn’t contain myself. I grabbed the microphone and said for all to hear, "Welcome back, Psycho!". Immediately afterwards dozens of people joined in and before long, everyone, including Mary Ellen, Jim Bob and John Boy from the Waltons was being wished a good night on the radio, and more importantly, on the hailing channel. It must have been all too much for Psycho, however. After a few minutes of chaos on the hailing channel, a whispery and very scary voice echoed across the airwaves saying, "Working channel! Working channel!"

Psycho finally had the opportunity to police the radio police.

Back to Reality

3/1/00 - 0648 - Preparing to up anchor after almost eight weeks in George Town.

3/1/00 - 0830 - Anchor up and heading towards Conception Island. We said good-bye to our friends - we’ll meet them again.

(Excerpts from the log book of Hetty Brace).

There were nearly 500 boats in the harbor when we left on March 1, 2000 - that was 300 more than when we arrived.

Our time and our money were running out and we decided to head for points further south in the Dominican Republic before getting back to reality. When we finally did turn around and point the bow towards the U.S. we sailed past, but didn’t stop at, George Town. I tuned in the radio net when we were in range and heard the life there go on. That was the last I heard of it.

Despite plans for the next year, we have yet to return to George Town. But someday we will. Some day we will be back and hopefully Psycho, the radio police and all of our friends will be there as before. Someday we will again join those enjoying a retirement at sea.

Mitch Traphagen Photos

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