Hoist the Jib! Pull the Main Sheet! We’re Tacking a Beam Reach To Guana Cay!

In the depths of winter in the Northeast, there is an understandable enticement to ponder warmer climates for high adventure activities for the following summer.  This year, with a large number of newly eligible scouts participating, the majority chose the venue of learning to sail and live aboard a large sloop in the Bahamas over that of paddling and portaging along the wild pristine boundary water areas north of the border.  After all, the memories of the 50-miler endured by the smaller crew the previous year along the Outer Banks of NC, did not resonate with the required “Fun Factor” for the younger scouts…irrespective of the connotations implied by the term “high adventure”.

Adventure, however, can be created any time when Mother Nature is involved and that was certainly the case in the three days leading up to our planned departure for Marsh Harbor, Bahamas in mid-August.  Not all 14-year old scouts are experienced world travelers and the immediate threat of Tropical Storm Emily, during the midst of hurricane season, was not something completely anticipated during the early planning phases in February.  Lady Luck spared our crew of 17 as the storm quickly moved past our destination literally hours before our arrival.

The Bahama Sail School has been in operation for a few years sailing the Abaco Sea and caters to youth groups, particularly Boy Scouts.   Upon our arrival at the designated marina, our eager sea-wayward lads were greeted by the welcoming owner Brian Forbes.  Immediately, the two crews were introduced to their boat captains (Charles and Rob) and off we motored to our live-aboard homes for the next week.  Aboard the Wayward Highlander, our crew eventually drifted off to sleep topside under a starry night following the requisite boat debriefing and outstanding meal prep under the careful eye of the stern Captain Rob.

As the sun was rising at 0630, Captain Rob notified our youth crew chief to have his crew rise & shine.  Breakfast needed to be prepared, the galley cleaned, someone needed to listen to the 0815 weather report and the boat needed to be ready to sail at 0900 in order to hit the high tide.  (The Abaco Sea is generally shallow, averaging only 15—20 feet, and with a 6’ keel, one must be careful not to go aground and be stuck for 12 hours.)  A very short sail brought our 41’ Benetau to our first destination—a favorite snorkeling spot 100 yards off the port-side of the bow.  The coral was teaming with fish and the boys enthusiastically fed them bread crumbs before returning aboard 45 minutes later.  Our next destination:  Treasury Cay (pronounced “key”), which is one of the ten most beautiful beaches in the world according to National Geographic

Frolicking in the gentle surf, all 11 scouts were visible except one.  “Kenya”, as he would become known, was jogging up and down the beach in the intense  midday sun and humidity.  It seems that Kenya’s penchant for nightly verbal disagreements among his crewmates was only surpassed by his passion for running.  Nicknames were inevitable on this type of adventure and the imagination of a +14-year old is not limited to traditional nautical labels, ie, Sea Hog, etc.

  By Tuesday, we set sail across the Sea of Abaco for Guana Cay.  Though the boys had experienced some very basic sail training in NY on the 45’ Sea Note, courtesy of troop committee sail advisor Mr. Bob Frost, sailing with the prevailing wind at our backs proved to be technically challenging.  Nonetheless, our group arrived mid-morning and eager to learn the basics of scuba diving in shallow water (less than 30 feet).

   Mastering a few basic scuba safety practices in increasingly choppy water is an accomplishment in and of itself.  And while a few felt very encumbered by the heavy gear on the  boat, the feeling of freedom and wonderment quickly took over once we dropped down 20 feet into the massive coral reef.  Scores of different tropical fish and colorful coral were met with great enthusiasm as were the prized citings of a moray eel, sea turtles and the elegant manta ray.  With the storm now upon us, our dive group hurriedly motored back to the island, thanked our guides and scurried over to one of the few establishments open for lunch:  Nettles Restaurant on the beach.   

  And there we stayed….until 10 pm, as the storm raged all afternoon and into the night.  Scouts entertained themselves by learning how to cut open wild coconuts (no, not each other!), mingling with another scout troop from GA, relaxing in the pool and snorkeling during a brief 1 hour interlude in the tropical depression.  The restaurant remained open to feed us dinner and the boys enjoyed a movie as well.  Besides, nobody was that eager to return to the ultra-cramped (and hot) quarters of their boats.  Fortunately, by 9:30pm the rain finally stopped.

 The skies were still turbulent the next morning as we headed toward Hope Town.  Captain Rob made a strategically wise decision to use only the front sail and the motor to push us down wind.  After about an hour of motoring, we could very clearly see a squall headed our way.  Captain Charles’s boat totally disappeared ¼ mile ahead of us in the massive curtain of rain.  Most of the scouting crew was casually searching for their rain gear below when we entered the storm.  The sleepy scouts below deck were suddenly jarred when the boat lurched to the port side nearly 60 degrees!  With pots and pans clashing about, the now stunned wanna-be sailors scrambled top side to be greeted by the driving wind and rain and waves that even a mild Caribbean storm could deliver!  All hands on deck!

   The next 15 minutes were quite chaotic.  Driving wind, rain and choppy seas clearly made it difficult to reel in the front sail, especially if the opposite lines did not keep the sheet taut.  Captain Rob barked orders worthy of any salty dog.  Scouts scrambled across the ever shifting wet deck to grab the flailing sheets and lines, careful to find any handhold so as not to fall over board.  Gradually, the ship was brought under control under the calm demeanor & direction of Cap’n Rob, who seemed most relaxed when the unexpected (for the scouts) occurred.  Feeling more confident that the seas were navigable, the crew leader and a few others took their turn at the helm.  For a few special minutes, the scouts were so fully engaged in the moment that they gained a far better appreciation for both the challenge and the enjoyment of sailing the open seas.

Gradually, the storm passed and we found ourselves with partly cloudy skies and a mild but steady wind, and when combined with a newfound confidence in their sailing skills, the boys decided to sail for a while longer before arriving at our targeted afternoon snorkeling destination, the rocky shores of Sugar Loaf Key.  Anchored at least 200 yards away from shore, the scouts donned their snorkeling equipment made a bee line toward the shore to explore the marine wildlife.  Three hours later, we hoisted the main sheet and set sail for Hope Town, a short distance away.

Hope Town is a relatively large port, frequented by fishermen and sail enthusiasts alike.  A historic lighthouse is clearly the most visible landmark.  Though steamy hot, the crew moored in the harbor and tried their hand at fishing before preparing dinner.  The stunningly beautiful sunset served notice that the Caribbean can yield a wide range of weather patterns in a single day.  What should have been a peaceful drift off into a much needed sleep that night was postponed until well after midnight by the blaring rock band across the small harbor as Bahamians celebrated a night or two of full moons.

The last morning began before 0700 with Captain Rob insisting the crew leader and his crew rise and shine.  After sleeping on the non-flat surface of a hard boat deck with only a thin air mattress, combined with the warm temps for a few nights in the row made one appreciate why most sailors are red-eyed.  Slow to rise, the scouts grudgingly arose and gathered their wet gear & clothes pins and prepared breakfast for a day of island exploring, beautiful beaches and more snorkeling. 

   The crew was informed by the Captain that they had been the most wasteful with the ship’s bladder of fresh water of any crew he had had in the past three years.  Critical of their kitchen cleanup procedures, Captain Rob informed the scouts that they could have rinsed their dishes off the stern of the boat in the sea—this tidbit of info would have been nice to know on day one instead of day five.  We were also informed that we needed to purchase fresh water while ashore for the sail back to Marsh Harbor later that day, otherwise the galley could not be cleaned and the head would be inoperable.   After five continuous days of subtle criticisms & limited explanations from the Scottish Captain Rob, the crew was near a mutinous point. 

Once in the dinghy on the way to shore, however, tense feelings gave way to liberation.  Hope Town, like all other towns, was virtually closed down as this was the middle of the hurricane season and island population was at a seasonal low.  Gradually, both ship’s crews found their way to the accommodating folks at the Hopetown Harbor Lodge.  Here, both crews gathered near the pool and enjoyed drinks and lunch and discussed their sailing experiences from the week.  Though the two crews were having a very different boating experience, the discussion ended with all agreeing that there were valuable life lessons to be learned from this situation. 

Upon reflection, the adult leaders are again amazed and impressed at the resiliency of Troop 353 scouts eagerly, as the kids ran for the ocean to explore the massive coral reef while in the distance, whales were breaching about a half mile out in the sea.  In the postcard perfect environment of the Bahamas, our scouts had truly experienced a typical High-Adventure scout trip:  one beset with various challenges, yet one of transcendental beauty and personal growth.  Truly memorable photos can be enjoyed here!