My 1st Trip to Abaco by Boat
by Sandy Estabrook

Longboat Key to Green Turtle Cay (Abaco Bahamas)
- - - Part 1 - - -

It’s been said before, I’ll say it again, half the fun is in the planing.

Early in the year (1993) I decided to fulfill a long time dream - a cruise to the Bahamas. I had been to the Abacos many times, but never by boat. I’ve had this dream since the days of Mackey Airlines. Since moving to Longboat Key on the “other side” of Florida from Long Island the dream was within reach; in fact, just under 300 nautical miles.

The first item to be dealt with was: when to go. This was an easy decision, as I had to be back the first week in June when our kids returned from school. May 1st was chosen for departure. Secondly my wife wasn’t quite sure that she wanted to commit to the schedule because of reoccurring migraine headaches but would instead fly over. The next step was to find a replacement for my first mate which turned out to be no problem at all. My cruising partner Paul DuFault, is a marine biologist at a local Marine Lab in Sarasota. I volunteer there a couple days a week and he happens to be my boss. His experience as a photographer and diver plus his other aquatic talents would surely come in handy.

My boat is a 29 Phoenix named “Motu Iti” powered by twin 270hp Crusaders. We’re equipped with both B&G Loran and GPS. A double pole toggle switch connects one or the other to the auto pilot. The morning of departure we were stocked to the gill. Gallon jugs of water filled the bulge and every nook and cranny was packed with food. Anything drinkable was relegated to the two coolers as we didn’t want to waste frig space with bottles and cans. We had with us an Avon 9.9 inflatable with 8 hp outboard, scuba tanks fishing gear and motor spare parts which we fortunately didn’t need to use. I estimate the extra weight to be close to a thousand pounds.

We were surrounded with beautiful homes and ranches on both sides. In addition there is an occasional small marina with fueling dock along the way. I suspect most of Florida was like this at one time. Definitely the most picturesque part of the journey so far.

One thing I was concerned with was lightning. To deal with this I bought a pair of the heaviest jumper cables I could find. If I found myself anchored in a lightning storm, my plan was to clip a cable to each outrigger base and lower the other end into the water. The other end had attached three feet of 1/2 inch chain to act as a weight and dispersant for the electricity. In short we never had to use it.

On our first day we traveled on the outside (Gulf of Mexico) from Longboat Key to Charlotte Harbor entrance where we came back in to join the ICW. We headed south 3 miles to Cabbage Key and their famous restaurant for lunch and an “original” Cheeseburger in Paradise. From there and approximately 20 miles we reached marker Green “101” or mile Zero of the west coast ICW. It is also the junction point of the western end of the Okeechobee Waterway. From here it was about 12 miles to our 1st nights stop at Ft. Myers municipal marina. Before settling in, we gassed up (115 gallons / 97 StM).

The marina was quiet and I was sitting in the cockpit having a Macanudo while contemplating the trip ahead. A woman approached, asked if I knew so-in-so the previous dock master. “No” I replied. Her next question puzzled me at first. “Do I date?” she inquired. Again I replied “NO’ and was starting to realize where the conversation was headed. Then she got straight to the point and again I declined. “Even for five bucks?” “NO”, but for fun and already anticipating his answer, I offered to check with my buddy who was inside. Paul stuck his head out the door and said “no thank you madam”. Next morning I informed the dockmaster. He didn’t seem surprised.

Our second night’s stop was scheduled for Clewiston on the south shore of Lake Okeechobee. The ride up the Caloosahatchee should be labeled “Surprise #1” as it was unlike any other waterway I have traveled. We were surrounded with beautiful homes and ranches on both sides. In addition there is an occasional small marina with fueling dock along the way. I suspect most of Florida was like this at one time. Definitely the most picturesque part of the journey. My only regret, my wife wasn’t along to share in the adventure.

What I couldn’t anticipate on this 61 mile leg was the time needed for the transversing of the three locks ahead of us. Additionally, I’ll admit I had some apprehension on the lock passage having never done this before. All I can say is “piece of cake” and the maximum time for any one lock was 45 minutes.

We arrived at the lake by 2 pm at Moore Haven. From there we took the perimeter canal southeasterly for an hour to Clewiston and the Rolland Martin Marina. We fueled up, another 72 gallons of fuel. (Are you keeping total?) That evening looking for some excitement we headed over to a local bar called “Brenda’s” . It’s A lively spot mostly frequented by
cattle men, farmers and cane workers. Paul gor into a lively pool game with some of the locals. I’ll admit, I was a bit apprensive and was hopomg Paul would loose. Well he didn’t. He changed partners, teamed up with a local fellow named Mike and after splitting the winnings he left with fourty bucks!

On the third day at 5:30 AM on the dot. we were awakened by a most horrendous roar. As it turned out Clewiston is the Bass fishing capital of the state and there was a tournament going on. One of the rules was, nobody could start their engines before 5:30. Now that we were thoroughly awake we waited for the faintest hint of the sun before we hit the lake (no need to take the perimeter route). The lake was flat, and I mean flat with a slight mist rising. The wake of the bass boats was far behind near the shore. The sun was rising ahead slightly to starboard. It was a most glorious morning yet a bit eerie especially when you see a sunken ship sticking out of the water, out there in the middle of nowhere, “Surprise #2”.

We followed the route as outlined in the Chart Kit Book across the lake using our Loran on auto Pilot & GPS as cross check. Our northeasterly track took us to the first of two locks on the east side of the lake at Port Mayaca. The trip from here to the second lock and one with the deepest drop 15 feet was through the thickest algae water I’ve seen, like pea soup. I was told that this early in the season the openings of the locks were few and that the algae hadn't flushed yet. The eastern canal is nowhere near as charming as the western river part but it is a lot shorter with one less lock. After the second lock things picked up and before we knew it we were at the St. Lucie River. From here we decided to head outside in the Atlantic for our trek south to the Sailfish Marina at the Lake Worth Inlet. Docking there can be tricky as the tide rips right across the slips. If you can, try to arrive at slack tide. We Fueled up (another 96 miles and 103 gallons).


Longboat Key to Green Turtle Cay (Abaco Bahamas)
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After arriving at the Sailfish Marina, it was my intention to hang out at the bar and inquire of anybody making passage to West End in the morning. the best I met a fellow named Tony aboard his 32 Cruiser “Lady” heading for Freeport. Oh well, at least some companionship for part of the way.

We both passed through the inlet precisely at 6am. The seas were 3 to 5 in the Gulf Stream. Although Tony was heading for Freeport the angle at which he was pulling away had me convinced that one of us was on a wrong heading. After a half hour he was out of sight. Both my GPS and Loran said the same thing, so it must have been him or so I thought. As it turned out it was neither of us. I did eventually bump into Tony later in my cruise.

I realize people do this regularly but there is no time like the first time. Sort of like your first kiss, if all goes well a memory to be cherished. Then low and behold there it was rising out of the horizon, the West End water tower.

About an hour out, we started overtaking a fleet of four trawlers who must have left earlier. A half hour after that we started to notice the first boats coming in the opposite direction confirming the fact my heading was on course. (I realize people do this regularly but there is no time like the first time. Sort of like your first kiss, if all goes well a memory to be cherished) Then low and behold there it was rising out of the horizon, the West End water tower. “Surprise #3”, What a great feeling.

Just off shore we hoisted our yellow quarantine flag and slipped in to the Jack Tar Marina at exactly 9:00 AM Monday. (Note: arriving on weekends and or after business hours can cost you extra overtime fees. Check before you leave)

After a surprisingly quick customs check in, we went to the full dock where we were greeted by Stephen a friendly Bahamian who filled us in on the happenings at the Jack Tar village and resort. My fill up took 89 gallons of gas, this last leg was my poorest fuel performance which I attribute to a higher cruising speed and the seas in the Gulf Stream. Since leaving Longboat Key, Motu Iti has consumed 344 gallons of gas over a distance of 285 Nautical miles (328 StM) Remember we were loaded to the hilt.

Well now we had the whole day ahead of us. Our first night in the Bahamas was scheduled for Walkers Cay. The trip there was uneventful except for minor problems at both ends. Entry to the Little Bahama Bank is through a small channel cut through the bank edge and bordered by rocky out-croppings and coral. The chart indicated that as of the year prior the marker to the bank entrance had been removed!

As we approached the entrance we noticed a fisherman in a small skiff. He most graciously directed us to the “proper” opening and we were on our way across the bank and 47 nautical miles to Walkers. Scattered across the bank in what otherwise is relatively shallow water (12 feet) are spotted lightly colored almost white areas or patches of a couple hundred feet. To the novice (I had been foretold) these could be quite disconcerting as they give the impression of a shoal. As their name “Fish mud” implies these areas are supposedly the result a large school of bottom feeding fish that stir up the sand giving the water a milky color. In reality there is no change in depth, so we kept right on cruising (22 knots).

The approach to Walkers Cay is a bit tricky especially for the first timer as there is lots of sand shoals in the area. The markers (notice I didn’t say channel markers) were of some help but the high sun and eye balling did the trick. Also to confirm my track was a larger fly bridge cruiser ahead of me feeling his way through the shoals. This is when a fly bridge or tower is really appreciated.

We arrived by 2:30 and as always the first thing we did is fuel up (just 60 gal). One reason I fill up upon arrival is that you can only fill either arriving or at departure (common sense - right?). One of the two could have a problem , especially in the islands. Power failures are a regular happening effecting the gas pumps. Another common occurrence, the supply barge might be a few days late. But more often than not is there are too many boats in line when you want to leave, (especially when in a hurry to beat the weather). So, if the pumps are working and there is no line, I fuel up upon arrival.

We noticed a couple of Bahamians fishing just off the rocks behind the docks protective sea wall. They seemed to be doing quite nicely, and without having anything further to do, I followed suit. And sure enough: two sizable Sheephead for dinner. I have to admit a bit of embarrassment at this point. Here we just arrived at the sport fishing capital of the Bahamas and we relegated to sheephead instead of Wahoo, Dolphin (Mahi Mahi) or Tuna. What the heck, we’re living off the land and its only our first night in the Bahamas.

Paul & I went exploring the island and came across a ramshackle place called Aqua Marine Research. Further determination concluded it was a Tropical Fish Farm with posted no trespassing signs. With Paul's background we decided we had an excuse to enter and so did. Shortly a woman addressed us and wondered what we were doing here. Paul explained his background, our situation and surprise to find this place hidden away on this island. Further conversation broke the ice completely because of PaulÕs earlier association with her boss who walked up to greet Paul.

They were breeders of Clown Fish (later to be known as Nemo) for the tropical fish market. Yes 85% of there business was in Clown Fish with the balance being zebra and other fish. It got me to thinking this is a lot more practical than fish farming cat fish or salmon. I really don't know the economics but it seamed like a lot more fun especially in this island setting. They showed us their operation and bid us farewell.

Walking back to the resort down WalkerÕs runway we came across a melted Lear Jet in the trees at the side of the runway. Yes, melted, parts of which looked like silver puddles in the rocks. The melted aluminum I presume. Walkers has a most notorious runway with a minimum of footage for a lear jet. IÕve heard about frequent crashes here and now saw the aftermath of one that crashed,caught fire and burned only a week prior to our arrival.

Our timing couldn’t have been better we arrived at Walkers between two tournaments which afforded us the slip space in the first place. We fished during the second day trolling a couple of rigged ballyhoo and caught one yellow fin tuna. Now we’ll really eat in style. Please understand I’m not a pro, so even one fish of this caliber is a big deal and a real meal.

The fourth day we left and headed south to the next island. Again it’s a little tricky getting in. Use common sense or ask someone for advice. Grand Cay is inhabited by the native folks who work at Walkers. The main (and only) attraction is Rosie’s restaurant. Here you can dine on all of the native dishes one might expect in these waters. For our dinner we had the combination of them all! Turtle steak, cracked conch, grilled grouper and lobster tail. The side dishes were the traditional island coleslaw, beans and rice and macaroni and cheese. What a feast.


Longboat Key to Green Turtle Cay (Abaco Bahamas)
- - - Part 3 - - -

At Grand Cay we anchored out so we did the precautionary thing: set two anchors, with mask and snorkel we made certain. It’s a good thin we did. About 10 o’clock a squall kicked up and we started swinging. After checking that all was well, we went below. From my bunk, looking up, I could confirm our position because as we would swing I’d see the anchor light on a nearby sailboat and in the other direction the glow to Rosie’s restaurant light. Every hour or so my eyes would open to verify. Then about 2:30 or so the sailboat’s light was gone! “Yipes! We must be dragging”. I jumped up and ran out to check our position in the pitch dark and rain. Thankfully it wasn’t us but the sailboat. They had dragged completely across the harbor and grabbed hold just feet short of the old concrete fuel dock. The next morning while having breakfast I heard the commotion across the harbor as the folks in the sailboat awoke. Shortly after breakfast we got under way and headed to my home away from home Green Turtle Cay where my wife would be joining us in a few days and we would check into a room leaving Paul with the boat for himself for a while.

These cays are strung out like pearls on the ocean side of Little & Great Abaco. On the outside and often between these cays are some of the most beautiful coral reefs between here and South America.

We had a 68 nautical mile trip ahead of us requiring about 6 course changes to avoid such places as strangers shoal and center of the world rocks all of which are in plane sight. After about 45 miles the island of Abaco starts to appear to starboard. To port are the cays of Moraine, Allans and Powell. These cays are strung out like pearls on the ocean side of Little & Great Abaco. On the outside and often between these cays are some of the most beautiful coral reefs between here and South America. Passage between these islets and the fishing grounds outside can only be made at a few select locations. Because of this, we have decided to stay on the inside on our way down to Green Turtle.

We are now abreast of Nunjack or Manjack (it goes by both names) and traveling along with us are with a couple of other boats that joined us along the way. We are all headed for the Green Turtle Club just minutes away on the next island. At this point I radioed ahead to the dock master Poley for slip assignment then moseyed up White Sound to the club. The excitement got to me a while back so I really hit the gas for the last twenty miles and that’s at Bahamian prices! ($2.10 a gal) Yipe, ‘ bet we were doing close to 30 (knots) and our load is still pretty heavy.

Out first stop after check in was to the bar to see my two favorite bartending ladies Jerry & Debbi and of course imbibe in a long awaited Tipsy Turtle. That’s the club version of the Goombay Smash. I can attest, a couple of them will do the job for which they are intended.

Suffice it to say it is at Green Turtle that our trip really began. For the next three weeks we explored, fished, and dove in the area and the rest of the cays southward all the way down to Little Harbor. We stopped for some minor provisioning at the “thriving metropolis” of Marsh Harbor, Abaco’s commercial hub and the Bahamas 3rd city after Nassau and Freeport . We eventually wound up back at Green Turtle where we spent our last night before heading home.

Every Wednesday night at the Club the band from Roosters Rest a bar / restaurant in town (New Plymouth), comes to play. It was the perfect send off for a dream come true. Thursday morning we departed and made it back to West End a trip of 97 miles. There was Stephen at the fuel dock. The next morning returned to Florida via the St. Lucie Inlet and Stuart. We arrived at our port of entry the Sailfish Marina (no relation with the one from which we left) at ten o’clock. Customs check was as simple as a phone call which it was. We fueled up and were on our way to Clewiston.

From Clewiston we left early and with one pit stop in Ft. Myers, made it home to Longboat Key for dinner. Along the way I used my cellular phone to advise my wife who had flown on ahead of our return and to plan a dinner out.

Looking back I ask myself what I would do differently now having the experience behind me. For one, I love the speed and shallow draft advantages of my boat, but if I’m going to make a habit of this, which I hope to I’ll have to increase my size somewhat. At the same time decrease my fuel consumption a lot. The fuel charges alone were over $2000! That is for a month, most of which was at Bahamian prices. May proved to be the perfect month; the crowds haven’t arrived and the bugs haven’t either. The evenings are cool, and there were few lightning squalls to worry about. Occasionally you might however have to lay up for a day or two if planning a long haul trip or crossing the stream. The next time I would continue the adventure southward to the northern Cays of Eleuthera, and return by the southern circle route via Great Harbour Cay, Bimini then to Miami around the southern tip of Florida through the Keys and up the Gulf coast to Longboat.

Author invites any inquiries on E-Mail care of:

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Authors update: This was written in the fall of 1993 and published in the newsletter of the Sarasota Boat Club. Many places are no longer there or have changed hands (Jack Tarr Marina & Walkers Cay Club). 1993 was effectively the first year of working GPS. Although I had one aboard, it’s technology was still suspect with many still depending on loran. 1993 was also the dawn of practical use of the internet. Once I gained the savvy, this tale was posted to the Boating/Cruising Newsgroup. And Finally. 1993 was prior to the age of Digital Cameras hence the lack of picts here. Yes I took some 35MM shots which were scanned and posted later in other journals.

Here she be, Motu Iti the 1st (of three) with is home port of Setauket N.Y. on its transom. (Where purchased before moving to Fla. in 1990). We are docked at the Green Turtle Club. That's our inflatable too. - Click pict to enlarge. Completely by coincidence, The Phoenix Corporation was sponsoring the fishing tournament and the first prize was a 29’ Phoenix like mine. Our boat as it turned out to be the "display model".

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Later trips followed. eventually in a new 34' Catalina Islander powered by twin Cummins 250's. Then I scalled back and bought a 26' Glacier Bay Catamaran and made two trips,
one solo All were named Motu Iti..

The 1997 trip report

My 2000 Solo / 2002 Trip.

Sandy's Abaco Guide