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Cruising in tune, but not in touch, with the bottom

2007 March 17
It was eons ago that I was introduced to sailing in the Bahamas, but the culture shock was so intense I still remember every jot and tittle of the experience. I stepped from a crowded Nassau quay onto the weathered deck of a schooner named Heron firm in the belief that the ground beneath the sea was a sailor's enemy, a dread peril to be kept as distant as possible from vulnerable keels and hulls. After a week of sailing with the bottom as a constant companion, I had learned not just to live with shallow water, but to appreciate it as a stimulating enhancement of the pleasure of sailing. I was reminded of that lesson and the rewards of thin-water cruising when I returned to the Bahamas this winter.

The boat this time around was a brand-new Jeanneau 42-footer, a stylish cruiser whose French curves wrapped around a dazzling collection of luxurious amenities. It was, in short, a far cry from Heron. The schooner was nearly 40 years old when I sailed on her, and her oak, pine and spruce showed it. Yet she was well maintained and sound-the dip of her sheerline still a smooth arc-and I could see why she was said to be one of John G. Alden's favorite designs. Though everything about the 65-foot boat seemed oversize and slightly rough in the way of the fishing schooners that inspired the design, Heron was lively and fast as we reached away from Nassau, bound for the Exumas.

The bottom was-literally-far from my mind as we surged over the Tongue of the Ocean; the purple-blue water was more than a mile deep. But later when Heron bounded over the edge of the Great Bahama Bank, the bottom rose from some 6,000 feet away to less than 20, and suddenly I was looking over the schooner's husky bulwark-aghast-at terrestrial details magnified through the lens of the pellucid water.

Sailing a 50-ton sailboat at 9 knots in a robust breeze over a bottom that in some places was only a couple of feet beneath the keel was shock to the system of a deep-water sailor. All the more so because the man in charge of this seemingly reckless behavior, Heron's owner and master John Weeks, was as careful a seaman as I've ever sailed with. A salty-looking character in his classic whaler's beard and broad-brimmed straw hat, Weeks was the type of sailor who, to protect the vessel that probably represented most of his net worth, would spend two hours executing the perfect Bahamian moor in the tidal cut between a pair of sand bars at Warderick Wells, much of the time with his bulky form in a small dingy transporting a clumsy Paul Luke stock anchor.

An aside: Heron, to give you an idea of the times I'm recalling here, was alone in that splendid place. Today, Warderick Wells is part of a national park and is one of the most crowded cruising destinations in the Bahamas, so much so that anchoring is not allowed. It is crammed almost nightly with 22 boats on the 22 moorings provided.

I finally realized that Weeks could go so boldly over the Bank because he knew virtually every inch of the water he sailed. The Bahamas embrace some of the most sailed-over salt water on earth, and their piloting secrets have long ago been revealed. Weeks knew them so well I never saw him consult a chart. He sure didn't use GPS.

I, on the other hand, was delighted to have a big-screen GPS chartplotter in the cockpit of the boat that re-introduced me to sailing in close company with the bottom, this time the bottom of the Little Bahama Bank in the Sea of Abaco. Still, when it came to poking around close to cays and sneaking into coves, inlets and anchorages, the old schooner way-eyeball navigation-was more comfortable and, surprisingly, in some instances more reliable.

Bob Scott, manager of the Florida Yacht Charters base at Marsh Island in the Abacos, blames GPS for some of the boats returned to him with dinged keels and worse. "The problem," he said, "is that some people come down here and fill the chartplotter with waypoints and then get so wrapped up in finding them on the screen they forget to look outside of the boat."

I followed his advice and spent a lot of time looking outside of the boat, particularly at the landmarks described in cruising guides that offer directions for getting into just about every nook and cranny in the Bahamas-"steer for the yellow house with the satellite dish . . . turn to starboard when you're lined up with the narrow concrete road"-and navigating
by looking at the ever-present bottom.

It was confirmed that this was a good idea when entering the one-boat-wide passage into the harbor at Man o' War Cay-the GPS showed the boat sailing on dry land. It seems there are some inaccuracies in the ancient English charts of the Bahamas that have been converted for electronic use.

After a week in the Abacos, I was once more thoroughly in tune with the bottom. Spiritually in tune that is, not physically-I managed to always keep a bit of water between the Jeanneau's winged keel and the ground. And in the process I rediscovered a dramatic visual dimension of sailing that is missing in deep water. The nearby bottom infuses the water with reflected light and color. In the Abacos, it painted the sea with turquoise that glowed with such intensity it looked electrically charged.

I was reminded too of a more practical advantage of shallow water: It makes anchoring, an annoying chore at best in deeper water, a snap.

As for Heron, the name lives on in a wood schooner built in 2003 from the plans used for the original in 1929, but I have no idea what became of the boat that introduced me to shallow-water sailing. Maybe a schooner buff among our readers will be able to tell me. I certainly hope I don't hear that she fetched up on a Bahamas sandbar. The Bahamian bottom, after all, is there to look at, but not to touch.