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The Soul of the Abacos

2022 September 1

A cruising crowd revisits their favorite Bahamas haunts and finds that much has changed, but the sailing, picturesque water and friendly people remain the same

A lot has changed in the three years since our group of chartering friends traveled together, and that held true for both our Bahamas destination and us. We booked this charter knowing that the Abacos would not be the same, but we did not realize that we, and our perspective, would change too. On our last trip, we were looking for swim-up bars and drinks with umbrellas and local seafood in multiple courses for dinner. Now, we were thrilled with an onboard meal consisting of a frozen lasagna, a jar of pickles and ice-cold Kalik. Our cohesive group of two sisters and one cousin, along with spouses, was eager to get away from a Midwest spring that felt more like winter, and the feelings of anxiety that extended winter brings. 

Andrea takes a break from taking photos and is on turtle watch instead.
Ebley Creative photo

Hurricane Dorian struck the Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane in September of 2019. The post-Dorian Bahamas has to be viewed through a new lens. We couldn’t assume anything would be the same. The Cruiser’s Net VHF radio broadcast is defunct, the majority of restaurants are shuttered, the charter company we had booked through, Cruise Abaco, lost its entire fleet, and the availability of everything from moorings to milk is questionable. Taken out of context, that may sound like a depressing way to start a vacation. But in the right context, it actually set the ideal tone for our memorable, if not postcard-worthy vacation.  

Even before we landed in Marsh Harbor, we knew the landscape had changed. While some buildings have been rebuilt, mounds of debris were visible on many streets. The area sustained floodwaters in excess of 20 feet when Dorian dumped water on the low-lying island for days. The saltwater killed off much of the vegetation, leaving bare tree trunks standing like a scene from a Mad Max film. Our taxi driver told us about the airport being completely underwater, and the road to the airport being impassable for days while downed trees were moved out of the way. Today, the airport is operating at normal capacity, as is the Abaco Beach Resort with newly rebuilt docks. 

My earliest memories of the Abacos include my favorite restaurant, Wally’s in Marsh Harbor. It closed in 2019 when Dorian hit and, as luck would have it, reopened the day before we visited in April. While the service wasn’t exactly speedy, the smiles of the employees were extra wide, and the conch burger continues its reign as the best cracked conch dish I’ve ever eaten. 

Up and down Bay Street there is a constant sound of construction. The Conch Inn Marine and Resort is a hub of activity, with only the pool completed, but the rest will follow soon. The other charter bases are also in this area, and as the docks are rebuilt, they are returning as well. Nestled in amongst the new construction is a small and serene memorial garden, dedicated to those who lost their lives as a result of Dorian. 

The lighthouse in Hope Town withstood the impact of Dorian and stands as a literal beacon of hope for the residents and visitors to Elbow Cay.
Ebley Creative photo

Cruise Abaco has rebuilt strategically and currently operates a fleet of nearly 20 boats.  It has a unique business model, with its “captained by day, bareboat by night,” that allows for a professional responsible for navigating, piloting and mooring, which makes for a relaxing evening after a fun low-stress day of sailing. 

As this was our first charter in several years, we elected to have a captain join us for the first day. Britt was happy to join us aboard the beautifully appointed and spacious Fountaine Pajot Lucia 40 catamaran for our trip to Hope Town, although he didn’t seem as excited about heading out as we did.

“If it were up to me, I’d stay here and enjoy the pool and wait a day for the wind to die down,” Britt said. We were seeing some gusts that were more than we’d anticipated, but the rest of us were eager to put a few miles in and start exploring. So we put in the second reef, unfurled a pillowcase-sized portion of the jib, and headed east towards the unmistakable landmark at Elbow Reef. 

We found a mooring and after securing the boat, we relaxed in the protected harbor. After a celebratory beer, we ran Britt ashore so he could catch a ferry back to Marsh Harbor, and we explored Hope Town on foot. Elbow Cay experienced damaging winds and rain, but not the flooding that Marsh Harbor had.  While the wine bar where I’d celebrated my birthday years ago was long gone, Vernon’s Grocery was still going strong, complete with fairly well-stocked shelves and corny jokes for all who entered. 

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