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Devil’s Backbone!


This eletter describes our adventures on and around a cluster of islands at the north tip of Eleuthera Island. Many consider them part of the 100-mile long island; but as with every other area of The Bahamas, these islands have their own character and a collective ‘feeling’ that is unique.


In 1648 the first white permanent settlers came to the Bahamas from Bermuda to escape English politics. These “Eleutheran Adventurers” were joined during the American Revolt by English loyalists escaping American politics. I guess this is the place to come if you hate politics!


The Arawak culture and the last of the Arawak Indians (the Lucayans) had been decimated decades before by the maraudering and enslavement orchestrated by the Conquistadors. The islands were almost uninhabited, but this long, skinny island at the eastern edge of main part of The Bahamas was well known and somewhat charted. Unfortunately for the ship of the Eleutheran Adventurers, a massive coral reef off the north shore was NOT charted, and caused them to wreck there. This reef is now known as The Devil’s Backbone, and provides passage from Spanish Wells on St. George Cay over to Dunmore Town on Harbour Island.


The Adventurers were not put off by the destruction of their ship – heck, they were in Paradise! So after a spell in a large cave on the north coast, they set up the first Bahamian capitol half-way down Eleuthera at Governor’s Harbour; Many stayed at Spanish Wells and Harbour Island and their descendants live there yet. Lots of 18th Century buildings still stand, and the attitudes and personalities are very old-fashioned by “modern” standards. Physical isolation has retarded the character of this place from becoming the “I want it now”, wasteful, polluting society of “civilization”. Hallelujah for the Eleutheran Adventurers!


Spanish Wells is accessible from another route, but Harbour Island has no other approach for deep-draft vessels (such as Windigo) except for The Devil’s Backbone. Reports of its completely attractive nature, along with my enjoyment of navigational challenges (see Terra Ceia Bay in: http://www.ciekurzis.org/Circumnavigation%20of%20Tampa%20Bay/Circumnavigation%20of%20Tampa%20Bay.htm), caused us to embark on the Eleutheran Adventure of transiting the Devil’s Backbone . . . minus the shipwreck part!


The History of the Land.


Although controversial, I am convinced Christopher Columbus made first landfall on the islets of North Eleuthera (missing the reef!). Referring to his slightly cryptic log and seeing these places with my own eyes, it could be the only place.


The Good Peoples.


The national elections were happening during the last eletter, and I promised to reveal the results this time, so here are my observations:


PLP and Perry Christie are out. Seems the peoples admire the leadership qualities of FNM’s Hubert Ingraham, who is the new Prime Minister of The Bahamas (again, after a ten-year PLP majority). The guy IS an intense leader; if his jaw were set any more firm, he wouldn't talk! Man, oh man, the Bahamian politicians LOVE to talk . . . and LOUD!!

So I have chatted with the original participants of 'The Struggle' and young people looking for change and many community leaders and guys on the street, and in the end it is probably good that balance in Parliament shifts every election or two just as it is with the Democraps and Ripublicans. Too long in power and they forget why they are there.

All in all, accounting for the recent independence; settling of the economy based on banking & tourism [and away from drug-running]; huge requirements of infrastructure improvement; remote sparsely populated islands and crowded, dirty, overdeveloped ones = I see that the peoples of The Bahamas are doing just fine. It will take a while before things are GREAT, but many areas are definitely going in the right direction.


The Map.


 I am doing something different this eletter to give a visual perspective of the voyage around North Eleuthera. I have devised a Map with links to pictures placed exactly where the photos were taken.


Right off, I want to acknowledge that the chart is a bit busy, and the photos are not of the quality I wish; but my primary camera stopped working. So the next two eletters will be adorned by shots from the underwater camera. Sorry that they are not breathtaking, but you’ll get the idea. [I will have a good camera once again for the photos of the grandbabies on Andros – OH BOY!]


So I have minimized the ‘story’ of this part, and you can see photos by just clicking on an arrow on The Map (or a ‘fish’ for the underwater pix, or a ‘caving helmet’ for pix of Preacher’s Cave). The blue lines are the tracks that Windigo sailed, the red lines are the tracks that Pedigo traveled, the yellow lines are cycling on Russel Island and St. George’s Cay (Spanish Wells), the green lines are cycling on Harbour island, and the brown/yellow lines are cycling on Eleuthera proper.


The Trip.


Coming from Rose Island (next to Nassau) we first stayed in the tiny harbour at Royal Island, which we celebrated with PIZZA! (Just SE of there is Egg Island, the most likely site of Columbus’ first anchorage and exploration in the New World.) A very narrow, rocky entrance leads to a great natural harbour. The island is totally private with nothing to see on land so we spent the entire time in the water! (Underwater photos: 1  2  3  4  5  6 )


We took a 14-mile voyage on Pedigo (that long red line) during a calm day around Russel Island and through the “Harbour” [channel] at Spanish Wells.


Bringing Windigo to the east end of Spanish Wells we explored the city and did some repairs, awaiting the perfect weather to transit The Devil’s Backbone. It turns out that although you wouldn’t want to sail around aimlessly amongst the coral heads of The Devil’s Backbone, with proper preparation and study, and calm, sunny weather, the route is wide and easy to spot. In fact, after being through it both ways in good conditions, I would transit it in less-than-ideal conditions; but NO ONE would want to sail through there in unsettled weather!


Once to Harbour Island, we enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere, walking the beach, cycling the back roads and did a Pedigo/snorkeling trip out to Pear Rock (that other red line). Harbour Island is idyllic, with centuries-old buildings and brand new mansions on the beach. The developments are severely controlled to keep from wrecking the island, and even cars are limited = to get a new one on the island, another must leave! Bimini should be so lucky: [http://www.ciekurzis.org/The%20Bimini%20Islands/The%20Bimini%20Islands.htm].

The old and the new on the island don’t conflict too badly because they are not crowded together, and there is still a little room for your retirement home!


We began the exploration of the Island of Eleuthera from the west side of the harbour here, and cycled across to see Preacher’s Cave ( 1  2  3  4  5  6  7 ) where Karin & I renewed our wedding vows on our anniversary. We did it up in the ‘balcony’ and Karin wore her finest Bahamian clothing from the Androsia factory on Andros.


We also looked at Spanish Wells from across the way, and even went down to scout Current Cut. This deep channel next to a town called ‘Current’ lives up to the title by having a six-knot flow of water through it four times a day. Time it wrong for a passage and you may not make it! [We timed it just right.]


Upon leaving Harbour Island I decided I needed another challenge, so I navigated the channel around the south end of the island. This channel is reported to be only five-feet deep and impassable for Windigo’s seven-foot draught; but with advanced navigation skills [not to mention advanced electronics that gave me the track for commercial ships through the pass AND a huge fishing tournament that placed extra navigation buoys in the channel] I was able depart through this entrance.


Going this way back to Spanish Wells afforded us a look at both the islets from Columbus’ point-of-view and the Devil’s Backbone from seaward. It is very intimidating from this side, and I thank the original Eleutheran Adventurers for warning me of its presence.


Still not having enough of the role of the Adventurer, I opted for sailing around the south side of Charles Island when departing Spanish Wells. This completely shallow course could only be sailed by Windigo in the highest of tides and proved to be more of a challenge than the south route out of Harbour Island or The Devil’s Backbone; probably because we prepared so completely for those passages and this one was just about timing and being REAL careful. A short stay at Royal Island again (nice place!), zipping through Current Cut (at the right time), and some heavy weather sailing in a fresh breeze put us along the coast at Upper & Lower Bogue and our final anchorage in the far north of Eleuthera at the Glass Window.


Cycling Notes.


I cycled 100 miles in historic Spanish Wells and on St. George’s Cay and Russel Island. Although Spanish Wells is crowded in a European sort of way, Russel Island seems to have a good development plan and is very nice.


Karin & I cycled and hiked over the entirety of Harbour Island, even getting invited into one of the mansions in the development at the south end of the island. Like Spanish Wells, the ancient town is crammed full of houses, shops, hotels, and life, but the outlying developments are controlled in good way = the south 135 acres of the island has only 30 lots, the last of which is being built on right now. That’s it!


Upon cresting the first hill on North Eleuthera proper, I was struck by how it reminded me of the rolling terrain of Wisconsin. [The entirety of Eleuthera is that way = up & down hills and cliffs up to 100 feet high – very unlike The Bahamian cycling I have done previously. I gave me a very good feeling of nostalgia and a good cycling workout.]


Cruising Notes.  (or The Devil’s Backbone Is NOT For All Cruisers.)


Every reference to The Devil’s Backbone in every cruising guide or advertisement I have seen has INSISTED a pilot is NECESSARY for you first in-shore transit of the reef. Being a contrary sort of fellow, and trusting navigation skills born in The Great Lakes and honed in The Gulf of Mexico shallows and The Bahamas so far, I believed I could sail from Spanish Wells to Harbour Island on my own. So I did. But I did extensive homework using the charts, Karin & I both practiced reading the color of the water (crucial for navigation here and in The Caribbean), and utilized all the sophisticated electronics carried aboard Windigo to augment my individual skills. Turns out one of the biggest confidence supporter was the commercial vessel tracks obtained on my AIS system. This system records the path taken by any commercial ship within 20-25 miles and displays it on the chart of my navigation computer program.


Even considering the AIS, I would do as the guide books say and not attempt this passage on your own without the maximum preparation under your belt. [What if the electronics bite the big one in the middle of the danger?] The path through The Devil’s Backbone is wide by my standards, but I am used to sailing around with an impossible draught of seven feet. I would hate to be wandering about in the area of hundreds of random shallow reefs in any kind of unsettled weather, braking seas, limited visibility, or without triple-redundant electronics and manual backup. [Case in point: just recently, we ‘bumped’ across the top of a coral head in an area of known scatter heads. We had just carefully transited a densely populated coral area without incident or great concern and I was complacent for 40 seconds before reaching deeper water. Luckily the stainless-steel shoe on Windigo’s keel took a scrape from the coral and we both came away with virtually no damage. Could have been worst and was certainly avoidable.]


Other notes:

Don’t freak out over the use of the VHF Marine radio band for shore-based and general communications. This practice has been in place for decades and will stay that way since cell phones cost 20¢ to 40¢ a minute. Certain channels are dedicated for certain uses and certain individuals. This is normal practice around all the outer islands of The Bahamas.


Royal Island offers good depth and great protection just west of the opening.


We anchored off the east end of Spanish Wells and were alone there while seven other boats crammed into the mooring field by Charles Island (which Is not quite deep enough for us). Put your dinghy anywhere along the wall!


Unsecured wireless internet is in the air just off Valentine’s Marina on Harbour Island. It is also a good anchorage and you can get closer than you think to the shore. Nice dinghy beach around the other side between Valentine’s and the Government Dock.


The south entrance of Harbour Island is not that big of a deal as long as you know where it is = it is a nice, long, curve. (Don’t attempt ANY Bahamian entrance with seas running into the harbour.)


The south path around Charles Island is trickier unless you have a draught of five-feet or less.


Current Cut is all about the timing of the tide. I would have tried to go straight east into The Bight of Eleuthera, but the wind was blowing 25+ and clouds obscured water-reading so I took the easier (but not simple!) path to the south [see Map].


Anchoring by Upper & Lower Bogue is nuts unless you can get quite close to shore. There is NO sand on top of a smooth rock seabed out where Windigo had to be. Not much protection there from anything but wind straight out of the north.


The Glass Window is a great side trip in the right weather, as is Annie Bight by Gregory Town.

Which brings us to the next eletter: The Rest Of Eleuthera.




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