The Abaco Islands, of the Family Islands of the Bahama Islands

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(The Abaco Islands)

The greatest natural killer in the Bahamas has always been hurricanes. After the Category 5 Hurricane Dorian that recently devastated the Abacos Islands, and is the most powerful storm on record to assault the Bahamas (making a direct hit on the Abaco Islands), I thought I would write about the Abacos for those that haven’t been there (yet).

The Bahamas have thousands of miles of breath-taking coral reefs,that stretch over 100,000 square miles of waters, called “bajamar” (shallow sea) by Spanish explorers. The Abacos are about 700 islands, approximately 30 being populated, while about 2,400 are cays (coral reefs), and some are privately maintained. Located east of Grand Bahama Island, the Abacos are home to superb marinas, with sheltered, safe harbors alongside offshore cays. Well-known as the Sailing Capital of the Bahamas, Abaco is a sportsman’s dream and hosts renowned sailing regattas and sport fishing competitions.

The most northerly of the Family Islands, the Abacos are also called the Out Islands and are a 130-mile chain of islands.  The outer islands form a protective barricade to the Sea of Abaco, and outstanding beaches fringe the islands. The primary Family Islands are Abaco, Acklins and Crooked Island, Andros, the Berry Islands, the Biminis, Cat Island, Crooked, Eleuthera, the Exumas, Harbour, Inagua, Long Island, Mayaguana, San Salvador, and Spanish Wells.

Bordered on one side by the world’s third-longest barrier reef, and on the other side by the world-class fishing flats of the Great Bahamas Bank, Andros continues remote and undeveloped. Divers and snorkelers appreciate the coral gardens and caves, shipwrecks, and fantastic ocean blue holes, a supreme encounter being a wall starting at 80 feet and spreading down for 6,000 feet more. 

My husband Lloyd and I are on the luxurious “Wind Star” sailing ship, built in Le Havre, France, and weighing 5,350 tons. We are experiencing the hidden Bahamas, while cruising the “Yachtsman’s Bahamas,” sailing from New Providence (Nassau) to Andros, Abaco, San Salvador, Little San Salvador, Grand Bahama, and Bimini. In contrast to the showiness of Nassau (New Providence Island) and Freeport (Grand Bahama Island), are these peaceful, unspoiled and isolated islands, with no crowds. We are headed for Green Turtle Cay, one of the barrier islands of mainland Great Abaco, in the 775 square miles of the Abaco Islands.

In 1986, Windstar Sail Cruises introduced an imaginative and innovative ship and was named “the most unique and delightful cruise experience afloat” in Fielding’s Worldwide Cruises Guide. Three sister ships were designed for only 148 passengers – the “Wind Star,” “Wind Song” (which we sailed on along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica and Panama and their islands), and “Wind Spirit,” a new conception in nautical design. Each ship is 440 feet long, with triangular, self-furling sails, having 21,500 square feet of surface area, rising magnificently 305 feet above the sea, combined, for the first time, with state-of-the-art computer technology, with the adventure of a sailing vessel.

Windstar specializes in small ports and less-traveled regions, and maneuvers into shallow bays, dropping anchor off isolated sandy cays, which passengers on the super-ships can only see from a distance. The Windstar belief is to establish a supreme way to see the world, not on a floating hotel but on a luxurious sailing vessel.   And so, we sailed to glittering island hideaways, many never visited by a cruise ship. 

We sailed, cutting easily through the water, to sparkling island retreats, many unpeopled and never visited by a cruise ship, on our luxurious “Wind Star.” We anchored at Green Turtle Cay, a small island positioned off the northeast coast of the Abacos. 

A Genoese sailor discovered the Bahamas in 1492, depopulated by the Spanish, resettled by Bermudian adventurers, and held hostage by groups of buccaneers. After the Spanish captured the indigenous Arawak Indians for slave labor in the early 1500s (shipping them off to labor and death in Hispaniola and Cuba sugar mills), the islands were abandoned for over a century. The Spaniards did not settle here, and King Charles I of England, conceded the island to England.

The British began settling in the mid-1600s, but, because of the scourge of pirates and raids by the Spanish and French, it was the late 18th century before the Crown’s sovereignty was recognized. England reigned until 1782 when Spain seized the islands. The Treaty of Versailles returned them to England in 1783. In the 17th and 18th centuries, the islands became an ideal pirate’s liar and a base for slave traders.

American Loyalists were escaping the Revolution in 1783, settled on Abaco in 1785, passing on their boat building and fishing talents. The inhabitants now make a living diving for sponges, exporting lobster and fish, and tourism. Their offspring still live here, in small boat-building towns, Man-O-War Cay being the nation’s boat-building center. 

Throughout the Civil War blockade-rum-running, the islands surged during the American Civil War (1861-1865), as a trading point for outbound southern cotton and inbound guns. Bahamians helped ships from the Confederacy run the blockade enforced by the north, and during the Prohibition era, Bahamians ran liquor to our seashores. 

Our “Wind Star” Sillinger Zodiacs ran continuously to the beach (Green Turtle Bay is known for its beaches), and our tenders took Lloyd and me on the 45-minute ride to the pier for the tiny village of New Plymouth, the main community on Green Turtle Cay,  founded in the 18th century. In 1977, Key West, Florida, became a sister city to New Plymouth. There is no airport here, and it can only be reached from the mainland by ferry or boat.

Part of the “Abaco Out Islands,” it is 3 miles long and one-half a mile wide. The village can be strolled in less than 15 minutes from end to end. Cars are permitted here, but golf carts and bicycles are the typical modes of transportation. Green Turtle Cay was named after the once plentiful green turtles that used to occupy the area.  Green Turtle Cay is a stopover-point for southbound vessels during interludes of rough seas in the Whale Cay Passage.

Predominantly a picturesque little fishing village, we saw New England-style salt-box houses. Lloyd and I walked along narrow flowered lanes, meandering between rows of neat little clapboard cottages, with steep-peaked roofs (originating from New England settlers), and white picket fences.

It was interesting to see how the islanders collected water from their rain gutters into cisterns, and we noticed an auxiliary airplane fuel tank, being used to collect rainwater. 

Lloyd and I went to the old Loyalist Cemetery and saw weathered headstones dating back to the 1780s. Of interest is the Loyalist Memorial Sculpture Garden, with 24 busts of important Bahamians, around a central pair of life-sized bronze figures of loyalist women. 

The most visited attraction here is the Albert Lowe Museum, which we found housed in an attractive 168-year-old white clapboard two-story house. We saw an excellent assemblage of carved ship models, and displays tracing the history of the Abaco Islands. 

We noticed that the Abacos have an English feeling, thanks to the welcome given during Revolutionary days. English is the language, more British than American, with musical rhythm and interesting influences from Africa, and the Indians who first lived here.

Some of us went to the well-known Miss Emily’s Blue Bee Bar and had the famous Goombay Smash. Others went to the Wrecking Tree Restaurant or Bent Reckley’s Sea Garden Club.  Except for the exception of fruit, vegetables, and fish, most food is imported. 

Only 50 miles across the Gulf Stream from the east coast of Florida, the Westernmost islands are a simple excursion for yachtsmen.  They also are a suitable relay point for smugglers, running drugs up from the Caribbean and South America, to the shoreline along Florida’s gold coast, which is hopeless to police. Charts of these waters had never been drawn, and there were no lighthouses in the Bahamas until 1836.

Most of the islanders made their livelihoods from the seas – from salvage from the numerous ships wrecked on the reefs around the islands, from privateering, and sporadic piracy.  The piratical wreckers showed artificial lights at night, to attract ships onto rocks and shoals, then collected the ship’s cargo. Additional ships were lost in storms and sunk on concealed reefs.

Stories of sunken treasure, off the southwest tip of Great Abaco Island, have generated fame and modern-day explorers. Seventeen Spanish treasure galleons sank off the coast of Treasure Cay in 1595. Numerous 17th-century Spanish coins were discovered, and a 72-pound silver bar ascertained as belonging to King Philip IV of Spain and valued at $20,000. 

Lloyd and I took one of our comfortable tenders back to our “Wind Star.” We departed this unspoiled island, with its historic settlement of old-world charm, and set sail, relaxing on her teak decks, enjoying the trade winds that guarantee good sailing conditions all year. We felt the soundless surge of her large high-tech sails filling with wind, as we leisurely sailed towards the island of San Salvador.

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