In January we made out way back out to the Exumas and since it had been a while, settled on exploring some of our favorite spots again in the Exuma islands. On the first episode of ‘the Wanderbird Chronicles’, we lost crossed over to Norman’s Cay and immediately lost our starboard stabilizer in a wind storm.
Fortunately I was able to find it and retrieve it and we haded south down to Bitter Guana Cay, a quiet spot just south of the popular Staniel Cay and famous Pig Beach at Big Major. Paul met us there, choosing to avoid the trip crossing over from Florida and then our friends Charlie and Jeff came for a few days.
We cruised out to the Banks and anchored for a day and did some fishing and showed them all area hot spots. It’s nice when visitors are so willing to do everything and anything, from under water spelunking to spear fishing.
When they headed home motored south to Georgetown and spent some time enjoying the more developed island and re-discovered the ‘abandoned’ resort on Crab Cay.
All this and more on episode two of the Wanderbird Chronicles. If you’re a friend of Wanderbird, be sure to subscribe on YouTube for all the updates.
Luke discovered a local guy who, if I’m remember the story correctly, was an aircraft engineer who quit to build a better mousetrap, or this case, a better fish trap, or more specifically pole spear, spear guns and now, dive fins.
We were out in the Bahamas and Luke had to run back to Florida for a part for the boat, and while he was there he picked up a few new titanium pole spears. Not 30 seconds in the water I caught a beautiful snapper for dinner and a short time later a grouper that allowed us to feed everyone on board for a couple meals. The poles are longer, lighter, far less prone to any corrosion and way more effective at putting food on the table.
Once back in Florida we decided to upgrade our plastic free diving fins with the Black Reef Spearfishing carbon fiber fins. My first time trying them out, I decided to take the GoPro and do a quick review. To summarize – I’m loving the fins. They’re sleek and powerful and a real step up from my basic plastic fins.
I’m still working on the next two editions of the Wanderbird Chronicles – where we enjoy the company of friends and show them our favorite spots in the Exumas, then motor to the ends of the Bahamas and encounter a nasty storm that steals our anchor!
While out in the Bahamas last winter I took to trying to collect a bit more video to put together some stories about our times cruising the islands. It’s such a wild and unique experience. In my work I normally film and pass off the footage to the production and so I’m not burdened with the consuming work of editing. With this project I have to put in the time to tell the whole story. To collect the sound, choose the music, create narration.
It’s a highly self-reflexive process and one that takes me far too long to complete. As it is now July and here we have Episode 1: Lost Stabilizer in Bahamas Wind Storm.
It feels this way, here in the Jumento Cays. Like we’re on the edge of the world. Perhaps just by comparison to the Exumas, where we’ve spent most of our time. Near Staniel Cay there are mega yachts and swimming pigs and an occasional tour boat ripping past, dumping out screaming vacationers for their instagram moments. In Georgetown the string of mast lights could be a distant city skyline and we’ve often had to wait for traffic through the tunnel to reach Exuma Marketplace for provisions. We would revel at the occasional small, green turtle or nurse shark searching for scraps.
Out here at Flamingo Cay it’s hard to tell the difference between a cay or just a rock. The thin strip that make up the Jumentos runs North East from the Ragged Islands to Long Island. The West side is shallow, from 3 to 30 meters with corals scattered like an asteroid field. The east side drops immediately to hundreds of meters, then thousands. The deep waters and strong tides foster rich fishing grounds. We thought the sighting of a massive loggerhead turtle was a once-in-a-lifetime experience but after several others and some enormous green turtles, we realized it’s the nature of this place.
And then there are the sharks. Not the distinctive, flat, bottom dwelling nurse types, but larger, sleek reef sharks and maybe the occasional bull shark, though it’s hard to identify precisely when you’re doing all you can to remain still and calm and ignore the indelible reputation the media has imprinted on these predators. Fortunately it was tracking the school of fish that swam past and ignored me completely.
People rave about the bounty of the Bahamas. I heard a Florida local comment about how it reminds him how Florida ‘used to be’; so rich with fish, lobster and conch, ripe for the taking. The limits for lobster in the Bahamas is no more than 10 tails per person at a time. Several years ago on the White and Yellow banks of the Exumas we would find numerous rocks crawling with lobster. This year, after swimming many coral outcroppings on the same bank, we found a total of two lobsters – one was a female, not with eggs, but we still released it back, hopefully to bear more offspring.
In the Jumentos we did find many more, including a massive female with thousands of eggs (left to her business) and ledges teaming with spiny antenna. The water is deeper and the current stronger and the entire process of snaring these creatures much more challenging. But commercial fisherman have no doubt mastered this and a few small boats passed our purview, no doubt loading up to return the bounty to hungry tourists up north. The fishing grounds have pushed out this way, to the edge of this world. Hopefully the endeavor is more sustainable than the Flamingos which once lived here, but are reportedly ‘good eating’ and all but relinquished to reserves on other islands.
As we fished and explored, we checked the weather often, as we do. Twenty five knot winds from the northeast; definitely not ideal on this thin strip. Flamingo Cay affords some protection as it run northeast itself with a few spurs to the west. The other boats bugged out, some to the north, presumably to Georgetown and others south to Buena Vista Cay. We’d seen far worse conditions and besides, our 350 pound anchors and monstrous chain had held us when Hurricane Michael grazed us in the Chesapeake. So we enjoyed the solace and near perfect, windless days. Grouper, snapper, lobster and sunsets that made us feel like we were on another planet. Massive underwater structures built by the tiniest of creatures fostered daydreams of alien worlds.
A short chat with the last remaining sailboaters in our surveyed bay confirmed our plan. They agreed this spot should be quite comfortable for the coming blow, though they were headed south on their journey. We settled in and I explored a nearby cave and beach. As the winds picked up into the night it appeared predictions were merely that – a best guess, even with advanced weather models.
Around 9pm the anchor alarm signaled that something was off. We checked the distant cliffs with the spot light and they appeared much less distant. The winds were far more North apparent than predicted, which in turn pushed us towards the rocks rather than into deeper water. Luke made the call, we had to move.
Moving the boat in the Bahamas can be a challenge in the best conditions, with coral heads littering the depths like sea mines, giving them their nickname ‘bommies’. When the winds are sustained at 40 knots and gusting higher with wind and rain, the situation could go from bad to worse. A quick mental assessment suggested that staying where we were could be disastrous.
Luke’s background in flight makes him an excellent captain, especially when it matters most. When this tempest hit, there was no support or help for at least 50 miles either direction. “Take a breath”. We both paused and prepared. Luke took the flybridge helm and I prepared to haul up the anchor. He applied power in bursts and started to move us away from shore with each cresting wave. Hauling hard on the anchor, it seemed to come quick and I assumed we were moving up on its position, but instead of the satisfying ‘clunk’ of the anchor resting into the pocket, the end appeared up the hoss pipe, a clean shackle on its end. The anchor was gone.
I yelled up to Luke and immediately prepared to let loose the port anchor as he repositioned the boat, both of us desperately hoping for enough luck to avoid any of those bommies. Once he was happy with our position he signaled and I released the brake on anchor number two with plenty of scope. We surveyed the area as best we could and settled down for a restless night waiting for the winds to let up.
By mid morning I was able to swim the area and could see our anchor had dragged a bit then taken unexpected bite in the unforgiving, sandstone bottom. The chain was hooked around a rock, not ideal, but secure and had held us through the night. We settled for a day and the following I swam the bay looking for fluke tracks in the sand, to follow them back to our starboard anchor. Sure enough it was there, the shackle blown apart. I secured a buoy and we waited another day for wind.
A few boats streamed in from the south, no doubt having ridden the storm in the better protected Buena Vista Cay to the south. We moved closer to the anchor and prepared a rescue operation. For about two hours, several sharks circled the boat, but when I went to attach a heavy line to haul up our anchor, they had gone and only a massive, green sea turtle came by to inspect, swimming casually, not three feet from me.
We hooked a line to the anchor and used the aft winch to haul it and boat along side each other. Luke deployed the davit and minutes later the anchor was on the upper deck, secured for the trip home.
We’re thankful to have alarms and spotlights and dual anchors. It’s hard to imagine how sailors from years ago survived, but I’m reminded many did not, as I notice the wreckage of a sailboat just on shore near where our anchor rested several days. Our Starlink satellite connection continued to remain connected through the ordeal. Imagine, we could have live streamed. Every experience is a lesson learned.
Those of us that live on the water know this term well. We sculpt much of our lives around the weather.
We’re extremely lucky to have the technology we have today. GPS and advanced weather predictions help us make better, safer decisions. After the refit we had our usual pre departure scramble, though amplified by three years of parts and pieces to sort out. Each morning we refresh weather data on TimeZero, scan through different models on Windy and check the wave predictions on BuoyWeather.com. We weren’t planning a major crossing, 24 or so hours total run, across the gulf stream, past Bimini, a quick customs check in Nassau then a final pass over the bank to Staniel Cay.
All of this requires a few things to line up. The winds on the gulf stream should be light and from the south, lest they rake across the current and make for short period waves. The boat can handle quite a bit, but after a refit and not having run in a while, we preferred a comfortable crossing. Timing needs to be just right to make Nassau during custom’s office hours and allowing for a mid-morning, sunny departure to cross the bank; a shallow (12-20 feet deep) sandy stretch between Nassau and the Exumas that is littered with coral heads that can be within a foot or two of the surface and require good, vertical sunlight to see and avoid.
As we ran our errands, collecting parts for a few final projects, offloading various unneeded items to storage and a late night run to provision, we kept checkin the weather and watching lake-like conditions on the Atlantic gulf stream fading, our window shrinking.
Finally, we finished the preparations, well enough. A number of projects still open, to be finished along the way. We wound our way over the tunnel, down the New River, under the 17th street causeway. Terry, on the Lauderdale water taxi, expressed her joy at seeing us moving again; and offered to come along as a deck hand, not knowing it was no day cruise, but an open-ended departure.
A collective sigh of relief as we passed the port and out to sea, the auto-pilots working ‘well enough’ but still in need of tuning. The sun set behind Miami and Fort Lauderdale, dark encroaching from the east and the stars rose over Bimini as we passed just north of the island in the night. Across the familiar, shallow bank, shoal markers, Bahamas freighters passing in the night, until the towers of Atlantis appeared on the horizon along with the sun.
We found a temporary slip at the Yacht Haven marina in Nassau. Having completed the cumbersome registration process and payment online, we then had to wait an hour for a customs official to come to the boat simply to collect an additional fee. Another window ahead, was diminishing, but fortunately we departed just as the clouds opened and we could make our way south, across the banks and opted to anchor on the east side of Norm’s Cay, right at the edge of our weather window.
With the anchor set and the outriggers launched, Luke decided to try out using the paravanes as ‘flopper stoppers’ to stabilize the boat form the slight roll caused by the incoming swell. As the winds picked up to about 30 knots overnight, we slept, safe and sound. In the morning however, the line to the port ‘fish’ (paravane) was dangling in the wind.
I was happy to be in the water, albeit mission at-hand, to find the 50 pound, aluminum stabilizer plate somewhere on the seabed. The poor water clarity made the search tough, but after a couple hours I was able to locate and mark the escapee with a buoy, then return with a line to winch it from the seafloor. The plate was resting on a rock covered with coral, which was a bit disheartening as we try to avoid impacting the places we visit and carefully choose our anchorages. Coming in with growing winds, it was hard to see that there were a couple rocks in the area but after removing the paravane, I suspect the shackle pin broke free and the plate glided over to rest where it landed. The plates are designed to work as underwater gliders, balanced to fly through the water like a paper airplane.
With the winds, dying it’s on to Staniel Cay to meet Charlie and Jeff, in bound from the cold NorthWest.
With our three year refit coming to a close, we’re finally reaching the point where Wanderbird is ready for sea trials. The shake down cruise was under debate. The Bahamas were calling to us, but finally it was decided it was better to remain in easily towable waters, in proximity of all that Lauderdale has to offer for parts and repairs.
After an intense scramble to finish a few essential punch list items, provisioning and welcoming a few guests to help out, we had a smooth run out the New River on a busy ‘News Years Day observed’ Monday and down the coast to try to catch up with our good friends Chris and Amanda Weingarth, talented woodworker and canvas maker/yacht repair specialist respectively. They have both contributed to Wanderbird over the last few years and are the most upstanding and reputable in their fields with their company Weingarth Customs.
Having never taken Wanderbird south of Lauderdale along the Florida coast we were happy to have Chris and Amanda’s guidance and as we passed the unmistakable ‘Stilts-ville’ at the entrance of Biscayne Bay we were pleased to see a tender approaching fast, with open, welcoming arms, ready to pilot us into the anchorage.
No shake down is official without some issues, and they started as the anchor was set, thankfully in calm and serene conditions. The chain drive on port windlass made a loud ‘bang’ as a link decided it had simply had enough of this world. Fortunately we carry spare linkages and after an hour of greasy work, we were saved having to haul 300 pounds of anchor and 75 feet of very heavy chain by hand… again – which is a story from another trip, for another time.
After a restful evening and pancakes and coffee with the Weingarths and their friend, they headed north and we motored 12 miles south to Elliott Cay at their suggestion. With the tender in tow, we we dropped the hook just outside of the no-wake markers off the national park and I free dove to inspect the new raw sea water intake covers and running gear while Luke and Dave continued with projects and Justin reorganized the Galley.
In the morning we ran Paul to shore to get steps around the lovely national park while Dave, Luke and I went for a quick exploratory swim. We picked Paul up and in the small vessel harbor at the park when something erupted like a M-80 in the water, just behind the tender. We realized the harbor was full of Manatees and we were relieved that our inboard tender was merely a nuisance and not a danger to the beautiful animals as we moved carefully away to leave them to their grazing. 
By mid-day we were cruising north again, dead calm until we rounded out of Biscayne Bay and into some easterly winds that kicked up some mild seas on the beam, reminding us of all the little things that need to be secured to prevent clinking and clunking inside cupboards.
Up the new river in the evening, making the usual radio calls and hearing no reply, we encountered a water taxi passing the gondola on a blind corner, neither of which had responded to our security calls and Luke had to back down and hold to allow them to complete their maneuvers. It’s always shocking how few vessels monitor the essential channels 16 and 9 on the winding New River, particularly commercial vessels. The water taxi captain did come back and apologize saying his radio was ‘out of reach’. Best to keep that within reach when running on a river with sections with names like ‘Danger Bend’.
Back in Lauderdale we went back to work, preparing for the next adventure, further afoot, further afield.
We joke about the two week project that took two years. Two years and a month, to be exact.
On February 1st, Steel Tow pulled the catamaran out from in front of us and we took a moment to reflect on the many, many changes made to the ship’s systems. Luke considered the changes in the hydraulic system, the new navigation and autopilots and all new engine monitoring, alarms and sensors. Finally, he took a breath, checked the bow thruster one last time and called ‘I think we’re ready’ into the radio mic.
You think? Good enough for me!
No one knows better than Luke. Over the past two years he had worked on nearly every system, replacing major components on everything from refrigeration to navigation. Even the dock lines I was casting off were new. We wouldn’t need those until we reached the New River just a few miles away, but we would need that bow thruster.
A little breeze had kicked up and that thruster seemed to be slightly beleaguered, perhaps not getting enough hydraulic flow. Something for the sea trials. We eased out of that muddy hole we’d been in since May 2020, and out into Dania cut, announcing to the world with a loud blast of the horn that Wanderbird was back under way.
We made our way past the port into familiar waters, under the 17th street causeway and up the New River to a beautiful and more bustling spot in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Now, to finish the repairs and make way for the open sea – or at least the Bahamas before hurricane season comes.
I found time to start a GoPro on the flybridge, if you’d like to see the short transit:
When we first moved on board Wanderbird we began opening cupboards, cabinets and access panels and discovered years of parts and pieces squirreled away. A mysterious tab behind a bathroom shelf led to a cavern full of boxes, filters and spares. When Luke asked one day if I had seen a particular item – we both recalled having seen it; but was it behind the bathroom mirror or in bin number 6, deep within the center bilge access?
It became apparent we’d need to track all this inventory. After a brief search turned up nothing much better than a simple database I started writing a vessel management application. As we experienced life aboard we identified many other areas where an app could help. Maintenance schedules were high on Luke’s list, a proper travel log were on mine and it was clear that some financial tracking would interest Paul.
Three years later as we’ve refit our way through the pandemic, the application is beginning to show signs of life as a useful program. I often hear of captain turn over, or boats transitioning from one owner to another and a package like this could really benefit any vessel of substantial size. There are countless extensions from expansion into charter operations to data sharing between vessels with like missions.
Hopefully we’ll be wrapped up with the mechanical refit in the next few weeks and we’ll be back to more adventurous posts, but for now, it’s back to programming.
A boat’s pedigree typically refers to the yard where it was built and the craftsman and artisans who contributed. There may also be predecessors: namesake vessels who came before. The Wanderbird has a rich lineage in the namesake of the Wandervogel, translated to Wanderbird and also known as No. 5 Elbe.
The No. 5 Elbe was built by Gustav Junge in 1883. It served for 41 years as a pilot schooner before it was sold in the 1920s to American journalist Warwick Tompkins. Tompkins made several transatlantic passages with the renamed Wander Bird before he moved to the San Francisco Bay Area. In the 1930s, the Tompkins family sailed the Wander Bird around Cape Horn — going the “wrong way” from east to west. He later chartered the boat for trips to the South Sea islands.
George Baker spent more than 5 years planning and building the Trawler Wanderbird. He had a unique vision of an ultra-efficient, 65 foot boat, able to travel the world with the assistance of headsails. As we’ve learned about the history, we have come across others whose stories are intertwined.
Once, while anchored in the Exuma islands, a small craft approached and a man named Stephen announced he had worked on the boat when it was built. Imagine that, thousands of miles from where it was constructed, off a remote island! A week later we helped the Navyman-turned-captain-turned-biologist catch and tag sea turtles for research.
I recently had an email exchange with Brooks Townes in Port Townsend who worked on an earlier refit of the Elbe. He tells me that there seems to be a robust demand for the necessary type of Oak used in her hull.
Had lunch while back with a group of international wooden vessel restorers who expressed concern for the yard in Denmark’s ability to locate the proper oak for her repairs as the same hard European oak is being gobbled by the restoration of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Personally I’m not sure how pure they need to be in using the same oak. There’s plenty of suitable purple heart about if they can veer a bit. (The yard, we’re told, used up its considerable hoard of the right oak in the schooner’s earlier restoration.)
From Brooks’ correspondence
Brooks sent along a photo of this print he recovered from the bilge of the Elbe.
While reading the comments section on the an article about the sinking of Elbe No 5, I came across a post.
I live next door to the house that Hal Sommer lived in before his death. It’s a long story but I have the original bronze metal lettering WANDER _ _ RD. I am not sure what to do with them other than donate them to the Sausalito Historical Society. Unless someone else has a better idea.
After some email exchange Steve promptly shipped the letters he was able to recover. Presumably, these bronze letters adorned the stern of the wooden schooner as she sailed around Cape Horn in 1936 and criss-crossed the seas in many voyages. More recent photos from the 50’s show different lettering so I suspect these were removed in the bay area prior to Hayden Sterling’s ownership. It was at that time when the actor announced to his makeshift crew that they were bound for Tahiti, rather than Santa Barbara as planned. I suppose it’s possible the letters were mounted elsewhere. Perhaps someone will come forward with additional information!
Thankfully Steve had the foresight to collect and preserve them as they’ll make quite the historical centerpiece – ideally if we find a fine arts painter who could create a piece for the main saloon, we thought we could incorporate the letters into a custom frame.
We went into the yard in early February for two weeks of repairs, what is now eight months. Some minor repairs turned into a major, mechanical refit.
Some things were in desperate need of attention, but we waited until we had time to do them the way we wanted. We were given quotes for our ‘brightwork’ – the exterior woodwork on the railings, which varied widely and went as high as $55,000. Most of the vendors also wanted to do it their own way and Luke was insistent on stripping everything back fully and using many coats of All Wood.
We had one group even go so far as to treat one of the boarding gates and now that we’re done, by comparison, it looks like it was painted. The end result is quite spectacular and as long as we apply a new coat every six months or year, it should last a very long time.
Design began on this boat in the late 90s and was finished right about 2004. At the time the systems were exceptional for a world cruiser and she was loaded with spares of everything. Now however, with connectivity and electronics being what they are, we were struggling with some issues tied to antiquated systems.
When the Pandemic hit, the boat was ‘on the hard’, out of the water and in the shipyard. The shipyard was deemed ‘an essential service’ so we were able to continue working.
With the new Maretron electronics and remote monitoring we hope to never come back to her from a few days away to find the power entirely shut down and the batteries wrecked. Instead, we’ll receive a text message as soon as the power is cut! We can monitor things remotely and program safety systems to prevent flooding and other disasters. These updates make the boat considerably more manageable for a small crew or owner/operator.
The list of improvements includes updated refrigeration, navigation systems, autopilots, air conditioning, radar, battery banks, rebuilt alternators, a new hydraulic cruise generator, refreshed bang irons, LED conversion and much more.
I’ve been grabbing bits of video here and there, so there may be a video coming soon to show the work we’ve been doing.