Our Hurricane Hole for 2019: Great Harbour Cay, Berry Islands, Bahamas

Where to go for hurricane season is always a very tough call.  I’ve written here before about hurricanes, the sometimes horrible reality of cruising, and some of our more difficult winters spent here in Pensacola when Phillip and I often had to make the very hard decision of whether to haul: a tough call.  I am now grateful I can write here again—with after another hurricane season behind us and, thankfully, our baby girl still floating safe—about our experience this year and what we decided to do with our boat this past hurricane season, 2019.  This was another tough call on our part for two reasons: 1) it would leave her still very much in “the box” (although no place is guaranteed); and 2) it would mean we would have to leave the boat unattended for an extended period of time. But, we decided to do it and it turned out to be the right call.  Hindsight 20/20.  Dodging hurricanes has to be the absolute worst part of cruising.

Kissing our baby goodbye when we decided to leave her on the hard for Hurricane Nate, 2017.

So, how did we hear about Great Harbour Cay?

You might have guessed Pam Wall as she has given us such a wealth of information about “her beloved Bahamas” as she calls them.  Love that lady …  

But, a dock neighbor in Pensacola actually first told us about it as it was a spot he had kept his exquisite motor yacht during hurricane season several times.  And, if someone with that many more zeroes on his boat value than ours felt comfortable leaving it there, that definitely gave me some peace of mind.  We honestly had no idea there was any hurricane hole in the Bahamas until he mentioned it.   

Phillip and I had already decided not to bring Plaintiff’s Rest back to Pensacola this year for hurricane season because the odds of getting hit hard in Pensacola are fairly high (Pensacola was hit by Hurricane Opal in 1995, Ivan in 2004, Dennis in 2005, and Hurricane Michael only missed us by 100 miles, demolishing hundreds of boats, in 2018).  And, the huge bay, which is fantastic for sailing, can be devastating if a hurricane hits us there in the corner pocket of Florida.  Phillip and I spent the last several hurricane seasons in Pensacola playing the “haul or not to haul?” game, sometimes back-to-back each season (for Hurricane Nate in 2017 and Hurricane Michael in 2018).  That can be an exhausting and expensive process, one that we wanted to avoid this year if possible.  

So, our plan for hurricane season 2019 had initially been to dot through the Bahamas rather quickly and get the boat from Pensacola down to Grenada over April-May.  But, you know me and Phillip.  When it comes to cruising, we don’t like to do anything quickly. It always seems like we could spend weeks (months even!) at some of the places we only stop at for days and, even then, we would still feel like we hadn’t fully explored the place.  And, the Bahamas have really resonated with us. Phillip always says it is a place he had heard so many people rushed through in their excitement to get to what most people call “the Caribbean” (the BVIs, Antilles, and such) but once down there, they realize they zipped through the stunning Bahamian islands too quickly.  We didn’t want to suffer the same fate! 

These two LOVE the Bahamas!

So, when we started to research Great Harbour Cay and gain some confidence in it, the thought of having an entire second year to explore the Bahamas without having to make the arduous journey (not to mention sometimes dangerous, sometimes lengthy if the weather doesn’t cooperate) bringing the boat to and from Pensacola to the Bahamas two more times, Phillip and I really started to see the appeal of Great Harbour Cay for hurricane season 2019.  Leave her in a protected hurricane hole, in the middle of paradise, and just fly in and out whenever we want to hop on board and go cruising? Umm … yes, please!

What we had heard from our dock neighbor friend about Great Harbour Cay sounded ideal.  He said the place had natural 360-degree protection, with tall limestone accumulation creating a protected nook for the marina in the center with a single, narrow inlet cut through the limestone that was a big deterrent to surge and swell. That was our initial report.  

Then Phillip found this fantastic article, Hurri-CAN or Hurri-CAN’T, about a live-aboard cruising couple that had ridden out Hurricane Matthew (a Cat 4 that went directly over the Berry Islands in October, 2016) at Great Harbour Cay Marina. If you’re interested in the place, it’s an enlightening read. 

The one negative was that the marina does not have floating docks.  They are fixed concrete docks.  

But, with the significant protection from swell, we considered this a risk worth considering.  (Especially considering Pensacola, which has floating docks where we kept her, but with one of the biggest deep-water bays in the southeast that would allow massive swell to accumulate if a hurricane hit there and demolish anything within a mile of shore, floating docks or not.  Hurricane Ivan in 2004 was a perfect example of this).  

Images like this make me nauseous but it’s just a sad reality of cruising. This is possible. Which is why we spend so much time and effort researching, planning, and preparing for hurricane season.

The bottom line is: the decision will always be tough.  No place, in or even just outside the “hurricane box,” is 100% safe.  And, nothing is guaranteed.  Phillip and I have spoken at length about this and we believe there is a portion of it that falls to the boat owner to make the most calculated risk-averse call that can be made and prepare the boat as much as possible, then the other portion is just pure luck.  There is only so much you can do, and no one can predict in advance of the season where a hurricane is going to hit.  After much consideration, Phillip and I decided, before we left Pensacola to cruise the Bahamas last spring, to call the marina at Great Harbour Cay and make a reservation through hurricane season. Thankfully, once we started cruising the Bahamas last year and finally arrived in Great Harbour Cay in May, 2019 and were able to see the place for ourselves, we were only bolstered in our decision.  

The day we were making our way around the northern Berries (and witnessing that crazy monstrosity that is Coco Cay for the first time!) toward the cut for Great Harbour Cay marina, I was Captain of the ship that day.  It is a tight channel coming out of the Atlantic and into the harbor on the west side of the island, but it is well marked and clearly shown on the Explorer Charts, so no trouble getting in at high or moderate tide (for us, with a 6 ft draft).  But, as I was nearing what the Explorer Charts were telling mewas the entrance into the interior of the island to get to the marina, I saw nothing in front of me but a big limestone wall.  It was a little daunting continuing to motor, in a tight channel, toward what appeared to be just a big land mass.  (You know how much I enjoy the thought of turning around in a tight channel.)  Phillip and I kept looking at the charts and looking ahead for an entry, looking back at the charts, then back ahead for an entry, but for a while none appeared. 

Finally—it wasn’t until we were about 50 yards from shore and started to turn to port—the entrance revealed itself as a very narrow cut (our dock neighbor was right!) into the limestone. 

While I’ve guessed the width of this many times in telling friends and fellow cruisers where we kept our boat this year, having now driven it a sixth and final time leaving the Berries just a couple of weeks ago, I can safely say it’s only about 50 feet across. Very narrow.  Comfortingly narrow.  Blissfully narrow, when you’re planning to keep your boat there for hurricane season!

We were also surprised to see the distance (finally in person, rather than just on a map) from the entrance, dog-legged around to the actual marina.  Great Harbour Cay is a phenomenal, well-protected hurricane hole. That much was clear just from our motor-in to our slip.  (Which Annie docked in like a dream, I must add!  : ) When we say “You’re Captain for the day” on our boat it means for whatever the day brings.  Sharing all roles possible on the boat is a game-changer.) 

However, what was not yet clear, was the added element we were unaware of when we made the decision to stay at Great Harbour Cay for hurricane season and booked our slip.

That was the people. Isn’t it always the people?

The staff and dockmaster at Great Harbour Cay were the je ne sais quoi that really sealed the deal for Phillip and me.  While Kingsley, whom I spoke with on the phone was very reassuring and professional, and Tramenco who helped us dock up was super friendly and welcoming, when I first spoke with the dockmaster, Steven, to let him know we were planning to keep the boat there during hurricane season, he said the magic words to me that let me know our baby was going to be in good hands.  The first thing Steven said:

“I’m going to need twelve dock lines.”  

Twelve?!, I thought at first.  Then, instantly my brain snapped.  “Absolutely, Steven.” Whatever you need to keep our baby girl safe, you will damn sure get it.  Twelve dock lines it shall be.  And, if that seems overkill, anything that keeps Plaintiff’s Restsafe in a storm is not, and never will be.  Phillip and I ordered up another six (6) brand new, 50-foot dock lines that day from Lightbourne Marina in Nassau to be shipped by boat to Great Harbour Cay the following week.  You want twelve, Steven, you get twelve.  

But, Steven also gave us great comfort talking about the previous hurricanes that had come straight over Great Harbour Cay: Hurricane Matthew which I mentioned in the article above in 2016, which was a Cat 4 with no damage, as well as Hurricane Andrew, which was a Cat 4 in 1992.  During the entirety of those very deadly storms, no boats in Great Harbour Cay suffered any damage.  The marina really has an impressive hurricane track record. But, aside from the marina itself, the people also gave Phillip and I great comfort.  

Steven—he and I both enjoying the marina’s “grill night” on Friday’s (a choice of delicious barbecue pork or chicken made dock-side) and looking at Plaintiff’s Restin Slip No. 6—told me if a storm were to build and start heading their way that he would move our boat to the middle of Slip Nos. 6 and 7.  He would then spider-web the lines out, attaching six of them to hold the boat secure in a normal rise and fall of the tide, and another six of them at a higher rise and fall if any of the first lines broke during a storm.  Steven said he has a special “gang plank” (he calls it, jokingly) that he uses to get from the dock to a boat in the middle of two slips to secure all of the lines and make sure the boat is floating safely in the middle.  I wasn’t ashamed at all.  I hugged the man.  I didn’t care if he wasn’t a hugger.  I am, and in the moment that’s all that was called for.  (And, I’ve generally found most men don’t mind a hug from a gal in a bikini ; ).  Steven seemed to fall in that category as well.

Steven also asked me, which sounded more like a recommendation, about removing the bimini and dodger.  “Oh, we’ll strip every last thing, don’t worry,” I told him, knowing Phillip and I planned to leave the boat completely hurricane-ready.  Phillip and I had debated this in the days before we reached Great Harbour Cay, i.e., how much hurricane prep we would do before leaving her.  And, I could easily say, after all of this tough decision-making, the last thing I wanted was to find myself back in Pensacola, the boat in the Bahamas with a hurricane bearing down on her, and thinking: I wish we would have removed that stack pack.  Or raised those halyards to the top of the mast.  Or, wrapped those lines around the binnacle.  Or, taped all of the instrument covers on.  Or … I could go on.  That was the feeling we were trying to avoid.  As I’ve mentioned, we believe hurricane survival is part tactical decision and part luck, so in the tactical-decision department, Phillip and I wanted to give our boat the best odds possible. 

Main sail on the cabin floor. It’s a ton of work but the peace of mind is totally worth it!

Thankfully, we have done the hurricane-prep drill many times (and I’ve written out our entire process here if you are interested) and, thankfully, it has only ever been a drill … knock on wood.  But, because we have, we knew what all needed to be done.  When it comes to preparing Plaintiff’s Rest for a hurricane, Phillip and drop everything—the sails, the stack pack, the dodger, the bimini.  We bring as many halyards up the mast as possible (using long dyneema messenger lines) and wrap, or bag up and tape, the remaining lines as much as possible.  We cover and tape the instruments.  We cover and tape the companionway opening.  We ziptie the dodger and bimini frame secure.  Feel free to read the article above for more hurricane prep tips. We’re pretty fanatic about it. And, for good reason.  Have you seen our gorgeous boat!  : )

Photos from our hurricane prep in Great Harbour Cay in May, 2019:

I assured Steven our boat would be completely stripped, 100% hurricane ready, which seemed to give him comfort as well.  I could imagine being a dockmaster and dealing with a boat left behind that is not hurricane ready must cause him a great deal of stress as it would leave him worrying not only about the condition of the non-prepped boat, but also its then-ability to potentially cause damage to nearby fully-prepped boats. I do not envy any dockmaster their job when a storm is coming.  This brief conversation with Steven gave me a fascinating glimpse into the stressors of his position and I was impressed with everything he has to handle in that situation.  

So, Great Harbour Cay. We cannot recommend it highly enough as a secure, reliable hurricane hole in the Bahamas.  It is also a very welcoming little island with plenty to do: a handful of fun little bars and restaurants, plenty of diving and snorkeling, a great shelling beach on the north shore, a spooky “shark river,” and a great little grocery.  Not to mention the marina is very clean with decent wifi, laundry, and shuttle service when available.  GHC has lots to offer for a week stay.  

But, now that you know the decision process and everything Phillip and I went through to try and keep our boat secure during hurricane season this year, you now also know the frightening reality (which we decided not to share publicly) of where she was when Hurricane Dorian hit.  In September, 2019, Phillip and I could only watch and wish the staff at Great Harbour Cay Marina and our baby girl the best as that monstrous, slow-moving, massive Cat 5 was headed straight for the northern Berry Islands, Bahamas.  

Next up on the blog, we will share Plaintiff’s Rest’s experience when Hurricane Dorian hit.  It’s one helluva tale. Hurricanes … uggh. I’m so glad the 2019 season is over!

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2 Responses to Our Hurricane Hole for 2019: Great Harbour Cay, Berry Islands, Bahamas

  1. Dave Harrod says:

    Our ‘hurricane hole’ for six years was Man-O-War Cay, thank goodness we had our tub shipped home to New Zealand.

    • anniedike says:

      Ahhh … I believe Pam mentioned a potential spot there (but I know hers are a sacred secret – and for good reason!). I’m glad you made a wise decision to move her this year. It’s so hard to know what the right thing to do is sometimes. Thanks for sharing!

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