Reading the Devil’s Backbone

“There are two kinds of sailors, those that have run aground and those that haven’t yet run aground.”
—Old nautical proverb

My 15 mile journey over the Devil’s Backbone was an awesome experience. Thanks in large part to Bruno Underwood, the pilot I hired to guide us over this potentially treacherous piece of water. You can click on this link to learn more about the geography or just check-out my GPS’s track below. North is up and where the thick black line starts on the left is the Spanish Wells Yacht Haven (where we started). The line ends at Harbor Island Bay and the boat icon is our location as I write this. The little pink boxes with plus signs in them indicate coral heads and danger.

After the fact track from my GPS

I got Bruno’s name and card from one of the dock hands at the Yacht Haven. I talked to Bruno the day before and he was available to take me midday on Wednesday, February 5th. At 11:45 Bruno showed up in his 16 foot skiff (flat bottom, shallow draft outboard boat). I backed HJ out of her slip, we tied his skiff behind and Bruno climbed aboard.

My hired pilot Bruno at the helm of HJ, his skiff in tow

For a boat like HJ that draws 5 feet (she can float in five feet of water), the problem isn’t that the Devil’s Backbone is “shallow”—12 feet is the ultimate, maximum draft for a vessel in the Backbone—it’s that the Backbone is narrow with intricate channels. You just can’t “hop” from waypoint to waypoint on the GPS. In addition, if you’re going to hit bottom in the Devil’s Backbone, you’re likely going to hit coral that will cause significant damage. I’ve bumped HJ’s bottom several times before on sand and it’s disconcerting enough (Sarah and Mike can attest).

Entering the Devil’s Backbone
Houses on Eleuthera overlooking the entrance to the Backbone (all sand bottom)
One reason to hire a pilot (do you need another reason?)

Bruno was born and raised in Spanish Wells so knew the water like the back of his hand. With him at the helm (steering Hazel James) and his expert eyes, I could work on my skills of reading the water. I’m OK at it, but practice in big-league water with Bruno as a safety net was precious. The goal of reading the water is to determine what’s under the water and how deep it is, and therefore your best course over shallow stretches of water.

Sand and deep grass

You see light and dark in these crystal clear waters. The first thing to net-out is the effect of the sun and passing cumulus clouds. A cloud throws a moving shadow over the water that needs to be ignored. The light patches are generally sand, the more brilliant white, the shallower. However, at-times light patches can be rock. Dark patches are either coral or “grass” (brownish sea grass). Again, the hues of the dark patches give a hint as to their depth.

Brownish shallow coral heads in the distance, they are a foot or so under the water (keep your distance)
Me getting a look from a higher vantage point by standing on HJ’s “granny bars”
Bruno at the helm, skiff in tow

While HJ and I carry detailed electronic and paper charts, coral grows and sands shift with storms, currents and dredging. Also, GPS positioning is not 100% accurate all the time. Many a mariner has run aground staring at their GPS screen that told them all clear. I’m sure you’ve had the same experience with automobile GPS.

Amazing colors and color breaks
More amazing colors

Once we reached the safe waters of Harbor Island Bay, I settled-up with Bruno and we said our goodbyes. He climbed in his skiff and headed to his next job.

A logical question to ask is, “If Devil’s Backbone is so treacherous, why even do it?” Besides seeing things that you never would see if you didn’t do it, it’s a shortcut. Instead of the 15 miles of protected water (albeit “protected” by coral heads), going the long way around would entail 40+ miles of motoring and sailing around the north end of the Eleutheran archipelago and then south in the Atlantic. Even then the Harbour Mouth inlet from the Atlantic into Harbour Island bay I’ve heard is a bit dicey—especially inbound from the Atlantic.

At the moment I’m anchored-up just west of Harbour Island in 10 feet of water (25 degrees 30 minutes North, 76 degrees 39 minutes West). Today (Friday 2/7) it’s blowing a bit (gusting >20 knots) and predicted to veer from south to west leaving Hazel James a bit exposed. Therefore I’ve elected to stay with her today rather than kayak into town as I have the past two days. While I dove on my anchor yesterday to make sure it is well set in the sand, if her anchor were to drag in this shifting wind, she’d be on the rocks of Harbour Island in 5 minutes. She’ll probably hold fine in this wind but I’m playing it safe. I have a drag alarm set up on my GPS so if we drift more than 120 feet, I’ll get notified. I’m also enjoying the day alone with a wonderful view of Dunmore Town on Harbour Island. Here’s the view from my writing desk.

View of Dunmore Town from my cockpit writing desk
HJ anchored up in front of Dunmore Town (taken from HJ’s tender [inflatable kayak])

Per forecasts, I’m here the next several days waiting for a good weather system with winds out of the south, west and north (anything but east) to help me make my initial easting into the Atlantic for my next leg.

9 thoughts on “Reading the Devil’s Backbone

  1. We thought you did that on purpose to show off your skills in escaping the sand… lol. ❤️❤️

  2. Been following your blog. It seems your adventure is everything you had hoped for and more. Cannot get over the pics, the water is gorgeous

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Well done that you are still floating!!!! Thanks again for the update. Keep the blog going!
    Love, T

  4. I’m finally caught up and glad to hear your voyage is going well! Love the photos and the water color of you is fantastic! What an amazing experience so far, Dan. You really should consider writing a book while you’re out there. Your such a great writer. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t worried about you, but I know in my heart you’ll be fine and I’m so excited for you! Thank you for sharing your journey ❤️

  5. NIce shot of you on the boat but it doesn’t look you were tethered. I assume you thought it wasn’t necessary since you were in relatively calm (?) waters with an experienced pilot at the wheel. Also, I’d kill for that view from your cockpit writing desk. I’m staring at snow here in Chicago.

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