Stranded in the Bahamas

I made my third Bahamas flight of 1997 this past weekend, to North Eleuthera (MYEH). We spent Friday and Saturday night on Harbour Island, next to Eleuthera, and the plan Sunday was to head north to Marsh Harbour (MYAM) for fuel, then return home. We heard that a line of thunderstorms was headed toward us, and spent several hours in the plane on the ramp as a front passed. We never made it off the island that day. The lack of weather information was a big problem. The 800 number for Flight Service in Florida, which had worked before from other Bahamas islands, did not work from Eleuthera. I wasn’t able to even reach Nassau Flight Service on the phone. The only way to find out about the weather was to ask arriving pilots or take off and see how it looked.

After the storm passed, we tried heading to Marsh Harbour, but a few miles out the visibility dropped quickly, so we came back while we were still able to. It never looked clear enough to the west, so we ended up going twenty miles south to Governor’s Harbour (MYEM), which was rumored to have fuel. (My 1997 Bahamas guide book says that it does.) It doesn’t, unless you can use jet fuel.

By then it was 4 pm, and we were down to ten gallons of fuel, a little over an hour’s worth. We obviously weren’t going anywhere that day, so we got a cab ride and a room for the night. Looking at the chart, the two closest places to get fuel, Marsh Harbour and Nassau (MYNN), were farther than I wanted to fly with only ten gallons. A direct flight to either place in no-wind conditions would take 40 or 50 minutes, not counting the climb or descent. If we had to divert at all, we would be in trouble.

It’s a good thing my plane will run on car gas. The next morning I walked around town and found a five-gallon gas can for sale at a general store for $25. (Price in the U.S.: $6). We had the taxi stop at a Shell station to fill the can, which brought the total cost to $40 for five gallons of gas. (For some reason, avgas in the Bahamas is roughly the same price as in Florida, but car gas is more than double.) That works out to eight bucks a gallon, but it upped our fuel supply to about two hours. (We left the can behind to avoid the fumes.)

I had already decided to go to Nassau, since it was the closer fuel stop, and would definitely have fuel. I tried again without luck to get weather info before we left, so we took off over the ocean and hoped for the best. I was able to get Nassau on the radio soon after departure, and was relieved to hear the current conditions, which were 12,000 scattered. Until then, I had dreaded the thought of flying into Nassau, not knowing what to expect at a major foreign airport, but it was easy.

After getting fuel, I tried the U.S. Flight Service number again without luck, but heard word that there was still a mess of thunderstorms off the Florida coast. It was only noon, so we hoped to get at least a little closer to home. The two obvious choices for the next stop were Bimini to the west or Freeport to the north, but we still had no reliable weather info. I called to get a departure clearance, and learned that a flight plan is required to leave Nassau (but not to go there- hmmm….), and the plan must be filed in person. So I had to shut down the plane, go back inside, fill out the form, read it over the phone to somebody, and turn in the form. I filed to Chub Cay (MYBC), the closest island to the northwest, just to get out of Nassau and take another look at the weather from altitude. I never opened the flight plan, because I was in contact with Nassau Approach the entire time.

Chub Cay is a private (we assume expensive) resort, so we didn’t want to know what it would cost to spend the night there. We stayed long enough to pay the landing fee, the first one I’d ever paid, and talk to another pilot for advice on the best direction to go. He recommended Bimini, so we headed there. It was only about a seventy-mile flight, but it seemed like one of the longest I’d ever made. The low ceiling kept us below 1000 feet the whole way (but still VFR), and I was grateful for the GPS, since there was nothing between the two islands except ocean, and we couldn’t fly high enough to see very far.

Once we got to Bimini, we were finally able to get a U.S. weather briefer on the phone and confirm that the weather was too poor to continue. We spent the night there, learning that Miami had gotten eight to ten inches of rain in the past day. It rained most of the time we were in Bimini, from about 4 pm Monday until 8 or 9 Tuesday morning. When we got back to the airport, the plane was sitting in about a foot of water. (I wish I had pictures, but since we switched from vacation to survival mode, we stopped taking photos on Sunday.) We pushed the plane onto dry ground and found no problems. More nasty weather was predicted, but when we left it was clear, and we made it back home that afternoon.

I was supposed to take my IFR checkride the next day, but I rescheduled it.

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