destinations-caribbean-champagne_cruising-largeIt's 11:59 p.m. on New Years' Eve and I'm ensconced like a king on his throne in the cockpit of a sailboat.

The clock strikes twelve and a hundred ships' horns shatter the night. Cheers echo across waters that shimmer with the Christmas lights strung from the railing of the candy cane lighthouse.

The sky explodes in a display of fireworks. Sound waves roll over dunes that rise up between the village and the pink sands of the beach inside Elbow Cay Reef.

My wife and I uncork the champagne in the cockpit of УFarewell BendФ. The fizz tickles our noses; the tart flavour teases our tongues.

We're celebrating New Years' on a Jenneau 36', a Sunsail charter boat we've booked from Marsh Harbour in the northern Bahamas' Sea of Abaco. We're sipping champagne tied to a mooring ball in Hopetown Harbour, a town that time forgot.

An hour later we dinghy ashore and join a procession of partiers for a celebration that happens only on Boxing Day and New Years' Eve, transforming a usually staid specimen of the Loyalist values that have characterized this island chain since the American Revolution into a Bahamian Bacchanal.

Welcome to Junkanoo.

Blacks and whites together march through the streets, following a pickup band clad in African costumes, belting out syncopations and street beats on goatskin drums. The followers call out en masse in a rhythmical chant.

УHappy New Year. Happy New Year.Ф

Next morning we dinghy back to shore. We savour the taste of homemade quiche and we sip fresh ground and brewed Costa Rican coffee at the Hopetown Coffee House.

At the end of the dock an empty champagne bottle lies on its side.

It is both a sign and a metaphor.

Our first day – my birthday – ended at a coral-painted picnic table at Nippers's on Great Guana Cay. Nipper's is famous for its weekly pig roasts.

We missed the barbecue, but one lobster and two Bahama Mamas were sufficient consolation. We'd adjusted our clocks to island time and we'd crossed the Sea of Abaco, one of the most unique passages in the North American tropics. Winds were a perfect ten knots out of the southeast – starboard tack close-reached in flat water. A lazy and peaceful two-and-a-half-hour jaunt – the Bahamian equivalent of a day sail in the middle of June. Only the calendar said December 28.

Happy Birthday to me.

Flashback to November. I discover Silver Donald Cameron's Sailing Away from Winter, opening the pages to the section on the Abacos.

УChampagne cruising. The kind of sailing you get in your dreams.Ф

Fast forward, six weeks later: the passage from Great Guana Cay to Treasure Cay.

We make for a well-protected anchorage where mansions ring the lagoon and populate Pineapple Point. A short dinghy ride and an even shorter walk and we're on a pristine crescent of talcum powder sand. National Geographer Traveler has rated the beach at Treasure Cay one of the world's best.

Today is our wedding anniversary and dinner tonight – despite the restaurant – will be pork tenderloin on the Force Ten in the light of the full moon.

And champagne.

But right now the winds rush out of the northwest at eleven knots, over water painted lime green and aquamarine. The boat is gently heeled; the palms and casuarinas dancing over the approach to Treasure Cay loom dead ahead, Great Guana falls off the stern. And УFarewell BendФ loves it just as much as we do, making six knots on a summer afternoon halfway between Christmas and New Year's. Silver Donald Cameron is correct. We are champagne cruising.

The perfect conditions, the amazing colour of these waters, mesmerize me. Then I look down at the depth meter. My heart skips a beat.

Twelve feet. Decreasing quickly. Panic sets in. I yell УPrepare to come aboutФ in a choked voice. And then I remember a basic fact. Twelve feet of depth is commonplace as opposed to catastrophic.

We are in the Bahamas, a corruption of the Spanish for Уshallow seas.Ф And the shallowest part of these seas is right here, in a stretch of water they call the Abacos. Both selling feature and cautionary tale. Waters the colour of heaven, true, but also potential threats.

We pull into Great Guana Cay and look for an empty mooring ball. Think I spot one but it's not a ball. I realize my error too late. The boat shudders. Stops.

Two kinds of sailors out there. Those that run aground and those that lie about it.

Luckily the tide comes in and we float off painlessly.

Orchid Bay Marina is beautiful. Tied safely off, we watch another boat enter the harbour. It heads up to that selfsame marker, strings a line to it and spends the night aground. Blissfully unaware. At Man 'o' War Cay we watch a boat – shipping a full keel – zoom through the narrow passage. They grind to a stop with a painful groan.

A towboat chugs out an hour later, kedges them off.

Then there's the opening to Hope Town on Elbow Cay. Err to the starboard, inside Parrot Cays, and you're in five feet of water. Miscue to port and you're up on Eagle Rock. Here hazards to navigation are part of history. One of the earliest local occupations was УwrackingФ – salvage rights to grounded or shipwrecked vessels.

According to one tale, the church minister at Hopetown, his pulpit facing the sea, saw a ship run aground, instructed his congregation to bow their collective heads in prayer, and promptly took off. The pulpit faces inland on the new church. But you just have to befriend your charts – small price to pay for the treasure you'll discover here.

A bit reminiscent of BVI's Drake Passage: quick jaunt to the next anchorage; cerulean waters; flat seas protected by the surrounding archipelago. But there all similarities cease. Highest point in the Abacos is one hundred and twenty feet. And depths are twenty feet tops. And Abacos are a lot closer.

The Abacos are one hundred seventy miles from north to south, but the most popular cruising ground is from Green Turtle Cay to Marsh Harbour. This area, roughly five miles across and twenty miles long, includes the best known overnight spots: Great Guana and Man of War Cays, Hopetown and Tahiti Beach on Elbow Cay, and Little Harbour, Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay on Great Abaco Island in the west.

Each cay is the perfect hors d'oeuvre, ideally paired with a champagne cocktail.

On our last morning I get up and nod at the skipper of the boat moored beside us: older fellow, big bushy beard, mahogany skin. A Canadian flag flutters off the stern. The skipper lifts his coffee cup in a toast.

УPulling out?Ф I yell.

УMaybe.Ф He squints into the morning sun. УMaybe not.Ф

I don't have that option. Still, we are in no hurry, sailing back to the Sunsail base on the second day of the new year. We fly the jennie, main still flaked, steady on a broad reach. I've got the autohelm on and I hold hands with Sharon.

Forget about velocity made good. I've adjusted my biological clock to island time.

And I've developed a taste for champagne.

Lifestyle

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Boat Reviews

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Beneteau Flyer 32By Andy Adams

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Dufour 460By Katherine Stone

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Belize: Sailing SolitudeBy Mark Stevens

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Once safely in deep water we raise sail. I spin the wheel of “Kavok” (a Lagoon 421 catamaran we’ve booked for our weeklong Belize bareboat adventure from Dream Yacht Charter) until we’re pointed south – steady on a lazy beam reach.

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