All down the ICW, one of the first question you heard was “Where are you going?” Once you said “Bahamas” the next question was “Where in the Bahamas?” We dutifully replied we were going to Exumas and George Town. In truth, we knew only vaguely what that meant, except that all our friends and advisers were clear, that this was THE way to go. In this “chapter” we arrive in the Exumas, and begin our adventures in the northern part of this beautiful island chain.
We reach the Exumas (Wed, Jan 9)
All the weather gurus seemed to say this was a good day to leave Nassau and head SE to the Exumas, so we checked out of the marina and asked for some one to help us with the docklines. It seemed easy enough as we backed out, but let’s just say everything went well until our line handlers refused to cast off the last line. Wind and current did the rest and soon we were bouncing off two neighboring sailboats and threatening a third. When the dust settled, we were back in our slip, bow out ready to start again. This we did with much more precision, and soon we were motoring out the eastern harbor entrance.
We raised sail and were soon going 5.0 knots toward Allen’s Cay in the Northern Exuma Cays. We had to cross the Yellow Banks, which was a concentration of coral heads, “most” of which were deeper than our keel, and all of which were easy to see (IF the sun was high enough and behind you) and maneuver around (IF you kept a sharp look out). As we approached this area, the wind began to die down and the wind chop began to increase, so we started the motor to give us the maneuverability we needed. For the next 50 minutes (4.5 miles) Brian acted as lookout and Sue manned the helm, as we “read the waters” and dodged around maybe 10 dark spots that identified the coral heads that were in our path. We never really saw anything “yellow”, so I guess it’s something you only see if the weather/sun conditions are right.
Once we passed the last coral head on the bank, it was a straight forward motor sail over to Allen’s Cay, and to a relatively crowded anchorage. Due to the depth, we couldn’t go too far into the harbor, and had to settle for a marginal spot at the southern end, exposed to strong currents and the easterly wind. We backed down hard on the anchor and then Brian used the dinghy and our trusty clear bottom “viewing” bucket to be sure our anchor was well buried in the white sand bottom. Everything checked out, so we finally were able to enjoy the sunset on another leg of our voyage. We were planning to make the Exumas our home for the next 3 months!
The tidal current was pretty strong at times, but all the boats managed to swing in unison at our anchors. We kept our GPS and navigation software on all night to be sure we were not getting too close to a large rock about 100 feet to our west. Every so often we tended to swing that way, motivating Brian to awaken at each tide change to check we were still swinging clear at each turn of the current. Some anchorages are more relaxing than others! (Sue seems to have problem sleeping during these events.)
Iguana Days (Thurs, Jan 10)
Like most cruisers, our first priority the next morning was to go to SW Allen’s Cay, and see the iguanas. These little guys (some got about two feet long) look like they could have been cast in some 1950’s dinosaur movies, have the run of the place and are protected by law. You’re not supposed to feed them, but they’ve obviously been very skillful in getting handouts anyway. The minute your dinghy approaches the beach, they come half-way down the sand to greet you – with the biggest ones making sure they get first shot at any handouts.
We took plenty of pictures, and walked across the island to the southern side to see the lone palm tree that stands conspicuously on the island. An occasional rustle in the brush, let us know that the iguanas were still looking for some food. We had brought some cheese and crackers for a picnic snack, but we decided to go over to the beach at Leaf Cay.
It turned out that Leaf Cay had an even bigger iguana settlement, but we decided to go ahead with our picnic, despite all the beady eyes watching us. Fortunately for them, another dinghy arrived, bearing some French Canadians who enthusiastically fed them some chips and candy snacks. With that diversion going on, Sue was free to get out the needle and thread and do some repairs to a zipper and bow cover on our inflatable dinghy.
Hook, Line, and Calamari (Fri, Jan 11) Allen’s to Highborne Cay
Highborne Cay, our next stop, was only five or so miles south, so we got off to a leisurely start at around 10. The winds were from the SE, so we could enjoy a one-hour sail south, before tacking east to our anchorage off the Highborne’s western shore. There were 3 other sailboats there when we arrived, but by sunset we were surrounded by six more cruisers, and three 65-foot plus motor yachts.
Highborne Cay has a nice marina, so we dinghied around the southern tip to check it out and see if we could find some bait to go fishing. The marina was populated with many power boats, including a good size mega-yacht and its assortment of nautical toys (center console fishing boat, two jet skis, etc.)
The store was surprisingly well stocked with staples and some fresh vegetables and meat. As you might guess, the prices were pretty amazing for some common items, like paper towels ($5.10 for one roll), corn flakes ($5.85), large can of corn ($1.85), etc.
Fortunately, our “ships store” is – and remains – in good shape. The supply of “Highborne Cay” Tee shirts was pretty much exhausted, so we settled for some tropical color napkins as a souvenir, and a box of frozen squid for our bait. We then took some time to relax at the marina’s beach with some beverages we had brought along.
We knew next to nothing about fishing, but we happily drifted among the rocks with our handline setup, managing to “catch” the bottom only once, and thankfully not hooking our inflatable at all. The fish were not biting off Oyster Cay or in our anchorage when we returned to Sogno. On the plus side, we now had some “calamari” in the fridge for future fishing trips. Instead of a fish dinner, it was linguini with white clam sauce. Cruisers and fisherman always have a “plan B”.
Running A Tab in Norman’s Cay (Sat, Jan 12)
The winds were very light, when we motored out in the morning for Norman’s Cay, a trip of only 10 miles or so. This was a chance to try out our fishing pole and one of the lures – the pink one. We knew the best fishing was out in the deeper Exuma Sound, but we wanted to figure out how to rig the pole for trolling off our stern. With an assortment of bungee cords, we managed to rig something relatively secure, but the reel didn’t click even once to indicate anyone was go for our sexy pink lure.
We secured our fishing operations as we turned in toward Norman’s and were anchored among 3 sailboats (2 Dutch, 1 Canadian) in short order. There appeared to be very good holding in sand, but a little shallower than expected.
Norman’s Cay had a wild history from 1979 to 1988, when it was the center of a major cocaine smuggling operation. The airstrip is still in operation, but things have become much quieter. The old Norman’s Cay Club that served as the smuggling headquarters is now in ruins.
We dinghied ashore after a light lunch to find the Norman’s Cay Beach Club and see about dinner at the island’s only restaurant. Near the decaying dock ashore, we found a paved road that led us on a 15 minute walk across the island to the airstrip and the Beach Club. When we walked in to “McDuff’s Bar and Grill”, the NFL playoff game was in full progress, the customers were having a good time, and we were greeted by Beth, one very friendly bartender. Soon we had the dinner menu to peruse and a couple of beers (not necessarily in that order). We mentioned we were planning to coming back later for dinner – no problem. Beth: “We’ll just open a tab for you and when you come back we’ll settle up after dinner.” We could just leave it open and resume when we came back for dinner. How’s that for customer convenience – and trust!
We tried to find a short cut back to the dinghy, but only managed to get Sue’s knee scraped when trekking (and therefore, falling) through some underbrush. It was low tide by the time we were back aboard. The tide was just beginning to come in, and as Sogno swung around to point into the current, we quickly noted that we were bumping ever so gently on the sand bottom! Shortening our anchor rode stopped that, but this would definitely not be a good spot to be when the cold front forecast for Monday arrived.
Our dinner that night at the Beach Club was fantastic: grilled mahi-mahi, salad, and some delicious warm bread. We dined out on the deck to enjoy the light SE breeze, and then adjourned to the bar to watch the end of the Green Bay – Seattle game. (It wasn’t lost on us that the game was being played in the snow.) Needless to say, it is a wondrous age we live in that allows high definition snow flakes to be broadcast to a small bar and grill in the Northern Exumas!
We had to take a pass on the Pats game, closed out our tab, and headed back to the beach, flashlight lanterns in hand, for the dinghy ride back to Sogno and our next X-Files episode. A little civilization and a chance to talk with new friends, does indeed uplift the spirits.
The Mighty McDuff Burger (Sun, Jan 13)
Brian was up to check our depth at low tide (4:40 am), and it turned out to be around 1 foot under the keel. We didn’t bump the bottom this time, but first thing we did was to re anchor a little bit to the north and east, where the water was deeper, and we would be in good shape when the wind shifted to the NW on Monday with the arrival of the expected cold front.
Today we decided to do begin with some dinghy exploring. Our first stop was a very small island (50 yards long) with a single palm tree, located near the mouth of Norman’s Cay harbor. It was your classic “deserted island” and it looked approachable only around high tide. We had fun looking for conch shells, and taking pictures of ourselves with the palm tree (See how easy it is for us to keep ourselves occupied when we’re off the boat.)
Our next adventure was to go around the shores of what is a large (but very shallow) harbor that extends 3 miles north of where we were anchored. With the outgoing tide starting to carry us north, we only managed to get half way before the water was too thin even for our outboard. We retreated to Sogno and decided now was as good as any to try one of the famous Beach Club (McDuff’s) hamburgers.
The McDuff burger (with cheese) lived up to its reputation, and then some! It was at least 8 oz., and managed to occupy us for at least 20 minutes. French fries were also very tasty. I don’t know if it had much HDL, but this was definitely “good” cholesterol. Our digestive systems were working in overdrive, as we talked with the Beach Club manager, and watched new arrivals land at the nearby airstrip. A walk back didn’t energize us very much either, so it was back to Sogno for a siesta (Sue) and blogging (Brian). No need for any dinner tonight.
The anchorage, however, was getting a bit tight (13 boats), so after talking with our neighbor Solange IV (Kevin) we let out another 20 feet of rode, so we would both have nearly the same scope.
Sogno Dances ‘Til Dawn (Mon, Jan 14)
Tonight was not a quiet one on the anchor. There was a SE wind that made the boats dance about as the current changed from a NE flood to a SW ebb. To the south of us, we could see lots of searchlights coming on as some boats moved to re-anchor, and as a large “mail boat” maneuvered to tie up in the dark at the dock.
Brian got up to check our position around 3am. (Sue sleeps, of course, through most of this.) Looking about, we appeared to be staying the same distance from our 2 closest neighbors, but checking the chartplotter made it look a lot scarier. Sogno was swinging in circles over the bottom, and the circles were moving to the SW. We didn’t seem to be dragging, but the anchor rode was making noises as it rubbed against the hull. Brian stayed up for the rest of the night with a novel, monitoring Sogno’s travels on the chartplotter screen and popping up every 30 minutes to see if everyone else was staying in step. Everything seemed a lot more normal once the sun was up, but it was a reminder that strong wind and current, can make for a not so peaceful anchorage.
Based on the weather forecast, we decided to dinghy over to nearby Shroud Cay (about 3 miles) and check out the mangrove swamp and creeks. We used our handheld GPS to help us avoid some rocky and shallow areas, and arrived at the NW end of the island around 11:30. We wound our way through the shallow mangrove areas and arrived at a beautiful beach on the other side of the island. We strolled about, talked to Seas The Day (Terry and Nancy) about “must see”, and had our picnic lunch. We then hiked up the 65 foot hill to “Driftwood Camp.” The view from the summit revealed an island whose center was mostly under water (the swamps) and was ringed by hills and beaches. The swamp is a “marine nursery” protecting the baby marine life, until it can later fend for itself in the open water. Shroud Cay is a protected area and is part of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
After lunch, we headed back to the west side of the island by another creek. The tide was falling by now, and for a second it seemed as we might have to get out and walk, but eventually we found our way back to open water. After fiddling with the GPS a bit, we set up a return route and made it back to Sogno without incident.
South Anchorage – Less is More (Tues, Jan 15)
With the weather looking favorable, we arranged for an Exuma Park mooring at Warderick Wells Cay and began the short 12 mile trip at around 10:45. We had another great sail, reaching down Exuma Sound at around 6-7 knots. Solange IV was also assigned to the same South Anchorage as we were, and as we made our final approach, radioed us that there was “plenty of deep water in the middle”, and “to get our camera’s rolling” because it was an absolutely beautiful anchorage! With breakers crashing against the shore, we slipped around Hog Cay, and beheld the beautiful (and flat calm) blue green waters and white beaches of the South Anchorage. It was an image right out of a Bahamas travel poster, and we were grinning from ear to ear as we eased past Solange IV to tie up to our mooring ball.
We eventually came off our high enough to dinghy a mile to the North Anchorage and register with the Park. We joined the “Support Fleet” which gives you a break on the mooring fees, and of course met up with many of the boats we had seen along the way (Werplayin, San-I-Tee, Sucia, and Highlander). We returned in time to have cocktails aboard Solange IV (Kevin, Melissa, and young sons James and Caleb). We all agreed that this was a very special spot and that it was like having our “own island.” The North and Emerald Rock anchorages were more popular (near to HQ, more moorings, Wi-Fi, more trails nearby, etc.) but our snug little harbor finally offered a chance to get off the “beaten path” and relax at our own pace.
We “Hit” the Trails (Wed-Thur, Jan 16-17)
The next two days we took time to explore more of Warderick Wells:
Wednesday - A big breakfast (eggs, hash and blueberry muffins) got us off to a good start and we dinghied north to join a Nature Walk, conducted by Bill (Highlander) who has been volunteering at the park for many years. We learned about whales, humming birds, mangroves and the impact of man and storms on the island. We climbed up the limestone path to Boo Boo Hill (where cruisers leave carved signs and to see the blow holes), had our lunch snack at Boo Boo beach, and then ventured out on our own to a few more trails. We then visited with “Werplayin” (Deb, Paul) on their mooring, to find out more of their adventures since we first met them in Staten Island, NY. We were also joined by Solange IV. (Both couples were from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but hadn’t met until along this trip.) Deb and Paul’s hospitality was impressive with homemade minestrone and cookies topping the menu! We hated to leave and paid for it, with a stiff SW breeze making the return trip a real soaker.
Thursday – We started our exploration of the South Anchorage with a trip over to Escape Beach and a climb to the top of a hill to get a panoramic view. Brian then scrambled over a look at a blow hole above a “tunnel” that leads to the Exuma side. Sue could finally relax when he made it back without falling! Lunch at Capture Beach was followed by a visit to the mysterious “Pirates Lair” in a palm tree grove, where pirates supposedly met to relax. Then we hiked the Wild Dilly trail to Bush Basher Beach. Sue fell on this very rocky trail, and managed to “bash” a finger and her tailbone in the fall. We carefully retraced our steps more carefully and made it back with out further incident. We invited Solange IV over for drinks and learned more about each other’s boating plans. They were cruising south 6 months at a time and then working 6 months back in Edmonton to refill the “cruising kitty.” They were planning to store Solange in Charleston, SC this Spring, so they could be back home by May. Thursday ended under a moon so bright, we could see our dinghy’s shadow on the sandy bottom, along with a sting ray (and pilot fish companion) slowly moving about. A grilled steak dinner brought the day to a successful close.
How Green is My Water (Fri, Jan 18)
We started Friday by taking care of the basics. In this case it was our dwindling supply of fresh water. Brian tested one of the two 6.5 gallon water jerry cans we keep on deck, in addition to our normal 110 gallons. The water was distinctly “tinged” green, but given that we were down to our last 40 gallons of fresh water, we decided to chance it and put it in our empty bow tank to use for showers. By the way, the Exuma Park doesn’t have any water, food, fuel, or garbage facilities available, which turns out to be a very effective way of making sure the cruisers don’t overstay their welcome.
After this little chore, Sogno did some bartering with Solange (we traded a box of Triscuits for two cans of cream of mushroom soup) and tool lending (we loaned a battery hydrometer and borrowed a dental pick for a definitely non-dental project). For recreation, we went to Tiny Beach (yes every patch of sand in the park has a name) and did some snorkeling around a beginner’s coral reef site. We didn’t see any sign of the barracuda that Kevin had spied the day before, but we removed our rings so we wouldn’t any attract the interest of any hungry fish. We did see some colorful fish and coral, but when Brian’s big moment came to use the digital camera carefully sealed in its new underwater case, the camera merely said “change to new battery.” No pictures this time! If you haven’t figured it out yet, we are definitely new to all this snorkeling stuff, so we learn something new every time we don our gear. We also learned how fast you can get sunburned on your back if you don’t keep covered up.
After lunch, we left our special anchorage to motor a few miles to the North Anchorage. We ended up on a mooring only one boat from “Werplayin” and a short 5 minutes to the Park HQ. Even more important, we were within range of the Wi-Fi antenna! After a brief initial success, software problems with the Wi-Fi access site shut us down for the time being.
By the end of the day, our “green water” shower experiment seemed successful. At least we certainly felt much better. It was a relatively early dinner (Chicken Creole), early X-file episode (Brian fell asleep) and an early lights out!
Things Get Hairy (Sat-Mon, Jan 19-21)
Saturday - The first chore, was Brian’s beard trim in the cockpit. Sue did an excellent job, but now Sogno had a “hairy” coat on the transom to go with the salt and sand that could be found everywhere. Even the dinghy did not escape the downwind hair “spray.” The rest of the day was spent reading, relaxing, and prepping Sogno and our mooring lines for the strong cold front expected on Sunday. The highlight of the day, was the “Saturday Happy Hour” on the Beach. Cruisers supplied the snacks and drinks, the Park supplied the ice and bonfire. Over 20 boats arrived and we had a great time making new friends on the beach and learning more about all the great places to go in the Exumas.
Sunday - Today we went into get maximum Wi-Fi strength, so we could make some phone calls over the internet (Skype service is what we use.) Things worked ok, but the reliability is still somewhat suspect – at least on our old laptop. We returned to Sogno to wait for the first sign of the cold front, and it obliged promptly at 4:11 pm when all the gray clouds finally delivered a blast of wind from the North, which quickly built to 25 knots, with some occasional rain squalls. From then on it was turn on some relaxing music, do some reading, and generally get used to the sound of the wind in the rigging. After dinner, for “fun”, we decided to watch our “Perfect Storm” DVD, which did indeed mask the sound of the outside wind, and did remind us that our weather was far from anything serious -- so far!
Monday - We had a reasonably restful night with no excitement in the anchorage. On the positive side, the rain washed away most of the salt and hair, and some of the sand! The wind was more in the 15-20 knot range for most of the morning. This gave Sue a chance to inventory the ship’s stores and for me catch up on “Buds at Sea”. Hopefully this installment will get posted today or tomorrow.
We’re planning to depart shortly for Cambridge Cay, which is at the southern end of the Exuma Park. From there we need to stop for some water, laundry, fuel, etc. The logistical challenges are becoming more apparent as we head down the islands toward George Town. Sue is creating a spread sheet as I write this, and soon we’ll know how many days before we run out of something we can’t live without! Fresh water (at $0.50 per gal.) is one thing I know we need to live. Running out of tonic water is another. We’ll let you know how we’re doing in our next installment
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Brian and Sue
Buds at Sea