Exploring the Exumas … Albeit Briefly.

Cape Santa Maria, Long Island, Exumas

By: Kerry

Fantazia Caribbean-8537We motored across dead calm water to the south-west side of Highbourne Cay – which lies about half-way down the 140 nautical mile chain of low, sandy islands making up the Exuma Cays – and anchored off a brilliantly white beach in just a couple of metres of swimming-pool-blue water: the colour and clarity is incredible.

The island is privately owned, but we were able to go in to the small marina – full of game fishing and charter boats – and fuel up. It reminded me of the BVIs: neat, clean and thoroughly sign-posted, with a small general store selling souvenirs and exorbitantly priced groceries.

Garth and I took the dinghy and circumnavigated the island, which is about three miles long. We stopped for a snorkel on the windward side at a spot recommended by the local dive operation. There were a few small but pretty fan corals and a few colourful fish, but nothing compared to what we’re used to in the Pacific.

We continued past the long white East beach (“world-renowned as one of the best beaches in the Bahamas”) that stretches the full east coast of the island, back to the marina, where a bunch of fat and happy nurse sharks were sunning themselves beneath the fish cleaning station, obviously waiting for an easy afternoon tea. They took no notice of us as we floated a metre above them in the dinghy – very tempted to jump in with them…

John had us up early the next day, headed for Warderick Wells, headquarters of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. The cay shelters a sinuous channel flanked by sandbanks that dry at low tide to glaring white, sliding into a stunning wash of blues from palest pool to richest royal.

Established in 1958, the ECLSP extends for 22 miles from Wax Cay Cut in the north to Conch Cut in the south and about four nautical miles on either side of the cays.

I wanted to do some snorkelling, but the boys weren’t up for it after we were visited by a bunch of lazy nurse sharks who hung out around Fantazia’s transom, looking for a feed.

On Cherry, the Park Ranger’s recommendation, at slack tide (the current is too strong at any other time), I snorkelled on a coral garden in the channel. About the same area as Fantazia’s deck, the garden’s coral life was fairly limited but, hidden amongst it I saw a huge lobster; the biggest pair of angelfish I’ve ever seen; a lion fish; schools of blue tang and snapper and a grouper lurking beneath a ledge. It’s the greatest concentration of life I’ve seen so far: elsewhere the sea bottom has been bare sand – beautiful, but barren.

We also walked to the top of the ‘famous’ Booboo Hill, where yachties have been piling up planks of driftwood and palings adorned with their boat names for, it would appear, decades.

With the calendar and a possible change in the weather starting to work against us, we were off next morning to Staniel Cay, the cruising hub of the Exumas. Initially, we were going to go into the Staniel Cay Marina, but our ‘berth’ turned out to be un-negotiable, thanks in part to a stiff breeze and a four-knot current blasting past the pilings, so we anchored off instead.

It would have been nice to spend a day or so looking around (I really wanted to meet the famous swimming pigs) but, as it was, we had a quick wander, picked up a few supplies from the pink market and the blue market and had time to sample a few rather wicked rum punches in the bar by the dock…

And then we were off again, heading out through Galliot Cut into the Exuma Sound, and open Atlantic Ocean for the run down the back side of the Cays, re-entering via Conch Cay Cut to Elizabeth Harbour, between Stocking Island and Great Exuma Island.

Sand Dollar Beach on Stocking Island was crowded with a couple of hundred cruising yachts – by far the most we’ve seen so far – apparently many spend the whole winter here, and there’s a beach bar; a shack selling conch fritters; volleyball nets and the familiar totem pole of sign posts to visitors’ home ports.

Across the harbour, George Town is ostensibly the ‘capital’ of the Exumas. It’s charming in a sprawling, dusty, colourful Caribbean way: pretty much everything is arranged around Lake Victoria – a circular inlet accessed by dinghy through a narrow cut from Elizabeth harbour. Backing on to the Lake is Exuma Markets – the first supermarket we’ve found since Florida, with pretty much anything you’d want.

There’s also a straw market where a bunch of languid local women make and sell baskets, shell jewellery and t-shirts; an impressive, peach-painted Georgian-style administration building; a few cafes; and a bunch of dread-locked locals sitting on a wall in the main street, doing nothing much.

We had to pick our way pretty carefully between the reefs to get out into open water, and actually got a sail up for a change, and had a nice sail to Cape Santa Maria on Long Island: our launch pad for the Windward Passage.

370 nautical miles since Florida…

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~


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