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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Bahamas Bound

Exumas, Bahamas

By: Kerry

Fantazia Caribbean1-8427We’re sailing through the Bahamas – actually the Exumas, the chain of little island jewels to the east of Nassau, to be precise – on a clear-sky, no-wind day, eating freshly barbecued crayfish and swigging chilled pinot grigio. And it’s only our second day out.

Fantazia, the boat we’re on, is a 55-foot catamaran, similar to ours, owned by our friend John Woodruff. He’s shipped it (yes, put his boat on a ship) from Brisbane to Fort Lauderdale as the starting point for an adventure that will see him sail from the east coast of the US, through the Caribbean and Panama into the Pacific and, eventually, back to Australia. He’s very kindly asked us (Damian, me, Garth and Mick) along for the first stage of the trip, to help him sail the boat from Fort Lauderdale, Florida to Antigua in the Caribbean.

The transporter ship arrived loaded with a dozen or so boats, ranging from smaller cruising yachts up to 60-metre super yachts. It’s remarkable in that all the ‘cargo’ boards the ship on its own bottom: the entire ship sinks to a depth of five metres; the cargo deck floods and all the boats motor on board, where steel supports are individually welded in place by a team of divers. The ship then re-surfaces, the cargo is raised high and dry, and off it goes.

We (very gladly) left Fort Lauderdale after 10 days of humidity, ferocious no-see-ums (sand flies) and a false start thanks to fuel filter issues, that saw us return to port for an extra night.

Problems fixed, we headed out of the Intracoastal canal system and turned south – passing the towering high-rises along the Miami beaches – hugging the coast to stay inside the four-knot south-north Gulf Stream current, which will push us northward 2.5 miles for every hour we’re at sea. Then we headed east, motoring hard across the current as it took us easterly on a diagonal track towards the Bahamas.

This 130nm passage to the clearance port of Chub Cay can be pretty unpleasant if the wind decides to contradict the tide and current.

A local cruising guidebook describes the Gulf Stream off Florida as “…a 45-mile wide river, more powerful than you can imagine. You can’t see the speed of its wash like standing on a river bank, but it is there, flowing northward at an average speed of 2.5 knots, day and night, in every season.”

When you get a ‘norther’ blowing, the sea horizon is often ‘jagged and saw-toothed’. “That,” says the guide, “Is when there are ‘elephants’ out there; giant square waves…kicked up by the Stream’s determination to win its way north against the wind, come what may.”

After all the holdups, we managed to sync our passage with a forecast for calm seas and light winds. We motored into a soft evening and a clear warm night: we’re back in the tropics!

We crossed onto the Great Bahama Bank – the broad, shallow plateau that backs the leeward side of the islands of the Bahamas and the depth went from 300 metres to three. At around 2:00 am we stopped and dropped anchor – not in a safe harbour, but in the middle of nowhere…

I woke to a silent, beautiful dawn: swirls of watercolour clouds reflected in a seamless bubble encompassing horizon-less ocean in every direction. It was the weirdest feeling: I’ve spent many days surrounded by 360 degrees of sea, but I’d never anchored in the middle of the ocean before – nor anchored in three metres of water out of sight of land.

As the sun rose, we weighed anchor and motored for Chub Cay, docking in the small marina by mid-afternoon.

Chub Cay typifies the boom and bust history of the Bahamas: a dozen gelato-coloured, Hamptons-style, two-storey condos with massive, twin air conditioning compressors plumbed in like artificial lungs, stand empty. A white wedding cake of a building that at first glance looked complete, but on closer inspection had electrical wires hanging out of the walls, also appeared abandoned. The place felt dead: flattened and bleached by the relentless, breathless heat.

John went to the airport to clear Customs, while the rest of us went to the perfectly clean, wet-edge pool attached to the abandoned wedding cake and spent the rest of the afternoon chilling.

We went for dinner at the Marina restaurant, where the bar was full of Floridian game fishermen, looking for Ernest Hemingway in the bottom of their Heinekin bottles. There were some black and white photos on the walls from the sixties, of enormous marlin flanked by the triumphant fisherman and his other trophy, the long-legged wife in short shorts and matching mules.

The timing of our trip down the Exumas is tied to weather and tides: the tidal range is only a metre, but it creates fierce currents through the passes between the cays, so passages have to be planned to coincide with slack water.

Hence, we left Chub Cay in the almost-still-dark. Dark enough that we nearly hit the sea wall of the marina on the way out… So much for ‘eyeballing’ the route!

The previous afternoon, Mick managed to acquire a dozen crayfish tails for US$70 from a local fisherman in Chub Cay: the dude was sorting through a tall bucket full of tails, about half of which appeared to be undersized.

And so, as we motor across what feels like the centre-page spread of the Bahamas tourism brochure, we fire up the Webber, I knock up a cheeky little lime butter dressing and we gorge on mouth-watering fresh crayfish: jus gettin’ in de swing of t’ings, mon.

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