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73. Archipielago de los Jardines de la Reine

The fall-out from the chimneys of the cement works in the next creek was leaving nasty brown spots on our coach-roof and decks, so we were keen to move on, but there were a few things we needed and wanted to do on our last full day in Santiago. Firstly, we bought a few extra navigation charts from an agent who brought out a selection to our boat. Cuba has an excellent hydrographic service, trained by the Russians. We also had to get our laundry done and fill the tanks with diesel and water. We took time out for a taxi ride to the Castillo del Morro - a really magnificent and historic stone structure. It was literally littered with old cannons, including a pair of large ornate bronze barrels dating from 1748. It seems a shame that they felt the need to attract tourists by jumping on the pirate bandwagon with a themed pirate museum. As lighthouse enthusiasts, we made sure we visited the one next to the Castillo. We were shown round by the keeper and inspected the original French rotating mechanism which is still wound by hand. The views up and down the coast from the top are stupendous.

Our cruising permit, which gave us permission to sail to Casilda and stop at any of the minor anchorages along the way, was issued next morning; and we cast off at midday. Once out at sea we turned to the west and, with a fitful breeze, part sailed and part motored into the night. The moon high ahead cast a silver glimmer onto the dark grey sea. Three miles to starboard, the shoreline was picked out by clusters of dim lights from small fishing communities. Beyond these rose the slate-grey backdrop of the mountain range, appearing as a cardboard cut-out against the pale grey sky, pin-pricked with stars. After 100 miles the mountains drop down into the sea at Cabo Cruz, where we anchored behind the reef the following afternoon.

Between here and Casilda, 200 miles further to the west, Cuba is indented by a shallow expanse of sea dotted with small islands, or cayos: an area not unlike the Bahamas - but deserted and unspoiled by development. We raised the anchor as the sun rose over the headland and set off across the bay. After several miles, a string of cayos appeared - all topped with mangroves, some fringed by sand. A cluster of buoys and beacons marked the Canal de Cuatro Reales - gateway into the Golfo de Guacanayabo. At the close of day we anchored in the bight of Cayo Media Luna, a perfectly crescent-shaped island, 1.3 miles across from tip to tip. That night, a full moon rose over Half Moon Bay. Next day we motored to Cayo Granada, found the cut through the reef and anchored within the lagoon of this horseshoe shaped island. We launched the dinghy and landed on the soft, silty sand of the spit projecting from the mangroves at one end of the cay. It was very hot with barely a breath of wind, so we headed back to the boat for a swim to cool down.

Next day, we passed through a couple of tortuous but well marked "canals" through the Archipielago de los Jardines de la Reine - what a beautiful name for a chain of islands! We were now in the Golfo de Ana Maria, and finished the day at anchor inside the enclosed lagoon of Cayo Algodon Grande. In the morning we took the dinghy into a channel through the mangroves and landed at the head of a short track that lead to a beautiful sandy beach, fringed with palm trees. The ruins of a small resort village were rapidly disappearing beneath the regenerating shrubs and trees. We walked a little way along the strand and swam in the pristine turquoise sea. In the afternoon, we moved on to Cayo Cuervo and anchored in a large bay behind an enclosing reef. For the first time we shared the anchorage with a couple of other yachts, as well as three fishing boats. We had a bit of a struggle getting the anchor up next morning as it had snagged an old wire rope, but luckily there was enough slack to bring it to the surface and prise it off the flukes. Seven rusty old trawlers were working in the area, one of which left a trail of discarded starfish floating on the surface as the crew sorted through their catch.

We headed out towards through the Canal Boca Grande, 6m deep, to the open sea; and within minutes the depth had plummeted to 300m. We sailed up the seaward side of Cayo Breton, the northernmost island in the archipelago, and anchored behind the reef. We took a dinghy tour of the extensive but shallow lagoon hidden within the island. Large areas of mangroves were bare of leaves and we were concerned that pollution may have been the cause, but we later realised that they'd probably been damaged by Hurricane Sandy. After a rolly night at anchor, we continued to Cayos Machos de Fuera. After two unsuccessful attempts to get the anchor to hold due to the hard bottom, a fisherman called out and indicated a better spot - then dived in with a snorkel to check that it was set. Where else in the world would that happen? We went ashore in the dinghy and landed by a small beach bar surrounded by sun-loungers and picnic tables - presumably a destination for day excursions from Casilda. Now late in the afternoon, only iguanas prowled about the beach. Next morning, we sailed the last few miles to Casilda, the port for the old town of Trinidad.

In several of the anchorages we had been offered fish by fishermen. They were always very friendly but clearly concerned about being spotted by the authorities. I don't suppose Cuba has a department monitoring visitors' blogs, but, just in case, we have jumbled up events and not mentioned the locations. On one occasion we paid money, but otherwise traded with goods such as rum, coffee, cans of Coke or biscuits. Sometimes they asked for things that we couldn't spare or just didn't have, such as razor blades: we wished we'd known the sorts of things they needed beforehand. A typical occasion was when a fishing boat approached soon after our anchor was down, casually cut its engine and drifted close by. The gesture was obvious, so we rowed over and were offered some squid. They looked surprise when we asked for fish, but they produced five red snappers then showed us a couple of lobster tails. We handed them a bag which was promptly filled with seventeen of them - totally ignoring our protests to stop! Another fisherman rowed over with a huge fish which we tried to refuse as we had plenty already, but to no avail. He later returned at dusk and proudly presented us with two large lobster tails. Three men in a rowing boat held up a fish as we approached another anchorage, which we acknowledged with a thumbs-up, but then disappeared into the mangroves about half a mile away. Later, we were mystified by the sight of two figures swimming towards us wearing snorkels and masks. They came alongside, and one produced a large red snapper from under his tee shirt! More to our surprise, just before dusk they swam back and produced bananas, tomatoes and eggs from some very soggy plastic bags. They said the water was cold and asked for a tot of rum, so we gave them some in a mug - it seemed a tough way of doing business! Our fridge was soon full, and we feasted off various fish and lobster dishes for a week - the best food we'd eaten in months!

05/15/2013 | chris powles
Pat ~ i note from your latest Pacific tracking you seem to be giving the Galapagos Islands a miss, i thought this would have been one place you would have visited?
great blogs ~ Chris
05/21/2013 | Joyce Moon
You look as though you are making great progress. Are the Galapagos too commercial these days or perhaps you have already visited them! Great sailing love Joyce
72. Santiago Customs

At midday we were woken by a shout from the shore, and saw a large man beckoning us to come alongside. He was George, the assistant harbourmaster, who introduced himself to Amanda as the handsomest man in Cuba - but that I was not to worry as he was happily married! He was nattily dressed, somewhat rotund and looked remarkably prosperous. In good English, he explained that he was one of four assistant harbourmasters who worked 24-hour shifts in rotation, insisted we come to him or his colleagues if we needed advice, and went on to tell us what would happen next.

The checking in procedure commenced with the arrival of the doctor and vet. We had a supply of Coca Cola in the fridge to offer to the officials, but the doctor asked if we had any American beer. We only had Bahamian, but after examining the label minutely he tasted the contents and pronounced it good, and then went on to tell us what beers to look out for in Cuba. He asked us a couple of questions about our health, and I mentioned that I'd heard that there had been outbreaks of cholera on Cuba since Hurricane Sandy, which he confirmed, but said that it had now been eradicated. The vet peered into each cabin to see whether he could find any alien bugs, but otherwise the two sat happily down below chatting, smiling and slowly sipping their drinks. Next on were two dogs, with their handlers and a customs officer. The young spaniel lost his footing in his excitement to get on board and slipped between the boat and quay, but his handler managed to grab him before he reached the water! The officer carefully placed our carton of flares in the middle of the cabin, and the dog was let loose. He rushed around sniffing everywhere, and eventually - after some gentle nudging - found the box of flares. Presumably they were training it to sniff out explosives. The old labrador was let loose next, but didn't seem particularly interested in anything else we had on board.

After the dogs, two smart and manicured women arrived from the ministry of agriculture. They asked what food we had on board and checked our flour for weevils; but if there was anything we shouldn't have brought into the country, they didn't seem bothered. They sat enjoying their Cokes and gossiping with us within the limitations of our mutual ignorance of each others languages. They asked us by sign language if we had any soap that we could give them - the first of many occasions that Cubans asked for this. They then offered to organise a taxi to take us into the city next day - we just had to look out for the red car. Two assistant customs officers then arrived to make a search of the boat. They rummaged through a few lockers in great detail, but didn't dig too far into the more inaccessible places. Their main interest was our hand-held VHF set. They said that they ought to seal it in a compartment with official adhesive tape, but that they would let it pass in our case as we might need it, but we should keep it out of sight. Finally I had to go ashore to complete a number of forms. Although it took all afternoon, the process was all done with extreme courtesy and good humour. This is the first country we've been to where the officers automatically removed their shoes before stepping on board, although this lead to some ribbing from one to another about his smelly feet!

Later, the harbourmaster gave us the low-down on the area and what we could and couldn't do - we weren't permitted to explore the rest of the bay, for example. He carefully explained the two currencies that co-exist in Cuba: convertible pesos, known as CUKs, nominally equal to a US dollar, and the local pesos, of which you get 24 for a CUK. Visitors are normally charged in CUKs, but one is allowed to buy local pesos at a "Cadeca" bank, which can be spent at, for example, back-street cafes, local shops and fruit and vegetables stalls, where prices are a fraction of those in CUK restaurants and stores. Cubans are very keen to earn CUKs to be able to buy goods from tourist shops that they can't get elsewhere, so jobs in contact with foreigners are much sought after.

Santiago Marina is based on the remains of what must have been a smart yacht club. The modernist style building is kept in good order with clean loos and showers, a bar and cafe, and offices for all the officials. Sadly some of the concrete jetties, including the diving platforms around a bathing area, were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy, but an effort has been made to patch up what is left. There is now only room for around a dozen boats. An enterprising family in the local village offered a range of services to visitors. Father could sell you anything, mother did the laundry and their son - a cool dude in union-jack sunglasses - organised his mates to drive us around in their rickety, but highly polished, Russian cars.

The city of Santiago de Cuba is crowded hot and polluted, the narrow streets and pavements jammed with old cars, buses resembling cattle trucks, horses and carts, and pedestrians. The city was the capital of Cuba prior to 1607, and still has a few historic buildings which are open to the public. The Spanish styled house of Diego Velazquez - the first governor - was built in 1522 and is apparently the oldest in Cuba. The elegant, timber panelled rooms have been restored and furnished with an impressive collection of Cuban mahogany and cedar furniture, as well as fine examples of European china, porcelain, glass and clocks etc. It was all displayed very casually with little security, and one wonders if the curators knew the value of their possessions. The BBC's "Antiques Roadshow" would have a field day there! A personal guide appeared in each section to show us round. They were quite knowledgeable and spoke reasonable English, but when they'd finished they invariably ushered us behind a door and surreptitiously tried to sell us some small souvenir to earn a few CUKs for themselves.

Emilio Bacardi Moreau, the founder of the rum business, built the Municipal Museum to house his personal collection of arms, paintings and other eclectic stuff, but it was poorly displayed and labelled in Spanish only. In fairness, it was still undergoing repair after being damaged by hurricane Sandy, as was the Cathedral. We tried to look inside the latter, but the "jineteros" (touts) guided us into an annexe, charged us 2 CUKs and lead us round a gruesome jumble of old religious artefacts, then had the cheek to demand a tip. The Cathedral itself, apparently, could only be visited by arrangement at certain times of day. We wandered through the street market, called in to a few shops and walked past the long queue outside the soap shop. Eventually we tired of the constant attention of hustlers, musicians and people asking for things; and retreated to the comparative peace of the terrace café of the Casa Grande Hotel which overlooks the main square. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching urban Cuban life from a safe distance, before getting a taxi ride back to our boat in a 1950s Chevrolet.

71. Passage to Cuba

We were on our own again and wasted no time in getting ready for the next big step in our voyage. We spent the first day dividing our time between the laundrette in Georgetown and the Edge café, one of the few establishments with wi-fi; and the second day shuttling by dinghy between the anchorage and town to replenish diesel, petrol and water cans, a gas cylinder and groceries. That evening we had supper with Stuart and Steph on board "Matador", where we talked about our respective plans for visiting Cuba. We both got under way the following morning and headed out through the south-east channel from Elizabeth Harbour into Exuma Sound. After a fine sail across to Long Island, we anchored behind the reef in Calabash Bay. We swam ashore and strolled along the deserted beach to feel the fine Bahamian sand between our toes for the last time. Stuart and Steph came over for supper, bringing their instruments to accompany Amanda on her guitar for an evening of home entertainment. Then it was farewell for the time being at least, as "Matador" was heading for the north coast of Cuba and "Egret" for the south.

We left soon after dawn on Thursday 14th February, motored up to the northern tip of Long Island and rounded Cape Santa Maria, where we began to feel the ocean swell. The wind had picked up enough by mid morning to cut the engine and sail, but it was fairly slow going as the wind was against us forcing us to make some long tacks. We sailed into the night under a new moon, but in the early hours the wind died and we started the engine again. There was a also a foul current and we needed to keep up a reasonable speed as a cold front was forecast to herald a strong "norther" within a couple of days. We crossed the Tropic of Cancer at 0300. We saw several ships - more than we'd seen for quite some time, as this channel is on the direct route between the Panama Canal and North America. We were passing Crooked Island, the location of the first post office in the Bahamas - convenient for passing ships to collect and deliver mail. We alternated between sail and power over the next couple of days as the wind built and died, including several hours of flat calm, and it became very hot, even at night. I managed to fix an intermittent fault in our water pressure pump, whilst Amanda occupied herself making a Cuban courtesy flag. At 1600 on Saturday afternoon we spotted the mountains of Cuba, 25 miles away. After months of cruising the flat landscapes of America and the Bahamas it was a joy to sea this majestic range, over a thousand metres high. We passed through the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti during the night and altered course to the west. The wind was still fitful: one moment we had 18 knots from the north and the next, nothing again. The cold front passed over the following afternoon, bringing rain and wind up to 28 knots, veering from south-west to north over the course of 2 hours.

We were approaching Quantanamo Bay, the American naval base and prison camp, controversially nestling within their sworn enemy's territory. Just before dusk, as we were approaching a waypoint 3.5 miles offshore in order to keep outside the 3 mile exclusion zone marked on our up-to-date British chart, the VHF radio crackled into life with a voice calling up "the sailing vessel". Does he mean us? Of course he did - there was no one else around. We responded and the US Port Control asked what our intentions were. We told him we were heading for Santiago, and he ordered us to alter course immediately to keep 8 miles out from the base. This really concerned us, as we'd planned on being able to keep close under the lee of the land to avoid the worst of the strong northerly wind that was forecast. There was no question of negotiating however - we had to move out. We mentioned this to our friends over the evening SSB radio net, and there was general sympathy that the Americans were behaving unreasonably to a small yacht from a friendly country. Almost immediately the net was over, we were called up on the VHF by a different American voice. This time it was the US Coastguard, and he was extremely polite and almost apologetic, but said that they did "need us" to head 8 miles offshore. We told him that we'd already altered course and he wished us "bon voyage". Had big brother been eavesdropping on our radio net?

As we sailed further from land, the wind increased to 30 knots and the seas built up rapidly. We took in the third reef, and when we were 8 miles due south of Quantamano Bay we altered course to claw our way back inshore to the west. We were hard on the wind with sustained wind speeds of 35 knots and gusts up to 39 knots. The sea conditions were horrible - perhaps it was as well that we couldn't see the waves in the pitch black of the night. By midnight we were back within 1.2 miles of the shore with much flatter seas, but the wind was now very fluky both in direction and strength as it came down off the mountains. After some final vicious gusts, including a couple touching 42 knots, the wind switched off at 0240. We switched on the engine - phew! We certainly hadn't expected quite such strong winds, in fact we had read in the pilot book said that "winter northers" from America rarely penetrated through to the south coast of Cuba, and if they did they would be much reduced in strength. In our experience it seemed that the night-time catabatic effect had accelerated the wind.

A blustery wind kicked in again just before dawn, and as the sun came up we could see a massive bank of clouds piling up against the far side of the rugged line of mountains. A couple of hours later we located the outer buoys marking the channel into Santiago Harbour. The impressive 17th century Castillo del Morro, perched high on the cliffs, stands guard over the entrance. Once inside, the harbour opens up into a large bay. Tumbledown homes lined the shore and two tall chimneys were belching out smoke in the distance. Just inside the entrance is the small island of Cayo Granma, named after the motor yacht in which Fidel Castro and his fellow rebels sailed from Mexico to Cuba in 1956. With densely packed cottages and a church at the top, the island is a picturesque fishing community that we later learnt had been badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. We called up the marina at Punta Gorda by VHF and were requested to anchor as there wasn't room alongside until another boat that was due to depart had gone. It was now 0940, and we were glad of the chance to snatch a couple of hours of undisturbed sleep before the anticipated rigmarole of checking in.

70. At the End of the Plank

The Bahamas have a long history of ship and boat building, the largest being a 700 ton four-masted schooner, launched in 1922. There is also a tradition of sloop racing. Teams from various islands still bring their small, half-decked keelboats to regattas throughout the Bahamas for some hot competition. I went out in the tender one day to watch the racing off Nassau at close quarters. There are three classes of sloop, ranging from about 18ft to 35ft in length. The largest carry up to fourteen crew and, to balance the boats upwind, half of them sit out beyond the gunnels on planks, similar to the sliding seats on the International Canoes that I used to sail. They carry a huge mainsail with a long, overhanging boom and short, curved gaff, whereas the jib is quite small. The races start with all boats anchored along the line with sails down. When the gun goes, half the crew frantically haul in on the anchor warp which gets some momentum going whilst the rest hoist the sails. They then sail two rounds of a windward-leeward course. The boats must take a lot of skill to sail fast: trimming the big sail area, co-ordinating the crew and keeping the low boom from tripping up in the water. Whilst sitting in the tender between races, I was hailed and asked to help transfer some crewmen from one boat to another. The guys were huge, two of them barely fitting in the tender with me, and to see them later perched on the end of the planks impressed me both of their agility and the strains they must have imposed on the rig. It all made me somewhat wistful about the enjoyment I used to get from racing performance dinghies and keelboats.

One of my old Canoe sailing friends Phil and his wife Claire flew into Nassau on the same plane that Mary flew out on. They were booked into a hotel for three nights of luxury before they were to join us on board "Egret", and we met up with them on their second evening when they treated us to dinner in town. On their first morning with us, we walked to the Saturday market by the quay to buy some of the freshest fish, fruit and vegetables that we'd seen in a long while, then topped up with basic supplies at a supermarket. After lunch we went for a walk past the Yacht Club, which displayed the Star keelboat used by the winners of Bahamas first (and only?) Olympic gold medals, and continued on to the botanical gardens of the Bahamas National Trust.

We had a lively first day's sailing in 20 knots of wind, with gusts up to 27. We picked up a mooring off Shroud Cay and had a rather uncomfortable night due to the continuing fresh wind and waves. On a cloudy and chilly morning, we took the dinghy into a little inlet and explored the mangroves, then went for a walk along the sands. We were back on board by 1100, and, with the sky clearing and breeze moderating, enjoyed a glorious sail to our next island, which labours under the bizarre name of Big Major's Spot. This is a very popular anchorage, and there also a number of tourist resorts in the area. The first thing everyone has to do is feed the pigs that swim out to you as you approach one particular beach. We then continued across to the neighbouring island of Staniel Cay, where we had a pleasant walk through the village. This was the first inhabited island in the Exumas that we had visited, and the locals all seemed very happy and friendly, with the children smartly dressed in school uniforms. After lunch at the busy Yacht Club, we watched some fisherman gutting fish and throwing the scraps to feed a shoal of nurse sharks - another popular tourist attraction. The other must-do was to snorkel into Thunderball Grotto, a partially submerged cavern inside a small rocky island: the location for the eponymous James Bond film. We tied the dinghy up to a mooring buoy at low tide next morning, and swam through a low passage into the grotto. There were hundreds of colourful fish milling around, attracted by the food that visitors had brought. It was also a spectacular sight looking up at the shafts of light coming down from craggy openings in the roof.

In the afternoon we sailed the short distance to Harvey Cay and anchored off Black Point Settlement. All the guide-books said that we should visit Lorraine's Bar, and an added bonus was that Stuart and Steph were booked to play some music with a couple of other cruisers. There was a good turnout, and Lorraine and her family certainly worked hard to provide a good buffet supper for everyone there. Amanda and I nipped ashore early the next morning to catch up with some e-mailing, using the wi-fi at the launderette; then we upped anchor and sailed out through Dotham Cut into the deep waters of Exuma Sound. It was cloudy with a few rain showers - some of them very heavy. There was a gentle breeze and we kept the engine running to maintain a reasonable speed as we bashed into a lumpy sea. We also had to tack a few times for big wind-shifts of up to 60 degrees. We anchored off Leaf Cay, just inside Adderley Cut, with "Matador" the only other boat at this lovely location. Just before sunset we took the dinghy round to a beach to watch a few rock iguanas making there way slowly back to their holes within the outcrops of limestone. These large lizard-like creatures can grow to about 3ft long and live for forty years. They are mainly herbivores, although the young apparently eat insects as well. We returned next morning to see a lot more of them prowling about, some of the biggest males behaving quite aggressively toward others that dared come near. They are quite a tourist attraction, and approach you as you get close, presumably expecting to be fed.

Back on board "Egret", we headed out to sea again and continued down the chain of islands to Elizabeth Harbour, a large stretch of sheltered water on the north-east side of Great Exuma Island. We found a place to anchor off Stocking Island and went ashore for cocktails at the Chat n' Chill Bar on the beach. This really is a quite extraordinary anchorage. There were about three hundred yachts, most of them American or Canadian, which sail down and stay for most of the season, year after year, getting no further in the Bahamas. Each morning there is a radio net at which the day's activities are announced. They include such disparate pastimes as yoga, beach church, volleyball, craft classes, book club, women's groups, conch "oompah" blowing and just about anything else one could think of. It's real hi-dee-hi - a kind of summer camp for oldie cruisers. Next day we made the long dinghy ride across to Georgetown to have a look round. There is a pretty white church with blue shutters on the windows, and an imposing council building painted in the traditional pink colour. We had a hamburger (fish sandwiches were "off") for lunch on the balcony of the rather dilapidated and deserted yacht club, bought some food in the supermarket (no fresh or local produce on offer) and returned to our boat. We went for a long walk along the beach next morning, followed by a hog roast Sunday lunch at Chat n' Chill. This was Phil and Claire's final day, and in the afternoon they were picked up by a water taxi to take them across to Georgetown. There they took a small plane to Nassau for a connecting flight home to London. It had been fun sailing with friends again, and it felt as if we had been on holiday ourselves.

69. On Turquoise Seas

Amanda took a taxi to the airport the following afternoon to meet her mother. Mary was very relieved to have made it as her plane had been one of the last to get out of Heathrow that day, before it was closed due to snow. We spent her first day settling in, shopping for fresh supplies and using the wi-fi in the local library, and were later joined by Steph and Stuart (of "Matador") for evening drinks. We slipped our mooring early the following morning and departed Nassau Harbour by the south channel. With a very light north-easterly we motored - with a bit of help from the sails - for 40 miles across the brilliantly clear water - just 3 to 6m deep - towards the Exuma Cays. Navigating across many areas of the banks and in the vicinity of the cays requires close observation of the water. The colour changes from indigo in deep water through various shades of blue, to pale turquoise as it picks up the colour of the sand in the shallows. Dark patches amongst the paler areas generally indicate seagrass on the bed, which can be difficult to penetrate with the anchor. Very dark patches could be coral heads, which may reach within a metre of the surface, so definitely to be avoided. The boundaries between the various colour-defined depths are distinctly visible provided the sun is fairly high and the sea is not too choppy. It is therefore a good idea to arrive at an anchorage in the early afternoon before the sun gets too low, particularly if it is setting ahead of you.

We ended our first day off Norman Island, and after setting the anchor we dived overboard for our first swim in the Bahamas. In the morning we sailed the short distance to Shroud Cay, and went ashore in the dinghy to swim from the beach. The sand there is incredibly fine - it might almost be classified as silt - and is a very pale yellow, close to the colour of putty. We also took a fascinating tour through the mangrove wetlands, following narrow channels that wound their way to the ocean beach on the other side of the island. We saw a few fish but surprisingly few birds or other creatures. It was a nice surprise to find the catamaran "Por Dos" anchored nearby, and we joined Mark, Marta, Alec and Rowan for sundowners.

The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park has a base on Warderick Wells (which sounds like a character from a PG Woodhouse novel). There is always a demand for their moorings, and they are offered out over the vhf radio at 8 o'clock each morning. We snapped up the first one available for the next day, and spent three nights there. The moorings are laid in a single, curving line around a large sand bank, which is partially exposed at low tide. Several wardens live on the island, and they have an office where you can pick up information about the various cays within the Park. At the back of the nearest beach there is a skeleton of a large whale that had been re-assembled on a timber framework by cruising sailors. One evening, we saw a Bahamas Hutia scuttling along past. These rabbit-sized rodents inhabit just three islands and are considered an endangered species.

As it was quite windy the whole time we were there, it was too rough to snorkel. However we took our "looky" bucket (with a glass bottom) out in the dinghy and saw plenty of fish and some reasonable coral. One day, Amanda and I walked across to the deep water side of the island which looks out over Exuma Sound. The waves were crashing onto the shore, kicking up high columns of spray. A cairn on the dizzy heights of Booboo Hill (19m above sea level) had been built of driftwood, each piece marked with the name of a cruising yacht that had called by over the years before. Walking was quite rough going in places, as the ground is made up of sharp, open textured limestone with numerous sink holes. One particularly large hole that one can climb down into is called "Murphy's Hideaway". In other areas we walked on the edge of mudflats where the tubes of black mangroves protrude like a bed of nails. Red mangroves grow in deeper water - their distinctive root system spreading out from their trunks into the mud below. White mangroves grow at the top of the tide-line and buttonwood, the fourth species of mangrove, live in the dry saline areas further inland. There were also poisonwood trees: apparently the only antidote to a skin rash if you touch one is the sap of the Gumbo-Limbo tree - but we failed to identify any of these. We walked some distance along the ocean shore, re-crossed the island and returned via the beautiful Emerald and Butterfly beaches.

It was time to start heading back, and a strong north-easterly with gusts up to 29 knots blew us briskly to Hawksbill Cay. Our first choice of anchorage turned out to be too shallow, but we found good protection on a mooring at the south-west end of the island. We landed on a magnificent beach, scrambled up a small hill for some good views, and went swimming and snorkelling. Squally showers overnight continued into next day, so we donned full oilskins and pulled in two reefs for a fast sail back to Nassau.

We spent our last couple of days with Mary seeing a bit more of the town. Bay Street still has something of the feel of a colonial port, with tightly packed, colonnaded buildings overhanging the pavements. The Straw Market has recently been restored to its former glory as a large stone-fronted building with massive timber frames supporting the roof. Although most of the stalls were selling the usual tourists tat, there were a few craftsmen making carvings from local hardwoods, and others decorating, if not actually making, straw baskets - a traditional Bahamian product. The Georgian government buildings are laid out around pretty Parliament Square, with a statue of Queen Victoria in pride of place at the centre. A couple of policemen wearing immaculate white tropical uniforms stood guard. The Governor General's residence stands high above the town, with its statue of Christopher Columbus gazing out across Nassau Harbour. One wonders what he would have thought of the Atlantis Resort, arguably the Bahamas' biggest eyesore, on Paradise Island, renamed from the original Hog Island by the billionaire property developer who constructed this pink, disneyesque monstrosity. Tucked away at the back of the town are some elegant colonial homes built tight alongside narrow streets, little changed over the past couple of centuries apart from the vicissitudes of time.

Our trips into town gave Mary the opportunity to enjoy a couple more swims from Junkanoo Beach. She had slipped easily into the cruising lifestyle, happily clambering in and out of the dinghy and getting splashed as we crossed the choppy waters between shore and yacht, as well as walking miles and putting up with the cramped and sometimes rocking and rolling living conditions on board. On her last evening she took us out for dinner at a restaurant with a magnificent setting overlooking the Harbour. Her ten days with us went by all too quickly - and it felt rather cruel to be taking her to the airport for her flight across the Atlantic to the cold and miserable weather back home.

68. Welcome to the Bahamas

The injection pump was fixed as promised and all our mail had been delivered, but weather expert Chris Parker was still advising against crossing the Gulf Stream due to fresh head winds. We reckoned that mightn't be such a problem as we could utilise the lee-bow effect of the strong cross-current to our advantage, and decided that, come what may, we would go the following morning. Things were a bit lively as we headed out through the harbour entrance, but within a couple of hours we were under full sail, close hauled on port tack in a force 3 easterly breeze. The Gulf Stream was running at about 3.5 knots and conditions were like a benign English Channel, only warmer. Our heading was 155 degrees and course-over-ground 115 degrees, pretty much right on track to our waypoint between Great Isaac Island and the Hen and Chickens rocks. We ceremoniously lowered our American courtesy flag, which, after nearly eight months flying from the starboard spreader, was looking rather worn and frayed around the edges. We were excited to be moving on at last to the next stage of our voyage.

After 60 miles the effect of the Gulf Stream slackened, and we had to tack four times to reach the cut through the reef onto the Great Bahama Bank, which we reached at 0330. It was a curious feeling, as dawn came up, to see no land around us but, looking down through the crystal clear water, to see the seabed just 4m below our keel. Unfortunately the wind was still right on the nose, and, with a tight schedule to achieve, we lowered the sails and motored for the rest of the day. We wanted to cross the 60 mile wide bank and get through the poorly marked pass back into deep water before nightfall. In fact when we got there, the last two channel markers seemed to be missing, so we pretty much had to rely on the GPS supported by a sharp lookout. The last of the ebb tide was kicking up a steep chop as we passed out into deep water. We set full sail, stopped the engine and tacked our way out of the funnel-shaped North-East Providence Channel between Andros Island and the Berry Islands. There was a new moon and a million stars above us, whilst below, the seabed was plummeting to a depth of 2,500m. We'd been keeping in contact with Matador, whose course from Bimini had converged with ours, and she passed us under power during the night. As dawn approached the wind became more fitful, clouds began to pile up and it rained for a while. We reluctantly turned on the engine and motor-sailed the rest of the way to Nassau. We moored alongside the Customs Quay at 1030, exactly two days after setting out, having sailed 240 miles. Checking in was straightforward and friendly, although we had to stump up a fairly hefty $300 for a cruising permit. The procedures ended with a cheery "Welcome to the Bahamas".

The Bahamas comprise some seven hundred islands and cays spread over an area 500 miles long by 200 wide. They are all low lying, emerging above vast areas of shallow banks just a few metres deep. Andros, at 90 by 40 miles, is by far the largest island, but quite undeveloped. The only significant town is Nassau, the capital, located on New Providence Island. Christopher Columbus made his first landing after crossing the Atlantic at the island he named San Salvador in 1492, during his search for a western route to the East Indies. The Spanish subsequently wiped out the indigenous population of Lucayans by transporting them to Hispaniola, where they were worked to death as slaves mining for gold. The islands were then abandoned until the English laid claim to them in the mid 17th century. The earliest settlers were religious exiles from England who had emigrated firstly to Bermuda and now felt the need to move on again. They called themselves Eleutherians (Greek for "freedom"), from which the island of Eleuthra got its name. Later settlers came from Jamaica and America, particularly loyalists after losing out in the American Revolution, as well as directly from Britain.

Privateer ships, which were licensed by the government to wage war on the enemy, used the Bahamas as a base in the early 18th century. However, when peace came, some of them made up for their loss of prize money by turning to piracy, and as more outcasts arrived, including Edward "Blackbeard" Teach, the Bahamas degenerated into a lawless state. Eventually Captain Woodes Rogers, the first Royal Governor, managed to re-establish law and order. A more recent Governor was the Duke of Windsor - banished here at the start of the 2nd World War. Bahamians have always struggled to eke out a living from the land or sea. Exotic timber such as mahogany, cedar, boxwood and lignum vitae were early exports, but of course the ancient forests were soon wiped out for ever. Crops such as cotton, sisal, limes, pineapples and tomatoes each did well for a few years after their introduction, but failed to produce continuing commercial quantities due to the poor soil and diseases. Salt production and the gathering of sponges from the shallow banks were also significant earners.

The Bahamas are on major trade routes but surrounded by treacherous reefs, with the result that wrecking became a significant industry for much of the 18th and 19th centuries. Islanders would drop everything on hearing of a grounded vessel and rush to salvage what they could of the cargo - and hopefully save a few lives as well. The Government decreed that salvaged goods had to be delivered to a central warehouse in Nassau. The salvers received about 50% of the auction value, and probably kept items such as food, clothing and household goods for themselves. Another money-spinner was blockade running during the American Civil War. Sailing craft and shallow-draft steamers transhipped supplies from ocean going steamers moored at Nassau to the southern states, and brought cotton back out for export. It was a similar story during prohibition. Huge amounts of alcohol were shipped to Nassau, on which the government collected duty, then smuggled by high-speed launches and light aeroplanes to remote landing places in Florida. Tourism now heads the economy, followed by low tax banking and business.

We had been given the use of a mooring for the duration of our stay in Nassau by Ken, a Bahamian resident, who had been introduced by mutual friends. "Matador" also had use of one. Ken invited us all to his own boat "Camelot" for drinks on our first evening, where he suggested that it might be interesting to go to a concert taking place nearby. He rushed us off in his powerboat across the Harbour to a yogic retreat, where we sat cross-legged in a temple to listen to an American Buddhist nun singing strange songs, accompanied by a couple of guitarists and a bongo player! The music was certainly original and quite soothing, but when she started playing a human thigh bone like a horn we decided it was time make a move. On the way back we were stopped by the water police - we are beginning to get used to this - who alleged that we had been speeding. Impossible! Anyway, Ken smooth-talked our way out of trouble, and, after taking a few details, the policemen parted smiling, and called back "Welcome to the Bahamas."

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