01/02/2007, Warderick Wells
We decided to take the entire day today exploring the island and helping out the park staff. Moorings are $20 a night or you can put in a total of 6 hours of work for a freebee. You can also join the park for $80 which gives you two free nights. The entire Swingin' on a Star crew helped dig a ditch (and I thought the term was figurative!) for the lines for a second water maker.
The rangers here have created trails all over the Warderick Wells and the beaches are pristine. Given the limestone and coral skeleton underlying all of the Bahamas it is amazing how different each island is. They all have their own personality. We hiked up to Boo Boo hill which has a great view of the North side of the island. I think it might have been the first time I got a good look at the Exuma Sound. The trail leading up to the top was really interesting with creeks, coral rock, sand and native foliage.
The anchorage at the park headquarters is situated on a wonderful swimming beach with a floating dock and the skeleton of a sperm whale assembled on the sand. We didn't even consider this anchorage due to the current advertised. While it is substantial on the outer moorings, if I could get one of the balls on the beach I would definitely reconsider next time around.
Warderick Wells is in the center of the Exuma Land and Sea park and so there was no chance to do any fishing once there. I think it is great that the park exists though. You listen to tales from the old timers describing fish jumping into your boat and you can clearly see the need for staunch conservation. I spent almost 5 hours hunting for a catch of one lobster, and that was in Normans Cay, a fairly out of the way place.
Alex and crew went snorkeling in the Emerald Rock anchorage on one of the coral heads marked with yellow buoys (don't moor the big boat to one of these!). He described the amazing diversity and density of sea life, not to mention the sighting of a 3 foot lobster, with a tear in his eye.
01/01/2007, Emerald Rock
We joined what seemed to be everyone on, or anchored near, Normans Cay for a bon fire last night. It was a nice relaxed get together. We met some interesting folks with places on the island and listened to their tales of the days of Lehder and the Cocaine operation. It was strange hanging out with non boat people! It seems that a lot of folks have plans for developing the area but things seem to be moving at a Bahamas pace.
We got up early on New Years day. I think we all hit the hay at around 10PM the night before, late for us. When you're on a boat daylight runs your schedule. You tend to get up with the sun, if not a bit before, and crash out not too long after sunset.
Our next destination was Warderick Wells, the island that is host to the Exuma Land and Sea Park headquarters. It is only about 20 miles to Warderick from Normans. Unfortunately most of the trip the wind was right on the nose so we motored the entire way and didn't even bother to raise the sails. It took about three hours on the banks to get to our anchorage at Emerald rock.
The two principal place to anchor at Warderick are on the North by the Ranger Station and on the West by Emerald rock. We chose Emerald Rock because it is out of the way, fully protected from the east wind and has no current. They have put out mooring buoys in both locations now and you are not allowed to anchor if there is a mooring at hand. If you draft over 6 feet or more you can drop the hook outside of the mooring field at Emerald Rock, however the bottom slopes so gradually you will find yourself a few miles from shore.
We chickened out around the fist few mornings after seeing numbers starting with 5 on the depth gauge. Garret and I ran around with the dinghy and a lead line to see how close in we could get to one of the beaches and it turns out that the entire area is pretty much six feet at low water. So we untied the big boat and crept up to the mooring right off of Rendezvous Beach. There was a big motor yacht a mile out on the outer moorings and Eyran another mile past them on anchor. Pretty private.
Everyone seemed pretty happy with our new digs. It was a lot more in line with expectations I think. Perfectly clear and calm water, light breeze and beautiful scenery, just like the brochure. The kids dove off of the boat, played in the water, paddled around in the kayak and generally had a great time. In retrospect I can say that Warderick Wells is one of the most beautiful anchorages we have seen to date.
12/31/2006, Wax Cay
Yesterday afternoon Alex and I went hunting for fish and lobster. It was my first time out with the hand spear so Alex showed me the ropes. We looked around on the banks side down to the reefy rocks at the South end of Wax Cay just north of the cut. I jumped in to check things out and on my first dive I saw the tentacles of a spiny lobster sticking out from under a coral head. "This is the place Alex!" I pointed to the rocks where I saw the bug and Alex wasted no time, down he went and the next thing I knew there was a lobster on a stick marching over the water on the way to the dinghy. I did some spotting for Alex throughout the day and chased off a few grouper but never got close enough to fire a shot. It was great snorkeling with Rays, Reef Sharks, Nurse Sharks, Parrot Fish some spectacular trigger fish, Queen Conch, Squirrel Fish, and a few less lobster and grouper, but it was just snorkeling.
Garret had gone with a crew a couple of days ago but I was busy with boat stuff and couldn't go and then Garret couldn't go yesterday. Today we were both set and determined to catch dinner.
This New Years, Normans Cay has turned into South Quebec. There are no less than 10 Canadian boats here, all from Quebec. I think we're the only ones flying the US flag today. My French needs some serious help. Jean and Denny, brothers from North Quebec, we taking Alex, Garret and I out for some fishing today (my French is bad but I have no idea what these guys are saying). Alex, Denny and Jean all have Zodiacs with lots of flotation and since we were going to go out past the breakers we jumped in with them.
The Exuma Land and Sea park is just south of Normans Cay and is a no take zone. Looking on the Explorer chart I saw a good sized reef just to the north of the cut about mid way through. I copied down the lat/long and brought my Mystic VHF with GPS. After zeroing in on the spot we took a look and while it was a nice shallow reef it didn't seem like a good hunting spot.
Next we headed out Wax Cay cut and angled North. We anchored in about 30 feet of water just outside of the reef. The Exumas have a continuous reef and wall area running along the Exuma Sound drop off. We worked our way hunting and anchoring up the reef to the north. We spent three hours snorkeling and crashing around in the dinghys in the 5 foot swell. I was on a boat with Alex and neither of us brought anything back all day. I checked in with Garret who was on the boat with Denny and they had a goose egg too. I took two shots but no bueno. Demoralized, Garret and I returned to the boat.
We were back at the boat before noon and as the day wore on I began to feel like I had to go back out and give it one more try. The Wax Cay spot Alex and I found yesterday just looked right for Lobster. I'm no expert hunter but I am an avid diver and have run across my fair share of Lobster. We were planning to leave for Warderick Wells tomorrow which is smack in the middle of the park. It would be several days before we could hunt again. Garret and I finally decided to head back out at 15:30 to take one more shot at it.
Lobster tend to hide in holes during the day and mosey around at night. As the sun sets they start to peek out of their wholes. Alex had shot the Lobster at Wax late in the day yesterday. We were hoping to find the same circumstances.
It was high tide so we cut straight over the sand bar on a B line for the south side of Wax Cay. We anchored Little Star right behind a big rocky reef and started our search. The first spot didn't have any walls or ledges and while promising didn't turn anything up. We were in the neighborhood but not exactly where I had been yesterday. We moved the dinghy North about 20 meters and rolled off the side for another try.
You know how when you've been really working on something for hours and hours but have no success you can get that gloomy cloud over your head feeling? Sort of a grinding air of futility in the back of your mind. I was feeling that. We had been hunting for no less than four hours today with an empty cooler. The sun was setting. It just wasn't pretty.
I took a final dive to check out the area and I saw it. The spot I was at yesterday. Reefy ledges and holes in a horseshoe around a 30 foot deep bottom. As I dove to the bottom the gentle swish of antenna wagging around in every hole greeted me. I surfaced and started to breath deeply to prepare for a long dive. I didn't say anything to Garret because I didn't want to get his hopes up and I had no idea if I could actually shoot one to the Lobster down there.
I made my dive and slowly reached the bottom making my best effort not to scare away any of the $39.95 dinners. A pretty good sized lobster was looking out of a hole near the wall where I came to rest. I couldn't get a top shot because he wasn't far enough out of the hole. I couldn't really get a good angle on a direct head shot because I had a 6 foot spear in my right hand and the shape of the reef angled to the left. The only thing I could think about was a shot I missed in the morning. A grouper was sitting right outside of a tunnel in the reef and I had him lined up but fooled around trying to get the optimal shot. When I was almost ready to loose he took off and I simply dulled the point on my spear tip.
Not again. I fired. The spear went into the hole. Dust and sand clouded the water. I pulled my spear out of the cloud and there it was. One perfect tentacle. That's it. Turning blue I returned to the surface to show Garret my catch. "Hey, there's good meat on these things!" I borrowed the short spear that Garret had and tried for about fifteen minutes to get back up into the hole where the Lobster had retreated to. No luck.
It was starting to get ominously dark. The big guys that run the reef come around in the gloom of dusk and they are hard to see in the failing light. I had the taste though and refused to return to the boat empty handed. There were two big Barracuda watching us at this point. I asked Garret to keep an eye out while I tried to skewer at least one of the critters down on the reef. We both agreed that this was prudent.
I took another scouting run. There were even more Lobster this time. As I scanned the area I saw a big daddy Lobster almost all of the way out of his hole. Again at the surface. Deep calming breaths. No word to Garret to jinx it. I pulled the spear back as far as I could, almost grasping the tip, and dove.
As I descended I wondered if the daddy lobster would still be there. He hadn't moved. I slowly swam right down on top of him, reached out to within a couple of feet and released. To my amazement I hit him center of mass. He tried frantically to swim back into the hole but I pried him off of the bottom and slowly brought him to the surface. I lifted him out of the water to keep the local predators from getting interested and started to swim back to the dinghy. Garret helped me get him into the boat and we both piled back into Little Star.
There were plenty more Lobster down there but we were beat. As the sun set we returned to the big boat and showed off our prize. I'm now an addict and can not wait for the next chance to catch dinner.
12/30/2006, Normans Cay
We have been having a lot of fun at Norman over the past three days but we are all getting a little tired of the constant chop and current of this anchorage. The wind blew 25 knots last night with gusts to 30 and it hasn't been less than 17 during the day, so that is of course part of it. It is a real production getting nine people and a dog ashore in this mess (three trips for the little Walker Bay). You need to be ready to get wet.
We had a great play day on the beach today though and the kids built a big sand castle. Afterwards the Swingin' on a Star kids went over to visit the kids on Eyran. They had an awesome time, Ellen and Alex are great hosts. Alex is going to take me on my first spear fishing trip later today so perhaps we'll be able to restock the rapidly diminishing larder.
12/29/2006, Normans Cay
So I'm sitting on the beach at Normans Cay and I started thinking about toilets. Marine toilets in particular. Having nine people on your boat can bring these sorts of reveries about.
When we were looking at boats, one of our "nice to haves" was fresh water toilets. We have chartered a fair amount and sailed in a lot of friend's boats and one of the most disgusting parts of the experience is the smell of a nasty marine sanitation device. The explanation routinely provided for this maleficent odor is that the many critters suspended in the salt water bite the big one when left floating in the bowl or stranded in the hoses. The human waste is long gone (and frankly much more fragrant in most cases) when this aroma takes over. Now, to paint a picture, take someone with a tad less than an iron stomach, send them to an enclosed space below decks in rough weather, and for the topping, throw in a few whiffs of stock marine sanitation device. The reaction is swift and violent. Who wouldn't want fresh water toilets?
Toilets are yet another item on my full circle list. First let me debunk the most important myth: salt water marine toilets do not have to smell bad. It is true that all salt water marine toilets that sit and brew dead plankton for two months before anyone opens the lid stink to high heaven. Stop brewing the plankton and you stop the smell.
I am incredibly glad that we did not get fresh water toilets. If you are cruising, you live on your boat. If you live on your boat, you use the heads regularly. If you have nine people on your boat, you use the heads non stop. Not one of the four heads on our boat smells. They all get used constantly so there is never a problem with stinky fermented sea water.
On the other hand, I shutter to think of the fresh water that would be wasted if we had switched our configuration. Fresh water is expensive out in the wide world. Few islands have natural sources of fresh water and it is still relatively expensive to make these days. Most places in the Bahamas want $0.50 per gallon. Worse yet, what happens when you're out of fresh water!?
Our boat has a Spectra Newport 4000 which makes about 16 gallons of water an hour. It's a DC unit which is the only way to go IMHO. Everything critical on a boat is (and should be) DC. Your batteries are DC, diesel auxiliaries output DC, solar and wind output DC, even your charger makes DC out of shore power or genset AC. I can't imagine firing up the genset while underway to use the water maker. It is also such a power hog that I can't imagine adding the inefficiency of an inverter to the power toll. Our Newport easily draws 20 amps of DC and it has a Clark pump. So while we have plenty of fresh water when it is the two of us, and we have enough when it is nine, I certainly don't want to flush it down the toilet.
If you're cruising, get salt water toilets! If you use them there will be no smell. When only Hideko and I are aboard, we use a different toilet every time to make sure that they're all circulating (we don't have a checklist or anything). I suppose it is nice to have four heads but two would be fine I think.
Now if you are going to buy a boat and leave it in a marina all its life, or just take it out on weekends here and there, by all means go with fresh water if you like. The heads will smell great when you return to the boat and you can stick a hose in the water tank every time you get ready to go out.
My final thought here has to do with power versus electric. We have electric salt water heads. This is a nice combination. It is not quite so alien to guests as the big pump handle, although you still have to brief them on the fill/use/flush/empty routine. That said the macerators on our heads draw 10 amps. They aren't used that often (unless you have nine people on board) but it is one more thing that needs power and wiring and I'm praying every day that they don't break down! I certainly wouldn't get anything exotic in this arena.
Are electric toilets worth it? I'm still on the fence here. I think if I had only one toilet I would have a manual one. If you have one head, it needs to be very reliable. A good manual toilet is hard to beat there. On the other hand we have four toilets. If one breaks I have three to go. Hard to imagine we'll ever get that unlucky. I think in retrospect that I would have rather had our day head be manual and the ensuite heads power. That way we have a work horse around for hard times and the luxury of power when appropriate. It is not a big enough deal that I am going to change anything however. It is nice to have everything the same from a spares and maintenance stand point.
12/28/2006, Normans Cay
The wind has been blowing 20 knots plus all day today. That said I prefer the wind to the current. Unfortunately we have both. On the bright side, both of our anchors are set like no ones business and we have not budged from the spot we originally dropped back to. Garret (my brother in law) and I took a look at both anchors through the looky bucket. The Claw was mostly buried and the Rocna was gone, with just a bit of chain burrowed into the sand.
As we motored around we stopped by Lehder's plane wreck. The plane is still visible above water at the north side of the anchorage. It is fading though and there's a lot less there than you see in all of the travel guides.
Later in the day Garret joined some other folks in the anchorage spear fishing and the kids went to a great little island on the south side of the anchorage. They named the island "One Tree Island" due to the singular Palm tree smack in the middle. The island is great because the kids can't go far and it is half beach and half coral which lets them build sand castles and explore tide pools.
We took a trip to the main island to visit with Ellen, Loic and Mia from Eyran. We explored the run down Cocaine production facilities and then walked across the airstrip to see if Mac Duffs was still in existence. Mac Duffs is dead. The beach cottages and main buildings are still there and a generator was running but we didn't see anyone and the facility was obviously not operational. We were so looking forward to a good burger. We found a sign on the beach that said Mac Duffs was under new management and would be open late November. Seeing as how it was late December we didn't know exactly what to think.
12/27/2006, The Great Bahama Bank
We had a front pass on the 26th. It was pretty mild but I always hate to tempt fate and sail with a front coming, even if the gradient wind is good. Rain and high wind squalls are no fun when you're sailing in areas known for numerous coral heads.
The forecast for the 27th was for North wind around 15 knots which is just about perfect for a sail down to the Exumas. The three days after were forecast at 20 knots plus from the east. We had originally planned to stop at Allens Cay to see the iguanas and make the first sail as short as possible. Given the conditions and the fact that my sister's family was aboard, Hideko and I decided that we should make a longer run and get on the hook at Normans Cay due to the better protection.
We had to leave the harbor with a fairly stiff wind and it was really nice to have extra hands onboard to help spring off of the dock safely. We checked out with the harbor master as we headed out the West harbor entrance (Nassau Harbor control wants all boats entering and leaving to check in).
As we approached the outer buoys the swell began to build. It was work getting out of the entrance with large 5 and 6 footers on the nose and breakers on either side. We had to go around Paradise Island to get to Porgee Rocks due to our inability to get under the bridges. This put us at a serious disadvantage to the boats that could just pop out of the East end of the harbor and head south. It was also pretty rough going with big swells on the beam and some waves breaking at the tops due to the rapid shoaling and wind. It was not the first exposure to sailing for the family on our new boat I was hoping for. I sensed some nervousness here and there but the kids were having a blast. They liked seeing the Atlantis from the ocean and riding the waves.
We motored into the lee of Salt Cay which killed the nasty surf thankfully. We had plotted a track around the east side of Porgee Rocks which took us through the deepest water in the neighborhood, not deep by any stretch. Once we cleared into the really deep water south of Porgee (20 feet) we headed up to raise the main.
It takes awhile to get the canvas up to the top of that 72 foot stick. We watched several other boats who had left the East Harbor sail off ahead of us as we cranked away on the winch. Someone once told me that anytime you have two sail boats in the same water you have a race. Things we pretty gusty and it looked like it could get a bit squally so I left the first reef in. Brayden, my four year old nephew, kept telling me, "Captain, we need to beat them".
We were motor sailing on one engine at a little over 10 knots. I wanted to get to Normans fairly early due to the strange anchorage, shoal water entrance and poor light. I also didn't want my seven guests to have too long a first sail. The weather was very overcast but seemed stable. We were in a deep broad reach with 12 knots apparent so I shook out the reef and killed the engine which slowed us a bit but we were still doing over nine knots. We passed two boats fairly quickly and left one that had vectored in on us. We caught and passed another two mono hulls just past Yellow Bank.
Ah yes, Yellow Banks. You have to love areas of the chart marked, "numerous shallow coral heads" with well known waypoints on either side and rhumb lines connecting all the dots. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I just can't get used to sailing 10 knots in 10 feet of water. I only saw ten feet once but it freaked me out all the same. I later read the Stephen Pavlidis Guide and noted the following quote, "A few of these heads have only 3'-4' of water over them". Hideko routed us around a few scary looking spots but I really don't know if we could reliably expect to see all trouble areas at nine knots with the cloud cover we had. I have talked to other cruiser who have a fairly cavalier attitude about these banks, sailing through at night or on auto pilot with no watch. The only thing I can say about that is that if you are routing directly from one Explorer Chart waypoint to another you're probably fine relative to coral heads, so many people travel the exact path. On the other hand, you have a good chance of having a head on collision with someone else on the reciprocal track.
As we cleared the Yellow Bank area the swell picked up and the ride got a little more rolly, but was still fairly comfortable. No one took medicine and the Mal de Mer didn't strike once. With seven landlubbers aboard that's saying something given the 40 mile run.
We never caught up with Eryan or Side by Side but they were both there when we reached the main anchorage at Normans. We considered anchoring in the Pond and on the West side of Normans but we thought it would be more fun to be close to Eryan and Side by Side so that the kids on all three boats could play together. The Pond has a tight entrance only navigable (by us anyway) at high water. Once inside, the Pond is like a lake and one of the most peaceful anchorages around. Pavlidis noted that Hammerhead Sharks frequent the Pond and Andre, yet another French Canadian we had met in Bimini, told us he saw Lemon and Tiger sharks from his deck. I am not shark paranoid but I wanted to find a place fun for the kids to swim and Tiger sharks are one of the three flavors (Whites and Bulls are the other two) that don't let kids swim with. The other problem with the Pond is that the entrance is on the Exuma Sound side and with the winds predicted (20+ knots from the East) you can't get in or out of the Pond. There were no yachts on the West side. So we decided to drop the hook near Eryan. The main anchorage at the South end of Normans is well protected but right in a high current cut, which I hate.
Alex from Eryan and Jean, another French Canadian skipper, came out to help us as we were looking for a good anchorage. They gave us an overview of the depths in the area and, in the end, dinghied out our second anchor making Hideko's and my job very easy. Talk about a helping hand! It was our first time Bahamian mooring and it was great to get the help.
Catamarans are tricky to double bow anchor. We have a second roller on the top of the cross beam but there is no track on deck or easy access to the windlass for the second chain so we have to hand deploy things. We stow our 66 pound Claw wrapped in some towels in a deck locker so we have to dig that out and then attach the shackle with some pliers and hand lower the chain over the roller. We also have to pre load the chain onto a trampoline to avoid chewing up the lip of the chain locker.
You pretty much need to secure each anchor with a bridal on a cat. The bridal acts as a snubber taking up a bit of the shock load that can be generated when the boat falls back off of the anchor and it also centers the chain between the two hulls, avoiding too much sailing around. We leave our main bridal on the storm anchor attachment points and cleat the secondary bridal onto the cleats on the cross bar. Once we had the anchors down we hooked the bridals on and sat back to consider the situation. Two anchors, two chains, two bridals. Very complicated and, with a few 360 degree rotations, quite messy. We pretty much had to Bahamian moor because there were a lot of boats in the anchorage with two anchors out and not much deep water. I am hoping we don't have a twisted mess to undue when it is time to leave.
Rick on Merlin showed me a lot of great places to visit in the Exumas. He explicitly warned me about the wicked Bahamian current flowing onto and off of the banks through the cuts between islands in the Exumas. I am experiencing first hand what he warned me about. The current here is so strong that none of the kids can jump off of the boat into the water because they would never be able swim back to the boat. Taking a dinghy ride can be a lot of work and stowing the dinghy is a pain because the dinghy wants to point in different directions than the large boat. The wind blowing 20 knots against the outbound tide creates a small, due to the limited fetch, perfectly vertical chop, guaranteed to soak everyone on the dinghy if you aren't surfing down wind.
I think we are going to consider moving to the west side of the island tomorrow.