01/05/2007, Staniel Cay
There are air ports and there are air strips. Staniel Cay's facilities are definitely in the Air Strip category. The runway is paved (a plus) but other than a private hanger or two and a gazebo for folks waiting for a flight there's not much there. No tower, no fuel, no windsock as far as I could tell. My sister and her family were in for a very organic hop to Nassau.
We got up early and grabbed a nice breakfast at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club and then piled into the airport shuttle. The airport shuttle is the gas powered golf cart. All of the others are electric. There are a few cars on the island but most vehicles are carts and the SCYC rents only the electrics.
The plane was late arriving and we began to wonder if the Walkers would make their connection. The little planes that service the small islands often have scheduling issues. They work hard to turn a profit and if a small detour will pay for the flight out from Nassau it is rarely turned away. Our plane ended up dropping a group off at Black Point settlement on Great Guana prior to picking up at Staniel.
There were several other folks waiting at the Gazebo. Four year old Brayden started hitting on one gentleman's girlfriend, fortunately the guy was a good sport about it. I quietly wondered which flight they were on, as the Flamingo Air flight for the five walkers had six seats including the one the captain sits in.
The plane appeared on the horizon about an hour late and made its turn into the wind to land. Everyone made for the plane. Somehow they crammed four adults, a pilot, three kids and all of the luggage into the little twin.
We stood on the run way and waved good bye to sis, bro-in-law, the niece and nephews. It was so much fun playing with the kids and spending time with family we were sad to see them go. The Bahamas weather had been a mix of annoyingly windy and beautiful while they were here, we wished that they could spend a few more weeks to enjoy the good days.
Things sure were quieter at this point. We all took the rest of the day off, reading, napping and relaxing.
01/04/2007, Pig Beach
On our second day at Staniel the kids were in charge. They wanted to see the pigs and Thunderball Grotto. Rather than ferry the crew around in little star, which would be wet, slow, and require two trips, we hired a 14' Boston Whaler for $150. Roq wasn't allowed to go (dogs and pigs are like fire and water you know). The skipper was on his third beer when Hideko hired him but he seemed accustomed to piloting the waters under at least that much influence so no worries. If you are picky about such things make sure to hire your boat in the early AM.
We motored directly over the sand bar that runs right in front of the docks (about three feet of sparkling clear water) and headed for the beach on the west side of Big Major's Spot. We approached the beach from the south end of the anchorage. This area is a great place to drop the hook with the wind from the north or the east. The anchorage has a nice sand bottom with good holding that leads right up to the beach. You probably don't want to swim or play on this beach. As we closed to within about 200 feet of the beach, first one, then two, and finally five fairly large pigs came scampering out of the scrub brush.
These pigs have been trained by visitors and locals to equate the hum of an outboard with someone yelling "suuuweee". They prance around the beach a bit to see if you look like tourists. If there are enough cameras and the shirts are colorful enough they hit the surf. Two of them started to paddle out to our skiff as we closed to within about 50 feet of the beach. The skipper waited until the pigs got a few feet away and then backed up on pace so that they didn't try to board us. We zigged around in the shallows with the two pigs following close behind and then two more got into the act. Buz kicking in, our skipper was not willing to deal with four converging hogs. After insuring that everyone had gotten their obligatory swimming pig pictures we made for Thunderball Grotto. The whole experience reminded me of my Grandfather in Maryland, who used to take me to see the pigs at a farm down the road from his house. I guess all little kids like pigs and their antics.
[BEGIN SOAPBOX]We didn't feed the pigs at Big Majors and we did not feed the fish at Thunderball Grotto either. The locals will encourage you to do so but I encourage you to refrain. Feeding the wildlife (or feral pigs) encourages the aggressive behavior that caused our skiff captain to stand off the beach and it also negatively impacts the natural order of things that we all come out here to witness. I often think that folks who live in paradise, such as the Bahamas, don't realize that it can be destroyed. Americans have seen fishing grounds go dry, lakes polluted beyond habitation and species exterminated in almost every habitat. In all but the rarest cases we reacted too late in the game to create sustainability. I worry that the same pattern is at work, if delayed, in so many of the remaining pristine places. There is not a beach in the Bahamas, no matter how deserted, that I have not found garbage on. I rarely snorkel without seeing the odd beer can or bottle. It is very important for guests such as us to practice extreme conservation when abroad, we have done enough damage, it is time for us to begin setting the example.[END SOAPBOX]
Thunderball Grotto is a must see. We coasted up to the dinghy mooring at almost low tide, the best time to get there. If you are a strong swimmer with fins, visiting the grotto might be great anytime, but the current has to get close to three knots at peak flow. There is a large opening into the grotto just under water on the cut side and another large opening just above water at low tide on the banks side. If you linger past slack tide you'll feel the current through the grotto start to build as the air space above the banks entrance disappears.
The grotto is about 65 feet in diameter and has underwater swim throughs and cuts leading into it from various points. It is filled with fish and coral and makes for spectacular snorkeling. There are several holes in the top of the grotto that allow the sunlight to beam into the water below. Jumping into the grotto pool from above is one of the e-tickets here but you need to pick a day when there are no snorkelers below. It was not our day to jump. Everyone, even the kids had a great time snorkeling though. As the current filled in we all climbed back in the boat and headed back to Staniel to cap off the day with a nice burger at the Yacht Club grill.
01/03/2007, Staniel Cay Yacht Club
Warderick to Staniel was another short 18 mile hop on the banks side. While the wind was very close on this leg we had enough angle to close haul it if we put in a few tacks. We ended up about 10 degrees or so West of track on the way down but it was nice sailing at about 9 knots in 15 knots true. We were chasing after another catamaran but each time we got ready to pass them they would tack, denying us the satisfaction. We passed a mono hull that was out pointing us but I think he got to the anchorage before us due to our short tacks at the end of the run. It was nice to sail. No engines, just the wind and the sails.
We decided to dock at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, if they had room, to make getting my sisters family setup for a return to Nassau easy. It was nice to be back in $0.80 per foot territory. The Big Major's Spot anchorage was our back up. Big Major's is a nice West Side anchorage with no current just across from the yacht club. We radioed Staniel about 5 miles out and fortunately they agreed to take us.
Side by Side hailed us on 16 as we approached the Big Major's spot anchorage. They were anchored right off of the Staniel Cay Yacht Club and gave us a heads up on the 2 foot sand bar stretching out right in front of the yacht club. The approach from the Sandy Cay waypoint at low tide was pretty exciting. I had Jessica and Pops on the Starboard and Port bows, respectively, reading the water. They were getting pretty good at it. We picked our way through the deeper channel running out to the cut amongst many very shoal areas. As we passed the yacht club the bottom went from 6 feet of water to 20 feet. We then did a 180 and came back in close to the fuel dock.
The marina wanted us to park on the inside starboard to with a nice sized motor yacht already tied up port to on the other half of the slip. The wind was blowing us off of the dock and onto the motor yacht and the slip was a deep pocket, typically housing four boats, two deep on the left and right side of the slip. Nothing like an adrenaline rush before you march to the bar for a Rum Punch to douse your nerves. I am getting better at docking this 50 by 26 foot monster but it is still a little stressful. The typical dock support in the Bahamas is also a bit lacking.
Staniel Cay is a neat place. The Yacht Club is the center of activity on the island and has a great bar and grill with breakfast, lunch and dinner. There are rooms and a few beach cottages available. Several locals will take you out for fishing snorkeling or whatever in the obligatory Boston Whaler or Carolina Skiff. In the afternoon you can watch the fishermen clean their catch on the dock and see all of the rays and nurse sharks snarfing up the leftovers.
I took a 10 minute walk over to the air strip and met up with Samantha who arranges passage on flights out of Staniel. In a matter of minutes I had my sisters family all set for departure on the 5th. It had been a while since I saw a paper ticket, much less a hand written one!
When I got back we rented golf carts and explored the island. There are three stores, all Mom and Pop. The general store has some hardware and a bit of groceries. The Pink and Blue stores have groceries only and everything is on the scarce side unless the mail boat has been by in the recent past. There is a very sheltered pond in the center of the island on the other side of the air strip that you can get into from the sound side with less than 6 foot of draft at high tide. The kids had a blast bouncing over the paved, dirt and rock roads.
The two other spots for food and drink are Happy People and Club Thunderball. Both were pretty sleepy compared to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. Many charts and books show these two as actual marinas but I doubt you would find either appropriate for a cruising sailboat. Happy People does have a small dock for local Boston Whalers but that's it and Thunderball is pre-selling a bit as they only have the beginnings of a dock. Club Thunderball has moorings in a fairly strong current area but they look secure and the water there is deeper than most places in the area. We looked down on the full current coming through the cut from Club Thunderball and it reminded me of the Potomac River. Yikes.
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.