01/07/2007, Ocean Cabin
I started tracking the weather a bit more actively a few days ago, looking for a good window to make the run to Georgetown on Great Exuma. My parents wanted to see the big island. The Great Exuma Airport (which actually qualifies as an airport) is a good way to hop back to Nassau where the folks had a flight booked for the 10th. Worst case we could always fly them back from Staniel, Black Point on Great Guana or even Little Farmers Cay.
Little Farmers is a short 14 mile trip southeast from Staniel. The wind wasn't really cooperating but we decided to get as far south as possible and Little Farmers was a good target. We were going to anchor on the west side on the deeper water route to hook up with our friends on Eyran. As we passed Black Point they hailed us on the VHF. They were staying the night there. Why? Laundry. The Black Point facilities are apparently a little more developed than those at Staniel. We agreed to meet up at Galliot the next day, one island south of Big Farmers.
The channel between the southern tip of Great Guana and Little Farmers looked like a better spot to go ashore, the town seemed to be mostly around the small harbor on the East side of Little Farmers. The track through the channel to the anchorage tucked up behind Great Guana was shallow and intricate. My crew had been undergoing water reading training for the past few days and I felt like they were up to it so we targeted the most secluded anchorage spot in the area. The holding was marked as poor but some locals had placed moorings on sand screws just of the Great Guana beach. We carefully threaded our way through the passage between the islands with Hideko on one bow chair and Mom on the other. Dad covered the port side and I kept a look out to starboard and everywhere else I could.
The current was strong, a sand bar rose up in the middle of the cut between the islands and some small waves were breaking on the reef that lies just outside of the turn into the beach. It was our most delicate anchorage entrance yet. Thanks to the great depth callouts from the crew we didn't hit anything. We tried to take the last mooring ball of the five along the beach but I started to see numbers on the depth gauge beginning with a four so we settled on the second to last buoy. I think that our depth meter is about a foot conservative from the waterline but I like to treat it like the real thing.
I took Roq to the beach where an old steel trawler was resting five or six feet above the high water mark. I wondered about the old boat's story. How did it get there? Did everyone get off ok? From a distance it looked almost whole, sitting proud and upright on the sand. Roq and I were both bare foot so we decided not to explore the rusty interior.
We walked back to the dink and I loaded old Roq into the back seat of the boat. The beach had a shallow approach so I had to push well out into the water before I could hop on and fire up the outboard. I should say, "try to fire up the outboard". The rip cord on our Yamaha had stuck once during my reversed gas line antics off of Key Biscayne, but has never been a problem since, until today. No matter what I tried I couldn't get the starter cord to pull. It was completely locked up. If you ever want to get intimate with the current in a place, try rowing against it. Better yet, try it with a 65 pound dog sticking his nose, tail, butt, etceteras, in your face.
I made it back to the big boat after my afternoon workout and quickly set about taking the outboard apart and, kids now gone, spouting some choice language. There is a locking mechanism on most outboards that keeps you from starting the engine in forward or reverse, and ours now stops you from starting the engine in neutral also. This lock is not present on the 2 hp Yamaha but I suspect the liability lawyers have made it standard issue the rest of the way up the line. After locating the lock and confirming its guilt I removed said device. I'm sure that I will burn for it but at least I won't go floating off into the deep blue with a perfectly good outboard that wont start. I'm quite capable of running out of gas and hooking up the fuel line backwards on my own, thank you. We do have to be extra careful about starting 'er up in neutral now of course, but it seems to pull easier (maybe my imagination...).
We went ashore on Little Farmers at the government dock. The little harbor has rocks and reef around the opening and some shoal water on the interior. The government dock is on the near side of the south end of the harbor. A few Little Farmerites were chatting on the dock dressed in their Sunday go to meeting clothes. They greeted us and directed us to Ocean Cabin the center of cruiser activity on the island (which consisted of us tonight). We tried to always dress up a bit (golf shirt and shorts with no holes?) in the evening out of respect for the Bahamians who are always properly dressed unless working on the docks or some such.
Terry, the proprietor of Ocean Cabin greeted us warmly and served us up some Ocean Cabin Rum Punches. Wow, careful with these. They're blue and they have a bad attitude. We all had lobster dinners at the great price of $20 a piece. The OC has a nice book exchange as well as tee shirts and Little Farmers Cay flags (the only Cay to have its own flag so we're told).
After a wonderful dinner and some great conversation we bid Terry adieu and headed back to the dinghy. It was a very dark night as the moon had not yet risen. The stars were magnificent. The dinghy ride was interesting. Nothing like the sound of breaking waves that you can not see to sharpen your senses. We carefully piloted out of the reef at the entrance to the little harbor and across the big harbor toward a mono hull who was moored near by. Complicating matters was the fact that our anchor light had given up the ghost several nights back. We left the transom lights on but the wind had pointed the transom away from us. I was envisioning all sorts of Gilligan's Island scenarios but doing my best to backtrack while Hideko managed the flashlight up front. Shortly thereafter we caught site of Swingin on a Star and headed home for the night.
01/06/2007, Staniel Cay Yacht Club
We woke up with the wind whipping along at a fair clip. We were on the leeward side of the dock fortunately but there were large motor yachts all around us. They don't waste space at SCYC. We had an 80 footer behind us and a 70 footer to port. It would have been a fairly sizable production getting out. After a brief pow wow we decided to stay until the motor yachts left the next morning and do laundry in the mean time.
We have a little washer/dryer aboard which works great for Hideko and I but Mom and Dad had been stocking up and we needed a more industrial solution. Some of the ladies on the island do laundry on request so Mom and Hideko set off to contract their services. It seems that a point person takes on the job and then distributes loads to each of their friends and relatives. This works well but you have to be on Bahamas time. Once distributed, it can become a little challenging to run down the results as your clothes might be all over the island. We finally got all of the laundry back aboard the next morning with only minor modifications in the color selection.
We planned to go back to Thunderball and try an underwater video but we just didn't get around to it in time for slack tide. Another relaxing day with little to no agenda.
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.