01/10/2007, North Great Exuma
The front hit at 4AM. We are so bummed. A little bit of rain came with it but by 5AM the wind was really getting up. We still had the car from yesterday so we piled the luggage into the trunk and took the folks off to the airport. The airport is a good drive from Georgetown and is located more or less in the center of Great Exuma. We saw my folks off at the security check point and drove back to the coast. The wind was in the 20s at this point so I basically gave up on getting off of the dock. Hideko wanted to see the Emerald Bay Resort and Marina so we turned left at the roundabout and traveled up to the North end of Great Exuma.
The resort was very nice and we had a good breakfast at the café there. In typical Four Seasons style the service was good, they had nice shops, a selection of places to eat, lovely pools, beach access, golf course, spa and everything was rather expensive. The Marina was under construction and only some of the slips have power. The entrance is through a narrow cut well north of Elizabeth harbor and it was breaking by the time we got there (as in, you could surf the channel). Needless to say no one was coming or going for several days. Perhaps they plan to install a break water some day? Perhaps they like having captive clients? They were charging $3 a foot for full service and only $1 per foot for slips without power. A special rate of $0.75 per foot had been offered to cruisers in the Georgetown area.
The Emerald Bay is nice and they have a shopping center with a good grocery store, a pizza place and some other stuff in the area, but it is fairly isolated from everything else. It would be a good stop for a large motor yacht but probably not a budget cruiser.
It was nice to see the north side of the island but when we returned we had to face the reality of being pinned to the dock for as many as five days. A good three foot chop develops by the time it gets across the harbor to us, adding to the impact of the 20 plus wind. If I can get any sort of break I'll use it to spring off and move to the protected anchorage in the lee of Stocking island (with everyone else).
For the first time we beat Eyran out of the anchorage. I was amazed. Hideko and I hauled anchor as morning light just started to touch the sky. We followed the first boat out of the cut as the light strengthened enough to make out the surroundings.
There was a noticeable ground swell coming straight into the cut and peaking up a bit as it climbed up the ever shallower bottom. You could easily see how these cuts could get treacherous in strong easterly conditions. The Bahamians call violent currents accompanied by breakers in a cut a Rage. Quite appropriate.
The wind was two or three knots from wherever so we motored without the sails. I ran both motors to ensure a timely arrival. Mom and Dad wanted to look around Georgetown and this would really be their only day. We did about 9 knots all the way at about 2,400 RPM in the calm conditions. I really wanted to get an extra knot or two from the main but every time I looked at the instruments the wind was coming from where we were going at the speed we were going. Not enough wind, or too much, so they say.
Hideko dropped a hand line overboard with a Wahoo lure for the first time on our trip so far. Dad, and old boy scout, helped her rig up a snubber and I did my best to find the 80 foot line. We didn't get any bites but it was nice to have the rig set up and tested. I love Wahoo and Hideko loves sushi, and a guy we met in Great Harbor says that Wahoo makes the best sushi you can get. We're both looking forward to testing this advice.
Various folks have tried to put the fear into us about the Elizabeth Harbor gauntlet. The Explorer Charts do a good job of laying out a nice track through the shoal hazards so I just dropped their way points into the chart plotter and kept a close eye on the water on the way in. We watched a mail boat enter in front of us but he was too fast to follow. We turned into Conch Cut and everything else was as advertised all the way to the dock.
As we tooled down the harbor we saw lots of cruising boats anchored off of Monument beach, so named because of the 15 foot stone monument clearly visible at the top of the hill. We also saw Calypso, Swingin on a Star's new sister ship, docked at the Saint Francis Resort. There were even more boats in front of the volleyball beach, which seems to be the principal beach for daily cruiser activities.
There wasn't too much traffic but I did notice a small dinghy heading toward us with some freight on board. As it got closer Hideko recognized them. It was the Edelweiss crew! They had just returned from picking up a gas generator in Georgetown (delivered from Nassau on the mail boat). It was great to see them. They were in high spirits and had been enjoying Georgetown for a few weeks. After locating their boat we agreed to meet up later.
We wanted to dock on Great Exuma for the night to facilitate getting my parents safely ashore early in the morning with all of their luggage. Exuma Docking Service is the only game in town anywhere close to Georgetown. After a trying radio conversation with "Sugar One", the Exuma Docking Services radio alias, we ended up just bringing the boat into the docks. Seeing no one on the dock and getting no direction on the radio we decided to take an end tie facing east, perfect for getting off in the upcoming nasty weather. Just as I was about to close the gap the dock master hollered at us from the western most dock. He seemed insistent that we park on what would be the windward side of the dock near a charted 3 foot area.
I pulled in and, as can happen here, I couldn't get a straight answer as to why he wanted us there. The Red Leopard crew was on shore selling Georgetown Cruising Regatta Tee Shirts and came to help us tie up. Like Edelweiss, we hadn't seen them since Bimini. Rick cautioned me about the east swell that marches through the marina in an east wind and placed his vote of no confidence in the facilities. We were a long way from the protection of the north east bluffs of Stocking Island and the dock was not quite falling apart but far from spry. We had shore power but I'm guessing a lot of the dock space is derelict due to instability or lack of services. The onshore bathrooms and showers were pretty rank and I wouldn't put anything I valued in the laundry facilities. Given the conditions today it was a fine place for now, not to mention the only place, so we left Swingin on a Star tied up and headed off to square away air fare, explore and grab some lunch.
We had lunch at the Peace and Plenty with Lowell and Jane from Edelweiss. The Peace and Plenty seems to be the principal hang out in Georgetown with its beachside hotel and restaurant. There is a little straw market on the way with nice baskets and hats and a grocery with everything you really need.
After lunch we rented a car and headed for Tropic of Cancer beach on Little Exuma. We drove to the Southern tip of Great Exuma and crossed a one lane bridge, known as The Ferry, then drove South on the main road looking for a telephone pole with blue reflectors. Rick and Myrna had given us the directions, typical for the Bahamas. If you ever want to know about all of the best places and Red Leopard is there, just call them up. If they've been there 24 hours they will have the whole place wired.
The Topic of Cancer beach is supposed to be on the Tropic of Cancer, the beginning of the tropics and the latitude beyond which the sun does not traverse in the Northern hemisphere. I believe that the Tropic of Cancer is 23 degrees 28 minutes north, and after a quick chart check the beach is a fair bit south of there. Quite beautiful and highly recommended all the same. I noticed some good lobster spots a few hundred yards off shore that I will have to return to.
After a nice dinner at, you guessed it, the Peace and Plenty we retired to the boat to give Mom and Dad a while to pack. It was going to be another early morning and I want to get the boat off of the dock before we got pinned in by the heavy post frontal winds.
01/08/2007, Galliot Cay
We headed out leisurely at 10 AM this morning for a 4 mile motor to Galliot Cay. Galliot has a good cut out to the Exuma Sound in reasonable weather and some reefs Alex and I wanted to explore for Lobster. We took our time picking our way out of Little Farmers and around the Galliot sand bore. There were a lot of boats staging at Galliot for a run to Georgetown the next day. The weather had been on the nose and fairly brisk making the fleet pause until the 9th for a mass exodus. The 9th was light and variable but a front was coming with 25 knot winds from the North and East on its tail for four or five days.
We saw Eyran anchored in the protected cut north of Galliot but we decided to hook up on the west side to minimize the current. "Nice and Easy" and "It's About Time", a pair of Island Packets that we had heard on the radio all the way down the Exumas but never ran across, had the only two really good spots in front of Galliot's picturesque little beach. We anchored a little north of them just a bit into the current.
Alex came by after a bit in his dinghy. He had caught two Lobster while trolling around with Mia, his four year old daughter. Alex came back out with Hideko and I for some hunting later in the day. We explored some beautiful reefs but we didn't find anything worth taking.
The crew hit the hay early in order to make a day break start. Galliot is a beautiful little area and it would have been nice to stay another day or two. That said, the doors to all of the cuts and harbors would be closed (due to breaking waves and such) for about a week after tomorrow so we were on the move.
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.