More Exuma Park & N Exumas
05 January 2017 | Pipe Cay
Dec 21 - Jan 3 Wednesday we made the short sail back down the Exuma chain to Black Point Settlement. We explored the small town that boasted two restaurants and possibly the world's best laundromat for boaters. The laundromat was a nice clean facility with its own dinghy dock and shaded deck overlooking the harbor and 8 or 10 fairly new washers and dryers. It also contained a small hardware supply and a hair dresser, as well as showers for guests. We'll definitely be back once the need for a laundry run occurs. At DeShannon's we found pizza for lunch and met folks from s/v Blackthorn also anchored out in the harbor. We visited the small grocery store, but most fresh items were sold out. We learned that the place to obtain fresh baked bread was at a house behind Lorraine's restaurant where a nice elderly lady invites you in to her kitchen to select from various loaves that she's baked that day. We bought two and they were fresh and quite good. Back at the boat in the afternoon we then dinghied across the harbor to where Blackthorn lay at anchor and had a nice visit with Jim and Sue from Massachusetts. The next day we sailed the 9 mile trip back to Big Majors Spot and anchored right about where we had left from two days earlier. I answered a general radio call from a nearby boat that was requesting a coaxial cable connector for his VHF radio that he was troubleshooting and I was able to loan a few parts and a tester. At that point they kindly invited us to join their group of about 5 boats that was organizing a pot-luck on the beach for Christmas Day. Later in the week our second parts order arrived from Florida via the same efficient shipping service. Once I replaced the broken bolt that I had found earlier, the generator started right up and ran just fine. Hooray! Electricity for battery charging and water-making was once again plentiful! At that point in time, there could have been no better Christmas gift for the two of us. So we had a nice holiday, with a BBQ steak dinner for Christmas Eve and had a great time meeting folks and eating good food at the pot-luck on Sunday.
By Tuesday we were once again ready to go sailing and see new things. But not too far afield as we sailed on a broad reach just about 6 miles to a spot between rocky islets off the west coast of Pipe Cay. This was close to an abandoned man made harbor that was used by the US military as a long range navigation transmitter base during and after WWII. The system in use was known as DECCA and was a precursor to the LORAN systems developed later, and was obsolete by the 1980's. It had a massive concrete dock for a substantial vessel along with a boat ramp and a marked channel extending the 30 nm due westward to the 5,000 ft deep water of "The Tongue of the Ocean". There were several abandoned but sturdy steel buildings at the site. We walked across the island to the east side and found a vast area of tidal flats, dry at low tide. We then walked about a mile to the SE towards several anchored boats that looked like they were buried in sand from a distance. It turns out they were anchored in a narrow channel in the midst of the sand flats, but seemed as though we could have walked right up to them. Only one other boat [excluding the nearby superyacht] anchored nearby, namely Whitebird, who happened to be from Annapolis. We had them aboard for a visit and learned they keep their boat in the Rhode River, on the western shore of the Chesapeake, where we've visited many times over the years.
Wednesday we sailed a bit further north back into the Exuma Land & Sea Park and picked up a park mooring in the Cambridge Cay mooring field. The spot offered great protection from all directions which we appreciated since there was a forecast cold front moving in on Friday starting with very rare westerly winds clocking round to the more typical NE winds by Saturday. The tidal current swept through here at a good clip, so there was another reason to appreciate being on a mooring. The park moorings are mentioned as all being adequate for vessels up to 65 ft lengths with 6 ft drafts, with special ones for superyachts up to 150 ft. Navigation into the anchorage was a bit tricky with a pinch point between submerged coral reefs to port and exposed rocks to starboard--need to stay close to the rocks to avoid the reef and cross a bar that is barely 6 ft at low water. Prior to the incoming weather we had two beautiful days of light air which were great for exploring the area by dinghy and doing some snorkeling at favored park sites during times of slack water. Saturday the wind was back to its usual 20 kts from the east and we left the mooring and headed out and up to the NW on a fast broad reach under solent jib alone. We made about 20 nm by noon to our destination of Hawksbill Cay near the northern end of the park. This spot had about four unused moorings and plenty of room to anchor, so we chose to anchor. The shoreline featured three picturesque beaches separated by the jagged limestone bedrock. On two of them superyacht crews had set up tents and toys for their guests to enjoy during the day. I have been quite amazed by the number of superyachts we've seen in these parts. There are dozens of them for sure in size from 100 to 250 ft. or so and are often found anchored off in the deeper waters west of the favored anchorages along these northern Exumas, and send their tenders and jet skis about with guests to explore and enjoy the islands. Once anchored, we took a long dinghy ride to the north end of the Cay to follow trails to ruins of a "loyalist" settlement from 1785. Loyalists were individuals who sided with the British during the American Revolution and once things settled out as they did, some of them relocated themselves to the still British controlled Bahamas. The Russell family made a settlement along the NW shore of Hawksbill Cay and ruins of their dwellings that were occupied until the late 1800's can still be found amidst the thick undergrowth and rugged rocky terrain. All that remains are corners of small stone & mortar buildings, mortar that was made by baking and grinding conch shells which are so plentiful here.
New Year's Day we weighed anchor and sailed again on a fast broad reach, a short 5 nm up to Shroud Cay, still in the Exuma Park. Here we anchored near a park mooring field and eventually were joined by quite a fleet from sailboats to more super yachts, about a dozen in all. To celebrate the New Year we had a rack of lamb on the BBQ and a bottle of wine from home--which is getting to be rather scarce aboard Mystic Star! This Cay is rather different from others we've visited in that it is a ring of smaller islets with an internal marshy area that is a thick web of mangroves and sandy areas that are dry at low water. There are various channels through the mangroves that are fun to explore by dinghy as long as you pay attention to the state of the tide. One could get stranded if ventured too far and the tide falls away. We followed one winding channel to the eastern side of the island and found a small beach just inside a rapidly flowing cut to the ocean. A short hike to the top of a steep little ridge put us at what was called "Camp Driftwood" where once a man lived a sort of Robinson Crusoe existence back in the sixties to seventies. Then in the eighties supposedly the US DEA stationed agents there to keep track of comings and goings on the cays to the north where it was known that cocaine smuggling operations were being conducted. Now there is nothing left at the site except a park sign describing the place and a geodetic survey mark. Later in the day we picked up anchor and moved a bit further north to Normans Cay just outside of the Exuma Park boundaries. This was the cay made infamous in the eighties for its involvement in illicit drug trafficking, which ended by the early nineties. The western side of this cay featured a miles long continuous beach and protection from NNE to SSE wind directions. The next day walked the beach and found the only restaurant on the island, McDuff's, sort of a Tiki bar back from the beach a bit behind a couple of rental beach houses. Lunch there was good, and afterwards we took a long walk around an airstrip to the other side of the cay where a large construction project was underway to build a protected marina facility. A vast amount of excavation had been done, but no other construction had started, for a project supposed to be complete by springtime--didn't seem likely.
Wednesday the 4th brought unusual winds from the SSW. We took this opportunity for a long sail close hauled back to the southeast and made our way under full sail the 30 nm back to Pipe Cay beyond the southern end of the Exuma Park. The total distance we covered including tacking was 36 nm, and was one of the nicest sailing days of the trip so far. The winds were projected to stay from an unusual westerly quadrant so we chose to anchor off the east side of a small unnamed islet to the west of Pipe Cay which worked out well for the night. In the next few days we plan to do a little provisioning and laundry at Staniel Cay and Blackpoint respectively, then move to a cozy spot for a forecast front on Saturday night that is projected to bring several days of high winds from the north with the passing of a strong cold front through the islands.