Traveling Onward - The First Month

Trip Start Dec 09, 2006
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Flag of Bahamas  , Exuma,
Saturday, December 12, 2009

While Spanish Wells is a quaint town with ample services, after two nights on the mooring ball we were eager to move on (too many mosquitos for Donna to bear near town). We were waiting for weather to improve and the completion of some chores Our White Magic had undertaken in this convenient location.  On the evening of November 12 we overheard radio traffic from the vessel Kaya requesting pilotage assistance into the harbor.  They were yet some distance away but a local pilot responded.  By the time they were closer darkness had fallen and the pilot did not want to attempt entry, suggesting that they anchor off a nearby island for entry the following day.  Dave recognized the vessel name as a Catana catamaran owned by Charlie and Liz.  Charlie, in his capacity with Ullman Sails, had coordinated the design and fabrication of our Code Zero headsail.  Dave contacted them on the radio and we later made arrangements to host them aboard for drinks the following evening.

We decided to leave separately on November 13 in strong NW winds to the eastern shore of Meeks Patch to anchor for an evening while Our White Magic wrapped up its work.  On the way out, we stopped at the government dock for diesel fuel, having already topped off our dinghy gas.

Our cruising goal was to work our way down the Exuma Cays to arrive at Georgetown, Great Exuma, for the holiday festivities.  The Exuma Cays are a string of small islands between the deep-water Exuma Sound and the shallow sand of the Exuma Bank, two entirely different "water worlds".  Passage from one side to another through “cuts” requires careful planning, eyeball navigation and favorable winds and seas to avoid treacherous conditions.  Our first challenge would be to navigate Current Cut, which has a reputation for strong tidal currents but was the most favorable and direct route to the northern tip of the Exuma Cays chain.  

The following morning, Our White Magic joined us temporarily at our anchorage for a chart briefing and we timed a departure for arrival at Current Cut at slack tide, during the tidal flow transition between the flood of an incoming tide and the ebb of an outgoing tide when currents are of the least magnitude.  We departed Meeks Patch at 12:30 pm on the jib for slack tide through Current Cut a couple of hours later.  Slack tide is a popular time for navigating this cut so we weren't surprised to find a couple of other vessels timing their entry as well.  We waited for one vessel to exit and then followed a trawler in ahead of us.  Our target was an anchorage just south of Current Cut where we would overnight, allowing us a morning departure to navigate the upcoming 35 miles of reef-strewn waters in the best of mid-day overhead light to our first Exumas destination at Allen’s Cay November 15.

At Allen’s Cay we tucked ourselves in between that island and Leaf Cay, home to prehistoric native iguanas who have learned to come greet people on the beach and apparently have been conditioned to expect edible handouts on this uninhabited cay.  There were no other boats upon arrival, although two eventually anchored nearby that afternoon.  We immediately traveled to the shore of Leaf Cay to visit the iguana welcoming committee.  Definitely a photo op!  That evening our vessels experienced our first Bahamian reversing tidal flows, when the strong tidal current switches direction and in this case opposed the existing wind direction.  This contrast results in the boats meandering around their anchors.   Because of our proximity to Our White Magic, it created an uncomfortable evening on watch, most dramatically for our sister vessel.  We spent three nights at this lovely anchorage and were not as significantly affected by the reversing tidal flows on the subsequent nights.  The experience was a good one, as we would continue to experience this effect on several occasions throughout our travels.  Donna held a pizza party for everyone the following evening.  We had an opportunity to explore the nearby SW Allens Cay on foot on the third day and took pix of our vessels at anchor.

When island-hopping down the Exuma Cays you have the choice of navigating the Sound (east) side or the Great Bahama Bank (west) side.  Your choice on any particular day is incumbent on the combination of weather, the difficulty of navigating a “cut” from one side to another and the difficulty of transiting the shallow bank side safely given the draft of your vessel.  On the Sound side you can fish in deep water without hazards but must contend with ocean conditions; on the Bank side the fishing is very limited, but you are in calm waters; however you may have to negotiate shallow spots and coral heads. 

Our first move from Allan’s Cay to Norman’s Cay we chose to transit the Sound side, so we exited Allan’s Cay at a cut opposite our original entry cut.  The distance south to Norman’s Cay was 8 nm—relatively short which we sailed in NNE winds 12-15 kts.  We arrived around noon to anchor near the site of a notorious past drug runner’s base including the wreck of a small plane ditched in the shallows.  We swam along the western shore of the island that afternoon.  We had dinner that evening with Our White Magic.  The following day we explored by dinghy the nearby shallows where Donna found a favorite “epitome of the Bahamas” beachfront with glorious shades of blue in the crystal clear water.  We snorkeled on a nearby reef where we encountered a ray at rest on the sandy bottom as well as multiple rays swimming.  We also encountered our first shark, which approached the two of us directly.  Approximately 4 feet in length it was large enough to surprise and frighten us even though Donna could not see any teeth.  The surprise was largely because we were only in 2-3 feet depth water!  At approximately ten feet away, Dave decided it was close enough and smartly stood up in the water to gain the high ground.  At that movement the shark chose to dart away.  We vowed to try to find out what species of shark this was as some are known to be harmless.  It was likely a nurse shark which has a docile reputation.  This would not be the last shark encounter….

On our way back to the boat we stopped at the submerged plane wreck and had our first exposure to very friendly fish.  Like the iguanas, they have obviously been exposed to tourist handouts!   We spent two nights at this anchorage.

On November 20, we motored a short distance (no more than 3 nm) on the Bank side to Shroud Cay which is positioned within the Exumas Land and Sea Park, where all shores and water is protected as a “no take zone”.   We anchored for one night, taking the dinghy to explore the creeks that weave through the extensive mangroves on the island.  The following day we motored a short distance south to Hawksbill Cay, anchoring for two nights near the north mooring field.  The second day there we all hiked across the island.  None of our hikes are terribly strenuous as these are all pretty small, low-lying islands.  Nevertheless the scenery is always worth the outing. 

On November 23 we motored to Warderick Wells, Emerald Rock anchorage.  Our goal was to reach this location by Thanksgiving Day as we understood from some cruisers we met that they held a very nice Thanksgiving Day potluck.  This is the location of the Exumas Land and Sea Park Headquarters which sponsors the potluck, providing the turkey and pork.  We spent two nights at the anchorage, snorkeling nearby.  There are numerous trails on this island, all of which we hiked (in doing so we “circumnavigated” the island).  This included a trek up Boo Boo Hill where cruisers may leave etched driftwood (only) typically with the name of their vessel and date.  The hill also affords a spectacular view of boats moored below.  We continued on a somewhat strenuous path along the Exuma Sound to Pirates Lair, a location reputed to have been used as a hideout for pirates.  On the return hike we passed Loyalist home ruins and numerous scenic views over lovely beaches and adjacent islands. 

Dave later helped Our White Magic move to a mooring ball in the North Mooring field.  We followed suit the following day in anticipation of a cold front passing the area.  While in the mooring field we snorkeled more nearby reefs, one of which was an extensive “coral garden”—just beautiful and full of fan corals and various soft corals.  The stormy weather cleared out in time for a successful mid-afternoon potluck gathering on Thanksgiving Day.  Donna made Pineapple Upside-Down Cake for the event.  There were approximately a dozen boats represented at the potluck plus employees of the Park and some commuting visitors from nearby islands, all told probably some 50 people, with plenty of food for all.

After the weather improved, we departed Warderick Wells on November 28 headed for Cambridge Cay on NNE winds 10-15 flying the spinnaker for a while on the Sound side.  When the wind moved too far east we doused the spinnaker.  We picked up a mooring ball at this location due to anticipated high winds during our stay.  We took the dinghy out to several snorkeling spots highlighted on the Park’s published guide.  One of our favorites was the Sea Aquarium.  We were sad to observe a large motor yacht “La Reve” disregarding the Park “no take” rules and poaching both lobster and fish here.

On November 30 we departed for Staniel Cay, sailing main and jib on the Exuma Sound side.  During the passage, each vessel caught a barracuda.  While we threw ours back, Our White Magic had the foresight to keep theirs to later share as fish bait.  We arrived around noon and anchored over sand very near the Thunderball Grotto.  Conveniently upon arrival it was low slack tide, so we immediately took advantage of the calm waters to dinghy to the Grotto, made famous in the 1964 filming of the James Bond flick “Thunderball”.  In these conditions we were able to swim directly into the opening of the Grotto.  As soon as we tied our dinghies to the Grotto mooring balls, we were greeted by lots of friendly fish, no doubt conditioned once again to expect edible handouts.  We had brought some stale chips which were enthusiastically devoured.  In fact, some fish tried to snatch the entire plastic bag from Donna’s hand as she held it above water inside the Grotto.  The Grotto is a cave where, once inside you have surface air space with a high dome above your head with dramatic shafts of sunlight slanting down into the water.  The fish population is curious and not at all afraid of you, enjoying any handouts you might offer.  A second entry to the Grotto exists on the opposite side and a quite noticeable current runs between the two entries/exits.  We were thrilled with our visit.  We and the crew of Our White Magic were the only ones there at the time.  We have read that this is rare for this hugely popular attraction that gathers crowds during high season. 

We visited Our White Magic that evening, bringing them a fishing rod that they could borrow in an attempt to catch something on barracuda bait.  We did bait two large somethings, but lost both.  We have no idea what we lost.  The following day, December 1, we walked around Staniel Cay and picked up some dinghy gas.  Dave tried his hand at spearfishing with the spear he purchased at Spanish Wells.  He took aim at a large grouper but missed badly!  The following day he attempted it again with Bob along.  No luck but they saw two very large nurse sharks—probably 8 feet in length.  That afternoon we and the crew of Our White Magic took a dinghy ride to a beach at nearby island Big Majors Spot famous for its resident island pigs that swim out to greet you.  Amazingly it was true.  Upon approaching the beach in dinghies, three very large pigs trotted across the beach and into the water swimming toward us.  Similar to the Thunderball Grotto fish, these pigs were conditioned to expect handouts from visitors.  Who would have guessed that pigs would swim out from a tropical isle??? 

We left Staniel Cay December 3 for a sail and fishing on the Sound in SE 15 kts, tacking back for Dotham Cut to lead to our planned anchorage at White Point on the Great Bahama Bank side of Great Guano Cay.  On the tack toward the Cut one of our two trolling rods set off announcing we had a fish on.  Before Dave could even get to the reel to tighten the drag he saw a large billfish (either a sailfish or marlin) jump out of the water showing its body size to be about five feet long.  Dave managed to tighten the drag some but the fish still took off a couple hundred yards of line, jumping again before finally throwing the hook.  Traveling between 7-8 kts, to land a fish that size would require slowing the boat, manipulating sails, all while fighting the fish…a bit challenging for just two people aboard.  Regardless, the event did provide us a terrific thrill!

Dotham Cut was described as a good passage with no obstructions but could present fierce chop and large swells.  At our arrival, we could see from a distance large breaking waves at the Cut’s entry.   Knowing that the Cut was wide and deep, we proceeded forward having furled the jib and started both engines to maximize our control in the swells.  For Dave, this brought back memories of surfing his Hobie Cat off Virginia Beach.  With some anxiousness we entered the Cut and did indeed surf down some 6-foot breaking swells, but carefully maintained control, helped by the fact that we were a catamaran rather than a monohull.  After safely negotiating the cut we radioed back to Our White Magic some distance behind, telling them what to expect.  On the Bank side of the Cut it was like entering another world.  We raised the jib and sailed floating on shallow gin-clear water over sand barely ten feet deep.  We continued on a port tack far enough on the Bank to set up a starboard tack directly to White Point.  We enjoyed an all-around pleasant sailing day with fish and surfing thrown in for additional excitement!

The following morning we departed our lovely beach anchorage near White Point and headed for our next stop at Little Farmer’s Cay.  We had a pleasant upwind sail in south winds 10-15 kts over flat clear water, tacking once to arrive around 1 pm.  Because of the reputed reversing tidal flows in the harbor we chose to pick up mooring balls in a very narrow stretch of water.  We called ahead to receive a mooring ball assignment and proceeded inbound.  While attempting to pick up our mooring ball in the traditional fashion (retrieving the pendant to attach to our mooring lines) the existing tidal current was opposing the wind, contributing to the challenge.  Pas de Deux performed at least a dozen pirouettes around the mooring ball until we finally realized the pendant lines were not long enough to even reach our deck.  Our White Magic, just behind us and witnessing our struggles, made similar attempts and arrived at the same realization.  Fortunately, some minutes later they were assisted by a couple in a passing dinghy who then also helped us secure the moorings, which could only have been done it seems from a shorter deck in the water.

All that effort was rewarded with a nice visit to Little Farmer’s Cay with its some 55 residents.  It took us less than two hours to circumnavigate on foot the entire island, part of which was a stroll down the island’s airstrip.  Along the way we visited the local woodcarver’s shack where he convinced Dave to sample some of the daily aloe he consumed to maintain his health.  Passing the local schoolyard, a young boy dashed out to the street to invite us to their first annual Christmas tree-lighting ceremony that would be held that evening.  We stopped by a local shop selling inexpensive liquor and chatted with the locals.  We visited the island’s marina resort restaurant which was just being readied for the coming tourist season.  Our final stop was at Ocean Inn where we had a drink and chatted with the proprietor Terry Bain, who is quite an interesting and well-read fellow.

We would stay at this anchorage for two nights and found plenty of time to snorkel the beautiful coral gardens and reefs in the harbor.  By this time, we had become accustomed to sighting as well the occasional barracuda or shark while snorkeling.  We thoroughly enjoyed our visit and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting this area.

On December 6 we motored due to light winds on the Sound side to Lee Stocking Island.  This would allow for easy fishing.  Our White Magic caught a Skipjack Tuna on the way but we got nothing.  Adderly Cut was an easy pass in the light conditions.  Lee Stocking Island is a private island leased to the Caribbean Marine Research Center.  We anchored south of the Center.  We attempted to contact the Center to obtain permission (as required) to go ashore to hike a trail to Perry’s Peak, the highest peak in the Exumas at (only) 39 meters, but received no reply.  This could be explained by the fact that it was Sunday.  The following day we finally reached the Center’s Manager, Eric, and obtained permission to visit the island.  We stopped into the Center to fill out some release forms which were a matter of routine for this non-profit organization which certainly couldn’t afford to be sued by anyone.  The access to Perry’s Peak was at the beach closest to where we were anchored so we proceeded to take that short hike, arranging with Erek to return to the Center in mid-afternoon when he could give us a tour of their facilities.  The Center was established by the Perry Foundation to promote marine research and education, with the particular purpose of conducting reef and fish studies on the island and its surrounding waters.  The Center has one of the few available decompression chambers in the area, which we had the opportunity to view during our tour.

We departed Lee Stocking Island early December 8 headed for our destination at Georgetown at Elizabeth Harbour.  We sailed Exuma Sound on ESE winds 15 diminishing to 10.  This was one of our longer island hops, made longer by the fact that we had to travel upwind.  We took two long tacks over the course of the day, arriving to drop anchor in the harbor just after dusk.  Fortunately the entry to Elizabeth Harbor was easy enough to attempt in the late-day light and we sailed through.  Our Explorer paper charts combined with our electronic charts are thorough and detailed enough for us to be comfortable making the passage entirely under sail, despite the later-than-usual arrival hour.  We would have felt we were cheating to diesel the route. 

The Georgetown area is thought to be a mecca by many cruisers who make this the “end of the line” of their southerly trek for the winter.  There are enough cruisers spending the winter here to support the establishment of an ad-hoc cruisers’ society complete with daily beach volleyball, card games, yoga, potluck dinners, and daily news and weather reports every morning on the VHF radio.  Georgetown has ample services for groceries, laundry, fuel and some supplies.  This location afforded the girls on Our White Magic with ample social activities and they quickly became popular amongst the other young adults at anchor.

Our aim was to possibly spend the holiday season in the area where we could receive family guests (which never materialized) and to experience the Christmas Junkanoo—the popular and colorful local event marking the day after Christmas (Boxing Day) when the original slaves were given a day off from work.

Upon arrival we anchored in a central area between Stocking Island and Georgetown, Great Exuma where Donna preferred the bug-free breezes.  We relocated temporarily for a passing cold front into a protected harbor destined one day to become a marina.  To date only the harbor had been dredged and a cement processing plant was in place, certainly adequate to serve our purpose as protection during the various wind shifts of a passing cold front.  With that behind us, we moved to an anchorage off Monument Beach at Stocking Island, next to Our White Magic who had ridden out the cold front on a mooring ball at a nearby resort.

While visiting town, Donna located the office of Bahama Sound Properties where she obtained a plat map for her parents’ undeveloped lot north of Georgetown and received assistance from the receptionist in identifying its location on both the plat map as well as on our Explorer chart.  We made plans the following day to sail northward to anchor in Emerald Bay where Donna could dinghy to land and walk the relatively short distance to the site to observe what kind of development may have taken place since the lot was purchased some thirty-five years ago.  Sailing to Emerald Bay, the site of an ex-Four Seasons resort and golf course being re-opened in January as a Sandals resort, would be a lot less expensive than a car rental and would give us another chance for success at fishing.  While it would not be a suitable location for an overnight anchorage with prevailing winds, we picked a day with mild conditions that would allow us to sail the round-trip 20 nautical miles and anchor temporarily.  Emerald Bay lived up to its name—it was simply gorgeous with various blue and green hues over the shallow sandy bottom.  Once anchored in somewhat choppy conditions, Dave took Donna ashore then returned to the boat not wanting to leave it unattended in the less-than-ideal conditions.  We had arrived around 11:45 AM and Donna returned to depart around 2 PM.  On the very pleasant sail back we caught a barracuda which Dave promptly (and carefully) threw back.

The following day, we walked the approximately two-mile distance north of Georgetown to the office of the Ministry of Works & Utilities where we conversed with an official on the topic of developing property on Great Exuma.  He was very helpful and informative and provided some written reference material as well as answered each question asked concerning the entire application and approval process.

Other visits to town gave us an opportunity to shop for some fresh vegetables, wash laundry, make cheap phone calls, deposit trash, visit a fish festival where we tried some fried conch and bought some bananas, and visit various small shops catering both to locals and tourists alike

While at this extended anchorage Dave has been doing various boat projects along with the routine daily tasks involved with operating a self-sufficient floating home, like watermaking, battery charging, monitoring the daily weather briefing on the SSB radio and anchor watches.  Somehow it seems though that the most work we do involves the closing and opening of windows and movement inside and out of cockpit cushions every time it threatens to rain.  Gosh, retirement is hard work! 

Donna has been catching up on some reading, trying some new recipes (including GoLean Crunch energy bars, butternut squash soup, lemon pound cake, spice cupcakes, handmade French bread, and bruschetta) and using recipes brought along for what is already tried and true (e.g. pizza dough, chili, French onion soup, bread pudding, pineapple upside-down cake, etc).  Thanks to some well-planned provisioning (especially since we haven’t yet had much luck catching fish), we have been eating quite well from our stock on hand which runs the gamut from hotdogs and hamburgers, to chicken, pizza, all varieties of pasta, pork tenderloin, and even filet mignon!

Donna is also spending a lot of time examining the Explorer and Wavy Line charts to plan further travel south toward the Turks and Caicos.  We have been reading not only the cruising guide we brought along, but also guides that Bob possesses to extract information on the best sites to visit in the coming months.

As our goal this year is to explore new places, sailing the boat whenever possible, and experiencing as much new and different as possible we find ourselves itching to move on.  Our sister vessel Our White Magic will stay at Georgetown at least through January 8 as they are having two extended family members visit throughout the first week of January.  We may venture ahead on Pas de Deux to Conception Island and Rum Cay as initial stopovers to our continued journey south, with Our White Magic catching up to us later enroute.  In the meantime, we are happily listening to Christmas music aired over our Sirius radio….
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