Sailing the Exumas

From Warderick Wells, we sailed back to Exuma Bank (the western side of the island chain) and crossed to Cambridge Cay via the “Sea Aquarium” snorkel site. All of Exuma Land & Sea Park is a no-take zone which prohibits fishing of any kind. The reefs in the park are full of fish – larger than any we’ve seen in the Bahamas. Since the park’s cays have been well-protected for so long, they serve as a thriving haven for reef fish in the Exumas. I even got to swim with my first sea turtle! And one spiny lobster we saw tucked into a rock crevice in the Sea Aquarium was HUGE.

Cambridge Cay was an unexpected surprise. It felt so remote, tropical, and truly foreign –we could have been in the South Pacific Islands or Indian Ocean… We stopped only for one night, but made a mental note to return. I wish I had better pictures!

The next morning, we departed for Staniel Cay via the Exuma Sound (eastern) side of the island chain. While exposed to the open ocean, the Exuma Sound side offers a more direct route than the Exuma Bank (western) side, which is full of sandy shoals and shallow areas to avoid. Once we got south of Cambridge Cay we could fish again, outside of the park boundaries!

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Staniel Cay is the first truly inhabited cay of the Exumas that we’ve visited. The Staniel Cay Yacht Club is world renowned for offering yacht services like fuel and water, as well as an airport, courier for parts and mail, and beach front hotel and dining. Even the fuel dock is beautiful:

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After refueling, we anchored west of the Thunderball Grotto, another famous snorkel destination in the Exumas. Shafts of sunlight filter into the grotto and highlight the coral-covered cave walls below.

Staniel Cay highlights include: grocery shopping, drinks at the yacht club bar, wi-fi from the Taste and Sea Café, harvesting two beautiful conch, making our own conch fritters, and walking the dogs around the far side of the island.

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We also took a trip to nearby Big Major’s Cay and its Pig Beach. Semi-wild pigs roam the beaches of Big Major’s waiting for tourists to bring them snacks. The pigs will swim out nearly a half-mile to greet boats with especially tasty snacks. The largest pigs are females (the locals cull big males for roasts), and each female has her own family of piglets, which are surprisingly large. After warnings from other sailors that the pigs have been known to climb into your dinghy and bite you for food, we left the dogs on the Abby B. and ventured to Pig Beach with our cameras and an offering of dog food. It is truly as hilarious, bizarre, and amazing as you’d imagine a beach full of swimming pigs in the Bahamas would be. Definitely a must-see!

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From Big Major’s we motored to the southside of Black Point Settlement on Great Guana Cay to wait out an incoming storm. Winds gusting over 30 kts pounded us from the north and northeast, including frontal squall lines. We set two anchors and rode out the winds:

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After the clouds cleared, Great Guana Cay provided plenty of deserted beach space for the dogs to run free. A small white ‘castle’ stood guard over our boat in the anchorage. Does it get any prettier than this? (Meanwhile our friends and families back in Maine and Massachusetts are shoveling feet of snow…)

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On Sunday, we explored the town of Black Point. Unfortunately nothing was open on Sunday before and during church hours, but during our walk Alex found a “blow hole” in the limestone cliffs along the Sound. Wave surge erupts through a hole in the cliffs like a massive geyser:

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Then Big Farmer’s Cay on Sunday afternoon. We were two days late for the annual 5F’s party. Nearby Little Farmer’s Cay hosts a “Farmer’s First Friday in February Festival” and apparently it’s a huge cruisers’ carnival… drinking, loud music, games and contests. We were content in our little anchorage cove just inside Farmer’s Cut:

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And finally, we sailed down the Sound to Emerald Bay, Great Exuma Island to wait out another front, this time a big westerly blow. The Marina at Emerald Bay (a mega-resort area) has a $0.50/ft dock with no water and no electricity, but FREE showers and FREE laundry. Miracle of miracles! Sailing Exuma Sound on Monday, we counted over 30 boats cruising near Emerald Bay. It was a mass migration of sailboats for as far as the eye could see. Everyone hoping to seek shelter on the same cheap docks haha.

So we’ve spent the last few days at Emerald Bay working on boat projects, all under canine supervision, of course. And we’ve met so many great cruising couples and families, inviting us for dinner and drinks on their boat almost every night of the week!

After Emerald Bay, our next (and last!) stop will be Georgetown, Elizabeth Harbor, Great Exuma. It’s taken us 3 ½ months, and what an amazing last month in the Bahamas it’s been!

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The Abby B. is looking as good as ever!

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Warderick Wells Cay, Exuma Land & Sea Park

Next island: Warderick Wells, in the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park.

Warderick Wells is renowned as “one of the most beautiful anchorages in the world” in a cruising guide we read, and it absolutely is. (Really, Google it. It’s perfect.)

The Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park includes several islands in the northern/mid Exumas, from Shroud Cay (northern-most) to Cambridge Cay (southern-most). Johnny Depp happens to own an entire island in Exuma Park. Naturally.

Warderick Wells Cay is the heart of the Park, hosting the best walking trails, mooring fields, and the park ranger headquarters. We spent our first night in the Emerald Rock mooring field (moorings are $20/day), before moving to the ‘main’ or ‘north’ mooring field, closest to Park HQ. We lucked out because often there is a waiting list – literally days long – to get a spot in the north mooring field. Although, the snorkeling is much better around Emerald Rock.

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Boo Boo Hill is the highest point on Warderick Wells and a short walk from the main beach. An almost unreadable sign at the top of the hill reads:

Take Only Pictures. On a clear day you can see from here to eternity. The cairn on the top of the hill, the tiny cluster of park buildings and the tops of ship masts are the only unnatural objects that disrupt the island’s wild nature. The rule of the park is: Take only pictures and memories, leave only footprints in the sand. This cairn is one of the exceptions to the rule. Memories left by passing cruisers, offerings to the spirits for good weather or to placate the ghosts that inhabit the island, remind us of fellow travelers who love this special place […] Please leave only driftwood. As you look out over this paradise, please respect all you see by leaving it as you found it.

The hill is covered with driftwood offerings, inscribed with boat names, crew members’ names, years visited, and a lingering sense of all their beautiful memories. Alex and I had hiked the hill just after sunrise. It felt like no one else was awake, and that we had the whole island to ourselves:

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On Saturday nights, cruisers congregate for an informal Tiki Hut cocktail party on a beach by the main park office. Appetizers, music, story-swapping – it was the most social contact we’d had in weeks haha. We even met younger cruisers, Hannah and Roger on Hahnunnah and John and Jen on Elissa.

We also got up close and personal to the island’s hutia population – the dumbest rat-meets-guinea-pig mammals you’ll ever find. Hutia have no natural predators and almost went extinct once, until human intervention brought them to Warderick Wells and two other islands in all of the Bahamas (three islands total in the world). Our dogs want nothing more than to decimate the hutia population with all the blood lust their bodies are capable of producing. We opt to walk the dogs on a large sand bar in the middle of the mooring field to avoid any confrontation with the hutias…

Sunday, February 1 was Super Bowl Sunday, and our very own New England Patriots were playing. Alex and I were sure we were going to miss the game because, as far as we knew, the nearest TV was in Staniel Cay, a day away. And we were hunkered down in Warderick Wells, with no desire to leave a mooring in the most beautiful place in the world for a football game. (I guess we’re not ‘die hard’ enough haha.) Luckily, the park rangers were nice enough to host a Super Bowl party at their staff house. Problem solved!

Around 6:15pm, we joined 20-30 other cruisers for an awesome pot luck on the staff porch. Minimal football was watched, but everyone had a good time. Spoiler alert: the Patriots beat the Seattle Sea Hawks in a crazy/historic victory. A very expensive bottle of 2004 Veuve Cliquot champagne was passed around exclusively to Pats fans. There were four of us on the island 🙂

Nassau to Norman’s Cay, Exumas

Exumas, Exumas, Exumas! We made it! Getting to the Bahamas was a major milestone, but the Exumas Island chain was our ultimate goal – and now we’re here! (And it’s ten times more beautiful than we could have ever imaged!)

After one failed attempt to leave Nassau (too choppy), we headed to Rose Island, east of New Providence Island, and anchored for an afternoon. If the seas had died down a bit, this would have made an awesome snorkeling spot. Alex jumped in nonetheless:

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We switched marinas from Nassau Yacht Haven ($2.50/ft) to Bayshore Marina ($1/ft). Bayshore is extremely basic, but we were able to tie up inside their T-dock, and with enough fenders and lines, enjoyed a pleasant (and much cheaper) stay in Nassau until we could cross the coral banks to the Exumas. The nearby Starbucks and Fresh Market became our posh/American headquarters. And tying up to a dock with the dogs was much easier than anchoring in Nassau Harbor – known for its strong currents and fair holding. Our Bayshore neighbors looked a little like this:

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Potter’s Cay conch shacks down the road from the marina:

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On Sunday, January 25, we had a good weather window to cross Yellow Bank between Nassau and the Exumas cays (“keys”). Yellow Bank is not terribly large, but is dotted with large coral heads that you must dodge and weave around in order to cross safely. We were advised to cross the bank at midday, when the sun reveals the coral heads beneath the water. It’s also best to cross on a calm day, as rough seas can obscure the coral heads. Alex took up watch in the bow and I steered a straight course, only altering once around a large dark patch of coral. Most of the coral seemed to be deep enough for us to pass over with our 5 ft draft, but we didn’t want to take any chances.

After Yellow Bank, we could relax and sail the rest of the way to our first island in the Exumas chain: Norman’s Cay. Norman’s was our first taste of unbelievably turquoise, perfect waters for which the Exumas are famous. Neither of us have ever seen blue shallows quite like this. Breathtaking!

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Several other boats were anchored in the southern part of Norman’s Cay, and our first night in the anchorage was perfect: flat clam water, uninhabited beaches for the dogs to run around, a strong anchor set. We made it. What an amazing feeling!

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Northwest Channel and Nassau

Awake before sunrise after a surprisingly good night of sleep (given the previous days sea state across Great Bahama Bank) we parted ways with Tim, Kathy and their dog Shamus, who were headed to Great Harbor in the northern Berry Islands. (You can follow their adventures at www.tkronaboat.com.)

Thankfully, our passage from the Northwest Channel to Nassau was almost perfect! (We even wished for a more wind, which is a rare request when sailing across the open ocean.) The sun was bright and hot, and the seas were smooth all day. Below us, thousands of feet of royal blue waters sparkled with shafts of sunlight.

Just south of Chub Cay, Alex caught a nice 43’ mahi mahi with our lucky pink squid lure. The fish put up quite a fight, and Alex eventually got it on deck to douse its gills with vodka. Piper and Luna had no idea what to make of the green, yellow, and bloody spectacle. Alex and I were beeming! Food for days!

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The entrance to Nassau Harbor was easy, and we radioed Nassau Harbor Control as required. Of course, we had not decided where we were going for the night, and the Harbor Control lady was not pleased that we didn’t have a reservation at a marina already. Oops…

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Nassau Yacht Haven became our home for the night, and we found Istar from Provincetown, MA in the slip right next to us. Stormy, Josiah, Nate, and Oriana were nice enough to share some wahoo steaks with us. A terrific fish feast of our mahi and their wahoo filled the Abby B. crew (dogs included) with enough omega-3s to last a year haha.

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Great Bahama Bank

We left Bimini full of anticipation and excitement for the next legs of our Bahamian sailing adventure! Our next planned stop would be Nassau en route to the Exumas.

Prior to departure, we joined Tim and Kathy on their boat Carina at the Bimini Blue Water Marina and listened to Chris Parker’s Caribbean weather forecast on their SSB (single side band) radio. In the States, getting weather information was no problem. But now, without a cell phone data plan and only spotty wi-fi, our access to reliable marine weather forecasts is extremely limited. We are so thankful that Tim and Kathy (and their dog Shamus!) were willing to share weather reports and cruising plans with us! An SSB radio is the latest item added to our growing “wish list” of cruising gear… along with a watermaker. And radar. And AIS haha. But that list is for another blog post haha.

Crossing the Great Bahama Bank is an endurance trip. It is wide and shallow, with a large shoal to avoid in the middle. After 70 miles, you’re faced with two options: anchor on the bank (unprotected, requiring calm seas) or sail through the night – neither of which is ideal. Our plan was to anchor on the bank and wait until morning. Then we’d enter the Northwest Channel on the way to Chub Cay in the Berry Islands, or perhaps all the way to Nassau.

As soon as Chris Parker reported that “tonight was as good as any to anchor on the bank” Tim, Kathy, Alex and I darted up to begin our departure preparations. There was a decent southeast wind (which would be right on our nose during the passage), but it was supposed to die down to as the day progressed. We hoped for an easy day of motoring/motor-sailing and calm waters for anchoring on the bank at night.

Instead, we faced steep chop all day. Each time the Abby B. hit a wave, our speed dropped below 5 knots. We were really slogging ahead slowly, with Tim and Kathy in Carina motoring ahead. As the sun set, Carina let us catch up and follow along better in the dark.

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Over the radio, we could hear other cruisers stopping for the night and complaining about the seas. All we could hope for was some protection behind a shoal to cut the height of the seas a bit, otherwise no one was going to get a good night’s sleep. And the dogs weren’t going to get to shore tonight…

Tim and Kathy expertly led us in behind a shallow area to the northwest of Chub Key / northeast of the Northwest Channel marker. Just past 9:30pm, we found ‘calm’ water and dropped anchor in about 14 ft. What a day…

Alex and I both woke up intermittently throughout the night and marveled at the most amazing night sky: more stars than I have ever seen!

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Tim and Kathy have a blog about their sailing adventures too: www.tkronaboat.com