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Exploring the Exumas

The dinghy on a beach at Shroud Cay

The dinghy on a beach at Shroud Cay

I typically don’t ask the crew about their favorite parts of a charter until it’s done. After all, how can you pick a highlight on, say, Day 2? I broke that rule, though, on a recent sail through the Exumas, the chain of Bahamian islands that extends in a southeasterly direction from Nassau on New Providence Island down to Georgetown on Great Exuma. The reason I asked is that we saw and did so much it became too hard to keep it all straight. Not surprisingly, their answers varied. One thing we all agreed on, though, was that a single week wasn’t going to be enough to even scratch the surface of this cruising ground, and we’d definitely be coming back for more.

We landed in Nassau, rented a car and crisscrossed the island for a day, scoping out the best place for fresh conch salad, eventually scoring with Dino’s on the northwest side of the island near our hotel at Ocean West Boutique. Unfortunately, provisioning the next day was a bit tougher. The problem was that while we found liquor and wine at 700 Wines and Spirits (a chain) and the best provisioning store on the island, it was on the opposite side from the Sunsail base at Palm Cay Marina (sunsail.com). As a result, we had to do some strategic shopping so our frozen goods wouldn’t all melt on the dock while we waited for Malouna, our Sunsail 454.

Exumas_map

In addition to provisioning, the other, big challenge when sailing the Exumas is deciding where to stop on your way down from Nassau, versus what to visit on the way back to base. Even if we’d explored only the Northern Exumas and some of the central part of the chain, we’d still be covering nearly 170 miles round-trip. And no matter how you slice it, the first crossing is a long one and into the wind.

In the end, we crept across Yellow Bank about midway to the start of the archipelago. As we did so, I could have sworn I was willing the boat to levitate over the shallower waters and coral heads that dot the area. By the end of the week, if the depth reading was 2ft below the keel, I didn’t even notice. But those first few days made me hold my breath. We bashed a bit as the wind touched 30 knots and the seas grew unsettled but were still able to push through at 6 knots under power.

For our first stop, we landed at Allen’s Cay, a little over 35 miles southeast of Nassau, where the famous iguanas come running as soon as they see a dinghy pull up on the beach. We learned they don’t like carrots, because carrots are too hard, but will embarrass themselves for any kind of fruit. We also learned that the seagulls there are nasty little bandits that will steal a piece of cantaloupe right out of an iguana’s mouth. The anchorage is small but with plenty of current. Swimming back to the boat took about three times as long as expected.

From there our shipmate Joe, our local knowledge expert having cruised the areas years before aboard his own boat, insisted we go to nearby Shroud Cay at the top of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a 176-square-mile park with 15 major cays. This proved an excellent call. Shroud Cay has a number of tidal creeks, one of which allows motorized traffic, so we jumped in the dinghy and meandered through the mangroves spotting dozens of turtles and rays. From there we continued on to nearby Driftwood Beach on the windward side of the cay, a stretch of sand right out of a Hollywood set. Pulling the dink up on the sand, we waded back into the water to catch a wonderful drift ride out toward Exuma Sound. No worries, though, there’s a sandbar to stop you from getting pulled too far. After reaching the end, all you have to do is walk back up to the other end of the beach to do it all over again like a ride at Disneyland. The sand on this beach is so fine, it’s like powdered sugar and compacts down so tight it feels like cement. The colors of the water as they swirl between the sandbars gave everyone’s camera a workout.

Back aboard, we continued on to Warderick Wells, the park’s headquarters. It’s a magnificent anchorage, but you’ll need to reserve a mooring, every one of which seems to be a dinghy’s length from some seriously shallow water. They’re also expensive since you’re charged by the length of your boat as well as the number of passengers aboard. We spent $107 plus a few pennies for a postcard view.

06-BahWardBooBooBeachsign

Warderick Wells is said to be haunted, and while we found no bones ashore, we were amazed to see plants growing directly out of hard coral—no soil necessary. A short walk inland and up a hill brought us to Boo Boo Beach, a pile of driftwood inscribed with boat names. It’s a sort of cruisers’ shrine that keeps a silent record of all who pass, at least until the next hurricane blows it away.

From Warderick Wells, we made some nice time under sail as we headed down to Big Major on Fowl Cay with its world-famous swimming pigs. There are about 50 of them in all, all jostling for whatever food arrives via dinghy. Some are big and demanding, but I found a tiny girl in the bushes who was grateful for a few pieces of cabbage. I didn’t ask what happens to them, but given the many piglets running around, there must be some mechanism for population control that I didn’t want to think about.

By now it was low tide and a perfect time to enter Thunderball Grotto, around the corner. The cave is famous for having served as the location for a number of scenes from the James Bond movie of the same name. A couple of tips, though: 1) try to make it there in the morning when there are fewer boats around and 2) take some reef shoes with you so you can make the trek up to the top, jump through the hole in the ceiling and drop 40ft into the water below.

The swimming pigs of Allen’s Cay

The swimming pigs of Allen’s Cay

Unfortunately, we went in the afternoon and soon found ourselves surrounded by another 60 swimmers, making for a not very Zen-like experience. That said, the cave is still spectacular with numerous rooms you can swim through. One thing: be careful if you dive down to enter and exit said rooms, though. Two of our crew surfaced early and took some serious divots out of their skulls. Although there was more than enough blood to attract any sharks that may have been in the area, the traffic seemed to keep them away.

Speaking of sharks, later that same day we dinghied over to Staniel Cay Yacht Club for a drink and a visit with the nurse sharks that congregate there. They’re fed here and circle around expectantly, waiting for a snack. You can swim with them, since they’re bottom feeders and aren’t really interested in humans, but I’d still rather not stick my fingers in their mouth as they might be indiscriminate around feeding time.

By now it was time to start heading back north toward Nassau, so our next stop became O’Brien’s Cay and the “aquarium” I’d heard so much about. We picked our way there carefully. At one point the crew thought we were anchoring because we were so close to land. It was a bit tense as we threaded the needle between a rock and some coral, but we made it. Everyone was so focused, nobody thought to take a photo or video. That’s when you know you’ve got your crew’s full attention!

The Aquarium is a small rocky cove with tons of well-trained fish. We took bottles filled with oatmeal and water, which we squirted around until it was like being inside a bowl of fish soup. According to the intel we got from some superyacht crew, at the bottom of one of the moorings, we’d also find a small plane. Sure enough, it was in about 10ft of water, fully submerged.

From there we picked our way back out to deeper water and headed to Norman’s Cay, site of another much larger sunken plane sitting near the surface. In the 1980s, Carlos Lehder of Medellin drug cartel fame saw one of his pilots miss the runway of his “supersecret” (not so secret since DEA agents were spying on him from Shroud Cay) operation on Norman’s Cay. The plane was used to fly cocaine into the United States, and its fuselage is now fully submerged and cracked open allowing you to snorkel inside as well as around the wings and engines. A last stale baguette and some more oatmeal did the trick with the fish. We even had a large sting ray come by. Following our swim, we dinghied over to MacDuff’s on the west side for fish burgers and rum drinks.

Dinner at anchor

Dinner at anchor

Our crossing back over the bank was an uneventful one, but also windless, forcing us to motor to Rose Island, where we dinghied to Footprints Beach Bar. From here, it was an easy jump back to Palm Cay the next morning, where some of the charter base staff met us via dinghy at the marina entrance.

A few things worthy of mention. First, as noted earlier, be sure and pay attention when figuring out an itinerary when chartering in this part of the Bahamas. There’s a lot to see, but also a lot of water to cover. Your best bet is to stop by a few spots on your way south and then pick up any destinations you may have missed on your way back. You will also, as is the case on pretty much any charter, want to let the weather be your guide. Because of the strong “noserlies” we had our first few days out, for example, I tried my best to break up the bashing with some fun stops. This in turn allowed us to enjoy some longer legs and good sailing along the way to Nassau.

Second, a few words about our boat. I love cats, especially on charter where guests have plenty of space and the motion is such that seasickness is less likely. That said, because all too many cruising cats aren’t the best sailers, I expected we’d spend little to no time under sail. I couldn’t have been more wrong. We sailed on several occasions and had a great time doing so, close-reaching at speeds of 7-8 knots.

Along these same lines, I usually keep a log of all the things that have either broken or gone wrong on board. But when the Sunsail check-in manager asked me for a list, I realized I didn’t have one. Malouna had held together beautifully. The heads were clean and fresh-smelling, and the engines and genset ran smoothly throughout. I seriously considered stealing the outboard because of the way it had started on the first pull, every…single…time. A miracle!

So, what were my favorite parts of my trip? As usual, I’d like to “check all that apply,” though if pressed I’d have to say that Driftwood Beach was like nothing I’ve seen—and I’ve seen a lot of beaches over the years. The languid flow of the current and the perfect temperature of the water were sublime. Oh, and that sand!

The shimmy we did through the rocks on the way to the Aquarium at O’Brien’s was also pretty memorable, but what I now seem to remember most were the unforgettable colors of the water. An entire wardrobe could be made of various shades of blue and turquoise, and I’d never wear the same color twice. I can’t wait to get back and check out all the things we missed on this first trip, hopefully with even more time to explore the second time around. 

Cruising Tips

Hurricane season is a factor here, but you’ll experience fewer crowds during the low or shoulder seasons of summer. July should be fair game, August is a bit questionable and September could be sketchy. Our charter was in July. The weather was perfect.

Anchoring in the Euxmas chain is fairly easy as it’s mostly done in less than 10ft of water and primarily in sand. You can snorkel on your anchor in good visibility to check out how well it’s buried. In the winter, you’ll need to watch changes in weather and pick spots that will keep you safe in the sometimes strong northerlies. A great go-to guide for the area is The Exuma Guide by Steve Pavlidis.

Nothing is inexpensive in the Bahamas, and it only gets pricier once you leave Nassau. Try to provision as well as you can before departing. If you fall short, there are a few small stores along the way, like in Staniel Cay, or you can opt to eat out at a number of restaurants in the area, including MacDuff’s and Staniel Cay Yacht Club.

October/November 2021

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