On our third morning anchored at Great Inagua Island, I stepped on deck and surveyed a sea blanketed in mist, tinted pink with the dawn. The mist thinned with the first rays, revealing two patched sails, crude wooden spars and frayed rope rigging. As the pair of workboats glided in through the narrow gap in the breakwater, the only sound in the harbor was the creak of their gaffs as they lowered sail.
Just four days earlier my husband, Seth, and I had been in the flashy marina on Provo in Turks and Caicos, surrounded by motor yachts, bars and even a Club Med. Following our overnight passage to Great Inagua, though, we now found ourselves back in the age of sail.
Despite its accessible location in the northwestern Caribbean, Great Inagua, the southernmost island of the Bahamas, feels distant and isolated. Morton Salt Company owns about half of the land, which it uses for solar evaporation, and employs most of the inhabitants of Matthew Town, the island’s lone village.
The company’s cinderblock buildings scattered around a roaring generator aren’t the stuff of glossy tourist brochures. Nor are the mountains of white salt—a million tons each year—that Morton exports. However, the other half of Great Inagua is a national park centered around Lake Windsor, home to the largest flamingo breeding population in the western hemisphere. Thousands of the salmon-colored waders scrounge for shrimp in the brackish water. Egrets and herons perch in the mangroves.
Cruising sailors seldom visit Great Inagua, in part because the return trip to Provo is an upwind slog. During our stay there we only saw one other cruising boat, friends we’d met in North Carolina who anchored near our 38-foot cutter, Heretic, in Man o’ War Bay north of town. Underwater, blue tangs teemed around antler corals, undisturbed by the swimmers common in much of the Caribbean. Seth and I are dismal fishermen, but even we managed to catch a couple of skipjack tuna in an hour.
On Sunday we wandered into a bar in Matthew Town, and half an hour later the proprietor’s wife was presenting us with a homemade meal for which she refused payment, saying we were their “Sunday guests.” I guess visitors are that scarce. The next morning, the town warden, Henry, took us on a tour of Lake Windsor. He told us the sailing vessels we’d seen at dawn were Haitian trading boats, hefting charcoal and plantains ashore to clear customs. A contained fire on deck was their galley. The space below was for cargo.
After seeing the flamingos, Henry suggested we walk to the lighthouse, one of the last powered by kerosene. From the top I could see Lake Windsor, the white salt piles and the turquoise sea. Heretic looked like a toy bobbing on the waves as we took in the view below of this unique remote island, with its 60,000 flamingos, salt company, friendly people and Haitian workboats without cook-stoves.
Cruise Notes: Great Inagua Island
When sailing from Turks and Caicos, it’s easiest and most direct to approach from the northwest. A reef extends about 4 miles out from the southeast point.
When to Go
Winter, when the trade winds are fully established, is the best time to visit because all the good anchorages are protected from Easterlies. January- April is dry season. June-November is hurricane season.
Where to Anchor
Man o’ War Bay just north of Matthew Town is well protected from the northeast trade winds. Be careful not to drop the hook on coral: the sand makes better holding anyway. Matthew Town’s roadstead can have more swell, but is shallow enough for comfortable anchoring. Always keep a keen eye out for coral heads when nosing into anchorages: don’t depend on your chartplotter.
Explorer Chartbooks (explorercharts.com) have excellent charts and a lot of cruising information. Great Inagua is covered in the Far Bahamas kit. For a tour of the national park of Lake Windsor ($50), contact the warden, Henry Nixon (242-339-1616).