1 May 2001, by Tom Waid
On a clear windless day in the Bahamas your boat ceases to float. Rather it becomes suspended at the exact boundary between two crystalline fluids, air & water. Standing on the deck you can see your shadow cast on the bottom even in water as deep as twenty feet and more. Elsewhere in the Tropical Atlantic and Caribbean the water is clear but in the Bahamas itís exceptionally clear. On snorkel or scuba itís common to have underwater visibility of better than a hundred feet. The sea is dominant. The Islands are low and seemingly insignificant compared to the vast expanses of water, both the deep blue of the ocean and the brilliant turquoise of the shallow banks.
Weíve been to the Bahamas on several previous occasions but never to the larger cities. Always to what used to be called the "Out Islands" but are now called the "Family Islands." Itís probably better to call them that since "Out Islands" imply the fringes away from the center and remote from anything important. Best to let the residents feel a part of the Family but weíve always loved the "Out Islands" for all the reasons that expression implies. Out of the way places away from the frenzy of more populated regions. Scattered among these islands are small communities that, because they are somewhat remote, are free to develop their own unique characteristics and thus have a genuine charm. On this voyage we visited the Exuma Cays with places such as George Town, Little Farmers Cay, Staniel Cay, and Highborne Cay. In addition, since theyíre so many islands in the Exumas, we had some anchorages completely to ourselves.
We arrived in Georgetown on the 18th of March after a quiet two-day passage from the Caicos Islands. For us the Caicos were just a rest stop after the boisterous passage from SamanŠ in the Dominican Republic, which also took two days. We didn't even go ashore or clear into customs in the Caicos. We just left the yellow flag in the rigging and slept. Our goal was to get to George Town.
For many cruisers who sail down from the U.S. George Town is the turning point where they stay awhile and then start working their way back. This is mostly according to plan but there are a number who start with every intention to follow the directions detailed in Bruce Van Santís book "Passages South" and continue to the Eastern Caribbean. When faced with the reality of trying to make it against the wind they reconsider and opt to stay in the Bahamas. For this reason George Town is sometimes called "Chicken Harbor." In defense of Van Sant, if one follows his directions explicitly, the Eastern Caribbean can be reached from George Town without a great deal of rough going. After having said that, however, weíre glad we chose the offshore route.
No one can be blamed for wanting to linger in George Town. Itís a wonderful place. You can buy the most delicious freshly baked bread from Momís Bakery and get a hug from Mom at no extra charge. Donít look for a building labeled "Momís Bakery" she sells her baked goods from a mini-van. Across Elizabeth Harbor from George Town is Stocking Island, which has been taken over by the cruising community. If there is space you can thread your yacht into one of the protected "holes" and stay until your visa runs out. On one of the beaches the volley ball game is a continuous event. Itís the paradise you were looking for when you set out so take the "overall game plan," crumple it up, and dispose of it properly.
But George Town can be crowded. On the day we arrived the official count of cruising yachts in the harbor was 358, which was a new record. (Iím bursting with pride that we contributed to this.) Actually we were alarmed. Were all the anchorages going to be choked with other yachts? When we set out to the north the magic of the place revealed itself. There are so many islands in the Exuma chain that once past George Town; the anchorages are sparsely populated in spite of the overall number of cruising yachts.
There was Little Farmers Cay; an anchorage with a ripping tidal current that we shared with two other yachts. We shared a couple of Kalik beers with one of the other crews at the Ocean Cabin restaurant run by Terry Bain. Contrary to what one would expect of a person who lives on a remote island Terry was quite worldly and a remarkable conversationalist.
The next day we proceeded to the north in the lee of Great Guana Cay. After a while we picked a beach that was one among many and set the anchor in the lee of it. Until we departed the next morning we had it all to ourselves.
Next was Staniel Cay and the adjacent anchorage at an island called Big Majors Spot. The fun thing to do at Big Majors Spot is to dinghy to the beach and feed the two pigs that reside there. As you approach the pigs start to swim out to you and if you donít feed them fast enough theyíll bump your dinghy with their snouts.
We still had to keep our eye on the weather. From late fall through early spring cold fronts will pass over the Bahamas regularly. When this happens the wind will shift to the west and make the anchorages that are simple lees from the prevailing east winds untenable. Yachts have to make their way up the torturous channels between islands to find protection. This happened while we were at Staniel Cay making it necessary for us find protection next to Thunderball Cave where scenes from a number of movies were shot including its namesake, the James Bond movie Thunderball. In some of the movies there is the impression that the cave is a considerable distance below the surface but it is actually only partially submerged making it easy to tour with only mask, fins, and snorkel. Snorkeling through Thunderball Cave is a, "donít visit the Exumas without doing this" kind of event.
One front followed another and the next one found us threading our way between the shallow sand bores into Pipe Creek where we would be protected from the west winds. The trick to navigation in the Bahamas is to find the channels over the shallows by observing the color of the water. I followed the water with the bluest tint and there were moments when I held my breath but when the anchor was down I looked around and found us in one of the more idyllic anchorages of the voyage. The weather would require us to be there for a few days, which was ideal. There was no town; only a few private homes on the numerous small cays. We shared the anchorage with only one other yacht, which was on a permanent mooring. We would wave to the couple aboard but had no contact other than that. They were busy. We couldnít help but notice that everyday they went ashore to a small cay directly to the north of Little Pipe Cay and worked amongst stacks of building materials. Apparently they were constructing their little piece of paradise. We admired them for their industriousness. Late in the afternoon they would return to their yacht and, once aboard, they took their clothes off. They were not shy about walking about the deck in the nude where we or anyone else who chooses to look could see them. We didnít object since weíve seen such a thing many times before when we were down island. We were not offended and, as long as there was no one present that would take offense, they can have their fun. Life is too short not to have fun.
When the front was past and the trade winds once again prevailed we promised ourselves that we would return to Pipe Creek and the rest of the Exumas, worked our way out of what had become one of our favorite anchorages, and began and series of passages that would end in Florida. From then on, with the exception of a day spent at Rose Island outside Nassau, all our anchorages were overnight stops. The final passage was an overnighter from Chub Cay in the Berry Islands to Lake Worth inlet in Florida. From there three days up the inland waterway and we were home in Merritt Island. Our voyage is now ended.
It was a wonderful experience, which we will do again. Early on, however, we discovered that we needed a balance in our lives. Cruising is just one of the things we like to do and if we were to do it for more than a year it would have to be the only thing we like to do. Weíre now back to work in the dive industry, teaching diving and loving it. After a while we know that wanderlust will once again prevail over our spirit and provoke us to once again sail away. Our trips will be shorter but the Bahamas are close and they are one of the worldís greatest cruising grounds.