Sunday, July 31, 2011

THE BAHAMAS, part two.

17th May –1st June 2011
Exuma Islands and Cays, Nassau, Berry Islands & Bimini
Great Exuma Island, George Town.
By the time we’d set the anchor just off Regatta Point in George Town on Great Exuma Island, it was plainly evident by the lack of boats around that the cruising season was in the wind down process. That afternoon we went ashore for a quick look about, yep she was a pretty sleepy little place and in the space of an hour we’d done the major sights which included the church, the police station and a couple of small shops.
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The following morning Liam hitched a ride out to the airport to meet our good friend Pete who’d flown in from Sydney. Pete would be with us for the next few weeks and we were all looking forward to exploring the Bahamas, and it’s anchorages and reefs together. Coming from a cold Sydney winter Pete needed very little encouragement to plunge into the warm Bahamian waters, although he did need to work on his tan a little!
After a well needed haircut for Annie and a quick top up of supplies at the Exuma Markets (we’d been told that grocery stores in the Exuma island chain were few and far between), we moved over to the Stocking Island side of Elizabeth Harbour. Pete was fairly knackered after the long flight from Sydney so after a nice meal on board and a few welcome beverages we all retired about a “quarter past” for a solid night’s sleep.

Staniel Cay.
 The Exuma Islands and Cays are spread out over  95 miles and are a very popular cruising destination. Having read various articles on the Bahamas we decided to concentrate  most of our cruising in the Northern Exuma Cays as they sounded  very appealing. Our first stop was at Staniel Cay, 46 miles and a good sail under spinnaker, north of George Town. Scooting up the deep waters of Exuma Sound we arrived at the small cut (entrance) between Little Major’s spot and Staniel Cay late afternoon. Our friends, Daryl and Annie from No Rehearsal, along with the crew of Remi De had been there for a few days already . With the sun now in the western sky and the reef hard to see we were glad when Daryl offered to come out in his dinghy to guide us in. Once anchored, we were invited over to No Rehearsal ( NR) for sundowners where we met  the latest addition to our cruising herd, Bob and Lorraine from the Tayana 58, Scaramouche. Heralding from  Palm Beach Florida this couple would prove to be not only fun cruising company but also a great source of local knowledge for the remainder of our  time in the Bahamas.
Staniel Cay Underwater Camera 132 
We spent two wonderful fun packed days at Staniel Cay. The waters were warm and clear and the anchorages calm and secure. However this gem of a cay has way more to offer than what is listed in the  guide books and Lonely Planet. No doubt you’ve  heard  of the term “when pigs fly” but what about “"when pig’s swim”?  Well, in a delightful anchorage  just a mile or two from the thriving metropolis of Staniel Cay township and only accessible by boat is Big Major’s Spot, home to the cruising fraternity’s  renowned swimming pigs. This not so shy or reserved group of athletic water babes have happily lived off the scraps from passing boaters for a couple of generations it seems. We had heard of their existence from other cruising friends and immediately put them on our must see list. As soon as our anchor chain began to rattle its way to the sea floor the porquines were in motion and heading our direction. The three of us  gathered up last night’s leftovers and  armed with cameras, clambered into the dinghy eager to meet our soon to be newest best friends.These over sized pork chops were fabulous swimmers. They had stamina and style and sure didn’t mind trying to climb into or take a bite out of the dinghy if the food wasn’t forth coming.
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                                          Staniel Cay Underwater Camera 143                           P5200302P5200345P5200300Staniel Cay Underwater Camera 195          Staniel Cay Underwater Camera 185   P5200331
There were at least seven or eight porkers of varying sizes and personalities that occupy this stretch of beach and when they weren’t swimming with the visitors they were doing what pigs do best, lounging around in the shade of a tree. What a life !
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We spent most of the day cooling off and hanging out on the sand with these social critters. Liam and I are pretty sure that Pete would have taken his little babe home given half the chance.
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                                            Staniel Cay, Bahamas 080                                                     Staniel Cay Underwater Camera 152
And as we left the bay and looked back towards the beach the melodic tones of that famous little movie pig sprang to mind…….La La La, La La La.
Mention that a James Bond  film site is just around the corner and most people will go and have a look at it. Thunderball Cave is one of those such places. We’d been to James Bond Island in Thailand so we figured we might as well check this one out too. Made famous by Hollywood and used in the movies Splash, Never Say Never Again and of course Thunderball, this cave attracts lots of visitors each year. The currents that run  through the cave can be very strong so we waited till slack tide to do our snorkel through. When the light is just right the grotto, illuminated by shafts of sunlight, has quite an eerie feel to it. So now we had swapped from feeding pigs to feeding fish and the fish were no less enthusiastic than were our friends in the other bay. It seems that the entire animal kingdom knows when their is a free feed on the offing.
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As soon we slid out of the dinghy with our slices of bread the fish were upon us. It was a feeding frenzy, but once inside the cave it was easy to see why this spot had been chosen by the film makers.The huge cavern with it’s shimmering deep blue water and prolific fish life conjured up images of mermaids and wetsuit clad Russian spies.

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Pretty purple coral fans, darting electric blue coloured fish  and large snapper graced the walls and gardens around the outside of the cave. As we swam around the cave we, well probably more me, had a wary eye out for any dark shadows lurking below. With in an hour it would be time for the shark feeding over at the yacht club jetty and I sure didn’t feel like being  an early  appetizer for one of the local fellas.
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After such an energetic day a sundowner and light dinner in the cool of the evening at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club was in order. A quick shower and spruce up saw us arrive just in time to take over the small outdoor patio at the club. We were joined by Remi De & No Rehearsal and had a wonderful time reliving the day’s events. The local fisherman arrived and tossed the remains of their catches to the nurse sharks who’d been hanging about and not long after, our trio of dinghies headed home to the mother ships for a well earned night’s sleep. 
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Warderick Wells 
A mere 21 miles north  from Staniel Cay lies  Warderick Wells which is part of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. The park covers 176 miles of pristine  subtropical waters, cays and reefs and this was to be our next destination. Taking the inside passage  over the calm waters of the  Bahamas Banks the  three cats set off  on a beam reach with a nice 15kt breeze. Now cruising is never dull especially when you add a little racing to liven up the passage and when there are three cats of pretty much equal size it’s game on! No Rehearsal and Remi De left the anchorage a tad before us and by the time we got out on to the race track proper they had quite the jump on us. Well we like challenges on GWTW, so up went the kite and time to start reeling them in. Slowly  and stealthily we gained ground, plucking off the Lagoon 57 Remi De first and then No Rehearsal the Catarna 52.
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Sailing to Wardrick Wells 2 011                              Sailing to Wardrick Wells 2 021
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The three boats were pretty well matched even though Remi De wasn’t carrying a kite and No Rehearsal flew her oversize screecher. Once we’d  taken the lead the battle for second place came into play. In true racing form they pushed each other higher and higher into the wind, then one would duck behind, change sides and do it all over again. Eventually Remi De’s tactics paid off and she inched ahead and kept her lead. It was a fun passage and one that would be replayed many times in the coming weeks as we sailed together.
Wanting to stay for at least two nights at Warderick Wells we called ahead, ( the day before) to the park ranger on the VHF radio to request a mooring ball as anchoring is frowned upon in this part of the national park. The balls are limited in number with only twenty two installed at the park HQ which was where we wanted to go.They are strictly monitored according to vessel size and luckily for us there were three available for the 50 – 60 ft range. Perfect, we all got a ball  and at $30 per night it was good value.The setting was, as they say in the MasterCard ad, priceless. Sparkling clear waters lapped the white sand beach. No shops, no restaurants, no noise, just tranquility.
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The island has lots of hiking trails and the park rangers, who live on site, provide  info on the wildlife and maps of the trails and  the dive/snorkel sites.This park is the largest protected fish breeding grounds in the whole Caribbean so we figured that we should see a lot of good stuff under the water.The rangers organize a social gathering on the beach for park visitors each Saturday evening.They provide the venue and a large esky with ice and juice and everyone brings a plate along. It‘s a nice way to meet your fellow  neighbours in the anchorage and a great way to watch the sunset too.
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We were all pretty focused on water activities so over the next two days we snorkeled the lagoon where we were anchored and spotted some of the largest lobsters we’d ever seen. These guys had to be the luckiest fellows on the planet. Living in an environment where you can only look and not take had seen them grow to the size of a footballs. They certainly had no qualms about just walking around the sea floor past their hungry admirers. But had they stepped outside the park boundaries it would have definitely been a “guess who’s coming to  our hose for dinner” scenario.
Another resident of the lagoon was a rather large nurse shark named Bruce. According to the rangers he has lived  alone in these waters for years and was completely harmless. He must like human company as he would nudge up to the transom ladders and rest his head there waiting for a pat on the head. I must say i was a bit nervous being in the water with him given his size but hey, anything for a good photo opportunity
D    Diving was definitely on our agenda while in the park and  some friends of Remi De’s on another cat had recommended a couple of  dive sights close by. Not wanting to move all the boats to a new location we decided to boat share for the day. Lorraine and Bob from Scaramouche hopped on board No Rehearsal and Bruce, Toni and Remi came with us. We headed off to O'Brien's Cay were  there were two dive sites within the one bay. The first was called the Sea Aquarium where a rock wall extended down about 40 ft. The water here was beautifully clear and their were many varieties of  fish and corals. We spent about an hour here and young Remi and her friends had a great time duck diving down to us in the shallower places.  
Exuma Sea Park Dive 167  Exuma Sea Park Dive 123   Exuma Sea Park Dive 128               
Exuma Sea Park Dive 118
Leaving the wall we took the dinghy over to the other side of the bay  to investigate  the wreck of a sunken drug smuggling plane. Liam swam through it and was lucky not to be stung by the fire coral which was growing inside. Not far from the plane there was  a  beautiful garden of coral heads with so many lobsters we lost count. Just as we finished our dive the tide began to turn and it was quite a slog to swim back to the dinghy Exuma Sea Park Dive 219.                    
Exuma Sea Park Dive 222

We really enjoyed our time at Warderick Wells and next year when we return to the Bahamas  we’ll   explore some of the other anchorages and  cays that make up make up the land and sea park.

Norman’s, Highborne and Allen’s Cay
Drug running from Columbia was quite a lucrative  business in years gone. Drug baron, Carlos Leder, set up  his operation on Norman’s Cay and according to legend he and his team were responsible for a number of murders including a few yachtsman who were a just a little to inquisitive. Today the only remains of his empire are the  crumbling Berlin type wall which surrounded the buildings where all the action took place and a ditched DC3 airplane which had a catastrophic mechanical failure just after takeoff. The pilot trying to make it back to the runway  fell short by a only couple of hundred metres. The plane is now starting to break up and lies in it’s shallow watery grave at the southern end of the island.
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After snorkeling the wreck we adjourned to the small and only cafe on the island, MacDuffs, for one of their signature dishes aptly named “cheeseburger in paradise” and yes it was very very good. With full tummies we motored over to Highbourne Cay just a few miles further on where we spent the next two  two nights. Given that there are only a couple of houses on the this cay we  were rather stunned when we took the dinghy to the next bay and found a lovely marina and a well stocked grocery  and souvenir store.The beach where we anchored was the perfect setting for a  get together so the following evening a bonfire was planned. Everyone brought a plate of snacks to share and GWTW also supplied a few  packets of marshmellows for toasting which certainly  went down a treat. With our group of four catamarans and a one monohull we had quite a crowd on the beach. The kids  had a ball playing on the sand and the rest of us enjoyed a lovely sunset and the warm fire.
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Our last night in the Exuma’s saw us at Allen’s Cay. This small cay is home to a large colony of Iguanas. Throughout the Bahamas these reptiles are only found on the remote Out Islands and here at Allan’s Cay. With Nassau just a few miles further up the road the speed boats with tourists often visit here so the Iguanas are pretty used to sharing their beach with humans. The anchorage here was a little tight and along with the No Rehearsal and Remi De there wasn’t much room for any other boats. 
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Leaving the Exuma chain  behind we sailed  across the shallow waters of Exuma Banks and headed 35 miles north to New Providence Island and the busy capital city of Nassau. What a culture shock it was to arrive  at a place so far removed from the rest of the islands we ‘d been to. Ritzy homes adorned the waterfront and the gigantic resort complex of Atlantis dominated the skyline.
Nassau is a bustling tourist mecca and a major cruise ship port. We counted at least eight of these huge ships on our approach to the city. Needless to say we felt that Nassau  wasn’t for us. The place just didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the  Bahamian islands, so we ducked in for a quick couple hours  to pick up some provisions and  then headed back out to Green Cay for the night. Much more our style, Green cay with it’s small palm tree lined beach and shallow reefs was an excellent choice. As our time in the Bahamas was drawing to a close and we may  not have the chance for another beach fire, we stayed one extra day here and swam, snorkeled and hunted for lobsters, sadly with no results. Liam built an excellent bonfire on our last evening and yet again we all enjoyed our shore side aperitifs while watching the sun sink below the horizon.                    IMG_4831                                                                   IMG_4851

Berry Islands , Chub Cay
With a good breeze behind us and clear skies overhead it was perfect weather to pull our spinnaker out of the bag. Romping along on the flat sea we covered ground quickly and it wasn’t long before Chub Cay appeared on the horizon.The Berry Island chain sits on the edge of the Great Bahama Banks and comprises of thirty cays and numerous inlets. Reefs abound in this area making for good diving and snorkeling. Our plans were to stay here for two days and do a little more diving but unfortunately our weather timing was not too good and sea and wind made for rough conditions that were not conducive to diving in this area with with strong currents. Back in the early 90’s Chub Cay was devastated by hurricane Andrew and the rebuilding has been a rather slow process. A new marina, catering mainly to sports fishing boats, has recently been finished and a  few homes and a resort are dotted along the beachfront.     IMG_4886
 The centre of the universe seemed to be the Chub Cay Club where we had an excellent  rack of lamb meal, the appetizer of chef’s salad was not quite textbook though. It was literally a sliced in half iceberg lettuce smothered in ranch dressing. Pete, who is a food guru, was totally appalled that any chef  would serve such an unimaginative dish  to a customer. The next evening we decided to save our money and  barbeque some freshly caught Wahoo at home. 
                                                                                                                                                                                Bimini Island     
Our last stop in the Bahamas was the island of Bimini. To get there from Chub Cay you must sail over the green waters of the Great Bahama Banks and negotiate a few reefs and rocks along the way. As with the rest of the Bahamas eye ball navigation is a must as many of the markers have been swept away by past hurricanes. And it’s not a smart idea to cross the shallow banks at night either.
Leaving Chub Cay at 0530 we had a good fast sail for the 90 mile passage arriving at Bimini around 1800. We anchored just outside  Alice Town which looked as though it had good potential for an evening ashore. Daryl, Annie and Pete thought they’d pop in for a look but were back within 15 mins looking a bit like drowned rats.The wind was opposing the tide and  had chopped up the water quite badly, so boat bound we stayed. Remi De had been here a few days earlier and  reported that there really wasn’t much in town except for a few small marinas that catered mainly to the sports fisherman who blast over from Florida for a weekend of big game fishing.
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Oh well, so much for a farewell dinner to the Bahamas  in a nice restaurant.The alternative wasn’t all bad though. Pete cooked up a yummy dinner and the three of us sat out in the cockpit watching  the sun set over the Gulf Stream and  the loom of lights from Florida and the mighty USA that lay a mere 40 miles away.
The following morning the  two Annie’s jumped in the dinghy and took off to find the immigration office to complete our departure formalities. We found a suitable dock and started to walk down the main street not quite knowing where we were going. As luck would have it a nicely uniformed man was passing by who just happened to work for immigration. He took our departure cards and vessel names and  that was that. We were all done in about 3 mins right there on the street. How’s that for service !
So that was it, goodbye Bahamas, hello America. We’d had a fantastic time during our weeks cruising these laid back islands and look forward to returning on our way back to the Caribbean next winter. But for now a new adventure awaited us in the land of hotdogs, bagels and football. 
Cruiser info : Supermarkets. George Town: Exuma Markets,  good for stocking up on groceries, meats and veg. Take dinghy under road bridge into Lake Victoria to supermarket dinghy dock. Good prices on wines and spirits from shop opposite Exuma market. ATM at Scotia bank across the street. Fuel from Shell Station two doors up and has a dinghy dock. Airport 9 miles away at  Moss town, $30 each way in taxi, no bus service! Highborne Cay: Marina store has a good selection of frozen meats, veg and groceries. Fuel also available here. Nassau:  Big supermarket 3 mins walk from Texaco service station , between the marinas on East Bay street. Fuel station has a dinghy dock. The anchorage illustrated in the guide book at Nassau is VERY tidal, so be careful.
Cruising guides : The Bahamas Cruising Guide & Charts by Mathew Wilson
Currency: US Dollars or Bahamian Dollars ( ask for change in US dollars).

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