The Ragged and Jumentos Islands, Bahamas
18th May – 3rd June 2013
Sometimes night passages can be a real challenge, but this time we got lucky. The 300 mile sail from Samana in the Dominican Republic to Great Inagua Island, Bahamas, took us just on two and half days. The seas had been fairly lumpy with lots of white caps and the wind nudged 17 knots at times, but mostly hung around 10–12 knots.
With the wind being so light our mainsail didn’t see the light of day the entire trip, as we switched between flying our reaching sail, the screecher, or if the wind picked up, downsizing to our jib. It was Saturday afternoon when we dropped anchor at Matthew Town, Great Inagua, and after hailing the customs office on the VHF radio, we took off in the dinghy to check-in and part with $300 USD for the privilege of sailing in Bahamian waters over the coming weeks.
We had originally thought that we’d spend the night in in the anchorage, but after a quick loop of the town we decided to push on with another overnighter to Duncan Town at the very bottom of the Ragged Island chain some 130 miles further west.
The Ragged Islands and the Jumentos to their north are about as remote as you can get out here. To cruise this area it is mandatory that you are well prepared and totally self sufficient. There are no marinas, no supermarkets, no wi-fi and no fuel supplies for those who want to sail these waters. The upside is an abundance of unspoiled beaches, clear warm waters and lots of solitude. In fact, if you look at a map of the Bahamas you will be hard pressed to find this group of islands and cays. There are also very few up-to-date guide books written on this area. I was lucky enough to snap up a 1999 version of a Bahamas guide at a boat jumble when we were in Turkey back in 2009, it has just two pages covering this entire area and only one paragraph on Duncan Town. Information more recent than that is pretty much word of mouth from cruisers who have stopped here, and a brief blurb on the Explorer Charts which I might add we found excellent for this area. Lying just sixty miles north of Cuba and twenty south of George Town in the Exumas, the only civilization is in windswept, sleepy Duncan Town on Ragged Island.
Looking at our charts we figured the shortest walking distance into town was from Southside Bay, which actually was on the south side of the island. So that’s where we anchored. With just 8ft of sand and tucked in between some reefs, it suited us just fine. Seeing what we assumed to be a main road across the bay we beached the dinghy in front of a lone house set just back from the sand. A huge pile of empty conch shells, a couple of wrecked Haitian fishing boats and lots of flotsam and jetsam decorated the front yard. I had read in my antiquated guide about an establishment that, in the writer’s eyes, got the vote for the most original use of a crashed DC 3 aircraft. Named Percy’s Eagles Nest, the owner Percy had salvaged the plane after it crash-landed off the end of the island’s small airstrip. Some years later he raised the old plane up onto the roof of his house and turned it into a bar and pool room.
As we beached the dinghy an elderly gent came down to say hello and welcome us to Duncan Town. His name was Percy and sure enough just beyond the trees there was the plane looking like it had crashed into the roof of his house. He told us he closed the bar six years ago but kept the plane as a novelty for the tourists. After shooting the breeze for a while he offered us a ride into town which was much appreciated on such a hot day. A far cry from being a tourist destination, town had two streets, a sprinkling of fairly run down homes, a police office and a lone shop. With a population of only forty it really was a one-horse town, except the horse had moved on! In it’s hey day there was quite a fishing industry here, but as the population dwindled and the young people moved away only a handful of fisherman were left. They still go out and set their traps. Lobster, grouper and snapper are their main catch which they ship out to the capital Nassau on the weekly mail boat.
The townsfolk we all very friendly. We guessed that they didn’t get many visitors except for the odd passing yacht and were more than happy to stop and chat as we walked around. There were plenty of fish nets and traps around the place and washing lines full of drying conch flesh which is used as bait in the traps. Sheila, the owner of the fisherman's lodge, which was really just a bar, the only bar in town apparently, sold us a few bags of ice and then gave us a ride back to the boat in the back of her shiny red ute.
We spent two more day anchored at Ragged Island and the boys just couldn’t resist doing a little lobster hunting. The fruits of their labour weren’t ginormous but there was quite enough to make a tasty lobster pasta for dinner that evening. The other part of the crew did a little snorkeling as well but only found a lovely helmet shell and a few starfish.
From Ragged Island we moved a couple of miles north to Hog Cay, anchoring at beautiful Middle Pen Bay. This was for sure the quintessential Bahamas beach. The waters were clear, the sand powdery and sitting at one end of the beach was a little socialising venue named the Hog Cay Yacht Club. Built and added to by passing cruisers over the years, it had a special charm. It seemed to be a tradition that each boat would leave some kind of home-made memento to their visit.
By the end of the following day Gone With The Wind’s hand carved sign would also be hanging up there with the rest of them. Check it out if you are passing by. Four other boats were anchored when we arrived including Aussie boat, Shambala 1.That evening a few of us met up at the club to burn our garbage in the fire pit and catch up on who was who and what everyone’s plans were for the future. By ten the next morning we were all alone, our new acquaintances had all gone their separate ways.
Liam and Ross wanted to try again for a few lobsters as one of the other cruisers had said that there were masses of them around the rock ledges, so leaving the anchorage was definitely not an option for this crew. Staying another day wasn’t a hardship. We explored part of island and the boys trying their hand at a spot of fish‘n and hunt’n. Hiking through the thick undergrowth along a trail marked by plastic fishing floats, took us over rocks and rubble to the highest part of the cay for a great view back over the anchorage and the shallow banks further out.
The views were lovely but whenever we walked through a shaded area the mozzies were absolutely vicious. Eventually we ended up on the Atlantic Ocean side of the cay, a vast contrast to the sheltered anchorage we’d left. Waves crashed heavily on to the beach and the strong easterly trade winds blew. We were greeted by the sorry sight of thousands of pieces of broken plastic refuse washed ashore from a throw away society. Amongst the rubble were large pieces of driftwood, heavy ropes, many single shoes and an assortment of plastic drums, bottles and fishing floats.The only inhabitants over here were a few curious goats who watched our every move from their vantage point high up on the rocks.
Walking the trails proved much more rewarding than the lobster hunt that afternoon and when a couple of fisherman stopped by to sell us some fish and lobster, it was clearly a done deal.
Over the next week we really slowed our pace down to island time. After all, why rush through such a wonderful part of the Bahamas? Stopping at Double Breasted Cay for two days, the boys were hardly home. Ross decided that he needed his own spear to hunt with so the brains trust fashioned one from a broom handle and a sharpened piece of fiberglass, it proved to be a winner over the next weeks.
They had both become obsessed, Ross more so than Liam, with being hunters and gatherers and at every opportunity they were in the dinghy and gone, usually returning hours later with enough to fill our tummies for the night. Racoon Cay was next on our list, another magical spot and we had it all to ourselves.
It was here that the boys found a stack of crusty, unloved fish traps overgrown by grass, one of which they cleaned up, modified in the GWTW tool shed and put to very good use, especially as a few men in brown suits decided to call the water under and around GWTW home.
A few times a day they would take the trap out to different bommies, set it, check on it a bit later then swing by the boat to show off their booty. The sharks would then follow the dinghy into the beach and hang around waiting for scraps as the catch of the day was cleaned. We figured that these guys were only harmless sand sharks but none of us wanted to test the theory by getting in the water with them. When we did swim it was always in the shallows off the beach with one of us on noah watch just in case we had any uninvited visitors. Raccoon was a perfect spot for a beach fire. There was heaps of wood scattered around and the fisherman had conveniently left a pile of rocks which fitted the bill as a fireplace for us.
As we made our way further up the chain, eyeball navigation became more and more important. Relying simply on a GPS and electronic charts would be the undoing of any sailor, as many areas have not been surveyed. As for moving around after dark, well that’s a definite no no. Buenavista Cay was our next stop followed by Flamingo Cay and finally Water Cay. Buenavista has a good choice of anchorages along it’s western shore and has the longest beach of any of the cays. Flamingo Cay has a sea cave which we dinghyed into and a good trail up to it’s highest point of 80 ft, which is only five feet higher than what the top of our mast is off the water. There used to be a lighthouse up there but it is long gone these days. The fishing trawlers come into this cay to clean their catch, which attracts the odd nasty bull shark, they also set traps for fish and collect conch. We road tested two anchorages while we were here and the boys snapped up a few more lobsters and a heap of grouper and snapper. One bull shark came to visit and he patrolled his turf religiously, which was not contusive to any of us getting wet, even didn’t like putting the underwater camera in for a shot.. but I did.
Last but not least was our stop at Water Cay, but hearing that sharks frequent this cay because of the fisherman, we stopped the boat about a mile short and slipped into the incredibly clear water for a nice swim. There was a fabulous little reef right in the middle of the anchorage, but no sooner did the anchor go down than Mr Bull came around, but that didn’t stop Ross putting out the trap one last time. Come morning we had another load of fish. By now the freezer was chockers with seafood and a ban on catching anymore was evoked by the galley manager, from now on it was strictly catch and release.
From Water Cay it was a good 20 mile motor in dead calm conditions up to Hog Cay Cut. This was the shortcut to get us back to GeorgeTown in the Exumas. We had never before been through this cut between the islands but had read that you can only transit here when the top 6 inches of the rock in the centre of the passage is showing above the water. We draw 4.5ft with our keels and Liam figured that when we went through about an hour before high tide we had a around a foot under the keels, not much in the scheme of things when you think about it. We’d had a great time down in these “off the beaten track” islands and we may well visit them again next year, but for now it’s back to the civilization of George Town.
Cruiser’s Info:Formalties, Customs and Immigration in Matthew Town on Great Inagua are available 7 days. Call on VHF 16 “Inagua Customs”. Check-in cost for a vessel over 35ft is $300 USD. Supermarkets : Small shop in Matthew Town. In Duncan Town on Ragged Island- can order supplies at Maxines shop to come on the weekly mail boat. Ice is available from Sheila at the Fisherman’s Lodge in the main street.