Discover cruising nirvana one island at a time._ By George Sass, Sr._
March 7, 2014
Like an alarm clock, the noise of a dozen small outboard engines starting told me it was noon. Looking across the sapphire-blue water, I could see a flotilla of dinghies heading to the beach – Volleyball Beach – driven by suntanned kids who had just finished their morning session of home schooling. My wife and I were anchored off Stocking Island in the Exumas, where 300 boats were spread across George Town’s Elizabeth Harbour. With their daily classwork done, the kids now had time to run loose while parents returned to busy schedules of doing mostly nothing. We were in cruising heaven.George Sass
The Exumas are a chain of 365 islands in the Bahamas stretching 120 miles southeast of New Providence. More remote and less populated than the Abacos, they are nonetheless quite reachable from the United States by most sailboats and powerboats. And because even the northernmost islands are located in what is considered the central climate zone of the Bahamas, the winter months can be very comfortable with temperatures in the 70s. Most snowbirds cruising the Bahamas choose to explore the Exumas first and then work their way up to the Abacos in the spring.
We start our Bahamas cruise from Miami and head across the Gulf Stream to North Cat Cay, an offshore voyage of less than 50 miles. During the winter months, it’s important to check the weather before crossing, as winds out of the north collide with the northbound current of the Gulf Stream creating uncomfortable, if not dangerous, conditions. It’s not unusual to have to wait a while before crossing.
We’ve chosen North Cat Cay as our port of entry because of its easy-to-enter harbor, and the scene is less hectic than Bimini’s to the north. This is a private island, but visitors are welcome at the marina, where we check in with Customs and Immigration. U.S. citizens must show a valid passport, and children younger than 15 must have a copy of their birth certificate to re-enter the States. A $150 fee for boats 30 feet and under, and $300 for boats 31 feet and over, for a 12-month cruising permit covers three people on board, and each additional person is charged a $20 departure tax. While the marina is very accommodating, we are restricted to its immediate area, making it a good stopover for one or two nights only.
From Cat Cay, our first step to the Exumas is to cross the Great Bahama Bank to the Berry Islands. Depths range from 9 to 20 feet, and because of the water’s clarity our boat seems to be floating miraculously on air. We stop for the night at Chub Cay and anchor out. While the Chub Cay Resort and Marina is open and the fuel dock is operational, the resort property has been under bank ownership for years. Hopefully, new ownership will bring the place up to its full potential. Before dinner we snorkel off Mama Rhoda Rock, getting our first underwater glimpse of these incredibly bountiful waters.
Beach during the Passage
Next stop is New Providence, where 70 percent of the Bahamian population resides. It’s also home to Nassau, the nation’s capital. Our 35-mile offshore route along the Northwest Providence Channel is exposed to the Atlantic Ocean from the east, so we check the weather before weighing anchor. Instead of entering busy Nassau Harbor, we anchor for the night in West Bay, a large body of water protected in all directions but west. From New Providence, we have a 40-mile passage to Allen’s Cay, one of the northernmost islands of the Exumas, and one of the most fascinating. Paying close attention to our charts, we carefully navigate around the shallow coral heads of the Yellow Bank, timing our passage so that the sun is behind us.
The cut into Allen’s Cay is easy, but the narrowness and current in the anchorage prompt us to deploy two anchors, each perpendicular to our bow in what is known as Bahamian style. As soon as they are set, we take off in our dinghy to meet the locals: ancient-looking iguanas the size of small dogs. We spend two days here, in awe of the bright blue water and pure white-sand beaches, wondering if this little slice of paradise could be a sign of things to come. And we find it is, at our next stop: the Highbourne Cay Marina, just 3 miles south. After filling our boat’s fuel tanks and tying up, we explore the nearby beach, which is postcard picture perfect. Later that night we enjoy a Bahamian cookout with fellow cruisers and locals on the moonlit beach.
South of Highbourne Cay, we have a choice to travel along the chain’s exposed east coast, called the Exuma Sound, or along the more protected west coast, called the Exuma Bank. While the sound is open to the ocean and the prevailing southeast winds, the bank is trickier to navigate with far-reaching shoals. Either way, we can change our mind by passing through many cuts along the route.
Indeed, exploring the entire Exuma archipelago is a matter of simply taking one step (or one island) at a time. And while the islands are closely spaced, each one has a distinct personality, if not culture. Norman’s Cay is a perfect example. Infamous for being the center of a drug smuggling ring in the 1970s and early ’80s, it later became popular with cruisers thanks in part to MacDuff’s, a funky bar with a couple of rental villas located near an old airstrip. After catching a nice-size mutton snapper on the way from Highbourne, we drop the hook off the island’s southeast corner between a sunken drug cartel airplane and a tiny island with just one palm tree. Diving for conch, we now have the ingredients on board for a delicious all-Bahamian dinner.
One of the highlights of the Exumas is Warderick Wells, part of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. We take the outside route and enter through Warderick Cut, 15 miles south of Norman’s Cut. The park covers 175 square miles and is completely protected, with no fishing or diving for conch or lobster permitted. We pick up a mooring and check in at park headquarters, where we get a trail map and meet some friendly volunteers. A hike up to Boo Boo Hill, where a collection of boat names are ceremoniously nailed onto a tall post, gives us a commanding view of the expansive mooring field below.
Continuing south, we stop at Staniel Cay, anchoring near the Thunderball Cave made famous in two James Bond movies. With masks and snorkels we enter the grotto at slack tide, and after getting inside we look upward to a breathtaking view of sunlight pouring through the azure water. Colorful tropical fish surround us, hoping we have brought bread crumbs. On our way out, we meet a large barracuda and hope he’s already eaten for the day. Later that night, sitting at the bar at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club with fellow cruisers, I begin to fantasize about never leaving these enchanting islands.
We take more than a week to travel the next 50 miles to Great Exuma Island, as we’re continually awed by the visual treats along the way. One island after another surprises us with its very own natural beauty. Some islands have small settlements; most are uninhabited. There are few marinas, and our only concern is having enough fresh water on board. Anchored in the lee of Leaf Cay, we meet a group of young kayakers on a two-week camping excursion. They remind me of On Island Time by Scott B. Williams, who kayaked from the Mississippi River to the West Indies. If your crew ever complains of the lack of creature comforts on your boat, have them read his book.
Navigating Conch Cay Cut, which leads to George Town, requires concentration and good charts. There are two reefs to get past, one on the outside of Conch Cay Light and one on the inside, southwest of it. Once beyond these reefs, the rest of the way is straightforward, and there are many choices for dropping the hook.
Much has been written about George Town, and some of it is negative. “It’s too crowded.” Or “There’s a small group of cruisers who think they own the place.” Yes, there are lots of boats in the harbor, but it’s big enough to accommodate 500 boats or more. And yes, there are small groups that seem a bit territorial, but who cares? There are enough beaches, bars, food, beer, palm trees, water and swinging room for everyone.
Like many cruisers, we make George Town our turning point. Going farther requires more serious offshore capabilities. But as we soon discover, there is more to see on the way back. Black Point Settlement and Farmers Cay add even more to our Exumas experience. After returning to Highbourne Cay for fuel, we continue our island hopping to Nassau, Eleuthera and the Abacos- all quite different and equally appealing.
A Closer Look at the Exumas While we weren’t sure we were going to enjoy George Town after hearing comments from other cruisers about it being too crowded, we fell in love with the place and stayed three weeks. Anchored off Volleyball Beach on Stocking Island, our 11-year-old son found plenty of friends to hang out with, and we enjoyed the company of fellow cruisers from the U.S., Canada and Europe. In the mornings after a long walk on the ocean beach while my wife was home schooling our son, I would take my dinghy across Elizabeth Harbour and tie up at Exuma Market. It was my task to see what fresh produce the freighter had delivered and to buy freshly baked bread at a local bakery stand. Sometimes I’d wander into the Peace and Plenty hotel bar for lunch where I would run into other cruisers. Later in the day my wife and I would fill up our water jugs at the Chat ‘n Chill Bar on Stocking Island and then watch the sun set with friends while sipping on a cool Kalik. And on Sundays many of us would gather on the beach under the shade of the casuarina trees to attend church service. We had become part of a real community, and it was very hard for us to leave. Although we had planned to be here just three days, after three wonderful weeks we reluctantly weighed anchor and headed north back up the Exuma chain and eventually to the Abacos.
Climbing for Coconuts
**Leaf Cay, Lee Stocking Island ** 23° 47′ N 76° 07′ W We exit Conch Cay Cut and head northwest on the Exuma Sound with sizable ocean rollers on our beam. Since we got a late start and the wind and seas are building, we decide to tuck into Adderley Cut, 25-miles away. Working our way between the shoals off Leaf Cay and the reef off Normans Pond Cay, we drop anchor to the west of Leaf Cay in what might possibly be the most beautiful water we’ve ever been in. There are just a couple of boats in the anchorage, but we soon discover one of them must be crewed by Europeans. It isn’t their French flag that tells us so, it is the fact that before our very eyes the entire crew disrobes and takes a dip, mooning us as they climb up their swim ladder. It would have been fine if these folks were young and in shape, but after seeing what we saw, we decided to skip dinner for a few hours. Instead we take our dinghy around the Cay to its northwest side and discover an incredibly beautiful beach. Here we meet several young kayakers who are on a two-week paddling/camping expedition. We feel a sense of relief to see them fully clothed.
**Little Farmers Cay ** _23° 57’ N 76° 19’ W _ Exiting the cut off Normans Cay Pond, we are now heading northwest on Exuma Bank, keeping our eye on our depth sounder. The sky suddenly turns dark and a violent wind begins to whip up the shallow sea. We have been caught out in a blinding rainsquall and have lost all visuals of land. Using our GPS plotter and radar we work our way to the cut between Little Farmers Cay and Big Farmers Cay, but are hesitant to enter the cut in these conditions. A VHF call to the Ocean Cabin Restaurant puts us in touch with owner Terry Bain, who patiently talks us in, telling us to line up with the Batelco tower and then follow the shoreline, keeping clear of the coral reef in the middle of the cut. Relieved to find protection from the storm, we pick up one of Bain’s moorings and head to his bar to thank him. We stay for dinner and enjoy talking with him and his other guests – all interesting world travelers. The next day is clear and sunny, and we explore the protected harbor and beautiful beaches.
**Blackpoint Settlement ** 24° 06′ N 76° 24′ W For an out-island experience we stop at Black Point Settlement and anchor just north of the government pier and within sight of the palm-lined beach. While just 10-miles from Little Farmers Cay and 7-miles from Staniel Cay, Black Point has a very different feel to it. This is a community of Bahamians without much of a touristy influence. Landing our dinghy on the beach near the mail boat dock, we take off on a two-mile hike towards the north end of the island overlooking Dotham Cut. Along the way we meet dozens of school children running home to get out of their uniforms and into their shorts and flip-flops. On our way back we stop at Lorraine’s Cafe for some fresh bread and pastries. The pink building at the end of the dock serves as the Administration Offices for the Exumas, and it seems to be a gathering place for many local men to spend their day socializing. Others were out fishing, diving for conch or working on other islands.
Sampson Cay Marina
**Staniel Cay ** _24° 10’ N 76° 27’ W _ Unlike Blackpoint Settlement, Staniel Cay is a mix of local Bahamians and foreigners, many of whom own homes on the island. A shallow reef lies a half- mile off the main settlement, partly protecting a large mooring field between it and the shore. The mooring field is usually crowded, and the holding ground outside the reef is not especially trustworthy. We continue past the Staniel Cay Yacht Club and drop our hook off Club Thunderball. But even here we have to make a few attempts at getting our anchor to hold. Late in the afternoon during slack tide, we snorkel in Thunderball Grotto, made famous in the James Bond movies. For dinner we take our dinghy to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, where we meet some folks from Canada who own a home near the airstrip. The club is packed with cruisers from all over, and it feels good to be in the company of so many fun, adventurous people. Indeed, the nearby marina is aptly named, “Happy People Marina.” The night brings stiff winds, and the next morning we discover a number of charter boats that have dragged anchor. We attend church service in a most picturesque setting – looking out the church window to a sea of sapphire blue water. After visiting our new Canadian friends in their island home, we prepare to continue our exploration of the Exumas. We’ll stop at the Sampson Cay Marina just 4-miles north for fuel, then Bell Island and finally Allen’s Cay once more before heading out to sea for the offshore passage to Eleuthera and the Abacos. Stay tuned.