March 15, 2005
The Paradise Across The Stream
By Bernadette Bernon
I had no idea. None. That the Bahamas are this beautiful, that the colors were going to be this blindingly dramatic, that the fish would be this plentiful, that the reefs would be this lush. I'd seen the pictures. I'd read some stories. The images seemed idyllic. But those images were clouded a bit by our notion that the Bahamas was crowded with boats, and that this would overwhelm the experience. I was wrong.
One brisk dawn in February, we set sail from Miami, and crossed the Gulf Stream in relative comfort. It's a psychological as well as a physical boundary, but whatever ordeal it presents, it's still only a day. For us, it was a bumpy upwind motorsail that took from early morning till late afternoon to get across the current. When we were finally free of it, we felt the boat accelerate. We shut off the engine, and with some slight turn of the wind we begin racing along at seven knots. In darkness we crossed onto the shallow banks and ploughed on -- an eerie feeling to have but five feet under our keel.
Throughout the night we sailed, pushing to make as many miles as we could before stopping. A cold front was nipping at our heels, and we needed to get tucked in somewhere by the next afternoon, when a powerful norther was forecast to hit the area. Finally, around midnight, we peeled off the well-traveled rhumb line by about a mile, and spent the rest of the night anchored in 15 feet, somewhat near another anchored boat. We figured there was more safety in numbers, and that the night lights of two boats were harder to miss than only one.
The breeze was gentle and steady, and a bright canopy of stars lit the moonless night. Several hours later, before dawn, we set out again. As the sun came up, it illuminated one of the most dramatic sights we'd ever seen on a boat, Ithaka sailing across a vast sea of pure turquoise. Since that first jaw-dropping morning, the Bahamas has presented us with one surprise after another.
We carried on toward the shelter of Chubb Cay's inner harbor, where in a scruffy, down-at-the-heels marina we cleared customs. (The Bahamas now charges $300 per boat to check in, the highest we've run into anywhere.) Next to us was the 40-foot sailboat Windom, which was the boat anchored near us on the banks the previous night. With the low-pressure system approaching, by late afternoon the little marina filled with boats of all sizes, everyone wanting to tuck in, away from the shallows, to weather the front, which passed over us with 25-knots winds later that evening.
The next morning the wind clocked around to the east and pretty well ran out of steam. As the seas calmed, we untied our lines, poked our noses out of Chubb late the next afternoon, and motored around to the island's lee. Windom did the same. Since that day, we've been drinking in the Bahamas together, the two boats traveling in company, seeking out its quiet corners.
The next stretch of days brought Ithaka and Windom -- named after a favorite peak in Colorado that Britt and Ilana had climbed -- to one pretty cay after another, each formed of jagged limestone covered in green brush, and surrounded by white beaches. During the mornings, we'd set sail, languorously meandering across the turquoise banks, always timing our days to make landfall with the sun at our backs, so that we could negotiate the boats between the reefs. They were clear as could be, and easy to avoid with the right light. Some days, the breeze was a whisper, and the water's surface so smooth, that I could see the Ithaka's shadow on the sandy bottom, and my own as I stood on deck, as we soared along in 15 feet.
We visited Allen's Cay with its archipelago of lovely islets. Ithaka nestled in among them, bobbing in clear green water. I untied Mr. Chuckles, our kayak, and set out to explore the shallows around the islands. Great black iguanas the size of skateboards hurried out from the bush and down the beach as I approached - probably trained by cruisers who'd passed this way before us, and who'd fed them. With each stretch and pull of my paddle I felt invigorated. Sweating in the breeze, I was cooled by green water splashing over me. I could have lingered at Allen's Cay for a month.
Shroud Cay was our next stop, and one of my favorites. Again, we anchored in deep sand that gripped our anchor like a suction cup. Douglas always dives on our anchor to be sure it's well set; here in the Bahamas, he always surfaced giving me the OK sign. We could see our chain arranged in lazy zigzags along the bottom, 20 feet below. Shroud had miles and miles of peaceful mangrove canals, which we poked through with the dinghy.
One day, we packed picnics, and with Ilana and Britt navigated the canals through the island to the opposite shore. We had lunch under the shade of the trees, looking out to sea, and then walked two miles along an isolated beach with white sand as soft as baby powder. We never saw another soul.
Another norther was predicted, so with reluctance we pulled up the anchor from Shroud, which offered no protection from west and southwest winds, and headed for Warderick Wells, a large island with two completely protected harbors. It's also home to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, a Bahamian National Trust that protects the land and sea life in an area that covers 176 square miles.
At Warderick Wells, the northern anchorage is the most popular of the two, and the largest; there's no anchoring there but the park leases 18 moorings on a first-come, first-serve reservation basis each morning at 9:00 AM on the VHF radio. We opted for the smaller south anchorage, where the park leases four moorings, but where there's also plenty of room to anchor for free. It's a little keyhole spot, with 360-degree protection. We dropped our hook in thick deep sand and slept well. Windom anchored nearby.
The norther came through as predicted, with winds piping up from the southwest, then clocking west, then northwest, then north, then northeast. Totally protected, we let the boats be, packed lunch and drinks into our backpacks, climbed into the dinghies, motored ashore through the chop, and secured the dinghies to the beach with their little anchors.
We'd read about Warderick Wells, and its history as a pirate lair, and wanted to hike the trails all around island. We walked up and down through the hills, and trees, and along the beaches, and around great gaping wells that may once have been used by the famous buccaneers that once ruled the Bahamas. For hours we trekked along to the opposite end of the island, visited the Exuma Park office, examined their massive whale skeleton on the beach, and then stood at the island's windward rampart, watching the still-roaring north wind and frothing waves pummeling the limestone.
Warderick Wells is much more than a safe anchorage. In the calm before the norther, and then as soon as the choppy conditions abated after it, we put on our wetsuits - necessary if you want to spend a lot of time in the water without getting chilled -- took the dinghy out to the surrounding cays, snorkeled the reef gardens dotting the seascape, and wandered along beaches we had all to ourselves.
From Warderick Wells we wanted to head south, but Ithaka's six-foot keel was a bit too deep to continue on that portion of the banks, so we nipped "outside," as they say down here, sailed out one of the cuts, and carried on in the deep water of the open ocean route to Compass Cay. There we stopped for the night, snorkeled into two neat caves, then carried on the next day to the hubbub of Staniel Cay. We'd been in the Bahamas for two weeks already, and although we'd provisioned for a few months back in Florida, the idea of a few fresh veggies, and perhaps an internet connection, was a draw.
The mail boat visits Staniel Cay every Wednesday, and along with the mail, and building supplies, and a few passengers, and whatever anyone on the island has ordered - from refrigerators to barbed wire -- it brings with it a week's supply of fresh food to the Cay's two shops. On Wednesday morning, I queued up with a few other cruisers and locals at the Isles General Store, and as soon as the truck arrived from the mail boat, carrying the precious fruit and vegetables, we descended on the place. I left with cruising treasure -- three bags brimming with oranges, tomatoes, broccoli, English cucumbers, apples, green peppers, and a big block of cheddar cheese. By the next morning, when I nipped back to buy a few more juicy oranges, there were none, and everything that had arrived the day before was gone too. It's worth remembering, when you visit Staniel, that the mail boat arrives every Wednesday. A day or two later and the cupboards are pretty bare.
Another aspect of the island that draws cruisers is the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, a grand name considering that it represents a happening bar at the foot of a T-dock. But the place is a hive. Here you can watch CNN with a cold beer in your hand among your fellow cruisers, and drop off your mail (use American stamps; it's flown to Ft. Lauderdale and mailed from there a few times a week). You can bring in your laptop or use their computer and pay by the minute. SCYC has wireless service, so if you had the right computer antenna you can connect from your boat if you're anchored out front (next time I'm home, I'll pick up a "G style Linksys antenna" to give Ithaka bigger ears. Several boats in the anchorage were getting their email using that device.) If you need parts sent in or out, SCYC is also the home of Watermakers Air, a shipping company that flies small planes onto the island two or three times a week from Ft. Lauderdale, and will pick up and deliver whatever it is you need. (Website www.watermakers.com; Email email@example.com; FL phone 954-467-8920)
Staniel Cay is famous for a snorkeling site called Thunderball Cave, where one of the James Bond movies was filmed. The giant cave is dramatic; you swim inside through one of two small slits in the stone, and once through, the cave opens up high above you to a massive cathedral ceiling with a hole in the top where the sun shines in shafts of light through the darkness. For a half an hour, we loved swimming inside the cave while we had it to ourselves, our voices echoing deeply as we spoke to one another about its feeling of pre-historic wonder. But once the crowd of snorkellers began kicking in, and yelping and splashing, the magic evaporated, and so did we. Staniel can be a busy burg.
With yet another front coming (they are an inevitable progression this time of year in the Bahamas, and demand frequent moves for protection from whatever direction it is bearing down) we moved the boat just a mile to North Gaullin Bay and enjoyed the calm and good snorkeling there. Two days later we had a window to move and sailed south to Norman Pond Cay, which also offered good protection, and lots of reefs for snorkeling.
January and February are notorious for these cold winds from the north, and if you're cruising the Bahamas during the winter, it's critical to keep an eye on the weather forecasts so that you can seek shelter in plenty of time when you need to. As March and April unfold into spring, the weather patterns calm down throughout the island chain, and life becomes easier, especially as you head further and further south.
At Norman Pond Cay, I splashed the kayak again, paddled out to a white sand beach I'd seen on Leaf Cay in the distance, and hung around there enjoying the surrounding panorama, alone with my thoughts, until a big black iguana inched over to check me out. It was a quiet communion I'll hold in my mind's eye for years to come.
Anticipating yet another front, three more cruising boats pulled into the vast anchorage. We all met each other snorkeling and spear fishing and convened a beach picnic for the next afternoon. It's always fun to hear the stories of where people came from, and where they're going. Bob and Viv on Varuna were from Canada, and had enjoyed many seasons exploring the Bahamas; Heather and Rob on Siqqittuk, also Canadian, had been living in the Arctic before setting off on their two-year cruising sabbatical; and then Ilana and Britt on Windom, from Colorado, who'd circumnavigated the Caribbean over four years, and of all the places they'd been, they were drawn back to the natural beauty of the Bahamas.
We all talked about how we'd never expected the Bahamas to be so dramatic. We'd never expected to see such huge lobster and conch, or such massive schools of colorful fish darting everywhere. And the water. We agreed that nothing prepares you for the dramatic beauty of this water, the clarity of being able to see down through it to every blade of grass on the bottom, even at 30 feet.
From Norman Pond Cay, we made a plan with Britt and Ilana to sail out to Semana Cay-about 140 miles to the southeast. Steven Pavlidis's excellent guidebook for the area (On and off the Beaten Path, the Central and Southern Bahamas Guide) warns that the unmarked entrance channel-only about 40 feet wide in places, demands good light and very mild seas, or forget it. We were intrigued. Such dissuasions meant it was likely NOT to be crowded, and we had heard on the VHF the day before that there were now 386 cruising boats in Exuma's Georgetown harbor. That made up our mind. We were determined to beat a path in the opposite direction.
Samana is a nine-mile-long island surrounded by a thick collar of reefs. Some historians claim this is where Christopher Columbus actually landed first on his voyage to the New World. It would take us one overnight of sailing to get there, and then there would be that hairy entrance, but we were excited to go to a place that most cruisers to the Bahamas never see, where we might be the only two boats there, and for that matter for miles and miles around. The Bahamas is like that. As you travel down the island chain, you get your sea legs. You get more skilled at reading the water depth by color and learn to anticipate the underwater topography. You crave more and more the beauty and solitude of the outer islands. As your comfort level raises up a bit, you finally feel you're ready for Semana. A northwest wind was predicted. The cold front was clocking. We would be heading east and then south east. We decided to give it a go.