April 1, 2005
Hunting at Samana
By Douglas Bernon
There is a small price for staying at Samana Cay -- where some people theorize Christopher Columbus made his first landfall in the New World - and we were happy to pay it. Regardless of wind speed and wind direction, there just isn't any place here where you can drop a hook and successfully hide from all of the following -- the east-west current, the long fetch, or the ocean swell that wraps around the island. Consequently, for part of every day, there's a roll in the anchorage. So when we rock a bit, we grouse a bit, but not too loudly; and we have absolutely no intention of budging anytime soon. The payoff for enduring these minor inconveniences is terrific. Last week we heard on the VHF net that there were 386 boats in Georgetown Harbor, in the Exumas. That was only about 25 miles from where we were at the time, so we did what we felt we must; we moved as fast as we could 150 miles in the opposite direction, seeking immunity from that theatre of organized joviality.
We chose Samana Cay, an eight-mile long, one-mile wide, uninhabited island completely surrounded by reefs. We read in the cruising guidebooks that the entrance to the anchorage is an unmarked, 40-foot break in the reef just south of the island. The books offer an off-soundings waypoint as a place from which to start a search for the cut. The books also suggest that getting in requires spiffy conditions: a cloudless, midday sky to pick out the brown thicket of patch reefs on each side of the narrow, winding channel, and a sufficiently calm sea without too much swell to manage a controlled pace through the alleyway.
Stephen Pavlidis, who's written really wonderful guides for the Bahamas says that Samana offers an all-weather anchorage, but he's also quick to say that "the waters surrounding the cay are thick with reefs that have claimed many a vessel." Monty and Sara Lewis, who've put together the superb Explorer charts for the Bahamas, warn people away from the place altogether, and overstate the difficulty of the entrance. They call this gorgeous little bay "Nirvana for the nervy." Actually it doesn't take so much nerve, but it does demand the right conditions. They're dead right, though, about the Nirvana part.
While Pavlidis's and Lewis's counsel gave us much pause, their words also sang to us. We figured that their warnings, the practical demands of the entrance, and Samana's distance from Georgetown would make it a not-much-visited place, and therefore, for us, a lot more to our liking. Despite our previous fears that the Bahamas would be chock-a-block with boats everywhere, we've been thrilled to discover that there are still magnificent, isolated, pristine islands, and getting to them takes only modest efforts.
We made our trip from Leaf Cay in the Exumas, to Samana, in company with Britt and Ilana on Windom, a Caliber 40. We'd first met them on the radio two years ago in the San Blas, and then on the radio again in New England, but never in person. With perfect serendipity, on our way from No Name Harbor in Key Biscayne, Florida, over to the Bahamas, they were crossing the same day. After years of intermittent radio contacts, we finally got to meet in person in Chubb Cay. All four of us clicked quickly and for the past month we've traveled together with great pleasure.
Britt and Ilana are seasoned Bahamas travelers-this is their third visit here-and they know their way around, especially around the more out-of-the-way places. In fact, Ilana has published an excellent set of suggestions about traveling in the Bahamas.
Our overnight from Leaf Cut Cay to Samana was brisk and straightforward. We had stronger winds than expected and one brief squall; it was an uneventful and much quicker trip than we'd figured. Once the island first appeared on radar (about 12 miles out) and then for real (about four miles out), we actually slowed down so we'd arrive later in the morning and have better overhead light when we'd need it to enter the cut.
We did have terrific sunlight when we arrived, and finding the channel required some anxious motoring about, but soon the path announced itself, just as the Pavlidis guide described it. Bernadette and I assumed our usual positions for reef entrances: she's at the wheel and I'm on the mast, just below the first spreader. I've always been grateful that the man who built this boat put steps all the way up. The greatest advantage of my being a few steps up the mast and Bernadette being on the wheel is that my anxiety is less contagious with greater distance.
From my perch, the channel was perfectly clear. There was a blue highway between the dark, flanking reefs. We inched our way through, as the depth went from 30 feet outside the reef, to 10 feet between the arms of it -- the lowest Bernadette saw on the depth sounder. We were both relieved when she called out higher numbers, as we passed into the anchorage. We motored around, scoped out different spots, selected a broad turquoise patch, and there, in about ten feet of water, with tiny Propeller Cay behind us and the larger Samana Cay in front of us, we dropped our hook into perfect, deep, glorious sand. Since that day, we've weathered three cold fronts here with 25-knot winds clocking from east to southeast to south to southwest to west to northwest to north to northeast and back to east, and we've held firm throughout.
When we'd first checked into the Bahamas, I bristled mightily at our having to pony up a $300 purse for our cruising and fishing permits - the highest we've paid anywhere. But as we became total piscivores at Samana, I've grumbled less. On our first day of snorkeling through the elkhorn coral at the reef south of the island, I was a kid in the candy store. Britt and Ilana both shot major league lobsters in the first few minutes, and there were so many large grouper I actually had to choose which one to target. Within the hour I'd shot the largest grouper of my life. A couple of days later I shot the next largest grouper of my life, as well as a spiny lobster and Spanish slipper lobster. Two days after that I shot the third largest I'd ever managed.
Many nights the two boats shared dinner from whatever we'd harvested that day. The pickings were so good that often the four of us would not even bother to go looking for food until 3:00 in the afternoon. Other times, when we did go out, we brought our underwater cameras instead of spears, as we had more than enough fish already in the fridge. Ilana referred to our expeditions as "going to big grocery out at the reef."
For variety, because grouper omelets, grouper ceviche, and grouper fillets were getting happily dull, I shot more lobsters and trigger fish. We could collect large queen conchs by the dozen, merely by snorkeling the area just around where we anchored. Finding dinner here is easy. The island is off the beaten path and ignored by most cruisers except when they're making a passage north or south to the Caribbean and want a good all-weather anchorage to duck into during the frequent cold fronts that cycle through the Bahamas all winter. The guidebooks informed us that Samana is sometimes fished by Bahamians living at Acklins Island, about 20 miles away, but we never saw a soul.
We also read that once there had been a small settlement here, but the only evidence today is a single grave maker. I wondered about the man who'd been buried beneath it. Why did he or his family choose to inter him here? What was his relationship to Samana? Was he a fisherman, and did he work these same reefs we were now exploring? In this lovely but isolated little island, did anyone ever sit there or bring flowers? Seeing his marker, just off the beach, gave us much to imagine.
The Bahamian government prohibits the use of spear guns everywhere, but does allow hunting with pole spears, which are usually about six feet long, half an inch in diameter, and made of fiberglass. A spear point screws in at one end, and a very serious rubber band is connected at the other. Using a pole spear is a one-handed operation. You hold the spear in your right hand, and loop the rubber band around your right thumb, stretching the band as far forward as you can while grasping the shaft. Once you aim at dinner, you release your grip on the shaft, the spear shoots forward, and you keep track of the whole affair by holding onto the now spent rubber band. This is close-quarter hunting-not a lot of room to flinch. Among cruisers you can determine quickly who's been using a pole spear, because we all sport the inevitable, tell-tale stigmata-abrasion sores at the outer base of our shooting thumbs.
Last winter, in anticipation of cruising the Western Caribbean, I'd bought on Ebay a very fancy spear gun, and it's been a source of sadness that I haven't been able to use it yet. My spiffy new gun looks like a wooden rifle with three massive rubber bands that work like a medieval crossbow. They're used together to propel the spear with considerable gusto once you squeeze the trigger. It's a no-nonsense weapon, and with monster fish around - we were seeing groupers of 40 pounds and more - I've wanted desperately to try it, but the penalties are high.
It was awfully tempting, though, especially because my five-year-old pole spear kept breaking. It was composed of three, two-foot-long pieces that thread together - great for storage, but inherently weak. The stainless-steel joints were brittle stress points, ripe for corrosion, and sure enough, after I shot Godzilla on day one, the steel cracked at one joint and the spear would no longer hold together. That night, while Bernadette was cooking a piece of Godzilla, I cut a two-inch-wide strip of fiberglass matt, mixed some Interlux two-part epoxy, wrapped the broken pieces of spear like a candy cane, and effected a reasonable repair. Then, instead of three equal pieces, the spear was made of one short and one long piece. The epoxy hardened overnight; the next morning I sanded it smooth and admired my handiwork.
Pleased with the results, Bernadette and I went lobster hunting. She won't shoot them but is happy to be the scout and point them out for me. (I might add that she's also happy to eat them later.) I got a good bug that day, but in the process the second joint cracked, so that evening I repeated the repair process in a new place, and then had a spear of one piece. On day three, at the business end of the spear, where the spear tip threads into a metal end fitting - the only remaining piece of stainless steel - also cracked. I didn't even realize it until I pulled the spear out of a fish and saw the point had remained inside. I recovered it later during the filleting process.
I wondered at that point if, had we been living on land, where we all tend to have more of a throw-away mentality, if I would have chucked this pole spear altogether. I'll never know, but without that option I could pretend to great virtue in making yet another repair. While Bernadette was cooking still more grouper, I got out the glass matt, the Interlux two-part and a rigid but hollow plastic, barbed, connector that you would insert in two hoses you wanted to fuse into one. As a reinforcing sleeve it fit neatly over the spear and the threaded spear point holder. I glassed it on, and while my spear is no longer perfectly straight, nor perfectly balanced, nor even all that pretty, it's mighty strong, probably indestructible, and has the look of a weapon that's been much cherished. It continues to shoot some pretty decent dinners, and to my surprise I've become far more attached to this pole-spear than I ever was when it was shiny and new. As for my spear gun, it remains in the aft cabin gathering dust, itching to see action, and having very large shoes to fill.
At Samana Cay we've seen so many large fish that the twin problems have become plenitude and attitude. In more frequently fished waters, fish become cautious and distant, but in areas where there are few hunters, the fish are actually thrilled to see you. They seem to have been craving recognition and purpose, and we discovered that the larger ones would beg for Ilana or Britt or me to shoot them. Sometimes they seemed to taunt us, "Come on you hot-shot big fisher-man. Let's see how good you really are. Try and shoot me, you coward."
If they had to mill around for too long, waiting for one of us to shoot them, they'd start pouting. Groupers have lips that look like they could suck the chrome off a bumper, so we didn't like to see them pout. The only decent thing to do was comply with their wishes. One does have obligations in life.