Shell Game -May 23, 2002
Eileen looking for treasures on the beach at Raccoon Cay
The Jumentos, where we just spent a couple of wonderful weeks, exemplify one of the biggest dilemmas facing bluewater cruisers: the destinations least spoiled by the ravages of tourism and commercial exploitation are often the most difficult to visit. On a chart, the Jumentos form a hundred mile long crescent of rocky specks stretching southwest of the Exuma island chain in the Bahamas. There are two routes to them from George Town, the cruising hub of the Exumas. The most direct route takes you through Hog Cay Cut at the east end of Little Exuma Island. The current-swept cut is narrow, dog-legged, and blocked by a three foot deep bar at mean low water. "Little Gidding" draws a bit over five feet and its crew is less than heroic. We chose the alternate route, which requires a 40 mile detour to Long Island across the White Cay Banks and back across the Comer Channel. We timed the Comer Channel run with the upper half of a rising tide and still had sea fans brushing our keel.
The charts for the Jumentos are filled with bright little caveats like "unsurveyed area", "numerous rocks and heads" and "position of all features is approximate". Eyeball navigation is essential. The mariner who simply punches in a bunch of GPS waypoints and turns on the autopilot is inviting disaster. While there are several anchorages that are secure under prevailing conditions, none provides all-weather protection. If the wind clocks with a frontal passage, there are only a couple of places where you can thread your way through the reefs to find refuge from westerly winds. Tough luck if the wind shift occurs in the dark of night. If you get yourself into trouble or run short on supplies, the only settlement is on Ragged Island, at the southern extremity of the chain. With a population of 125, don't expect much in the way of services.
All of the conditions listed above are pretty good reasons not to visit the Jumentos. For some cruisers, they imply precisely the opposite. The hazards and inconveniences of cruising these islands mean you'll be able to anchor by yourself, snorkel among reefs still teeming with sea life, and walk along pristine, deserted beaches. For Eileen, the beaches were the primary draw. Eileen likes shelling. In George Town, she spoke with a fellow cruiser who had just returned from the Jumentos. "Incredible shelling!" she exclaimed. "I gathered a trash bag full of sea beans alone." Sea beans are the heart shaped seed pods of the monkey ladder vine, which grows in tropical rain forests. They ride the ocean currents to distant shores, keeping their deep chocolate colour and rich lustre.
Eileen's eyes grew wide. "We have to go there," she said. "Imagine, a trash bag full of sea beans!" David looked doubtfully at the charts and muttered, "Yeah, but maybe she took every last one of them."
Our friends Pam and Glenn on the catamaran "Anything Goes" told us they planned to visit the Jumentos as well. Pam also loves shelling. We left George Town on the same day. Pam and Glenn have a shoal draft vessel, lots of insurance and more intestinal fortitude than we do. They went through Hog Cay Cut and arrived at Water Cay, the first northern anchorage in the Jumentos, two days before we did.
We had sundowners on "Anything Goes" after we caught up. Pam enthusiastically showed Eileen all the shells she had collected - tritons trumpets, helmet conchs, the sought after long-spined star and much more. Eileen grew more and more subdued as Pam revealed her loot. "I bet she's stripped the beach bare," she whispered to David.
The next day, "Anything Goes" sailed south to nearby Flamingo Cay and Eileen hit the beaches on Water Cay. She returned after a few hours with a couple of sea beans, a chipped sunrise tellin and a faded cowrie. Glenn called us up on the VHF radio. At Eileen's prompting, David casually asked if Pam had done any shelling yet. Glenn chuckled, "She's out there right now on the beach with a wheelbarrow." Tears of frustration welled in Eileen's eyes. "He's not joking," she hissed.
We joined "Anything Goes" in Flamingo Cay. David and Glenn went snorkelling together and Eileen scoured the beaches, avoiding Pam. The next morning, we rose early and weighed anchor. After a couple of hours of sailing south in a brisk easterly, we spied "Anything Goes" behind us on the horizon. They were catching up. When we were abeam Nurse Cay, we turned sharply and headed in. Pam and Glenn kept going south. "We lost them," Eileen breathed.
Eileen wasted no time getting to the beach at Nurse Cay. She couldn't believe the untouched bounty. After only an hour she returned clutching several precious shells. David contacted Glenn on the VHF. "We're at Buenavista Cay," Glenn responded. "The beach is a mile long, but it's quite steep and hasn't got a lot of good stuff."
David nonchalantly mentioned, "Eileen picked up not one, but two long-spined stars in perfect condition up here at Nurse Cay." A thumping sound came over the radio. "What was that?" David asked. Glenn replied, "Pam just threw her hat on the cabin sole and is stomping on it."
A couple of days later we moved on to Raccoon Cay. As we anchored, we noticed the masts of a familiar ketch in the little bay to the south of us. It was our friends Alan and Pamela (another Pam) on "Northern Goose", who had arrived from further down the island chain. We took the dinghy over and joined them for some excellent Cuban coffee.
Alan and Pamela have been cruising full time since 1987. They seek out the most remote spots they can find, routinely setting three or four anchors to keep themselves secure in tiny anchorages no one else would dare enter. In the beachcombing and shelling game, they're pros. Alan described how they go ashore with machetes and shovels and bushwhack their way to higher ground where undiscovered treasures have been deposited by previous storms. As proof, he showed us several ancient glass fishing floats they had unearthed, some of them worth several hundred dollars in antique shops. Pamela is a talented artist who fashions amazing sculptures from driftwood, shells and other natural materials. Their boat is crammed with her creations. She has a number of prestigious clients seeking her work.
We were humbled we left "Northern Goose". Pamela had mentioned that they were out of camera film, so David promptly returned with three rolls he had stored in the fridge. "Keep it," he said. "It's print film I won't use because I'm only taking slides and digital photos these days." When he got back to "Little Gidding", Eileen moaned, "There should be a law prohibiting people named Pam from shelling. There won't be anything left south of us where they've just been."
There was a knock on hull. Pamela was alongside in her tender. She smiled and said, "We're heading off soon. Thanks a lot for the film. Here are a few things we thought you might like." She handed up a plastic shopping bag and waved good bye.
In the bag
were half a dozen cans of beer, a fantastic bird formed from a twisted
piece of weathered wood and a glass fishing float. Eileen stared at the
wood sculpture and dark green glass globe. "What wonderful gifts,"
she whispered. David cracked open a cold beer. "Yeah, they're a great
Cheers, David & Eileen