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Exploring the Exumas

"Norman’s Cay is home to a submerged drug plane wreck in clear shallow waters..."

We’ve just said goodbye to our friends Sahar and Steve and the boat feels very empty and Suki and Chocolate are missing the double rations of stroking. One thing you can’t take with you when you take off to be a sea nomad are the friends and family you’ve known over many years. I’ve known Sahar for more than half of my life, so it was amazing to have her on board. Sahar and Steve are keen kayakers and they took to sailing like fish to water.

Getting to Nassau to meet them on time was more difficult than we had expected with our dodgy rig. While we’d been able to effect a good repair to the babystay itself using a welder in Jamaica, the attachment under the deck was still causing us a headache with the babystay vibrating like a guitar string and the deck breathing up and down in strong winds. We wouldn’t be able to do more work until we got to Nassau and could use the multitool that Sahar and Steve were bringing with them. First we had to traverse the beautiful yet starkly remote outlying islands over shallow waters in order to get there.

The Bahamas has a fairly different set of weather challenges to the rest of the Caribbean, being very much affected by ‘northers’, winds which come down from storms in the United States during the winters and can create ‘rages’ through the shallow cuts between the islands which have strong currents. You get a brief respite in Spring, but thereafter you have the risks of storms and hurricanes in an area with very little protection.

We arrived from Jamaica at the end of March, while the Bahamas was reeling from the effects of a strong ‘norther.’ As you might expect, the northernmost islands were most strongly affected. Still, we had to head north in order to get to Nassau. Our first jump after an extremely rolly night at our first stop of Great Inagua, was Long Island.

As we entered the anchorage, we were shocked at the huge swell as we entered. Long Island is one of the southernmost islands, so we decided it was better to stay put for a few days before heading further north. Even more so after hearing about a boat going aground in big swell while entering Whale Cay further north. 

From Long Island, we stopped for the night at George Town and then headed onwards to Highbourne Cay. To cover a lot of ground quickly, so we could get to Nassau on time, we sailed through the sound. The sound is the deeper channel of water that runs along the eastern side of the long Exuma chain of islands. It has few anchorages as the prevailing wind is southeast. The bank side is shallow and the route we were to take when stopping to explore the islands when we came back down again with our friends.

I was anxious about passing through the cuts. These are short channels between the islands that allows you to pass from the sound to the bank (or vice versa). The currents can run extremely fast and if it is against a strong wind, it can be dangerous, even causing a ‘rage’. We settled on Highbourne Cut as one of the more straightforward channels and passed through with ease. 

We anchored overnight, planning on heading to Nassau early in the morning. While it was still dark, we awoke. I headed out to the cockpit and almost had a heart attack when I saw a huge motorboat looming just a few feet behind our stern. It had anchored behind us the previous day and had looked far away, but it had ended up in a completely different direction from all the other boats there. The occupants were fast asleep and oblivious to the fact that they had nearly hit us.

That was a lesson we wouldn’t ignore. There are far more massive motorboats here than anywhere else we have been - many of them have fishing boats the same size as our boat in lieu of a dinghy and with the currents, we would have to be careful to be anchored very far from them and preferably not in a cut again.

The journey to Nassau was uneventful. When we’d looked at the passage on Navionics, it had looked impossible. The entire area is incredibly shallow and hundreds of shallow rocks are marked. The water is crystal clear and the rocks are easy to see, if very numerous. We anchored first in the harbour, where we were forced out, along with all the other sailing boats anchored there and eventually ended up at the only anchorage they are now allowing, which is Montagu Beach. 

The shallow, crystal clear waters of the Bahamas

It is a poor anchorage as it is open to the east, which the wind almost always blows from and the winds were fairly strong, in the mid twenties with no protection. In addition, much of the anchorage is too shallow for our 5’6” draft, so we have to be even more exposed and have a long dinghy trip to the public dock. However, that’s the rules. Cruise ships are big business here, so sailing boats are not the priority. Most sailing boats skip Nassau if they can.

The good thing about going to Nassau, however, and this anchorage in particular is we could buy fuel, dispose of our rubbish, fill up with water (at the fish market for a US$20 ‘tip’) and use the public dock for free. We could also get our laundry done and visit a supermarket at slightly less outrageous prices than the outlying islands. Still very, very expensive though.

We were also curious about Nassau as it was a stronghold during the’ golden age of piracy. In fact, it was even home of the 12-year Pirates’ Republic between 1706 to 1718, which was governed by the pirates’ code. There’s a great History Channel documentary about it called True Caribbean Pirates which is worth a watch to find out more. Having seen how shallow the surrounding waters are, it is easy to see how it worked as a defensive location.

Sahar, Steve and I visited  Fort Charlotte, constructed by the British at the end of the 18th century following the American War of Independence was used to defend against the Spanish. We also visited the Queen’s Staircase, carved out of limestone by slaves between 1793-1794 to provide a shortcut down from Fort Fincastle to the city below. It’s green and shady and there’s a waterfall, so it’s a nice place to stop and rest your feet and take refuge from the sun.

We also visited the Disney-pink hotel and waterpark complex of Atlantis across the bridge on Paradise Island. We couldn’t bring ourselves to shell out $150 for a day at the water park, but we did gape at the statues, visit the 13th century cloisters imported from France and transplanted into the miniature ‘Versailles’ Gardens, drink a margherita, wander through the casino and enjoy a (vegan our my case) Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. We also went to the strangely named Cabbage Beach on the other side of the island.

Meanwhile, poor Luciano was using the multitool to cut away some rotting fibreglass under the deck, which reveal that the stainless steel bar that reinforces under the deck where the babystay attaches was broken in half. This discovery meant that we could find another welder in Nassau to repair it and then this should strengthen the deck. We still want a professional rigger to take a look at everything to see if there is a reason the bar broke in the first place, so we will sail undercanvassed until then. But it meant we could at least take our friends to the Exumas and they could make the most of their holiday.

The broken stainless steel bar

From Nassau we sailed to Highbourne, where Sahar put her foraging skills to good use and we found some dried out sponges rotting on the beach amongst the seaweed. It’s taken several rounds of soaking to get the smell out, but we now have a range of sponges to soak up water in the dinghy and to clean around the boat that will not leach microplastics into the ocean.

From Highbourne, we dinghied over to Allan’s Cay where you can meet some friendly iguanas on the beach. Well, they may have been so friendly because of all the crackers we fed them. We swam and enjoyed the beach. We even saw live conch for the first time. You see the empty shells discarded all over the Caribbean, as they are widely eaten. But these ones, when you lifted the shell, more often than not had some eyes on stalks and a pincer poking out like a cross between a giant snail and a crab. Very cute.

A friendly Bahamian iguana - they have red eyes!

Our next stop was Norman’s Cay. Norman’s Cay is home to a submerged drug plane wreck in clear shallow waters. The plane belonged to Colombian drug trafficker Carlos Lehder from the Medellín Cartel. If you’ve seen Narcos, you will be familiar with the character. The island was used as a base from which to ship his drugs by plane, in a stopover before proceeding to the United States.

The plane wreck

Shroud Cay was a short hop away. We were worried about the depth, so with settled weather, we picked our own anchorage spot just outside the entrance to the mangroves, a shallow channel which leads all the way to a beach on the other side of the island.

Paddling through the mangroves at Shroud Cay

We paddled the dinghy and towed the paddleboard. It was quite incredible and different from anywhere else we’ve been. The entire bed is pure white sand. With turtles and stingrays to see, it felt surreal. As we emerged on the other side to a bank of white sand and a pool of water, we swam in the sun and dried ourselves on the sand.

The beach where you emerge from the mangroves

Our next stop was Warderick Wells, where we grounded! Luckily we were aided by a lovely German couple who guided us in their dinghy into the deeper water. As we sat in the cockpit having secured ourselves to a mooring buoy, we saw a catamaran grounded in the same place we had been. We called them on the radio to give them directions and luckily they were able to free themselves as well. It was sand below us and a slow speed so we are hoping that it hasn’t caused any damage to the keel.

The boats moored in a narrow strip of water between sand banks

Warderick Wells was stunning and is the centre of the national park. We hiked up to Boo Boo Hill, a short stroll where there are a whole pile of painted boat signs strewn in a pile. We dinghied down to the south side of the island, past Emerald Rock and stopping off at a beach for Luciano to fly the drone and me and Sahar to play beach ball. 

Boo Boo Hill

We snorkelled and saw lots of turtles and amazing green vase shaped corals. We hiked up to pirates cove searching for hidden rum hidden by other cruisers but to no avail. We hiked the island and saw stingrays under a bridge lurking in what was essentially a puddle of water. Sharks gathered under the boat in the evenings. 

A stingray - the water is so clear and shallow you can't tell it is underwater
One of many evening shark sightings from the boat

Sahar and Steve marvelled at their first moonrise as we sat in the cockpit and Luciano and I felt newly rejuvenated by the awe they expressed. Not to say that we are immune now to the beauty around us, but as with anything you become accustomed to your surroundings and the reminder from fresh eyes that we are immensely privileged to see the sun rise and set over the horizon each day and the moon rise broad beamed and yellow as it elevates itself higher and higher, whiter and whiter until you have to crane your neck upwards to see it. The air is warm enough to stay outside and light pollution is minimal. That can’t be taken for granted and we’ll miss it if we ever go back to city life.

A full moon rises at Warderick Wells

Additional photos courtesy of Sahar Vagan and Steve Ransom

There are TWO videos this week. Check them out at the links below:

You can find our PODCAST episodes at the links below

YOUTUBE (for video version)

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5 comentarios

Fred Bugden
Fred Bugden
05 may

Rigging problems are scary, glad you're handling it. Where are you headed for hurricane season ? If south look for us around Carricou / Grenada. Fred , Darlene and Shelby

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05 may
Contestando a

We LOVED Carriacou. Grenada also beautiful and big cruiser community. We are waiting for our US visa appointment.

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05 may

Looks unbelievable beautiful. Lovely that you got to share it with good friends xxx

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05 may
Contestando a

And yes, it is extra special to share the experience with friends

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