Postcards from a Caribbean Winter – Part 3, The Bahamas
For the past 3 winters we have been sailing Oh!, a 40’ Leopard catamaran throughout the eastern Caribbean. The cruising area we get to enjoy on each of these voyages has ranged from Grenada all the way to Beaufort, North Carolina. During those voyages I have learned to look at the Caribbean areas we sail in as three separate and distinct cruising grounds. This is the third of nine articles and it begins after Oh! completed a fantastic and fast 5 day passage from the British Virgin Islands (BVI’s) to Georgetown, Great Exuma Island, Bahamas. It could not have been a better passage, sunny skies, warm weather and consistent 15-20 knot trade winds.
As I write this we are three quarters of the way though our “2018 Atlantic Circuit”. Some friends and guests from Alberta are joining us to sail and tour the Madeira’s, then we will make the 4 day passage to the Canary Islands. It will be the first multi-day ocean passage for each of them. We will spend all of November and part of December touring the Canary Islands. Then, we will select a time for making our longest passage yet, a 2600 nmi. (4800 km) Trans-Atlantic. It will be the second time I have done this passage in the trade winds back to the Lesser Antilles, the first was in 2008. You can follow our 2018 voyage and see many more pictures of our 2018 Atlantic circuit, complete with captions at our Instagram site: sv_oh. You can also visit our website and blog at www.cloudstocoral.com, our Facebook page at “sailing adventures on Oh!” or better yet in person on Oh! We hope you enjoy them!
Caption: The Exuma Islands forma chain south from New Providence (Nassau), to Great Exuma Island. Enjoying the many sand bars, beaches and tidal channels, near the Aquarium.
The sail from the BVI to Georgetown was the stuff dreams are fueled by. We left Jost Van Dyke Island in the BVI’s late in the afternoon and sailed off into the sunset. Just like the pioneers with their wagon filled with everything they owned to make a trek west and north – but way more comfortable! We don’t like roughing it on Oh! and as a friend said about their alpine camping in Canada, “ I am not into roughing it, I prefer smoothing it”. My sentiments exactly! We have been very privileged to be able to visit some really beautiful and interesting places. It just makes it even more memorable when we can, come home to Oh! each day and enjoy great food, warm freshwater showers and comfy beds. We try to take the same approach while passage making. Our arrival outside Georgetown, Great Exuma Island, was early in the morning, about 3 am. I have been in this Harbour on four other occasions and although the entrance is straight forward, it was peak season in the Exuma’s. Even with Georgetown’s huge Elizabeth harbour, there would be hundreds of cruising yachts anchored in it. We decided to heave to and wait for daylight.
Georgetown is kind of like Victoria B.C. (ok – don’t get upset with what I am about to say). For some it is like land’s end and they can’t imagine going any further. For others, it is the door way to adventure. The remote and isolated southern Islands of the Bahamas mean stepping out into the open Atlantic. Something many are just not comfortable with. As a result, Georgetown is a meeting place, destination and winter home for up to 400 cruising yachts at a time. The only other assembly of “cruising” yachts of this magnitude that I know of in the Caribbean, is the south end of Grenada, where cruisers hole up for the hurricane season. Both destinations have incredible “cruisers nets”. The net is a morning radio broadcast and information exchange that is run by a moderator. Each morning they start with a weather synopsis and forecast, then any security announcements, followed by welcoming new arrivals and saying good bye to departing friends. They go through the days schedule of events (often 3-4 different organized events everyday), local business announcements, requests or offers for help with that never ending “to do list”, and finally a session after the net ends of information to welcome new comers and give them the information we all crave when arriving at a new harbour. Things like how to get refueled, Custom and Immigration procedures, propane availability, provisioning, medical services and whatever your needs or questions may be. Grenada and St. Martin both have fabulous cruisers nets, but Georgetown is really in league of its own because everything is so concentrated in Georgetown’s huge Elizabeth harbour.
Caption: Looking toward Georgetown from the Monument on Stocking Island. The famous Chat’n Chill beach where the cruiser come to meet, greet and play. Meeting the Sting Rays, at Stocking Island is fun.
The social activity center of the area is Stocking Island and Chat “n” Chill. It is the hub. There is a snack bar and restaurant, beach volleyball courts where tournaments and fun matches are always in progress, horse shoe pitches, picnic tables, a conk bar, the local rays to feed and socialize with, beautiful clear waters to swim in, dominos, beach yoga and pretty much any other activity you wish to arrange.
Diane was itching to go running after 5 days at sea so we put out a request on the morning net to see if there was a running group…dead silence …you mean actual exercise?? Yup. Sure enough right after the net Debbie responded to our inquiry and after a short chat on the VHF, she agreed to take Diane along on one of her favorite morning runs. I have never seen Diane come back so excited about a run. She went on for an hour about the views and beaches the stunning water colors and all the great information Debbie had about places to go and things to see. Debbie and Diane had talked about enough places and things to do to fill several seasons of cruising around the southern end of the Exuma’s. That was the start of a daily running and exercise routine we kept up for the duration of our stay in Georgetown. It included morning yoga on Oh!’s trampoline, water aerobics classes, trail running, hiking, paddle boarding and swimming; complimented with plenty of long walks in Georgetown as the town’s layout wraps around a central lagoon.
Caption: The Traditional Bahamian sloops racing in Elizabeth Harbour at Great Exuma Island. Enjoying water aerobics and running the Stocking Island trails. One of the many stunning beach fronts, as seen from the trails on Stocking Island.
With 400 cruising yachts around, you can’t help but meet people. Some of whom, (like Debbie) had been coming to Georgetown for over 15 years to spend their winters in the sun enjoying this amazing cruising society and lifestyle. We quickly met several Canadian and US crews. Georgetown is also a great place to leave your yacht if you need to make short trips home. There are three holes (almost completed encircled small bays) in Stocking Island and several operators with moorings who are well regarded for providing a secure and safe place to leave your yacht, at very reasonable prices. Also, Georgetown is the hub of the southern Bahamas and there are direct flights out of Canada and the USA almost daily. So getting home was super easy and inexpensive. With all it has to offer, it is easy to see why this community of cruisers rebuilds every season and is a major draw year after year.
Like everywhere, you still have to be aware of potential risk – wherever you are. The paradise of Elizabeth Harbor, Georgetown and the Southern Bahamas is no exception. One morning as we were snoozing in bed enjoying a cold brew coffee and listening to the morning cruisers net, they had a special prepared comment from a cruiser that had contacted Ciguatera Fish Poisoning. It is a parasite that you can get from eating reef fish. We listened in horror as this person with a weak and clearly distressed voice, slowly and calmly read a prepared text and recounted the effects poisoning has had on both herself and her husband. There is no cure and they will now have to deal with this for the rest of their lives! The symptoms were truly frightening. They included everything from almost no energy to aches, pains, severe stomach cramping from all manner of foods and the daily challenge of trying to cope with this. One of their biggest challenges was to find foods their bodies could handle that didn’t aggravate the symptoms. Each bite of a new food was like playing Russian roulette. If it aggravated their condition their lives would be even more miserable, if not they at least had some added variety to the very meager diet they currently existed on. Even worse, they hadn’t been able to find a pattern to foods that worsened their condition. So unlike being gluten intolerant, they couldn’t just eliminate a group of foods, their sensitivities were almost random.
If you are cruising in the tropics, learn about this disease. Get to know the types of fish you can get Ciguatera Fish Poisoning from and be aware. The symptoms this unfortunate woman described were something from the worst nightmare you could imagine, and it is not restricted to the Bahamas. There are estimated to be between 50,000-60,000 cases per year, worldwide. The final shock was the last comment she made after reading her prepared description over the VHF cruisers net – in Elizabeth Harbor, there were currently two couples on separate boats, both suffering from Ciguatera fish poisoning that had been contacted in unrelated incidents.
Over the next few days there were several requests either from, or on behalf of these couples for help with things that are basic needs of a cruising boat. Things like getting fuel, water, and perishables, or even just getting off their boats to get to ashore. It was heartening to hear how resourceful and responsive the cruising community was to their needs.
If you are going anywhere in the tropics get informed about the risks of this disease. There are many sites that describe Ciguatera Fish Poisoning. Here are two:
Needless to say her warning was a very sobering start to another incredible day in Georgetown.
Going north from Georgetown through the Exuma’s is one of my favorite cruising grounds. The Exuma islands are a chain of long narrow former sand dunes that are now partially submerged ridges that follow the eastern edge of Great Bahama Bank. They start in the South with Great Exuma Island and then generally get progressively smaller as you go north. A side benefit to the smaller islands is that the surrounding waters on the bank get deeper and therefore access for deeper draft vessels is better. The islands also become more broken further north with more areas to get into, coves, channels, bays and caves to explore.
Caption: Tidal Channels at Shroud Cay lead to unspoiled deserted beaches, the warm crystal clear waters are fabulous to swim and paddle board in. playing with the pigs at Big Majors Island and the mooring channel at Warderick Wells.
The Exuma’s chain is about 200 nmi. Long and is a fabulous area to spend 2 weeks (or much more), cruising the islands. Many areas of the southern Exuma’s just north of Great Exuma Island are simply too shallow for most sailboats, or even for Oh!. Even with our relatively shallow 1.4 m (4.5’) draft, there are a lot fewer bays and natural harbours we can access. The ones we can get to are generally accessed from the sound through the tidal channels that break up the Islands. These anchorages can have strong tidal currents in them so we have not explored this area much. As our map at the beginning of this article indicates, we need to leave Georgetown via the sound and sail about 25 nmi. north to almost Musha Cay before we have consistently deep enough waters on the Great Bahamas Bank to feel comfortable.
Caption: Every night is another stunning sunset and every anchorage has pristine clear waters, white sand beaches and is stunningly beautiful.
The middle section of the chain is characterised by long narrow islands and fabulous sailing in the shallow, warm clear waters. Since the water is seldom more than 4-5 meters deep, ocean swell cannot build up and you can enjoy 10-25 knot winds in essentially flat water conditions or a light chop. You can usually see the bottom as well as the shadow of you boat as it glides along. Sailing on Grand Bahama Bank is probably the gentlest and most relaxing sailing you could find. The linearity of these long islands creates a great natural break against the rolling swell on their windward side, but they do not offer many good harbors. However, as long as the winds are from the ENE, E or SE, that means you can anchor pretty much anywhere in the lee of these long islands. That means miles of pristine, unoccupied white sand beaches and crystal clear waters waiting to be enjoyed without any neighbors. Just keep an eye on the weather for any winds forecast from the west or north. The larger bays or harbors you will find are at the settlements of Black Point and Staniel Cay. Both are small towns with basic services and some wonderful surprises for the adventurous that like to wander around and engage with the locals. Treasures like Corrine’s homemade fresh from the oven coconut bread, local eateries, and bits of Tropical Island living. Things like a group of women weaving baskets for the Nassau markets while their husbands are stripping the palm fronds and grasses for them. A friendly “hi” brings on a half hour chatting session, lots of learning about their craft and advice on other great places to explore, or who has the best pastries and bread locally, or where you can drop the laundry off to be cleaned and folded for you.
The stretch of the Exuma’s from Black Point north to Allen Cay at the Northern end of the Exuma Chain is my favorite. Within this stretch there are dozens of incredible bays and Islands to explore that are all stunningly beautiful. This area is in my opinion “the crème de la crème of the very best of the Bahamas!” Each season I promise myself I am going to try to spend several months here…maybe during the 2019 winter that will happen!
Caption: The Exuma Islands have the best overall snorkelling of anywhere I have been on Oh!. The variety and overall health of the reefs is much better than in the lessor Antilles and there are miles of channels to drift dive or snorkel in as well.
The snorkelling, is the best I have found anywhere in the Eastern Caribbean. The only possible competitor might be the BVI’s, but not really. There are several sunken aircraft to snorkel over that are in just 1-4 meters of water. Caves to explore, brilliant colorful corals, long drift snorkels you can do in the channels and an abundance of sea life. We have seen Sting Rays, Manta Rays, huge lobster, conch, dozens of varieties of tropical fish, turtles, Barracuda, and so much more. On shore there is everything from a few scattered beach bars, or the famous Thunderball 007 Bar at Staniel Cay, (sight of the grotto scenes from the James Bond movie starring Sean Connery in the early 60’s). There is also fine dining on the deck of the Highborne Cay Club. Yet this area is as unspoiled as you can get. There is only a very limited bareboat chartering fleet in the area. Therefore, almost all the yachts are cruisers (although that is changing with the arrival of NavTours and a small Moorings operation now based near Nassau). You can join the cruising yachts in several key places they converge. Places like Staniel Cay and Big Majors Island where you can feed the pigs, or at Warderick Wells Exuma Park Headquarters where you will probably find an impromptu pot luck cruisers beach dinner to join. Alternatively, you can seek out the small bay off the Aga Khan’s private island and have paradise all to yourself – and without the controversy our current Prime Minister had! Fortunately, the Aga Khan does not have a monopoly on idyllic picture postcard bays. There are dozens of uninhabited islands where you can explore and enjoy the deserted beaches.
One of our favorite spots is “The Aquarium” near Johnny Depp’s private island, where the beaches, channels and tidal pools are simply stunning and the snorkelling even more amazing. Or explore the caves and Grottos at the Rocky Dundas Islets, then head into Cambridge Cay area for more crystal clear, pristine protected bays to explore.
Caption: There are many beautiful grottos and caves to explore in the Exuma Islands.
The crown jewels of the northern Exuma’s are the islands and waters of the Exuma Land and Sea Park. Here you will find numerous deserted and protected islands, more crystal clear waters and beaches that will leave you breathless at their beauty. Pictures just don’t capture how stunning some of the settings truly are. This area has been protected for almost 60 years now, so it is full of aquatic life protected from fishing or collection of conch and lobster. In short… it is like the Bahamas before tourism, but with just enough infrastructure and services to be incredible. Plus you can only get here on yachts! There are only a very few limited size resorts in the area which means no tour boats, or large scale snorkelling operators and day tours. The result is beautiful reefs, cays, deserted beaches and tidal channels to enjoy; and it is quiet – no thumping beach bars or traffic noise from vehicles, Jet Ski’s or high speed runabouts. The Exuma’s are fabulous! There are a lot more areas we have explored in the Bahamas over the past three seasons, but it would take a small book to cover them all. Maybe this season we will check out more areas if I can force myself to leave the Exuma’s!
After meeting up with some new guests in Nassau and provisioning, we set our sights on the Berry Islands. Then it was on to West End where we cleared Customs before crossing Barracuda Banks to Little Grand Cay in the far northwest end of the Abaco’s. From Little Grand Cay we had a 4 day passage to Charleston, South Carolina. That was another passage in paradise, complete with several large pods of dolphins along the way, beautiful warm days and spectacular warm star filled nights- passage sailing at its best. We spent five days in Charleston, working on the to do list, provisioning, picking up a new guest and getting set for the final 4 day passage up to Beaufort N.C. from where our next big adventure would start…
To be cont’d in “Postcards from Our 2018 Atlantic Circuit: Crossing the Atlantic”
Cheers From Oh!
About the author: Rod Morris
SV Oh! 2006 Robertson and Caine, Leopard 40’ Catamaran
Rod has been sailing Oh! throughout the eastern Caribbean for the past three seasons offering people the chance to ”Sample the Cruising Lifestyle” and is currently in the Azores preparing to sail back to the Caribbean via the Madeira, Canary and Cape Verde Islands. He has enjoyed 8 Caribbean passages and 2 Atlantic Passages (most recently solo) over the past 10 years. You can follow their travels on Instagram at sv_oh , Facebook at “sailing adventures on Oh!”, or find out how you can join them through their website: www.cloudstocoral.com. Rod is a Professional Geologist, Glider Pilot and RYA Yacht Master (Offshore) and an online member of the BCA for 3 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org