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May 07, 2005

Update from St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

 Boats sailing to the Windward and Leeward Islands of the Caribbean from the Bahamas are going into the prevailing winds the entire way. We're going southeast; the wind is usually from the southeast. (Non-sailors: this is a problem for sailboats, which can't sail directly into the wind!) Some people take a long offshore passage east out into the Atlantic and then turn south to the Virgin Islands, but most people take the so-called "thornless path" through the islands in short hops. This is mostly what we did.

 We left Georgetown, Bahamas, the day after the start of the annual Cruisers Regatta. For many Bahamas cruisers, this 10-day-lomg party is the highlight of their trip; we were much more interested in exploring Conception Island, to the east-northeast. To that end, we left on a blustery Saturday morning when most of the cruising fleet was partying at Volleyball Beach in Georgetown. What a great sail! We'd been waiting for a weather window, since fronts kept marching through, and we had 15-20 knots out of the north, a screaming reach to Conception. Off the tip of Long Island, we hooked a big mahi-mahi. I reeled it in on the trolling rod and by the time I had it near the boat my arms felt like elastic bands: this fish was big and he was fighting! Neil and I had not yet worked out the procedure for landing a big fish, and were so very frustrated to lose him as we tried to bring him aboard. A few minutes later, however, I spotted a flock of feeding tropicbirds. We've been reading our fish bible, Scott Bannerot's The Cruisers Handbook of Fishing, and he always says to go where the birds are. So we fell off about forty degrees towards the flock of birds. Meanwhile we discussed exactly what our roles and actions would be if we hooked another one.... then, BAM! We got a huge hit! We immediately rolled in the genny to slow the boat down and started the engine to keep us into the seas. This time whatever it was dove down deep, unlike the mahi which fight at the surface. Neil reeled him in, then I put on gloves and hand-lined the last few yards while Neil readied the gaff. It was a very large tuna! Neil gaffed it perfectly and swung it aboard, I squirted alcohol into its mouth and gills to subdue it, then found the brain spot and ice-picked it. Meanwhile, Liv's job is to get the fish identification books: it was a big, 35# Yellowfin Tuna!!!! While Neil tried to keep the boat as steady as possible (not easy in the 4-5 foot seas) I bled and filleted the monster, sliding back and forth on the aft deck in fish blood as the boat rolled.


We approached Conception Island just before dinnertime. We could see no other boats, just a wild and beautiful island. The water shoals incredibly rapidly just a few hundred yards from the island, from hundreds of feet deep to about 18 feet within a boat's length. It is an amazing sight, since the water is truly "gin clear" and you can see everything on the bottom at 100+ feet! We tried to capture it in a picture: see the line from dark blue to turquoise?

As we rounded the point to the more protected eastern side, the wind dropped dramatically and a mother and baby dolphin led us into our anchorage. The east side is two miles of pristine beach and there were two other boats spread out along the shore. It felt extremely remote after the Exumas! Our friends on Macy had left Georgetown just after we did and they soon arrived to join us for an unforgettable sushi feast!

We spent a day exploring the east side of Conception, beachcombing and spear-fishing, before heading back around to the more popular western anchorage. When we dropped our anchor we were the only boat in this incredible spot; however the wind had dropped and by evening several boats had made their way over from Georgetown. Nevertheless, this is one of our absolute favorite spots so far. The snorkeling is breathtaking, with white sand ribbons winding between towering elkhorn coral that grows right up to the surface. You have never seen so many huge and colorful fish. Neil was in spear-fishing heaven, as these photos of giant lobsters show. (Note: Conception is now part of the Exumas sea park and spear-fishing and conch-collecting are no longer allowed.)


Later on we took our dinghy into a beautiful winding tidal creek area in the interior of the island. Turtles frequent this protected area and we saw several. There are also zillions of conch in the knee-deep water, and we drifted along with masks on and collected a delicious dinner.

Here are some lovely pictures of Macy at sunset:

At one point he went fishing with the guys on Macy, who took their boat way up the Southhampton Reef north of the island. Here's his story: The water was 25 feet deep in the areas we were snorkeling and the reef dropped off to hundreds of feet just a boat length away. After visiting the wreck of the Southhampton we decided to poke around some of the coral heads that reached all the way to the surface in a giant maze. After grabbing a lobster and hunting several groupers, I spied a rock hind (grouper) that looked like an easy shot. I dove and shot it and was suddenly pushed aside brusquely by an enormous Nassau Grouper that was trying to take the rock hind off of my spear! He appeared out of nowhere and hovered close by while Dave (from Macy) and I motioned to bring the boat closer. Neither one of us had ever heard of a grouper "attacking" someone before.

Soon several of the boats we know with children showed up, to Liv's delight. But the wind also picked up and the idyllic calm beach days were over. One day while Neil was spearfishing, Liv and I joined several other families for a short walk to a more protected beach. This northern cove, inaccessible by big boat, is picture-perfect, and was sheltered from the howling winds on the west side. There is a white cliff you can climb for astounding views of the reefs and beach. Rich, from Galadriel, organized a kids model-boat building contest and race. The kids made boats from the refuse washed up on the beach and had a race out to sea.

After five or six days, the weather deteriorated and was forecast to blow from a direction that would be impossible to shelter from at Conception (south!) We headed east to Rum Cay, which we discovered is a drop-out haven for surfers and sport fishermen. We actually stayed in a marina that night, for protection from the winds that never really got that bad. The next morning we left, along with Galadriel and Adrianna II, for an overnight passage to Mayaguana Island. It was a fun, easy passage, and we chatted with our friends on VHF to help pass the long dark hours. At Mayaguana we ran into a boat we'd been in email contact with, Ithaka, and another we'd met way back in Maine, Simba. They were staging there to go to Turks and Caicos, as we were. The next morning at dawn we upped anchor and said goodbye to the Bahamas as we sailed southeast to Provo. It was a fun days sail in very large but comfortably rolling swell out of the north. Here's Adrianna II under way:

Next: Turks and Caicos..