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March 5, 2005

Update from Georgetown, Exuma

We left Rose Island (near Nassau) at 0900 on January 15th, to sail across the banks to Norman's Cay in the Exuma Island chain. Of course, the wind was right on the nose AGAIN, but we had made the decision to go anyway, the other choice being spending another week in Nassau through the next frontal system (anyone beginning to see a pattern here???) The rhumb line from Nassau to Norman's passes over an area of shallow coral heads called the Yellow Banks. As we were inexperienced at "reading the water", this made us nervous; luckily we had to sail far enough off the rhumb line due to wind direction that we sailed around the edge of the Yellow Banks instead of through them. It was still a bit scary, though, since depths were about 12-20 feet and there were still scattered coral heads to avoid. The seas had built to quite a steep chop and the skies were overcast, which greatly reduced visibility and made the going uncomfortable and maddeningly slow. We HAD to arrive before sunset in order to pilot into the anchorage. 

We JUST made it! At 1800 we had the hook down in the last of the failing light. We had anchored in an area of heavy reversing tidal current and spent the night sailing circles around the anchor rode. The next morning we moved a bit further in, out of the strongest current, and set two anchors for the impending frontal system. The anchorage soon began filling up with other boats; there are only a handful of anchorages suitable for frontal passages in in the area. That evening the front came through with strong and gusty winds. The boat anchored just upwind of us began dragging their anchor and had to reset in the dark, no fun. We spent the rest of the night on "anchor watch" making sure that neither ourselves nor our neighbors dragged. The high winds after the front continued for several days and we were essentially boat-bound. We eventually made some short excursions ashore, but each time returned soaked through from the waves in the harbor. One day we did go ashore to do laundry, which was kind of fun. Norman's Cay was a drug-lord's headquarters in the 80's. A German with Columbian connections named Carl Lehder took over the small resort there and used it to run drugs. There is a downed airplane in the harbor, and all of the buildings are falling apart. There are supposedly bullet holes in them, which we never found. However, in the old clubhouse at the top of the hill, the rain-water catching system still fills the cistern. We (and other cruisers) brought our laundry up to the patio, brushed aside the broken glass and rubble, and washed clothes in buckets. We had a stunning view of the harbor as we worked. Back at the boat we it was far to windy to dry the laundry on the lifelines, our normal method, so we strung a clothesline under the bimini.

Here's a view of a tropical "sundowner" cocktail with the windy harbor in the background:

After 4 days in the anchorage, it finally calmed down enough to leave. With considerable effort and some swearing, we got our two anchors up and headed south. We sailed to the Exuma Land and Sea Park headquarters at Warderick Wells. The north harbor does not allow anchoring so we rented a mooring for the night. It was still windy, but very lovely. Ashore there is a huge whale skeleton and trails all over the island. We climbed up to "Boo Boo Hill," where cruising boats have been leaving mementos of their stays for years. Liv returned to the boat determined to make one for Zora...

 

 

The next day was much calmer and warmer, and we went back ashore. At the park headquarters Liv fed the Bananaquits (below) sugar from her hand, and we climbed Boo Boo Hill again to leave the sign that Liv and Neil had made. Liv drew it out and Neil carved it with rudimentary woodworking tools. Pretty nice, huh?

 

That evening we had a lovely sail an hour or so south to the south anchorage on Warderick Wells. We went out into Exuma Sound for the first time, as we'd been on the shallow Banks -west side- of the islands since Nassau. The south anchorage was absolutely beautiful, with only one other boat and gorgeous scenery. Ashore is the Pirate's Lair, and actual pirates' hideout. The anchorage is hidden from view of passing boats by a high island, so pirate ships could hide there to rest or to ambush vessels heading west onto the Banks through the Wide Opening passage. Ashore there is a perfect hidden clearing with a natural freshwater well on one side and short palm trees all around. It is easy to imagine the pirates gathered there, quite remarkable! 

Unfortunately, another frontal system was fast bearing down on us, and we headed south to Little Major's Spot in the Staniel Cay area to ride it out. On the way down we had a remarkable sail, beam reaching in 15-20 knots. We caught a Barracuda on our trolling line and had to figure out how to get it off without getting slashed by its incredible teeth. Our first night at Little Major's Spot there was a beach party called a "Sundowner Party" on the beach. All the boats in the anchorage came with an appetizer to share. Liv built a huge sculpture of shells. It was here that we first heard folks blowing their conch shell horns at sunset, now a regular occurrence.

 

Back in Exuma Park, we'd been unable to fish, by law. Now that we were out of the Park borders, we wanted to catch some dinner!! After a few unsuccessful dinghy trips looking for conch and lobster, we were beginning to feel discouraged. But one day, while Liv was watching a movie on board, Neil and I went further out than before. Finally, a conch bed! With me driving the dinghy and Neil (in our only wetsuit...that water is COLD) snorkeling, we collected a bagful of conch. Flushed with victory, Neil wanted to try looking around the small coral heads we'd snorkeled over the day before. Imagine my surprise when he surfaced with an ENORMOUS spider crab on his spear!! And shortly after that, two panfish and a big lobster! Wow! Here's the Bounty of the Sea from that day, and some pictures of cleaning the conch (which isn't that hard after you get the hang of it! Neil and Liv even ate some of the crystalline stile- ugh!)

 

Okay, so now Neil had been totally bitten by the fishing bug. He became totally obsessed with spearfishing and went out "hunting" nearly every day. He found some other cruisers to hunt with and soon learned where to go and how to find the good stuff. In this area there are some weird creatures called Slipper Lobsters. They look like prehistoric bugs, but they are wonderful. if you are lucky enough to spot them, you can pick them up with bare hands out of the caves they are hiding in, as they have no spines or claws. Here's Liv with one she named, "Loafer". Yummy.

Around the island is another anchorage called Big Major's Spot, a very popular place that sometimes contains 80 cruising boats. On the beach here there is a herd of pigs set loose by a local islander, as well as a huge family of feral cats. Cruisers bring food to the animals, so when you approach in your dinghy they all burst out of the underbrush and the pigs swim out to greet your dinghy. Weird.

We spent some time between the two Majors' Spots, the town at Staniel Cay, snorkeled the beautiful grotto called Thunderball Cave (where the 007 movie was filmed!) and even sailed back up to the south anchorage at Warderick Wells to hang out with our friends on Taku, Galadriel, Mystic, and Alohomora for a while, then back to the Majors' for another blow.....

This time the other boats with kids joined us. On our last day there we all had a beach cookout. Neil, Bill (Alohomora) and Sam (Linnett II) had gone fishing, so we contributed a some grilled fish. The kids were like Wild Things and had a great time swimming, making a fort and a fire. Liv and Martha took a sail on Linnet's sailing dinghy. It was a lovely afternoon. Here is, left to right: Lucy the Berniese Mountain Dog (Taku); Bill and Katie from Alohomora; Jane from Linnet II; Max the Portuguese Water Dog (Alohomora); Myself and Neil, Dom from Taku.

And: Lucy; Bill and Katie; Molly the dog from Linnet getting into somebody's food;  Mary and Albert from Mystic; Neil and Dom.

Here's Margaret (Mystic), Liv, Elizabeth (Linnet II), Matt (Alohomora), Albert (Mystic)

And Neil and Jane helping Liv and Martha set sail:

The next day, after a gorgeous sail a couple of hours south, we arrived in the Black Point Settlement on Great Guana. Black Point was our favorite community. Instead of a tourist-oriented community, Black Point is a real island town. The islanders were very friendly, and unlike most places, did not charge us anything to leave our trash ($5 per bag elsewhere!) or fill up our jerry-cans with water. At the local school we met the principal, and she invited Liv to attend class. Liv was so excited, really enjoyed it, and went to class for 4 days. The first day, her friends Jenna and Mathias from Galadriel also attended.

 

Of course, another blow was coming through, so we had to move again! Just around the corner this time, to Little Bay on Great Guana. This anchorage would be exposed to the winds at the start of the frontal passage, but we really did not want to go back to the Majors' Spots yet again, so we stayed. It was rather choppy for the first few hours, but not too bad. And very pretty!

Also, Neil found that the fishing was great!!

Later that week we headed south along Great Guana, which has several lovely beaches and lee anchorages along its west shore. We explored the Little Farmer's Cay settlement, which has a decidedly different vibe than Black Point, and anchorages at Musha Cay and Galliot Cay, back and forth for about two and a half weeks. Here is a picture of laundry day :

Here are some pictures of a rare windless morning where you can see every detail of the bottom, and other scenes of our tranquil weeks off Great Guana... Looking for shallow spots from the bow, trying out our new spinnaker, preparing a fillets of a big grouper Neil caught for dinner....isn't this the life???

 

Last week we decided it was finally time to go to Georgetown. If you know anything about the Bahamas, you know that Georgetown is the Mecca for cruisers here. Many boats come straight to Georgetown and stay here all winter long. It's the largest town in the area, on Great Exuma, with a huge natural harbor. There are well over 300 boats here now. Every morning there is a cruiser's "net" on the VHF radio where announcements and schedules for the myriad of planned activities are broadcast. It is like a summer camp for adults (as well as kids). It is the opposite of the peaceful tranquility we found in the last weeks off Great Guana. The organized events aren't really our cup of tea, and we have not even been yet to the "Hamburger Beach" and "Volleyball Beach" areas where the activities take place. The other problem here is that the protected anchorages near town fill up in early fall with long-term boats, so by now most everyone anchors in the exposed, huge harbor. That means that whenever the wind shifts everyone moves to another spot, and when fronts come through there are many dragging boats. To avoid this, we've been holed up in an area called Red Shanks, a couple of miles east of town in between numerous small cays. In our small dinghy (more on this later) this means a 45 minute, wet ride to town (friends with fast dinghies make it in 10 minutes), but we've been very glad to be here during the last two frontal passages. Last night they saw 47 knots over by Georgetown, we saw maybe 35 and flat seas the whole time. Another big plus is that our friends on Galadriel moved over here as well, and we met another nice family with kids on Adrianna II, so Liv has had playmates! The Georgetown Cruisers Regatta starts next week, but we'll be on our way southeast towards the Turks & Caicos by then. It's probably a good thing because they are expecting another 200 boats by then. And we can't take any more organization: it's like being on a cruise ship.

On the plus side, there's an internet cafe where we can hook this laptop up, so hopefully this afternoon we can upload all of these updates!!!!!

We had expected Georgetown to be a bigger town, and with more supplies. It's really pretty small. We'd been hoping we might find another dinghy here. back in Maine, we'd very generously been given a great roll-up Avon dinghy. For Maine cruising, it was quite luxurious and more than enough dinghy. But let us warn anyone who is planning to come to the Bahamas: you need a more substantial dinghy!!! We had no idea, but here you are often going several miles in the dinghy, across unprotected waters with a good deal of chop. Almost everyone has a RIB (rigid-bottom dinghy), then again, almost everyone has davits to hoist it on. We had hoped to find here a new or used smaller RIB, that we could carry on the foredeck, or at least a bigger inflatable with larger tubes and an inflatable keel. Our dinghy has small tubes, no keel, and a soft floor. Back at Norman's Cay Neil scavenged some cooler lids from the dump that he fashioned into a partial floor. It helps a bit but we still get very very wet, and go very very slowly. We are hoping that once we leave the Bahamas it won't be such an issue, since we were unable to find another dinghy here. But all of you sailors planning a trip to the Bahamas, be forewarned! Take the largest dinghy you can safely stow, with the largest motor you can afford. We had heard this advice and pooh-poohed it, but it is true...

Next: Georgetown to Turks & Caicos...