Fort Lauderdale to the Exuma Islands – Part II
by Elizabeth Gregory on 16 Mar
As you may recall, I accept invitations to sail in warmer climes, and this time, I joined friends to sail from Florida to the Exuma Islands. In part I, we made it to Miami Harbour.
Part 2: Miami Harbour to the Biminis
The author with Glenn, kite-surfing at Stocking Cay. Bluewater Cruising Association
Leaving Miami Harbour, we motor-sailed east. It was sunny but breezy and lumpy. I was wearing a toque and all my heavy clothes, while Alice wished she hadn’t believed Glenn about packing light for the “tropical climate”.
We safely crossed the Gulf Stream and enjoyed a beautiful sunset and moonrise, before navigating the entrance to Alice Town in Bimini. Some channel markers were missing, but they don’t get replaced quickly here after hurricanes. We moored to the outside breakwater of Brown’s Marina as the winds were too strong to get into our reserved slip. Our nature count for the day was one manatee, several dolphins, one whale, blue bottle jellyfish, schools of flying fish and by-the-wind sailor jellyfish. We were finally in the Bahamas!
Glenn took our papers to check in to the Bahamas while we enjoyed the marina’s hot showers and Wifi. Later we followed the locals to a bakery down the street for breakfast of tuna or corned beef with grits topped by jalapeño salsa. After a pow-wow, we decided to head eastward (into the wind) to Mackie’s Shoal, where we could drop anchor and rest for a few hours overnight before heading further. The goal was Chub Key, 85 miles away.
David hung a fishing lure overboard but no luck. Around midnight, we dropped the anchor in ten feet of water on Mackie Shoal. The next morning enjoying our coffees in the cockpit, Alice and I were astounded by our surroundings. A 360 degree water view. No land, no buildings, no ships. Just ocean.
The last leg to Chub Cay was heavy weather, beating up-wind and steering into each wave. Waves averaged 8-10 feet with winds 25-30 knots. We took turns on the helm as it was hard work and tiring. We used the chart plotter to guide us safely into the entry channel to Chub Cay and wound around into an “under construction” marina resort, advertising a pool and hot tub. Unfortunately the fresh water infinity pool and hot tub were really chilly, so we used the one very basic concrete-block shower to rinse our salt-encrusted bodies.
The next day, high waves were still crashing over the beach on the windward side of the cay. Should we go or should we stay? Glenn has a great kite-surfing app that plots wind strength and direction, as well as weather for each hour for several days. It has been amazingly accurate. It forecast that we would have a beam reach to Nassau, with the winds backing down to 20-25 knots, so we decided to head out. Two boats followed us out but one retreated. We set a course slightly upwind of Nassau Harbour to allow us to bear off later in the crossing. This was a comfortable, sunny point of sail and everyone got a chance to try the helm.
When we reached Nassau, we were still sailing through the harbour, but wisely decided to furl the jib and use the motor once we came alongside two giant cruise ships. We passed lots of anchored sailboats, many Canadian from Quebec or the Maritimes. Jeff had scouted out a little bay to anchor in that should be protected from the northerlies predicted overnight. We prepared to settle in for the evening. It was overcast by then but David, Colette and Jeff took the dinghy to swim from the beach.
After seeing all the boats anchored in Nassau Harbour, we wondered why no one else was here, until a small work boat approached us to warn that winds funneled right down between the cays forming our bay. Thanks for the local knowledge! So we upped anchor and headed back to the harbour. No one was interested in exploring Nassau town. Even the sirens and sounds of cars were more civilization than we wanted, but the rain and wind overnight were dramatic enough that we were glad we’d moved from our anchorage.
Early the next morning, finally on day 12, we left for a 35 mile southeast crossing to the Exuma chain of islands. But first, we needed to navigate either the Yellow Bank or White Bank. The Yellow Bank is littered with coral heads, which look like red chicken pox on the chart plotter.
The White Bank has fewer coral heads but is shallower – not even a foot under our 6’8? keel. When we hit the western side of the Yellow Bank, Glenn stood on the boom to get a better view while Jeff, David and Colette situated themselves at the bow, port and starboard for coral sighting. The guide books say to cross this bank in less than 15 knots of wind and calm seas in midday sun. We had a little more than 20 knots, a lively chop but it was close to noon. One out of three ain’t’ bad! An hour later we’d safely squiggled through.
The Exumas are an archipelago of 365 cays and islands. Entrances to anchorages between most cays are winding and vary from shallow to really shallow. We soon became content with a foot under the keel.
Our first anchorage in the Exumas was Little Guana Cay. It was late afternoon when we anchored among a dozen other boats, in a bowl created by several low cays covered in thick scrubby vegetation. The highlight of this first group of cays was the native lizards, smaller and stouter than green lizards seen in Belize. They have a pink cast to their chameleon skin. A posted sign says that they not only prune the shrubs but propagate them by excreting their seeds.
Next stop as we sailed southward was Warderick Wells Cay National Park, where we’d reserved a mooring buoy. We had a slightly different tie up when our boat hook bent as David tried to pull up the ring. Suddenly Jeff leapt into the clear shallow water and secured us to our mooring. Another sailor dinghied over to comment that he hadn’t seen that method before! It was quite effective.
This spot was Caribbean postcard perfect, with every shade of turquoise water lapping at white sand beaches. We checked in at Park Headquarters to pay our $18/night mooring fee. (The Exumas take US dollars at par with the Bahamian dollar.) Displays of local shells, whale skulls and fish skeletons, as well as a caged hutia, the local rodent, adorn the walls of the office. A path led down to the powdery white sand beach, where we spotted rays and a shark lurking in the shallows. A 62’ blue whale skeleton that had washed up was displayed on the beach. Sadly it had died from ingesting plastic.
Alice and I borrowed the park’s sit-upon kayaks to reconnoiter. Later we donned snorkeling gear to scout the nearby reef. Jeff, a dive master, pointed out eagle rays, huge lobster and fish in every colour imaginable. I missed seeing the sharks, but that was ok with me. There were beautiful purple fan corals, huge brain coral, and sponges with tiny fish darting every which way and larger fish cruising through. There was no fishing or taking conch or lobster, as well as no anchoring in the Park, in order to protect the reefs.
The entrance to Rock Creek settlement, our next stop 25 miles south, was through Dotham Cut, wider and straighter than many. We anchored at dusk behind several dozen sailboats and watched the sun go down at 6pm. You can almost set your watch by it. Rock Creek has several restaurants and services, so we dinghied ashore to Lorraine’s Cafe for dinner and Internet, Lorraine grilled snapper covered with onions, served with rice and peas, macaroni and cheese, vegetables and coleslaw, all washed down with rum punches or Malik beer. A feast that we didn’t have to prepare ourselves.
Back at the dock where we’d left the dinghy, I almost walked the plank as I was distracted by a shark basking beside the boat. Black moths, with four-inch wingspans were flying around like bats. Later that evening, one trapped itself in our boat’s salon and flapped around for several days.
Early the next day, we were motoring out when we heard someone yelling at us to stop. The Royal Bahama Defense Force had singled us out. Everybody out of bed to dig out passports and be interrogated. The officers blanched somewhat when we said we were six on board, outnumbering them. One of the men stayed in the cockpit with me. The other three went below to check paperwork and root through our lockers. So much for our early start, but they were soon satisfied that we really were who we said we were, so they wished us a good trip and returned to their boat. Whew.
The winds this day were unfortunately coming right on our nose from the southeast, so we motor-sailed most of the day to Elizabeth Harbour and Georgetown on Grand Exuma Island, the largest of the Exuma chain. Cleavon showed up to guide us into the outermost dock of Exuma Yacht Club, just as we ran aground in soft sand several feet shy of the dock. A little throttle and we broke free. The marina has water, fuel nearby and the town has all the services we needed. This was the first night in more than two weeks that was either warm enough or calm enough to eat outside in the cockpit.
The next morning we enjoyed coffee at a café, where our waitress explained why uniformed school kids were walking single file down the street, each carrying a chair. They were on their way to the town hall for a spelling bee. Sadly, she also told us that the night before, four teenagers had stolen a parent’s car and “bucked it up”. They all were in critical condition. A distress call had gone out on VHF to see if there were any physicians or nurses aboard yachts in the harbour who could assist. By now, the kids had all been airlifted to Nassau. My heart went out to their parents who might not all be able to get to their kids’ hospital bedsides so many miles away.
After fueling, watering and resupplying the boat, we retraced our path to deeper water, then motored a few more miles to Little Exuma Island. In 2009, construction halted on a proposed marina for the deeper bay where we anchored, presumably due to American monetary contraction. Later that night, away from any lights, the stars were spectacular.
The wind piped up again overnight, although the day had been sunny and warm. Glenn’s kite surfing app showed that sustained winds over 35 miles an hour with gusts much higher were forecast for Sunday. So we motored across the harbour to Stocking Island, where there are several protected holes with mooring buoys. We tied up, much more traditionally this time. There is an $18/night fee, but no maximum stay, so the boat will remain a few days.
Once secure, we dinghied to a trail leading to the windward side of Stocking Island and a breathtaking view of huge turquoise rollers crashing on the white sand beach. Glenn brought his kite surfing gear, a travel board that breaks into two pieces. The rest of us body surfed. On our way back, we stopped in at the St. Francis Yacht Club for yummy cracked conch and rum punches. High priced but a treat.
We arranged with Elvis, who owns the water taxi service, and Junior, the land taxi, to pick Alice and me up at 5:45 the next morning, to transit to the airport for a Dash 8 flight from Georgetown to Nassau, on to Miami, then several more flights homeward. Elvis told me that all the kids survived the car accident and were recovering in Nassau. Many prayers were answered.
Our Bahama visit was shortened by doing repairs in a foreign locale, but I was thrilled to visit the Exuma Island chain by cruising sailboat. The best way to go!
This article has been provided courtesy of the Bluewater Cruising Association.
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