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Postcards from a Caribbean Winter - Part 3: The Bahamas

by Rod Morris 5 Feb 09:38 UTC 9 January 2019
Postcards from a Caribbean Winter – Part 3, The Bahamas © Rod Morris

The cruising area we get to enjoy on each of our voyages has ranged from Grenada all the way to Beaufort, North Carolina. This third article, in a series of nine, begins after Oh! completed a fantastic, and fast, five day passage from the British Virgin Islands (BVIs) to Georgetown, Great Exuma Island, Bahamas.

It could not have been a better passage, with sunny skies, warm weather and consistent 15-20 knot trade winds.

Sailing from the BVI to the Exumas

The sail from the BVIs to Georgetown was the stuff dreams are fueled by. We left Jost Van Dyke Island in the BVIs late in the afternoon and sailed off into the sunset. Just like the pioneers, with their wagons 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 0300h. 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. (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 doorway to adventure. The remote and isolated southern islands of the Bahamas mean stepping out into the open Atlantic; something many are 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 day's 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 a league of its own, because everything is so concentrated in Georgetown's huge Elizabeth Harbour.

The social activity center of the area is Stocking Island and Chat "n" Chill 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; local rays to feed; beautiful clear waters to swim in; dominoes, beach yoga and pretty much any other activity you wish to arrange.

Diane was itching to go running after five 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 for 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, swimming and plenty of long walks in Georgetown and around it's central lagoon.

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 hurricane 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 from 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 major draw year after year.

Like everywhere, you still have to be aware of potential risk. 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 aired a prepared comment from a cruiser who had contracted ciguatera fish poisoning. This is an illness you can get from eating reef fish infected with a parasite. 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. 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; otherwise they could at least add variety to their very limited diet. Even worse, their sensitivities were so random they could not find a pattern to foods that worsened their condition. So unlike being Gluten intolerant, they couldn't just eliminate a group of foods.

If you are cruising in the tropics, learn about this disease. Get to know the types of fish that can carry the ciguatera parasite and be aware. The symptoms are like 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 the cruiser made after reading her prepared announcement on the VHF cruisers Net: in Elizabeth Harbor, there were currently two couples on separate boats, both suffering from ciguatera fish poisoning, who had been infected in unrelated incidents.

Over the next few days there were several requests from, or on behalf of, these couples for help with basic needs of a cruising boat. Things like getting fuel, water, and perishables, or even just getting off their boats to go 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. You can learn about ciguatera fish poisoning on the following websites:

  • eMedicine Health
  • Wikipedia

    Needless to say, the 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 routes. 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. The Islands start in the south, with Great Exuma Island, and get progressively smaller as you go north. A side benefit to the smaller islands is that the surrounding waters are 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.

    The Exuma chain extends about 200 nm and is a fabulous area to spend 2 weeks (or much more) cruising. 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, 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 nm north, to almost Musha Cay, before we have consistently deep enough waters on the Great Bahamas Bank to feel comfortable.

    The middle section of the island chain is characterized 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 or a light chop. You can usually see the bottom as well as the shadow of your boat as it glides along. Sailing on Grand Bahama Bank is probably the gentlest, and most relaxing, sailing you can 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, 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 are at the settlements of Black Point and Staniel Cay. Both are small towns with basic services, but some wonderful surprises for the adventurous who like to wander and engage 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 local pastries and bread, or where you can drop off laundry to be cleaned and folded.

    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, stunningly beautiful bays and islands to explore. 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!

    The snorkeling, is the best I have found anywhere in the Eastern Caribbean. The only possible competitor might be the BVIs, but not really. There are several sunken aircraft to snorkel that are in just 1-4 meters of water. There are caves to explore, brilliant colorful corals, long drift snorkels 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. Onshore 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), to 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 charter 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 at Nassau). You can join the cruising yachts in several key places where 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 and often on 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 snorkeling even more amazing. Or explore the caves and grottoes at the Rocky Dundas Islets, then head into Cambridge Cay for more crystal clear, pristine protected bays to explore.

    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 beautiful beaches that will leave you breathless. Pictures just don't capture how stunning some of the settings truly are. This area has been protected for almost 60 years, so it is full of aquatic life protected from fishing or collection. 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 by yacht! There are only a few limited-size resorts in the area, which means no tour boats, large scale snorkeling operators, or day tours. The results are beautiful reefs, cays, deserted beaches and tidal channels to enjoy, and 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 and provisioning in Nassau, we set our sights on the Berry Islands, 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 four day passage to Beaufort, N.C., where our next big adventure would start...

    This article has been provided by the courtesy of Bluewater Cruising Association.

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