Bite-sized Adventures in the Exumas

If my time in Nassau exposed a series of fears, traveling through the Exumas brought me back to my preferred state: adventure.

Of course, the two are often intertwined. And really:

What is Adventure?

Pretty much everything you encounter while traveling is an adventure. Just going grocery shopping can qualify. Once you figure out which building is the market, you meet people with a different life experience, communicate in unfamiliar languages, find new foods to try, and end up standing beside a guy swinging a machete at coconuts, while puzzling out which local coins and bills add up to the total of your purchase. It’s all adventure in my book.

Not everyone would agree. My adventure of paddling around in warm, 10 foot deep water would likely not satisfy folks who through-hike the Pacific Crest Trail, trek across the Australian Outback, or row the North Atlantic. I recently watched NYAD, and my adventures are not Diana’s adventures.

Don’t get me wrong – I like testing my limits. In my novels, my heroines are either born to adventure, go looking for adventure, or have adventure thrust upon them. And I count myself as one who goes seeking all kinds of adventure.

But when you’ve barely recovered from a crazy bad illness, big-time, death-defying adventure with a capital A is not what you’re after. I just wanted to go snorkeling. And for that we had to get out of Nassau.

Each Time the Anchor Comes Up, An Adventure Begins

Covid free, feeling much better, and with a calm day ahead, we were ready to explore more of The Bahamas. So we motored through Nassau harbor to do battle with the Paradise Island bridges.

I’d spent a week researching the height of the two spans, but found no official measurement available online. There were no depth boards on either side of either bridge. The water beneath them was littered with wreckage. The dolphins (wooden guards around the bridge pillars) had been hammered by mega-yachts and hurricanes, and not yet repaired. Timbers hung at all angles, flopping in the current.

Both spans turned out to be tall enough. 57 foot tall Domino made it under and out to the other side of the harbor. Which we found, is where the rich people live. Waterfront mansions are the same everywhere.

After clearing the coral heads at Porgee Rocks, we put up the jib, optimistic in the light breeze. Q, our autopilot, steered, and I was free to woolgather, gaze out at the turquoise expanse, and watch coral heads slip by below. It was a glorious, relaxing, mentally cleansing day.

And then came the dolphin. The first to play on our bow wave since leaving No Name Harbor, in Florida. Ahhh!

Shroud Cay

Our dolphin escort left us as we neared the shallow entrance to Shroud Cay. The water was so clear that we watched the shadow of our mast cross the sand, and could pick out starfish on the bottom.

Anchored behind a pair of rocky islets, we quickly got out dive gear, and dinghied over to the closest one to see what was down there before the late-afternoon sun sank too low for good visibility.

To go straight from a disease that attacks the respiratory system, to a sport that requires breath holding was itself an adventure. I was over the sickness, but not the effects. I couldn’t stay under water very long.

Still, we found bonkers colorful reef fish, coral, barracuda, and sea fans. It was a perfect dive for the condition we were in and the time we had. Planning to come back and do the other island the next day, we headed back to Domino for sunset, and sundowner G&Ts.

The next morning, we moved further into the little bay. A creek led out to the ocean side of the island and we wanted to kayak through for a drift dive in the inlet.

Kayaking was also tough on our weakened systems, and this turned out to be a longer paddle than anticipated, 2.5 miles. There was wind – of course there is when you have to paddle, not when you want to sail – and it was against us. By the time we reached the outer beach my shoulders were done. And I still had 2.5 miles to paddle back.

Luckily, drifting along in “the rapids” a short narrow chute past rocky cliffs, took little shoulder effort. The usual barracuda watched us from under a rocky shelf as we floated along with brilliant turquoise, yellow, and orange reef fish. Next we climbed the hill to camp lookout to check out the view. Hustling back down to catch the incoming tide, we found that the wind that should now be helping us was gone. It was a hard slog home.

After lunch, hydration, and ibuprofen for the shoulders, we threw our dive gear in the dink again and went to explore another set of islets near this new anchorage. These were better yet, with more and different fish. Every dive was better than the last.

Drifting over a shallow shelf between the two islets we saw a turtle and our first spotted eagle ray, with its amazing tail 5 times as long as its body. We also saw that the thimble jellyfish, suspected source of Tom’s rash, had dropped out of the water column and were congregated in each pocket of rock or dimple in the sand. Were they resting for the night?

Maybe they were hiding from the storm that was about to hit us.

storm coming shroud cay, the exumas

Storm

Back aboard Domino, I started dinner, and we relaxed with drinks. Until I looked up and saw a storm to the south. The weather moves east to west as a rule, so we expected it to go on by. Instead, it got bigger, and moved closer. Shroud Cay is part of The Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, where there are no cell towers. So we were offline, and unable to get any weather data.

Darkness fell, we got slammed with wind and rain, and about 10:00 we dragged anchor. Our anchorage lay between several shelves of rock and our darling little reef. Dragging was not a good idea. Tom went naked into the pouring rain and put out more chain to increase our scope. It seemed to stop our movement. I set up a couple of electronic markers to track our location. By 11:30 we hadn’t moved any more, and I relaxed a bit.

This too is part of adventure, this anxiety, watchfulness, extremity, discomfort, and problem solving. Called Type 2 Fun, it’s a constant part of the sailing lifestyle.

I stayed awake most of the night watching the storm’s progress. It went on for hours, even when the wind slowed, the rain lashed at us, and vice versa.

A thunderstorm is no joke. There were mega yachts and other decent sized boats around. If Domino had dragged onto a rocky bank, yes there would be damage, and heartache. But help was available.

In the morning the clouds were soft and puffy with no trace of storm and we moved on south to our next destination..

Warderick Wells

At first sight, the beauty of this spot simply knocked my eyes out.

I couldn’t wait to get into that sparkling turquoise water. As soon as we were moored we tried the closest reef to the boat, it’s called The Ranger’s Garden. But the current runs strong and swept us by too fast to see anything. We decided to wait for slack tide. So we headed out to Emerald Rocks about a mile away, and circled the big rock instead. There were lots of fish, a lurking barracuda, and some beautiful coral formations.

Back at the boat, I was kneeling on the transom, tying up the dinghy when a shark appeared. Tom was still in the dink – without his camera. The shark swam closer and closer, and up to the surface, coming right up to me. In shock, I sat down to avoid falling in and getting eaten. The shark hovered near, its back right up at the surface within easy reach. I said, “Oh my god, I’m going to touch it.” And in total fear, I did. It was like something possessed me, I couldn’t not touch it. I petted a wild shark’s back. And then it glided away and Tom says I shrieked something like, “I petted a fucking shark!” The skin felt like sharkskin. (Shrug emoji) It felt like a coarse sand paper that’s very worn down, each bump smoothed over, but still distinct.

After dinner, I decided to hike up Boo Boo Hill, hoping to get a signal for weather info and a phone call. Boo Boo, with its junk pile of boat mementos, was a no go, but on the next hill over I got a tiny signal and called our daughter, Mari. I talked for the few minutes I could stand the bugs. I’d been keeping the bug spray in the backpack or my purse, but that night I totally forgot about bug spray and regretted it, bad.

That evening, a guy came by in his dinghy asking if we knew whether the park would mind if he picked up a mooring. We told him we thought it would be fine until morning when he could go talk to the manager. As he was leaving, I said “wait, in return for our invaluable help, we need a doctor or nurse, are you a doctor or nurse?” I was mainly joking, extracting payment for the information we’d provided. He said no, he was not a doctor or nurse. I said “well if you meet one, send them our way. Tom has a rash and we need a doc to take a look and tell us what to do about it.” He came clean then – his wife was a doctor. He promised to bring her by in the morning. I love it when my lame jokes have such a good result.

At slack tide, early the next morning we dove The Ranger’s Garden, where there were large, colorful, vase shaped sponges. Then we did the south side reef at the park headquarters inlet. We were meandering along a rocky outcropping when another shark appeared. Just swimming past. Holding my breath was suddenly not a problem. I momentarily forgot it’s usually hard for me. I froze, my back against the wall, slowly turning to keep that sucker in view. There is no turning your back on a shark, even a 5 foot one that probably can’t eat you. The schools of fish lined up behind him. Out of sight, out of jaws.

After our dive, our new friend Daniel came by with his doctor wife Gabriela, and their two-year old daughter Gigi. Gabriela looked at Tom’s rash from a safe, social distance, said it was an allergic reaction, and that he should get Prednazone. Outside the Land and Sea Park, most of the islands have a medical clinic. A traveling nurse visits on a rotating schedule. At our next stop – Staniel Cay – Tom could see the nurse and get his prescription.

Before moving on, we wanted to get in the water one more time, so we decided to circumnavigate the island. Once upon a time, someone tried to farm this rock. On the western shore we hiked up to the ruins of a stone house and barns. Talk about an adventure – try farming with no soil. It’s just rock everywhere. Hutia, a plump, brown, rabbit-sized member of the rodent family, thought to be extinct, were rediscovered on this one island. Judging from the evidence, they are far from extinct, and they like rock burrows.

Down around the southern tip of the island, was Pirate’s Lair beach. The location, remote and tucked between several small cays, is lovely, and easy to imagine as a pirate hideout.

Further up the eastern shore we found a rocky beach, and still trying to get a sense of what they might have tried to grow here, we pulled the dinghy up on shore and took a short hike. Coming on a sign that said Slave Dip, I reflected again upon the discomfiting history of the islands. A history I wanted to know more about.

Continuing up the shore to the northern tip, we hoped to dive where we’d heard there were Stromatolites, a prehistoric flat gray coral formation. We did find a reef, but if we saw Stromatolites we didn’t know it, because we didn’t know what they looked like.

Staniel Cay and Thunderball Grotto

Day by day, the Exumas continued to draw us in, enticing us with sights and activities that proved addicting.

For instance, the sail from Warderick Wells to Staniel Cay was P-E-R-F-E-C-T.

With a 15 knot breeze on our beam, and sun glinting off smooth water, it was a fairy tale sail. The autopilot holding course, we read, fussed with lines, and enjoyed the scenery. We hadn’t had the opportunity to travel without the motor running in months. The quiet was to die for.

Unfortunately we had to stop before it was over to go to Staniel Cay. It was time to top off the fuel, and Tom had to get the medicine for his rash, now that we knew what it was.

Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty to like about Staniel Cay. It’s as beautiful as any other idyllic Bahamanian island. But it will live forever in my memory as the place that forced me to drop sails on the most perfect sail of my life so far.

As soon as we headed into Staniel, time went wonky. First, fueling took two hours. We waited an hour out in the channel because there’s only one boat length to the dock, and it’s first come first served. Then, after we’d filled fuel tank and jugs, we had to wait for the water to come back online so we could fill our water tank.

Tanks full, (and sanitized) we grabbed one of the municipal moorings west of town, and instantly met a guy with a hard luck story. He was out of fuel and single handing. I made the mistake of offering to tow him to the beach in his kayak. He took forever to tell us the story of his less than fun adventures, losing his crew, and then his dinghy, and then longer to get ready to go. We finally made it to town at 2:11 and found the clinic had closed at 2. Tom. Was. Furious.

After looking at the popular anchorage close to town, and the other one where you can swim with pigs, we chose an anchorage outside of town for the night. Between the Majors is a beautiful spot, tucked in between the rocky arms of a private island, facing a sandy little cove, and remote from the mega yachts, and crowds. But getting there was a challenge. Our route lay through a reef called Crown of Thorns. Of course those thorns are coral heads. Once we’d got through the reef without a scratch we had to pass one of those infamous cuts between islands. The water was very rough, with lots of current against us. When we anchored well into the little bay, it seemed protected. It wasn’t until dark that the rolling started. Swells came at us from both sides, making for a rough night.

In the morning we came back to the city moorings and were sad to see that the hard luck guy’s boat was now stuck on the reef south of the fuel dock. We could do nothing to help the rescue effort, so just stayed out of the way.

While Tom went to get his medicine, I got ready for a dive at Thunderball Grotto. Thunderball was exactly as touristy as you’d expect from a site made famous by a James Bond movie. Heck, that’s why I wanted to go. From the outside it looks like a rock islet. But then you dive down, and swim under the walls you find it’s a big rock bubble, an amazing cavern with a hole in the top. Once upon a time it must have been spectacular. But tourists hang on the ledges, and kick their fins against delicate corals. The outside though, was great. It had far more life than the inside, because no one pays any attention to it.

Black Point

Between Staniel and George Town we had time to visit just one more island, we selected Great Guana Cay. It seemed off the beaten track, which we were looking for after the tourism chaos at Staniel. Our charts also showed some decent reefs on the outside.

Black Point is an historic settlement, quiet and charming. We walked the whole town, got a few groceries. A little south was another bay beautiful, protected and quiet. There was a mega yacht there, seemingly with only one guy aboard. He repeatedly circled our boat on his jet ski. It seemed kind of a macho show.

We took our dive gear and other necessities and hiked the ridge of the island, looking for a way to get to Harbor Rocks, the reef we’d seen on the map. It was about a mile, not too bad a distance. The actual terrain though was tough. We walked up a gravel road, then across an expanse of scrub and cactus. Good thick soles are important here, not water shoes or light-weight flip flops. When we made it to the cliff top we wondered if that was the end of our adventure, but with some patient experimentation we found a way to clamber down. Once at the shore there was still a quarter mile or so of rocks to traverse to get to the cove.

All the effort was worthwhile. The reef was gorgeous! We saw elkhorn corals 8 feet tall with trunks like trees. They were just huge. Yet the frilled outer edge was wafer thin. There were lots of fish, so many fish. Tom tried to spear a fish but was not successful. It was a great dive though, and I was glad not to have to lug a fish back.

We found our way up the cliff again, hiked back to the boat, cleaned up and got ready to sail. As we motored south along the western shore of Great Guana Cay, we heard the hollow crash and boom characteristic of sea caves. Checking the chart we found that the water is deep right up to the rock wall so we crept closer to investigate. Sure enough, the entire north west shore of the island is a line of caves.

Dang, we didn’t have time to stay and dive this right now. We had a weather window and just enough time to motor south toward Cave Cay for the night. The very shallow route requires good visibility to avoid hitting coral heads and reefs.

The anchorage at Cave Cay is small. Just an indentation off the thoroughfare. It felt like we had our nose in a corner while our butt was hanging out in the hallway. Good thing we were so far off season or there might have actually been some traffic to bother Wonderbaby.

Decision Time at Georgetown

There are two constant messages about the Exumas from cruising guide writers, bloggers, and navigation app reviewers.

  1. Every island is the most beautiful you have ever seen.
  2. Every cut is extremely dangerous and hard to navigate.

Boy, those folks really know how to hit my Now-Fear-This button. Reading so many dire warnings about navigating the cuts between the beautiful islands of the Exumas, I built up the difficulty in my mind. The current, they said, was very strong. Hidden reefs lurked on either side of each opening. Some advisors said we should have the sails up when navigating through. They meant, just in case the engine fails. This is a fine idea if you are heading west with the wind, or happen to get a freak north or south wind. But we were heading directly east, into the wind, sails would not help much.

We chose Cave Cut to get through to the Bahama Sound side of the Exuma Archipelago and George Town. Following reasonable navigation practices, we went in daylight, near slack tide, early in the morning, because the wind is calmer then. We stayed away from the rocks. The transit only took a few minutes. Much ado about nothing.

The trip southeast to George Town was motor-sailing into the wind, as usual. The entry at Conch Cay, was also mightily warned about. This time the fear was that there could be breakers all the way across it. There weren’t, and we easily made it to the village of George Town. Everyone was very friendly. The straw market ladies helped me find the perfect birthday gift to send back home. The post office clerk thought I was a comedy routine as she helped me through every step of the international shipping process. It’s complex. And expensive.

Groceries, water, and garbage were easy peasy. There’s a free dock inside the lagoon, right behind the supermarket. There’s free water at that dock. Garbage goes in the back of a pickup truck parked near the grocery store. You stick your payment in through the slit of the slightly open driver’s side window.

Everything else required a little effort and finesse.

We sought out a church to donate a few unused clothes. Laundry was a trip. A trek up the slight hill and down a side street. The manager filled the machines with a hose. To get fuel, Tom had to lug jugs around town, and up and down ladders. The hours are short at both the gas station for gas, and the Yacht Club Choppy Waters fuel dock for diesel.

We figured things were different during the cruising season. We’ve heard it’s not unusual to see 300 boats anchored in George Town. The satellite image on Google Earth shows wall to wall boats. But in the middle of hurricane season the bay was almost empty. At Sand Dollar Beach there were six boats. There was a ketch out in Da Middle, (of which we will hear more later) and one catamaran and one monohull in front of town. Many more were stored on moorings inside the hurricane holes.

Man of War Cay for a Day

The wind blew steadily up the bay for days, so once we’d replenished the necessities of life, and had clean clothes, we decided to try some other spots to see if they offered more protection and other kinds of fun. We squeaked in between Round Cay and the tip of Man of War. I was on the bow with instructions to keep a look out for obstacles. Most likelyTom just wanted to be as far as possible away from my terror energy. The light chop disturbed the water enough that I couldn’t see a thing. I hung on the stainless tubing of the pulpit, eyes swiveling, wondering if that speck of sand indicated shallower water or that dark patch could be a coral head and trying not to lose my shit.

Once inside, the anchorage was undeniably gorgeous and it was good to be out of the relentless wind. But we hadn’t escaped the roll. It wasn’t bad at first, but we still decided to try rigging a swell bridle, something we’d heard we’d need, but hadn’t succeeded with yet. It was minimally helpful, and didn’t seem worth all the effort. We wondered if the technique just didn’t work on our boat, which has a winged keel.

The beach was close and sandy, offering a chance to kayak instead of using the dinghy. We hiked around, this way and that, trying to find a route to “JR’s house” on the cliff top. Mentioned in our sailing guide to the islands, The Thornless Path, it’s abandoned now, and the paths have disappeared behind ironically thorny hedges. Unprepared for bushwhacking, and not wanting to miss the rising tide for exiting the anchorage before dark, we had to give up before finding a way to get there.

Back to Town for the Big Blow

With 20 to 30 knot winds forecast overnight and all day Thursday, I spent the next morning in town, picking up a few groceries and filling water jugs. The wind blew me to town like spume on top of surf. The narrow opening to Lake Victoria was really spicy – wind against tide. Coming back to Domino I bashed into the rollers, getting a shower from each. I tried to plane over them and ended up thinking I would damage either the boat or my back, so slowed to a wet crawl.

Rolle Cay

At fiveish, we brought up the anchor and attempted to go around the west side of the rock islands, looking for more protection in the Rolle Cay anchorage. I found it too shallow, with much less water than indicated on any of our charts. Which is unusual.

So I went around the east side of the little islands where the water should be 7 to 9 feet and found 5 to 6 feet. Something was weird. The charted depths were not accurate. I flashed back to the idea, mentioned by a guy I used to work with at West Marine, that some conditions can take the water out of a bay. It sure seemed like that was happening, with this long term wind blowing relentlessly up the harbor.

I made it in from the deeper, harbor side instead, but again, the depths were not as shown on the chart. We spent a nervous night with inches under our keel. It never got over 6.5 feet deep at high tide. The chart said there should be 7 feet at low tide. At 8:30, on the high tide, I raised anchor again and Tom took the helm. In situations with a narrow margin of error, we find it best to stick to our top skill sets.

Sand Dollar Beach

For days we’d watched this anchorage from across the bay. Our friends Jason and Savannah had anchored here and recommended it, but with the constant south wind, it looked like all fetch, all the time. We decided to give it a try and regretted not coming sooner. And the scenery was miles better. A sandy beach, and palm covered hill sides. Clear turquoise water for swimming.

Clouds kept passing over, looking like they could be storms. One appeared to dump rain to the west of George Town, reminding us again, that this was hurricane season. But out here, for the moment, we were in the sun and protected.

Taking a hike across the island we found a little pond with a colony of big yellow crabs running for their burrows, sinking into their puddle at our approach. Just as we got across the island to a lovely beach, a squall hit. We turned and ran back to Domino, not because of the rain, but because we’d found a boogie boarding beach. Boogie boards tucked under our arms, we hustled back to the surf and had some fun catching easy, short rides on steep waves.

For a couple of days we played at Sand Dollar Beach and wrestled with our big decision. We’d made it to our turnaround point. Should we go on, or go back?

We did not want to go back. With each mile away from the continental US, going back became less and less appealing.

With no indication of hurricanes in the forecast, we decided to continue south, our goal to make it to Luperon, in the Dominican Republic. It’s a well known hurricane hole, nestled in a ring of mountains that break up storms. If a big one began to develop before we could get there, we could run back here to George Town, or haul out in The Turks and Caicos. For now, we were just going to take the next hop, to Long Island.

This was not the first time we admitted we don’t like to turn the boat around. But it was when we finally understood that we may be constitutionally unable.

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