An Embarassment of Beaches – Exuma Cays, Bahamas, March 2010

Cruising the Exumas

“Cruising,” in the context of my life in general, and in the context of this trip in particular, has nothing to do with big ships and endless buffets. Instead, it is a term used for a specific lifestyle for which I’ve been preparing myself, in fits and starts, for over a decade and which I hope to achieve before I’m too old to enjoy it. “Cruising” means shaking off the shackles of land and taking off on my sailboat to the islands. I’m not alone in this dream, as fleets of boats leave the Chesapeake region every October and cruise down the Intracoastal Waterway to the Bahamas and beyond.

Among the escapists in the Bahamas are my friends Skip and Harriet on their boat Moondance. Their Moondance is the sistership of my Calypso, both Sabre 38s except theirs is blue and a bit newer and mine is red. Rick and I had planned to take a year off and go cruising, but decided to defer that plan until a (hopefully) early retirement in the future; Skip and Harriet, early retirees themselves, are doing it now and invited us to join them for a week. After much planning and anticipation, we met them in Georgetown, Great Exuma, during the last week of March, 2010, bringing with us a week of nearly ideal weather.

The Exumas are a chain of nearly 360 mostly tiny cays in the Bahamian archipelago, running roughly north to south, through which the Tropic of Cancer passes. Despite the large number of cays, the population is small and clustered in a handful of towns and settlements, the most populous of which is Georgetown on Great Exuma (approx. 1,000 residents). Despite the remoteness of the Exumas, getting there and getting back home was a fairly efficient process. Southbound, we flew American Airlines from DCA to MIA and American Eagle to Georgetown, which is in the southern portion of the cays.
Our trip starts in the traditional manner: with a Kalik.  Even though we can buy it in Maryland, it's best enjoyed with a Bahamian water view.
Heading home took a bit more effort due to weather and planning considerations: we ferried on Island Shuttle (reserved on VHF 16) from Sampson Cay to Staniel Cay (in the northern third of the cays), chartered a small plane from Staniel Cay to Georgetown, and then took the Eagle back to MIA and American to DCA. If one were not accustomed to the ways of the Out Islands, the experience of a private charter might be bewildering. Our pilot was one of several recommended by the bartender at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. Our “reservation” was made via cell phone, with nothing more exchanged than my first name and preferred departure time, and confirmed by a phone call the day before departure. When we departed, we simply met at the landing strip, and paid in cash upon landing in Georgetown. The flight was comfortable, and the views absolutely spectacular. Upon re-entry to the US, and not surprising to anyone who has ever transitted through MIA, the customs, immigration and security
processes in Miami make the Exuma part of the trip seem breezy.

Once on the ground on arrival, we taxi-ed to Club Peace and Plenty on the Georgetown waterfront. As most Out Islanders tend to be, our driver was friendly and welcoming, offering his services for the balance of our stay. We were greeted at Peace and Plenty by manager Neville, who promptly upgraded us to a waterfront room.   Peace and Plenty is a comfortable and clean hotel, and perfect for a quick visit; there are more luxurious resorts on Great Exuma, but they weren’t what we needed. In no time, we were enjoying the tropical warmth (a stranger to these parts all season, until we arrived), the company of bartender Doc, and a few Kaliks. I radio-ed Skip and Harriet – almost everyone communicates by VHF, and our hotel was no exception – and soon we had a reunion with our friends, whom we hadn’t seen in nearly 6 months.
On the left, water rushes through Dotham Cut, next to Bitter Guana Cay, home of endangered Exuma lizards, and a spectacular and empty beach which we visited the year before during our Staniel Cay trip.  On the right, just another anonymous Exuma cay to which I'd happily be parachuted for a few hours of blissful beach time.
The following morning, Skip picked us up at the Exuma Markets dinghy dock, and we motored over to Moondance. The plan was to cover as many miles northward (towards the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park) as possible the first few days, and then enjoy a leisurely trip back towards Staniel Cay. Our first day’s journey of about 40 miles was on the “outside” – the Exuma Sound side east of the cays – but the 30+ miles of our second day and every other day thereafter were covered on the “inside”. Because the more protected “inside” – the Exuma Bank side – is shallow and riddled with the vast sand bores that provide characteristic crystal blue watercolor swirls, some passages must be made on the less protected but significantly deeper waters of the Exuma Sound. To get back inside, where the anchorages are, requires careful attention to weather and tide, as strong reversing currents flow through most of the cuts.

Indeed, weather and sea conditions dictate just about every activity in these small exposed islands, and Skip rose every morning at 6:30 to hear the weather report from Chris Parker, who provides weather forecasting services for paying customers. Not only was Skip planning our week’s adventures, but Moondance would also be heading north to the Abacos and back to the US in the coming weeks. While we had beautiful sunny skies during our entire visit, the winds were significant and not always favorable for the direction we were heading. We had some gorgeous sails, but our first and last days on the boat were spent motoring, pounding into choppy seas. Rather than end up as intially planned at Staniel Cay at the end of our journey (where we stayed just a few months before ( Staniel Cay Report )), we stayed a few cays north in the marina at the Sampson Cay Club, since the forecast of a major front passing through necessitated a protected harbor (which Staniel Cay would not have been, given the forecast). Thanks goodness for Dramamine II!

I’ve long wanted to do a bareboat sailing charter in the Exumas, but aside from a small houseboat chartering company limited to Elizabeth Harbour in Georgetown, there are no charter companies based in the Exumas. Chartering is not impossible, as Navtours in Nassau and Florida Yacht Charters in Marsh Harbour (Abaco) permit qualified sailors to head to the Exumas on their boats; however, both of those journeys require extra days and good weather, neither of which is necessarily available to those of us who vacation in one-week bites. Having cruising friends in the Exumas gave us a chance not only to sail these magical waters, but to experience a small taste of the cruising life.

While cruisers seem to be a tiny segment of the population at home, most East Coast sailors know someone who has made the expedition. And in the Exumas, cruisers are a large presence. The spectacular Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park seems to have been set up almost exclusively for their enjoyment, though non-cruisers do make daytrips via seaplane or fast boat from Nassau. The VHF airwaves crackle with cruisers’ weather discussions and float and rendezvous plans. We were lucky enough not only to enjoy the company of our friends and their cruising brethren for cockpit cocktails and cooperative meals – cruising can be intensely social, or it can be very “off-the-grid” -- but also to benefit from their experience of which moorings in Exuma Park are best (and how best to insure getting one), which cuts are safest to transit, where to get groceries and obtain other services, which beaches and snorkeling spots are the most amazing, and which anchorages provide for the best night’s sleep.

Hunting and Gathering

It’s said that cruising is “fixing your boat in exotic places.” True to form, Skip and Harriet had major and minor fixes that required equipment. Some items were better ordered in the Bahamas; a new outboard for their dinghy came quickly from Nassau, awaiting pickup at the Staniel Cay dock. Other items were better ordered in the US and sent to us, who brought them down in our luggage. As of 2009, spares and parts for boats in transit are duty free in the Bahamas, upon presentation of a cruising permit and receipts, but they are subject to a 7% stamp tax. Anticipating this, I had all the paperwork ready for arrival in Georgetown – even preparing a spreadsheet calculating the stamp tax. Immigration and customs agents in the Bahamas have a great deal of discretion, and in our case, it worked to our advantage; our preparation and friendly demeanor resulting in a waiver of the stamp tax. The lady following us through immigration did not fare so well; as a cruiser, she’d hoped for approval of the maxiumum permitted 6-month stay, but only got 60 days. I wonder if a smile would have helped her….

Aside from the boat parts we were bringing down, as well as other goodies (including Maryland-raised bison steaks, since we can no longer easily bring down traditional gifts of booze), Rick and I packed very light. You just don’t need that much stuff when you are spending a week sailing from beach to beach, and for downtime, we had our Kindles, which reduce luggage substantially. But as a practical matter, there’s not much un-committed storage space on cruising boat, since it’s needed for necessities like food, tools, toiletries, and all other supplies that make life aboard more gracious than camping on the water. Stores, where available, are subject to the vagaries of supply (i.e. when the mailboat arrives), limited selection, and heavy duties, so cruisers stock up on durables, and fill every available spot while preserving comfortable living space. Getting stuff – like fuel or water -- can require significant planning and expense.
Moondance, in the Cambridge Cay anchorage in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
No, we will not be having conch for dinner (though they are tasty buggers).  The Exuma Park is a no take zone, and this specimen would be too small in any event.
Not that we suffered much. I slept for the week on the twin of the bunk I usually sleep in on my own boat, and nights were quite cool, making the lack of air-conditioning a non-issue. One day we bathed in the sea, rinsing off with fresh water, and on other days I showered under a deliciously warmed Sun Shower in the cockpit; this to me was far more pleasant than bathing in the cramped head. Our meals were wonderful, combining staples brought from the US with Bahamian treats like the famous bread as well as fresh spiny lobster (grilled, with the leftovers making lobster salad) and grouper (in a Thai preparation). The challenges of communication (my Blackberry worked only in Georgetown) could also be viewed as a luxury, as we had no choice but to disconnect for a week.

Most places we traveled were very remote, not offering so much as a public toilet or fresh water, much less a beach bar (though in this regard we lacked for nothing, since Moondance was well-stocked….). We ate a few meals out at the beginning and end of our trip (at Eddie’s in Georgetown, and the Sampson Cay Club), and enjoyed Bahamian food including grouper fingers and stewed chicken.

Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous

Before I was lucky enough to travel to the West Indies often, my vision of the islands was right out of a Sean Connery-era Bond film: glamorous cocktail dresses for perfectly coiffed ladies; suave, dinner-jacketed men in casinos; luxury yachts; and don’t forget the monocled villains. While the Bond film “Thunderball” was filmed in and around Staniel Cay and its Thunderball grotto, most of the Bond-era glamor simply doesn’t exist for most visitors to the Bahamas today. They either experience the cruise-ship
tawdriness or mega-hotel homogenization of Nassau, or a handful get the bare-bones rusticity of the Out Islands. But in the Exumas, touches of a glitzier life are still visible.

On our first night at sea, we anchored off Big Galliot Cay, which is uninhabited but has a few lovely beaches. But just across the Galliot Cut lies the private island of Musha Cay, owned by David Copperfield and operated as an exclusive retreat for those who can afford the daily tariff of more than $35,000 per day. Big names come here to hide from the cares of the world, and while the hoi polloi like us won’t be visiting anytime soon, the gorgeous beaches and sandbars in the vicinity of the island are just as accessible.
Just another sunny day, and sunset, in paradise.  After a long day of motoring our first day, we anchored at Big Galliot Cay, just one north of glamorous and off-limits Musha Cay.  We still got the same sea views and sunshine.
Later in the week, we moored in the Cambridge Cay anchorage of the Exuma Park, which is surrounding by dozens of beautiful islets, sandbars, and snorkeling spots. Just north of Cambridge is a cay owned by Captain Jack Sparrow himself, Johnny Depp. While Rick and Harriet snorkeled in a spot known as the Aquarium (which they reported was amazing and sporting healthy corals), I sat sentinel in the dinghy. We watched a 100+ foot motoryacht anchored off Johnny’s cay, receiving guests arriving from a seaplane which landed nearby. Wonder who was visiting?

Our goal, in contrast, was reaching Warderick Wells, the headquarters of the Exuma Park. We put over 80 miles under the keel to get there. No one lives here but the park staff. There are no restaurants or bars, though the park does host a Saturday night bonfire for cruisers at which the ultimate cruising luxury – ice for cocktails! – is provided. The payoff, which can be had for a mere $15 per night (free if you do a hard day’s volunteer work), is one of the most remarkable anchorages I’ve ever seen. The main basin is extremely shallow, clear, pale blue water, some of which dries to pink-white sand at low tide, with a darker-turquoise natural J-shaped channel running through it that has moorings installed. Warderick Well  and the
surrounding cays offer dozens of beaches, each prettier than the next. A hike up Boo Boo Hill affords a view of the surrounding area, as well as a collection of driftwood artifacts left by visiting boats. This doesn’t suck!
Johnny Depp's guests arrive to a huge yacht by seaplane, but Rick and I were quite happy to be at the Exuma Park office overlooking the spectacular Warderick Wells mooring field.  Meanwhile, Harriet shows off the artifact they left behind atop Boo Boo Hill.

Playground for Beach Lovers

Of course, Warderick Wells is but one of the locations where I was awed by the superlative beaches. We got a taste of what the Exumas had to offer when visiting Staniel Cay last year, but this time got much more, both as viewed and experienced by sailboat, as well as observed from our low-flying flight from Staniel Cay to Georgetown. While
cruise ships might offer endless food buffets, our cruising experience offered a feast for the eyes, body and soul of the beach lover. Words fail me, so I offer a few photos here:
An "outside" (Exuma Sound) beach on Cambridge Cay in the Exuma Park on the left, while on the right, a sandbar near the Cambridge Cay anchorage.
On the left, the "swimming hole" on the south side of the Cambridge Cay anchorage, where the water drops from inches to 9-10 feet in just a few steps.  On the right, another "outside" beach just begging for a bit of body surfing.
On the left, we've parked our dinghy on a nearly hidden beach about a mile from Cambridge Cay; the beach is bordered by a mangrove creek, which we followed to a vast sand flat.  On the right, a view of the crystal waters of the Warderick Wells mooring field, from Moondance.
Fins to the left: one of several sharks circles Moondance in Warderick Wells, as Harriet and I prepare fresh grouper to use for a Thai fish dinner.  Fins to the right: a whale's skeleton on the beach next to the Exuma Park office.
As marinas go, the one at Sampson Cay Club has one of the most beautiful settings I've ever seen, as it's bounded on the east by a large sand bank that goes mostly dry at low tide (though at high tide, it was deep enough for the Island Shuttle to breeze through from Staniel Cay.
All I can do is thank my great friends for giving me a taste of the cruising life I hope to experience in greater depth someday, and the lovely people of the Exumas, who open their islands to us.