Crossing into The Bahamas on a sailboat takes a bit of coordination. First you need to fill your propane and diesel tanks and load 5 months worth of food onboard in South Florida. Then you need to make your way to a good jumping off spot like Key Biscayne. Then you need to wait for a good weather window. Once that comes into focus and a departure date is planned, you need to apply for your Bahamian Cruising Permit online. Then, no more than 48 hours prior to your departure, you need to get a vet to certify that your dog is free of disease and in good health. This last part can be the trickiest, because your dog is not in exceptionally good health and also not afraid to bite a vet that is trying to look in his ear. And because no South Florida Uber driver is at all interested in driving you and your smelly dog to and from the vet’s office. So you carry all 44 lbs of him for miles in the hot Florida sun with fingers crossed that he passes his tests.
A 40 mile wide, 3,000 foot deep, fire hose of 86F water known as the Gulf Stream is constantly hustling north between Florida and The Bahamas with great haste. If the wind is blowing against this current, huge seas build up between the two countries and sailing across can be extremely uncomfortable. For this reason, most sailors, ourselves included, are inclined to wait for a southerly wind, or no wind, to make the crossing. We ended up making the 52.7NM trip from Key Biscayne to Bimini with no wind.
The waters of Florida and The Bahamas come in so many shades of blue. The deep water in the gulf stream is a shade unlike any other. A pure dark blue without any trace of grey or green. Because we crossed with zero wind, the surface was glassy and the sun beams sent shafts of light deep down into the water. The effect was like a gentle, below-seas lightning storm. Exceptional.
We didn’t linger long in Bimini. Our goal was the Bahamian island chain called the Exumas and we were determined to keep the pace up until we got there. Perfect weather for continuing on was forecast and we took advantage of it to move forward. After Bimini, our route would take us across the Great Bahama Bank to Chub Cay in the Berry Islands. It’s an 87 mile hop and there is nothing in between. Water Depth ranges between 10 and 20 feet deep along most of this route. Sailing across, you get the bizarre experience of not seeing anything on the horizon, but always seeing the bottom as clearly as if you were in a swimming pool.
Mileage was long and we were worried the dog might not do well with what we feared could be an 18 hour day. But a stiff North wind built, and we screamed across the bank at a steady 7.5 knots knocking the total time between ports down to 13 hours. We still left in the dark and arrived in the dark this being winter and all, but it was manageable and the dog was happy.
We were expecting a fair amount of headwinds between Florida and the Exumas and were surprised to find good sailing with wind abaft the beam instead. The trend continued on day 3 where a stiff NE wind blew us down to Nassau and over to nearby Rose Island. We were in deep, unprotected water for the first 2/3rds of this day and the seas were large. Probably the roughest weather of our trip to date, but the sailing was fast and that wind was blowing us in the right direction.
Only 4 days out of Florida, we arrived into the Exumas. First with a stop in Highborne Cay (nice), then Norman’s Cay (nice), then into Shroud Cay where we felt as if we had finally arrived in paradise.
From the anchorage on the protected side of the island, we rowed down a river thru the mangroves and arrived at the ocean side beach at Driftwood Camp. I had read a lot about this place and feared it would be crowded and fail to live up to expectation. It was not crowded and it exceeded expectation. The anchorage was beautiful and we both agreed it was the finest beach that either of us had ever seen anywhere. So far, this was the best stop of our entire trip.
This section of the island chain is a national park known as the Exumas Land and Sea Park. The islands are mostly uninhabited and commerce is non-existent. Moorings are provided in many places to discourage anchoring and to protect the bottom. Fishing is not permitted anywhere in the park and fish stocks remain high throughout as a result.
When Matt and I spent the winter in The Bahamas 30 years ago aboard my red Tartan 30, Carina, Little Cistern Cay was a favorite stop and as far south as we ever got. I snapped a photo there and it hung on my shop wall for decades reminding me that some day I should go back. This is the same exact photo except the boat was red then and blue now, and the dog is an addition.
We just so happened to arrive into The Warderick Wells mooring field at Whale Beach in front of park headquarters on Thanksgiving Day. And lucky for us, the good people in Park Headquarters were hosting a cruisers pot luck Thanksgiving dinner! Everyone was welcome, even Bill.
It was a feast and afterwards, we stayed late into the evening playing dominos with our new friends.
It was a pleasure to slow our pace and stay a few nights here where the hiking and swimming were excellent.
The Exumas are a nice place to linger. Distances are short. Sometimes 5 miles between anchorages, other times 8 miles. The water is exquisite and the islands keep coming.
Cambridge Cay had the elevation:
And the hiking trails:
And the burrs. Goat burrs kept filling the spaces between Bill’s paw pads driving him crazy:
The weather was surprisingly still and hot while we visited these past few islands and we spent much time in the water. For about a week, winds were light, daytime highs were in the upper 80s, nighttime lows were in the lower 80s and seawater temps were in the mid 80s. Doug Ryan told me that on any boat sailing the tropics, cockpit benches must be long enough to sleep on. He’s right, it’s just too hot to sleep in the cabin sometimes. What Doug didn’t tell me was how to deal with the bugs out there in the cockpit. I bet he’d coach me to look for the solution in a bottle of rum. Well, I tried that Doug. But when the wind is light and the night is still, the Mosquitos and no-see-ums have been relentless. No complaining. Self-inflicted adventure, people are scraping ice off windshields up north, etc. Just saying we need a bug net for sleeping on deck.
It’s an arid climate. We can leave damp towels and swim suits out on the lifelines in the late evening and they will be dry by dawn. That never happens in New England. This also means the whole boat feels dry and thats a big plus.
In recent days, the wind has finally come up. NE 20-30 with higher gusts for four days in a row. This was the winter weather we expected in The Bahamas and its done a great job of blowing all the bugs away.
We found a perfect spot to wait out the blow. It doesn’t look like all the much in the photos, but it offers excellent protection and has been such an idyllic oasis for us, we are loathe to leave it. Cruiser’s beach on Big Majors Spot near Staniel Cay is where we now are.
This place is also known as The Bay of Pigs. Most anything you read online about the Exumas will be accompanied with a photo of huge pigs wading in the water on a white sand beach. This is the island where that happens. It’s a sort of pretty zoo and is wildly popular with visiting boats. We didn’t have much interest at first because we didn’t think Bill would do well with large pigs, and because we read that the pigs weren’t treated all that well and it was actually kind of depressing.
But after deeper research, I discovered that there is another beach in this same bay, off this same island, called Cruiser’s Beach that we might like. People have set up Adirondack chairs, a picnic table, a grill, a swing, a slack-line so you can move right in here, and we have.
Even in the high winds, this place has been completely calm and we’ve had the little beach all to ourselves most of the time. We row in for morning exercise on the beach followed by a swim and a sit in the shade in those chairs with our books. Then we go back the boat for lunch for a few hours. Then back to the beach for the afternoon. Then sunset in the cockpit. It’s a fine pattern.
I understand this place can, and will, get crowded. I’ve been told there are usually over 200 boats anchored here in February and March. But we’re early in the season, and over the past five nights only 8-12 boats have anchored here with most of their crew over visiting the pigs. When these islands get busy mid-winter, we hope to be off into some more remote Bahamian Islands where fewer people tend to visit.
On our beach here, we thought we only had the sharks, rays, turtles, pencil fish, angel fish, and minnows for company, but then one day, in strolled a 400-lb pig! Didn’t know they could or would walk over here, but I guess occasionally they do! We hustled Bill into the dinghy and let the pig have the beach.
There’s been more. A snorkel through the Thunderbolt Grotto (amazing), a few days in cosmopolitain Staniel Cay (think Cuttyhunk, but with booze), a visit to Black Point Settlement, sailing, rowing, varnishing, making water, AND new Bahamian friends (Judy, Charmaine, Seymour and Sherrie), new sailing friends(Kentucky, Texas, Oklahoma!), tales to recount about Bill’s antics, evolving opinions about boats, people and society, but this is a blog post, not a book, so I must stop.