Exumas Trip Report

Old Apr 1st, 2010, 08:15 AM
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Exumas Trip Report

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.

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.

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), 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.

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.

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 Wells 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!

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:

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.
Callaloo is offline  
Old Apr 1st, 2010, 08:26 AM
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What a great trip it sounds like you had! I think we may be Staniel Cay next year for my 40th. Where to next for you?
Kristen1206 is offline  
Old Apr 1st, 2010, 10:16 AM
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I thoroughly enjoyed reading your trip report, whose style and content reminded me much of the book you give homage to with your title. I'm off to check out your photos now! Thanks for posting. I hope when it comes time for you to set sail for longer that you can take it all the way south to T&T and take us along for the stories you tell when you get back.
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Old Apr 1st, 2010, 10:57 AM
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Great trip report, and amazing pictures-thanks for sharing! Some day we'll get there!
kellybeaches is offline  
Old Apr 1st, 2010, 02:15 PM
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You are very privileged - that is one of the world's great cruises and many of us are prohibited due to the lack of charter companies in the area. I think a brief look on google earth just shows that the whole area is a playground.

When our 4 year old son makes it to university we will pick up a Hinckley in NE and make the ICW pilgrimage down to Georgetown. We have done most of the journey by road (Cape May to Miami) but nowhere near as much fun.

How was the eating out/provisioning in The Exumas?
Are there adequate leeward anchorages?
How were the temperatures? We were in Hopetown 6 weeks ago and it was cold (60s) - really put us off wintering that far north even though the locals claimed it to be a winter of a century.
Did you swim with the pets sharks at Compass and can those pigs really swim?
Did you manage to catch anything to eat?

Thank you for the detailed report and pictures which put all those drab TR in Tuscany into the shade.
markrosy is offline  
Old Apr 1st, 2010, 03:00 PM
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Are you going to buy the Hinckley? What size? Have you ever sailed one before? They are beautiful to look at, but having chartered a Bermuda 40 in Maine a couple of years ago, I walked away with my head and shins banged up because they are quite tight for their LOA. Also, the draft may be prohibitive for parts of the ICW. (Believe me, I used to dream about owning a Hinckley someday, but I've revised my dream to accomodate a little bit of reality!)

Anyway, to answer your questions:

Options for eating out are numerous in Georgetown, with a few more in Black Point, Staniel Cay, Sampson Cay, and Compass Cay. Similarly, that's where you'll find basic provisions. We didn't have to worry about provisioning, because our hosts took care of that and we brought some extras from home and picked up the few dinner tabs. I suspect the scarcity of both provisioning and dining options outside of those settlements, and absolutely none in the Exuma Park, has contributed to there being no charter companies based in the Exumas.

Leeward anchorages are plentiful, and holding in hard sand is excellent. The catch, however, is when a cold front rolls through, clocking the winds through all degress of the compass, instead of just the prevailing easterlies. Anchorages providing protection from the west are fewer, and those providing all-around protection are fewer still. Staniel Cay's marina clears the docks for a westerly.

I wish the weather and especially the water had been warmer during our visit -- it was said to be an uncharacteristically cold winter, albeit the second in a row. Daytime was in the mid-70s, while nights were in the 60s. I did swim, but snorkeling required wetsuits. It wasn't bad, but I like things HOT!

Did not swim with the sharks at Compass; we didn't even stop there. However, I can assure you that the pigs really do swim. I laughed myself silly every time we visited them when we went to Staniel Cay this past November (trip report here:

We didn't catch any food, though lots of cruisers do. There's no fishing in the Exuma Park, which is where we spent the bulk of our trip. And our hosts are not equipped to clean fish/conch/lobster on their boat.

Glad you enjoyed my report. Next stop: Jazz Fest in New Orleans later this month. Laissez le bon temps roulez!
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Old Apr 1st, 2010, 05:03 PM
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Callalou- loved your report and the photos- thanks for sharing. We are 9 days from Anegada and it seems like I have been waiting for a vacation forever. As far as the water temps in Exuma, I am not surprised- we have had the coldest winter I can remember here on the Gulf Coast and I think it set records in February and March so it was equally unseasonable in Florida and the Bahamas. We went to Destin last weekend and the air was windy and very cold- I didn't even think about touching the water. After doing the Bahamas in April in 2008 I swore that I would never go that early again! I am sorry you did not snorkel the Aquarium- it was beautiful when we were there.
Have a great time in N.O.- I have not been to the Jazz Fest in several years but know you will have fun. My best friend lives there and slowly but surely it is coming back- it is a city with tremendous heart! Hope you have nice weather!
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Old Apr 2nd, 2010, 12:24 PM
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I don't know - we have a bath tub of a Beneteau which is great for space but not the Bentley of boats. In the future, I would love to trade in our house for a 60 foot Hinckley but that may put too many eggs in one basket. I agree with the space issue - I was aboard a 38 sloop in Newport - there was more space on your average 30 foot Catalina. They are racer/cruisers built for blue water stability not comfort.

A 1968 Sloop 38 is one of the best looking boats to hit the water but draft and living space are clearly an issue.

Take your lick and dream....

I love the phrase "motivated seller"

If you ever pass The Abacos - sneak into the cut between Marsh Harbour and Matt Lowes Cay. There is a very, very well protected stretch of water which harbours multi million pound houses. One has Hinckly which must be 80 ft plus and is showroom condition. The locals say it is used maybe once a year which is criminal for such an expensive, beautiful boat.

We looked on a Lagoon 46 in Marsh Harbour - it would seem to make a lot of sense on the ICW. A holiday cottage with sails!

I think that the most satisfying discoveries of our lives is the Bahamas. We have been around and about but nowhere else is a hole that so closely fits our pegs. We love the Eastern seaboard but the water is cold and not good for snorkeling. There's also far too much yacht club snobbery around which you just don't encounter in The Bahamas. RI just seemed a case of my boat is my phallic symbol and 120 ft makes me far more of a man than 80 ft. Parts of NC/SC/GA are wonderful but nowhere matches Hopetown.
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Old Apr 3rd, 2010, 10:17 AM
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Trip report, with photos, is now online on my webpage:
Callaloo is offline  
Old Apr 3rd, 2010, 02:24 PM
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WOW!!! Beautiful and loved your report. Thanks for posting and letting us live vicariously through you. I need to work on finding friends with a sailboat.
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Old Apr 3rd, 2010, 03:52 PM
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Loved your report and pictures
I want to go!
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Old Apr 6th, 2010, 09:11 AM
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Hi Callaloo wonderful report and pics. We were in Exuma about the same time as you (March 26-April 2). We had a mostly land based trip and will write a trip report shortly. I think the Exumas are spectacular and we can't wait to go back again.
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