Any ocean cruiser will confirm that if there’s anything that will spoil your cruising plans, then it has to be a deadline. Sitting around, killing time, waiting for some vital spare part to arrive is absolutely soul destroying, but if it is complicated by the need or desire to be somewhere else on a given date, then the poison is doubly potent.
This is time lost. Getting it back to meet your deadline will cost you dearly, either through missing out on places you’ve always wanted to visit, or chancing your luck with bad weather when you’d really be better off staying in sheltered waters—compromises have to be made.
Having lost a few weeks in March with watermaker problems that held us up when we should have kept going, meant that we were further delayed by the arrival of an extended spell of bad weather.
We knew we needed to keep going to meet a deadline of arrival in Nassau at the beginning of May to leave Pèlerin for a few weeks while we traveled back to the UK for work.
And the last thing we wanted to do was to miss out on the Bahamas, one of the main ‘must do’ places on our cruising itinerary. Shallow water, tiny remote islands, and the perfect boat to explore them—we’d kick ourselves hard if we missed out on them. So we picked up our pace, chose a good strong forecast, and got going.
To our disappointment it meant missing out on the Dominican Republic and the Turks and Caicos, but by opting to jump 600+ miles we got ourselves back on track, distance-wise, and bought ourselves precious time to spend in the Bahamas.
Not a perfect result as we may never be back this way to see the places we missed, but under the circumstances, the best of a bad lot. And the moral of this story? Keep your boat simple and avoid deadlines!
We had heard a lot about Georgetown long before our arrival there. Some cruisers loved the place, others claimed that it is just one of those places where people arrive and simply swallow the anchor, never to move on.
Entering via the eastern entrance we could soon see plenty of masts dotted around the various anchorages we could see on the chart, with some real clusters in Hurricane Hole and Turtle Lagoon, but it didn’t look a great deal busier than much of the eastern Caribbean.
We anchored off the town to clear Customs, in less than 2m of water, with our board and rudder kicked up, and then settled down to get some sleep. Once ashore later we found a nice little town with some good shops and so stocked up for an extended cruise through the Exuma Cays.
The grapevine told us that there was a very active cruisers’ net each morning, advertising a range of activities for the resident (and visiting) cruisers, a feature that seems to be endemic in such places.
Being utter nomads, and having a horror of any form of organized activity, it’s not for us, but clearly the nets are a highly popular feature, and epitomize the community spirit that such places generate amongst the residents—we wish them the best of luck, as they’ve obviously found a place and a way of life that suits them.
First impressions of the smaller Exuma islands reminded us of one of our favourite destinations—the Isles of Scilly off the southwestern tip of England, albeit on a colossal scale. Gin clear water of a hundred hues of blue and white sand that, reflecting the sun, threatened to sear our eyes.
The other side of the coin showed less welcome similarities, such as an almost total lack of significant shelter, fierce tidal streams in the cuts between the islands, shallow banks and many underwater dangers—coral heads here, though, not rocks. Not a place to be caught out in bad weather, we agreed—just like the Isles of Scilly.
Our first stop was at Lee Stocking Island, in a shallow bay accessible only to real shoal draft boats like our own, completely open to the west. But with only light and variable winds forecast, it was comfortable enough, so there was no need to move.
Such places are often at their best at sunset, and keep us up on deck until the very last minute to avoid missing the final spectacular moments of the day. Looking around we always see our fellow travellers doing the same—it just can’t be helped.
Out through the cut the next morning, bashing our way through the remains of a rip, further strengthened the case for respecting the currents, before a fine slow reach up to enter Black Point Settlement via Dotham Cut and another peaceful night at anchor.
At Black Point Settlement we decided to continue up the Cays via the Exuma Bank to avoid delays waiting for slack(ish) water in the cuts (we had come in the night before at nearly twelve knots). This paid off and we had the spinnaker up most of the way to the extraordinarily lovely Warderick Cay, where we had arranged a mooring in advance via VHF with the helpful lady who controls access to the moorings that belong to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
What a place! The tide has carved a sinuous channel through the sand bars and, as we were at an extreme low water spring tide, there was plenty of sand visible. Hefty moorings, well spread out, offer a good place to leave your boat while walking (and wading) ashore, and there were even sea kayaks available for loan—how many places do you find that in this day and age? It wasn’t a tough place to stay for a few days.
Meeting New Friends
One of the great pleasures for us is meeting fellow cruisers, and even more so those who are our readers here at AAC. We have met many during the last two years, and enjoyed them all. Not only do we get to meet people who are largely on our wavelength, but we also benefit from their knowledge and expertise of the area we’re currently cruising.
Many have found AAC through a mutual interest in aluminum boats, and it’s been great to see them achieving their dreams, and to hear their stories. Meeting up with Elaine Marin and Yves Lafontaine on their handsome aluminum Hutting/Lapine 40 Velvet at Warderick Cay was just such a case, and we benefited greatly from their seasoned advice on the Cays, as well as simply enjoying their company.
A Ghost From The Past
It’s not every day that you anchor next to an aircraft, but then you don’t often find yourselves in a former drug smugglers’ haunt. Normans Cay was once home to the notorious Colombian cocaine smuggling king, Carlos Lehder, who in the late seventies and early eighties was responsible for much of the cocaine (and some marijuana) that entered the United States. For four years he ran Normans Cay as the main drug entrepot between Colombia and Florida, with planes flying shipments in to be transferred for the journey onward into the USA.
Lehder cleared most of the inhabitants from Normans Cay by making them offers they couldn’t refuse, turning the once peaceful resort island into a sort of modern day pirate enclave, and actively discouraged visitors (including yachtsmen) with his private army of armed henchmen, and dogs.
The wreck beside us is a 1942 Curtiss C-46 Commando that was part of a plan to scale-up the smuggling operation, the runway having been specially extended to allow such a large aircraft to take off and land fully loaded.
Unfortunately for the smugglers, they left a large bank of sand at the end of the runway that the plane hit on its inaugural landing. Badly damaged, with the undercarriage and hydraulics wrecked, the pilot somehow managed to claw the plane back into the sky to make a safe belly landing in the lagoon, where it rests to this day, a silent reminder of those strange days.
The grim fascination of this relic for me is that the pilot who crash landed it here was one Andrew Barnes, a schoolmate of mine for many years, who had gone on to become one of Lehder’s main smuggling pilots into the USA. A huge, likeable and (apparently) clean-living guy from a well-to-do Bahamian background whose favourite pastime was the sport of throwing the hammer. It still seems almost beyond my comprehension that he should have got mixed up in such destructive insanity.
Being incarcerated at a school on the other side of the world from your family at the age of six can do some strange things to a boy, but the vast majority go on to enjoy lives of utter probity, if not happiness. A book that covers his career (Snowbird) suggests that excitement and the lure of easy money may well have been the major factors, as they have been for so many through the ages, but I still find it unsettling and baffling to even think about.
In the immediate aftermath, the plane crash brought unwelcome attention to Normans Cay in the form of US air accident investigators, who couldn’t fail to see that the island was being used for less than legitimate purposes. After that, the writing was on the wall, and eventually Lehder and his crew were driven out; Lehder returning to Colombia to be captured some years later and extradited to the USA where he remains in prison to this day.
Andrew Barnes gave evidence against his former associates and disappeared into the Federal Witness Protection Program and, after a spell behind bars, is probably still out there somewhere with a new identity.
The cocaine trade marches on though, as difficult to pin down as a many-headed hydra, and has now metastasized far from the Bahamas to places like Central America and Mexico, driven there by the unwinnable ‘War on Drugs’. The paranoia and violence that accompany it now blight whole countries, not just small cays.
However, life has returned to normal at Normans Cay, with resorts open for business once more, and visitors and yachtsmen welcomed. Apart from the decaying plane next to us you’d never guess at its past. Just as well.
Lou was determined not to leave the Bahamas without having seen at least one of the endangered iguanas, but so far that had proved an elusive goal. Until that is, we anchored off the beach at Allens Cay. Glancing ashore, and noticing movement, I grabbed the binoculars and laughed. “What’s so funny?” she asked.
Handing them over, and pointing at the beach, she soon saw the funny side as there were dozens of Allens Cay iguanas strolling sedately around the beach. One sizeable male appeared to be smoking a stogie, rather in the manner of Groucho Marx, but further examination revealed this to be, in fact, a rather grubby carrot, not a fine Cuban Cohiba.
An old natural history book we’d picked up in Georgetown (The Ephemeral Islands) claimed of the iguanas that “…certain populations have come under pressure from foreign yachtsmen…”, and that the Allens Cay iguana “…has been severely depopulated by selfish tourists who, in their ignorance, consider it an adventure to eat them…”. Harsh words indeed. Was the carrot the remains of a feast and were these the last surviving iguanas, emerging from hiding to pick through the leftovers?
Not a bit of it. Ten minutes later two huge power boats arrived with an army of guests for a ‘meet and greet’ with the scaly brethren. Judging by the enthusiastic way the iguanas chased the slightly nervous punters around the beach, food was on the menu, possibly including carrots, which I doubt are their normal diet.
Which lead me to reflect that conservation sometimes works in mysterious ways, as the iguanas seem to be doing well (here, at least), and I’m sure that they’re far happier eating carrots than finding themselves alongside them, on the plate of some foreign yachtsman, no doubt.
“I’ve been searchin’/For the dolphins in the sea…”
When I’m in a really good mood out on the water I like to sing a few songs. I do this discreetly up in the bows for fear of offending, as my singing voice most resembles a malfunctioning cement mixer, but it pleases me. And when the mood is right, and dolphins come to visit, I like nothing more than to sing them Fred Neil‘s lovely song “Dolphins“. Or, in the quiet of a warm night watch, his haunting “Everybody’s Talkin’“.
Now I doubt many of you know of Fred, largely because that’s the way he wanted it. Fred was a true original and, in the early 60s folk days in New York, a very young Bob Dylan occasionally backed him on harmonica at venues like the Café Wha? and the Gaslight Café.
Fred, with his jazz-influenced guitar, vocal style and rum-infused baritone, was at that time one of the most popular figures on the folk circuit, and might well have been destined for stardom but for his reclusive nature and resolute loathing of the music business.
After recording only a few albums, Fred disappeared back to his home in Coconut Grove, Florida, bought a small sailing boat and in 1970, with his friend (former ‘Flipper’ trainer) Ric O’Barry, started the Dolphin Project, aimed at the release of dolphins held in captivity and protecting them in the wild.
Fred literally disappeared from sight, only very occasionally performing live, usually just for friends to raise money for the Dolphin Project. The royalties from “Everybody’s Talkin'”, recorded by a who’s who of big name singers over the ensuing decades, kept the wolf from the door. No rhinestones, no comeback shows, no selling out and, at just 64, Fred died as privately and enigmatically as he had lived. Nobody seemed to notice he was gone.
If you’ve ever worked in a job you hate, or longed to get away from city life and set sail for the distant horizon, then maybe you’ll hear something of yourself in “Everybody’s Talkin'”. I know I always have.
The alienation from modern life only gets worse with age, and the desire to go “…Skippin’ over the ocean like a storm…” only gets stronger. This is dog whistle music—inaudible to the majority, but a siren’s song to the afflicted—”…Only the echoes of my mind…”. If you can hear it, ignore it at your peril.
“…And sometimes I wonder/Do you ever think of me…”
Having done something similarly quixotic in my own business ‘career’, such as it was, I have always had more than a degree of empathy for Fred. So when the dolphins joined us as we crossed the Yellow Bank on our way to Nassau, it occurred to me that these were the very waters and animals that Fred cared so much about and had devoted his life to defending. And it pleased me greatly to think that they are still here to delight us, just as Fred would have wished.
Thinking of you, Fred.
Can’t hear a word they’re saying…..
ah, so you can hear it, too!
How does the Bahamas rank in comparison to other tropical cruising areas you have visited over the years?
very high, at least the areas we visited. We were lucky with the weather, too. Given time we’d have loved to vista more of the islands. Definitely a place we’d go back to.
Thanks, Colin. Enjoy the sailing.
Wonderful post, Colin. Thank you very much!
It’s a pleasure, and thanks very much for the kind words – they’re much appreciated.
Thanks much for the nod to Fred Neil, one of the really great voices and songwriters ever. Love to listen to his music when I am out on the water.
Fred was a great singer/songwriter and I think the two songs I mentioned should be on anybody’s play list when afloat – glad you think so, too.
Lovely article. Your writing operates like a good folk song: orienting one to the good things in life and to being one’s better self.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
that’s such a kind thing to say, and a reminder that some of the best folk music was the best music – ever.
I have 3 or 4 visits to the Bahamas (on a boat with 2 meter draft), but it has been over 10 years. That said, I suspect it has not changed a lot.
I am sure that Colin will also contribute his more recent observations, but I would definitely recommend the Bahamas as one of the premier cruising grounds of the world: in part as the archipelago has so much to offer, maybe as close as one can get to having something for everyone. And it is also far larger and more varied than most casual reports give any idea of. One could cruise for years and not have exhausted its offerings.
The Abacos are first world with upper end restaurants, good boat facilities, etc.
Georgetown gets you as close an adult summer camp experience as most of us will ever see.
The Exumas are rightly seen as holding a whole season of wonderful cruising
Nassau is a major playground as well as a city with all city attributes and drawbacks.
You can also get away from it all: We have spent much time on Andros and its southern bights where we did not see another recreational boat for days or weeks. It is full of local wonders to discover. The “outer” islands are extra-ordinarily different, one from another, and all worth a visit (and there are a lot of them).
It is superbly charted, with great clear water, abundant natural wonders, good winds, good wx forecasting.
The Bahamas is not for the faint of heart. One can stay quite safe and secure, but exploring more widely will bring you into dealing with challenging anchoring situations, occasional “northers”, shallow depths and strong currents. Most of the time, however, help from other cruisers (and pros) is at the other end of ch 16.
There is much history and local culture, but you may have to look for it.
Enough for now. I am sure I left out stuff. Come back with any specific questions.
My best, Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
nothing I can add to that except that I wish we’d had more time to explore more – as you say, there’s lots to explore beyond the obvious places.
Hi Dick and Colin,
Thank you for the wonderful description of the Bahamas. We have been blessed with two trips to the Bahamas over the years (starting from our home in Newfoundland). We thought the islands were absolutely magnificent, especially the Exumas. But it is the only warm/tropical area that we have cruised, so we are curious to know how it compares to cruising in other warm weather parts of the world, like the Caribbean, South Pacific, Philippines, Great Barrier Reef, etc.
Looks like you stopped at one or two of the great places we visited when we cruised the Bahamas. Came onto the Bank through the cut at Black Point— although we did it under sail due to a depleted battery bank in the electric drive system. For those looking for a different kind of experience I recommend the leeward side of Eleuthera. Nice towns and only a handful of other cruising boats.
On another topic— that of deadlines— there is a great series of articles on Cruising World that illustrates how misplaced priorities combined with deadlines can torpedo the best of voyages. http://www.cruisingworld.com/ “How not to cross the Atlantic”. A classic example of loading down a boat with unnecessary and untested gear. Two years undergoing well over 100k of refit of a Valiant 42 in an expensive New England yard, new sails from one of the best cruising sailmakers in the Americas, crew with a Northwest Passage and Cape Horn under their belt, electronics suitable for a 80 footer creating delays in starting— and they turned back after encountering the first heavy weather that was fairly predictable on the chosen routing.
One of the problems that aborted this passage that is only alluded to is that the boat had three crew on board who were more than qualified to captain the vessel, accompanied by an owner who made the decisions by virtue of paying the bills. One thing the history of seafaring has taught is that on board a small boat on a ocean passage there can only be one captain. Trying to operate as a democracy or by committee works only so long as the ocean doesn’t provide any challenges. That is not to say that a couple who voyage together cannot share responsibility, trust, and decision making and operate as a team— just that when there is a crew on board there must be a leader who is qualified to lead and accepted as such by the crew.
we’d have loved to visit Eleuthera, and the more I think of it the more I think we’ll have to go back.
And I totally agree with you latter point. There’s no question that when the chips are down there can only be one skipper – no amount of preparation, money or plain BS is a substitute for that.
That’s a lovely post Colin. Thank you.
and thank you, too. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
In these pages, Colin has covered parts of the Carib and I have little to add or quibble with. I lean towards a bit more off the beaten path places and, I must say, beaches, rum drinks and palm trees wear thin for me after a while. This led us to 2 winters in the NW Carib: Mexico, Belize, Honduras & Guatemala. We loved these areas as they have so much to offer (it has been 10 years).
Excellent sailing in good predictable winds. Great and interesting history. Fascinating cultures, ancient and modern. Jungles and all the nature they offer. “Old rocks” in the form brilliant pyramids and cities of the Mayan. Great diving. The only 3 atolls in the western hemisphere (I think). Good people. Good to great food at reasonable prices. Some other cruisers, but in no way crowded. Oh and beaches, rum drinks, and palm trees in addition.
The area is not for the faint of heart. Few support facilities. Northers come through and the charts were, as we came to experience, mere suggestions of what you might find. I suspect there has been improvement in this area.
The other warm wx area I have experience with is the Mediterranean, mostly the eastern Med where I cruised for a number of years.
That is a thumbnail description. Feel free to come back with specific questions.
Dick Stevenson, s/v Alchemy
I followed pretty much the same route last year, on a boat with an even shallower draft, and no deadline :). The Bahamas was the highlight of my 2 year Caribbean trip.
You didn’t miss much in the Dominican Republic. Corrupt authoritarian officials in both Samana Bay and Luperon spoiled things for us really. We’d hoped to spend a couple of weeks in Samana Bay, anchored off the national park in the south, but the officials insisted we anchored every night off Samana, which was insecure and very noisy. In Luperon, the officials there seemed to create new fees each day, and when we refused to pay up, we were confined to port. Another boat nearby was treated in a similar way, causing 6 people to miss their flights. Our engines (two!) both died entering Luperon, but we were so keen to leave, we did a runner to Turks and Caicos engineless sneaking out at daybreak before the officials started ‘work’. Turks and Caicos was another story though – lovely!
I just heard a friend had their boat wrecked by Hurricane Joaquim anchored in a shallow little bay off Long Island. I’m curious as to how you dodged that one?
Pity to hear about your experiences with the DR – sounds like another place that is currently throwing the baby out with the bath water!
We were long gone from the Bahamas when Joaquin turned up (in the Chesapeake Bay) but wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere in the Bahamas when it did!