Of Deadlines, Drug Dealers, and Dolphins…

Warderick Cay, Exuma Cays.

Warderick Cay, Exuma Cays

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.

Delays with equipment problems can cost you dearly

Delays with equipment problems can cost you dearly

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!

Georgetown

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.

The Cays

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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.

Coral head on the Yellow Bank

Coral head on the Yellow Bank

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.

Settling down to watch the sunset.

Settling down to watch the sunset

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.

Pic 4 - Heading out through Adderly Cut

Heading out through Adderly Cut

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

IMG_0101-EditOne 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.

‘Pèlerin’ and ‘Velvet’, Warderick Cay

‘Pèlerin’ and ‘Velvet’, Warderick Cay

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.

Wrecked drug smuggling plane, Normans Cay

Wrecked drug smuggling plane, Normans Cay

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.

Smoking Iguanas

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.

An Allens Cay iguana shows his best side

An Allens Cay iguana shows his best side

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.

Pic 8 Bottlenose dolphins- Yellow Bank

Bottlenose dolphins bowriding with us on the Yellow Bank

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.

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Meet the Author

Colin Speedie

Colin, European Correspondent here at AAC, is a deeply experienced offshore sailor who holds a Yachtmaster licence, and a gifted photographer and talented writer who has added a whole new dimension to Attainable Adventure Cruising. In addition, since Colin and Louise are from England and had their OVNI 435, Pèlerin built in France, they bring a European perspective to our site. You can read more about Colin and Louise and their business at their website.

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