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by Dan and Jan Ahart
The Exumas are a chain of small cays or islands running roughly North and South within the Bahamas boundaries. They start 30 miles East of New Providence Island, home of Nassau and run South for over 100 miles. The Middle Bank, with average depths of less than 20 feet, is on their West side and Exuma Sound is on their East side with average depths of several thousand feet. Many of the cays are incorporated in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park where no fishing of any kind is allowed. Because of the beautiful water, unspoiled nature of the park and easy sailing conditions, the Exumas are a very popular area for cruisers.
We left the Atlantis marina bound for Allan's Cay in the Exumas at 1100 on Tuesday, April 18, 2000. It was a great day for sailing. The wind was Southwesterly at 15 knots and we would be sailing Southeast for 30 miles over the Bank with average depths less than 20 feet. The wind held almost all the way across, but diminished to light and variable about three miles short of Allan's Cay, so we motored in to our anchorage. The trip took almost exactly six hours. By the time we got two anchors out and properly set, it was time to fix dinner. Two anchors are necessary because the tide changes cause quite a current first in one direction and then in the opposite direction. If only one anchor is used, the boat will swing in a huge circle and take up a lot of anchorage room. By using two anchors, the boat simply turns about a point, always facing the current, midway between the two anchors. Not surprisingly, this anchoring technique is called the Bahamian style. Another technique that we will miss when we leave the Bahamas clear water, is the ability to swim over to an anchor and check how well it is set in the sand, or dinghy over and use the glass bottom bucket that Jan made to observe the anchor from the surface. If the anchor is dug into the sand as it should be, all is well. If it is fouled, meaning the chain is wrapped around it or it is hooked precariously on a rock, it needs to be re-set or it will not hold the boat in a strong current or wind. A poorly set anchor will allow a boat to drag onto the shore or rocks or into another boat. Either way, it is embarrassing and time consuming to correct and possibly very expensive.
Allan's Cay is usually the first stop for Exumas cruisers. It is a nature preserve and it is populated by iguana that vary in size from a few inches to a couple of feet in length. Signs on the beach request that they not be fed or bothered in any way. They are vegetarian, so they pose little danger, but they are very curious and unafraid of people. When we went ashore there were no other people on the beach and at first there were no iguana, but within 10 minutes of our arrival there were 15 iguana all around us. They just stood there and looked at us while we looked at them. After a few minutes they got bored and began to wander off so we did the same. in the morning the tourist boats from Nassau began to arrive. These are incredibly fast boats. Most are powered by huge inboard engines, but we saw one that carried about 15 passengers that was powered by four 250 horsepower outboards. Can you imagine a thousand horsepower on a boat only about 35 feet long? My guess is that they made the trip from Nassau in less than an hour. The boats are run right up on the beach, the tourists pile out with their cameras and lunches and give the iguana something to think about for an hour or so. Then they are gone. The tour boat captains are kind enough to give the boaters at anchor some warning however. They announce their arrival on VHF radio by saying that they hope the cruisers at anchor have their breakfast dishes put away because they are coming in hot. They do make a lot of racket, but they didn't cause any unpleasant waves and they didn't stay long, so it was more of a curiosity than a bother.
It has become our habit to get up during the night to check on the boat. That sounds like a terrible interruption of a good night's sleep, but we sleep better knowing all is well. The second night at Allan's Cay was a beautiful clear night with a full moon and the water was glass smooth. We could see the sandy bottom of the lagoon perfectly clear 10 feet below us. We just sat on the boat and enjoyed the beauty and serenity of the moment. When we left the next day the water was still glass smooth, so we motored to Norman's Cay, which is only a few miles South of Allan's Cay. The water averaged about 18 feet deep during the trip, but it was so clear that it seemed we were floating on air. It was also eerie in that looking straight down, we could see that the hulls were well above the sand, but because of the visual distortion caused by the water the sand bottom seemed to rise to meet the top of the water all around us. It created an illusion that we were floating over the only deep spot around and if we moved the boat, it would run aground. That gave us a good excuse to motor slowly and take turns sitting on the bow watching the sand as we glided along. We saw lots of small sponges, small corals, lots of grass and conch trails although we only saw one live conch. One very large barracuda came by and later on a four foot nurse shark, with two remora attached was seen on the bottom - resting I guess. Other than that, it was a very quiet trip.
Norman's Cay is famous for three things. First, it was a major drug smuggling center for years. Second, a drug smugglers plane sits in the bay. And third, McDuff's bar. The drug trade paid for an airstrip, and several buildings and some pretty nice houses, which are now abandoned. Visitors can look around at will on most of the island. There are some new private homes, but they are on the other end of the island. Visitors are discouraged in that area. It's a nice island and is becoming more popular with legitimate investors. We saw several private planes come and go while we were there, and several parked on the ramp by the airstrip. The smugglers plane that sits in the bay is a C-46, which looks a lot like a C-47 or DC-3, except that it has a large cargo hold under the passenger compartment. Imagine a double decker DC-3. The story goes that it was full of drugs but ran out of fuel before it could make the airstrip. It's badly deteriorated by the saltwater, but it is fun to visit. We only spent one night at Norman's Cay because we wanted to keep moving South to see other sights.
The next stop was Shroud Cay, which is home to one of the few large fresh water wells in the Bahamas and we wanted to see it. However, we spotted a boat we recognized from Marathon and decided to anchor close so we could say hello. The couple on the other boat were just getting ready to explore, by snorkel, some nearby boat wrecks and invited us to join them. By the time we got back it was too late in the day to visit the well. However, the boat wrecks were very interesting. There were four in all. Most were deteriorated to the point where they were barely recognizable, but one was only a few weeks old. Our friends were of the opinion that all of the wrecks were of Haitian origin and were abandoned by the occupants once they reached dry land. They may have been right. The newest wreck was only in about 20 feet of water and part of its mast was still above water. It was about 35 feet long and made of pine. It was a sloop with a flat deck (no cabin) and two hatches leading into the hold, which had been outfitted as a makeshift cabin. A red and white checkered table cloth was still floating inside. The sails felt as though they were made of cotton, the anchors were obviously hand made. Many of the metal fittings were fashioned of rebar (concrete reinforcing rods). The shrouds were of rope and were tied to the toe rails and rocks were used for ballast. Charcoal was used for cooking as several bags were attached to and floating beside the boat. It was a very primitive boat, but if it was Haitian, it must have traveled several hundred miles from Haiti. After seeing the wrecks the four of us went back to Sojourner to have some refreshments and visit. All of us were reminded how lucky we are to be Americans and not have to flee a country of such poverty and desperation as Haiti.
A stronger than expected wind came up during the night. Anchorages at
Shroud Cay are not well protected and we did not want to leave Sojourner
and dinghy over to see the fresh water well in windy conditions so we reluctantly
decided to return to the protected anchorage of Norman's Cay and come
back in a day or so to re-visit Shroud Cay. This time we had a tail wind of
about 25 knots. Using the jib only, we made a good 5 knots. One might
expect to go faster with the wind at your back, and maybe we could have if
we had also used the mainsail, but we were in no hurry. Besides, sailing
downwind is easier if only the headsail is used. The boat is much more
stable and easier to steer. Any significant tail wind will cause a boat to
slew from side to side as the wind gusts and the swells are encountered,
which keeps the helmsman on his toes. I call this point of sail the wahoo,
which stands for Wallowing About a Heading On the Ocean. When we got
back to Norman's Cay, we anchored in a different bay and for a while had it
all to ourselves, but within a few hours six other boats joined us. So much
for solitude in paradise. It was still windy, so we spend the day catching up
on myriad little jobs that needed doing on the boat. We'll return to Shroud
Cay as soon as the weather permits. Stay tuned.