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by Dan and Jan Ahart
The wind abated on April 23rd, so we headed back South to Shroud Cay. This time we were successful in examining the fresh water well that has been used by inhabitants of the Bahamas, including pirates, for hundreds of years. It is located in an unlikely spot close to the tip of a point of land that juts West from a low-lying area of the cay. Shroud Cay itself is located just inside the Northern boundary of the Exuma Land and Sea Park.
A mailbox on a pole is located just above the high water line on shore where the path to the well begins. Inside the mailbox are pamphlets that describe the park, the rules and that the well is maintained by the park warden. The path winds upward about 15 feet and inland about 50 yards along a rough, weathered, limestone trail. The well is a large hole that is perhaps fifteen feet long and ten feet wide, in the limestone, around which the government installed a concrete border in 1927 to make it easier for people to extract water. A sign beside the well states that it is fresh drinking water and soaps, especially detergents are not to be put in the well. Water is to be dipped out of the well by a bucket, which hangs on a tether, attached to the sign and any washing of clothes or persons is to be done in another container.
The height of the water in the well is above sea level so it is definitely not seawater that has filtered through the limestone. Nor is it a rainwater cistern because there are no higher elevations around it. Subterranean pressure apparently forces fresh water to the surface. The water has a slight tea color as if it contained some tannin. Although it has a slight mineral taste as many wells do, it is definitely fresh water. Proof that it is unpolluted is provided by the fresh water minnows swimming in it. Our modern sensibilities may balk at the use of such water, especially since we can turn switches and produce crystal clear fresh water on our boats, but to the earliest inhabitants of these islands and until very recently, this well was a life-saving oasis in an otherwise vast salty sea.
We also explored the twisting tidal rivers that lead into the mangrove swamps in the interior of the cay. In some places the river is 10 feet deep, in other places it is 10 inches deep. We saw many fish, including a four-foot barracuda.
We left Shroud Cay about noon and sailed to Wardrickwells Cay, which is the location of the park warden's office and home. The wind was out of the West when we started, but backed to Southeast after only a few miles. This put the wind right on our nose, so we reluctantly took down the sails and motored the last five miles. Motoring directly into a 15 knot breeze in a catamaran is a bumpy ride and not one we enjoyed. We were followed by a monohull that was singlehanded by a fellow who had lived in East Texas. We talked to him by radio for some time and told him enough about the park where we were headed to interest him in turning to go there also. He had to take a more circuitous route however, because he drew six feet as opposed to our three and a half feet. Sailing the Bahamas banks is tricky in a deep draft vessel. Anchoring within the park headquarters area would be a chancy thing because the deep water runs in a narrow and curving channel. So, the government has installed mooring buoys, to which boats can attach a line and thus stay in one place as securely, if not more so, than anchoring. The moorings are also very well located to accommodate the maximum number of boats. We called ahead on the radio and were assigned mooring number 11. Fees at the park are $15 per night or one can join the park support fleet for $50 and get two free nights mooring. The economics didn't make sense, but we joined the fleet anyway to help support the park.
No fishing of any sort is allowed in the park, although the park warden felt that poaching is widespread by visitors and Bahamians alike. The park measures roughly eight miles by 23 miles and is just too large an area for the warden and volunteers to adequately police. Lobster and conch are already becoming scarce in the popular cruising areas of the Bahamas. It won't be long before the park will be the only area where they can easily be seen. We did see several large conchs and three huge lobsters while snorkeling in the park. A few years ago, a 52-foot sperm whale was found beached in the park. Its skeleton is now on display at the park headquarters. We spent two nights at the park and enjoyed every minute. There are many trails to walk and two hundred year old ruins of houses to explore. Because of its access to deep water and seclusion, this was a favorite hiding spot for Blackbeard, when he terrorized the Caribbean.
Our next stop was Compass Cay, which lies just South of the park boundary. It was another beautiful cay with ample protected anchorages. We anchored in a shallow bay in eight feet of water and for once, we were the only boat there, although we could see two boats about two miles away in another safe anchorage. We did a little snorkeling, but saw only grass and a few starfish.
The next day, we headed for Staniel Cay, which is famous for "thunderball cave", which is where the underwater cave scenes from the James Bond movie of the same name were filmed. The cave wasn't called thunderball until it was made famous by the movie. The cave is located in a large limestone outcropping in the middle of the bay. From the boat, it looks like a large monolith that is about 300 feet long by 100 feet wide by 25 feet high. The rock is under cut dramatically, so that at low tide, it looks somewhat like a huge mushroom. In some areas, the rock is undercut a good 15 feet. Large deposits of limestone are usually full of caves and crevasses. Limestone is easily eroded because it contains softer material imbedded in more durable material. As water seeps through the rock, it dissolves the softer material, leaving holes. Sometimes the holes are quite large and sometimes they collapse without warning, such as the famous sinkholes in Florida.
A large portion of thunderball rock was hollowed out this way leaving an irregularly shaped cavern that is roughly 75 feet by 35 feet. The cavern can be accessed from either side of the rock and, if you are brave and skinny, from the North end also, by diving under water and swimming into the cave for about 15 feet. Once inside, one can surface and swim around, as the top of the cave is a good 25 feet above water level. There are holes in the top of the cavern, which let sunlight shine into the main chamber. The shafts of light that penetrate the water create absolutely gorgeous colors and shimmering light effects. Because so many people visit the cave and take bits of food for the fish, the cavern is full of small fish that immediately crowd around looking for a handout. We were prepared, with bits of a nearly four foot barracuda that Jan caught while we were sailing to Staniel Cay. Barracuda by the way, is very tasty. Very easy to filet with dry, snow white meat of a very mild flavor. It reminds us of alligator gar or even alligator for that matter. No, we didn't think it tasted like chicken. As impressive as thunderball cave is, the coral and fish around the perimeter of the rock were even more spectacular. Since no boats can anchor close to the rock, the corals there are undisturbed. The variety and color of the various corals and fish are beyond description. The corals ranges from bright yellow to deep purple and are in all imaginable shapes and sizes. The fish are as colorful as any we had ever seen in an aquarium. We snorkeled around the rock twice. We even found a few conchs, but no lobster.
Besides "thunderball cave", there are three bars/restaurants, two marinas, a one-room school, tiny post office, church, telephone office, clinic, an airstrip and two "supermarkets", one of which is painted pink and the other blue. They sit side by side and are run by members of the Smith family. Each is about the size of a garage and contains only the bare necessities. However, they both offer homemade bread, which is absolutely delicious. Prices are high, as one would expect. Potatoes were $1 a pound. Gas at the marina was $3.50 a gallon and disposal of garbage was $2.50 a bag, but considering the isolated location the prices really aren't that bad. We carry enough canned and dried goods to last us six months, but we did buy eggs, bananas, apples and potatoes. Most every building has a cistern and some method of capturing rainwater - usually from the roof.
While we were at the marina, Chevy Chase's yacht, Chevy Toy came in. He wasn't aboard because some group had chartered the boat. One of them had gotten in trouble diving and was airlifted out. The people of Staniel Cay are very friendly and the whole place is like a cozy little family run resort. We saw a few padlocks on doors, but never saw anything locked. There were a half dozen cars but most everything is within walking distance or easily accessible by golf cart. It seems that there is a small but dedicated population of cruisers who spend the bulk of the winter at Staniel Cay probably due to the laid-back atmosphere, excellent fishing and camaraderie at the three bars. The Bahamian population on the island consists of only about 70 adults and 15 children, plus the usual expatriate Americans, who either live on boats or build large homes.
The island does enjoy scheduled air service to Nassau and Ft. Lauderdale. The terminal
at the airstrip consists of a gazebo, which was nicely painted. Hamburgers
are very popular in the Bahamas and we sampled the local version, much to
our delight. Theazil and Kenneth Rolle operate the Happy People marina,
hotel, restaurant and bar (the Royal Entertainer Lounge). At one time,
Kenneth was a champion boat builder and regatta champion. He won the
1993 and 1994 Family Island Regattas and he has all the photos and
awards to prove it. A cousin, Rollie Gray once hosted Prince Phillip aboard
his boat. The tiller of that boat is on the wall of the Royal Entertainer Lounge.
As you can tell, we were very impressed with Staniel Cay. If one had to
spend a few weeks or months on a Bahamian island, this would be the
place to do it. Not fancy, but it wears well. Stay tuned.