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by Dan and Jan Ahart
We stayed at Staniel Cay nearly a week, partly because we enjoyed it and partly because of the weather. A strong stationary high sat just Northeast of us, which brought wonderfully mild temperatures, but also winds of 15 to 20 knots with gusts to 25 knots from the Southeast, which was the direction in which we wanted to go next. But we loved the climate. Plenty warm for swimming during the day, but cool enough for a blanket at night and humidity of only 75%. While enjoying this corner of paradise, we observed all the interesting activities around us.
One day a specially designed miniature oil tanker drawing only six feet came in to fill the fuel tanks at one of the marinas. Another day a chartered floatplane came in and taxied over to thunderball cave so the passengers could snorkel for a couple of hours. Many mega yachts came and went and everyday private planes flew in and out of the airstrip. Several times a day sailboats and motor cruisers of various sizes would come and go. A couple of times unmarked helicopters painted olive drab flew over. We were told that these were Bahamian drug enforcement aircraft patrolling for smugglers. We had seen an identical helicopter rendezvous with a submarine while we were at West Bay on New Providence Island. Perhaps they are American helicopters patrolling Bahamian airspace and that is why they are unmarked. We never saw any of the helicopters land anywhere, even the airport in Nassau. They could be flying out of Florida. After all, the straight-line distance from the Exumas to the East coast of Florida is less than 200 miles, which would be about an hour flight for helicopters of the type we saw.
We were anchored on the East side of thunderball cave, which gave us a good view of the East channel into the bay. The channel is fairly narrow in one area and because the tide moves through the channel with such force the channel looked suitable for white water boating. It would get very choppy with white caps and look very formidable indeed. My guess is that during maximum tidal flow, the water was moving at more than 5 knots. Since the Exumas run North and South, they present an almost solid barrier to the tides, which can only move between the islands. Some of the channels, such as the East one by Staniel Cay have been scoured by the tides to depths of 30 feet and more. We were anchored in eight feet of water not fifty yards from the channel. Indeed, the guidebooks recommend diving thunderball cave at slack tide to avoid the otherwise strong currents. Southeast winds finally relented and backed to a due Easterly with somewhat reduced velocity, so we retrieved both anchors and set sail for Black Point Settlement, about five miles to the South.
First, we had to sail West about two miles out the channel to get around Harvey Cay and then turn Southeast to our destination. Sailing on the West side of the cays allowed us to tack into the wind at about a 45 degree angle, which is not bad for a catamaran and still enjoy the 15 knot wind without a lot of high waves, which couldn't build because of the relatively short fetch. This area of the cays has 10 to 20 feet of water close to shore. Point Settlement is located on a beautiful bay on the Northwest corner of Great Guana Cay, which is the second longest cay in the chain, running for about 10 miles without a break.
The town used to support a population of about 300, but my guess is that there are fewer than half that many there now. Most of the traditional means of earning a living such as fishing and farming have been abandoned in favor of providing service to tourists. Indeed, this was the friendliest town we have visited yet. Large barrels are placed around town where one can deposit garbage at no charge and a public faucet with free potable water is located about one block from the town pier. The main part of town is about 50 feet above sea level and the view of the bay is spectacular, with clear azure sky, turquoise water and a variety of cruising boats riding at anchor.
We walked around town and saw many vacant and abandoned homes. There is very little employment available and when young people graduate from high school, they move to Nassau or emigrate to the UK or the US. No one new moves in so when the old timers die off, houses are left vacant. It's a sad situation to see such a pretty place in decline. The only gainfully employed people we saw were the folks who worked at the telephone office, electricity generating station, clinic, post office, school, the three restaurant/bars, grocery store and some limited fishing. However, everyone was extremely cordial and we were welcomed everywhere. The residents seemed to be very happy.
The weekly supply ship came in the next morning at 0630 and a large crowd turned out to help carry the groceries and other supplies. Most boxes were moved by wheelbarrow, but some were moved by pickup truck. We didn't inquire as to how the fuel for the vehicles is obtained, as there was no service station and no marina for any fuel or other services. I suspect that someone brings it in jerry cans from Staniel Cay. We stayed only one night at Black Point, but we did send and receive email at the telephone office and buy some fresh bread at Lorraine's Restaurant. Lorraine's is popular with cruisers as is evidenced by the dozens of cards left on the bulletin board. There is also a book swap library in the restaurant.
We continued Southeast along the coast for about five miles South of Black Point, and anchored in a lovely bay South of an unpopulated area called Hetty's Land. We anchored about two hundred yards off shore in 10 feet of water over a clean sandy bottom. We had the area all to ourselves, which was really nice for a change. We explored the beach and found several small conchs that had been trapped in tidal pools, but no starfish or urchins. There were patches of grass on the bottom, but no coral anywhere except very close to the shoreline where the rocks met the sea. However, the coral there, although small compared to what we had seen elsewhere, was very pretty with lots of fish of various sizes swimming around the various outcroppings. We were close enough to shore that we were completely sheltered from the wind that was still blowing at 15 knots. The night sky was spectacular, since we had no interfering lights around us. The next day we snorkeled at an outcropping of coral just off the coast and finally found a true conch bed. None were mature, but some were getting close. There must have been at least 25 in the immediate area. Conchs require six years to mature and the mature ones have a distinctive flared shell. We also saw many varieties of fish, from barracuda to huge schools of minnow sized fry of some variety.
For the next two days, we picked our way through the shallows South to Little Farmers Cay. This type sailing requires very slow movement, with someone on the bow to watch for coral heads and sand bars. Once there, we met a retired couple from New Mexico living aboard a custom aluminum motorsailer and a singlehander living aboard a fiberglass sloop. The single hander was a hydrologist on sabbatical, who was able to tell us all about the geologic development of the Bahamas and how the occasional fresh water wells are formed. It turns out they are the result of rainwater that seeps down through the limestone and is then forced to the surface by the heavier saltwater underneath. We all had dinner together at the popular Ocean Cabin restaurant and bar, which is run by Terry and Earnestine Bain. Besides excellent food and good company, the Bain's have a great sense of humor. The sign outside the door announces the following:
Terry, we also learned, knew a great deal about the politics and economy of the Bahamas. The island he and his family live on, Little Farmer's Cay, for instance is what is called "Generation Land." That means that the entire island is owned by the descendents of the original settlers, freed slaves, who bought the land in the early 1800s. About 55 people currently live on the island. They and the non-resident descendents share joint title to the land. They pick out a home site and build their homes by common consent. If the island were to be sold, a majority of all descendents, including those not living on the island would have to agree. This is unlikely, so those who choose to live on the island do so and the others move away. Because no family has clear title to any part of the island, they cannot use land as collateral. This effectively means no home loans. Ergo, any homebuilding is done as money is earned to pay for it. This explained why we saw many houses that were half completed, or less, and looked like they had been under construction off and on for years. On the other hand, it is a lovely island and Terry and his relatives obviously enjoy living on it. Stay tuned.
Locations: Exumas, Bahamas