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by Dan and Jan Ahart
We arrived at George Town, Bahamas on New Year's Day 2001. It was "as advertised" in the guidebooks and charts. It is an absolutely huge harbor, with lots of protected anchorages among the many islands and cays. Friends spotted us coming in and radioed a welcome and an invitation to anchor close to them and join them for dinner. Now that's the way to arrive at a new port. About 200 boats were already at anchor, scattered all over the place. We didn't believe it until we got here, but well over 500 boats could anchor here and the place would still not be crowded. The town itself is small, with only a few thousand permanent residents, but they are all very friendly and the town is clean and safe. It is easy to understand why it is so popular with cruisers. Each morning, the cruisers get together on the VHF radio for announcements and weather reports. The local businesses also join in with information about menus at the restaurants, specials at the markets, mail arrival, etc. The VHF is used like a telephone here.
The first day ashore was spent reconnoitering the available services. These ranged from the Peace and Plenty Hotel to the Exuma Market and the Shell service station. Mom's bakery consists of a white van that "mom" parks by the side of the road where she sells her baked goods. If you're polite, she will hug you and bless you. The Two Turtles restaurant and bar has live music two nights a week as well as barbeque and is the largest and most popular watering hole for the cruisers. Everyone shows up sooner or later and it is a great place to meet people and swap yarns. Everybody is here for a good time and most are middle aged or older so there is a certain amount of decorum that seems to make the otherwise primitive nature of the establishment somehow more comfortable than it really is.
Once a week, Eddie's Edgewater Restaurant and Bar offers "Rake and Scrape" music, which must be experienced to be believed. The instruments range from guitars to steel drums, washtubs, saws and castanets. It is absolutely unbelievable. The beat is consistent, loud and continuous. Each song was longer than anything Bob Dylan ever wrote. The dancers were sweaty lumps by the end of each 15-plus minute song. But a grander time was never had by anyone. The Bahamians are absolutely color blind, as are the cruisers and everyone is welcome and everyone has a great time. Picture if you will a simple concrete brick building with inadequate lights, a crowded restaurant and crowded bar on an island in the Atlantic full of people from all over the world having a great time just enjoying each other's company and everyone swinging and swaying to the music. Great fun. No one got rowdy, no one got insulted, no one got drunk, but everyone had a great time. It was an island of sanity in a world full of hypocrisy and prejudice.
There is also volley ball beach, where daily volleyball games are held, hamburger beach, the Chat and Chill bar and grill on volley ball beach where hamburgers and 60 cent per gallon drinking water can be obtained, the Exuma Dive Center, Minns Dive Center, and the infamous George Town Golf, Tennis and Yacht Club, which consists of a small sandy beach in the Red Shanks anchorage area and is used for informal sundowner get-togethers. No wonder hundreds of people spend every winter here.
But all is not play in paradise. We decided to replace the bolts in the flange that holds the forestay attached to the bow of the boat. This is a large piece of stainless steel that is bolted to the deck with twelve large stainless bolts that provides the forward pull on the mast and holds the jib or foresail. These were the last of the standing rigging bolts that we replaced. In the process, we decided to add a backing plate, which would be installed under the deck and help secure the whole apparatus. Not having any stainless on board, we called the George Town Marine on the VHF and asked if they had a few square inches of one-eighth stainless plate on hand. "Come on over," was the answer. That sounded promising, so we dinghied over and talked to the proprietor. Now picture a well used, but serviceable pier, lots of boats sitting around on blocks and a fairly well organized workshop in a steel building. After introducing ourselves as the searchers for stainless, the owner, said, "lets check the inventory." Thinking we would see a supply room, we followed. The "inventory" consisted of an old rusty barge that had been run aground and was piled high with scrap metal. The proprietor and we rummaged around for a while and finally found a suitable piece of stainless that would do the job. Thirty minutes of visiting and twenty dollars later and we were on our way. In George Town, this seemed a perfectly natural way to obtain boating materials.
Selections are interesting at the two stores in town in that many products are the same as one would expect in the states such as dry and canned foods, plus some European items such as canned butter and Asian items such as ginger jelly. Most meat is frozen and fresh vegetables and fruits are mostly locally grown. The bananas are small, but good. The Papayas are large and ok. Tomatoes are small but very good. Eggs are not refrigerated and are small, but labeled medium. Eggs that have never been refrigerated will keep at least a month, if they are turned weekly. Experimenting with different foods and different recipes certainly adds variety.
On the 16th, we sailed to the Jumentos, following friends, who had been there before. The Jumentos are a string of small cays that arch from Southwest of George Town around to the Southeast over a distance of about 125 miles. There are hundreds of cays in the chain, ranging from large rocks to pretty fair sized islands. As is typical of the Bahamas; the banks or shallow water is on one side of the cays and the deep ocean or sound is on the other side. Sailing in the Jumentos is much more comfortable on the bank side, but of course coral heads and shoals must be avoided. Our only hesitation in going alone was transiting the Hog Cay Cut, which is a narrow channel on the North side of Hog Cay, which is about 15 miles South of George Town. The Bahamians seldom mark channels, as is done in the states, and finding the right channel is based on local knowledge and visual observation of the color of the water. Since this was a rather serpentine channel, we followed our friends through the first time. It was actually a non-event. on the bank, we sailed about 22 miles to the first large cay in the chain, called Water Cay, where we found a safe anchorage. The water slowly got deeper from a minimum of five feet through Hog Cay cut, at high tide, to about 25 feet when we reached Water Cay. Most coral heads along the way were only five feet or so off the bottom, so once we got into ten or eleven feet of water, we could sail over them instead of around them. We are still learning to read the water and judge the depth, and when we are in doubt, we always go around a questionable area. It helps to have someone stationed on the bow to get a close look before proceeding.
We spent one day at Water Cay and then proceeded further South. We had hoped to find lobsters easy to catch in this area, because not too many cruisers venture this far away from George Town. However, the commercial lobstermen were out in abundance and all of the lobsters in the shallower areas were gone. Instead of using traps, the commercial lobstermen dive to catch lobsters. Their technique is to use a large boat, about the size of a gulf coast shrimp boat as home base. Then, two men get in an outboard powered launch and search for lobster. The search is conducted by one man driving the boat at slow speed with the other man hanging on to a line and being pulled through the water, when he spots a lobster, he lets go of the line and dives. The boat operator stops and up comes the diver with a lobster, which he throws in the boat. Theses divers do not use scuba gear and are diving in 30 to 35 feet of water, wearing only snorkel gear and a wet suit. Shortly after anchoring, a launch with two men approached our friend's boat and traded them 11 lobsters for a bottle of brandy. So, we got a lobster dinner, but we didn't have the thrill of catching it. This was not true with conch. We easily caught a dozen conchs and had conch fritters with our lobster.
The next day we sailed South another 12 miles to Flamingo Cay, where we snorkeled around some of the most beautiful coral and tropical fish we have ever seen. It was like swimming in a huge well-stocked aquarium. The iridescent colors of the fish and infinite variety of coral are impossible to describe. Again, we found plenty of conchs, but no lobsters. However, we had a weather-fax receiver, so we traded weather information for four more lobster from the commercial divers. They told us that there were plenty of lobsters in deeper water. We believed them, but none of use could snorkel to 30 feet, let alone grab a lobster while down there. Holding one's breath that long is challenge enough, but clearing one's ears due to the water pressure is also a chore, while wearing a swim mask. We noted with some chagrin, that the commercial divers all appeared to be twenty or thirty years old - mere youngsters. On the other hand, we were retired and they weren't.
After two days at Flamingo Cay, we returned to George Town alone, to pick up our mail,
while our friends proceeded further South. We had a glorious sail
to George Town. We were sailing Northeast and the wind was from the
Southeast at 18 knots. At times we were making better than 6.5 knots.
We picked up our mail, bought some additional fresh provisions and
waited for favorable weather to head for the Caribbean, via Rum Cay
and the Turks and Caicos. Stay tuned.