Friday, July 1, 2011

Cruising the Exuma Chain

Seen from the dingy in 5 ft of water
Ah, the Exumas. Finally, on June 11th - after 4 days, the rain stopped, the sun shone and we sailed to the Exuma Chain. The cays of the Exumas are the mecca for the cruising crowd. Starting with Allen Cay and its Iguanas all the way down to Georgetown, where cruisers wait to finally head South to the “real Caribbean.” The Exumas are a chain of islands 80 miles long. They lie about 40 miles southwest of the Eleuthera chain, our last sailing ground.

Conch Nursery - taken in about 2 ft of water
Much of our way along the Exumas was dictated by our need to stay in touch with Renee and monitor( help if possible) Austin’s progress. So glad to say that he’s doing better. 

Can you spot it?
The Exumas are more remote and less inhabited than the Abacos and the Eleutheras. Nearly one third is taken up by the Exuma Land and Sea Park. The Park is 176 sq miles, 22 miles long. As we were going to stop going South at Staniel Cay, 40 miles from Georgetown, the end of the Exuma Chain, they were a large part of our visit. In Exuma Park there is no phone service and not much internet service, definitely no Skype. At Staniel Cay and Pipe Creek Alley, all south of the park, internet is metered at $10. per day for 100 – 200 MB depending on where you are. Whatever internet is there is satellite based and very, very sloooooowwwwwww. Often, even if you’d paid, the service was down. Phone service, except at Highborne Cay, to the north, and Staniel Cay, to the south was non-existent to iffy. I don’t think most people who come to the Exumas need to stay in touch. Next time! 
Wahoo at anchor - Warderick  Wells (Park Headquarters)

 The Park has many of the most beautiful reefs you will see in the Bahamas. As it’s a “no take zone” it’s conch, lobster and other fish act as a nursery for the aquatic life throughout the southern Bahamas. 

Coral Gardens
Our first “land ho” after crossing Exuma Sound was Highborne Cay. We reached it by sailing from Rock Sound Eleuthera across Exuma Sound where our depth sounder once again just read “Deep”. Exuma Sound is basically part of the Atlantic with a few cays to break up the swells rolling in from Africa. We decided to treat ourselves to a “marina night”. Highborne Cay Marina is a wonderful facility with a fuel dock, water metered at .50/gal (as we saw throughout the Exumas) a great beach, wonderful snorkeling spots, nurse sharks and sting rays to watch. It has someone to wash your clothes, power & water hookups, $10 internet (200 mb) and a small grocery and gift shop. But you know, we were the only sailboat there! Everyone else was either a trawler or a fishing boat – sailboat people don’t waste money in “stinking marinas.”  
On the Reef

So our 2nd night we anchored on the “bank” side of Norman Cay. You see the Exumas run southeast with the deep Exuma Sound to their East and the shallower, coral-head filled Exuma Bank to their West. So you can access the cays from either side switching back and forth through the cuts as wind and weather and your inclination dictates. Exuma Sound = deeper water and fairly straight sails to your next port. Exuma Bank = shallow water, gentler winds and seas, mostly motoring and lots of VPR(visual piloting rules).

Norman Cay is famous for two things: 
 Mcduffs beachside hamburger joint. 
Boats line up and radio ahead for reservations 
  We spent a couple of days there as the phone service was pretty decent, the hamburgers were great, as was the snorkeling and conch “diving”. Also we made friends with Rhett and Emily, previously from Shreveport, who had shown up about a week before us and now were the bartender and waitress at McDuffs. 

We "salvaged" these at Norman's Cay

Plane barely showing at high tide

Yesteryear: It was the headquarters of Columbian drug lord Carlos Ledner. The cay still hosts the drug compound with an impressive deepwater dock, an airstrip now in use by small planes and most fun of all – a wrecked drug running plane in about 5 feet of water.

Left Norman Cay with plans to spend a few days near the Park headquarters, Warderick Wells Cay. This cay actually has a fresh water lense beneath the rock – hence its name.
The protected harbor outside of Park headquarters is one of the loveliest you will see with all the boats riding on mooring balls in a crescent of Sapphire, Turquoise and Deep Blue Water.
Mooring Balls in front of Park Headquarters - Wahoo center of picture

Ended up staying only one night due to lack of phone service. But that was just find as our next anchorage proved to be one of our favorite spots, Pipe Creek Alley. This is a narrow channel that winds its way between several cays. If you’re careful not to run aground it’s just lovely and filled with great coral gardens for drift snorkeling, sweet little beaches and mangrove creeks for exploring. It was here we met up with two boats traveling together, old hands at visiting and exploring the Bahamas. Don and Barbara on their sailboat “Checkmate” have been coming for 30 years. Lee and Carol on their trawler “Our Destiny” have been visiting for 10.
Queen Angelfish

I’d hate to think where we’d be without Lee. On our 1st morning at anchor in Pipe Creek Alley he woke us up to deliver our wayward dingy (and new outboard motor!). Seems the bow line and dingy had decided to part company while we slept. Luckily Don was awake and enjoying his Wheaties when they did the dastardly deed

Trumpetfish - looks like part of the coral

Nurse sharks can always tell suppertime
No way to thank anyone enough for that except by inviting them for cocktails! They gave us so many, many good pointers. Of course the invitation was returned and we went to their boat.  For several days we met up for some great cave dives and snorkeling trips off of Cambrige Cay in the southern end of the park. AND near the island owned by Johnny Depp.

Arrival Staniel Cay Bahamas
Swimming out to meet our boat

The end of the Exuma chain for us was Staniel Cay and the culmination was Sammye and Grouper’s visit.We swam with the freckled, carrot loving, Bahamian pigs; explored Staniel Cay village – all 3 blocks; Ate and drank at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club (finally a bar!); explored Thunderball Cave ( yes the 007 movie “Thunderball” was filmed there) swam and snorkled our hearts out then were invited to a cochon d’lait on the beach for the “big boats”. These are the famous Bahamian sailing sloops – Staniel Cay sailors win the regattas nearly every year and throw a party to celebrate!

They love carrots
Fun, at least until it was time to come home. As we were dingying our way back to Wahoo, WITH navigation lights on and a lookout, a small skiff, SANS lights or lookout, rammed us. Thanks to Sammye’s alerting yell, Roy managed to swing the boat a little - enough to avoid a much worse head-on collision with even more damage. As it was, Grouper took the full brunt of the blow and had the wind knocked out of him, plus serious bruises followed by serious pain. He’s doing better now. But it made for a quiet time on their last day with us. Yet we managed to fill it up with steamed lobster, conch fritters and “Capt Ron”.  

Snorkeling the caves was an quite and experience. We were happy to have Lee to show us the way during our first cave dives at Rocky Dundas. But the most impressive was Thunderball Grotto near Staniel Cay.
Lee and Dale at Rocky Dundas

Thunderball Grotto

Entrance to Thunderball 

Roy and I have now turned the boat to run up the Exuma Chain starting our journey back to New Orleans. We should be in Nassau in a few days. (Well we’re probably there now as I can’t send this until we are)

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