Bahamas - Shallow Draft Sailing on the Exuma Bank
Friday November 7/14 dawned bright and sunny in Elizabeth Harbour near George Town, Great Exuma, where we had been anchored off "Hamburger Beach", Stocking Island (~ 23 31.8N 75 46.0W) for the last couple of weeks aboard our Southerly 49 sailboat, Distant Shores II. Paul and I produce a television series about the cruising lifestyle called Distant Shores so had been using the time here at anchor cataloguing the many hours of footage we've been collecting for season 10 episodes of the series, scripting narration, doing rough editing as well as updating the show's website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram sites. Around us were other cruising sailors working aboard their boats too doing website design, technical consultation, chartering and various types of online sales (see more on "Making Money while Cruising") as well as the endless boat projects that go on while you’re cruising.
Working While Cruising
We feel very blessed to be able to earn our living as television producers doing the thing we love best – sailing! However it requires that we fly home once in a while to do post-production work in the studio (a good chance to catch up with colleagues, friends and family) and pause in a place from time to time, usually where there is good fast unlimited internet access, in George Town we use Bahamas Wi-max. You can also get internet access while cruising through BTC Bahamas data plans for your open smartphone (we have iPhones) which is great since every main settlement has a tower meaning that even in remote islands you can usually get internet access. This service does not offer unlimited access so is good for e-mail and web surfing but not practical for uploading large video files, for example, which is necessary for our business.
Cruising the Exuma Bank
But today it was time to unplug and get back to cruising! The Bahamas are one of the world's top cruising destinations and during the 25 years we've been sailing internationally and living aboard we have visited these jewel-like islands many times. There are over 700 islands and cays (pronounced keys) in the Bahamas which spread out over an area the size of the whole Caribbean so you can spend years here and always find new places to explore. Today was another example. We were heading to new destinations; for the next week we were going to sail the shallow waters along the west coast of Little Exuma and Great Exuma to visit and film our experiences in the small settlements and remote cays of the Exuma Bank, places we had never been before.
Shallow Draft Cruising
The word "Bahamas" comes from the Spanish "Baha Mar" or shallow seas so there are many places you can't go in the Bahamas if the draft of your boat is over 6 feet. However we cruised the Bahamas many times with our first boat, a Classic 37 named Two-Step, that drew 6 feet and we always had a fabulous time. However, our current boat, a Southerly 49, has a variable draft swing keel and with the keel raised Distant Shores II draws 2' 10” (0.88 m). With the keel down she is deep draft at 10' 4" (3.15 m). The shallow draft ability of this boat has changed the way we cruise since it has made so many more cruising destinations accessible for us. If you are considering buying a new boat we recommend considering shoal draft options.
Our first boat Two-Step drew 6 feet and we cruised happily in the Bahamas
George Town Cruisers Net VHF 72
Before raising anchor we tuned into the George Town Cruisers Net on VHF 72 (daily at 8:00 a.m. local time) to say goodbye to everyone during the Arrivals and Departures section of the net and thank them for all the great hospitality - dinners on board and at the beach, happy hours, information exchange, you name it. The cruising community is very friendly and supportive!
Three Fathom Channel
By 9:00 a.m. we were underway. It's fun to stop in a place for a while but leaving for new places always gets us excited and energized. We never get tired of sailing to places unknown! There was a light north wind so we unfurled the genoa right away and sailed downwind south through Elizabeth Harbour waving to friends at anchor exiting the harbour an hour later at Three Fathom Channel (~ 23 29.4N 75 41.9W). Once out into the sound the breeze strengthened and we sailed along the east coast of the islands of Great Exuma and Little Exuma to Hog Cay Cut. The cut would take us out onto the shallow banks where we would then begin our voyage up the west coast along the Exuma Bank.
Hog Cay Cut
Hog Cay Cut (~ 23 24.2N 75 30.7W) is one of the trickiest cuts in the Bahamas since the current runs strong here and there is a hard bar (3 feet at low tide) so you have to time your passage carefully. Best time is at high water slack but we had timed our transit for mid-tide ebb so that we had enough depth for our shallow draft boat and were steering into a head current which gave us good control. The tide time is a little tricky to figure out at Hog Cay Cut since wind strength and direction can really alter the tide times on the banks but for planning purposes 2 hours after Nassau Tide (later than, add 2 hours to Nassau times) seems to the accepted time for planning. There are anchorages either side of the cut so if conditions aren't as expected you can wait at anchor until you get the tide conditions you are comfortable with.
The water is extremely clear so with me piloting from the bow and Paul at the helm we got through the cut without trouble and slid onto the shallow protected bank. It is like arriving on a different planet. The wind dropped, the seas flattened and the colours became brilliant. The bottom is pure white sand on the banks which makes the clear water a swimming pool blue, one of the great delights of boating in the Bahamas. The natural beauty and healing colours raise your spirits continually. The average depths we were seeing throughout the day and rest of the trip were 2 to 3 metres (6.5 to 9 feet) so with extreme care and attention to depths and tide heights you could do this trip with a draft of 1.8 m (6 feet).
Onto the Banks
There were no other boats in sight except for the occasional local skiff whose owners gave us a friendly wave as they whizzed by. Unfortunately there was not enough wind for sailing so we puttered along under power taking in the wild scenery and viewing the birdlife as we made our way to the evening's anchorage off the tiny settlement of The Ferry at the west end of Little Exuma. There used to be a ferry there to Great Exuma that was replaced with a bridge in 1979.
Snorkeling on Coral Heads
Along the way we stopped and dove on some of the coral heads we were passing by and we have never seen reefs covered with so many fish! At one coral head Paul came upon a nurse shark and the largest hawksbill turtle we have ever seen. The shark took off when it saw us arrive but the old turtle stayed put for about half an hour before growing tired of our company. He slowly surfaced for air and headed off. Who knew they could hold their breath for so long?!
Mosquito and No-See-Um Control
We reached our anchorage (~ 23 24.9N 75 37.3W) off McPhee's Creek just east of the channel through the mangroves into The Ferry settlement at around 4 p.m. (Our plan had been to go into the settlement to see if we could find a local place for dinner but with the recent time change the sun was pretty low already. (The Bahamas are in the Eastern Time Zone the same as New York and Toronto.) We decided to delay our trip ashore until the morning so that we weren't navigating mangroves in the dark when the mosquitos and no-see-ums (sandflies) would be out in full force. It's a good idea to have screens on your ports and hatches as well as the companionway when cruising shallow marshy areas in the Bahamas. We found a good companionway screen called a Bugbuster Companionway Screen made by Sogeman of Canada. (We're experts on mosquitos in Canada!). No-see-ums can fly right through mosquito netting so the best solution is to anchor well offshore so they can't get to you. You can buy no-see-um screens but they are so fine they don't let any air through so you might as well just close the hatches. If your boat has air conditioning and the power to run it at anchor you can close up anytime and avoid them altogether.
There was a lovely sunset that evening and we saw a green flash as the sun sunk below the horizon! This is a rare phenomenon to see! It happens when there is a clear open horizon and the last ray of sunlight refracts into a green glow. We would have missed it if we'd gone to town.
Green Flash as the sun sets
The next day was a mirror reflection of the day before so with sunshine and clear skies we jumped into the dinghy carrying water, bailing bucket, anchor, VHF handheld and navigated our way through the mangrove creek and main channel into The Ferry Settlement using the Navionics mobile app on our iPhone. It is a couple of miles from the outer anchorage to the settlement (there is an anchorage closer to town but too many bugs there) and when we got to the bridge two guys fishing from it directed us to the little ferry dock where we tied up our dinghy and walked up to "town". The settlement is really just a string of houses along the road but there was a little grocery store and snack bar where we were welcomed by the friendly owner, Freddy (short for Frederica) and across the street was a very casual outdoor grill, The Ferry Grillin', where we hung out with some local guys just shooting the breeze. We had lunch there sampling Richard’s (the owner) special conch salad (conch is a large shellfish) that included a crunchy local pink seaweed that the guys called Irish Moss. This was the first time we had encountered this recipe for conch salad in the Bahamas or seen this plant but the guys loved this stuff and swore that it had strong medicinal powers that prevent certain types of cancer. It is these types of encounters and experiences that makes traveling of any kind so wonderful!
Our new friends invited us to stay another day and go fishing and "conching" with them on Sunday which would have been great but we wanted to move on to take advantage of the weather and tides. Also we had a shipment of spare parts being flown to Staniel Cay in several days so couldn't linger. It was another day of motoring on Sunday to our next destination, the Jewfish Cays, where there is a narrow cut between this string of mostly uninhabited islands. The cut is marked by a light - a rare thing in the vast shifting sands of the Bahamas - but the cut is on a big rock on the mail boat route. The mail boats are crucial to the survival of the islanders since they bring weekly supplies. We went through the cut and anchored in the northeast bay (~23 27.5N 75 57.1W) just off an idyllic deserted beach where we went ashore for an evening walk. The next morning we went back for a barefoot run and swim off the pristine beach. We were sure to run lights during the night since we were close to the cut and local skiffs as well as the mailboat run through this area. Sadly, but not surprisingly, when darkness fell the light marking the channel never came on.
Monday was a similar day of sunny skies and motoring into light headwinds. The wind was keeping to the north and northwest which is really unusual for this time of year and for so many days. But we continued along through the cays, stopping for a lunch stop and to dive on the coral heads around Hawksbill Rock (23 25.5N 76 06.3W) where there was another light which didn't look operational, then carrying on anchor at Rocky Point (~23 34.8N 76 04.2W) near the northwest corner of Great Exuma. We had a bouncy night since the wind picked up and blew uncharacteristically straight off the banks into the anchorage so we left at daylight.
Soon we were saying goodbye to Great Exuma and heading on to the rest of the Exuma Cays that we know well and love. Here’s a video clip showing some of the beautiful water you can sail in here, especially if you have a shallow draft boat.
Rudder Cut Cay
All though we’ve visited the Exuma Cays many times once again we had a new place to explore and a discovery to make. When we were in The Ferry one of the guys there was telling us about an underwater statue of a mermaid playing a grand piano that was off the coast of Rudder Cut Cay. We got out the charts and saw in a small bay an item marked 'piano'. That had to be it! We were on a quest now! We reached Rudder Cut around lunch time on Tuesday and sure enough we found it (~23 52.15N 76 14.15W). Paul played the piano for this patient mermaid and as you can see he had her full attention. The story of how she got here is that magician, David Copperfield, who owns nearby Musha Cay, commissioned this statue, hid it and held a contest encouraging people to find it.
Big Galliot Cay
The anchorage here was rather exposed in the continuing northwest winds so in the remaining daylight we headed north and tucked into Big Galliot Cay (~23 55.0N 76 17.3W). We saw two other sailboats that day, both catamarans, the first cruising boats we'd seen in three days.
Little Farmers Cay and Great Guana Cay
Wednesday the wind was really up and still from the north so we bashed our way to the protected harbour at Little Farmers Cay where we stopped at Farmers Cay Yacht Club (~23 57.9N 76 19.4W) to say hello to owner Roosevelt Nixon and top up our water tanks (40 cents/US gallon). The drinking water is really good here. Roosevelt takes good care of his desalinator changing filters regularly. If you've seen Distant Shores season 5 we interview Roosevelt and his wife in the Little Farmers Cay episode. After a good chat we carried on to try out the anchorage at Great Guana Cay at White Point (~23 04.1N 76 22.3) which is deserted and has a gorgeous beach. It was a little bouncy and exposed in the unusual north winds when we arrived but the forecast was for things to settle down by dinner so we hung in there and were rewarded for doing so. We spent two lovely days there beachcombing, swimming and snorkelling with the world to ourselves (but good internet through out phones from the tower at Little Farmers Cay).
White Point, Great Guana Cay
Yesterday we arrived in time for lunch at Staniel Cay where we are anchored in our favourite spot off Thunderball Cave (a major scene in the James Bond movie Thunderball was filmed here hence the name). Watermakers Air that handles freight forwarding from Fort Lauderdale had already delivered our spare parts for the generator and furling gear which we picked up at Staniel Cay Yacht Club. We celebrated our mini cruise of the Exuma Bank with dinner at the yacht club.
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