Chanter Savvy in the Exuma on Azulys a Jeanneau 379 from Navtours.
Exploring The “Lost” Bahamas: Cruising The Exumas By Bareboat
By Louisa Rudeen Beckett
The Crow's Nest atop Highbourne Cay - at elevation 100 feet, one of the highest peaks in the Bahamas' Exuma island chain - gave us breathtaking, 360-degree views of the H-shaped cay as the sun slowly set into the Exuma Bank. This memorable moment was well worth the effort we had put into getting there, not only by walking up the hill from the marina, but also by making the eight-hour crossing from Nassau under power with an 18-to-20-knot knot breeze and 4-to-6-foot seas on the nose slowing our progress to a painful 4 knots. All that was behind us now, and the pristine promise of the Exumas Cays Land & Sea Park lay before us to the south.
Although the Exumas are beloved by sailors with enough time on their hands to spend the winter island-hopping south through all 365 cays until they reach the cruisers' community in George Town on Great Exuma Island, they have not yet attracted any of the major bareboat charter operators. An Internet search led us to NavTours, a Canadian operation offering charters in the Exumas and Eleuthera, as well as on Lake Champlain in the summertime. With Bahamas bases in Nassau and George Town, NavTours can handle both round-trip and one-way charters through the Exumas from either end of the island chain - although the company recommends you only plan a one-way itinerary for charters of two weeks or more. As we were able to squeeze just a week's vacation into our hectic schedules, we opted to do a round-trip starting and ending at the Nassau base.
Our charter party included myself, my husband Gary (our photographer), and another couple: Cindy and Phil, experienced Pacific Northwest sailors who own a 37- foot Beneteau back home. We were pleased to find a brand new, 37-foot Jeanneau 379, Azulys, available among the monohulls and catamarans in NavTour's 22-boat Bahamas fleet. After a pleasant e-mail exchange with Norm Staunton, manager of NavTours' Nassau base, we took the short flight from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas capital, followed by a scenic taxi ride along Nassau Harbour to the new Bay Street Marina on East Bay Street near the Paradise Island bridges. We soon found Azulys in her slip with a NavTours sign welcoming us attached to her side rail and a welcome bucket of soda, rum and rum cake in the cockpit.
Once we stowed our luggage aboard, Norm and his colleague Bruno LeMieux gave a briefing on the threestateroom sailboat and on our route to the Exumas. Cindy and Phil, who have taken several bareboat charters in the Caribbean and other destinations, told us afterward that the orientation was more thorough and more customized to cover our particular interests than any other they had experienced.
Bay Street Marina is located on a somewhat neglected stretch of Nassau's waterfront, but it is walking-distance to the well-known Poop Deck seafood restaurant and the colorful conch stands of Potter's Cay, and also boasts two eateries on site.The Green Parrot is a fun, tiki-style outdoor sports bar, while the HarbourFront Lounge is an elegant bistro and wine bar that serves delicious gourmet pizza. Both offer diners views of the marina docks, boat traffic in Nassau Harbour and the iconic pink towers of Atlantis rising above Paradise Island on the opposite shore.
The marina also is conveniently located for provisioning a charter boat. A Super Value grocery story is right up the hill - but, as it was getting dark by the time we set out to shop, we took a taxi and asked him to return for us in half an hour. We found everything on our list in the Super Value and were pleasantly surprised by the extensive wine selection in the liquor store a few steps away.
On Sunday morning, we slipped our lines and set out for Highbourne Cay at the the Exumas chain, 35 miles to the southeast. In ski resort parlance, I would rate this crossing as a “blue square” or “intermediate” run. We were glad to have Phil and Cindy along as skipper and first mate as we picked our way across the Yellow Bank, which is infamous for the coral heads that lie just below the surface.
“As good as the charts are, everything is visual,” Norm told us during the briefing. “It's all about the color of the water.” The lighter the blue, the shallower the bottom (although that does not always hold true in areas where the sea floor is white sand).
Phil followed the GPS tracks the boat had made on previous runs in Azulys' Garmin chartplotter, and although we had a few nervous moments, we made it to Highbourne Cay with the boat intact and before nightfall - the charter company's curfew. Navigation into the island's resort marina was relatively easy thanks to the 300-foot cellphone tower jutting from the island's hilltop and two ranges on its shoreline.
Our first clue we had arrived at someplace special was the sight of a shiver of sharks swimming around at the entrance to Highbourne Cay Marina, hopeful for a handout from the fisherman cleaning his catch at the end of the dock. As we motored to our assigned slip, we passed a wide variety of boats from humble fishing skiffs to 125-foot megayachts.A smiling dockhand caught our lines and helped us hook into shore power.While it wasn't cheap at $2.75 per foot per night, after our long “uphill” run across the Exuma Bank, we truly appreciated the courtesy, comforts and class of Highbourne Cay Marina.
Fuel, water and power, showers ($3 for five minutes) and laundry, a well-stocked store and a beautiful bijou of a beach - this upscale marina has it all. To our delight, on the hill above the store and dockmaster's office, we found Xuma, an open-air restaurant that serves up consistently excellent, chef-styled cuisine along with sweeping views of the marina and Highbourne Cut, which runs from the shallow bank to the ocean depths of Exuma Sound.
Highbourne Cay Marina reads the day's marine weather forecast aloud each morning at 8 am on VHF 71.After hearing forecast for the next couple of days, our neighbors in the marina strongly recommended we stay put because a strong cold front was due to blow through the area.
Looking around her, Cindy said, “There are worse places to be stuck,” a sentiment echoed by everyone we met on Highbourne Cay.
On Monday, before the weather closed in, we were able to see many of the sights of this pretty private resort island. We walked along the road that leads from the marina past the rental cottages on the hilltop to two-mile-long East Beach on Highbourne's Sound side. The Bahamas are known for the palette of vibrant blue and green hues in their waters and, even with the wind still in the high teens, the seas that lapped the beach did not disappoint. Lured by the promise of reefs formed by Stromatolite fossils dating back 3.5 billion years, we did a little snorkeling, but visibility was poor in the surf-roiled waters.
After consulting a helpful handout labeled “Dinghy Destinations & Snorkel Sites”, Phil, Gary and I decided to take Azulys' tender to do some drift diving at Highbourne Rocks, a reef not far from the marina. This was our first attempt at using the transom crane to lower the outboard from its mount on the yacht's aft rail to the dinghy's transom, and it worked like a charm.
On our way out of the marina, we stopped to snap shots of the seemingly tame nurse and lemon sharks gorging on fish guts. It turned out that the fisherman fileting wahoo above them was Frank, the owner of the Bertram 42 in the slip next to ours.
“Can I buy some Of that wahoo from you?” I called up to him from the dinghy.
“No,” he answered curtly. Then, just as we were about to pull away, he added, “But I'll give you some.”
Later, when we returned salty but smiling after snorkeling amongst beautiful coral and sponges, angelfish and other brightly colored tropical fish, Frank was as good as his word. That night, after our sunset drink at the Crow's Nest, a spacious hut the resort had built at the top of the hill, we feasted on fresh wahoo we cooked aboard Azulys. One thing that can be said about chartering with a French Canadian outfit - they certainly know how to equip a galley. Phil, a fantastic breakfast chef, even found a French spatula designed to flip an omelette into thirds rather than in half.
The cold front arrived, treating us to a day of 25-plus-knot winds and rain under cover of Azulys' linked cockpit dodger and bimini to read our books. As most sailors know, the best cruising itinerary is a flexible one!
Wednesday dawned with clearing skies, however, and we got under way early to head south into the Exumas Cays Land & Sea Park. Established by an Act of Parliament in 1958, the park is an extraordinary preserve encompassing many of the northern cays in the Exumas chain. Always a sanctuary for marine life, it was officially designated in 1986 as a “no take zone,” the first in the Caribbean. Today, the park admonishes visiting sailors: “Take only photographs - leave only footprints.”
The wind was still blowing from the wrong direction for sailing, and the seas were too rough for an “outside” passage through Exuma Sound, but on the “inside” we were able to average nearly 7 knots thanks to Azulys' 30-hp Yanmar auxiliary.As we neared our first stop in the Land & Sea Park, the uninhabited Hawksbill Cay - which would have made a great set for Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island - we radioed Park Headquarters on Channel 9 to reserve one of the four mooring balls off the beach located in the middle of the Island's western shore.
With only one other boat in the mooring field, Hawksbill Cay became our private paradise as we cocktailed, cooked and dined in Azulys' cockpit. We had been feeling a bit spoiled at Highbourne Cay, and it was good to be self-sufficient. That night, swinging on our mooring far from the lights of civilization, we were covered by an incredible canopy of stars.
The next morning, we took the dinghy around to the next beach and disembarked to explore Russell Ruins, the remains of a plantation dating back to the late 1800s. A nicely maintained hiking trail winds up the hill to the ruins, which largely consist of old stone fences and walls amid nowthick vegetation. On the way back, I discovered an old well and a huge heap of conch shells quite a distance uphill from the beach. Whatever the Russell family was growing on its plantation, conch clearly was a big part of their diet.
No visit to the Land & Sea Park is complete without a stop at Park Headquarters on Warderick Wells. Immediately after the ranger's morning greeting at 9 am on VHF Channel 9, we radioed back to book a mooring ball for that evening. The wind had moderated to 12 to 15 knots and clocked around to the south-southeast - more typical of the Exumas in the winter - so were able to put up the genoa and enjoy our first sail of the trip.
“It sails pretty stinkin' nice,” Phil said. Once again, however, he had to steer clear of several ominous light-blue patches of shoal water on our way south along the inside passage.
The scythe-shaped channel that cuts through the flats in Warderick Wells' harbor is home to at least a dozen mooring balls. At the end of the channel stands the rustic rangers' station, cantilevered above a decent dinghy dock. We climbed the stairs to exclaim over the natural oddities on display, including the bones of “Stinky” the Pilot Whale and another, massive whale skeleton on the beach below. Accepting a trail map from the friendly ranger, we set off for the top of Boo Boo Hill, a “must-see” stop for cruisers in these parts.
The trail system on Warderick Wells, which covers most of the island, ranges from “blue square” to “black diamond” in difficulty. Shoes are a must, since much of the trail takes you across a moonscape of ancient coral rock that has been eroded into a sharp latticework by eons of exposure to wind and waves. After fording a stream (marked by a humorous sign reading “water taxi”) we ascended to the summit of Boo Boo Hill, supposedly named for the moans of unfortunate souls who were shipwrecked on the island's ocean reef and denied a Christian burial. Legend has it they haunt the hill in the full moon.
What we found instead was a prodigious pile of driftwood marked with the names of cruising boats that have stopped at Warderick Wells over the years. Naturally, we added a twig with “Azulys” on it to the pile.
We decided to descend on the other side of the hill, and found ourselves on a long but fascinating trek along an ocean beach, past yawning caverns and through marshy mangroves until we returned to our dinghy. Tired but with our mind's eyes full of the many natural wonders we had witnessed, we took the dinghy back to our boat and spent another evening sipping wine and swapping stories across the cockpit table.
Our return trip north took us back to Highbourne Cay Marina for one more night (and another amazing meal), but it was very different from the voyage south because it was mainly conducted under sail. For Phil and Cindy, any journey in a sailboat truly is its own destination, and we all reveled in the quiet rush of water under the hull, the wind in the sails, and the innumerable shades of blue in the waters around the boat.
Although the northern Exumas are a “no-takezone”, we did take something valuable away with us - a new respect for nature and the sea.
Charter Briefing: Exumas
Weather: Located in the central Bahamas, the Exuma Cays have a tropical climate with air temperatures in the mid-to-high 80s °F in summer and the mid-70s °F in winter. Water temperatures rarely dip below 72°F near shore. While winds and seas are calmer in summer, it is also the rainy and hurricane season (June through November), so many sailors cruise the Exumas in the winter, when winds typically range from 15-25 knots from the E-NE. It's important to stay abreast of changing weather conditions and keep your itinerary flexible as cold fronts sweep down from the north in the winter, lowering temperatures and causing the wind to “clock around” for a few days. Highbourne Cay Marina broadcasts the marine weather forecast every morning at 8 am on VHF 71. Twice-daily tidal changes produce strong currents, particularly in narrow passages between the cays; snorkelers take care.
Getting There: Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas on the island of New Providence, is the usual jumping-off point for an Exumas charter. It is the easiest destination in the Bahamas to reach by air, with dozens of commercial flights arriving daily at the newly renovated Lynden Pindling International Airport (LPIA). Travelers returning to America even can clear U.S. Customs at LPIA before their flight - be sure to arrive at the airport at least two hours ahead. The taxi ride from LPIA to East Bay Street on Nassau Harbour takes about 25 minutes and costs US$35-$40.You also can book a one-way NavTours Exumas charter starting from Great Exuma at the southern end of the island chain, which has an international airport with direct service to and from Nassau, Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Toronto. Taxi fares on Great Exuma vary depending on whether your boat is moored mid-island at the Marina at Emerald Bay next to Sandals, or in George Town Harbour at the southern tip.
Extra Costs: Bahamas departure tax is included in your airfare. Charter rates are subject to 5% tax by the Bahamian government. Moorings in the Exumas Cays Land & Sea Park range from US$15 to US$100 per night, depending on the size of your boat, and are offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Radio the park on VHF 9 to get on the waiting list for the next day; a ranger will contact you after 9 a.m. on the day-of with your mooring assignment. Marina slips in the Exumas typically start at US$2.50 per foot per night. Boats at anchor may be charged a fee for disposing of garbage ashore. Internet service, when available, is offered for a fee by some marinas and at Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park Headquarters on Warderick Wells.
Money: U.S. and Bahamas currency is used interchangeably throughout the Bahamas; try to spend your Bahamas bucks before you fly home, however.Mastercard and Visa are accepted in most places in the Exumas but several resorts, including Highbourne Cay, Charge a service fee of 2% or more for credit card use, so you may want to use cash instead.
Legal: Passports are required of all visitors to the Bahamas.
Phone and Internet: Although North Americans only need to dial “1” and the area code, 242, to access the Bahamas, it is still long-distance. Voice call and data rates when using any phone service other than BTC (Bahamas Telecommunications Company) can be prohibitive; it is even advisable to turn off your phone's data services before landing. A good solution is to purchase a basic, no-service-contract BTC cellphone for under US$50 when in Nassau and top it up with minutes before leaving on your charter. There is spotty cellphone service in the Exumas, except on islands with cell towers like the 300-foot antenna atop Highborne Cay. Some of the marinas offer Internet service (for a fee), but this can be spotty as well. Our advice is to relax and enjoy the fact that the office can't reach you!
What to Take: A bathing suit, sandals, a hat and polarized sunglasses for cutting the glare when you are on the lookout for shallow water and coral heads. Sunblock and bug spray are essential - the former during daylight hours and the latter if you go ashore at dawn or dusk. In winter, a sweatshirt and jeans will help ward off the chill at night. Most charter companies equip their boats with snorkel, mask and fins sets, but you may want to bring your own mask, plus some in child's sizes if kids are part of your charter party. Pack a wetsuit or “skin” if plan to stay in the water a long time. Sneakers or sturdy shoes come in handy for hiking on the islands' ancient, eroded rocks. Bring a nice, resortstyle shirt and slacks for upscale marina restaurants; women may want to throw in a wash-and-wear dress. Most charter boat music systems now have iPod docks, so don't forget to bring your cruising tunes!
Provisioning: Many charter companies, including NavTours, offer a provisioning service for a fee. Do-it-yourselfers usually buy groceries at the Super Value store on Bilney Lane in Nassau. It's easy walking distance from East Bay Street, but you may want to take a taxi after dark. You will find a liquor store with a surprisingly good wine selection in the same shopping plaza. Picky chefs may prefer to cab it to Solomon's Fresh Market in the Harbour Bay Shopping Plaza. Also on East Bay Street, Balduccino, in the Cotton Tree Traders Plaza, is a deli offering a smaller selection of gourmet foods that also serves delicious breakfast items and coffee drinks.
For More Information: The preferred chart kit to use in navigating the region is Explorer Chartbook Exumas and Ragged Islands. The 7th Edition is now available for US$59.95 at www.explorercharts.com, although your charter company probably will provide one for the trip. The 2013 Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas (US$44.95 at www.yachtsmansguide.com) also provides good local information. You can learn about the Exumas Cays Land & Sea Park, its attractions and rules, at www.Exumapark.org. And NavTours is at www.Navtours.com or (514) 382-4445