The Exumas are said to be the ultimate cruising grounds in the Bahamas. The photos you see in the magazines of beautiful clear waters and white sands are likely to have been taken here and I can confirm, the camera doesn’t lie.
The Exumas consist of 365 beautiful islands dotted over 130 miles.
They’re a special place, so special that the likes of Johnny Depp, Shakira and David Copperfield have all bought their own piece of paradise here.
Over the last month or so we’ve spent time cruising between the Exuma islands. Exploring the islands that are yet to be privatised and enjoying the crystal clear waters.
On our initial journey to the Exumas from Eleuthera we were joined by Ben’s sister. Not only did she bring our new fishing reel with her but also a dash of good luck. The journey over to Staniel Cay saw us catch our first Barracuda! And our second!
Staniel Cay is located a third of the way down the Exuma chain and acts as a central point for tourism. There’s a yacht club and marina there and also a small airport with regular flights from Nassau which made it the perfect place to pick up Ben’s brother in law. With all of us aboard, we were ready to start exploring.
Around Staniel Cay we ticked off a couple from the “must do” list….
Thunderball Grotto – an underwater cave system accessible by snorkelling under a rockface that sits a few inches above the waterline at low tide. Once inside the cavern opens up and there’s light bursting in from all angles, including through the roof. Under the water the visibility wasn’t perfect due to the preceding bad weather. However we could still see the schools of fish who had a feast on the dog biscuits I brought for them. The grotto got its name from the 1965 James Bond spy film “Thunderball,” which was shot there. It was also the site of another James Bond film, “Never Say Never Again” in 1983, also based on the Thunderball novel.
Pig Beach – where the famous piggies live on the beach and swim in the sea. It’s located on Big Majors Cay and all day every day speedboats turn up with tourists wanting their own pig selfie. Thankfully when we were there it was pretty quiet and there were only a handful of people visiting. Maybe that was as a result of a few of the pigs dying earlier that week, or maybe because the sun wasn’t shining so brightly that day, I’m not sure.
As we worked our way up the Exuma chain we stumbled across a stunning location called Pipe Cay. In between the islands the water is mostly shallow, but there are also deeper cuts created by the strong current that runs through here. The water is turquoise blue and at low tide the sand banks are exposed creating gorgeous footprint free beaches, some only accessible by boat. We initially anchored right in the heart of it all but after one night worrying about the strong current we were in, we moved around to the other side of the island. It turned to be a great decision as to our surprise we found a free dock to moor up at! That’s pretty much an unheard of situation! Once upon a time there was a US navy Decca station here. A channel had previously been dredged allowing large vessels to access the concrete dock to offload deliveries. Now abandoned, the channel and dock are still present and conveniently the humongous cleats still in good condition. After a quick snorkel to check for obstructions we followed the rusty channel marker posts into the dock and moored up.
The old Decca buildings had seen better days but it was interesting to have a nosey round. A short walk to the other side of the island brought us out onto the above mentioned sand flats that stretched out onto the distance. Next to our free dock was a small beach and there were a few coral heads a short dinghy ride away for snorkelling. It was here I had a fright whilst snorkelling. Myself and Ben had gone off with our spears to find some dinner. We were focusing on a small coral head but the bigger fish knew what we were up to and swam off elsewhere. I left Ben at the coral head and ventured off in the water to see if I could find them. For a while all I could see was a sandy bottom, I was glancing around left to right but couldn’t see any more coral heads. As I turned further to my right a large dark mass made me jump, I was faced with a gigantic stingray. He was only a few metres away and was heading directly for me. His span was probably 5ft, big enough to intimidate me. I tried to swim out the way without making too many harsh movements in his direction, keeping an eye on his tail the whole time. Really, I had nothing to worry about, they’re only likely to sting if they are attacked. In fact he moved slowly and graciously past me, within just a couple of metres. So peaceful and calm. Reassured by his lack of interest in me I signalled over to Ben to follow me as I swam slowly after the ray. After a few moments I lost sight of him and as I turned to ask Ben if he saw it, I realised he was still back on the coral head trying to spear a fish!
As we sailed further north we entered the Exuma Land and Sea Park, a National Park focusing on conservation of the environment. It’s a “no take” zone, meaning you cannot remove anything from the 176 square mile area. This includes fish, lobster, shells, etc.
Anchoring is also restricted in areas in order to protect the seabed, instead there are fixed mooring buoys available at a cost. At the heart of the Exuma Park is Warderick Wells where the office HQ is located. It is similar to the Pipe Cay area in a way, there’s a deeper dark blue channel curving it’s way through the shallow white sand banks. Here we took a mooring buoy for a couple of nights and explored the island and surrounding waters. Bens sister and her husband enjoyed a long walk around the island one day whilst myself and Ben chose to explore the underwater world once again. We snorkelled right off our yacht and unknowingly timed our snorkel perfectly. As we took our first look underwater we saw three large rays gliding along in formation. The ends of their wings were pointed, they had a speckled pattern and under each of them was a fish taking shelter in the rays shade. As they effortlessly moved through the water we tried to follow them but we couldn’t keep up.
We next headed up to Norman’s Cay which we were excited about, but on arrival we were a little disappointed. It wasn’t quite what we expected. There seemed to be only one business on the west coast where we anchored offering accommodation, a bar and a restaurant. We popped in for a drink and it was very swanky by Bahamian standards. The decor was shabby chic but clearly expensive and the comfy sofas and armchairs hugely appealed to us. The welcome we received on the other hand was not so great. OK, we all looked a little scruffy, show me a liveaboard sailboat cruiser who doesn’t! The staff were a little frosty but we bought a round of drinks and sat down outside to enjoy them. When we asked for the dinner menu as we were considering coming back in the evening the suggestion made by the staff was that we couldn’t afford it. Umm, I think we should be the judge of that thank you. As we sipped our drinks I popped back inside to ask for the wifi password, the blunt response I received was “50 dollars” for a second I thought she was telling me the password, then I realised when she repeated it that they charged 50 dollars for the wifi password. I involuntarily laughed in her face, told her I think I’d go without it in that case and walked out. We swiftly finished our drinks and left, needless to say we didn’t spend our money there on dinner that evening.
All too quickly it was time for us to make the voyage back to Eleuthera for our guests to catch their flight home. The crossing went well, the sails were up and we were averaging 6 knots. As I looked off to the port side I saw a pod of dolphins skimming the waters surface quickly approaching our boat. Suddenly we were surrounded by them, off to either side of the boat they powered through the water, inches under the surface and at the bow they played in the tumbling water. I’m yet to find another animal that brings a smile to so many faces so easily. Then suddenly, as quickly as they arrived they disappeared into the depths of the ocean.
The 10 or so days we’d spent in the Exumas had been a great introduction, but it wasn’t enough. We’d had a glimpse and we wanted more, so once our guests had departed we planned to make our way back to the Exumas. We were forced to wait in Rock Sound for nearly a week due to weather but it gave us a chance to catch up on a few chores, or at least try to…
In our rental car we dropped our washing off at laundromat, putting it on a long wash cycle. In the meantime we went along the road do a food shop. The local store was a run down building on the side of the road, from the outside you could barely tell it was a food shop. It was clearly a place where the locals shopped, there were no other cruisers or tourists there. Inside we discovered they had a wide variety of produce so we decided to really restock the boat. Mid shop there was a power cut, but the lights weren’t out for long, and within a few minutes we could see what we were doing again. By the time we got to the single till point the trolley was overflowing. We offloaded each item onto the short conveyor belt causing a queue to form behind us. As the running total hit $250 the cashier joked, “I hope the card machine works”. We laughed, agreeing, and continued to load the scanned items into the trolley. Little did we know that in fact our card payment was not going to work. The power cut had caused the payment machine to not function correctly and we didn’t have enough cash to cover all this food. After several payment attempts we left the trolley at the till and headed off to the only ATM in town only to discover the power was still not back up and therefore the ATM was not functioning. The shops own generator must have kicked in causing us to think everything was back up and running. We were mulling over our options whilst en route back to the shop and decided to swing by the launderette to swap our clothes over to the drier. You guessed it. They didn’t have their own generator so our clothes were unwashed, soaking wet, and stuck in the washer. Back at the food shop we tried to persuade them to allow us to take the food today and return tomorrow to pay. However they weren’t feeling very trusting so we were left with no other option than to leave all the food behind. What a waste of an hour and a half.
Feeling hungry we grabbed a bite to eat at nearby Netas Food Shack, run by a local lady who sells cooked food from her home. It was a quirky location and Neta was certainly a quirky person. A small lady with orange hair and prominent cheek bones. Her business/home had a small convenience store area to the left as you enter. To the right in front of the window there was a plastic table and two chairs, the kind you would buy in a garden centre for outdoor use. On top the table were a couple of placemats just about visible under the clutter. This was the table used for paying diners.
From Netas small menu we opted for fried chicken and rice for $6 per portion. Whilst Neta cooked the food on a gas hob at the rear of the room she told us about herself as we took in our surroundings. During her life she’d had 10 children but sadly 4 of them had passed away. She now lived here alone with no family nearby. Despite all of this she had a really positive outlook on life and told us “just live, that’s what I tell my children, just live. You two cling to each other and just live”
As we sat at the plastic table our surroundings gave us a further insight into her life. There were personal items of hers, photos of her family on the walls and we noticed 3 bibles on a table to the side of us, all open on a different page. She explained she reads all of them at once, when she has had enough of one she moves on to the next.
The food was proudly served up to us and we continued chatting to her as we ate. When the time came for us to leave she kindly offered us a bag of her handmade coconut cake. We accepted. I think she’d been grateful for our custom, and our company.
In an attempt to resolve our dilemma we drove to the next town but there was no electricity there either.
We had no cash, no clean bedding, no fresh food and no way to put petrol in our rental car. Oh and our clothes were still stuck in the washer!
Who said this cruising life was stress free?!
Eventually we managed to resolve the situation. We used petrol from our dinghy to refill the rental car and the electricity came back on the following day so we were able to finish our washing and complete a food shop (again) at a different store.
When the windy weather cleared we began the 10 hour run back to the Exumas. To our surprise, in almost exactly the same spot we caught the barracuda previously, we caught a mutton snapper! As Ben reeled it in we could see a barracuda following, attacking the snapper on our line, trying to claim it for his own. No such luck Mr Barracuda. It’s ours!
On arrival in the Exumas we anchored at Black Point, Great Guana, the water was lovely and clear. Below us were numerous star fish sat on the sandy seabed. It was sunny and there was no current so I dived in the water and swam ashore and back again to cool off. Whilst in the water I took the opportunity to scrub the hull of the boat to remove any weeds and barnacles. As I covered the length of the port side Ben scrubbed the starboard side. The water quality here was so good we fired up the water maker and filled one of our tanks with 50 gallons of fresh water, taking around 3 hours. It’s not ideal having a generator running in the cockpit for that amount of time but having a water maker is an amazing on board bit of kit. One day I’ll understand how it turns salt water into freshwater, for now I’ll just assume it’s magic!
A few days later we sailed down to Little Farmers Cay practicing reefing the main and heaving to on the way down. At Little Farmers we enjoyed a few games of pool at the yacht club and a bite to eat before wandering into the centre of the village. The sleepy fishing village had a lovely feel to it. As we wandered we passed the local fisherman stood knee deep in the harbour water chopping up his catch on a concrete slab selling it to passers by. As the stingrays swam round his ankles looking for the scraps I chatted to him to get some top tips. He’s a spear fisherman and catches all his fish in up to 10 feet of water. I decided I must be looking in the wrong places as I never see fish as big as the one that lays in front of him when I spear fish!
Further down the Exuma chain we stopped at Musha Cay, we didn’t actually stay on the island itself (Google it!) but we did anchor right outside for a few nights. From here and from another anchorage by Rudder Cut Cay we snorkelled a plane wreck and a sunken piano. At the plane wreck one of the wings sat about two feet above the sand seabed. Underneath was an abundance of fish, all closely gathered taking shelter from the sun’s rays penetrating through the shallow water. I’ve never seen so many fish all huddled together in one place before. They soon scarpered when we got too close though.
The sunken grand piano also features a mermaid and was a piece of artwork intentionally sunk in 15ft of water by David Copperfield who owns the cays here. Having seen it online previously I was excited to snorkel it, but actually, it’s just a sunken piano sculpture…I’m not sure what else I was expecting, but it was a bit of an anti-climax.
What did put a smile on my face however was the calm weather allowing me to fly my drone near Rudder Cut Cay. The views here were striking and we also found an interesting mini cave only accessible from the water.
A couple of miles out from the west side of Musha Cay are sand banks that are exposed at low tide. It’s a strange place to visit, there you are walking on a sandy beach that’s totally surrounded by water. As the sun set there one day we wandered along whilst watching kite surfers, it made us think…we must try that sport sometime!
From here we hopped down to Lee Stocking island for a couple of nights and then onto Georgetown. Whilst sailing to Georgetown I put the fishing rod out as we were running low on fresh meat/fish. For weeks I’d been hoping to catch a Mahi Mahi as I’d heard they were delicious…and also they’re bright green and blue which I think is pretty cool! Well that day was my lucky day, not only did I hook a Mahi Mahi, it was a pretty large bull. It took me half an hour to wear him out on the line and it was a two person job to actually get him on board! He weighed in at around 23lbs and measured 123cm long. I kept smiling to myself all day, really pleased with my catch, but I wanted Ben to be able to take some credit so I “let” him do the honours of gutting and filleting him 😉
On arrival at Georgetown we dined on pan fried Mahi Mahi fillets and the following day I made Mahi Mahi ceviche which involves letting the raw fish sit in lime juice and seasoning. This allows it to “cook” the outer edge of the fish, leaving the middle raw and tasting delicious. Some of the fish also made it into my homemade sushi and the rest was crammed into the freezer to be enjoyed another day.
Georgetown is a very sociable place for cruisers. The anchorage is large and there were hundreds of cruisers anchored when we arrived. Some people stay for days, some for weeks, others for months and there are even some who have been there years! There’s numerous activities going on at the various local beaches on Stocking Island including volleyball, morning yoga, water aerobics, walks, BBQs, bonfires and much more. Across the other side of the anchorage is Georgetown itself which offers all the amenities needed…hardware stores, supermarkets, banks, liquor store, laundromat etc. If cruisers are heading south through the Out Islands this is the last decent sized town for provisioning. So during the week we stayed here this is exactly what we did, restocked the boat again, refilled gas canisters, caught up on laundry, used the ATM etc. We met some great fellow cruisers at Georgetown and enjoyed walks on Stocking Island, drinks on the beach at sunset, a hog roast at Chat n Chill beach bar and socialising aboard others boats. I again managed to get the drone up and captured the stunning coastline of Stocking Island and the anchorage areas.
In between the fun and games we carried out repairs to our reefing webbing on our mainsail and also located a rip in the sail which needed to be repaired. With our departure planned for the next day it’d have to wait. It was time for us to leave thriving Georgetown behind and make our way out of the Exumas and onto the Out Islands….remote, peaceful and barely inhabited.