The anchor is up in Elizabeth Harbor at 7:20 AM on Friday, April 10th. After five days at anchor in George Town, it feels good to be underway again. During the next leg of our journey, we will pass through the central and northern sections of the Exuma Cays, one of the premier cruising grounds on the planet.
The Exumas are a chain of islands stretching roughly 120 nautical miles from Hog Cay in the southeast to Sail Rocks in the northwest. To the east of the island chain is Exuma Sound, a deep body of water with Atlantic exposure. To the west of the chain is Exuma Bank, a shallow body of water with depths ranging from less than a foot to about 25 feet, depending on location and the state of the tide.
Because Exuma Bank is ultra-shallow in the vicinity of George Town, the path of least resistance for northbound vessels is to sail on the outside (i.e., the Exuma Sound side) of the island chain from Elizabeth Harbor. The first deep water opportunity to pass from Exuma Sound to the inside (i.e., the Exuma Bank side) of the island chain is through an opening called Galliot Cut located about 38 miles north of George Town.
Departing Elizabeth Harbor, we enter Exuma Sound at Conch Cay Cut. Conditions in the cut are rather benign given the calm winds this morning. Once in Exuma Sound, a building breeze from the east places Cutter Loose on a pleasant broad reach. The swell today is in the 3 to 5 foot range. Our course parallels the east coast of Great Exuma Island. Along the way, Rat Cay, Lee Stocking Island and Cave Cay pass to port.
Today’s goal is to arrive at Galliot Cut at slack high tide. Conditions in the cuts are calmest just before, during and just after slack tide.
When the ebb begins, sea water that has been accumulating in the Exuma Bank rushes with a vengeance towards Exuma Sound. This tidal flow finds its way from the Banks to the Sound through the numerous openings between islands in the chain. As these tidal rivers become compressed into narrow cuts, swift currents are created. When an eastbound tidal current confronts an opposing prevailing easterlywind, the result is short, choppy, breaking seas that run in a straight, narrow line through the cut and a mile or so into the Sound.
With the knowledge that slack high tide at Galliot Cut occurs around 12:45 PM, we increase the throttle in the interest of a timely transit through the cut. Our arrival at Galliot Cut occurs at 1:30 PM. Already, the ebb has begun, pushing against our bow at 2 knots. Fortunately, it is early enough in the tidal cycle that Cutter Loose is able to power her way without incident through the chop. Within ten minutes we are through the cut, rounding Galliot Cay and passing Big Farmers Cay and Little Farmers Cay to starboard.
Our destination today is Black Point Settlement near the northern tip of Great Guana Cay. At 4:15 PM, the anchor is down in the huge aquamarine bay at Black Point, having logged another 58 miles for the day.
Since the ship’s dirty laundry has been accumulating for nearly three weeks, our highest priority on Saturday morning is a visit to Rockside Laundromat. The size and cleanliness of this facility exceeds our expectations. With chores completed, an afternoon walk through the Settlement and a hike to the beaches on Exuma Sound and the bluff overlooking Dotham Cut provide a much needed source of exercise.
Black Point Settlement is very welcoming to visitors. In terms of amenities for cruisers, it offers three restaurants, three churches and a small grocery store. A cluster of rental cottages on the north side of the harbor overlooks the expansive bay. Golf carts are the preferred form of transportation in the Settlement.
During our visit, we learn that mail boat service from Nassau to Black Point has been suspended indefinitely due to a funeral in the family that operates this service. Residents and restaurants in Black Point and other settlements in the Bahamas rely exclusively on mail boat deliveries for everything, including fruit, vegetables and other supplies. As a result, the restaurants now offer limited menu choices…mostly seafood that is sourced locally. This is not a hardship, but it underscores the fragile nature of the economy in coastal villages throughout the Bahamas.
For a town that is diminutive in size, the nearby airstrip is quite active with several commuter flights landing and taking off each hour. We later learn that the airstrip at nearby Staniel Cay has been closed for runway repairs. All air traffic has been diverted to the Black Point airport during construction. This also helps to explain the steady stream of go-fast boats with passengers entering and departing the town dock at Black Point. They are shuttling passengers to and from Staniel Cay. Any local resident that owns a fast boat is capitalizing on the shuttle business this weekend.
On Sunday, April 12th, the anchor is up at 11 AM after a lazy morning in Black Point. Our destination today is Staniel Cay, just 10 miles to the northwest. Cutter Loose is anchored in the lee of Big Majors Spot, an uninhabited island. From all appearances, this is the major yachting center in the central Exumas. In the anchorage today, there are no fewer than 7 professionally crewed mega yachts in excess of 100 feet. Each yacht trails a nearly identical string of water toys from its stern, consisting of the requisite 450 HP 30 foot center console T top runabout, a trio of jet skis, several 70-HP dinghies, stand-up paddle boards and windsurfers. Each day at sunset, the crew collects the water toys and places them in the yacht’s garage for overnight storage. In addition to the dutifully equipped mega yachts, there are 10 cruising trawlers and 22 cruising sailboats at anchor in the harbor today. What is the attraction?
On the beach a short distance away, a dozen or more spotted, feral pigs roam the beach in search of handouts from visiting cruisers. These porkers are obsessed in their quest for food. Snouts aimed skyward, they cheerfully swim out to a visiting dinghy to collect contributions. Could it be the oinkers that have attracted a harbor full of boats?
From the Big Majors anchorage, it is a one-mile dinghy ride across the channel to the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, the island’s entertainment center. This afternoon, the bar is filled with cruisers watching the live broadcast of the final round of the Masters Golf Tournament on the big screen TV. In the adjacent upscale air-conditioned dining room overlooking the harbor, the Sunday brunch crowd is staring into their electronic devices, pausing occasionally for a bite of food or a quick exchange with the person seated across the table. Quick…check the GPS. Are we still in the Bahamas? Or is this the United States?
This semblance of Americana helps to explain the abundance of boats in the harbor. Staniel Cay serves as a convenient staging area where professional crew awaits the arrival of their owners and guests at the nearby airstrip. With daily direct flights from Fort Lauderdale, yacht owners are only an hour or so away from Staniel Cay where they can enjoy all the comforts of home.
In the afternoon as the catch of the day is cleaned and filleted, a group of nurse sharks gather at the Yacht Club for happy hour snacks.
Beyond the Yacht Club, there are a handful of shops and churches in the Settlement that extend towards the airstrip.
The remainder of the island is sporadically dotted with rental cottages and private homes. Most residents and visitors use golf carts to move around the island.
On Monday morning, we board the dinghy for a snorkeling expedition. A short distance from the eastern shore of Big Majors Spot is a small cay with an inconspicuous cave-like indentation. This is the entrance to the famous Thunderball Grotto. Several movies have been filmed here, including Thunderball, Never Say Never Again, Into the Blue and Splash.
At low slack tide, one can enter the Grotto without SCUBA gear. Once inside, the Grotto opens into a dome-shaped, hollowed-out, rock formation with a natural skylight in the ceiling. Beams of sunlight enter this cathedral, illuminating the water like a precious jewel.
The cave is a sanctuary for angelfish, Sergeant Majors and other colorful aquatic creatures. Many visitors bring bread crumbs to feed the fish. The fish dart in front of one’s mask, begging for a handout. Thunderball Grotto is the snorkeling experience of a lifetime.
On Tuesday, April 14th, the anchor is up at Big Majors Spot at 8 AM. Cutter Loose is bound for Shroud Cay, a small island 30 miles to the northwest that is part of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Our course takes us past the gorgeous white beach at Hawksbill Cay which is also located within the Park boundary.
Shroud Cay features several creeks that meander for more than a mile through a tidal swamp that features a mangrove forest. These creeks extend all the way from Exuma Sound to Exuma Bank and are navigable by dinghy, but only at high tide. A kayak is the preferred mode of transportation, especially near the Exuma Sound side of the island where water depths reach roughly one foot. The massive network of mangrove roots in the creek provides an important habitat for fish and shorebirds.
The peaceful beauty of this place inspires a leisurely visit. Turning off the outboard motor and drifting with the current amongst the tangled root network of the mangroves allows us to absorb this colorful symphony of sight and sound. At the first telltale sign of the falling tide, a hasty departure is required to insure adequate water depth for our return to the mother ship.
Tomorrow, we will set sail for the island of Warderick Wells, the crown jewel of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.