56 Exumas

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Like a chain of irregular pearls the Exuma Cays extend for 96 miles in a north to southeast direction. To their east, the 6,000-foot depths of Exuma Sound end abruptly against the coral reefs guarding their eastern shore. On the western side, the Exuma Banks rarely achieve a depth exceeding 20-feet and in many areas, the depths are less than Tranquility’s draft of 5 feet. Most of the cays are less than a mile wide and many are even narrower. Passage between each of these ‘pearls’ is either not possible or narrow and twisting. Swift tidal currents in the narrow passages and many of the anchorages add an element of excitement. We navigate near the cays by sight, picking our passage by the color of the bottom in the incredibly clear water.

We sat in Tranquility’s cockpit at Warderick Wells mesmerized by the scene before us. Every now and then, Ruth mumbled: “Wow! I can’t believe the color. I’m sure glad we came to the Exumas.” We were moored at Warderick Wells, headquarters for Exuma Land and Sea Park. Spread out before us was the entire spectrum of blues fading to greens to the yellows of sand. We sat for an hour or more, just looking, enjoying the view.

Hunger pains overcame scenery, and Ruth fixed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Flashes of yellow joined us in the cockpit. Bananaquits-chickadee- sized birds with yellow breasts, joined us for lunch. We’d often seen them at a distance on other cays. Here, they’d lost their fear of people and boldly came into the cockpit. One hopped down onto my plate and proceeded to eat the dab of jelly that had fallen from the sandwich. We enjoyed the close-up inspection, then attempted to shoo it away. It didn’t work. The bird relocated to the wheel, then a buddy flew below to check out things in the main cabin. When we went below to chase it out, it was evident the bird was used to being inside. As we shooed, it calmly moved to different perchs. Finally it decided to leave, flying back out the companionway. We broke out the screen to keep not bugs, but birds out of the cabin.

Some adventurers leave their mark atop Everest. Cruisers leave their mark atop Boo-Boo Hill on Warderick Wells. Ruth wrote “Tranquility 3/99” on the crab trap float we’d carried since it had fouled our prop over a year ago. We made the ritual climb to the top and joined the special group of cruisers that have made it to one of the remote cruising crossroads of the world. There in the late afternoon we paused to read boat names and dates. We found a friend, Windswept IV, a Canadian boat we know and left Tranquility’s mark close by. Someday we’ll return to add a new date to our marker.

We volunteered to help out the park and spent the morning taking apart obsolete stairs that had once been used to let people climb down into some sinkholes that abound on the island. In exchange for our work, our mooring for the night was free. Just as we were finishing, a call for help came over the VHF. A boat attempting to moor had problems, fouled their prop and was on a collision course with a moored boat. A run to the dock, and fast ride to the site allowed me to fend off the boat and then use the dinghy as a fender to keep the boats apart. Then, once everyone had calmed down and lines cleared, I helped the new boat pick up the mooring in the swift current.

Sound helped us locate the blowholes indicated on the trail map for Warderick Wells. There we were looking at two irregular holes in the rock looking like nostrils of some primeval huge beast trapped in the earth. An incoming wave filled the cave beneath us and the beast snorted again, a wonderful sound much like what you would expect 100 bulls snorting at the same time filled the air. Bending down to get a better look air rushing from the holes blew my hat high in the air.

We lingered over breakfast at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club discussing where we’d go next. A long day sail would take us to George Town, destination and winter home to hundred of cruisers. We realized we’d only be going to say we’d been there. It was time to turn and head north. Satisfied with our decision we sat back and noticed our surroundings. Hurricane shutters were hinged at the top and propped out with sticks, to form an awning over each window to keep out rain and sun. The windows were screened, but had no glass. We were in the tropics.

The highlight of Staniel Cay is Thunderball Cave made famous in the James Bond movie, Thunderball. This is a premiere dive spot in the Exumas. Fish spotted the bag of crackers Ruth was carrying and proceeded to mug us. A wall of flashing yellow, blue and silver closed in, blocking our view. Fish were inches in front of our face, and yet attempts to reach up and touch one were futile. Ruth opened the bag and the rush for the crumbs was on. As we moved forward, the ever moving, flashing wall opened just enough so we moved without ever touching a fish. The crumbs ran out just as we approached the cave entrance. The fickle fish lost interest and drifted revealing the darkness of the entrance. As we swam in, three small shafts of bright sunlight from small holes in the cave roof reflected off the water lighting the stalactites above in shimmering reflected light. A few fish swam with us adding muted flashes of color to the water. Under water the blue opening of another entrance could be seen. We floated slowly around enjoying the subtle unique beauty of the grotto for quite some time.

We anchored early at Hawksbill Cay. Ten feet off our stern a lone 6-foot barracuda took up station, evidently waiting for a treat. We thought we might have the Cay to ourselves, but by evening we shared the anchorage with 7 other boats. The cairn high atop a very steep rocky hill aroused our curiosity. We took the dinghy ashore and made the climb. Terrain was like many of the other cays in the Exumas. Large slabs of limestone rocks filled with small potholes. The potholes catch small amounts of soil from which grow a variety of bushes, most only about 7-10 feet high. Between the potholes the rock is uneven and walking requires careful attention to keep from turning an ankle. We enjoyed the view and added another rock to the cairn. Exploring further we found the ruins of Loyalists homes. These expatriates from the US Revolution had a tough time trying to farm where the only soil is in potholes.

The northern and Central Exumas have few all weather anchorages. We treated ourselves to the marina at Highborne Cay to duck 30-knot winds forecast to clock to the west. With a population of 11, we didn’t expect to find a new seawall protecting new docks. The marina was newer than the guide books so the surprise was complete. Adding to the surprise was finding Dene and Anita on Claire Sailing. We’d last seen them a year ago in Man-O-War and as then, they had John and Mary as guests. Over the year, we’d kept in touch by e-mail, but had not coordinated meeting up. We went off snorkeling together and then had a grand dinner aboard Claire Sailing swapping notes about our travels.

For entertainment we watched 4 megayachts come in and dock. They too were looking for shelter from the winds. It was interesting to see their captains’ maneuver these huge 120 foot wonders as easily as if they were 30-footers.

The wind went west during the night and then around to the north. Blocked from sailing north, and not wanting to spend another day at Highborne Cay, we decided to sail back to Cape Eleuthera. With 20-knot winds on the beam, we had a beautiful five-hour sail to the east, back to the Cape Eleuthera

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