Bahamas - Exumas, Nassau, Freeport, Abacos and crossing the Gulf Stream 18th April 2004

(This email delayed due to the satellite phone jumping out of its case and
getting advanced brain damage which also meant that the last email went out
to an old restricted address list). Should be now back to normal (see
below)....!??

Wardrick Wells is a staggeringly beautiful marine park in the Exumas chain
in central Bahamas, where the anchorage winds round between coral reefs and
small sandy islands provide a number of hiking trails. The park HQ is
informative, there are 16 moorings in the moorings near the
HQ and 4 in the southern anchorage (which most people avoid because the
current whips in and out and because I think boaties here like to be
together), and boats seem to come back year after year. The HQ allocate
moorings ($30/nite) every morning at 9am on VHF Ch 9. However when we
arrived the moorings were full and we were directed to Emerald Rock just to
the south of the moorings. We could dinghy the half mile to the Park HQ but
not by big boat. Its a lovely anchorage well protected, good holding. As I write there are about 7 other
boats here also.

On Wardrick Wells island itself there are some really good marked trails,
including one with a
guide book you borrow - to the south of the island there is Anita's trail
and others leading eventually to a pirates lair! During our stay a light
plane was lost near here with 4 on board - in spite of a widespread search
nothing found so far.

We stayed 3 days longer than we intended but then had to move north,
initially to Allens Cay
where we fed the local iguanas (about the size of a small low slung dog with
a tail) on Nicky's home baked bread that had got beyond its sell-by date and
was about 2 inches high, then were forced by 5 knot currents and 30 knot
winds to find a better anchorage 2 miles to the south.

The Bahamas are a lovely contradiction - originally colonised by the Spanish
who
were evicted by British loyalists and freed slaves who had been themselves
evicted from the American colonies following 1778 when the victorious
Americans made life impossible for those still loyal to King George, they
seem to be a 3 part society - upwardly mobile Bahamians who work in
financial services or tourism, expats escaping home country taxes, and
subsistence level or worse Bahamians who survive from fishing, lobsters and
conch - all tied together in what is either an island paradise (tourism
message) or a barren hell (loyalist version when they first arrived).
Because whereas the seas and reefs are undeniably beautiful, with many hues
of blue and green, the islands themselves are arid and inhospitable. The
towns are part cultured and up market, part down at heel. The atmosphere is
part colonial British but now mainly American. Each of the 12 chains of
islands that make up the Bahamas have their own character and their own
favoured church, influenced by the faith the loyalists brought with them
hundreds of years ago.

Nassau and Freeport which are the 2 dominant towns reflect this. We arrived
in Nassau from a really quite scary 40 miles northwards crossing of the very
shallow banks
between the Exumas and New Providence Island. All the pilot books say that
you should not cross these banks in strong winds, because its impossible to
see coral reefs and the waters are so shallow (6-10 feet) that waves can
make you ground even if your average depth is sufficient. However we could
see from the weather foreecasts that the weather would get worse not better
for the next 5 days and we wanted to meet James when he arrived at Freeport
so chose
tactically ie cross at high tide, with the best sunshine we could manage,
and going slow where depths were least and coral reefs indicated. This
worked until our dinghy broke one of its tow ring and capsized in the 30
knot winds and 6 feet waves. The Caribe inflatable dinghy is 3.2 metres long
and weighs some 40Kgs , but I was just able to re-right it using the
spare halliard with electric winch . We entered Nassau in strong winds and a
current whipping out
between main New Providence Island (the main island) and Paradise Island.
Most of the marinas
are on the south (New Providence) side and back onto seedy East Bay street.
We managed to get the last place in Baywatch (sorry Bayside) marina which is
a thoroughly nice working marina, providing dockage for tugs and pilot
boats - and us. The west end of Bay street is cruise ship TV style
Caribbean - duty free shops in 2 storey clapper board buildings. Across the
2 high bridges lies Paradise island, home of Atlantis a Las Vegas style $1
billion mega hotel/casino where salesmen of the year conventions mingle with
angry looking executives on holiday escorting their tired looking families
who have been promised a week of packaged fun and are finding it hard to
find. And on East Bay Street there are derelict buildings and 'Jones'
(druggies') with widely spaced shopping malls.

There are exceptions - the Poop Deck on East Bay Street is a
friendly bar and restaurant home to the Nassau Yacht Club where the
atmosphere is expat. We ate there and used it as a temporary 'local' bar,
checking the weather forecasts daily until the wind relented enough to
enable us to set off from Nassau at 7am northwards into a 30 knot wind but
coming from the east, and with our interpretation of the forecast that it
should decrease over the next 24 hours. We were heading for Freeport to meet
James, and I am pleased to say that the wind did decrease, and we had a
great night sail under almost full moon to enter West End on the extreme
west of Grand Bahama Island. This is a rarity in the Bahamas - a western run
full service marina part of a larger housing and hotel complex - very
pleasant for a few nights. They are inundated by smaller motor boats from
Florida in the high season and rates go up to $120/night and more, but in
March were in low season - only $50/night. We hired a car to pick up James
and explore the island - the whole island typifies Bahamas with an air of
luxurious developments and canals dug in anticipation of this, side by side


with shanty towns. There are some impressive limestone caves and mangrove
national parks.

We had given James the choice of staying in Bath for Easter, or flying to
the Bahamas and cruising round then crossing the Gulf Stream to Florida. He
chose the latter (!), and after he flew in from UK we set off across the
shallow banks to the north and east towards Grand Abaco island and Green
Turtle Cay, and feasted on lobster from Smokies take-away at Cooper Town.
Chicken and chips is $6, 2 lobsters and chips is $7. Bahamians on some
islands literally have a staple diet of
lobster (although for how much longer?)

Green Turtle Cay is a small island that manages to combine the picturesque
Bahamian with the practical American development to create a great holiday
destination where the main transport is golf buggies and the pace of life
seems deliberately slow and artistic. We went to the main beach and boy was
it crowded!! In the 2 mile stretch there were 4 families. We took turns to
walk along the beach, nod to others, and snorkel out to the mini reef 4 feet
deep in the middle of the bay. But we had the Gulf Stream to cross, and we
headed north in the face of a 30 knot wind from the north still on the banks
heading for Wakers Cay passage 40 miles north out into the Atlantic.

We stopped for 2 nights at Double breasted Cays - one of the most northerly
Cays in the Abacos
themselves the most northerly of the 12 chains of islands that make up the
Bahamas. The Gulf Stream rushes northeast between Florida and the Abacos,
while to the east of them there is pure Atlantic Ocean. Double Breasted Cays
are uninhabited, tiny - 2 strings of mudrocks about a mile long lying
north west/south east with a few sandy beaches tucked in between - hence the
name. We are anchored in between in with a channel only 20 metres across ,
about 0.5 metres beneath us at low tide and 1.5 metres at high tide. We
swing through all points of the compass with the tide and wind - we are the
only boat here (there are 3 boats on the western anchorage but they are well
out of sight). The only other boat left yesterday and got stuck on the
shallows for 12 hours in spite of all our help pulling and leaning the boat
to free the keel.

The vegetation on the land surrounding us is scrubby, part mangrove part
bush, but the mudrocks around us turn into treasure chests of rock holes for
fish of all sorts at high tide and for starter coral. You snorkel along and
suddenly you catch sight of a brilliant purple coral - or the massive
blunt face of a Nassau Grouper hiding in a hole that looks too small for
him/her (Groupers change sex in the course of their life) - they also change
colour with ease and blend easily into the rock colouring. They are a close
relative to sea-bass and are delicious to eat - James hunts them with the
adrenalin of a hunter-gatherer with the Bahama sling we just bought -
basically a catapult that launches a 5 foot long steel lance with a barb -
(not that he likes fish to eat), Nicky snorkels around warning any fish she
sees to stay out of sight. There are also lots of squirrel fish, Angelfish
and others who gain their immunity both by having colouring so flamboyant
that it would be treacherous to shoot them when they give such pleasure -
although more prosaically we also understand they taste awful.

Where the tide covers the shallow sand the colours turn into a riot of every
sort of blue green and yellow you can imagine, while little wader birds
search for molluscs. The tide rips through here, but only at perhaps 2 knots
and the rise is only 1 metre so we wade in safety with the birds and look
for conch shells for James to take back. There are mounds of discarded conch
shells - island harvesters. Double breasted Cays are about 5 miles south of
Walkers Cay which is the big sports fishing centre in the northern Abacos -
we have to cross the Gulf
Stream to civilisation (well America anyway) and we will pass through
Walkers Cay channel to get off the shallow banks to get to the Ocean. There
are only a few gaps in the reefs protecting the banks wide enough and deep
enough to get through so its a strategic decision. We have been checking
weather forecasts for this for the last week - a wind of more than 20 knots
would trap us on the banks, a northerly wind of more than 15 knots would
make the Gulf stream flowing north a mass of short steep waves that is
uncomfortable and potentially dangerous.

But we timed ti right to avoid strong winds, and ended up having to use the
motor across, disturbed only by the fantastic sight of gulls dive bombing a
huge shoal of bait fish, while dolphons and tuna gorged themselves on them
from below. It could have been a scene out of the Blue Planet. We caught 2
tuna but they were snatching at the lures so fast they got off, and after a
quiet overngith passage we entered Port Canaveral, and after unsatisfactory
phone calls, walked along to see the friendly immigration and customs and
motored 20 miles down the Inter Coastal Waterway to Anchorage Yacht Haven in
Melbourne Florida where Intrepid will take a 3 week rest, I and James fly
back to UK and Nicky flies to Oregon to see her friend Elaine. We know this
marina well, having prepared Intrepid there prior to our 2nd (West/East)
Atlantic crossing - its a small family run marina with superb views of
wheeling pelicans, gulls, cormorants, dolphins and manatees (large sea-cow
like mammals), and who cares if the nails holding it together are sometimes
a little loose?

I will be in UK for just 2 weeks from 11th April to 25th April primarily to
visit my mother in Somerset, but I am trying to see some friends and family
in between, including the Swan in West Peckham, but time is limited. Our
main trip back will be in August 2004.

Thanks for all your emails, and I am sorry that the problems with the sat
phone have disrupted our communications. The phone is now being diagnosed by
Marconi and hopefully will be operating well in the next few days. A number
of people are starting to enquire about coming on Intrepid for part of the
Pacific trip - the journeys will be longer, so do please let us know if you
would be interested. Also for a few weeks this year in Florida, Georgia,
Carolinas, New Jersey or New York, or even the south side of Cuba. Already
some American friends have asked us along for BBQ's (what great
hospitality!) and we are looking forward to seeing them this year.
With all best wishes for a relaxing and enjoyable summer.
Andy and Nicky Gibb


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