Grottos, pigs and white beaches in the Exumas

After 5 days at sea we made landfall in Bimini, only 45 miles East of Miami. The island is not particularly known for it‘s beauty, but offers a very protected anchorage for the Porky crew to catch up on sleep and to relax. After clearing in to the Bahamas and one night of very sound sleep without any ripples on the water, we left the next day for Nassau where we picked up Vivi, who decided to join us as crew for a few weeks. On the way to Nassau, which is an overnight sail away from Bimini, we took our chances to anchor on a large sandbank called Mackie Shoal without any land in sight. The watercolor and clarity was simply breathtaking. From deck we could see the bottom of the sea clearly as Porky would hover weightlessly above it. Sharks, dolphins, turtles and fish swam past the boat, every detail visible to us like we were sitting in a glass-bottom boat. With barely any wind forecasted, the only scenario in which stopping here overnight was possible, we dropped anchor in 7 meters on mirror smooth water. We stayed a little outside the main traffic channel in case other boats travelled overnight. Without any land in sight, the boat slowly swang at her anchor on a shallow sandbank in beautifully calm weather and no waves. Daniel and I set up two sleeping mats and bed sheets on deck. When the sun completely disappeared behind the horizon, there was complete darkness, no light pollution around us. Comfortably snuggled into our bed sheets, we looked at the anchor light at the top of the mast bobbing around in front of the bright, twinkling stars in the black sky until our eyes fell shut.

The next day while we motored the last stretch to Nassau, we spotted short black dorsal fins appearing between waves belonging to a pod of pilot whales. In the middle of the group of adults were two juveniles. Intrigued by the first time seeing pilot whales around our boat, Max jumped in the water holding on to his diving mask and a rope tied to Porky’s stern while we slowly drifted with the pod. After they initially swam away, they circled back, surfaced about 30 meters on our starboard side and gracefully dived below our keel. With a fast beating heart being so close to the group of around 20 giant marine mammals, Max witnessed how the large black bodies slowly disappeared in the deep blue.

Arriving in Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas, we were stunned by the amount and size of cruise ships passing daily through the narrow harbour channel close to our anchored boat. Sitting on Porky and especially driving past them in our dinghy felt like living in a miniature world entered by these giant floating cities filled with thousands of people.

The town of Nassau, located on the island of New Providence, was a pirate republic from 1706 to approximately 1718, run by a group of pirates following an informal and surprisingly democratic pirate code that allowed them to vote on captains of their ships and treat other crews with respect. Curious about more details about Nassau’s history, we walked through the colorful, especially for cruise ship tourists decorated main road to the pirate museum, which gave us more insights of what life must have been like as a pirate and in Nassau back in time.

As a cruise ship had just landed, the town was very busy and loud and we had to squeeze through large groups of sunburnt people slurping ice cold drinks and on the hunt for souvenirs. As we walked a few streets down, away from the artificial bling, we were greeted by the true Bahamian flair without the adjoining souvenir shops. Mostly colonial architecture lined the clean and well-paved roads and paths through the city. Sometimes we passed art sculptures decorating small town squares or little green parks. All these little details that we haven’t seen much during our last months in Central American settlements. We agreed that comparing the architecture of buildings and models and conditions of cars driving on the streets with what we have seen in other countries, clearly showed that the Bahamas was the third richest country in the Americas.

On the way back to the boat we passed a large supermarket and decided to stroll down the aisles to see how expensive products actually were. We have heard so often that it was almost impossible to provision in the Bahamas due to scarcity of fresh food and through-the-roof prices. However, our first shopping experience showed that depending on where you go and what you buy, you don’t have to spend a fortune. Apart from fresh fruits and vegetables, which were really hard to find and pricey when we found it, we stocked up on whatever we used up since we left Mexico.

Vivi then moved onboard and we stayed a couple more nights in town. One night, during one of the many squalls that we experienced in our first weeks in the Bahamas, we all sat below deck playing a game, when suddenly a loud scratching sound appeared from the bow followed by Porky turning sideways to the wind. We all jumped up and stood on deck within seconds. Directly in front of us passed a middle sized motorboat, ramming into our chain and pulled out our anchor. Luckily there was no damage and we just had to reset our anchor in the pouring rain. After we saw how the motorboat dragged every time the wind picked up above 15 knots we politely told them it would be safer for them and everybody else in the anchorage if they moved to a marina. Hearing from other boaters that the couple had just bought the boat in Florida without any experience or general idea about boating, we kept a good lookout whenever we entered a new anchorage, careful not to anchor near them. Good thing we never saw them again.

The next day we motored around the cruise ship docks, along the many marinas and under the two bridges, which always appear lower than they really are when passing by sailboat, to spend the night at Rose Island before sailing further Southeast to the Exumas the next day. We munched on freshly fried breadfruit burgers, got some recommendations where to stop along the Exumas from a fellow German couple anchored next to us, and watched a movie with our projector to end the day.

The 6 hour sail into the northern Exumas was relaxed. We could get used to sailing protected from any swell in the lee of the islands while the shallow water glows in different shades of blue and green. Sailing over the Great Exuma bank is not for the lighthearted sailor though, as the depth averages about 3-4 meters for hundreds of miles and occasional coral patches, called “boomies” require a good lookout, especially when all sails are hoisted at full speed. Our first stop in the Exumas was Allen’s Cay. As we dropped anchor we recognized our friends’ boat SV Zephyr right next to us, who we had met in Panama last year. And again we were surprised how small the sailor world was.

So here we are in a peaceful bay, starting to prepare the dinghy to go ashore to see the endemic iguanas sunbathing on rocks when a group of speed boats blasting loud music raced into the anchorage. One by one they drove the boats up the beach so the guests could climb out for a few minutes to take pictures of the iguanas, while the crew has time to empty the puke buckets. We decided to wait until the day tours were gone and then strolled along a perfect sandy beach without any footprints in the sand and turquoise waves rhythmically washing ashore just a short hike over the hill to the other side of the island. We also met another German boat, called SV Monte, who also plan to sail to the Azores, making it now a whole fleet of boats we know with similar plans to ours.

Now fully emerged in the remoteness and beauty of barren, flat islands lined with white, tropical beaches and clear, light blue water, we were also lucky to see the weather improving. Less and less squalls were visible on the horizon and the bright sun revealed the true colors of the Bahamas. The Exumas are a weird mix of privately owned islands (clearly marked so with huge signs saying “Private Property – you are not welcome”), protected, unspoiled islands within the national park, as well as holiday resorts with luxurious hotels and marinas. Not many locals still live in the few settlements along this island chain, mostly known for its tourism. The advantage to travel by boat is that you can even anchor right next to the most perfect beaches of million dollar islands owned by Johnny Depp or Nicolas Cage among other more anonymous land owners as the sea cannot be restricted to anybody and is open to the public. One exception is the protected Land & Sea park, in which people are not allowed to fish and boats are encouraged to pay a mooring fee to limit the number of anchoring yachts, and to help protect the marine life, which we are gladly willing to pay if the money is spent accordingly; such as on sturdy mooring buoys, maintenance of hiking trails and dive moorings for dinghies.

We continued to Norman’s Cay where we dropped anchor right next to the famous plane wreck, which we snorkeled with our friends from SV Zenos. Norman’s Cay has quite some interesting history. The plane, now offering shelter to various fish in the shallow lagoon allegedly was used for drug smuggles by the famous Medellin cartel run by Pablo Escobar. The island itself was used as a stopover to load the drugs into smaller planes headed to the Unites States. Additionally, anybody who has Netflix might have stumbled across a documentary about the flopped Fyre Festival in 2017, which should have also happened on the island, but never took place and in fact was a total financial disaster.

We then motored a short distance to Shroud Cay, still not enough wind to sail, where Porky’s short keel came in very handy and we found good protection from the Southeasterly wind and swell in the shallows near shore. Due to the tidal changes of 80 centimeters, we were only able to get in and out of the bay at high tide. Anchored in between only shallow-draft catamarans and motor yachts, Porky floated in one slightly deeper hollow. Immediately as the anchor was buried in the sand, Max jumped into the water and measured the water depth with his dive watch and boat hook. With more than 80 cm of tidal change, tidal calculations have become more relevant in the Bahamas, also something we did not have to pay much attention to for a long time. During the night at low water we had over 30 cm water under the keel, plenty without any swell, but still a little nerv wrecking to think about it.

The next day we went on a dinghy excursion with SV Zenos through the mangrove channels, where we spotted small sharks and turtles using the tidal current to travel from the mangroves to the open ocean. The small creeks led to a beautiful long beach falling dry at low tide, including a small drift with strong currents, in which we floated past our beached dinghies to get back out of the water just to jump in at the other end again, and again, and again… We walked along the beach, jumped from rocks into the water and flew the drone recording it all. We simply had a great time together. On the way back the tide had gone all the way out and we had to wade through the sandy mud creeks pulling our dinghies along to make it back to the anchorage.

The day after, we went on to Waderick Wells, an island 18 nautical miles further south where the headquarters of the Exuma Land & Sea Park is located, which is part of the Bahamian National Parks. Before arriving at the island, we had to reserve a mooring buoy via radio before the office closed for the weekend, but our radio range for channel 09 was not good enough and we had difficulties to understand the park ranger. With a little help from our friends on SV Zenos, whose radio reception seemed to be better, we reserved a buoy inside of the popular, narrow channel. At low water we slowly motored into the only 2-3-meter-deep channel and had to go too close to other boats for comfort. Obviously our assigned mooring ball was all the way at the end and we waved and smiled at all the nervous sailors watching us pass by their boats in a strong current. The mooring was in crystal clear turquoise water and the sandbank to the left and right fell dry at low tide. Only a short jump into the water and a few strokes away was the sandbank, which we walked on to our friends’ boat. Always in the vicinity day and night was a relatively big reef shark. The shark lurked under the boat and dinghy and even swam onto the sandbar in knee deep water to chase after some smaller fish. We had never seen that behavior before. While snorkeling on a reef patch at the end of the channel we were able to admire several turtles, rays and a healthy coral reef. In the afternoon when it was cloudy, we walked up the Booboo hill together with Zenos to paint and leave a sign with our boat’s name on the pile of so many sailors who had come here before us. On the way back to Porky, Vivi and I stopped at a Japanese boat, as it is so rare to see Japanese boats around. And so we met Rei and Kazu who have bought their 44 foot sailing yacht in Florida and thus want to sail after some further repairs all the way through the Pacific to Japan. We exchanged stories about sailing and life in general over a glass of red wine. I was fascinated of hearing more about Japan, which only further reinforced my desire to travel there some day.

In our first week in the Exumas we still had no wind and had to use the engine a lot to get from one island to the next. Burning a lot of diesel and oil reminded us of our time in the San Blas in Panama. Actually one of the reasons we came to the Bahamas was to go kitesurfing on the many sandbanks, but without any wind we unfortunately gave up our hopes. Hence, we went snorkeling a lot and especially enjoyed exploring partially submerged caves, which seem to be numerous in the Exumas. At Compass Cay we finally reunited with our friends from SV Philos who we have left with in Mexico. It was good to be able to enjoy coffee, daily activities and dinner together with them before they finally headed into another direction as us.

With friends from SV Philos and SV Limonada we anchored next to the probably most famous tourist attraction in the Bahamas, the Pig Beach. Huge pigs ran towards the boats landing on the beach and even swam in the water to fetch food. We were slightly intimidated first of sprinting pigs coming at you, but they soon lost interest since we did not bring anything to eat. This was by far the weirdest place we have seen so far. What a strange way to make a tourist attraction out of nothing.

In the afternoons we took the dinghy ashore at the Cruiser’s beach to let off steam after sitting on the boat all morning, playing with our volleyball ball, frisbee and simply romping around with Bruno; the small dog of SV Philos. Another boat, called Low Expectations, invited us and other boats to a delicious barbecue in the evening. After their catamaran’s mast snapped in Honduras, the family of 4 has been motoring around without any rigging for the last 6 months and is eagerly awaiting their new mast to continue sailing.

At Staniel Cay, one of the few towns in the Exumas to have supermarkets, a fuel dock and garbage disposals, we free dived into the Thunderball Grotto at high tide. A strong current made it challenging to dive through the small entrance below the surface and we had to kick hard to swim under the rocks before we surfaced in the middle of the stunning cavern, bats flying around in the shadows and schools of fish below us being shone on by rays of sunlight falling through the openings in the ceiling. Usually many people come here at low tide as you can simply snorkel into it without having to hold your breath. We had it all to ourselves.

We decided to stop at Bitter Guana Cay, another beach inhabited by the Bahamian iguanas. Apart from Philos and Porky no other boats were around and we had dinner together and enjoyed their company. The view from our cockpit onto the large sandy beach in front of white cliffs towering next to the boats was fantastic. In general we were surprised how secluded we were in this popular cruising ground of the Exumas.

Our favorite cave was at Great Guana Cay, anchored near Oven Rock, we hiked 20 min along a rocky footpath to a cave filled with stalactites and stalagmites. All of us went into the cool salt water and we took our flashlights into the darker cavern and free-dived through a halo cline. This reminded us very much of the Cenotes in Mexico. We even spotted a cave diver’s line leading into the dark cave beyond the cavern and imagined that there must be a connection to an underwater cave or another cavern.

To make this spot even more memorable, we used the gusts in the generally light winds to finally kite surf from the beach over flat, crystal clear, turquoise water. We glided over turtles and rays and around the big rock, which actually does look like a pizza oven.

The idea was to sail with our friends all the way to Georgetown. As the saying goes “Plans are written in the sand at low tide”, the high tide washed it all away and we made the spontaneous decision to sail back north to Nassau from here to have more time to prepare for the Atlantic crossing. It was time to say goodbye to our Dutch friends on SV Philos, who we kept meeting in various countries (SVGs, Carriacou, Bonaire, Mexico and Bahamas) for the past year. As they will sail south to Curaçao for hurricane season, our paths now go into different directions. However, we feel like we are going to see them again some day.

On the way north we stopped in Black Point, a settlement with less than 500 inhabitants. We walked along the town’s main road where children happily played and passed us on bikes. Small bars and restaurants invite cruisers to have a drink and bite to eat and small supermarkets allow to shop for essentials. We liked it here, as the people were very friendly and welcoming. Beautiful little beaches were tucked away along the rocky coast and the large bay was very shallow allowing us to spot many nurse sharks and rays even from shore.

The next day we sailed to Pipe Cay where we kitesurfed in perfect flat water in between luxurious private islands connected by sandbank that flooded during high tide. Finally we did manage to kitesurf in this paradise! As the strong current swings around with the tide changes where Porky was anchored during the day, we moved to a more protected anchorage on the western side of island for the night.

The day after was spent daysailing in perfect conditions to the northern Exumas. Tired but happy after a long day on the water, we anchored in the large bay of Highbourne Cay for the night. We woke up early the next morning to sail all the way to New Providence. The wind was so light that we had to hoist the spinnaker to make it there in daylight. It was the first time we poled the spinnaker out instead of flying it with one side tied to the bow. Porky made excellent speed and glided effortless through the flat water for the entire 45 nautical miles to West Bay in New Providence. Without any waves and a constant breeze the conditions could not have been more perfect to use the large light wind sail, which is stored away most of the time.

We spent a few days in West Bay, where I probably had one of the worst days of this trip. Vivi and Max went diving first. Once they got back we swapped the equipment for Daniel and I to go explore the wreck and steep wall at the reef. This was the first time diving in the Bahamas and probably the last time in warm water for a while. When setting up our gear, a wave rocked the boat and my tank fell down bending not only the regulator but puncturing a hole through the BCD. I only noticed the leak when we were already l down at 15 meters looking for the hammerhead shark that the divers before us had just spotted. With my dive gear not working, I could no longer control my buoyancy and we decided to slowly ascend back to the surface. Back on the boat after returning from the unsuccessful dive, Max mentioned that the diving is supposed to be good in the Azores too and we, for once, will be somewhere during whale shark season; an animal we have wanted to see for so long. It seems like I have to rent gear for the next dives though… No matter how happy and worriless this lifestyle looks on pictures and videos, we also have to push through bad days. Sometimes we maybe do not enjoy the moment as much as we could, are irritated by even something small and irrelevant. Being sad and annoyed by the events of the day, Daniel and I sat on the bow of the boat, tears in my eyes I tried to calm myself down and took a deep breath in. With a smile on my face I said: “Everything is alright as long as Porky still floats” Daniel put his arm around me and finished the sentence “and we are healthy”.

In general, the Bahamas exceeded all our expectations. The water that so many people have raved about was truly magical with its bright colors and clarity. Especially the Exuma islands not regularly visited by day tours felt very remote and untouched. The snorkeling was interesting as we have never seen so many different sharks, rays and turtles in shallow water. Especially exploring underwater grottos and caves, as well as sailing to a new island every other day kept us busy. Luckily we did get some breeze in the second half of our stay to kitesurf and to sail on our way back to Nassau. Even though the Bahamas can be expensive, we noticed that we did not spend much money. Our provisions from Mexico lasted the entire time and we simply had to occasionally buy some fresh produce along the way. To be fair we even spent less money in the Bahamas than in most other countries. Overall this truly was a great last stop to end our time in warmer climates before heading back to Europe.

Coming up next will be our preparations for the Atlantic crossing. Planned departure is in the first week of June, if weather allows!

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