Sailing Down the Spiral

Delorme mapWe left the safe anchorages of Georgetown for the last time, heading to destinations less traveled by most cruisers. Extending south for 75 miles along the eastern edge of the Great Bahama Bank is a chain of a couple dozen small cays and islands that are uninhabited, except for a small settlement at the very southern end. They are collectively known as the Jumentos and Ragged Islands. These remote islands are not often frequented by cruisers because there are no services, and they offer little shelter in shifting weather. The status of this location as an infrequent cruising ground is evidenced by its position in the main page of the chart book – buried and nearly invisible under the spiral binding between pages. After several weeks in the social hub of Georgetown, isolation is exactly what we were looking for.

SpiralThe first hurdle in getting to the Jumentos was a very shallow sandbar through a narrow passage called Hog Cay Cut. We timed it to pass this mile-long shallow stretch at high tide, and followed our friends Mark and Michelle aboard their catamaran Reach. With their shallower draft and previous experience in this cut, they lead us through safely, and our depth sounder never registered less than a foot below our keel. That’s a lot closer to hitting bottom than we prefer under normal circumstances, but it’s one of the hurdles to getting to the Jumentos.

Although the chain of islands in uninhabited, it is a seasonal fishing ground for locals from as far north as Spanish Wells, 200 nautical miles away. They leave home for a month at a time and stay aboard their vessels filling up their holds. When done, they sail to Nassau to sell their catch and go back home. They come hundreds of miles to fish in the Jumentos because the waters near their home islands have been depleted of fish. It sadly seems just a matter of time before the Jumentos and Ragged Islands will also be depleted. We had only been anchored off Water Cay a few minutes when a small boat of fishermen came by to offer us some freshly caught and still flapping snapper. We traded a few Kalik beers for enough fish for two meals.

Flamingo Cay drive in cave - outside
Entrance to cave in Flamingo Cay
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We were able to take Lagniappe all the way inside the cave

The weather was so settled that we were able to explore the eastern side of Water Cay, which is open to the Atlantic. Fellow cruisers had told us that the fish in the Jumentos were bigger than in other places because fewer people go there. They were not kidding. On our first outing I was able to spear a 10 lb grouper.

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View of our anchorage at Flamingo Cay

Another thing cruisers had told us about this area is that it’s full of sharks, and because they are used to fishing boats discarding fish carcasses, they can be pretty curious and even aggressive when they see a boat. We were not disappointed. We had our very own nature show and feeding frenzy with huge Remoras and a Nurse Shark right off the back deck of Pura Vida. The Remoras were so aggressive and fast that we did not dare swim off the back of the boat. They are not dangerous, but it’s unsettling to keep getting bumped by a fast-moving twenty-four inch fish that may want to attach itself to you with its powerful suckers.

Click for Shark Feeding Video

Flamingo Cay - John T Davis wreck 2
Snorkeling the wreck of the John T. Davis

After a couple more days, we sailed south to the next island. Here, we met Niki and Jamie on s/v Grateful and became fast friends. They are also headed south and east along the Caribbean, so we are likely to see then again in the future. Jamie wanted a spearfishing partner, so off we went to hunt. We scored a pair of delicious 12 lb hogfish!

JM with hogfish horizontalHaving a writhing, strong fish at the end of a pole spear in twenty feet of water while holding your breath is quite the adrenaline rush. Making things even more exciting is the immediate alertness for incoming sharks that triggers in your mind. I always do a full 360 degree scan before and after any attempt to spear, especially after a successful one when there is blood in the water. A local fisherman told Jamie that the sharks are attuned to the sound of a pole spear firing and will usually come investigate. If you don’t get out of the water with your catch in time, they have been known to steal your dinner right off your pole. We have a rule that as soon as we spot a shark – other than a nurse shark – we call it quits on the hunting.

One of the most picturesque stops down the chain of islands is Jamaica Cay. The anchorage offers protection from the easterly winds as well as having several small rocks nestle you in from almost all directions. The beach is powder white, there is a nearby blue hole, and the conching and fishing are outstanding. By mid-afternoon, there were two other cruising boats and one small fishing boat anchored close by. This meant only one thing, beach bonfire at sunset! Each boat contributed food, and the crew of s/v Grateful cooked for us over a beach fire. Kimberly baked a coconut/white chocolate bread pudding that was out of this world. Who says you can’t have gourmet dinners in the middle of nowhere?

We stopped in Nurse Cay and had the island all to ourselves. The water was crystal clear and 85 degrees. That’s Kimberly’s threshold of comfort, so she joined me in trying to catch dinner. Again, these remote cays did not disappoint. We did not even need the dinghy. There was a reef just about a hundred feet away from Pura Vida and we scored a huge grouper within minutes. It was definitely a team effort. Kimberly spotted the fish, I shot it, and she retrieved it after I got the spear and fish stuck in a rock hole.

Back aboard Pura Vida, we could see a huge silver and yellow fish swimming under our boat. We baited a hook and almost immediately had him on the line. After about a fifteen minute fight, we had him on board. Unfortunately, after checking our fish identification books, we realized it was an inedible Bar Jack. They have mostly dark red meat with a foul taste and are possible carriers of the toxin. Back in the water he went.

cornrows & fish 2The next day, the two cruising boats that we met a few days earlier joined us at Nurse Cay. Our friends on s/v Grateful anchored a few hundred yards away so we could all have privacy.

Grateful
s/v Grateful blowing past us in light winds

Although Nurse Cay is over a mile long and offers several good anchorages, the next boat motored right past us close enough to toss a line between boats, and dropped anchor less than a hundred feet in front of us. By the time their huge catamaran settled on their anchor, it felt like we were guests aboard because we could hear and see everything they did, including naked boat cleaning and scrubbing on all fours. Like the famous Seinfeld episode said, “there’s good naked and bad naked.” This was definitely the latter.

As soon as daylight broke, we pulled up anchor to seek solitude before any more buffing in the buff could take place.

The next stop was a small bay at Racoon Cay surrounded by coral heads. Both of us went hunting in the coral and scored a couple of large Lionfish. It is so rewarding to catch this invasive species because not only are we helping protect the reefs, they are delicious. We spotted a third and hit it with the spear, but it got away inside the coral. That’s when we saw a large shark circle the reef looking for dinner. At a distance, we thought it was a harmless nurse shark, but when it turned right towards us, it was unmistakably not a nurse. After it circled right where the injured Lionfish had gone, it turned to us as if demanding dinner. It seems we owed him a tasty morsel and he was going to get it one way or another. We clung to the sides of Lagniappe and looked in the water; he was still coming right for us. As we both flew into the dinghy, the shark broke the water surface and rolled just a few feet away. We screamed at Jamie and Niki who were spearfishing nearby and they called it quits as well. Back aboard and after our hearts had stopped racing (and perhaps a drink was consumed) we compared notes and looked at shark pictures. Our tormenter was a five foot lemon shark.

Turtle
We were too preoccupied to get a picture of the shark, but we did catch this beauty just waking up from a nap

We did not want to give our new shark friend a second chance to nibble at us, so we went exploring on land. The inland blue hole the chart promised turned out to be a stagnant green hole instead, but the rocky shallows near the beach were loaded with whelk (sea snails). That night’s potluck dinner would include whelk seared in garlic and butter, which tasted very much like escargot.

We were reaching the end of this beautiful chain of islands when we anchored just north of Ragged Island. This is the only island in this entire chain with a settlement. Duncan Town used to have a population of several thousand people when it was a hub of maritime commerce among Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas. It was also a major exporter of salt harvested from its large ponds.

Welcome sign

salt pond
Salt Ponds on Duncan Town
salt pond - fistful of salt
Kimberly was ready to make Margaritas

Today, only about forty Bahamians call this quaint and picturesque town home. As soon as we started walking around town, a local lady named Ms. Majorie came out of her home to open up her gift shop.

Ms. Majorie` Wallace's store
Ms. Majorie Wallace’s store
Ms. Marjories house
Ms. Marjorie’s house

She also opened up the local bar so we could get a couple of drinks. She insisted that Kimberly and Niki could not walk away from town without being decorated with two peacock feathers each. There is a local grocery store where another local lady, Ms. Maxine, took time from drying conch to open up for us to shop.

conch drying
Conch pounded paper-thin and drying in the open air

They are not kidding when they say to stock up before going to the Jumentos and Ragged Islands; all we were able to buy at the store was butter and a dozen eggs. Our friend Jamie was more adventurous and purchased a leg of fresh goat from the local butcher who was passing by in his rusty pick-up truck.

with Bahamas coat of arms
Jamie and John-Michael next to the Bahamian Coat of Arms
fishing net hammock
Fishing net re-purposed as a hammock

On our last night in the Ragged Islands, we had a beach-side cruiser party under a tiki hut that Ms. Maxine built to host gatherings. Ms. Majorie and her husband, Rafael, joined us for a farewell meal, and made us promise to come back soon.

Hog Cay tiki hut 1We bid farewell to our friends on s/v Reach and s/v Grateful since from then on we would all be heading in different directions. We’re certain that we will see them again at a distant anchorage in the future. The next morning, we were sailing northeast to Long Island. The charted route to get to the eastern side of Long Island involves backtracking north, and rounding the northern end of the island to arrive in Clarence Town on the east side. We decided not to follow the beaten path, and rounded the south end of Little Ragged Island and sailed to the southern end of Long Island. We had an amazing sail and cut the trip by quite a few miles. Sometimes it’s worth deviating from the norm.

After an overnight stop at an anchorage at Cape Verde, we entered the harbor at Clarence Town and docked at a marina for the first time in months. The marina was a necessary splurge to get shore power for equalizing our battery bank in an attempt to get a little more life out of it, but the three days of air conditioning, wifi, and Netflix binge watching made it seem like a luxury vacation.

20160524_105210Did I mention the marina bar was stocked with India Pale Ale? This is the first IPA I encountered in several months, and I was in frosty, hoppy heaven. I say they WERE stocked with IPA because by the time we left, all the extra bottles they had were in our hold to last me until we reach the Dominican Republic.

We took a break from drinking beer and watching TV in an air conditioned cabin to rent a car and explore by land. Driving on the left side of the road, we sped off to go see the famous Dean’s Blue Hole (where the international freediving competitions will take place next month), eat some fantastic food at Max’s Conch Bar, and visit several churches built in the early 1900s by an architect-turned-priest named Father Jerome.

Dean's blue hole
Dean’s Blue Hole, the deepest on earth, drops off to over 600 ft
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Lunch at Max’s Conch Bar
Fr. Jerome church 2
A Fr. Jerome church
Another Fr. Jerome church
Another Fr. Jerome church

We pulled the plug from the magical marina with both excitement and sadness, topped up our diesel tank, and set sail for Crooked and Acklins Islands. We were expecting to motor most of the way, but the winds shifted enough to the northeast that we sailed the entire forty miles is perfect conditions to anchor off the coast of Landrail Point, Crooked Island. This island is where Hurricane Joaquin stalled for thirty-six hours, destroying almost every structure on land. It’s a testament to the hearty nature of the inhabitants that there were no deaths.

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Lighthouse north of Landrail Point

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Lighthouse outhouse

20160527_153654We did not know what to expect in this weather ravaged community and were delighted to find a local restaurant open and serving lunch. Gibson’s seems to be where all the locals get lunch while working on rebuilding the town. While we waited for lunch to be prepared, the owner’s very talkative cousin filled us in on island history and his personal travels. We sampled some outstanding fried fish and the best fried chicken in the Bahamas cooked by Ms. Willie, the proprietress and chef. When she found out we were the same age, she declared that we must join her back there when we all turn fifty for a huge celebration.

20160527_144647-1A weather pattern of afternoon thunderstorms settled over the area courtesy of bands caused by Tropical Storm Bonnie. The day after a particularly impressive storm, we learned that another cruising boat anchored four miles north of us was struck by lightning. All aboard were safe, but all their electronics were cooked.

The next morning, before the storms brewed, we went exploring the tiny village of Albert Town. Despite being extremely remote and having only about twenty five residents, we encountered several locals dressed in their finest at a gazebo by the beach. It was Sunday, so that explains the fancy duds. The gazebo is where they have their Sunday service since the church is in ruins.

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Our personal tour guides, Ishmael and Ishkah

When we told them we wanted to see the church, the only two children on island decided they were going to be our official tour guides. Ishmael and Ishkah introduced us to everyone and shared much of the town’s history as we walked the dirt streets with several puppies following our every move. The children go to school in Nassau since the hurricane, but spend their summers running free on the island.

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The goats in the background also accompanied us for awhile.

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Ruins of Albert Town Church
Tree growing from a crypt
Tree growing from a crypt
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The kids were so proud to show us this bird and her chick

20160529_125023We were running out of Bahamas and had to decide on a route to continue our journey into the Caribbean. The route that almost everyone takes is through the Turks and Caicos and to the north shore of the Dominican Republic. This path is the shortest route to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but it bypasses the entire south coast of the Dominican Republic, a diver’s paradise. We chose to take the path less traveled and sail south to Great Inagua where we could stage for a crossing of the Windward Passage between Cuba and Haiti, and turn east south of Haiti toward the Dominican Republic. After consulting with our insurance company, we got an exception to our policy so we could visit Île-à-Vache, an island in the southwest of Haiti that is renowned for its beauty, safety, and friendly locals.

Our last Bahamas passage from Acklins Island to Great Inagua was a rough one. The weather called for light winds from the east with scattered squalls. We thought we could maneuver around most of the squalls during the 80 mile sail, but we were wrong. The winds would quickly build from 3 knots to 30, gusting to almost 40. The seas would change from almost glassy to a churned mess of foam in minutes. As we saw the storms approaching, we reduced sails and were always prepared for the winds and rain. The front of every storm was windy and rough, but once inside the storm, the winds would die and we were left with just rain and bouncy seas. That was fine, until the engine overheated in the middle of the second storm and we had to shut it down. We bounced along at less than 2 knots of wind until the engine cooled enough to work on it. At those slow speeds, we were just getting tossed around, and not making any headway toward our destination.

20160531_094741After checking the usual suspects – engine water intake, raw water impeller, and coolant level – I discovered that the alternator/pump belt was in shreds at the bottom of the engine compartment.

A few minutes later, and with a new belt in place, we were motor sailing in the right direction at over seven knots. We made landfall in Great Inagua right at sunset.

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Working lighthouse in Great Inagua

The passage ahead around Haiti will take about two days and will be a tricky one. Timing the weather is crucial. If we have good winds to sail south, we will likely get slammed with rough seas when we turn east. If we wait for calmer winds, we might be stuck in Great Inagua for weeks and have to motor for two days. So we wait and check the weather forecast several times a day. There is another boat at our anchorage waiting to do the exact passage. Since misery loves company, we will likely sail south together. We will not be officially buddy-boating so neither boat feels obligated to wait or alter course to stay close, but it’s nice to have someone else out there just in case.

We have been in the Bahamas for eight months now and we are anxious to go to new countries and explore different cultures. While we have loved every minute of this scenic and friendly nation, we are ready to move. The Bahamas will always be our first love for cruising on our own boat and, who knows, we may come back to enjoy these crystal clear water in the future.

2 comments:

  1. wow, thanks for such a colorful description of your adventures – makes me feel like I’m right there with you (wistful thinking). All the best for your next phase, and keep the travelog coming!

  2. Ahoy to our G-town trivia team partners! Just read your amazing blog…..Jamie on S/V Grateful is a childhood friend of Leslie’s! We met up with him and Niki in Spanish Wells in April…..large ocean, small world 😊.
    We are back at our home Marina on the west coast Florida.
    Fair seas and winds to you!
    Leslie and Tim
    S/V Fiesta IP35

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