Exhaling In the Exumas

From Bimini, we change our plans to accommodate the weather and go south to the Exumas, an island chain popular for its beaches, clear turquoise waters, and the Land and Sea National Park.  We snorkel, do some hiking to natural wonders and funky man-made sites, and see very small town Bahama life.  Along the way we find ourselves coming under the spell of the slower pace, simple living, and awe of nature.

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The Bahamas have been at the top of our cruise list from the very beginning when we first bought See Level.  We had been stymied a couple times, but this year was our opportunity.  It has been a remarkable experience and an unsurpassed way to spend the winter months.  The combination of sun, open blue waters, and salt air quickly enveloped us starting the moment we first saw those sparkling turquoise waters; it was a refreshing, rejuvenating deep breath in.  Eventually exchanging dock lines for anchor chain, we continued into the lesser or uninhabited islands, spending our days and nights surrounded by the water and light breezes, marveling at the sea life and dinghying in to explore beaches and limestone carvings.  Soon we realized we had become subservient to the simple lifestyle, shedding normal habits and practices and eschewing some aspects of ‘civilized’ living.   The day’s plan adjusted to fit the world around us each day.  The pace slowed, yet time flew.

Getting to the Exumas

Great Harbour Cay Feb 24-28, 2024

Nassau Feb 29 - Mar 2

Weather is everything when cruising the Bahamas, more so than the coastal cruising in the US we have done.  It dictates where you go, when you move, what you do.  A complicating issue for us is getting the dogs ashore (our buddy boat, No Worries, has canine crew Ella).  Trying to launch, beach, and then return in a dinghy in high winds and bouncing seas can be downright dangerous for everyone involved, so we planned carefully. Dave’s analogy is that it was more a game of chess than checkers, watching both short and long term forecasts and plotting several ‘if/then’ stops ahead for island hopping to make sure we had options no matter what Mother Nature served up.   

The Exumas were not in our original plan at all.  We initially were going to cruise the Abacos, the northern island chain in the Bahamas, but the weather up north just continued to be unfavorable.  So we moved to Plan B: head 80 miles east from Bimini across Great Bahama Bank and then south to the Exumas, which typically has better weather this time of year. Along with our buddy boat, No Worries, we had an easy crossing with calm seas to Great Harbor Cay.  This was our introduction to very small town – or settlement, as they are frequently called – Bahamas, that is more typical of daily life and not a big tourist stop.  It was also our introduction to the many pristine, fine sand beaches of the islands, as we biked around in the couple days waiting out some winds.   

Great Harbour Marina was tucked back and protected, with access only through this narrow cut.
We borrowed the marina bikes and rode into ‘town’ along well-paved roads, past homes much better maintained and lived in than we had seen in Bimini.
There was an abandoned pool and tiki bar that looked like it had closed recently. The white board still had the daily specials clearly written, even though it had been closed since 2017.
Lovers Beach on Great Harbor
No Worries looks like a scale model of this cruise ship as we entered Nassau Harbor.

It was a rather sporty run to Nassau ahead of a cold front.  Entering the large harbor, we passed by the cruise ship terminal, mega-yachts with helicopter pads, and tour boats kicking up big wakes.  The iconic pink towers of the Atlantis Resort loomed to port.  Nassau is a very busy tourist port and not where we wanted to stay any longer than necessary; this was not the Bahamas cruising for which we had come.  

The docks at Harbor Club Marina were nice but very high, and with offset pilings it meant a big step 2’ up or down and across an almost 3’ gap to get on and off the boat.  With 2’ waves moving through, it was an acrobatic act to time your step as the boat bounced up and launched you onto the dock.  Getting Roxy on and off struck fear in our hearts.

We did take a taxi into the historic tourist part of Nassau one day when boat travel was not an option, enjoying the colors and architecture of the buildings and blooming bougainvillea.  We admired the historic Graycliff House, built by a pirate in the 1700s and later American HQ during the two week occupation of Nassau in 1776 before the US Navy decided it had more important things to do that year. We walked through the Straw Market (HQ of all things Tourist Souvenir), grabbed a beer at Pirate Republic Brewing, and walked up to Fort Fincastle and the Queens Staircase before calling for our taxi back to the marina. 

At Graycliff
The Queens Staircase

“I hope I have enough food to get us through six weeks. The Exumas is pretty uninhabited and no provisions.  If we get desperate we will be forced to turn to the canned corn.”

The Exuma Cays

Shroud Cay, Mar 3-5

Big Major Spot (Staniel Cay), Mar 6-7

Compass Cay, Mar 8

Cambridge Cay, Mar 9-11

Warderick Wells, Mar 12-13

Highbourne Cay, Mar 14-15

FYI – ‘Cay’ is pronounced ‘Key’ and derives from the Spanish explorers term for a low-lying sandy island.   Much of the Exumas is part of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea National Park, maintaining their natural beauty and sea life, with most of the cays uninhabited. There is no fishing or trapping of any kind allowed, and it’s pack in-pack out on land.   The Park maintains several mooring fields, protecting coral heads from dropped anchors, though the number of boats far exceeds the available moorings. 

We eagerly headed for the by now much-anticipated Exumas as soon as the winds died.   It was a smoother ride than we expected – until the last hour when noted dark gray clouds in the distance.  Soon the wind picked up and rain started, reducing visibility.  We changed course to navigate around the worst of it, but arrived at Shroud Cay.  But as we negotiated the shallows leading into the north mooring field, we moved behind a spit of land and the wind and chop all but ceased and we grabbed a mooring ball easily.  Besides about 30 other boats around us, there were huge mega-yachts anchored further out in deeper waters;  crewed tenders zipped through the anchorage shuttling guests to the beach where they had set up canopies, sturdy lounge chairs, jet skis and other water toys, and even a giant inflatable pink flamingo.  One of the biggest boats furthest out was apparently Jeff Bezos’ support boat – exactly what it was supporting we never figured out.  A couple others were named Skyfall and Moonraker, apparently 007 Wannabees.  Patty googled one of them and learned it was a charter for $400,000 per week! 

Some brief evening squalls continued into the evening, and got caught in a soaker returning from an ill-timed evening dog run to shore combined with a Shoe Overboard drill in the downpour.  But the next morning dawned sunny and clear, and looking around us at the crystal clear blue water, limestone shoreline, and boats gently bobbing at anchor I could feel worries about open water crossings, busy harbors, and even current events start to slip behind into the far distance.   We were in The Exumas, and this was the Bahamas experience we were looking for! 

Sand everywhere.  Vacuuming twice a day and still can’t conquer it.  Driving me nuts.

Days quickly fell into a loose routine as we moved between the different cays.  Morning and sunset shore runs with the dogs, walking whatever beach we were on and usually returning with a pocketful of shells (something that I trace back to childhood beach days).  Transit days we would move a short distance in the morning to the next cay, and with the simplicity of anchoring or mooring it took only a few minutes to get situated so we could explore something or just enjoy our surroundings as we read or puttered on the boat.  If we were staying an extra day, we always found something unique about that location – usually why we picked it in the first place.  There were always other boats, and we would meet people on the beach or as we or they dinghied past.  We frequently forgot about eating midday, alerted by a growling stomach later or Roxy’s incredible internal alarm that makes her paw or bark at me promptly at 5:01 demanding to know what’s for dinner.

There’s a wealth of things to explore in the Exumas besides beaches, and as first time cruisers we hit the most popular.  In Shroud Cay, after a few hours at the beach (we were the riffraff to the mega-yachts encampments, with our folding beach chairs and mis-matched umbrellas) we dinghied through the mangroves of Sanctuary Creek to the beautiful beach on the other side of the cay, spotting a few turtles along the way skedaddling quickly out of view. 

Our little spot on the beach at Shroud. You can see the mega-yachts' set up in the background.

There was a SpaceX launch from Cape Canaveral while  we were in Shroud.  We weren’t sure we’d even be able to see it since we were 400 miles away.  But it put on quite a show just as darkness fell, with a beautiful bright plume etched behind the rocket as it flew across overhead.  I don’t know what atmospheric conditions caused that beautiful tail, but it was awesome.  

Afterwards, it generated a lot of chatter on the radio as the unaware asked ‘what the heck was that!?!’

Swimming pigs. Personally, I'm not impressed. All pigs can swim. But it does draw the tourists.

At our next stop of Big Major Spot (I know, it’s a weird name – no idea of the origin) its claim to fame is as home to the original Swimming Pigs, who swim out for food to approaching tour boats, sea planes, dinghies, and mega-yacht tenders.   Somewhere along the line chickens and roosters were added, so we woke each morning to cock-a-doodle-dooing.  We just dinghied up close to the beach and they came trotting along the beach toward us.  But if you hold up your empty hands with palms facing them they quickly veer off to another victim.  They do bite, as Ciaran found out, not out of aggression but because the pig was walking while chomping on a handout and his leg got caught in the crossfire between carrot and teeth. Nothing serious, but it still dampened what little pig enthusiasm we had in the first place. 

Pretty sure my saliva has a SPF of at least 30 from all the sunscreen I’ve absorbed. 

The popular Staniel Cay was a short dinghy ride from Big Major Spot.  Our friends on Crew Lounge were here waiting for family to arrive, and we snorkeled Thunderball Grotto with them.  This large non-descript rock hides an underground cavern where scenes from two James Bond movies and Splash were filmed.  We anchored the dinghies and ducked under the limestone ledge at low tide into the cavern, where a hole in the top lets in natural light to give the cave a glow.  There are some coral heads and lots of fish inside – very cool.

One of the entrances.
The group. Behind is the non-descript rock that is the Grotto.
Dave exiting the Grotto
There were three beaches to take the dogs at Big Major. This one we called party beach. Cruisers have posted signs and set up cast off beach chairs, table, and even a small grill . It's used as a gathering place.
The medical facility on Staniel Cay.

Sand everywhere.  Don’t care.

We had made a quick trip to our furthest point south to get to the nicer weather quickly, and after Big Major we turned back north but did much shorter hops to hit the cays we had missed along the way.  The approach was narrow with shallow sandbars on either side at Compass Cay, so I was up on the bow looking for bommies — or small coral heads — to guide Dave around.  The clear water makes the dark brown shadow of the bommies easier to spot, but depending on the angle of the sun depth can be deceptive.  We did the walk  and wade to Rachel’s Bubble Bath.  At higher tides and when waves from the deeper Exumas Sound side roll over the low limestone ledge, it creates a cascade of bubbles in the basin you are swimming in. 

Looking at the anchorage from the beach at Compass Cay.
The walk into Rachel's Bubble Bath.
Tiny sea snail and mussel colonies were abundant.

Towels, tshirts, and swimsuits flapping from the cockpit rails:  the unofficial flag of the Bahamas.

The view from atop the highest point on Cambridge Cay.

A short two miles further north was Cambridge Cay, where Dave and I did the short hike to the other side and along the rocky shoreline to a large cave, taking time to admire the incredible view of our anchorage and miles of small cays and blue water from the top of the hill.  We dinghied a couple miles to O’Brien’s Cay another afternoon and snorkeled at The Aquarium, a group of coral heads with bright colored fish and various types of coral.

Dave photobombing Ciaran's snorkel video at The Aquarium at O'Brien's Cay.
Purple fan coral.

What day is it?  Wait – what MONTH is it?  We had daylight saving time???  I don’t even know where my watch is.  Do I even HAVE a watch?!?

Further north was Warderick Wells, another uninhabited island area with several Land and Sea Park mooring fields and an extensive system of trails crisscrossing from the numerous beaches.  We visited the famous Boo Boo Hill, hiking over limestone, wading across Banshee Creek, and then through the low vegetation up the hill for an amazing 360° view.  Legend has it that Boo Boo Hill is haunted by souls lost in a shipwreck long ago.  To appease the sea gods, cruisers leave an offering with their boat name at the very top, and the pile is ginormous.  Of course, No Worries and See Level added made our own contributions – no point chancing angry gods.

This is just part of the collection atop Boo Boo Hill.
Our offerings to the gods.
This beach at Warderick had lots of these stone piles. It was starting to look like a Bahamian Stonehenge.
Crossing Banshee Creek.
A whale skeleton at the Park office.

Dave announces he has not worn underwear in a week (because he’s been living in bathing suits).  Perhaps we need to have a talk about oversharing…

Of course life was not always a tourist brochure, because cruising is not cruising without challenges.  Shortly after departing Shroud Cay, No Worries had an overheating engine so we returned to our mooring balls for another day while Ciaran worked the problem (we temporarily changed their name to One Worry).   Within a few anxious hours he had it figured out and fixed, and after an extra afternoon on the beach we continued south to Big Major Spot the following day without incident.  A strong reversing current at Cambridge Cay swung us around the mooring ball and wrapped our lines around and underneath the ball (we realized afterwards we had them too long).  We had to wait until the following day for slack current and then with Dave in the water, Ciaran in the dinghy, and me on the bow we got it untangled. Another boater, seeing Dave in the water, hopped in his dinghy and came over to see if we needed help just as we got it undone – because that is what the boating community does.  And at Highbourne Cay, our last stop in the Exumas, the marina assigned us to a slip that was 16’ wide for our 18’ beam.  With no other available slips, we had to anchor nearby.  We had been looking forward to a couple nights in a marina, but the  beach 100 yards off our bow, beautiful sunsets, and the occasional ray swimming past helped overcome disappointment quickly.

Working on getting our mooring lines unwrapped from under the ball. If we hadn't been successful, last resort was to cut the lines.

At Highbourne we had been at anchor or on a mooring ball 11 straight days — a record for us.  Anchoring in the Exumas is super easy because it’s mostly deep sand (great for the anchor to dig in), shallow water (less than 10’), and so clear you can see the anchor on the bottom.  Our new solar panels provided plenty of battery charging, and our water maker kept our fresh water tanks full with ease; we were very self-sufficient.   My provisioning efforts were proving successful, as we had been eating almost exclusively onboard and had barely made a dent in the freezer.  Staniel Cay was the only place to pick up fresh stuff.  The ‘mail boat’ comes there on Thursdays with supplies, and the two tiny stores close early to restock.  There was a line of fellow cruisers when they opened the next morning,  vying for the opportunity to buy $10 lettuce, $18 watermelon, or $9 loaf of freshly baked bread.  IIWII – It Is What It Is.

Hey, canned corn tastes pretty good seasoned with sea air salt and a light Bahamas breeze, with a little sand thrown in for texture.

Returning from the evening beach run in Highbourne.
We had to complete with a landing sea plane to get through the cut at Highbourne Cay. That was a first for us.
Highbourne Cay sunset.
Los of lizards on the islands. Ella was oblivious to this one.
From the beach, turtles look like moving rocks.

As for wildlife, we didn’t see as much as we expected but still saw plenty.  Rays and nurse sharks frequented the anchorages.  Turtles usually were spotted from afar from the beach or hurrying away as the dinghy approached.  Most fish we saw were small and hanging around coral heads we snorkeled; we were actually surprised at the lack of variety but perhaps we were snorkeling in the wrong places.  On land, lizards scurried across the paths into the brush, sunned themselves on rocks, and left interesting trails in in the sand to be seen on our early morning beach runs.  Remarkably, there were not a lot of birds and those we did see were of the smaller species – no shorebirds.  Of course, on a positive note that meant no bird poop to clean off the deck.  The noseeums?  Out of control.

‘Cay’ takes over in my lexicon: Cay Lime Pie,  ‘now where did I leave the dinghy cay?’, and the Caystone Cops.

Final Thoughts

Ahhhh – the Exumas.  It took us two weeks with weather delays to get to this place that we were not even considering when we left Ft. Lauderdale, but it’s funny how things work out sometimes.  We held our breath while watching the forecasts in Bimini, waiting out winds and high seas on the Banks and in New Providence channel, still hoping it would be the Abacos I was blogging about.  But eventually we had to start breathing again and in Shroud Cay took our first deep breath of the Exumas, a deep inhalation of fresh sea air and the beauty and peacefulness around us.   We’ve been blessed with temps in the 70s, clear skies, and mostly light winds as we went from cay to cay, slowly exhaling as we felt the conventional rules and habits of our previous routines no longer applied  and our perspective on daily life morphed.  The days ran together in a continuum of color – sparkling blues in the water and sky, the beiges of sand underfoot, greens and gray-browns of land.  The pinks and oranges of sunrises and sunsets were the only thing reminding us that days are indeed passing.

Sitting in Highbourne Cay reflecting, we couldn’t believe it had been only 11 days, as Bimini and Nassau seemed like forever ago.  Yet we also couldn’t believe it had been 11 days already, as it felt like we had just arrived.  But we are moving on.  We’ve got another week of a good weather opportunity, so we’re going to head east to the island of Eleuthera.  This will be more populated with small scattered settlements and a rich history of early religious settlers and British Loyalists escaping the American War of Independence. 

From there, we’ll just see where the wind and waves take us.

Pops’ Stats Corner*

  • No of Days: 19
  • Travel Days: 9
  • Miles Traveled: 350.9 (305.1 nm)
  • Days in a row at anchor/mooring ball: 11

*Pops is the family’s affectionate name for Dave’s dad.  He had a mind for sports statistics, earning him the nickname Numbers from the coaches of several Stillwater teams with whom he worked.  This regular section of the blog is in his honor, because it’s the kind of thing he would love.


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2 thoughts on “Exhaling In the Exumas”

  1. So beautiful! The colors are breathtaking. So glad you got to experience it! Loved following along and living vicariously through your blog. What a contrast to the bayou where we are stranded waiting on repairs.

    Hope our paths cross again before too long!

  2. So jealous!

    I must snorkel
    Thunderball Grotto
    Rachel’s Bubble Bath
    The Aquarium

    Catch my own food, no $18 watermelon for me

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