Bulletin: The Bahamas ministry of tourism and aviation urges travelers to consider visiting the islands that were not affected by Hurricane Dorian. In the Northwest Bahamas, these include the Bahamas capital of Nassau and neighboring Paradise Island as well as Eleuthera, Andros, Bimini and the Berry Island. Islands in the Southeastern and Central Bahamas remain unaffected, including the Exumas, Cat Island, San Salvador, Rum Cay, Long Island, Acklins/Crooked Island, Mayaguana and Inagua.
The best bareboat charter grounds share several features in common. They tend to be compact. Their waters are protected. They offer a combination of splendid isolation and funky nightlife. And unless we’re talking about a location in Europe, there had better be palm trees. The British Virgin Islands are poster art for perfect charters, and the Abacos in the Bahamas weren't bad either until Dorian.
So when the granddaddy of all charter companies, The Moorings, announced a new base for the Exumas, I was intrigued. I had cruised the Bahamas for a cumulative year and a half of my life, and part of that time included being a novice learning how to find my way in the Exumas.
A COUPLE 'TINGS'
“Cay” is pronounced “key,” as in Key West. And the Bahamas are not part of the Caribbean per se, as they are situated in the Southwest North Atlantic Ocean outside the Caribbean basin. They are considered part of the West Indies, however.
Let’s go, I said to Jonathan Cooper, my colleague and then editor-in-chief for PassageMaker. Cooper hails from Washington State and needed some experience with shallow water, sunshine and palm trees. I wanted to see the Exumas from the point of view of a charter and to learn what might have changed since my last long visit a dozen years ago to the 130-mile-long archipelago. (Plus he's a good shooter, and took most of the pictures you see here.)
So you see: Unlike the BVIs, the Exumas are not compact. In fact, the Moorings base is in the Bahamian capital of Nassau, 32 nautical miles from Allans Cay, the customary starting point for an Exumas cruise. Conditions in the Exumas are different from the BVIs as well.
The Exumas have ample protection from easterly Trade Winds, which is fine in summer, not always sufficient between November and March, when “northers” roll down from the continent and bring stormy winds from the west through northeast. Yes, there are all-weather anchorages for winter cruising, but they tend to be small, sometimes difficult for inexperienced mariners to access and often filled with sailboats once you arrive.
And as for as nightlife…Thank gawd for Staniel Cay. With only five days for our trip, Staniel was our turn-around point and lone party spot. Four cays along our 50-mile route have restaurants/bars, but Staniel is the only one with more than one—and a choice of grocery stores too. Further south there are a few good eateries at the Black Point settlement and Little Farmers Cay. And of course, once you get to the sailboat Mecca at George Town, there’s plenty of choice, but that was way too far.
So I credit the Moorings for its counter-intuitive decision to add the Exumas to its worldwide selection of charter grounds. Why? Because the gin-clear, sapphire waters are stunning. The cays hold miles of empty, sugar-sand beaches. We went in August, which is also counter-intuitive, and were rewarded with summer skies that revealed fluffy cloud shapes resembling familiar creatures and objects. At night, far from the light pollution of Florida, we gazed at a Milky Way that seemed to hang just a few feet over the cockpit.
Clue to my age: We had intended to watch the Perseid meteor shower but couldn’t stay up late enough after a long day on the water. Instead, we saw Mars rising against the backdrop of a million stars, as close as the bloody war-god will come to Earth for another 160 years. Heat lightning burst every few seconds along the horizon, silent and spectacular, like bombs exploding on a far-distant battlefield.
Unlike my charter companions, it wasn’t my first time feeding the iguanas at Allans Cay or the swimming pigs at Big Major, or climbing to visit the rough-hewn boat memorials on Boo-Boo Hill at Warderick Wells, or dinghying through the creek at Shroud to the pristine beach on the windward side, or drinking at the fun and funky Staniel Cay Yacht Club. The crew loved all of it, and I loved all of it all over again, but for me Mars was the moment.
Our boat was a Moorings 51 PC. Catamarans in general are perfect for the Bahamas because of their shallow draft, particularly in winter when anchorages are chock-a-block with sailing craft. Two fewer feet of draft open up a lot of anchoring possibilities. For our purposes, a power cat was perfect because of the abbreviated duration of our cruise; Leopard of South Africa is the manufacturer, and the boat is built like a tank, but a tank with the ability to cruise economically at 10 knots and scoot at 16 or more. Four staterooms and four baths let you split the charter costs with friends and family while maintaining a semblance of privacy.
Speaking of costs: The Bahamas have never been a cheap date. Almost everything consumable arrives by freighter from the U.S., then must take a second boat to the lesser islands. The Bahamians themselves pay high prices, so it is only natural that visitors should pay a little more. Despite a general awareness of that, I found myself experiencing sticker shock. (Those cheeseburgers at Norman’s Cay were the best $25 cheeseburgers we ever ate.)
As it happens, the Bahamas had upped their game over the past decade, becoming a more upscale destination than during my heyday. Instead of parsimonious sailors—we only saw a few sailboats—most of the summer crowd had arrived on motoryachts, mostly from 70 to 130 feet in length. I can’t help but think that the regular presence of this South Florida cohort has had its own effect on Bahamian pricing. Marina dockage in the Exumas comes in at around $4 a foot, which is still less than the going rate at some of the tonier ports in the American Northeast.
MONEY SAVING TIPS
My advice for the cost-conscious cruiser, therefore, is to provision to the gills in Florida. If chartering, plan to make it a cooking (and anchoring) holiday. Stock up at the supermarket in Nassau, where groceries only cost twice as much. (Here’s a trick we used: We brought all our spices in our luggage and applied the savings to rum drinks and those cheeseburgers.)
Earlier I mentioned that choosing summer for a Bahamas cruise was counter-intuitive, but it’s not universally so. Florida boaters have always preferred spring and summer in the Bahamas because of the settled weather and gentle, cooling ocean breezes.
What about hurricanes, you ask, given the destruction wrought by Hurricane Dorian? Nowadays, there’s plenty of notice, plenty of time to get the boat at least back to Florida. Anyone caught by Dorian in the Abacos had remained there despite advance warning and expert advice. Repeat: warning well in advance.
In contrast, November through early March feature serial cold fronts that march down from Georgia like Sherman. They sweep through almost weekly, producing winds that can reach 45 knots.
But I get it: You want to take a boat down island when the weather truly stinks back home in Connecticut or Minnesota. All I’m saying is this: Don’t rule out summer. Someone once called the Bahamas a land of “endless June.” If only that were true, because June is surely the best, but it doesn’t happen year-round.
A version of this story originally appeared in Power and Motoryacht magazine, a sister publication in the AIM Marine Group.
After we had returned to the states, I searched a stock photo service for pictures of the Exumas, and found more than 2,000 pictures of swimming pigs, strutting iquanas, swarming nurse sharks and a woman in a yellow bikini photographed from multiple angles, but especially pigs. Who knew? Swimming pigs—this is how the world sees this Bahamian island chain, that place with friendly aquatic porkers.
The reality is a bit more complicated, as my colleague Jonathan Cooper was to learn.
Big Majors Spot is the name of the island. Twelve years ago there were three or four sows put there by islanders on nearby Staniel Cay; now there are around 20, and the anchorage has a new name on the chart: Bay of Pigs. Tour boats and cruisers make daily visits bearing gifts, in our case leftovers from lunch and dinner the day before.
Four of us came at the beach aboard our inflatable dinghy, Cooper with the camera, me with one hand on the tiller and the other holding a plastic tub of cold pasta. The beach was mobbed with tourists mingling with cheerful swine; one was even lying on her back so a little girl could scratch her belly.
That happy sow is not the one that welcomed us, however. Ours is big, a 200-pounder, moving toward us like a hog-torpedo. She lurches upward and thrusts her hooves onto the portside tube, maw agape and demanding. It’s a scary moment, like being mugged. “Here, take my wallet, please”—I try to empty the tub’s contents into her mouth, but much of it falls into the water instead, and a pig, it turns out, cannot feed on floating food.
(Make a mental note: Bring discreet edibles, such as a sandwich, pizza slice or carrots, instead of slop in a tub, when approaching hungry, swimming pigs in a small tender.)
At this point, Cooper slides into the water, which is almost waist deep, to capture some good images for our magazine stories. He doesn’t have any food so nothing to worry about, he figures. But our pig is aggravated now, and she swims round to his side of the boat and goes right for him. Cooper stands his ground for a few images, but the last one is poorly framed, marking the exact moment he has decided to turn tail and flee.
For us watching from the boat, the movie now downshifts into slow-mo. We see the pig open her jaws wide enough to clutch a cantaloupe…then…she clamps down…on Cooper’s right buttocks. In peacetime Cooper takes excellent care of his equipment, but under duress he tosses that $2,000 Canon onto the fiberglass floor of the boat like an empty beer can. He follows a 30th of a second later, rolling over the tube into the boat.
That night we share our story with a couple wealthy Ohioans at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club; they own villas on the island. “The one with the black spots?” the car dealer asks. “Yeah, they call her ‘Big Momma’,” the investment banker says. “They used to have a sign on the beach warning about her. She bites. She’s gonna be double-crispy bacon soon.”