10.03.16 Long Island
Clarence Town was to be as far North as we went on this trip. Another front came through and the windsurfing was great. We explored ashore a bit, found that there is a famous ‘blue hole’ where free divers compete every year, so we had a dip in that. 200m deep but we only saw the first few of those. We were able to buy enough provisions to sail off to the wilderness again for a while.
I have windsurfed in waves every day this week. Two different reefs on Long Island, riding on both tacks, small waves, bigger waves, all fully powered with 4.7 or 5.3. Both spots are remote and only really accessible by boat. The waves are mainly windswell wrapped around points and reefs, faces cleaned up by the shallow coral and groomed by the side-shore breeze. Nothing too heavy but great fun to ride and there are some shallow ledges where the waves wall up and throw a bit. The potential for wave sailing in these islands is inspiring.
If you want to try it you need good charts, maybe some Google Earth research, a floaty wave board, sails 4.5-5.5 and an ocean-going yacht. With shallow draft. Then you need plenty of time, and patience. Watch the wind direction clock as fronts pass, swell and wind line up and the spot comes alive. You also should be happy sailing shallow and alone, you’ll have the pick of the waves, I wonder if these reefs have ever been windsurfed before? And what would they look like with real groundswell? I saw plenty more possibilities last week before the wind started to blow. The reef passes on the north shore of Acklins and Crooked Islands must hide lots of sailable waves, all exposed to north swell, but you also need somewhere safe to anchor the boat while it blows. More exploring required…
A close encounter
As I was sailing my board back upwind from the reef to the mothership, I was crossing a lagoon in very shallow water. The bottom was rippled white sand with the odd patch of coral or seagrass.
I was slaloming round these and enjoying the view of the seabed as though from a glass bottomed boat. The water was clear and no more than three feet deep. One of these coral patches appeared to be moving. I pinched upwind to get closer, travelling at 10ish kts. I was leaning right out over this dark patch to investigate as I went by. I realised it was an eight foot hammerhead shark at about the same moment that it realised a windsurf board was inches from it’s head. It turned it’s head violently and thrashed about in surprise, I did much the same. The dark shadow disappeared behind me and I tacked back towards Escapade, only to cross it’s path again. This time the shark showed interest in the wake streaming behind my board and gave chase, for a while. Probably never seen a windsurfer before. It was quite a moment, for both of us.
The Jumentos Cays
I love the feeling of freedom and self-sufficiency when the boat is loaded with supplies for weeks of exploration. The lockers are full of food, the cellar is stocked with wine and beer, we have a whole archipelago to explore and nowhere to be for weeks! We are off to the Jumentos. A chain of dozens of islands, uninhabited and rarely visited by cruising boats. They don’t even appear in our cruisers guide to the Bahamas. I have been daydreaming about sailing to remote places, fishing and diving, and maybe discovering some windsurfing treasure along the way. There will be no phone signal, no internet, no supplies and probably no company. We are told the fishing is excellent, but watch out for sharks. We set sail, 48 miles downwind with a 20 kt breeze.
11.03.16 Water Cay
Our first Jumento. South of the ‘No Name Cays’ we are greeted by a family of dolphins, tiny babies finning hard to keep up with their mothers as they glide around the boat. The babies stay in exactly the same position relative to their mother, slipstreaming on her right side and matching every twist and turn of her body. Born swimming. We surf through the hair-raising shallow green entrance with waves breaking around us to arrive in the calm lee of Water Cay. We are now on the edge of the Great Bahama Bank, a vast sea of bright blue shallow water stretching north to Bimini and west almost to Cuba. Most of it about 5 metres deep. (‘Bahama’ from old Spanish: ‘Baja Mare’, shallow sea). You see white clouds turn turquoise here, reflecting the sea colour.
There is one other boat here. Cheval is a classic Outremer 50 built in 1995, a direct ancestor of Escapade. David and Natalie have been on board alone here for days while all that wind blew through, they are happy to see other people, and another Outremer. We hike to the top of the island to enjoy the view of the waves crashing to windward and the two catamarans anchored off the leeward beach. Outremers are quite rare and here we are the only two yachts for miles in any direction.
What are the chances? We were lucky to meet them, David and Natalie have sailed the Bahamas for years and they come to Water Cay every year. They have also sailed across the Pacific and still think the water here is the most transparent they have ever seen.
So they are experts in these waters, they know every reef and bank off Water Cay and also happen to be life-long spear fishermen.
Having acquired a bit of basic freediving training in Bonaire, I have been keen to apply the purist skills of descending to depth ‘because it’s there’ to the more practical art of swimming down to the reef, sneaking up on a beautiful wild creature, shooting it through the head and surfacing with a free supper. We have speared a few easy fish and lobster in shallow water but almost everywhere we have been, spearguns are illegal. I brought one from Guernsey where it has yet to kill a bass.
Now I have a new toy, the ‘Hawaiian Sling’ which is basically an underwater bow and arrow, but it is legal to fish with one in the Bahamas. My new neighbour David is an expert. He offers to take me out to the reefs. For a couple of days I am treated to a spear hunting masterclass.
How to cock and shoot slings and pole-spears, where to find delicious hogfish, triggerfish, groupers and lobsters, how to dive, approach them and get the best shot. What not to eat as a precaution against ciguatera poisoning. David spots a lobster in a coral cave about 6m down, shows me where it is and tells me to go and shoot it. I cock the sling, dive down and swim outside the cave trying to take aim, I shoot and miss. The lobster retreats further. David’s turn, He descends through the transparent water and with one gloved hand holds on to a rock at the mouth of the cave, hanging upside down whilst carefully aiming and firing his pole-spear with the other. He didn’t miss. The key advantage being that he could hold himself still whereas I needed both hands to fire my sling, ok, better get a pole spear too! It’s another very simple spike catapulted by a stretchy rubber tube. One of the important things is to be close to the dinghy, David and I did some long drifts on the tide, diving down to every likely coral head while the dinghies stand by. Today the wind has dropped to nothing. At slack water Dawn snorkels with me, spotting for targets whilst towing the dinghy with the painter attached to her weight belt! At the end of this morning’s productive session the vibrations and blood in the water had attracted some very large barracuda and a shark, time to get back in the dinghy.
We have learned a lot, eaten a lot and there is plenty in the fridge.
The classic free diving techniques get distorted by all the fishing factors. It is hard to maintain a relaxed, slow heart rate at depth when you are hunting. There is too much going on. Swimming against a current, spotting your prey, getting close enough to take a shot, perhaps diving repeatedly to the same depth to get the right moment and then hauling the speared beast out of the coral cave in which it has tried to retreat. Having shot my first hogfish only to have it swim off the spear as I was ready to surface, I dived back to the bottom and without time to cock the sling just hand-harpooned the wounded fish, this time past the folding barb, secure on the spear, and dead. Ok now time to go up.
All that diving is tiring. What’s needed are afternoon naps, protein-rich meals, a sound night’s sleep in a glassy calm bay, ready to do it all again tomorrow. Tonight’s supper is lobster (again) with ginger, garlic, sesame oil and soy sauce.
Away from it all
What is ‘it all’? Not sure, but I think we’re away from it. No buildings, cars, people, not even a plane in the sky. No wind again today and I’m listening to birdsong as the sun rises over Water Cay. Last night we watched sharks swimming under the boat, I saw shooting stars in huge dark sky, the only light pollution was the glow of the white sand beach. I always find these places really special but it’s hard to put your finger on it, what’s the attraction of the wilderness? OK, It is beautiful, peaceful, nobody here except birds, lizards and fish. After a couple of days there seems to be a purity to the experience, ‘pura vida’, I don’t want to leave. Just to be alive in the elements, sun rises, birds sing, we breathe, swim, fish, eat, sleep. Sharks swim beneath our bed.
I was talking to a passing Bahamian fisherman, Pietro. His first greeting was ‘Hey man she’s a beauuuuty’. Not sure if he meant the boat or the deck hand. Anyway he was out here on a hard 12 day fishing trip to the Jumentos from his home on Long Island. With a big grin he told me he prefers it out here because he’s ‘closer to God’.
More shark stories
Back in Clarence Town an American guy was telling me about sharks. He had just been watching them while fishermen were cleaning their catch on the dock. “Man there were nurse sharks, tiger sharks, bull sharks, makos, hammerheads’. ‘How big?’. ‘Big!’
As he spoke a huge shark came gliding right under our feet and out the other side of the dock.
Now I’ve been in lots of sharky places over the years. Australia, South Africa, Hawaii, California and I’ve spent plenty of time in the water, surfing and windsurfing. You know the sharks are there, they live there, but in all those places I’ve never actually seen one in the water, so they remain sort of theoretical.
Here in the Bahamas the sharks are big, common and highly visible. The water is just so clear you can see every detail, not theoretical at all.
Anchored at Water Cay I was gutting some recently impaled fish when two nurse sharks appeared and started to swim around the boat. They are well known to be docile and quite harmless to humans, always attracted to an easy snack if you are filleting fish on the back of your boat. It’s still a real novelty for us to see sharks so clearly. I’m fascinated by the way they swim, so powerful and efficient, I decide to jump in and free dive with a camera to get some footage.
One tolerates me swimming alongside for a while, then drifts lazily out of shot. I turn to see a new shadow approaching, a beautiful shark emerges from the blue yonder, I dive and swim alongside, concentrating on framing the shot. I notice this one is different. Bigger, white underbelly, pointed snout. That’s not a nurse shark.
I sense that I am too close and the shark doesn’t like it. I surface and look up to see that I am now a good distance from Escapade. Then I check on the shark who has swum in a small circle and straight underneath me. It circles again and swims directly at me, but this time it has angled up from the sand and is coming straight for me at the surface. At this point I miss the ‘Gopro Moment’ of the day and flick my fins between his head and me. He turns inches from me and swims away. I make my way across a boat length or so of recently chummed water, a leisurely swim as you can imagine, and scramble aboard where Dawn informs me that was not a nurse shark.
We think it was a bull shark, they are known to be a bit more boisterous than a nurse shark, and swimming with them is not recommended. How big? Bigger than me.
16.03.16 Jamaica Cay
Still no wind, we motored south to Flamingo Cay for a night and then this morning arrived in Jamaica Cay. A beautiful natural harbour surrounded by islets and reefs. No other boats in sight. We have now decided that the Nassau Grouper is our favourite fish to eat here, so I went and shot one for supper.
17.03.16 Buenavista Cay
We sailed away from lovely Jamaica Cay this morning, we left only footprints and took only photographs.. and two coconuts.. and some grouper fillets.
Finally the breeze is back, first sailing wind this week. We hoist the code zero and full main and enjoy a 20 mile beat down to Buenavista Cay, the final approach over the shallow banks is really something, in 10kts of wind we are sailing at 9kts over flat turquoise water, 2.5 metres deep for miles. We anchor off a mile of white beach, again, no other boats in sight. Silence. Except, was that a rooster crowing? We go ashore on a paddle board and see fresh footprints on the beach. We follow them up a rocky path and down into Edward Lockhart’s kingdom.
This guy really deserves a blog post of his own. He is the sole inhabitant of this beautiful island where he has cleared a big area of bush and created a farm. Here he has planted coconut and papaya trees, avocados, sweet potatoes, peas, melons, medicinal herb bushes. He is also raising chickens, ducks, peacocks, 3 sheep and about 300 wild goats which he occasionally traps and eats or sends to market. Supplies arrive when the passing island mailboat can land at his beach. His simple timber house on the beach has weathered hurricanes Sandy and Joachin. This week while we were hanging out at the farm he had raked hundreds of kilos of pure white sea salt from the salt pond half a mile away, chopped down a huge sea grape tree to clear more land and was excavating the root ball using a massive home-made tripod. He carries water daily from a well for the animals. He took me spearfishing around every coral head in the bay, diving and shooting fish. Edward is 76 years old, but you’d never guess. He was happy to have company and his stories are worth hearing. He grew up as a boy on this island before travelling the Bahamas maintaining the lighthouses with his father, who was also a rumrunner during the US Prohibition. He is a boatbuilder, joiner, sometime smuggler, has been in jails in Cuba (twice) and Nassau. He once swam from Nassau to BVC diving for fish all the way. Now he is enjoying his Cay and planning improvements: solar power, desalination and homes for his son and grandchildren. Edward showed us his expert techniques for skinning and filleting a triggerfish, opening and skinning conch, which he cooked for us and served on his homemade furniture on the beach. He cut a branch from his Lignum Vitae tree, stripped the bark with a whittling knife and presented it to me as a gift. ‘For tenderising conch. And if you have to hit a man with it he ain’t gettin’ up’. It is heavy, fragrant yellow wood. He tells me Lignum Vitae from this island was shipped to Scotland Yard in London to make truncheons! They also grew grapefruit here that were so sweet they were presented to the young Queen Elizabeth, from a far backwater of her empire. Our time anchored off Edward’s paradise was a taste of a real Out Island life. Stories of his brothers, cousins, preachers, rum-runners, smugglers, Jamaican cocaine, Haitian rum, ‘teefin’ no-goods’ and all the characters of a life lived on these specks of land.
What a treat, our first inhabited Jumento!
Buenavista Cay, population: 1.
20.03.16 Ragged Island
After a quiet night at the rather formally named (but uninhabited) Double Breasted Cay, we have now arrived at the end of the Jumentos chain. The settlement on Ragged Island is Duncan Town (population 40) where we are told there is a restaurant and internet! Will try to post this before we go. The weather is changing again. The light easterlies have moved SE and freshened. There’s another cold front coming. A storm is swirling off the Carolinas to our north and the weather down here will be disturbed for a few days. We plan to take advantage of the changes in direction to island-hop our way east to the Turks and Caicos. This may be the last ‘Winter Norther’ of the season so it’s time to sail east while we can.
We are bracing ourselves for another culture shock. After our Jumentos odyssey we will arrive in Provo where there will be cars, planes, shopping malls, air conditioning, internet and, with a bit of luck, pizza.