Ship's Log

March 5th, 2009 - Georgetown, Bahamas:

Since our last installment, we're a little wiser, a little poorer, with lots of new friends and some incredible sights seen.  We've poked our way down the Exumas island chain and the sights just keep getting more and more lovely.

From Norman's Cay, we made our way down to the Exuma Land and Sea Park - 112,640 acres of pristine, protected water, uninhabited islands and some incredible coral reefs.  The Park is only accessable by boat, and it's a strict no-take zone - all fishing and shelling is prohibited. Thousands of conch, lobsters, fish and turtles come to mate, spawn and live life unhunted by human predators, and the park is literally teeming with life. The fish on the reefs calmly look right back at you and the lizards on land run right across your feet; the animals of the park seem to know that they've got the law on their side and simply go about their business around you.  It's like being in the middle of a Disney movie!

Brian with a reef full of singing, G-rated fish.

On our way there, we almost literally bumped into our friends Ben and Kristen on WINDBORNE, a boat we'd spent a week next to in Oriental, NC!   We hailed each other on the radio and then both boats headed into the southern anchorage at Warderick Wells, arguably the park's most beautiful island.  WINDBORNE had us over for a fabulous quiche dinner, and we had a great night catching up, comparing stories and trading books.

WINDBORNE smokes us under full sail on the way to Warderick Wells!  

The Park has a volunteer program, wherein if your crew volunteers for one day of work, you can stay on your mooring for free.  Ever budget-conscious and wanting to help out such a noble organization besides, we signed up to volunteer.  We’d gotten the tip from some cruising friends that the work doled out by the park was a cinch!  We were ready to put in our time doing something cushy yet admirable, perhaps feeding some adorable orphaned dolphins or leisurely plucking trash off a beach.  

This was not at all the case.  At 9 AM the next morning, a park ranger eyed us greedily and asked if we had strong backs.  We foolishly replied that we were all brawn and no brains, and thus we were chosen to help destroy Australian pine trees.  Piling into a high-speed skiff, the ranger whizzed us through the park, pointing out different types of sea birds and good snorkeling spots until at last we reached Hawksbill Cay.  A glance down the beach revealed a long, graceful line of wispy pine trees that abruptly gave way to stumps and huge piles of branches.  We’d seen this species of tree all throughout the Bahamas so far, and had foolishly thought they were pretty.  But they’re invaders, originally brought here by landscapers, and they’ve spread all over.  Now they’re choking out the native plants and their needles pile up on the beach and interfere with nesting sea turtles. 

“We chop ‘em down, cut up the branches and pile them up to burn once the wind direction’s right,” explained our park ranger.  We were going to do our part for the environment with gasoline, chain saws and hard labor!

We spent the rest of the day decimating four lousy trees.  Cutting them down and chopping up the branches where they lay was the easy part.  Each tree had an impressive web of thick roots and runners to be ripped up, and we dragged endless stump chunks and branches down the beach, heaving them up into huge mounds.  

Tree Murderer

“You guys are prime real estate,” the ranger explained during a water break.  We'd mentioned that other cruisers painted a gentler picture of the park's volunteer program. “Most of the cruisers who come through here are in their 70s. How could I ask them to bust their humps like this?” 

We returned to our boat that afternoon achy, filthy and embarrassed at how out of shape we were!  But it was satisfying to work hard on some land, which was something neither of us had done in far too long.  We're glad to have helped the park in our small way.  Next time we're showing up on crutches, though.

We'd come to the Park mainly because we’d heard it was so beautiful, but we also had another, spookier reason for visiting.  In the main mooring area right in front of the Park Headquarters, the ruined hull of a Pearson Countess lies below in 20 feet of water.  We heard from another Countess owner that there wasn’t much left of the wreck after all these years, but we wanted to see for ourselves.  The park officials told us that the owner had started up his generator to charge the ship’s batteries and left it running while he went to dinner on another boat.  Something malfunctioned, the generator caught fire and SARABANDE’s sister was done for. 

We dove on the wreck with Ben and Kristen, and saw a lot more down there than we’d expected.  We could make out shapes of the staterooms, the faulty generator, the windlass and the distinct outline of a hull we know so well. It was sad to see what had become of such a well-made boat, especially while our SARABANDE floated, so loved, not half a mile away.   At least it’s home to somebody:  pretty corals grow where the deck used to be, and we saw a couple of huge lobsters hiding under the stern.   One guidebook reported that a lemon shark and a nurse shark also live in the wreck, but no one was home when we were there.

SARABANDE's poor departed sister.

The view from the bow looking down to the stern.

We spent a couple of days hiking the trails, playing with the huge roaming hermit crabs and snorkeling the reefs.  We could’ve stayed at Warderick Wells for a long, long time before getting tired of it.  But with fishing forbidden and no markets anywhere around, our supply of fresh food was running low.  Sprouts are nice and all, but we were dying for some fruits and vegetables!  We set our sights on Staniel Cay, which our guidebook promised us had a couple of grocery stores.

Finding fresh food has been a major challenge throughout this chain of islands.  The soil of the Bahamas is poor, shallow and rests on a bed of limestone, so it’s difficult to grow anything here.  There’s little rain, and the scanty water table is brackish.  Lots of Bahamians rely on big desalination plants to meet their basic fresh water needs, and it’s too expensive to make enough water to also keep a sizable food crop alive.  People do grow small crops of bananas, papaya, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, pumpkins and peppers, but for the most part Bahamians import all of life’s necessities from the US and other countries.  These imports are expensive, and everything from diesel fuel to moldy Canadian potatoes is dispersed to the various islands on supply ships. 

The CAPTAIN C unloading goods at Staniel Cay.  We've seen this boat running supplies all throughout the Exumas.

The time to go shopping on a small island is the day their ship comes in!  The day after, all you’re likely to find in the store is a few moldy onions!   So the trick is to learn what day the ship comes in and get in line early.   People in the smaller islands that see a supply ship only once a week wait outside the store before it opens on the big day. 

Fresh food at last - eggs, limes, plantains, bananas and oranges,
all of which sold out later that morning.

Staniel Cay not only came through with the groceries, but it's also home to “Thunderball Grotto”, an incredible underwater cave that’s even been featured in a couple of Hollywood films.  We caught up with WINDBORNE again by luck, and we all went to see it together.  The cave is nestled under a little island, and the entrance is ringed with some nice coral.  Our guidebook said to bring food for the reef fish, so we brought a bag of rolled oats with us.  The fish were either ravenous, huge oatmeal fans, or both!

Doling out the first bits of oatmeal.

Word spreads around school that there's free food on the scene.

Things are getting a little out of hand....

Alicia runs away from all her new best friends.

Once the fish lost interest in us, we swam through the cave's entrance.  The opening is narrow and low, but once you're inside, you pop your head up to see that the island is hollow!  You're swimming in a natural dome cathedral, and the sun peeps in through a hole in the roof and sprinkles light on the stalactites hanging down.  Underwater are little hallways and ridges to explore, and beneath the dome the floor drops down deep.  We wanted to stay much longer than we did, but when the tide starts to turn it really rips through the cave.  As a last hurrah, we labored mightily against the flow as far as we could, then relaxed and allowed the rushing tide to flush us out of the cave.  Sadly, we couldn't get a good above-water photo of the dome, since it was too hard to stay vertical with the current running!   

Fraggle Rock underwater!  This is a little tunnel that runs eastward from the entrance.  

Looking back at the cave's entrance.

As if the groceries and the grotto weren't enough, the Staniel Cay area is also home to some semi-wild sea pigs.   Like the reef fish near Thunderball, people have made a habit of bringing them food, so if you approach the pigs' island they'll swim out to your dinghy and start squealing for scraps.   We took over some shredded coconut (for some reason we provisioned in New Jersey with an incredible excess of coconut) and made friends.  The biggest one swam out to meet us while the smaller ones waited to see what we had before they sauntered over.  In the end, they made a big ruckus for the food and coconut got everywhere.  We were lucky they didn't bite a hole in the dinghy!   

Momma Pig hears cellophane.

We spent another day or two snorkeling and fishing, then departed from Staniel Cay for Elizabeth Harbour and Georgetown.  We zoomed through the cut at Staniel Cay and sailed down on the ocean side of the Exumas, hugging the coast and hoping to catch a really big fish.  Well, we caught one almost four feet long, but it was a barracuda!  Large barracuda in the Bahamas can carry the deadly ciguartera poison, and ours was too big to risk eating.   Better luck next time!  Thank goodness for beans.

Entering Elizabeth Harbour was completely surreal.  It's a big, beautiful natural harbor sandwiched between Great Exuma Island and Stocking Island.   There are half a dozen choice anchorages, and basically the entire place has good protection from any wind direction.  There are over 340 sailboats anchored here, and many of them have been here since December!  People come from all around Canada and the US to spend the winter here with friends, and they've created a mini-world of their own.   These cruisers organize outings to tour the island, form athletic teams and teach each other everything from yoga to basket weaving at beachfront classes.  It's extraordinary, and we were overwhelmed by the sheer number of boats here and by the hum of activity after all the quiet places we'd recently been.

We first set about solving a problem we'd had for a couple of weeks:  the outboard motor for our dinghy was mortally injured.  We’ve had outboard troubles from day one of our cruise, and so far we’ve simply taken the cheap and cheerful approach:  constant self-repair jobs and lots of rowing.  The outboard engine that SARABANDE came with was an old Johnson 6 hp engine, and we were able to get it running while we were in Abaco.  It was a cranky old thing, older than Brian even, it worked intermittently at best, but we were grateful when it did the job.  When the outboard worked, we’d go ashore in our roomy, stable inflatable, which we’ve named BEYONCE.  When the outboard is on strike, we row in tiny WHAT’S HER FACE because she’s got a shape that’s much better suited for efficient rowing.  In Warderick Wells, corrosion finally got the best of the old Johnson, and the steering pivot point snapped.  We jury rigged it but never gained back any real steering control, and we vowed to spend a chunk of our ever-waning budget on a safer, secondhand outboard once we arrived in Georgetown. 

Looking south from our cockpit - masts as far as the eye can see!

Sure enough, our third day here we learned of a couple looking to part with their spare 6 hp outboard.  It was 11 years younger than our old Johnson, the price was right, and most importantly, it started up right away and steered gloriously!  We gave the ancient Johnson the heave-ho and welcomed our new Evinrude.  We spent two wonderful afternoons zipping around in our inflatable, but then the honeymoon ended abruptly - our “new” engine locked up and died when we were on our way home from a fishing expedition.  Luckily, the old Johnson’s track record had taught us to keep BEYONCE stocked with handy supplies for an unexpected row-a-thon:  drinking water, a handheld VHF, an anchor, flashlights and the too-short, utterly ineffective oars supplied by the dinghy manufacturer.   It was a long row home, but we made it back before dark.  Of the hundreds of engine problems Brian has been able to solve, this outboard’s deal remains a mystery.

Our super sweet ride, as seen in Oriental, NC.

So for the time being, the crew of SARABANDE is solely under oar power again when we go ashore.  All couples should be required to row a small boat against a strong opposing current on a regular basis.  It’s cheap marriage counseling:  if you don’t figure out how to work together, nobody’s going anywhere.  Also, there’s something ridiculous and embarrassing about having an argument in such a small boat, so this keeps griping to a minimum. Rowing with four arms instead of two will get you where you’re going twice as fast, and we experimented with several techniques before perfecting our method: sit the heaviest person in the center of the dinghy facing aft and the lighter person in the stern facing forward.  Stow any cargo, including dopey dogs who can’t contain their excitement over going ashore, up in the bow.  Interlace legs low in the dinghy so that they won’t get in the way of the oars.  Then both people grasp both oars and begin rowing them in unison, leaning back and forth in a rhythm that maximizes muscle power and prevents the knocking together of heads. 

The sight of a boat being rowed in this fashion elicits strong reactions from observers. Other cruisers whizzing by in their beautiful gas-powered dinghies slow down and kindly offer to tow us in, which we thank them for but politely decline.  Most just chuckle, shrug and speed away, but a few people almost won’t take no for an answer.  People ashore stand and stare at us as we slowly but surely make our way along, and once a crowd of sunburned vacationers on a glass-bottomed boat took photos of us as though we were an Amish couple driving our horse and buggy.  There’s no shame in oars, and besides, our arms are getting enough of a workout to cruelly pummel anyone who pokes fun.   A mechanic quoted us a price to do the repair that's more than what we paid for the engine.  Several solutions are being explored, and we have obtained a shop manual for Brian to study.  It's time to expand our skills into the world of 2 stroke engine repair!  

Brian's bedtime reading.

In the meantime, we've decided to film a documentary about the Georgetown Regatta, a week-long series of events organized by the community of cruisers here.   The regatta is the climax of the winter season here for the majority of the fleet, and after this week most will head back to their summer lives in the north.  The community itself has such a well defined culture of it's own, we couldn't resist getting out our cameras.  We're covering all the regatta events, getting interviews and learning the regatta's 29 year history.  All the chairmen have been really helpful and embraced our project and we're having a fantastic time running around shooting by day and editing at night!   It's been fun to work together on a movie again - we haven't done that since college!

In other news, we just learned that we're going to have a little neice or nephew later this year!  Congratulations to Alicia's brother Tom and his lovely wife Angie, who are going to be fantastic parents.  It's going to be so much fun to be an aunt and uncle!


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