Following in Columbus’s Footsteps

As soon as we set anchor on the west side of Conception Island, Capt. Drew of Z-Raye zoomed up in the dinghy shouting ” Watch out for the welcoming committee!” In response to a quizzical look, he added “two big sharks circling the anchorage.” Sure enough, by the time Capt. Mike had donned swim trunks and a snorkel mask in preparation to dive the anchor, a five foot long shadow appeared next to Sanitas. He kept us company for our entire stay on the island and I named him Oscar (the grouch). This was the theme for our stay on Conception; a balance of outstanding natural beauty, contrasted by the reality of the sharks, rays, and barracuda who really belong here.

Lunch under sail from Georgetown to Conception Island.

Conception Island is a national park made up of pristine beaches, fun hikes, and the best snorkeling we’d experienced so far in the Bahamas. It’s also one of the islands that Christopher Columbus visited after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. I’m not exactly sure what his crew did here, because as far as I can tell, there isn’t any fresh water or animals to hunt for food. But Capt. Mike is probably right.By the time Columbus reached these islands, his crew was probably very grateful for the opportunity to get off the boat onto dry land and to catch their breath for a bit.

The soft, white sand beach surrounding our anchorage was one of the most perfect I’ve seen on our travels. And from the beach, there are a few fun hiking trails to the ocean side of the island and up to the cliffs. But the island is so protected and so covered with hearty gnarled vegetation, that it’s difficult to make much progress in the interior without returning covered with scrapes, scratches, and bug bites!

Hiking on Conception

Top of the cliff

The best way to experience the interior of Conception is by dinghy hiking – taking the dinghies to a creek entrance on the south side of the island and very slowly exploring the creek and its tributaries for sea life and birds. At times, the creeks get so shallow that the best way to make forward progress is to row. And at other times, the mangroves are so close on either side that you can reach out and touch them, and can see the huge schools of fish that hide in the mangrove roots for protection from predators.

We saw dozens and dozens of green turtles in the creeks. They’d duck under water quickly as we approached, and after we passed and looked back upstream, all we could see were dozens of little white turtle heads watching us. We cooled off by swimming in a small blue hole, and returned to the anchorage. Once again, we confirmed that our dinghy / motor combination isn’t sufficient for this cruising lifestyle. All of our friends zoom back and forth between the anchorage and the sights, and we just putt along slowly in Bug, usually ending up drenched by waves in the process.

Conception Island also provided the best snorkeling so far in The Bahamas. Just north of the island, we anchored the dinghies in small patches of sand and explored colorful live coral and fish of all types. I didn’t think I was afraid of barracuda, but they glare at you! They come up close with their beady little eyes and their crooked teeth and they swim right at you and glare! I’m still not exactly frightened, but also not exactly comfortable swimming with them! I’ve added an underwater camera to my shopping list for next year, because I’m so sad not to have photos of this gorgeous reef with its purple fan coral and yellow stag horn coral.

As we climbed into the dinghies and prepared for the ride back to the anchorage, we had one of the most special experiences of the trip. Looking north, we watched a mother whale and her calf rise from the ocean in full breach, and crash back down, sending a huge plume of white water into the air! We loitered for a while, watching the calf play as she surfaced over and over again, but when we started up the outboard motors, the good mama decided to hide her little one, and we didn’t see them again. We toasted to mamma whale with watermelon margaritas at sundown on Sanitas that evening.

Conditions on our sail from Conception Island to Cat Island were perfect for our first attempt at using our asymmetrical spinnaker. Winds were light, from our stern at about 120 degrees. There was a bit of a learning curve as we got the light wind sail out of the bag for the first time and figured out how to rig it to the third furling drum all the way forward on the bow sprit, but it worked! Even sailing with only this one sail up, we made about 5.5 knots toward Cat Island.

Using the spinnaker

Unfurling

Full sail

Next time, we will be smoother in raising the spinnaker, and we will experiment with using it in combination with our primary sails. What a wonderful day of sailing, and a wonderful stay on Conception!

The best travel clothes!

You may have noticed by now that I love my Skirt Sports brand clothing for travel (as well as for workouts). They fit great, have lots of pockets, hold up great in the wash, and come in lots of pretty patterns. They are also a women-owned company based in my home town of Boulder, CO.

Skirt Sports has given me a discount code to share with family and friends, so if you’d like to try them, this is a great time! My current favorite items are the Wonder Girl dress (in ALL the patterns), the hover skort (shown in the photo below) and the poketopia capris (with pockets large enough for a cell phone!). But I’m also going to have to try the new Cool It collection of SPF sun protection clothing with built-in cooling technology!

9am water aerobics, 2pm volleyball, 7pm dancing, Repeat

If you’ve read or heard anything about cruising in the Bahamas, you’ve probably heard about Georgetown on Great Exuma Island. It’s the capital of the expat community during the winter, with a plethora of daily activities on offer, such as: water aerobics, yoga, volleyball, dominos, music lessons, and Texas Hold’em. Not to mentions infinite opportunities for hiking, snorkeling, and exploring. Of course, Georgetown also provides all the basic services that cruisers need, such as groceries, laundry, fuel, and trash. Georgetown earned the nickname of Chicken Harbor because so many cruisers with plans to continue south get caught in the gravitational pull of Georgetown fun, and eventually discover that the entire season has passed by, driving the decision to chicken out and head back to Florida this summer, and try again for the southern Caribbean next year.

It was an easy couple of hours sail from Emerald Bay to Elizabeth harbor, once the northerly winds and swells had finally calmed. Sanitas rejoined her buddy boats at an anchorage just off Sand Dollar Beach, and we quickly got dragged ashore to the Chat ‘n’ Chill on Stocking Island for our introduction to the festivities.

Chat ‘n’ Chill, aka Volleyball Beach is the social hub of the area; a beach bar that also doubles as the church, book exchange, volleyball league, and domino club. We spent A LOT of time here over the next few days, meeting other cruisers, and getting my kitty cat fix by hanging out with the very laid back ginger tabbys.

On our first night in the harbor, we attended a bonfire on Sand Dollar beach where we met the crew of SAVA, who are home-schooling their two children aboard, and watched the captain of Maitre ‘d twirl Polynesian fire balls. The evening was marred a bit when Z-Raye’s dinghy went for a walkabout without her captain well after dark. We put out an APB on the VHF to get everyone in the harbor on the lookout. And somehow, Stan and Chris of Disorder were able to find her, drifting in the middle of Elizabeth harbor, in a 2 knot current, making a break for Miami. I have no idea how they were lucky enough to spot her, tie her up, and tow her in using only flashlights! Note to self…. apply reflective tape to our dinghy, Bug.

After celebrating Sharon’s birthday with burgers at Splash Beach Bar, we climbed to the top on Monument Hill and surveyed the view of the harbor and of all the boat names memorialized in stone on the beach. We accepted the challenge and made our own stone tribute to Dock 4, the home base in St Petersburg of our whole group.

In Georgetown, I got my hair cut for the first time since Miami. I walked into Trainee’s hair salon (and fish market) and got a pretty darn good cut for $20. Unfortunately, Trainee was sold out of fresh fish for the day, lol.

I spent one fun afternoon on my Isle inflatable standup paddle board. It took a while to build up my courage to go farther and farther from the boat. I tend to get lulled into a false sense of security, when the water and wind are still, and I am moving at a brisk pace in a comfortable direction. Then the breeze picks up or a wake comes through the anchorage (Or I simply realize I need to turn around to get back to where I started) and it all falls apart. Today, I made it all the way around Sand Dollar anchorage, getting up close and personal with several green sea turtles, and then as I approached Sanitas, I realized I had no idea how to stop. Lacking any other plan, I pretty much ran right into her. When the paddle board stopped so suddenly, I fell off and had to collect my hat, sunglasses, water bottle, and paddle before trying to board the boat with some level of dignity intact.

Capt. Mike’s sport of choice is volleyball. Back in Colorado, he used to play on several different leagues, at various levels of competitiveness. As 2:00 approached each afternoon, I could sense him getting more antsy and ready to head over to volleyball beach. If I wasn’t ready, I’d have to follow later on the SUP, or catch a ride with another boat. He had a blast burning up the court every afternoon …. and still has the raw marks on his knees healing slowly to show for all those dives into the sand, sacrificing his body for the ball.

On our last night if Elizabeth Harbor, we dinghied over to Georgetown to attend the rake ‘n scrape at the Peace and Plenty hotel. A Rake ‘n scrape is traditional Bahamian live music, usually played with a base, accordion, and saw – maybe even a washboard. This one was a bit more polished than most, with electric guitars provide most of the melody, and one lonely quiet saw soloist way in the back. It was a great evening though, dancing to the band at the lovely outdoor patio, and hanging out with locals and other cruisers on Archipelago, Mariposa, and Wavelength. Mike noticed that the bartender was getting overwhelmed with customers early in the evening, so he offered to carry in a few cases of beer and to reload the beer fridge. She allowed him to help out until a second bartender arrived, earning a few free beers for his efforts!

Did I mention how large Elizabeth Harbor is? In my imagination, I had always envisioned a small, manageable harbor, ringed by pristine white sand beaches, where every business and amenity is right within reach. In reality, Elizabeth Harbor is huge, and there are many available anchorages to choose from depending on the weather and winds, and if you’d rather be close to Stocking Island socializing, or close to errands and shopping in town. So when we committed to dinner, drinks, and dancing at Peace and Plenty, we knew we were in for a long dark dinghy ride home across the harbor in Bug. We made it, and somehow Capt Mike was able to pick out the exact anchor light belonging to Sanitas from the constellation of artificial stars ringing the bay, and aimed us straight at her. Our first stay in a Georgetown for the season had come to a close, and any lingering crustiness we would feel the next morning on our sail east was worth it for the fun of dancing outdoors on a beautiful evening.

A Stay in Emerald Bay

If there’s a theme to the 2018 cruising season in the Bahamas, it must be “Waiting out the Nor’easters.” In the same way that a New Englander can tell you about every school closure and flight cancelation due to snow this past March, a cruiser can tell you where she got stuck, usually someplace unplanned or undesirable, waiting out those northerly blows. That’s how we initially ended up at The Marina at Emerald Bay. We needed to stop playing in the Exumas, and dive for cover yet again. Our buddy boats pressed on to Elizabeth Harbor a couple of hours south on Great Exuma Island. But Sanitas and her crew craved a few days of marina amenities.

The Marina at Emerald Bay was just the ticket; providing a nice contrast to the past couple of weeks of living on the hook. It provides a large, protected harbor with floating docks, hot showers, free laundry, access to beautiful running trails, and beaches. Oh, and best of all, they provide an unadvertised special rate for cruisers. If you don’t need to be connected to shore power, you can tie up for $1.00 per foot – an unheard of rate in The Exumas. Plus, as an added bonus, our friends Pat and Melana on Tapati were here! The last time we’d seen these St Petersburg friends, we were sadly watching them sail east from Rodriguez Key to Bimini without us, as we instead headed north to Miami to perform some boat repairs. We eagerly anticipated catching up and hearing about each other’s cruising adventures.

For once, our timing was impeccable, and Sanitas was safely docked just in time for the weekly manager’s happy hour event. Since there’s little that cruisers enjoy more than free food and free drink, the club was full by the 5:30 start time. We enjoyed meeting a new crowd, and matching faces to the boat names we’d heard on the radio, such as Archipelago, Full Circle, and Polaris. And it was great to hear of Tapati’s journey across the central and southern Bahamas, while we had taken a very different route to the North.

We grew to appreciate our good timing and safe harbor even more the next day, when we watched a large fishing boat get washed up on the rocks guarding the mouth of the harbor. Everyone aboard escaped safely, but the vessel itself was lost; good only for salvage. After that, our daily routine included a walk to the bluffs overlooking the harbor mouth to view the white capped waves, and to trade guesses with the other cruisers on when it might be safe to leave again. And somehow, our plan to stay in the marina for a couple of days turned into EIGHT nights. That’s one good thing about living on a small boat – $1 per foot doesn’t add up very fast when you’re only 37 feet long!

We put the time to good use, continuing to perform boat repairs in exotic places. Capt. Mike gave Sanitas an oil change, and I washed the deck and all the port lights (sort of like a spa day for boats). It took two days to do all the laundry, fill the diesel and water tanks, top up the propane, and reprovision. Mike fixed the strike plate on the cabin door, refilled all our spice canisters, and defrosted the fridge. Most importantly, we continued our quest to FIX ALL THE LEAKS by scraping, cleaning, and re-caulking the port side toe rail, all the way back to the chain plates. That’s a continuation of the work we started in Miami and Marsh Harbor to keep sea water out of our forward cabin. Hopefully, this last attempt does the trick, and any additional repairs can wait until the next time we have Sanitas hauled out in a boatyard. A huge sense of accomplishment here!

Unfortunately, the marina is a bit isolated with nothing in walking distance but a liquor store. So we had to resort to piracy, inviting ourselves to a nearby resort for pool time, sushi and surf ‘n turf, and evening entertainment. The resort had a very diverse clientele – all kinds of middle aged white folk – so after showering and donning our best athlesiure wear, we fit in just fine!

To celebrate the successful completion of our leak project, we hosted a little party our last night in Emerald Bay. The bad thing about living on a very small sailboat, is there’s not much space for entertaining. But we squeezed the crews of Archipelago and Wavelength into the cockpit; broke out every one of our plates, bowls, and cups; and enjoyed a lovely spread of charcuterie and cocktails during another amazing sunset.

Pigs and sharks and iguanas. Oh my !

I had expected to see amazing wildlife in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park, and I wasn’t disappointed! The giant rays playing under our boat, turtles, even the tiny hutia, which is the only native mammal to these islands – it was wonderful to see these animals thriving in the protected areas. But I was completely surprised and thrilled at the wildlife encounters on the next few Island south on the Exuma chain.

Staniel Cay is known for its posh Yacht Club, tiny airport, and proximity to the famous swimming pigs.

Pigs

On a sandy beach, off Big Majors Spot, several families of wild pigs (and more than a few chickens) live a happy, beach bum sort of life. They walk on the beach when it’s cool, lie in the shade of the sea grape trees when it gets hot, and eat and drink like visitors to an all-inclusive resort. The eating is courtesy of boatloads of tourists who zoom in every day on power boats to feed the pigs, take photos, and yes – even swim with the pigs. ‘Cause these pigs have learned that little boats mean big eats, and in their competition to be the biggest porker, they’ve figured out that the pig who swims out to the tour boats gets first dibs on all the scraps.

In another example of how cruisers are different than tourists, we don’t want wild pigs, with their razor sharp hooves, anywhere near our inflatable dinghies. And with our questionable levels of health insurance, we are wary of their snouts and teeth. But that doesn’t mean we skipped the chance to motor in and visit the Staniel Cay pigs – just that we treated them with all due respect. (And we let the tour boats provide the food and the entertainment)

Apparently things are a little bit different on pig beach this year than in past years. Where they used to wander completely wild, now a pig conservation team provides drinking water, a bit of supplemental feed, and presumably some sort of pig veterinary care. In a way, I think that’s an improvement. People tend to love things to death, and last year several pigs were found dead, either from bad food, or from being given alcohol. A little bit of protection is probably warranted.

Good thing they warned us to beware of Big Momma Karma! We also received a tip that if the pigs were getting too close, and we felt threatened, just hold our hands out high and completely empty so that the pigs could tell we had no food, and they’d leave us alone. It works! Mike tried this once with a phone in his hand. Apparently Big Momma Karma can’t tell the difference between a cell phone and a candy bar, because she just kept on coming!

The pig keepers told us that Ollie is the sweet one. So I felt a little more comfortable getting up close and personal with this cutie. And of course, the baby piglets were adorable! But also shy, and not so interested in sticking around for photos.

Sharks

After our visit to the pigs, we did explore the Island of Staniel Cay. There’s not much to it! But we did make the rounds through the tiny town, stopping in both the pink grocery store and the blue grocery store to see what fresh produce was available. I snagged two tomatoes, a bunch of green onions, and one small hot orange pepper. We cooled off with a well-deserved bushwhacker frozen drink at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, where we experienced another wildlife encounter.

When Sharon, on Z-Raye, said, “Let’s go see the sharks!” I thought that meant, “Let’s go watch the sharks swim around, looking slightly menacing and shark-like.” I had no idea it actually meant, “Let’s go watch dozens of sharks fight over bits of bait fish, throwing themselves out of the water onto a stone step to snap up the treats, and hoping a wave comes in time to wash them back into the ocean before they lose their breath.” Oh, I also didn’t realize it meant we could walk down those stone steps and get close enough to the nurse sharks to look into their little beady eyes, and to pet them. Do you blame me for not envisioning this crazy experience when invited to “see the sharks”?

Two little girls, presumably staying at the posh yacht club, had brought 8 boxes of squid to feed the sharks, and they weren’t scared of these ocean predators at all. It was exciting and nerve wracking to watch how close their cute little fingers and toes got to the pile of sharks. Of course, after we watched for a few minutes, and nobody lost a toe, we decided it was safe and that we wanted to pet those darn sharks ourselves. Although all fingers and toes are still accounted for, I’m not sure this really was completely safe. When I looked into those cold shark eyes, it was pretty clear that they didn’t care whether they ate squid or human toe for dinner, as long as their hunger and greed was satiated.

If you can’t tell, I was very careful not to leave those toes anyplace remotely within their reach.

Iguanas

Drew suggested sundowners on the beach, with the hope of seeing iguanas. It was quite a long dinghy ride to the correct beach, and our group of four buddy boats were the only people there. As soon as we beached the dinghy and Mike said “I hope we get to see some iguanas” they started appearing out of every rock outcropping and streaming down the beach toward us. Do you think people feed them? At one point about a dozen iguana had joined us on the sandy beach in quite a variety of colors and sizes. I didn’t know how cautious to be around these critters; I knelt in the sand to take a photo of one of the little guys, and he scrambled toward me so quickly, I jumped up in alarm.

They make the coolest tracks in the sand, sweeping their feet, with the tail track sliding down the middle

Eventually, I got comfortable enough to turn my back on one of the big daddies for a selfie. A very brief selfie – I wasn’t that comfortable!

Another beautiful sunset!