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!

Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

In 1958, the Bahamian Parliament set aside 176 square miles of islands and surrounding seas as protected national parks. The Bahamas National Trust administers these parks – one of the only non-profit, non-governmental organizations in the world to manage a country’s conservation efforts. (Sometimes I wish the US national parks were protected in a similar way from political wrangling. Poor Bears Ears). The goal of the park is to protect fish and wildlife, and to conserve the islands within it in their natural, undeveloped state. And thank goodness they do, because the result is an amazing, gorgeous cruising ground, filled with sea life and with natural wonders.

Shroud Cay

Our first introduction to the park was at Shroud Cay, where we explored the magical beaches that appear at low tide, and went for a “dinghy hike” through the mangrove creeks.

The water at Shroud Cay was so clear, we could see every ripple and rock on the bottom from the bow of the boat in 18 feet of water. Or, toes from 5 ft 9 inches, during a floating happy hour on the beach!

It was fun getting lost in the mangroves…. puttering along at no-wake speed, tossing a coin to decide which direction to go at intersections, drifting the dinghy onto sand at dead ends. We saw a turtle, and sting rays, and finally did find a beautiful sandy beach on the ocean side of the Cay.

The best part of our stay at Shroud Cay was that Drew and Sharon on Z-Raye (who we hadn’t seen since Key West) sailed all the way up from Georgetown and surprised us there! The entire team from St Petersburg marina Dock 4 is reunited again!

Mike planting a tree on Shroud Cay beach

Warderick Wells

The jewel in the crown of Exuma Cays Park is Warderick Wells Cay. If you have an image in your mind of what an island in the Bahamas might look like, this is probably the closest match! The north mooring field is a narrow U-shaped band of deep water with room for about 20 boats, surrounded by shallow reefs and sandbars, excellent for snorkeling. At low tide, the central sand bar becomes an off-leash dog park and sundowners hang out. There is no development on the island, except for the ranger station and residence.

Legend has it that a ship wrecked just off shore of Warderick Wells, and the ghosts of the ship’s crew haunt BooBoo Hill, moaning and wailing in their despair. Today, cruisers leave driftwood signs with their ship names atop the hill in the hope of better luck for themselves and their vessels. It is the only place in the part that varies from true Leave No Trace ethic; as long as the signs are made of natural materials, the offers are encouraged. I made my own, accidental offering to the gods of the sea. Returning to Sanitas in the dinghy one evening after Sundowners, I lost my polarized prescription sunglasses off the top of my head in the frenzy of activity while boarding the boat. Capt Mike kept into action, scanning the water with a flashlight, and stripping down in preparation to go for a swim. But the current swept them away.

The whole crew took a long hike one morning. Although we are right a sea level, it is surprisingly tricky hiking, with the rocks and sand and small steep hills. But the rewarding views of oceanbeach, tropical vegetation, and boat harbor are stunning. The island is named Warderick Wells because the fresh rain water forms a “lens” floating on top of the saltwater in the works of the island, and people used to live on this island by harvesting the water from wells in the porous rock. It also supports a larger variety of vegetation than you find on most islands.

It’s no wonder that celebrities such as Johnny Depp and David Copperfield keep private islands in this part of the Bahamas. We’ve become Bahamas National Trust members, so I certainly hope to stop at the park again o; our way back north. Trust members get priority in the daily scramble for mooring balls. It’s a fun process to eavesdrop in on the VHF. Sherri, at the park, mans the radio on channel 9 at 8:00 am. First, she asks for departing vessels, who tend to make a shaft but gracious speech about how much they have enjoyed their stay, and thanking Sherri for her support. Then who plans to arrive today; and you can hear the stress in their voices, as they wait to learn whether a ball is available for them, or if they need to find another, less gorgeous, spot for the night. Finally, folks who plan to arrive tomorrow request to be added to a waiting list for moorings. All of this chatter takes place with the usual VHF radio protocol. Hail ” Exuma Park”, wait to be recognized, make your request ( hoping your radio is high powered enough to be heard), repeat back what Sherri said to ensure you heard correctly. Sounds easy, until every boat within range is calling out their boats name at the same time, stepping on each other’s transmissions, ignoring the polite order and protocol, or being too pushy and getting of Shari’s bad side. It is good Theater first thing in the morning!