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!

Everybody Poops

Remember that composting toilet? I’ve gotten a few questions about how our toilet works, and if we are still happy with our decision to replace the traditional marine head with a composting toilet. So far, I think we are happy with it, although that may be easy for me to say, because Capt. Mike is in charge of emptying the compost. If this post is TMI, I won’t be offended if you skip on to the next one……

Our Nature’s Head toilet functions by separating the liquid and solid waste, therefore keeping the odor down. It works by desiccating, or drying, the solid waste, killing bacteria and resulting in material that is the color and consistency of potting soil. A small fan circulates air through the head at all times, requiring very little battery power. We do need to remember to close the toilet vent each time we are under sail, to avoid getting ocean water in the vent, and we also unplug the fan so that it doesn’t overheat. These steps; unplugging the fan and closing the vent; and opening the vent and plugging in the fan are now part of our regular sailing checklist.

Number One:

We empty the urine bottle every one to two days. This is the only part of the process that does have an odor. Not in the bathroom itself (the Nature’s Head design works really well to contain the liquid waste and accompanying odors) but when we remove the bottle and it isn’t capped. In a marina, we empty the bottle into a toilet. When we are three nautical miles out to sea, we empty it overboard. In a crowded anchorage, we wait for a better opportunity to empty it. We have a second, spare bottle to let us go longer between emptying in those situations. We rinse out the bottle each time, and put a few drops of dish detergent in the empty bottle.

Oh, and then there’s the “pee tack”. Based on the direction that the toilet is installed, Sanitas must be flat or heeled over to port for the toilet to function correctly to separate liquid and solid waste. That means that if I need to use the head while we are underway and on the wrong tack, I need to raise my hand like a school girl to ask permission. Then Capt. Mike steers into the wind briefly to flatten Sanitas out so that I can go in comfort. It’s my least favorite thing about the composting head, honestly. What does Capt. Mike do if he needs to go while we are underway? I’ll leave it up to your imagination. It’s so much easier being a man!

Number Two:

We know that it is time to change the compost, when the handle used to stir the mixture becomes difficult to turn. That indicates that the coconut coir composting medium has done its job, and has absorbed all the moisture that it can hold. No sense pushing it past that point! We tend to have another bag of coconut rehydrated, crumbled, ready, and waiting. So far, we have used three bricks of coconut since we left St Pete in January. We have five blocks left in our stores which should be sufficient to last until we return to the states to wait out hurricane season. If we were continuing south through the Caribbean, we might have to get creative and use a different composting medium, such as peat moss, sawdust, or wood pellets. We prefer coconut because it stores in a very small space, is an extremely renewable resource, and is less likely to contain dormant insects or eggs than other forms of compost.

We simply take the lid off the toilet, and dump the solid waste into a garbage bag. I’ve included a few closeups. You’ll have to take my word for it, but I swear it does not stink! It smells like good garden dirt, but nothing worse than that. This part of the process would be a lot easier if we had more room to maneuver. We barely had the space to install the composting toilet in Sanitas’ head (and in fact, we had to remove some of the teak trim to make space) and there isn’t enough room to gracefully tilt the cover back like they show in the manual. Welcome to life on a small, narrow-beamed sailboat. Everything is just a little bit trickier than planned! We stored the used compost in a cockpit locker until the next opportunity to throw it away ashore.

We use this opportunity to give the head a thorough cleaning, using bleach water to disinfect the toilet base, floor, and sink. But we don’t bleach or even wash the compost compartment of the toilet. Nature’s Head says that good bacteria develop and remain in the residue in the corners of the container, helping the coconut compost medium work better next time, and helping to break down waste more quickly.

We’ve been lucky so far, and have had no issues with flies or gnats in the compost. We do add septic tank additives and a bacteria marketed to remove gnats. Whether they really do any good, I can’t tell, but why mess with success? The best part about this head, is that we can pretty much plan to do the regular maintenance when it is convenient for us, and don’t have to deal with unexpected failures or really messy leaks and breaks. And we never have to search for or pay for a pump out. I’m sure it’s not for everyone, but along with our solar power, and water maker, the composting head helps keep us independent and off the grid.

I could live in Spanish Wells

You know the game you play, where you get to choose which famous person you’d most like to be shipwrecked with on a tropical island? (Or which ten books? Or which five foods?) Obviously you wouldn’t really want to be stuck on a deserted island with only that one person (Or ten books. Or five foods). You’d go crazy! But I honestly think I could live quite happily in Spanish Wells.

Spanish Wells is a small island off the coast of Eleuthera, and there’s been a community here since at least the 1700’s, when this town was founded by the loyalists. These were the folks who sided with the British, rather than the colonials, during the revolutionary war. Today, it is a prosperous fishing village made up of colorful houses with lovely tropical gardens. And the people we met here were the friendliest of our trip. We exchanged fish recipes in the local “everything” shop, and received waves or even offers of a ride from every car or golf cart that passed by. Now it is small, and everybody seems to be related (and named Pinder) so perhaps living here would get a little bit old. But I like to picture myself opening a beach bar, attending the local Independence Day festivities, and taking the water taxi to Eleuthera once a month for a big shopping trip.

We stayed in the mooring field here, so that we were a short dinghy ride into town. But wow was this a tight field! Only eight balls, and the first time we cruised through, only one ball was open. I stood on the bow as we drifted toward it in slow motion and kept calling back, ” It looks shallow! It looks shallower.” Until, yes. We were aground again. This time, it was less dramatic because we were going so slowly, and the bottom was soft sand. Capt. Mike swung the boom way out to the side, over the water, and hung from the boom until Sanitas tilted slightly and slid off. We anchored outside the harbor that night, and tried again for a ball in a deeper section the next day!

We explored the full length of both streets by foot, purchasing some supplies for boat projects, locally grown tomatoes (in March!), and an extra water bottle. Each day we were here, we spent some time at Buddha’s Snack Shack. Based out of a psychedelic school bus, Buddha and his wife and daughters run a funky little bar and restaurant serving creative burgers on homemade buns, delicious cracked conch, and stiff drinks. I ordered the signature “Dizzy Buddha” expecting an ordinary rum punch. But instead, it was bright green! I can’t tell you what it tasted like, or what it was made of, other than green. Glad I tried it!

Got our photo taken with Buddha, himself!

Mike and I spent a day jogging the length of Spanish Wells, then crossing “our bridge” to Russell Island and back. It felt good to stretch our legs, and I made friends with the many goats we met along the way. Apparently, I speak excellent goat. “Mwaaaaaaaa…..”

I was only able to persuade Mike to run so far with the promise of a stop at SandBar. Good thing they posted a “Keep going. You’re almost there sign, right when we were about to give up.

It was worth the long, hot trip to get here. A tiki hut, palapa roofs, and hammocks all facing a miniature sandy beach. We had the best blackened fish tacos we’ve found since leaving St Pete, and the Guava Lava cocktail wasn’t bad either.

Of course, tacos and cocktails made the return trip seem a lot longer and hotter. But our stop made for perfect timing to pass Bernie Sweetie’s fish dock. The boat was just drifting is as we jogged by, so we stopped to watch. No scale fish today, but some huge conch, and a bucket of live lobster. We’ll never be able to beat the price we paid for lobster back in tiny Foxtown, but here they were as fresh as can be. We watched the diver who had caught them chop their tails off right at the dock. The granddaddy 8-pound lobster looked at us quite sadly as he lost his tail. We bought a pound of lobster tails for $16 and grilled them for dinner.

On our final day in Spanish Wells, we had a beach day on the long, pristine, sandy beach on the north side of the island. I broke out the Isle Explorer inflatable stand up paddle board that I got for Christmas, but hadn’t yet tried. This was a perfect place to test it out; calm, shallow waters, with stunning scenery to distract me just when I was starting to get the hang of it. Yep. I fell in a couple of times when I started getting too cocky. Mike took a turn and really showed me up. Just paddling around was way too easy for him, so he tried SUP yoga ( with Chris and Laura and I doing yoga poses on the beach to coach him) and then head stands. Believe me. I got some great shots of BOTH his successes and his failures. I definitely intend to return to this beautiful island someday!