Turning around….and sharks!

It was bittersweet to leave Georgetown and head back north to the Exumas. Sure, I knew we’d been in Georgetown long enough (almost a month all told!) and that if we were really cruisers, then our sailboat needed to move. And we missed our friends on Orion and SV Disorder and looked forward to seeing them again. But ….. Georgetown is a turning point. Either you are continuing to sail east and south to new adventures and new counties. Or you are acknowledging that this year’s cruising season is coming to an end, and it is time to turn around and make your way back to Florida before hurricane season.

So I was in a bit of a funk as we left Elizabeth Harbor and pointed Sanitas’ bow north. After a beautiful day’s sail, we returned to Big Majors Spot, near Staniel Cay and had a very fun reunion with our Dock 4 friends. And we shook ourselves out of our gloomy mood, and decided to visit islands we had missed on our speedy trip south through the island chain.

First stop: Exploring Pipe Cay and the Decca Station ruins.

There’s pretty much nothing on the island, except for the ruins of the Decca navigation system station; a radio-based system that was a precursor to the satellite-based GPS. The ruins have sort of a “Lost” TV show feel and I tried (and failed) to imagine the lonely life of the three-person maintenance crew who lived here as castaways. This guy has been waiting for a loooooong time for a crew member to replace him!

Here’s a shot of Sanitas in the harbor with some of the navigation markers and the beautiful beach.

Decca navigation system

MV Jenny was also anchored off Pipe Cay. We’d seen her several places in the Exumas where she stood out as a tall ship with an entire garden of herbs and vegetables and flowers on her second story stern. We were able to satisfy our curiosity when her captains Dick and Alex invited us over for dinner and gave us a tour. Jenny felt more like a floating home than simply a boat….a full size refrigerator! Couches and recliners! Patio furniture! An engine room the size of a one-car garage! We really enjoyed our evening hearing about Jenny’s seven years of cruising from Maine, down to Florida, and through the Caribbean!

Next stop was Compass Cay and the famous pet sharks.

The tiny Compass Cay marina is a beautiful spot in the middle of nowhere. It’s also one of the most expensive marinas in the Bahamas, so we chose to anchor in the harbor and just dinghy in to visit Tucker and his sons’ tropical paradise. Pointing out our anchorage on the very technical island map 😜

Rumor has it that an episode of The Bachelorette was filmed here a few days before our visit. The series starts Memorial Day weekend, so I might need to watch it!

We hiked the length of the island, and then brought Mike’s famous red beans and rice to the Saturday potluck dinner. Say what you will about motor boats vs sailboats, but motor boats that stay in expensive marinas bring THE BEST food to potlucks! And this group from Cape Coral, FL were extremely welcoming and generous. We also met sailors from Breckinridge, CO on SV To The Max! Fun to get a little reminder of home!

But the real highlight of Compass Cay is those famous sharks. “Only” nurse sharks, so not technically aggressive, they still have sharp teeth and beady little predator eyes, and some were still longer than I am tall. But I figured, what the heck – they have names, so they won’t eat me. Right? So, without further ado, I jumped in.

Even though I got into the water with those critters under my own power, I still found it a little bit unnerving. I’d watch the shark in front of me, keeping my hands in fists so that my fingers didn’t look too much like little squids, and a different shark would brush me from behind. Yep. I might have squealed a little bit.

“Can’t you see them circling, honey? Can’t you feel ’em schooling around? You got fins to the left, fins to the right, and your the only bait in town”

Well that was exciting…

This one’s for the folks that are bored of beautiful beach and sunsets.

Our second day at the O’Briens Cay anchorage was a perfect Exuma day; a hike on Cambridge Cay, a swim at Rachel’s Bubble Bath, snorkeling a submerged plane wreck and the Sea Aquarium. After dinner we shared drinks and conversation on SV Orion. We watched flashes of lightning on the horizon and as the first raindrops fell, rushed back to Sanitas to batten down the hatches.

As we settled into our dry and cozy salon to watch a movie, Capt. Mike suddenly sat up straight, cocked his head, and said, “Something’s changed; the wind direction or current, and we’re starting to lean at the wrong angle.” At that moment the instrument panel started flashing and alarming, “Shallow Water! Shallow Water!” As Capt. Mike bounded up the companionway stairs, I asked what I should do and he said, “Grab the key for the motor. Turn on the windless. And get up here and help me figure out what the heck is going on.”

As we stepped out into the rain, we saw by flashes of lightning that sure enough – land looked much closer than it had before sunset. Mike started the motor without any of the usual safety checks and threw it into forward, aiming into the dark void in the opposite direction from shore. We couldn’t travel too far in that direction in the blind, because this portion of the Exuma chain is known for drifting sand bores, coral heads, and rocky washes. Also, we still had at least 100 feet of anchor chain out. We couldn’t immediately tell if our anchor had dragged, or if the change in wind direction that accompanied the squall simply caused it to reset in a new direction, bringing us into the shallows in the process. Perhaps a little of both? I hurried below to put on non-skid shoes, rain coat, and PFD, and to convince Mike to wear his foulie.

We decided that it was safer to keep the anchor set for the moment, rather than drifting in the darkness between flashes of lightning, and so Capt. Mike stood at the helm making small adjustment to throttle and wheel, basically attempting to keep Sanitas treading water. We’d watch the depth display go from 10 feet to 9 feet to 8 to 7, and then rev the engine and inch forward and to starboard back to deeper water. We we coming uncomfortably close to SE of Disorder, who had also swung in a different direction on her anchor in the squall. All four boats in the anchorage were now lit up as much as possible, with spreader lights and running lights as well as masthead lights, the better for Mike to see the boats and to avoid them.

After 15 minutes, the storm had not moved on but we had better bearings on the situation. We decided we needed to raise anchor and reset it further from shore and from the other anchored boats. Capt. Mike headed forward to handle the anchor and bridle, leaving me at the helm. Wait a minute! I didn’t really understand what kind of magic he’d been using to keep us firmly in place. A few hurried instructions later, and I accepted control of the helm.

We have worked to develop hand signals for raising the anchor, so that we can execute calmly and in conditions where wind makes it difficult to hear each other. But, we couldn’t see hand signals in the dark, so we had to resort to screaming our heads off at each other. The VHF kept squeaking as our friends asked how we were doing and how they could help. At one point Stan on SE of Disorder transmitted, “Are you ok Sanitas? I can hear you hollering.” Yep. That’s our new nighttime anchoring communication strategy. Note to self…. Buy the wireless headsets that are nicknamed “the marriage savers” before next season.

The rain continued to pour down, but we successfully dropped anchor, backed down on it hard to set it, and confirmed using GPS that we were now swinging in a new safe arc. We stripped off our soaking wet clothes down to the underwater (why on earth was I wearing cotton?) and went below. After telling our friends that Sanitas was secure, we sat down and stared at each other and tried to slow our racing hearts.

By now it was past midnight, and tough to calm down enough to sleep. Three more times during the night squalls hit us, complete with driving rain, gusts above 35knots, and currents fighting wind to bounce Sanitas at strange angles. Not much sleep to be had! But the anchor held, and we were safe the rest of the night, even if we were uncomfortable and hyper-alert.

Capt. Mike dove the boat in the morning and confirmed that the lowest 6-8 inches of the keel were scoured clean. We had definitely come to a rest in sand or soft mud when we felt Sanitas tip. But thank goodness, we did not hit rock or coral, and did not get stuck in the sand. Also the rudder hadn’t touched, which certainly could have been damaged with Sanitas going aground in reverse. I’m very impressed that Mike was so attuned to the feel of the boat that he noticed as soon as something felt wrong. Our cockpit was a disaster the next morning, with wet clothes and shoes and safety equipment everywhere (and permeated with the smell of mildew) but no permanent damage.

Pics of cockpit

An adventure is never fun while you are having it. And apparently, I never capture photos during an adventure. But here’s a screen shot from the chart plotter from that night. See the yellow squiggle on the right side of the screen that looks waaaayyyy too close to land. That’s were Sanitas was never supposed to be.

National Family Island Regatta

“That was a great idea you had to buy a boat,” said Capt. Mike. “This is exactly how I always imagined it would be.”

“You mean not doing any boat maintenance projects, geeking out over sailboat racing, meeting lots of fun and like-minded people, spending indiscriminately on food and drink ashore, and dancing to soca bands all night long?” I asked in reply.

“Yep. Exactly.”

Ok. It’s not exactly real life. But attending the National Family Island Regatta in Georgetown Exuma was one of the highlights of our first cruising season.

More than 70 traditional Bahamian racing sloops gather each year in Elizabeth Harbor for the largest regatta in the country. Boats must be built, owned and raced by Bahamians. Rivalries between islands are strong. This year was the 65th anniversary race, and you could feel the excitement just walking through the Main Street of Georgetown. Or…. possibly I was just feeling the base beat pumping from the DJ booth outside the 242 Liquor Store.

In the days leading up to the start of the regatta, racing boats arrived at Georgetown from all over the country. We went ashore at Government Dock and watched the delicate procedure of unloading the sloops from the mail boats and stepping the masts. I say “delicate” but at times I had to hold my breath because it looked highly likely that the mail boat crane would lower one boat down into the water right on top of the previous boat.

This was our first chance to see the race boats up close and personal, and to start deciding who to root for during the rest of the week. I’m kind of partial to Number 5 – Barbarian because of its artistic paint job. Capt. Mike likes to root for a winner, so he went with the boats from Long Island; Susan Chase and Running Tide.

The first day of the regatta consisted of cup races – winner takes all. It was a beautiful day of blue skies, light winds, and the smell of competition in the air. It all seemed a bit chaotic on that first day; the race schedule just a suggestion, the race course changing frequently based on the direction and magnitude of the wind, warning guns going off at seemingly random times. But we eventually got the hang of things. The best seat in the house to watch the races is from a dinghy, anchored just off the starting line buoy. From this vantage point, you can watch the racing sloops sail or get towed to the start – no motors on these babies – lower the sails, and set the anchor. After some jockeying for position, the starting gun blasts! Half the crew hauls with all of their strength on the anchor rode, giving the sloop enough forward momentum and speed to enable the other half of the crew to haul up the giant sail. A clean start gives the crew a huge advantage!

Now comes the strategy. Do you sail as close as you can for the windward marker? Or do you take a risk for a better wind angle, and sail wide, requiring several tacks to reach the mark? Do you stay in the center of the harbor for clear sailing? Or do you take the race right through the anchorage searching for the perfect line and hoping to avoid hitting a stationary boat?

Then the boats approach the first marker. The skippers are using all their skills and experience to make the turn first, heeling the boat over at an alarming angle, sending the crew out to the very end of their wooden planks to counterbalance the tilt. Tacking after the turn, the boom swings across the boat, huge sail sweeping through the water on the opposite side.

Hopefully, the turn goes smoothly and sets the crew up well for the next leg. If not, there’s a chance the heel over on the turn goes a little too to far, and the sloop scoops up enough sea water to sink to the bottom of the harbor, her crew treading water or holding the tip of the mast until rescued.

Two or three laps of the course later, the boats near the finish line in front of Government Dock where the spectators sitting on the concrete wall or in shaded bandstands, as well as those of us in the dinghy flotilla, cheer wildly for the victor.

Phew. Even after four days of cup races and series races, the thrill did not fade. Capt. Mike and I might be having lunch in the cockpit, or heading to town to get groceries, and we’d hear the 5-minute warning gun, look at each other, and say, “We gotta go watch this race. Don’t you think?” And we were back in Bug and zooming toward the starting line.

So while the races themselves were we loads of fun, the festival atmosphere surrounding the races was also worth the extra week in Georgetown. The week before the races, vendors built colorful plywood shacks on regatta point which became pop up bars and restaurants on race day. Kind of like a county fair back home. Except instead of buying cheese curds, fried snickers, and beer you can buy conch fritters, sheeps tongue souse, and sky juice (aka gin and coconut water). Special ferries brought thousands of people to Exuma for the event, and everyone dressed up and hit the party. Kids were hyped up on sugar, fair games, and cheap plastic toys. Teenagers were looking each other over, flirting and pushing. And adults were renewing friendships with folks from other islands that they might only see once or twice a year. The people watching is top notch, let me tell you!

And then there’s the night life. Cruisers are usually early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise types. In fact “cruiser’s midnight” is generally about 9:00 pm. But live music started each night around 10:00 (Island time) and went as long as the crowd kept dancing. So Capt. Mike and I took afternoon naps and drank lots of caffeine and stayed up later than I have in years. The eclectic music (think Pitbull and Justin Timberlake meets BobMarley meets Caribbean soca music) kept everybody moving

Friday night’s highlight was the Junkanoo Rush Out; a high energy parade of dancers, drums, horns, and cowbells snaking through the festival grounds. As the parade passes by, you just kind of jump onto the end, and the parade gets longer and longer until it sort of collapses into a dance party. There’s definitely a Mardi Gras or Carnival vibe!

A final highlight of Regatta Week was meeting many new cruisers from all parts of the world. Our buddy boats had sailed north without us, so we had to rely on Capt. Mike’s extroverted personality to make new friends in the anchorage. In a week, we met sailors from Germany, Switzerland, Norway, and Canada, as well as many new faces from the US. We met two crews sailing on Pacific Seacraft vessels; the first of Sanitas’ sisters that we’ve ever met out on the sea. We exchanged lots of boat cards and email addresses and photos, and hope that we see some of our new friends again, whether it be later this season, or years into the future!

This photo is courtesy of Andrea Whitaker, a real photographer, and fellow member of our dinghy flotilla race watchers group!

Conch. It’s what’s for dinner

Have you tried conch? I don’t mean conch fritters….. those little fried balls of who-knows-what dipped in catsup. I mean REAL conch, Queen Conch, strombus gigas, straight from the ocean, maybe served ceviche style raw with lime, maybe cracked battered and fried. Well, I have had the honor of eating the best conch in the entire world on Cat Island.

On our first day in New Bight, we stopped by Duke’s Conch Shack for some cold beverages, and spent a couple of hours shooting the breeze with Duke (Or “Dukie” as the local ladies call him, although I never felt quite close enough to be on nick-name basis). Duke’s place was a huge step up from the takeaway shacks surrounding it. He explained how he made the coconut palm thatched roof by hand; what kind of wood to use for the supports and how to soak it in salt water to keep out the bugs. He explained that this type of roof is perfect, because every time a storm destroys the restaurant, he walks out into the woods and gets new building material for free. He explained that he found all of the sailing-themed decorations and light shades washed up on Ocean Beach, “you can find anything in the world over there!” And he told us the Whitty K sign is a piece of the hull of one of the champion Bahamian racing sloops. Oh! And he acted out the story of when the shark bit him on the butt and he had to get 50 stitches. After we were buddies, Duke even gave us a ride a couple of miles up the road to the best grocery store in the Bahamas.

Amid all the chatting and story telling, Duke found time to whip up the most amazing conch salad ever; ocean fresh conch “cooked” in lime and orange juice, mixed with tomato, onion, and hot peppers. I protected my treasured paper bowl in a plastic bag, on the bumpy dinghy ride back to the boat and had a divine dinner served with tortilla chips and rum punch.

Nice photo bomb, Laura!

The next day, we returned to Dukes’s after our island tour adventure, for cracked conch. Since Capt. Mike and I need to stick to a gluten-free diet, we ordinarily can’t partake of this breaded and fried delicacy. But …. after hanging with Duke all day yesterday, he told us that if we brought our own gluten-free flour, he would use it to make cracked conch just for us!

We placed an order for three portions for us and our friends. Duke said, “Let me go get the conch from the freezer”, and walked across the dirt road to the beach. Sensing something awesome, I trailed along behind him. Duke crossed the beach, waded into the choppy ocean waves, took his shirt off, and dove under water. One by one, he pulled conch shells out from the water, and threw them onto the sand. Three… six … nine … twelve. Wow! That’s a lot of conch for three portions! By the time Duke returned to the beach, the crews of Sanitas, Z-Raye, and Orion were all on the beach watching. Duke walked us through the process of cleaning and prepping conch.

First, use a hammer to pound a hole in the shell to release the suction so you can pull the conch from its home. Rinse the conch several times to clear the sand. Remove the conch “pistol”. Depending on who you ask, this is either the semen sack, which has special sexual-strength-inducing powers, or simply part of the digestive system. Either way, it’s pretty badass to swallow it hole, as Laura and I did, lol.

First taste of conch pistol

I like all the puzzled faces in this picture…

Next, you need the remove the operculum… a shell like covering that assists in locomotion, aka: a thick skin covering the conch. Cut it off with a BIG knife. Also cut off any dark of discolored pieces. Rinse a few more times.

Once you have coaxed the critters out of their shells, and removed all the nasty bits, the next step is to pound the heck out of it. FYI, this is why I don’t clean conch myself on my boat. (Picture slimy conch bits all over the walls)

After all of this extremely labor intensive cleaning and prepping (not to mention actually catching the darn things!) comes the civilized part or dipping the strips of tenderized conch in egg, cream, and flour and then frying. Add salt, French fries, and hot sauce (and a rum punch) and you have a meal fit for a queen…. conch (see what I did there?)

A few days on Cat Island

Before traveling to Cat Island, I knew nothing about it. I did not know that it was the home island of Sidney Poitier, the first black man and first Bahamian to win an Oscar for Best Actor. I did not know it was the first place that Columbus touched land in the “New World”. Ok, there’s certainly a lot of debate on this one, but our local guide made a pretty compelling argument, and since I was standing on the sand in the very harbor which the guide said was Columbus’ first anchorage, I choose to believe it! And I definitely did not know anything about beloved Father Jerome.

Father Jerome was a British architect, turned Anglican priest, turned catholic priest who was assigned to the Bahamas to build churches after the 1908 hurricane caused massive devastation. His churches are still in use on several Bahamian islands, including Cat. At the end of a long and prolific life, he designed and built by hand a hermitage on the summit of the highest hill in the Bahamas, and retired there to a simple life of prayer. He is buried in a cave on the hill, designed to look like Christ’s tomb.

We hiked to the top of Como Hill, and were in awe of the amazing hermitage at the top. Ok, it’s no Colorado 14’er, but the last steep climb really does get the heart pumping!

Gate to the walking path

The Hermitage includes a church, bell tower, stations of the cross, and living spaces.

Finally at the top!

Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your long hair!

Father Jerome must have been a very short man. Everything from the stairs, to the doors, to the windows, to the bed is about three quarters the normal size.

After a short ( but hot!) walk from the anchorage, I visited the New Bight Catholic Church that Father Jerome designed.

With the door and shutters open wide, it would have a lovely breeze for Sunday services.

New Bight also has the best grocery store since Marsh Harbour. I guess it is more than a grocery store; you can also find school supplies, shoes, a good selection of hardware and household goods. And when we asked when the liquor store next door would open, the owner pulled a key off the hook on the wall and said, “right now” and let us in.

Just north of town, there is a colorful collection of wooden shacks that turned out to be small bars and restaurants. These shacks and the sailing club (plus the nicest public restrooms we’ve seen in the Bahamas) make up regatta park, where things must really get hopping during Regatta festivities in August. We spent A LOT of time here, eating excellent food, enjoying some cold beverages and meeting the local Cat Islanders. Our favorite restaurant was the family-run Hidden Treasures, where at least three generations (maybe four!) of women served the best jerk chicken, burgers, and pina coladas we’d enjoyed anywhere in the islands. The owners husband is head chef at the Albany resort in Nassau, founded by Joe Lewis, Tiger Woods, and Justin Timberlake, so obviously a talent for cooking and wonderful recipes run in the family. Ok, I had to look up the Albany resort. Apparently residences start at $5 million, and resort accommodations start at $2,500 per night. Dad must really be an excellent chef! I’m glad I had the opportunity to experience his jerk chicken marinade on a sandy beach for only $15.

Playing with little Destiny at Hidden Treasures.

Mike always orders the Pina Coladas. This one was excellent!

While the atmosphere was laid back and beach at Hidden Treasures, we could tell there was quite a party raging next door at the Starlight takeaway. So after lunch, we walked over and had a drink with the locals including Bull Hog, who kept exclaiming “I’m 39 years old, but I been playing the Rake ‘n Scrape for 68 years!” He’d clearly been drinking for a while, and shouted out quite a few other things, not exactly fit to print. Everyone welcomed us, made room on the benches, and asked where we were from and how we were enjoying their beautiful island.

Over the next couple of days, we rented a car and attempted to see every single site of interest on all of Cat Island. No, that’s not really an exaggeration. Since there’s only one real road on the island, we couldn’t really get lost, but it was a bit of a trick to figure out where we were at any given moment! First we headed south, and pulled over at Sweet Tambrin restaurant, where Daisy Mae sold homemade papaya hot sauces and jams, and served a killer papaya smoothie. She has marine biology students from Eckerd College in St. Petersburg stay with her for three weeks every year, performing research.

We explored the Greenwood Beach Resort, one of the most beautiful long beaches I’ve seen outside of a national park. If you find yourself on Cat Island without a sailboat, stay here!

Heading back north, we stopped at the Bat Cave. True to its name, it was filled with sleeping bags. Not so sleepy when we disturbed them with noise and cell phone flash lights!

After lunch at Sunshine Restaurant, we stopped for drinks at a stone bar so New, it didn’t yet have a name or a sign. But it did have a lovely view over the crashing waves, and a fairly big crowd for a weekday afternoon. We talked with the two customs officers from Nassau who had been assigned to Cat Island since January. Talked about their home islands, their favorite spots on Cat, and the difficulties of being stations so far away from their families. After a long chat, they treated us to a round of drinks and I gave them our boat card. Did I mention how amazingly kind and friendly everyone we met on Cat Island was?

Further north, we truly got off the beaten path, in order to explore Great Crown Cave. We’d read that Cat Island is riddled with caves, some opening to the ocean, and some you could hike to. But we couldn’t find any maps of detailed directions. One guide book said, “stop at the C and S farm supply store, and ask for Mr. Gaiter.” So, we did! He was sitting on a step right outside the store, and Sharon got out to ask for directions. It was a bit complicated; something like “go back the way you came, turn at the Ebeneezer Church, keep following the dirt road over a few hills, don’t turn at any of the turns, and when you get to the end of the road, the entrance is nearby.” Of course, he also said, “The Cave is three miles long. If you get lost in there, they won’t find you for weeks.” Our intrepid group of adventurers was not deterred. However, our rental mini van was not quite up to the dirt road. We went as far as the van could manage, got out and started walking, followed an unmarked dirt trail, and lo and behold! We found the cave! Or at least a hole in the ground with a rope leading down to what was probably a cave. We peer pressured each other to climb down and explore a bit by cell phone light. I was the voice of reason who stayed within view on the light of the entrance calling out, “don’t go much further Mike” while he kept going to ” just one more cavern”. I have to admit it was a pretty cool natural experience, and we tried our best to get good photos of the stalagmites and stalactites in all of their glory.

North again to Shanna’s Cove, another absolutely lovely small resort. If you find yourself on Cat Island without a sailboat, stay here too! The owner, Gabi, was lovely and talked to us for quite a while about what it was like to buy a property in the Bahamas and design a build a resort. Her homemade pizzas looked amazing! From there, we hiked to Man o War Point, where the sound and the ocean meet with a crash.

After returning the rental van we decided to relocate the big boats from the New Bight anchorage to Rolleez resort anchorage, in the hopes of a calmer night and less rocking and rolling. Z-Rays was already at that anchorage, so Orion took Drew on board, and Sanitas took Sharon, and we had a fun race of about 6 miles to the next harbor. Wind was perfect and Sanitas won! (Although Capt. Bob or Orion later said he didn’t know it was a race. Harrumph.)