Thursday, February 24, 2011

Georgetown, Williamstown and Barraterre

After a quick provisioning stop in the chic Emerald Bay marina we headed off to Georgetown.  Georgetown in located on Great Exuma Island and is absolutely full of cruising boats.  Georgetown offers everything a cruisers wishes with yoga classes, chart and equipment swaps, beach volleyball tournaments, Trivia nights, poker games,  medical lectures, weather courses and much more all advertised every morning on the VHF net. Many people head to Georgetown at the beginning of the season, drop their anchor, and do not pull it up until the end of the season. Seb and I were both feeling a little wary and planned to stay for just 2 days before sailing south.  Weather prevented us from a timely trip and we ended up staying in Georgetown for 6 days.  And it was fun.  First was the cruisers welcome reception where we met up with (among others) two crews that Seb met during his solo sail in Nova Scotia, then Seb fixed the dinghy propeller with much help from Pat from the S/V The Artful Dodger, we played volleyball games, had good walks, Emma had play dates with a 5 year old girl from Vancouver, and there was a fabulous windy beach and much more to keep us busy.
We also spent a day touring Great and Little Exuma with a rental car.  There is one highway that runs up and down the two cays connected by a small bridge.  The narrow roads are flanked by trees and broken only by stunning sea vistas or the occasional small groups of houses in a town. 
As you drive through tiny Williamstown you can’t miss the huge Doric column up on the hill. This column was used to let passing boats know that salt was available for sale on the island.  There is an enormous shallow salt flat where you can see the remains of the sorting walls.  Information boards remind us of the torturous conditions of the slaves working the salt flats to reap 300,000 bushels of salt per year.  Raking salt was terrible work.  It meant standing in brine with the hot sun reflected off the white sand and salt.  The result was often blindness and ulcerated cuts that would not heal.  
Williamstown also has the ruins of the Hermitage plantation.  This site is virtually unmarked and you can wander among the overgrown ruins of the houses and tombs but there is no information to indicate what was where.  I guess that this is something that nobody really wants to remember or glorify in any way. 

From Williamstown we drove up to Barraterre, at the top of the island.  This was the sight of the Barraterre sloop regatta.  This is an incredibly competitive local sailboat race on traditional Bahamian wooden dinghies.  The Barraterrre children’s orchestra came out to cheer the boats on and the entire town had a festive air.  

These small boats generally sail with a skipper and 3 crew members.  The crews’ main role is to balance the tippy boat against its huge sail.  They do this by perching precariously out on shifting 2”x8” boards about 2 metres over the water.  Each race begins rather chaotically with the dinghies starting at anchor and pulling up anchor and hoisting sails simultaneously just after the race boat shoots off a huge rifle. 
Seb was incredibly lucky to be the only non-local to crew on one of the boats for the final race.  His dinghy was skippered by Huey Lloyd, who is over 70 and a legendary wooden sloop builder and racer in the region.   Their boat was named Hog Tusk and while Macsen and I enthusiastically cheered him on to win Emma supported the more elegantly named Golden Girl.  Hog Tusk returned victorious adding the icing to Seb’s already incredible exciting cake.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Thunderball Grotto

Staniel Cay is the home of  the Thunderball Grotto.  The James Bond film Thunderball was filmed there in the 70s.  It started as a puddle on a big rock.  Over time the puddle got deeper and deeper and the waves wore out the underside of the rock. They eventually met and formed Thunderball Cave.  Seb and I took turns snorekeling through this incredible cave.  The fish in and around the grotto are abundant, huge and incredibly colourful.  The cave itself is like something out of a movie...yeah, really.  We were hoping to take Emma and Macsen into the cave on our second visit at slack tide but Emma was unwilling.  I took Macsen in swimming with him on my back.  He stayed and looked around for about 10 sconds.  My exclamations of awe were met with a very short “OK, but can we get out now.”

Shroud Cay, Hawksbill Cay and Warderick Wells

Shroud Cay is at the Northern border of the Exuma Land and Seas Park.  We arrived and dropped anchor in the still waters next to Shroud Cay in the late afternoon and settled in for dinner.  Just as it was getting dark a boat rowed by and invited us to a gathering on the beach.  We bundled into the Spikkle and rowed in to the dark beach.  Three boats had gathered on the beach (White Seal who had extended the invitation, Curiosity and Sisu) and had built a nice fire in the pit and were busy toasting marshmallows and making s’mores. Seb, Emma and Macsen ate their first s’mores on that beach at Shroud Cay and thus shared yet another North American family tradition.  Super gezellig.

Meg, Charlie and Mary from the White Seal took us in hand again the next day with an invitation for a dinghy safari through the mangrove creeks on Shroud Cay.   They were rowing and so were we so the crew of the S/V Curiosity kindly towed both boats.  We picked up the crew from Sisu on the way and headed for the mouth of the creek.  Rowing on a tiny creek with crystal clear shallow water over bright white sand was a real treat.  The creek twisted through the mangroves and then came out on the Exuma Sound side of the cays where we found crashing waves, a wonderful beach and some great snorkelling.  The conchs lying on the bottom were the largest I have ever seen.  There were several in the group drooling at the size of the conch and dreaming of conch salad and fritters but we respected the park rules and left them to grow some more. From the beach we walked up to Camp Driftwood and enjoyed the incredible views from this promontory. Amazing.  After a lovely drift/ sail back down the creek we stopped for a swim.  Emma and Macsen had a wonderful time playing with the kids from the other boats.  Their ages ranged from 9 to 16 and they were all really great kids who played rambunctious and creative games with the monkeys who in turn shrieked and laughed and enjoyed all of the big kid attention.

 Hawksbill Cay was a day stop on the way to Warderick Wells.  We were the only boat in the bay and were joined on arrival by a 1,5 meter long barracuda whom we affectionately named Barry.  We decided to admire Barry from afar rather than join him in the water as he was eyeing us with a territorial stare.  The Spikkle was called immediately into action and we dinghied in through tiny channels of mangroves before hiking up the hill to enjoy some stunning Exuma views.  Macsen was the self designated leader of our expedition and ran ahead of us calling out “Here I am!” every few steps to guide us through the dense underbrush. 
Our arrival in Warderick Wells was later than expected due to an uncharted sandbar.  We ran lightly aground and decided to wait until high tide to proceed.  We left our anchorage at 2000 and arrived in the harbour at 2300. The crew of the White Seal had kindly left their VHF on for the night in case we needed assistance.  Fortunately we did not, but it does feel nice to know that people are looking out for you.
Warderick Wells houses the headquarters of the Exuma Land and Sea Park.  The island is covered with rough paths running either through the brush or along the cliffs  offering absolutely stunning views.   We took a long walk from the north mooring field down to the ruins of an old 1700s loyalist plantation.  This took us the better part of the day and the path led us through some tricky wobbly rocky sections with caves.  Emma walked the entire time and Macsen only needed to be carried for a short time.  Super troopers!  In addition to the beautiful scenery, we lost the path at one point and happened upon a family of hutias sleeping in a shady glade.  These animals are round, rabbit sized rodents that are both endangered and nocturnal so we felt pretty lucky to see them in such close quarters.  

Blow holes were the next great attraction of Warderick Wells.  These holes are located at the top of Boo Boo hill  above caves that become almost submerged at high tide. When the swell rushes into the caves the air is pushed up through the holes with tremendous pressure, enough to make your hair stand on end!  

Big Major’ s Spot

Big Major’s spot is an anchorage with another lovely Exuma beach.  This beach has a special and extremely unexpected attraction in the form of...feral pigs.  Nobody seems entirely sure how these pigs came to be on the island. The most common theory is that a farmer from nearby Staniel Cay abandoned them there or left them for tourists to fatten with their treats.  We watched the pigs from the Pjotter for a while and saw them playing with other cruisers.  They were bold enough to climb into one dinghy and to swim out with another. Pigs are actually very good swimmers! We dinghied in to the beach and were having a cosy chat with Jean-Pierre and Michelle from the Bleau Marie II when a lovely brown and black spotted pig wandered up and begged for some vittles.  He hung around with us for a while, much to the delight of Emma and Macsen who took to following him around, and then he wandered back into the palm trees.  Just as we were getting into our dinghies a motor boat roared up with a visibly tipsy group aboard.  They tooted their fog horn and a huge sow came barrelling out of the brush followed by two little ones.  She charged towards us and then ran up to the motor boat and started chomping on the contents of a bag of food that they dumped in the water.  Her rather sudden entrance startled us into slightly more rapid dinghy action.  An extremely large man, who greatly resembled the sow in fact, leered at us from the comfort of his boat.  “Didn’t y’all know there was pigs on this island?” he grunted. We answered in the affirmative.  “Then why y’all haulin’ ass like that?” Unfortunately, we were all too amused by these comments to think of a good comeback in time so we just rowed away chuckling a little.