Exuma Sound to Allan’s Cay
Our first and most northern stop in The Exumas is Allan’s Cay, a horseshoe-shaped grouping of islets. We arrive as the sun is starting to dive into a thin layer of clouds, with no other cruising (or tourist) boats cluttering the anchorage. This is the benefit of cruising The Bahamas in August. We set the anchor in a patch of sand, and I make proper adjustments as the commands of our
restive Captain Swanson cascade down from the flybridge helm. Proving that everything on a new boat needs to be rehearsed at least once, we eventually learn how to lower the inflatable and putter to shore to visit the cay’s only known inhabitants.
Allan’s Cay is one of the few islands in The Exumas that features an above-water wildlife experience. Here, rock iguanas patrol the underbrush and visit the beach when necessary, probably expecting a handout. It’s unlikely they are simply curious as two-legged foreigners like us arrive by the boatload every hour of every day. The iguanas are friendly and beautiful, the color of baked earthenware pottery with an accent of light-pink glaze. They are also just skittish enough not to entirely trust humans.
At night, in the haze of sleep, I sense the wind picking up a bit, but our position holds fast and we rise to a new day, and a new objective.
Back in Nassau, our guide Robin had told us one thing most emphatically: “You absolutely must visit Warderick Wells.” She was not wrong. This cay is the showstopper in the northern section of The Exumas and serves as the presumptive headquarters for the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park. Established in 1958 by The Bahamas National Trust, the park protects a 22-mile swath of water and islands by prohibiting anchoring, fishing, and dumping of blackwater tanks. These strict regulations pay off here on Warderick Wells—the diving is unmatched. The island itself features over seven miles of walking trails and the famous Boo Boo Hill, the highest point on the island, where artfully painted nameboards left by cruisers past are heaped in a pile at the peak. According to legend, a ship carrying missionaries went down on a nearby reef, and now, on windy nights, you can sometimes hear their singing. An offering left here for Poseidon, Greek god of the sea, will supposedly help you avoid the same fate. (We’d still recommend reading your charts, as a backup plan.)
The entrance to the main mooring field is easy enough as again our low-season timing provides us the pick of the litter. Well, not exactly. We still have to follow protocol. Radioing the Park Visitor Center, we get a mooring ball assignment from Nicola Ierna, who, along with her husband, lives on the island. The couple handles just about everything on the cay including the various duties involved in helping protect the park.
After dinner, Peter and I take the dinghy back to the beach to photograph the stars. This far away from population centers, we have theoretically perfect views of the sky, except for one nuisance: an active lightning storm that wreaks havoc with long exposures. Regardless, the evening brings a number of incredible sights that we often don’t get to see, including appearances from Venus, Mars, Jupiter, the Milky Way, and the Perseid meteor showers (see “Pilothouse” for my albeit amateur astrophotography tips).
Facing the longest leg of our voyage (about five hours), we weigh anchor early and head southeast into a steadying breeze towards Staniel Cay, with a slight detour planned at Pig Beach on Big Major’s Spot. Peter and I decide to tow the dinghy in lieu of rehoisting it on the lifting swim platform, a decision that we come to regret two hours later as we watch our dear tender slowly recede into the distance. We sheepishly circle back to retrieve it, then use a much more secure tow line. Problem solved. This is the only time we have any seas, and though they aren’t much (closely stacked 3-4 footers), they are coming at an angle that causes us to drop boatspeed by several knots.
Arguably the largest tourist draw in the region, Pig Beach is the one exception we find to the theory that there is an offseason in The Exumas. A dozen boats at anchor include everything from trawlers to superyachts, and center consoles constantly zoom in with fresh loads of tourists from nearby Staniel Cay. And when I say zoom, I mean it. As Captain Swanson says, “Bahamians only know one speed, and that speed is wide-open throttle.”
If you’re wondering what it is about Pig Beach that draws year-round crowds it’s this: swimming pigs. The beach is full of them. (And if you want to hear more about my up close and very personal experience with one of these swimming swine, the notorious Big Momma, read all about it in “Pilothouse,” October 2018).
In Staniel Cay we anchor and head ashore to reprovision at the village’s only open grocery store. Staniel Cay has about 100 full-time residents and a private airport that largely serves the stash of homes that are perched on the eastern shore of the island. They are better described as palaces, as one, supposedly built by an investment banker, probably totals 25,000 square feet. The mansions dwarf everything in the village and represent The Exumas’ latest chapter as a continuing draw for the wealthy and famous like Johnny Depp, who fell in love with the area while working on a number of films ( Pirates of the Caribbean, Blow) and bought his own small island nearby. Depp and other celebs are said to rub elbows with everyone at Staniel Cay’s legendary and colorful yacht club bar where the only thing missing is WiFi. The bar is a throwback to olden days, complete with black-and-white framed photos that capture the yacht club’s colorful history, trophy fish mounted to the walls, and hundreds of yacht club burgees breezing from the rafters.