Cruising the southern Bahamas The LeShaw Family
SOwhy should you cruise to the southern Bahamas? Our family–Jim (old), Cuqui (??), Nico (18), Andy (16), and our dog, Flecha (19 lbs.)—decided to find out on a sixweek summer cruise aboard Thing 1 Thing 2, our 34-foot PDQ powercat. The answer: the friendly, welcoming people, beautiful deserted beaches, crystal clear water, and absence of other cruisers in the least traveled, most remote part of The Bahamas.
The “southern Bahamas” is more a concept than a strict geographical designation–many of the islands generally considered part of the region are actually located in what is, geographically speaking, the central Bahamas. These islands— the Ragged Islands, Long Island, Crooked Island, Acklins, Conception, Cat Island, Mayaguana, Rum Cay, San Salvador, Little Inagua, Great Inagua, and others—have names that are often unknown to all but the most seasoned Bahamian cruisers. Historically these islands have depended on farming and salt production rather than fishing and tourism.
One reason for this is that the southern Bahamas are remote. Located on Great Exuma Island, George Town is often considered to be the jumping-off point for cruising the southern Bahamas. Because this “starting point” is about 275 nautical miles southeast of Miami, as the crow flies (and far more as the boat floats), few cruisers plan a trip to this part of the Bahamas. Another reason is that once you are in the southern Bahamas, the distances are vast. The islands, which stretch south toward Cuba and Haiti, east, almost to the Turks and Caicos, and even a bit north from George Town, cover an area of more than 20,000 square nautical miles. In addition, much of the coastal area is littered with flats, shoals, and coral heads, sometimes causing distance traveled to far exceed the “map distance.” the southern Bahamas, is a study in contrasts. On the one hand, it is a port frequented by cruisers. The capital of The Exumas, George Town is also the most populous settlement in the island chain with a population of about 1,500. Yet, there is not a single operating marina or marine fueling facility—fuel and drinking water must be jerry-jugged to the boat from the town’s only fuel station. There is a dearth of marine mechanics and repair facilities, and not a single operating haul-out facility. There is a large (by Bahamian standards) grocery store, several liquor stores, a few restaurants, small hotels, and a marine hardware store that resembles a thrift shop that doubles as a gift shop.
The harbor is large—about five miles long and one mile wide. Most cruisers anchor across from the “mainland,” as Great Exuma is known, in the lee of either Stocking Island or Elizabeth Island. The George Town town center is based around “Lake Victoria,” a fully enclosed lake with a narrow cut to allow dinghy access under a low bridge. Visiting cruisers may tie their tenders at the dinghy dock behind the grocery store or the dinghy dock behind the gas station.
2015, a large portion of the working-age population has since left the island in search of work, leaving abandoned homes and businesses. For this reason, it is important to take care in relying on any cruising guide written before 2015. Long Island is, however, still an enchanting island that is well worth a visit.
At the north end of Long Island is Cape Santa Maria, which boasts one of the most beautiful white beaches I have ever seen—it goes on for more than a mile and is home to a small resort with a restaurant and bar. The water is crystal clear and deep enough that you can anchor in protected waters within yards of the beach.
After several days at Cape Santa Maria, we headed south to Salt Pond, a small settlement with a fairly protected harbor about midway through the island. We set our anchor and took the dinghy to shore, where we found a small but well-stocked food market with fresh fruits and vegetables, a fuel station with a fuel dock but no drinking water, and a Bahamas Tourist Association office run by a friendly, knowledgeable, and barefoot woman named Stephanie. Because of the shoals and other obstacles preventing marine travel in a straight line on the western shore of Long Island, we concluded it was more practical to see the island by land. With help from Stephanie, we located the local car rental office–actually a woman’s home, with a few extra cars that she rents out, located just a short dinghy ride from our anchorage. There, we rented a small car with an odometer showing more than 165,000 miles. The experience was somewhat different than the typical rental car agency as we were not asked for a driver license or other identification nor for a credit card or any other form of deposit. In fact, she didn’t even ask when we planned to return the car. But the well-worn car ran without a problem.
A road map was not necessary as Long Island has a single main road, Queen’s Highway, that runs the length of the island. But what the island lacks in roads it makes up for in sheer volume of churches. On our drive from Salt Pond to Clarence Town, a large settlement with a scenic protected harbor on Long Island’s eastern shore, we counted more churches than cars and people combined!
The epicenter of Long Island is Deadman’s Cay, which includes many of the government offices as well as a few restaurants, a gas station, and the primary airport on the island. Max’s Conch House, a fun tiki-style restaurant and bar, appears to also be the social center of the island, both among locals and visitors.
The absolute highlight of our Long Island road trip, though, was Dean’s Blue Hole. Located just south of Deadman’s Cay, and easily accessible down a dirt road, this inland sinkhole was filled with beautiful blue water as clear as any body of water I have ever seen. At 662 feet deep, it is purportedly the deepest blue hole in the world, and we were fortunate to be the only visitors