Compared to our journey thus far, the relatively short 40 miles from New Providence to the Exumas, Bahamas, might as well be a deep-space mission. If there’s a “Houston, we’ve got a problem” situation; there will be no one but ourselves to help get us out of it.
The truth is, I have been chastened by the number of breakages and failures we’ve experienced thus far on our journey, which began in late October on the Magothy River. Although we have not required outside assistance to fix anything (yet!), the prospect of not having that option is daunting.
The navigation is intimidating. We will cross shallow, coral-strewn banks—where in some cases the five-foot, nine-inch keel of Symbiosis will be kissing the bottom for miles at a stretch. Unlike the forgiving Chesapeake, where a mistake usually means a soft grounding and (worst case) a call to a tow-boat operator, the consequences of an error in judgement here in the Bahamas could be existential. A wrong move might mean reaching for the EPIRB.
Setting off from Nassau at daybreak, we head out to a waypoint near Porgee Rocks and swing the bow south to a course of 140 true to Normans Cay across the Great Bahama Bank. To get there, we must cross an area called the Yellow Bank that the charts warn vaguely is “scattered coral heads… some may be shallower than 1.5 meters.” That’s less than five feet!
For most of the passage, however, we see a comfortable 15 feet even as we can pick out individual rocks and grass on the bottom. Seeing the seabed below, you even in relatively deep water, is just one of those things you start to get used to in the Bahamas. Of course, we’ve spent a lot of time in the Chesapeake in pretty shallow water. An irony is that the murky Bay probably gave us a false sense of security.
We arrive at the waypoint marking the start of the Yellow Bank, and my wife Noi goes out on the foredeck with a pair of binoculars slung around her neck while I stay on the helm. Some of the dark spots on the otherwise aquamarine surface are easy to see; for the others, Noi shouts and gesticulates for me to swerve and dodge. In fact, we probably would have passed over all of them without incident, but we will never know. I’m sure that our erratic course on the chart plotter would give the old Bahama hands a good belly laugh.
Noi decides to throw in a line. We have not had a whole lot of luck catching fish offshore, save for a single delicious Black Fin Tuna we hooked on our way from Charleston, SC, to Fernandina Beach, FL. Today though, our luck changes. The whirr of the rod, a change of helmsman, and I’m reeling in what turns out to be an Amberjack. Noi skillfully fillets it on the side deck and spends the next half-hour explaining how she will prepare our feast once we make anchor.
We toss the line back in, not really expecting a repeat, but in a few hours it’s “fish on!” again. This time when it breaks the surface after a hard fight, I recognize it as a barracuda. “Um, Noi, we don’t want this fish!” Barracuda, as top predators, are known to carry ciguatera, which accumulates in them from the reef fish they eat until it reaches toxic levels. In humans, it can cause an illness that from all accounts is something definitely to be avoided. Besides, I have no desire to take the hook out of that mouth. Noi manages to save the lure, but leave the hook. We throw him (or her) back in. A third time, we get a nice-sized snapper.
By late afternoon, we enter the cut that leads to a set of nicely protected anchorages on the south end of Norman’s Cay, an island that was once controlled by Carlos Lehder, a co-founder of the Medellin cartel. Just a few yards from our anchored boat is the half-submerged wreckage of one of his drug planes.
Now things are more peaceful, even as they are quickly changing due to development. We go exploring with a fellow cruiser only to find an abandoned row of bungalows littered with graffiti. At a small settlement, we asked for directions to MacDuff’s, a tiki bar that’s mentioned in the guides. The gentlemen whom we spoke to turned out to be the bartender himself, who offered to drive us over and make us a drink.
We were the only customers. But that seems about to change. An improved airstrip has just been built (an improvement on the one that Lehder first put in), and excavation is going on in an area destined to become a marina.
About the Author: Scott Neuman and his wife Noi left their home dock on the Magothy River in October on their Tayana 37 Cutter Symbiosis for a long journey, starting with the Caribbean.