Chartering in the Exumas, Bahamas

Exumas Are Worth the Price of Admission

If you’re the type of traveler who is attracted to sailing the Exuma cays, a place like Nassau is anathema. The capital of the Bahamas, Nassau is heavily populated, traffic-choked, and home to megaresorts and chain restaurants. But it is also home to an international airport, reasonably well-stocked grocery stores, skilled workers, and large marinas—prerequisites to maintaining a charter fleet. Perhaps not desirable for a longer stay, Nassau is about the only tenable starting point for a charter vacation. This is where my crew and I started our second charter to the Exumas this past May.

Photo by Harriet Hardy 

Once you’ve run the gauntlet of airport transfers, boat check-in, provisioning, chart briefings, and a stuffy night parked in a marina, you’re ready to get the show on the road. The marina may be protected, but outside, the seas can be daunting. There was plenty of wind, but since we hoped to reach the nearest of the Exumas the same day, we had no choice but to motor. In the prime charter months in the spring and early summer (other times can be chilly), the prevailing wind comes from the southeast: precisely the direction we needed to go. (Cold fronts can clock the wind direction, but if they do, you’ve got other issues to consider, such as finding one of the few anchorages or marinas that are protected in a blow. Or, the wind can be dead calm, which also requires motoring).

Photo by Harriet Hardy 

In the course of my two Exuma charters, one of our passages to the cays was on a windless day, which meant a sweaty six-hour slog. This one was in 20 to 25 knots on the nose, which caused us to change course to reach the closest of the Exumas, Allen Cay, instead of our more distant goal of Pipe Cay. We reached Allen Cay after seven painful hours of pounding into three-foot seas, a good bit of which was spent hand-steering. My preferred seasickness remedy, taken prophylactically, kept me functional, but some of my crew huddled in a corner for the duration.

Photo by Harriet Hardy 

At last, the haven formed by Allen Cay, Leaf Cay, and South Allen Cay, opened its arms to us. The anchor stuck in hard sand. The harsh wind was now but a breeze that served to keep mosquitos and noseeums away, and I took in the clear blue waters and shores dotted with sugary beaches occupied only by protected Exuma rock iguanas. That feeling of peace lasted only a few minutes, because the lure of the closest of the Exumas to Nassau brings in excursion boats from the large resorts and cruise ships. Thankfully, the interlopers left after a few minutes, having disgorged their passengers to harass the iguanas, and were then gone. We were finally alone with only a handful of other boats, ready to begin a week whose itinerary would have us visiting no inhabited islands other than Warderick Wells, the headquarters of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

As strong as the urge to jump in the water upon setting the anchor is, basic precautions are required. While there are a few spots where riding the current out to a sandbar is part of the fun, it’s best to ensure that doing so is intentional. The first time I ever jumped in at the Warderick Wells anchorage, I would have been carried away by the current—which sounds like rapids rushing past—had I not made a quick grab for the swim ladder. Now we know to attach a line to the boat and to a float, and to hang on. Thus prepared, we spent many an hour bobbing in those incomparable waters.

Photo by Harriet Hardy 

Indeed, the waters and bordering sands are the principal attraction of the uninhabited Exumas. Though we planned to spend most of our time in the park, a stop at Pipe Cay, south of the park boundary, was essential for me. I am an obsessive shell and sand dollar collector, and no collecting or taking is permitted in the park.

The spectacular sand flats of Pipe Cay at low tide invite hours of exploration. But a spot once ripe for sand dollars may no longer be (we found a few, but the special this time was apparently sunrise tellins, since I’d never seen so many before, ever, anywhere). The sea bottom is something that generally cannot be trusted to remain the same, since the sands of the Exumas are ever-shifting. Though the charts (paper and electronic) are very good, there can be surprises, which we learned when we had trouble accessing and exiting our secret anchorage near Pipe Cay.

Photo by Harriet Hardy 

The park offers marked hiking trails and maps that direct visitors to various attractions. This is about as organized as things get. The park is all about self-directed discovery; even if you find a “popular” spot, you usually feel as if you’re the first to find it, since your predecessors’ footprints wash away with every tide. A week’s exploration can lead you to stunning prospects over the sea, plantation ruins, hermits’ lairs, blue holes, sandbars, beaches, teeming snorkel spots, sunken airplanes, and movie stars’ private islands. If you’re lucky, you might even get some sailing in.

All of this freedom costs a bit of effort. Since we’d chosen to avoid peopled places, that meant we were on our own for meals. This required careful and comprehensive provisioning and willing galley workers. No place to re-fill our water tank meant conserving that precious resource. We also ran the risk that our all-important supply of ice might run out, and while that proved to be a non-issue, we were prepared to make ice-free sundowners. We avoided marinas, and during our visit, many of the park-provided moorings were removed for refurbishment, so solid anchoring skills were needed for a good night’s sleep.

The populated parts of the Exumas seem to be increasing their focus on megayacht visitors, which is one (prohibitively expensive) way to access the allure of the cays. Since this is beyond my means, and I don’t have the time to get to the Exumas on my own, I’m more than willing to put forth the effort it takes to charter in these beguiling islands.

~By Eva Hill