Postcard from the Exuma Islands

On a springtime jaunt through the Exuma Islands in the Bahamas aboard our Stevens 47 Hurrah, we saved the best for last. Though I wish I could say it was all in the planning, it really happened because we sailed through the Exumas backwards, starting in George Town and ending at the stunningly fabulous Warderick Wells, headquarters of the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.

Postcard from the Exuma Islands

The Exuma chain consists of more than 350 islands running for 130 miles and separates the more exposed Exuma Sound from the shallow, protected Exuma Bank. Sailing in the Exumas marked a refreshing change for us from sailing in more remote parts of the Bahamas in that each passage was a short day hop. Our biggest challenges were timing entrances into the rocky cuts and narrow channels between the islands and choosing which few of the hundreds of anchorages to visit.

We left George Town during the Family Islands Regatta, an annual regatta featuring Bahamian dinghies from many neighboring islands. They race in three classes. We had the good fortune to anchor near the upwind mark on the first day of racing.

Our next stop in the chain was at Black Point Settlement, home to a low-key, welcoming community, a laundromat with a reputation for cleanliness that radiated at least 100 miles in cruising circles, and an eclectic sculpture garden fashioned primarily from driftwood. Proving that one man’s trash is another man’s artistic expression, the garden provided ample exercise for our imaginations as well as for our legs.

Postcard from the Exuma Islands

A short one-and-a-half hour sail on the Bank side brought us to the more traveled grounds of Staniel Cay and Big Majors Cay, permanent home of the famous swimming pigs and temporary home for us and about 40 fellow cruisers in the ample anchorage. Pigs of all sizes came out to meet visiting dinghies and readily took scraps from every cruiser who offered them. The pigs felt so comfortable around people that our daughter followed them around and petted them. Even more eye opening, the pigs had potty-trained themselves to use the water, not the sand, as their litterbox. This kept the beach pristine, but we decided to snorkel elsewhere.

Luckily, Thunderball Grotto beckoned with just a short dinghy ride from our anchorage. Even more luckily, this place made famous by the James Bond movie Thunderball, justifies all the hype. Snorkeling at low tide ensures a slack current, a large crowd, and bigger entrances to the caves. The low angle of the sun in the late afternoon lights up the colors of the caves brilliantly. We enjoyed the caves so much that we went twice. Snorkeling a nearby plane wreck engulfed by schooling reef fish provided a thought-provoking contrast on how nature can flock to and ultimately reclaim what is manmade.

From Big Majors, we sailed a few hours to Cambridge Cay to seek shelter from a passing front. The natural beauty here almost overwhelms. Hikes on shore that reveal romantic coves and small cliffs to climb give way to even better snorkeling. A short dinghy ride to the next island up the chain finds O’Brien’s Cay, which features a colorful wall called the Sea Aquarium and another nearby plane wreck. Just down the chain from Cambridge Cay lies Rocky Dundas, two caves reputedly more beautiful than Thunderball Grotto. Snorkeling in calm weather at low tide is a must; alas, the front prevented us from exploring.

Postcard from the Exuma Islands

Schools of green thimble jellies fascinated us as they swarmed through the snorkeling sites and anchorage. We caught a few in a cup and watched them move about, touching them here and there to see how they responded, before liberating them to move again with the current. Later, some fellow cruisers told us about the mean sting these little guys carry. We maintained a respectful distance after that.

For our final leg, we made it to Warderick Wells in what my husband recalls as a grueling sail of eight miles in sunny weather, flat water, and pleasant breeze. Ah, the sheer torture. After that rough passage, it was a lucky thing we found a mooring near park headquarters (where there is no anchoring) and made it onshore where we had fun exploring tidal pools and meeting up with other families. We, too, made the trek to Boo Boo Hill, where many sailors leave signs noting their boat’s presence in the park. Not only did we find signs of old friends, we left our own mark, a brightly painted sign proclaiming the beauty of life and cruising—Hurrah!

Our trip through the Exumas capped off a winter of cruising in the Caribbean. From Warderick Wells, we left directly for the United States. Touchdown in Florida and our first trip on a speedy highway left us feeling like deer in the headlights, wondering why we ever left the tranquil beauty and quiet simplicity of the Exumas.

by Tracy Leonard