First published in Telltales Magazine , March, 2001. Read, print for your friends, share it, but please don't publish it without written permission.
Austinsailor at cs.com
In our last installment, Rainbow Chaser had arrived at Allans Cay the night before after a wet, uncomfortable sail. We’d sailed from Nassau to Allans Cay, Bahamas in some nasty weather. Our guests, my son James and his friend Paul, along with my stepson Zachary, had been seasick. I was not very popular. As each passenger woke up the next morning they came on deck. The first thing they saw was the crystal clear blue tinted water. Through crystal clear water they saw white sand 12 feet below, complete with many shells. They saw the iguanas running around on the beach. Seasickness and anger were forgotten by all before noon!
We spent two days at Allans showing our new guests all the sights my niece had discovered just a week or two earlier. Of course we’d seen it all before, but it never gets old. James and Paul just didn’t believe that shells like they saw laying around Allans would be plentiful all along the way, so they started loading up Rainbow Chaser.
After a day we moved down the way a few miles to Normans, the Cay with many sand dollars and the sunken airplane. We picked our way into the same spot we’d been in two weeks before. We knew where the sand dollars were. By the time we pulled up our anchor at Normans the next day we had the top of the boat covered not only with shells, but also sand dollars. It was beginning to look like some nautical Clampets had arrived. The boat was piled so high with junk it could hardly be sailed.
Since my guests had to fly out in a few days we were making a flying tourist trip. Because of this, we hoisted anchor at Normans after only a day to move on down to Stanial Cay, the home of Thunderball cave. If you recall, we had a problem leaving Normans last time. This time we tried to find a better route out to avoid bouncing on the bottom, but we had the same luck. Bump! After a short distance we were right back on the bottom. We just couldn’t find that deeper route we used to get in. But just like last time, we were leaving on a rising tide, so we only had to wait a bit for the water to come back. Soon, we were off into a deeper trough, probably the same one we took out the last time. We arrived at Big Majors anchorage, right next to Stanial Cay, just before low tide early in the afternoon. That was important, because the entrances to Thunderball Cave are underwater except at low tide. In addition, if the tide is going up or down, there is a large current through the cave which makes it impossible to snorkel through it. We quickly set the anchor, everyone piled into the dinghy and we headed for the cave.
It was still as interesting as it was the last time we were there. It is a small island that is hollow, with entrances on 2 sides. The tops of the entrances are about a foot above water level and extend down six feet or more. Inside, it’s a hollow dome. There are several holes in the roof that let in sunlight. There are many fish in the water inside the cave and in the rocks around the outside, some that would make nice meals. I would have gotten my spear and taken back a big mess of snapper for supper, but unfortunately for me, it is prohibited there.
As we snorkeled around the outside, we found that there were many rocks and crevices that held even larger fish. There were places where we could snorkel right up to dozens of large fish and just look them in the eye. If you tried to reach out and touch them they’d manage to stay just out of reach, but otherwise we just shared the same places.James and Paul again were surprised again. Each time we stopped they thought they were seeing the last possible new thing. Then each new place would bring yet another discovery. James has even admitted I might not be crazy for going cruising after all. He still thinks I'm crazy - just not because of cruising!
As we had approached the anchorage, we noticed that Anticipation was also there. We'd caught up with them again! After our trip to Thunderball we visited with Ron and Bobbie a bit and found they’d been pretty much at the same places we had, making a slow visit to each spot. They’d spent the last evening on the beach with a bunch of other cruisers, singing and having a few drinks. In short, they'd gotten into cruising and were doing fine. I’m not sure if anyone could drag them home now.
Now, for those who have wondered if things ever go right for us, if you think about it, a number of things went quite well lately. Our guests all made their connections. That was important, since we had no way to contact each other. Except for the one day sailing to Allans with my son, the weather was great. That trip was just uncomfortable. (The rest of the people on the boat may dispute this!) The tides were just right to allow us to go into and out of Normans. Well, we did have that little problem with the keel in the sand, but it was not a big deal. Now the tides were just right for visiting Thunderball Cave. Nothing important has broken recently, nobody has gotten hurt - what more could we ask for?
Our guests had to fly out of George Town on Wednesday morning. It was Saturday and it was a 2 day run to George Town. Even without a bad weather day, we only had one day to spare. Sunday morning we took off, staying on the lee side of the islands on the banks. My original plan was to get out in the deep ocean water in the Exuma Sound to the east of the islands and just go south. The wind was coming out of the east a bit higher than forecast, so we stayed on the west side where it is shallow, but protected. We picked a cut between some islands that seemed like a safe route from the descriptions in cruising guides and charts, then sailed on down. Arriving at Cave Cay about 2 pm, we still had a lot of daylight. The motor went back on the dinghy and the guests went off in search of .... whatever they found, I guess.
Soon they came back with some sea biscuits. I didn't even know they existed. James also found a big shell, a big whelk of some sort, about a foot and a half long. I'd never seen one of those, either. I guess the pickings were better because we were off the path where most of the cruisers go.
Later we all went off in the dinghy in search of more treasures. I found the biggest conch I've ever gotten. Most end up with a hole knocked in them to get the animal out, but I always wanted a nice, undamaged shell. You can buy all the conch meat you want for $1 each. The undamaged shells are bit harder to find. I have one now.
I also planned to get some Snapper for supper. I took my trusty spear and we headed to a nearby island. There were some rocks and other cover that looked as though they might have fish hiding in them. As we looked it over an American guy about 40 came over. It seemed he lived on the island in a ramshackle building, and he’d come to feed his “pet” fish that lived in the rocks. He was about as strange as the story sounds, and we didn’t want to get into a hassle, we just wanted some fish. He told us we should go about a mile south and there was an airplane wreck underwater. A lot of fish lived under it, and we should be able to get plenty there.
We went south and found the old airplane wreck and, just as he said, there were a bunch of Snapper living under it. It seemed simple enough - just sneak up and spear a few. As I tried to use this plan, it became obvious that the joke was on me. I chased those stupid fish back and forth from one wing tip to the other for an hour. I got one small snapper, but then kept missing. Those guys are fast. As I tried to spear another, he moved too quickly and I got the little bitty one behind him. It was all of 4" long. Soon I had a 4’ barracuda in the middle of it, trying to get the little fish. I finally had to give up - the fish were enjoying the chase more than I was. We went back to Rainbow Chaser and broke out a country cured ham for supper.
Monday morning we left for George Town. After an uneventful motorsail we arrived and anchored in the middle of the afternoon. Another nice, trouble free passage was behind us.
Tuesday James and Paul spent the day trying to stuff many, many conch shells and sand dollars into a pair of duffle bags. I’d told James they should each bring 3 large softsided duffels or suitcases to take things back. They only brought one each and had no room for the shells. When I asked why they didn’t bring more he said that they thought I was kidding - they never dreamed that they could get that many shells. After giving up on stuffing all their stuff in their bags, they bought some bags in the small market in George Town and left some clothes behind. They got a huge number of shells packed and prepared to leave. Wednesday we went to town and put them in a cab to the airport. All our guests were gone; we were on our own. It’s fun to have guests, but it’s also nice to have time to just keep your own schedule.
A bit of a funny thing happened - at least from our eyes - Wednesday afternoon. We went in the dinghy to town to shop, and as we approached the dinghy dock we noticed that a local fellow, who dresses like a Rasta man, had been walking off the dock. When he saw us he turned and came back on the dock, obviously to meet us. I told Nellie that whatever he was selling, we didn't want it.
As we were tying up he told us he had peanuts and offered us free samples. We ended up trying one of his peanuts, and they weren’t bad. Then he said they were only $1 a bag. Not a bad price. We ended up buying several bags. Ok, so I changed my mind.
We went on to town, then a few minutes later I turned the corner to see this 6’ 3” guy having an argument with our Rasta peanut man, who is a little guy. I have no idea what started the whole deal, but they each had a piece of 2 x 4 lumber, each swinging it around, keeping a distance between them and yelling at the other. With all sorts of profanity, the Rasta man was swinging his 3’ long piece of 2 X 4, telling the big guy he was going to “paralyze” him! The other guy had an 8' piece of 2 X 4, swinging it around and swearing back, telling him, “No, I'm going to ‘paralyze’ you!” Right in the middle of the street, they just kept threatening to “paralyze” each other. Finally they each backed off, tossed their weapons away, each swearing that next time they met they'd "paralyze" the other. It might have been interesting to hear the cause of the whole thing.
We started relaxing and enjoying the company of other cruisers, including some we’d met 2 years before. George Town is a great gathering place for cruisers. Some are coming back from the Caribbean, some are there for the entire winter, some just stay a few weeks and go back north. Quite a few plan to go on south. Some actually do.
George Town is known to some as “The Chicken Port”. Getting to George Town can actually be accomplished without an overnight sail. Most people sail overnight crossing the Gulf Stream, but it’s not necessary, that part is done at night mainly to avoid overtime charges when checking in. Even that one overnight sail terrorizes many cruisers. After arriving at George Town, a decision must be made. Do some serious sailing and navigating or turn around. Many turn around.
I was also amazed to find out how many people never sailed, and in some cases, didn’t even know how to sail their boats. We talked to some who had never sailed. They were absolutely amazed that we’d sailed across the Gulf of Mexico. They don’t realize that us Texans had to be serious to get over there. We planned to be there until the Family Island Regatta was over. This is a Bahamas Regatta, bringing Bahamian Sloops from all over the Bahamas. A number of the islands have regattas, and this is the big final event. There are substantial prizes, much betting, and more many more visitors than the island has inhabitants. It’s quite an event and we wanted to be there.
There was still a week and a half until the Family Island Regatta began, so we took off to see some other places. We would return in time for the start of the regatta, but we could have a nice side trip to Conception Island and Rum Cay. We talked to a couple friends we’d met and we all decided to head for Conception.
The next morning Rainbow Chaser, along with Duane aboard the catamaran Rio, and Fab aboard the catamaran Pape headed over the 30 miles to Conception Island. Conception is an uninhabited island that is also a park. There is a lot of sea life, coral heads, coral reefs, clear water, and nice beaches there. Going north from Conception is a reef that goes underwater for a mile or two, then comes back to the surface far out of sight of the island. On the south, there are many coral heads rising from a smooth white sand bottom 40 feet down, right to the surface. Some people say it’s the prettiest island in The Bahamas. I can't say it's the prettiest island since I haven't seen them all, but it certainly is a pretty place. The water there is as clear as any swimming pool I’ve ever seen, maybe clearer. If I ever see a swimming pool 40 feet deep I'll have something to compare to, but since the water was crystal clear that deep, I doubt it'll surpass it.
We all anchored and relaxed for the evening. The next morning, we all had plans. Duane and Fab headed north in their inflatable to find the reef and try to spear fish. Zachary and I got out our scuba gear to dive the coral heads. Nellie just wanted to relax on the boat.
Zach had taken his scuba lessons shortly before we left the states but had never dived except in the class. I was going to take him for his first real dive. How many 13 year olds get to take their first dive among coral heads on a remote Bahamian island? As we went full speed in the dinghy on the way to the coral heads Zach told me he saw a lobster on the bottom in 40 feet of water. I was skeptical, but after turning around, we slowly drifted over a huge lobster (crawfish in Bahamian) walking on the white sand bottom in about 25 feet of water. That was pretty amazing! We continued on around the island to the coral heads, found an open patch of sand, set the dinghy anchor in about 40 feet, and suited up.
We spent the next hour slowly gliding between the coral heads, swimming with the fish, snapping pictures and were just amazed at the scenery. We only had one tank each and no way to fill them, so once our air got low, we had to quit even if we weren’t tired of it. I guess that’s the down side of diving in remote places.
Not long after we returned to Rainbow Chaser Duane and Fab got back from their spear fishing expedition. Unlike my spear fishing results, they had a mess of Grouper. After we got over our amazement of their success, Fab invited us all over to his boat for a fish supper that evening.
As the sun got low, we all gathered at Pape for supper. Everyone got stuffed on Grouper and started to relax. As we laid back, we noticed a big Shark about 100 feet away, just slowly swimming around. I‘d always wanted to catch a big Shark, and this 8 foot monster would be quite a fight if I could hook him, but first I had to get my gear from Rainbow Chaser. I hurried back in the dinghy, got my big rod, heavy leaders, big hooks and some hot dogs for bait.
Once I got back to Pape, I got my rig ready, but we couldn’t find the Shark again. He had to be out there somewhere, but he must have gone on down the beach. I was disappointed, but we just sat the rods down and went back to visiting.
Duane was cleaning up and tossing the scraps of food overboard. All of a sudden there was an explosion in the water next to Pape! At first I thought it might have been the shark, but we shined lights down there and saw some Hogeyed Jacks circling for more scraps. Well, fish are fish, so we baited up and tried for the Jacks.
These fish were about 18” long and about 8 or 10 lbs. each. It didn’t take long for one of them to attack one of my hot dogs, and the fight was on! Even with my heavy rod, it took a few minutes to get him in. Soon there was another. And another. In not very long, we had a big fish fry for the next night. We sat around until about midnight, talking about how tough a life it was out here. We know all those people in their air conditioned offices have it much better, but what the heck, someone had to do this.
After another day there, we felt it was time to move on. Rum Cay was only about 25 miles away to the southeast, the wind was light out of the north and was supposed to remain that way, so it should be a smooth motorsail. Early in the morning the wind began to blow. It wasn't the 5 knots or less it was supposed to be, but more like 15. The anchorage was open to the west, and the wind had changed to the west. We did some rocking and rolling until daylight.
The three of us hoisted anchor and headed out for Rum. For once we weren't taking a pounding on our nose, we had it on the beam. We sailed all the way to Rum Cay. As we neared Rum, one of my fishing lines took off. I grabbed it, set the hook and started reeling it in. Whatever it was, it was a good fighter, and started jumping out of the water, doing cartwheels in the air. The thing was about 4 feet long - great! A Dorado.
Supper for everyone for days. Time after time, it jumped out, doing the flips and all the jumps a big Dorado will do. Then I got it nearer to the boat - it was no Dorado, but I couldn't tell what it was. Zach said it was a Wahoo. Great - Wahoo are also good eating. Everyone could eat Wahoo for days. I finally got it next to the boat and it was a darn Barracuda! No supper, no Dorado, no Wahoo. Just my luck. Well, Mr. Barracuda made a big mistake, he's now on the deck and will be bait and chum. Some people eat Barracuda, but if you eat a 4’ Barracuda here, they’ll have to put you in a pine box and ship you home. Ciguatera poisoning would do you in.
We got into Rum Cay, anchored and the wind was still a bit too much from the west, not the north predicted. The anchorage was a bit lumpy with a 15 knot west wind, so we bounced a bit, hoping that during the night it will go to the north and smooth out.
Once we got anchored we went to town. Last time we were here we made friends with the lady who owns the bar and restaurant, Deloris Wilson. She's a lady who grew up here, left for schooling and returned many years ago. Last time we visited, she'd invite us in and bought US a beer in HER restaurant. Every time we went to shore she’d invite us in and do it again. We couldn’t figure out how she could stay in business. This time we planned to buy her a beer - or two. Arriving in her restaurant, we learned she went to Key West the day before and wouldn’t be back for 3 weeks. Darn!
We also found out that since we were here 2 years ago they'd gotten electricity. They had street lights! And phones. Last time, there was one phone on the island. Sam ran the phone office; he was there from about 9 to 12 and 1 to 5, more or less. The phone system started at the solar panel that kept a big car battery charged. The battery ran a radio. The radio had a phone attached, and transmitted over an antenna that resembled a big CB antenna. It sort of worked, at least for voice. We tried to send email, but it just couldn't keep the connection.
Now they had a microwave tower and Sam's little one room wooden shack is gone. There is a new cement block building and there are phone booths on the streets (streets of sand, but streets, nevertheless). Many houses even have phones. Rum Cay has almost entered the 20th Century. I’m not sure if that is good.
The next morning we woke up to flat seas, crystal clear water and bright sunlight. Zach and I dinghied over to Reo, soon Fab joined us, and we set off to see what we could find. We spent the morning searching for shells, conch, fish and anything else we could find. Right outside the harbor was some of the best coral I’d seen anywhere, with deep caverns, colorful formations, lots of fish and clear water. The problem was, the fish evaded Zach and I, and all the shells we saw were too deep for me to get to.
That afternoon Zach and I went by ourselves out to the flats on the southeast side of the harbor. It’s out on an area that is about 10 to 15 feet deep, probably a mile or more square and has scattered coral all over it. Out at the edge there is a ring of coral rising to the surface and past that, it’s a thousand feet deep. We figured it was out of the normal cruiser’s search area and we might find some good shells.
We started drifting and snorkeling beside the dinghy while watching the bottom. We found a few conch, but they were all too small to be legal keepers. Ahead of us a ways was another small boat with one guy in it. We climbed back in, started up the motor and went over to see who it was. We found a local fellow also diving for conch. Unlike us, he had quite a few in his boat. There were a few down there; they were just hard to see. We really wanted to find some called “Queen Conch”, which are not edible, but are very pretty. The local fellow told us we were more likely to find those at the eastern end of the flats area. He also mentioned that he’d be going back soon because late in the afternoon the big Sharks move in from the deep ocean looking for food. He didn’t want to be diving for conch when there were hungry Sharks around. We thanked him for the information and headed out to the east.
We floated, we drifted, we looked. We didn’t find any shells. We looked some more. Then we noticed the local fellow heading home and remembered his talk of Sharks. It took Zach and me about 1 minute to decide that we were ready to go back too, shells or no shells.
On the way back we took a detour into the marina area. Some Americans have developed a marina by excavating a new channel back into the island where a very shallow creek used to be. It’s big enough to hold quite a few boats and a fuel dock. We also noticed that Tom Kneele’s boat, Chez Nous was tied to the dock. We’d never met Tom or his family, but we’d enjoyed his writing for years. He waved, his wife waved, and we thought of stopping to talk to him but weren’t sure what to say. We felt like we were intruding and went on. Maybe someday we’d get to talk to him. For now, we motored back to Rainbow Chaser. That evening we listened to the weather forecast. The next day was supposed to be nice weather, but that day after that would see a front come through. We talked to Duane and Fab and we all decided it would be best to head for George Town in the morning. We’d make the 40 mile trip back and settle in to wait for the Family Island Regatta.
The next morning we all pulled up our anchors and headed out. We weren’t exactly traveling together; we were just going to the same place. With any luck, we’d all be anchored off of Volleyball Beach by mid afternoon. The two multi hulls got away first, and being a slower monohull, we not only started behind, but fell farther as we went. There was almost no wind, so we were traveling under motor power. By the time we passed the end of Long Island, about half way back, the other two boats were long gone.
As I made my turn to the west around Long Island I happened to look down and noticed my oil light was on. My alarm buzzer had quit working some time before, so it was hard to tell how long it had been on. I hesitated for a minute trying to figure out why the light would be on. It had never been on before and my motor never burned oil. After that brief hesitation, I shut off the engine and went to investigate.
There was oil everywhere! A little investigation showed why. The bolt holding the alternator bracket had sheered. The bracket had fallen down, punching a hole in the oil filter. It was clear the motor would need attention before we used it again.
The first order of business was to get the sails up. Once we were on a steady course, I went below again to fix the mess. Off came the alternator, the bracket, and the punctured oil filter. It took a bit longer to clean up all the oil, which had gone all over the engine compartment. Once that mess was taken care of, I installed a new oil filter, dumped in new oil and we were off again.
It looked like I’d have something to occupy my time until the regatta started.
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