Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Back to Staniel Cay

We're back at Staniel Cay, once again to wait out weather and for guest flight connections. This time the weather is a little garden-variety cold front spun off from the giant nor'easter about to pound New England, and the guests are my parents who are flying in tomorrow and staying nine days. We were originally planning to come here today but, as usual, the weather has final say.

On Sunday morning I got up at 7am - no Chris Parker makes Sunday my day to sleep in! Actually the clock had just sprung forward to 7am was really 6am so far as many body was concerned, but nevertheless it felt kinda like sleeping in and I was still up before the sun for another gorgeous dawn paddleboard excursion. We were planning to go snorkeling again but Dawn decided she'd rather not as she had a bad blister on her toe from Saturday's snorkel marathon. Later we fixed her up with some moleskin to make putting her fins on bearable, but our Sunday morning outing consisted of hiking the hills and cairns of jagged Hog Cay. We got some nice pics of Windbird in the gorgeous, protected Hog Cay anchorage as well as the first hilltop scrap of 3G we'd had since Shroud Cay. Naturally, I used it to update facebook (primarily to assure my parents that we were still alive - sure enough, they were a little nervous that they hadn't been able to contact us in nearly a week and were supposed to fly to meet us shortly).

After finishing the hike we got the boat together, slipped the mooring, and rode a rollicking 3-knot current out into a rather choppy Exuma Sound. The wind was pretty directly on the nose so we just motorsailed the 8.8 miles down to Cambridge Cay. We had a mooring shortly after noon, I took Piper to a beach that turned out to be a giant tidal flat (which he loved running across at breakneck speed despite occasionally tripping rather comically over crab holes), I stopped to talk to "Minnesota Mafia" members Night Star (we just missed Greenstone and Saber Tooth), and then Dawn and I loaded up the dinghy with snorkel safari gear and cruised several miles north to the Sea Aquarium, on the northern tip of O'Brian's Cay. Incidentally, in the Bahamas with a boat of any draft whatsoever, a go-fast dinghy is pretty close to a necessity. Our 15-hp Yamaha Enduro two-stroke on a 13-foot West Marine RIB is pretty much the perfect combination for two people & a dog. With four people aboard, though, it's almost impossible to plane - that's when I wish we had a bit more power.

The Sea Aquarium was as spectacular as rumored, with absolute hordes of Seargeant-Majors, Parrotfish, Triggerfish, Angelfish, Wrasses, Nassau Groupers, and assorted small reef fish. Dawn really liked it but still rated her find off Hog Cay as a better snorkel. We also stopped off at Airplane Reef, a reef that a supposedly-drug-running Cessna 210 happened to crash right on top of in the 1980s. The plane is still there in 20 feet of water and quite intact, and both doors are missing making it possible to swim right through! After a while there the current was starting to run and Dawn was getting cold, so we cruised back to the boat, picked up Piper, and went to the beach. We found a short trail to the eastern side of the island and then up to a series of headlands marked with cairns and overlooking spectacular high cliffs. Most of the cliff path was free of the thicket of scrub brush that normally covers Bahamian cays, and the low heather that abounded instead made it look almost like something you'd see on the west coast of Ireland.

On our way back to the boat we ran south to the little sandbar with the pay box, paid for two nights, let Piper run around a bit, then headed back to the boat for sunddowners and dinner. Gorgeous sunset, and now it's not until after 7pm! At 9 we ran Piper back to the sandspit in the moonlight, and the next morning Dawn brought him back out there on the paddleboard. It was a pretty good workout getting out there against the falling tide, she said, but the return trip was quite speedy. In the meantime I had listened to Chris Parker on the SSB, and the news wasn't great. On Saturday he'd been talking about an incoming cold front but it sounded like high winds would hold off until Tuesday night. Now, two days later, he said high southwesterly wind would start before dawn on Tuesday and advised being in a secure anchorage by Monday night. Cambridge is fairly secure with stout, well-maintained moorings, but is a bit open to the southwest. What concerned me more was the prospect of sailing to Staniel in big wind on Tuesday and then running into the anchorage via Big Rock Cut, a somewhat shallow, narrow cut that is known to be quite prone to raging. So we reluctantly forfeited our second night's mooring payment and our snorkel plans for the day, packed up, and headed out.

Now in retrospect I could have stuck to my original plan. The wind did pick up today but not quite as much as Chris was predicting, and the squalls have held off till late afternoon. The southwesterly wind direction would have made for a near-beam reach, and sticking close to the cays would have provided fairly flat seas. Big Rock Cut was much easier to cross than reputed (granted, we made sure to arrive near slack tide). But I've been making a conscious effort to continue to make conservative decisions out here even though (or because) our comfort level has been increasing considerably. So I did the conservative thing, came back a day early, and was rewarded with a 12-mile bash into choppy seas and 12-15 knots directly on the nose. We at least had plenty of time before our planned low-tide arrival at Big Rock Cut, so we turned off the engine and beat upwind the first 2.5 hours. Dawn was at the helm quite a bit and did very well, and I of course enjoyed my turns steering upwind. Windbird is hardly the most weatherly racer out there but she's no slug either...she stands up well to her sails and lets you know when she's in the groove. We did one big tack offshore and then one long tack down the coast - during which we got lifted a good 30 degrees - and then decided that to keep our appointment with slack water we should furl the Yankee, hoist the iron genny, and make tracks for the last hour to Big Rock Cut. I belatedly threw out a line for the last hour (it's been stowed lately because there's no fishing in the Exuma Park) but didn't get any strikes despite straddling the dropoff and veering for some promising-looking patches of seaweed.

We anchored "Between The Majors" in anticipation of today and tomorrow's blow, and it's far from the perfect anchorage. The bottom is mostly scoured rock and seaweed with poor holding except for a sandy patch that's a little too shallow for comfort on Windbird. It took two tries to grab, and after hooking up the second time a quick snorkel on the anchor confirmed a rather tenuous-looking hold on the bottom. Last night the southerlies started to blow and a bunch of surge worked up inside the anchorage, turning it into a rocking-rolling mess; then after high tide it was wind against current, which on Windbird is always anyone's guess what's going to happen. Her high forward sheer likes to catch the wind and turn her slightly ass-to, but her underbody likes to "sail" forward into current. In this case those dynamics resulted in her sailing wildly to and fro right over the top of her anchor, east and west in giant 160-foot arcs to each end of her chain, for nearly five hours from 10pm to 3am. It's an absolutely wonder we didn't jerk the anchor out of the bottom or otherwise drag, but we stayed more put than our neighbors. It was an utterly sleepless night for me, and by extension Dawn, though I slept (napped) out on the starboard settee.

The reason for my anchoring choice became more apparent this morning when the wind veered southwest and increased considerably. Our friends Jack, Linda and Naia on S/V Lani are anchored over at Big Majors (we visited via dinghy yesterday) and had a comfortable night followed by a miserable, boat-bound day today as massive surge poured around the point. Most of the boats over there left today; many came over here and tonight promises to be a more crowded repeat of last night, though Windbird should be better behaved with westerly winds vs north/south current. We stayed put enough today for me to feel comfortable leaving the boat to bash our way to town in the dinghy for reprovisioning, trash disposal, and a drink at SCYC. Other than that it was mostly a boat cleaning, water-making, battery-charging and hair-cutting day here on Windbird. My parents flew into Nassau this afternoon and will be landing at Staniel Cay tomorrow morning around 8:30am. What we'll do then depends entirely on the weather, and particularly whether the extended forecast contains probable weather windows to get to Georgetown. We'd like to head back north for a third visit to Exuma Park, but only if we're reasonably sure we'll have one good day (or night) on the Sound to get 30-60 miles southeast (depending on where we jump off) and make it through the cut into Elizabeth Harbour in decent conditions and with good light. So as with everything out here, we're playing it by ear.


  1. How much are the average mooring payments?

  2. In the Exuma Park it goes according to length, for 40-49 feet it's $30.

  3. Are the mooring payments a strictly honor system, or does someone check? We've encountered lots of honor system campgrounds in both the U.S. and Canada, and always wondered if anybody ever checked. We always did the honorable thing and paid, but still wondered.

  4. Roger-- At the Warderick Wells North mooring field you go to the park headquarters to pay. Elsewhere there is a drop box, but park rangers also stop by your boat so some people just pay that way. Last week when we were back at Cambridge Cay the mooring field host was happy to let us apply the $30 we spent on the night we didn't use the week before.