Saturday, March 4, 2017

Norman's Cay, Shroud Cay & Warderick Wells

I’m a full week behind on blogging for a couple of reasons. We haven’t had much reliable internet access, we had guests aboard, and we've been quite busy enjoying the cruiser life – swimming, snorkeling, hiking, sailing, socializing, etc. But now we’re stuck in Staniel Cay for a few days riding out a good blow, Kevin and Jeannie flew home a few days early due to said blow, and we have internet access.

We got to Norman’s Cay last Saturday, February 25th, our second day in the Exumas. Everybody except me swam to the unnamed small cay near our anchorage shortly after arrival; I took the dinghy for the return trip as the current through the cut is pretty fierce other than a few minutes of slack water every six hours. After we got back we took the dinghy around to the west side of the island, walked on the beach, and got sundowners at MacDuff’s. This was formerly the rustic Norman’s Cay Beach Club but has received quite a facelift, with prices to match, but it’s the only game in town on Norman’s Cay, for now. There’s been a big development in the works for quite some time and now it seems like it might actually happen, as excavators were busy digging out a cut to the new marina nearly 24/7 while we were there. I don’t think Norman’s Cay has seen that kind of activity since it was a bustling drug smuggler’s haven in the late 70s and early 80s.

On Sunday morning we packed up the dinghy for an expedition to Shroud Cay, three miles south across a series of shallow flats. A jungle-like network of mangrove swamps and creeks bordered by high ancient dunes, Shroud Cay is the northernmost island in the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park. They allow motorized dinghies in the northernmost creek only, which is what we came to explore. The creek was really pretty and peaceful but the only wildlife we saw on the way in was an enormous spotted eagle ray. The creek eventually deposits you on a gorgeous beach on the eastern (Exuma Sound-facing) side of the island, from which a short steep trail leads you up to famous Camp Driftwood. Straddling the top of the ridge, Camp Driftwood was once used by DEA agents to spy on Carlos Lehder’s narco activities three miles north; later, cruisers left many driftwood mementos, which have been sadly cleaned out by the Park. The undergrowth is in the process of reclaiming the site, but it’s still a good view and worthwhile short hike. On the dinghy ride back out, we stopped the engine and drifted several times, and saw quite a bit more wildlife including various fish, nurse sharks, sea turtles, and rays. And we came across that big daddy Eagle Ray again just as we exited the creek.


Back at Norman’s Cay we went for Sunday lunch at MacDuff’s, a rather expensive proposition that Dawn and I wouldn’t have done on our own, but Kevin & Jeannie insisted on treating us. Afterwards we ended up talking to the pilot of a WWII-era Douglas A26 Invader we had seen parked on the airport ramp. They were preparing to depart, and he promised us a good fly-by. The venerable warbird was already firing up by the time we got back to the boat, so I got out the bosun’s chair and scaled the mast for a better view. The fly-bys weren’t terribly low or near, but pretty cool nonetheless with that great radial rumble. After that Kevin, Jeannie and I ventured out for a close look at another WWII vet, a DC-3/C-47 that was engaged in Mr. Lehder’s employ when it ditched in the Norman’s Cay lagoon in the late 70s. There’s not much left of the wreck above water, but it is surprisingly complete below. That plus huge schools of friendly (e.g. fed) Seargeant-Majors, Blue Tangs, and other reef fish makes it a great, unique and easy snorkel.

Late Sunday the wind picked up considerably as northeasterlies spilled across a cold front that stalled near Nassau. Chris Parker had predicted this exact scenario, and we anchored accordingly; we bounced around a bit overnight in east winds gusting to 25 knots, but stayed well protected from any surge coming in off Exuma Sound. We were originally planning to sail to Highbourne Cay on Monday, but the mooring field there is notoriously rolly in southeasterlies and that’s exactly what was predicted; besides, with the wind forecast to increase further and veer 20 degrees on Tuesday, we decided to take our medicine all at once with a long slog to windward on Monday. It was 19 miles to Warderick Wells, and we were able to do all but the last few miles under sail with a double-reefed main and staysail (later replaced by a partially-furled Yankee). The first few hours was a beam-to-close-reach and was surprisingly comfortable; after that we turned further east to traverse the Wide Opening, putting us hard on the wind and bashing into big waves that worked their way in from Exuma Sound. We were still within 15-20 degrees of laying our course. It was too rough for the girls to make lunch so we hove to, the first time that I’ve done that in this boat. It wasn’t ideal with the partially-furled Yankee – we laid at 90 degrees to the wind and still fore-reached at 2 knots – but it did calm the motion considerably, and I think it’d work even better with the staysail or just a scrap of Yankee.

Once we got to the Alligator Cay Bank waypoint we furled the headsail, started the engine, and headed into Warderick Wells. I’d hoped to arrive at slack water but the windward bash and lunch stop resulted in us being about 90 minutes late, with a torrent of water pouring into the narrow channel. We were assigned mooring ball #4, the first in the inner anchorage, but I wasn’t 100% certain I had the right ball and made a test pass to verify its identity and feel out the current. The western (starboard) side of the anchorage had a sharp ledge to a shallow bar that was easily read; when I turned to port to double back, I was surprised that the seemingly deeper eastern side also shoaled remarkably quickly. 80 degrees into the turn our sounder read 5.5 feet (on a draft of 6’); I gunned the engine and kept the rudder hard over. We spun in the sand and with only a slight hesitation, slid into deeper water. Whew. That’s the first time I’ve touched bottom in Windbird, though surely not the last.

We got PiperDog to shore to pee, then cleaned up the boat and prepared for a windy night on the ball. The next morning I goofed up putting my contact in my left eye and severely irritated it (contacts are a new thing to me – I’ve worn glasses most of my life), so I stayed aboard and did boat work while the others went to the office to pay and took a hike across the island to collect some driftwood. They had several pieces when they returned; I picked the most promising piece and set to work with chisels, my boy scout knife, and a soldering iron-cum-woodburning iron. Boo Boo Hill on Warderick Wells is another place where cruisers have long offered driftwood mementos to the sea gods, and here the Park lets them remain.  Fashioning our own contribution was a pleasant use of the afternoon, though I took a brief break to push a charter Jeanneau off the sandbank with our dinghy. At low slack water when we went snorkeling just west of the park headquarters and checked out a burned-up Contessa 44 hull just below mooring ball #9. This was Dawn’s first time using her new snorkel equipment, and she really liked it. At 5pm headed over to Elusive, where Bret and Theresa were hosting happy hour. We first met them in the Berries, then Nassau, then Allen’s Cay. Super nice, down-to-earth couple.

Wednesday was a jam-packed day. In the morning at slack high water, Jeannie and Kevin and I took the dinghy over to emerald rock and snorkeled a couple of patch reefs in the area. Then we picked up Dawn, beached the dinghy ashore, and made the short hike up Boo Boo Hill to place our driftwood offering. We also went to the nearby blowholes, though the waves off Exuma Sound were not quite at the right angle to make them “blow.” Back at the boat we had lunch and welcomed Lani to the anchorage. We were mooring-ball neighbors with them in Ft. Lauderdale, and though we’ve kept in touch with Jack and Linda, this was the first time we’d seen them since. We also watched a very swish, professionally crewed 60’ catamaran (with which we had shared a dock in Nassau) try to pass us to our west. “Hey,” we shouted, “it’s really shallow there! Someone ran aground there yesterday.” A very Gallic reply: “Yes, we know, we are looking. It is high tide.” You know exactly what happened next. It was actually an hour after high tide, and though we tried to help them off the bar, they were stuck for the next ten hours. It made for some good photos as we swam and paddleboarded and dinghied between the boat and the dry sandbar that afternoon. At slack low water Dawn and Kevin and I snorkeled “Judy’s Reef,” near the outer anchorage entrance. It was the best snorkel yet, I think, and I saw a 10’ bull shark in the distance (swimming away, thankfully!) and an enormous 5’ Goliath grouper. Finally, Wednesday evening we had happy hour aboard Lani. 

We loved Warderick Wells and really wanted to explore the surrounding area more; we had planned to also anchor at Hawksbill Cay, Hog Cay, and Cambridge Cay. As it turned out, a combination of incoming weather and a need to get our guests to Staniel Cay to fly out caused us to miss all three of those. That’s the downside to having guests aboard. We enjoyed Kevin and Jeannie’s company, but there’s no question that we would have done the Exuma Park much more slowly on our own. And in fact we’ll be headed back up that way as soon as this present blow subsides. More on that in my next post about Staniel Cay.

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