Thick emerald waves broke over a quarter mile long sandbar that blocked our way. A few hundred meters to the east, whitecaps crashed over Exuma Sound – an abyss of 6,000 feet deep of rolling waves and powerful tradewinds that would probably turn our little sailboats around. Past the sandbar we saw the quiet flats of the Exuma Bank and the protected beach where we hoped to camp the first night of the trip. We just had to come around the bar before it got dark.
A shadow flashed under the trunk – a 4-foot wide stingray looking for food in the low tide. Two needle fish squirted out of the water and almost landed in the cockpit. The water was so clear that it was like looking through a glass-bottomed boat at coral heads, pieces of seagrass and shellfish passing by on the ocean floor.
Zach Tucker sailed alongside the second boat in our armada. He was relatively new to sailing, but had turned out to be a natural talent. We each carried three friends from Brooklyn, N.Y., along with enough food, water and rum to stay on the Exuma Islands of the Bahamas for a week. This was my second trip through the islands on the 21-foot “expedition sailboats” that Out Island Explorers rents from its base on Great Exuma Island. After searching for a vacation in the Bahamas free from the boundaries of a cruise ship, an all-inclusive resort or even traditional sailboat charter – where staff goes to great lengths to protect guests from the rough natural beauty of the islands – I had Out Island’s explores sailing camping trips and sets off to explore the Caribbean pine-lined beaches, deserted beaches, inland water fishing villages and pristine coral reefs of the Exumas.
We chose the unguided package on this trip – guided trips are also possible – that would include long days of navigating with maps and compass around windy atolls, longer nights sitting around a campfire, spearfishing dinner, sleeping in tents on the beach and in the generally lead a Robinson Crusoe existence, without the cannibals, prisoners and (hopefully) mutiny.
As the sun disappeared over the flats and the light disappeared from the sky, I signaled to Zach that he should cross his boat to Harvey’s Cay so that we could get around the sandbar. Festive cocktails were stored away. A few life jackets appeared in the cockpit. Then, just as a half moon came out of the water, a dark blue channel appeared and cut through the sandbar. The wind held on long enough for the boats to slip through, and half an hour later we sailed a window line for the beach.
Cocktails reappeared. A pool of silvery moonlight gathered around the boats. The silhouette of Zach’s sails looked like black pincers sticking out of the ocean. There were no lighted trails or cabanas ashore, no host who prepared sashimi or DJs who played tunes. There was only our group of big-eyed friends, two ice coolers, a lot of frozen food we had brought from the States, camping gear and a portable radio to play Bahamian rake and scrape hits on whatever radio station we could turn on.
Hurricanes and shallow seas
“The country was as unspoiled as when Columbus came to this coast,” Ernest Hemingway wrote in “Islands in the Stream” about life on Bimini Island in the Bahamas in the 1930s. A local on Little Farmer’s Cay explained the unspoiled nature of the islands in a different way. “Everything you build will eventually be wiped out,” he said, pointing to the ruins of four cabanas he owned that were destroyed by a hurricane years ago.
Last September, many months after our trip, Hurricane Dorian would do exactly that, paving the way for destruction across the Abacos and Grand Bahama. The Exumas – a north-south strand of around 365 bordered bays between Nassau and Long Island – were largely spared.
Fortunately March is far beyond the hurricane season, so the biggest danger we encountered during the trip was running aground on the many sandbanks on the Exuma Bank. (The word “Bahamas” is derived from the Spanish “Baha Mar” or “shallow seas.”) The neck-deep flats extend over more than 2,000 square miles of the western shores of the Exumas – placing most beaches that we would camp on beyond the reach of in-depth cruise ships, yachts, and virtually everything else except local fish kicks and our expedition boats.
The Sea Pearl is able to sail fully loaded in 18 inch of water and is a unique vessel. Two Sunfish-style sails make the boats very manoeuvrable and fast in a range or against the wind. You also don’t have to worry about towing anchor. At night we pushed the boat 10 feet from the shore, threw an anchor from the stern and tied the bow line to a tree.
For $ 1,350, Out Island Explorers supplies four passengers with a boat, tents, sleeping bags, mattresses, a cooking set, propane, Yeti coolers, water containers, chairs, a Hawaiian sling gun and everything else you need to survive a week in paradise. All we had to do was fly to Staniel Cay airport, raise the sails and push in the sunset. A week later we would end our one-way trip 80 miles south on Great Exuma Island and fly home.
We didn’t have to look for nature on our first morning on Bitter Guana Cay; it wobbled over to us in the form of 3-foot-long Exuma Island iguanas. Six of the old, endangered lizards watched intently as we make coffee and roam the snow-white beach for a morning swim.
Eight seagulls circled and screamed while we grabbed the boats two hours later and went back to sea. Flat green islands floated off the coast and an endless canvas of shallows, colored aquamarine through shifting arches of sand, reached the horizon. Tradewinds blew from the northeast, but the water on the shore, protected by the islands, was perfectly flat. After a lifetime of sailing and captain boats – and at all costs avoiding shallow water – I watched with awe how the Sea Pearls plow through knee-deep water at a speed of 7 km / h.
The boats are surprisingly similar to the canoes that the first inhabitants of the Exumas, the Lucayan Taino, used more than 1000 years ago. The earliest history of the tribe was recorded by the first – and most notorious – Western sailor in the Bahamas, Christopher Columbus, who allegedly landed in the New World on San Salvador, 100 miles east of the Exumas.
The perfect beach
We saw a glimpse of the dark blue depths of Exuma Sound while we sailed around the northern tip of Great Guana Cay. We planned a short day on the water and passed half a dozen beaches – too big, too small, too airy, not quite dreamy enough – until we found the perfect one, framed by palmettos, casuarina evergreens and on the other side of the island , a cove filled with Bahamian lobster.
The scene 500 meters away on the shores of Exuma Sound was the reverse of the west. School bus-sized waves crashed into a razor-sharp grid of limestone cliffs. (Sailors call it “iron-bound” because it is so impossible to land on it.) We didn’t need the Hawaiian pendulum for the first lobster – we caught him strolling along the beach 10 meters from the water. The following two samples – each more than 2 feet long – required 40 minutes of skin diving.
We fell into a groove in the coming days and fully embraced #castawaylife. We made breakfast tacos with fresh lime and a lettuce-cabbage carrot, washed dishes in the shallow water, swam, read, meditated, stretched, swam again, reset the anchors and made plans to simplify our lives when we got home.
One afternoon we visited Terry Bain – the owner of the cabanas washed down in a hurricane and maker of the best pina coladas in the Bahamas – in his Ocean Cabin Restaurant & Bar on Little Farmer’s Cay. We were halfway through the journey and he provided us with water, ice, rice, rum, cigars, cooking oil, and a dozen tomatoes that his wife, Ernestine, individually wrapped in paper towels. That night we camped on a half mile long beach across the bay on Big Farmer’s Cay, snatched solar Christmas lights into the palm trees and watch ballyhoo and jacks jump along the shoreline, their silver scales reflecting flashes of moonlight.
I followed Zach the next day for four hours on a wide range to Darby Island, the location of an abandoned 8,000 square foot castle built in 1938 by Sir Guy Baxter, a Nazi sympathizer and English hotelier.
We walked through the sun-bleached battlements and creepy stairwells of the castle and then floated through the trench for a few hours, before continuing south towards the Bock Cay archipelago. A little known secret about the Exumas is the number of Hollywood celebrities who have bought islands there. Current and former owners are Johnny Depp, Eddie Murphy, Nicolas Cage, John Travolta and Sir Richard Branson. Earlier that day we had sailed past David Copperfield’s old hideout on Musha Cay. That evening, as a muslin veil of clouds slid over the western horizon, we sailed past Goat Cay, where Faith Hill and Tim McGraw recently built a tropical compound.
Spear fishing and singing
We found our own harbor that evening east of Goat Cay on Lignum Vitae Cay. There we set up our last camp on a vast arch of 200 meters of powdery sand with a view of a deep blue cut and Exuma Sound. We spent our last two days snorkeling over coral reefs near the beach, spear fishing and singing Faith Hill hits on the west-facing coast while the sun sets under the land star’s house a thousand meters away.
We were only 12 miles away from the drop-off spot on Great Exuma when we left the last day. However, within an hour of being dropped off, we were calmed down and drove straight to Faith Hill’s home. It was a mixed blessing when her harbor master – who had an established interest in keeping our crew of burned stray animals away from their private beach – approached us and offered us chilled bottles of water and a tugboat.
He dragged us for an hour to a marina five miles south. There was still no wind, so he handed us over to another unfortunate captain who took the tow line and dragged us to the dock in Barraterre, Great Exuma. We somehow arrived early and checked in at a nearby hotel. After a big meal in an empty air-conditioned restaurant down the street, we slept for the first time within a week.
The beds felt incredibly soft and the air conditioning was fresh. I couldn’t sleep, so I walked to a small patio around midnight. A warm breeze blew from the ocean and I heard the sound of waves rolling up the beach. The moon had not yet risen and the sky was a ray of stars from horizon to horizon. I searched for some constellations that sailors had led through these islands in the past: Polaris, Perseus, Cassiopeia. Then I lay down on my back so that I could see the whole night sky, without walls or roof or man-made things that could block him.