Bahamas – There and Back Again

Pipe Creek in Exuma Island Group

By Sheryl and Paul Shard

(Left) The clear colourful shallow waters of Pipe Creek in the Exuma Island group in the Bahamas look like blue ribbons. The Shards motor their variable-draft Southerly 480, Distant Shores III, through the shallows.

FOREWORD: We all need a dream! For many people, the white sand, brilliant sun and blue waters of the Caribbean are the image of paradise that we drift away to in those pensive moments. As COVID-19 restrictions are eased, vacation charter and cruising locations like the Bahamas are opening up, but that could change and also, many will be reluctant to travel yet. This Two-part comprehensive destination feature on the Bahamas starts in the October Canadian Yachting and will continue in the December issue with even more glorious photos and extensive travel resources available for you to access anytime on the canadianyachting.ca website. Let the dream begin! Andy Adams – Editor

I leaned my head back into the water and floated easily. Having spent my childhood playing in freshwater lakes in Ontario’s Cottage Country it always surprises me how buoyant one is in salt water. And this water was warm. I could get straight in. No dipping my toes tentatively and inching myself in for a “refreshing” dip. All around me was a sparkling sea of infinite blue. We were back. Back in the Bahamas.

Great Bahama BankGreat Bahama Bank, Exumas – Wake: Infinite blue. Sea and sky. View off the stern of Distant Shores III motoring on the banks.

My husband, Paul, and I have been blessed to be able to sail internationally and live aboard four different sailboats for over 30 years now. Our careers as travel documentary filmmakers, television producers and YouTubers has made this possible since we can work while we sail to ports around the globe.

Travelling the world by water for three decades, we’ve been able to experience many diverse cultures on 5 continents and to sail in many of the world’s top cruising grounds.

We’re often asked what our most favourite place in the world to sail is. Hands down, it’s the Bahamas.

Offshore to the BahamasOffshore to the Bahamas – DS III wing and wing: With the headsails poled out the Shards and fellow Southerly Owners from the UK – Richard and Julie Thomas & Caroline and Nick Gill (founder, Gill Marine foul weather gear) enjoy a romping sail from Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, to Mayaguana, Bahamas.

Despite all the wonderful places we’ve been able to sail to, the Bahamas keep drawing us back. Over the years, we’ve made nine voyages to these special islands and last year we made two trips there arriving from different parts of the globe at different times of the year allowing us to explore different Bahamian island groups.

This year the Bahamas have the added appeal that it was one of the first island nations to open its borders to international travellers following months of lockdown and to welcome cruising sailors from most nations including Canada. (This situation is subject to change so please check before sailing. See sidebar for information.) At the time of writing, travellers over 10 years old would be admitted if they could show a negative COVID-19 test taken within 10 days of their arrival in the Bahamas and complete a Bahamas Health Visa application which can be done online, before their departure from their home country. The Bahamas Health Visa requires 48 hours to obtain.

Social distancing is barely an issue for visitors arriving by boat. Boats, by design, keep their occupants physically distanced from others and cruising sailors excel at self-sufficiency, so they don’t need to go ashore too often. Most of the islands in the best cruising areas of the Bahamas are sparsely populated, so safe shore time is easier to manage, but most of what attracts sailors to the Bahamas is on or in the water – sailing, anchoring, swimming, snorkelling, scuba diving, kayaking, paddle-boarding and kite-surfing – you name it.

The name “Bahamas” is derived from the Spanish term for shallow seas, “Baha Mar” so even the name says how special the water is here. The seas and the islands they surround, lie on three immense tablelands of limestone, coral and sand with reef-fringed platforms on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. The average depths are 3-9 meters or 10-30 feet across the large banks that lie between island groups but there are plenty of deep-water routes if you have a deep-draft vessel. We cruised for several years in the Bahamas with our first boat, a Classic 37 sailboat with a 6-foot draft and didn’t feel limited. On our last few voyages there, we explored new places aboard our variable-draft Southerly Yachts, a 42, a 49 and now our 480, all of which draw less than a metre with the keel retracted and can dry out at low tide. This opened new areas to explore for us, but you don’t need a shallow draft cruising boat to enjoy cruising here. The Bahamas span an ocean area of 470,000 square km (180,000 square miles) with 13,878 square km (5,358 square miles) of land so there are lots of places to sail to and explore even if restricted from some areas due to a draft of more than 6 feet.

And the water is blue. Such a blue you have never seen! With the extensive white sand bottom it’s just like a swimming pool for miles and miles. In the deep water of the sounds it is a vibrant sapphire blue.

Easter DinnerAttwood Harbour, Acklins Is. – Easter Dinner: Easter Dinner aboard Distant Shores III with fellow Southerly Yacht Owners. L to R: Caroline Gill, Sheryl Shard, Julie Thomas, Sue Heath.

Of the 700 islands and many more rocks and small cays that make up the Bahamas, about 25 are inhabited, most with small communities, and the islands function as one nation. The population in 2019 was 395,000, similar to the population of Victoria, British Columbia, but widely spread out in an area similar to that of the whole Eastern Caribbean. Some islands just have a few private homes and some whole islands are privately owned. The rest are uninhabited. The main islands and commercial centres are New Providence Island where the capital and largest city, Nassau, is located and Grand Bahama Island where the city of Freeport is located. The rest of the Bahamas are made up of the Out Islands or Family Islands, as they are officially called, and unofficially as the Out Islands, such as the Abaco and Exuma Island Groups, the most popular cruising grounds; and Far Out Islands such as Mayaguana, Crooked and Acklins Islands.

Approaching the Bahamas from the Eastern Caribbean in the spring following a winter of Caribbean cruising, our general route is to jump off from the British Virgin Islands with gentle spring trade-winds in place and do a 3-4 day offshore sail, often a nice down-wind sail or reach, to make a stop in the Turks and Caicos Islands before continuing on to the really special remote islands of the southern Bahamas.

From the main island of Providenciales in the Turks and Caicos, it’s a daysail to clear into the Bahamas at the Far Out Island of Mayaguana. The last time we did this was April 2019 and we had friends fly in to Providenciales from the UK, all fellow Southerly Yacht owners, to sail from Turks and Caicos to the Bahamas with us to experience the joys of shallow-draft cruising in the very remote islands of Mayaguana, Plana Cays, Crooked and Aklins Islands and Long Island which lie en route to George Town, Great Exuma, the commercial centre of the Exuma island group and a base for the cruising community exploring the Bahamas throughout the winter.

DS III & Motor YachtBig Major Spot, Exumas, Bahamas – DS III & motor yacht: Distant Shores III, a Southerly 480 variable draft cruising yacht built in England anchored in Big Major Spot, near Staniel Cay. Mega yacht in the background.

We, aboard our Southerly 480, Distant Shores III (hull 01), with four fellow Southerly owners aboard – Caroline and Nick Gill, founder of Gill Marine foul weather gear, a two-time Southerly owner and Julie and Richard Thomas, also two-time Southerly owners – and beside us, our sister-ship, Kered (hull 02), with owners, Rob and Sue Heath, aboard; set sail from Providenciales, Turks and Caicos, on a Friday (we should have known better) in April 2019 with a fresh breeze and arrived in Mayaguana, Bahamas in time to clear in. However, all of us had forgotten that it was Good Friday, so everything was closed for the weekend until the following Tuesday!

The settlement is small in Mayaguana, so the local school principal saw Paul and Rob seeking to clear in. She explained the situation then gave them a ride to the home of the owner of the shop selling Bahamas SIM cards who kindly got them set up with local phone numbers. The women also traced down the off-duty customs and immigrations officers who advised that we carry on with our northbound cruise, flying our yellow courtesy flag signifying we had yet to clear in, until we could do the paperwork at George Town in a few days. This was a great relief since waiting in Mayaguana until after Easter Monday to clear in would have affected our friends’ schedules for flights home. This experience was typical of the kindness and understanding we have often received from residents of the small settlements in the Bahamas. And forgetting what day it is, is typical of the cruising life.

DS III anchoredExuma Cays Land & Sea Park – DS III anchored: The 176-square-mile Exuma Cays Land and Sea National Park, created in 1958, was the first land and sea park in the world and is one of the most successful marine parks. It is the first “no-take reserve” (all fishing is prohibited) in the wider Caribbean. This stretch of pristine water, land and beaches is an ecological preserve and wildlife refuge famous for its breath-taking marine environment. Snorkeling, diving and swimming are excellent here.

We carried on the next day in fresh breezes, making a lunch stop at the deserted Plana Cays, anchoring off West Plana Cay and then carrying on to Atwood Harbour, on Lady Slipper Cay off Acklins Island, where there is a lovely reef-protected bay with a 2-mile long deserted white sand beach. Due to the water flow from the surrounding mangroves, the water here is a clear, but brilliant green colour due to the plant material in the water. The bay is protected from east-northeast through south and almost to west, ideal for the next couple of days (but a death trap in north winds when it is fully exposed) so the group opted to stay here for another day to relax and celebrate Easter dinner together with all the trimmings.

View From Exuma Yacht ClubView from Exuma Yacht Club, George Town, Great Exuma: Traditional Bahamian sloops at anchor.

There are few marinas throughout most of the islands in the Bahamas, so you must set up your boat well for anchoring and chose your anchorages carefully based on the wind direction and carry lots of supplies. What makes the Bahamas such a fabulous cruising ground is that there are so many anchorages in idyllic bays as well as deserted coves to choose from. In the Far Out Islands the anchorages tend to be open roadsteads so springtime, when the trade winds are gentle and there are fewer fronts and storms from the north, is the best time to cruise there.

After our Easter feast and wonderful strolls and swims off the deserted beach, the group was game for testing out drying out our boats at low tide on a sand bank. Southerly Yachts have a fully retractable keel and a metal grounding plate built into the hull for this procedure. We knew the perfect spot – French Wells, so named by French pirates in the days of old due to its fresh water supply – on Crooked Island in the Bight of Acklins. It was a quick sail around Bird Rock Light, then south through the Crooked Island passage to get there. We timed the tide right, retracted the keels and beached the boats for afternoon play on the shallow shoreline, swimming and walking between Kered and Distant Shores III, then pulled off at high water after dinner to anchor properly in the main channel for the night.

Beached DinghyPipe Creek, Exumas, Bahamas – beached dinghy: Sheryl and Paul’s Highfield inflatable pulled up on a sandbar in Pipe Creek at low tide. The dinghy has a tough aluminum floor and is very lightweight.

Next, we sailed on to George Town, Great Exuma, arriving the next day to clear in after a stop at the south tip of Long Island for the night en route. Paul and I would return to Long Island in the autumn to explore it further in the autumn months.

We cleared in at George Town, arriving just in time for the annual National Family Island Regatta where crews on traditional Bahamian sloops from all the island groups compete and party. The photographers in the group, Paul, Nick, Rob and I, had fun capturing the antics on film and the whole crew enjoyed the shoreside festivities and meals out. Later in the spring the annual George Town Cruisers Regatta is popular.

Staniel Cay Yacht ClubStaniel Cay Yacht Club – dinghies on the beach: Going ashore in their new Highfield inflatable dinghy, Paul pulled up their dinghy with others at Staniel Cay Club at the small harbour here. The yacht club and Staniel Cay is a popular stop for sailors and private
pilots cruising the Exumas.

Eager to get back out sailing, anchoring and snorkelling again, we stocked up at Exuma Market, the largest grocery store in the Exuma islands; got cash at the Scotia Bank and RBC (yes, Canadian banks here) and headed north up the Exuma chain island-hopping our way to Staniel Cay, another popular spot with cruising sailors and mega yachts alike due to facilities provided by Staniel Cay Yacht Club (where we all enjoyed a fine dinner out), Fowl Cay Resort and other more basic local establishments. Other popular attractions at Staniel Cay are Thunderball Cave, featured in the James Bond movie, Thunderball, which is a beautiful snorkelling and swimming site at slack tide, and not to be missed, the famous swimming pigs at Pig Beach in the Big Major Spot anchorage.

Mega Yacht ToysBig Major Spot – Mega Yacht toys: Sailboats aren’t the only boats cruising the Bahamas. Mega Yachts at anchor near Staniel Cay with a fun selection of water toys off the stern.

Staniel Cay is also a base for Makers Air and a good place to have parts and supplies shipped in from the US mainland. The small airline is based in Fort Lauderdale and, for a very reasonable price, will hold your shipments for you until you arrive in Staniel Cay to pick them up and handle all customs and duties paperwork. You pick up your packages at Staniel Cay Yacht Club.

At this point our plan was to turn back to sail back to George Town so our friends could catch their planes home, but they were keen to continue exploring. So rather than back-tracking, we sailed on after organizing for a small plane from Staniel Cay to fly them back to George Town later to meet their flight to Nassau and home in a couple of days. The air charter was just $650 US so divided between the four of them was quite acceptable to get in another couple of days of sailing and snorkelling in new places. If they had been flying to the US, seaplane charters and Makers Air would have been options.

Exuma Yacht Club, Outdoor PatioExuma Yacht Club, George Town, outdoor patio: L to R: Paul Shard, Richard Thomas, Sheryl Shard, Nick Gill, Caroline Gill, Sue Heath, Julie Thomas. Southerly Owners enjoying a meal ashore after being underway for several days.

For the month of May 2019, Paul and I continued island-hopping all through the Exuma Cays filming and editing new videos and enjoying life at anchor. Then came June and the start of Hurricane Season, the risk of bad weather and the end of insurance coverage for Distant Shores III in that part of the world.

So we made arrangements to leave Distant Shores III in safe-keeping and headed home to summer in Canada. But we returned in mid-November. Join us in the December Canadian Yachting for more details on cruising the Bahamas And in the mean-time, check out the resources on the Canadian Yachting website at www.canadianyachting.ca!

There is a detailed guide for charter and cruising resources to learn more about the Bahamas on the Canadian Yachting website. Visit the site to locate:

Bahamas Tourist Office
Noonsite.com – The Ultimate Cruisers Planning Tool
George Town Exuma Sailors and Cruisers Facebook Group
Bahamas, Land and Sea Facebook Group
Seven Seas Cruising Association
Recommended Cruising Guides…and more!

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