We Caught a Fish!(And Ourselves)

We had been on the water for scarcely an hour before one of our fishing lines was hit hard. The East wind had forced us to sail down the coastline of Great Exuma Island. Now, our fisherman friends from West End had taught us to navigate the drop off from shallow to deep water for optimum fishing, and it just so happened that our course forced us directly along that line. John, recognizing the opportunity that this presented, threw out the lines, and began calling “here fishy fishy fishy fishy” in that…distinctive voice that he uses when he’s bored. Jackson and I had just told him that the fish couldn’t actually hear him and were contemplating the practicability of using him as bait when the reel squealed behind us, bent almost double. Everybody started yelling “fish on”, and a scene transpired that resembled nothing so much as a Three Stooges skit. John fairly leapt up to the rail to begin reeling the fish in as Ellen threw on the motor and sailed up into the wind to reduce speed. Unfortunately, as such things are wont to go with us, the line tangled almost immediately, and John and Jackson were forced to pull the line in by hand, hoping the entire time, no doubt, that the fish wouldn’t decide to put an extra effort into taking the line, and their fingers with it. I grabbed our spear for a makeshift gaff, and ineffectually jabbed it into the fish’s head to help them pull it into the boat. Finally, John and Jackson managed to lay it out in the cockpit, and we all looked around at each other wondering what to do next.

The fish was flopping so much that we were worried about it flipping itself right back into the ocean, so Jackson grabbed a winch handle to hit it in the head and stun it. Unfortunately, the only result of this well-intentioned action was that John, who was holding the fish still, suddenly bore a remarkable similarity to a Celtic warrior, as he was immediately splattered with blood. Nevertheless, the fish did not cease his efforts to remove himself from our presence, and eventually someone shouted “Cut its head off!”(we hope that you interpret this statement as an overreaction to the adrenaline of the moment, rather than as an indication of some latent barbarism in our personalities). Figuring that this would, at the very least, be an effective method of dispatching it, I grabbed our filleting knife, and proceeded to decapitate the hapless fish, though not before we managed to get a measurement of it(roughly 56 inches). We later learned that an easier, quicker, and unquestionably more humane method of killing fish is to pour a bit of alcohol over their gills, but we were in an emotional state at the time, without much room for rational thought. The fish that had been unlucky to find itself on our boat was a dolphin fish, also known as “dorado” or “mahi-mahi”, but lest you worry that it is in any way related to Flipper, Snowflake, or other such cute, mammalian sea animals, I can guarantee that it is, in fact, just a beautiful fish with a misleading name. I fileted it right there on deck over the course of the morning, and as we went into our night shifts, it was with a bit more adrenaline than normal, and the knowledge that we had about 10lbs of fish waiting for us when we made it to Rum Cay.

We still had a small hurdle to jump before we made it there, however. We were forced to beat into the wind all night and through the following morning, and it was a windy, rainy day that we sailed out into. We had just turned the engine on to give us some extra speed when we tacked and heard it sputter and die. What had gone wrong was obvious. When we tacked, the starboard genoa line had conceived to slide overboard(which no one had noticed in the ruckus) and become wrapped around the propeller. Now diving down to address the matter is simple in calm, still weather, but quite another matter in 20 knots of wind and 5-foot waves. We cut the line from the boat and John prepared to dive in, but looked so miserable getting into his wetsuit that I decided to undertake the task myself(truth be told, I rather trusted his driving with me underneath the boat more than mine with him).

It didn’t take long for me to get ready, and before I knew it, I was scrambling down the ladder with a knife in my hand, praying frantically that there weren’t any sharks around to take me for a particularly large piece of bait. The knife turned out to be thoroughly ineffectual, as the boat was heaving so much, and the line was so awkwardly placed, that I was likely to cut through an artery on my wrist before managing to cut the line. The end of the line was accessible, however, so I instead set to unwinding it from around the propeller shaft, using the point of the knife to help pry it out. This was a painstaking process, further complicated by the heaving boat, which often came down to rap me smartly on the head when I wasn’t careful. Fortunately I had a line tied around my body in case I received a particularly concussive knock from our little piglet and needed to be pulled in.

I had to take several breaks to stand on the ladder and gather myself, and I noticed on one of them that, though the water looked depressingly gray and stormy from above, as soon as I put my head into the water, the most vivid, deep blue sprang up at me. This was not the light turquoise of the Caribbean shallows, nor yet the forbidding darkness of the northern ocean. This was a pure, monochromatic royal blue that gave the impression of staring into a boundless cosmos of water. The sight very nearly made me gasp, which would have been unpleasant with both of my breathing orifices under water. This intense distraction aside, I finally found myself with the last little shred of line to unwind and discovered to my chagrin(though not my surprise) that it was stuck between the zincs and the propeller. I pulled, wiggled, tugged, and profaned the offending line, all to no avail, until I finally evacuated the ladder altogether, grabbed onto the line with both hands, put both feet on the side of the keel and heaved it free, just grabbing the ladder in time to avoid getting dragged 15 feet behind the boat. We pulled into Rum Cay that evening, just as it was starting to get dark, looking forward very much to a full night of sleep.

Emerald Bay Marina and Georgetown

To be honest, we really didn’t expect to spend the night at Emerald Bay. We were planning on anchoring down by Georgetown with the other 250-odd vessels that are apparently there at any given time, but we needed fuel, and the more we learned about the anchorage and the marina, the more inclined we were to just tie up for a few days. For starters, anchoring in an East wind requires one to anchor over next to stocking island, which is apparently a very cool place, but which is also a half mile or so from Georgetown. This meant that our dinghy ride there would be lovely, but the half mile back would be an uncomfortable, wet slog, barely even manageable.

Our dinghy, while immeasurably superior to the rubber ducky that we left in Florida, has one or two qualities that would make this journey especially difficult. For starters, it sports a 4hp motor. Now, this is perfectly adequate for tooling around on calm days, and  getting to where you need to go with very little gas. Unfortunately, it means doing so very slowly, and the few times that we have taken it out against high wind and even mild waves have been supremely unpleasant. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the dinghy leaks somewhat heavily. It never lets in enough water to sink the boat, but any time I have mentioned “dinghying to shore”, whatever image this brought to your mind can now be accompanied by a picture of us sitting miserably, braced against the spray, with calf-deep water swilling around the inside of the dinghy. The thought of welcoming Jackson to the Bahamas with a damp, cold, uncomfortable dinghy ride with all his luggage was unappealing to us, and the discovery that the marina offers a 3-night deal for $1 a foot per night if you don’t plug into electricity was enough to sway us. When we discovered the free wifi, big-screen tv and billiards room, we lost all thought of leaving and settled in for a few days of gathering ourselves before setting off for Rum Cay.

The following day we enjoyed our most productive day since Nassau, plugging the leaks in the aforementioned dinghy, repairing its inflatable floor, washing all of our gear, and reinstalling the Radar, which had been lying on the deck since our sail to Nassau, in spite of my every wish to hurl it into the deepest, darkest depths of the ocean. We had learned that renting a car was relatively inexpensive, so we acquired one the following morning to do errands in Georgetown and pick Jackson up that night. Now, while John offered to drive, I was feeling a bit guilty, as he always tends to shuttle us around(he being the oldest and most responsible with his automobiles), and so I felt like I should do him a favor and do the renting and driving for the day. Lest you forget, the Bahamas follow British driving laws, and so I was forced to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road under fire, as it were. Fortunately, there were very few other cars on the road to hit, and I made several small sacrifices of gratitude to the various deities that I wasn’t driving stick.

Georgetown is a great little village, about half an hour south of Emerald Bay, and we explored it in full, visiting the tourist information center, phone center, customs, immigration, post office, grocery store, and two different dive stores. Our main quest that day was to pick up our new mainsail, which John’s and my parents were generous enough to give us for Christmas(you may recall the 4- and 6-foot tears in our old mainsail), but we had several other errands to run and supplies to pick up as well. Georgetown is built in a continuous one-way loop, a convenient set-up, unless you need to drive to the store a few hundred yards behind you. We must have realized 4 or 5 times that our next stop lay only a stone’s throw behind us, and as each store parking lot can only accommodate around 3 cars, we had to bring the car with us, driving perhaps 6 extra miles that we could have avoided, had we planned our stops in any method other than haphazardly. Once we’d dropped all of our supplies off, we picked Jackson up at the airport and took him down to the Georgetown Fish Fry, where we introduced him to fresh grilled fish, Kalik(our favorite Bahamian beer), and conch fritters. The next morning, Tuesday January 29th, we set sail for Rum Cay on our first real sojourn over deep water since leaving Nassau. Care to guess whether it was uneventful?

Iguanas and Black Point Settlement

On our way down to Black Point Settlement, we stopped over at this beach on Bitter Guana Cay, where a gaggle of iguanas (I know that word doesn’t actually apply to a group of iguanas, but I like it) live in a protected habitat. As they are a protected species, and there are signs, warning against feeding them, we most certainly did not bring any food to attract the iguanas, although there were several piles of corn, mysteriously placed around the beach that they fed on, making for some great photos. By the time we got to Black Point, the wind had picked up, so swimming wasn’t really an option, but we went into town and enjoyed internet and our first burgers in ages before retiring to the boat early(slogging through waves with a 4hp motor is kinda miserable, so it’s best to do so before it gets too cold). I went into town alone the following morning to get a haircut, an experience that would have been wholly uneventful, had I not forgotten the starter cord for the dinghy. I was blown halfway to Andros Island before I managed to jury-rig the engine with a pair of tweezers and drag my soaking, bedraggled body ashore a few unpleasant minutes later.

The laundromat in Black Point is apparently the focal point of the entire settlement, and it wound up being our home base for the entire day. On top of laundry machines, they also offer grocery supplies, haircuts, showers, and golf cart rentals. Because renting a golf cart was fairly cheap, we took one that afternoon and drove all over the island, exploring just about every road that exists there, and seeing some beautiful landscapes, as well as a half-constructed marina, and a castle that we wanted to go see, before we saw that someone clearly lived there and had placed a prominent “no trespassing” sign on the approach that stymied even our normally insatiable curiosity. We finished the day as we began it, back at the landromat, where we each purchased an 8-minute shower, which may have been some of the best money I’ve ever spent. Swimming in the ocean is pleasant and all, but we hadn’t had a real shower since Nassau, a week and a half before, and as my hair had been, up until that morning, a curly, matted mess, a good 2-inch layer of salt had caked itself into my scalp and stubbornly refused to budge until I had run shampoo through it at least 4 times, attacking it persistently with a comb as if I were scraping paint(yes, I could have just said that the showers were refreshing, but where’s the fun in that?).

Our next couple days were fairly uneventful as we made our way down the Exumas. The wind was blowing too hard to really enjoy swimming, and we were trying to make miles down to Georgetown, where we were meeting a friend of John’s, Jackson, who was flying in on the 28th. We spent a night anchored at Rudder Cut Cay, and an incredibly comfortable night moored at Lee Stocking Island, where the Marine Research Center apparently maintains free moorings. We had no idea when we pulled up and began maneuvering for an anchorage, but a few people came out in a dinghy and told us to just take a mooring ball. So after sleeping better than we had in weeks, we got up the next morning and ventured out onto the heaving ocean for our quick jaunt down to the Marina at Emerald Bay.

Staniel Cay and Thunderball Grotto

Upon arriving at Staniel Cay, our first move was to seek out fishing locations in the area, and both John and I met with success for the first time this trip, successfully spearing a lion fish and two lobster, which was a greater haul than we had seen thus far, given our abysmal spearfishing abilities. As we were making a plan for cooking that evening, we received a call on the radio from Patty and Jess, two women, whom we’d met that morning at Big Majors, who invited us to dinner on their boat. For those who have never cruised in the Bahamas(I would imagine that would include most of you), this is a common occurance that helps you meet your fellow cruisers and get a decent meal out of the deal. Although we offered to cook up the lobster, Patty, Jess, and their friend Zach from a nearby boat chose instead to treat us to an absolutely delicious conch alfredo, so we left our lobster tails with them instead as a good-faith gift. We also made a plan with Jess to go fishing out on the ocean side of Staniel the following morning, as the wind was supposed to die, and to visit the Thunderball Grotto at slack tide in the afternoon.

Now, during the winter season, wind in the Bahamas generally comes from the East, which is  ideal for cruising the Exumas, as it allows you to remain mostly protected on the Bahama Bank in fairly shallow water, sheltered from both wind and waves. What we hoped was that this left a plentiful fishing ground on the eastern side of the islands, as few would venture out into waves. The next day showed promise of very little wind, so we hoped to enjoy a tranquil swim on the ocean side of the island. As you can probably imagine, given the general tone of our blog, we were wrong. While the wind was calm, the waves had not yet died down, and we found ourselves reeling as the boat rocked in every direction, creating several problems as we tried to load our gear into the dinghy without dropping anything overboard or bringing the dinghy into a position where the heaving stern of the boat might crush it under the water. As frustrating as that was, we were even more incensed when our “untapped fishing grounds” turned out to be about as vibrant as the Sahara.

Fortunately, our afternoon proved much more entertaining as we visited the Thunderball Grotto, which many of you have undoubtedly seen in the movie…wait for it…Thunderball. I was worried that it might turn out to be a lame tourist attraction, but in this case our anticipation was not in vain. Thunderball Grotto may very well have been the most touristy activity that we have yet done, and it was totally worth it. To get inside, you must swim under the exterior of this cave to find yourself in the cavern, looking up at the sky from within the rock. The fish around the grotto are totally accustomed to human presence, and they have no fear in swimming along with you, nibbling at your mask and fins, looking for food. There are three entrances to the grotto. One is a fairly standard entrance that is not particularly notable, but the other two are actually quite cool. One of those is instantly recognizable to anyone who has seen the movie Thunderball. It is this wide, blue horizontal slash in the cavern that leads out into the channel. We tried to get a good shot of us swimming through, because if you’re going to be a cheesy tourist, you might as well go all the way, but the lighting that day unfortunately didn’t cooperate, and so we were left with several unflattering pictures of me floating lamely in the foreground with a vaguely blue slash of light behind me. The other is an awesome, totally submerged hole that emerges from the seabed underneath the cavern. You have to swim under several yards of rock to get to it, and then dive down through this hole that eventually curves up on the other side of the wall. Although we didn’t get as many great pictures as I would have liked, it was an incredibly cool experience, and as someone who grew up with all of the Sean Connery James Bond movies, it tickled my inner nerd to no end to be the 157,624,472nd person to swim through there since Mr. Connery.

We stayed at Staniel Cay Marina that night, as it was a Sunday, and the AFC and NFC chamiopnships were attracting every American for 50 miles in any direction. I care very little about the NFC since the Bears missed the playoffs, but I enjoyed seeing the 49ers win, and I was frankly ecstatic to watch Tom Brady and Bill Belichick drop their heads in frustration, embarrassment and failure, as the last minute ticked away and their hopes of losing the Superbowl yet again were dashed in a wave of purple and gold. This memory kept me ebullient through the following day, which was comparatively uneventful, although we did manage to bag another lion fish and lobster tail, which we brought to yet another dinner gathering, put on by a nearby catamaran. You always feel a bit more productive when you actually have seafood to contribute to such potlucks, and we frankly feasted on lobster tails, grouper, trigger fish, and wahoo, as well as “bahamian” mac and cheese, all contributed by the various guests. Although we had thoroughly enjoyed our time at Staniel, it was time to get a move on, and so we departed early the following morning for Black Point Settlement.

Shroud Cay and Big Majors, and Swimming Pigs


Upon leaving Norman’s Cay, we had hoped to at least see Norman’s pond, a very protected area on the eastern side of the island, but pounding through six-foot waves on the ocean side of the island convinced us within minutes that that particular goal was not worth the trouble. We also thought about snorkeling the sunken wreck of an old drug running plane, but a combination of high wind, choppy seas, strong tides, and being complete sissies led us to remain in our dinghy, relatively dry, viewing the plane through goggles from the surface. Instead, we motored down to Shroud Cay(for those of you keeping track, yes, it is about 3 miles south of Norman’s), and, spent a fairly lazy afternoon at anchor. The weather wasn’t fantastic, and as we were in a marine sanctuary, spearing fish was definitely off the table. Instead, Ellen and I decided to go explore the river into the island’s mangroves and would have done so, had the inlet to the cay been deep enough for the dinghy to motor. Unfortunately, sand bars obstructed our motor most effectively, and though we tried to row instead, the tide was still going out with such strength that it was all we could do to remain in the same spot, let alone actually make any progress. The most I managed to achieve was a stubborn ache in my shoulder and lower back that persisted until the following day.

Incidentally, speaking of the following day, we stopped over at Fowl Cay the next night, hoping to snorkel the cave nearby the following morning. The weather wasn’t ideal the next morning, but we managed to get in and out before it clouded up too much. The cave was incredibly cool, with several curious fish that would come up and nibble at your fins. The cave was still inside the boundaries of the land and sea national park, so no fishing was possible(though I would be remiss if I faild to admit that I took my spear into the water with me even so, just in case a toothy member of the local fauna decided that we looked enough like food to give us a try.

We made a few more miles that day and anchored down in Big Majors Spot in the early afternoon where we were forced, due to inclement weather, to sit at anchor all afternoon and amuse ourselves with our various books, kindles and iPads, while the wind and rain howled outside. In fact, the most intense athletic activity, in which I engaged that day, other than the cave swim, was scraping the brad that Ellen had made out of the pressure cooker(an activity that was quickly negated, as we spent the next two hours tearing the entire loaf apart like barbarians until mere crumbs were left to betray our appetites. The next morning we woke up with a plan for the first time since we’d been in the Exumas. Big Majors is famous for its swimming pigs, so we motored up close and took our dinghy in to see whether the accounts were true. As it turned out, the pig’s ability to swim was not nearly as striking as their immense size. We had imagined that swimming pigs would be these small, cute, poodle-sized animals, and were instead faced with these monstrous, porcine behemoths that did not so much beg for food as demand it, grunting aggressively when denied. They even went so far as to climb into our dinghy, searching for morsels, a move that concerned us greatly, as our dinghy is fragile at the best of times, let alone when a 400lb hog is jamming its hooves through our inflatable floor.  I should also note that “swimming” is a rather gracious term for what these animals do. They sort of lumber into the water as dinghies approach, and eventually lose purchase, grunting irritably as they get too deep and scrabble with all four legs, bobbing haphazardly towards the waiting boats. After this strangely appetite-stimulating experience we set off for Staniel Cay, a mere mile or so south of us, and perhaps the most-recommended Island in the Exumas.

Norman’s Cay, and John’s First Spearfishing Success

We went into Highborne Cay the following morning(Wednesday, January 16th, for those of you not yet tired of trying to keep track of our dates), to refuel and stock up on water, but headed our almost immediately to get further south into the Exumas. Upon leaving the marina, we saw no fewer than ten sharks circling the dock lazily, perhaps 200 yards from where we’d been snorkeling the previous afternoon. Now, they were nurse sharks, which, if you listen to some Bahamians are scarcely more dangerous than a kitten. I hesitate to point out to them that if a kitten takes a swipe at your hand, you may wind up with a few scratches, while if a nurse shark decides to see how your hand tastes, you may very well wind up a few fingers short. Whatever the truth of the matter, I have no problem leaving those activities that involve swimming with nurse sharks to others, and remain on the boat, should I see any such “kittens” in the water.

Our next stop that day was Norman’s Cay, where we had our first taste of spearfishing success. Spearfishing is not nearly as easy as one might imagine. For starters, finding a likely candidate is more difficult than you probably imagine. Groups of fish and lobster tend to hang out around coral heads, which, though so prevalent when you are navigating your boat into an anchorage, are markedly more difficult to find when you are seeking out food. Lobsters are usually hidden somewhere inside or underneath coral heads, with the only indication of their presence, if indeed they show themselves at all, is their antennae peeking out of the coral, easily mistaken for twigs or other such innocuous coral growths. Then comes actually shooting the animal. Our weapon of choice is a pole spear(also called a Hawaiian sling by many, though there is some contention in regards to these terms), which is essentially just a spear with a rubber loop at one end of it. To shoot, you grasp this lanyard, slide your hand as far up the spear as you can, take aim, and release the spear at your intended target while maintaining your grasp on the lanyard so as not to lose your grasp on the spear entirely. Now, aiming in this fashion is mildly difficult, as it requires one to bring the spear up to an awkward angle next to the face, or else to approximate the aim while shooting from a more comfortable position.

John and I have shown ourselves to be rather less than proficient at the task of spearing fish, although John does have a remarkably keen eye for finding lobster, as he first proved on this occasion. I don’t know how he found the lobster hidden deep inside the coral head, but I handed him the spear and he shot it straight through with little issue. Unfortunately, the lobster did not seem to feel that being speared was a good enough reason to relinquish its grip on the coral, and John was forced to drop the spear and head to the surface for air(John has many fine qualities, but holding his breath for long periods of time is not yet among them). Not wanting to allow any lobster to outwit two college graduates, I dove down upon John’s surfacing and managed to “convince” our prickly friend to come with us back to the dinghy. Most people recommend holding any speared animal out of the water for this trip to keep the animal’s struggles and blood to attract other interested parties.

Upon successfully depositing the lobster in our bucket, I returned to the coral head to quickly kill the three lion fish that I had seen slowly meandering around the head. You may very well ask why lion fish were my target, and there are a couple reasons. The first, and more environmentally concerned, is that lion fish are an invasive species with no real predators in this part of the world and are playing hell with the food chain throughout the Bahamas and Caribbean. They eat the young of most of the local fishes, such as grouper and trigger fish, decimating their population, and since their introduction to the ecosystem they have become such a problem that cruisers are actively encouraged to spear as many of them as possible to keep their numbers under control. The other, less morally upright reason is that lion fish are remarkable unconcerned about close approaches by divers(having multiple spines that deliver a hugely venomous sting along their backs), allowing us to approach not within feet, but within inches with our spearhead.

Given this genuine lack of concern for their own well , you probably think that being I was able to slay all three lion fish easily within minutes, and you would be correct if I had shown any sort of aptitude for spearfishing whatsoever. Alas, all I managed to do in five minutes of increasingly frustrated hunting was drive all three fish into the center of the coral head and out of sight, as I blundered comically, missing all three fish repeatedly, and ultimately making wild stabs that were as likely to hit myself as the fish at which I was ostensibly aiming. I do take some solace in the knowledge that lion fish do react remarkably wuickly to danger, and so were able to dart out of the way of my earlier, less clumsy attempts. Additionally, I definitely scared them all thoroughly, and I bet it was a good day or two before they felt comfortable showing their faces around the reef again. In spite of my failed attempts to “save the reef” we were treated to John’s lobster tail for dinner that night, which was so large it extended across both sides of our dinner plate and was a good 3-4 inches thick. This was more than enough to fill even our empty stomachs, and so we fell into sleep early again that night, exhausted, but feeling like we had achieved a certain milestone in our fishing training.

Highborne Cay

We awoke the following morning in a tropical paradise. The sun was shining, the breeze was gentle, and it was all we could do to keep ourselves from leaping into the water then and there. We had our destination in mind, however, and so we left Allen’s for Highborne Cay, and motored the three or four miles to the anchorage without incident. Now, before I go any further, you may have noticed that all of these names have the descriptor “cay” after them. This essentially means “little island”, but the real trick is in the pronunciation. It may seem self-explanatory, as we thought before we learned that the quickest way to elicit a condescending correction from a fellow cruiser is to mention that you were anchored at Allen’s “kay”. The correct pronunciation, despite all linguistic evidence to the contrary is “key”. To anyone who knows him, it should come as no surprise to you that John has taken a strong moral stand against this pronunciation, refusing to say “key” and vehemently explaining his opposition in detail to anyone who tries to correct him(read: everyone).

Upon anchoring, we saw a few promising rocks nearby, and fairly leapt into the dinghy to try our hand at snorkeling and spearfishing. Snorkeling is an activity that is for me both exciting and terrifying. One of the most impressive and indeed frightening aspects of it is entering an environment that is clearly not my own. If you are reading this, you have probably, at some point, noticed your dependence upon air for breathing and undoubtedly additionally discovered that water, though apparently 1/3 oxygen by some scientists’ reports, does not, in fact, allow for it. As a result, I feel perfectly comfortable harboring some reasonable caution as I descend into a totally foreign world. Everything constricts as you swim deeper. Your mask gets tighter around your face, your wetsuit takes on a slimming fit, and the world that you can observe so dispassionately from the surface is suddenly right in your face. Things are magnified under the water, and I have often found myself disoriented as I swim over a coral head, watching various colorful fishes flash in front of me. There are far too many animals moving around to watch them all at once, but they are all so vibrantly colorful that they grab the attention, and the presence of so many in one place, all moving in different directions is enough to drive me to distraction.

I should here add that I have a certain healthy appreciation for my mortality, particularly the potential influence that sharks might have upon it. Now, my companions may call this perfectly reasonable perception of oceanic fauna “feverish paranoia”, but I also have a sneaking suspicion that they are not entirely upset with my tendency to spend approximately 12% of my time in the water relishing the coral ecosystem and enjoying the various antics of the cute fishes darting around one another, and the other 88% of my time looking around warily with my spear, scanning for sharks and sometimes staring fixedly at a particular shadow that looks suspiciously like a shark speeding towards us, only to realize that it was a perfectly innocuous coral head. You may laugh, but it’s a lot easier for your imagination to run wild when you’re holding your breath, desperate for air and surrounded on all sides by oppressive shark territory.

We were thoroughly unsuccessful that first day, but had an absolute blast in the water and quickly learned how exhausted swimming several hours a day makes you after 6 months of sedentary relaxation. We found ourselves sitting around our cabin table, wholly incapable of any action beyond bringing our forks to our mouths(apparently failure tastes suspiciously like ramen). This exhaustion led us to appropriate the sleeping schedule of our 76-year old neighbors, and before our ramen pot had grown cold we were prostrate, unconscious by 9pm.

Visual Piloting

Before I delve into our time in the Exumas, I should make note of the substantial alteration that our itinerary incurred as a result of our fractured chain plate. While we initially intended to stay in Nassau for a night, and visit as many Caribbean Islands as possible for the next two months, our whole month in Nassau has thrown our plans off and forced us to reconsider. We have instead decided to relax a bit more and enjoy our time in the Bahamas, while visiting Turks and Caicos and perhaps the Dominican Republic. Basically, you will be treated to far fewer tales of long, unsleeping 24-hour stretches of sailing(though these will still feature every now and again for those who enjoy them…we certainly don’t), and you will instead be privy to far more over-long descriptions of 5-mile stretches, relaxing in the sun, while snorkeling and spearfishing at every opportunity. You’re pretty much gonna start hating us.

Getting from Nassau to Highborne Island, where we intended to stay the first night was a bit industrious for our little piggy. It was only about 40 miles, but as we left around 1pm, we would undoubtedly be arriving in the dark. Now, normally this wouldn’t bother us, as we’ve anchored in the dark almost as often as in sunlight throughout this trip, but it is a very different proposition in the Bahamas. For starters, the Great Bahama Bank is already shallow. We have rarely seen depths above 20ft, and every island is surrounded by sandbars anywhere from 3 feet below the surface, to actually being exposed at low tide. Additionally, most of these Islands are ringed with rocks and coral heads that force you to take a very specific course into the anchorages, if you don’t want the hull of your boat stripped out faster than you can say “Titanic”.

Everyone who wishes to cruise in the Bahamas must therefore rely on “visual piloting”, a phrase that I am confident was created by chart and gps manufacturers to tell boaters: “you will probably sink your boat here, since there are too many of these damn things to mark them all down, so don’t go blaming it on us”. Visual piloting requires one to examine the water and interpret the various shades of blue to tell the helmsmen whether we are safe, in an area that requires caution, or in absolutely no danger of sinking because we are already aground. Even with our (terrifyingly) limited knowledge of visual piloting, we learned very quickly that darkness makes it quite difficult to see at all, let alone to interpret varying hues of blue. The colors that even under cloud cover become depressingly similar take on an even more uniform “dark” shade when the sun goes down. We therefore felt it prudent to be a bit more conservative in our anchoring that night, and chose to anchor behind Allen’s Cay(more on these names later), an island that was perhaps only 3 miles closer than Highborne, but which also allowed a much closer approach without confronting those natural minefields that marine biologists and liberals like to call “coral”.

Replacing the Chain Plate and our first Spearfishing Experience

I am unfortunately unable to describe the re-application of our chain plates in great detail, as I was held up in New York City for a few days with a stomach virus that had seemingly made its ultimate goal the thorough perforation of my stomach and intestinal lining. This unfortunate gastronomic misstep alleviated, however, I returned to Nassau to find John and Ellen elbow-deep in resin, and almost finished with fiberglassing the chain plate back into the hull. Without delving into too much detail(as I, myself have only a cursory knowledge of the process), they had to mix the resin and a hardener together, soak the fiberglass in it, and then lay the fiberglass over the bar while continuing to coat both the fiberglass and the hull with resin. Now, as this sounds so laughably easy as to be completed in a long afternoon, let me go over a couple of the complications. First of all, each layer must harden before the following layer can be applied, forcing a wait of several hours between coats. Secondly, this hardener, which takes so long to dry on the hull, causes the resin to gum up within ten minutes, forcing us to repeat the mixing process in tiny batches throughout the job. Additionally, as with any good adhesive, this concoction is dutifully sticky, a  quality that Ellen and I heard a lot about, as John had somehow managed to bathe his forearms in it(I thought it could have been worse) and complained for the next several days about having to remove the resin, along with most of his arm hair and skin, with sandpaper. Nevertheless, the day after my arrival, Thursday, January 10th, they succeeded in laying the final layer of fiberglass, allowing us to put the interior of the boat back together the following day. This task proceeded with surprisingly little difficulty, and we were indeed almost entirely finished by Friday evening when the whole marina was treated to a barbecue by the crew of At Last, our omnipresent companions. We stayed up late into the night enjoying the various dishes and beverages provided by At Last and several other cruisers in the marina, and chatting with everyone we could find about places to see and things to do in the Exumas. We felt that it was a fitting way to end our month in Nassau, as we were leaving two days later, but we were entirely unprepared for what transpired the following afternoon.

Jay(a member of the At Last crew, and the guy who lent us all those tools a few weeks ago) came by and asked if we wanted to go fishing. We would be crazy to turn down an offer like that, and so he brought us out to a nearby island, before jumping right into the water and showing us how to spearfish, and perhaps more importantly, find our targets. Jay caught us a lobster, and I managed to spear a lion fish(a feat that I had, up until a few days ago, been unable to replicate). We had an amazing time, and truly can’t thank Jay enough for everything that he showed us. We had an idea previously of how to spearfish, but no practical knowledge, and learning from someone so adept gave us a lot more confidence. We set out from Nassau the next afternoon, excited, but unsure as to what we might find. After a month of sitting pretty in a marina with amenities like wifi and real restrooms nearby, would we be able to re-acclimate to life, stuck on our little piglet? Only time would tell.

The Island of Nassau, and My Big Mistake

The day before we left was rather less majestic. We got our chain plate back Tuesday morning, as promised, and it looked great. The plate that had broken had been completely replaced, and the rest of the bar had been cleaned so that it looked almost new. Whatever his other faults, Mike certainly knows metal. Unfortunately, when we tried to fit the piece back in, it wouldn’t go. The head’s wall restricted its downward movement, while our newly replaced chain plate caught on the holding tank’s pressure release valve. Apparently, the only reason we’d been able to pull the bar out in the first place was the that the chain plate had been broken. Ellen wanted to cut down through the wall, which would allow us to slip the bar underneath, but I was tired of fiberglass shards in everything and reasoned that we could simply remove the hose, and slip the bar around and into place. This conundrum undoubtedly makes no sense without seeing what we were looking at, but this is what it came down to. I decided, for reasons that I still don’t fully understand, to remove a hose connected directly to our sewage tank. You probably know where this is going already, but yes, I had precisely half a second to scream my entire (extensive) vocabulary of blasphemous profanity in my head after I removed the hose from its fitting with a strong “pop”, before I was covered to the elbows in the apparently volcanic contents of our holding tank. The stench that hit me like a right hook from an uruk hai was truly indescribable, and the only thing that I was able to utter was “GET OUT!” to Ellen, as she tried to figure out what was going on. I frantically slammed the chain plate around the fitting and replaced the hose, all while attempting to control my rising gorge. We then stood back to examine the gravity of my mistake, and determine the clean-up process. Quite aside from my forearms(already a formidable cleaning job), I had managed to coat the counter-top and the interior wall of the hull, all the way down behind the inner lining in the same dreck. I’m not sure if there is a measurement that adequately describes how much bleach I used over the next few hours, but I believe that a metric ton might do nicely(that’s a measure of volume, right?). I scrubbed at the wall with a sponge, a scotchbrite pad, and when I got desperate, even a dish scrubber(which will, I’m afraid, never scrub another dish), until the only thing that you could smell in the restroom, and indeed the entire boat, was bleach strong enough to make your eyes water. Some of this toxic sludge had also leaked into adjoining compartments, and these, too, were treated with enough bleach to sterilize a rainforest(I should here note for my mother’s sake that I was, in fact, wearing an industrial respirator, eye protection, and gloves the entire time, saving at least two years of my life). Finally, John managed to get my attention and take us on a tour of Providence Island in a car that we had rented to get us to the airport. This was a fortunate distraction, as I had begun to assume a somewhat manic demeanor, with wide, unblinking eyes, and occasional spurts of slightly hysterical laughter.

Our tour around Nassau was interesting, but also convinced us that we were definitely on the safer side of the island. Very little exists on the other side of Nassau. There are a very few, almost abandoned towns, and even these are widely scattered between occasional gated mansions, and blatantly abandoned construction sites. Even the beaches are strewn with litter, and it all gives off the distinctive aura of neglect. Clearly the only real stimuli to the local economy are the tourist attractions on the northern coast, and attempts to expand across the island have been curtailed by recent economic woes. It was a sobering drive, and one that exposed the less palatable underbelly of the Bahamas. It is easy to explore the strip between Paradise and Providence Islands, visit the markets, bars, and marinas, and proclaim it a paradise. This idyllic atmosphere does not persist, however, as you move inland and see true want and destitution in these isolated neighborhoods. It is not for me to say how a country should appear when literally billions of dollars pass through each year, but there is no doubt that the scarred, polluted interior of the island stood in stark contrast to the gaudy frivolities that we enjoyed in this “paradise.” We awoke a bit more reflectively the following morning, December 19th, and drove out to the airport for a couple welcome weeks back home seeing family and friends for the holidays.