Exuma Land and Sea Park, Part I

We were beginning to go stir-crazy at Allans Cay…so thankfully, the bank finally showed enough improvement that we felt comfortable moving on. No mutiny…phew! We had two things going for us that Saturday morning: calm seas AND winds from the east. As soon as we hauled up the dinghy, we were on our way. Just about 20 miles south was Hawksbill Cay, our second stop in the Exuma Land and Sea Park.

Our three-hour trip was a blast…nothing like Gilligan’s! 10 to 15 knot winds kept our sails full on a beam reach. We got on a pretty good lean as the wind heeled us over, but not too much to knock over my sun-tea warming on deck. As we approached Hawksbill, I replayed the instructional YouTube video in my head…I was about to pick up my first mooring ball; we wouldn’t be dropping the anchor here. I walked up on deck with the boat hook in hand. Troy slowly guided us up to the mooring ball. All I needed to do was use the boat hook to pick up the pendant attached to the mooring in the water and feed our already-prepared line through, tying it back to the forward cleat on the bow. It seemed pretty easy on YouTube…as long as I didn’t miss stretching down to the water with the boat hook! This was a nail biter, but I got it! I quickly tied us off as Troy shut off the engine. We were one of three other boats in the mooring field: two sailboats, including us, and one mega-yacht. For our sized vessel, mooring in the Land and Sea Park cost $20 per night.

20180325_1308321252116065.jpg

The water was spectacular. Turquoise blue surrounded us below while puffy white clouds filled the light blue sky above. The island in front of us boasted several white sand beaches and once we explored by dinghy, we discovered a wide, dry at high-tide, beach around the backside.

The area was pristine, picturesque, unspoiled, breathtaking…none of these adjectives really do the island justice! During our second day, we hiked to the top of the island, a rocky trail is visible from the main beach. We were treated with panoramic views and got some great shots of Salty Tails! Later, we rode to the northern end of the island and hiked to ruins once occupied by British Loyalists. As we stood within the ruins, we commented that the views we were enjoying probably looked almost identical to the landscape the Loyalists called home so long ago.

After two nights at Hawksbill, we made our way south 13 miles to Warderick Wells, the headquarters of the Exuma Land and Sea Park and the anticipated pinnacle of our trip. There are three mooring fields here, all of which require reservations by radio with the park headquarters. The North mooring field and Emerald Rock mooring field each have many mooring balls available, but over the nights we stayed, they were nearly full. We arrived around lunchtime and chose to stay at Emerald Rock. Cherry, the park attendant we spoke to over the radio, told us to pick any mooring and report to her which one we took upon check-in. We were glad I didn’t insist on that second cup of coffee while still at Hawksbill that morning because as we approached, about a mile out, we suddenly noticed an armada of boats lining up behind us on their way in. I counted seven boats to our stern…thankfully we were just ahead, so we were able to beat the scramble to find a mooring.

org_eca75d4229586428_1522093932000156852015.jpg

Warderick Wells has so much to offer. Once we checked in with Terri and purchased wifi at the office (where they also have a book exchange and gift shop), we were ready to check out what the island had to offer! Aside from enjoying the unspoiled beauty, we were able to hike several trails, snorkel nearby coral heads, relax at several beaches, and add our sign atop Boo Boo Hill. There is even a sunken boat hull in the North field (which we didn’t get a chance to see, but we will on our way back North).

Our first night was pretty windy; winds clocked at over 30 knots. We were content knowing that the park mooring balls are well maintained…we trusted our mooring just as much as our Rocna! After a restful night of sleep, we awoke ready to explore. First, our sights were set on the trail to Boo Boo Hill. It’s said that in order to appease King Neptune, cruisers are to leave a token atop Boo Boo Hill…typically this means a wooden plaque decorated with your boat’s name. We wanted some inspiration before painting our own sign, so we decided to check it out first. The enormous mound of signs is pretty impressive; years upon years of offerings lay piled, some bright and colorful and others weathered by the relentless sun and salty sea spray. Ideas were brewing in my head for our sign as we headed over to the blowholes. The Exuma Sound was pretty rough so waves crashed against the rocky wall of the island, making the blowholes extra active! I decided sticking my head over top would give a pretty good idea of the force of air…I had knots for days. The next day, we made our sign using on hand materials…black chalkboard paint, red spray paint, a few screws, and a couple feet of extra rope. As best as we could manage, we snapped a picture of our sign with our three salty tails and headed back to Boo Boo Hill to leave our offering for Neptune.

12 hanging sign

Snorkeling the nearby coral heads was next on our must-do list. Several snorkel spots are equipped with dinghy moorings, so once we tied off, we were ready to jump in. It was COLD, but I ignored my goosebumps. There were all kinds of fish and coral on the reefs. The reefs themselves weren’t huge, but they offered plenty to look at. Tropical fish of all shapes and colors called the reef home. We were even able to get nice and cozy with a nurse shark who rested at the bottom. This would make many people nervous, but we know nurse sharks are docile; it didn’t mind that we swam alongside as it got moving again.

After five nights at Warderick Wells, we were ready to say good-bye…well, sort of. We really loved spending time here and will definitely be stopping here on our way back!

10 things we’ve learned in 90 days…

We’ve been cruising and living aboard for just over 90 days now. It is hard to believe three months have already gone by. This has been an experience unlike any other. It has been challenging, physical, tiring, stressful, but also rewarding, relaxing, full of adventure, and downright satisfying. We’re new sailors and cruisers, so of course we had a steep learning curve…talk about “on the job training”! We prepared for our trip while still living our “normal” lives: scouring the internet to learn about sailing, cruising, living aboard, life on the water, weather, anchoring, and the list goes on and on. We found a wealth of information and inspiration on blogs, YouTube videos, websites, forums, all thanks to the many cruisers who document and share their journey. Every day Troy and I talk about how we’re adjusting to this life, what we have learned, things we wish we had known, things we’re proud of, and even what we’d change if we started from the beginning again. I have compiled this list as a means of capturing a summary of what we’ve learned so far. Honestly, the list is much longer than this…I could expand each of these infinitely and add many more nitty-gritty details. But for your sake, we’re keeping it to the “Big Ten”.

1. What we prefer to eat doesn’t change just because we’re living aboard.

I suppose I thought we would be living on a diet of beans and rice or soup. It was important for us to provision and stock up on foods that are shelf stable. We took major advantage of BOGO deals at Publix…canned soup, canned veggies, pasta, rice, canned tuna and chicken. We wanted to make sure we would have food that would last…while preparing, we didn’t know how long we would have to wait to visit a market or grocery store as we explored the Bahamas. Plus, we read and heard that buying food in the Bahamas can be very expensive. But guess what…there are grocery stores in the Bahamas and the many staple items are not bank breakers. Lots of our provisioning staples are still in our storage compartments…we haven’t eaten all 48 cans of soup, nor the 80+ cans of vegetables. But, we did begin running low on our favorites. About six weeks into our trip, we were just about out of cheese, bacon, deli meat (we love a yummy hot ham and cheese for lunch)…which we had already picked up more of in Miami. Our favorite tortilla chips ($2 in the states) are at least $6-$8 here…but we love them, so we buy them. I try to eat as healthy as possible…looking back, I’d stock up more on lean meats, protein bars, frozen chicken (3 chicken breasts cost upwards of $13.00 in the Bahamas). Thankfully, fresh fruits and veggies (although sometimes tricky to come by) are not overly expensive, depending on which island we’re visiting and the ease of deliveries. I’m also happy to report that we’ve found brand alternatives to snacks we enjoy…because I just can’t splurge for Oreos when they cost $9.00!

2. Weather dictates EVERYTHING.

We definitely already knew that weather would play the biggest role in our decision making. I suppose the new learning was that weather plays the biggest role in our decision making AND it is always changing! When we boated during the summers in Tampa, all we needed to know was the chance of rain and waves/chop. Now, the focus of our planning is wind. Wind speed, wind direction, the effect of the wind on the sea state (wave height, wave direction, current, tide, swell, etc.). This information answers several questions we constantly ask and assess…Can we safely travel to a new location? Will we be able to sail? Will our sail require few or many maneuvers? How will tide and current affect our travel? Will we have protection from wind/ocean swell in our anchorage? If the weather changes, how will our anchorage serve us? By no means have we become weather experts, we are far from it. What we have become is aware. Awareness and a respect for weather will keep us safe…and hopefully smiling.

3. The boat is always moving.

After a long, exhausting day at work, there is nothing better than coming home. Your home is your sanctuary: the place where you are safe, protected, and STILL. Well, the boat is our moving sanctuary…even at anchor. Weather affects the water, water affects the boat…and the boat NEVER stops moving. Whether the movement is caused by wind, current, waves/swell…we can always expect the boat to be in motion. Even on the calmest of nights, we can expect tide changes or 180° rotations which we may not feel, but will affect our anchoring decisions. Generally, we stay pretty comfortable; this is simply a feeling that took some getting used to.

4. Hardy ground tackle is an absolute MUST.

We were fortunate to purchase Salty Tails with extremely good ground tackle. Our boat is equipped with a 55lb Rocna anchor, oversized for our boat. When it comes to anchors, bigger is always better. And we’ve got it, thankfully. She is also equipped with strong 3/8” G4 chain…well over 100 feet of it. Now that we’re 90 days in, we’ve had the opportunity to talk to many other cruisers about ground tackle…what works, what doesn’t, stories of dragging, etc. When other sailors hear what kind of ground tackle we’ve got aboard, their response is always, “Oh! You’re not going anywhere.” This always feels good to hear. We are incredibly thankful the previous owners set her up so stoutly. We trust our anchor and heavy chain. We’ve also learned to read the type of bottom we’re anchoring in; we know what will hold well and what may not (soft sand is our favorite). Troy always dives on the anchor to check that it’s set. Last night during a squall with 30 knot winds, we were still able to sleep soundly.

5. Our dinghy is our “car”.

The grocery store, restaurants, laundromat, hardware store, marine supply store, access to water and diesel/gas, visiting friends on other boats, taking the dogs ashore…anything away from our boat…requires a trip in the dinghy. Just days before leaving Punta Gorda, we made the decision to purchase a new dinghy so that we would not have to worry about waking up to a flat dinghy. This was probably one of the best purchases we made before taking off. We decided to buy a 9.5-foot West Marine dinghy that could get on a plane. With our 9.8 Nissan 2-stroke motor, we’re able to zip around anywhere, in favorable conditions, at around 12-14 knots. It would have been cheaper to buy a smaller, non-planing dinghy, but our range would have decreased immensely. We can cut across a larger body of water or get to that cave on the next island in less than half the time it would take if we weren’t able to plane up. Our new dinghy is without a doubt, money well spent.

6. In the Bahamas/Caribbean, we really don’t need a huge wardrobe.

More than half of the clothes I’ve brought, I have never worn. Troy and I have an entire cabinet in the v-berth, just in front of our bed, packed full of clothes that neither of us have touched. Swimsuits, gym shorts, t-shirts, and tank tops are our main attire. It is warm and humid; to keep cool, we do not need or want to put on many clothes. Same goes for shoes, we’re usually barefoot…but obviously flip-flops are the footwear of choice. I’ve even hiked some pretty rocky trails in my Reef flip-flops…they’re still holding strong! Another motive for needing so few clothes is laundry. More clothes equal more dirty laundry. Since we do not have easy access to a laundromat most of the time, it means I do laundry by hand, in a five gallon bucket. I “encourage” poor Troy to wear the same shirt until we both can’t stand it. Soon my forearms are going to look like Popeye’s from wringing out t-shirts and towels. We try our best to wear clothing that dries easily…the less cotton the better. Next time around, we’ll leave many articles of clothing behind…I guess I don’t need five sweater options or over a dozen pairs of shoes.

7. We can do MORE with LESS.

Troy and I live simply these days…we can go for days without the internet when we’re out of cell service range. 100 gallons of water can last us a surprising while…at least two weeks. Our only power source comes from the sun (we haven’t even connected shore power when we’re docked at a marina). We only see live TV if we’re at a bar that has a television. We’ve learned to fix boat issues with on-hand items…like the time we noticed our lines were chafing when we were on a mooring ball. We cut up an old water hose, zip-tied the hose around our lines, and voilà homemade chafe protection! Basically, we’ve learned to appreciate our resources. It is amazing to me to think back to our land-lives and how much water, electricity, and food we wasted on a regular basis. Out here, we’ve adapted quickly to conserving, we’re totally happy to do so. We hope that by making a smaller footprint, we’re doing our part to protect our vulnerable environment.

8. Stop and smell the roses.

Cruising is a major change of pace from our land lives. While we were working, it was always go, go, go. Work, chores, traffic are just a few things that kept us on the move. We were lucky if we got to simply relax, even on the weekends. Leading up to our departure, our days stretched 12+ hours as we worked to prepare Salty Tails. Now that we’re cruising, if our chores and boat maintenance are done, our time is OURS. We can explore, swim, hike, snorkel, visit new friends, nap, read, watch a movie. Sometimes I still find it difficult to sit still. After years and years of always being on the go, at work and at home, I find myself getting anxious if I’m sitting for too long. Slowly, we’re adapting. Don’t get me wrong, there is plenty of work to do; maintaining a sailboat is not a walk in the park. But we definitely have more time for us!

9. Weather it out and learn to adapt.

We have faced countless unexpected challenges and sleepless nights in these first 90 days. I’m not going to lie, there have been a few instances when we’ve questioned what the hell we’re doing. We’ve misinterpreted the weather, rode out storms, drug anchor (only once, thankfully!), found ourselves in rough seas, and lost engine power completely…all in just 90 days. Things rarely go as expected; we’ve learned to adapt to situations and circumstances that are down right scary or uncomfortable. We’ve learned a tremendous amount about ourselves, how we problem solve together as a couple, and what we are capable of. We aren’t free of challenges…but we are full of rewards. There is no greater feeling than thinking about how far we’ve come and what we have accomplished in such a short amount of time. We are rewarded by being able to call one of the most beautiful, unspoiled places in the world our home. The Bahamas have become a place that we’ll cherish forever.

10. The dogs will always lay in the middle of any tight space, causing plenty of bruises.

When we began looking for a sailboat, a 37-foot boat seemed HUGE, especially since we began our search with our sights set on a boat in the 32-34-foot range. Now, we’re totally comfortable maneuvering our 20,000lb girl. She keeps us safe and comfortable. The dogs are comfortable too, maybe too comfortable. While the cat curls up in the v-berth or on a salon settee, the dogs prefer sprawling out across the middle of the salon. Even though Salty Tails is plenty big for us, it is still a monohulled sailboat with a finite amount of floor space. A 60lb lab mix can take up quite a bit of space if she chooses…and so can Bella. I’m always knocking my knees or toes on things moving about the boat and you can bet in the middle of the night, I’ve tripped over Ginnie and Bella…and have the bruises to prove it.