28 April, 2009

Family Island Regatta

Location: George Town, Exumas, Bahamas
Position: N 23 30.788 W 075 44.902

The Family Island Regatta has been one of the highlights of the season for us. It is THE event of the year for Bahamian sloop racers. Boats and people arrive from all of the islands during the week. We watched mail boats from all directions piled high with boats. The closer islands tow their boats, sometimes 3 or 5 behind a big power or fishing boat. George Town was humming with excitement. The government dock, usually just a flat concrete area, is suddenly covered with wooden ‘buildings’ selling food and drinks and everyone is milling around, ‘strutting their stuff’.

Tuesday and Wednesday were the junior races then Thursday through Saturday were the serious ‘A’, ‘B’, and combined ‘C’ and ‘D’ class races. Each class is a different size boat but they are all the same basic design. Flat decks with huge sails, there are 2 boards (called ‘prys’) that slide from one side to the other and as the boats heel (tip to the side) with the wind, more and more people clamber onto the boards to balance the boat and stop it from tipping over. The number of crew aboard depends on how much wind is blowing for that day. We were lucky in that the winds all week were going to be 20-25 mph resulting in some very exciting racing.

The start of a Bahamian sloop race is really something to watch. All the boats line up at the start line with anchors set and their sails down. The start gun fires and there is a mad frenzy aboard to haul the anchor, pulling the boat forward to provide a bit of way allowing some control of the helm until the sails are raised, the wind fills them, and then they’re off. This can often seem very chaotic and exciting to the spectators. At one start, three boats got their masts tangled up together causing one to drop out and the other two to finish last.

The course is set up with a windward leg and a downwind leg, usually with 2-3 trips around the buoys. We spent most of the races in our dinghy anchored near the windward mark. We watched the sloops tacking back and forth towards us from the starting line. Every time the boats tacks all the guys out on the board scurry back onto the boat, the pry is shoved out onto the other side and they all clamber back out as quickly as possible while the rest of the crew are bringing the sails over to the other side. What an exciting week we wouldn’t have missed it for anything.

The times from the 3 days of races are all combined to produce the winners. The Staniel Cay boat “Tida Wave”, previously raced by Rollie Gray (we wrote a bout his funeral last year) took the class ‘A’ honors. During the races some boats capsized due to the heavy winds, a few sank (there’s something sad about a lone mast sticking up above the water in the middle of Elizabeth Harbour), and one lost it’s rudder and sank right after crossing the finish line! It was thrilling and we loved being here!

On the last day we decided to watch the class ‘A’ race from shore, close to the starting line. We got there fairly early and picked out a great spot at the end of aptly named Regatta Point. As time went on more and more people arrived. The race was about to start when we realized that a big crowd of Bahamians with beer, mainly men from all the different islands, had gathered just behind us. These were the tacticians!!! As soon as the race started they were all shouting instructions and play by play to the racers (who of course could not hear them), and to each other. As the race progressed more beer was consumed and the voices got louder and louder. It was such a din we couldn’t understand most of what was said. It was impossible not to get caught up in their excitement and frenzy. By the time the first boats crossed the finish, these guys were all shouting, cheering, moaning, and carrying on to beat the band. What a show!

Speaking of beating the band, we also got to see the Royal Bahamas Police Force Band perform immediately following the class ‘A’ finals. These men and women are amazing! Complex rhythms, great song selection, beautiful uniforms, and leopard skins. Various members of the band got to showcase their stuff – the snare drummers tossing sticks back and forth, the bass drummers tossing a bass drum over the heads of other band members, the cymbal guy doing some gymnastic cymbal playing, and the drum major doing some pretty hot movin’ and shakin’. He even picked out a lady from the audience to hootchie-coo with! It was really great. It’s at times like this and the New Years Junkanoo we attended in Green Turtle Cay that we wish we had a video camera. Oh well…

20 April, 2009

Jumentos & Ragged Islands

Location: Water Cay, Jumentos, Bahamas
Position: N 22 18.931 W 075 46.042

Okay. All the excitement at Raccoon Cay aside, we are really enjoying our stay in the Jumento Cays and Ragged Islands.

After spending a few days at Buena Vista Cay (N 22 25.503 W 075 50.182) snorkeling and walking the beaches, we head down to Double Breasted Cay, just south of Raccoon Cay. We take our time, checking out some smaller cays, rocks, beaches, etc. on the way. We arrive, drop the anchor, and gaze (N 22 18.931 W 075 46.042). We soak up the beauty of the water, the islands, the sky. It’s absolutely beautiful. Yeah, yeah, we know – if we use up all the superlatives here, how are we going to be able to describe the other islands in the chain? We’ll just have to reuse them. We’re smitten.

To quote our friend Carl on ‘Diva’, “We are now at perhaps the most beautiful place we have been in the Bahamas, save Conception Island. Simply gorgeous. Like pictures of South Pacific Islands, only Bahamian topography and colors.”

We spend several days walking the beaches and exploring the rocky coastline. We find a spar, stem w/ several hull planks, and a stern on the beach – we’re guessing it's the wreck of a Haitian boat. It's been there a while and is well above the high water line, so it must have gotten pushed up there by some pretty ferocious waves.

The wind goes a bit more southerly so we decide to move on. We travel a couple of miles to Johnson Cay (N 22 20.226 W 075 46.839). The anchorage is a natural harbour with great protection from the south and with the light wind, we’ve got nearly no ocean swell to contend with. Yet another superlative-laden gem! There are a couple of really nice reefs in the anchorage, so we get to snorkel right off the boat.

Now that the heat’s off, we return to Raccoon. There are five other boats already there, so we decide to head up to the northeast corner of House Bay (N 22 21.721 W 075 48.886) to avoid the “crowd”. See how spoiled we’re getting? We shared the anchorage at Black Point with 73 other boats earlier this year and now we’re calling five boats a crowd. Due to the ‘large’ number of boaters here we decided to have a happy hour and bonfire on the beach. Again hikes, beachcombing and snorkeling were on the agenda for the next couple of days.

With heavy hearts we needed to make tracks north we had only 3 days to get to George Town for the Family Island Regatta. We made the trip in 2 really long days stopping overnight at Water Cay and making George Town just after dark on the second day

15 April, 2009

Who you gonna call?

Location: Raccoon Cay, Ragged Islands, Bahamas
Position: N 22 21.393 W075 48.814

The chart book says “The Ragged Islands are not just more southerly Exumas but rather unpopulated wilderness with only one tiny settlement that’s closer to Cuba than to George Town. Cruisers must be totally self-sufficient here; there are no services to speak of in the entire chain. “

No chandleries, marinas, fuel, spare parts, groceries, toilet paper, restaurants or beer. And only a little water. Being this remote means we’re pretty much on our own if anything happens to us or Rachel. If we run aground, it’s up to us to get off. If we break down, it’s up to us to get going again. If we get sick or are injured, we’ll have to be our own doctors. Duncan Town, the lone settlement on Ragged Island has a population of less than 100. It’s very remote and definitely off the beaten path. This, of course, is what lures Rachel and her crew down for a visit. Not to mention that it's also absolutely gorgeous here with great fishing, snorkeling, hiking, and beachcombing.

It took us 3 days (of awesome sailing we might add – woohoo!!) to get here. Our friends on Diva have already been here for 2 weeks and we arrange to meet them in the anchorage at House Bay on Raccoon Cay. After their enthusiastic description of the island chain we are really looking forward to the peace and quiet.

As we pull in to anchor we notice a blue boat in a small bay just north of us, which we think seems a bit unusual as it is so remote. We assume it’s a fisherman from Duncan Town on Ragged Island, a few islands to the south. As we approach, however, we are able to read "POLICE" on the side. We can also tell it’s not one, but two, high tech high speed blacked out stealth Bahamian Defence Force patrol boats rafted together with a third white-hulled boat alongside. After we get anchored our friends on Diva say they’ve been zooming around the area all day. They have no idea what’s going on but are very pleased to see us and our travelling companions on “Osprey”. Safety in numbers, and all that.

After a while a helicopter arrives and starts circling in an obvious search pattern over the island. We discover they’re coordinating with the police boats (“Ghost Rider I and Ghost Rider II”) on VHF channel 21, so we listen in. The helicopter has to leave to refuel in George Town. Another arrives - bright orange and white, we see it’s a US Coast Guard chopper. The chatter on channel 21 doesn’t tell us much – search here, fly over that island there, look there’s a house with a rusted roof.

We still don’t know what’s going on, but we’re nervous about going ashore. One of the boats has children aboard, so the father calls the Bahamian Defence Force guys on the VHF and asks if it’s safe for us or if we’ll interfere with their operations if we go ashore. They reply “No, you should be fine. We’re just looking for some suspects.” That makes us all feel so very much better…..

Raccoon Cay is only about 50 miles north of Cuba and maybe 80 miles from Haiti so there is apparently a lot of drug running and illegal immigration activity in the area. Apparently it's a fairly frequent occurrence to see the US Drug Enforcement Agency in the area trying to catch drug runners!!! And we thought it would be quiet and serene here!! Something big must be going on because they're throwing a lot of effort and resources into it.

We all decide to go to sleep, hoping they’ll be gone when we wake up. In the morning one of our friends tells us she woke up in the night and, seeing a rock she hadn’t noticed earlier, wondered if they’d dragged anchor. Naked, she grabs the binoculars, climbs up into the cockpit and takes a closer look at the “rock”. It’s the stealth boats, blacked out, no lights showing and engines barely making any noise. Only a hundred feet or so away. Then she thinks “I wonder if they have infra red binoculars? Oops!” It doesn’t take her very long to vanish back down below.

Gone in the morning? Nope. In fact, not only do we have the Defence Forces stealth boats and the Coast Guard helicopter, we also have two other choppers circling the island.

Now we hear the Coast Guard chopper talking to “Delta One” who have apparently been dropped on the ground for a recon mission. Wow, it just keeps getting better.

One of the choppers: "We heard shots were fired." Delta One: "If they were, they weren't firing at us." Other chopper: “There are 3 sailboats on the west side of the island (meaning us!!) – you should probably check them out!” Defence Force boat: “We already have” (even though they haven’t – oh, wait – our binocular wielding naked friend – maybe they figure they checked that boat out well enough to count for all three of us).

It’s about this time we decide to move. No point staying here since we can’t go ashore and don’t even feel safe dinghying around. All this cops and robbers stuff makes us all feel downright nervous, not to mention detracting a bit from the allure of the Jumentos.

We’re grateful that the Bahamian Defence Forces and the US Coast Guard are on the ball, protecting the Bahamian people and their guests from “the bad guys”. That being said, we’re also grateful that we have the ability to leave them all behind, at least for a while. We haul anchor and sail a few miles north to Buena Vista Cay. We anchor off a beautiful mile long beach lined with palm trees, in bright blue water with easily accessible coral heads for snorkeling, and not a cloud or helicopter in the sky. Aaahhhh.

When we made the decision to visit the Jumentos and Ragged Islands, we knew from the start that we’d have to be totally self-reliant. There’s a certain sense of vulnerability that accompanies this, and we’re prepared to deal with that. It’s completely unexpected, however, to feel this entirely different form of vulnerability imposed upon us from outside by the “civilization” we supposedly left behind.

"Who you gonna call?"