Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Staniel Cay Part 1

Staniel Cay 12/21/10- 1/1/11- Judy 1/4/11

Judy --  From Warderick Wells, it was a 3.5 hour sailing trip to the area of Staniel Cay.  Not knowing the “lay of the land” and the lay of the bottom, we decided to anchor at Big Majors Spot where there were a lot of other boats already anchored.  Big Majors is known for its swimming pigs that swim out into the water to beg for food from people in dingys.   We pulled out some old bread and climbed into the dingy to go see the piggies.  They had previously been on the beach but had disappeared, so we had a pig calling contest (Steph won!) and one brave pig waded into the water and swam to come visit us.  After taking lots of pictures and videos and giving the pig all the food we had with us, it lost interest and returned to shore.  We took a ride over to Staniel Cay Yacht Club (according to the guide books, this is a popular destination with a well deserved reputation. Although there were pilings and docks to accommodate lots of boats, there was only two in sight, one at the dock, and one anchored off), beached the dingy and took a walk around the settlement.  There seemed to be a number of houses under construction, nicely coming along, and bright blue and yellow ( the national colors) street signs, sand blasted in wood.  We felt right at home, at the intersection of Kings Highway and Honey Spring Valley Road. We discovered the internet at the Yacht Club and figured we would go in another day to use it.
Big Majors was a rather long dingy ride from the dock, so the next day we picked up the anchor and moved to a spot near Thunderball Grotto.  Yep, it is the same grotto that was used in the James Bond thriller “Thunderball”!   Because of the cool water and air, we decided to visit the grotto another day.  It is safest to enter it at slack low tide and it took a few days to figure out when that was.  We were originally going to go to anchor east of Big Majors Spot but as we approached the narrow passage the current was very heavy against us and all we could see was water swirling around and over the rocks (the Crown of Thorns) which must be avoided as you go through.  Not knowing the territory and being cautious, we decided to back up and anchor next to Thunderball Island.  We met Bob and Barb on Rhiannon ( a beautiful steel hulled schooner Bob built back in his welding days, before he became a nurse, allowing them to steal away and sail and dive for weeks at a time! ) who were anchored nearby and they invited us over for drinks.  They also showed us the way to go through the passage safely to enter the area known as “Between the Majors” which is a protected area between Big Majors Spot and Little Majors Spot and is a favored anchorage when cold fronts are going through.  
Today is Friday, January 28, 2011 and those last paragraphs were written weeks ago.  I decided that I just HAD to write some more to share with you our wonderful experiences, even though I will just have to gloss over many of them because of space and time constraints.  Luckily Steph went through the photos and wrote down the highlights of each day.  Basically, we spend time doing boat projects and cruising (repairing boats in exotic locales) and spend time ashore soaking up Bahamian culture and meeting lots of nice people…natives and foreigners, landlubbers and other sailors alike. 
We have also snorkeled several times, two of them at Thunderball Grotto, which is lovely.  We bought an underwater camera that uses film, so we need to get the pictures developed and put on a CD or DVD so that we can load them into the computer.  The currents here are very strong and it is best to go to Thunderball when it is approaching slack low tide.  The first time we went, we got there a few minutes late and the tide had turned and was beginning to flood.  It was very difficult to swim against the current to enter the grotto, but it was well worth the struggle.  We had taken frozen veggies with us and used them to attract the tropical fish.  Man, it was like swimming in an aquarium!  The fish were thrilled with the veggies and got very excited and aggressive, to the point of grabbing the baggie out of my hand and dashing away with it! There are three or more large holes in the ceiling of the grotto that let in sunlight and the colors were incredible.  The second time we went we got there just at the right time tide wise. We had no veggies and the sun was at the wrong angle, but we had a lovely swim through the grotto, floated out the other side, and drifted with the slowly changing current around the end of the island and back to the entrance.  We drifted over many different kinds and colors of coral and saw dozens of kinds of fish. At each turn you see another type of fish, in colors and shapes I thought only came from Hollywood.  If you hover quietly in one spot, more fish appear as if by magic. The corals are often in day-glo colors, which I never understood at the pet shop.  We dove again yesterday and it is just another of the many stand-out experiences we’ve had. 
Staniel Cay Yacht Club is the social center of the area for the cruising community.  As we said before, it seemed pretty quiet there when we first arrived, but more boats and people arrived daily and by Christmas the place was filling up and jumping and by New Years it was really crowded.  Then, as quickly as it had filled up, it emptied out again.  In between there was an event filled calendar which included a Christmas party with Santa for all the Island and visiting kids, a pirate party with everyone in costume.  and an evening sit down dinner for adults.  The night of the Christmas dinner, some of the cruisers stayed on board, because of the dark of the moon and the difficult passage back after the Club, but we took our hand-held GPS along on the dink ride in. When it was time to go back to our anchorage we followed the bread crumb trail back to the boat in the pitch black between a virtual “Scylla and Charybdis.”By luck, it turned out to be the smoothest trip on that course. While enjoying dinner, we met Jim and Deb at the next table, a couple of medicos who flew in from Florida on their helicopter for the event.  The next morning as they flew home, they took our picture which is now at the top of our blog. At the pirate party, our friend Vernon Pryde (of Kiwi  Pryde,)confused everyone, dressed as a modern day Somali pirate, toting a shoulder rocket grenade launcher, wearing a baseball cap (backwards) and cargo fatigues.
The two events that got my (Steph) juices flowing were the mixed double match race between two local national championship class A boats and the New Years Open Cruisers Race.  The Exumas chain boast a water based population who have been building, sailing and racing home built boats forever.  Staniel Cay is the home of “The Grandmaster,” the late Captain Rolle Gray, the winningest sailor in the country.  The mixed doubles is raced between two of his winning boats, “Tida Wave” and “Lady Muriel.” These traditional island boats are manned by local teams who invite guest crew on (by lottery,) for the experience of a life time.  
While Judy was using the internet on the porch of the SCYC, I wandered around.  Most every dock has a fish cutting table, and at this one was Captain Tony Gray, dressed in a black garbage bag and a baseball cap cleaning fish. Over the wharf wall, several nurse sharks hovered around waiting for scraps.  I talked to Tony and introduced myself.  We spoke of fishing and racing and life on the island.  While he was cleaning a large grouper head, I asked him if he knew the song “Fish Heads..Fish Heads.. Rolly Polly Fish Heads…” He joked, “It’s a Bahamian song.  If not for fish heads, we would starve.” I asked him about the big race, and he told me he was the Commodore of the Race.  I asked about the lottery, and he was sketchy about the schedule and the particulars, but this is typical island laissez faire.  I told him I was a Race Patrol Chairman at my home club and was there anything I could do to help out.  He said they could use some help stepping the mast, loading the ballast and otherwise getting ready. They wait for the mail boat which has a crane to hoist the mast, “so watch for the mail boat.”
Meanwhile I asked him about the fish he was cleaning, and he said, “Here, have this one for supper.” I was delighted, and assuming fishing was his livelihood, I asked how I could compensate him, and he laughed…”You can buy me a beer some time.” That evening I made Banana Bread, using up some fruit that hadn’t been yellow for days, and cooked the fish, both on our Magma Grill on the side of the boat.
The mail boat visits the island twice a week, once on its way south from Nassau, full of most anything that arrives on the islands.  It stops again on the return trip up from Georgetown, but there’s little cargo on that stop. They do take passengers, and it seems like a fun kind of a boat ride.  It seems that Tony Gray’s dad was “The Grandmaster.” A fisherman turned mail boat Captain and a legend in the islands. Like the “Wells-Fargo Wagon” in The Music Man, the arrival of the mailboat was (and is) a noteworthy event. (Right now Mary the sailing cat is waiting for a special shipment of Kitty Litter, and her dad is hoping for a couple of pounds of his favorite coffee! And her mom is waiting for some Cream of Rice!)
Staniel Cay was originally Gray Cay, and Captain Rolle Gray knew how vital his job was in knitting the islands and families together into a nation.  “The mailboat must get through.” And in these tricky and dangerous waters it is often unwise to set out to sea.  You can see where he can stand out among his peers and countrymen as a hero. To top this off no one could beat him in a sailboat race.  Some say it was his intimate knowledge of the currents which predominate that made him unbeatable on the water. It seemed to me that he was a sort of folk hero cross between Casey Jones and John Henry. We later discovered that a song about him was the number one hit in the islands for two years in a row.  How’s that for recognition of a sailboat racer?
So the mailboat arrived, and Judy and I dinked over to the government dock to help step the mast.  Most of the preliminary work was done, and “Lady M” was already rigged. The regular crew is made up of natives and other residents (of which there are many.) Little did we know when we worked on the preparation that both Judy and I would get to sail on “Tida Wave”, and she would win three races in a row.
These all wooden boats boast a fairly small hull for their tall mast and long overhanging low lying boom.  The massive sail has an extended head (not unlike the Dutch boats that visited last year,) giving more roach than usual. The sail is loose-footed and the clew is run to an outhaul through block and tackle.  The most interesting feature and the one which made the race all the more thrilling are the pry boards.  Although there is a great deal of ballast put on board in the hold, there is not so much weight at depth as with the deep keeled and bulb bottomed keels we know. This may be for the shallow drafts encountered here.  To counterbalance the tall booms and huge spread of canvas, the crew are way beyond “rail meat.”  The pry boards are just that, these 3” x 10” boards are shoved across the deck on each tack and the crew climbs, shinnies or scoots up and back, under the low swinging boom, on these boards to flatten the boat.  There is four or five crew on each of the two boards and they may all be out over the water laying back to pry the boat upright against the cantilever of the full blown sail. What a rush!!!
Just before New Year’s big events, we headed over to Black Point, about a nine mile sail to Great Guana Cay.  Sandy Stefanic says it has the best Laundromat in the Bahamas, and we needed it.  We were also low on water, and good purified R/O (reverse osmosis) is free for the taking. That and free trash disposal are two features, along with free wi-fi at Lorraine’s Café are some of the ways this island draws visitors. On the dock at SCYC it’s forty cents a gallon.  Here’s a snip I wrote to brother Lew for his pending visit, describing the routine:
     “Our days are spent lazing in the sun, snorkeling, beachcombing, meeting the locals and other     cruisers, and reading, socializing or taking care of business.   You would be amazed how much business there is to take care of, or perhaps how much time is involved in doing it. For example, we have sailed to Black Point three times to do laundry and refill our water tanks. It takes up a slow paced day. We finish breakfast, hoist the anchor and head out by motor or sail or both as conditions require. A couple of hours later we re-anchor about five miles south of our starting point. We load up the dinghy with laundry, trash, six-five gallon water jugs and a collapsible dock cart.  I drop Judy off at Rockside Laundry where Ida runs the best Laundromat in the Bahamas.  While she sells tokens for the machines ($3.50 a load, wash or dry,) she also cuts and plaits hair.  If you want corn rows, see her.
     I take the dinghy from the Rockside Dock to the Government Dock where I tie up and unload the trash, the jugs and the cart.  I assemble the cart and walk a couple of thousand feet to the water spigot. It leaks and I get soaked, but the weather is beautiful and getting wet is fine, also the R/O water is free (elsewhere it’s fifty cents a gallon.)  The cart can carry three full jugs, so I make two trips between the water tap and the dock. I take the full jugs to the boat and decant them into our tanks.”
Well, if you’ve done the math, we now have thirty gallons of free water, and two forty gallon tanks on board, so I repeat the above routine two more times, refilling our gallon drinking water jugs from Poland Spring and Zephyrhills as well as the tanks.  While doing this, I met a sailor bragging about his watermaker. He’s only had it a year, and says it’s cost him $26 a gallon to date.  I told him I just carried ninety gallons of free water to the boat, so this was a twenty three hundred dollar day for me.  In reality, my net savings on water were $45 for the day, which is about what the laundry cost. More of my letter to Lew:
     “Anyway, the water is great, crystal clear and teaming with colorful coral and fish. Bring your snorkel, mask and fins.  I got a shorty wet suit from a guy who outgrew his for $25, so if you have one, bring it.  It’s like living in an aquarium.  You CAN swim with sharks here, I know I did.  And with barracuda just yesterday at Thunderball Grotto, an island reef featured in the movie of the same name.  Many people fish for supper, and we’ve been given fish, lobster and conch.  I haven’t caught anything yet but sea shells.
So pack light in a soft stuff able duffel bag, shorts, swimsuits and gear, long sleeve shirts for the sun and a jacket or sweatshirt for cool evenings. Bring a good book or two, leave your guitar at home, space is tight. The weather is lovely, ~80 degrees, pleasant humidity, light breezes.  The water is 82 degrees today.  We’ve had very little rain.  The biggest weather problem for cruisers is occasional cold fronts which bring high winds.  There are few all weather anchorages, which are protected from wind in any direction, so we often migrate from one side of an island to another, and sit out the passing winds.
     Well, I will close and head in to shore to Isles General Store and see if the kitty litter (and some dark roast coffee) we ordered came in on the weekly mail boat. Then it’s over to Rhonda Miller’s house for a loaf of her coconut or whole wheat bread.  I’ll check the Pink Pearl Super Market (no lights, a few dozen items and “Fire-in-the-Hole” erotic rum) and the Blue Store for items that Vivian doesn’t have at the General Store.  Then over to the Yacht Club to buy an internet card and a cell phone card and buy some cash with a check.”  
Judy here—The Yacht Club and the settlement put on this regatta and week of festivities to draw torism to the area.  The Banquet was free to everyone who came.  Tee shirts were given to all the tourist crew members and jackets were given out by drawing names.  In order to raise some of the funds necessary to pull this all off, there was an auction just before and during the banquet.  Cruisers and townspeople donated items to be auctioned off and they raised over $2000 in a couple hours.  I made a pair of earrings and a necklace to donate.
At the Banquet the day before the race, they announced that there were enough slots available for all the people who signed up for the lottery.  Boat and race assignments would be posted the next day. How great is that?  And then they followed that with a Bahamian Feast hosted by the Sailing Club. WOW. Rum Punch, Mon.  Lobster salad, conch fritters, grilled fish and conch salad, Bahamian Mac and Cheese, More rum punch (Kaliks if you preferred beer) and carrot cake.etc., etc.
Judy -- Note to self---keep head out of the way while Steph is pulling the starter cord of the dingy outboard.  We ended up visiting the clinic  late at night after I got hit in the temple and lost consciousness for a short time.  I was a bit foggy for a while, but felt better the next day.  We were driven to the clinic in a golf cart driven by Tony Gray’s sister Yvonne, who was home for the holidays.
RACE DAY.  Judy and I raced through breakfast to go ashore and see the race roster. As it turned out, we both got slots on “Tida Wave“ for the first of three races planned for around 10:30.  Everyone was milling around and team T-shirts were passed out. Judy told me that Tony was looking for me out at the dive shop, so I went off to see how I could help.  Tony was preparing the marks for the races.  There were three large round orange fenders, some lengths of line, some sawed off chunks of boat ballast and some #8 coated copper wire to fasten the weights to the line.  It was just like back at the club, prepping marks for the races.
Race time came and went in typical island style, (meaning whenever they got it together) but we were moving forward. The regular crews took the two contenders out to the course, and the guest crews piled on to a T-Top power boat ferrying us out to our rides. The race course start was about a half mile off shore, in order to avoid shallows or reefs. Once aboard “Tida Wave” we were given a quick tutorial on the use of the pry boards and other features of the class, e.g. stay low on tacking as the boom sweeps low over the deck, and keep the boat balanced by constantly moving in and out on the boards as required.  Most importantly, when preparing to tack, be ready to move clear of the heavy and fast moving pry as it is shot from one side of the boat to the other.
I made another “Note to self…” keep all appendages out of the way of the PRY, as it can severely damage any body parts that get in the way.  Unfortunately, I misplaced the note and got hit twice with the pry…so I got a major “boat bite” (which 6 weeks later still hurts).
We hoisted her medium main sail for a trial run, and found that the brisk wind today was a bit heavy for that sail, and that called for a sail change on the water before the start.  The water is filled with support boats, moral and practical, as well as spectator boats and the media.  While waiting for our sail change to be delivered from shore, Kalicks (beers) were passed around. The sail was dropped and flaked and the smallest sail was hoisted.  Judy had her multi tool and snugged up the shackle at the gooseneck while the outhaul had to be jury-rigged. The smaller jib was set also and it was time to start the race.
The next thing we know is that we are over the starting line and dropping sail. Next the anchor, a four fluked grappling style is dropped overboard and the boat is being blown back up to the start line. It’s to be an “anchor start.” The committee boat checks the line, fires a starting gun and drops the flag.  The crew starts pulling the anchor and raising the main sail in a well rehearsed ballet.  The anchor is passed back to the cockpit and stowed below.  The cockpit is a small open hatch about four by four feet with two crew below.  Everyone else, about sixteen crew was on the flat deck or the prys.  The crew in the cockpit handled the sheets, and kept the bilge pump running and the beer cold.  Water came in across the deck and from the hull. Even with the smaller sail area these tender boats required constant shifting of weight to keep the rail out of the water.
“Lady Muriel” took the lead, she hadn’t shortened sail, but it made her harder to handle, and I understand they had some equipment problems. Meanwhile, “Tida Wave” crept up with jeers and cheers, the two Captains exchanging well practiced epithets.  The rush of the water, the billow of sail and the distance between the boats slowly diminishing made for an exhilarating ride.  “Lady M” lost her lead, and never quite regained it that day, with our boat taking all three of the match races.
Our crew was swapped out with the next contingent and we went ashore to meet with the press. We were interviewed by Sean and Raquel of the National Television “Island Show” as the race program finished up.  By mid afternoon it was time for the awards.  All of the racers and race fans gathered in front of the Yacht Club for the speeches and presentation of the perpetual trophy, cash prizes and team jackets. All and all, of the many stellar experiences I’ve had this trip; this one will remain with me the longest. Hats off to the people of the Exumas for whom boat building, sailing and racing is a living tradition.
CRUISERS PRE-RACE MEETING Well, after all that excitement, it’s only midday and tomorrow is the Cruisers’ New Year’s Open.  A short walk down past the Public Beach (BTW, all beaches in the Bahamas are public,) is “Happy People” Bar and Restaurant, a disused watering hole. This afternoon, the door is open, but there is no electricity so we mill around outside, or wander inside looking for someone in charge.  It seems they are out looking for a generator or a light bulb and making rum punch and chicken wings. Finally it all comes together, food, drink and Sailing Instructions.  No handicapping, the only semi distinction is separate monohull and multihull awards.  After a long exciting day we head back to the mothership for a night’s rest.  Goodness is it eight o’clock already, “way past my bedtime.” Four hours later we are noisily awakened by boat horns and fireworks, “HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!”
NEW YEARS DAY-  We meet Wes and Linda of “Odyssey,” who will crew with us in today’s big race.  We met Wes in the dark around the punchbowl two evenings ago, and he is an avid racer with “a clean bottom.” The course is a large triangle starting a half mile out, past the shoals, and heading west to Sandy Cay, then upwind to Harvey Cay and back to the start pin two times for a near ten mile course.  Wes and I got the boat race ready while “I showed him the ropes” and discussed tactics.  Linda was going to be the photographer and Judy was at the helm.  There was one other ketch in the field and neither of us raised our mizzen sails.  There was a decent wind and we made good speed, but others did better.  Without a handicap our big sluggish boat finished ninth out of eleven starters (and the two boats that came in just ahead of us were 2 minutes and 30 seconds ahead of us respectively.)  We were elated to have been in the pack for most of the race and we had a great time.
That evening, dinner and awards were at the pavilion at the Public Beach.  The main road was closed to traffic, so the resident golf carts had to find a detour.  Fat sticks of street chalk was passed out to the kids, and the Staniel Cay Community Association which sponsored the event dished out roast pork, BBQ chicken, Bahamian Mac N Cheese and Cole slaw and sold raffle tickets.  It was a great evening social gathering with the cruisers and locals, both natives and residents all enjoying the event.  Once again there were speeches and trophies.  All racers got awards, and we got a “straw*“ bag made here at Staniel, with a loaf of Rhonda Miller’s homemade bread, two Kaliks and a souvenir shot glass. 
*The straw which one hears about is actually plaited and woven leaves of palmetto…. More elsewhere.

Swimming Pig at Big Majors Spot

Holiday decorations atop Bentaña

Names sound familiar??

Thunderball and sisters

Crown of Thorns in the middle of the cut.

Captain Tony and the fishhead

Barb and Bob on Rhiannon


BBQ fish with Shark awaiting its bite

Banana bread and fish from the barby

WiFi at SCYC

Grand Master Rolle Gray's tomb

Jim and Deb in their chopper
Between the Majors before the blow
Looking south towards Staniel Cay
Looking north towards Pipe Creek

Going to the Pink Store

To the Laundromat in Black Point...notice the dock!

Getting water

Pirate Steph and friend

Vernon, the Somali pirate

Pirate Judy

Tida Wave and the mailboat

Fresh delivery for New Years--Lady M in the backgraound

A necklace Judy donated to the auction

Big boats arrving for New Year's

Making conch salad

a little pepper...

dingy pond

Free rum punch

What am I bid???

Steph demonstrating a donated washtub bass

Am I on Tida Wave or Lady M?

Prepping the marks

Off to the races!!

Putting more crew on Tida Wave

Changing sails

Coming up on Lady M

Interviewing for TV
Boat bite

Hangin out

The Cup

The coveted jacket

more rum punch

Cruising race

Wes and Linda

Cruising race trophies

The week's activities

Steph in his new wet suit..very buff!