The weather in the Exumas in the winter is largely dominated by what are known as cold fronts here. Cold fronts come down from the North and generally over power the steady trade winds that blow from the east with stronger sometimes colder winds that will clock around the compass starting at east, then south, west and north then back to east. When this happens the normally calm and serene anchorages become wavy, often with white caps that will make staying in them extremely uncomfortable as the boat bucks and rolls with the waves. If the waves become too big it can trap you on the boat unless you are willing to get soaked getting from the boat to anywhere by dinghy.
The Exumas are a north south chain of islands that have the Exumas Banks on the west and the Exumas Sound on the east. The banks are shallow rarely getting over 30 feet deep, where as the sound is thousands of feet deep. The sound is open to the Ocean and is extremely rough with waves that one would try to avoid at all cost. Most of the anchorages in the Exumas chain are on the sound side because of the shallower water and cover from the east wind. When a cold front comes in most boats will choose to find an anchorage that has protection from the west winds. Generally, these havens are between islands and are exposed to strong currents as water rushes onto the banks during a rising tide and then runs back to the sound when the tide drops. Some of the anchorages are very narrow as the water runs in a channel between the two islands. Some of these channels have had the sand scoured off the bottom leaving a thin layer over rock which can be very difficult to set an anchor into – not what you are looking for when trying to hide from 20-30 knot (40-60 kph) winds.
When we crossed the Middle Bank to the Exumas we knew we had 2 or 3 days until the next front would hit the Exumas. Thankfully there is an anchorage at Allans Cay which provides near all round coverage at the north end of the chain. Our plan had always been to visit this place as there are a population of Iguanas that can only be found in the vicinity of Allans Cay. We moved there the morning after our passage from Spanish Wells to Ship Channel Cay.
The channel there is very narrow and the current very strong. Most cruising books recommend you use a Bahamian Moor where you set two anchors, one in front and one behind you, one for each direction of the current. We set our first anchor and then started to try to set a second one, but we were having no luck. I was in the dinghy lowering the anchor to the bottom of the channel and Leah would pull the boat forward trying to set it but it would not dig in. Then I would pull the anchor up by hand into the dinghy and try again, the second or third try I was spent and it took all of my strength to get the 40 lb anchor with 40 lbs of chain back into the boat.
Enter Eve, a gentlemen from Quebec who had spent many years cruising the Bahamas. Him and his wife Elaine love the Northern Bahamas where they can dive, fish and enjoy the undeveloped parts of the islands. Their boat was built for one of the designers of Porsche cars so that he could cruise from Germany up to Norway. The indoor helm seat is the seat from a Porsche and the name “Velvet” is one of the colors that Porsche offered on the car that the original owner designed. Before this boat Eve and Elaine sailed simply in a smaller old sailboat and are used to roughing it and being frugal with water, power and diesel. This allows them to stay away from civilization for extended periods in their new boat. Despite their desire to cruise the more sparsely populated islands of the Exumas, Eve is a social butterfly and cruises around the anchorage off and on all day standing in his dinghy visiting everyone wearing only a pair of shorts.
His advice was to abandon the Bahamian Moor which is extremely challenging to set and even if set right is prone to screwing up if, for example, the two chains wrap around each other or if the anchors aren’t directly in line with the current. In addition, the wind can reduce the effect of the current on which way you will pull on a anchor sometimes reversing the pull or causing a side pull on the anchor. We followed his advice.
With the anchor down we visited the Iguanas and spent some time on a beach. These Iguanas are called the Allans Cay Iguanas are found in only a few Cays in the Bahamas. Tour boats from Nassau and dive boats will take people to visit and feed them. On the island across from Iguanas island there was a eagle or falcon living there. These eagles will fly over to the Iguanas island and eat the Iguanas. The solution: put blue balls filled with poison on the eagle island so that the eagles would die. It didn’t seem to work because there was an eagle right beside the boat.
That first night in Allans very strong east wind was expected. I stayed awake in the cockpit on “anchor watch” to ensure that our anchor was holding and to be close to the wheel in case the boat got to close to the wall. It was an awful night, with the anchor alarms, which use GPS to determine how much the boat is moving and ring if you move to far, ringing every time the wind shifted or the tidal current changed. I laid in the cockpit under two blankets and watched to see if the bearings between Viatori and the other boats were changing drastically which would indicate a dragging anchor. As the night passed I dozed off and on, until I heard a whistle in the dark. I looked down the channel and saw one boat shining a spot light on another boat. One boat was either dragging or swinging to close to another boat and unless someone moved they would likely collide. It seems that the general rule in anchorages is that the person who was anchored first, owns the spot and doesn’t have to move if two boats swing too close to each other. The lights in the second boat lit up and soon the sound of chain rattling could be heard. They pulled anchor and reset it further up the channel in the dark while it was raining, not fun. That was the most exciting thing that happened that night, which was a very good thing. Viatori was safe, our big anchor held and we didn’t hit the side or bottom of the channel.
Then the front came and the boat started to rock and roll as the swell from the ocean, the wind and the current all pushed the boat around. The only “calm” times were in the mornings when I would wake up early to watch the sunrise before the rest of the crew would rise. Despite the uncomfortable anchorage we did manage to do some school work and had Eve and Elaine over for pizza. Elaine made a curry lobster salad which scared us but turned out to be absolutely awesome. When the wind clocked around to the west we started getting pushed towards a sandbar and moved locations with Eve’s help. The wind was over 25 knots and the current was quite strong. It was a challenge to avoid the sandbar on one side, the rocks on the other, manoeuvre the boat over the anchor to lift it up and then get to the spot where we wanted to drop the anchor. Thanks Eve for the help!
The boys also managed to invite themselves over to E&E’s for a couple of play dates and boat tours which were a great break for Leah and I. We had lunch over on their boat and they showed us all their favourite spots in the Exumas on the charts.
When the wind shifted from west back to east we started to get too close to the wall and the forecast was favourable so we parted ways with Eve and Elaine and left Allan’s Cay heading south. According to Eve Allans Cay is one of the most challenging anchorages in the Bahamas, which was encouraging for us. We didn’t always know what to do but our instincts where right both times we moved in the anchorage to position ourselves to the current or coming conditions.