Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Jumentos Cays & Ragged Islands

Southside Bay, Ragged Island

22 10.35 N 075 43.83 W

After reprovisioning with groceries, liquor, fuel and ATM cash we departed Georgetown on Thurs 3/29 for what we hoped was the 4th & final visit this season. Our destination was the Jumentos Cays and the Ragged Islands. This chain of dot-like islands extends southerly from Great Exuma about 70 nm (80miles) towards Cuba. The Jumentos/ Ragged Island chain are remote and lightly visited. All the cays are uninhabited with the exception of the settlement of Duncan Town at extreme south end of the island chain.

The sense of isolation and exploring unspoiled islands is what attracted us to venture here along with a few other cruisers. There are no marinas, rescue services, fuel, water, etc. so boaters must rely on there own self-sufficiency. The waters are pristine with excellent fishing and abundant conch and  lobsters. There are also plenty of shark & barracuda. During our 2 weeks here we encountered only about 2 dozen other cruising boats throughout the entire 70 mile chain.

We spent our 1st night anchored at Water Key which is about 30 miles south of Great Exuma. We shared the anchorage with two small fishing boats. Lobster season would end by March 31st so they were getting in their last few days of fishing. Fish the banks from sun up to sun down, returning to anchorage by dark. They’ll stay here for weeks on end in these small boats with rudimentary facilities. Fishermen from as far as Spanish Wells, Eleuthera or Nassau fish these rich fertile grounds.

The next day we traveled about 15 mile further south to Flamingo Cay. We anchored about noon in a nice horseshoe shaped cove off a sandy beach featuring two coconut palms. We snorkeled the cove and found 3 or 4 conch. Our friends on Riff-Raff arrived by mid-afternoon. They had quite a successful day of fishing on their way down and proceeded to fillet their catch throwing the carcasses overboard. This attracted a 8’-10’ sized Hammerhead Shark. We know it was a Hammerhead because it happily rolled about the surface as it devoured the carcasses.

We had dinner on Riff Raff that night. Kathy provided freshly made conch salad and Rob & Barb provided the fresh fish.

The next day we stayed at Flamingo Cay and explored the island by dinghy and by foot. There is a large cavern that you can drive your dinghy into.

We also walked across the island to the open ocean side where Kathy found some nice sea glass and Mark collected more sea beans.

Afterwards we went for a swim in a beautiful sandy bay… more watchful for any sharks.

We arrived back on Carina and after our usual afternoon rituals, Kathy decided she wanted to try fishing off the boat. She was using the small light action spinning rod with 12 lb test line baited with some of the conch guts. All she wanted to catch was some of the smaller fish. A 3’ shark ended up taking the proverbial hook, line & sinker but it was fun playing it for a while. We also saw our resident Hammerhead shark again… about the same 4PM feeding time.

On Sunday, April 1st we continued traveling south another 30 nm to Buena Vista Cay. Riff Raff returned to Georgetown to meet some guests. Winds were very light so we motorsailed with one engine and main sail alone. The photo does not do justice to the clarity of water - we were able to see the sea floor below us in 40’ depths.

Approaching Buena Vista we saw another lone catamaran anchored. It turned out to be our friends Bill & Mara on Bill’s home-built cat Puddle Jumper. We had last seen them up in Chesapeake Bay on the West River back in September. Rather than cruise throughout the Bahamas Bill & Mara have been in the Ragged Island area since January immersing themselves in the local culture.

After setting anchor we cooled off by snorkeling around the boat. We’re anchored in about 10’ of gin clear water with a light grass bottom.

Shortly afterwards we were visited by yet another 4’ sized Barracuda. Like in the other anchorages here in the Jumentos/ Raggeds, they seem to be accustomed to hanging under boat hulls waiting for any possible fish scraps possibly from the fishing boats.  While they’re relatively harmless, they don’t make you feel like jumping off the transom to swim.

On our 2nd day at Buena Vista Cay we met 73 year old Edward Lockhart who Bill & Mara had befriended during their visits. Edward is a descendent of the island slaves who worked the salt ponds on Ragged Island in the 1700’s. He says his family has maintained land rights to the entire Buena Vista Cay for about 300 years. Edward was born and spent his 1st 10 years on the island. He returned a few years ago and lives a simple life in a rudimentary beach side camp with his dogs, goats and chickens. His wife & daughters live in Nassau and will send provisions to him on the Ragged Island mail boat.

Edward rowed his batterd, utilitarian, wood skiff out to Puddle Jumper to give us a real treat. For drinks he made us Sky Juice (AKA Gin, coconut water and sweetened condensed milk). Using his machete he sliced open yellow unripened coconuts called “jelly coconuts” pouring the coconut water into a bowl. Here, Bill is sampling piece of the soft & moist jelly coconut.

After drinks were properly made, Edward then took over Puddle Jumper’s galley and proceeded to make scorched conch as an appetizer, and peas & rice and conch and a 2nd peas & rice for the Lobster tails that Bill grilled.

Edward & Mara relaxing after a contented meal. Notice that Sky Juice glow?

The afternoon was extremely hot and waters as calm as glass. Reluctant to swim off our boats where the Barracudas were keeping vigil, we all met on the beach where we floated in the water drinking rum punches.

On Tue April 3rd, we sailed another 13 nautical miles south to Hog Cay. There are no pigs on Hog Cay, however it was used for raising cattle, primarily Brahma bulls in the 1970’s & ‘80’s. Only wild goats inhabit the island now.

We dinghied up the island to a trail that crossed the island to the ocean side for more beach combing. Besides the Sargasso seaweed and drift wood, plastic and glass flotsam of every conceivable source is unfortunately a typical sight along these shores. This is where we typically search for sea beans that wash ashore. 

On our 2nd day at Hog Cay Bill & Mara showed us a great location for gathering Conch. There were so many of them that it took only about 15 minutes to gather over 40. (We each took our non-resident limit of 6 conch/person but collected the rest for Edward’s use.) Thankfully there was no sign of sharks or barracudas here.

Like Flamingo Cay’s Hammerhead, Hog Cay also had it’s own resident shark(s) that hung around our boat. In this case, a pair of either 6’-7’ Sandbar or Bull Sharks (as close as I can I.D. them with our books). This photo was taken through our look bucket off the transom steps –Remora attached as well.

Interestingly enough the sharks were not the least bit interested in the beautiful school of over a dozen Yellowtail Snappers in the 16”-20” range swimming around the boat with the sharks. These are great tasting fish so Kathy once again baited up some conch meat to try to catch one.

This time she used the medium size fishing pole with the 50lb test line this time. She had to re-bait as she got a few hits from the Snapper. Eventually one of the big sharks took the bait. It just about pulled the pole out of her hands and immediately broke the line.
We were successful in catching a few Jacks, however these Crevalle Jacks are not the best for eating and the larger ones can contain the Cigautera neural toxin that accumulates in their meat from feeding on reef fish.
Bill & Mara show us the cruiser’s beach camp they helped build with other cruisers this past winter. All the bamboo poles, rope lashings, plastic barrels, etc. is all beach flotsam that had washed up on the shore on the other side of the island. This is the site of the Valentines Day party sponsored by Maxine (of Maxine’s Market) on nearby Ragged Island for the locals & cruisers.

The beach camp also had a stone fire pit for cruisers to burn their garbage in. Here Kathy is tending the poker stick while burning the past few week’s accumulated on-board garbage.

While Kathy was burning garbage, Mark crafted our own personalized float to mark our visit.

On Fri April 6th with Bill & Mara’s local knowledge, we moved another 10 nautical miles south to anchor in Southside Bay of Ragged Island. This bay is protected from all but the south to the west. A strong cold front was forecasted for the weekend so we came here to get better protection. It also afforded us easy access to the settlement of Duncan Town.

Ragged Island is about 4 miles long. The settlement of Duncan Town is situated atop a windswept hill. It was named after Duncan Taylor, a Loyalist who, with his brother, built the salt ponds in the 18th century with slave labor. Many of the Duncan Towners are direct descendents of the slaves. Presently there are about 65 residents on the Island. They are a warm and independent breed of folks as a result of their living so isolated from other Bahamians.

The salt pond beds in the background are no longer in use for commercial production - but plenty of sea salt is available to residents and visitors. Ragged Island used to trade salt and fish for fruits, produce and other goods with Haiti and Cuba.

We dinghied to the beach and walked 1-1/2 miles to town. Flo was driving her golf cart when we 1st asked her for directions to the market and the school. After telling her this was our 1st visit she had us hop on the cart and drove us to Maxine’s market.

We had not had any internet access since Georgetown 12 days prior. The only place with internet wifi access for cruisers was at the school (that serves about 17 children up to &  including high school). By the time we walked to the school from the market, Flo had already notified Robert, one of the school teachers who lived next door to the school, of our arrival & needs. He eventually opened up the “cafeteria” to let us work indoors.

There are not even a dozen cars or trucks on Ragged Island and probably twice as many golf carts, yet they have newly paved roads, paid for by the Swiss/ European Union. They also paved the airport runway, visible at bottom of hill. Carina and Puddle Jumper are barely visible, anchored beyond in Southside Bay. The locals say that the Nassau politicians have yet informed them what they might have to give up in return for this infrastructure investment.

You won’t find any dogs in town because it is too expensive to feed them. Likewise any cats are left to fend for themselves. However there are domesticated goats roaming everywhere and every yard seems to have a few. This house has rain catchment systems to supplement their drinking water.

Walking back from town across the newly paved runway, as with the new road system built and paid for by The EU/ Swiss. A priest from Exuma had just flown in on the small plane for the Anglican Church’s Easter services.

We explored the beautiful clear waters between Ragged and Little Ragged Islands ...
... and found more conch. Our Freezer is now full with it …

and Kathy found more Sand Dollars

We collected a mountain of  Heart Beans which were so plentiful we stopped collecting them. The more coveted Hamburg Beans were harder to find. These beans wash up on the eastern ocean facing shores after crossing the Atlantic Ocean from Africa.

We sat out strong winds on Easter Sunday anchored alone in Southside Bay. The next day we began our return trip north, sailing about 20 miles back to Buena Vista Cay again anchored alone. We said goodbye to Edward early Tues morning before sailing further north 30 miles to Flamingo Cay.

On Wed Apr 11th we motored 56 miles into northeast wind & seas to arrive in Long Island before the next weather window was forecast to close on us. This photo was as we crossed Comer Channel. This blog is being sent while anchored in Thompson Bay, Salt Pond, Long Island. It was nice to get away from it all the past 2 weeks but equally nice to be back in civilization.