Photography by Jonathan Cooper
Out of this World
The Moorings—and the red planet—come to the Exumas.
The best bareboat charter grounds share several features in common. They tend to be compact. Their waters are protected. They offer a combination of splendid isolation and funky nightlife. And unless we’re talking about a location in Europe, there had better be palm trees. The British Virgin Islands are poster art for such perfect charters, and the Abacos in the Bahamas aren’t bad either.
So when one of the leading charter companies—The Moorings—announced a new base for the Exumas, I was intrigued to say the least. I’ve cruised the Bahamas for a cumulative year and a half of my life, and part of that time included being a novice learning how to find my way in the Exumas.
“Let’s go,” I said to Jonathan Cooper, my colleague and AIM Marine Group Photographer. Cooper hails from Washington State and needed some experience with shallow water, sunshine and palm trees in the worst way. I, on the other hand, wanted to see the Exumas from the point of view of a charter and to learn what might have changed on the 130-mile-long archipelago since my last visit a dozen years ago.
I credit The Moorings for their decision to add the Exumas to their worldwide selection of charter grounds. Why? The sapphire waters are stunning and the cays hold miles of empty, sugar-sand beaches. We went in August, which is counterintuitive if you’re looking for near-perfect weather, and were rewarded with summer skies that revealed fluffy clouds resembling familiar creatures and objects. At night, far from the light pollution of Miami, we gazed at a Milky Way that seemed to hang just a few feet over the cockpit.
We had intended to watch the Perseid meteor shower but couldn’t stay up late enough after a long day on the water. Instead, we saw Mars rising against the backdrop of a million stars, as close as the bloody war-god will come to Earth for another 160 years. Heat lightning burst every few seconds along the horizon, silent and spectacular, like bombs exploding on a distant battlefield.
Unlike my charter companions, it wasn’t my first time feeding the swimming pigs at Big Major, or climbing to visit the rough-hewn boat memorials on Boo-Boo Hill at Warderick Wells, or dinghying through the creek at Shroud to the pristine beach on the windward side or drinking at the fun and funky Staniel Cay Yacht Club. The crew loved all of it, and I loved all of it all over again, but for me Mars was the moment.
Our boat was a Moorings 51 PC. Catamarans in general are perfect for the Bahamas because of their shallow draft, particularly in winter when anchorages are chockablock with sailing craft. Two fewer feet of draft open up a lot of anchoring possibilities. For our purposes, a power cat was ideal because of the abbreviated duration of our cruise. Leopard of South Africa is the manufacturer, and the boat is built like a tank, but a tank with the ability to cruise economically at 10 knots and scoot at 16 or more. Four staterooms all with en suites let you split the charter costs with friends and family while maintaining a semblance of privacy.
Speaking of costs, the Bahamas have never been a cheap date. Almost everything consumable arrives by freighter from the U.S., then must take a second boat to the lesser islands. The Bahamians themselves pay high prices, so it is only natural that visitors should pay a little more. Despite a general awareness of that, I found myself experiencing sticker shock. (Read: those cheeseburgers at Norman’s Cay were the best $25 cheeseburgers we ever ate.)
As it happens, the Bahamas had upped their game over the past decade, becoming a more upscale destination than during my heyday. Instead of parsimonious sailors—we only saw a few sailboats—most of the summer crowd had arrived on motoryachts between 70 and 130 feet in length. I can’t help but think the regular presence of this South Florida cohort has had its own effect on Bahamian pricing. Marina dockage in the Exumas comes in at around $4 a foot, which is still less than the going rate at some of the tonier ports in the American Northeast.
Earlier I mentioned that choosing summer for a Bahamas cruise was counterintuitive, but it’s not universally so. Florida boaters have always preferred spring and summer in the Bahamas because of the settled weather and gentle, cooling ocean breezes. What about hurricanes, you ask? Nowadays, there’s usually plenty of notice, plenty of time to get the boat at least back to Florida. In contrast, November through early March feature serial cold fronts that march down from Georgia like General Sherman. They sweep through almost weekly, producing winds that can reach 45 knots.
But I get it. You want to take a boat down island when the weather truly stinks back home in Connecticut or Minnesota. All I’m saying is this: Don’t rule out summer. Someone once called the Bahamas a land of “endless June.” If only that were true, because June is surely the best, but it doesn’t happen year-round.
After we had returned to the states, I searched for pictures of the Exumas, and found more than 2,000 of swimming pigs, strutting iguanas, swarming nurse sharks and a woman in a yellow bikini photographed from multiple angles—but especially pigs. Who knew? Swimming pigs: This is how the world sees this Bahamian island chain, that place with friendly aquatic porkers.
The reality is a bit more complicated, as my colleague Jonathan was to learn.
Big Major’s Spot is the name of the island. Twelve years ago there were three or four sows put there by islanders on nearby Staniel Cay; now there are around 20. And the anchorage has a new name on the chart: Bay of Pigs. Tour boats and cruisers make daily visits bearing gifts, in our case leftovers from lunch and dinner the day before.
Four of us came to the beach aboard our dinghy: Jonathan with the camera, me with one hand on the tiller and the other guy holding a plastic tub of cold pasta. The beach was mobbed with tourists mingling with cheerful swine; one was even lying on her back so a little girl could scratch her belly.
That happy sow is not the one that welcomed us, however. Ours was a big, 200-pounder, moving toward us like a hog-torpedo. She lurched upward and thrusted her hooves onto the portside tube, maw agape and demanding. It was a scary moment, akin to being mugged. I tried to empty the tub’s contents into her mouth, but much of it fell into the water instead, and a pig, it turns out, cannot feed on floating food.
(Mental note: Bring discreet edibles, such as a sandwich, pizza slice or carrots, instead of slop in a tub, when approaching hungry, swimming pigs in a small tender.)
At this point, Jonathan slides into the water, which is almost waist deep. He doesn’t have any food so nothing to worry about, he figures. But our pig is aggravated now, and she swims round to his side of the boat and goes right for him. Jonathan stands his ground and fires off a few photos, but the last one is poorly framed, marking the exact moment he decided to turn tail and flee.
For us watching from the boat, the movie now downshifts into slow-mo. We see the pig open her jaws wide enough to clutch a cantaloupe and then … she clamps down on Jonathan’s right buttocks. In peacetime Jonathan takes excellent care of his equipment, but under duress he tosses that $2,000 Canon onto the fiberglass floor of the boat like an empty beer can. He follows a 30th of a second later, rolling over the tube into the boat.
That night we share our story with a couple of wealthy Ohioans at the Staniel Cay Yacht Club; they own villas on the island. “The one with the black spots?” a car dealer asks. “Yeah, they call her Big Momma,” the investment banker says. “They used to have a sign on the beach warning about her. She bites. She’s gonna be double-crispy bacon soon.”