Monday, June 4, 2018

Greetings from the smallest cruise ship

We are under way in Exuma Sound, en route to Cape Eleuthera. It's been an interesting couple of days. We had a good time at Cat and Little San Salvador islands, but it's time to move along. I want to have plenty of buffer before my Sunday flight out of Nassau.

Vector, alone at anchor in West Bay, Little San Salvador.

We arrived at Arthurs Town before 2pm and set the hook off the town dock (map). As we feared, there was a good deal of swell out of the south, since winds had begun clocking around south from east. Reviews said this anchorage was untenable in swell, and when we arrived we could see a pair of small sailboats pitching rather violently.

Fortunately, wind and swell were from very nearly identical directions. Pointed directly into it, the motion on Vector was not bad at all, and we decided we could just stay put. Getting ashore, however, would be another matter. That same swell was crashing into the shoreline along the entire town, and up against the concrete remains of the town dock. Making matters worse, the shoreline is rocky and what little beach exists is well-guarded by stray rocks.

Seas too rough for a tender landing, either at the dock or the beach.

We spent considerable time staring at the shoreline through binoculars, looking at satellite photos, and reading notes from other cruisers before deciding that landing the tender was too risky. Anchored just 500 feet from shore, however, we figured we could paddle ashore in our inflatable kayak. That can be a wet experience, especially in surf, and so we opted to just go once, waiting until we were ready to head over to the rake and scrape festival.

We landed the kayak without incident on the beach nearest the airport access road, just a bit after 6pm. It was a short walk to the festival marketplace at the airport, and we could hear music emanating from there as soon as we landed. We arrived at the festival grounds about 6:20, a bit late, so we thought, for the 6pm scheduled start of the Battle of the Bands.

Vector (and some sailboats) anchored at Arthurs Town, as seen from our kayak landing on the beach.

The music we heard turned out to be recorded. The stage was empty, and the festival park had perhaps three dozen people milling around. We're used to things happening on "island time" and so we thought nothing of this at all. We found the beer stand right away, but before we could even buy a beer we were each being hit up by several young contestants in the Little Miss Cat Island beauty pageant. We ended up sponsoring each contestant for a dollar apiece.

After sitting a while sipping our beers with nothing at all happening on stage, we eventually wandered over to one of the half dozen food stalls and bought a plate of BBQ ribs for dinner, with traditional Bahamian sides of peas & rice and mac & cheese. We shared one plate between us, which was plenty.

Somewhere between 7:30 and 8pm, with still nothing happening on stage, they booted everyone out of the festival park so they could collect admission from us all. We re-entered to the tune of $15 each, hoping that, at some point, there would be a live band, battle or no.

Rake and Scrape fest, finally under way. Quadrille dancers on stage.

Not long afterwards our new friends Ben and Meghan and their dog Mason from s/v Loose Seal showed up; they had dropped the hook not far from us about three hours after we did. They, too, grabbed some food, and let Mason play with the local children. Unfortunately, they had to cut their evening short just a short while later when they got word that friends of theirs had been rescued from their sinking vessel off the coast of the Dominican Republic. I had read about the rescue earlier in the day, but of course had no idea Meghan and Ben knew them.

It was a good diversion to have them to chat with, but by 9pm, which was the scheduled end of the battle of the bands and the scheduled start of the evening show, still not a single band had taken the stage. By this time, the crowd had swelled to maybe a couple hundred; the Bahamians either already knew there would be no Battle of the Bands, or else had only planned to come for the evening show.

I think you can see where this is going. Some announcements about a delay in busing some Nassau primary school kids up from The Bight was part of the delay, perhaps the same kids we saw down there the day before, still waiting past 7pm for their 6:30 ride. And something about not wanting to change the order of the program.

The view from our deck at Half Moon Cay. Like anchoring in a swimming pool. Cruise facilities in background.

Suffice it to say the music started after 9:30, the school kids had not arrived, the first act was terrible, and the short part of the second act we managed to catch was not much better. The power went out just before the first act started, for another ten minute delay, and apparently it had gone out in The Bight somewhat earlier. At 10pm we left and made our way back to our wet chariot to head home.

This is Bahamian culture in a nutshell. Other than the lack of any actual festival music, we very much enjoyed ourselves for the evening. The food was good, and all the Bahamians were happy to be relaxing on Labour Day Weekend. There was only a mild uprising when the music did not start on time. And children were playing everywhere.

This ersatz pirate ship at Half Moon Cay is a bar. To the right is one of the many cabanas passengers can rent for the day for $300.

Many an entrepreneur has come to the Bahamas hoping to open a western-style resort with first world promptness and attention to detail, only to run smack into the cultural norms that simply will not support that. The abandoned foundations of these resorts can be found all over the islands. And western tourists coming here for vacation with western service expectations are sometimes sorely disappointed.

What the Bahamians lack in first-world promptness, they make up for in friendliness and willingness to help. They will open their homes and cook dinner for you, or give you a lift to the other end of the island, or come out in an old fishing boat and tow you off a sandbar. Just be prepared for all of that to happen on Island Time.

Vector at Half Moon Cay. Tiki hut to left used to be a bar but is now the high-zoot private cabana.

We were a bit nervous about getting the kayak launched in the heavy surf and over the rocks, in the dark. Louise paddled from the front seat while I pushed off the beach from thigh-deep in the water, then jumped in like a bobsled brakeman. Other than getting my foot tangled in the seat strap it worked like a charm and we were in open water without a hitch. It was a longer ride home, paddling against wind and wave.

We awoke yesterday to an even bouncier morning. Needing nothing else from Arthurs Town, we decided to get moving to our next stop sooner rather than later. That first required a bit of research, since that next stop was a private island belonging to a cruise line. After a while I was able to find the island's port call schedule and determine that no cruise ships were scheduled to be in port either yesterday or today, and so we weighed anchor before lunch and headed that direction.

Lobster shack and the "I Wish I Could Stay Here Forever" bar (as written on sign).

Holland America cruise line purchased Little San Salvador Island in 1996 for the beautiful bay at the southwest corner with its white powder sand beach. They developed about 50 of the island's 2,400 acres into a luxury beach playground for their cruise passengers, and have improved the property over the past two decades. A handful of caretakers and maintenance staff live at the complex in trailers, but the island is otherwise uninhabited.

We hailed the island manager on the VHF as we arrived to let him know we would be anchoring, and to  ask permission to go ashore. While they own the island, they can not own the bay, and the beach up to the high tide line. But it's a courtesy to anchor out of the way, and permission is needed to go beyond the high tide line. We dropped the hook in ten feet, just off the swim area (map).

The air conditioned massage "shack." So inviting, but the staff arrives with the ship. 

In the past, boaters have been permitted to stroll the complex (when no ships are there) after asking permission, and some have even been given tours by island staff. We were told we could only access the beach, likely because the privilege has been abused. One boating family of three felt entitled to help themselves to the buffet every day for two weeks, and use the water park and other amenities on cruise ship days. I wanted to think ugly Americans, but these turned out to be ugly Bulgarians instead.

We anchored close enough to the beach that I just swam ashore to stroll. I walked most of the developed length of the beach, took a few photos, and then swam back. While I had heard there was no cell service here, there is now a tower on the island and we had good 4G signal from both BTC and Aliv, so we spent the day on the boat relaxing and catching up. For most of the afternoon we had the whole place to ourselves, and it was quite lovely. The water here is the clearest we've seen yet.

Two of the five "villas." Painted in Bahamian style.

Late in the afternoon s/v Loose Seal arrived, asking permission to bring Mason ashore. If only the fake pirate-ship bar had been open, we would gladly have joined them ashore. Of course, even when the bars here are open, you can only buy a drink (or a massage, or rent water sports gear) with your cruise card. There is, in fact, nothing consumable on the island itself at all -- not a scrap of food or a single bottle of beer. Or even a cash register. All of it is unloaded from the ship when it arrives, and loaded right back aboard when it leaves. The beach is really just an extension of the on-board experience.

Another motor yacht, Adventures Baby, arrived in the evening and then all was quiet for the night. The island is strictly a daytime venue, so there are no street or walkway lights; a light had been left on in one of the two-story beach "villas" ($550 to rent for the day, charged to your stateroom) and one in the massage shack. We could see a faint light from the horse stable and a glow above the power plant and staff village, but nothing to disturb the view of the stars. The only noise was the quiet hum of the power station.

Sunset at Half Moon Cay. Loose Seal and Adventures Baby to the right.

It really was a lovely anchorage, and we could easily have spent another night if we had the time. We're glad we finally saw the place; we had been scheduled to stop here on the MS Oosterdam over Christmas during our first year on the road, but the weather was too rough for them to load the tenders at the ship, so we passed on by and had an extra day at sea instead.

We're no strangers to cruise ship private islands, having previously visited Princess Cays, which is actually part of a small peninsula on the enormous island of Eleuthera. As you might expect, this was the Princess Cruises equivalent to Half Moon Cay, with all the same stuff -- swimming, snorkeling, a BBQ buffet, water toys, etc.. We made a return visit years later on a different Princess cruise and decided it was not even worth going ashore; we let 1,500 other people do that and then had the ship mostly to ourselves.

I mention this because we passed Princess Cays this morning. Behemoth Carnival Cruises bought Holland America and Princess, among others, and now Carnival's own branded ships make more port calls at these two properties than either of the original owners. And thus we passed, close aboard, the Carnival Ecstasy "anchored" off Princess Cays, their passengers enjoying themselves ashore.

Carnival Ecstasy hovering off Princess Cays, Eleuthera, tenders alongside. Princess Cays in background.

I put anchored in quotes, because the ship was actually "hovering," a computer controlling the bow and stern thrusters, rudder, and propellers to keep the ship in a fixed position and orientation. Their AIS transponder indicated "Under Way Using Engine." Before crossing their stern at less than a half mile, I called on the radio to ensure that they, indeed, would remain stationary until their scheduled departure at 17:00.

Update: We are now anchored, just inside the bight of Cape Eleuthera (map). This is our second attempt here; I snorkeled the anchor at our first spot and it was lying upside-down with just a tiny piece of one fluke hooked. The bottom here is minimal sand over rock, with coral everywhere. We moved to an area with more sand and less coral and have the main fluke at least dug in a few inches.

Tonight we will dinghy ashore to the Cape Eleuthera Marina and eat in the on-site restaurant, Pascals. Just in the nick of time; we used the last of our fresh lettuce last night, having to throw most of a head away. S/v Loose Seal has again joined us here; we seem to be running in parallel. In the morning we will head back across the Sound to the Exumas.


  1. I totally understand the concept of "island time." We've visited Treasure Cay on Abaco, The Bluff House on Green Turtle Key/Exuma, and Peace and Plenty on Exuma. I was pregnant with my son in 1985 when we stayed at Peace and Plenty. On St. Patrick's Day, the owner asked the cook to make green linguine with shrimp. She didn't know she could buy spinach pasta so she added green food color to the water when she cooked it. I have some wonderful memories of the people who worked there.

    1. Ha! Green food coloring. That's so funny, Katie!


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