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Where are all the trawlers?

Exumas underscore value of shoal draft, twin screws

Iguanas crowd the beach on Leaf Cay like a pack of hungry dogs, jockeying for position and nipping at each other. Cruisers feed them.

By Peter Swanson

Some of the most beautiful cruising in the world can be found just a few hundred miles off the coast of Florida in the Exumas archipelago of the Bahamas. This, of course, is no secret, as demonstrated by the more than 400 cruising vessels anchored at George Town with us as I write this.

A close examination of the George Town anchorage here at the southern end of the chain, however, begs another question: Why not more trawlers? After spending a month crawling down the Exumas, going from spectacular anchorage to spectacular anchorage, the observed ratio of trawlers to sailboats has been about 1 in 10. Here in George Town it’s even

The anchorage at Allans Cay.

Cruisers inspect a cave on the banks of Normans Pond, a hurricane hole at Normans Cay.

One of the swimming pigs of Big Majors Spot, near Staniel Cay. The swimming pigs are a major attraction.

Club Thunderball is a popular cruiser hangout with its Friday night barbecues. It’s a rustic bar with a $10 million view.

less. The beginning point of most Exuma cruises are the Allans Cays, novel because of the battalion of big iguanas that greet each dinghy coming to the beach in hopes of being fed. A run of wintry weather had bottled the cruising fleet up in Florida, so when there was a calm, boats crossed as a fleet. More than a week later, this crush was still evident as boats jammed into the anchorage formed by the Allans and Leaf Cay. The night before our arrival there were more

than 30 vessels crammed into an area that seemed crowded with just a dozen.

Despite this, there was plenty of room in those parts of the anchorage where low water narrowed to four feet. This is usually multi-hull country, and there were a few, but there was plenty of space for shoal draft trawlers such as Great Harbours. A big, shiny new Krogen, maybe a 52, arrived late in the day and dropped the hook. But the skipper miscalculated and when the tide running through the anchorage turned, he found himself a coin toss of away from a neighboring sailboat.

We all make anchoring mistakes, especially in a complicated situation such as one at Allans that evening, with brisk tidal current and brisk winds at right angles. But that didn’t stop a neighboring sailboat owner from behaving like an intolerant ass. Instead of just speaking to the trawler folks over the bow (they were that close), he got on the radio and berated the trawler skipper publicly for his inexperience and poor judgment. The problem had a simple cure, but the trawler folks were so

A seaplane belonging to the owner of the Miami Dolphins lands in the anchorage at Big Majors Spot. These are the two power vessels among 26 sailboats.

A nurse shark swims beneath the docks of the Staniel Cay Yacht Club. Nurse sharks and rays are like pets here, eating scraps from the fish cleaning bench.

A racing sailboat sits on the hard at Staniel. Each major Bahamian Out Island hosts an annual regatta. It’s the Bahamian answer to NASCAR.

A cruiser admires a gaily decorated yard on Staniel Cay.

The Staniel Cay Yacht Club operates a waterfront cottage camp on its grounds.

intimidated they steamed out of the anchorage and dropped the hook in exposed water. Too bad, I thought, that they drew more than 5 feet, probably 5˝.

The very name Bahamas derives from the Spanish for “shallow sea.” The Exumas divide the Great Bahama Bank from the deep, deep water of Exuma sound. The string of cays shelters the banks from prevailing easterly winds, creating a relatively calm lee in normal conditions. The tradeoffs are the myriad shallows and sand bores, evident in the color of the water, that make banks navigation so challenging.

At this point, I must confess that I am piloting a sailboat, but it’s a Morgan Out Island 41 that draws just 4 feet, 3 inches. Charley Morgan, the man who designed and built the Out Island, once told me that the “ability to seek shelter” was too often overlooked in determining a vessel’s seaworthiness. Morgan, who designed custom trawlers in his later career, would surely have appreciated any vessel that combined stability, redundancy and a draft of less than 3 feet.

One of the best illustrations of Morgan’s philosophy can be found at Norman’s Cay. As mentioned, this winter’s weather has been particularly blustery, and the bluster did not confine itself to Florida. In January and February, the “northers” were rolling down the Bahamas islands like Sherman’s march to the sea.

One of the finest hurricane holes in the Bahamas is Norman’s pond, on the northern end of the island. Surrounded by hillocks, it’s a mile long, a third of a mile wide and averages between 12 and 20 feet deep. Problem is: the entrance requires you to pass between two rocks about 60 feet apart, then pass through a narrow channel that shallows to 4 at low water. Despite the forecast for gale-force winds, only 20 boats opted for the pond, while twice as many crowded into the current-scoured anchorage on the cay’s south side.

Unsurprisingly, half the boats were multi-hulls drawing 2˝ feet or less. There were four trawlers—one of the highest ratios we saw—and the rest were mono-hull sailboats. With room for a couple hundred more boats we were able to put out as much anchor rode as we pleased. Our friends in the south anchorage didn’t have that option; they had to deploy two anchors in opposition—a Bahamian moor—to avoid crashing into their neighbors when the tide changed.

Staniel Cay, one of the nicest areas in these islands, offered still


This Haitian sloop on the goverment dock at Staniel Cay is among the last vessels in the Western Hemisphere still carrying freight under sail.

A Bahamian woodcarver plies his craft on Little Farmers Cay.

more evidence of the shoal draft advantage, as the mono-hulls crowded together in deep water during blows, seeking shelter behind high ground, while acres of 4- and 5-foot waters lay vacant. We found another, albeit tiny, hurricane hole at Great Iguana, with shoal entrance room for three boats at anchor. And here in George Town, where anchor lights dot the night sky like a near galaxy, there are nevertheless huge grounds with superb holding, unoccupied save for a catamaran or two.

At the beginning of this article, a question was posed. Despite the emphasis thus far on shoal draft, my best guess for an answer has more to do with a different issue. Why aren’t there more trawlers here in the Exumas? After all, we’re just a day away from the Bahamian capital of Nassau with

The view from Little Farmers Cay.

Eileen Quinn, wandering minstrel of the cruising lifestyle, entertains cruisers on “Volleyball Beach” at George Town.

a host of facilities and just three days from the USA.

I think the reason is simple: There ain’t no TowBoat US in the Bahamas. So far, I’ve run into two sailboats with non-functioning engines, and guess what? They weren’t really happy about it, but they were sailing for home on the prevailing easterly winds. When a single-screw trawler loses that one motor, the situation is hugely more complicated if not downright dangerous. Who is going to fix the engine? Where can the engine be fixed? How do we get the boat to the mechanic? Where do we keep the boat until the parts can be shipped in from the states? Whom do we trust?

I have to tell you: the Bahamas are really pretty tame cruising. If the comfort zones of the majority of trawler owners are too small to cruise here, their confidence will shrink to zero in discussion of more distant horizons. Some trawler owners will tell you they have no interest in the Bahamas; in most cases that’s just sour grapes. What this really means is that they bought the wrong boat; they didn’t buy a boat with, say, the redundancy of twin screws.

As I write this, the Great Harbour 47 belonging to Brooke and Dee Williams is making its way down the Exumas. With its form stability, twin screws and shoal draft, it surely is the forerunner of many Great Harbour trawlers to follow, because in the entire world few cruising grounds are better matched to this type of vessel and vice versa.

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