By Marcin Sochaj
Once upon a tide they were home to Blackbeard, today, as the world’s largest tax haven, they hold much greater loot. Marcin Sochaj reveals an unknown side to this maritime paradise.
Only 30 of the 700 coral islands in The Bahamas are inhabited and once you’ve tired of the bustling port of Nassau, and its cruise ship masses, the most popular route is southeast, along the Exumas chain where there are plenty of beautiful and interesting places. The most popular are: The Island of Aliens Cay inhabited by thousands of iguanas, Mayers Cay where a family of friendly pigs welcomes sailors on Pig’s Beach, Stanley Cay which has a marina, bar, restaurant, and shops, or George Town where there is an extensive anchorage, with 200 yachts visiting at any one time.
All of those places are extensively covered in numerous cruising guides but the secret Bahamas can be found by sailing off the main cruising routes, into shallower water, although you’ll still have at least a metre (3’3″) under the keel of a Kraken 50. The best example of this, where you can find your own anchorage, are the infrequently visited southern islands of the Exumas and Rugged Islands. Although it’s possible to find quiet spots all through the Bahamas, here you’re very likely to have it all to yourself.
Coral reefs, expanses of waist-deep water with a sandy bottom, and white beaches lined with coconut palms await the adventurous yachtsman. The hinterland is an uninviting sprawl of weathered limestone covered with prickly bushes and small trees.
An unusual pastime here is exploring abandoned properties and developments.
The changing political climate and economy together with unsettled weather have seen the islands abound with deserted homes. It’s thought there are more houses abandoned than there are occupied. One can find everything, from century-old single homesteads to recently abandoned construction sites of large resorts. They are the remains of disillusioned dreams and misplaced investment.
One of my favourites is Cistern Cay in the north part of Berry Islands. It is a small island with a paved airstrip, seaplane landing, network of tarmac roads and two villas. The island was abandoned some forty years ago when the US Drug Enforcement Agency took an interest in the activities of its owners. They left in a hurry leaving everything behind.
Residents of nearby Bullock Harbour used Cistern Cay as a source of home improvement materials and called it Home Depot. Additional attractions lie beneath the water on the south side of the island. Here the remains of a DC3 aeroplane sit on the seabed. According to local legend, the aircraft ran out of fuel waiting for permission to land on Cistern Cay!
There is a blue hole a little further south between small islets. The water around it is knee-deep. The hole itself has forty meters of depth and is only twenty meters in diameter. Strangely no tour operator is offering dive trips to it?
The best approach is from the north between the northern tip of Great Harbour Island and Great Stirrup Cay. The cays are tropical island paradises owned and operated by cruising ship companies. Lignum Vitae Cay and Cistern Cay are connected by mangroves so it’s easy to miss the change from one to another. Cistern Cay has three coves with small beaches. The northern one is for the seaplane landing ‘strip’. All offer good holding in sand and grass and there is protection from the prevailing north-easterly winds. If the wind shifts into the western be prepared to move.
Another interesting place is Royal Island, west of North Eleuthera and close to Spanish Wells. It is rich in history, some researchers even suggest that Royal Island may be the island where Christopher Columbus first set foot in the New World. Later it was used by British pirates as a bridgehead for attacking Spanish gold and silver ships, which turned seeking fresh water before heading for home.
During the American Revolution, it was a rendezvous place for royalist privateers. Nobody knows when the estate was built or when it was abandoned. Today the remains of the main house, detached kitchen, guesthouse, terraced garden, dock, and other smaller structures testify to the former glory of the island. In the early 2000s, the construction of a large resort started just west of the old estate but was dropped shortly after. A small resort operates in the west part of the island now.
Royal Island has a wonderful, almost enclosed, harbour named appropriately; Royal Harbour. The best approach is from the west between an unmarked rocky bar extending south-west from Little Egg Island and numerous wrecks to the south. Proceed along the islands, not too close as the area is dotted with rocks. Royal Harbour has two entrances. The most easterly entrance is too shallow for all but speed boats. There is a submerged and dangerous rock right in the centre of the main entrance, but its easily visible. Don’t try to enter when the sun is low. Anchoring off the stony jetty in three metres of water, the bottom is sand with some weed.
From Royal Harbour, it is a short dash to Spanish Wells, a place without any significant abandoned properties but worth visiting as it differs from everything else in the Bahamas. Alternatively go on to Bar Bay Settlement on Carrent island for a full on ghost town, the village was abandoned sometime in the 1960s. There are remains of a church, some houses and a well, dug to water ships heading east. The anchorage west of Bar Bay Settlement is good, sheltered by Pimlico Islands, but the approach is tricky with rocks and coral heads to avoid. It’s essential to go there on a calm sunny day between 1000 and 1400 with a sharp lookout for obstacles.
A forward-looking sonar will be a great help here.
There are more recent abandonments too, like the one on Halls Pond Cay on Exumas, which is not much more than 10 years old. It was supposed to become a resort but the project was dropped and left behind together with building machinery, cars and beach equipment.
Sailors and ghost town explorers will find these islands fascinating. I’m afraid that after Hurricane Dorian in 2019 there will now be many more ghost villas to explore.