Early Sunday morning, February 14th, a few scattered clouds dotted the sky as Liberty lay in her slip at the Nassau Harbour View marina.  We rose early to get under way, bound for the northern islands of the Exuma chain.  The Exumas are a string of small islands, cays, rocks and reefs that sit on the edge of the Great Bahama Bank, stretching about 100 miles along Exuma Sound, a deep part of the Atlantic lying to the northeast of the Exumas.  The southernmost of these islands, Great Exuma Island, is where George Town is located and where we spent a couple of months last year.  The Exumas are probably the most popular cruising grounds in the Bahamas.  Beautiful in their own right, they also lie on the route from Florida to George Town, and beyond to the Caribbean, so that most cruisers not desiring long open ocean passages south end up island hopping down the Exumas.  The Exuma Land and Sea Park, a 22 mile long stretch of 10 islands in the middle of the chain, is the jewel of the Exumas - a completely no-take zone, with no fishing, no shelling, no removal of anything of any kind.  We'd heard many stories of the gorgeous coral, the beautiful beaches and the abundant fish (including huge groupers, snappers and lobsters, which most cruisers, us included, think of as dinner rather than sightseeing attractions), and we are looking forward to finally making our way through the Exumas and the park.

An almost nonexistent breeze combined with a nearly slack current let us back out of our slip just after 7 am to make the 35 mile passage across the banks to Allen's Cay, generally the first stop in the northern Exumas.  A catamaran Dave had helped out a few days earlier (he dove on their fouled anchor to free it from debris on the bottom of Nassau harbour), 1010, followed us out of Nassau and across the banks.  A light breeze filled in from the north, and with a southeast course we raised the mizzen and genoa, sailing slowly in the lee of Athol and Rose Islands to the east of Nassau.  The banks carry about 10 to 20 feet of water, with a few coral heads (well marked on the charts and easily visible when the sun is overhead).   At one point, the breeze died and we motorsailed a while, but by late morning it was time to unpack the spinnakers.  First Dave hoisted the main chute, and after a quick call to 1010 to confirm they had cameras on board, he unpacked and rigged the mizzen spinnaker.  For the next couple of hours we sailed the beautiful green waters of the Bahama bank under gorgeous blue skies and two huge colorful chutes.  With the mizzen sail up as well, we were flying nearly 2000 square feet of canvass, and we were looking goooood!
As the Allen's Cay waypoint drew nearer, we dropped and stowed the chutes and motored our way in amongst several anchored boats around 3 pm.  Very strong currents run between the three main little islands that surround the anchorage, but we picked a spot with less current and dropped the hook right next to another kid boat, Sabbaticus.  Kevin, Deena and Connor are from British Columbia, Canada, and we had met them briefly in Dinner Key Marina in Coconut Grove, Florida while we were all waiting to cross to the Bahamas.   Chris and Josh were happy to have the chance to head to the beach with Connor, and now that we were finally in the unpopulated islands, surrounded by reefs and rocks that lobsters and fish like to call home, Dave was eager to go hunting.  He and Kevin loaded up the dinghy and headed out, ready to bring home the bacon (so to speak).   Less than two hours later, the men were back, having shot two bugs - one big and one medium - along with a yellowtail snapper and a conch.  After cleaning the lobsters and fish, they joined the rest of the gang, including the crew of 1010, on the beach for a celebratory "sky juice", a Bahamian drink made of coconut water and gin.  Dinner was grilled lobster, salad and chicken casserole on Sabbaticus, and it was a couple of hours past cruiser's bedtime (9 pm), when we finally dinghied back to Liberty, under a dark sky lit only by a dozen anchor lights and a billion stars, and fell into our berths.  All in all, it was a wonderful first day of cruising the less populated Bahamas.
The next day in Allen's Cay saw the sun rise on a crowd of boats, many of which had continued coming into the anchorage after Liberty had the day before.  After breakfast and a little writing, and a quick boat project (diving on a newly installed prop shaft zinc to make sure it was screwed on tight), Nancy and the boys settled in for a short school day and Kevin and Dave headed out in the dinghy.  Winds were light and the sun was bright, perfect hunting weather.  Since Nancy had the day before declared that what she really wanted for dinner was grouper with lobster sauce (not just lobster), Dave had to deliver, and he did, returning to Liberty with a big lobster and a very nice grouper.  Nancy had delicious grilled ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches on the griddle, so we made plans to have our grouper with lobster sauce for dinner, inviting the crew of Sabbaticus to join us.  After lunch we spent a while on the beach with the real attraction of Allen's Cay, several dozen iguanas that get fed by too many people.  The iguanas are not very pretty, and they can be fairly aggressive, but they are certainly unusual.  The kids, of course (including some other middle aged and older "kids"), had to do a little teasing, and Chris even got iguanas to climb up a big stick by planting it in the sand with a lime stuck on top.   We parents tried to keep the lizard teasing to a minimum (not only to protect the iguanas from the kids, but to protect fingertips from the iguanas), and after about an hour of iguana-watching we went snorkeling. 

Sometimes snorkeling means zipping quickly over to a gorgeous, well marked coral reef where one jumps in and is immediately overcome by undersea beauty, but more often it means driving around in the dinghy to "somewhere near where we think we remembered the charts showing coral", and looking over the side of the dinghy through our "look bucket" to check out the bottom.  Our snorkeling trip had become a three dinghy affair, and we all buzzed around trying to find the right spot to dive in, and it took half an hour just to decide where that would be!  We were also trying to be in the water at slack tide so we would not have to fight too much current.  The snorkeling was OK - lots of pretty fish, including bright yellow butterfly fish, and Dave augmented dinner with another big grouper.   After cleaning and drying up, Sabbaticus joined us on Liberty for our grouper with lobster sauce dinner, bringing a wonderful rice pilaf and salad to round out the meal.  Exhausted, we turned in earlier than the night before and slept soundly.
Tuesday came cloudy and colder, with a front approaching that would put the winds out of the west and northwest for a couple of days.  Although the anchorage at Allen's Cay offers all around protection from wind and good holding, it is not free from surge when winds pick up and by midmorning most of the monohulls, Liberty included, were rolling back and forth at anchor, and by late morning the anchorage had pretty much cleared out.  Liberty also raised anchor and sailed about 10 miles south to Norman's Cay.  The wind was a brisk 15 to 20 knots from the west, so our sail south under just a reefed genoa was quick and not unpleasant.  The Norman's Cay anchorage is also well protected, and relatively free from surge, so as we rounded the final bend in the channel we found a crowded anchorage.   We found a spot between a big power yacht and a charter boat with a Canadian family on board, and since we had skipped lunch while sailing down from Allen's we had a late lunch, or an early dinner, of lobster/grouper Newburg over rice with zucchini and stewed tomatoes on the side.  After "lupper" we called out to say hi to the family beside us, and a few minutes later their 9 year old son, Alex, was on his way over in the dinghy to say hi to Josh.   The boys played and talked a while, and an early evening ended after a family viewing of Groundhog Day.

We spent a few more days at Norman's cay, Wednesday through Saturday morning, enjoying being anchored in a protected anchorage by a lightly populated island with lots of drying sand flats around us, and close to a wrecked DC-3 airplane that crashed in the late 1980s while running drugs to the US.  Carlos Lehder used Norman's Cay as his personal drug running stopover for a while, until his operation here was finally shut down by the DEA and the Bahamian government.   Chris Parker's forecast for Wednesday was for brisk northwest winds in the morning, getting brisker during the day.  Chris was right, so we spent lots of time on board doing chores and relaxing.  Dinner was cracked conch, made according to a recipe Nancy got from a conch shack on Potter's Cay in Nassau - it turned out wonderfully!
Thursday came windy, brisk and cold.  We did a little school and chores on Liberty in the morning.  Dave worked on the watermaker, chemical cleaning the membrane and changing filters, and also worked on patching the dinghy cover.  In the afternoon Kevin from Sabbaticus came by in the dinghy, and picked up the boys to head for shore.  They came back with half a dozen conch, which Chris and Connor cleaned on the back deck.  Dave had saved some oil drippings with flour from frying conch the previous night, and declared that this was the beginning of a nice roux for gumbo.  Dave dumped the oil/flour mixture in the Dutch oven, turned on the flame, and forty-five minutes and a beer later, had a dark brown roux and the beginnings of a nice conch gumbo.  With the addition of chopped onion, celery and carrots, and some chopped chicken tenders and sliced venison sausage, then some pounded and chopped conch, a few cups of broth and wine and a can of diced tomatoes, and the gumbo was ready to be transported, by dinghy, to Sabbaticus for dinner.  Deena on Sabbaticus made peas n' rice with sausage, and kept our rum punches full.  The boys watched the first half of a GI Joe movie and the adults visited until the late hour of 10 pm - over an hour past cruiser's bedtime!
Our third day at Norman's Cay dawned under thick, high clouds, but thicker pancakes with sausage for breakfast helped scare the clouds away.  After a quick call to Sabbaticus, we headed out by dinghy to a nearby beach so the boys could fly the kites that Santa brought this Christmas.  We all enjoyed a nice beach picnic lunch, with sandwiches on Deena's wonderful homemade bread.   From the beach we headed over shallow sand flats to find the entrance to Norman's Pond, a mile long bay in the interior of Norman's Cay with all-around protection in depths of 10 to 15 feet.  At some point we hope to bring Liberty into the pond for a while, but the entrance is scary - charted low water depths are just 2 feet at one point, which means 5 feet at high tide.  We went in by dinghy after high tide, and using our handheld depth sounder we saw just under 5 feet in several spots.  While Nancy and Deena hung out on a beach, the boys all went out snorkeling and hunting.  Chris shot a big lobster and Dave got a big snapper and one nice conch, so at least we could eat dinner again!  Back at Liberty while Dave and Nancy enjoyed a Dark n' Stormy and Dave prepared supper (Spanish rice with sundried tomatoes and pan sautéed snapper and lobster in butter and lime juice, all seasoned with Josh's favorite, Emeril's Essence), Chris and Josh went over to Sabbaticus to finish watching the GI Joe movie.  After supper, reading and writing, Chris (who got lots of sun) fell asleep on the couch at 8:35 pm, and the rest of the family fell into bed, exhausted from a full day, by 9 pm.
Saturday the 20th we woke early to a cloudy sky as we prepared to leave Norman's Cay.   While Nancy checked weather with Chris Parker, Dave and Chris went out for some early morning hunting.  The goal was to hunt a reef just outside the borders of the Exuma Land and Sea Park that our cruising friend Menno Baar told us about, called "the refrigerator" (because big fish and lobsters sometimes don't know where the boundary of the park is).  We got to the reef by 7 am, but that was already 30 minutes or so after low tide and there was a very strong current ripping in through the deep cut and over the reef.  Wisely, the boys passed up this diving opportunity and instead checked out some more sheltered coral heads closer to Liberty, with no luck.  Back on board, after a warming breakfast of oatmeal with chopped apples, and some quiet time working on the website and reading, we got Liberty ready for an overnight sail south to George Town.  One excursion we did not take here at Norman's Cay was to snorkel on the DC-3 airplane wreck.  With the unusually cool weather in the Bahamas so far this year, and especially the last few days, we decided the water was just too cold to go in right before our overnight sail south, but we did dinghy over to the wreck and go around it a few times with our look bucket to check it out.  We do plan to return to Norman's, if for nothing else to snorkel on the wreck and hunt at the "refrigerator".
Around noon we raised anchor and rode an outgoing tide through the Norman's Cay cut into Exuma Sound for our passage to George Town.  Conditions were light - less than 10 knots of wind, close to the nose, but we raised the main and furled out the genoa, sheeted them in tight, and were sailing as soon as we got far enough out to set a course to our destination 80 miles away, Conch Cay Cut into Elizabeth Harbour and George Town.  We sailed just outside the boundaries of the Exuma Land and Sea Park, trailing lures in the water and wishing for fish, making 3 to 5 knots (depending on puffs of breeze, and averaging a little under 4 knots).  The light winds continued, between 5 and 10 knots and about 50 to 65 degrees off the port bow.  Occasionally the winds swung to a wider angle for better sailing, and eventually we raised the mizzen and added half a knot to our speed.  At just one point during the sail did the winds go light enough that we could not hold our course outside the park boundaries, so we turned on the motor for 30 minutes to get back on course and to get the boat speed up enough to make our lures attractive to passing fish.
During the evening and early hours of morning, a crescent quarter moon hung in the cloud free, star filled sky.  Josh and Dave stood the first night watch, watching a movie together until Josh nodded off around 11 pm.  During the next few hours the wind built to around 15 knots with higher gusts, and Liberty charged ahead, going a little too fast - if we continued to sail over 6 knots, we would arrive at the Conch Cay Cut before 4 am, and we did not want to sail in before daylight.  As the moon set and the sky grew very dark, lit only by billions of twinkling stars and the occasional shore light, Dave reefed the genoa and started spilling wind from the main to slow down the boat.
We hope to be in George Town through the Cruiser's Regatta, about three weeks, reuniting with friends and enjoying this cruising community, before moving on to cruise the Exumas and welcome guests.  We also plan to be back in George Town for a while in late April for the Family Island Regatta, the Bahamian sailing regatta that we enjoyed so much last year.
As the sun dropped low and eventually set behind the Exumas, filling the horizon with its deep orange-yellow glow, we pulled in our lines, with not a single strike - our fishing woes continue!  The breeze, however, was picking up, to a steady 10 knots, and our boat speed picked up also, to around 5 knots.  Liberty continued to sail smartly on a close reach, maintaining course even when the sometimes fickle winds came around close to the nose.  During the course of the evening and night we found that in winds of 10 knots or so, we could sail close hauled with the apparent wind about 35 to 40 degrees off the bow, which is better than we had thought.  We are enjoying our new wind instrument, installed and commissioned in January that gives us not only wind speed but also the apparent wind direction.
When Chris and Nancy came on watch at 2:30 am, they continued the challenging job of trying to sail slower than the conditions would have permitted.  It would have been nice to have let Liberty charge ahead, plunging through the inky black water into the starry night, but then we would have had to decide whether to navigate into Conch Cay Cut in the dark, using our chartplotter and GPS but without the visual reference of waves breaking on the reefs through which we would pass, or heaving to and waiting for daylight.  The prudent course was to sail slower, and arrive after dawn.  Nancy and Chris did just that, and woke Dave around 6:30 am so we could sail in together.  Although we turned on the engine as a safety measure, we sailed the entire way into Elizabeth Harbour, engaging the engine only for the half-mile leg that was too close to the wind to sail without tacking.  We sailed past the boats anchored at Hamburger Beach and Monument Beach, and as we approached the anchored boats at Volleyball Beach we saw boats and sights we remembered well from our nearly three months here last year.  The morning net came on just as we were slipping into a space at the edge of the anchorage to drop our anchor.  By 8:30 am we were set, and after quick hot showers we dinghied in to shore a half hour later for Beach Church.  Nancy brought her flute, Chris joined the choir, and Josh helped with passing out song books and counting the attendance as he sat up in the branches of a causarina tree.  Nancy's flute was an absolutely beautiful accompaniment to the choir, and during and after the service our good friends at George Town welcomed us warmly, making us feel as if we had never left, and in a way it felt a little like coming home for us.
Josh, Chris & Connor
A beach at Norman's Cay at low tide
Flying kites on the beach
Liberty's looking goooood!
We're enjoying the sail!
Kevin, Deena & Connor aboard s/v Sabbaticus
What a stud - Dave that is!
Iguanas, iguanas everywhere!
Just taking a rest
The beach at Allen's Cay
Norman's Cay
Chris & Connor
Chris teaches Connor how to clean conch
Enjoying a picnic on the beach
Connor helps Josh launch his kite
Chris' kite is up!
Bocce on the beach - check out that form!
Deena & Nancy
Chris, Connor & Josh play Bocce on the beach
Deena & Kevin as we explore Norman's Pond
Chris is a fine lobsterman!
A cave in Norman's Pond
Sunset over Exuma Sound
Sunrise over Exuma Sound
Beach Church in George Town
Welcome to Norman's Cay