From my point of view, there are two ways to cruise the 1,000 mile-long Inter Coastal Waterway (ICW) that spans five states (seven if you include the Chesapeake Bay region) along the Atlantic seaboard and innumerable ports of call. One is to travel as if the ICW is merely a water highway to move a boat from the north to the south, and visa versa. Normally this journey can be accomplished, if moving quickly, in 10 days to two weeks. The more pleasant option is to enjoy the waterway and the many sites along the way. To take time, appreciate the variety, the history, the people. This would be my preferred mode of travel.
Sadly, I have yet to experience a leisurely cruise on the ICW. My trips have always been a means to an end—to get as quickly as possible to either our preferred destination of the Exumas in the Bahamas on a southbound journey, or to Annapolis, where we live, heading north.
My husband Peter and I feel very fortunate that, even though we both still work, we are able to get away for four to six weeks at a time for cruising adventures. Because of this time constraint, we don’t stop to smell the roses until we reach our final destination.
We have taken our 36-foot Downeast Zimmerman powerboat Bee Weems to the Bahamas twice in the past eight years. Each time, we split the trip into stages or have asked others to take her from point A to point B for us. The key is to find marinas that are convenient to airports and, more importantly, to have qualified friends who we trust handling our boat. Two marinas in Florida that fit the bill are Palm Harbor Marina in West Palm Beach and Harbortown Marina in Fort Pierce.
On our most recent trip, friends from Seattle took Bee Weems from Annapolis to Stuart, Florida in the fall. We stowed our vessel at River Forest Yachting Center in Stuart for the winter. In early May, our boat builder, Steve Zimmerman, and his wife took Bee Weems from Florida to the Bahamas. Peter and I flew into Georgetown on Great Exuma Cay a few weeks later and met up with Bee Weems at the beautiful Marina at Emerald Bay, located at the northern end of the cay. We traveled north through the Exuma chain on this three-week adventure and then all the way back up to Annapolis on the ICW in 10 days.
The Exumas are a group of cays midway along the Bahamian chain. Geologically speaking, the islands that make up the Bahamas are part of the remains of a giant 650 mile-long underwater mountain range of limestone. The valleys extend two miles deep into the Atlantic, while the highest peak is approximately 220 feet high. It spans a distance equivalent to that of Cuba to northern Florida.
There is some frequently used cruising terminology that describes these peaks and valleys. We traveled north on the ocean side of the cays in Exuma Sound until we came to a “cut” that we entered to proceed to the “bank.” The “bank” area is more than 60 miles wide in many places and is the portion of the mountain range that is barely under water. Deeper draft boats must travel on the ocean side of the cays and then “cut” in between cays to the more protected bays. Smaller draft boats such as Bee Weems (3’8” draft) can travel a good distance inside the “bank,” as long as we are alert to the varying water colors.
The varying hues of water color are a critical navigation aid in the Bahamas. What’s wonderful is that on most days you can see the ocean bottom. As first mate, learning to recognize the differences between sand, grass, coral and rock was essential for me. Dark blue water can mean deep water. It can also mean sea grass or coral reef. Normally, the lighter the water color, the shallower the water.
Our favorite way to cruise in the Bahamas is to slowly meander north traveling between five and ten miles per day, stopping to explore any place that suits our fancy based on recommendations from other cruisers and our reading materials, while of course always taking the weather into consideration.
The first cay we visit as we head north is Staniel Cay, popular for its quintessential Bahamian charm. Staniel Cay Yacht Club has water, a restaurant/bar with WiFi and a convenience store. It is very close to Thunderball Grotto, world-renowned because it was featured in the 1965 James Bond movie “Thunderball.” It’s one of the best places to snorkel in the Bahamas. The fish are prolific and the opportunity to observe them in an underwater cave without having to wear full diving gear is unique.
Next up, Compass Cay Marina, which is operated by local islanders and is essentially a dock set in a living aquarium. Enormous nurse sharks live under the dock, and sea turtles and beautiful angel fish can be seen right next to the docked boats. There’s also a beautiful white-sand crescent beach.
Warderick Wells Cay is the seat of the Bahamian Land and Sea Park, established in 1958. The Bahamian National Trust manages and protects the wildlife and natural habitats on the 17 cays and their adjacent waters. Expansive views can be seen from the top of Boohoo Hill and there are several nature trails to explore. There is no marina, but there are mooring balls for tying up.
Highbourne is the most northern cay in the Exuma chain with a marina. It is a hurricane hole, protected on all sides. Highbourne Cay Marina has a restaurant, convenience store, rental cabins and loaner bikes for land exploration.
From Highbourne Cay, we jump off to Nassau and then begin our trip toward Florida. We love our time in the Exumas, but one day I do hope we get to return home along the ICW at puttering pace.