Paddling in Paradise

Sea Kayaking the Bahamas
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The Bahamas' unreal beauty
You're not dreaming: the Bahamas' unreal beauty

We are a temporary civilization of six people, afloat in the vast, largely uninhabited expanse of the Great Bahamas Bank. More specifically, we are making an eight-day swing by kayak through a string of rocky islands, or cays (prounounced like "keys"), known as the Exumas. There are 365 cays in all, some no bigger than helicopter pads, some capable of sustaining a few hundred Bahamians. They start poking to the surface about 35 miles southeast of Nassau and don't peter out for another 150-odd miles.

Hubbard Marmaduke Jones III happens to be intimately acquainted with this pristine stretch of the Bahamas. A seasoned kayaker and the sole proprietor of Florida-based Ibis Tours, he has been shepherding land-lubbers through the Exumas for five years. His stuffed-shirt name belies an affable, goofball personality."Bardy," as he wisely prefers to be called, is a 41-year-old, elongated leprechaun. The face is freckled, the red hair wild and curly, the grab bag of old sea chanteys, Civil War songs, and bad jokes bottomless.

Ibis kayak excursions have about them a deliberate air of quasi-improvisation. We will cover 40 nautical miles and camp on five deserted cays, without being held hostage to a rigid schedule. Indeed, on Day One of the trip, when I ask about our itinerary, Bardy nimbly sidesteps the question. "I think it was Mark Twain who said the public should never be allowed to see laws or sausage being made," he replies.

The public in this case consists of five sun screen-slathered bodies. Vic and Kathleen, a health administrator and psychologist respectively, are experienced kayakers from Florida by way of Colorado. Bud, a dreamy, artistically-inclined, aqua-impaired photographer, and Andrew, his college-student assistant, also reside in Florida but have thus far led kayakless lives. Like Bud, I have no great affinity for the water, having once flunked my local YMCA's entry-level swimming course. Here it is thirty-five years later and in the unforgiving eyes of the YMCA I remain a lowly "minnow."

There are now an estimated 100,000 American kayakers paddling about the globe; up from just a handful ten years ago. The sport conveniently comes in two flavors. Whitewater kayaking appeals to "hard adventure" enthusiasts who enjoy running river rapids and risking their necks doing so. They dart around in tricky-to-master, hard-shell kayaks that are designed for maneuverability, not stability.

Sea kayaking, on the other hand, offers excitement on the order of Baby Bear's bed: Not too hard, not too soft, but ju-u-u-st right. (One outdoors writer describes the difference between whitewater and sea kayaking this way: "Roughly as hang-gliding compares to pedaling a 10-speed across Nebraska.") No experience is required; just a willingness to get wet and to try something different. By the end of the first day, after on-the-job training, most people have their "kayak feet."

One distinct advantage sea kayaks have is that they are not paddle-dependent. An easy-to-raise sail can provide all the juice you need if the wind cooperates. (I paddled only about two hours in the course of a week.) Interior foot peddles control a small rudder, making steering as simple as riding a Flexible Flyer on snow.

The job of the person in the bow is largely to enjoy the view and occasionally scout for approaching rocks, making the bow person about as functional as a Mercedes hood ornament. The person in the stern runs the show. He tacks the sail by means of a rope called the sheet, tugging to catch more wind and a burst of speed; easing off to slack the sail and slow down. The object is to keep the nose perpendicular to the current, reading the waves and nursing the kayak along the path of least resistance.

Sea kayaks run 17 feet to 20 in length and weigh about 80 pounds; slightly longer and heavier than their fresh-water cousins. The are made of rubbery nylon skins stretched over collapsible ribbing. Inflatable bladders sewn into the sides make sea kayaks super-stable as opposed to speedy. It takes knowledgeable hands fifteen minutes to piece together a collapsible sea kayak. Not all the hands in our group knew what they were doing, however. In addition, we had about 45 tons of food and wine to stow, because Bardy Jones fancies himself a chef as well as a comedian.

Late on a Saturday afternoon, we flew by charter from Nassau to tiny Stanial Cay (population: 80), where we bunked at the Happy People Marina. We spent the next morning bringing our two-person kayaks to life.

"If I told everybody what a pain in the butt this first day is, probably nobody'd ever come," mumbled Bardy, standing outside Happy People ankle-deep in bedrolls, tent bags, cooking utensils, life jackets, assorted kayak parts, and dozens of plastic bags filled with provisions.

But people do come, and for good reason. The Baja Peninsula of Mexico and the Pacific Northwest are the familiar playgrounds to kayakers, only two outfitters do overnight trips in the wilderness waters of the Bahamas. Both operate almost exclusively within the confines of vast Exuma Land and Sea Park, a world of deserted beaches and water as clear as contact-lens solution. The park is long on fish and fowl and short on humans, making it the perfect locale for wildlife watching, trash novel reading, and snorkeling.

True kayakers consider clothing a luxury item and worth jettisoning. As we were loading our personal gear into waterproof bags just prior to shoving off, Kathleen eyed what I thought was my modest pile of belongings."Oh, don't bring too much," she said. "Just a couple of t-shirts and shorts. You'll probably wind up wearing just one set of clothing anyway."

Wrong, Kathleen. If you think of t-shirts as wampum, well, I was suddenly a millionaire. Why not flaunt it? I packed my entire stash, and as the week wore on I obnoxiously offered to rent t-shirts to my fellow kayakers for $5 a day.

It turned out that I only had quantity working in my sartorial favor. Bud was heavily into quality accessories. Besides a wide selection of scarves and hats buried in his duffel bag, he produced an oversized, tie-dyed shirt that he'd bought in Nassau. He carried a felt-tipped pen everywhere and beseeched folks to make graphic contributions, turning the hallucinogenic shirt into a pictorial travel diary, a wash-and-wear cave painting. Bardy drew an ibis, the bandy-legged bird from which his company derives its name. The owner of Happy People added a smiley face. A conch fisherman sketched the silhouette of what could pass for a barracuda.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication



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