Paddling in Paradise

Ocean Perils
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View from the cay
View from the cay

But the Exumas are at their finest when showing off undisturbed beauty. That's why Bardy is partial to Sandy Cay. "If I had my choice of any place in the world to spend one week with a woman," he announced as we were en route, "this would be it."

Knowing Bardy, I'd say part of the appeal is that the island is so small the woman he shanghaied there would have trouble escaping his clutches. Yet Sandy Cay does pack plenty of visual punch for its size. We spent two days there, setting up a makeshift kitchen in a grove of trees where someone—probably a surreptitious conch fisherman—had left a rickety plywood table. A micro-cay some 50 yards from the shore was perfect for snorkeling, packed as it was with coral and hundreds of chitons, small mollusks that resemble fossilized shells and cling like barnacles to any available underwater surface.

On the bluff at the far side of the island, only about a 10-minute walk from camp, there is a deep cut in the rock that forms a natural open-faced cave. Bardy and I climbed up and sat staring at the blanket of ocean below."Look! Sharks!" Bardy suddenly yelped. "Two of 'em. Get over to higher ground!"

Sure enough, two dark, malevolent blobs were slithering through the shallows. We were accustomed to spottings by now. Sharks had become staples of our cocktail hour. We would sip of wine, nibble cheese and crackers, and count the ominous shadows feeding in the surf. Nonetheless, sharks always generate a jolt of excitement. Despite years of hanging around the Bahamas, even Bardy gets charged up whenever torpedo-shaped visitors come calling.

"I'll say one thing for sure," he blabbered as we thrashed through underbrush to reach a better vantage point, "this island has a damn lot to offer."

Even soft adventurers like to get the adrenalin pumping now and then. It cements the trip and the travelers together. Heretofore, we'd been kayaking with a buffer of cays on our right flank, effectively shielding us from the brute force of the sea. Adrenalin Day in the Exumas is the day you traverse the Wide Opening, a four-mile expanse of forbidding, barren ocean. Yachties avoid the Wide Opening for fear of exposing a $100,000 investment to undue risk. But we had no choice but to tackle the three-hour crossing since we had an appointment to keep with our charter plane on Norman's Cay.

"Here," said Bardy as our kayaks huddled for a last-minute pep talk and he handed us each a signal flare, "use these only in an emergency and if somebody can see it. It doesn't do any good to shoot off a flare if nobody's around."

At about 3 p.m., we ventured into the Wide Opening. The water gradually turned dark and brooding. I half expected something fantastic—a white whale or a grumpy Neptune himself—to rise up and smite our fragile kayaks to bits. Bardy didn't help things by mentioning that another outfitter had a kayak upend in these waters last year. The group spent a long, uneasy night on Lightning Rocks, a protrusion that's no more spacious than a pitcher's mound, waiting for help to arrive.

We were speed-reading waves and making good progress for almost three hours. Our destination, Little Cistern Cay, still hadn't popped into view when the water started getting rougher, the tide pushing harder against us. Suddenly we were like terrified cartoon characters being chased by demons, spinning our little cartoon feet in place and making no headway. My solution for the high divorce rate would be to pass a law requiring couples to make a kayak or canoe trip together before getting married. Trial by water is a good yardstick for measuring compatability—as Vic and Kathleen demonstrated. They found themselves in trouble, edging precariously close to villainous Lightning Rocks.

"Oh, Vic, paddle harder, goddamn it," Kathleen hollered from her bow seat. "I can't believe we're in this mess."

Kathleen readily admits that when the kayaking gets chancy, she turns whiny and Vic lapses into silence. And they were on the verge of rolling snake eyes and taking an unscheduled bath."At that point we were dead in the water, drifting to the left under full sail," Vic later said, when he was back on dry land and feeling chatty.

Both the kayak and Vic and Kathleen's relationship passed the Lightning Rocks test. Vic and Kathleen fought their way back on course and we sailed on. The sun was in free fall. Our backs were aching, our concentration waning. The good news was that Little Cistern Cay finally appeared on the horizon. The bad news was that whitecaps loomed ahead, and sea kayaks cannot handle waves more than a few feet high.

We changed direction, sailing northwest with the current, scouting for a favorable place to take out. Just as the sun was melting into darkness, we slid past a cluster of yachts and into the welcoming arms of Hawksbill Cay. We were dead on our rubbery feet, but grateful for the privilege to walk on solid ground again.


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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