We spent a fine, sunny day sailing from Norman’s Cay, Exuma, to West Bay, New Providence Island, where we anchored for the night. We left again at 6 am for a marathon day motor-sailing across the Tongue of the Ocean and then across the Grand Bahama Banks to Cat Cay, the latter part of the trip being completed by the light of a full moon. We anchored at 10:30 pm, a 16.5 hour trip – 104 Nautical miles. The next day was a quick 2 hour motor-sail into Bimini, passing the wreck of the SS Sapona, which sank during a hurricane in 1926.
We spent just over a week in Bimini and, somewhat surprisingly since it was never on my bucket list, we enjoyed our time immensely. The “Islands in the Stream”, a favourite haunt of Ernest Hemingway, are unlike the other Bahamian islands in both good and bad ways. After years of free-flowing money from pirating, salvaging, rum running, drug dealing, and even big game fishing, the easy money has dried up, leaving crumbling infrastructure and shabby shacks of poverty-ridden Alice Town in its wake. Some people think it is the armpit of the Bahamas – but perhaps because it is the first stop for many cruisers coming from Florida, and considering it is only 50 miles from Miami, they are surprised to find so little there – paint-chipped stores badly stocked, no fresh groceries, and businesses/resorts that go bankrupt almost as quickly as the opening fanfare finishes.
For us it was our last stop, and we are used to asking when the mail boat comes in before grocery shopping. We don’t expect fancy restaurants and instead were charmed by the little craft market, the museum full of historic photos, the rake-and-scrape music at the Blue Water party for the owner’s 70th birthday, and the cracked conch at CJ’s beach bar.
The number of churches seems disproportionately high considering the population, but are outnumbered by liquor stores. As elsewhere in the Bahamas, the locals are charming, friendly and cheerful despite their circumstances. Everyone you meet on the street has a greeting and a smile. And Alice Town still has a certain charm, with the vestiges of its history of game fishing and famous visitors and former residents. The ice-cream van blocked up traffic on the tiny “King’s Highway” chatting to Steve and giving him 2 ice-creams for the price of one because it was his first time!
Ernest Hemingway lived on Bimini from 1935 to 1937, staying at the now burned down Compleat Angler Hotel. He worked on his book To Have and Have Not and wrote a few articles, but mostly he fished aboard his boat Pilar, trolling the deep blue offshore waters for marlin, tuna and swordfish. Hemingway was attracted to Bimini by tales of the incredible fishing available in the Gulf Stream, the legendary “river” of warm water that rushes north past the Bahamas. An Atlantic blue marlin with a mass of 500 pounds (230 kg) caught off Bimini allegedly inspired Hemingway to write The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in The Stream. Apparently Martin Luther King, Jr. also visited Bimini in 1964 and worked on his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech here. Singer Jimmy Buffett is another famous visitor.
We stayed on the dock at Blue Water Marina – one of the most friendly marinas we have visited. We quickly became acquainted and enjoyed the company of the staff, other cruisers, power-boaters and sports fishermen. Charming Papi, the gardener, brought me aloe leaves to sooth my skin rash, and then checked up on me everyday! We met Joel and Marlene on Free Time and they had us over for happy hour – with wonderful hors d’oevres and cocktails. Cruisers would gather for sundowners near the pool and swap stories.
We visited the Bimini Biological Field Station’s Shark Lab, taking the ferry over to South Bimini and then walking to the lab, a world-famous facility owned and operated by shark biologist Dr. Samuel Gruber. The Sharklab offers marine biology internships to people interested in shark research and the conservation of the ocean’s ecosystems. We had a great tour by a young British principal investigator who is working on his PhD on lemon sharks. His passion and enthusiasm was infectious. He explained the research methods, showed us the cramped, camp-like living quarters of the 20 staff and volunteers, and then showed us the shark pens where researchers were busy working with (tagging, weighing, measuring) young sharks.
However, the real entertainment on the dock each evening was courtesy of the guys on a big game fishing boat docked near us. They brought in their catch and cleaned it at the fishing table on the dock. This attracted some huge bull sharks, along with their entertaining entourage of pilot fish, remora, tarpin and one large cobia. As the water is so clear we had a very good view of the sharks as they gulped and sometimes fought over the fish carcasses. Bold pelicans got in on the feeding action and grabbed a piece or two too.
The fishermen even tied some fish carcasses to a rope and teased the bull sharks who eventually bit the carcass and the rope as well. On the last day, the fisherman came back early – after 4 hours of fishing, with 7 huge wahoo (one weighing 45 lbs) and 4 mahi mahi. They kindly shared their rich spoils with some of us sailing folk on the dock.
What I enjoyed most about Bimini was the wildlife. It is the only part of the Bahamas that had brown pelicans, and from the back of the boat we had front row seats to their show – sitting on dock posts or squabbling over fish parts, filling their floppy beaks and gulping down their “catch”. It reminded me of my Dad reciting the Ogden Nash poem:
A wonderful bird is a pelican,
His bill will hold more than his belican.
He can take in his beak
Food enough for a week;
But I’m damned if I see how the helican.
We saw grey herons and great white egrets and there was a good-sized “rookery” of both in the trees on the mudflats in the lagoon. The end of the dock was like an aquarium with the numbers of reef fish. A large 3 foot tarpin hung about under our boats. Steve saw a spotted eagle ray with a wing span of several feet jump out of the water right next to our boat, and the 8 to 10’ long bull sharks circled our boat, making swimming there somewhat less than enticing! The beach on the other side of Alice Town, a short walk away was the best in the Bahamas for picking up sea glass which Marie is collecting to make a mosaic.
We took the ferry over to South Bimini twice and enjoyed amazingly good fresh sushi one night at the Bimini Sands Beach Bar/Restaurant at the end of the island. We walked the interpretive well-signed nature trail there and saw lots of poisonwood, lizards and sisal, an aloe-like plant whose strong fibres were once harvested for rope.
We met a friend of Claude and Marie’s, Bertrand, who lives in Bimini on his boat most of the time, and is the brains and braun behind the “Bimini- Quebec Project”. Paying guests/visitors are provided with accommodation and holiday activities (like kayaking, sailing, visiting the shark lab etc.) but also spend several days painting buildings in Bimini to try to brighten up the shabby town, on a volunteer basis. It is a great initiative and we really liked Bertrand, who, a social worker by background, also works for the Cirque De Soleil doing cultural awareness for new artists.
As I said, we enjoyed our time in Bimini and the week flew by as we waited for a weather window. Anticipating a one-day weather window on Tuesday March 5, we decided to take a chance on exiting the North Bimini tricky channel between reefs before the seas had settled down on Monday afternoon, and move our boats into the Bimini Sands Marina in South Bimini.
From here it is a straight shot out through the well-lit marina entrance and the lit navigation buoys to get underway for the long trip across the Gulf Stream. And because the marina has floating docks and a big calm basin, it would enable us all to leave at 4 am, in the dark, to get a head-start on the crossing when the weather settled down overnight. So we moved. The short hop was somewhat daunting with waves crashing on the nearby reefs and our entrance into the narrow channel with breakers crashing on each side was heart-stopping. But once tied up we were able to enjoy a fun happy hour on the docks with our friends Pat and Celine from Casita, Lynn and Stewart from Kaylad, and of course Claude and Marie as well as a couple on an Island Packet who decided to leave with us early in the morning, although they were heading for the Berry’s.
Feeding the sharks video:
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