Flying and Sailing in the Bahamas

A Bahamas flying and charter vacation adventure proves a seductive gateway to setting off cruising.

Piper Pacer
Our vintage Piper Pacer flies low over the Sea of Abaco, giving us a spectacular preview of where our charter adventure will take us.Steve Weigel

The last red streaks of sunset faded from the western horizon, replaced by dull, silent flashes of lightning in the distance. The warm southwesterly breeze of the afternoon had picked up markedly, transforming this placid, azure half-moon bay into a frothy inkpot of an anchorage. I settled into a cozy corner of Windbird's cockpit and nursed a Dark 'n' Stormy; it was an appropriate choice of beverage for the night of our first Bahamian cold front, or norther in the local parlance.

A few days earlier, my wife, Dawn, and I crossed from Florida to Great Harbour Cay to begin our first season as full-time liveaboard cruisers. More-experienced skippers might well have set the anchor alarm and headed below for some shuteye, but I was still new and excitable; I stayed up to watch and wait for the frontal passage. Meanwhile, my thoughts turned to our most recent visit here, and the incredible adventure that ultimately led to our return in a cruising boat of our own.

It all started two years previously with a high-altitude sighting of this very bay. One of the perks of my job as an airline pilot is a front-row view of some pretty incredible scenery. On this particular occasion, we were descending into Nassau when I looked out of the right cockpit window and saw a long, skinny cay dividing the impossibly cerulean water of the Great Bahama Bank from the deep navy blue of the Atlantic. On its east side was a beautiful aquamarine cove bordered by a 2-mile arc of sugar-white beach. Inland was a small airstrip, while just offshore, a ketch puffed along under sail. An idea—twin ideas, really—flickered into that creative, restless section of my brain where most of my best adventures have been hatched.

swimming pig
The swimming pigs are a big hit with the tourists in the Exumas.Steve Weigel

Dawn and I had already been considering where to take our next bareboat charter. We’d done the British Virgin Islands a number of times as well as St. Maarten, California and Thailand. The Bahamas seemed an ideal destination, but where, exactly? The country is comprised of thousands of islands, cays and islets scattered across nearly 700 miles. The Exumas and the Abacos are the two most popular cruising grounds, though they’re quite different. The Exumas is lightly populated, largely pristine, insanely ­beautiful, and expansive enough to fill months of cruising. The Abacos is more compact, sheltered and developed, offering a more BVI-like experience, which accounts for its greater ­popularity as a charter destination. It’s tough to choose just one.

It was my high-altitude sighting of Great Harbour Cay’s airstrip that provided the solution. Dawn and I owned a small four-seat airplane at the time, a vintage Piper Pacer. Built in 1953, it was slow and basic, but also tough and reliable, which is why many Pacers have found their way to the Alaska bush. These qualities make the Pacer equally well-suited to island hopping in the Bahamas, which would allow us to sample both the Exumas and the Abacos, from the air and the water, in one epic nine-day flying-and-sailing adventure.

Flying in the Bahamas
Even a small plane lets you cover the wide expanses of the Bahamas.Steve Weigel

Up in the Air

Two months after this inspiration, our little yellow Pacer swooped low over the same azure bay and buzzed the gorgeous, utterly deserted sugar-sand beach before landing at the Great Harbour Cay ­airstrip. Another small single-engine airplane, a white-and-maroon Piper Warrior, followed close behind. The two aircraft contained myself; my friend and fellow airline pilot, Kevin Heine; his wife, Jeannie; my brother Steve Weigel; and his friend Jacquie Martin. Dawn had missed the airline flight that would have allowed her to cross from Florida to Freeport with us, but she’d catch up with us shortly.

We came to Great Harbour Cay for Carriearl Boutique Hotel’s justifiably famous Sunday brunch. Immediately I was struck by the island’s wonderful low-key vibe. Though geographically proximate to the United States, the Berry Islands, including Great Harbour, are somewhat off the beaten path for pilots and sailors alike. After brunch, we trundled back into the airplanes and flew low-altitude formation down mile after mile of mostly unpopulated islands with attractive lee anchorages.

Moorings 4600
A ­better idea is to ­escape the crowds on your own ­Moorings 4600.Steve Weigel

At the southern end of the Berries, we climbed high to cross the Northwest Providence Channel, and then separated; the Warrior bypassed Nassau for a beach day on Norman’s Cay. Meanwhile, Steve and I landed at the bustling international airport, parked at the private terminal, and walked to the airline side in time to intercept Dawn, freshly arrived from Minnesota via Delta Air Lines. I joked about whisking her to her own private airplane, which looked humble indeed sitting in the shadow of sleek, multimillion-dollar private jets. But the Pacer was taking us somewhere these big-money machines couldn’t dream of going.

A short flight across the Yellow Banks took us to Norman’s Cay, where we rejoined Kevin, Jeannie, Jacquie and the Warrior. Norman’s is infamous as the former stronghold of Colombian drug lord Carlos Lehder. The wreck of one of his drug-running DC-3s is still visible in the lagoon, a silent reminder of wilder days, as well as a first-rate snorkeling spot teeming with sergeant majors and blue tangs. Departing to the south, we were soon passing over the otherworldly seascape of the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park. Our plane’s yellow wings reflected an eye-popping swirl of color, the dozens of shades of blue, green and ochre that demarcate the maze of cays, banks, sandbars and channels. There was little sign of human civilization save for a few isolated private compounds—Hello, Mr. Depp!—and the occasional trawler or sailboat carefully navigating its way through safe water. Amazing as our aerial view was, Dawn and I were immediately jealous of the sailors. The Exumas is clearly a place that begs to be explored by water.

Amazing as our aerial view was, Dawn and I were immediately jealous of the sailors. The Exumas is clearly a place that begs to be explored by water.

Fortunately, our destination was an excellent base from which to do so. Staniel Cay lies roughly halfway down the Exumas, one of a few small villages between Nassau and George Town. It’s long been a popular stopover for sailors thanks to the friendly and lively Staniel Cay Yacht Club, a few basic stores for reprovisioning, and a large and beautiful ­anchorage at Big Majors Spot, just around the corner. In the past few years it’s become much more popular with land-based tourists as well, including a considerable number of Nassau day-trippers who come via air charter or go-fast boat. There’s a lot to see within a few miles of Staniel Cay—and even more tranquil deserted beaches on which to while a day away—so it’s a little disconcerting to see the masses beating tracks for the island with only one unlikely, rather smelly attraction in mind: a motley gaggle of greedy, amphibious swine.

No, even we were not immune to the charms of the infamous swimming pigs. After renting a Boston Whaler from our resort, Big Majors Spot was one of our first stops. The beach is at least a nice one, with a great view of all the cruising boats anchored in front. And there’s a certain giggle factor to seeing a dozen grunting denizens of the barnyard in such paradisiacal surroundings, especially when they trot into the surf at the first sound of your engine and gamely paddle toward you. Careful, though—these piscine porkers are looking for handouts, and once you’ve doled out your scraps, they’ll gladly take your lunch too, climbing into your dinghy to get it if need be. Alas, last year a number of the older sows suddenly died off under mysterious circumstances, but by that point, they were way too big of a tourist attraction to be relegated to Staniel Cay’s past; a whole new generation of piglets were imported, tagged, and apparently given swimming lessons.

Dinghy trip
With 11 of us on board the 4600, it took multiple dinghy trips to get everyone ashore.Steve Weigel

Porcine attractions aside, we spent a very full day on the water snorkeling Thunderball Grotto (of James Bond fame), visiting the endangered Exuma iguanas at Bitter Guana Cay, feeding the stingrays and nurse sharks at the yacht club, and playing Robinson Crusoe on various sandy islets. All this made it clear that the Exumas has a heck of a lot to offer to those who can take the time to explore it.

crystal clear waters of the Abacos and Exumas
From the air, the crystal clear waters of the Abacos and Exumas are otherworldly.Steve Weigel

Gone Sailing

Our own explorations would have to wait, though. After two nights at Staniel Cay, we were off to the Abacos, with a short stopover in North Eleuthera for lunch on Harbour Island. Shortly after landing in Marsh Harbour, we were joined by five more friends who flew in via the airlines: fellow pilots and frequent sailing companions Andy Peterson and Ivy Rivera, and Steve’s friends Jeff, Sarah and Haley. Our group of 11 made for a potentially packed charter boat. I guess we had overinvited, but who knew so many would jump at the chance to sail the Abacos on a catamaran for five days? Fortunately the Moorings 4600 (nee Leopard 46) had a ton of room, and with good company on board it never felt crowded.

The subsequent days passed in a blur. We had a rollicking close reach up to Treasure Cay despite a forecast for light winds. There, we threaded our way up its shallow channel and were rewarded with one of the most spectacular white sugar-sand beaches with Bombay Sapphire gin-blue water I’ve seen anywhere. We visited Great Guana Cay and enjoyed sunset tipples at its two famous beach bars: Grabbers and Nippers. We snorkeled beautiful, expansive reefs at Fowl and Sandy cays, anchored off Tahiti Beach, and after a few of our crew accidently trespassed on private land, all got invited to a party at the owners’ marina in White Sound.

sitting on the beach
It didn’t take long to find a beach to savor.Steve Weigel

The next morning we sailed all the way down to Little Harbour and sneaked through the skinny entrance to anchor in a pleasant pond bordered by a small artists’ commune established by famed sculptor Randolph Johnson in the 1950s. For our last night, we took a mooring in the protected harbor at historic, picturesque Hope Town. We watched a fiery sunset from the top of its famous striped lighthouse—one of the last kerosene-fueled, manually operated examples left in the world—then dinghied across the harbor to Jack’s Dockside Bar for dinner, drinks and dancing late into the night.

The Cruising Life

So what do you do after a fantastic charter like that? You go home, wish you had stayed, feel a little lousy being on land, and then get excited about planning your next trip. Except in our case the way home involved a two-hour flight in the Pacer from Marsh Harbour to Fort Pierce, Florida, passing low over the full chain of the Abacos all the way to Walker’s Cay. North of Whale Cay, the charter cats disappeared. After Spanish Cay, the anchorages were spectacular and mostly empty. This was a revelation—a side of the Abacos much like the Exumas, just waiting to be explored at a slow pace on your own boat. We talked about doing so. The seed that had been planted on our unforgettable flight down the Exumas began to germinate and fully blossomed later that year, after another BVI charter with a boat full of friends.

There’s a certain giggle factor to seeing a dozen grunting denizens of the barnyard in such paradisiacal surroundings.

Dawn and I decided to make a radical change to our lives, and over the next 18 months, we sold our house and most of our possessions (including the Pacer); Dawn quit her job; and we bought our 1982 Tayana Vancouver 42, Windbird. In one of life's charming twists of fate, it turned out that on that flight low over the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park, we'd actually flown over our future boat while it lay at anchor off Shroud Cay. The previous owners, Mark and Judy Handley, had already circumnavigated but were finding the Exumas to be their new favorite cruising ground. Two years later, Windbird was headed back to Exuma with its new owners; we couldn't wait to explore that mazelike, otherworldly seascape from our own sailboat, nice and slow.

iguana
An ­endangered iguana at Bitter Guana Cay in the Exumas.Steve Weigel

But first we had to pass the test of our first Bahamian norther. The wind shifted decidedly northwest and freshened anew, lightning cracked in every direction, and Windbird swung and bucked in the dark, choppy anchorage. Our heavy Spade anchor remained firmly embedded in the sand bottom, though, and I decided we'd picked a good spot to weather the blow. My Dark 'n' Stormy seemed to have mysteriously disappeared; it was time to end the anchor watch and head below. Tomorrow was bound to dawn clear and bright, and the brilliant blue waters of the Bahamas would beckon once again. Our flying-and-sailing adventure here two years earlier, like most charters, provided a tantalizing but far too brief taste of these islands' many delights. Now, with the freedom to explore at our leisure aboard our own boat, every day was shaping up to be a never-ending feast.

Sam Weigel, his wife, Dawn, and their dog, Piper, are now in their third season of cruising and are exploring the eastern Caribbean aboard Windbird.