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Extreme Sport | From Desk Till Dawn

Kayaking the Bahamas

Howling winds, choppy seas and a five-knot current… James Henderson’s weekend paddling in paradise sorts the grafters from the sunseekers.

January 10 2010
James Henderson

At times pure pleasure and a hearty challenge collide. There can simply be no cooler place to kayak than the Exumas, a chain of hundreds of cays and islands in the Bahamas, set in some of the bluest water in the world. But 45 miles in a weekend in tropical heat, with ocean winds and currents that run like dervishes, is no small matter.

I put the word out to some old sporting mates, and among the volley of sarcastic replies came one from Richard, a Parisian banker, which ran: “A spot of paddling in paradise? You’re on.” Of course the trip was more of a challenge than either of us would have wanted to acknowledge in advance, but so are adventures made. You get yourself into trouble and get out again.

Friday 1100 We lift off from London Heathrow for Nassau. After 4,000 miles crossing the Atlantic, we cruise in to land over the Great Bahama Bank. This is the baja-mar, the “shallow sea” of the name. For 100-mile stretches it is a mere 20ft deep or less, a submarine landscape of bright white coral sand. And the ocean cobalt has transformed into myriad shades of radiant blue. The Bahamas are so beautiful that they are favourites with satellite photographers.

Friday 1500 In our brief exposure to the airport – a welcome of mock pirates and a woman who decides to limbo under a Retracta-belt in the immigration queue – I remember that Nassau itself is a tourist trap. The best bit of the Bahamas is the Out Islands – the Abacos, Bimini, Eleuthera, the Exumas – all with an easy, West Indian lifestyle. There are scores of them – islands, cays and sandbars that disappear at high tide .

A small charter plane is waiting to take us the 75 miles south-east to Staniel Cay at the heart of the Exuma chain. It’s a bouncy flight. My demons are playing up, it seems. The storms that brought snow to the northern hemisphere in early February have dealt the Bahamas a sideswipe. Winds are howling and the palms stand like tousled heads of hair. It’ll be interesting kayaking.

Friday 1630 We are met by Dallas Knowles, the owner (with his wife, Tamara) of Out-Island Explorers. Knowles’ family has been in the Bahamas for three centuries. He has come up from Great Exuma, the southern anchor of the island chain. He hands over kayaks, paddles, lifejackets, waterproof bags, masks and snorkels. Formalities done, we head out to Thunderball Grotto, a cave with a domed roof where James Bond ended up in one adventure, chasing stolen nuclear weapons.

A five-knot current is running so we dive and kick like mad to make it into the cave. Sea fans and sponges wobble in the current; fish fry bob and weave in choreographed unison. This is another hint of what lies ahead – the strength of Bahamian tides. As the Atlantic heaves and sighs, water rushes on and off the Bahama Bank. Pinched between the islands, it can pass through the “cuts” at eight knots, enough to sweep a small boat away. After a roseate sunset, our evening is spent in the bar of the Staniel Cay Yacht Club, studying charts. Carefully.

Saturday 0730 We are under way. In the lee of the islands it is calm, but our first challenge is Staniel Cay Cut. We poke our noses out, into a 25-knot blast. On our left the Atlantic is hammering the reef, sending plumes of white water 40ft into the air. And then the third in the triumvirate of demonic teases declares itself. As any sailor will tell you, wind over shallows causes chop. Ahead is a roiling expanse of water, ranks of 3ft waves barrelling down onto us. Half a mile of this will be hard work.

But there’s nothing else for it… we paddle for all we’re worth. The kayaks surge on each peak and slap into the troughs, water sluicing over the bows, throwing us left and right. I am pressing the kayak so hard to keep it balanced that I fear that I might dislocate a kneecap. We pause behind an islet. Then it’s off again and the scary stuff starts, with big waves rolling broadside off the ocean. Wind, current and waves fire across one another. The sea seethes and white caps tear off and spatter into our faces.

Saturday 0830 We make the lee of Bitter Guana Cay, somewhat relieved, and take a breather on a stretch of perfect Bahamian beach, sunlit by a break in the cloud. Straight lines are scored into the sand – tails – between scrabbled clawprints either side. Iguanas. None shows itself, but as we leave, one sits imperiously on the foreshore, watching us go.

Saturday 1030 We make Black Point, a dozy settlement on Great Guana Cay, and pause for coffee in Lorraine’s Café. More tide timetables and charts. Suddenly the man who made the charts, Monty Lewis, introduces himself. “Round the point will be your hardest haul, all the way to Great Exuma,” he warns.

Yes and no. The wind barracks us at Black Point, but so it does around every corner on the 10 miles of Great Guana Cay. Still, in moments we are lucky. The sun strikes through the clouds, glancing off the chop to dazzle us and later lighting the seabed. And gradually, around us, a whole palette of colour opens out, enough to impress a surrealist painter. The sea ranges from gin-clear shallows through glassy jade to aquamarine and azure. Sandbars sit in bands of turquoise so bright they appear to glow. Again, it’s the clear water reflecting the sky – and the bright white coral sand on the seabed magnifies the effect.

Saturday 1700 Near dusk, after another hairy crossing, we slide wearily onto the sand on Big Farmer’s Cay. An explosion of kit emerges from the bulkheads – dry clothes, tent, sleeping bags, food, a small stove. We cook up a meal of pasta and sausages, check the stars – there is no light pollution whatsoever – and crash out on the beach, sung to sleep by the wind hissing in the casuarina trees.

Sunday 0600 Our protected cove is calm. And then so is Galliot Cut, which the day before would have been hideous. The Exumas are living up to their promise. As we head south-east we find ourselves hovering over 15ft of limpid water. Every blade of sea grass and coral head is plain to see beneath, glinting in the sun or wavering in the kayaks’ tiny bow waves. “Hey, this is what I signed up for...” announces Richard. Now the challenge will be making the end in time for our flight. But there is time to snorkel: angel fish, sergeant majors and grunts, a live conch, anemones that snap shut when disturbed.

If the limestone geology of the Bahamas gives them their spectacular sand, it is brutal land. Onshore, the coral rock is known as “ironshore” and it is as twisted and brittle as some triassic cake-mix. I park for a moment under an overhang of honeycombed rock. A wader comes within 15ft of me on the shoreline, unsuspecting, intent on food. It rams its five-inch beak into a hole in the rock, prising out some poor unsuspecting bivalve.

Sunday 1100 While many cays are just as they were when Columbus passed by over 500 years ago, increasingly they are being developed with private homes. Leaf Cay near Staniel Cay is for sale for $12m. We cruise by Musha Cay, David Copperfield’s private hideaway, which can be rented and sleeps 24 – it’s a more comfortable way of seeing the islands, I’ll admit. There are few hotels in the Caribbean where an appointment is required to visit, but this is one of them, and the managers decide not to let two bedraggled kayakers ashore to look around. In the cut between the Darby Islands stands a curious concrete jetty. Apparently, a resident provided assistance to German U-Boats in the second world war. So the rumour runs, at any rate.

From Bock Cay, another island under development, there is a two-mile open-water crossing. It is no deeper than 20ft but the currents are light, so we set off, marking progress by the changing colours. Tiny fish seed their way through the light chop, jumping for joy. At Norman’s Pond Cay, named after an old solar salt works, baby sharks cruise lazily on the lagoon floor 2ft beneath us. Then there’s Lee Stocking Island, home to a scientific research station, the Perry Institute for Marine Sciences. We have missed the regular tour slot but it is renowned for its studies into stromatolites, the oldest living entities on the planet.

Sunday 1700 The final paddle is another two-mile haul, now racing against the clock. We make the crossing – glassy green, clear, a band of choppy aquamarine – and plough into the now stiff afternoon breeze, hugging the shoreline. In the descending delirium, the outcrops of coral rock jut into our path like animal heads – bear snouts, rhinoceroses, stegosaurs, tyrannosaurs. We make it back onto land at Barataria on Great Exuma. Huge relief. Dallas drives us down to Regatta Point.

Sunday 1900 We take off from Moss Town for Nassau and manage to make the London flight at 10.30pm. Lying on the pillow, my head momentarily rises and falls to the movement of the waves below. Then oblivion.

Monday 1100 Swollen feet rammed into unyielding shoes, I arrive back in London. I am spent, my hands are shredded from 50,000 paddle strokes. But forget all that. It’s been a memorable and amazing weekend: a dreamy idea, teamwork and plain graft, a challenge well met. And in one of the most spectacular seascapes in the world.