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Sailing the Exumas: Bareboat Charter in December

Wahoo caught on the drop in the Exumas sound

We returned to go sailing the Exumas on a Bahamas bareboat charter for the first time since 2018. It had been too long for one my favorite sailing destinations. It was our first time sailing in December, so I was also looking forward to that!

The island chain in the Bahamas had everything our crew was looking for in an Exuma Yacht Charter: solitude, natural beauty, fantastic sea life, stunning anchorages, and great fishing. We cashed in on each of those this trip.

For a week-long trip, we sailed just the northern half of the Exumas and did a loop – our turnaround point was Staniel Cay.

This is a long post with lots of pictures –  I hope you enjoy! You can also check out our Exumas Cruising Guide to learn more about planning your next Bahamas yacht charter trip here.

Table of contents:

Exuma weather gods were on our side

Route planning for Yellow Banks crossing
Close hauled on our forecast for the first day Yellow Banks crossing (source: Predict Wind)

I began weather watch in October to follow the patterns. I was surprised to learn that cold fronts, albeit weak, had already begun to sweep down and make their way through the Bahamas. Yikes.

Despite this, we got lucky and didn’t have to deal with one! Very lucky for this time of year. This allowed us to keep our planned itinerary without any disruption.

Winds were settled for the entire trip: 10-15 knots varying from the NE to the SE. Perfect!

No rain the entire Bahamas bareboat charter (of course, because I bought a new rain coat before we left).

Snorkeling clarity was outstanding thanks to the steady easterlies that blessed us.

Bali 5.4 in the Exumas on a bareboat charter trip
You will have plenty of space to spread out on this sailing yacht!

The Bahamas bareboat charter catamaran - Bali 5.4

We were originally booked on a Lagoon 46. However, a month before the trip, the yacht charter company reached out and let us know that it was going to be delivered late. Instead they were upgrading us to a Bali 5.4 – the same one they had on display at the Annapolis Boat Show (Yepa II).

This thing had all the bells and whistles – huge hangout area up top with drink fridge, blue underwater lights, hydraulic swim platform, generator, watermaker, etc. Here’s a more in-depth boat review I put together about it.

The crew’s verdict is that this is the best sailing catamaran we’ve ever been on.

Bali 5.4 blue lights in the Exumas
The underwater blue lights were a lot of fun - we saw lots of fish and a few sharks

We really enjoyed the top deck lounge area that integrated the helm station – plenty of room for everyone to hang while cruising during the day. This is where we spent most of our time

Our version had 5 full cabins and two singles in the front (presumably for a captain and hostess).

She sailed fairly well – we topped out at around 7 knots with 10-15 knot winds on a broad reach. Closer to running with just the mainsail up, we were cruising at 6 knots.

Bali 5.4 downwind sailing
Easy downwind sailing in ~10 knots

What surprised me, was how speedy she was through the water under motor. Both engines at 2,500 rpm gave us 9-10 knots! Most cats I’ve been on have only done 7-8 with this much power.

It’s worth pointing out that the bow is quite high off the water – our crew had to laydown under the lifelines to reach a mooring ball – not ideal. Just make sure your boat hook is long enough!

This added speed came in handy on our first day (see below!).

Interested in an Exuma Yacht Charter?

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Let us find you the best option - it doesn't cost you anything extra.
Not ready? Learn more about Exuma yacht charters.

The Exumas sailing itinerary: 7 spectacular days in the Exuma Islands

Arrival day

It’s always easy traveling in and out of Nassau. We love that we can connect directly from the US on a short flight and have plenty of daylight left at the marina for check-in.

We opted to use the Dream Yacht Charter (DYC) provisioning service for the bulk of our food and beverages. We supplemented with a quick trip to Solomon’s for some essentials that weren’t on the list. It’s less than a mile from Palm Cay Marina.

Palm Cay hasn’t changed much in the three years since we’ve been there, except for one new condo building. Lots of ongoing construction, but nothing too disruptive or bothersome.

Palm Cay sunset, the Exuma bareboat charter base
Lots of construction underway at Palm Cay

We were able to check-in a bit before the prescribed time (5:00pm). All was well until they informed us that the previous charter group ran aground and damaged both the rudders!! 

So much for that day-of-arrival inspection we paid for.

DYC was on top of it and had it being repaired overnight. The rudders were due back at 8:00am the next morning, after which they would need a diver to assist with the reinstall.

Having been through problems (and charter company promises) like this before, I was preparing to spend our first full day in the marina.

We enjoyed a good meal by the pool at the Pink Octopus and threw down an extra painkiller since we were no longer departing first thing in the morning.

Catamaran Christmas lights
Getting in the holiday spirit - our first time sailing in December

Day 1 - Yellow Bank crossing to Ship Channel Cay

To my great astonishment, the rudders arrived at 9:00, and they were re-installed by 11:30!!! 

While they were completing the repair, we chased down some loose ends (snorkel gear, rod holders, etc.) and said hello to a couple crewmembers of La Vagabonde.

We quickly topped off the fuel tanks and were off to go sailing the Exumas!

Amazing, and I couldn’t believe it.

sailing the Exumas
Goodbye Nassau - off to a week in paradise!!

Winds were less than 10 knots and on the nose. So with the late departure we were most certainly motoring. No biggie. We’ve learned to be flexible on these week-long trips.

It was a calm, gorgeous day and the coral heads were easily seen crossing the Yellow Banks, despite being somewhat later in the day than you would typically like.

We enjoy checking out new anchorages, so we pointed for the southern end of Ship Channel Cay. Along the way we hooked a couple barracudas and kept one for bait.

Barracuda catch in the Exumas
First fish of the trip - barracuda of course in 20 feet of water

With our 9-10 knots of speed, we even arrived with time for some paddleboarding and a cruise around the area in the dinghy.

We were the only boat in the around, so we enjoyed our first sundowner in complete solitude – perfect.

Ship Channel Cay paddleboarding
The ladies using the SUPs in perfect conditions
Ship Channel Cay anchorage Exumas
Day 1 at Ship Channel Cay; sure beats getting stuck in the marina on your first day

Day 2: Trolling down to Pirate's Lair in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

We decided to take our time on our second day and make it as far south as we could – we would decide later where to drop the hook. No set destination to rush us.

Before leaving, we snorkeled the nearby coral heads. There was some great sea life to include a few rays and turtles. Alan even used the Hawaiian Sling to spear a lionfish, an invasive species. We take shots at these whenever we can. 

We had ideal wind conditions out of the NE for a southerly passage on the deep Exuma Sound side, so we went to do some sailboat fishing and hoped for some wahoo! Used the wide Ship Channel Cut to the north to head into deeper water. Check out my Exumas fishing tips if you want to learn more.

Alas, we had several good fish on that we lost, and of course caught several ‘cudas in some shallower water before we entered the park boundaries.

We chose to pull in to the Pirates Lair mooring field at Warderick Wells. It’s easily accessed from the deep side. In the cut, your only option is to use the mooring balls (I counted 4), the tide rips through here! I’ve heard anchoring isn’t allowed in this area anymore, although in the past it was doable at Hog Cay.

Pirate's Lair Warderick Wells Exumas
The tide rips at the Pirate's Lair mooring field in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park

The crew crushed it and we picked up a ball on the second try despite that ripping tide.

Ashore, we made our way through the cabbage palms to the fresh water well and home of the Pirate’s Lair. There’s not much to see, but it’s an interesting area to explore.

Pirate's Lair Warderick Wells Exumas
Ladies at Pirate's Lair on Warderick Wells
Pirate's Lair Warderick Wells Exumas

Now if you’re a purist, you may not like this – but we bring along a projector, connect it to the yacht’s sound system with bluetooth, and do Master and Commander movie night on the big screen (bed sheet). It’s our favorite movie and being aboard makes it even more magical.

Give it a try! We thought the Pirate’s Lair was an ideal setting to enjoy it on this trip.

Watching Master and Commander afloat
Watching Master and Commander afloat on the big screen
Pirate's Lair Warderick Wells Exumas
Sunset at Pirate's Lair looking at the north entrance to the anchorage

Day 3: Turnaround point at Staniel Cay

This was our last day heading south on the yacht charter trip, before we would turn around and make our way back up the Exuma chain.

We exited Pirate’s Lair to the southeast and weaved our way through the various small cays aptly named after famous pirates – Teach Rock (Blackbeard), Read Rock (Mary Read), and Bonney Rock (Anne Bonney). It’s tight, but the route is well marked on charts.

Navigating Warderick Wells cays
Narrow passage to exit southeast of the Pirate's Lair

Again, we headed out to the drop for some fishing and passed by Halls Pond on the way to blue water. We had to stay well offshore due to the Exuma Sea Park boundary.

Nothing special for the fishing report – all the action on this trip came on Day 6.

Came back in through Big Rock Cut and anchored at what’s known as West of Thunderball by Garmin Active Captain.

Approaching Staniel Cay anchorage
Approaching the anchorage near Staniel Cay with Thunderball Grotto just off the starboard bow (not visible in picture)

We didn’t time slack tide correctly, so snorkeling Thunderball Grotto was definitely a workout! Great experience as always.

While I would prefer to avoid the chaos over at Big Major’s with the swimming pigs, we compromised and settled for a quick dinghy drive by.

We went ashore for our only dinner out of the trip at Staniel Cay Yacht Club. We decked out in our best Christmas attire and were instantly recognized by the other Texans ashore by our Buccee’s ugly sweaters. Great times were had with those Texans…

I’ll blame the famous SCYC peanut coladas, but when we returned to the protected dingy beach, it was gone! A quick scan of the area found it floating nearby – oops! We had pulled it all the way up, but the rising tide got us. Next time, we’ll tie off.

Staniel Cay Yacht Club
Staniel Cay Yacht Club bar

Interested in an Exuma Yacht Charter?

We have relationships with the Exuma yacht charter companies and have personally chartered with all of them.
Let us find you the best option - it doesn't cost you anything extra.
Not ready? Learn more about Exuma yacht charters.

Day 4: Sandbars, pristine beaches, and sharks

We rubbed our bleary eyes and motored to Sandy Cay for a lunch stop at one of the best sandbars in the Exumas. It’s an easy anchorage on the west side of the cay.

The scuttlebutt from our evening at SCYC was that the day before a billionaire’s yacht was set up at Sandy Cay. We didn’t have quite the staff and water sports equipment, but it was awesome nonetheless!

Sandbar at Sandy Cay, Exumas
Aerial shot of the great Sandy Cay sandbar
Exumas sandbar
Sandbar at Sandy Cay, Exumas

We could have spent all day swimming, beaching, and lounging in this setting. On the hill on the southern end of the island, there’s a covered cabana which gives you a decent view of the area.

After lunch, we threw up the sails for a quick passage to Compass Cay (outer) anchorage.

We heard that Crescent Beach on Compass Cay is one of the finer white sand beaches in the Exumas, so we went ashore to check it out.

After paying the landing fee at the marina, it was only a short 10 minute hike to the beach. It was late in the evening so we didn’t get in the water, but what a gorgeous beach!

We hung out on the beach cabanas, cracked a few beers, and enjoyed the view of a full rainbow to our east.

Crescent Beach Compass Cay
Swinging at Crescent Beach, Compass Cay Exumas
Hiking on Compass Cay Exumas

Compass Cay is known for the nurse sharks that hang out in the marina. Back at our yacht, one of them paid us a visit and hung out for nearly an hour.

Compass Cay shark

Day 5: An abandoned plane, caves, and some downwind sailing

The next morning, we worked our way north along the channels to the west of Compass Cay and then navigated through several coral heads to the U-shaped bight at Fowl Cay.

I love these seemingly hidden gem anchorages. You’ll find them all over on an Exumas Bahamas bareboat charter. This one is fairly exposed and I wouldn’t want to be here overnight in strong winds. It makes for a fantastic lunch stop though!

Fowl Cay is a private island, and they definitely make sure you know it – many signs that say Private Property, especially over by the abandoned prop plane.

Fowl Cay anchorage Exuma Bahamas
Fowl Cay anchorage just south of the Exuma Land and Sea Park
Abandoned plane at Fowl Cay Exumas
Abandoned prop plane at the bight

While the ladies lounged, Alan and I tried our hand with the Hawaiian sling on the reefs along the northern edge of the anchorage (you can see it it the drone picture). I missed a nice sized grouper but we were able to spear another lionfish.

It was only appropriate that we made lionfish ceviche for lunch (here’s our recipe) – so good! If you are careful with the spines, you’ll be rewarded with a really great tasting fish.

Catching lionfish in the Exumas
Fresh caught lionfish ceviche
Lionfish ceviche - delish!

Fowl Cay is also an excellent day spot because it puts you in perfect position to dinghy over to Rocky Dundas, the two tall rocky islands just to the north. Conditions weren’t perfect to explore the caves – wind waves from the easterly trades, decent current, and a high tide.

Despite that, we were all able to dive under and check out the impressive caves with the stalagmite and stalactite formations.

The wind backed into the southeast after lunch, so we raised the main for some easy downwind sailing on our way to Shroud Cay.

Easy downwind sailing in the Exumas
Downwind sailing north in the Exuma Bank with wind out of the southeast
Rain shower in the Exumas
The only rain shower we saw the entire trip

We avoided the busy mooring field and anchored in Fresh Water Bay to give ourselves easier dinghy access to the mangrove river the next morning.

Fresh Water Bay at Shroud Cay
Fresh Water Bay at Shroud Cay and the mangrove river in the background

Day 6: River adventures at Shroud Cay and wahooooo outside Sail Rocks North

Believe it or not, our entire itinerary was coordinated around being at Shroud Cay on this day. It was the only day a slack tide occurred during the daytime hours.

We launched the dinghy on a rising tide, an hour before slack tide. This timing allowed us to ride the water slide at the other end of the river.

Passing through the mangroves, we saw a few turtles and rays, but no resting nurse sharks.

Mangrove River at Shroud Cay
Riding the mangrove river at Shroud Cay to Camp Driftwood

The hike up to Camp Driftwood was fun, but our favorite part of this excursion was riding the water slide with the outgoing tide.

I wish we could have stayed longer, but we had some ground to cover on our way north. It was also our last day for serious fishing on the drop, so we had to get to work.

Atop Camp Driftwood
View from the Camp Driftwood hilltop
Riding the waterslide at Camp Driftwood
Riding the water slide at the end of the Shroud Cay mangrove river

We passed into blue water at Wax Cay Cut, exited the park boundaries, and got the lines in the water. There is not a moment to lose.

Our fishing spread was one diving lure and a surface Illander skirt lure – rotated and checked for sargassum every 20-30 minutes.

It started slowly, but the action seemed to come all at once.

Something huge hit the port surface lure near Ship Channel Cay – it ran most of the 80 pound braid out and then snapped the line!

It took about 20 minutes to repair the line and get it back in the water. 

Just then, another screamer on the diving lure, a Yo-Zuri Bonita (flying fish). This was the fish we were looking for – a wahoo! It wasn’t huge, but it was a great eating size for the crew.

Northern Exumas Wahoo
Wally the Wahoo caught on the drop in the northern Exumas

About 10 minutes later, on the approach to our anchorage at Sail Rocks North, we hooked another fish. We thought we lost it, until we pulled in just the head of a barracuda – again on that same Yo-Zuri lure. Shark must have gotten it.

Shark bait in the Exumas
Shark bait - bad day for Barry the Barracuda

Sail Rocks North is a special place – you feel like you are in the middle of nowhere on this shoal anchorage. We had 10 knots of wind out of the east and the protection was excellent – very little swell and good holding.

For dinner, we dined on fresh wahoo (ono) sashimi and poke bowls. Can’t beat that!

Fresh caught ono poke bowl
Fresh ono poke bowls for dinner on our last night in the Exuma Islands
Sail Rocks North anchorage sunset
Great sunset to wrap up the trip
Sail Rocks North anchorage

Day 7: Back to Nassau over the Yellow Bank

We always spend our final night of an Exumas trip back in the marina. Makes packing up easier and avoids morning competition for the fuel dock. Less stress all around.

So, we weighed anchor and began the trip back across the Yellow Bank.

It was a relatively calm day that turned glassy as the hours passed – unfortunately, that meant motoring, again.

Glassy seas on the Yellow Bank near Exumas Bahamas
Glassy conditions on our return to the marina meant running the engines

We dropped anchor mid-way for a lunch stop near some coral heads and got a final farewell snorkel in.

Getting back to the marina was easy – pulled into the fuel dock and then had the DYC crew assist with docking the large cat back in it’s slip.

Another successful sailing trip in the books!

Thanks for reading my trip report about sailing the Exumas and our Bahamas bareboat charter adventure. If you want to learn more about the Exumas, especially some of the more popular anchorages, check out our Exumas Cruising Guide. Please subscribe to see more content from me about yacht charter trips!

Interested in an Exuma Yacht Charter?

We have relationships with the Exuma yacht charter companies and have personally chartered with all of them.
Let us find you the best option - it doesn't cost you anything extra.
Not ready? Learn more about Exuma yacht charters.

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