Continuing “Trekking by Sail, Exuma Islands”
Shortly after being greeted by a hot wave of tropical air on the George Town runway, I was greeted by friendly waves from Dallas and Tamara from Out Island Explorers, our guides for the flotilla. We loaded our bags into the back of their pickup and wound our way across Great Exuma to meet up with the group for dinner and debriefing. Before we dove in to conch fritters at the Palm Bay Beach Club, we gathered around Dallas in the parking lot to run our fingers over the Sea Pearl for the first time.
These boats were to be our homes for the week, carry all our gear, shelter, and food, and two to three people per boat. We exchanged nervous jokes as we sized up how small they seemed next to the wide windy Caribbean–not your regular push-button charter flotilla. The open cockpit was flanked with seating almost the entire length, and the small bow held a fluke anchor cleated in place. Two identical masts, one forward and the other aft, stood unsupported by shrouds or stays. Long lead-weighted leeboards swung off the gunwhales on either side, controlled by a simple cam-cleat arrangement on the rails.
Rigging the Sea Pearl 21 is a simple process, even in higher winds. The twin triangular sails slide over the masts via sleeves along the luff, and they furl around the rotatable masts. To “hoist” the sails, you simply attach the clew to an outhaul line on the boom; since both sails are free-footed, they’re easy to set without much effort. The outhauls tighten in jam cleats on each boom, and there are downhaul lines for luff tension. Sheets are led simply–through a ratcheting block for the mainsheets amidships, and through a fairlead and jam cleat on top of the tiller for the mizzensheets.
Over the course of the week, we would come to find out that Sea Pearls are just small enough to be tender and peppy and just large enough to divert most spray and stabilize atop the ruffled wind waves. Their shallow draft and flat bottom means they can skim right up to ankle-deep beach surf and rest comfortably on the sand during a low tide. The only drawback, Dallas told us, was that our Sea Pearls don’t want to point very high to windward… but that’s why our trip was carefully planned so that we’d essentially be running for 40 to 60 nm before taking a plane windward back to Georgetown. Slick deal.
Although Feather, HMS Biscuit, Caribe, and “The Golden Fleece” were all Sea Pearl 21s, the fleet has slight differences in personality that we would come to know over the week. Feather had crisp white sails and a sleek dark hull, salty little Caribe (the Sea Pearl that could) tested our seamanship with various technical challenges, centerboard model HMS Biscuit flew under a beautiful blue-and-white profile, and canary yellow racing sails gave us all a constant view of the Golden Fleece’s stern. Each required a slightly different response to changing conditions. But regardless of their idiosyncrasies, I can’t think of a better boat in which to probe Exuma’s sparkling Cays.
Whereas regular flotillas have a whole lot going too, there’s something unbeatable about experiencing a place “from within” so to speak. We couldn’t have gotten any closer to the sea or air of the Bahamas, skimming along the space where sun hits sea, salt soaking into our skin, sleeping with the seaweed. We swam first with the fish we would eat for dinner, got tattooed by sea urchins, and were kept awake by a full moon bright as a flashlight. Thanks to the Sea Pearl 21s, without solid cabins to keep the the sea and air and everything else out, we would get to smell, taste, and absorb Exuma.
As I turned down my hotel bed the night before our departure, a quarter-sized gecko wiggled away from the light and out of sight. I fell asleep anticipating the noises that we would hear floating around the remote night sky of the out-islands.