Friday, February 15, 2013

The King of Conch

As mentioned in the previous blog, we ran into our friends Jeff and Kelli aboard their 56-ft. sailboat, Tiger Sea, as we entered Norman's Cay. They have been coming down to the Exumas for eons and seem to know everything and everybody. When we were here last year Jeff and Kelli's generosity was overwhelming: when we were having trouble with getting our batteries charged Jeff brought over his Honda 2000 generator; when we ran low on water they brought over 10 gallons from their onboard water maker, and our first night here they invited us over for freshly caught grouper and cracked conch (I'm not a big fish eater but I discovered I'd never had really fresh fish ... the grouper was incredible). 

Each morning Jeff and Kelli would hop in their inflatable dingy with wetsuits on and head off to the offshore reefs for spearfishing and conch collecting. Kelli liked to ride on the port side bow pontoon, bouncing up and down like a cowgirl on a bucking bronco. Jeff reminded me of Jacques Cousteau with a ponytail. They took us with them one day and showed us how to identify the conch lying on the bottom (their shell is the exact same color as the sand so you look for the telltale triangle shape and/or trails along the sand from when they move). While Meryl and I found 3 or 4 conchs, Jeff and Kelli would have 7 to 8.

The King of Conch.
Later that day Jeff took me into the beach and showed me how to clean a conch. You count down two "rings" from the top of the conical shell and poke a small hole with a hammer. Then you slide a slim knife in and cut the muscular attachment that anchors the conch to its shell. Next step is to reach inside the shell's main opening and grab the claw-like foot and pull the conch out of the shell. The conch don't like this and naturally resist. Next you trim off the eyestalks, then the orange fringe and internal organs, then you slit open the stomach similar to a fish, and finally trim off the very tough brown material on their body. All while you are holding this fist-sized, super slippery conch while trying not to slice through your hand with the knife. A conch is very tough and cutting the parts off is tricky. You are left with a piece of meat about the size of the palm of your hand that then needs to be sliced in half and pounded to death to tenderize it. You can cut it into small pieces and make a conch salad (like ceviche), coat it in flour, egg, and spices and pan fry (conch fritters), or add to hashed brown potatoes like a potato latke. As they say, it tastes a little like chicken.

That all happened during our first visit last March. This time Jeff and Kelli came over and invited us for a snorkel through Wax Cay Cut, an opening between two island separating Exuma Sound and Exuma Bank. We went at slack tide since the current can run up to 5 knots through the cuts. The technique down here is to do drift dives, where we tie a long rope to the dingy and pull it along (I felt like Jack LaLanne on his birthday) while watching the bottom for conch. That day we drifted the whole length of the cut and then went along the offshore reefs on the Exuma Sound side. It was the first snorkel for Meryl and I in a while and we were wiped out by the time we got back to the boat. We both slept for about two hours afterwards.

That night Jeff and Kelli came over and we taught them our favorite card game, Screw Your Buddy. As usual our guests caught on to the rules and strategy quickly and we ended the game with Jeff and I tied for the lead. It was a great evening as the card game always seems to generate a lot of conversation (and some trash talking).

Yesterday while I was sanding the teak cap rails to prepare for the 6th coat of varnish, the crew of Georgia, an Outbound 44 sailboat, came over to visit. Ironically Paul and Chris were from Seattle, of all places, and we had a nice chat getting caught up. They have been cruising for 2 ½ years and sailed their boat from Seattle through the Panama Canal, so we got lots of good tips for our eventual passage through the canal. As we were talking Jeff and Kelli zoomed over and invited us all to snorkel Wax Cut again. Since the weather was a little calmer, it promised to be a good day.

We had recently given away our 30-year-old snorkeling gear, including our huge black fins and straight barrel snorkels, for more modern equipment. We each got full-foot Mares fins that made kicking much easier and the newer design snorkels with the ball valve at the top so water doesn't flood into your mouth. I also got a mask that features diopter lenses (in the old days you had to special order prescription lenses that cost a fortune) so I could now actually see stuff underwater. What difference good equipment makes.

After spending a while trying to find the start of the drift dive, we all tethered ourselves to our dinghies and jumped in the water. For some reason, this time we saw way more fish than on the first snorkel (Wax Cay Cut is right on the border with the Exuma Land and Sea Park where fishing, conching, etc. are prohibited). Along with the plethora of small reef fish, we saw our first small (5 ft.) reef shark, a nurse shark, lots of big barracuda, Nassau grouper, and toward the end a huge turtle (what we believe was a Leatherback sea turtle, which is highly endangered). It was so big it had three remora fish attached to its back. Most of the snorkel was in about 20 ft. of water, but it got to about 4 ft. over the coral reef. I was surprised to see a reef shark passed right beneath us. We've got to learn to look backwards every once in a while. The amazing thing about Bahamian waters is the clarity ... they call it "gin-clear" water. You can essentially see as far as there are things to see. It's a little unnerving when you get to the edges of the reef and look out to the expanse of deep blue water of the ocean and wonder what's out there.

Again, after all that exercise a long nap was in order, but in our case too long a nap as we woke up to an increasingly howling wind. We knew from the morning weather report on the SSB (single sideband radio) that a big front was moving through later that day. When we got up all I could see was a wall of dark clouds quickly moving our direction. And I emphasize the word quickly. We scurried to the foredeck and secured the kayaks, took down the flags, checked the anchor rode and snubber, then hurried aft and secured the dingy up the davits. Just as we were tying down the dingy the first raindrops pelted us with ferocity.

We had anchored right behind a small hillock on the island knowing that during the front the wind would clock from the southwest to west to northwest and finally the north. The hillock was due north of us so we hoped we'd be adequately protected. The only rub was a lot of current runs through Norman's Cay Cut (so much so that many times we are caught in limbo between the current pushing us one direction and the wind pushing the other. It's unnerving to look directly below the boat and see your anchor, which means you are essentially hanging from the weight of your chain alone).

The "special island" where cruisers go to contemplate their navels, or is that navies?
As predicted the wind increased to 26 knots from the west, which meant larger waves were starting to enter the cut (which runs east/west with us at the western end) exacerbating the problem of whether we laid to the wind or current. Soon the driving horizontal rain blocked everything from view. Luckily the wind moderated down to 20 as the front passed and the wind clocked to the northeast and then finally at night, to the north. That night the wind continued to blow 25 to 30 out of the north, but with the exception of some bouncing around as the current and wind fought each other our only problem was to keep from rolling over each other in the aft berth.

Squall line blowing in, these things are never good.
One of the advantages/disadvantages of a Taswell yacht is that they are extremely well insulated, which means you can't hear much of what is going on outside. Sometimes this is a disadvantage if you need to respond to something happening outside. Neither of us slept much, as you always worry about the anchor holding, but I remembered an article I had just read that recommended a boat our size have a 40 lb. anchor. Ours is a 73 lb. Rocna with 300 ft. of 3/8" chain. That's a lot of weight just lying on the bottom. The wind will continue to blow 25 to 30 for the next several days so we'll probable stay hunkered down and began planning our passage south. I had commented this morning to Meryl on how cold it was outside. She smiled and said, "Yea, it's all the way down to 70 degrees."

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