Exumas State of Mind, Craig Peyton Article for Mooney Pilot, 10/03 Ver.2

It’s one of those days…perfect. Sailing over NYC and Philly at 8,500 with 80 mile vis and dead calm air. Heading south down the coast to the Bahamas, I’m playing my usual game of how few turns are needed when flying VFR. Direct PXT direct CHS, I can book the first 600 NM with one 5degree course change.

The “tingling” I used to get as a kid at Christmas grows stronger as I head to my soul home, the Bahamas. This country can strip life back down to the basic elements, and pilots and sailors find peace in this sub-tropical heaven. Simple is a good thing sometimes, and I’m looking forward to shaking off the info culture for a few days.

If this heaven has a downtown, that’s where I’m headed tomorrow. The 100NM chain of 360 island jewels known as the Exumas feature some of the most beautiful shades of blue you’ll ever see. Capped on the North by Norman’s Key curving SE to Georgetown, Great Exuma, the island choices can fit every escapist mood.

I’m heading to Staniel Cay on this trip, just on the South end of the Bahamas Land and Sea Park. Staniel Cay gives me a good runway with access to the park, on a small but appealing island.

On my final leg, en-route passing Andros, my buoyant mood suddenly sunk…what’s that blinking light telling me? My -always dark- warning panel was blinking a low voltage warning, backed up by my amp needle and JPI. Time to get serious, as I go through alternator failure basics, shedding loads and resetting breakers. Must think about options: returning to the US with the possibly of no transponder or radio, or landing and getting stuck. Nothing I tried in-flight helped resolve the problem.

Since my destination was in sight, and I knew I could keep the battery drain under control using only the GPS and one radio, I decided to continue and land at Staniel Cay. I felt troubled, pulling up to the ramp in the hot mid-day sun. The Bahamas are known for many things, but aircraft repair is not too high on the list. My best guess was the regulator failed because of the nature of the intermittent power failure. A belt failure would have caused a steady discharge. The cell phone worked, so I had good communication back home. (a very new concept in the islands). My first call was to Banyan Air Service out of FXE. On a Saturday afternoon they put me straight through to a mechanic, Terry, who listened to my story. While I was ranting on about sending out voltage regulators and planes to the rescue, he stopped me and simply said, “Pull the cowl, I think it’s a loose wire”.

That seemed too simple, but taking his advice, there it was, a loose exciter wire. My handful of tools and tie wraps got the harness temporarily fixed, and the trip was saved.

So, what makes Staniel Cay so special? Think Block Island of the south, for those who have been to that charming New England getaway. Unlike much of the Bahamas, Staniel Cay has hills, and walking around yields constant panoramas of ocean and village. The snorkeling at “Thunderball Cave” (yes, where they shot the movie) has you surrounded with thousands of colorful fish. You can dive into the spooky, but awesome grotto, imagining yourself to be James himself on a top-secret mission.

The Staniel Cay (pronounce: Key) Yacht Club is a well-oiled, and very mellow out island resort. 5 colorful huts sit on the water edge and have their own docks with Boston Whalers. The yacht club houses a bar and restaurant and serves some of the best meals found anywhere in the area. Just thinking about having their rack of lamb dinner, after a hard day of snorkeling and body surfing, gets me weak at the knees. It’s not unusual to see a yacht tied up that a family of 12 would find roomy, and this probably helps keep quality control at such an impressive level. Remember, while your drinking your ice cold Kalik and watching the tropical sun dip over the water, everything here is imported. Comparing costs to the states is not really fair.

Still bored? Try swimming with the nurse sharks living under the dock, or bringing the wild pigs a snack, at a nearby island beach. Hopping a few miles North to Normans Cay for lunch is a treat never forgotten. You can sit at McDuff’s imaginative bar with the charismatic owner Dale, hearing about Jimmy Buffet’s last visit to this very private island.

Back at Staniel, Mary Lou, the nurse at the local infirmary told me:

“People often come here for minor cuts or bug bites. When I check their blood pressure and tell them a lower reading then they have ever heard, they think my equipment is broken. The fact they have slowed down and relaxed this much comes as a revelation.”

Yes, Island life moves a comfortably slow pace, but things are changing. While I was there, all the roads on the Cay were in the process of being paved. This allows for a smoother golf cart ride, but is a sign of bigger changes to come. The huge Four Seasons resort complex, just finishing phase 1 on Great Exuma, is bringing a lot of attention to the Exuma Chain. To local land-owners this might be good news, but I can’t help feeling sad about seeing these peaceful islands caught in the wind of large developers. My advice is to experience the real thing soon, before Club Med, zippy jet skis, and packaged tourism set the pace.

Much too soon it was time to load up the plane and head back home. I used to think flying out of the US was the difficult part, but this has changed. After clearing customs and stopping in Orlando for the NBAA show, I headed North up the Florida coast towards home. As always I cut out to sea a few miles between Daytona Beach and Charleston to shorten the dogleg. Flying along the edge of the warning area, I looked over my right wing and saw an F-16 had joined up. I listened on 121.5 for intercept instructions and talked with Savannah approach.

Savannah said it’s routine these days to check who’s out there, and suggested a new heading further west. Soon the jet flipped a wing and disappeared, leaving me alone over the ocean with my memories of perfect blue water.