Storm clouds skirt Cluff's Cay in the Brigantine Cays in The Bahamas on May 9, 2023.


A personal account of a solo paddleboarding expedition through The Bahamas' Exuma Cays 

Flies by Night 

Cluff’s Cay, the Caribbean Sea — May 9, 2023

I couldn’t see the millimeter-long marauders in the darkness, but I could feel them feasting on me. What my adversaries lacked in size, they more than made up for in numbers. The Phlebotominae, as their latin name so aptly suggests, were out for blood. I’d grossly underestimated the power of the sandfly, also known as the biting midge, or the no-see-um. 

The relative remoteness of The Bahamas’ Brigantine Cays made it likely I was the greatest source of food Cluff’s Cay had seen in an entire sandfly generation. 

Sundown turned my dreamy beach paradise into a nightmare. The netting on my tarp shelter kept out the mosquitos, but it was not fine enough to stop their more diminutive bloodthirsty cousins, even when folded over.  Such a critical, boneheaded error on my part. Idiot. Dumbass. 

Despite the sweltering Caribbean heat, I pulled socks and pants on, and tucked my shirt into my pants,  and even fished my paddling gloves out of my life vest and tucked my sleeves into them in a bid to shield as much of my body as possible. It slowed the bastards down, but did not stop them. The flies were simply too tiny, too tenacious and too ravenous.  

Bug spray deterred the mosquitos, but the flies were unfazed by my choice of  chemical aerosol. They were going to bite me, even if it killed them.  In any case, my profuse sweating shed the repellent rapidly from my skin. Innumerable, fiercely itchy red bumps erupted all over me. The only parts of my body  spared were my face and neck, as I possessed one ironclad, if limited, defense: a head net with extra fine no-see-um grade mesh. Oh, what I would have given for a 3x7 foot sheet of that glorious material at that moment. 

The conditions couldn’t have been more hospitable to all manner of insects. Squads of hefty earwigs assembled in the folds of my moist tent and around my sleeping pad. As creepy as they are, I was too exhausted to care at that point. At least they don’t bite. I had to stop squishing the earwigs anyway, because their carcasses were attracting lines of carnivorous ants with nasty looking pinchers. 

Though I was camped just above the high tide mark on the beach, directly exposed to hundreds of miles of open sea, not a puff of wind rolled over the water. 

Even sans insects, sleep may not have been possible anyway in sweltering conditions. Temperatures were in the mid 80s, and the relative humidity hovered around 100 percent. Heavy dew condensed on the inside and outside my tent, and on every other surface. Any cooling effects from the rivulets of sweat rolling off me were nullified by the super-saturated air. 

Consequently, my drinking water supply dwindled rapidly.  By the wee hours of the morning, I’d estimated I’d guzzled seven of the 20 liters in my dromedary bags   — about four on the way to this insectual metropolis and another three or so  just lying in the sand on this hellish night. My body, coming off the long, cold northern Montana winter, was far from acclimated to these sauna-esque environs. 

Hotter. Stiller. Stickier. 

Eventually, I rolled out of my shelter, exposing myself to an even thicker cloud of bloodsucking little fuckers to dunk my head in the sea. The water temperature was comparable to that of the air, making any cooling effects painfully fleeting. 

Nothing was more unappealing than the thought of additional heat, but I figured some smoke might disperse the bugs. I stacked up the remaining branches I’d hadn’t burned from cooking dinner, and piled on rotting sargassum seaweed, producing a fog of odiferous vapors. The flies retreated, but my victory was short-lived. Soon enough, I’d used up all my gathered wood, and most of the seaweed on my little beach. 

I had yet to catch even a minute’s sleep after my eight mile paddle in the energy-sapping tropical sun to this cay. Too tired to venture into the unknowns of the inky night to collect more fuel, but too hot to sleep, I layed down on the water’s edge. The airborne pestilence persisted, and I’d resigned myself to sleeplessness until first light, when I could get back out to sea and away from the flies.

I’d made some  miscalculations, but I wasn’t about to call it quits yet either on this expedition. 

A conch shell on the beaches of Cluff's Cay.

Ignauna tracks in the sand of Cluff's Cay. 

A Harebrained Idea

Kalispell, Montana — Jan. 2023

“So why don’t you just go somewhere warm to paddleboard?” Annabelle asked.  

The query was weighted with that tone of superlative matter-of-factness that, in my experience, seemed unique to Francophones. 

She had an ironclad point. Why couldn’t I just go? 

Annabelle, a talented, classically trained pastry chef from Quebec, knew a thing or two about pursuing one’s passions. She now lived and baked in the idyllic British Columbia ski town of Fernie about two hours to the north of my home in Kalispell, Montana. We’d been watching snowdrifts pile up outside our front doors from our respective sides of the border during a late night phone call in the depths of Rocky Mountain winter. 

“Paddleboarding is your happy place,” she said. 

Right again she was, but the pragmatic side of my brain chirped in. There were absolutely a dozen other more “fiscally responsible” actions I could take aside from an exotic paddleboarding expedition.

But I felt spiritually stagnated and in need of a reset of some kind, a challenge, a rite of passage to set the tone for my third decade on this planet. Annabelle, forever generous with her searing intuition, had proposed a remedy. 

A paddleboard expedition to the lower latitudes would not only be physically, but psychologically taxing, especially if it was in the ocean. Few things could promise to bring me back into my body, back into the here in and now, than the uncompromising expanses of the Big Blue via my favorite form of transportation. 

As if the greater universe were tuned into my conversation with Annabelle, in the ensuing weeks, unexpected freelance work came my way. Enough to cover the entirety of the trips expenses, plus some.  

So the seed for a grand, if somewhat harebrained, adventure took root. 

My favorite research tool, Google Earth, revealed a prime candidate within minutes: Exuma, a long chain of hundreds of closely-spaced cays in The Bahamas. 

A cursory Internet search of “Exuma” showed the locale was known for one thing above all else: the Exuma swimming pigs — semi-feral swine left to live out their lives on some of the islands. 

To the infinite delight of tourists, the pigs swim out to tour boats for food.  Few sights are more Instagrammable, and more than a few Bahamians are making a decent living off of shuttling pasty people out to the porcine cays for pictures. The largest of the pigs must weigh in around 400 pounds, so they’re certainly not going hungry.  I supposed I’d get my obligatory hog snapshot, but hopefully something real candid, like someone getting bit by or losing their swimsuit to the hulking, amply-fed hogs. 

Subsequent, deeper internet dives revealed more relevant information. 

Great Exuma and Little Exuma, the largest of the islands, are a combined length of 40 miles, but rural, with less than 10,000 permanent residents sprinkled between them. The surrounding cays are otherwise mostly uninhabited. 

As it turned out, Exuma was home to outfitter who catered to precisely the type of adventure I sought. Their website, offered a detailed map of camping spots and other invaluable beta. They also provided kayaks for rent, which would be the more practical (and safe) paddle craft to attempt an expedition of this caliber in, but not my style. 

I’d picked up paddleboarding upon moving to Northwest Montana four years ago. My corner of the state is an astonishingly beautiful land replete with large, cold, clear lakes and wild rivers. Montana’s Flathead Lake, the largest natural body of freshwater in the western continental United States, had thoroughly entranced me. Thirty miles long, with an average width of about 8 miles, it possessed oceanic qualities. A windy day could send six foot waves crashing into her eastern shore. I’d paddle boarded the full length of it with my adventuresome friend Scott the previous summer, making camp on islands along the way. It was one of the cooler things I’d done in my three decades on this planet. Paddleboarding is a highly popular recreational pursuit, yes. But I’d taken it to more intense degrees than most. Why not up the ante? 

Besides, I’d never been to The Bahamas, and its vibrant, shallow seas looked every bit as gorgeous as the purple mountain majesty of my corner of the world. 

Reactions when I informed others of my plan ranged from: “Dude, that’s gonna be awesome!” to “You’re fucking crazy.” 

But the allure of the saltwater expedition remained as unshakable as the primordial status of the ocean itself. To the best of our scientific knowledge, Earthly life spawned hundreds of millions of years ago in its briny waters, making it the original home of all of us alive today. 

And yet, the ocean shares a cold indifference to individual life forms, just like the rest of Mother Nature. The ocean never has nor ever will spare a salty tear for a gimpy mackerel gobbled up by a shark in its depths. Or for a slow seal shredded to bloody bits of blubber by an orca. Or for a wayward pelican dashed against the rocks by hurricane winds. Or for the shipwrecked sailor withering away on a life raft. 

And Mother Ocean, infinitely evenhanded, would undoubtedly extend her austerity to a foolhardy Montana lifeform thousands of leagues from his landlocked home. 

It also didn’t escape my notice in my research that  Exuma lies within the generally accepted boundaries of the Bermuda Triangle, a region of the Caribbean and Atlantic infamous for the mysterious disappearance of many large boats and planes over the centuries. 

And lest I forget, a paddle board is the smallest and most minimalist of all watercraft. 

I had some camping and backpacking experience, but only in the mountainous, freshwater-rich environments of the north; I’d only visited the tropics previously twice before, much less attempt to survive in them alone. 

With all this in mind, I applied for expedited renewal of my passport. 


Barraterre Docks, Great Exuma — May 9, 2023.

I packed my gear slowly and methodically alongside the boat ramp of Barraterre Dock, aiming for as balanced of a weight distribution as possible along my board’s 14 foot length, triple checking every piece of gear.

“Weaponizable” items such as my knife, multitool, trekking poles, tent stakes, and anchor, were transported in my single checked bag that carried my paddle board. Everything else I’d need for my five day aqueous wilderness trek, including much of my food, I’d crammed into my carry on luggage. I was rather pleased I’d managed to stay undersized and underweight all around, only incurring Delta Airlines’ standard $30 checked bag fee. 

The packing job proved a particularly challenging puzzle because, as it turned out, the outfitter I’d hoped to rent some camping essentials from was off-island the week I’d booked this trip. 

Everything was now distributed between three dry bags carbinered to the webbing on the deck of the board. My complete manifest included: 

  • Tarp shelter that doubled as a hammock
  • Trekking poles and stakes to support said shelter
  • Inflatable sleeping pad
  • Inflatable pillow
  • Summer sleeping bag 
  • Bug netting 
  • Bug spray 
  • Spare sun hoodie, board shorts, hat and sunglasses 
  • Nylon pants 
  • Rain jacket
  • Packable beach towel 
  • Socks (water shoes tend to get abrasive after continuous wear) 
  • Flip flops for lounging about camp 
  • 4 bandanas  
  • Paddling gloves (because palm blisters suck) 
  • Titanium biofuel backpacking stove
  • Titanium pot and cup (once you go titanium, you never go back: far lighter, stronger and more rust and heat resistant than any other metal) 
  • Spoon, fork and knife 
  • Bic lighter
  • Matches (Always  have a backup source of fire. I would have had my flint striker too, but the TSA confiscated it. Explain to me what logic makes a lighter and matches acceptable, yet the ancient, more laborious and conspicuous way of producing a fire isn’t? If I wanted to set a plane on fire, the flint wouldn’t be my first choice. I digress...) 
  • Two dozen cotton balls dipped in petroleum jelly (they burn hot and long and will easily ignite a damp pile of kindling) 
  • Solar panel 
  • GPS satellite communicator and cellphone
  • 10 yards of duct tape (wrapped around an old gift card to conserve space)
  • 50 feet of paracord 
  • Headlamp with extra batteries 
  • Sunscreen
  • Gerber multitool 
  • Knife 
  • 3.5 lb grappling anchor 
  • Garbage bags and ziploc bags 
  • Paddleboard patch kit and spare leash 
  • First aid kit
  • Camera, with underwater housing
  • 5 dehydrated backpacker’s meals 
  • A loaf of bread
  • Two jars of peanut butter 
  • 9 oranges and 3 grapefruits 
  • 20 packets of electrolytes
  • 15 protein bars 
  • Clif Blok energy chews (thanks, JP) 
  • Earl gray tea 
  • 250 ml of rum 

And, most critically of all, two 10 liter dromedary bags of water. It was my understanding there were no viable sources of freshwater on the cays. Desalination of seawater is possible, but it’s quite time consuming and energy intensive. Rain catchment can supplement one’s freshwater needs, but obviously can’t be relied upon. 

I wanted to take more water, but the paddleboard was approaching its 265 pound carrying capacity. I weighed about 165 pounds, all my supplies weighed in around 40 lbs, and 20 liters of water weighs almost 45 pounds. 

A local man about my age watched me from the deck of the Barraterre dock house. It had started raining, but I continued with my preparations. I was a bit of a curiosity to the Bahamians — not exactly the average tourist. 

“What do ya call dat?” he asked, pointing at my board.  

“It’s a paddle board,” I replied. “You stand on it to paddle.” 

“Where ya goin’ man?”  

I described my plan. He listened intently. 

“Ah man, dat will be beautiful. Especially when da rain stops. It will soon.” 

I climbed up off the boat ramp to introduce myself. His name was Kent.  He’d lived in The Bahamas his whole life. He related he’d never embarked on a self-powered expedition like the one I was about to. 

“I wish I could go with ya,” he said, looking out to the sea. He turned to me. “Are ya scared?” 

“Yes,” I said, quicker than I expected. “I’d be dumb if I wasn’t at least a little scared.” 

“I’m looking forward to watching you take off on dat ting,” Kent said. 

“You can laugh at me if I lose my balance and fall on my way out,” I said with a smile. 

“Nah man, I won’t laugh,” he said and grinned. 

I passed my now empty paddle board bag off to Elean, a grandmotherly figure who spent her time at the Barraterre souvenir shop setup on the deck of the dock house. She exuded the air of the matriarch of Barraterre. She stashed the bag in a locked room in the back of the dock house for safekeeping. 

“Do ya have WhatsApp?” she asked. “Give me ya number before ya go.” 

It was as much of a command as it was a request. 

“Ya call me if anyting happens,” she said earnestly. 

I assured her I would. 

By then the rain had stopped, as Kent had predicted. I floated my board into shallows, climbed on, stood tall, and dipped my paddle into the sea. Once I rounded the dock pilings, I turned to wave farewell to my new acquaintances. They waved back enthusiastically.  They were the last people I’d see for the next 30 hours. 

First look at the Caribbean Sea from the paddleboard enroute to the Brigantine Cays on May 9, 2023.

Blue Expanses

Brigantine Cays, the Caribbean Sea — May 9, 2023

I opened and closed my eyes in near disbelief, but the sight before me persisted  —  a glassy azure endlessness in all its seeming unreality. The horizon had become an abstractism. 

Elation washed over me. My goal had finally materialized. Seventeen hours of air travel, months of planning, five extra freelance projects, and a healthy dose of faith in strangers had delivered me into my slice of the pale blue void; it was every bit as enchanting as I’d imagined. 

Such exposure is terrifying to most people, and for highly sound reasons. Few places are more inhospitable to terrestrial mammals than the open sea. I feel that same fear as well, but something about the way my brain is wired also finds the negative space offered by vast stretches of water soothing and centering. 

The spectacular seaview didn’t present itself immediately upon setting off, however. I first had to navigate a saltwater creek through a couple miles of mangrove forest, a fantastical biome possessing its own kind of magic. Small fish of all shapes flitted among the semi-submerged root networks. Strange bird calls echoed from beyond the bends of the labyrinth of channels. 

While well-sheltered from any wind, the creek featured significant tidal currents. Nothing I couldn’t push through, but it served as the first of many reminders the average sea-mile is far more demanding than a lake-mile.

Once out of the mangroves and into the Caribbean, the archipelago known as The Brigantines appeared to the northwest. I set my heading for Cluff’s Cay, the third island in the chain. 

Thunder rolled over the sea from south, just as I beached in a little bay on the far end of Cluff’s. Dark clouds filtered the sunlight, casting an ethereal blue-gray glow. I made setting up my shelter the first order of business in anticipation of a deluge, but the storm cell skirted the archipelago, and the blisteringly white Bahamian sun returned within minutes.  

The rumblings from the sky had been replaced with rumbles of my stomach for dinner.  I was initially quite concerned about not having isobutane fuel for cooking, but after examining pictures of the cays in my trip research, I felt assured the abundant tangles of dead branches and roots the, among the jumble of Suessian trees provided hundreds of thousands of times more fuel than I could ever need. 

A salty, slightly sweet, scent permeated my nostrils as I explored the isle. Population: 1 human. 

While I may have been, as a crow flies, only about five and a half miles from where I started, it felt like I was 15, or 50 miles into a wilderness. Open water has a way of magnifying distances.  

The only hints of humanity in sight since leaving Barraterre were a couple of planes overhead. No boats to speak of. 

But I wasn’t entirely alone. 

I nearly dropped my handful of wood when I circled back to my camp: a small dinosaur was nosing its way into my tent. 

A four foot long iguana had come to check out the digs of his island’s latest visitor. Only mildly perturbed by my arrival, the languid lizard took its time taking cover in the thick brush. 

The wood I’d gathered burned marvelously. So efficient was the stove it only took two handfuls of sticks to bring a half liter of water to a rolling boil. I had a surprisingly delectable chicken curry rice backpacker’s meal ready in time to watch the sun go down over dinner. I fixed myself a cocktail by squeezing a full orange into my cup and adding a splash of rum. 

My campsite, situated on a narrow peninsula, offered a west-facing beach just a few paces away. Ocean sunsets are surreal. Godrays eked around a towering cumulus cloud, before the sun, now the color of the fruit I’d just peeled, pancaked into the horizon. 

I’d paddled my way to paradise. 

Navigating the mangroves on Great Exuma. May 9, 2023.

Limestone formations on Cluff's Cay. 

Sunset on Cluff's Cay. 

Big Swell

Square Rock Cay, the Atlantic Ocean — May 10, 2023

Alas, the first night on Cluff’s Cay turned out to be a bug-bitten, sweat-soaked sufferfest, but the paradise vibe would return soon enough. I just needed to get the hell away from land. I broke camp at first light. About a quarter mile back out to sea, I was rid of the flies. 

Having already drunk so much of my water, I dared not venture further along the Brigantine Cays. My only real option was to double back to Barraterre Dock, where I’d embarked the previous morning. The docks were the closest point of civilization, from where I could top off my dromedary bags, and maybe acquire more potent bug repellents. 

I hadn’t slept in 24 hours, but the stimulus of my alien surroundings kept me alert. Schools of hundreds of fish transected the water column beneath me, their scales flashing in the sunlight. Crabs popped out of the sand from beneath my feet after I stepped on their hidey holes when I stopped in the shallows near a neighboring cay to fix myself a couple breakfast peanut butter sandwiches (another reason closed toed shoes are highly advisable even when wading in the softest of sand.) 

Three clear priorities emerged: One, more water. Two, a cooler, less buggy campsite. And three, stronger insect repellent.  

Breezes disperse bugs, so I decided my next campsite would be on a barrier island with direct exposure to the Atlantic Ocean, on the other side of Great Exuma. I reasoned it had to be cooler over there as well, away from the relative stillness of the Caribbean. 

A critical geological fact about the Exuma Cays became apparent as I cruised around the other side of the Brigantines: any part of the shore not covered in sand was composed of porous, brittle limestone weathered to sharp edges at a multitude of angles by the sea. A far cry from stout, smooth Montana river stones, this fragile Caribbean rock collapsed underfoot in thin spots, breaking off into further sharp edges. And the rocky sections typically rose vertically a few feet out of the water before leveling off, meaning safe landings would not be feasible on the majority of most windward shorelines, a fact I would keep at top of mind. 

I rounded the northernmost point of Great Exuma, greeted by the best of breezes. Consistent enough to whisk away the humidity, but not strong enough to significantly affect paddling. But the wind didn’t need to blow to slow you down on the ocean: another current worked against me, tugging me in the opposite direction of Barraterre.  

I managed to beach back at the dock by about 13:00. Elean waved from her perch on the dockhouse deck. I headed to the convenience store across the highway. Locked, with the lights off. Perhaps they were out to lunch? 

I returned to my board. 

“Did ya go to Ryann’s?” Elean asked.  

“Yes, but there’s no one there. Are they out to lunch?” 

“Did ya knock on the door of the house by it?” 

I had not. 

“I’ll call her,” Elean offered.  Elean was clearly the person to know in Barraterre. 

I added two full gallons of water to my dromedary bags and added a can of the strongest available DEET at Ryann’s to my manifest. 

I made for Square Rock Cay, the most appealing option due to its proximity to Barraterre and its ocean-facing beaches.  

Square Rock sat in the line of barrier cays separating the calm Caribbean from the agitated Atlantic. The character of the water changed almost instantly as I rounded the corner of the cay. To evoke a frozen water sports analogy:  if the Carribean were the bunny hill, the Atlantic, even on this placid day, was on the steep end of a blue square, and only a few knots of wind away from a double black diamond.

I rose a few feet and then dropped, feeling the same sort of stomach lurch one feels when on a county fair carnival ride. My tiny watercraft magnified the sensation of the swells, of course, but still, holy shit. The ocean is nothing if not raw power. 

A tricky beach landing awaited me. The swells made a thunderous crash on a steep pitch of sand ahead of me. 

I had to time this right, otherwise I’d be ejected over the front of the board and eat a mouthful of sand while the board and my supplies crashed on top of me. 

I increased my cadence to sync up with the swell. As it made its final push onto the beach, I unstrapped my ankle leash and leaped into the surf, grabbing the board’s center handle to slow its approach. I slithered around to the front of the board just before the nose kissed the sand and pulled on the bow handle with as much might as could muster as the wave broke. The board settled evenly onto the sand as the water  retreated, and I yanked it several yards inland before the next wave crashed in. A damn smooth landing for a first try on a real ocean wave if I do say so myself. Surf’s up.

This beach was somehow even more beautiful than the last, and once again, devoid of other humans. And most mercifully of all, a delicious breeze tunneled through my tent. 

Campsite on Square Rock Cay, with an easterly view  of the Atlantic Ocean. May 10, 2023.

Sunset on Square Rock Cay.

Minimalism had always appealed to me, and I relished the barebones rhythm this expedition demanded. 

I had everything I needed and absolutely nothing I didn’t, and it all fit on arguably the most minimalist of all watercraft. My vessel measured only 14 feet long, by six inches thick by 30 inches across at its widest point. 

Even hygiene was exquisitely simple. The salt water accelerated healing of any abrasions or scratches and effectively lifted sweat and grim from the skin, negating any real need for soap.  No need for a dish sponge when a fistful of beach sand was more than adequate to scrub my cooking implements clean. Toilet paper was also unnecessary when you had a warm, literally ocean-sized bidet a few steps away. 

The one, overruling and truly complicating survival factor was the fresh water problem. There was simply no way to carry enough of it to stay healthily hydrated for more than two or three days on a paddleboard. Water’s density is absolute. It’s the only item that can’t be compressed, folded down, or lightened.  

I so sorely wanted to stay on this idyllic cay for a couple of nights; have a “zero day” and regain strength. The temperature was perfect and the humidity reasonable. 

But the little voice of self-preservation started to chirp loudly in my head: “If you don’t leave this island by tomorrow, you might never leave.” 

The voice was probably right. If the wind speed increased even just a little, the surf rolling into the bay could grow too large to escape the beach. Riding a wave is one thing, paddling against one is another. 

The leeward side of the island was only 500 yards away, but the vegetation was so thick through the core of the cay clearing a path for my board would be laborious beyond reason. Note to self: next time you're in the tropics, bring a big ass machete. 

I knew what needed to happen, and I didn’t like it. 

My paddleboard sported a nine inch long fin extending from the underside of its stern. Like any paddleboard fin, it was critical to efficient motion in the water, as it stabilized the board and kept it tracking in a straight line. But on land, the fin proved a major liability. I couldn’t afford the immense drag produced by it sinking into the sand if I hoped to get the fully laden board off the beach and through the mounting surf. 

I flipped the board over, unscrewed the fin and stashed it in one of the deck bags. 

With a running start, I dove onto the board and cleared the first set of waves. The board was even more ungainly in the water than I expected without its keel, so I stayed on my knees as I paddled directly into the swell.

After I felt I’d put a safe distance between myself and the rocky, Atlantic-facing point on Square Rock Cay, I planted the blade on the port side and gave one big reverse stroke to spin the bow around and let the motion of the ocean carry me back into the protected Caribbean, clearing the point and its sharp limestone with a solid buffer zone. 

I paddled southeast, straddling two great bodies of water along the barrier island chain. Throughout the day, between gaps in the cays, I watched the Atlantic grow a shade darker and a touch more frothy. I’d made a sound choice. 

The Caribbean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean at a barrier island in Exuma Cays. May 11, 2023.

The Atlantic Ocean crashes against the east side of Exuma Cays. 

A sailboat cruises through the Atlantic Ocean along the Exuma Cays in The Bahamas on May 11, 2023.

Titanium Crabs

Glass Cay, the Caribbean Sea — May 11, 2023

My relocation to Glass Cay was rewarded with yet another exquisite beach, where I happened upon luxurious accommodations: an abandoned gazebo.  Another glorious, cooling and bug-vanquishing breeze swept steadily across its deck, which was worn, but still smooth enough to conceal the heads of any nails. After sundown, the hole in the roof framed a magnificent view of the stars. It  took me three nights, but I had finally figured out how to camp comfortably in the tropics.  I’d sleep well again. Or so I thought. 

Tink…tink… tink

“What the hell is that?” I grumbled, ripped from my slumber. I turned over in my sleeping bag toward the peculiar sound. 

Tink… tink… tink

I reached for my headlamp and crawled to the edge of the gazebo platform to investigate. 


The sound echoed from inside my cooking stove, which I’d left on the ground beside the gazebo. 

Half a dozen hermit crabs banged their claws against the titanium walls, while also taking turns scaling the stove's sides, producing sharp "tinks" when they fell off its smooth walls and landed on one of its plates. 

I could only conclude they were envious of this wondrous material a paddleboarding alien had transported  to their cay, and envisioned they were in the midst of a thorough assessment of its structural properties. 

“I can’t even put a scratch in it with my good claw, Phil!” one crab declared. 

“It’s really something, isn’t it Ted?” a second crab replied. “I mean, can you imagine if our shells were made out of this?” 

I obviously needed more sleep. 

But my ears tuned into another sound — a distressing one. Air whooshed  through the branches overhead. The wind already sounded stronger than called for by the weatherman. I updated the forecast again on my satellite communicator. 

“Shit,” I moaned.  

Little swirly line graphics appeared in every hour of the forecast going forward, calling for 18 mph sustained winds by tomorrow, with gusts in the 20s, and growing stronger over the next two or three days. 

I had an excellent campsite here on Glass Cay, but if I didn’t get ahead of the wind, in all likelihood I’d be stuck here until the gusts ceased or changed directions. 

The nearest point on Great Exuma was 0.9 miles away, and the highway came right up to the beach there. It’d just be a matter of either walking the board down the beach, the road or catching a ride the last two and half miles into Roleville, the nearest settlement.  

I made the final call: attempting the crossing at dawn was worth a shot. 

I shook the crabs off the stove, placed it out of reach of their structural testing, and returned to slumber.

Hermit crab. Exuma Cays. May 9, 2023.

Old gazebo structure on Glass Cay. May 11, 2023.  

Titanium stove and wood fuel set up for cooking on Glass Cay. 

A gecko scurries through the underbrush of Glass Cay.

Starry sky viewed from through a hole in the old gazebo shelter on Glass Cay.  

Dinner and cocktails at sunset on Glass Cay. May 11, 2023. 


Sugar Cay, the Caribbean Sea — May 12, 2023

“Fuck,” I mutterred. “God fucking dammit.” 

My heart slammed against the inside of my ribcage, each pump reverberating through my skull. 

A relentless, 20 knot crosswind had me in its clutches, interspersed with higher gusts funneled by a generous gap in the cays from the northeast. The elements blasted me off course within a couple of minutes of poking out from the protection of Glass Cay. A current also seemed to be flowing in the same direction as the wind. 

The crosswind continued to shove me to the southwest, straight into the windward side of neighboring Sugar Cay —  a wall of jagged limestone, where the turbulent sea burst into foreboding puffs of white foam. 

The shelter of Exuma Point was only another half mile off, but my shoulders and triceps were utterly shot from the first half mile of the crossing. 

The good news: there was no chance of being vanquished into the Atlantic, as that’s where the winds blew from. I wouldn’t have dared tried even the shortest of crossings had the winds been reversed. 

Still, my mortality faced me. The rocks grew ever more detailed as I drifted toward them and they looked every bit as sharp as the rocks on all the other cays, which meant they could slice me and the paddleboard open. 

I clamored for my anchor, but the rope caught around my dry bags on deck. 


My board bucked in the chop. The rope tangled for maybe only 20 seconds, but it felt like 20 minutes. 

I finally freed the hunk of iron and hucked it into sea. The bow of the board swung into the waves as the anchor caught the bottom. It held. 

“Thank Christ.” 

I’d bought myself some time to think. 

Plan A: crash landing on a windward beach north of Roleville and walking the board down the coast the remaining couple of miles was now a fantasy. 

Plan B: seeking refuge on the leeward side of the point off of Exuma Beach to the north of Roleville, while now only a half mile away, was also now off the table. 

My hope had been that if I kneeled on my board, gave it all I got upwind for just a quarter mile or so from Glass Cay, I could then drift in an arc to a sandy patch on Great Exuma near the highway. It might have been possible with a head-on east wind, but that 30 degree angle shift to the northeast made all the difference. 

But the anchor provided time to execute a Plan C: turn Sugar Cay from a hazard into a refuge.

If I could clear the southern end of the not-so-sweet little island, I’d drift neatly into the protection of her leeward side to the southwest. 

I pulled the anchor. 

The wind wasted not a second in placing me back on my former course. I dug my paddle in on the downwind side of my board and scooped water for all I was worth. I only needed to move forward into the wind about a 100 yards. My triceps burned and my shoulders screamed. 

But it worked. 

I rounded the south end of Sugar Cay, where I ran aground on a soft, mucky sand flat on its far side. The air went still. 

Out of the wind and immediate danger, I crumpled onto my board, my body quivering as the adrenaline ebbed away. 

After a few minutes, I sat up and took stock of my surroundings. 

The sand flat presented an entirely new sort of problem. Muck sucked at my ankles and made every step feel like six. The water was too shallow to float my board, while the deeper waters to the edges of the cay were still too exposed to the wind. 

Sugar Cay looked rather uninviting, as its one narrow sliver of beach didn’t look like it would be above the water come high tide. A tangle of impassable vegetation blanketed its remaining landmass.

Alternatively, I could drag my board through the mud flats to the deeper water on the north or south end of the cay and cast myself back out in the wind. The gale would carry me to the shores of Great Exuma, albeit somewhere far from where I wanted to go. Another problem with this course of action is I couldn’t be sure if I’d be greeted with a soft beach landing, or be sent sailing into another wall of sharp rock like the one I’d just dodged. An exceedingly inconvenient patch of clouds obscured the waters between Sugar Cay and the main island on my otherwise highly detailed satellite maps, my tool for finding patches of sand out of direct line of sight. 

Either way, I’d be that many more miles away from Roleville and possibly end up stuck in another mudflat or washed up on an uninhabited section of shoreline, where wide tracks of jungle separated the sea from the highway. 

I took my cell phone out of airplane mode; I had good cellular coverage on this side of the cay. 

With reluctance and sheepishness, I implemented Plan D: call Elean. At least where I was now, a boat with a shallow draft could get within a few hundred yards of me. 

Elean was a woman of her word. Within an hour, she had friends en route to extract me. 

Waves crash into limestone on Great Exuma near Rolleville. May 13 ,2023.

Perez and his son Perez Jr. of “Crazy Bahamian” boat tours arrived in a spiffy white speed boat to deliver me from my predicament. 

They’d pulled up their boat as close as they could to the edge of the sand flats on the north edge of Sugar Cay. I dragged my board through the muck to them. 

The senior Perez introduced himself with a wide smile and firm handshake once I’d hauled myself aboard. 

“I can’t thank you enough,” I said. 

“Ah, it’s no problem man, we was just comin’ back from a tour out on Staniel Cay anyway,” he said. 

They’d loaded up me, my paddleboard, and all my gear without hesitation. Within five minutes, we were zooming back to Barraterre, now blasting through the same chop at 40mph that had kicked my ass an hour before with outrageous ease. 

“How long you been out in da cays man?” the senior Perez queried. 

“This is my fourth day,” I replied. 

“Wow! Did ya see my hammerhead?”

I laughed. “No, I didn’t.” 

“How ‘bout my tiger?” 

“Somehow I only saw one shark the whole time I was out there, and it was some distance away.” 

“You were probably glad to not see many, being out der by yaself.” 

“Honestly man, this wind is more scary than any shark if you ask me.”

We pulled up to docks and plopped my board back in the far calmer waters of the harbor. 

“Can I repay you with lunch? Beer? Some cash for gas money for your boat?” I asked.  

Perez senior rubbed his chin. 

“Nawh, ya can just give Crazy Bahamian a good review on Google,” he said.  

A smart businessman. 

“I can do that,” I said. “I’ll give you a six out of five star review.” 

Disheveled and in a bit of a daze, I began the process of unloading and deflating my board. I remembered Kamal, the cab driver who’d given me a lift from the airport to my first AirBnb, lived in Barraterre. I still had his card, so I gave him a ring. He couldn’t come meet me, but said he’d make some calls and find me a ride. 

Kamal located another cab in incredibly short order and it arrived without notice within minutes. The notion of “island time” was far from a consistent phenomenon; these folks had been more punctual than not thus far. 

In step with the helpfulness that came to define Bahamians, Kent, one of the locals who’d seen me off when I embarked, hurried off the deck of the dock house to lend a hand in folding my hastily deflated board back into its bag. 

Elean, god bless her, snagged my dry bags and deposited them in the back of my ride. 

Just as I was about to hop in the taxi, she stopped me. 

“Wait,” she said. “Give me a hug.” 

She wrapped her arms around me with a degree of warmth you might only expect from your own mother, an old friend, or a college sweetheart after your return from your semester abroad. 

“Don’t go back out der,” she admonished. 

“No, no. I won’t,” I replied. “I’ve had my fill… for a little while anyway.” 


May 12 shall henceforth be known as “Air Conditioning and Fresh Water Appreciation Day,” as I now had as much as I could want of both. How luxurious it was to no longer have to count the liters of water sweating out of me. 

I’d found an AirBnb in Roleville a block off the beach from where I’d initially plotted to land, before the wind made other arrangements. Aside from the handful of dead cockroaches I found in the kitchen cabinets, it was an otherwise cozy, clean and comfortable place. 

I spread out my clothes and gear to dry, polished off what remained of my rum and slept — hard.

Self portrait near an unnamed cay in the Exuma Cays of The Bahamas. May 11, 2023.

Anchored on the Caribbean side of the barrier islands between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. 

Starfish, Exuma Point Beach. May 13, 2023.

Paul's Fried Chicken

Rolleville, Great Exuma —  May 13, 2023

The sun had set and scarcely enough light trickled into the place to read the menu. The staff hadn’t bothered to turn the lights on. Nevertheless, a young man in a crisp Tommy Hilfiger t-shirt sat at the end of the bar wearing dark shades. He was absolutely blazed. But so were most of the other patrons of PFC — Paul's Fried Chicken. 

My new friends, James and Jackie of Hollywood, Florida and I had placed our order before sundown, which was now about an hour and a half ago. Island time strikes back. 

In the absence of tables or chairs in the establishment, we gelled into a bench glued to the wall with a few Kaliks, (pronounced Kah-lick) a Bahamian brew. A lager, Kalik came in four grades: the ultralight Kalik Mango at 2% ABV, Kalik Light at 4%, Kalik Regular at 5%, and Kalik Gold at 7%. 

The windows were sans screens — and glass— and I don’t remember the place even having a door, so some of my old nemeses had returned with the twilight. Fortunately, Jackie had a neem/citronella concoction that deterred the mosquitos. I was pretty sick of the smell, fabric-deteriorating and more than likely carcinogenic properties of my DEET. 

Now six days into this trip, I’d burned through my supply of oil of eucalyptus, an equally effective mosquito deterrent, but as my still itchy ankles reminded me, it didn’t dissuade the ravenous sand flies of Cluff’s Cay.

I’d met the Florida couple earlier that day on Exuma Point Beach after their jeep sank into the saturated sand. 

I’d taken a walk from Roleville to Exuma Point Beach after an extended night and morning of recuperation from my paddle. I saw Sugar Cay and the mudflat where I’d escaped the wind the day before.  According to OnX, my homegrown Montana mapping app of choice, the cay was a mere 993 yards away from Exuma Point Beach. From my main island perspective, I saw it probably would have been possible to float my board to Great Exuma come high tide. 

An even more painful realization came to light after studying a different satellite map without the clouds covering the stretches of water to the southwest of Sugar Cay: I could have let the wind blow me straight back to Barraterre, and there were no major rocky obstacles on the same heading as the windm, as far as I could tell. 

I’d paddled 19 ocean miles only to come a 1,000 yards short of finishing the circuit under my own power. 

So. Damn. Close. 

I refused to dwell on it, or let it diminish the adventure, and busied myself photographing some starfish in the shallows with an uncanny resemblance to Patrick from the cartoon Spongebob Square Pants, which is when I looked up to see a Jeep Wrangler rolling onto the sand. I remembered how the mucky sand had sucked at my ankles on Sugar Cay the day before. I knew exactly what was about to happen, but alas it was too late. 

The front tires of the jeep sank. The driver put it in reverse, but that caused the vehicle to settle deeper. 

Now it was my turn to do some “rescuing.” 

“Crazy how soft this sand is,” I said as I approached Jackie, who stood beside the car. James meanwhile had wandered across the road to start gathering vegetation to stuff under the back tires for traction, but I had a better idea. One learns a lot about getting cars unstuck after years of driving through the ice and snow of the north. 

“Take the floor mats out from under your seats and put them behind the back tires,” I suggested. 

Floor mats in place, Jackie hopped into the driver’s seat, while James and I positioned ourselves to push on the front bumper. I advised Jackie to gradually accelerate. The Jeep’s bald tires managed to grip the rubber mats, and the vehicle popped out of the sand like a cork and back onto asphalt. 

We made plans to get drinks and dinner later. They offered me a ride back to my place, but I declined. I wanted to continue to absorb this exotic landscape at the pace humans evolved to: walking speed.

Poetically, within a few minutes of their departure, I too, fell prey to the soft sand. I waded back through the shallows to retrieve my backpack further down the beach, and I neglected to remove my flip flops. One blew. 

Dumbass. One can only expect so much out of $7 Walmart footwear. 

I had duct tape, but of course it was back at the AirBnb in my heap of camping gear two miles away.

No guarantees anyone else would drive up to this beach for the rest of the day, especially with it being so overcast and blustery; a barefoot return trip it would be. 

Fortuitously, the freshly paved road to Roleville was as smooth as the Indy 500 race track, and the lack of sun meant it wouldn’t burn the soles of my feet. 

About halfway back, a kind Bahamian family of three whose names all began with the letter “J” gave me a lift. Exuma had that small town feel. Help was forthcoming whether I sought it out or not. 


About an hour had elapsed since we’d ordered at Paul's Fried Chicken,  and so our conversation about all things adventure continued.  James tried to encapsulate the life of the most incredible adventurer in his life: his father. A man who, by the sounds of it, had lived the lives of 50 men in his 70 years thus far on Earth. He’d run an illegal moonshine operation in the hills of North Carolina, spirited south to Columbia for decades to raise cattle, and married the love of his life there before returning to rural Texas, among  myriad other adventures. My journalistic mind sensed a killer human interest piece, and I had no doubt the man had the face to make for a striking portrait.

At long last, our fried chicken arrived in all its salivary, breaded goodness. I don't know if it was our hunger, or if the poultry was objectively outstanding, or some combination of the two, but it was unequivocally the best damn basket of fried chicken I’d had in my life. James and Jackie concurred. 

James offered our compliments to the chef. 

“Paul, that chicken was amazing. Better than The Colonel’s!” 

“Brotha,” Chef Paul shouted over the din of the kitchen, “Da Colonel learned from me!” 

James, Jackie and myself at Paul's Fried Chicken on Great Exuma. May 13, 2023. 

Cats lounge outside a restaurant in Georgetown on Great Exuma.

Second Home

Rolleville to Georgetown, Great Exuma — May 14, 2023

I gave Kamal the cab driver another ring to see if he could shuttle me back to Georgetown. 

As lovely as I found Roleville, I had significantly more affordable accommodations booked for my time in Exuma, plus experience had shown me time and time again changes in scenery had a way of introducing new characters. 

Ahead of Kamal’s arrival, I took a morning beach walk on Cocoplum Beach. Another unbelievably beautiful and empty stretch of sand. All those social media yoga babes didn’t have shit on this spot in terms of serenity. 

On my way back to my place a new character presented themselves. A gangly middle aged man jumped up from the shade of a neighboring house to introduce himself and offered some of his coconut water. 

I suspected by how clumsily he shook my hand his coconut “water” was spiked with a little something extra.

Anvil Lazurus drilled me with the standard battery of questions: where are you from? What have you seen and done since you got here? How long are you staying? And put in a plug for his self-produced documentary on YouTube: 

I answered his questions and complimented him on his island abode. I meant it. My walk on Cocoplum sealed beyond a shadow of a doubt this place was every bit as beautiful as Montana. 

Kamal pulled up, and I bid Anvil farewell. 

“You are no stranger here,” he said. “You are home. Come see me when ya come back.” 

I asked Kamal to stop by the ATM in Georgetown — there were only two on the island, and one was out of order.  

Then traffic came to a crawl. 

“God damn!  Man,  did I tell ya 'bout dis lady?” Kamal gestured to the car holding up traffic. “She’s got five or six cars, man. And drives all of dem dis fast.” 

It was rather impressive just how slowly she crept along. Even in this heat, I could have literally crawled faster than we were rolling now.

“Do you know her name?” I laughed.

“Naw man, we just call her ‘Driving Miss Daisy.’” 

Exuma certainly possessed the charm of “second home” material.

Death of a Rasta

Georgetown, Great Exuma — May 14, 2023

His body lay in a surf-soaked heap on the rocks. I somehow was the first on the grisly scene, despite the body laying mere feet from an enclave of watering holes on the north side of Georgetown, where a few dozen blissfully unaware patrons continued their libations. 

Most certainly foul play. Death by strangulation and spinal cord injury, as the man’s neck was wrung like a beach towel. His dark dreads framed his eyes, which were open and bleached by the saltwater. There wasn’t anything to be done but alert the authorities, await a coroner’s report and seek out the victim’s family, if he had any.  But that could wait until later. No need to blare the sirens for someone already on the other side. 

Rest in peace, Rasta-Banana-Man. 

I ambled back up to the bar. “Another Kalik Gold, please.”

A strangulated Banana Rastafarian Man washed up on the shores of Great Exuma near Georgetown. May 14, 2023. RIP.

Island Wisdom

Da Sand Bar, Stocking Island — May 16, 2023

The winds abated on my last day on Exuma, leaving enough time for one more excursion. I put in at Hooper’s Bay, where green sea turtles enjoyed leaves of lettuce doled out by tourists. What the turtles relished in less were the tourists who lifted them out of the water for a selfie. A tiny sign pinned to the dock feebly discouraged both the feeding and handling of the turtles. I doubt many noticed the signage, and even fewer would heed it if they did anyway.   

I rounded the southern point of the bay and made for Stocking Island, a long barrier cay about two miles offshore. Once there, I worked my way south along the shore to Stocking Island Monument, a white obelisk perched on the highest point of the island, which had served as a navigational aid over the years. 

By Montana standards, the vertical gain to the monument was negligible, but the view from the top was every bit as awe-inspiring  as one from even the highest, craggiest summits back home.  

The azure Caribbean contrasted oh so pleasingly with the cobalt hue of The Atlantic. A nearly neon green jungle framed the foreground, offset by a thicket of white catamarans and sailboats moored in Stocking Island’s well-protected harbors farther afield. Consistent with my explorations on this whole trip, I had the place to myself; no one on the summit of the little island mountain or on the entire trail system. 

After some more stomping around the island, followed by a long dip in the surf, I was thirsty for a Kalik. I suspected the idyllic watering hole I paddled past on my way to the monument would be open by now.  

Da Sand Bar consisted of a volleyball net, a pair of “Instagram” beach swings, three umbrella-shaped palm frond shelters with lounge chairs,  and a small plywood shed serving as the bar itself. Perfection. It shall remain my favorite bar in the universe until further notice. 

It appeared I’d be Da Sand Bar’s second of two total customers for the evening. The first being a woman named Dina with a cute mess of curly hair. She appeared in her element, as much as part of the landscape as the palms and the sand as she hand rolled her cigarettes in the shade.  

My paddleboard served dutifully once again its secondary role as a reliable icebreaker. Turns out Dina was also something of a reckless paddleboarder herself. She recounted an incident in rough seas where she’d gone out without an ankle leash in rough water and lost her paddle. 

She described herself as recovering from burnout after an intense 20 year career as an international public health expert, working in North Africa and the Middle East, with a focus on HIV intervention and health care for refugees. She’d since shifted to  a consultant role in her field. Now she babysitted a sailboat on Stocking Island and had sailed the whole Eastern Seaboard with the boat's owners. 

“Sure, I could keep working full time,” she mused, “But there’s a lot of miserable rich people.” 

Dina coaxed the bartender, Jonathan Robinson, out onto the beach to join us. What a fitting name for an island-dwelling man. Mr. Robinson hailed from Abaco, a Bahamian island to the north he described as even more rural than Exuma. He also was an experienced diver and the owner of Da Sand Bar. 

Jonathan pulled out a hand-rolled something of his own from behind his ear and started to smoke. Dina made introductions and mentioned my expedition. 

“Where did ya go?” Jonathan asked. 

I described my route. His brow furrowed. 

“On a paddleboard?” he asked. 


“By yaself?”


The furrow melted into a wide smile. 

“Man, dat’s bold!” he said, “You’re following your light man.” 

He passed me his smoke. It smelled awfully strong. Maintaining balance — and motivation — for the return paddle would be a tall order with too much of that in my system. 

Sensing my thoughts, Jonathan said, “I’ll give you a ride back.” 

And so the three of us sank a little deeper into our seats,  eyes glued to the shimmering water and minds adrift in a sun-soaked state of euphoria. 

I told Dina and Jonathan about Montana and about how I’d already decided I’d be returning to Exuma. Jonathan described the particulars of sea cave diving and Dina spoke of her sailing adventures. 

Such settings lend themselves to conversations about what it means to lead an enriching life, how to suck the proverbial marrow of this Earthly existence, and how to best manifest one’s visions, aspirations and desires. 

A couple more beers. A few more puffs. 

Then Jonathan summed up the secret to personal growth with an exquisite mantra that will stick with me forever. 

“Ya either are where ya are, or where ya want to be,” he said. “That’s it.” 

He looked straight into the sun. The light illuminated hints of gray in the dreadlocks of his beard. 

“I’ve got a vision for mine,” he said of his best embodiment of himself. “Even if it takes 500 years. If I don’t get to it in this lifetime, I’ll get to it next time.” 

He didn’t elaborate further. The sun crept toward the horizon. Time to cast off. 

The most beautiful sunset of the entire trip bled out before us. Jonathan’s face and pontoon were awash in an amber glow as we motored back to Hooper’s Bay.  

We slid my board back into the water at the mouth of the bay, so I could paddle the last leg to give Jonathan time to tie up his boat before darkness fell. 

“Keep making life awesome man,” Jonathan called as he turned the pontoon around.  “I’ll see ya when ya get back!”

Jonathan Robinson, owner of Da Sand Bar, takes his boat from Stocking Island to Georgetown on Great Exuma. May 16, 2023.

Green sea turtle swims in Hoopers Bay on Great Exuma. May 15, 2023.

View of the Atlantic Ocean from the high point on Stocking Island.  May 16, 2023.

Seating and shade at Da Sand Bar on Stocking Island. May 16, 2023.

Water taxi passengers traveling from Georgetown to Stocking Island. 

Signage on Stocking Island.

Sunset on Hoopers Bay, Great Exuma on May 16, 2023.

Homeward Bound

Somewhere Over Florida — May 17, 2023

For the return flight to the states, I found myself in the very last row seats next to the latrine door, and all the odors therein. Unable to recline for a nap, as the back wall of the plane kept this row of seat backs permanently in the “upright position,” I scrolled through my photos. As brutal as that first night out on the cays was, commercial airplanes still prove themselves an even worse kind of physical torture in their own special way. 

Somewhere over the Florida peninsula it hit me: I hadn’t seen a swimming pig. Not one. 

I wonder if it’s possible I’m the only tourist to visit Exuma in the past twenty years who hadn’t seen the island's most sought after attraction? 

I suppose the amphibious swine snapshot would have to wait until next time. Because there will be a next time. I’ll return to my paradise in the pale blue void soon enough. 

The author's footprints on Glass Cay, The Bahamas. May 11, 2023.

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