This Eletter with all the links to fantastic world-renowned photographs, because my good camera came back from the shop in time to take some pix, is at this link:
Just click on it, 'cuz John taught me the <> trick.
The Exuma Cays make up fully one-half of the chunks of land that are The Bahamas. Mostly small- to medium-sized islets along a reef of stromatolite structures on the western shore of Exuma Sound. [Stromatolite is the oldest type of ancient limestone land structure that is made from sea life. Stromatolite formation creatures include bacterium that were once thought to be extinct but have recently been discovered still at work making islands, and gave rise to the formation of the Land & Sea Parks in The Bahamas to protect their environment. These microorganisms are thought to have begun the creation of the Earth's atmospheric oxygen over THREE BILLION years ago! More information at http://stromatolites.info/. You know you want to read about the bacteria that enables you to breath on Earth.]
The Exumas lie on the Great Bahama Bank, which also supports Bimini, Andros, New Providence, Eleuthera, Long Island, and the Jumentos Cays & Ragged Islands. The Great Bahama Bank is "S" shaped, encroached by both the Tongue of the Ocean and Exuma Sound. Three of the tips of the Great Bahamas Bank have individual names = the northwest tip is the Great Isaac Bank, the southeast tip is the Columbus Bank, and the rest of the southern edge is called the Cochinos Bank.
The Abacos Islands and Grand Bahama Island are on the Little Bahama Bank to the north, separated from the Great Bahama Bank by the Northwest and Northeast Providence Channels. The only other named bank is the Cay Sal Bank, bordered by the Santaren Channel along the western edge of the Great Bahama Bank, the Nicholas Channel along the north shore of Cuba, and the Straits of Florida through which the Gulf Stream flows around Florida. (Note: "cay" is pronounced 'key' and means "small island") Cay Sal Bank supports several TINY cays, none of which are inhabited.
?[I have been to the one named Cay Sal, and man, it is SMALL and ISOLATED!]
Crooked Island, Long Cay, and the Acklins Islands are inhabited and occupy a bank almost as large as Cay Sal Bank; it is unnamed except to be called "The Bight of Acklins". (Anywhere the curve of an island holds shallow water, it is called "The Bight" and there is always a settlement there called "The Bight".*) There are a couple other named 'Banks', but they do not support islands. The remaining Islands of the southeast Bahamas stand alone in the Atlantic Ocean; they have aragonite, stromatolite, and coral reefs near them, but no extensive bank. [These "Out Islands" will be the last stops for us in The Bahamas ? detailed in the next eletter.]
*The naming conventions in The Bahamas are uniform in the fact that there is none observed. Rocks are named whatever the peoples wish to call them, until other peoples decide to call it something else [my favorites are "Kick 'Em Jenny" & "Killum Poly Rock" in the Abacos]. Sometimes the government renames some place ? if the peoples don't like it, they continue calling it the name they prefer. Because of this absence of order, some things have six or seven current names. EVERYWHERE has at least two names! and then there is the opposite effect = there are 18 "Sandy Cays" I have counted and a dozens of "Crab Cays". Settlements are named after founders, trouble is, there was a limited number of founders, mostly related. So if you turn left at George Town, you will get to Rolle Town; if you turn right, there is Rolleville. The two larger towns in the area named Cockburn Town are differentiated by everyone pronouncing one of them COburn Town ? the other one is in the Turks & Caicos, another country! Every 'Island' has a 'Cay' with the same name somewhere else.
Besides discovering the stromatolites, the Exumas presented themselves as the typical string of islands as we have seen along the edge of a shallow bank in The Bahamas; ordinary in formation, but unique because of position and logistics.
The Exumas have enough good-sized, isolated islands to have been of great use to drug runners during the last century. Any island over a half-mile long has an airstrip and at one time was ruthlessly controlled by a drug lord.
The settlements in the Exumas are about the same distance apart as in say, Eleuthera or Andros, but are a bit more isolated as they are each on a separate island, islet, or cay. (Except for Great Exuma and its bridged neighbors- Little Exuma, Madame Dau's Cay, and Barraterre.)? Even Great Guana Cay has isolated settlements because its rugged ten-mile length has yet to be completely joined by a road.
Some of the most natural beauty of The Bahamas, both above and below the water's surface exists here in the Exumas.
More delightful Bahamians. More gazebos, more domino games! More 'private' and 'exclusive' cays, but we were always welcome to walk or ride the roads and beaches (what gorgeous beaches!). While cycling any island with more than a couple miles of roads, I never felt unwelcome. Karin, on her exercise walks, had to turn down many, many offers to give her a ride. There are always locals out for short strolls, but I saw more bicycles being used here than other places in The Bahamas.
We also were drawn to Eddy's Edgewater in George Town; at first for its free wireless I-net access, but later by Kevin's (the owner) fantastic ribs, chicken, & pork and Darlene's (his wife) charm- and their adorable kids! The I-net access is all the time, but you gotta be there on Friday night for the ribs & chicken!
From our staging point just above Little Harbour Channel at Lynyard Cay, Sea of Abaco, we headed down across Atlantic depths of over two miles to the islands north of Eleuthera, entering the bank at Egg Island and scooting into Royal Island Harbour. Much has changed there since we last saw it in May; the writing is on the wall that the place will soon be "officially" off limits or made so uncomfortable by contractors orchestrating the development of this gorgeous island and wonderful harbour for cruisers to be anchoring there. Maybe not?
From Royal Island we sailed along the Northeast Providence Channel and onto the Great Bahama Bank at Fleeming Channel, my first time through there and a painless way to get from North Eleuthera to the Exumas. Great care must be used crossing the Middle Bank once among the coral heads, but it is as easy as the Yellow Bank used by many.
Highborne Cay was our first stop: the first large inhabited cay of the Exuma chain. Nice anchorage for the prevailing easterlies, shallow bays for north or south wind, great marina for anything else. We were allowed to leave our dinghy at the marina, but it was empty as the 'season' was still a month away. Highborne Cay certainly had it's own flavor, with even a rapid transit system (o.k., maybe not THAT rapid). I did notice that although still part of a "developing" country, some of these remote islands are executing better construction plans than even Florida in regards to infrastructure in an area subject to tropical weather. You see, the backwards utilities in Florida still install and maintain a mostly above-ground electrical system, allowing for the slightest weather disturbance to cause outages. On Highborne Cay, they are burying their electrical distribution, at a slightly greater installation cost, but with hurricane-proof results. Very smart.
Norman's Cay is the former home of Carlos Lehder: a well-known notorious drug lord. This made the island quite "private"! It is now mostly privately owned, but by a friendlier lot. Reefs & rocks for snorkeling all around; plenty of anchoring choices, including completely protected Norman's Pond ? if you can get through the intricate entrance that is two-feet deep at low water; ruins to explore; and a paved road that offers great cycling access to the entire island, even if it peters out considerably on the eastern half of the island. Norman's Cay also shows it is looking to the future in regards to wind-generated electrical systems.
Warderick Wells, the location of the office for the Exuma Cays Land & Sea Park (ECLSP): several mooring fields, with free anchoring permitted by Emerald Rock. Marked hiking trails; nature walks with signs identifying all manner of natural things (including more of the geyser-like blow holes as I showed on Eleuthera); phenomenal snorkeling; an interesting gift shop; skeletal remains of a 52' whale (unfortunately killed by PLASTIC TRASH); super beaches; and a "high" point, Boo Boo Hill. Interesting that some of the hiking trails take you from one cay to another ? prepare to get your feet wet! I have never heard of some of the unique books in the gift shop.
At Bell Island, off Cambridge Cay: we had to move from the SW corner to the NW corner of Bell Island due to swells caused by unsettled weather, as we were unwilling to navigate shallow intricate paths to better anchorages near Cambridge, O'Briens, Soldier, and Little Halls Pond Cays; but it seems one could find many great anchorages in normal conditions. We took Pedigo around to Cambridge Cay and hiked the large hill on the north end, searching for a geocache.
Big Majors Spot is the finest anchorage we had in Exuma: with the finest pig we have seen in The Bahamas. There are also many goats along with the smaller reptiles, crustaceans, and amphibians. From here, it is a short dinghy ride to Staniel Cay, with the Thunderball Grotto in-between. (Yes, it is the underwater cave from the James Bond movie; be sure to time your visit there at slack low water.)
Black Point Settlement on the north tip of Great Guana Cay: the first traditional Bahamian town encountered in the Exumas, it has extensive development going on in its southern extremities. (Including a castle!)
Little Farmers Cay is another traditional settlement: the normal passage out to Exuma Sound for the trip down to George Town. We walked the entire island and stayed a couple days before continuing south on the bank.
Williams Town South, Little Exuma Island: this was as far as we could go behind Exuma Islands before anchoring to sleep and wait for tides favorable for us to pass through Comers Channel and around to George Town. The Williams Town Homecoming celebration was in full swing on the Friday night we were there, as the music was clear from the town TWO MILES away! If we weren't in the middle of a passage, we would have gone in to party.
I also cycled to Williams Town once we anchored in Elizabeth Harbour and found it to be a very quiet and small community. From the looks of closed businesses, it appears to be getting smaller. This is what I have noticed in my studies of all communities on our upcoming tour. The SE Bahamas have experienced severe population decline in the last few decades as young people go off to college and seek their livelihoods elsewhere. I will present more details in the next eletter.
We pulled into George Town and parked by the medical clinic (see Cruising Notes). It turned out that this was the best spot for Windigo's draft; just off the Peace & Plenty Hotel and around the corner to the entrance to Lake Victoria. George Town has marinas, boatyards, grocery stores, good cycling roads, and many, many places to anchor and explore in the area. It is a hub of activity throughout the winter cruising season.
Stocking Island spans the eastern side of Elizabeth Harbour immediately across from George Town and is ground zero for many of the cruiser community's activities. We hiked to the summit of the highest hill within 30 miles, the base of the stone beacon known as the Monument.
There are hundreds of places in between our stops to anchor, snorkel, paddle, hike, or just dinghy around the beautiful rocks, beaches, and bays. We had limited time for this portion of our journey [I will explain in the next eletter] and so our targets were convenient anchorages, cycling access, and BaTelCo tower logging. Some cruisers only come to the Exumas, and I can see how they are captivated by the beauty of the hundreds of small islets in the chain.
Full variety of lizards, with huge iguanas now joining the large curly-tailed ones and the small Anolis carolinensis, just like the ones on Florida. The abundant reptiles are living along with a greater number of snakes and frogs. As I mentioned above, large mammals are becoming more evident, with pigs & goats galore. Many times sailing between the islands, especially in a rainstorm, will attract a weary bird which will rest aboard for a while, fly in the rigging to say goodbye, and then continue his travels.
At the beach of Big Majors Spot, Karin tries to make friendly with a boar, it decides she is worth pursuing - all the way to Pedigo! It seems this pig tries to board any dinghy that ventures close. Good thing Pedigo is strange enough that he didn't know how to get on and pedal!
More geocaching lead us to our first unfound treasure...unfortunately, even after wading along several hundred feet of shoreline in a salt pond and crossing dense wooded areas, we didn't find the cache due to my GPS programming error. It made for an strenuous hike up a steep slope through dense vegetation, and although I walked right by the place of the actual cache, we did not find it. Karin's Poisonwood scars will cause her to recheck EVERY coordinate before our future geocaching escapades.
Darlene (from Eddy's Edgewater) asked us to participate in the 1st Annual St. Anthony's Anglican School Festival, a fund raiser for the private school in town. Karin and I created the Lake Victoria Blue Hole, a "newly discovered" phenomenon that produces unusual treasures when fished with the proper gear (all created with stuff from Windigo).
The school kids would haul in toys, bags of candy, snacks, blocks of wood and old coconuts from the fishing game. BLOCKS OF WOOD AND OLD COCONUTS??? Yes, we teased them once in a while, but allowed a free turn later when they scored a booby prize. J
Another unique experience for most of the kids was bobbing for apples, in ice-water just as in the Pineapple Festival in May at Gregory Town. (Did I tell you that I was on Bahamian National Television bobbing for apples in Gregory Town?) After some kids tried either too daintily or with the wrong technique, Capt. HeadSoaker stepped in to show them how it's done ? first time / every time!
It turns out that Capt. SoggyBrains was showed up by a talented girl that could finesse the apples into her mouth in a very feminine fashion, and taught her friends to do so, too.
In the end, there was a lot of laughs and a lot of candy [and apples!] were eaten for a very good cause. Between the apple-bobbing and fishing hole, $300 was added to pay for the operation of the St. Anthony's School. Father Mario was delighted with the help from the cruiser community. [Father Mario went to seminary in Nashota, Wisconsin, a place I frequently cycled and not far from where we lived.]
I know that most people find the Exumas to be "thee perfect place" but I guess I've seen so many other Bahamian islands that these were not my favorites. I did meet some nice people which is always my objective while walking through the small communities and we encountered another cruising couple that seemed to be going in our same direction which was always a welcome sight. But the communities were very small and the sparsely populated main roads were boring to walk because of the high dense trees which hid the rest of the scenery.
I also realized that I love encountering animals from AFAR. I've always had a fear of them because they respond to situations unpredictably, even domesticated dogs and cats. Seeing a wild boar on one particular island had me so excited that Kevin suggested I go over by it and pretend that I have food so that he can take a picture. I jumped off Pedigo, easing my way towards the pig. In horror, I watched this huge thing turn and starts charging towards me (what was I thinking!). Well of course I screamed and ran towards Pedigo, yelling "hurry get out of here"! Kevin was laughing soooo hard that he couldn't maneuver Pedigo out of danger's way, but when I realized that the pig wasn't dangerous and my heart settled down, I was laughing also. I guess from now on I'll just stay back and admire what probably wasn't meant to be disturbed anyways.
I felt very vulnerable to outside influences in this area; out here all alone and sometimes not a soul to be found. This was especially true when Kevin hurt himself (see his story in Cruising Notes). He was so calm and just "took care of business" but I was a mess. Just watching him try to get us to our destination while turning white and pale, seeing the blood continually seeping through the many layers of bandages and trying to keep his finger held above his heart and being very, very quiet (this is when I realized that he was in severe pain)! Of course, he tries to act as if nothing is wrong but after 11+ years together, you get to know how to read a person. Finally when we got to our destination I was sort of relieved. I realized that the treatment was cheap but sanitary? I would doubt it, as it had rained for a few days and there was a couple inches of standing water on the clinic floor which had a rust tint to it. The lights went out while the Nurse [Cratchett] tried to stitch him up using a Coleman camping light and she kept breaking needles on him. Seeing the extent of his damage caused me to almost pass out so I had to leave ? what the heck was I going to be like when I HAD TO BE THE NURSE!? Thank goodness it's healing well and Kevin is a good EMT and patient.
We had another small incident which caused our water supply to be contaminated with wonderful salt water. When we collect rain water sometimes we leave the fill drain open on the deck of the boat. Well it had rained the night before we were to leave, so the drain was open when we left in the morning. We were pounding through the seas when all of a sudden Kevin noticed that the drain fill was still open. I quickly closed it and then went inside to taste our water ? it was salty! Sooooo I had to drain the tank (50 gallons), wash it out and find 120 gallons of FREE water to refill it. When we got to Georgetown we found the free water on the Exuma Market dock. We had to haul it back and forth to the boat in barrels and bags. A lesson definitely learned ? the hard way!
Now that I'm writing this I have determined that maybe it wasn't the islands at all that caused me such an indifference but was probably the anchorages. We were further away from land than in previous island chains, which causes the water to be a bit more choppy, which then caused the boat to rock & roll, which then caused Karin TO BE SICK! In higher winds and seas I found it hard to maneuver Pedigo and would find myself going around in circles just to get to land and back, sometimes needing Kevin's pedaling (and weight) help to fight the cavitation of the propeller.
I don't want to say that the Exumas were THAT bad because I did enjoy our time in George Town where we went out to eat, helped with the fundraiser and I hung out at the library and met some neat people. Maybe there were just too many bad incidences that curbed by appreciation of the area. I will rethink my opinion when we head back there to pick up a package in a couple weeks to see how the cruising population has grown and say our formal good-byes.
[We came (sailed right to our old anchoring spot), we saw (fun watching and listening on the radio to all the cruisers), and we?.WONDERED? Why didn't all these people just find a beach in Florida to meet up and party because they stay grouped together in an area away from the locals anyways. There are many "cruiser" activities going on and they were even having their own New Year's Eve party. It seems like the cruisers only use the locals for personal needs and some local people seem very standoffish and even angry when we tryed to talk to them. I guess we'll spend New Year's partying Bahamian style trying to break down the wall a bit.]
It was worth cycling on Highborne Cay, Normans Cay, Black Point Settlement on Great Guana Cay, and Great & Little Exuma Islands. While Warderick Wells, Cambridge Cay, Staniel Cay, Little Farmers Cay, Stocking Island were small enough, and lacked paved roads, that hiking was sufficient to cover the entire area.
While much more limited than Andros, Eleuthera, or Abaco, cycling most of the Exumas provided me with exercise and allowed me to range the extent of the islands. Great Exuma required the bicycle, and had a moderate terrain providing a few days worth of cycling adventure, along with a geocache, parcel pick-up at the airport, and six BaTelCo Towers to locate.
Something I may have not mentioned yet is my BaTelCo Tower logging hobby. Because The Bahamas are very flat, the most useful visual navigation aids throughout the country are the Bahamian Telephone Company cellular towers. One guide we have lists the coordinates ? completely inaccurately! So from the beginning, I vowed to record the proper position of each tower, by hand, accurately. So far, I have identified the correct location of 70 towers, with 12 to go. There has been 10 I could not confirm, either on Grand Bahama, which we will not visit (but we came close enough for me to confirm one there), or way south on the islands of Andros, and two on Abaco that remained unvisited because the weather caused me to miss my ride to the south tips. I will share the coordinates of these towers with the cruising guide publishers to assist future sailors.
Of great note is the cruising community at George Town, Great Exuma Island. Unfortunately, I cannot tell you the scope if it first-hand, because we sailed through there during the off-season. Although there was 10 to 20 boats scattered throughout Elizabeth Harbour during our stay, in the 'season' there are over 400! For Regatta, the number of anchored boats may exceed a thousand! Many cruisers come to The Bahamas just to sit in "Chicken Town" for the season, and then return home to the US. The unwillingness to venture offshore into the ocean, persistent trade winds, and rest of the Caribbean islands (some utilizing foreign languages!) earns it the nickname.
[NOTE: We passed through George Town a second time, later in December, and witnessed the growing numbers of cruisers. Although unique and interesting, we preferred the less populated version. Some of the people on boats seemed less like cruisers and more like landlubbers on vacation: radio etiquette is appalling; self-understanding of weather is lacking; and a dependency on others for technical information, skills, and entertainment abounds. But there's cocktails parties every night . . . if that's what your about, it's great.]
It was mostly quiet and secluded for us, although we made friends with another cruising couple that is in the final stages of refitting their boat, just as we did in Door County seven years ago. We also met Mike Minns, the owner of Exuma Markets, a VERY cruiser friendly store. Mike maintains a dinghy dock just inside the inlet to Lake Victoria (where the store is located). He provides free RO water, at the dock, for cruisers. He told me that earlier this year he counted 140 dinghies connected to the 30' dock! He described it as a good-sized island of boats. Exuma Markets will also accept and hold mail for cruisers, allowing shipping to a physical address for delivery services that demand it.
An alternative that may suit cruiser's needs in Exuma is Reggie Express Services, Inc., an air transportation company out of Ft. Lauderdale. They will bring packages from Ft. Lauderdale to the Exuma International Airport very inexpensively. Call 954.761.3131 for information, or email Regina at email@example.com, as we did, to arrange fast , inexpensive transport of parcels from Ft. Lauderdale to George Town.
As I mentioned, free wireless I-net access is broadcast at Eddy's Edgewater as a cruiser service. The only other places with wireless access in the Exumas that I noticed were the Highborne Cay Marina, which they are very stingy with (and it was inoperative during our stay); and the ECLSP, although I didn't ask or use it, but in an emergency, I'm sure they would offer it. I sought signals in other places, but was content with the SSB email for weather and short messages; there is too many beautiful things to see and do to be on the damn computer!
Water was also more scarce in the Exumas, but we had plenty between rainwater we caught and the Exuma Market faucet in George Town.
We anchored out at all the places we stayed, even though it is said anchoring is prohibited in some places. The prohibited place mention most often is the ECLSP, but the ranger there allows anchoring just outside the mooring field at Emerald Rock (most of which inside is too shallow for us, anyway!).
Anchorages were secure and comfortable [with one exception] ? we had to move around the end of Bell Island to avoid swells when there ? with Big Majors Spot being a standout favorite. Big Majors Spot is right next to Staniel Cay and Thunderball Grotto, two very popular sites to visit.
Another outstanding spot are the Caribbean Marine Research Center moorings at Lee Stocking Island. But you better hurry to assure a free landing here: the political climate is closing this US-run facility and the free moorings will be gone. Access to the island is already restricted and tours are no longer allowed due to lack of personnel and a total absence of scientific research.
It seems that the current administration is more interested in killing for oil than studying sustainable food sources and renewable energy supplies; but then, why would oil barons care about that stuff?
The exception being Steventon, which IS marked as a "day" anchorage. The swells were untenable on the windless day we tried to stay there, even though there had been no large seas for several days. The entrance is as tricky as any cut in the Exumas.
We choose to do the unorthodox once again and instead of traveling out in Exuma Sound to get to George Town as most cruisers do, we sailed around the west and south sides of Great & Little Exuma Islands and came around to George Town through the western extremities of Long Island Bight. This was another rewarding shallow-water navigation experience in our deep-draft boat. One of the rewards for me personally was a crushed finger due to a momentary burst of strength with a simultaneous lapse of judgment.
The anchor was stuck on a rock and refused to break loose from our overnight resting spot south of Williams Town. This was an open anchorage with steady moderate swells that made Windigo's bow move up & down a foot or so; not a calm sea, but easily tolerable for the one night.
Well, when Karin asked for assistance at the bow while doing her customary anchor-weighing tasks, because the anchor was so firmly buried in the deep sand and it found some coral/rock to increase its grip on the earth, Captain Muscles comes forward to assist (take over) and get us underway.
The bouncing ten-ton vessel, three-eights chain, and seventy-pound anchor conspired to trap his finger for the briefest moment. That is all it takes to crush the soft tissue across the smallest knuckle (is that the "first" or "second" knuckle?) and fold the bow roller over the end of the boat. Captain Toughboy gets the anchor aboard, then runs like a baby to the medical clinic. Unfortunately, the medical clinic is 44 miles away; that's 8 hours in a sailboat, you know.
Upon sailing for seven-and-a-quarter hours in intense pain, because he doesn't want drugs clouding his judgment at sea, Captain Onehand just gets Windigo into the maze of coral reefs outside Elizabeth Harbour, and then some mysterious problem causes the thermal breaker for the engine electrical wiring to trip, taking out the fuel pump and causing the engine to stumble and die. (It turned out to be a tiny short in a tiny wire for the illumination of a tiny gauge. The most insignificant electrical apparatus can cause engine failure!)
As Karin is reworking the secondary ground tackle at the bow in preparation for anchoring without our main gear due to the crumpled main bow roller, Captain Bloodgusher hot-wires the fuel pump while floating amongst the coral heads, gets underway, and manages to anchor 400' from the medical clinic.
The nurse was in on a Sunday evening(!) and called the Doctor for evaluation of the damage and after a little quick prep surgery (trimming of loose tendons, ligaments, and such) she stitched Captain Crybaby's finger into a shape similar to that of the blue-butt baboon (which serves him right).
At the end of the day, everything is copasetic aboard Windigo, except it will get pretty stinky by the end of next week 'cause Captain Whiner can't go swimming 'til the stitches come out.
[NOTE: An emergency room bill in Clearwater, FL - for Karin to sit on the end of a bed fully clothed for 2 hours after the ambulance crew treated her for the kidney stone she passed enroute to the hospital - was $5000.00 (the hospital staff did nothing but ignore her).
The bill for the Sunday evening rousing of a nurse and doctor, two sterile cleansing kits, five suture kits (she said the tough tissue of my finger resisted needles and kept breaking them), a week's dosage of Cipro, and follow-up visits for dressing changes amounted to $60 in The Bahamas. Don't fret America; reasonable health care is but a country away!]
Two things I can relay from this incident, and are a huge part of my sailing classes = first, carry complete medical supplies aboard to suit your every conceivable need, and second [& paramount!]: NEVER PANIC. Even though I was involved in an entirely avoidable accident and was severely damaged in the process, I was able to recover and resume to sail another day. Now if I can just get Karin to remember the no-panic rule . .
In our next eletter we sail into the Out Islands, Family Islands, SE Bahamas, or whatever it is you wish to call them. They are the places that many cruisers anchored in Chicken Harbour and stuck in Chicken Town never get to see.
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Capt.KL & Karin Hughes
S/V WindigoIII ? PMB 365
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