Kitesurfing on Cat Island
by Kent Marinkovic
Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding, Ding…the sound of the one armed bandit and the smell of old ladies smoking menthols… ahh the Bahamas. Harbors filled with Cruise ships and sun baked tourists smelling of coconut sun tan lotion looking for tropical adventure. They found the Bahamas, but not My Bahamas.
Working in the “wind sports” industry for the last 10 years, I’ve found myself in many of the Caribbean’s traditional windy locals like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Aruba, and the Virgin Islands. Each location offers something special, and the chance to kite with some of the best riders in the world. The islands of the Caribbean are the Hawaiian Islands of the East only much closer and infinitely more remote in places.
Living in Miami and being an addict for off shore fishing, spearing, and kiting, I consider the near Islands of the Bahamas my back yard. The exhilaration of guiding my kite across lightly rippled, crystal clear water while bounding over endless sand bars, and the sound of a 50 wide reel screaming in pain as a giant Wahoo skirts across indigo waters in an effort to free itself from the large blue and white Islander lure imbedded in its jaw are enough to keep me coming back. These experiences are incredible, but they pale in comparison to the rush of knowing the elation that your crew is about to feel on their first trip to the Out Islands of the Bahamas. If you’re looking for the ultimate kite surfari, take a look closer to home.
We arrived at Ft. Lauderdale international airport about 2 hrs. ahead of time. Because of the amount of gear and media, I called the previous day to smooth the process. Surprisingly, through a strange rift in the time space continuum, island time actually extends from the Bahamas to South Florida via Lynx air.
The flight representative arrived on “island time” for check in. Intending depart at 2:00 p.m. we were surprised to see the counter open just 22 minutes before our “tentative” departure. Knowing that the wind was blowing on Cat Island and hoping to get in an afternoon session, we were anxious to take flight.
No worries, we were headed to paradise with a great crew. Fun loving, compatible personalities are more important than anything else. Special care was taken in the selection of the team. Traveling with me was Todd Greaux, the US based division manager of Cabrinha kites. Todd kites, surfs, and would be a perfect spear fishing cohort if the chance presented itself. Damien Leroy is a must have on any kite surfari. Aside from being one of the top riders in the world, he has an infectious “super personality”, and is quick to pick up the slack if the need arises. Oliver “Mogli” Butch is a Miami based rider that is more famous for his crashes than his landings (i.e. still photos only please). Being a “male” model in Miami was more than enough ammo for a solid ribbing through out the entire trip and reason enough to tote him along. The potential for attractive female kiters to turn super diva is well documented. Our fears regarding the selection of Clarissa Hempel to this expedition were soon assuaged. Clarissa instantly proved to be just as attractive on the inside as on the outside. She charges on the water, is unbelievably positive, and totally self sufficient. When searching for adventure in the Out Islands, don’t forget to bring a gun; Steve Gunn that is. Riding out of SF Bay, Steve scores more days on the water than most of the top riders on the PKRA. Steve’s “mature” bones were looking for some warmth, and he was happy to lock and load in search of kiting paradise.
If you have ever flown to any of the traditional spots in the Caribbean from the east coast of Florida, in clear skies you were no doubt treated to a spectacular view. About 20 minutes out of Ft. Lauderdale the oceans color below started to change from a deep, dark blue to a lightly colored turquoise. Tiny islands start to appear surrounded by blue tinted water and white sandy banks. True kite paradise is only 1hr and 20 minutes out of the concrete jungle. Thirty minutes from Cat Island we started to see the wispy sand shoals of the northern Exumas. Hundreds of small islands dotted the gin clear water. The final approach to Cat Island told the story of strong wind and large swell. A perfect barrier reef protects the eastern shores while the leeside of the island looked to be glass flat and home to a soft sand bottom.
Upon landing the stress virtually left our bodies, but the impending battle with customs and immigration loomed. Heaps of camera equipment and gear bags could only spell disaster. Entering the office and expecting to see the snarling teeth of a ravenous dog, but instead seeing a smiling officer that seemed just as excited about our trip as we were, was totally refreshing. I judge the efficiency of a customs office by the length of time it takes to enter the office until the first drop of ice cold local beer touches my taste buds. Thanks to the bar just across the street, the total elapse time was 6.4 minutes, giving a gold medal to Cat Island Customs.
Outside the office we were greeted by Donni, of Donni’s car rental. He was kind enough to drop off a mini van and small jeep. The rates for renting cars on the island are relatively high, but necessary. A van will run $80 per day. There is a single paved “highway” that runs along the western side of the island from North to South, but to get to the secluded beaches of the Eastern coast, travel over rough roads is required. If given a choice, go for the jeep as ground clearance is your friend.
To get to the Greenwood resort you travel a semi circle heading through the settlements of New Bight, Old Bight, and Port Howe ending in a jog to the north at the entrance of the resort. The trip runs about 30 minutes, but there is a short cut that will knock off about 10 of them. Being dark upon arrival, we weren’t sure what to expect. The wind was whipping through the tall Australian pines lining the beach. Our first stop was to check the water. Standing on top of the high ground surrounding the beach, it was hard to believe the moonlit sight of the luminescent water cresting over the fine sand. White water could be seen breaking on scattered patch reefs surrounding the costal area. The pinkish sand was totally void of footsteps after the high tide.
Inside, the resorts owners Anna and Waldemar gave us a quick run down of the resort and dolled out the rooms. The dining area and bar are terrific. There is no bar tender and drinks work on an honor system. Pour your poison and write it on the sheet. Keep in mind that beers will set you back $4.50 a pop, but are cold and in my opinion a vise well worth the cost. If you’re on a budget, you can purchase Kaliks at $42 a case at the local liquor store.
Those that have traveled to Baja in search of wind and waves know that 7:30 is the Baja midnight. Like Baja, the bewitching hour comes early in the Out Islands of the Bahamas and bed calls you early. The Cat Island night is one of total darkness and the brightness of the stars is impressive against the black sky. Thanks to a passing cold front, the air was nearly void of humidity. A nice easterly wind was blowing through the window and the room stayed quite cool. There are rooms available with AC, but in the cool, windy part of the season it really isn’t necessary.
Our first full morning began with a good breeze off the ocean out of the ENE. Damien and I quickly rigged for a short ride. Keep an eye on the shallow reefs just off shore. There are plenty of holes in the reef to ride though and at high tide there is good depth. During the ebb, stay alert as the sharp reef could quickly cut your adventure short. In side-shore winds, the coral heads won’t be much of a problem as they disperse just off shore. Damien, coming off an ankle injury was just enjoying himself and testing his durability. Good pop off decent kickers and warm water made learning new moves easy. Todd, Steve, Mogli, and Clarissa soon joined us and it was clear to see that they were starting to enjoy My Bahamas.
Cat Island lays on the eastern edge of the Bahamas and just slips into the trade winds. The predominant wind direction is SE offering mostly side shore conditions. The Bermuda high during our stay yielded mainly on shore winds at the resort. With more time, a 45 minute trip to the very south part of the island would no doubt turn up top kiting locations around Columbus point and Hawks nest. During the winter months, the Bahamas is often run over by strong cold fronts bringing winds from 20-35 knots and large open ocean swells out of the Northeast, so don’t forget your surf board.
The Greenwood Resort is situated in the middle half of an 8 mile long beach. You can literally explore the coastal area via kite if desired. You won’t see another person along the stretch of pink sand. A quick breakfast and coffee at 8:00 brought an end to the first session. The team packed just the essentials and was off in search of the elusive “Magic Glide” surf break. A week before our trip, I called the island frantically looking for any one that surfs. While Eluthera, the first island north of Cat is famous for surf, Cat has been less explored. There are not many roads running to the exposed eastern shore, thus requiring some tenacity in the search for the best surf locations. After 3 calls, I got a hold of JR out of Hawks Nest Marina in the south. She gave me a pretty good idea where we could find waves that wouldn’t take an endless summer walk. She said that they call the spot “magic glide” and that it was directly across from Smith’s Bay. All that I had to do was to find the elusive red roofed church. She failed to mention that the Bahamas is home to more churches per capita than any other country in the world and red roofs are quite common in the area. Seeing what appeared to be our landmark I took a swing to the East. In the end it was a turn too early, but we were rewarded with finding a reef protected sandy beach perfect for kiting. Looking across the water, you could easily see the potential of this location. Snorkeling, spear fishing, and kiting are all close at hand. The coral heads sprinkled the area for the first 100 yards off the beach. Just after the heads stopped, waves broke in about 15 feet of water a ¼ mile from the beach. In side-shore conditions it would have been an easy ride to the wave zone. It seems as though, like many of the East Out Islands of the Bahamas that the potential for tow in surfing is largely untapped. Cat Island is exposed to the East until you hit Africa, equaling thousands of miles of deep water fetch and unimpeded swell.
After checking out our “secret” spot, we opted to try to find waves. We continued north for about another 2 miles and finally found our red roofed turning point. A 2 mile rumble east over rocks, through trees, and past tomato patches ended on a steep sand road at the top of a bluff. Our arrival was marked by sound of roaring waves and wind. A vast ocean and secluded beach as far as the eye could see. The waves were over head high and not another human in sight. The wind was hovering at between 15-20 and it was time to ride. You could see endless waves to the North and miles of untouched coast. This would be an excellent starting point for a downwind ride south to Greenwood or north to Bird Point across from Bennett’s Harbor depending on the wind direction.
Part of the crew went for a surf, while the rest readied 12 meter bows for a wave session. There is an exposed reef about 50 yards off the beach to the south of the break, but at high tide the rest of the area was fairly safe. We enjoyed 4 hours of riding, often switching between strapless surfboards and twins. Smacking the waves and sending huge walls over the reef was remarkable. This seemed a perfect day, but was missing something…
Kalick…it's not only the name of the local Bahamian beer, but the sound of it as well. Locals insist that the “click” made by taping bottles together after a perfect day was the reason for its name. I don’t know if that’s the case, but I was sure that the Fernandez Bay Village about 3 miles southwest of “Magic Glide” would allow us to ponder the thought.
As we rolled up to the Fernandez Bay Village on the leeside of the island, we parked in the grass and rock area just in front. The resort didn’t look like much from the front, but when we passed through the entrance another world awaited. The rock building with large raised roof was amazing. We were greeted by Pam and promptly sent to the bar in search of the “Kalick”. The resort is nestled directly in the middle section of the beach surrounding Fernandez Bay. The water is as clear as it gets and given the East wind, a wake boarder’s paradise. It is a perfect half moon bay, bordered by a rock cliff to the north and a small salt river inlet to the south. Pam told us that you can kayak up the salt river to a blue hole situated in the stream. Apparently the blue hole is over 300 feet deep and is a mix of salt and fresh water. The Bahamas Island chain is littered with fresh water blue holes and Cat Island sits on top of a bubble of fresh water that floats on a salt water base. Looking at the waters of the bay, I can only imagine what a dead north or warm south wind would do for the kiting here. Cold fronts rip through the area in the fall to spring bringing winds starting out of the SW and clocking hard to the West and Northwest. The rocky raised area to the north of the bay would perfectly block the chop and offer an elevator effect. Unlike the rough eastern coast, Fernandez Bay seemed like a bath tub looking for company.
On top of a Nation:
Early Friday morning we headed for the Mt. Alvernia. Alvernia is the highest point in the entire Bahamas and reaches 206 feet. It is home to the Hermitage, a small monastery built in the 1940’s. We drove to the base of the mount and embarked on a short 15 minute hike to the peak. Ascending through the trees in route to the summit was unforgettable. Every 20-30 feet of elevation, yielded glimpses of turquoise water to the west. On top of Alvernia, we were rewarded with a full view of island and water as far as the eye can see. We noticed a large steel ship wrecked on the reef to the East and waves surrounding the eastern edge of Cat Island. It was impossible to tell the size of the swell, bit it looked to curl for a distance. Time left us a bit short, but there was a winding path heading to the east that we guessed would end on the beach next to the 60 ft. steel shipwreck. Several locals said that the lobstering on the heads around the wreck was very good and that Grouper could be found just beyond the reef.
The Bahamian Out Islands are famous for having friendly inhabitants. In complete departure from most destinations, the locals aren’t viewing you as a quick way to make a buck, but are rather just happy to share their island with you. Unspoiled by tourism, Cat Island is special.
In search of fresh Conch salad, we were advised to find Duki. Duki has a small shack just off the main drag in New Bight. We found him and his partner Junior at a fish cleaning table just starting on a cooler full of large Nassau, Black, and Strawberry Grouper. Dispersed among the 15-20 lb. grouper were about 8-10 4lb. lobster. So far, fish had successfully eluded my spear. Seizing the opportunity, I asked Duki what it might take to allow us to tag along on a trip. His reply was “all it takes is asking mon, why don’t you join us for a ride”.
While Clarissa, Steve, and Mogli got some sleep, Damien, Todd, our camera crew, and I met Duki and his partner at 7:30 a.m. The Out Islands are relatively famous for toothed creatures stealing fish from anglers. The obvious questions were asked. “We gonna see any sharks out there” came from our camera man. “Sure mon, we can get some sharks in for you” said Duki. He has seen Bulls, Makos, and Tigers on the reefs, but most are reef sharks more interested in small reef fish.
The quick ride east on Duki’s 16 foot open boat found us passing through some small breaking waves about a ¼ mile off the beach. In the Bahamas it is illegal to spear fish with a gun and therefore the weapon of choice is the Hawaiian sling (basically like a slingshot but with a 6 ft. steel shaft instead of a rock), or a poll spear more commonly used for lobster. Non-Bahamians are prohibited to use air while spear fishing, but it is open to locals. Duki usually spears in 60-80 feet of water while breathing off a compressor. Just before getting in the water, I asked Duki if he often lost speared fish to sharks, his reply was “never”. Upon entering water that didn’t look too fishy to me, we quickly found the reason for his answer. Duki quickly “stoned” a few grouper with a single shot. He was clearly the apex predator and it was far more likely that it would be him steeling from the sharks and not the other way around.
On the bottom I started to see large Black and Nassau grouper hovering just over some small crevasses in the sea floor. In route to the first target, Duki stopped me short to point out a “small” Cat Island lobster in a crack. Todd sprinted over to introduce himself and bagged his first Cat Island lobster weighing over 3 lbs. An hour later, we had 6-7 nice grouper in the boat along with 5-6 very large lobsters.
On the beach we shared a warm Kalick with Duki and I handed him a few $20’s which he reluctantly accepted. He promised to leave a small spot of his reef unspeared until our return so that we could have a shot as some truly “Cat Island” sized Grouper.
As this was our last day, we called it quits just after 10:30 a.m. Damien, Todd, and I couldn’t stop talking about the experiences that we had over the last few days. Where else on earth could we have gone to find better kiting or more action? The best destinations are judged by what there is to do when the wind is not cranking. Cat Island and the rest of the Out Islands offer an incredible variety of options. Diving into a blue hole, drifting some of the best wall dives in the world, biking the surrounding hills, or reeling down on a giant yellow fin tuna, Cat Island is a paradise for those looking for adventure that is off the charts. Each of us agreed that the best part of this trip was not necessarily the kiting locations that we found, but the endless locations left to be discovered on our next trip to the Out Islands and My Bahamas.
When to go:
Cat Island boasts the best climate in the Bahamas. Located on the edge of the SE trade winds, summer winds average around 15 knots while Fall through Spring see 3-4 days a week of 20-35 knots from a variety of directions. Looking to avoid the worst part of the Hurricane season, mid-November through the end of April would be a good bet. Temperatures during the period range from the mid 60’s at night to the mid 70’ during the day, although it’s not uncommon to have days in the 80’s with good South winds even in the dead of winter.
Island and travel info:
www.Bahamas.com This is your one stop shop for all info on the islands of the Bahamas.
www.Outislands.Bahamas.com This site is maintained by Bahamas Tourism and offers more in depth information on the Out Islands.
Wind & Surf forecasts:
Thank you to Adventure Sports, Cabrinha kites, Neilpryde, and the Bahamas Out Island Promotion board for making this trip a reality.
For Information about Kiteboarding on Cat Island and the Bahamas
please contact Kent Marinkovic from Adventure Sports.
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