Our Trip To The Bahamas  


We departed snowy Philadelphia on a Friday afternoon.

     We like Philadelphia alot, but in the winter my wife gets cold.  And that is not a good thing.  The obvious answer is to use the plane to go someplace warm.  Our choice was a fairly remote island in the Exuma chain of the Bahamas called Norman's Cay.  It has a nice paved runway and less than 20 people on an island 4 miles long.  In the 70's alot of drugs moved through Norman's, but now it's just a sleepy remote place.



The raft and life jackets.

     We departed the United States from Fort Pierce, Florida at 9:00 in the morning on a Monday.  I didn't want the weekend crew looking for us if we went down; and if I was going to try to swim back to Florida I wanted to give the search and rescue guys lots of daylight to find me.   You are obliged by the FAA rules (and common sense) to carry a raft and life jackets when you fly over water.  We rented them from the FBO at Fort Pierce.  The life jackets come in sealed bags.  I was disappointed to learn that if you open the bag you have bought the life jacket, as opposed to merely renting it.   My plan was to wear my life jacket while we were over water.  Can you imagine trying to figure one of those things out and put it on after the engine quits?  But my thrift overcame my fear of ditching, and I tossed the bag unopened on the back seat.  I also had my handheld radio and a big whistle inside a doubled zip loc bag, along with a waterproof strobe light.  I considered a flare gun, but I'm a little uncomfortable with the thought of pyrotechnics in the plane.



Just blue ocean ahead.


     Our first waypoint was Freeport, about 107 miles over water.   I was relieved to find Miami Approach had us on radar at 9000 feet the entire way.  There were lots of boats of all sizes visible below.  I figured if worse came to worse we could ditch next to a crusie ship.




Nothin' going on here .

    Our destination on the first leg was North Eluthera, about 260 miles from Fort Pierce.  The plan was to do our incoming customs there and buy fuel.  The first thing that struck me about North Eluthera was there are no markings on the runway.  No numbers, no lines, nothing.  It could have been a big road.  My wife and I looked at the map and each other and the GPS and took a deep breath and said, "Well, that has to be it."  We had been advised to make our customs stop at a more isolated place and avoid Nassau or Freeport, which we overflew, where the lines could be long.  When we walked into the Customs Office the guy was asleep with his feet on the desk.  He stamped our passports and yawned.  He never even turned around to look out the window at our plane.



We made it.


     It was 75 miles from North Eluthera to Norman's.  My notes indicate we went over Rock Sound airport, trying to stay above land as much as possible.  Norman's is a tiny island, about 4 miles long.  It has no paved roads.  You can't miss the runway; it's white.  It appears to be have been paved with a mixture of cement and coral sand.



Nice place.

    The only thing on Norman's is a place called MacDuff's, it has three bungalows and a little bar with 5 seats.  No phones, no fax machines, no car alarms, no traffic; and most important for my wife-- no cold.



The main road on Norman's Cay.

     We borrowed a golf cart and drove around the island one day.  Hard to get lost, there's only one road.  There are about a half a dozen cars on Norman's.



The runway at Norman's.  They used to get DC-3s full of doobie in and out of here.


Our place.

    We stayed in a comfortable bungalow.  There is no naturally occurring fresh water on Normans, but we had flush toilets, a fine shower and running water in the kitchen.  The McDuff's diesel powered reverse osmosis desalinator made over 1500 gallons a day.



Flying down the Exuma Chain


After hanging around Normans for a few days we decided to take a day trip to Georgetown at the bottom of the Exumas.  This is typical of the little islands we overflew on the way.


The airport at Georgetown

     The ride down to Georgetown was fun.  I asked the owner of MacDuff's, a very knowedgable pilot, about how to get there and he said, "I go about 800 feet and keep to the right side of the islands."  At first I thought he might be putting me on, the way locals often do to tourists.  But then I saw a few small planes go by Norman's headed south on the right side of the island and very very low.  So that's how we did it.  The Exumas are a chain of islands; you can almost throw a stone from one to the next.  It was an exhilerating ride-- we were low enough to see people's homes and boats as we screamed by at 170 kts.  I climbed to 1000 to get into the landing pattern at Georgetown.


Landing back at Normans

     The trip back to Normans was uneventful, but the landing sure was interesting.  This is not a place you want to land short.   There was a pretty good crosswind, but it seemed to be broken up fairly well by the trees alongside the runway.  Our bungalow is the white dot you see on the beach just to the left of the runway. 

I'd rather be in Philadelphia.

     We walked around the island quite a bit.  There were only a few private homes.   We were especially interested  in this place.  Huge house, magnificent views.  Obviously built at enormous expense.  Turns out it is the former home of the infamous drug dealer Carlos Lehder.  Carlos was doing 135 years in a supermax in Minnesota after his arrest in 1988, but is reported to have ratted out Manuel Noreiga, and thus got a slot in the witness protection program.  He now works at the convenience store down the street from me.  I bought a slurpee from him just yesterday.

How did you fit all this stuff in that tiny plane?

     I planned the trip back so we would get to Philadelphia around dusk.  That meant leaving Normans in time to be in North Eluthera at 9:00 a.m. when the Customs Office opened, get some fuel, then on to Fort Pierce.  You must also call the U.S. Customs office at the airport where you will be landing by phone and tell them you are coming.  No radio calls from the plane.   We got to North Eluthera early and got fuel and did our outgoing Bahamian customs without a hitch, but when I went to call the Customs office at Fort Pierce I got a recording saying they didn't open until 10:00.  So we sat in North Eluthera until 10:10 when we were able to get through.  So we started our day an hour behind schedule.

     All the stuff I'd read about US Customs procedures said once you land you must absolutely positively not leave the plane until it has been okayed by a customs officer.  The implication is that you might be shot.  I took this very seriously.  When we landed at Fort Pierce the first thing my wife said was that she needed to use the bathroom.  We pulled up in front of the Customs Building and waited and waited.  And waited some more.  Finally the kid you see in the picture above wandered over.  He informed us that he was a student at the nearby flight school and that for a tip he would help us unload the contents of our plane and bring it inside.  My wife heard this and bolted for the bathroom.

     We loaded all our stuff on a cart and rolled it into the Customs Building.  There was another sleepy guy with his feet on his desk.  He stamped our passports and said we could go.  My annoyance got the better of me and I said,

     "Hey, it took me half an hour to load all my stuff on this cart.  Are you going to look at it?"

     The guy put his feet back on his desk and said,


     So we put all the stuff back in the plane and decided to have a little lunch.  We were now a couple of hours behind my carefully worked out plans and it just seemed like the right thing to do.  We made a fuel stop at Grand Strand, SC and got back to Philadelphia in under six hours of flying time.