Taking A Boat To The BahamasBy Tom Neale
Published: October/November 2011
The western islands of the Bahamas are only 50 miles from Florida's east coast. With a bit of prep and planning, you can get there even in a modest-sized boat.
Used to be, when cruising the Bahamas, you would mostly see cruising sailboats, trawlers, and large yachts. Well, things have changed. People are now doing it in fast powerboats in the 25- to 30-foot range, with small cabins for accommodations. They're doing it in beefy center consoles, stopping at resorts overnight. They're even trailering their rigs to south Florida to make this trip. Cruising to the Bahamas includes crossing open ocean and boating in remote areas with reef and shoal and few, if any, reliable aids to navigation, so you need to plan well and have the right stuff.
First, The Right Boat?
The size of your boat depends in part on what's going to be comfortable for you on the trip that you plan, how carefully you'll pick good traveling weather (very carefully), and your willingness to lay over when the weather isn't good or is forecast to change for the worse. However, the boat must be large enough and built well enough to handle open ocean during times when the wind and sea come up. The boat also must be large enough and heavy enough to safely carry the equipment and supplies you'll need for the trip you plan.
Boats built to make offshore fishing trips often make good Bahamas boats. Center consoles built for blue-water fishing are also popular in the Bahamas, if you're into roughing it or plan to stop at resort marinas. Most people prefer some cabin accommodations to give the option of anchoring out when they choose. This, in a good protected harbor, can be a highlight of any Bahamian cruise.
Speed is an important factor. A boat traveling around six knots will require most of the day to get from a good east Florida departure point to a safe harbor in the western Bahamas. This isn't only because of the speed but because of the effect of the powerful northerly Gulf Stream current on a slow-speed displacement hull. This boat may need several days of good weather to reach the Hub of The Abacos, more to reach the northern Exumas. A boat traveling on plane at around 25 knots can reach the western islands of the Bahamas in a couple of hours and perhaps Marsh Harbor or Nassau in a day.
Although a faster boat allows you to maximize shorter weather windows, take care to allow extra time. If you require a weather window of more than several days, odds are that it will close on you toward the end.
Also recommended for fun, comfort, and safety:
- Enough food and water to last a week, even if you plan to stop in marinas.
- A dinghy with outboard, especially if you plan to anchor out.
- Snorkeling gear to experience the coral reefs up close. You'll see them from a flybridge, but it's not the same as jumping in. In the winter, bring a wet suit.
How To Stay Hooked
Good anchoring equipment is critical even if you don't plan to anchor overnight. If you break down, you may have to anchor for hours while you fix the problem or await help. The bottom will probably be hard or soft sand. There are also many areas of heavy grass and hard rock or reef bottom that are poor at holding. No one anchor will serve well in all types of bottoms. Two different anchors are recommended, so that you have a better chance of holding depending on the bottom. After many years of anchoring in the Bahamas, we carry a CQR and Fortress. If weight is an issue, the Fortress has tremendous holding power and will hold in a wide variety of bottoms. It's also very light and can be disassembled for storage and quickly reassembled for use. An all-chain rode is good because chain won't be cut by rock or debris on the bottom and its weight helps the anchor to hold. But this much chain is too heavy for many smaller boats. Second best is a combination of chain and nylon rode. The more chain rigged between the anchor and the nylon, the better, as long as it doesn't add too much weight. Depending upon your boat size and windage, and your physical fitness, a windlass can be very helpful. Never anchor in coral.
Ministry of Tourism
P.O. Box N-3701
Toll Free: 1-800-Bahamas
What To TakeNever compromise safety. Whether you're in very deep water or traveling over the shallow Bahamas banks, you'll find yourself dealing with issues quite different from what you've encountered while boating stateside, and you'll be beyond our safety nets. With the right equipment, you can get help eventually, but a lot can happen while you're waiting. Examples of minimum necessary safety items include:
- A modern EPIRP and/or a Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) registered at www.beaconregistration.noaa.gov where you've also filed, in the comments section, your trip float plan. Rent an EPIRB at www.BoatUS.com/Foundation/EPIRB.
- Type 1 offshore life jacket for each person, with strobe light, whistle, and ideally a PLB attached to each.
- A good GPS chartplotter with updated cartography for the area. We use a Standard Horizon CP300i with C-Map Max cartography. The GPS antenna is integral to the chartplotter enabling us to transfer it from mothership to tender, increasing our enjoyment and safety.
- Paper charts that you study in advance and on which you religiously plot your position. You need a backup, with position noted in regular time intervals, in case something happens to your electronics.
- A good pair of binoculars with internal lit range-bearing compass. We use the Steiner 7x50 Commander XP with Compass binoculars. You can shake water off the lenses so that it's easier to quickly remove salt spray.
- At least two VHF radios. You should have a handheld, powered by replaceable off-the-shelf batteries, in addition to one or more permanently mounted VHFs.