Taking A Boat To The Bahamas
By Tom Neale
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.
Staying In Touch
Communications when boating in the Bahamas are very different from the continent. Unless you have a cell phone compatible with the Bahamian system (based on GSM), your cell may not work. It's possible to purchase a cell phone and airtime in the Bahamas, and to add minutes online (www.btcbahamas.com). But even if you do have a compatible phone, you may be beyond reach of towers much of the time. An external antenna, mounted as high as practical on the boat, and a cell-signal amplifier, such as those from Digital Antenna, greatly increase your coverage.
VHF radios are very helpful in communicating with other boats and shoreside stations in the Bahamas, but there may be legs of a trip when you'll be outside the range of any land-based VHFs. A single-sideband radio (SSB) or ham set can be very helpful, but the money, space, and qualification process for ham probably won't be worth it for a short trip. A satellite phone, though pricy, is a surer bet; you can rent phones and buy trip-time plans from vendors such as OCENS.
You can get online with Wi-Fi in many marinas and villages; however, don't expect the same reliability as back home. Many hot spots connect via satellite. Having the entire system work all the time is a lot to expect in the Bahamas. An external antenna and Wi-Fi amplifier, readily available in office-supply and other stores, will help. If getting online is extremely important, do so via sat phones and related equipment.
Way To Go
Here are a few tried-and-true itineraries, based on boats that can travel around 15 to 25 knots in relatively calm water.
Northern Exumas (440 nautical miles, round trip): This takes you to a very beautiful out-island destination, sparsely civilized but well traveled. Depart Miami or Ft. Lauderdale. After a short run of approximately 50 miles, stop at a marina in Bimini or Cat Cay, or continue on to the marina at Chub Cay (80 miles farther). Then head for Nassau, around 40 miles across the Tongue of the Ocean. There are several marinas here, including the Marina at Atlantis and the Nassau Harbour Club and Marina. (Nassau is urban, with the inherent challenges.) Next, continue to the Northern Exumas, proceeding cautiously through the reefs at the southeastern end of Nassau Harbor. In the northern Exumas are nice anchorages, mooring areas such as the Exumas Land and Sea Park at Warderick Wells, and Highbourne Cay Marina. Returning stateside, stage your Gulf Stream crossing at Chub or Bimini/Cat Cay, depending on your boat speed and weather.
Hub of The Abacos (380 nautical miles, round trip): This takes you to a destination that has more of the treats of civilization than outlying areas. Depart from Lake Worth Inlet (at Palm Beach) and run 60 miles across the Stream to stop in the Old Bahama Bay Marina at West End. For the next leg, run 100 miles to Green Turtle Cay and anchor in an enclosed area, or tie up at one of the marinas. Next, travel 20 miles to the Hub of The Abacos where you'll find Marsh Harbour, Hopetown, and Man of War. The famous artists' colony founded by Randolph Johnston at Little Harbour is 15 miles farther south. There are numerous marinas and anchorages in this area, as well as interesting museums, shopping, and restaurants.
With Little Time: A short hop to Bimini, Cat Cay, Lucaya, or West End will give you a great introductory taste of the Bahamas and a Gulf Stream Crossing under your belt. A dinghy would be especially helpful in the marinas here. Boats anchor behind Gun Cay (to the north of Cat Cay) in settled weather. In inclement weather, this is open and "rolly"; holding is poor in places.
You need to stay on your toes regarding weather. You'll be traveling in open ocean, the islands are low, some anchorages will be exposed on one or more sides, and there will be potentially rough passages through reefs and cuts between islands. Winter trips will generally involve stronger winds with cold fronts. Summer trips, often favored by south Florida regulars, are more likely to bring days of relatively calm waters. However, June 1 to November 1 is hurricane season and there's much less protection and help in the Bahamas than you might find at home. Listen daily for tropical reports and get back to the States quickly if anything is developing.
You won't believe the beauty of the Gulf Stream. But weather for the Gulf Stream crossing is very important. We've had many calm crossing days, but this area between Florida and the western Bahamas can be more extreme, particularly if the wind is, or has recently been, from the north. Departing from the coast, pick up NOAA weather on your VHF weather channels and this should give Gulf Stream-related information. Usually you can pick up these channels in the Bimini Chain, Freeport, or West End areas, where you'll probably be staging your trip back across.
Reception of the weather broadcasts on a VHF weather channel fades as you travel farther from the U.S. coast. However, in many heavily settled areas such as Nassau, the Hub of The Abacos, the Exumas, and Georgetown, local organizations or volunteers will broadcast weather information on VHF channels every morning. You'll need to find where to switch when you reach different areas. You can also get weather when you're able to go online from NOAA and other sources. Usually the Offshore Forecast for the SW North Atlantic and Caribbean is appropriate as you travel east into the Bahamas. A hurricane chart with lat/long grids will help you interpret that because the information is given for large areas of ocean usually bounded by latitude and longitude. There are also different types of subscription weather services offering you custom details about your trip, including Chris Parker's services (www.mwxc.com), and the equipment and services available through OCENS.
Tom Neale is a BoatUS Magazine contributing editor and a key member of our "Ask The Experts" tech team. He and his wife Mel and their two daughters lived aboard and cruised the Bahamas for almost two decades.
— Published: October/November 2011
Bimini is made up of two inhabited islands, that stick up from the western edge of the Great Bahama Bank
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For more information on marinas, boating facilities, and areas potentially affected by Hurricane Irene, contact the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism below. For information on marinas visit their website.
Ministry of Tourism
P.O. Box N-3701
Toll Free: 1-800-Bahamas
What To Take
Never 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.
Study Before You Go
Before you go, read current guidebooks and resources on the Bahamas and you'll be safer, limit your problems, and have more fun. Among the many good resources:
Bahamian inlets and cuts between islands are often unmarked, and challenging if there's an onshore swell. Be sure of your navigation and boat-handling skills before you go.
Some marinas have closed temporarily or have limited offerings due to the weak economy. Confirm status of marinas you plan to visit.
In the Bahamas they aren't always reliable, and can sometimes run out of fuel. It's critical to keep a good reserve in your tanks. Be sure your boat has a high-quality particle/water fuel filter such as those by Racor. We often pre-filter fuel with a Racor RFF15 C (15-gpm funnel) that separates out water and particulate.
This is a natural wilderness, so many areas have no aids to navigation, or have aids that are off station or aren't working. Learning how to read the water is important. Study the guidebooks, and stay alert. You can see the bottom, sometimes more than 25 feet down, from your boat. Keep a water watch; don't rely exclusively on chartplotters or charts when negotiating cuts or inlets through reef or sand shoals and be sure to plan the time for these passages when the light is overhead or behind you so you won't be blinded, and so what's underwater reveals itself; a good pair of polarized sunglasses is invaluable.
Many insurance carriers exclude the Bahamas from their normal navigational limits but will include them for additional premium. BoatUS Insurance allows you to add areas when needed, on a pro-rata basis. With unlimited towing, you can get TowBoatUS assistance from southern Florida up to 130 miles offshore, well beyond the western Bahamas destinations.
If something breaks, it may be difficult to get another part or a repair, especially in the more remote areas. Spares for critical components and systems, to the extent that you can carry them practically, are important. These might include a water pump for your fresh-water system, a starter and alternator, spare engine oil, belts, gasket material, and temporary repair products such as Rescue Tape.
Bahamas Customs and Immigration:
There are fees for entry to the Bahamas – $150 for vessels up to 35 feet and $300 for vessels larger than 35 feet. Fishing license and departure tax for four people are included in the fee. You'll be asked to declare your stores and general itinerary. Your boat may be boarded and inspected. If you have weapons, declare every one and every round. Laws and procedures sometimes change. Check www.bahamas.com before you go.
It's mandatory to follow U.S. Customs reporting procedures when returning. Check for the latest regulations before you go. If your boat is more than 30 feet, go to https://dtops.cbp.dhs.gov to order a U.S. Customs User Fee decal for your boat before you go so you won't have to get it upon return.
In many areas such as the Exumas, potable water is scarce and costs 50 cents per gallon or more at the dock. Marinas with good reverse-osmosis facilities are a plus. Water is more plentiful in other areas, such as the Hub of The Abacos.
When you clear Bahamas customs, you can apply for fishing licenses. Check the latest rules before you go.
Scrapes or cuts from certain types of coral, conch, barnacles, and other creatures can cause infections, and medical assistance and supplies can be scarce in less populated areas. Be careful, and don't expect to find medical facilities like those back home in the outlying areas. Have a good medical kit. Consult with your doctor before you go as to what you should take to meet any special needs. Take all your needed prescription medicines in their labeled prescription bottles.
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