If you've ever pondered cruising to the Bahamas, you're in good company. In 2005, almost 68,000 people visited the islands aboard private vessels registered to the United States, and that's 12,000 more than the year before. There's no doubt that many of these boaters had cruised these waters before and been captivated by the 700 or so the Bahamian islands and cays scattered over nearly 100,000 square miles of ocean. What's more, these islands lie tantalizingly close to Florida's East Coast. Bimini, the closest island chain, is just 43 nm east of Miami.
Of course, a large number of these boats are also piloted by folks who are new to these waters. If you are among them, consider joining a Bahamas Summer Boating Fling, sponsored by the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism (www.bahamas. com). These annual piloted cruises run from Florida to the Bahamas from June through August, with departure points in Fort Lauderdale and Stuart. The cost is minimal ($75 registration fee per boat in 2006) and includes a guide boat to lead the entire flotilla as well as send-off and welcome parties at the selected destinations.
We can't be sure what kind of welcome party awaited Christopher Columbus when he arrived on the eastern island of San Salvador in 1492, but it didn't take long for him to assess the archipelago and name them "The Islands of the Shallow Sea," after "baja mar," which means "shallow water." These mostly shallow banks made of limestone, coral, and sand rise from the ocean depths and are punctuated with islands, cays and coral reefs just offshore. Depths on the banks average less than 30 feet, and the water is so clear that you can see sea stars on the white-sand bottom.
It's just as clear that life out here is slower and simpler, and maybe sweeter. The mail boat doesn't always arrive on schedule-it may not until next week if the weather is bad. But that doesn't seem to bother most people, who return again and again for a refill of the relaxed island pace, the warm and friendly people, the indescribably beautiful water, and the fine fishing. The peaceful setting will be indelibly carved into your memory: unspoiled pink and golden sand beaches fringed with aquamarine, and boisterous tropical landscapes dotted with rustic cottages and homes.
Beautiful, yes, but the Bahamas are not behind the times. Today, it seems that every island and cay has satellite television and WiFi internet access, and cell phones abound. Automobiles, air conditioners, inter-island ferries, and busy mom-and-pop businesses are everywhere. BaTelCo (Bahamas Telecommunications Company) provides a variety of other services beyond phone service-faxing, telex, cellular, private line services, satellite and radio leasing and an improved VHF-FM radio telephone service that allows you to contact ships at sea.
There is one big gulp about going to the Bahamas - the price of fuel is around 150 percent what you paid in Florida, and the prices fluctuate weekly. The Out Islands are where the most expensive fuel is found due to extended shipping costs. The Bahamian government sets maximum prices, but because of the fluctuations, it's hard to determine where the maximum price is set. You also have to pay for fresh water because it's scarce in the islands. Water from desalination plants may cost you $1 or more a gallon, which puts a damper on washing down the boat.
These costs don't seem to deter the tourists who flock here, mostly to Nassau and Freeport. The rest of the islands and cays are called "The Family Islands," or "The Out Islands," and they appeal to those in search of something off the beaten path. And that's where you are lucky-as the skipper of a cruising yacht, you have the opportunity to visit islands and cays rarely seen by your shoreside friends.
Overall, cruising to these islands is not difficult for a knowledgeable skipper with a well-found boat crossing in the right weather. And we do mean the right weather-you'll have to cross the tempestuous Gulf Stream. Follow our advice and seek the advice of others, plan accordingly, and you shouldn't have a problem.
If you are planning to spend a few weeks cruising the Bahamas, you'll need a solid and well-maintained sailing yacht or powerboat no smaller than 25 feet. A draft of five feet or less makes it easy to sneak into most any anchorage. There are those who take pride in sailing without an engine onboard, but it's advisable to have a reliable engine or two and tankage for at least 150 to 200 miles. Fuel stops capacity is definitely better in the Bahamas.
Engine and other yacht system parts are hard to come by and expensive, so carry a good kit of spares: belts, hoses, impellers, filter elements, lube oil, head parts, and other essentials like a spare starter and alternator. If you get stuck, there are TowBoatU.S. services on call in Marsh Harbor in Abacos and West End on Grand Bahama Island; TowBoatU.S. in Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach also serve the Bahamas.
Unless you plan to use a marina at every stop, carry a minimum of two stout anchors, each with at least 12 feet of chain to help keep the anchor settled on the bottom. You'll be anchoring in shallow water and good-holding sand most of the time, so anchor rodes need not be more than 150 feet. Popular anchors for the Bahamas include Delta, Bruce, CQR, and Danforth styles.
A properly compensated compass is a must. You'll need a VHF radio, GPS, and depth sounder. On the "nice to have" list, radar is helpful for dodging thunderstorms in the summer. A watermaker will free you from buying water and a generator can be a godsend on those occasional breathless summer nights when mosquitoes descend upon your boat and you want to turn on the air conditioner.
The Bahamas islands are warmed by the trade winds all year, so you'll find prevailing easterly winds and daily temperatures a bit warmer than in Fort Lauderdale or Miami. With the Atlantic high circulating in its usual location, Bahamas' weather is usually sunny and pleasant, with cooling breezes. Daytime winds average around 15 knots, nighttime winds a little less.
U.S. weather patterns influence Bahamas' weather to a large degree, especially in winter. Up to 40 winter cold fronts ("northers") move off the Florida coast and into the Bahamas each winter, bringing cooler, blustery weather to the islands. Time between fronts may be a week or two, but sometimes three or four fronts in a row will march off the Florida coast back-to-back.
When a cold front rolls into the Bahamas, it is always preceded by winds veering to the southwest. When you see the barometer dip and the wind clock from the usual easterlies to south, then southwest, a front is on the way. Frontal passage is usually accompanied by rainy and breezy weather, and then the wind goes west and clocks sequentially to northwest, north, northeast and eventually back to east. With a strong front, the winds will be stronger and blow longer from the north, providing chilly weather by Bahamas standards.
If you must pick one season to cruise the Bahamas, choose the spring. By mid-April, the northers are usually quite tame, and by mid-May they're history. Spring in the Bahamas is the most glorious and balmy of seasons, with warm, sunny days and cool, clear nights. Winds are typically east-northeast to southeast, about 15 knots in the daytime and slightly less at night.
Summer brings mostly benign weather in the Bahamas. Trade winds are lighter, averaging 10 or 12 knots in the daytime and less at night. Occasionally in summer the wind drops at dusk, bringing the mosquitoes to battle stations. If you're cruising in the islands in the summer, don't forget screens and insect repellent.
Summer also brings thunderstorms, usually in the afternoon. Bahamas thunderstorms can be fierce, with strong winds up to 60 knots, hail, lightning, driving rain and occasional waterspouts. Keep an eye on the thunderheads and use your radar to avoid the worst thundershowers and waterspouts.
Summer and fall is a time to keep a careful watch for tropical systems: tropical waves, tropical depressions, tropical storms, and hurricanes. Learn what these names mean in terms of weather that will affect you and make it a point to keep yourself informed.
The Bahama islands have had their share of hurricanes, and the well-known Walkers Cay Hotel & Marina closed in September 2004 as a result of damage sustained during hurricanes Frances and Jeanne and has yet to re-open. Nassau also was affected by 2004 storms. The increase in hurricane activity-27 named Atlantic storms in 2005-means you must pay attention to the tropical storm outlook. While most have done only minor damage, in 1999 Hurricane Floyd-a powerful Category 4 storm-pounded the Bahamas with sustained winds up to 135 knots. Many of the islands and cays, including San Salvador, Cat Island, Eleuthera, Harbour Island, Spanish Wells, and all of Abaco sustained major damage-hundreds of homes, businesses, piers, and boats were destroyed and one person was killed.
If a hurricane is headed for the Bahamas, make your preparations early. Find a good hurricane hole and prepare your boat for the worst. Then leave the boat and find a safe place ashore until the storm has passed. Bahamian hospitality is at its best when a hurricane is approaching, so don't be surprised to be invited to spend the hurricane with a Bahamian family near your hurricane hole.
The ubiquitous weather forecasts on VHF weather channels from the U.S. reach only to the closest Bahama islands. However, morning cruisers' nets in Marsh Harbour in Abaco and George Town in Exuma carry daily forecasts, and your single sideband radio can pull in ham radio forecasts and the Navy offshore forecasts. If you have a Navtex weather receiver and a good antenna, you'll receive printed forecasts anywhere in the Bahamas. Also, AM radio stations from South Florida broadcast forecasts that can be received in the islands. Satellite television has brought The Weather Channel to the Bahamas, so you can sometimes see the systems affecting your weather while you sip a tropical drink at your favorite beach bar.
Changes have been most prolific concerning customs, entry and the cost associated with cruising in Bahamian waters. The United States will require anyone entering or returning to the U.S. to have a current passport as of January 1, 2007. This includes all children regardless of age. Visit the U.S. Department of State at www.travel.state.gov/travel for more information.
If you're a U.S. citizen and your boat is registered in the U.S., contact the nearest U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to obtain a customs decal for a nominal fee before you leave for the Bahamas.
Bahamian law requires that you clear customs and immigration upon entering the Bahamas. You need not stop and clear at the first available port, so long as no one aboard your yacht lands until the vessel and crew have been cleared. Once you're in Bahamian waters, hoist the yellow quarantine flag at your starboard spreader (or equivalent) until your vessel has been cleared, then replace it with the Bahamas courtesy flag. No one but the skipper is permitted ashore, and the skipper may go ashore only for ship's business directly related to the clearance process. The most popular clearance stops for skippers coming from Florida are: West End, Lucaya, Bimini, Cat Cay, Green Turtle Cay and Chub Cay.
The Bahamian government requires that all boats pay an entry free. In 2006, boats up to 35 feet long were charged $150. For boats over 35 feet long, the fee was $300. This fee covers a vessel with four persons or less. The flat levy per vessel covers the cruising permit, customs and immigration charges, and the $15 per person departure tax for up to four persons. Each additional person above the four will be charged a $15 departure tax. This fee is good for up to two trips within a 90-day period. If you plan to stay longer than 12 months, special arrangements must be made with Bahamas Customs and Immigration. Regular hours for Bahamas Customs and Immigration offices are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays; officers are on-call during holidays and weekends.
Crossing the Gulf Stream
While the Bahama islands may be close in miles, you face a significant challenge in getting there: crossing the Gulf Stream. On a calm day, the Gulf Stream can be a delight-flat seas and gentle ocean swells. Catch the Gulf Stream in the wrong conditions, and you'll live to regret it.
The wrong conditions are winds from the north. When the wind has a northerly component (NW, N, or NE), it's blowing against the Gulf Stream, which normally flows from south to north at a steady three knots or more. A strong wind against the Gulf Stream's unrelenting current quickly builds large seas with ugly, square waves. The longer and harder the wind blows from the north, the steeper the seas in the Gulf Stream. Even a sustained 10-to 15-knot breeze from the north can create perilous seas for small yachts. After it's been blowing hard from the north for several days, give the Gulf Stream a day or two to settle down.
How much do you trust NOAA forecasters? No matter what the forecast, go to the beach an hour or so before your planned Florida departure and take a look at the sea conditions. If you find that the seas are down and the forecast is good, you'll likely have an easy crossing. If the seas are up and you see what looks like herds of gray elephants thundering across the horizon, it's time to settle back, pour another cup of coffee, and enjoy Florida for another day.
Plan your crossing carefully, keeping in mind the northward push from the Gulf Stream. The slower your boat, the more effect the Gulf Stream will have on your progress. If the Gulf Stream averages three knots-a pretty good rule of thumb-in a six-knot boat you'll move one mile to the north for every two miles you make good to the east. In a nine-knot boat, it'll be one mile to the north for every three miles east.
Plot your cross route on a chart. If your boat is slow, leave from a port well to the south of your first Bahamas destination, so you'll take advantage of the push. Once you're offshore, use the cross-track error (XTE) feature of your GPS to help keep you right on the rhumb line-the direct course-to your first destination.
One final point on crossing: if yours is a slow boat and you're experienced at nighttime navigating, consider leaving the Florida coast at night and timing your departure so you'll arrive at your first Bahamas stop in the late morning, when the sun is high and the visibility good. A night crossing to the Bahamas also promises lighter winds and calmer seas, which can make your passage more comfortable, and a daylight arrival makes it all so much easier. However, the Straits of Florida are busy with shipping traffic, and a nighttime crossing is not for the inexperienced. If you decide to cross at night, by all means check beforehand to make certain your running lights and compass light are working.
Bahama islands and cays (always pronounced "keys") are low-lying, and only rarely will you see a hill as high as 100 feet (the highest elevation is 206-feet). This means many of the islands look alike, so it's easy for the first-time cruiser to be confused.
The Bahamas were charted by the National Geospacial- Intelligence Agency (formerly the Defense Mapping Agency) and the current editions of their official charts are based on very old surveys, so official government charts are generally a last resort for navigating Bahamas waters. Commercially published charts and cruising guidebooks are more up-to-date and accurate to GPS standards, and they offer much more for the Bahamas cruiser.
ChartKit Region 9, The Bahamas to Turks & Caicos Islands, offers the most complete paper chart coverage of all the Bahamas in a single package. Maptech's electronic charts of Region 9 provide complete electronic chart coverage. Thanks to GPS and more accurate paper and electronic charts, navigation in the islands is easier than you might imagine.
What you won't find in the Bahamas is the kind of sophisticated aids to navigation we take for granted in the U.S. Major harbors such as Nassau and Freeport are generally well buoyed and have reliable lights, but elsewhere you're pretty much on your own. For that reason, up-to-date charts and cruising guides, a reliable GPS, and a good pair of sunglasses are the Bahamas navigator's best friends.
One good technique is to use a combination of electronic charting and "eyeball navigation", the former to land in the ballpark and the latter for the final approaches. Eyeball navigation involves judging the depth of the water by its color, preferably with the sun high and over your shoulder and using a good pair of polarized sunglasses. It takes practice, but start with the premise that the darker the water, the deeper it is.
There is one simple rule about navigating on the Bahama banks at night-Don't Do It! You can't use eyeball navigation in the dark.
Tides in the Bahamas are semi-diurnal: two high tides and two low tides per 24 hours, with roughly a six-hour interval from high to low. The mean tidal range is 2.6 feet, rising to a high range of 3.2 feet at full moon. With few exceptions, tides throughout the Bahamas vary by no more than 40 minutes from Nassau.
Important Port of Entry, Clearance, and Exit Information
Visiting boaters must clear customs are nearest designated port of entry. No one but the captain is allowed to leave vessel until clear.
All people on board must have proof of citizenship and fill out immigration card. Beginning January 1, 2007, all persons entering the Bahamas, including U.S. Citizens, must have a valid passport. Also beginning January 1, 2007, only people with valid passport will be allowed to enter or re-enter the United States.
Boats up to 35 feet pay $150 entry fee; boats over 35 feet pay $300. Fee covers up to four persons, each additional person $15 departure tax. Fee is good for two trips within 90 days, covers cruising permit, fishing, and custom and immigration charges.
The Bahamas offer a variety of cruising, from busy marinas with nearby shops and restaurants and live entertainment to pristine, windswept anchorages where your nearest neighbor may be miles away. See our Facilities tables on pages 602-604 for details.
Here's a glance at the most popular destinations:
Just 43 nm from Miami, Bimini is so close that you can get there in a few hours in a fast boat. Even a cruising sailboat can easily make it overnight in typical conditions. North Bimini is one of the most-visited of all of the Bahamas islands, and it tends to be a hangout for sportfishermen who participate in numerous tournaments held here each month except October and December. Some cruising sailors will suggest you skip Bimini. The anchorage is often crowded, the current runs through at a very fast pace, and local small boats are sometimes fast and reckless. A treasure trove of Bimini lore was lost in January 2006, when the 12-room hotel in Alice Town, The Compleat Angler, was destroyed by fire.
A few miles south of Bimini is Cat Cay, the province of the exclusive Cat Cay Club. You can use the marina to clear customs and immigration, and even stay overnight, but as a non-member you can purchase only fuel and water and have use of a limited range of facilities at the club.
The Berry Islands
Close to 100 miles east across the Great Bahama Bank lie the Berry Islands. From Chub Cay at their southern end to Great Stirrup Cay to the north, this chain of islands and cays has much to offer gunkholing cruisers. With the right cruising guides and charts, you'll find good anchorages and fine snorkeling. Keep in mind, however, that many anchorages in the Berrys can be roily, especially in strong easterlies. Facilities in the Berry Islands are limited, but a handful of marinas and other shoreside facilities offer fuel and very basic provisions. New in 2006 and expected to be finished in 2007 is the Chub Cay (242-325-1490), offering 200 slips as a complement to its impressive residential offering of home sites that reflect traditional Bahamian architecture. They offer all of the amenities you might require, and, if you'd rather arrive by private charter flight, there is a paved airstrip on site.
Nassau, on New Providence Island, is the capital of the Bahamas. Nassau is hands-down the best place in the Bahamas for provisioning, and this is where you will find the cheapest fuel. Here you'll find most of the same foods you can find in Florida, along with the islands' best inventory of marine parts and hardware. Prices vary from 20 percent to 100 percent higher than Florida.
You can anchor right in Nassau harbor, but many yachts find Nassau a great place to take a slip in a marina. Marinas range from the ritzy one at Atlantis on Paradise Island (which caters to very large yachts) to those stretching along west Bay Street from the twin Paradise Island bridges. The ones along Bay Street charge a lot less.
A word of caution: There's more petty crime in Nassau than elsewhere in the Bahamas, and dinghies and outboards have been known to disappear, even while hanging from davits with the owners asleep onboard! Keep your dinghy under lock and key at all times in Nassau-and don't use some wimpy little lock and cable!
Cruising from Nassau, make your choice-south to the Exumas, north to the Abacos, or east to Eleuthera.
If it's wintertime, often the best choice is to head south to the Exumas. Beginning with an easy daysail across the Yellow Banks from Nassau, the Exuma Cays offer almost 100 nm of small islands and cays, as well as some of the Bahamas' most spectacular scenery and diving. The megayachts and occasional movie star cruise through here-even one who starred in the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean film is rumored to own an island in this chain.
You can spend an easy month gunkholing the clear waters of the Exumas. Along the way, you'll find small settlements of friendly Bahamians who go out of their way to make you feel welcome in their islands. Provisions, fuel, and good anchorages are all available, though shoreside facilities are often limited.
George Town in Elizabeth Harbour on Great Exuma is the southern terminus for many cruisers. It's at the tail-end of the Exuma chain, and there's always a party going in George Town. Twelve miles to the north, you can escape isolation and overnight at The Marina at Emerald Bay Resort (242-336-6100). Here you'll find all of the amenities ashore and onboard that you might need-a Four Season's Resort, casino, golf course, pool, spa and restaurant, as well as fuel, water and WiFi.
Springtime brings fewer northers to the Exumas, and two terrific regattas-the Cruising Boat Regatta and the Out Island Regatta.
If you're heading north from the Exumas, Eleuthera and its nearby neighbors, Spanish Wells and Harbour Island, are right smack in your path. The Eleuthera area is not one of the most popular cruising destinations because the geography of the island offers challenges that don't interest most yachtsmen: shallow waters on the inside and treacherous reefs on the outside, few hospitable harbors, and what cruisers call "fierce tides."
Even so, cruisers who visit Eleuthera, Spanish Wells, and Harbour Island often go back many times because the people are so friendly and the scenery is so unusual. This area is a natural after you've sampled the Exumas, the Abacos, and the Berry Islands.
On Harbour Island, Valentine's (242-333-2142) is the newest facility in town. It has 50 slips, two on-site restaurants, a pool and hotel accommodations just in case your crew needs a night ashore. West End
West End, on Grand Bahama Island, makes a convenient place to clear customs and spend the night if you're headed directly for Abaco. Old Bahama Bay's (242-350-6500) 72-slip marina-planned to expand to 180 slips in 2007-has all the amenities of a U.S. marina, and it's a welcome respite after crossing the Gulf Stream. You can refuel, fill up with water, charge your batteries, and begin your Abaco cruise with the boat all topped off. You might even want to reward your crew with dinner out at the restaurant at Old Bahama Bay or, at least, a trip to the new spa that plans called for acrylic floors through which you can view sea life.
Abaco stretches over 125 miles from Walkers Cay in the north to Hole in the Wall at the southern tip of Great Abaco Island. You'll find southern Abaco is a steep coast with no harbors, but an easy reach in most weather is the Hub of Abaco: Marsh Harbour, Man-O-War Cay, and Hope Town. This is where most Abaconians live, and you'll find more marina slips here than anywhere else in the Bahamas. Abaco has two airports with regularly scheduled flights every day, making it a cinch to change crew.
Abaco is farther north than Fort Lauderdale, and approaching winter cold fronts still have plenty of teeth. Yet many cruisers enjoy wintering in Abaco every year, and Marsh Harbour is as busy in winter and spring as George Town, its neighbor to the south.
Abaco waters and anchorages are protected, and by Bahamas standards the provisioning is terrific. You have your choice of perhaps 100 anchorages, or you can be in a different marina every night.
Marsh Harbour is the largest settlement outside Nassau and Freeport. It has telephone service, internet service, and lots of shops, restaurants, and marinas. It also has its own laid-back liveaboard community. Abaco Beach Resort and Boat Harbour (242-367-2158) is a favorite among cruisers who tie up to one of their 190 protected slips. This marina is also home to several tournaments each year, drawing an impressive fleet of sportfishermen.
In addition, Hope Town and Man-O-War-just a few miles from Marsh Harbour-are unique, wonderful out-island settlements and worth the visit. And the more you visit the Bahamas, the more unique, wonderful places you'll be able to call your own.
For More Information
Bahamas Ministry of Tourism
Bahamian Consulate General
Bahamas Pet Travel Information
Bahamas Telecommunications Company
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Customs and Border Patrol