Seven Things About the Bahamas

By Carolyn Shearlock © 2016 • all rights reserved

Seven things to know -- and really take to heart -- before heading to the Bahamas to help your planning.

We are absolutely loving cruising the Bahamas! It’s been a month now and time to take stock. This is NOT a complaint post, just seven things we’ve learned in our first month in the Bahamas. A couple we’d been told before we came and had really prepared for, others we “knew” but didn’t really take to heart as much as we should have.

1. Multiple major passages. We knew that crossing the Gulf Stream is a “major passage” that had to be planned for. What we didn’t really think about was that crossing the Banks – and spending the night anchored in the middle of nowhere with no protection from any direction – and then crossing the deep water channels to the eastern islands of the Bahamas would also entail waiting for the “right weather” (particularly if – like us – your boat does not sail or motor particularly well into headwinds and seas). The equation is complicated by the anchorages you are likely headed to – while a westerly component wind is great for getting you to these places, many don’t have an anchorage with westerly protection.

Seven things to know -- and really take to heart -- before heading to the Bahamas to help your planning.

It’s obviously not impossible (witness the number of cruisers in the Bahamas), but it hadn’t really hit us that crossing the Banks and then getting to the eastern islands (Eleuthera for us) would be two more major passages.

We talked to several other boats – power and sail – in Great Harbour Cay Marina who had rough conditions crossing the Banks (the shallow waters there mean that while big waves don’t develop, there can be nasty short-period three-footers). Not only did they have slow progress underway, they had a sleepless night with no protection. All of the fist-time Bahamas cruisers there agreed that we had been so preoccupied with the Gulf Stream crossing that we hadn’t given adequate consideration to the Banks crossing.

We opted to motor across in calm conditions – not our first choice as a sailboat, but probably the best thing for overnighting on the Banks (and the only thing in the forecast for us that wasn’t a strong headwind). And we managed to catch a west wind to continue on to Eleuthera . . . but had to adjust our destination for one with a west-protected anchorage.

2. Great anchor and anchoring technique. Many (most?) of the anchorages we’ve come across so far are noted as “poor holding.” Tides in the Bahamas are generally 3 to 4 feet, but large areas drain and fill through relatively small channels, scouring them down to rock. Other areas are thick grass with a few sand spots. Many anchors don’t set well in grass, don’t set quickly if you do drop them in sand (so that they may be out of the sand patch before they can set), or don’t re-set well when the current or wind reverses.

A good anchor (we love our Mantus) is critical, as is the rest of the ground tackle – chain, rope and snubbers. We consider an electric windlass to be a vital piece of safety gear as it makes it possible to make as many anchoring attempts as necessary to get a good set in a good location – and to move in response to changing conditions. We subscribe to the theory of “always anchor like you know it’s going to blow 50 . . . because sometimes it does.” Read more about our anchoring philosophy here.

3. Weather trumps everything. When we cruised in the Sea of Cortez, the summer weather was pretty benign, with strong winds relatively rare, and plenty of anchorages to choose from for nearly any wind direction.

Weather plays a much bigger role here in the Bahamas in terms of both where we decide to go and when – winds are stronger and summer squalls much more numerous.

In the areas that we’ve been so far (admittedly a small section of the Bahamas), there may not be any anchorages in a 10-mile (or more) area with protection for a given wind direction . . . meaning that if that’s the direction the wind is blowing, we’re not going there right now. Either we can wait for the right winds to go there, or pick somewhere else to go.

We’ve spent more nights in a marina since entering the Bahamas than we expected to as a consequence of weather and the lack of obvious good anchorages for the expected conditions (more experienced Bahamas cruisers might have known of some). Don’t get me wrong – we loved our time in Alice Town (Bimini – dealing with a fuel problem and some semi-crappy weather) and at Great Harbour Cay Marina in the Berries (weather – fronts passing) and highly recommend both – but we know in the future to budget more for unplanned marina stops.

Having multiple weather sources and ways of accessing forecasts is critical.

4. Fresh food is expensive and often poor quality. I’d been told this before we left the US. It’s true. Both in Bimini and Great Harbor Cay (numerous stores in both), the vegetable choice was poor in terms of variety and quality, and expensive – 2 to 3 times the price I was paying in the Keys for high quality items.

I brought a large supply of dehydrated veggies (lighter and more compact than cans) and am glad I did. I also got quite a bit of freeze-dried cooked meat (and some cans of tuna and ham), so don’t feel the need to buy food that doesn’t look great.

Homemade bread is available in towns and is wonderfully tasty, but costs $4 to $6 per loaf and does not keep well for extended times away from town. Knowing how to make bread and having the ingredients aboard is wonderful!

5. Fresh water is scarce. You either need large water tanks or a watermaker, or you’re going to constantly be choosing where you go based on where you can get water — generally buying it at 50 cents or more per gallon.

With weather also dictating movement, this can get to be a pain and result in more nights at marinas than planned (the two marinas we’ve been at charged additionally for drinking water although I’ve heard that some provide it free).

We had a watermaker on our previous boat and knew we wanted one on Barefoot Gal. So far, it has been great for letting us stay anchored as long as we want (we have a Katadyn 80E that runs on 12 volts from the solar panels).

6. Watch the tides! Barefoot Gal is very shallow draft (under 3 feet), but we still have to be very aware of the tides:

  • Entering a narrow cut with strong tidal flow (mid-tide) can be either a slow slog or an E-ticket ride . . . we aim for slack tide, particularly if the wind is opposite the current (known locally as a rage when severe; we’ve started referring to less intense rips as a “quarrel”)
  • Snorkeling – never snorkel (or dive) where the current could take you out to sea through a pass. That usually means snorkeling on the incoming tide. Closer to slack tide usually has better visability, too.
  • Dinghy anchoring – if the tide is dropping and you pull the dinghy up on the beach, you may find you have to carry or drag it back a considerable distance to get it floating again, particularly in some of the “sand flats” areas. And if you come ashore as the tide is coming in, be sure to anchor the dinghy even if you drag it up on the beach – otherwise, the rising water could float it free.

7. Long dinghy rides. So far (again, in one month) we’ve discovered that if we’re not in a marina, it’s going to be a one to two-mile dinghy trip to town. And even in a marina, if we want to explore the surrounding area, we’re going to take some long dinghy trips . . . not to mention snorkel and beach excursions from various anchorages.We are extremely glad that we upgraded our dinghy to one that will plane before leaving the US.

Seven things to know -- and really take to heart -- before heading to the Bahamas to help your planning.

Devil’s Hoffman Cay anchorage — while we had a nice beach and snorkeling close to the anchorage, other area attractions (such as the Blue Hole) were over a mile away by dinghy.

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Comments

  1. LOL. That sounds so familiar! Somewhere around Vero, people tried to explain (“Never mind. You’ll be fine.) but a new friend took us under their wing (Harriet Levine Hardy) and prepared us well for what to expect. And we are also a catamaran, but our monohull friends were moving in the same weather windows. And YES, how rough it could be on the banks was shocking for us newbies! Somewhere in PR, we realized we were still hoarding food from the “fear of no food at the next grocery store”!

  2. This is like the Seven Commandments of Bahama Cruising. Get these laminated and post for daily review.

  3. What are fuel prices?

  4. In the smaller islands and more remote islands, the local people order their groceries and receive them via the weekly mail boat. This means the “grocery store” may actually be a couple of bookshelves little old lady’s house where she sells the few extra groceries she’s accumulated that are above and beyond her needs.

    Two years ago on Staniel Cay we visited both the pink house grocery and the blue house grocery. We found a few onions and potatoes in decent shape, a small bag of cornmeal, as well as a few rusty cans of Campbell’s soup, pork-and-beans, and tuna.

    When you understand that this is not how the local people get their groceries, it’s easier to understand why the available groceries are so dismal.

    However, the Abacos, Georgetown, Spanish Wells, and Rock Harbour all have decent grocery stores where the local people buy their groceries, so you can reprovision there. Even so, most of the produce is shipped from the USA rather than locally grown, and usually shipped by sea rather than by air.

  5. Perfect timing! We are going to Abacos in 3 weeks!

  6. Gwendolyn Webster says:

    Hello, Caroline!

    May we add a thought to boaters heading to the Bahamas? We spent a wonderful month at Bimini with an especially great (albeit short) time meeting you and Dave! Having boated extensively in Mexico and several trips now to the Bahamas, we didn’t keep in mind the fish poisoning called Ciguatera. (CFP) Gary and I both came down with this poisoning and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.

    Please take a look at the FL websites regarding this poisoning and familiarize yourself with what fish are on the list (there are now over 400 fish species that carry the toxin). We were given fresh caught Snapper, Grouper (caught between FL and the Gulf Stream) and we caught Dorado just 15 minutes out in the Gulf Stream from Bimini. These fish can all carry the poison, Ciguatera. We are so fortunate that we didn’t have the two most severe symptoms and end up in the hospital. There is no antidote, no cure and no test for this poison that can be detected in the fish. Our symptoms are very annoying but we are able to function in almost all of our daily routines. Heat reversal symptoms are the most annoying. What should taste cold, tastes warm to hot (and terrible) so we are drinking all room temperature drinks. What should feel cold to the hands, feels hot. Any alcohol exacerbates the symptoms. There are a few anecdotal symptoms reported from eating a few other things so we just keep track.

    We just love fish and have to make sure what fish we eat from now on. The Poison Control Center said, “If it doesn’t fit in your frying pan, it’s too big). Good grief.

    The Fl Poison Control Center and the FL Health Dept. have been in close contact with us and very helpful with information on this toxin. They have kept close tabs on us and taken copious notes of our symptoms.

    • So sorry to hear about your problems — I’ve known several people who have had problems. And also really sorry to hear that dorado is now on the list of “do not eat” fish. I had looked at the list a year or so ago, guess I need to look again.

  7. Judy cook says:

    Your comments are right on” we just returned from a three month cruise in the same areas. May I add #8? Take lots of cash. We’d read that banks and ATM s were available and credit cards accepted. Not so in the settlements of Exuma. We paid a 15% surcharge at Staniel Cay to get a cash advance from the marina. If you anchor out and spend locally you need cash.

  8. Great article! We’re back at Great Harbour Cay Marina waiting for wind & seas to settle to make those 2 “major passages” home to FL — hoping for a smooth sail. (And this rain! Did I just pay $20 to wash/dry my mildewy towels? Yes. Yes, I did. Everything we own is soggy, and when the rain stops, we’ll be moving west!) (And I might’ve just paid $6 for a tomato….)

  9. Island guy says:

    It is so sad to hear you speak of the Bahamas in such a tone ..sorry that were a bit expensive but if you own a boat you can afford the prices of anything else ..so stop being cheap .if you can up keep a boat your able to afford a bottle of water for 50 cents more …if not don’t go boating ..In other islands around the world are more expensive than the Bahamas so in closing people whow own boats have money enjoy the island and stop complaining.

    • I am not complaining, just stating facts for people who are planning to cruise here. Most people on smaller boats do not have unlimited money and have to plan for their expenses. And in the US — where many of us come from — water is usually free, marinas are less expensive and so is food. I am enjoying the islands!

    • In reply to Island Guy:

      Stating a fact is not complaining. The fact is, many places in The Bahamas charge 50 cents per gallon of water. Mrs Shearlock did not criticize Bahamians, Bahamian businesses, or the government of The Bahamas. She simply stated a fact: water may cost 50 cents per gallon.

      One of the things I respect and admire about cruisers is an open honesty about what to expect. In fact, cruisers rely on honest and accurate reports from those who have gone before us to help us prepare responsibly. We wish to be responsible visitors; we hope to have a positive effect on the local economy; we do not want to burden local resources.

      To accomplish these responsible goals, we need accurate information…which Mrs Shearlock supplied in an open, honest, and non-judgmental manner.

      Cruisers come from all walks of life. Some are, in fact, wealthy. Others have very small budgets, have worked for years scrimping and saving to be able to visit your country, and rely on accurate information to budget appropriately.

      While 50 cents for a bottle of water may seem like, “what’s the big deal?” to you, I don’t think it’s one bottle of water any of us are concerned about. It’s meeting the water needs of the crew and vessel day in and day out for weeks or even months that requires planning. Part of that planning is making sure we have room in our budget to meet those needs. If we don’t know what water costs, we cannot plan appropriately for those costs. We would be irresponsible mariners to arrive in your country without having the resources necessary to sustain ourselves there. Clearly, we either need to be able to supply our own water, or to have sufficient funds to buy water when we’re there.

      I appreciate Mrs Shearlock’s honest, accurate, non-judgmental information because it helps me understand what to expect so I can plan appropriately and responsibly.

      Although you didn’t specifically state that you are Bahamian, your words suggest that you are. If so, please understand that YOUR comment and sentiments are also being noted by those of us gathering information and hoping to cruise in your beautiful country.

      Many of us have never before met a citizen of The Bahamas and have been looking forward to getting to know both your beautiful islands and your countrymen.

      Bahamians have a reputation as warm, welcoming, honest, hard-working people. The Bahamian people are one of the reasons many cruisers want to visit The Bahamas.

      It’s troubling for me to see how quickly you judge Mrs Shearlock without fully understanding before you condemn. While my experience is that your views (all boaters are rich complaining cheapskates) are not common among Bahamians, I hope that isn’t changing, and that I’ve been able to clear up the misunderstanding that led to your misjudgment.

  10. Thank you for this.

  11. Carolyn, thanks so much for this information. We will be cruising there this winter, so I want to be prepared. This will help a lot. Keep the great info coming!

  12. We chartered a 52′ catamaran in the Abacos last week and our crew of 12 had a great time. The Bahamas is a fantastic place to cruise. Carolyn’s comments are so accurate and helpful. I wish we had them before our trip!

    No complaints about the cost of food or water (we had a water maker and plenty of cash), but it was challenging to anchor / moor such a long/wide boat with 5.5′ draft, especially in the smaller harbors. I’m looking forward to another charter, but it will be on a smaller cat with no more than 3′ draft.

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