Where do I start in comparing cruising the Bahamas and the Sea of Cortez (aka Gulf of California)?
The Sea of Cortez is a popular first stop for cruisers coming from the West Coast of the US (or you can buy a boat already there), while the Bahamas are popular with East Coast cruisers. Both are great and popular cruising grounds . . . and very different from one another.
We cruised the Sea of Cortez for several years on our first boat, Que Tal. Now, on our second boat, we’re in the Florida Keys and spent last summer in the Bahamas. I’ve had more than one request for a comparison.
First off, a couple of caveats:
- Our last full season of cruising the Sea of Cortez was 2007. We went back for 10 days in 2013 on a friend’s boat. While we stay in touch with friends who are still cruising there, we don’t have current first-hand experience.
- We have cruised one summer — four months — in the Bahamas. We visited Bimini, the Berries, Spanish Wells/Eleuthera and the Exumas. We have not cruised the Abacos or far south islands.
Late spring/early summer is the prime cruising season in both the Bahamas and the Sea of Cortez. Northers and cold fronts blow through both on a regular basis in the winter, and water temperatures in the winter tend to be too cool for comfortable swimming and snorkeling. Despite this, many cruisers actively cruise the Bahamas in winter, while cruisers who spend winters in the Sea of Cortez tend to stay put in one of several areas: La Paz, Puerto Escondido, Santa Rosalia or Bahia Concepcion.
Both the Bahamas and the Sea of Cortez are in the hurricane belt. But there is an important difference. Storms that hit the northern cruising grounds in the Sea of Cortez tend to be (but are not guaranteed to be) less than hurricane strength as they have usually been torn up by the mountainous Baja peninsula before popping into the Sea. The Bahamas, on the other hand, typically strengthens hurricanes due to the shallow warm water and low islands.
If you intend to cruise during the hurricane season in the Sea of Cortez, you can minimize your risk by following the typical cruising calendar of being in the Bahia Concepcion area by the 4th of July, and the Bahia de Los Angeles area (where the Puerto Don Juan hurricane hole is within a day of many great anchorages) from August 15 to October 15. In other words, moving north for the heart of hurricane season and staying within reach of a great hurricane hole.
There’s no similar strategy for cruising the Bahamas during the hurricane season.
Winds & Weather
The Sea of Cortez can have wicked northers blow through from roughly November to March. If you choose to cruise during those months, you can hop from one protected anchorage to another during the lulls in between. Note though, that it may be chilly!
April to early July has the most boats cruising and late afternoon/evening thunderstorms are the biggest worry then. Late July to mid-October sees a lessening of thunderstorms (but they’re still a possibility), higher temperatures and increased hurricane risk. The water is clearest for snorkeling during this time (the water can be chilly until June or July).
Sea of Cortez winds tend to be light to non-existent from April to October. The good news is that you’ll rarely be slamming into head seas; the bad news (for sailors) is that you’ll rarely have enough wind to actually have a “good sailing day.” Light air sails and a reliable engine are key.
The Bahamas are on the northern edge of the trade winds. Winters see northers and frontal passages, with easterly trade winds in between. Summers see more trade winds, higher temperatures and tropical systems. Our experience was that August had less wind than early summer and higher humidity.
We did far more sailing in the Bahamas than we had in the Sea of Cortez, but we also had to plan our passages much more carefully for weather so that we weren’t trying to bash our way into large head seas (our Gemini catamaran is not particularly close-winded and slamming into 4-foot waves is slow motoring).
Water depths are shallow in much of the Bahamas. We had a few days where we never saw depths in double digits, and many where we were predominantly in less than 20 feet. The shallower the draft of your boat, the easier it is to get around. We almost always anchored in less than 10 feet of water.
The Sea of Cortez, by contrast, is much deeper. Draft was simply never an issue. I don’t recall anchoring in less than 20 feet of water and 30 to 40 feet was not unusual.
Navigation and passage planning are generally trickier in the Bahamas. Tidal cuts combined with strong winds can create what locals call “rages” when current and strong winds are in opposition. Moves always have to be timed with tides — both for currents and often to have sufficient depth.
In the Sea of Cortez, the only unseen navigation challenge we encountered were a few uncharted seamounts. When we were cruising there, cruisers passed lists of these around; I’m told that more recent charts and cruising guides also show them. While there are substantial tide ranges and hence current in the northern cruising grounds, passes are sufficiently wide that they are not particularly dangerous.
The Sea of Cortez has many anchorages with close to all-around protection and there are usually numerous anchorages within a 10 mile radius that will provide protection for any wind direction. While anchoring depths are greater than in the Bahamas, holding is almost always good. Few anchorages are rolly. A few anchorages are known for katabatic winds — strong winds rolling down the mountainside after sunset.
Many anchorages in the Bahamas could best be described as open roadsteads, with protection from only one direction. It can be difficult to find westerly or southerly protection. Most anchorages have substantial current and many are known for poor holding due to weeds (as an aside, our Mantus anchor set first time every time; we never had a problem with it setting or dragging although boats near us did several times).
In the Bahamas, our route and stops were dictated by wind direction and where we could find protected anchorages. In the Sea of Cortez, that was rarely the case.
Scenery & Hiking
The Bahamas are flat and areas outside towns are usually mangrove-covered with a few palm trees. Many islands are privately owned and visitors are discouraged. We found few places to walk and hike outside of towns and the Land & Sea park. Eleuthera was the exception to this, but still most walking we did there was on roads.
Water colors in the Bahamas are absolutely stunning.
The Baja peninsula, which forms the west side of the Sea of Cortez, is mountainous desert plunging to the water. There are many uninhabited islands to explore, and while there is plenty of thorny vegetation to watch out for, you’ll find hiking trails everywhere.
Water colors in the Sea of Cortez aren’t particularly notable, but the land is.
The Sea of Cortez has gorgeous, easy snorkeling in or near just about every anchorage. Fish life abounds but there is only one coral reef — other areas are rocky but not a true reef. Current is rarely even an issue when snorkeling.
We did not have such easy access to world-class snorkeling in the Bahamas. To be sure, we did do some that was spectacular, but it took more effort to find locations and we had to carefully time our adventures for slack to incoming tide — tidal currents are such that you could be swept out to sea. If there are other cruisers around, the possibilities open up if one person is willing to stay in a dinghy and drift with the snorkelers to pick them up down current. Otherwise, swimming back against the current to your dinghy can be exhausting.
Cruising in the Sea of Cortez comes with little outside assistance. No Coast Guard, no Sea Tow, no TowBoatUS. The navy and local fishing boats may be able to help you, but they may not be nearby. Cruisers have to be self-reliant and help each other.
The Bahamas have more structure with BASRA (the Bahamas volunteer rescue group), some local law enforcement boats and some local entrepreneurs. Depending on your location, Sea Tow and Tow Boat US may be able to provide assistance. Self-sufficiency is still important, but there are more boats around.
Provisioning and Parts
Provisioning was easier and cheaper in the Sea of Cortez, although stops were still a ways apart and we couldn’t always get everything we wanted in some of the fishing villages.
Parts are difficult to get in both the Bahamas and the Sea of Cortez once you’re out of the major cities.
Whales, Sharks & More
I don’t think a week went by that we didn’t see whales and dolphins in the Sea of Cortez. We saw finback whales, gray whales, pilot whales and even whale sharks. We saw dolphins frequently; many times pods would surround us. Jumping rays were always special, but not unusual. Sharks and sea turtles weren’t totally absent but we saw few.
Finback whales (the second largest whales in the world) in the cove with us:
We spotted sharks at least several times a week in the Bahamas, sometimes every day. We did not see any whales and I don’t recall seeing dolphins. We saw rays occasionally, generally near fish cleaning stations on docks. We glimpsed a few sea turtles. We often had a large barracuda hang out under the boat at anchor.
English is spoken in the Bahamas versus Spanish in the Sea of Cortez. While we managed to stumble through transactions and conversations in Baja with my less-than-fluent Spanish, it did put up a barrier to friendships with local residents. It was much easier to talk, joke and learn from shopkeepers and people we met at various events in the Bahamas.
Both areas are great cruising, but for different reasons. We feel very fortunate to have experienced both. We probably have a slight preference for the Sea of Cortez, but as a friend says, the first place you cruise is always special!