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.
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.