The navigation can be tricky, but the weather and gin-clear water make it more than worth the effort
The navigation can be tricky, but the weather and gin-clear water make it more than worth the effort
Around 200 million years ago, the super continent Pangaea began to drift apart, and a shallow sea emerged between the land masses that were to become the Americas and Africa. As the floor of this sea settled, endless tons of sediment drifted down through the warm waters, building a platform that now rises 1.5 miles above the surrounding ocean floor and covers around 60,000 square miles.
During the Pliocene and the Pleistocene eras, huge glaciers extended southward and then retreated northward, causing the ocean to rise and fall. The thickening platform emerged and submerged, time after time. When this land was above water, wild winds blew its sands into great rippling ridges and towering dunes. Below the waves, calcium carbonate from coral, oolites, shells and plants continued to build the platform, and reefs grew around its perimeter, holding in the settling remnants of life.
Today this strange land is under the sea. But the ocean is only 10 to 40 feet deep over much of it. A few islands, many of which were former sand dunes, breach the surface. We call them the Bahamas. We call the submerged land mass, the Bahama Banks.
Life on the islands came slowly, at first primarily from the West Indies. Reminders such as cat-sized rodents called hutia and large iguana still roam in special places. Eventually, the Lucayan Indians came and lived, isolated from most threats except those of nature, with which they dealt well. Then Christopher Columbus landed — we think on San Salvador or perhaps Samana Cay — in 1492. Soon, the Indians vanished to the conquering Europeans, who also began settlements. Of these, Nassau became a center for marauding, trade and smuggling. In fact, the pirate Blackbeard found the waters ideal for his murderous ventures.
When pirates didn’t kill, hurricanes and reefs often did, but the population slowly grew. Some came simply to worship freely, founding such communities as Hope Town and New Plymouth. After the Revolutionary War, displaced Tories moved their plantations — including mansions, brick by brick — to begin life anew in a land still subject to the Crown. But the climate made men lazy, and the soil made cotton sparse. Many of the estates fell into neglect, leaving crumbled dreams and freed slaves. Ruins and stone fences, now hidden in dense foliage, are reminders of that past.
Even today, fewer than 50 of some 2,400 islands scattered about the 700-mile-long archipelago have as much as a village or town. A few islands are large, with farms and enterprises, but most are tiny, with rocky shores and white beaches hinting of pink. Mangroves, casuarinas, palmettos, sea grapes and coconut palms hide curly tail lizards, hermit crabs and birds. They are bonded together with one overwhelming fabric of geography: the ocean.
The ocean is special here because of many things, including its tropical warmth, colors and depths. But it’s the shallow banks, where seawater covers the vast submerged wilderness of white sand and reef, that take your breath away.
The water is clearer than that of perhaps any other sea in the world, and sailing over the banks on a good day you can see fish, sharks and rays darting away from your hull’s shadow as it sweeps across the bottom. Underwater grass and fan coral sway with the current, and brain coral hosts exotic fish, lobsters and moray eels. Everywhere, the colors of the waters leave even seasoned world travelers in awe. Deep troughs, such as the Tongue of the Ocean and the Northwest Providence Channel, divide the banks. And as you approach the shallows from the ocean, you see the subtle blue of their waters reflected on the white clouds drifting over them.
Many think of the Bahamas simply as the cities of Nassau or Freeport. Instead, think of the Bahamas as islands with names like Rum Cay, Highborne Cay, Eleuthera, Royal Island, Green Turtle, Mayaguana, Ragged Island, Crooked Island, Long Island and the Jumentos. Or as islands with no names except as known to locals, such as Chicken Cay or His and Hers.
It’s usually along the edges of the banks that the islands appear, and the vastness of the ocean gives a unique perspective to the culture of the people. The word “mainland” is used by those on small outlying islands to describe the larger islands, such as New Providence, Grand Bahama, Great Abaco and Great Exuma. The word “out island” refers to those outlying islands, and “far out islands” to those even farther away. On many of them, mail and groceries come by boat once a week, cars number only a few, and telephone and electricity in homes are recent developments.
In all of the Bahamas there are only around 351,000 people. This number isn’t exact; the same is true of the number of islands, the miles of ocean, and the theories of how this submerged land came to be. Inexactness is a refreshing part of the Bahamas. The culture, dialect and pace are distinctly Caribbean, largely undoctored by tour-guide embellishment. Yet, amazingly, the western waters of the Bahamas are just a little more than 40 miles from Florida at the closest point.
If you come in your boat, you’ll probably get your first impression of the Bahamas from its western boundary. Here most of the small islands have sharp rocky shores and lack good all-weather anchorages. However, the water and reefs are beautiful, and there are a few anchorages for settled weather, as well as some marinas.
The Bimini Chain, a series of small cays (pronounced “keys”), lies across the Gulf Stream from Miami and Fort Lauderdale. Only North and South Bimini and Cat Cay are settled. The latter is private with fine homes, but it has a marina that’s open to the public. The Bimini Wall, so famous among divers, lies just west of the chain, and the mysterious stone slabs of the Bimini Road lie under nearby waters, fueling stories of Atlantis.
The island of Bimini, popular with the sportfishing fleet, has a village, several marinas, restaurants and an anchorage with poor holding that can be crowded and rolly. New developments promise to bring new life and vigor. Recent shoaling at the entrance mandates that you check first before you go into the main harbor.
Tourists often get their first impression of the Bahamas from Freeport on the large island of Grand Bahama, with its resorts and marinas. It’s north of and separated from the Bimini Chain by the deep Northwest Providence Channel. At the far northwestern end of Grand Bahama, the critically located Old Bahama Bay Marina offers shelter for boats caught by weather, in addition to its many amenities. (This facility was damaged in the 2004 hurricane season but plans to be fully operational again in 2005.)
Southeast of the Bimini Chain, across Great Bahama Bank, lies the giant and mysterious island of Andros. Its vast swamps, creeks, mangrove shallows, and miles of woods stretch more than 100 miles south to north. Scattered about are many of the famous “blue holes” of the Bahamas. These sea water holes, some far from shore, extend deep down, many connecting with the ocean through a labyrinth of subterranean passages.
In this mysterious place lives the legend of the chickcharnie, strange three-toed, red-eyed creatures that dwell in the trees and don’t like to be offended. Nearby, the recently discovered Andros Platform, a multitiered structure of huge stone blocks, resides silently under the waves, begging for an explanation.
With limited good anchorages, sparsely populated Andros has yet to experience the large influx of cruising boats that other areas have. Great Bahama Bank blends with the shallows and swamp of its western shore, but its eastern shore faces the deep Tongue of the Ocean and has several towns with limited facilities, such as Morgan’s Bluff, Fresh Creek and Congo Town. One of the longest barrier reefs in the world guards this shore, allowing very limited access for larger boats. Andros, like so many other islands, is awakening.
Many consider the Abacos, in the northern Bahamas, easier to cruise than other areas and a great place to begin Bahamas exploration. Marinas, protected anchorages with good holding, shopping, good drinking water, restaurants and small hotels make the area especially inviting. Many cruisers gravitate to the “Hub of the Abacos,” with the towns and harbors of Man 0’ War, Hope Town, and Marsh Harbour. You can take short hops to different towns or anchorages in the shallow “Sea of Abaco” without going outside the reefs into the ocean.
Northwest of the Hub and through sometimes dangerous Whale Cay Passage lies Green Turtle Cay, with several protected basins, marinas and the town of New Plymouth and its quaint pastel homes similar to those of Man 0’ War and Hope Town. Little Bahama Bank stretches westward, with many islands and little population. There are few protected anchorages for boats that draw more than 4 feet, but in settled weather this is a great area to be alone. The Abacos have more vegetation, farming and civilization than many of their sisters to the southeast.
To the south and west of the Abacos another large area of small islands and shallow banks rises from the deep ocean. Known as “Der Berrys” by many Bahamians, they are identified on nautical charts as the Berry Islands. They aren’t as heavily cruised as the Abacos because of their shallows and rolly anchorages, but their isolation makes them more attractive to some.
Islands such as Great Stirrup, Great Harbor, Whale Cay and Chub Cay rim the banks. Dinghy passages snake among white shoals and low-tide sand islands. It’s easy to get lost. A few marinas make bases for exploration. One of the more notable is Chub Cay Marina, completely protected within an enclosed basin. This private island has a beautiful beach, good snorkeling spots, and a restaurant. It’s also a critical safe harbor while waiting for weather when heading back to the States or when crossing the sometimes very rough Tongue of the Ocean en route to Nassau.
As is true of Freeport, many tourists think of Nassau when they think of the Bahamas. It is hardly representative of the Bahamas as a whole, though unique and special itself. This is the capital of the Bahamas, and more than half the Bahamian population lives on its island of New Providence. It has the good and bad traits of most cities, with a distinctly Caribbean flavor.
Police in white uniforms direct traffic, and horse carriages comingle with cars, “jitney” buses and scooters. Buildings and customs reminiscent of the British Colonial Empire blend with things modern and a share of poverty. The island’s culture, history, geological formation, wildlife and plant life are fascinating. While there, take a tour to learn about this island with groups such as Bahamas Outdoors (www.bahamasoutdoors.com).
To the southeast, the Exuma Cays curve in a northwest-southeast direction. The Exumas have only a few small, all-weather marinas. Most anchorages are unprotected from westerlies. The few that are sheltered from westerlies are between rocky islands, and are plagued by swift current and scoured bottom. The islands are generally rocky with low vegetation and sparsely populated, with only a few villages. Nevertheless, each year more and more boats visit the area.
Heading down the chain, cruisers stop and enjoy the out-island friendliness of the small villages of Staniel Cay, Black Point and Little Farmer’s Cay. Village restaurants sometimes announce special menus over VHF radio. Small grocery stores have limited supplies, and Staniel Cay’s Isles General Store has marine and general hardware as well as groceries. The Staniel Cay Yacht Club offers good meals, fuel, reverse osmosis water, and a nice bar.
Fowl Cay Resort is one of several resort islands that can be rented and also has a restaurant open to the public. Sampson Cay and Compass Cay marinas offer all-around protection, the latter a spectacular beach as well.
The Exumas Cays Land and Sea Park, about halfway down the chain, rents moorings and offers great snorkeling areas where it is easy to observe lobsters, conch and many varieties of reef fish, all protected. Snorkel into Thunderball Cave off Staniel and play among thousands of wild, but protected, fish. Part of the James Bond film “Thunderball” was filmed here.
At the southern end of the Exumas, George Town — with its large, protected harbor — predominates the “mainland” island of Great Exuma. The well-stocked grocery store, Exuma Market, provides dinghy dockage, town water, and other services. FedEx, UPS, boat supplies and many other helpful goods and services are available in town.
In the past several years, almost 450 cruising boats were in George Town’s Elizabeth Harbour for the annual spring Cruising Regatta, a weeklong festival run by the cruising community in conjunction with the Bahamian community.
Eleuthera and others
Heading east from the Exumas you’ll find more islands and variety. To the north, Eleuthera is known for its oranges and pineapples. Cruisers often visit the busy village of Spanish Wells, with its fishing fleet, marinas, marine railways and supplies. Harbour Island, guarded by the treacherous Devil’s Backbone reef, also is popular. Royal Island, with an enclosed harbor, broods with thick foliage, strange descendants of farm animals from its past plantation days and the silent ruins of a large estate. Years ago wooden sailing ships of the British Navy sought shelter here; today cruisers wait for an easy passage to the Abacos.
South of Eleuthera Cat Island stretches 48 miles, offering few anchorages but high hills, farms, villages and miles of cliff and beach. To the south of Cat lies Long Island, with dangerous reefs extending more than 3 miles off bold Cape Santa Maria at its northern end. Never more than 4 miles wide, it is 75 miles long and features rolling hills and cliffs, fertile soil and farming.
Far to the south and east, the “far out islands” rise from the deep ocean floor, beyond the Banks. You’ll find isolated jewels such as Rum Cay and Conception Island. Protected Sumner Point Marina at Rum is known for its restaurant and good diving nearby.
As you venture farther southeast, more lonely little islands with limited protection beckon with even more remoteness. These include Samana Cay, Crooked Island, Acklins Island, Great Inagua (with its famous flamingo population), and Mayaguana. The Jumentos chain arches 90 miles around the southeast boundary of Great Bahama Bank.
Bahamian weather is just about perfect. Nassau temperatures average 77 degrees, with about 8 degrees average difference from winter to summer. It’s warm enough to swim in the winter. In the summer, light easterlies cool the anchorages, and humidity is less oppressive than in Florida. However, it is important to understand the major weather features.
Bad weather can be much more dangerous here than in the States because of the lack of harbors, abundance of reef, and in many areas lack of rescue facilities. The weather channels on VHF aren’t available (except sometimes on the western rim). While you can often get weather from other boaters, it’s wise to have first-hand information from SSB, ham radio or satellite.
The cold front is the major weather feature of the winter, with an occasional low. A front may come through as a wall of wind, causing a 180-degree shift from southerly to northerly in a few minutes, with gusts of 35 mph or more. Also, an occasional steep pressure gradient between high and low pressure areas will cause prolonged easterlies of 20 to 30 mph for at least several days in the winter.
The hurricane is the biggest weather concern in the summer. Take no chances. There are far fewer places to hide than along much of the U.S. East Coast, and if you get hit, you’ll not have the massive aid infrastructure that’s available in the States. Thunderstorms and waterspouts, of concern anytime, are more likely in the summer. But many find this the most pleasant time to cruise the Bahamas because of relatively stable weather patterns, a kinder Gulf Stream, prevailing easterlies and fewer boats.
Rain is scarce in the winter (more found in the northern Bahamas) but more abundant everywhere in the summer. Easterlies prevail in the summer, averaging 5 to 15 mph.
The Gulf Stream between South Florida and the Bahamas can range from millpond perfect to extremely treacherous. It flows north at 2.5 or more knots in a canyon thousands of feet deep and walled by the continental shelf to the west and the Bahamas Banks to the east.
Northerly winds create waves that look like surrealistic skyscrapers dancing crazily on the horizon. In the winter the northerlies pass frequently, with winds veering from northwest to northeast. Generally the wind will then clock to the east, become lighter and then more southeasterly, and then clock to the southwest as another front approaches — often within 12 to 24 hours of the onset of the southwesterly. Usually it takes at least a day or more after the northerly before the Gulf Stream settles.
Your tactic for crossing will depend much on the speed of your boat. Most prefer to motor across in a light southeasterly or calm, hopefully to cross the banks in the following southwesterly. If you cross the Stream in a southwesterly, you may arrive to find seas piling up dangerously on the western rim of the Bahamas, and you may not have enough time to get to the Berrys or Abacos before the next front.
Many, particularly those in slower boats, prefer a window of several days. Occasionally, a wait of several weeks is needed to get a good window, but this is better than crashing through towering, toppling mountains of water.
Experience in navigating U.S. coasts and waterways doesn’t even begin to fully prepare one for navigating in the Bahamas, but this is in part because of the unique and beautiful features of the Bahamas. Much Bahamas navigation must be done by “eyeball” and by reading the water. (I discuss this in detail in “Sea Savvy” on Page 46 of this issue.)
While GPS is an invaluable tool here, don’t even think about relying on it exclusively. Truly reliable waypoints are best obtained by taking the GPS receiver to the spot and getting the reading. If your GPS waypoint has been deduced from a latitude/longitude point on a chart, it may be off. An error of a few feet can be too much when finding and negotiating cuts between islands and reefs.
Mistakes may mean reef groundings in swells that will destroy a fiberglass or wooden boat in minutes. If your GPS fails or if satellites are disabled, you’re going to be in trouble if you aren’t also using other piloting techniques. Always use a good up-to-date guide and charts, and learn to identify islands and landmarks. Many of the islands will look alike at first, and you will need to know them in order to confirm which cut to enter. Always pretend your GPS will be defunct in a moment or two. Sometimes it helps to count large islands as you head down a chain. Don’t approach shallow water unless you know where you are.
You must usually negotiate cuts or inlets to access harbors and to pass from the ocean to the banks. Some cuts pass between islands, some through reef, and most have very swift current. Few are buoyed. Most cuts between islands, despite the fact that they “look OK” from the outside, are dangerous and impassible because of reef. Therefore, it’s imperative that you know you have the right cut before entering. If in doubt, call for help on VHF 16. Study your guidebooks first. Know the cut’s landmarks (often natural ranges) and bottom characteristics. Don’t assume that you can simply follow GPS waypoints.
When you’re being pushed by strong current between shoals and reef, you’ll need to use eyeball navigation as your primary tool. Never try to sail through a cut. Swirling currents and fluky winds between the islands can cause disaster. Avoid cuts in poor light or bad weather.
A strong outgoing tide against an onshore wind can cause steep and dangerous waves in the cut and into the ocean. Sometimes a local or distant storm will cause huge swells that are hardly noticeable at sea, but mount and break dangerously on the shores and in the cuts. This is called a “rage” and can occur even when the local weather is perfect.
The outer perimeter of waves may reach your area and cause a rage within a few hours of otherwise normal conditions. Listen to weather daily, as well as local VHF reports from boaters. Stand by on VHF channel 16. You will need to know if other boats are reporting dangerous conditions or are in trouble.
Compared to cruising the United States, there are relatively few marinas in the Bahamas, and many boats spend most of their time at anchor. Hanging out in a good harbor with encircling beach and soft sand bottom is one of the great pleasures of being there. But dragging can result in damage that often cannot be repaired without a trip back to the States or across miles of ocean to a Bahamian boatyard. It also may result in grounding and holing on a reef, since most anchorages have rock or coral nearby.
Good anchoring gear is important. In 19 winters of visiting the Bahamas we have come to strongly favor the CQR and Fortress. The latter is particularly helpful in areas of hard sand (when we know the direction of swing will not reverse). We also carry a fisherman’s for emergency anchoring in rock or grass (which should be avoided). Soft, white, deep sand offers great holding. Often a few inches of white sand will cover white bedrock. It will look good, but your anchor will drag when the winds come. If possible, dive your anchor to be sure it is set well and deep, or at least view it with a “look bucket.”
Many incorrectly think they should use the Bahamian moor when in the Bahamas. This method is seldom necessary and often less safe. We don’t use two anchors unless we really need them. It is more difficult to get two hooks free in an emergency, especially when the rodes wrap around each other with a wind and/or current shift. Also, one of the two lines can wrap on the keel, rudder or propeller as the tide or wind shifts.
The Bahamian moor should be used only if you must anchor in strong reversing current and/or wind (particularly if the holding isn’t very good), or if there isn’t room to swing to a single rode because of reef or other boats.
Always assume that the wind will shift in the dead of night. Always give other boats enough room and allow for a complete swing on their rode. If the other boats in a current-free anchorage are swinging on one line, don’t come in and anchor close with two anchors in a manner that will prevent your swinging along with them.
Anchor buoys cause big problems. They can be snagged by passing dinghies (particularly at night), tripping the anchor and sometimes injuring dinghy occupants. They also frequently snag on the rudder or prop of the anchored boat, tripping the anchor and rendering the boat helpless when the owner frantically starts the engine.
From the East Coast
Here are three of the more popular routes into the Bahamas:
1. Lake Worth to West End, entering Little Bahama Bank at Memory Rock (sometimes stopping first at the marina at West End). From here there are about 100 miles of banks before reaching Green Turtle.
2. Fort Lauderdale or Miami to Bimini or Cat Cay, entering Great Bahama Bank between Gun and Cat cays or north of Bimini at North Rock, then heading toward Chub Cay around 85 miles away, over the Banks and Tongue of the Ocean.
3. Fort Lauderdale or Lake Worth to the Northwest Providence Channel, stopping at Freeport, Lucaya or the Berrys. Because of the speed of the Gulf Stream, it helps to cross at an angle moving with its current, particularly for displacement boats.
Lake Worth offers marinas, some supplies, and anchorages to wait for the weather. Fort Lauderdale has very limited anchorages. However, it has many marinas and less-expensive city docks, inexpensive rental cars, and an incredible and convenient array of marine supplies and services for fitting out. Miami has marinas, anchorages and supplies.
Live this dream
When you take your boat to the Bahamas, you’ll have to work at it some and take precautions. But some night you’ll be anchored here, watching starfish crawl across the bottom in the moonlight, feeling the trades against your face, hearing the pulse of Mother Ocean on the reef outside the harbor. Then you’ll know it’s worth the effort. You’ll know that you’ve finally arrived at the place you’ve always wanted to be.
Sources: “Abaco, History of an Out Island and Its Cays,” by Steve Dodge (White Sound Press); “Bahamas Landscapes,” by Neil E. Sealy (Media Publishing); “The Ephemeral Islands,” by David G. Campbell (Macmillan Education Limited, London).
Gear, communications, weather info and laws
Most staples are available even in the out islands, but there’s not a lot of variety. Centers such as Nassau, George Town, Marsh Harbour, Freeport, Rock Sound and Spanish Wells have well-stocked stores for provisioning. Prices, which reflect shipping costs and import duties, can be 30 to 100 percent higher than in the United States.
Such goods as butter, cheese and meat shipped from other members of the British Commonwealth usually are inexpensive. The following items are sometimes very expensive in the out islands: paper goods, hardware, personal hygiene items, film, batteries, hors d’oeuvre treats, frozen foods, and wine (especially from California). Bahamas-brewed beer and local rum are quite reasonably priced.
Other local products — citrus, onions, potatoes, cabbage, tomatoes, peppers, baked goods, chicken, eggs, fish, lobster and conch — are relatively inexpensive and usually quite good. Produce sold in small open-air or “straw” markets is usually local and very fresh, whereas produce in the larger chain-type grocery stores often is imported and may be of lesser quality. If there is a “produce exchange” in town, check there for the best and freshest produce straight from the “farm” and ready for export. Fish, lobster and conch often can be purchased directly from fisherman in the anchorage or marinas. They will usually clean it for you.
Engine and mechanical parts can be difficult to obtain, though the more-populated areas will have some parts. Check locally before ordering from the United States, and risking weeks of delay and shipping problems.
If you cook with propane, take a spare tank and keep it full. Propane is usually available, but islands sometimes run out for weeks. CNG isn’t available.
You may be unable to obtain prescription medication and pharmaceutical items in the out islands, including contact-lens supplies. Take necessary medication with you, but make sure the container has the prescription label on the outside.
Prepare to be as self-reliant as possible. In many areas of the Bahamas, parts, supplies, fuel and water are difficult to obtain. Your boat should be able to safely make ocean passages, with a safe reserve of fuel.
Good drinking water is scarce in many areas, and dock water may cost more than 50 cents a gallon. Some city dock water, for example in Nassau, is considered by many to be unsuitable for drinking. On-board watermakers give greater independence from marinas and help to assure good-quality drinking water. Good filters, large water tanks and rain-catching systems also help, though it doesn’t often rain in the Bahamas during winter. Many marinas and some settlements recently have installed reverse osmosis units, so there is more fresh water available now in some areas of the Bahamas than in the past.
For reef viewing and diving, bring masks, snorkels, flippers, lightweight wet suits (diving weights may be necessary with heavier wet suits), “look buckets,” and books for identifying fish.
Sun protection is important, so use sunscreen liberally, and wear long-sleeve cotton shirts and pants, hats, neck protection and good sunglasses. (Polarized sunglasses also will help you read the water.) Things that help aboard the boat include a Bimini top, awnings and snap-on covers for large windows and hatches.
Your dinghy is your car in the Bahamas. It should be large enough and with enough power to take you on open-water trips of at least several miles in rough conditions and strong current. Equip your dinghy with all safety items, including flares, oars or paddles, engine repair kit, hand-held VHF, and a proper anchor with part-chain rode. Install an inline fuel filter for the probability of getting bad gas, and carry at least one spare fuel tank. Gas and outboard engine oil are very expensive, and remote areas sometimes are without gas for days or weeks.
Screens and insect netting are important, especially in the summer months. Insect repellant, mosquito coils and citronella candles also help.
Take plenty of large heavy-duty garbage bags or trash compactor bags for storing trash until you reach a village. If you have space in your galley, a trash compactor can be invaluable.
The lack of fully protected harbors, the profusion of reefs, and the sparse rescue resources make weather knowledge critical. You will be out of range of U.S. VHF weather broadcasts in most of the Bahamas. Sources of weather information include:
• Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association: VHF channel 72 within range of Nassau at 0715, on 4003 SSB at 0700, and 3696 or 7096 LSB (ham radio) at 0720, all local times
• HAM waterway net: 7268 LSB, 0745, local time
• Southbound II: 12359 SSB from 2000 to 2200 Z (UTC) daily
• NMN (U.S. Coast Guard Portsmouth): offshore forecast (southwest North Atlantic) on several SSB duplex frequencies (ITU channels 424, 601, 816, 1205) at 0430, 1100, 1700 EST. Forecast area includes the Bahamas. Forecasts are given for areas defined by latitude and longitude. A hurricane-tracking chart with latitude/longitude grids and a small tape recorder to record verbal broadcasts to play back at leisure will help.
• Commercial services: A multitude of weather products, including real-time satellite data, buoy weather and GRIB, are available through e-mail, over SSB or ham radio, or via Globalstar satellite phone. Ocens (www.ocens.com, (800) 746-1462) is a one-stop provider of satellite phones and calling plans, e-mail, detailed weather products, and other services. E-mail and weather products are available at no cost to hams through ham radio e-mail program WinLink (www.airmail2000.com). You will need a modem (Pactor 3, about $1,000) for SSB and ham e-mail as well as a service provider, such as SailMail (www.sailmail.com), MarineNet (www.marinenet.net) or Cruise-E-Mail (www.cruiseemail.com) for SSB, or WinLink for hams. Many cruisers in the Bahamas also use these services as their primary e-mail source.
• Chris Parker — a cruiser and author of “Coastal and Offshore Weather, the Essential Handbook” — provides detailed, easy-to-understand daily forecasts by e-mail for the Bahamas and Caribbean for a reasonable fee, as well as voice broadcasts and discussion giving advice specific to your passage on various SSB frequencies.E-mail email@example.com for information.
• Cruiser’s VHF nets in centers such as George Town, Nassau, and Marsh Harbour give weather relays at scheduled times, usually between 0730 and 0815. Various other boats and some marinas pass weather information on VHF, but you should have at least an SSB receiver ($200 to $250) to receive weather directly wherever you are, and make your own interpretations. With a modem and programming (around $250) you can plug your computer into the SSB receiver and get weatherfax and text forecasts.
Most of the books and charts below can be ordered from Bluewater Books and Charts in Fort Lauderdale at (800) 942-2583 or www.bluewaterweb.com. Shipping is prompt.
• “All In The Same Boat,” by Tom Neale (McGraw Hill).
• Explorer Chartbooks, series of three by Sarah and Monty Lewis: Near Bahamas, Exumas, including the Ragged Islands, and Far Bahamas. Available from Bluewater or directly at (410) 213-2725 or www.explorer charts.com.
• Waterway Guide Southern Region (York Associates, LLC), updated yearly, www.waterwayguide.com.
• “On and Off the Beaten Path,” The Exuma Guide, Abaco Guide, and Turks and Caicos Guide, by Steve Pavlidis, www.amazon.com.
• “Abaco, History of an Out Island”; Cruising Guide to Abaco, by Steve Dodge (White Sound Press).
• Guide to Corals and Fishes, by Idaz Greenberg, waterproof, available direct at (888) 887-6278, www.fish cards.com/seahawkpress.htm, or at dive shops.
• “The Ephemeral Islands,” by David G. Campbell (first published in 1978 by Macmillan Education Limited, London), check http://www.amazon.comor buy it in the Bahamas.
• “Wind From the Carolinas,” by Robert Wilder (Bluewater Books).
• “Yachtsman’s Guide to the Bahamas” (Tropic Isle Publishers), updated yearly.
• “The Bahamas Cruising Guide with the Turks and Caicos,” by Mathew Wilson.
• “Coastal and Offshore Weather, the Essential Handbook,” by Chris Parker, www.mwxc.com.
BATELCO is the Bahamas’ one state-supported telephone company. Most settlements have a BATELCO station where calls can be placed.
BATELCO calling cards can be purchased at marinas and stores, as well as from BATELCO stations. The price per minute is typically lower than non-BATELCO credit cards, and has been coming down. You can use these cards in special “pay phones” scattered around most towns and villages.
Many major U.S. telephone company credit cards work at pay phones, with a connection fee and an expensive per-minute fee. This varies, so check with your card carrier before you leave to get details — and hope that BATELCO agrees with what they say. Most prepaid cards, such as the Sam’s Club ATT cards, don’t work from BATELCO phones.
Cell phones from U.S. carriers may or may not work in the Bahamas. Some U.S. cellular carriers have roaming agreements with BATELCO, but you can’t depend on your cell phone working, even if your carrier says it will. Some carriers require that you register with them for the trip so that they can register your phone with BATELCO.
Because of distances and lack of infrastructure that might be expected due to the geography, cell phone service from BATELCO often is less reliable than that of U.S. carriers. If roaming works with your U.S. phone, it probably will be very expensive and may not show up on your bill for several months. Even if you have roaming, it won’t work when you are too far from the towers, and this will be the case much of the time you are cruising the Bahamas.
You can get much greater range with a digital signal booster and properly mounted external antenna, such as those manufactured by Digital Antenna Inc. in Sunrise, Fla. They can be contacted at (954) 747-7022 or www.digitalantenna.com.
In our opinion, satellite phones are the most reliable form of communication from boats in the Bahamas, but the expense is considerable. There are various packages available for Globalstar phones, www.globalstar.com, and you can rent phones and receive e-mail and weather services from companies such as Ocens.
Digital data transmission over cell phones may not work unless you have a BATELCO phone, and even then service varies. These phones can be rented if available, but data cables may not be available from BATELCO, even if the phone is. If you have one of the old analog data programs and cell phone modems, limited data transmission may work with some towers, but very slowly.
Marsh Harbour, Hope Town, Green Turtle and some other towns, as well as marinas, now have high-speed wireless Internet access. This type of coverage is rapidly spreading to many island communities. Landline connections for your laptop are available at some marinas and stores in villages and at most BATELCO stations.
Ham and single sideband
Ham and SSB high-frequency radios are great for keeping in touch with friends who also have radios, and for calling out in emergencies. They also can be used for e-mail with the aforementioned addition of a modem.
Ham operators must pass a test and be licensed by the FCC. Hams who wish to transmit while in the Bahamas must have a reciprocal license. Hams are part of a worldwide network both ashore and on boats.
SSB operating stations also must be licensed by the FCC, but no test is required. SSB is primarily a ship-to-ship radio, except for communication with the Coast Guard and shore stations that can place high-seas phone calls (WLO on ITU channels 405, 419, 607, 834, 830, 1212, 1226, 1607, 1641, 1807, 2237, 2503). WLO calls are expensive; e-mail service is also available. www.wloradio.com
Marine SSB and ham radio nets include (times are local):
• BASRA: 0700 daily on SSB 4003, weather, traffic.
• BASRA: 0720 daily on 3696 or 7096 LSB (ham), weather, traffic.
• Waterway Net: 0745 daily on 7268 LSB (ham), weather, announcements, traffic.
• Cruiseheimers Net: 0830 daily on SSB 8152, traffic.
Many who visit the Bahamas continue to rely on the small inexpensive dedicated computer and services offered by PocketMail, (www.pocketmail.com). An acoustic coupler is used with pay phones (some cell and satellite phones also work with PocketMail) to send and receive short e-mails. There is a monthly fee, and long-distance rates sometimes apply from overseas, including the Bahamas.
Customs, laws and more
Always check an up-to-date guide book for current information as to customs, immigration and other relevant laws. Here are a few examples.
Clear customs and immigration at the first reasonable opportunity after entering Bahamian waters. Officers may board your boat. The fee for a temporary cruising permit is $300 for boats larger than 35 feet, $150 for boats 35 feet or smaller, which includes visas for people on board. Cash payment is expected, and receipts are given. Boats usually are given a year’s stay, with easy extension, and may leave and return once within 90 days per fee payment. People aboard may be given a stay of up to six months at the discretion of the officer — usually at no extra charge — with right to request extension at expiration.
You may not sell, barter or trade any goods you bring to the Bahamas. Most of the otherwise heavy customs fees are waived for parts imported for visiting boats if they are necessary for the operation of your boat. The foreign shipper must declare the value of the part and attach a copy of the boat’s cruising permit to the exterior of the package. If you must ship out a part for repair, take it to a customs office first for papers to avoid its being taxed upon return.
The Royal Bahamas Defense Force is the marine police and border control. They may board you to inspect for papers and possible violations.
Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association is the only Bahamian organization whose primary mission is personal-safety rescues. It is all volunteer, and there are many areas with no members or boats. BASRA Nassau monitors VHF channel 16 and 4125 SSB from 0900 to 1700; the Defense Force monitors 4125 SSB 24 hours a day for BASRA. You can make a donation to BASRA for either a year or lifetime membership (www.basra.org). Addresses are Nassau BASRA, P.O. Box SS-6247, Nassau, Bahamas; and Freeport BASRA, P.O. Box 42108, Freeport, Grand Bahama, Bahamas.
You also can make donations to BASRA and other Caribbean rescue services through SEARCH at 901 S.E. 17th St., Suite 205, Fort Lauderdale, FL 33316. SEARCH says that this donation is tax free.
The Bahamas National Trust works to preserve the islands’ environmental heritage and administers several protected parks, including sea parks, which they invite you to visit, enjoy and care for. Donations may be sent to P.O. Box N-4105, Nassau, Bahamas.
A permit must be purchased to fish. (Your cruising permit fee includes a three-month fishing permit.) Spear guns and scuba tanks aren’t allowed for fishing. Hawaiian slings, and rod and reel are allowed. There are limits as to number and size of catch, as well as seasons for some, including lobster and Nassau grouper. There are also protected (no take) areas. Check your guide book or fishing permit for restrictions. Penalties for violations can be severe.
Lastly, it is best to not wear excessively skimpy clothing when you go into villages. It’s offensive to many islanders.