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Here's what you need to know if you're thinking of taking your boat to the Bahamas. The following article by Dave Wheeler was published in Southern Boating. Dave writes for Yachting, Motorboating & Sailing, and is a contributing editor for Southern Boating.
The Bahamas sound farther away than they are, maybe because the Gulf Stream is between you and the islands. Currents for the Stream have to be factored into your courses. Weather forecasts speak of wave heights and often add: "higher in the Gulf Stream." How much higher? It's a foreign country with different laws and different ways of doing things and there are official things you have to do before you leave. Customs, immigration, restrictions, pet permits- sounds a little scary.
It isn't that tough, over twenty thousand boats went to the Bahamas last year. Boats are a major source of income in the Bahamas- but even more important, the good hearted people over there will go out of their way to be helpful. Distances are less than you think. Gun Cay is 44 miles from Miami, a lot closer to Miami than West Palm Beach. The distance from West Palm Beach to either Miami or West End on Grand Bahama is about the same, close to 56 miles. Another way of looking at distance is by the type of boat- 56 miles is about 11 hours for a sailboat, 6 hours for a trawler, and 3 hours for a fast cruiser.
Most of the problems people do encounter are created by small mistakes. Getting caught in a sudden storm is unlikely if you've been paying attention to the weather, but you can definitely get in trouble by failing to wait for good weather. Catastrophic engine or equipment failure is improbable, but a bit of maintenance forgotten, or something not tightened up can create panic situations. Anyone planning to cross the Gulf Stream will work hard to get their navigation exactly right and the prudent mariner will check it and recheck it. Don't be too proud to ask a knowledgeable friend to look it over. The keys to any successful cruise are preparation and multiple systems. No one should depend on one method of navigation, one source of information, or any single piece of equipment if you can help it.
THE BOAT is the conveyance that's going to carry you over there. Worry, fuss, fume and fret over every detail on that boat long before you leave.. later is too late. Start at the bottom. The cleaner the bottom and the running gear, the better time you'll make when you're out on the briny blue, counting the minutes and looking for smudges of land on the horizon. Check the engines thoroughly... then check them again. If there's something you're not sure about, hire a professional to look at it. That will cost a lot less money than having a problem far from home. Fondle all the hose clamps and see if you find oil or water on your hand. If any of the clamps look rusty or even slightly questionable, replace them. Clean out the pan under the engine and keep it clean. Run the engines and then check the pans for drips. If the pan is clean, you can tell what's dripping by its color and you can see where it dropped from. When you leave, don't head out across open water, but plan your trip to run on the ICW for awhile. If something is loose, tired, or about to give way, it's better to have it go where you can get help or parts. Any experienced cruising boat will have plenty of spare parts aboard. It's some sort of a law that you'll never need the parts you have on hand. Check the engines every morning before you leave, when they're the coolest. We check ours again after we've been running for about 15 minutes, just to be sure we didn't do anything stupid like leaving an oil cap off. I never did that myself,.. no matter what anyone says. After that first look, a check about once an hour is good insurance.
Check out the generator before you leave. It's a vital piece of equipment that charges your batteries at anchor and keeps the refrigerator and freezer going. Most generators use more fuel than you think, so if you're going to anchor for a few days, plan a schedule to run it at an efficient minimum, and check it every day. Make sure you have generator parts too. This year I had to buy a new bronze raw water pump for my Onan generator. Outside the country, with no way to research, negotiate, deal, or whatever, it cost me nearly seven hundred dollars. That was a painful experience.
Although more marinas are being built every day, there are places where you'll have to anchor out. Actually, if you don't anchor out you're not truly experiencing the Bahamas and the pristine anchorages that are waiting to be explored. The condition of your ground tackle is important over there. Drop the anchor right now in your marina and see how everything works- and, if it didn't land in someone's dinghy or on their swim platform, check the winch operation and how well the battery runs it. Most people have 6 to 10 feet of chain to save the rode from rubbing on coral. We prefer all chain, because it doesn't slip in the winch and as it lays on the bottom behind the anchor it insures a horizontal pull that will keep the anchor digging down. There are many types of anchors and almost everyone swears by a particular kind. It becomes a matter of faith because it held in the past. They need to believe in it and they seldom want to hear about alternatives. Two anchors can be a lifesaver or a disaster. You're still nailed to the bottom when the wind changes but the combination of current and wind can sometimes twist two rodes into an impossible tangle. Load up every bit of fuel at the last US marina and buy it over there at an active marina where the fuel is turned over regularly. For example, the ferry boats in the Abacos fill up at the Man of War Marina and that keeps their fuel moving.
NAVIGATION is a matter of getting all the information you can find and using it properly. Make the basic plans first, long before you leave. Those plans should be based on your boat's speed and runs each day that are comfortable for you. Realistically, the plan should include one lay day for every five days of travel to accommodate for weather or lovely places where you want to stay awhile. Don't make a plan that's an impossible dream or you'll fall behind, hurrying to catch up and running in bad weather. That quickly turns into a nightmare.
GPS & Loran are remarkable systems. Loran has some special advantages but GPS is today's popular favorite. I find it awesome that those satellite things are floating up there in the sky, sending me numbers that tell me precisely and exactly where I am. I never cease to marvel when I make a turn at a discrete point in open water, unspecified by anything but my little Magellan. I'm blown away when it says "close" and I look out and see the buoy dead ahead. However, please be aware that the GPS system can be very dangerous just because it's so good. It's addictive because it's so easy to use. I find an increasing number of people that don't plot courses on paper charts and that's dangerous business. GPS & Loran course lines do not know or care where there are shoals, rocks, or even islands. Old salts may ask you what you're going to do if the batteries fail, but any little kid that ever got a Christmas present knows the answer to that one.. take extra batteries. There is another more serious problem. If you don't plot out the courses you have no way of knowing if your navigation gear is telling you the truth. It's easy to punch in a wrong number and if things outside begin to look strange you really need a fall back system.
You'll have to make your own decision about the amount of research or support material you should have. We go to an extreme- going aground or sinking is not a nice thing. We buy every regular chart available plus the Chart Kits, which are by far the best buy. We collect coordinates from dozens of sources and list them, often six or seven of the same spot, and then we compare them. If a couple of them say the same thing, that's happiness. If they don't agree we know we can't totally trust the numbers and it might be wise to back up our plans with some dumb old stuff like speed, time and distance calculations. Coordinates often vary because the source may have a different interpretation of the position. For example, off Fred's Key, 300 yards north of Fred's Key, approaching Fred's Key, or Fred's Key Light may or may not be the same place.
We like Chart Kit's Yeoman system. It takes a lot of space because it has to hold a Chart Kit but it's the simplest and most straightforward electronic charting method we've seen. You work with an actual chart so it's easy to instantly see all the surrounding landmarks or hazards. Above all, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out how to use it.
Accurate current and tide information are critical. Tide data are available from many sources besides the standard Tide Tables. Chart Kit includes them, the May issue of Southern Boating has tables for the Bahamas, and Steve Dodge's Guide to the Abacos now has the latest tables. Wilensky's Guide to the Abacos not only includes tide tables but lets you order new ones each year for a couple of bucks.
The current in the Gulf Stream runs north at an average of two and one half knots. Unless you compensate for it, the current will carry you two and a half miles north for each hour it takes you to cross. The speed of your boat determines how long you're exposed to that current, and therefore how much you must point the bow south of your destination.
Here's how to compensate for the current. Draw a base line from your point of departure to where you want to go. As an example, from Lake Worth Inlet Buoy Fl R "2LW" to the 32 foot, 4 second light at West End it would be 56 nautical miles at a magnetic heading of 099 degrees. This is the path you want to travel along even though your bow will be pointed further south. Next, draw a line rep[resenting the current north from the Lake Worth buoy, two and a half nautical miles long, to represent how far the current would move you north in an hour. That line should be parallel to the axis of the current where it crosses your planned line of travel. If your boat speed is nine knots, you measure nine nautical miles from the top end of that "current line," and angle it down until it reaches the base line to West End. The direction of that line is the compass course you will have to steer to overcome the current and stay on the base line. In this case it's 116 degrees magnetic. The length of the triangle side that lays on the base line to West End tells you how much ground you'll cover in an hour. It will be less than nine nautical miles because you're steering a little against the current. This subject is covered in depth in the United States Power Squadron courses and there's a simple explanation in the new "Cruising Guide to the Abacos" by Dr. Darrel Wyatt. We use DMA Chart No. 26320 to cross the Stream. This is a recent chart, but some of the DMA charts show compass variations for 1980 so you must remember to add fifteen years of a nine minute annual change to get the correct magnetic heading.
There are several excellent guides to the Bahamas and almost all of them are listed in the catalog published by Bluewater Books & Charts in Ft. Lauderdale. You can call them at 1-800-942-2583 about guides, books and charts for any place in the world. One interesting service they offer is Xerox chart copies in black print on white paper. It's now legal to make these copies and they can copy any DMA or NOAA chart in stock for less than half the original price. You have to provide Bluewater with a list of the exact chart numbers you want.
These are the books, publications and guides that we carry with us:
The Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas and the appropriate Bahamas Sketch Charts by Harry Kline. These are enlargements of the charts in the Yachtsman's Guide.
Julius Wilensky's marvelous and detailed guide to the Abacos will be all new and retitled this year. Ask for A Cruising Guide to the Abacos and Northern Bahamas by Dr. Darrel Wyatt, now edited by Julius Wilensky.
A Cruising Guide to Abaco by Steve Dodge that gets bigger and better every year.
The Cruising Guide to the Exuma Land & Sea Park, is a "must" for a visit to Warderick Wells in the Exumas, a genuine paradise of protected waters.
The Chart Kit Region 9: The Bahama Islands is an absolute necessity. The charts give you complete coverage plus aerial photographs and a great deal of information.
Chart Kit also has a Bahamas GPS and Loran Handbook combined with aerial photos.
WEATHER is an important factor when you cross the Gulf Stream. The ideal conditions are light winds with no northerly component at all. A wind from the north rubs against the surface of the northward flowing Gulf Stream and increases the size of the waves. As a working hypothesis, Gulf Stream waves will be about three and one half feet high for every ten knots of sustained wind. If the winds are southerly you can deduct 25 percent from the wave heights, and if they're northerly you should add 25 percent to the wave heights. The waves build quickly but they subside slowly, and it's best to wait a while after large seas have been reported. Do not put yourself under pressure to leave too quickly. Guests are sometimes a problem because they may have limited time. (If they have non refundable airline tickets you may be in terrible trouble trying to meet their planes before the cruise is over.) Most people will want to find an inexpensive place or an anchorage where they can wait for mild southerly winds. In a high priced marina, waiting for several days, the rapidly mounting bill might tempt some people to leave before the weather is right. Failing to wait for calm seas and gentle south wind is the single most common reason for a bad trip across the Gulf Stream.
Put one of those small weather radios by your bed. Listen in the morning around 0430 AM and make the decision then to get up or just roll over and go back to sleep. However much as you may dislike getting up that early, remember that winds are usually lighter in the morning, while thunderstorms tend to occur later in the afternoon. Sailboats often leave the night before and displacement boats should leave a little before dawn to get across the Stream in the best part of the day.
VHF RADIO weather forecasts can seldom be heard in the islands and you will miss them. On our first trips over there we tried to pick up standard radio broadcasts from Nassau but it was frustrating because either the reception or our timing was poor. In some areas there are VHF relays of reports from the National Weather Service or the Nassau Meteorological Service. Some of the relays are by The Cruiser's VHF Net in Marsh Harbour, Allison's relays from Highbourne Cay, or reports from "Ranger" in Nassau. High frequency weather forecasts can be received with a single sideband radio or with a good multiband radio. The major stations broadcasting from the states are WLO and NMN and you should find out when they broadcast and the frequency they broadcast on before you leave the States. The next step up is getting an amateur radio license which not only enables you to receive weather but allows you to listen and talk on a variety of frequencies. We're members of the Waterway Radio & Cruising Club, commonly called the Waterway Net. This is an amateur radio group that assists skippers of small boats with emergencies, communications, weather information and services related to their safety. Anyone with a high frequency radio can listen from 0745 to 0845 every day on 7.268 Mhz. This remarkable organization has become an extended family for us. As one example, a squall came through Marsh Harbour a few years ago with 70 knot winds. It picked up our inflatable and dropped it upside down with the outboard in the salt water. In half an hour three people from the Waterway Net were aboard helping us get that outboard running again.
FOOD, WATER AND PROVISIONS require some serious planning to make sure you have everything you may need as well as first aid supplies. Prescription medicine has to be taken with you because an American prescription can't be filled at the local apothecary. Make a list of vitamins you may want to take because names and brands are different over there.
Most household items are bought on an "as needed" basis back home, but planning ahead for several weeks is a little different. For example, how many rolls of toilet paper or paper towels will you need? Paper products are more expensive in the Bahamas. Exactly how long does a tube of toothpaste last? How much booze should you take? One year, long before we were going to leave, we started putting dates on each new item we opened, and recorded how long it lasted. The longer the cruise, the more you need, the more space it takes up, and the harder it will be to find unless you keep good records. We take a bean sprouter and grow some green things to eat so we can be less dependent on local veggies. If you learn when the freighters come in, you can buy fresh vegetables the next day. The shelves may be empty on the following day. Take your own propane. It is available, both in the small canisters or as refills for your tanks, but it isn't an easy trip if you're anchored out. Provisioning carefully can make your cruise a great success, but if you run out of anything, not to worry. There are plenty of grocery stores in the Bahamas, but some things are more expensive because someone had to bring them over there.
PAYING THE BILLS BACK HOME
We've tried every conceivable means of taking care of regular commitments like gasoline credit cards, or rent or whatever. Writing to each place with a check to cover the three months we'd be away didn't work at all. They just seemed to think we were sending in a little extra and we arrived home to find a number of ugly letters. Finally, we found a dependable person and we leave three big manilla envelopes with her, each labeled with the month they are to be mailed. In my checkbook, I write all the checks for three months and then make a box around the entries in my check register with a total for each month. I ignore the boxes until the first of each month and then deduct the total mailed out for the month from my balance.
There are superb restaurants in the Bahamas. Don't forget that you're a tourist, whether you arrived on a boat or on a plane, and you should be prepared to pay tourist prices. Sometimes we try a new place for lunch instead of dinner. We learn what it's like and the lessons are a lot cheaper. Local bakeries make delicious bread. We think it's because they use fewer preservatives. The bread does get hard quicker but then it makes great French toast.
Some liquor is cheaper in the Bahamas. We always buy rum over there but it's difficult to tell how much cheaper it is because the contents are stated in metrics and in addition they have different bottle sizes. Some liquors are far more expensive than you're used to. Canadian is expensive and beer is out of sight. Take extra beer to use as tips.
OTHER GEAR that will be important includes the dinghy because you will have to anchor in some areas. Make sure the outboard is in good shape, double check your towlines, and if you have an inflatable you'll want a good pump and patching materials. Unfortunately there are a few places where you'll want to keep the dinghy locked. We use a steel cable with loops swaged in the ends and enclosed in an old hose. Run it through part of the motor and around an immovable part of the boat. It may discourage the odd crook even though cable cutters would do a number on it.
Make a careful check of all the miscellaneous gear that's easy to overlook. Extra prescription glasses, film, books to read, sun lotion, or anything that may be difficult to get in another country. Dog food can be a big problem with a big dog. Make a list of all the dry cell batteries you might need.. and get some extra ones. Take parts for the head, oak buckets may have splinters. Give consideration to items that will make life more pleasant over there, such as inverters, hand bearing compasses, or water makers. TV isn't available in most area so record lots of tapes and you can play them on the VCR. There are places that rent tapes in the larger towns. We learned the hard way that big generators are the source of electrical power in the outer islands. If there's a problem and they go down, there may be a powerful surge when they come back on line that can create damage. We lost our microwave and our TV was always a little nervous after that. Our boat now has surge protectors on everything that might get zapped.
CUSTOMS and Immigration sounds very official and a bit scary. Before you leave, collect all the information, papers, documents and permits you might need. The latest Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas is an excellent source of information. They list the Bahamian Ports of Entry and all of the requirements.
When you arrive in the harbour where you plan to check in, you must fly a yellow "Q" flag until you clear customs and then replace it with a Bahamas courtesy flag when you're given a cruising permit. Put that permit in a safe place, it will enable you to have parts shipped in from the States duty free. Above all, be patient! Sometimes on the weekends there are several boats waiting and it may take a while. At the beginning of the article we talked about getting started early in the morning and here's another reason- if you arrive after 5:30 PM you may have to pay both overtime and travel charges for an agent to help you.
There are forms to fill out and they'll be glad to help you with any that are unfamiliar. They'll ask to see a birth certificate, a passport, or a voter's registration card. Your driver's license won't do. You must give them the serial numbers of all guns aboard and an exact list of all the ammunition you have with you. There is no problem with weapons aboard as long as you declare them, however, if you are boarded for any reason, the amount of ammunition aboard will be checked.
If you plan to fish be sure to get a license, and be aware that there are nationally regulated areas where fishing is absolutely forbidden. They will also require a permit to import pets, and you should send for those a couple of months before you leave. If your pet is over the age of four months, the animal must have a rabies vaccination certificate not less than twenty one days old or more than nine months old. All pets of any age must have a veterinary health certificate issued within twenty four hours of embarkation. Give that one careful consideration, it can be a problem if you have to travel for a few days before you reach the port you're departing from. Frankly, we have never arrived over there within the 24 hours but they realize it's a difficult rule to comply with.
Another item to take care of before you leave is a user fee decal for your boat. This is $25.00 and when you clear customs coming back, they'll ask for the number of that decal. Don't forget to turn in your cruising permit when you leave the Bahamas, and although you'll be proud of that Bahamas flag when you get back, you better take it down or you might get stopped to see if you've cleared customs.
That does sound like a massive amount of preparation work but there are some incentives. No one wants to have problems far away from home and this is the way to insure a successful cruise. Once you get all this done you don't want to waste the effort, so get your ship together and get out of there!
Plantation Yacht Harbor
87000 Overseas Highway
Islamorada, FL 33036