Cruising the Bahamas: beauty at our back door

Girls hiking in the Bahamas

snorkeling coral reef BahamasHard won miles to windward from the cerulean blue of our last Bahamian anchorage, some perspective on our months in the islands is sinking in. I went in with a mixed bag of expectations: friends who have sailed around the world claim it’s among the best cruising to be had (don’t we all love our first major destination?). Other cruisers who don’t have that far-reaching basis for comparison rave about it (was there narrower base of comparison at play?). It put me on guard: were we REALLY going to like it that much? How could islands so close to the USA possibly offer that kind of exceptional experience?

Confession: I spent too much of our time there being jaded and just needed to get over it. So what if the Bahamas didn’t measure up in discrete specifics to more exotic locales? On its own merits, the islands are a spectacular cruising ground, and there is a lot to love. These are the reasons it stood out in our experience.

Beautiful water

It’s spectacular. There is almost nothing more to say. We’ve seen a lot of mesmerizing water on our way around the world, and the Bahamas (tie: Bermuda) is at the top of the heap. It’s as though it is lit from within: and it is, in a way, as sunlight reflecting off a white sandy bottom is what lends the vivid blues. Stunning shades of aqua in the winding inner channel of the Exumas are now my benchmark. A gift for cruisers starting out from the US east coast: their first international step can transport them to some of the best! UNDERwater is another story, but we’ll save that for later.

Photos can't do the colors justice, but offer a suggestion
Photos can’t do the colors justice, but offer a suggestion

Close to home

It’s a DAY trip! Sure, there is a meaningful bit of water to cross and the Gulf Stream deserves all the respect and planning you can give it. But at the end of the day, well… at the end of the day in which you depart Florida, you can be relaxing on the hook in Alice Town or West End, and rightfully feel like you have transported yourself a world away to an island paradise where you can beachcomb for intricate shells, paddle in turquoise water, gawk at mountains of conch shells, maybe even swim with dolphins (all features of our point of arrival, Bimini).

swimming with dolphins
How to describe the feeling of being approached by a playful dolphin?

This proximity also helped when Jamie and I had to fly out. I was gone a week for the Annapolis spring boat show; Jamie hopped around Florida and the Caribbean checking out boat listings with a few of our coaching clients. Even in what felt like relatively remote islands, flights were easy to book on relatively short notice and fares weren’t terrible. What a great way to cruise in a place that’s relatively easy to have visitors! And if you’re sailing back to the US, it’s likely to be with the wind at your back…and an easier task to find a date to cross the Gulf Stream in comfort.

Access to stuff

If you came for the sand you’ll be in paradise. If you came for the avocados to make guacamole to go accompany nacho chips that cost $11/bag, then carry on to Puerto Rico!

Sure, you may want to provision up anything you must have; you might not find it and it will cost more when you do. But it’s a corollary of “close to home,” these islands aren’t in the middle of an ocean. They’re regularly supplied by mail boats (or planes). Costs can be eyepopping (especially for our hungry crew…wow the kids were easier to feed when they were little!), but that’s if you’re trying to recreate your Publix shopping cart at a market on Eleuthera. Mitigate expense with advance provisioning or switching your diet to local style: market rates or government subsidy keep many staples affordable. Get out the fishing gear. Shift your habits. Eat on board instead of ashore.

cracked conch
Conch at a pier on Eleuthera: 7 for $10

Ultimately, availability wasn’t as bad as I expected from reports. In George Town, it as possible to get everything from kale to mushrooms and shallots. Markets in Staniel Cay had surprising breadth: asparagus anyone? (thanks I’m sure to the higher-end charters frequenting the area and providing a ready market to supply.)

market produce
Bounty after the mail boat: George Town, Great Exuma

If you need boat parts, it’s a little different. People don’t need diesel mechanics the way they need food. But help is there, and parts are just a DHL shipment away. Many corners of the world are a lot more complicated, and lot slower / more costly, if it’s necessary to source and deliver boat bits. So you may have to wait a bit…there are few places that wouldn’t be lovely to be required to wait around!

Easily connected

We started out by using our existing US T-Mobile plans. T-Mobile’s customer service crowed about the 4G we’d be living in the Bahamas, leveraging the BTC cellular network that’s already in place. Well, there was broad coverage. That’s incredible, really, considering the dispersed islands and thin population. But the service was throttled back to 2G. Fine if you’re just checking email, but really not good enough for what it cost. No problem: swapping our T-Mobile SIM card for a BTC SIM was affordable and easy. $15 for the SIM, and during our stay, 15 gigabytes cost only $35 – much better value than our paused T-Mobile plan and about the cheapest per-GB rate yet.

Social scene

Despite being entirely off pace with the seasonal flow of the Bahamas, the islands lived up to their reputation as a social hub for cruisers. Our timing meant that we experienced it on a smaller scale (George Town peaks with more than 300 boats; there were maybe a dozen transients when we came in). But we were able to meet up with “internet friends” passing on the way to the states, and make new friends who, like us, had plans to point to the Caribbean for hurricane season.

Sundowners on Tookish
An overdue meetup with the Tookish crew, plus friends

But your draft!

US east coasters in particular seem to make a big deal about shallow Bahamas water limiting access to all but shallow draft boats. Depths require attention, but it is NOT a big deal. Shallower draft boats can anchor closer to the beach. Once in a while they can take a shortcut that we can’t, or skip waiting for higher tide. Repeat: it is not a big deal. We draw 6’; we spent time with a boat drawing 7’, neither of us felt compromised in our anchoring or locked out from cool spots.

underwater snorkeling
Siobhan peeks under Totem’s keel: at times we only had a few inches at low tide

Uncomplicated cruising

The Bahamas was largely a straightforward place to cruise. Same language, much of the same cultural context, it’s safe, there are oodles of blogs and other resources to help plan a trip. Currency is 1:1 with the US dollar, and US currency is accepted everywhere. It really does not get much easier! But I can appreciate that for cruisers who are reaching beyond the US coast for the first time, it may feel …not easy. And of course, it’s Not America, and with that may creep in some uncertainty. The cure for that is the Waterway Guide. Updated annually, it includes exhaustive detail to relieve any worries a new cruiser (or, newly international cruiser) might have from the clearance process (an overall view and details what to do / where to go at each port of entry) to understanding the unique dynamics of the tide in the Bahamas (they have a great description that helped it make perfect sense to me) – along with all that normal logistical guide stuff of places to go, conch shacks to patronize, and reefs to snorkel. It’s the only book you need.

boats anchored bahamas
Late-season flock anchored off Monument Beach, George Town

The same folks who think you need shoal draft boats to cruise the Bahamas warn about bad charts and currents and tides and dragons. Dunno about the dragons but just like depth, current/tide merely requires attention. It’s not unduly complicated, but may be new for boaters accustomed to channel markers wherever you might need them and aids to navigation for any hazard. Possibly that’s why the Explorer charts have developed an otherwise puzzling cult following. After being at the receiving end a mountain of FUD, we finally conceded to buy a set. They WERE good charts, but along our winding path from Bimini through the Exumas to Great Inagua, Navionics charts (used with the iNavX app) were pretty much spot on (save a few places where we found more depth than they indicated). And speaking of FUD, that’s what Explorer throws at boaters who just want to anchor. In one anchorage after another Explorer reported bad holding where we set the hook very well, thank you. They also advertise a lot of marinas…

We maxed out the three months we were granted on entry to the Bahamas. What we didn’t max out where the opportunities to explore. Always good to leave something wanting? One aspect is certain: the further away from the US we got, the better we liked the Bahamas. Had our earlier plans not relied on pauses and airports while Jamie and I took care of business, I kinda think we might have tipped over into full-fledged the Bahamas cheerleaders. There were just a few things that held us back, though, and that’s the next post.

Stocking Island Exumas Bahamas drone
Drones-eye-view to the north at Stocking Island, Exumas

16 Responses

  1. Good cruising guide Behan! Vastly enjoy reading your take on things & practical advice. Also learned a new word: cerulean.

    No place is perfect (hurricane alley) but the Bahamas seem to be near the top of the must-cruise list. We briefly touched at Eleuthera for a day on the way down to the Windwards to deal with a broken gooseneck; zero time to soak in anything. Next time will be more leisurely.

    Feedback: My Official Totem Hat continues to provide excellent service. Have made one mod.: loop of marlin to keep it attached when the wind grabs it. Hat prompted questions from others… “What boat is Totem?” and “Your boat is Amity, not Totem.” & etc. After a bare-bones recounting of Totem’s odyssey they are directed to and the Totem store. Expect a boom in sales.

    Best to all & Cheers!

    1. I think the Bahamas are near the top of the “must” list mostly because they’re easy. Getting beyond the Bahamas is a whole different level of effort and commitment.

      Love the hat anecdotes Jim! Thanks for putting it out there!!

  2. I’ve always been a tall island person, perhaps with a bit of jungle thrown in. St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Providencia, Hawaii. Probably because I’ve spent most of my life around big mountains in the PNW, Rockies, and South America. But I’ll never forget the incredible pink sand beach on the Atlantic side of Spanish Wells,St. George’s Cay just north of Eleuthra.

    ps. We were on board a Tom Wiley 44 with a retractable ballasted keel. Rarely bothered to raise it much above 6′ draft.

    1. I am WITH you on the tall island thing! With a few exceptions (thinking about the Tuamotus in particular)… those low atolls just make for such great water clarity, when there’s no soil to runoff in the rain. But yes, there’s no denying that something special. We has our beautiful pink beach experience a little further south in Eleuthera. Amazing!

    1. The Sea of Cortez is pretty sweet, too! But I remember when we first got to MX and our 9-year-old was like… but this doesn’t look like the magazine pictures (of Bahamas/Caribbean)! Well, no, but it’s pretty awesome in other ways.

  3. Sounds amazing .. especially for us soon-to-be cruisers! Glad to hear that we’ll be fine with our 5’3″ draft. Can’t wait to get there by end of the year!

  4. We also preferred the less populated islands further down the chain, and will be revisiting on our jump down to the Caribbean in the Fall! With our 6′ 3″ draft, there were few places we felt we couldn’t go – and considering it was our first adventure, I feel like the 2nd go round we’d figure out how to get into even the most challenging spots. But we DO love our Explorer Charts. I haven’t checked out the waterway guide, and agree that our Garmin chart plotter had basically the same info. I just happen to love opening those paper charts to plot and plan.
    I am a bit jealous of your lack of boats in G-Town. We were there with 200 others, but thankfully headed south just before the regatta, which supplied an additional 100 boats to cram into the anchorages. But I loved having so many people to visit with after enjoying the quiet of the Exuma chain.
    Looking forward to Pain Killers in Annapolis! Thanks for sharing the post and all the gorgeous pics.

    1. I understand loving the tactile nature of the Explorer chartbooks, and for whatever it’s worth, I completely agree! When we had both iPad and charbook in the cockpit I loved looking at Explorer. But what baffles me is this cult-like following they have – maybe they deserved it once upon a time; they’re really good but far from essential. I think what really got me was hearing the saltier-than-thou folks on the George Town VHF net scoffing at folks who don’t have them, which is silliness really. (And I’d LOVE to see George Town in full swing, even if we woudln’t have lingered – I feel like we missed out by missing the “scene”!).

      Painkillers at the boat show – see you there!

  5. Great post Behan. We are on the U.S. East coast at the moment and plan to head to the Bahamas end of November, probably with half the States! Where did you check in? Was it $300 for 3 months or has it gone up?
    sv Camomile
    Ps not sure if you’ll remember us, its probably over 3 years since we last saw you.

    1. I think it was Malaysia, 2014 last we saw you – Hi Sue!! Bahamas clearance/cruising permit was still $300 at our check-in in March. Actually- we paid a little more, as we have 5 crew and the $300 includes 3. I think our total was $340. It was a simple, straightforward process – experienced world cruisers like you will fly through!

    1. All underwater pics here are with a GoPro Hero 5 Black. It has really nice clarity. But… while it’s great for the atmospheric shots, and I also love getting up close to things, and it doesn’t do that well at all.

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