Cruising the Bahamas
Are the Bahamas in your winter sailing plans? Read on for info about where to go, what not to miss, and tips from other cruisers.
Just an overnight sail away from busy South Florida lies some of the arguably best cruising to be found anywhere. Indeed I am certain that more than one sailing dream (I can’t be the only one) has been launched in response to the magazine photos of perfect white-sand beaches and idyllic anchorages.
If you’ve never cruised the Bahamas before, you may be wondering what the “best” islands are or what the sailing conditions might be like. To address these questions and more, I’ve put together this intro to cruising the Bahamas. (Of course, the Bahamas are such a huge area, and I can't really cover everything here, so if you have a question, please feel free to email me and I will update this with a Q&A!)
While I’ve cruised the Bahamas in pretty much every season except for fall, winter is by far the most common time that people go. From the holidays through April, it’s not uncommon to share a popular anchorage with dozens (or in the case of George Town, hundreds) of other boats, while in the summer, you might have the place to yourself.
If a winter in the Bahamas is in your plan—either as your ultimate destination, or as an island hop down the thorny path to the Caribbean—you’ll probably want to be crossing over from the East Coast sometime in November. While you can cross from pretty much anywhere south of say, Hatteras, my favorite jumping-off point is South Florida, and the more south you go, the easier your crossing will be. For example, if you want to check in at Bimini or Cat Cay, consider leaving from around Key Largo. If the Abacos are your initial destination, leaving from Miami or even Fort Lauderdale will allow you to ride the Gulf Stream for a bit. It is possible to go more or less straight across the Stream, but you should have plenty of fuel aboard. That was the route that we took when I sailed there last February (Miami – straight across – north of Bimini – then across the banks toward Nassau), but we were in a hurry and on a big 54-foot catamaran with lots of diesel. Not the most confortable ride, but it was quick.
Although they aren’t terribly frequent in the fall, cold fronts can sweep down and bring northerly winds with them (and rain squalls)—you do NOT want to be caught in the Gulf Stream during a blow out of the north, so plan your crossing when you have a weather window with light breezes with nothing out of the north for several days prior to your journey to allow the Stream to “calm down.”
The journey to the islands is a magical one—since you want to arrive during daylight hours, most sailboats will need to leave sometime the previous evening/night. After leaving the crazy that is the So. Fla. coast, you have a hopefully uneventful time in the Stream—and plenty of time to practice tracking ships on the AIS—and come morning are approaching the Bahamas. The closest ports of entry are in the Bimini islands, or you can sail on to ports in the Abacos, the Berry Islands, or Nassau.