A Nearby Slice of Heaven

Despite increasingly catering to the mega-rich, the Bahamas are still an accessible-and spectacular-wonderland for middle-income family cruisers. From "Passage Notes" in our September 2007 issue.

"Dinghy rides are boring," says 6-year-old Miranda Turner. She isn't thrilled about another slog through Boot Key Harbor, in Marathon, Florida. She's been dragged ashore to pick up guests, and now Miranda and her parents, Randy and Kim Turner, are shuttling us out to their 1984 Newport 30, Enterprise. "Can I drive?" Miranda asks.

Randy grins and hands over the outboard's tiller. "It's not boring anymore, is it?" he asks.

A light chop skims the water's surface as the overloaded dink bounces across the harbor, and Kim and Randy sit on either side of their daughter as she steers through the mooring balls and sailboats. Miranda smiles and chats nonstop about the other kids living aboard in the harbor. According to her, there aren't very many of them.

Moored in Marathon since October 2006, the Turners, originally from Mobile, Alabama, are in the final stages of planning a trip to the Bahamas. They've never been there before, but they've heard and read about the clear water and beautiful beaches. And after five years of living aboard, sailing mostly in the Gulf of Mexico, they can't wait. They've added a 100-watt solar panel, a high-output alternator, and a wind generator to Enterprise. They're fully provisioned and have modified the sloop's interior to better suit their needs away from the convenience of the Florida Keys. Inside Enterprise's cabin, Miranda shows off the packages of freeze-dried food her parents purchased. "It's kind of gross," she says.

In the next 20 minutes, she plays a tune on her guitar, reads a story aloud, and scuttles above deck to her favorite perch on the boom. Kim says the Turners use the A Beka home-school curriculum and are enthusiastic about the results. Miranda will soon start the second grade, but her reading level is already on par with most fourth graders.

"We decided to go to the Bahamas mainly because we'll be traveling with another boat that has a 12-year-old girl aboard," Randy says. "We're going to look for places where there are other kids, like George-Town." The Turners plan to continue on to the U.S. Virgin Islands for the end of the 2007 hurricane season.

The Turners have heard that boats with kids aboard usually congregate in Marsh Harbour, Abaco, and George-Town, Great Exuma. They're hoping Miranda can make some new friends, but given the dearth of cruising kids they've found in the States, they're taking a wait-and-see approach. "Our plans are really centered around Miranda," Randy says. "If she isn't having a good time, we'll turn around."

Sadly, they may have good reason to worry. The consensus among regular Bahamas cruisers is that there are fewer small boats on the water, and fewer families making the voyage.

Bill and Robin Marks are old Bahamas hands-he made his first trip across the Gulf Stream in 1959-and they've noticed shrinking numbers of sailing cruisers in the islands, especially the moderate-income breed most likely to travel with kids aboard. But it's no reason for despair. "Sailors are still a brotherhood," Bill says, noting that they've managed to celebrate Robin's birthday with the same Canadian couple on several occasions.

After numerous trips on Tiare Tahiti, their 38-foot Kadey-Krogan cutter, and aboard their previous boats, the Markses know what they're doing. And with an upcoming crossing to the Bahamas ahead of them, that's all the more reason to focus on preparation. When we visit, Bill is checking the engine and stocking spare parts, hard to come by once you're gone. "Two-knot currents can turn a small mechanical problem into a major disaster," he says.

"Just in case, we run all passes with the sails up," he adds, noting that stray fishing line wrapped around a prop can foil the best of preparations.

For the Markses, the crossing is a matter of tried-and-true routine. They'll leave at dawn from Cape Florida, on Key Biscayne, set a course of 105 degrees for North Rock, and have a few hours of light to anchor for a nap on Great Bahama Bank. "We're never sailing into the current, always perpendicular to it," Bill says. "It works for us." They don't cross at night because many fast-moving freighters clogging the shipping lanes often ignore the VHF.

Then it's past Mackie Shoal and on to a full night's sleep in Morgan's Bluff, on Andros Island. The next stop is usually the Nassau Harbour Club, where they anchor off the club and wait for slack tide-as they do at almost all Bahamas marinas, rather than risking a rocky time at the dock. "Nassau is kind of our base," Bill says. "From there we go wherever the weather permits." Generally, that means the Exumas, although the spectacular solitude makes the Berry Islands another favorite cruising ground.

Crossing back to the States is an easy trip from Cat Cay to Port Everglades and the couple's home port at Royale Palm Marina, in Dania Beach, Florida. "Coming back is fun-you ride the current," Bill says. "Last time, we were making eight or nine knots over ground."

A few more words of advice from the voice of experience: "Always have two anchors rigged and ready," Bill says. Boats can and do drag, and keeping the auxiliary one ready to go can turn potential disaster into a minor inconvenience.

"Don't use more than twice your boat length in chain on the rodes," he adds. "A nylon rode's stretch helps the anchors dig in gradually for a solid set." He's watched folks furrow trenches across soft-sand harbors trying to manually set a hook on all-chain rode. Tiare Tahiti is equipped with a Bruce and a Quick Set. "Danforths don't work in these latitudes," Bill warns.

He also recommends an anchor light at deck level. With millions of stars in a sky free of light pollution, a masthead light can blend right in at pristine anchorages frequented by local fisherman, who begin and end their days in the dark.

Bill's other Bahamas rule is always knowing the weather, tides, and currents. For weather, the VHF won't cut it, but getting good info isn't really as difficult or expensive as some folks make it out to be. The Markses depend on an old Furuno weatherfax, one that still prints to paper but "works every time."

Reference necessities à la Bill? "All you need," he says, "are the Explorer Chartbook series and the cruising guides by Steve Pavlidis. Trust Explorer, not your chart plotter. And take advantage of local knowledge; making friends is the ticket to finding secret anchorages."

Kate and Allen Barry, who spent time in the Bahamas in November and December 2006, would add one more book to that short list: Skipper Bob's Bahamas Bound. The late "Skipper" Bob Reib was the author of a series of popular cruising books, and his Bahamas title covers such issues as how to provision and plan your crossing.

The Barrys, marine-industry professionals who, when not cruising, live in Fort Lauderdale aboard their 1977 Down East 38, Mendocino Queen, have just made their first trip to the Bahamas, so they made sure to see as much as they could. In one month, Kate and Allen visited the Bimini Islands, Chub Cay, Nassau, and the Exumas. Since the December winds were high, they hugged the leeward side of the Exuma chain and island-hopped on the Great Bahama Bank.

New regulations prohibit foreign boaters from harvesting conch and place limitations on spearfishing. Kate and Allen were lucky enough to visit just before these laws took effect. "I guess they passed those laws because people were taking too many," Kate says. "There are always going to be people who fill up their freezers."

The environmentally conscious couple dove for conch, but took only what they could eat for dinner. "The locals even showed us how to open them," Kate says.

Meg and Chris Chesley cruised the Exumas in January, but they weren't much bothered by the new fishing laws. They were too busy riding the wind on their 2006 MaineCat 41, Walk on Water. In three and a half weeks, including their crossing, Chris says, they only put 13 hours on the engines. "We aren't fishermen or divers," he says. "If you're not, you'd better be a sailor."

The Chesleys let the wind determine their destinations. They left from Lake Worth, Florida, and their choice to cruise the Exumas over the Abacos, Chris says, "was based on 15 degrees of wind angle" on the day of the crossing. Taking advantage of their catamaran's speed, they crossed to Great Harbour Cay, in the Berry Islands, via West End, on Grand Bahama Island. After that, it was on to Eleuthera and the Exumas, mostly seeking less-used anchorages along the way. "Don't get stuck following the crowd," Chris advises. "It's too easy for most to just go and do what everyone else does. Our best memory is making a three-day sail to Eleuthera for $80 worth of groceries."

Those groceries were the most challenging part of the couple's voyage. The Chesleys brought plenty of dry stores, but they struggled to adjust from salads to canned green beans when they couldn't find fresh produce at the small Bahamian grocery stores-a problem exacerbated by their desire to avoid such population centers as Nassau and George-Town. "We felt a bit guilty raiding the local stores when the supply boat came," Meg admits. "It doesn't take many cruisers to buy out a week's worth of deliveries."

For the Turner family on Enterprise, the Bahamas are a daydream that's just over the horizon. They're hooked on the lure of crystal-clear water and pristine beaches. And while Miranda's social needs could turn them back to Marathon, the Markses have some advice that may help there, too.

The Markses have seen a decline in the middle-class cruising community. They've witnessed high-rises ruin the natural beauty of Paradise Island and condos going up even in the far reaches of the Family Islands. But at the end of the voyage, the glimmering beaches and looking-glass waters were never the Bahamas' greatest jewels anyway. What kept Bill and Robin sailing back-and what might rescue Miranda's social life-is the Bahamas' most remarkable resource: its people.

Years of condescension from a certain breed of tourist have made some Bahamians a bit wary, Robin says, but offer an honest greeting and a smile "and it's like you handed them a gold bar. We have tons of friends there now."

After countless visits, Bill is equally enthusiastic about the islands just 50 miles off Florida's coast. "For a first-time cruiser," he says, "they're still a great cruising ground. There's nothing else like it in these latitudes."

Melanie Neale and Dan Roblee have spent much of their lives as liveaboard cruisers. They currently live on land in Delray Beach, Florida. Melanie is a career adviser at the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale, and Dan is an education editor for LRP Publications, in Palm Beach Gardens.