How Rough is the
Sea of Abaco?
The short answer is: anywhere from flat calm to very rough, and these conditions can co-exist on the same day at the same time. As such, there is no valid "forecast" or "summary" for the Sea of Abaco. However, if you understand the area's geography and you are aware of the current weather and forecast, you can make your own determination.
On hot summer days when there is little wind, you'll find near-flat conditions almost anywhere in the Sea of Abaco. BUT, be aware that a sudden summer squall can stir up a lot of wind from virtually any direction, making the water temporarily very rough. Always keep an eye to the weather, and find some shelter if it looks like a squall is coming your way.
The height of waves on the Sea of Abaco is a function of three things:
- wind direction, (always refer to the direction of origin; i.e., when the wind comes from the north, it is a "north wind,"
- fetch; that is, the distance that the wind travels over open water before it reaches you.
Let's consider a typical day in May in the Middle Sea of Abaco (see Figure 1 below): the wind (purple arrows) is blowing 15-20 knots from the southeast (SE). Our first boater (#1, red arrow) has just run the Don't Rock Passage and is heading SE, out in the open, directly into the wind. He is encountering a rough, 2-3 foot chop, and in the typical 20-24 foot rental boat, his crew will experience a slow, wet, bumpy ride.
Boater #2 has anchored up in Baker's Bay in a Moorings 40-foot monohull sailboat. He had heard that Baker's Bay was a "great anchorage," but he and his crew are getting knocked around as they are completely exposed to the wind and chop, and they are considering relocating.
Boater #3 has anchored off of Guana Cay's North Beach in the lee of the dune, and he is enjoying a gorgeous day on a flat-calm ocean. Boater #4 has taken his family snorkeling at Mermaid Reef where conditions are likewise very calm. Lastly, Boater #5 is anchored up at Treasure Cay Beach. It's windy, but the Sea of Abaco is sheltered and calm, and his crew is enjoying a great day.
Figure 1: Middle Sea of Abaco, SE wind, 15-20 kts.
Fast-forward to November (see Figure 2): the 15-20 kt wind is now blowing out of the NE (purple arrows). Let's take a look at how the same boaters are fairing.
Boater #1 never made it through Don't Rock: the strong NE swell is causing breaking waves in both Whale Cay and Don't Rock passages. He prudently turns around and heads back to New Plymouth, thinking that maybe the wind will settle in the next day or two and he can continue SE.
Boater #2 is enjoying a calm day in Baker's Bay, which is wonderfully sheltered from the wind. Boater #3, despite his crew's protestations, has again anchored off North Beach, where the wind and waves are really tossing his boat around. Boater #4 could not successfully anchor at Mermaid Reed, it was simply too rough. Boater #5 is getting knocked around on Treasure Cay Beach, and is considering returning to the the pool at the Jolly Roger back on GTC.
A new player, Boater #6, thought he could run along the sheltered bayside coast of Guana, Scotland, and MOW Cays. This strategy initially worked well, but as he passes the tip of Scotland Cay he quickly encounters both a nasty chop and steep swells that are working into the Sea of Abaco through the open areas adjacent to Fowl Cay. He and his crew get drenched and seasick, and he presses on only after promising his wife carte blanche at the Sail Loft. The lesson here is that ocean swells can penetrate the Sea of Abaco in the gaps between cays.
Figure 2: Middle Sea of Abaco, NE wind, 15-20 kts.
Now let's turn our attention to the Lower Sea of Abaco, Point Set Rock to Little Harbour (Figure 3). Again, it's May, and we have a 15-20 kt SE wind (purple arrows). Boater #1 has another Moorings 40-foot sailboat, and is anchored in sheltered water west of the Hope Town lighthouse. The breeze is keeping him and his crew cool, and the sea surface is almost flat, ensuring that they will enjoy a calm, bug-free night.
Boater #2 is anchored up at Tahiti Beach. It's blustery, but the water is calm, and his crew is having a great day. Boater #3 has taken his crew to North Pelican Cay, where they are anchored in the lee of the hill. There is a surge in the anchorage, but it's not prohibitive, and they are enjoying the day. The ride down was bumpy, especially when they turned the corner at the west edge of Tilloo Bank and had to eat the stiff wind and chop until they anchored in the lee of the cay.
Boater #4 is an animal: he and his crew are jonesing for a round of Blasters at Pete's Pub in Little Harbour. They get knocked around twice; once by swells and chop coming between the Pelicans, and once in the open area south of the tip of Lynyard Cay. Once they enter Little Harbour, they find sheltered conditions, and the usual phalanx of mosquitos and no-see-ums.
Figure 3: Lower Sea of Abaco, SE wind, 15-20 kts.
Six months later it's November (see Figure 4 below), and we're again finding a typical 15-20 kt NE wind (purple arrows). Skipper #1 is facing a mutiny: the surge coming through the Johnny's Cay area is really knocking the boat around. He assesses the situation and wisely concludes that he can minimize this by relocating to the south near the tip of Elbow Cay. Boater #2 is again having a relatively calm day at Tahiti Beach, being well protected behind the land mass of the cay. Boater #3 is still at North Pelican Cay, but now he's on the south side, again finding calm conditions in the lee of the cay.
Boater #4 and crew, fortified by a round of Blasters, have now left the sheltered confines of Little Harbour, and are rapidly becoming aware that they have committed one of the cardinal sins of boating: they ran several miles before the wind, and didn't consider that they would have to run into it on the way home. They are now facing not only a steep chop, but a 3-4 ft surge. It will be a long, wet, cold, bumpy ride home. When they finally tie up in White Sound, the skipper is greeted with the announcement that his wife and the other couple will be flying back to Bismarck in the morning.
Figure 4: Lower Sea of Abaco, NE wind, 15-20 kts.
In this article we have tried to demonstrate that the "roughness" of the Sea of Abaco is directly related to both location and wind conditions. The good news is that if the a boater understands this, he can assess the weather in the morning, take a look at a chart or cruising guide, and usually find sheltered water where his crew can enjoy the day. This is not to say that there are some days that are prohibitive; however, a skillful skipper can turn a marginal day into a great day if he understands the dynamics that lead to rough or calm conditions.