Traveling to Abaco
in Your Boat
In this article, I reference several publications, organizations, products, marinas, resorts, and boats. I receive no compensation for said references, and none was solicited. I am merely reporting my experience. I do not guarantee the accuracy of any charts or textual references, or the adequacy of any device or boat.
This article is written from the perspective of a powerboat operator; however, much of the discussion will be of use to sailboaters, and I encourage sailors contemplating a trip to Abaco to read and consider the contents herein.
I make several comments relating to a boat’s performance in adverse sea conditions. Obviously, a 25-footer will perform differently than a 45-footer. Our boat, at 32 feet, is intermediate, and I use it as a reference along with my experience in smaller outboards. Those of you running larger, more capable boats will probably have the experience to temper (but not ignore) my warnings and concerns.
My Experience: Why I Feel I Can Offer Useful Advice
In the summer of 1961, my family moved from Ohio to Daytona Beach, Florida. My grandfather, Ellsworth Bundy, had enjoyed both freshwater and “deep sea” fishing for many years. In the fall of ’61, he found an advertisement in the local paper for the Marianne, a “head” boat based out of Ponce Inlet. We made a number of trips on that boat, often returning with large catches of red snapper, sea bass, triggerfish, grouper, and amberjack. This was high adventure for an eleven-year-old, although the three-hour ride out to the reefs was tedious, especially in rough weather. I once asked the mate why we had to travel so far, and his response was, “That’s where the fish are.”
I later found a topographical map of the continental shelf in Rachael Carson’s The Sea Around Us. From it, I learned that the shelf and the very deep water to seaward were quite close to the South Florida shoreline. To the north, however, the shelf curved away from the continental landmass. Where deep water could be found only a few miles east of Palm Beach, one would have to travel over 40 nautical miles from Ponce to reach a depth of 300 feet and the subsequent rapid drop-off. This phenomenon would shape my boating experience in the coming years.
In 1985, I bought my first boat, a 21-foot outboard cuddy, and began the slow process of developing my seamanship skills. Within six months I had braved Ponce Inlet and ventured out into the open Atlantic. Within a year I had reached the first line of productive reefs, known locally as “Party Grounds,” seventeen miles from and out of sight of land. The fishing was considerably leaner than in the early 60s, and I had to find and explore deeper reefs farther from shore. By ’88, I had learned how to catch dolphin from a “driftline” while anchored over a reef, and the following year I started trolling. On a very calm day in ’89, my little 21-footer and I reached 300 feet, the edge of the shelf, 42 nautical miles from port. It was clearly time for a bigger boat.
That fall, my new wife Bunny and I bought a Pro-Line 25, a hulking boat with 10 feet of beam and twin 200-horsepower Yamaha outboards. We caught our first sailfish in the summer of ’90, won $1100 with a 35-pound dolphin in the ’91 Greater Daytona Beach Striking Fish Tournament, and the following summer we released our first marlin. We were regularly traveling 40 to 45 nautical miles off Daytona to fish, and somewhere along the line it occurred to me that Bahamian ports were really not much farther than that from South Florida. I started doing the research, learning about Bimini, West End, Walker’s Cay, and Abaco proper, and what it would take to get “the islands.” Despite my enthusiasm, I couldn’t sell the idea to my wife and our regular fishing buddies. Obviously, we needed a bigger boat.
In early ’93, we took delivery of a Pro-Line 29 Walkaround. Big, brawny, wide, and capable, it had twin 250-horse Yammies, state of the art electronics, a hard top, enclosure, and a huge fishing cockpit. That April we made our first trip to Walker’s Cay, and in July we spent a week in Abaco, visiting Guana, Elbow, and Green Turtle Cays. In ’97 we bought our current boat, Attitude Adjustment, a Pro-Line 3250 Express with 300-horse inboards. All told, we have made fifteen cruises to Bahamian ports, including Bimini, the Berry Islands, Abaco from Walker’s Cay to south of Little Harbour, as well as West End, Grand Bahama.
Why have a dragged you through my little history? First, I started boating seriously over two decades ago with only marginal experience, a couple of bucks, and a sense of adventure. I educated myself along the way, listened to the voices of wisdom and experience, tried my best, screwed up, tried again, learned more, read more, talked more, did even more, and to date have logged ten successful island cruises. If I can do this, so can you. Second, let me tell you, the island boating thing has been the experience of my life. If you are a serious or even semi-serious boater, do yourself a favor and take your boat to Abaco. But, do it right!
I ran boats for eight years before I crossed the Gulf Stream to the Bahama Banks. I spent a lot of time a lot of miles from shore, and I got my butt—and the butts of my crews—kicked more times than I care to think about. There were sudden squalls and five-hour slogs into miserable head seas, debilitating heat, and numbing cold. We suffered through mechanical failures of virtually every kind, hit things we didn’t see, fouled our props, and got lost in the fog. We logged thousands of hours and thousands of miles, and we learned that when you’re out there alone and things go south, you have to do whatever it takes to survive and get back to port.
People write me letters from places like Tennessee: “We’ve been boating on lakes all our lives, and now we want to trail our boat to Florida and come to Abaco. What can we do to prepare ourselves?” Or: “I’ve been boating inshore all my life, and now I want to run across to West End. Do you think this is a good idea?” My answer is simply: “Unless you have the skills to cope with weather-related and mechanical disasters in the open sea, get some more experience.” (When I write an article, I try to give the reader a few “pearls” that he can carry away—concepts and ideas that I think are really worth remembering. When you see red text, you’re reading a pearl; grab it and hold on.)
There are a lot of ways to skin a cat, boat, or fish. I’m going to tell you what works for me, why I do what I do, and why I believe what I believe. I place strong emphasis on safety, patience, education, and preparation. There are a lot of nitwits out there on the water, and yes, some of them will survive their trip from South Florida to Abaco. You’ll bump into them from time to time; don’t let their casual irresponsible approach cloud your good judgment. Part of our great boating adventure involves some risk-taking, but let’s make sure we do it on our terms, not theirs.
There are a number of publications, cruising guides, charts, and online resources that can assist you as you prepare for your Abaco cruise. They are available at specific web sites, brick and mortar retail outlets, and their Internet counterparts.
Where To Shop:
- For several years we have patronized the local West Marine that is adjacent to our homeport, Halifax Harbor Marina, in Daytona Beach. They have a knowledgeable staff and an excellent selection of resource material, as well as an online store, West Marine Online.
- Bluewater Books and Charts in Fort Lauderdale is perhaps the single most complete source of nautical books, charts, charting software, calendars, and related media. If you ever find yourself on 17th St. in Lauderdale, I urge you to spend an hour at Bluewater; it is a unique, wonderful store.
- Lastly, Amazon.com is, of course, the world’s largest source of print material and offers thousands of nautical references.
What to Buy
The single most useful reference for the potential Abaco cruiser is Steve Dodge’s Cruising Guide to Abaco Bahamas 200X. If you purchase only one reference, make it Dodge; it contains perhaps 90% of the essential information you’ll need to successfully plan and execute an Abaco cruise. The most useful aspect of Dodge is the cruising routes Steve provides. He’ll describe for you how to get from point A to B to C with a “functional guarantee” of six feet draft at mean low water (MLW). There are charts, aerial photos, descriptions of anchorages and harbours, “yellow pages,” and useful articles. Lastly, it is updated annually, so you are assured of getting the most current information.
Other great print resources include:
- BBA’s Bahamas Chartkit contains detailed nautical charts for the entire Bahamas; at over $100 it may be overkill, but it offers a wealth of information.
- Explorer Chartbook: Near Bahamas including the Abacos is a combination chart package and cruising guide that has numerous useful charts and much relevant information. It covers the western Little Bahama Bank and its approaches better than most resources. It also is widely available in retail outlets, as well as online at Explorer Charts.
- Although I have no experience with software-based charting, I have friends that rave about the MapTech system.
- Finally, Chapman’s Seamanship and Small Boat Handling belongs on every serious boater’s bookshelf. It is exhaustive and definitive, the Bible of boating. Get it, read it, learn it!
While you’re shopping, you’ll need to pick up a yellow Quarantine or “Q” flag, as well as a Bahamas courtesy flag. We’ll discuss their use later; just be aware that you’ll need them when you reach the Bahamas.
- Abaco Climate is a web site that provides climate data such as average monthly temperatures and rainfall.
- National Data Buoy Center-Florida allows you to select and retrieve weather information from NWS weather buoys and shore-based weather stations. Each base has a link to the marine forecast for its region.
Due to the fluid nature of the Internet, web sites are constantly appearing, evolving, and disappearing. If you try one of the links in this article and it doesn’t take you where you wanted to go, try using Google. For example, if you click on “Marina X” and you wind up at a porn site, call up Google, paste in “Marina X,” and it will generate a list of sites, one or more of which should suit your needs. I used Google extensively during my research for this article—it is a great tool.
For several years I have used Wunderground.com as my primary Internet weather information source. From this site you can access weather reports and predictions for South Florida ports, as well as related marine forecasts, local and regional radar plots, and tropical weather information. Each morning of the week prior to our annual summer cruise, I use Wunderground.com to familiarize myself with the weather outlook for Ft. Pierce, our departure port. If you have a laptop and Internet access from your boat, you obviously can continue to visit this site after you leave home. It does, in fact, produce some annoying pop-up ads, but several of the Internet security programs (I use Norton Internet Security) as well as the newest version of Windows XP have efficient pop-up blockers. Barometer Bob's Abaco Weather Forecast and National Data Buoy Center-Florida are also of use, as pointed out in the previous section.
National Weather Service reports are obviously available on your boat’s VHF; make sure you listen to their report the night before and the morning of your departure. How far offshore you will be able to continue to access NWS radio depends on the height above water of your boat’s VHF antenna, and the weather.
Barometer Bob’s Abaco weather report is broadcast daily at 8:15 AM on VHF 68 during the “Cruiser’s Net” radio program. It can usually be heard from Little Harbour to Green Turtle Cay, again depending on the height of your antenna. There are times at GT when reception is marginal. When this happens, I walk around the marina and find a larger boat with very high antennas; often they can hear it. Besides the weather report, Cruiser’s Net offers news of local events as well as promotional information from local resorts, restaurants, and bars.
When in Abaco, it has been my practice for many years to get up at 7:30. I take a few moments to “shake out the cobwebs,” walk the docks for a quick visual weather check, and then settle in for Cruiser’s Net. It is a great way to start the day; I get the weather and related info I need to make the day’s “plan.”
If you have an FM radio onboard, you may be able to pick up Silbert Mills’ weather report on Radio Abaco 93.5 at about 6 PM, as well as mornings at 7 AM. If you miss Cruiser’s Net and Silbert’s broadcast, try asking for weather info on VHF 16. Often someone will respond with at least some of what you need.
Accessing weather information on the western Bank can be challenging. At West End, it is often possible to hear the NWS broadcast from Palm Beach. If you can’t hear from your boat, someone with a high antenna will probably let you listen for a few moments. It’s much harder to pick up NWS at Walker’s Cay. However, they often post a South Florida marine report on the bulletin board opposite the resort’s main desk. Each morning, I walk up the hill to the office and read the report. On the way back, and as I walk the docks, I ask if anyone has heard a weather report. By the time I get back to the boat I usually have a pretty good idea of what’s in store for us. The situation is similar at Spanish Cay; check with the folks at the marina office.
If you are anchoring out between Walker’s and Spanish, you can try asking for weather info on VHF 16. Most boating visitors to Abaco, whether on the water or at the docks, are happy to provide you with whatever information they have.
In recent years, companies such as KVH have begun offering innovative satellite-based communications systems for boaters. Their eTrac and tracNet systems offer boaters with the necessary financial resources email and Internet access, including comprehensive weather reporting. While currently beyond the reasonable means of most boaters, they are very functional. And, as with so many technical innovations such as GPS, we can anticipate falling prices and smaller units, which will hopefully make them available to the average boater in the near future.
(It will help to have a chart to reference during this discussion)
Many boaters venture to Abaco simply because, for people who live north of Ft. Lauderdale, it is the closest “island” destination. Indeed, the entrance to Old Bahama Bay at West End is only about 56 nm from Lake Worth Inlet in Palm Beach. Marsh Harbour is actually closer to boaters north of Cape Canaveral than the Florida Keys. Of course, they can trail their boats to Key Largo and points SW, but for boats that can’t be readily trailed, Abaco is closer.
The western edge of the Little Bahama Bank lies 55 to 60 nm east of coastal Florida. The Gulf Stream runs northward between the two; its axis lies about a third of the distance from Florida to the Bank. The central part of the Stream can push a stationary vessel north at four to five knots; conversely, boaters sometimes happen upon a southbound countercurrent as they approach the Bank.
At the Bank’s southern aspect we find Grand Bahama Island. West End and Old Bahama Bay lie at its western extreme. Freeport lies about 20 nm to the ESE on the island’s south shore, and the Lucayan Waterway is about eight nm further east. Memory Rock is about 15 nm NNW of West End.
Matanilla Shoal forms the NW corner of the Bank, and Matanilla Reef and the Lily Bank lie 30 to 35 nm to the east. Walker’s Cay is another 12 or so nm further east. Two useful landmarks on the western Bank are Mangrove Cay, located about 23 nm ENE of West End and Memory Rock, and Great Sale Cay, another 20 to 25 nm further ENE. Routes east take the boater either north or south of Great Sale, then east between Little Abaco and the offshore cays, finally entering the “Upper” Sea of Abaco at Angelfish Point.
There are several related implications for the Abaco cruiser:
As the Gulf Stream lies in close proximity to Lake Worth Inlet, boaters departing that port can quickly assess the state of the Stream and make a rapid decision as to whether it is “crossable.” Boaters departing from Stuart and Ft. Pierce have to travel farther to reach the Stream. As noted, the axis of the Stream may move northward at up to five knots; this has important navigational implications for sailboats and slower powerboats, as well as for those that break down.
The entrance to Old Bahama Bay is deep, but the Indian Cay Channel to its immediate north may only carry five ft at low tide. Deep draft vessels may have to enter the Bank 2 nm or so south of Memory Rock; after maintaining a heading of 90oT for three nm, one can safely turn ENE toward Walker’s Cay and avoid the shallow sand bores to the east of Memory Rock.
Boaters leaving Indian Cay Channel or Memory Rock bound for Abaco should pass north of Mangrove Cay, then either north or south of Great Sale. If taking the southern route, stay well south of the shoals that extend southward from the cay.
The northwestern Bank can be safely entered north of the White Sound Ridge. Unlike the southern Bank, the depths here are 20 to 35 feet for the first 20 or so nm heading eastward. The boater expecting the Bank to damp the four-foot head seas he has been battling since leaving Ft. Pierce may have slog it out for another 10 to 15 miles before he encounters notable improvement. Squalls on the northwestern Bank can churn up steep, tight waves, as in 8 to 10 feet, similar to conditionings found in the Gulf of Mexico.
Moving eastward, it is important to stay south of the Lily Bank, parts of which come up to one to two feet at MLW. However, on a calm day, these shoals assume an electric teal that makes for a truly beautiful scene. In addition, we have periodically seen schools of bonefish on the shoals, so if you have an hour to kill it may be worth your while to anchor up and explore. Just don’t hit these bores at full throttle!
“Fish muds” are elongated patches of cloudy water that can be quite large, sometimes several miles in length. I don’t think they have anything to do with fish or mud; they are possibly an outflow from an underwater vent. But boaters often slow down to idle speed when they encounter them, mistaking them for shoals. I sometimes do it to, better to be cautious. Once you have passed the Lily Bank, you can turn NE to Walker’s or continue on toward Abaco.
The northwestern Bank can be very lonely, as can the run from Ft. Pierce or Stuart to the Bank. You may see only a few boats until you get to the immediate Walker’s area. In contrast, the route from Lake Worth Inlet to West End is heavily traveled; you’ll probably never be out of sight of another boat, especially on the weekend.
The Gulf Stream deserves some specific commentary. When traveling due east or slightly south of east, the boater is running perpendicular to the force of the Stream. This is the case for departures from Lake Worth, St. Lucie, and Ft. Pierce. Departures from ports farther north require a more southerly course, so boaters leaving from Port Canaveral or Ponce Inlet must travel more against the Stream than across it, effectively increasing their distance to Abaco. For this reason, many authors recommend against departures north of Ft. Pierce. Additionally, there is very little boat traffic in the open waters between Abaco and Central Florida ports; help would thus be slower to arrive in an emergency.
A friend ties up his Hatteras 72-foot motor yacht at the end of our dock in Daytona Beach. He travels straight from Ponce Inlet to Walker’s Cay, which is about 175 nm; he likewise returns directly from West End to Ponce Inlet, a similar distance. He has a Trackphone and SSB and a large life raft, and feels comfortable in the open sea on a long journey. Similarly, I have friends that charter a 44-foot sportfish out of Port Canaveral, and they frequently run directly to Walker’s. If you have these kinds of resources and confidence, more power to you. For those of you in smaller or slower boats, consider departing from Ft. Pierce or points south.
Tide or current flowing against significant wind (greater than 10 knots) produces high, steep waves; this occurs in inlets, passes, as well as in the Gulf Stream. A stiff north wind can produce an angry rip in the Stream 15 miles wide. Years ago we sat in West End for several days after a cold front brought 15 to 20 knot NE winds and reports of an impassable Gulf Stream. On the fourth evening National Weather Service called for 10 to 15 knot winds from the NE, seas 2 to 4 feet, “higher in the Gulf Stream.” We left West End at dawn and were able to run at 25 knots over the back of a soft two-foot chop for 30 nm. I had begun to think we were going to cheat the weather gods, but it was not to be. Within the next three nm the seas grew to a very steep eight to ten feet; it was all I could do to keep the boat from broaching. Four miles from Lake Worth Inlet someone flipped a switch, and within a mile we were back to two feet. If you’ve never seen this, it’s hard to believe, but the message here is very direct: do not take the Stream lightly in a north wind.
How Much Boat Does it Take?
I’ve received a number of letters from boaters, who are contemplating their first Island trip, and they write, “My boat is a so-and-so, X feet long, etc.—can I safely cross in it?” Before we entertain this discussion, please remember: the seamanship and judgmental abilities of the skipper are more important to the safety and success of the trip than the physical qualities of the boat.
Several years ago, one of the companies that builds rigid hull inflatables ran one of their fifteen-footers from Miami to Bimini in two hours. One year, we tied up at Sea Crest in Bimini; along with us were six single-engine boats, twenty feet and under, who had crossed in the preceding days. I once talked to a fellow in Marsh Harbour who had run a bonefish skiff all the way from Palm Beach to Green Turtle in one day. My friend Tom Rutledge ran a Whaler 17 the same distance in two days. And there is a guy who works for a boat maintenance company that we see on our dock periodically; he grew up in Miami and as a high school kid used to sail over to Bimini and back with his girlfriend on a Hobie 16! I asked him how he navigated, “Hell, we just followed the sun and rode the westerly in the morning, same thing in the afternoon, never bothered to clear.” As you can see, there are no absolutes when it comes to the basic “minimums” in terms of a boat's physical characteristics. That having been said, please consider that as the size, physical integrity, and equipment of a boat are minimized, so is the margin of safety when the weather or a mechanical situation deteriorates.
These, then, are my personal suggestions for the “minimum boat:”
- 23 to 24 feet LOA, good solid hull, deep or modified vee, self-bailing cockpit;
- Twin engines, well maintained, recently serviced;
- Two batteries in good working order;
- A full complement of USCG safety equipment including PFDs, flares, flashlights, reflectors, portable strobes, and water bottles;
- Adequate fuel capacity for 100 nm run in head seas;
- Hardwired VHF radio with a hand-held as backup (do not count on a cell phone for emergency communication);
- And a hardwired GPS with a hand-held backup.
In addition, here are some very desirable options:
- Integral fuel management device or Flow-Scan;
- Radar is great for identifying and following squalls. Their prices have really dropped in the past year or two making them reasonably affordable; and
- A portable life raft. Some companies make a duffel-size “coastal” raft that you can throw in with your other gear.
Yes, I know, your 21-footer is tough as nails, your single engine is as reliable as death and taxes, you’ve been boating since before you could walk, yadda yadda. But it’s your life and the life of your crew when the situation goes south; use your judgment. This is a vacation, folks, let’s keep the risk in perspective.
I occasionally field questions about “boating groups” and “buddy crossings,” and have a few thoughts about them. If you cross from Lake Worth to West End, especially on a weekend, you will probably never be out of sight of another boat; it is a very heavily traveled route. If you get into trouble, it’s likely that someone will hear you and quickly respond. This brings us to the uncomfortable yet essential topic of boating emergencies. (I’m tempted to include “disasters” such as getting lost or running out of fuel, but I would hope that you, a competent skipper, would have better judgment than to let that happen.)
There are two broad categories of emergencies you may encounter; the first, we’ll call “general mechanical.” In this scenario, something happens that renders one of your engines inoperable. If you have twins, you idle home on the good engine; if you have a single or if something takes out both, then you get on the radio and someone comes and hauls you to port. That’s expensive and time-consuming, and it’ll wreck your vacation, but you’ll be safe.
The second emergency category we’ll call “sudden disaster,” and it involves either a weather-related event (such as being swamped in heavy seas), a sudden catastrophic leak as a result of hitting a submerged pile or other object, or a sudden structural failure. In terms of the relative frequency of each type of event, the “general mechanical” far outweighs the “sudden disaster.”
If you are in a boating group and you break down, it’s possible that someone in the group can jury-rig a repair at sea and get you going again, although it’s still likely that you are going to have to return to Florida. The more likely possibility is that you’ll have to limp home or call for a tow. In the unlikely event that you encounter a “sudden disaster,” then it certainly is to your benefit to have help nearby. Or you may simply feel more secure traveling along the route with other boaters, especially if they’re friends. Last year we met some people from the Vero Beach Grady-White owner’s club, they do an Abaco trip every year with ten or more boats and love it.
There are some downsides to traveling with a group. The boat with the slowest cruising speed will set the pace; you may find that your fuel efficiency is significantly compromised if you can’t get up and run on full plane. When someone breaks down, everyone has to stop while the situation is investigated. If someone is late getting away from the dock, the entire group is now late. If you’re all clearing in West End, you’ve got a long wait ahead of you. And if you simply pair up with someone else who happens to be going the same way, there may be questions about their reliability and motives. I think you can safely go it alone, but that decision is yours. If the weather is marginal, the better part of valor may be to wait a day or so than to venture out into nasty seas: even in a group you will still have to run the boat, cope with the weather, and make your own decisions.
I have some concerns about people who make this trip alone, as in solo, no crew. Chichester had something to prove by his solo circumnavigation; I’m betting you don’t. Lots of boaters cross to The Bahamas by themselves, we’ve watched them pull into Bimini and West End. They’re one slip and a concussion away from disaster. I heard a story once about a skipper who was having trouble reading his gauges through sunglasses; he bent down for a closer look just as the boat skipped over a stray four-footer. The throttle broke his nose, he bled all over the boat, and his crew had to rush him to a hospital. Plenty of guys in their thirties and forties have had sudden heart attacks. These things happen; if you’re alone, there’s no help.
Charting and Navigation
Classic maritime navigation is based upon the use of precise nautical charts, an understanding of “set” and “drift,” and the ability to use parallel rulers and dividers to plot a course. The navigator sets a series of compass courses, logs each over a set time, always “deducing” his position from known parameters. The advent of electronic aids to navigation, first radio direction beacons and finders, followed by LORAN and ultimately GPS, has created a generation of boaters who have little knowledge and appreciation of the classic skills. Today, we simply enter a waypoint into a little black box, point the boat on the bearing indicated, stay within the cross track error, and arrive safely, always having access to “time- and distance-to-go.” So we really don’t need an understanding of “primitive” navigation, right? The military relies on GPS; it can’t fail, can it? After all, there are all those satellites! However,
GPS can and does “fail” (although not as a system). The most common causes of GPS failures are:
- Failure to correctly input eight-digit waypoints;
- Failure to thoroughly understand your unit;
- Power failure to the unit, either as a result of a problem with the boat’s electrical system, or someone forgetting to bring extra batteries for handheld models.
To prevent these failures from occurring, have a second person assist you in checking your waypoints for accuracy after you have loaded them. When a skipper/navigator is planning a trip, he has to enter perhaps a hundred new waypoints into his machine. If that is done at one sitting, there is substantial likelihood that mistakes will be made. After you have finished, come back later with someone else and check everything you have entered. Do the same with the routes you have set up.
Is it possible that the source of your coordinates, a cruising guide, a copy from a friend, has errors? You bet it is—I’ve had it happen to me. Protect yourself from these errors by learning how to use a chart, parallel rulers, and dividers. Take an evening and pull out that copy of Chapman’s we suggested you buy, and teach yourself how to plot a course. Then set up your chart next to your GPS unit and ask the unit to give you bearing and distance for each leg of your route. Match it against what you are getting from your chart. If the numbers don’t jive, then you’d better take a hard look at the source of your numbers, or whether you input them correctly. If you have a suspect number, plot several courselines to it from other waypoints. Get used to doing this, it is the essential process for verifying your navigation plan.
As you travel, keep on eye on your “distance-to-go” and “bearing” parameters. If you suddenly lose your GPS, use your last relative position, plot your course, calculate speed and time, and continue on. Mariners navigated this way for centuries—you can too. Use a siting compass to shoot bearings on landmarks such as towers, islands, and rocks. Two lines of position should intersect at your location; plot a course and go. Be aware of the drift—whether it’s the Gulf Stream or the tide across the Bank—and work it into your calculation. And yes, I carry a backup handheld that has all my numbers in it, and there is an eight-pack of AAs in the drawer that has all my manuals, navigation tools, extra cash, etc. But I’m still ready to navigate if both units go down, and you should be as well.
A few years ago, I was invited to participate in a boat club’s planning meeting. They were going to Abaco, many for the first time, and the club’s official Navigator passed out The Plan, which contained over 300 GPS numbers and several routes. One route originated at Boat Harbour and ended in Hopetown Harbour, a distance of about five nm. There were ten waypoints! There was no discussion of leaving the Parrot Cays to starboard, the approach to the harbour channel, the “street range,” the buoys, the narrow entrance, etc. It was just “follow these waypoints.”
Folks, this is a recipe for disaster! We have heard several stories involving people striking rocks or shoals at speed while fumbling with GPS units. GPS is a wonderful aid to navigation out in the open ocean, running across the broad expanses of the western Bank, even for long runs on the Sea of Abaco. For short distances, especially in areas where there are lots of potential obstructions such as small cays, islets, reefs, shoals, sandbars, and coral heads, navigate with your eyes and your compass. You can use GPS to generate a courseline, give you time and distance, but keep your eyes ahead!
Many of the cruising guides provide routes for you to follow. Indeed, we have noted that this is one of the most useful features of Dodge. But before you tear into this very useful book and lift each of the routes, make sure you read Steve’s disclaimer on page one. He clearly points out that you cannot absolutely count on his routes to be perfectly free of obstructions, and he explains why. This is the ultimate truth about any courseline, especially the ones you generate yourself.
When you are out in the open sea, you still have to watch for submerged piles, containers, trees, etc. On the Bank and around the cays, there are a jillion heads and shoals that are just dying to eat up your running gear. It is essential that the skipper maintains a diligent eye on his course; if things don’t look right, slow down, stop, collect yourself. As you run, keep an eye on the surrounding landmarks; are they where they’re supposed to be? Shouldn’t you be passing that rock to starboard? Keep asking yourself those questions. Examine an aerial photo of the offshore cays; take a look at how much coral there is. Be very aware of this as you maneuver through these areas. GPS does not set up a force field that protects you from hitting an obstruction; that is your responsibility.
Another instrument that has significant limitations is the depth sounder. I’m tempted to advise you to put a bag over it once you enter the Sea of Abaco. Its transducer is usually mounted near the boat’s transom, and, with the exception of a few very new forward-scanning models, tells you only what’s directly beneath the aft third of your boat. You can blissfully be cruising along in 11 feet at 25 knots and whack a coral head—it happens all the time. Once again, you have to remember to use your eyes.
Start with good polarized sunglasses. People argue about which color is best for seeing through the water; I would simply suggest that you get good prescription polarized lenses if you wear glasses, or good generics if you wear contact lenses or you’re one of the lucky few who can actually see without visual assistance. Try to run when the sun is high enough for you to be able to “see through the water.” Clouds can make it difficult, you may have to slow down or wait. If you have a tower or another way to increase your elevation, use it to your visual advantage. I don’t recommend you go out in a boat at night without local knowledge, unless you’re making a short dingy run across the harbour.
It may take a little time, but learn to coordinate the depth with its color. Brown usually means rock or coral; slow down and detour. Deeper blues indicate deeper water; you’re usually safe to run here, although up around Walker’s Cay there are places where heads come up to the surface in 40 to 50 feet of water. Beiges indicate shallow water, shoals and bars. As the water deepens, the beige merges into light green; the green darkens as the depth increases. Much of the Sea of Abaco is 10 to 15 feet—learn to recognize this color. It can be difficult to discern the darker green of a grassy bottom from the rock/coral brown, especially if the light is bad or it’s windy and the surface is roiled up. Sometimes you just have to slow down and confirm the depth. Reading the water takes some practice, but it is really the only way you have of navigating around many obstructions.
The prospective Abaco boater may hear “fuel management” and equate it only to the actual cost of fuel at outlying sources. However, there is a much more compelling concern: does you boat carry enough fuel to get you through 75 nm or so of marginally tolerable head seas?
While 75 nm does not seem like a substantial distance, consider this scenario:
- Your single-screw cruiser carries 100 gallons of gasoline, you are accustomed to getting 1.2 nautical miles per gallon nmpg (nmpg), and it is effectively 60 nm from the fuel dock at Sailfish Marina in Palm Beach to the fuel dock at Old Bahama Bay in West End.
- Seas are running five to eight feet before a 20-knot SE wind, and as you leave Lake Worth Inlet, you tuck in behind an island freighter bound for Memory Rock (we’ll develop this story a little later).
- You struggle to keep up with the freighter, which is crashing along at 12 knots; you can’t plane, and an occasional 10-footer knocks you back to idle speed, forcing you to throttle up to catch your blocker.
Never having faced this situation before, you are unaware that your fuel efficiency has dropped to 0.6 nmpg. After traveling 53 nm, you drop the freighter and turn south for the 13 nm run to West End. You barely get half way, your motor dies, and you get that sinking feeling the you have just run out of fuel in the worst sea conditions you’ve ever faced.
Many of us who cut our boating teeth in fishing situations have boats with relatively large fuel capacities, but a lot of cruising boats don’t. Similarly, many fishing boats are equipped with a FloScan, or their engines have integrated fuel management instrumentation. When interfaced with GPS, the skipper receives real-time fuel efficiency data, thus allowing him to instantly calculate his range in a given sea state. This is crucial information when you are traveling long distances and your fuel supply is relatively limited. Therefore, I encourage all boaters who are considering crossing the Stream to the Bahamas and beyond to equip their boat with a FloScan or similar device.
There are basically three levels of fuel efficiency that most planing or semi-displacement hulls achieve. The first is at “slow speed,” perhaps five to six knots. The second, “comfortable cruise,” is at perhaps 22 to 25 knots. The third, and most important for this discussion, occurs at “slog speed.” This is your boat’s fuel efficiency under very adverse conditions; it typically occurs as you are traveling into the worst head seas you are willing to accept while trying to maximize your speed over a relatively long course. If you have a fuel management device, you can readily determine each of these levels by simply observing your instrument while operating your boat in each type of sea state.
Once you have determined your slog speed fuel efficiency, you can then determine the most important fuel management parameter, Bundy’s Effective Slog Range Index, or BESDEX. BESDEX is the farthest realistic distance you should attempt to travel in the worst conditions you are willing to accept, with a 33% cushion for unexpected disasters or course changes. To determine your boat’s BESDEX, multiply its slog speed fuel efficiency by its fuel capacity, and then multiply that number by 0.75.
Here is an example, using parameters relating to our boat, Attitude Adjustment, a 32-foot planing sportfish with twin 300-horse Mercruiser sterndrives. Attitude’s slog speed efficiency is 0.75 nmpg, and her fuel capacity is 250 gallons. 0.75 x 250 x 0.75 = 140.6 nm. This means that Attitude can travel about 140 nm in marginal conditions and still have another 45 nm or so reserve.
If your boat does not have a fuel management device and you are unwilling to drop a thousand on a FloScan—much less several hundred more for handheld backup electronic gizmos, an EPIRB, and a life raft—there is a way to find determine your BESDEX. It’s tedious and takes a little time, but it’s essential that you have this information before you boldly attack the Gulf Stream.
- Pick a day when the conditions at sea are about the worst you would tolerate; I suggest 20-knot head winds and steep seas. Try to do this near slack tide so you don’t have to deal with a nasty tide rip. Find a fuel dock close to your inlet or ocean pass and top off your tanks.
- Cruise around the backwaters at your “slow speed” for 10 nm or so, return to the fuel dock, top off again, and determine how much fuel you have burned. Use your GPS to determine exactly how far you traveled; this will allow you to figure your slow speed fuel efficiency.
- Next, do the same thing at your “comfortable cruise” speed, and determine your fuel efficiency under these conditions.
- Now its time to head out into the ocean. Have someone watch your GPS and determine how far you travel at slow speed in relatively flat water, then push her into the swells at whatever speed you, your crew, and you boat will tolerate. Do this for five to ten nm or so, watch the distance log carefully, then turn around and return to the fuel dock at slow speed. Top off one more time, and then take a look at how far you traveled at slow speed and how far you traveled at slog speed. You already have figured your boat’s slow speed fuel efficiency, so you can figure what you burned at slow speed. The rest of what you burned was at slog speed, and you know how far you traveled. This will allow you to calculate your slog speed fuel efficiency, and thus your BESDEX.
Let’s consider this example:
- On Friday you note that the marine forecast calls for winds from the east at 15 to 20 knots, seas four to six feet; high tide at the inlet on Saturday will be at Noon, and at 1 PM on Sunday. The tide runs about an hour later at the marina/fuel dock two nm from the mouth of the inlet. Therefore, you’ll have maybe two hours of slack tide at the fuel dock and the immediate area on Saturday from 10 AM to Noon.
- You arrive at the fuel dock at 10 AM on Saturday, top off your tanks, and then cruise at slow speed for 1.5 hours, traveling nine nm before refueling. You burned six gallons to go nine nm, so your slow speed fuel efficiency is nine nm divided by six gallons which equals 1.5 nm/gal.
- You return to your home marina or ramp; this is a 15 nm trip, three of which are in a No Wake Zone. You run at your “best cruise speed” of 25 knots over the other 12 nm. At that fuel dock you top off again, adding 12 gallons.
Let’s now break the trip down into two segments: three nm at slow speed, and 12 nm at cruise speed. Having already determined your slow speed fuel efficiency, you can calculate how much fuel you burned over this three nm segment. You know you get 1.5 nm/gal; another way of stating this is 1 gal/1.5 nm, it means the same thing. To find how much fuel you burned, do the math: 1 gal/1.5 nm x 3 nm = 2 gallons. That means you burned the other 10 gallons to go 12 nm. Therefore, 12 nm/10 gal yields your cruise speed fuel efficiency of 1.2 nm/gal.
Now it’s Sunday, high tide is at 1 PM, and we get to play hardball; same marine forecast. If you have never run your boat in this set of conditions, and/or you have crew who have never experienced such conditions, this will be your acid test. If you can’t or don’t want to run head on into four to six foot seas, then think twice about going to Abaco in your boat. You need this experience under your belt, because chances are, at some point you will encounter bad weather and the related sea conditions. Sure, some people get lucky and have a smooth crossing both ways, and never hit bad weather on the Bank. In ten trips we’ve never had this kind of luck—don’t count on getting it!
So you top off your tanks at your inlet marina at noon, make your way to the mouth of the inlet at slow speed, and then throttle up when you hit the five-footers. You tough it out for an hour, noting that you have run 11 nm at slog speed. You then throttle back to slow speed, turn around and return to the fuel dock where you take on 32 gallons. Of this 26 nm trip, two nm was at slow speed from the marina to the inlet, as was the 13 nm return trip from the point where you turned around; thus 15 nm was at slow speed. Your boat’s slow speed fuel efficiency is 1.5 nm/gal, or 1 gal/1.5 nm x 15 nm = 10 gallons burned at slow speed. You burned the other 22 gal while you slogged 11 nm; 11 nm/22 gal = 0.5 nmpg at slog speed, or one gallon burned for every 0.5 nm.
Those of you who are experienced and/or perceptive will be able to punch a few holes in this procedure. Indeed, the distances are relatively short, and there will be tidal influences, even at slack tide. However, it does give the operator useful figures, particularly if he has not previously calculated his fuel efficiency for each type of condition. And for the uninitiated, it will force them to accept the reality of boating in the open ocean.
Now let’s figure your BESDEX: multiply your boat’s slog speed fuel efficiency (0.5) by your fuel capacity (let’s say you carry 200 gallons) times 0.75. Your boat’s BESDEX is 75 nautical miles. At the top of this section, we stated that your boat needed to have a 75 nm range in marginally acceptable seas. Why did we pick that number? The answer lies in the subsequent scenario in that paragraph. And, as we continue east toward Abaco from West End, the next available fuel source is at Foxtown, a distance of about 75 nm. Therefore, your boat needs a BESDEX of 75 in order to have the capability of making these two legs of the journey to Abaco in adverse weather without running out of fuel.
Weather Scenarios and Offshore Seamanship
Weak High Pressure
In the absence of frontal influence, weak high pressure sits peacefully over South Florida and adjacent coastal waters. During the night, heavy, moisture-laden air settles over the cooling interior, creating a gentle offshore breeze. Our informed boater leaves Lake Worth Inlet at 7 AM and skips across the Straits of Florida before a five to ten knot westerly, encountering only a broad low ground swell. As he arrives at the Bank, the wind shifts to the southeast; at first it’s only about ten knots or so, finally building to 15 by mid-afternoon. The landmasses of Grand Bahama and Little Abaco Islands limit fetch such that there is only a one foot chop until our skipper turns SE at Angelfish Point and enters the Sea of Abaco. Here it’s a little windier and the chop is one to two feet, but Green Turtle is only a few miles away now and everyone is excited. The skipper throttles back to 22 knots, nudges the tabs a bit to iron out the boat’s corrugated ride, and soon he’s backing into his slip, happy and thankful for his good fortune and foresight.
Here we have tried to illustrate one of the cardinal principles of this type of trip: the weather is usually the best it is going to be at first light. Get up as early as it takes so you can by in the inlet by the time there is enough light to safely navigate. Obviously, there will be exceptions. There may be local squalls that are causing havoc; the better part of valor may be to wait an hour or so.
As the sun climbs and the heat intensifies, rising air over the interior creates low pressure, which causes an on shore “sea breeze” by early afternoon. As it works its way inland, it can collide with local frontal boundaries associated with Lake Okeechobee and other bodies of water, or the West Coast sea breeze, giving rise to lightning storms and squalls. By mid-afternoon the onshore wind can be fifteen to twenty knots; for these reasons we always try to make the Bank as early in the morning as possible.
Likewise, it is similarly prudent to leave West End at first light on your return leg to Florida. You can run straight to Lake Worth or points north, listening to NWS weather radio and watching your radar as you run. Stay offshore until the afternoon squalls start to build, then dash inside to the ICW.
Strong High Pressure
Stronger high pressure generates an easterly windflow that snuffs out the early morning westerly. In this scenario, the typical forecast will call for winds from the SE, ten to fifteen knots, seas two to four feet. Obviously, the stronger the pressure gradient, the stronger the winds; you may encounter 15 knots/three to five feet or even 15-20 knots/four to six feet. You and your crew will have to assess the conditions, your boat’s capability, and your desire to get to Abaco in the face of 56 nm of head seas. One factor to consider is whether the forecast has mentioned the possibility of showers and thunderstorms; this should shade your decision away from attempting the crossing, at least on this day. If you don’t have long-range radar, try to find a boat that does, or find a TV and ask to look at The Weather Channel for a few moments. If it’s blowing 15 to 20 and there are already squalls on your courseline, the best strategy may be going back to bed.
While we’re on this subject, let’s address that most delicate of issues, your vacation schedule. You’ve been planning this cruise for six months, you’ve put a lot of time and more money than you care to think about into getting your boat prepared, you’re bleary-eyed from humping Dodge and the ‘net for hours on end, and for the past week you haven’t been able to sleep because you’re just too excited. You’ve trailed your boat to Palm Beach, you’re sitting in your cockpit at a slip at Sailfish Marina, and NWS radio is calling for 20 knots from the SE, seas five to eight feet with scattered squalls and thunderstorms for at least the next 48 hours. It’s Saturday afternoon, you had planned to run to West End Sunday morning, then on to Treasure Cay in the afternoon. You have plans to spend five days visiting Green Turtle and Guana. You want to fish, dive, beach, the works, return to West End the following Saturday, followed by a quick dash back across the Stream Sunday which would allow you to trail your boat back to Gainesville and still get to work the following Monday morning. And now you’re facing the possibility that the weather will cut you back to maybe three or even two days in Abaco, and it’s making you nuts!
Wanna hear the real bad news? Some people sit on the Florida East Coast for an entire week waiting to cross, and never make it. After all that anticipation and preparation, the weather can close you out. So we must accept the irrefutable fact that while we can make all the requisite plans, preparations, and reservations, we simply cannot reserve good weather. The winds and seas couldn’t care less about your schedule; don’t push them, they’ll squash you like a bug! But all may not be lost; later on, we will give you some alternate options.
So you leave Lake Worth Inlet at 7 AM and it’s blowing 15 knots from the SE, seas are three to five feet, and you’ve got 56 nm to make West End. Assemble your crew and give them the hard facts: it’s going to be uncomfortable for a while, maybe five hours or so. Get everything in the cabin squared away, you don’t want things flying around down there. Use your trim tabs, you may have to drop them all the way down. Play with the throttle; find the most comfortable speed and trim. If you have outboards, make sure they are trimmed to the horizontal. Don’t push, this is not a race, you want steady progress. As you travel, periodically call out the distance- and time-to-go; give your crew some encouragement. If you have crew that can handle your boat in these conditions, rotate the helm frequently to minimize fatigue. You may have to do it all yourself; if so, hang in there, be patient. Stop for a few moments every hour or so, let everyone stretch, get a drink, etc. When you get to West End, consider spending the night there and moving on tomorrow. Seas on the Bank will not be as bad, although you’ll still get bounced around and you still have a long way to go. Figure your time, you don’t want to be running after dark. Can you anchor out if you have to? Would Walker’s Cay or Spanish Cay be possible alternatives to your planned destination?
Approaching Low Pressure
As low pressure approaches Florida from the NW, the wind clocks through S to SW to W; wind speed will reflect the pressure gradient. A forecast of SW winds 10 to 15 knots, becoming W, can be favorable to your plans for an eastward crossing. Seas shouldn’t exceed two to three feet, and you can usually skip over them. Prefrontal weather may bring squalls, don’t forget to consider them in your plans. If you’re sitting in West End, you’ll have the seas just off your nose on your westward crossing, but they shouldn’t pile up and will diminish as you approach the mainland.
As wind speed approaches 20 knots from the west it can get pretty sloppy, even on your eastward leg. The problem here is that as you work your way offshore conditions will gradually deteriorate, until you are sliding over increasingly large swells that will try to make your boat yaw and then broach. By the time you decide to turn around, it will be very late in the game, and now you’ll have the seas on your nose. Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security by a few miles of relatively calm seas near shore; it’s going to get worse.
Immediate Post-frontal Flow
The passage of a “cold front” brings north winds that stoke the destructive fires of the Gulf Stream. You’ll be listening to NWS telling you, “NE winds 10 to 15 knots, seas two to four feet but higher in the Gulf Stream,” and you’ll wonder, “How much higher?” You nose out and it isn’t too bad—not comfortable but doable—but the horizon appears to look like the teeth of a carpenter’s saw. Those are “elephants,” massive swells that pile up as the Stream moves north against the wind.
The good news, if you are leaving Palm Beach, is that there is no mystery: the situation becomes obvious very early in the game. What starts as two to four feet becomes six and then eight, perhaps more, and they are high and tight! With a little luck the wind will clock around to the E or even SE; be patient, lay over for a day or so, it takes some time for the elephants to settle down. If you are in West End, you’ll look to your east and see clear blue skies and a settled ocean. The Bank will have damped the NE swells making it look very inviting. You’ll run 30 nm and then all hell will break loose; don’t be fooled!
If you get caught in a nasty following sea, you have two options: you can run directly down sea or you can take the swells on your quarter at 45 degrees. By running down sea you risk being “pooped,” taking a large swell over your transom, potentially flooding your motors and/or your cockpit. You can lessen this risk by taking the sea on your quarter, but then boat will want to yaw toward the wind. If this happens the swell will try to roll the boat over on its side; this is called “broaching.” You have to fight this by quickly throttling up and turning away from the swell, then throttling down as you climb onto the next mountain. This takes a lot of effort and can be fatiguing after a while, but you have to stay at it. If you have another experienced helmsman, rotate frequently. Have someone keep a lookout to stern to warn you of that rogue wave that has your name on it.
The weather scenarios I have described so far relate to frontal patterns and are fairly predictable and consistent. This is not the case with squalls, particularly the ones that pop up in the late spring and summer. Heat drives and feeds a squall, as it does a hurricane. The worst ones appear in the mid- or late afternoon, they can drift at you from a distance or form right next to you. The severity of a squall is usually proportional to its darkness, as well as how “electric” it is. Winds can range from 40 all the way to 100 knots; waterspouts can spin off, much like a tornado. The wind direction can abruptly change, and may vary around the cell. Typically there is a ring of dead, heavy air around the system; as it moves closer, a sharp downdraft of cold air precedes the main event.
When you see a squall forming, or you pick one up on your radar, take a moment to assess its characteristics. How big is it, which way is it moving, how dark is it, how much rain is present, and are there other cells in the area with which it might merge? Can you anchor up in what appears to be the lee, can you detour around the cell, should you simply stop and let it pass, is it benign enough that you can go right through it? If you get caught in related high winds and seas, break off your course and maintain your bow either 45 degrees off the wind, or turn around and take it on your quarter. The good news is that squalls don’t last forever; in an hour or two they have usually dissipated or moved on. Do what it takes to survive, then get back to the business of following your course or plan.
Chapman’s has an entire section on handling a boat in adverse weather. I urge all boaters to familiarize themselves with this information.
Trailer and Boat Maintenance Issues
Before we move on to planning your trip, we should consider your truck or SUV and your boat’s trailer. Pulling your heavy boat hundreds of miles over hot pavement is a bit more involved than the short jaunt down to your favorite ramp. First, is your tow vehicle up to the job? I once tried to pull our 21-footer to the Keys in July with a mini-van, and discovered I could not maintain 65 mph and run the air conditioner without overheating. Talk about a crabby crew! I’ve heard stories of people who attempted to trail big boats through the mountains of Tennessee and Carolina, having to stop because their tow vehicle couldn’t handle the terrain. Remember, you’ll probably have a full load of gear and provisions; it’s going to be a heavy load. Try to run with as little fuel in your boat as possible; you can fuel her in South Florida and thereby reduce your load.
Next, take a hard look at your trailer:
- Are the tires in good shape, should you consider carrying a spare?
- Can your jack lift the load? Maybe you should buy a bottle jack.
- How about your brakes, are they in good working order? I could never get more than a year out of trailer brakes in saltwater service, even though we religiously flushed them immediately after pulling out.
- Are your hitch and receiver competent? What about all that rust?
Also, you’ll need a place to leave your vehicle and trailer in South Florida; work this out early in your trip planning.
Considering the boat, I always try to have ours serviced about a month or two before a long cruise. Here are a few things to think about:
- Change your oil and/or gear lube, and inspect other fluids.
- Is it time to flush your cooling system?
- Gather spare parts such as lights, filters and belts
- Carry extra oil, coolant, and gear lube.
- If at all possible, carry a spare prop.
- Bring your tools, a socket set, maybe a cordless drill and bits, duct tape, glue, sealant, fasteners, and be ready to do your own simple repairs.
- If you have outboards, take a bunch of oil, it’s expensive down there.
Bahamas Customs and Immigration
In 2000 the Bahamas instituted a “flat rate” fee of $100 for foreign boats entering the country; captains were provided with a “cruising permit” as well as a recreational fishing permit, if requested. Extra charges for overtime and travel were discontinued. In early July 2003 the fee was abruptly increased to $300 per trip. This elicited substantial protest from boaters as well as resort and marina owners, especially in the western section of the Bahamas. The new fee structure was quickly withdrawn, and many captains who had paid the increased fee were contacted and received a $200 refund.
A short time later, a revised fee structure was permanently established: boats under 35 feet are charged $150, and boats 35 feet and over were are charged $300. In May 2012 the rules were amended as follows: If entering The Bahamas by boat, there is a flat fee to clear Customs and Immigration, which is $150.00 for boats 30 feet and under and $300.00 for boats 31 feet and over. This covers a vessel with three persons or less. Also included is a cruising permit, a fishing permit, Customs and Immigration charges and the $25.00 Departure Tax is waived for up to three persons. Each additional person above three will be charged $25.00 Departure Tax. In Grand Bahama the Departure Tax is $28.00. If you plan to stay longer than 12 months, special arrangement must be made with Bahamas Customs and Immigration.
Despite promises to the contrary, I am aware of at least five occasions whereby Bahamas C&I officials have, in fact, collected additional overtime and travel charges. All fees must be paid in cash; therefore, I would advise captains to have at least an extra $50-$100 in addition to the published fee on hand when they clear.
Boaters must clear Customs and Immigration upon arrival at an officially designated Port of Entry. As of December 2005 these include: West End, Grand Bahama; Walker’s Cay; Spanish Cay; Treasure Cay; Green Turtle Cay; Sandy Point; and Marsh Harbour. If you are entering a marina, contact the dockmaster by VHF and notify him that you must clear customs; he will direct you to a slip. You may tie up at a government dock, such as that found in Settlement Creek, GTC, or Marsh Harbour, without radio contact.
As you enter port, fly the yellow quarantine flag. No one other than the Captain is permitted to leave the boat until your vessel has been cleared. U.S. visitors need a passport (passports expired up to five years may also be used) or a certified birth certificate with a government-issued photo identification, such as a voter's card or driver's license. The birth cert/photo ID may not get you back into the US (see below). The $150/$300 fees are inclusive of a cruising permit, fishing permit, and departure tax for up to four persons; each additional person will be charged $15 departure tax.
If you have a firearm on board, you must declare it with Customs. You must provide the serial number and manufacturer, plus an exact count of ammunition. Though you are allowed to have a firearm on your boat, you cannot take it off the boat unless you obtain a permit from the Bahamian police ahead of time. Weapons must be under lock and key at all times. Any infraction of this law is dealt with severely.
An Import Permit is required for all animals being brought into The Bahamas. These are available in advance for a $10 fee for each animal. Contact The Director of Agriculture, Trade and Industry, P.O. Box N-3704, Nassau, Bahamas, Tel: (242) 325-7502. Dogs and Cats must be six months of age and have current proof of rabies vaccination and a health certificate.
Spare parts and replacement boat parts may be imported into the Bahamas duty free, as long as the boat they are intended for has a cruising permit and transire (issued upon entrance into the Bahamas). Equipment imported as cargo will be subject to a six percent stamp duty based on the value of the parts. Invoices for imported goods are required in all cases. Each adult visitor is allowed to bring 50 cigars, 200 cigarettes, or one pound of tobacco, one quart of spirits, and a variety of personal effects (personal radio headsets, bicycle, two still cameras, etc.) into The Bahamas.
The clearing process typically works like this: you pull into West End (or wherever) with your “Q” flag flying, you collect each crewmember’s passport or other ID, as well as the boat’s registration or documentation certificates, and you walk to the C&I office. Until you clear, your crew must remain on the boat. The official will give you several forms to fill out. He’ll collect $150/$300 cash from you and issue you the required permits, after which you can return to the boat, strike your “Q,” and hoist your Bahamas courtesy flag. Once clear, crew may leave the vessel.
The official has the right to search your boat; I have never heard of this happening but I assume it does. If he were to search your boat and found you were carrying items that you potentially could sell in the Bahamas, you would be required to pay duty on them and possibly a fine. Don’t do it! And while we’re at it, don’t even think about bringing marijuana or other illegal drugs into the Bahamas. If you are caught, they can be very strict, and the US government will not be of much help unless you are very well connected. Before leaving The Bahamas, be sure to surrender the copies of your immigration cards at the last Bahamian port you visit.
The regulations imply that you have to clear as soon as you enter Bahamian waters, but it is quite common for boaters to run from South Florida to Green Turtle or Treasure Cay and clear there upon arrival. We have done this numerous times, and the officials have never objected. However, I wouldn’t stay overnight without clearing. When you are dealing with the C&I official, be patient, quiet, and business-like. Follow his instructions, cooperate with him, and he’ll get you on your way. Do not even think of offering him money to bend a rule.
Previously, we have published sample forms, enabling boaters to complete them prior to arrival, thus expediting the clearing process. I have discontinued this practice for two reasons: first, the forms seem to change frequently. Second, they can be difficult to correctly fill out. For example, one wall at the C&I area at Walker’s Cay Marina is completely covered with sample forms, which are supposed to guide the captain. During my most recent visit I thought I knew what I was doing, and I ignored them. I made five mistakes, and the official loudly berated me in front of the other captains and the marina staff. It behooves each captain to study samples of each form and to complete them appropriately.
My personal experiences with Bahamas C&I officials have not been uniformly pleasant. I have cleared at Walker’s Cay several times and found the officials there impatient, demanding, even sarcastic. The official at Spanish Cay was very quiet and professional. He was off-island the afternoon we arrived; the dockmaster told us to drop the Q, that we were “cleared,” and that the official would see us “tomorrow,” which he indeed did. One year I attempted to clear in New Plymouth. At 5 PM the C&I office was locked; I knocked on the door of the house next door (it belongs to the official), he appeared with a swollen jaw, obviously in pain. He told me I was “cleared,” and to return at 9 AM the next day. I did that, and found a sign on the door stating he was at Treasure Cay airport, and would return at 5. At 5 I knocked on his door and received no response. I listened closely at the door and was able to hear a woman softly giggling and romantic music. It took two more days before I was finally able to clear.
I share this with you because these things happen. Don’t let them throw you; be polite, do what you have to do to get cleared, put up the flag, and get on with your cruise.
Fishing and Diving Regulations (Revised October 2007)
Fishing gear is restricted to hook and line, and you may not fish with more than six rods at a time. Spearfishing: Hawaiian sling is the only approved spearfishing device. Use of Scuba gear or an air compressor to harvest fish, conch, crawfish and other marine animals is prohibited. Spearfishing is not allowed within one mile off the coast of New Providence, within one mile off the south coast of Freeport, Grand Bahama and within 200 yards off the coast of all Out Islands. Spearing or taking marine animals by any means is prohibited within national sea parks. Bag limits are as follows:
- Lobster or crawfish: ten tails per boat at any time. Annual closed season is April 1 to July 31. Minimum size limits are 3 3/8 inch carapace length or six inches tail length. Egg-bearing female crawfish are protected.
- Conch: Harvesting and possession of conch without a well-formed lip is prohibited. Bag limit at any time is 6 per boat.
- Wahoo/Dolphin/Kingfish: Eighteen fish per boat, any combination.
- Stone crabs: Closed season is June 1 to October 15. Minimum harvestable claw is four inches. Harvesting of female prohibited.
- Turtle: Illegal to import; although legal to eat in The Bahamas.
- Vessel Bag Limit: 60 pounds of scalefish or 20 fish, fish must be entirely intact, heads and tails present; these may be exported from the Bahamas.
Returning to the US
The process of returning to a US port has become more complicated and problematic since “9/11.” In the past, most boaters were able to clear by telephone. Sadly, at least for the foreseeable future, those days are gone. US Customs regulations for travelers returning from the Bahamas state: “Each US visitor may take home US$600 worth of duty-free merchandise. Families can pool their allowances. The next $l,000 is taxed at 10%. Gifts valued up to $50 may be mailed home duty-free (but not to yourself). One liter of wine, liqueur or liquor, and five cartons of cigarettes may be taken duty-free. It is illegal to bring Cuban cigars into the US.” It is also illegal to bring in fruits or plants, or any animal or product protected by the Endangered Species Act
In 2008 the US government instituted the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative. Basically this policy deals with required documentspersons must present to the US Customs and Border Patrol Service (CBP) when they re-enter the country. The requirements vary depending on whether the person is returning by air or by boat, and is in the process of evolving. Please check this site during your planning; you and your crew will generally require a passport to re-enter the US. You will also be required to present yourself and crew to a CBP officer at a point of entry. This process may be streamlined if you and your crew register with CBP prior to your departure. Please carefully read CBP's Pleasure Boat Reporting Requirements for details. Also be aware of the regulations pertaining to bringing fish back into the US.
In this section I’m going to present several different trip itineraries, ranging from the most basic to an extensive cruise. The size of your boat, whether you trail to South Florida, and your experience and expertise will influence the level of complexity you want to attempt.
If you are trailing your boat to South Florida, I recommend you depart from Lake Worth Inlet in the Palm Beach area. This is not to say that you can’t leave from Ft. Pierce or Stuart/St. Lucie, but your first leg from LWI is only 56 nm vs. over 100. Second, there are compelling logistical reasons that make LWI a superior choice.
To reach the LWI area, exit Interstate 95 at Blue Heron Drive (on the north side of Palm Beach), take it east into Riviera Beach and on across the ICW. As you come down the bridge there as a large launch ramp complex to your left called Phil Foster Park, which has a huge parking area. I know people who leave their rigs there for a week at a time; I’ve also heard of theft and vandalism at night, so be advised.
Continue east on Blue Heron, and then make the first right onto Lake Drive. There are four marinas that have overnight accommodations along this road.
- Sailfish Marina is the largest and best known; it’s home to an excellent charter fishing fleet, and the resort has just concluded an extensive renovation. It is rather pricey.
- Buccaneer and Cannonsport are smaller, less expensive, and less ornate.
- There are also some condos located near the intersection of Blue Heron and Lake Drive (I can’t recall the name, a friend has stayed there) that have slips you can rent.
From "Sapelo Son:" call 561-624-9342. We've had the best success crossing from Lake Worth Inlet. It's a more direct route to West End so the crossing is easy and quick or if you have great weather you can just keep going and clear at Spanish. The number is a gentleman in North Palm Beach named "Z". He has a U-Haul business and storage lot. He has been very helpful to us in the past. His address is (11655 US#1 West Palm Beach, FL) You can google it. It's not far from a public boat ramp and only a short run up the intercoastal from the inlet. Coming back in you can stop at the resturants on the water to eat and walk to the parking lot. Keep in mind that you'll have to trailer to the airport to clear back in, its a big time pain but a small price to pay for such a great trip!
The ramps at Phil Foster Park bear some commentary. They are deep and steep, allowing for the launch and retrieve of large trail-boats. We easily launched our 10,000-pound Pro-Line 2950; we did, however, have difficulty pulling her out. Our tow vehicle was a Ford F350 with a 7.4-liter turbo diesel engine—plenty beefy to get the job done. But the ramp can get slippery, and the first time we attempted to retrieve the boat, we could not get enough traction, even while applying full throttle to both 250-horse outboards.
While we were standing there considering our options, a guy from the nearby jet ski concession walked over and asked, “See those guys sitting under the pine trees by the entrance to the Park?” We could see several winos/bums relaxing in the shade.
“Walk over and offer them ten bucks to sit in your truck bed while you pull out.” My wife and her girlfriend Joan were horrified, but it made sense to my buddy Mr. Bill and I. The bums didn’t look that nasty, there was a police cruiser parked at the marina office, and there were lots of people walking around. I figured this strategy was a lot cheaper than hiring a crane or a forklift, so I walked over to the group, holding a ten-spot aloft.
“Excuse me, gentlemen, I would like to engage four or five of you to sit in my truck such that it can attain sufficient traction to pull my boat up the ramp.” A scraggly young fellow jumped to his feet, grabbed my ten, and called out to four of his larger counterparts, who then quickly joined him in our truck bed. We pulled out without incident. The “leader” thanked me, jumped on a ramshackle bicycle, and headed off to the nearby ABC.
The jet ski guy walked up to me smiling, “They do this all day long.” I asked if there was ever any trouble, “Nah, the cops are always around, the guys just want a little cash so they can buy liquor, they stay pretty quiet.”
And that, folks, is local knowledge.
I have always made it my practice to depart West End for Florida at first light. I like to get the Gulf Stream out of the way as early in the day as possible, and you can’t do that if you depart from Walker’s Cay or Abaco proper. I’ve tried this three times and wound up sitting in West End waiting for bad weather to clear. In addition, unless you live in South Florida, you still have to run or trailer for several more hours. The new development at Old Bahama Bay in West End is gorgeous, although somewhat pricey. However, fuel is usually cheaper there than Walker’s Cay or back in Abaco, so you can recover some of the cost, although there’s a chance you’ll blow it at OBB’s bars and restaurants.
OBB is very buggy, especially when the wind dies. We carry “Pics” and citronella candles and Yard Guard and SSS and Cutter’s, and you’ll need all of it on a buggy night in West End. OBB can really full up on weekends, so it’s a good idea to have a reservation; make it well in advance if it’s a holiday weekend. Also, most (if not all) of the slips have 50-amp electrical service; there is no 30. The marina has a few adapters, but it would be prudent to carry a 50-amp to 30-amp adapter with you. Contact OBB for details.
I use the term “Great Abaco Seaway” to describe the route into Abaco that begins just NW of Little Sale Cay at 27-03.27N/078-10.81W. It extends ESE, passing north of Sale Cay Rocks, south of the Carter’s Cay Bank, north of the Hawksbill Cays and Little Abaco Island, around Crab Cay and Angelfish Point into the Sea of Abaco.
It continues SE between the offshore cays and Great Abaco Island, around the Whale Cay passage, and finally into Hopetown. I selected the point at Little Sale Cay as the western origin because the eastbound routes from West End, Memory Rock, Walker’s Cay, and Ft. Pierce/Stuart all merge there. I will refer to this route throughout the subsequent discussion; the waypoints and geography are very well detailed in Dodge, although he does not use the term Great Abaco Seaway. This is my own convention; you won’t find it anywhere else.
When transiting the western Bank, the boater must pass either north or south of Great Sale Cay. I will present the northern option because it is more heavily traveled and connects with the origin of the Great Abaco Seaway. However, there will be times when you’ll find the southern option more desirable. It is quite satisfactory, and we use it every year on the way to West End.
Trip #0: Scouting Trip to Abaco
This is not an absolute necessity, but I think it is very useful to first fly to Abaco, or for that matter, any other area where you want to take your boat. Fly into Marsh Harbour, rent a boat or catch the ferry, do some exploring. Have your Dodge and a chart with you, make some notes. Look at the various resorts and marinas, get a feel for the geography. Sometimes seeing a marina will provide much more insight than its written description or even pictures. You may unexpectedly fall in love with a beach or a town and want to make it your center of activity.
Dodge and the Abaco Community Message Board have tons of information about airlines, ferry schedules, marinas, resorts, rental boats, everything you’ll need. Again, check out my "Advice to Novice and Rental Boaters". You can do this trip over a long weekend; we’ve done it several times just to get out of town and get some sun.
Trip #1: Lake Worth Inlet to Walker’s Cay Area via West End
This was the first Bahamian cruise I ever undertook, and I think it’s a good choice for a “first-timer.” It’s a straight shot; leave LWI at first light and make for 26-42.26N/078-59.82W, the entrance to Old Bahama Bay. The approach is straightforward, although the swells can pile up on a stiff west wind. Unfortuneately, as of this writing (December 2004), Walker's Cay Resort and Marina is closed, a victim of slow chronic decay and then heavy doses of two hurricanes. It's for sale, and its future is uncertain. However, Rosie's on Grand Cay is up and running with new slips, enhanced utilities, fuel, and water. If you miss the Walker's Cay experience, chek out Rosie's; at least you can access the same areas you did when Walker's was open.
As you come in to Old Bahama Bay and follow the channel to starboard, you’ll see a long bulkhead on the west side of the marina, just past the fuel dock. You can tie up there and walk up to the marina office that is in the east end of the long low building on the south side of the basin. Once you have cleared, you can fuel up and then continue your journey.
If you draw less than six feet you can use Indian Cay Channel to access the Bank. If you draw more than five feet or so and you have less than a half tide, I’d give strong consideration to entering the Bank at Memory Rock. Once you pass the last pile at the NE end of Indian Cay Channel (Barracuda Shoals), you can alter course for 27-10.00N/078-28.25W. This 36 nm leg detours you SE of the Lily Bank; then you can proceed on into Walker's, Grand Cay, or Double Breasted. The entire trip is about 105-110 nm from LWI.
Most people don’t think of Walker’s Cay as being in Abaco, although politically it is indeed part of the “island district” of Abaco. Walker’s sits at the remote NW aspect of the archipelago that extends from “Abaco proper.” It’s closer to West End and Florida by about 60 to 80 nm, and it has a myriad of fishing, diving, and exploring opportunities. Grand Cay to the ESE has a small settlement and a few restaurants, the most notable of which is Rosie’s. Well’s Bay beach on the west side of Grand Cay is gorgeous and sheltered in the prevailing SE winds. There are several other pretty beaches on the ocean side, and nearby Double Breasted Cays offer more islets, rocks, cays, and shoals to explore.
Trip #2: Ft. Pierce/Stuart to Walker’s Cay
Boaters who hail from this area and north may elect to depart from either of these two inlets. We typically run south from Daytona and overnight at Harbortown Marina in Ft. Pierce. Ft Pierce City Marina offers slips as well, although there is a four-knot current that runs through the slips closest to the ICW. Both are close to Ft. Pierce Inlet, a modern, stabilized, although somewhat narrow inlet whose outgoing tide can rip impressively against on onshore wind. This area sustained major damage from Hurricanes Frances and Jeanne (September 2004); call ahead to confirm whether the marinas you want to use are up and running .
We pick up the Bank at 27.18.00N/079-09.00W, a run of 61 nm. Boaters departing from St. Lucie Inlet can save a little distance by picking up the Bank at the White Sand Ridge at 27-08.00N/079-10.50W. From either point head to 27-10.00N/078-28.25W; this will keep you south of the Lily Bank. This run is 37 nm from where we pick up the Bank. From there, it’s about five nm to 27-14.11N/078-24.16W, the entrance to Walker’s Channel; then it’s about another 1.5 nm to the harbour.
Coordinates for the entrances to Lake Worth, St. Lucie, and Ft. Pierce inlets are available in Dodge, as well as a host of other sources.
Trip #3: Lake Worth Inlet to the Upper Sea of Abaco
For those who don’t want to make the 175 nm run into Abaco proper in one day, this is a reasonable alternative. From Barracuda Shoals (NE end of Indian Cay Channel) run NE to Mangrove Cay, then ENE to Little Sale Cay where you can pick up the Great Abaco Seaway. This trip is a little over 140 nm.
Spanish Cay Resort is a beautiful but rather pricey marina. The island has some of the most gorgeous flora you will find anywhere in Abaco. The oceanside beaches are stunning, as are those on neighboring Powell Cay. The reefs are pristine, and fishing and diving are great. The Hog Cays to the west are fun to explore; they are almost deserted, and the colors are spectacular. Further west, Allans-Pensacola Cay offers a protected anchorage for those who prefer to anchor out. From either location, it is easy to jump back on the Great Abaco Seaway and proceed on into Abaco.
Trip #4: Ft. Pierce/Stuart to the Upper Sea of Abaco
From either 27.18.00N/079-09.00W or 27-08.00N/079-10.50W, continue ESE to Dodge’s waypoint at Barracuda Rocks 27-04.26N/078-14.07W, then on to the Great Abaco Seaway at 27-03.27N/078-10.81W. Exit the Seaway when you are due east of Spanish Cay, or run ENE from Hawksbill to Allans-Pensacola.
Trip #5: Lake Worth Inlet or Ft. Pierce/St. Lucie to Abaco Proper
Begin as you did for trip #3 or #4, and just follow the Great Abaco Seaway as far as you need to. By the time I get to Green Turtle I’ve had it, but we’ve gone as far as Guana, and I know people who push all the way to Hopetown. That’s a long haul; if you plan to try it, have a backup plan in mind in case you or your crew gets tired or the weather slows you down.
Trip #6: Going Home from Abaco
As previously mentioned, I recommend all boaters depart for Florida from West End. People can and do run directly from Walker’s Cay to Stuart or Ft. Pierce, even to Port Canaveral. Use your judgment and experience; we still detour south to depart from West End on our way to Daytona Beach.
It’s about 125 nm from Hopetown to Old Bahama Bay, I budget about six hours so we can stop and eat, etc. Follow the Great Abaco Seaway in reverse to its end at Little Sale, run WSW around the north side of Mangrove Cay and on into OBB. Note that there’s no fuel between Foxtown and West End.
Trip #7: Blowout Options
If you get stuck in South Florida due to the Stream being impassable, or you face head seas that are prohibitive, don’t just sit there. If you live north of the area, get in the ICW and head south. Much of it is speed-restricted, so you’ll have a nice relaxing trip. Fort Lauderdale is a boater’s playground, and who knows, you might even get to the Keys. If the weather unexpectedly clears and you can run NE, head for West End or the Grand Lucayan Waterway. Otherwise, play in South Florida.
If you’ve come from South Florida, perhaps you may want to head north. If you make it to Cocoa, you can visit the Space Center or rent a car and head west to Theme Park Wonderland. You may want to work your way farther north if you’ve never seen that part of the ICW. Keep an eye on the weather, you may get a few days of your original plan back. If you had a two-week cruise planned and it gets cut to five days, head for West End. At least you will have made it to The Bahamas.
This issue is difficult to address because it is so specific to personal preferences and your time frame. Wyatt goes into detail about provisioning for an extended cruise, and his thoughts may provide you with a starting point. A few comments about some key issues may assist your planning:
- Your capabilities will necessarily reflect your boat’s storage capacity, particularly for items requiring freezing or refrigeration. We always carry a medium-size cooler for drinks, etc. I empty the contents of our icemaker into it each night; we sometimes have to augment with ice from the dock.
- There are lots of little (and a few big) grocery stores in Abaco, so much of what you want is available. Prices are high, selection may not be what you're used to, so count on making do. There is some produce, and you can usually find eggs, milk, and butter. Good beef is usually available in the larger grocery stores in Marsh Harbour, but less so on the offshore cays.
- Produce usually doesn’t keep well in a hot boat interior for more than a few days; plan accordingly.
- Local bread and baked goods such as pies are wonderful; take advantage of them.
- Local seafood is likewise wonderful, don’t be like one of my friends who ordered steak every night and complained about its quality. This ain’t Kansas; order the grouper with the cracked conch appetizer.
- Fish are easy to catch; plan on eating fish several times during your trip. Learn how to filet and prepare your catch. We carry a Magma grill and a “Frybaby” deep fryer so we can grill big filets as well as beef, and fry up our conch and smaller fish. If you find conch, three will make enough cracked conch for two people. Usually you can pay a local to clean them for you. For more information, check out my online article "Fishing in Abaco".
- Hard liquor is cheap, but beer and soft drinks are expensive, as is bottled water. We buy gallons of 69-cent generic spring water and flats of 16-ounce water bottles.
- Dockside water is usually good. Although we don’t drink it, we do use it to make ice, and have never had a problem with it anywhere in Abaco. It’s usually about 25 cents/gallon, although it’s cheaper in Marsh Harbour and a little more at Walker’s Cay.
- Ice is really expensive. Live with it, conserve it.
- Fuel is even more expensive, usually exceeding ( as of December 2007) $5.50/gallon for gas and $4.50/gallon for diesel. We have not had problems with contaminated fuel.
We spend a month getting ready: buying provisions, packing, getting dive and fishing gear shipshape, and making sure the boat is okay. We take a load to the boat each night for five nights before we leave Daytona; it makes for a stress-free prep and allows us to relax on the last night. On a two-week cruise, we plan to eat about five dinners at local restaurants. We bring four entrees, maybe burgers, steaks, chicken breasts, whatever. Then we plan to eat conch and fish we’ve caught the other nights. We bring some microwave veggies and boxed side dishes, and pick up what we can along the way.
Laundry and Clothing Issues
Laundry facilities are surprisingly available, and many marinas will provide laundry service. Washers and dryers typically take $4 each per load, and we’ve paid $10 to 12 at marinas to have a reasonable load washed, dried, and folded. Bring your own laundry soap and fabric softener.
At the end of each day after we’ve washed the boat, I freshen up my bucket of soapy water and wash bathing suits, bonefish shirts, rags, etc. I hang these and our wet towels on the rail facing the morning sun, and by 10 AM everything is usually dry. Most boaters bring way too much in the way of clothing; you’re going to live in bathing suits and T-shirts. Consider maybe a few nice shirts, shirts, and (God forbid) a dress for a night out. I bring three pairs of shoes: boat shoes for the obvious, flip-flops with “boat soles,” and serious walking shoes for shore excursions. I’m a sucker for “location” T-shirts, I usually come home with several of them, and you can obviously wear them down there.
Credit cards are widely accepted—I’ve never found a marina or fuel dock that wouldn’t take them. Still, smaller shops and restaurants may not, so have some cash. Some boaters carry travelers check, but I can’t be bothered, and theft is very rare. I bring $1200 in cash for two weeks, and I usually have a modest amount left. Our two-week cruise usually runs us about $4750, almost half of which goes for fuel. Most marinas will charge about $1.50-$1.75/foot/night for dockage/water/electric. Old Bahama Bay and Spanish Cay are higher.
If You Break Down…..
This can be a problem. There are very few mechanics in Abaco. Sea Tow is active in the Grand Bahama area, so they may be able to help if you need a tow. Most boaters are very cooperative about helping someone who has broken down. There is a lift at Abaco Yacht Services on Green Turtle, and there is a smaller lift on the east side of Marsh Harbour. Depending on the nature of your problem, you may have to fly a mechanic in from the US, or hire a professional captain to idle your boat back to Florida while you fly home to go back to work.
If you’re clever, you may be able to “jury-rig” a repair. One year, we lost reverse in our starboard engine. Luckily, we found a mechanic who agreed to give us 15 minutes; he diagnosed a corroded shift cable, and actually had access to the part. This was in late June; he told us he could probably get to the repair in October. Since we were able to run, and the motor would shift into neutral, we were able to continue to enjoy our trip, at least until it came time to back into a slip. I attached a length of 200-lb mono leader to a meat mallet, connected the other end to a heavy snap swivel, and ran it to the shift lever on the motor. By advancing the shift control at the helm and pulling on the mallet, I was able to get her into reverse so we could do our docking maneuver.
Another year, we developed a leak in a raw water line that fed the starboard engine’s heat exchanger. We found a mechanic in Foxtown—of all places—who came up with a piece of heavy PVC pipe that matched the internal diameter of the hose. He secured it with spare hose clamps I had and we were able to complete the trip. Some boaters are not so lucky; it may be you have to leave your boat and return with parts and/or a mechanic. It happens.
Am I overly being cautious???
This article was supposed to end after the previous section. I showed it to several boating friends, and a few felt I was too conservative in some of my recommendations. It was their opinion that I would scare away prospective Abaco boat travelers. I pondered this for a few days, and finally decided to share a story with you that, along with some ugly squalls and a few breakdowns, shapes my vision of what does and does not constitute a well-prepared skipper and a well-founded boat. So, settle back, and consider the sad tale of my friend, Jackson. (This story is really a condensation of two separate events that did indeed actually happen; I have made a few insignificant changes to conceal the identities of the principals.)
Jackson and his wife are native Central Floridians. Fifteen years ago they bought a 19-foot center console/150 horse outboard. They have trailed it all over Florida, from the Panhandle to the Keys. They boat in the ICW, lakes, inlet backwaters, Florida Bay, the Hawk Channel—sheltered waters, if you will. Mrs. Jackson enjoys the experience, but she is a passive boater, “Jackson does all the boat stuff.”
Each year as we cruise the Islands, we shoot video; I use a Sony digital camcorder and edit on my computer, so the finished product is a little easier to watch and a lot more interesting then the old Super 8 movies your grandfather used to take. Jackson watches these intently, and a few years ago he got the Abaco bug. He, Mrs. Jackson, and several friends flew over and stayed on Green Turtle three times over the course of two years, the last time overlapping our trip by five days. We took his whole crew out on several occasions, and they all remarked how enjoyable it was to travel around in a boat that was substantially larger than what they were used to renting.
The following spring, Jackson found himself at a boat show staring at a 28-foot express cruiser, a very well-known make. Her shiny gas engine and sterndrive looked like new; indeed, this had been a “freshwater-only” boat, two years old, less than 100 hours. It had air-conditioned sleeping facilities for six, an enclosed head, nice little galley, and comfortable cockpit seating for perhaps eight. Mrs. Jackson was smitten just as badly. What they didn’t appreciate was the impracticality of the smooth crowned foredeck and its lack of access, the flimsy nature of the rails and deck hardware, and the fact that she was profoundly stern-heavy, especially with several crew.
Jackson bought it, sea-trialed it on a lake, had the dealer tweak it a little, brought it home, and invited all his friends over for a christening party. On that sunny day in April he excitedly announced that they would be taking her to Abaco in eight weeks, overlapping our trip by a week, and that several boating friends would be joining them.
We all smiled our encouragement, but I was internally troubled. Jackson had essentially no experience running a boat offshore, and this cute boat was not cut out for service in heavy weather. After things settled, I mentioned that I thought it might be a good idea for him to run the inlet a few times and get some hours at the helm offshore, to which he nodded enthusiastically. Time passed, they took it out on the ICW a few times, and spent a lot of time equipping and provisioning her. Two weeks before their departure, Jackson asked if we would join him and his intended crew for “ocean sea-trials.”
On that Sunday morning, the wind was SE, 10 to 15 knots, seas two to four with an incoming tide, sunny and warm. On the way to the inlet, Jackson played with the trim tides, terrorizing his female crew by rolling the boat 30 degrees to port and starboard. We worked on the tabs for a few minutes, got the boat leveled out, then advanced into the inlet. Jackson passed the helm to me: “I want to see how you do it.” Without a tide rip, there was no real difficulty; we soon encountered the surge, then the swells, and finally broke out into the ocean.
I encouraged Jackson to come up and take the helm; he was reluctant at first, but then finally acquiesced. We ran up sea, down sea, on the beam, and worked with the tabs over the course of an hour. Mrs. Jackson decided it was “too rough” and wanted to head for port; Jackson passed the helm back to me and asked if I would take us in.
“You need to do this,” I admonished, but he wanted to “see me do it.” He added, “We’ll come out again next week.” It didn’t happen—they had conflicting family obligations. Thus, departure week came with Jackson having only one hour at the helm at sea. On Friday night, they trailed her to Palm Beach, launched, and tied up at Sailfish Marina. The marine forecast called for E winds 15 to 20 knots, seas four to six feet.
At 7 AM they were sitting at the inshore end of the LWI contemplating the surge when a 150-foot freighter passed them. Crewman Bob suggested Jackson call the freighter and ask his destination, which he did. The captain responded that they were headed for Memory Rock and parts east; Jackson asked their cruising speed, the response was “13 knots.” So they fell in behind the freighter; the tactic did enable them to make 13 knots against those seas, but they really got knocked around. Bob told me there were times when the boat was “almost vertical;” the women were holding on for dear life, and Jackson was running the tabs up and down, riding the throttle, trying to keep up with the freighter.
Five miles shy of the Bank, the swells were down to three to four feet, so they dropped off and made for OBB. They arrived at 2:00 PM, almost six hours after departing LWI. When they cleared and refueled, Jackson was horrified that there were only 10 gallons left in his 100-gallon tank!
They left OBB at 3 PM, figuring they had six hours of daylight to make the 100 nm to Green Turtle. The two-foot chop on the Bank made for a rough ride, although at times they were able to make 20 knots. A half-hour after passing Mangrove Cay, they picked up Great Sale, noting that their course was taking them right through the center of the island. We later determined Jackson had forgotten to enter the waypoint south of Sale. After a radical course readjustment, they pressed on, entering the Sea of Abaco at 8 PM. They entered Black Sound in the dying daylight at 8:45, miraculously missing the rocks to starboard. Jackson now remembers thinking at that point that the motor sounded “different.”
Unfortunately, the weather deteriorated over the following two days, and the crew stayed ashore. By the third day, things were looking up, and they ventured over to Treasure Cay Beach. On the way back to GT, an audible alarm suddenly sounded. Jackson learned from his manual that it indicated his gear lube reservoir was empty. He filled it, and they were able to return without incident. However, the same thing happened on a short trip the next day.
Now, one of the reasons Jackson had selected this particular week was that the dealer who had sold him the boat was hosting a large “owners” gathering in Marsh Harbour, complete with a standby mechanic. That evening, Jackson reached the mechanic at the owner’s group. He advised Jackson to meet him at Abaco Yacht Services in the morning, where they could pull the boat and examine the lower unit. In the morning, the mechanic inspected but did not remove the unit, advising Jackson to simply “keep up with the loss—we’ll fix it later.”
After two more days, Jackson was out of gear lube, and it was obvious the boat needed more attention. A second mechanic had arrived in Marsh Harbour, and Jackson was advised to bring in the boat where they would pull her out of the water again.
As Jackson pulled bow-to into his new slip at Conch Inn, with crewman Bob on the bow standing by with a dockline—audible alarm howling—he shifted the throttle into reverse to slow the boat. The motor failed to go into reverse, and Bob crashed into the dock, falling from the boat. They all scrambled to get a line on something, and somehow managed to stop her inches before the windshield would have struck the dock. Bob suffered a nasty cut and bruise on his head, but was otherwise okay.
They towed the boat to a lift on the east side of Marsh, pulled her out, put her on blocks, and removed the lower unit. Mechanic #two took a deep breath and informed Jackson that he needed an entire new lower unit, to the tune of $7000 plus freight and Bahamas duty. Jackson exploded; he confronted the dealer, told him the boat was under warranty and that this was a defect, yadda yadda. The dealer replied that Jackson had been negligent in running the boat in the face of an obvious lower unit problem, Jackson responded that he was just doing what mechanic #one (now back in Florida) had told him.
To make a long story short, Jackson had to shell out over $10,000 to import the lower unit. He sued the dealer, who ultimately agreed to refund the actual cost of the unit, but Jackson was still stuck with $4000 duty and shipping charges. He flew home with the boat still on blocks, returned four weeks later after the repair was completed with two new crewmen. They got to West End as a nasty low-pressure cell was evolving in the Gulf. By morning the wind was blowing 20 knots from the west, seas were running six feet. Both Jackson and his crew “had to get back to work,” so they hunkered down and started working their way west. At some point, a large wave broke over the bow and struck the windshield, knocking the port section from its mount. They turned down sea and managed to secure it with ropes. Eight hours after leaving OBB and six weeks after their initial departure, they entered Lake Worth Inlet to the discouraging sound of yet another audible alarm and another empty gear lube reservoir.
Jackson still runs his boat; they take her out on the ICW and the St. John’s River, never in the ocean. He has yet to return to Abaco, and never talks about it. The boat is on its third lower unit, second windshield, second set of trim tabs, and a myriad of miscellaneous replacement parts. Jackson says he could have bought a 35-footer for all the money he’s put into this boat; then he sighs, “That’s just boating.”
Okay, so maybe I’m a little cautious. The prospect of blowing thousands of dollars on repairs, or your hard-earned two week summer vacation is pretty compelling, especially if it were to happen as a result of carelessness or bad judgment. There will be enough bad weather and coral heads to keep you honest, don’t push your luck. Traveling to Abaco in your boat should be an adventure. It should be fun, rewarding, the stuff great memories are made of; it always has been for us. Be informed, be prepared, and be careful. Good luck, and have a great trip!