Bahamas Cruising (just getting started)***

Fellow cruisers:

Roberta and I sold our Nordhavn 62, and have a Nordhavn 68 (www.kensblog.com) on order.

To help pass the TWO years waiting for the arrival of our new boat, we purchased a small 27’ Glacier Bay power catamaran. We chose this particular boat, because we were seeking the largest, most comfortable, boat, which could easily be trailered around. Our thought was that we would ship the Glacier Bay different places around the country, and cruise places our big boat would never be able to go.

Our first thought was the “Great Loop,” a trip around the eastern third of the US, up the east coast, into the great lakes, and down the inland waterways into the gulf of Mexico. I was thinking our 30+ knot cruise speed would make this a manageable trip that could be done in a few months. Research showed this to be a naïve opinion. To do the Great Loop properly takes six months or more. We shifted our thinking to doing a smaller loop, or a portion of the loop. We just couldn’t be away from home for that long in one burst.

As we were trying to decide where to go, I remembered a conversation with a race car driver, and boater, who had accompanied us on the Atlantic Crossing a couple years back; Christian Fittipaldi. I asked him what he thought was the best boating in the world, and he said “no doubt it, you must do the Bahamas.”

The tricky thing about the Bahamas is that the water is very shallow. Long crossings in water only a few feet deep are common. None of the islands are tall enough to provide much protection from the wind. Neither wind nor shallow water are on my list of things that make for great cruising destinations. Also, the Bahamas reputation for strong storms, hurricanes, and frequent thunderstorms, were a little off-putting.

But, I always describe myself as a warm-water cruiser. I like clear blue water, sandy beaches and days without shoes. And, the Bahamas, with its shallow water, would be a perfect chance to try out the 22” draft of the Glacier Bay. We would be able to go places that we could never reach with our bigger boat.

When we purchased the Glacier Bay, the dealer (Steve Waltz, I-90 Marine, Issaquah Wa) had said that he could easily arrange shipping the boat for us around the country. To my surprise, it really was as easy as promised. I called Steve, and he picked up our boat from the slip, and $3,200 dollars later, it was sitting in a slip in Fort Lauderdale Florida. Not cheap, but really not bad when compared to buying a trailer, something to haul it with, and buying the gas to cross the US from Seattle to Florida.

We took one other “short cut” in trip preparation: Our original plan had been to take the boat ourselves from Fort Lauderdale to Bimini (the entry point to the Bahamas), a 50 mile run. However, we only had one month for cruising and the crossing can be nasty if there is bad weather. We started thinking about what it could mean to be stuck in Florida for days waiting for a weather window to run the boat to Bimini, and decided that we would let a local skipper make this run for us. With only one month to cruise, we wanted to spend as little time as possible stuck waiting on weather.

Hence, on May 12, we flew directly to Bimini, Bahamas, to meet our boat, which was tucked neatly into a slip at the Bimini Sands Marina (25.42.60 N 79.18.00 W).

The Glacier Bay is a wonderful boat, but it does have its limitations. It isn’t really set up to live aboard comfortably, or, at least, not in what I would call spacious living conditions. For a 27’ boat, it isn’t bad, but it is a 27’ boat. We have a near queen-size bed, a head, a sink, air conditioning, a two burner stove, an inverter, generator, refrigerator, freezer, even a microwave; most of the comforts of home – but, no shower. We’ve had some wonderful times at anchor on the Glacier Bay, but generally prefer being in a slip in a marina. I confess to having an internet addiction, and the Glacier Bay isn’t big enough to give me satellite internet, so marinas are my only hope for Internet. Also: I don’t trust the ground tackle on the Glacier Bay. Weight up front on a catamaran is a large issue. We bought the largest anchor the dealer felt was safe, and although the dealer says it is fine; I personally wouldn’t trust it in a strong wind. The bottom line: I love anchoring, but this will not be an anchoring trip. Most of our nights will be spent in marinas. I’ll re-evaluate this as I see the anchorages, and get a better feel for the winds. I’m just not convinces there is much shelter from the wind anywhere in the Bahamas.

The Bimini Sands surprised us – a very nice resort. Approximately 200 condos circling a marina on the beach. We spent a couple of nights in the marina. For our first night, we asked what the best restaurant on the island was, and were told “The Red Lion” on North Bimini. Bimini is divided into two islands, and we were on the southern island. Reaching the restaurant was complicated. Cars are rare on Bimini. Everyone gets around via golf cart. We had rented one, only to find that you have to use a ferry to go to North Bimini. We could have taken the Glacier Bay across, but looking for moorage, just for dinner, and coping with the shallow water didn’t sound fun. Instead, we golf carted to the ferry dock, and waited what seemed forever for the ferry. The boat that ultimately came by may have been a ferry – we aren’t sure. The good news was that it delivered us to North Bimini and only hit bottom once crossing the channel. I was thinking “if the locals hit bottom, what chance do I have?”
 
Dinner on North Bimini was underwhelming. The Red Lion may well be the best restaurant in Bimini, and the food really wasn’t bad, but let’s just say that it wasn’t a particularly glamorous restaurant. We thought that perhaps we had chosen poorly and should check out the other restaurants around town. We walked all over Alice Town (north Bimini) and decided that people probably do not go to Bimni for fine dining. However several Americans we passed encouraged us to check out the “End of the World” bar. Perhaps we should have, but it was getting late, and we were worried about getting back to the marina. Back at the ferry dock, we realized that the ferries had stopped running. As we were running from boat to boat trying to bribe someone to take us to south Bimini a boat from our marina pulled up, and we coaxed our way on board.

On the morning of May 14th, we ventured out for the first time, with our goal: the Berry Islands (Bahamas), a small island group about 80 miles east of Bimini. We would be crossing 80 miles of open water, mostly with an average depth of only six to nine feet. Our first few minutes into open water caught us by surprise. We were expecting clear water, but not nearly water as crystal clear as what we found. The bottom was easily visible and a beautiful shade of blue. Very cool!

A negative surprise though: the depth gauge wasn’t working. Other than looking on the chart, we had absolutely no way to know how deep the water was. The charts were telling us that the depth would range from three to nine feet. At that kind of depth, the depth gauge would be useless anyhow, so we continued on, hoping I’d be able to sort it out. We then realized that the magnetic compass in the Raymarine e120 nav system was off by about 30 degrees. Given that we would be skimming along on shallow water, and any deviance from the course would put us aground, these electronic “challenges” were wrecking my day. We looked up the procedure for resetting the magnetic heading on the Raymarine, and got it corrected, only to find it off by 30 degrees a few minutes later. Argh!!!

Thus began our 80 mile crossing. The good news: the GPS was working, and we had good maps on board. I also had a hand bearing compass on board, to help me double check our position, although as we wouldn’t be seeing land for about 60 miles, this wouldn’t be much help. The great news: low winds, and a smooth crossing. We slowed down to 20 knots, and made the run without incident. It was a scary feeling to be flying over the bottom only a few feet below, knowing that the slightest error in heading could mean a sudden crunching sound.

Five hours after departure we pulled into the Great Harbor Cay Marina in the Berry Islands. Our real destination is the Exumas, a long string of islands another 100 miles southeast of the Berries. Our stop in the Berry Islands, is nothing more than a place to sleep along the way. Our next waypoint is Nassau, 50 miles southeast. Once we were safely in our slip at Great Harbor Cay, (24.40.49 N 77.51.30 W) I started studying our next run – to Nassau.

Our marina choice was non-optimal as a waypoint enroute to Nassau. We wanted to go southeast, but were on the northwest corner of the island group. We could either go southeast cutting through the center of the Berrys, which looked dangerous, or backtrack and go around the island group to the north, down the west side. Going around would take two hours longer than the short cut, plus the weather report looked bad. Small craft advisories for the next evening. Thunder showers. Wind 10-15 knots, and waves 2-4 feet. The wind and waves were non-optimal, but in the acceptable range. The thunder showers and the small craft advisory were unacceptable. We needed to arrive in Nassau ahead of the weather.

The Yachtsman’s Guide the Bahamas has this encouraging comment:

The inside passage from Bullocks Harbor to Little Harbor is an intricate shoal water route over shifting sand bars. It should not be attempted without the aid of local knowledge. It is for small boats only.

All we needed was some local knowledge! Roberta was encouraged by our success of the day, and felt we could make the run alone, but quickly agreed with me after studying the charts. We needed local assistance. I asked the dockmaster if he could recommend someone, and quickly found a local fisherman “Steven” who agreed to lead us over the 14 miles of one to three foot water. We chose high tide, which would add an additional 18 inches of water, but shift our trip until 10am – putting us later in the day than I really wanted. Steven thought we’d be fine without waiting for high tide, but I wanted the extra depth. Even with this, Steven gave the ominous warning: “Whatever you do don’t slow down. If you come off a plane, you’ll be caught in the sand, and we’ll have a mess.”

After taking on fuel, our ride began. Awesome! We averaged 28 knots zigzagging between sand bars, on a run I NEVER would have tried alone. The $200 I paid Steven was money well spent, and the ride beat anything at Disneyland.

Once we were out of the Berry Islands, we had a 34 mile run, in open ocean, to Nassau. The weather was heading south quickly, and the waves were bigger than expected. We slowed down to 21 knots, and rode it out. Every 20 or so minutes something else we thought we had put away securely would crash onto the floor, but the Glacier Bay handled the big waves (3-4 foot, force 4) quite well. We really only got slammed hard a couple of times. On our Nordhavn, it would have been an easy crossing, but as the ocean kept reminding us, 27’ is not a very big boat.

I’m writing this from Nassau, parked on Paradise Island in front of the Atlantis Resort Hotel. This is an incredible place. We’ve spent a lot of time cruising in the Med, but have never seen so many megayachts in one place. Our little boat looks VERY out of place here. Perhaps those around us assume we’re a tender to some ship or another. Dinner last night was awesome. The marina has high-speed wireless internet. We have a couple of days here to explore before heading south, and life is good. I am a little worried about the weather. Our plan was to leave tomorrow morning, but when I went to check the weather a few minutes ago, the harbormaster told me to plan on staying until Sunday. A big storm is coming….

I’m not sure when I’ll have internet again, but will write more later if I can…

-Ken Williams 

www.kensbook.com

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