The September, 2007 issue of Cruising World magazine featured a cover story entitled The Bahamas Beckon…World-class cruising right in your own backyard. The cover photo depicts a cruising sailboat moored in the harbor at Hopetown, framed by the Elbow Cay Reef light. This magazine has permanently occupied the corner of my nightstand for five years, inspiring dreams of sailing expeditions to foreign places. Our 2012 winter cruise to the Bahamas is the first chapter in the fulfillment of that dream.
The most significant risk factor involved in sailing to the Bahamas involves crossing the Gulf Stream. I have crossed the Stream several times as a crew member, but never as the skipper of my own vessel. Pat had never crossed the Stream prior to this voyage. While the crossing is not something to be taken lightly, we are living proof that with good planning and a capable vessel, this passage can be easily achieved. We learned to begin the crossing well south of our destination in order to use the considerable cross current in the Gulf Stream to push us towards our destination. Despite the longer distance traveled from start to finish, the increase in speed over ground adds both comfort and safety to the crossing. From listening to the unenviable tales of fellow-cruisers, we also learned that patience pays off in waiting for near-perfect conditions before crossing. The overall experience of sailing to and from the Bahamas has built confidence for future ocean passages.
For 48 fun-filled days, we explored the northernmost region of the Bahamas, including Abaco, Grand Bahama Island and the Little Bahama Bank. Our six week cruise provided ample time for a relaxed but thorough exploration of this area. During our visit, we mastered the art of relaxation. The pace of life is slower here. Typically, we spend 3 or 4 days in one place, exploring towns, walking beaches, reading and just hanging out on Cutter Loose. Then we move the boat to a new destination and begin the process anew.
What is it about the Bahamas that make it a memorable cruising destination? First and foremost, the electric turquoise color and clarity of the water is incredible, unlike any place that we have seen in the U.S. Second, the white sand beaches in Abaco are stunning, inviting long walks and shelling expeditions. The foreign allure of the Bahamas is also appealing to us. Towns and harbors in Abaco (referred to as “settlements”) are more compact, attractive and interesting. The Bahamian people are engaging, both black Bahamians and Caucasian Bahamians of Loyalist ancestry. In fact, interacting with Bahamians was one of the highlights of our trip. Black Bahamians speak a different language when conversing with one another, but they are always willing to speak to us in English.
Unlike in U.S. waters, there are few buoys or aids to navigation in the Bahamas. However, our Dodge cruising guide provides excellent navigational guidance. After a few weeks, one’s skills in interpreting the color of the water and understanding local landmarks improve rapidly. There is no shortage of marinas in the northern Bahamas. But the beauty of the Bahamas can best be appreciated at overnight moorings and anchorages, which has always been our preference over marinas. In the Florida Keys, many cruisers remain at the same marina or mooring for the entire season. In Abaco, cruisers are more mobile, daysailing to new destinations every few days.
We certainly experienced our fair share of windy, squally conditions in Abaco. After all, there are few land barriers to impede the flow of wind and March is typically one of the windiest months of the year in Abaco. But the beauty of the Sea of Abaco is the opportunity it affords for trade wind daysailing and the abundance of harbors and anchorages that provide good protection from cold fronts and strong easterlies. During our stay, we never experienced a problem securing a slip or a mooring in the days leading up to a blow. In settled weather, there is an abundance of attractive empty anchorages.
Many experienced cruisers refer to Abaco as an extension of Florida. These are code words suggesting that Abaco is more tourist-oriented than the remote islands of the southern Bahamas. After all, most things are available here in Abaco if one is willing to pay the price. Internet access via a subscription to Bahamas WiMax or Out Island Internet is available in most of the major harbors. Digital TV from Miami stations is available in many locations. Groceries and restaurants are available in most settlements. For us, these conveniences add to the cruising experience. Yes, we regret that time did not permit us to sail further south past the island of Eleuthera to the Exuma chain. We will save the Exumas for a future voyage. For our first visit to the Bahamas, however, our visit to Abaco was sufficient to keep our plate filled with constant discovery, entertainment and relaxation.
We would be remiss if we failed to mention how traveling with buddy boats added an important dimension to the voyage. On Gulf Steam crossings, companion sailors offer safety in numbers, thereby reducing anxiety. During our stay in the Bahamas, we were in contact with as many as six cruising boats. Our paths continually separated and re-crossed. Each time we became reunited, we would celebrate the occasion by comparing notes and introducing one another to new acquaintances. Gradually, our buddy boats became scattered as each crew had different timeframes for departure. In the end, it came down to Island Spirit and Cutter Loose being the last two boats to return in tandem to the U.S. Sharing the experience and learning from others builds friendships and adds interest and excitement to the cruising experience.
Many of the cruisers we’ve met return year after year to the Bahamas during the winter and spring. We can certainly understand their enthusiasm. We have thoroughly enjoyed our visit. We’re not sure exactly when Cutter Loose will return to the Bahamas. But we feel certain we’ll be back again to expand our exploration of this special place.