Cruise the Bahamas or the Keys?
There is no doubt that different strokes are for different folks so lets take a look at choosing between cruising in the Florida Keys or the Bahamas. Assuming that you have a season or at least a few weeks to spend cruising one of these island groups, you can evaluate which of them might offer the best experience for you.
First of all, there are some similarities which would probably get you thinking about visiting either island chain in the first place. The Keys are comprised of islands extending from just south of Miami to Key West (and beyond if you consider the Dry Tortugas as part of the package). From Biscayne Bay to Key West is about 140 miles. The Keys offer good sailing in the Hawk Channel where the ocean swells are knocked down by the offshore reefs and the shallow waters. North of the Keys in Florida Bay, there is also good sailing and anchoring for boats with a shallow draft. Snorkeling and fishing are good and very popular. Although the Keys are well populated and some areas are built up, many islands are low lying and have not been filled and developed (at least not yet).
The Bahamas are comprised of several island groups, each of which is roughly the same length as the Florida Keys. Sailing, snorkeling and fishing are good in the Bahamas. Most of the islands are relatively unpopulated and remote. Much of the best sailing is on the protected and shallow Bahama Bank which offers great sailing in benign sea conditions.
So if both island groups offer all this, how would you choose where to spend your season? Well rest assured, there are lots of differences to consider. Lets take a look.
Foreign or Domestic?
Some folks are looking for a foreign experience in a different country with a different culture from what they are used to. Others prefer the comfortable familiarity of being able to shop at Publix and K-Mart and use the bank and US mail just like at home. Also, anyone who wishes to work along the way will probably have to choose the Keys.
Visiting The Bahamas is unquestionably a foreign experience and all those familiar conveniences we are so used to vaporize the minute you cross the Gulf Stream. The good news is that the Bahamian people speak English, although I defy the new visitor to understand two Bahamians talking to each other in their local accents. The foreign experience starts when you first arrive and clear in through customs and immigration. The cost to obtain a cruising permit for your vessel for a year is either $150 or $300, depending on whether it is longer than 35 feet or not. Immigration is free. The crew can leave and return at no extra cost but the boat can only leave once and return during the first 90 days or it will be liable for another cruising permit fee. Towns like Nassau and Marsh Harbor have supermarkets and other stores that are similar to the US, but away from the big towns, shopping is limited or non-existent. Bahamians order goods from Nassau or the USA and have them delivered inexpensively by one of the mailboats or freighters that ply the waters regularly. You should learn right away that islands in the Bahamas are known as Cays (pronounced the same as Keys).
The Florida Keys are not as developed as parts of the US mainland, but you don't have to go far to find the same suburbia stores that are in every other US town. Home Depot, Publix, K-Mart, Office Depot, West Marine, Wendy's and so on are in Marathon, Key West and other larger towns. Of course, banking and medical care are also readily available. The Keys cater to tourists so there are restaurants on many corners, from local eateries to modern chains.
Menu choices in Bahamian local restaurants are limited to a few common dishes. Some are very good, but those who value dining out in the US will soon be longing for good steak, pizza or moo goo gai pan.
Getting to the Bahamas requires selecting the right weather to comfortably cross the Gulf Stream which can be very ugly in the wrong weather. Otherwise, navigation is not particularly difficult. There is far less support if something goes wrong in the Bahamas. Assume there are no towing services and be self sufficient. The Keys on the other hand are well equipped with ice, towboats, marine chandleries and boat yards.
The Sailing and the Weather
Sailing can be very good both in the Bahamas and the Keys. The weather is the deciding factor and the winter brings a series of cold fronts to both areas. The cold fronts usually hit harder the further north you lie. The Abacos typically see much colder and windier weather than the Exumas. The Keys receive something in between. A typical cycle would be easterly winds in the 15 - 20 range for two or three days, then winds clocking towards the south and southwest and lightening a bit, then the wind clocking west. Then, all of a sudden, a squall line comes through often packing northwest winds to 40 knots for a short time, and then it continues clocking to the northeast at 15 to 20, and then back to the east again. The entire cycle takes less than week and is then repeated. The cold front cycle diminishes in intensity in the spring, and summer and fall are pleasant other than the threat of hurricanes.
The sailing is good for much of the cold front cycle but the focus is on where to be when the northwest squalls arrive. Both the Keys and the Bahamas have a few harbors offering all-around protection, but many anchorages are only protected from one direction. Careful study of the charts and guidebooks is required to insure a safe and pleasant cold front passage.
Depths and Draft
Our sailboat Mandalay draws in excess of six feet so we are well aware of the limitations of draft in both areas. We have found that we can enjoy most of the Bahamas with some planning and forethought. We have no difficulty sailing in the Hawk Channel south of the Keys, but we have not found many anchorages that are protected from anything more than the north. The exception is Boot Key Harbor in Marathon which is a terrific harbor and I am writing this article sitting there on a mooring. The channel into the harbor is deep enough for us to get in but I picture the keel scaring the crabs on the bottom as it squeaks by. Mandalay does not cruise along the Florida Bay side of the Keys simply because the depths are inadequate and the tides that help us into some Bahamian anchorages are very small and unpredictable in Florida Bay.
Deep draft anchorages off the Hawk Channel include Rodriguez Key, Tavernier Key, Bahia Honda State Park, Newfound Harbor and Key West. Of these, only Boot Key Harbor qualifies as an all-weather harbor. In light winds, you can always pull up to an island and drop the hook. You can usually get in the lee of the islands near Channel Five. There may be a couple of marinas that can accommodate a six foot draft. Call before entering!
Boats drawing significantly less than 6 feet can find many more anchorages and marinas both “Ocean Side” (south and east of the Keys) and “Bay Side” (north and west of the Keys).
The Keys look a lot different from Bahamian Islands. The Keys are comprised of sandy soil covered with mangroves. Much of the undeveloped land is low lying and not suitable for building. Some of the undeveloped areas are parks operated by the state government.
If you take the Overseas Highway down the island chain, you will see the best and the worst of the Keys - the best being the views of the water and the worst being the older commercial buildings and yards which appear to have grown up years ago without the benefit of planning or zoning and now look distinctly shabby. Despite the very high cost of real estate in the Keys, the impression is hardly one of “upscale” unless you get into one of the new resorts or developments. As in the rest of Florida, I think this is destined to change.
The Florida Keys are close to the only coral reefs in the USA. The reefs therefore receive a lot of attention and there are numerous rules and regulations aimed at preservation. The further offshore and the further south you go, the clearer and more spectacular the water becomes, especially if one ventures to the Dry Tortugas.
Bahamian islands are essentially limestone rock, sometimes appropriately called ironshore, often surrounded by sandy beaches. A large number of native shrubs grow in soil pockets on the rocks and there are trees called casuarinas (or Australian pines) and various palms along the beaches. The Bahamas are not very high but they are more hilly than the Keys. The majority of Bahamian cays are sparsely inhabited although many are privately owned. Once you have cleared into the Bahamas, there are few rules and regulations to worry about.
Coral reefs are found throughout the Bahamas and the snorkeling and reef fishing is very good. Bahamian fishermen have abused the reefs in the past using techniques such as dynamiting and bleaching the reefs to catch fish. These practices are now illegal but some reefs will never recover. Fortunately, there are thousands of reefs and coral heads so there are many that are still pristine. The water in the Bahamas is totally clear and it takes on beautiful shades of turquoise and blue depending on the depth. When the surface of the water is not disturbed by wind, it is easy to see your anchor and chain on the bottom in 20 feet of water. I do not think the water is prettier anywhere in the US or the Caribbean than it is right across the Gulf Stream in the Bahamas.
In addition to the customs fees mentioned above, the cost of visiting the Bahamas might be higher than visiting the Keys. Groceries and other imported items are subject to a duty that drives the price up about 40%. Telephones and fuel are also more expensive. If you take most of your groceries with you, you will not feel the effects of higher prices too much. There are a few good deals in the Bahamas. For instance, we get all of our dental care in the Bahamas - $40 for a cleaning and checkup. We have also bought two outboard motors in the Bahamas for lower than US prices. Make sure your boat insurance covers you. Most US companies either include the Bahamas or will add a rider for a modest amount.
The Keys are a little more costly than the mainland. Fuel is noticeably more expensive and other items vary in accordance with supply and demand.
In summary, both the Keys and the Bahamas are excellent cruising grounds and you will have to decide which fits your style. The Bahamas are foreign, more remote and challenging, and possibly more rewarding. The Keys are familiar, convenient and relatively safe with lots of support available. The Keys are more difficult in a deep draft vessel.
Good luck with your choice. I do not think you will be disappointed with either.