A Morgan from the 1960s
An older Allied 36
Boats for the Bahamas
Many of you may be tempted to sail to the Bahamas and are wondering what kind of boat is necessary or desirable to make cruising there safe, enjoyable and comfortable. The short answer is that almost any cruising boat can make it, but let’s take a look at what makes a boat truly suitable. In addition to the boat itself, there are decisions to be made regarding the outfitting, so we will take a look at the gear you need. Lastly, you do not necessarily need a circumnavigator to sail to the Bahamas so be sure you know where you want to go before you plunk down the big bucks.
Boats that are Out There
I am writing this in Elizabeth Harbor in the Exumas, where there are presently 250 or more cruising boats anchored. If I dinghy around, I can find a MacGregor 22, a 60 foot catamaran, a couple of Pearsons from the seventies, several Morgans, one of which is 40 years old, Gulfstars, Irwins, Endeavors, Island Packets and other Florida built boats, a ferrocement schooner and an Oyster 63. Near our Catalina 42 are two 40 foot Beneteaus, a Morgan 38, an O’Day 34, an Ericson 36, a Tayana 37, a Manta 40 and a Cabo Rico 38. If a bell-shaped curve of boat sizes was created, the peak would be around 38 feet with a range from 21 to 70 feet and the vast majority of boats falling in the 35 to 42 foot range. Boat styles would include almost all types of sailboats except for bare bones race boats which are rare. About 10% are multihulls, of which 1 in 10 is a trimaran and the remainder catamarans.
Constraints for Boat Selection
If you are shopping for a boat, or if you are deciding whether or not your boat is suitable for a Bahamas trip, you should consider the conditions and constraints that you will be dealing with. Weather conditions in the winter are generally windy with 15 to 25 knots common. Seas can be rough unless you patiently wait for a break in the strong winds. Seas on the Bahama Banks can build to a 4 foot chop in strong winds. Waves on Exuma Sound and other deep water can easily be 8 or 9 feet on windy days. Most sailors wait for milder weather to travel when the chop on the Banks is 2 feet or so and the ocean has 3 -5 foot waves with a period of 6 seconds or more. You will often be heading upwind into the prevailing winds which usually means motoring. The most protected anchorages are often fairly shallow. While a heavy bluewater boat with a deep keel might be best for handling higher winds and accompanying waves, a small shallow draft vessel can sometimes sneak along in protected waters and enjoy a more comfortable ride.
Another constraint to consider is the need to carry supplies and fuel. Although the large towns such as Marsh Harbor and Nassau have a good supply of groceries and equipment available, the best cruising is usually away from it all and that includes grocery stores and ship chandleries. Most cruisers bring stores from the U.S. where they are less expensive and purchase fresh produce wherever they can. The capacity to carry stuff is roughly proportional to the displacement of your boat. You can assume that a 30,000 lb boat doesn’t notice 2,000 lbs of stores and possessions nearly as much as a 10,000 lb boat does. More marinas are appearing which means that fuel is easier to come by until you head to the Out Islands. South of Long Island however, fuel stops are unreliable until you reach the Turks and Caicos.
A final constraint to consider is the requirement for good navigation. This is not so much an issue for the boat as it is for the navigator and the navigation gear, but it should be noted that the Bahamas are unforgiving. There are thousands of islands, rocks, shoals, reefs, narrow cuts and lee shores to deal with. The tides are considerable and the associated current is strong. Good charts and a good GPS will give you the information you need to stay out of trouble, but if you make a mistake or if the engine, sails, rig or anchor gear fails at a critical moment, your boat can be on the rocks in no time.
Let’s look in more detail at features of a comfortable Bahamas cruiser:
We cruise the Bahamas successfully with a draft of about 6 ½ feet. We rarely have touched bottom but there are places where we do not venture, especially if the approach is over rocks or coral. Other boats with 7 ft and even 8 ft drafts cruise in the Bahamas, but the number of places they can go decreases substantially. While it is a shame that they miss some desirable spots, the real issue is that they cannot access some of the protected anchorages that are required when one of the frequent cold fronts brings strong westerly winds. I would not recommend cruising here with a draft that exceeds 6 ½ feet unless you already own such a boat, in which case I would say give it a try and then decide if it is fun or not.
If your boat draws 4 feet, you can slip down the Exumas on the protected Banks side avoiding much of the sailing in the Sound. You can also squeak into some Abaco harbors that we must avoid. Unfortunately, a 40 foot monohull with a four foot draft will not sail to weather like a race boat, so as we all know, life is a compromise.
Using the range of the tides to your advantage will help those of you with a deep draft. Sometimes, you can cross a bar into a deep anchorage at high tide. Bahamian tides range from 2 ½ to 4 feet, which makes a big difference as long as you have good tide tables.
The mast height or “air draft” of your vessel is a minor consideration in the Bahamas with only a couple of bridges in Nassau to worry about, both of which are more than 70 feet high.
As I mentioned above, most Bahama cruisers arrive at 38 - 40 feet as the ideal length for a couple. Ignoring the cost issue for a moment, a 40 foot boat provides enough space for people, stores, equipment and privacy, as well as access to work on the engine and other systems. Smaller boats start to feel cramped and jobs like tightening the stuffing box often require a contortionist. Larger boats can be a handful when it comes to raising sail and anchoring although they are often more comfortable underway. Modern roller furling mainsails, electric winches and windlasses make large boat handling much easier but add complexity and create maintenance problems. Costs do increase dramatically with boat length. The relationship may be direct (such as dockage), or exponential (such as buying sails). Once you are in the Bahamas however, you will probably not go to a dock very often or purchase sails. Expensive fuel remains a cost issue as fuel consumption is exponential (largely proportional to displacement ).
Having said that, we recently observed a couple with three small children on a 29 foot sailboat entertaining two grandparents aboard for a week. I also met a couple handling a 61 foot Oyster cutter by themselves. There are exceptions to every rule! You must decide what is comfortable for you.
Cruising in the Bahamas requires a reliable engine. Second only to keeping the boat afloat, it is top priority. “Not Me”, you may say, “I sail everywhere”. Well, I can assure you that you cannot sail out of the cuts between the islands into open water with the wind and current on the nose and no room to tack. You probably cannot sail intricate routes among shoals and rocks to get to the next anchorage. And sometimes you will need to make tracks to tuck into the next harbor before nightfall. Lastly, you should not depend on sail when you are weighing or dropping anchor in the midst of a busy anchorage filled with high dollar boats owned by lawyers.
A modern diesel is the engine of choice. Some small boats will be O.K. with outboards. Diesel parts will generally have to be brought in from the U.S. when needed. Outboard parts are available in the Bahamas only for Yamaha, Johnson, Mercury and Honda. Bring spares with you!
Whether you use paper charts, a chart plotter or computer charts, make sure you have the Explorer charts for the Bahamas. Other charts do not provide the information you will need. One or more GPS units is essential in this day and age and ideally, your primary GPS should be connected so that it can guide your autopilot, automatically correcting for the largely unpredictable effects of current swirling around islands, rocks and cuts. Additional navigation gear such as radar is certainly nice to have but not essential. Fancy chartplotter/radar combinations with multiple screens and many views are unnecessary and can be a distraction. One accident occurred recently when a skipper was so intent on watching his chartplotter he forgot to look where he was going and T-boned a brand new anchored boat.
A Single Side Band or ham transceiver is nice to have, but just a high frequency (SSB) radio receiver will enable you to obtain critical weather reports. Certain weather reports are repeated on VHF in some locations but the SSB radio will work anywhere. There will be no weather reports on your VHF weather channels.
Water and Energy
A watermaker is very nice to have in terms of convenience, but drinking water is available on most inhabited islands either free or for a modest price. City water quality is improving with reverse osmosis water becoming the norm. You will need jugs to transport city water since you will not always be able to get your boat close enough to fill up. Collecting rainwater is not a reliable water source in this dry climate.
Pump out stations are non-existent in the Bahamas so be sure you have the means to take care of business the old fashioned way.
Alternative energy sources such as solar panels or wind generators or a powered generator are much preferred over charging with the main engine. Solar panels and wind generators work exceptionally well in the Bahamas because wind and sun are the norm. Fuel is expensive but small portable generators are seen throughout the harbors. A house battery bank of 450 amp hours is recommended, along with a separate starting battery.
The Ideal Boat
There is of course no ideal boat for everybody as evidenced by the number of different boats that are out here. A composite of the foregoing information would probably result in a 40 foot boat with a 5 foot draft, good sailing ability, a 40+ horsepower diesel, an autopilot connected to the GPS, an SSB radio, a watermaker, 200 watts of solar panel power and a wind generator. Add to this sturdy anchoring gear which will allow the use of two anchors when needed. The boat should be as simple and easy to maintain as possible, with systems accessible for routine maintenance and repair and all wiring and plumbing labeled and documented.
In practical terms, your ideal boat is probably the one you already have. If it can handle the conditions described above safely and with comfort adequate for you, then start planning your trip to the Bahamas.