Missin' Da Bahamas, Mon!
By Colin Ward
For the first time in seven years, we are not in the Bahamas this winter. The reasons are related to the health of an elderly parent which I will not go into, but we are living on the boat in Florida instead of cruising the Bahamas.
So what do we miss about the trek south that we have become accustomed to? Well first, let me say that living aboard in the St. Pete area is not at all bad. We have a comfortable slip with a great view and the amenities that we need. It is double the price that it would have been three years ago, but it is still pleasant.
The temperature here is considerably cooler than it is in the southern Exumas. We run the heater here in Florida about half of the time to take the chill off. When we are cruising away from the dock, we do not have the power to operate our heating system, but in the Bahamas, we never miss it. It is always warm enough below, and we rarely need more than a tee shirt and shorts and an occasional jacket when we are out and about. Actually, the winter temperature is usually several degrees warmer in Miami and the Keys than it is in the Tampa Bay area, plus a few more degrees in the Exumas.
The trip to the Bahamas is always exciting and challenging. We pick our weather carefully and favor comfort over fast sailing. We enjoy stopping in Charlotte Harbor and Fort Myers Beach and, of course, Marathon. We have crossed the Gulf Stream fourteen times and have always had a safe and reasonably comfortable passage by choosing our weather windows very carefully.
Arriving on the Bahama Banks either at South Riding Rocks or north of Bimini is truly exciting. We have the feeling that we have arrived in paradise again. The water is instantly beautiful, the Banks are usually calm, and we begin to hear the Bahamian accents on the VHF radio again. There is still a long way to go before we make landfall in Nassau which has become our first stop. There is a stretch of water between the Banks (at Northwest Channel Light) and Nassau that can get pretty rough if the wind is on the nose. Our planning includes traveling that stretch in moderate conditions, although windows between the prevailing strong easterlies are short.
Arriving in Nassau provides our second rush of excitement. Nassau has a protected harbor with most facilities that a cruiser needs. Clearing in to the country is easy if you take a slip in a marina for a night or two. We often anchor out in Nassau although the holding and current require great care. Nassau has a Caribbean style that is totally different from anywhere in Florida. While it is colorful and beautiful, it is noisy and full of flavor. There is a fleet of boats of all shapes and sizes coming and going at all hours. From cruise ships and freighters to dive boats, from megayachts to the tourist's Booze and Cruise party boats, there is always something in motion to watch. There are even commercial seaplanes landing in the harbor several times a day. While Nassau is not a quiet, calm, peaceful place to escape to, it has its own foreign flavor and vibe that should be sampled by anyone going that way. We are definitely missing our visit to Nassau this year!
Once we leave Nassau, we enjoy a day sail to Highborne Cay in the Exuma chain, followed by a series of day hops down the chain to the southeast. The water is absolutely beautiful, the sailing is great, the fishing can be good, the islands are uncrowded, the underwater reefs and sea life are spectacular, and the people are laid back and friendly. We stop at our favorite spots for a night or a week or more. We especially enjoy Exuma Park, Big Majors Spot, Staniel Cay, Black Point and Great Guana Cay. A lot of the fun comes from meeting our cruising friends in these idyllic spots.
We invariably end up in George Town each season. Anchoring in Elizabeth Harbor is interesting in that it is huge and it attracts lots of cruising boats. The anchorage is secure most of the time but when the wind clocks during a frontal passage, there is enough fetch to make some popular spots very uncomfortable. Boats that are not anchored well will undoubtedly drag. We don't really miss that part, although we take the trouble to move to a secure spot when those frequent northers are approaching.
George Town itself is a very small village on Great Exuma island. It has most of the necessities of life available though. A couple of grocery stores and banks, doctors, a dentist, post office, internet service, diesel fuel, and so on can all be found in George Town. We also miss the camaraderie within the cruising community there. There are lots of activities as well as opportunities to make new friends and catch up with old ones.
So what else do we miss by not cruising this season? Not only do we miss the people and geography of the Bahamas, but we miss the freedom of the cruising life in a country where there are few silly rules and regulations. In Florida, we are always concerned about anchoring restrictions, inspections by some authority or other, getting a ticket for not having something unanticipated aboard the dinghy, etc. (don't you sometimes wonder why the police are not catching thieves and murderers instead of checking dinghy registrations?). In the Bahamas, once you have cleared in and paid your cruising fee, you are free to anchor almost anywhere. Although there are vessels of the Bahamas Defense Force around to protect the affairs of the Bahamas, they rarely have any reason to interact with cruising boats.
When we cruise, we are also insulated from television, newspapers and other forms of in-your-face advertising. Entertainment is mostly “do it yourself”, whether it is dinner with friends aboard, a cruiser potluck, a jam session on the beach, or a visit to a local hangout or restaurant.
There is no shopping as we know it in the US. We can't kill time by going to the mall and buying things we don't need. We don't know or care what the latest cell phone/camera/GPS/Dick Tracy Wrist Radio combination is or does. We don't have any ring tones and we don't know whether Britney Spears is wearing any underwear (not that going commando in the Bahamas makes the news).
There is also a camaraderie within the cruising community that comes from a commonality among the people who are out there. The cruisers we meet by default have a lot of shared traits with ourselves and others who have chosen this particular adventure. The people tend to be somewhat footloose and fancy free, competent, unconcerned with shopping malls and status symbols, adventurous, with a desire to enjoy life by participating rather than observing. If they are not that way inclined, they will not last long in the cruising lifestyle. Interestingly, those traits are shared by people who have made their way through life in a large variety of different careers. Engineers (us), policemen, teachers, mechanics, truck drivers, yoga instructors, doctors, lawyers, nurses, etc. The list goes on. But they all desire an adventure (or at least their spouse does!). We are really missing our cruising friends.
But we are doing O.K. on the boat tied up in a marina in Florida. We are taking care of the elderly parent's situation as best we know how and we are hoping and planning to get back to the Bahamas next season. If you have been there, you will appreciate all the things we miss, and if you haven't been cruising there, I highly recommend giving it a try!