Nassau by Sailboat
Sailors visiting the Bahamas are very likely to pass through Nassau on the way south. The majority of cruisers heading to the Exumas for the winter season stop there and for those heading to Eleuthera, Cat Island or Long Island, a stop in Nassau makes sense. It is also a good destination for a vacation cruise from Florida. There are plenty of opportunities in the Bahamas to find lonely beaches and wonderful snorkeling so enjoy the contrast. Nassau is cosmopolitan, exciting, bustling, exotic, colorful, and fun. It is a good place to make new cruising friends. The cruising guides mention that Nassau is a place you will either love or hate. Hopefully, our story will help you to become a Nassau lover.
Getting to Nassau
Nassau is actually a city on the island of New Providence. The harbor is between the north shore of New Providence and the south shore of Paradise Island. There is an entrance at each end of the harbor, but large ships are limited to the west entrance. After crossing the Gulf Stream and the Bahama Banks, you can continue straight to Nassau or stop at Chubb Cay, Frazers Hog Cay or Morgans Bluff, leaving yourself a nice day sail to Nassau. Likewise, if you enter the Bahamas further north, you can stop in the Berry Islands and again make Nassau in a day. Plan to arrive in daylight.
Note that the sail to Nassau can be a rough one if the wind pipes up, especially if you leave the Banks when the current is opposing a stiff breeze. Entering the harbor is straightforward as long as you have the invaluable Explorer Chart of the Near Bahamas. Head to the west entrance of Nassau harbor and use the channel markers following the red right returning rule. The entrance is busy with ship traffic and the markers are well maintained. As you enter the harbor, you will turn to port and notice the cruise ship dock to starboard of the channel.
Before you arrive, call Nassau Harbor Control on channel 16. Wait until you are within a mile or so of Nassau or you will not hear their reply. Harbor Control will ask you to switch to channel 9. Request permission to enter the harbor through the west entrance. Harbor Control will ask for your boat name and documentation number and where you plan to dock or anchor. They will normally respond by giving permission and possibly warning you of ship traffic.
If you have not cleared into the Bahamas yet, you must tie up to a dock. This can be done at any marina or at the customs dock which is near the control tower just beyond the cruise ship dock. Clearing in is easy in Nassau and you can get up to 6 months clearance for the crew, which is not always the case at other ports of entry. You can wait until Nassau to clear in by staying on your boat and flying your Q flag (even if you anchor for the night). Let your marina dockmaster know you need to clear in and he will call for customs and immigration to visit your boat. Sometimes, the officers will come aboard, other times you will meet with them somewhere in the marina. They will appreciate a cold beverage if they visit your boat. Stay near your boat until you have cleared in. We recently heard that the Bahamas will soon be charging $300 for a cruising permit rather than the current $100.
Navigation in the Harbor
Once you are in the harbor, you simply stay to port of the cruise ship docks and follow the channel towards the two high bridges. The water is deep as long as you stay in the center of the harbor. Bridge clearance exceeds 65 feet but check your chart and the tide boards if they are there. As you head to the bridges, you will see anchored boats on both sides. The BASRA anchorage is to starboard as you head east. The entrance to the Atlantis marina is to port just before the first bridge.
As you pass under the bridges, you will see freighters and mailboats to starboard tied up at Potter’s Cay. If you plan to enter the Yacht Haven or Harbor Club marinas, they will be to the south beyond Potter’s Cay. Note the shoal on the chart and turn south of the shoal before the charted light to follow the south channel to the marinas. If you are not heading to those marinas, favor the north side of the harbor to stay in deeper water. The entrance to the Hurricane Hole marina is just to the east of the bridges on the north side of the harbor.
Be advised that Nassau Harbor is full of tour boats, cruise ships, freighters, pilot boats, fishing boats, seaplanes, megayachts and engineless Haitian sailing workboats, and there are No Rules, Mate. You will be waked all day long as the Booze ‘N Cruise tours pass by. This is not the ICW and you will not get a slow pass. Everyone is having a good time though, and the wakes go away by nightfall.
Marinas and Anchoring
Entering a marina is not a bad idea for the first visit. Wait until you are less than 5 miles away before you call for a reservation on channel 16. The marinas will not answer you when you are 12 miles out. Dockage is usually available unless bad weather has prevented boats from departing. We stop at the Nassau Yacht Haven while others prefer the Nassau Harbor Club. Both were $1.30 per foot per night in 2003 with a daily charge for water of about $8, plus metered electricity. There are a couple of other marinas on the Nassau (south) side of the harbor but they are less suitable for transient sailboats. On the Paradise Island (north) side of the harbor, the upscale Hurricane Hole marina charges $2.50 per foot per night and the Atlantis marina is more than $3.00 but offers access to the spectacular Atlantis resort. The latter are powerboat oriented and you will be sharing the docks with megayachts. Beware of strong current when you dock your boat. When the tide is ebbing, the current is flowing to the west and vice versa.
Anchoring in Nassau is possible in several spots. The most popular anchorage is in front of the Bahamas Air Sea Rescue Association (BASRA) headquarters and Crocodiles restaurant. The current reverses directions twice a day and two anchors are advised. The holding is not the best due to the grassy bottom, but in moderate conditions, it is certainly possible to stay put. Our Delta and Claw anchors set and hold hold well but I would not use a Danforth type due to the grass and the reversing current. Depths vary from very shallow to more than 15 feet so choose your spot carefully. Another spot to anchor is on the north side of the harbor by Club Med across from the BASRA anchorage. The holding is again not the best so be sure your anchor is properly set before leaving the boat. You may also see boats anchored in front of the Nassau Harbor Club on both the north and south side of the harbor. Again, in moderate conditions the holding is adequate given proper care while anchoring. If you are expecting a cold front packing a 40 knot squall line, assume that someone will drag anchor.
Dinghy landing is welcomed at Crocodiles restaurant. Crocodiles is the sailors’ friend and provides a dinghy dock at no charge as well as good food and an internet station. During the winter season, a fun yachtsman’s lunch is hosted by Nick and Carolyn Wardle every Thursday at Crocodiles. Nick and Carolyn work with BASRA and provide daily weather reports and other services for cruisers. Dinghy landing is also possible at the Texaco station just west of the Nassau Harbor Club as well as at some marinas.
What to do in Nassau
Now you have arrived in Nassau, what is there to do? Quite a lot, actually. We usually walk west along East Bay Street from Crocodiles or the Yacht Haven downtown. We check out the landmarks (Parliament Building and Court House, Government House and Christ Church Cathedral), stores, the strawmarket and the internet cafes. It is very tourist oriented since it is located next to the cruise ship docks, but is fun nevertheless. There are restaurants of all types and prices. We prefer inexpensive, but once were taken to La Matisse, a fantastic European restaurant. If you do not feel like walking, you can take one of the ubiquitous jitney buses for $1.25 per ride. The driver will tell you whether he is going to your destination or not.
At the southern foot of the east high bridge are many stalls selling fish, conch and other seafood. The stalls draw some interesting characters, few of whom are tourists. Pick one that is preparing conch salad from fresh ingredients and try a bowl with a local beer called a Kalik. I recommend going easy on the hot pepper!
Good restaurants near the foot of the bridge include the Double Dragon for inexpensive Chinese and the Poop Deck at the Yacht Haven for Bahamian style seafood and a popular happy hour.
You can walk over the high bridges to Paradise Island and walk around the Atlantis resort. The aquarium is well worth seeing. Some of it can be seen for free but there is a charge to see the most exotic section. Restaurants at the Atlantis are not for most cruising budgets unless you are successful at the slot machines.
Across the street from the Nassau Harbor Club is a strip mall featuring a very good grocery store, as well as hardware, liquor and drugstores. There is a Radio Shack and a Mailboxes, Etc where you can ship or receive packages. Between the Harbor Club and the Yacht Haven are several marine chandleries, a boat yard and a dive shop. There are several fuel docks, one of which is at the Yacht Haven. If you need a physician, try Dr. Bartlett just west of the Yacht Haven or head downtown to the U.S. style Walk-In Clinic.
For the adventurous, you can head out into the country to the Bacardi Rum Factory for a tour (call for schedule). A jitney bus will get you within a mile or two or you can get a group together and hire a cab (preferred). Liquor in the Bahamas is reasonably priced, especially at the factory. Beer on the other hand is best purchased in the US.
Unlike the rest of the Bahamas, security is an important issue in Nassau. Walking off the beaten path is not recommended for visitors. Most troubles occur between Bahamians, but thefts of dinghies and outboards occasionally occur, as do boat break-ins. Being street smart and taking precautions such as raising your dinghy at night, locking it whenever you leave it anywhere, and locking your boat should be adequate to discourage thieves. As in most large cities, the vast majority of people are honest and friendly but a few create problems for all. We feel secure near the marinas, in downtown Nassau, and on Paradise Island. We do not venture inland very far on New Providence, however.
When you are ready to leave Nassau, contact Harbor Control to obtain permission to depart. If your next stop is in the Exumas, head east from the bridges, favoring the north shore and expect eight foot depths when you pass the cut between Athol and Paradise Islands. Otherwise, you should see 10 – 12 foot depths until you reach Porgy Rock. If you depart from the Yacht Haven, remember to pass between Potter’s Cay and the shoal before turning east. We have found the Explorer Charts to be essential and accurate. Other chart kits leave a lot to be desired.
Nassau is an interesting and fun destination in the Bahamas. It is far different from the sparsely inhabited Exumas and Out Islands. We enjoy the culture, the availability of supplies and the change of pace. We hope you do too.