Protips for folks planning a cruise to the Bahamas for the first time:
1. Most of the Bahamas are shallow. This makes for a very pretty view from space, as well as at sea level - the white and pink sand beaches taper into clear water that varies from jade green to turquoise to sapphire. Such as these views, looking down from our deck:
In places, with the sun at the proper angle, you feel like you are floating on top of a giant blue opal. However, the shallowness limits the anchorages available to vessels with drafts of 6' or deeper. Deep-draft cruisers like us enjoy the Bahamas, but we have to pay closer attention to route planning, tides and anchorages. The following several posts will describe where we took The Fox's 6'2" keel.
2. GB and I prefer cross-referencing 2 or more cruising guides in the areas we travel. We do this because in our experience no single cruising guide is ever 100% correct or complete. Based on other cruisers' recommendations we used the 3-volume Explorer Charts series for the Near Bahamas, the Exumas and the Far Bahamas. At first, they seemed expensive and unwieldy (they are a size I find awkward to use), but I was soon relying upon them exclusively. For me, the Explorer Chartbooks havebeen the one and only go-to guide to the Bahamas. Of course we'd bought a few other guidebooks, but found them to be far less accurate and complete; I quickly stopped using them altogether. The only other guide I used for route planning and anchoring options was the online Interactive Cruising Guidebook at Active Captain.
My advice as a satisfied customer: ignore the other guides, and spend all your money on the Explorer series in the water-resistant spiral-bound hard copy.
3. For Bahamian weather forecasts including crossing the Gulf Stream from and to Florida, we generally listen to Chris Parker's discussion on SSB at frequency 4.045 at 1130 UTC. We cross reference his information with a number of sources, depending on availability; for example if we have Internet access we study Magic Seaweed and Passage Weather; if we are in a text-only situation we email the free Saildocs service for an almost-instantaneous text forecast. (The trick with Saildocs is to know the NOAA access codes for your zone of travel, which NOAA shows here. The brilliant Eric and Sherrell on s/v Sarana share more information on how to use Saildocs email forecasts, here.) We have only traveled through the Bahamas during the winter months, and what we know is: December 2011 was generally much windier than January 2012 and 2014; but the weather for crossing to the Bahamas from Florida was much milder in November 2011 than at any time from November 2013 through January 2014. The locals tell us that February 2014 is much warmer and more humid than typical - which makes them wonder how soon the 2014 hurricane season will start.
4. Our path of travel in 2011-2012 took us from Lake Worth Inlet/Palm Beach, Florida, SE across the Great Bahama Banks at Great Isaac Rock, dropping off the Banks into the Northwest Providence Channel just above Nassau and New Providence Island. We had light air and motored due east toward Eleuthera Island, transiting the reefs at the SW entrance of Fleeming Channel and anchoring at Rock Sound in the southern bay of Eleuthera Island (58.25 hrs. & 265.8 miles total for this passage).
Many cruisers prefer a much shorter passage, but we didn't want to waste a good weather window, and our timing was such that we'd havebeen approaching the few anchorages safe for our keel in the middle of the night. Some boaters stay at marinas closer to Florida in places like Bimini, Nassau, or Lucaya on Grand Bahama Island to check in to the Bahamas, but we chose to go further and check in ourselves because (a) marinas here are pricey ($2.50/foot/day is not unusual); and (b) marinas add a premium to the $300 check-in fee for a 40' boat like ours. Your mileage, of course, may vary so study your options a little before setting sail.
[Next post: a comparison of our 2011-2012 Bahamas loop trip with our current sail plan...]