What Cruisers Want to Know About the Bahamas
Written by Chuck Baier
This is not usually the time of year most cruisers think about going to the Bahamas. But this is the time of year that a few adventurous cruisers know the anchorages will be a whole lot less crowded and the marinas will be offering deals.
To get to the Bahamas, the boat and crew need to be prepared well before departure. First and foremost, the boat must be ready for an open-water crossing of the Gulf Stream. Make no mistake, this is a serious transit and should not be taken lightly. A full complement of current safety equipment (flares, signaling devices and flotation devices) needs to be on board and in good working order. Good communications equipment is also essential. Unless you are in sight of another boat, at some point, the VHF and cell phones will not help in contacting someone should you need help. An HF radio is a very good option.
Provisioning the vessel is another daunting task. Many items are cheaper to purchase in the U.S. and much easier to find. Other items are cheaper in the Bahamas due to government subsidies. Any special dietary requirements should be well-stocked.
What Should I Know?
The big questions cruisers want to know are, where should I cross, what time of year is the weather the best to cross and can I get cell phone and internet service in the Bahamas?
Where Do You Cross From?
That depends on where you want to go. If heading for the Abacos, the best place to leave might be Ft. Lauderdale. Many cruisers cross over to West End on Grand Bahama Island (and then on to the Abacos) from Lake Worth Inlet. While that is the shortest distance, you will have to take a heading south to go east, and since West End is slightly south of Lake Worth you will actually be working against the Gulf Stream and you don’t want to do that. The Gulf Stream is a river of water that runs from south to north between the Florida coast and the Bahamas. The currents can run from 2 1/2 knots up to 4 knots. Going against the current will slow you down and make the trip longer. But if you take advantage of the current, you can get a boost in speed and cover a longer distance in less time. Lake Worth to West End is about 56 miles, while Ft. Lauderdale to West End is about 69 miles, but can be done in less time. Of course, this also depends on how fast your boat can go. Likewise, it is a better run from Ft. Lauderdale to Freeport on Grand Bahama rather than Lake Worth. The same applies for transiting to Bimini or Cat/Gun Cay. Miami is a much better angle to cross, and Key Biscayne, even better.
What is the right weather to cross?
Advise on weather to make the crossing can be summed up in three words. Wait, wait, wait. Wait until the weather forecast is appropriate and is the same for at least today, tonight and tomorrow. That means a good forecast for at least 48 hours, with no fronts or significant changes in wind strength or direction. Crossing the Gulf Stream can be anywhere from uncomfortable to downright dangerous if attempted under the wrong conditions. A crossing should never be attempted with winds out of the northern quadrant and over 10 to 12 knots. Also, allow 24 hours for the seas to lay down after a northern blow. A north wind against the strong north flowing current can make for some nasty seas.
So what is the right weather? Ideally, southerly winds in the northerly flowing Stream are best. Wind and current should be running in the same direction. What you will find more most often is easterly winds, and occasionally westerlies. As long as these are light to moderate, you can make a safe crossing and still be fairly comfortable. Cross over onto the banks in the early afternoon. This puts the sun behind you when arriving in the shallow waters of the banks and gives you better visibility to read the water for depth.
Clearing into the Bahamas
The current fees for entry into the Bahamas for a boat and crew is $150.00 for a boat up to 35 feet and $300.00 for a boat over 35 feet and includes a fishing license. The boat is issued a cruising permit valid for 8 months, but the crew is issued visitors visas that are good for 30 days and can be extended. You must apply for your extension two days before your time is up, no sooner. There are specific locations where you can apply for an extension. Bahamian Immigrations Officers can, if they choose, give you a visa for 90 days or 120 days. Where you check in and which Immigration Officer you get will determine how long of a stay you will get. It is important that both Customs and Immigrations Officers are at your check in. If only a Customs Officer is present, you will only get 30 days, since that is all they can legally issue. The best places to check in to get a longer stay are Bimini, Nassau, Chub, West End, Lucaya, Marsh Harbor, Freeport or Georgetown.
Can I use my cell phone in the Bahamas?
Verizon and Sprint both use CDMA technology which is only supported by BTC in Nassau. AT&T and T-Mobile use GSM. To have cell phone service in the Bahamas, you will need an unlocked quad band GSM phone. Verizon has “Global” phones that use both CDMA and GSM, but they will be locked to Verizon. The phones must be unlocked to allow the purchase and use of BTC Sim Cards. With these Sim cards, you will be able to make calls within the Bahamas with a Bahama’s phone number or make and receive calls from the U.S. or elsewhere at a cheaper rate than you might pay in roaming charges with your U.S. cell phone. These unlocked phones can be purchased in the Bahamas or Walmart in the U.S. Additional minutes can be added. You can also rent phones, but this is an additional charge. To have service in the Bahamas, you will need to be close to a cell tower. Beside major cities like Nassau, Freeport and others, cell towers are located at Highbourne, Staniel, Black Point, Farmers and Great Exuma and the Abacos tend to have good service. Outside of these areas, you can probably not count on service.
The remote Cays will not have WiFi service. There are several pay-as-you-go services available in many populated harbors and some marinas offer Wi-Fi. Don’t count on high speed connections or keeping a connection.
Good luck, stay safe and above all else, have fun.
Chuck Baier has been an active boater and cruiser for 50 years and has been a certified marine service technician for over 30 years. Chuck is a freelance writer and has written for every major boating publication over the past 18 years and is currently the publisher and owner of Beach House Publications, which produces ‘The Great Book Of Anchorage’ series. Chuck also provides Navigation Notices for MarinaLife.
If you have additional questions for Chuck Baier, please email him firstname.lastname@example.org.