Islands In The Stream - Sailing To The Bahamas

Tag: adventures
Peter J. Clancy

AROBAN C320 #222

( reproduced with permission of the Mainsheet, the Catalina and Capri Owners Magazine)

Quietly slipping across the Gulf Stream in a cool southeast breeze under full moon and star-filled skies, we enjoy a distinct sensation of gliding, not sailing, through an ethereal scene reminiscent of a Van Gogh's famous painting "Starry Night". We are startled by a brilliant shooting star that is brighter and closer to earth than any of us has ever seen. Trailing behind us, our bubbly, phosphorescent wake slowly fades from sight. On these special nights we never need to assign watches. No one wants to go below and sleep....

Some of the most magical and unforgettable moments we've experienced in our 30 years of sailing are night crossings to the Bahamas islands in "Aroban", our Catalina 320, between our home port of Miami and the western most Bahamas islands of Bimini, Cat Cay and West End, Grand Bahamas. Likewise, some of our most exhilarating Bahamas passages have been sailing back home in an 18 to 25 knot norther, on a perfect beam reach riding up and down roller coaster style on large, but predictable ocean rollers created by the convergence of the north-flowing Gulf Stream and opposing north winds. To be honest, we do on occasion motor across when winds are too light to overcome the Gulf Stream current which averages 2.5 knots and ranges from 2 to 4 knots depending upon the season and your boat's position as it moves across the 'Stream. We've also chosen to motor, rather than constantly tacking, when the prevailing breeze is directly on our nose. This, to save more time for enjoying the islands. Yet, sailing or motoring, we always relish these mini blue water passages which are so easily accomplished by any experienced cruising sailor.

In my opinion, affirmed by dozens of Bahamas trips we've done in all manner and size of power and sailing vessels, the Catalina 320 is about the ideal choice for this kind of sailing. It is big and heavy enough to safely handle the typical Bahamas weather conditions one might encounter. It has an exceptionally large, roomy cockpit and a well-ventilated cabin to capture the tropical breezes. Its big diesel engine pushes the boat along swiftly and economically when wind and wave conditions or time considerations dictate motoring. We use less than a quarter tank of fuel motoring across. While the wing keel version of the C320 is more compatible with depths encountered in the Bahamas, there is no reason why a fin keel cannot get you into any Bahamas port and make fair passage between islands with reasonable heed to current charts. Good diesel fuel, fresh water and provisions are readily available at all three of the island destinations discussed below albeit more costly than stateside.

On Aroban, in addition to our stock Catalina 135 and mainsail, we carry a 150 lightweight genoa and a Doyle APC asymmetrical spinnaker with an ATN dousing sock for the lighter winds more commonly experienced in the summer months. We have all the usual safety equipment on board plus inflatable, suspenders-type PFDs with clip-on strobe lights. These are worn while underway at night and anytime we get into a squall or thunderstorm. We carry a small inflatable raft that stows aboard but can be quickly inflated for an emergency. It also comes in handy when we are mooring out or wish to explore shallow waters. We have two GPS units on board, a fixed Garmin GPS 130 and a hand-held Garmin GPS 48. We primarily rely on the GPS for pinpoint navigation to our intended destination and to maintain an optimal heading across variable Gulf Stream currents. In our earlier sailing days, before GPS was available, we just used dead reckoning and never once missed an intended port. We carry fixed and handheld VHF radios, which are never out of range of the powerful USCG mainland signal and other commercial and pleasure vessels monitoring channel 16. Generally speaking, there are no special equipment requirements beyond what one would sensibly carry for coastal sailing trips.

We usually make the eastbound Bahamas crossing at night and so do our local sailing friends. This was always the preferred choice because it's considered safer to make landfall in daylight hours when entrance channels and sandbars are easier to navigate visually. Now, with the great accuracy of GPS and our own familiarity with the islands, it's not essential to cross at night to assure a daylight landfall. But we still prefer to do so for the very reasons described in the opening lines of this article. Besides, in the summer months it is noticeably cooler at night and tired crew can sleep comfortably above or below deck to conserve energy for the following days' busy activities. For boaters who've never made a crossing, the choice of a day or night passage probably depends on your coastal or offshore sailing experience and comfort level with sailing at night on open waters. A daylight passage is quite feasible if you are prepared, in the event of unfavorable winds, to crank up the engine. The Miami-Bimini passage can be done in 8-10 hours with good winds or motoring at 6+ knots. Miami-West End can be done in 12-15 hours in like conditions. There is commercial marine traffic plying the Gulf Stream at all hours of day and night but we've always found the boats easy to spot at good distance especially after dark with their nav lights. We do carry a portable radar deflector, that can be hoisted in the event of low visibility conditions such as heavy rain or fog, which is rare.

Most books and articles written about Bahamas cruising would imply that you must be retired or on sabbatical to have ever-sufficient time to visit the islands under sail. After all, this independent island nation consists of more than seven hundred islands and two thousand cays situated along a 700-mile, spectacular coral archipelago with a total land area of 5,400 square miles. However, the intent of this article is to assure adventurous Catalina 320 owners that a great trip, combining true blue water sailing with a delightful visit to this friendly, foreign country can be accomplished in just three or four days.

A quick glance at a map shows that the two Bahamas islands most accessible to the US mainland are Bimini and West End, Grand Bahama. Bimini is about 45 nautical miles due east of Miami and West End, Grand Bahama is about 50 nautical miles east of West Palm Beach and about 95 nautical miles due northeast of Miami. Cat Cay, a privately owned resort island, is just 10 nautical miles south of Bimini, thereby close enough to be combined with a Bimini trip. Sailors departing the West Palm Beach area would best advised, unless time is no factor, to plan their mini- trip to West End, Grand Bahama. Although Bimini is reachable, you will be sailing into Gulf Stream currents the entire distance and this adds many extra hours to the passage. On the other hand, it is quite feasible to plan a direct Miami to West End route since the Gulf Stream current now gives you a nice lift and improves SOG by 2-4 knots.

When we sail Miami-West End, we return by sailing west about 50 nautical miles to West Palm Beach (with an overnight stay at the fun and funky Riviera Beach Municipal Marina) and then head south the next morning, sailing close-in along the Florida shoreline, to skirt the Gulf Stream currents. In many areas along the coast you can actually sail a few hundred feet off the beaches and wave to the sunbathers. However, try to avoid the distraction of the "clothing optional" stretch at Haulover Beach north of Miami or you'll risk veering seriously off course. A side benefit to this WPB-Miami route is the option to come in any one of several inlets and continue south in the well-protected Intracoastal Waterway. We have always relied on the "Yachtsman's Guide To The Bahamas" (Tropic Isle Publishers, PO Box 610938, No. Miami, FL 33261) for helpful navigation information and up-to-date reports on marinas, hotels, restaurants, and other island amenities.

Bimini is a narrow, tiny speck of land about 7 miles long situated on the easternmost edge of the Gulf Stream. On approaching the island in clear weather, tall stands of scrub pines and coconut palms are first sighted about 9 miles offshore. As you get closer it becomes evident this is a colorful, bustling island oasis with homes, small hotels, businesses and several marinas . Two hundred or more power and sailboats grace the well-protected harbor on any given day. When visiting Bimini, we call ahead to reserve a slip at the Big Game Club or Bimini Blue Water Resort. These are the best equipped marina facilities and located right in the center of Alicetown, Bimini's only settlement. It is an easy jaunt down the main street, aptly named Queen's Highway, to all of the town's lively bars, shops and restaurants. But for us the main appeal of Bimini is its intriguing history and unique natural attractions. Over the centuries, Bimini has been home to pirates, shipwreckers and rum runners and was the celebrated hang out of author Ernest Hemingway in the 1930's. Up on a bluff overlooking the harbor on one side and the Atlantic Ocean on the other sits the Blue Marlin Cottage where Hemingway stayed while in Bimini. It is prominently mentioned in the first paragraph of his posthumous novel "slands In The Stream".

The Cottage can occasionally be rented and we did just that in 1992 when visiting with a large crew of my son's college friends and their girlfriends. That night, while the younger folks partied into the wee hours at the Compleat Angler Bar ( which happens to be full of Hemingway memorabilia), I sat alone in the Marlin Cottage amid what had to be the original, time-worn furniture and vintage, mounted game fish hanging above me on weathered, knotty-pine paneling. I could easily imagine Hemingway himself sitting alone in the very same room 60 years earlier, daiquiri in hand, musing over the characters and plots for "Islands In The Stream" and his short novel, "To Have and Have Not" also written in Bimini. Papa's ghost failed to appear that night but I'll remember the uncanny experience for the rest of my life.

If the presence of Hemingway's spirit is not strange enough, you can visit the famous "Bimini Roads" located a few hundred feet off of North Bimini in 15 feet of water. This is an amazing underwater structure of large, perfectly placed rectangular shaped rocks that some believe to be the lost city of Atlantis. It is a fact that the reknowned clairvoyant Edgar Cayce predicted in 1938 that evidence of "Atlantis rising" would be found near Bimini. Amazingly, these stone formations were not discovered for another 30 years. Bimini also has a "Healing Hole" hidden away in the mangroves which people visit to this very day in search of a miracle cure. Bikes and motor scooters are available to explore the island.

There are regular seaplane flights, restored Grumman Goose amphibians, between Miami and Bimini which make it convenient to fly extra crew in or out during your stay. These noisy seaplanes take off and land right in Bimini harbor maneuvering between moored boats and taxi right up out of the water onto Queen's Highway.

Cat Cay is a privately-owned, upscale resort island approximately 10 miles south of Bimini. The club welcomes non-member boats at its well-equipped docks for stays of up to three days. Cat Cay is a quiet, idyllic tropical island with beautiful beaches, a gourmet restaurant and well-provisioned general store. It is a good alternate choice for those who might prefer a quieter, more relaxing destination than Bimini. You can also clear Bahamas customs here. Entering the Gun Cay channel directly from the oceanside to reach Cat Cay is a little tight but not especially difficult in good light conditions. Accordingly, this is one approach a first-timer would only want to attempt in daylight hours. The short route between Bimini and Cat Cay runs inside a chain of rocky, barrier islets and has good depths all the way. The exposed wreck of the concrete ship "Sapona" sits about halfway between Bimini and Cat Cay in 16 feet of water and is a fun place to snorkel and take underwater photos. The Sapona was built in the 1920's by Henry Ford and ran aground in the hurricane of 1926. It has since been used as a rumrunner's warehouse, and a bomb practice target for the US Navy in WWII. Don't smirk at concrete ship construction, there is far more of this ship still intact after 75 years than would ever be the case with a wood or steel vessel. Adding an element of mystique to this wreck, is a belief that that the highly-publicized, "Lost Squadron" of WWII Avenger bombers were headed from their US mainland base to practice bomb the Sapona in 1945. No trace of the squadron nor a search aircraft sent to locate them has ever been found. Such is the origin of the term "Devil's triangle"

West End, Grand Bahama is located on the westernmost tip of Grand Bahama island, one of the largest islands in the Bahamas. It is situated 50 nautical miles east of West Palm Beach and over 90 nautical miles from Miami. However, a boat sailing due northeast from Miami or Fort Lauderdale gets a good push from the Gulf Stream currents and can achieve 8-10 knots SOG. We've even done better than this. West End now has a modern and well-protected private marina, the Old Bahamas Bay Club with 75 slips. A condominium resort was under construction during our last visit and we understand these units will be available for short-term rental. Overlooking the marina are two big thatched roof huts, one is an open bar and the other a Bahamian outdoor restaurant with the world's best conch fritters and cracked conch. There are fine beaches within walking distance of the marina and interesting ruins of a failed 1940's or 50's resort hotel. We typically see more sailboats here than in Bimini or Cat Cay. West End serves as the first Bahamas stop and customs clearing station for many boats arriving from US points north. The free mooring area is always well-populated with transient boaters.

The Bahamian village of West End is about one mile to the east and we have enjoyed walking into the village to buy fresh-baked Bahamas bread, coconut pies, and other delicious baked goods. The village is quaint and not yet commercialized, so it's still representative of the declining number of truly unspoiled Bahamas out island settlements. The last time we visited, a funeral service for a lifetime village resident had just concluded, and everyone was all dressed up for the solemn occasion. The village women were gathered together and chatted quietly in front of the church. Most of the men, it appeared, had promptly retired to the local bar for a drink or two in honor of their departed friend. To say the least, we were impressed with the friendly and unassuming manner of the West End villagers. About 20 miles east of West End are the popular cruise ship ports of Lucaya and Freeport with restaurants, glitzy gambling casinos, and other tourist attractions. There is regular and inexpensive mini-bus service from West End to Lucaya/Freeport for those who might crave an exciting night on the town. Otherwise, West End is a quiet and peaceful place to spend a few pleasurable days.

Bahamas customs and immigration procedures are simple and straightforward. Visiting boats must present their registration papers and passports for each individual. In lieu of passports, you can produce a birth certificate and driver's license. You must fly a yellow quarantine flag until the boat and its passengers have been cleared in. You will automatically be issued a Bahamas fishing permit with your temporary visa. If you arrive at a busy time, expect this process to take an hour or more, mostly waiting around for your turn. Upon returning to the US, you can quickly clear US Customs by telephone if you have the special customs decal available from US Customs offices. If you do not have the decal and still wish to clear in by phone, you may be directed to a US Customs facility.

The last remaining question is, of course, how do I get to the Bahamas in a C320 if I live outside of South Florida? I am personally not aware of any charter operators with C320's on Florida's southeast coast although they may be out there. There is at least one C320 owner in Miami, Tim Benson, who bareboat charters his boat "Navigator" and he can be found on the C320 website. If you cannot find a C320 to charter but wish to stay within the Catalina family, I highly recommend the legendary Capt. Jim Haas who captains Bahamas charters on his C42 "Windancer". Jim is a CG licensed captain and former merchant seaman who lives at Dinner Key Marina in the Coconut Grove section of Miami. He is a veritable fountain of knowledge when it comes to the Bahamas, South Florida and the Florida Keys. Capt. Jim can be reached at (305) 857-0055. I am somewhat indebted to Capt. Jim since he was the person who encouraged me to buy a C320. If I identify any more C320's available for charter, I'll post this information to the website.

Good sailing! See you in the Bahamas!

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