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Cruising: The Bahamas

Few places can match the captivating beauty of the Bahamas, but you need to be prepared before sailing there

Few places can match the captivating beauty of the Bahamas, but you need to be prepared before sailing there

“The ‘Explorer’ chartbooks. All three.”

“An unlocked phone. But good luck with BTC.”

“Spam. It’s ‘spensive there!”

These were just a few suggestions we received from fellow sailors who had cruised the Bahamas when we asked how to best prepare for the trip. In fact, several reported, independently, sticker-shock over the price of Spam there. So, what did my partner, Phillip, and I do? Stowed Spam everywhere! In cans. In pouches. Under the couches. (Or settees, rather.) But here’s the thing...

Beware of sticker shock when provisioning

Beware of sticker shock when provisioning

We don’t even like Spam.

We never eat it. But other cruisers do. For them, it is a coveted staple, and what they were trying to do was help Phillip and me—soon to set off from Pensacola, Florida, on Plaintiff’s Rest, our 1985 Niagara 35, bound for the Bahamas—not find ourselves in need of something that may be sparse or expensive over there. And now, having made the trip to the Bahamas ourselves, fully stocked up on our own packing, provisioning and preparation tips, we want to help spare others a few “$9 for Spam?” shockers with the following Bahamas prep tips.

Know Which Way You Want to Go

“What should we bring?” we asked. “What way will you go?” they responded. “All the way, people,” I thought. “To the Bahamas and back. All we need to know is what to pack!”

I felt a little like Alice and that crazy caterpillar, each question answered with another question. What I soon learned, though, is that there are different “ways” folks navigate the Bahamas—either check-in at Bimini or West End and traverse north through the Abaco islands first; or shoot straight across the Great Bahamas Bank, check-in at Nassau and plunge into the Berries and Exumas before heading north. Not only that, but the route you choose will have a major impact on what services, groceries and other provisions will be available and where.

Preparing for the Bahamas starts with a thorough study of the Explorer chart or charts (explorercharts.com) for the areas you want to explore: Near Bahamas, Exumas and Ragged Islands, or Far Bahamas and Turks & Caicos. How much water, alcohol, paper, cash, cell data, etc. you will need in order to get you from one reprovision point to another will depend heavily on where you go. The Explorer charts also provide helpful information on Bahamian weather, services and marinas, as well as specific lat-and-lon waypoints and headings to and from each island, so you can confidently make your way through the Bahamas, even with a 6ft draft.

Your “way” should also take into consideration your “when.” Because Phillip and I were planning to go right on the cusp of hurricane season—in December and January, when many cruisers told us brief but intense north fronts can strike—we chose to enter at West End and work our way through the Sea of Abaco where the barrier islands offer many anchorages with good protection. For good holding, ask 10 sailors and you’ll get 20 opinions on what type and how many anchors you should bring. Follow one, your gut, or whichever your dart lands on, then go. We traveled with a 35lb CQR on 200ft of chain (and a backup Danforth on 200ft of rope, which we never used). We never had an issue, even anchored in 20-25 knot winds.

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Know What You Want to Do

Do you want to fish? Snorkel? Dive? Maybe just sit on beautiful beaches and read all day? (That was half of my plan.) Bring whatever fins, masks, fishing rods and lures you may need for your activities, as well as backups and spares in case your “only mask” breaks right after you’ve found the perfect reef in the pristine but remote Exumas. You will also find several charter boats at each marina that you can rent or aboard which a captain can take you out on an excursion. You can pet stingrays, swim with sea turtles and even feed swimming pigs! “What should I bring to feed them?” you might be wondering. “Anything long enough to keep your hands and feet away from their hooves and teeth,” Eddie the Rock, a friendly fish boat captain at Green Turtle Cay, told me with a chuckle. And he was right. Those piggies are aggressive!

In fact, the locals everywhere are full of great tips like these, so look forward to immersing yourself among them and, while provisioning, keep many meals open for fresh catches from the day (think lobster tails for $5), flavorful conch salads made dockside and fresh-baked Bahamian breads. Having cash or other stateside trinkets (small toiletries, gourmet snacks or drinks, and, yes, even Spam) on-hand for bartering can prove handy.

Much like your anticipated “way,” your planned activities will also be largely weather-dependent. While two weeks of cloudy, often rainy days with 15-30 knots of wind were great for Phillip and me as kite-surfers, other cruisers sat cold, grumpy and idle. Pack wetsuits for winter water activities as well as warm layers so you can get out and adventure during the frequent fronts. Unfortunately, the mosquitos were pretty rampant at times, so make sure you have screens! Because Phillip and I were often banished from the cockpit when it was windy, wet or skeeter-ridden, we are now seriously considering adding a full cockpit enclosure for more comfortable winter cruising in the future.

Know What “Spam” Means to You

They weren’t kidding about the Spam. When you do find it, it will be expensive. That said, the bigger lesson here is knowing what will be important, perhaps even necessary, for you to have that may not be readily available. Perhaps your particular “Spam” is:

Alcohol: While many stores in the Abacos stock alcohol, the choices can be limited or pricey. Cocktails will run you around $8-$10 at the tiki bars, so pack plenty of wine, beer, liquors and mixers if you want your happy hour(s) to be both cheap and happy. We stowed bagged wines (removed from their boxes and labeled) and all drinks (cans, bags and bottles) in lower lockers in large Hefty contractor’s bags. This proved invaluable when we had a blonde ale explosion during our first offshore leg and found the bag contained the entire stinky mess, saving us from a likely long-lasting case of “beer bilge.” Thank you Hefty.

Water: Strange I should mention alcohol before water? Probably not. We are sailors. Phillip and I had heard water could be sparse and expensive, so we carried multiple shower bags, a 5gal jerrycan and 12 1gal water jugs aboard for the trip. Some (not all) cruisers discouraged us from drinking the water at certain marinas, so we often picked up extras (around $2.00-$3.00 per gallon jug) at the many little groceries in the Abacos. We do not have a watermaker aboard and did not find we needed one. However, we also take fairly conservative showers aboard and are always prepared to indulge in the complete “spa experience” any time we stay at a marina. Transient slips typically ran around $1.50/ft. in the Abacos, with water typically charged at $0.35/gallon.

Internet: For Phillip and me, the ability to communicate with our partners and clients back home is critical, as we work remotely while we travel. A buddy had recommended we buy an unlocked phone that we could put a BTC (Bahamian) SIM card in and use to purchase BTC data (15GBs for $30). However, we had some hang-ups initially and also trouble finding BTC stores that were open. The same buddy told us the first store in the Abacos, at Green Turtle Cay, is only open Thursdays from 0900-1400 and “they take a long lunch.” After waiting outside for hours with a pile of other cruisers on a Thursday morning, we learned the store had not opened last Thursday and would not be opening this Thursday either. Just because. No explanation. “Maybe next year,” one cruiser said jokingly and shuffled off.

When BTC wasn’t an option, we communicated via our DeLorme, which we always highly recommend for weather, safety and other miscellaneous communications as well. Unlimited plans start at $69/month and can be suspended when you’re not traveling. Phillip also activated a travel plan through AT&T, which for a $10 fee allowed him to use his data just as he would in the States for a 24-hour period. This proved convenient and affordable, and we used it a few times in a pinch.

Spam: What we quickly realized about the repeated “Spam” warnings was that they really were a suggestion to pack a lot of the niche foods you like. Perhaps for you, that favorite snack or drink is cheese crackers, strawberry Pop-Tarts or a particular Bloody Mary mix. Whatever it is, you’re probably not going to find it in the Bahamas, and if you do it’s going to be expensive.

My own “Spam” is Sriracha Peas (spare yourself the addiction) and stovetop popcorn. In a freak packing mishap, we left the dock without a single jar of the latter, and when I finally found a bag at the seventh store in the Abacos, it had long since expired. The lesson? Pack your “Spam.” Plenty of it. In Hefty bags if need be. Then go! Paradise awaits. 

NEXT MONTH: Annie and Phillip explore the Bahamas

November 2018

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