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............................--- In a Small Boat ---
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If your Bahama plans are to Bimini and back there is lots of good info on the Internet about a trip such as that with the precautions of crossing the Gulf Stream and such. If you are planning on going past Bimini or West End on Grand Bahama in a small sailboat (say under 27 feet) then you hopefully will consider a number of the things discussed below.
Just because I've taken this trip or others have in a small boat doesn't mean it is the 'right' trip for you to take. You don't want your 'dream' trip to turn into one of those 'I should of never done that' or a marriage or friendship breaker. If you and your crew and your boat aren't prepared it could become just that. No shame in saying this trip just isn't right for you. Better that than the alternatives. There is some possibility of a trip like this in a small boat becoming a life threatening situation and you need to acknowledge that before undertaking it.
Now how about a little test with “yes” or “no” answers and then a little discussion.
1. Are you considering this trip because it sounds 'romantic' or because you want an adventure that will entail a lot of work? Yes ___ No ___ .
2. Do you have a flexible time schedule where you could return up to a week late if necessary? Yes ___ No ___ .
3. Do you have a high degree of confidence in your boat, yourself and crew? Yes ___ No ___ .
4. Do you and whoever is going to be with you have a high tolerance to stressful/trying times? Yes ___ No ___ .
5. Do you have good safety equipment and is your boat, outboard and dinghy in good working order? Yes ___ No ___ .
6. Have you taken a trip of at least 2 weeks on your boat without staying in a marina or going ashore to re-supply? Yes ___ No ___ .
7. Do you have at least two anchors sized for a boat larger than yours along with appropriate rodes? Yes ___ No ___ .
8. Have you anchored out a number of times in trying conditions and feel comfortable when doing so? Yes ___ No ___ .
9. Do you have good navigational skills? Yes ___ No ___ .
10. Are you equipped to navigate with 2 different chartplotters at all times and have good paper charts (Explorer Charts)? Yes ___ No ___ .
11. Are you in good physical shape? Yes ___ No ___ .
OK let's talk about the above some and if there were very many “No's” please reconsider taking the trip until they become “yes's” at least:
1. If the weather is perfect and you and your boat have no difficulties then you will probably have a romantic trip with perfect weather, the wind off your beam and small waves to deal with. I've know some to have those conditions. I didn't and single handing in less than favorable weather conditions for some of the trip it was like taking a memorial back packing trip into the mountains that was a lot of work but something to remember for ever except in this case you will be carrying the boat on your back. So if you like epic type trips that could also be a lot of work then this could be for you.
2. If your plans are to Bimini and back you have a major crossing of the Gulf stream in both directions where much larger boats sometimes wait days before crossing in either direction considering how bad the Florida Straights can become in a north wind. If you venture further East the crossings will get even further and some of them are over deep water where you could also be waiting for days for the right conditions. Boats over 30 feet can handle much worst conditions than what you will feel comfortable in. I'd plan on getting back to Bimini or West End at least 4 days early so you can wait out the crossing if need be. Considering the same can happen other parts of the trip factor in at least another 5-7 days to wait out other crossings on the trip.
3. If you and your crew are uncomfortable venturing out by yourself and prefer to travel and anchor with others then I'd think long and hard about this trip. You will be by yourself a lot and need to feel comfortable with that even under the worst weather conditions. There will be no one to bail you out. At times your VHF isn't going to reach anyone and if it does they might not be capable of coming to your aid. You left the Coast Guard behind west of Bimini. There is the BASRA (Bahamas Air-Sea Rescue Association that is made up of volunteers and if you think you need them (you are in a life threatening situation) then try VHF 16 and see if they respond or if someone can relay a message to them. This is something that you can't count on happening. Also if you have a radio with DSC it might not reach anyone either and if you don't have an 'international number' (not one from Boats USA but through the FCC) they will have no information on you. I spent the little under $300 to get the international number (ends in a zero) that will also work in Canada. The main point is that the above are made up of volunteers and there is no guarantee that they will hear you if you put out a call. I'd recommend getting a radio with AIS and have it connected to your chartplotter so that you see large boats. It will give you their name and other info on them and you might be able to hail one of them by name. I've seen AIS marked boats well over 20 miles away most of the time.
4. So with the above in mind if the 'shit hits the fan' can you and your crew try to get things under control without panic? You need to be of the 'take charge' type in a situation like this and be able to start looking at your options without fear taking control of your actions. Hopefully this never happens but it is a possibility. Also going solo if you get hurt or sick your situation worsens far more quickly vs. if you have someone else that can take over command.
5. Do you have the utmost confidence in your safety equipment, your boat, and your dinghy if you have one? I have self-inflatable, manual inflatable and life jackets with the foam in them. Personally if I need to have a life jacket on I wear the one with foam in it. I don't have to worry will it inflate like it is suppose to and will it stay inflated (no holes). It also helps to hold in body heat better wrapped around my chest and back.
When we bought the Mac I replaced all the rigging and increase the size of the forestay and its hardware. You will get into sea conditions most likely that will pound the boat and the rigging at least once. Try and avoid them but if you get in them you will feel better knowing your rigging isn't maybe past its useful lifetime.
The dinghy I have is a Zodiac that has larger tubes than some of the low end inflatables and as a last resort I could bail out into it and have a handheld VHF with GPS/DSC, but this radio won't get out anywhere near as far as the Standard Horizon on the boat with the antenna at the top of the mast.
The dingy and boat's outboards were bought new and have oil/grease changes and impeller changes before the trip and extra impellers and plugs went on the trip also.
Between the inboard 20 gallon tank and a couple extra container with gas I have over a 300 mile range and you need to probably have a 200 mile range to be on the safe side. Gas, food and such is not everywhere along with wifi coverage. I should of bought a phone or gotten something like Spot as I went 2 weeks once without being able to contact anyone and started to worry about the family worrying.
Another vital item is a radio that can receive SSB transmissions well. I talk more about that ( HERE ). In the states between TV, computers and smart phones we are use to almost instantaneous weather forecasts. This just isn't the case over there and about the only reliable weather is Chris Parker's 6:30 am weather via shortwave radio broadcasts. Make sure you can get them or you will have no idea what is going on weather wise.
If you are solo sailing and even if not I would not make the trip without a safety harness like the one Ruth sewed up for us from Sailrite, but you can also buy them.
Along with that get a tether to attach to the lifelines. Get the double above as you can attach to the lifelines on both sides and it will keep you on the boat no matter how you might fall. Scott loaned me his but once I used it I spent the big bucks at West Marine at Marco Island on the trip since I wanted one of my own but you could find one on the Internet for less. Expensive but you need it. I try to always use both anytime the boat is underway and I go forward and even used it once in the cockpit when things went to hell. You don't want to go overboard and see the boat leave you and even with a partner by the time they turn the boat that might have lost sight of you and forgotten to press the MOB button on the chartplotter. Consider the harness and tether as essential safety equipment you must have.
Along with that but not quite as high on the list is good binoculars which you will find yourself using a lot.
6. I'd take at least one trip 2 weeks or longer, anchored every night and not visiting shore for supplies before I'd take this trip. You could easily get in a situation on this trip of going at least a week and maybe more without being able to go into a marina or even a settlement where you could find anything. I provisioned for 60 days of food and water. The longer the better and the marinas over there are expensive so you might not want to use them much. Also food is much more limited vs. going to the store at home. I keep my diet and food simple and meals simple to fix and cleanup without having to use much water. I drink more per day than I use washing with. I'll cook a meal every 3 days or so and then eat it cold until it is gone. Most people are much more exotic when it comes to meals so do what works for you but water is not going to be everywhere. I carry close to 50 gallons myself. I run a hand pump on the sink to keep water consumption low. An electic is nice but to turn it on and off once uses more water than I'll use to clean dishes/silverware for an entire meal.
7. and 8. When it comes to anchor gear you want no doubts that what you have is going to work. I use a 22 lb. Bruce claw and a 25 lb. Manson Supreme with about 30 feet of chain on both and 3/8” rode on one and 7/16th on the other and will have both down at times so I can sleep without fear if heavy weather is going through. Think of all the money you are saving anchoring out vs. a marina and put that into reliable anchor gear. I also carry a Fortress FX-11 broke down and another compete rode with chain. I've never lost an anchor or rode but it could happen. There again you are not going to be in the states where you can find about anything you need. If you aren't carrying it you probably aren't going to find it.
9. You are going to need good navigational skills as where you go and how you get there is going to be in your hands. So reading charts and listening to the weather to pick out the next anchorage is crucial to having a safe and enjoyable trip. Arrive a new destinations ahead of dark so you can 'read' the water as the charts might not be accurate and they stress over and over how you need to see the water to make safe approaches to anchorages or in some cases navigating during the day going from one to another.
10. I'm a firm believer in having two chartplotters running at the same time just in case one or the other goes down and I still need to get into my next anchorage. Before starting to the next destination I lay the route out using OpenCPN on the computer that also has a monitor that swings to the companion way so is one of my chartplotters that is always running while underway. So I lay out the day's route along with all of the waypoints for the route into the intended anchorage. On the waypoints I always have them in the handheld (Garmin 76S) and the computer running OpenCPN just in case one or the other went down. They are also connect so I can quickly send new waypoints to the handheld in seconds. For instance I had the waypoints in one day for Highborne to Staniel loaded into both but when it looked like that it might take to long to get to Staniel and I might go in with it being dark I added a route with OpenCPN into Sampson Cay just north of Staniel. Then when I needed to go in there a few clicks on the handheld deleted the waypoints to Staniel and two mouse clicks on OpenCPN sent the new ones to the handheld. I'd strongly suggest that anyone thinking of making this journey have two chart plotters up and running just in case one goes down at an in opportune time. I have two sets of paper charts but it would be hard to navigate into some place here using them unless I knew exactly where I was when I lost the chartplotter. I also have a netbook and a laptop on board with OpenCPN and the charts loaded on them just in case the computer I made and use went down.
The second chartplotter could be something as simple as the Garmin 76S I use and you can find ones that are like new for under $70 on ebay. I actually have 3 of them. There isn't a lot of map detail on them but if you have the waypoints that is all you need as you just navigate from one to the other and stay on the track between them.
When I get close to the anchorage I blow the chart up on the 16inch monitor running OpenCPN so that I have a lot of detail going in. OpenCPN will work with NV Charts for the Bahamas. They were about $150 and I also spent the $180 or so on the Explorer Chars for the Bahamas as everyone says they are the best. I also got a paper chart set with the NV digital chart set. So far (writing this in the Exumas) the NV digital charts have worked great but I do check things out on the Explorers charts and they also have a lot of additiona info on them that is very handy to have like going in and out of dangerous cuts. I'd get them again for sure.
11. OK last but maybe should be first. You need to be in good physical shape to make this trip. I'm 71 as I'm doing this but try and stay fit. This trip is a lot of physical work dealing with the boat, anchoring, the dinghy and so forth. Conditions can be so where they will really beat you up just getting through the day and you can spend the day and night and more than one rocking and rolling all over the place in the boat so you don't want to be prone to seasickness. So far I've never been sick but that might of been because I was always so busy I didn't have time to be. But if I was prone to seasickness I'm sure I would of been a couple times by now on the trip. Remember once you get past Bimini and especially Nassau you aren't going to be able to say 'this isn't for me' and get home in a day or two. That is not going to happen and the further you go the longer it is going to take to get back.
On my S with a pop-top and anyone else with a smaller boat better have good knees as you are going to spend a lot of time on them even with the pop-top up and out in the cockpit. I got into seas a couple times so uncomfortable the only place half way comfortable was kneeling on a cushion in the cockpit.
You are going to have long 10-12 hour days and a couple longer on the long passages so that in itself can be very tiring and if alone all the more so. I did get an auto-tiller-pilot before the trip and can see now that I could of never made it without it just hand steering. I'm going to get a second backup and sure wish I had one now as I couldn't imagine now not having it.
All of the above is not presented to try and scare you away from taking a trip to the Bahamas but hopefully will help you prepare so that it will be a more enjoyable experience,
Reference Material I'd get:
1. The 'year' YACHTSMAN'S GUIDE to the BAHAMAS --- ISBN 978-0-9819039-6-5 (I get this one for sure and it has a lot of info like I've given above plus much more indepth about traveling in the Bahamas.)
2. The Cruising GUIDE TO ABACO BAHAMAS 'year' --- ISBN 978-0-932265-96-8 (Abaco related)
3. The EXUMA GUIDE, A Cruising Guide to the Exuma Cays --- ISBN 978-1-892399-31-1 (Exuma related)
Mike (Chinook) was kind enough to recommend the above publications and they are good ones. You for sure need these if you are looking for marinas to go into on the trip.
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