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Taking a Small Boat to The Bahamas
Have you ever dreamed of sailing your boat to tropical islands? For many boaters near Florida, that fantasy may be more achievable than they realize. The Islands of the Bahamas start just 50 miles east of South Florida. From there, they stretch like stepping stones to the Caribbean, but there’s no need to get ahead of ourselves. The Bahamas has plenty to explore.
Where is The Bahamas?
The Commonwealth of The Bahamas is a large country. If you look at the islands on a map, they stretch for several hundred miles from north to south. The country is made up of more than ten separate archipelagos, with each island group having its own distinct vibe.
The nearest islands to the United States are Grand Bahama Island, which starts 55 miles east of West Palm Beach, Florida, and Bimini, which lies just 50 miles east of Miami.
The main cities and ports in The Bahamas are Nassau, on New Providence Island, and Freeport, on Grand Bahama Island. The other islands feature small communities and are known as the Family Islands. Another term for the islands outside of those two main hubs is the Out Islands.
How to Get to The Bahamas
When first researching, it may seem like a crazy dream to take a trailer boat to The Bahamas. But people take small boats across the Gulf Stream all the time. Once you are in The Bahamas, several island chains there allow you to island-hop without making any more bluewater passages. Fuel, marinas, and resorts are plentiful in the closer islands.
Crossing the Gulf Stream
By far, the biggest challenge of getting to The Bahamas is crossing the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is one of the earth’s greatest ocean currents. It’s a powerhouse of energy and warm water that flows north out of the Caribbean, between Florida and Cuba, and north along Florida’s east coast. Getting to The Bahamas requires crossing the strongest part of it.
The Gulf Stream flows at up to 3 knots. That might not sound like much, but like a mighty river, if the wind opposes the current, then waves will stack up in short, steep sets. This sea state is exceptionally hazardous for any small vessel. Any wind with a northerly component must be avoided. Small boats will want to wait until completely calm weather to make the crossing. The smoother it is, the faster a powerboat can make the crossing.
Any boat that ventures into the Gulf Stream and beyond should plan to be as self-sufficient as possible. While single-engine vessels can and do make the trip regularly, that single engine should be in excellent mechanical shape. Twin-engine boats are much more comfortable, since if something fails they can return home. Boaters should carry spare parts and filters in case anything goes wrong, and be able to troubleshoot problems along the way.
Does your boat have marine radar? Does it need radar? Read this article to learn the answer.
Depending on how far into the islands you want to travel, things get more challenging the farther you go. Fuel becomes less available, and the distances between ports increase. The amount of self-sufficiency required continues to grow the farther you travel from the United States.
Clearing in Formalities
Vessels arriving into any foreign port are required to fly a yellow “Q flag” to indicate that they have just arrived and require clearance.
Your first stop immediately after arriving in The Bahamas will be the Customs and Immigration offices. You will have to show your passports and the boat’s documentation or registration. You can choose between getting a 90-day or one-year cruising permit for your vessel, which allows you to cruise the islands. The cost for the cruising permit depends on the length of your boat.
Once you have completed the formalities, you can douse the Q flag and raise the Bahamian courtesy flag, showing that you have been granted permission to stay. The Q flag and courtesy flag should be flown from the boat’s starboard flag halyard and displayed higher than your home country’s flag on the stern of the vessel.
Congratulations, you’ve made it to The Bahamas in your own boat and are now free to explore! For a complete set of the procedures and ports of entry, visit MyOutIslands.com
Nearby Places to Explore
West End is a tiny settlement on the very western tip of Grand Bahama Island. This tiny community is dominated by the Old Bahama Bay Resort and Marina. With Customs and accommodations on-site, this is the perfect spot to begin exploring the islands.
Headed north from West End, you can cross the Little Bahama Bank to the Abaco Cays (pronounced in the islands “keys”). The Abacos are an excellent area for island hopping, from Walkers and Grand Cays in the north, stretching southeast to famous spots like Green Turtle Cay, Man-O-War Cay, and Elbow Cay.
To the south, Bimini is a tiny group of islands on the western side of the Great Bahama Bank. Sitting right on the edge of the Gulf Stream, it’s been a popular haunt of many American fishermen. Ernest Hemingway, for one, spent a lot of time here. The island’s proximity to the US means that it is more developed and lively than the other Out Islands. There are several marinas, resorts, and casinos to explore, as well as beautiful beaches.
Island hopping eastward from Bimini could go on forever. It’s a day hop to Chub Cay in the Berry Islands, and another day to Nassau. South of Nassau lies the Exuma Cays, home some of the clearest water in the world.
If you’re nervous about making the crossing the first time on your own, many small boats make the trip all the time. Finding a buddy boat is a good idea since you will then have someone in range to discuss problems with or bounce planning ideas off of. The Ministry of Tourism also organizes regular boating flings between popular spots like Miami and Bimini, and Fort Lauderdale and Grand Bahama.
It’s a great boating adventure to take a small boat to The Bahamas. You will be rewarded with friendly, welcoming people, fantastic swimming and diving, outstanding fishing, and amazing sunsets. Find the nearest conch salad shack, and wash it down with a real rum punch. Welcome to the islands.