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Voyager offers tips on Bahamas navigation

Jan 1, 2003

Navigation in the Bahamas is different from most areas in which I have sailed. My background may reveal some of the things that I find "different." Twenty-five years in the U.S. Navy aboard ships that required more than 25 feet of water to float will give you the idea. I didn't like to see bottom. It used to make me nervous.

Our first cruise was to the Abacos. We cleared customs at West End and left early the next morning. We were in company with a large ketch with a paid captain. He was proud of his 15 to 20 transits of the Indian Cay and Barracuda Channel. This time he had difficulty and got aground. He spoke of "the east wind blowing all the water out of the channel." Our draft was at least a foot less than the ketch. We stayed patiently about 200 yards astern of the ketch, and eventually he found deeper water. Looking east into the sun I could tell little about the nature of the bottom of the channel, but I didn't need to since I had the ketch out ahead of me.

Our friends on the ketch were in the Bahamas for the season, but we could stay only for a couple of weeks. When it came time for us to get off the bank and into deep water, I was beset with worry. The Barracuda Channel did not seem to be the best way for me. We fell in with another big ketch and asked what his plans were for coming off the Bank. He said, "Sandy Cay Channel." I had read of that route in the cruising guide and had halfway decided this was the best way to go. I asked for permission to follow in his wake and was welcomed to do so.

The channel is described as being three miles north of Sandy Cay. The ketch had a radar antenna on the mizzenmast, so I thought that we were in good hands. We cleared Mangrove Cay and took up the course for the Sandy Cay Channel. Once, the skipper of the ketch commented on the VHF radio that the water was beginning to look very interesting. I couldn't tell much about it since we were headed almost west and it was midafternoon. The glare on the water was fierce. The next radio transmission from the ketch was that they were hard aground!

At this point I did an extraordinarily foolish thing. We carefully motored around the ketch in water that was bright white and very shallow. We continued on about half a mile when we grounded. The wind was light, but there was some wind. We put up all sail and were able to heel our boat enough to get off the sand bar.

After congratulating ourselves for such excellent seamanship, I took time to look around. I put on Polaroid sunglasses to reduce the glare of the sun. There, about half a mile north of our position, was a sailboat in a dark blue channel headed west, where we wanted to be. We backtracked about a mile and then turned north and found the dark blue channel. Later, on the radio, I found out that the radar on the ketch was not in use!

In the Bahamas seeing the bottom is one of the primary navigation tools. Unfortunately "reading the bottom" requires practice to interpret what you are seeing. The Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas gives some color photographs as examples and guidelines on how to understand what your eyes are telling you, but the average navigator needs practical experience in eyeball navigation.

Sunglasses with polarized lenses will aid in seeing through the reflections on the surface of the water. Timing your arrival so that the sun is behind you is usually even better than a good pair of sunglasses. This means you will be more successful as a navigator if you plan to be going east, away from the sun, in the afternoons and going west, away from the rising sun, in the mornings. If the proposed passage is through shallow water and if the weather forecast is for cloudy weather, the prudent navigator will wait for better conditions. Somewhat cloudy weather with lots of cloud shadows will make the navigator unhappy. Waiting for full sun is usually a good choice.

Charts for the Bahamas are not as good as you probably have been used to. Offshore chartscharts not of the U.S. or its possessionsare produced by the Defense Mapping Agency. They are expensive. For the most part they are based on very old surveys. Things may have changed since the surveys were made, mostly by the British, in the middle 1800s. The Bahamas edition of the Chart Kit, distributed by the Better Boating Association (BBA), is probably the best source of information. It contains a few errors, some arising because the source information is bad and some because of errors on the part of BBA when they copied portions of DMA charts. The Better Boating Association provides some charts they call pilot charts. These appear to be redrawn enlargements of the DMA charts. They contain much useful information.

The publishers of the Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas have a series of sketch charts for sale. These contain much of the same information as the BBA pilot charts. The list of sketch charts appears to provide more detailed coverage than that provided in the BBA Chart Kit. If I could afford it I would have both the Chart Kit and all the sketch charts. The sketch charts have one advantage in that you can order only those for where you will be cruising. I have found copies of some sketch charts reproduced in the Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas to be most useful.

Throughout all the charts, chart guides, and cruising guides is one recurrent word that is used to describe the aids to navigation in the Bahamas. That word is "unreliable." Sometimes the lights are not lighted and sometimes the buoys or markers are missing.

Now that I have scared you to the point of considering a vacation in Paris instead of a cruise to the Bahamas, here are some of the many good things about navigation in Bahamian waters.

Developing an "eye" for navigation is a matter of practice. After couple of days or more on the bow, if the sun is right, and getting feedback from the depth sounder, you will develop confidence in eyeball navigation. Use polarizing sunglasses! The way I practiced was to call out the depths I thought I was seeing and let the mate tell me what the depth sounder was showing.

Charted information is not all that important when you can see what the water is like. If the latitude and longitude scales are off a bit, it won't matter much since you will not be putting blind trust in GPS or loran. I use these aids to tell me "about" where I am. I still use waypoints to lay out the day's cruise and to provide an estimated time of arrival. I change course based on bearings and what the bottom looks like.

Bahamian lights, whether lit or not, should be of no interest to the cruiser. All sailing in the Bahamas can or should be described as day sails. If an overnighter is required because of the distance, then the arrival time should be chosen to provide for a daytime arrival. If conditions change and an arrival during darkness is likely, I would recommend staying offshore until visibility is suitable for eyeball navigation. All overnight passages should be in deep water. Sailing after dark up on the bank is not recommended.

Some areas that have coral heads have been identified and charted; some have not. In most cases there is five to six feet of water over the coral head. My own practice is to go around all coral heads. They are easy to spot. They show up as dark brown or black and have a white sand border all around. Some cruising guides recommend avoiding the Yellow Bank between Nassau and Allen's Key. I find the direct route, with coral heads, easy. The coral heads have ample room between them and it is easy to go around. They can be spotted in plenty of time to change course.

Before you start your first Bahamas cruise, I recommend studying these navigational aids: Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas and navigational charts (from a DMA chart dealer or from BBA Chart Kit and/or sketch charts). In addition, Julius Wilensky's Guide to Abacos and Northern Bahamas is worth study, even though it was published about 20 years ago.

Robert C. Doyle is a retired navy officer who voyages from his home base in Satellite Beach, Fla.


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