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Buoys get scarce

Oct 1, 2014
Like many places in the Bahamas, the pass at Hatchet Bay is poorly marked by aids to navigation.

Like many places in the Bahamas, the pass at Hatchet Bay is poorly marked by aids to navigation.

Richard Beringer

To the editor: As sailors make their way through the beautiful green isles of the Bahamas, they soon become accustomed to the basic realities there. The smart ones “adjust” their expectations as they go. The most profound adjustment for me in the Bahamas has been the lack of navigational aids.

There are other differences, of course. The prices for basic necessities are high, fuel is pushing $6 a gallon and beer is $48 to $72 a case, which is understandable as — with the exception of locally grown vegetables and fish — everything must be shipped in from the Americas or Europe. And if you need repair or a tow, look out — it’s going to hurt.

The supply chain here is horribly inefficient; goods typically come once a week from the mail boat —which may or may not show up, and may or may not have what’s needed on board. At Blackpoint Settlement, the entire town comes out to help offload the boat and it becomes a de facto town hall meeting.

We sailors are a patient lot, we go with the flow and look forward to the exotic and unique experiences that come with each new port. After all, if everyone lived and thought the same way, the world would be an intolerably boring place to live. And when the day is done, I remember the smiles on the faces much more than the lack of modern conveniences.

In the U.S. and Canada, these aids — with rare exceptions — are reliable, intuitive, and immensely helpful. Many are lit and maintained by professionals of the highest standards, who understand the importance of what they do. There are times I have heard of a marker being blown away by a storm and before I sailed past it the next day it was replaced or repaired. Now that’s service! Aids in the inlets of St. Augustine, St. Lucie, and Jupiter in Florida are not even on the NOAA chart, for they are moved constantly in response to the shifting sands there.

Left, Robert Beringer’s Catalina 34 Ukiyo anchored at Hopetown.

Richard Beringer

The Bahamas, however, is not like that. Cruising guides advised me to use eyeball navigation, to slow down and watch the color of the water. What they don’t say is that there is a complete dearth of nav aids there. Forget the nuns, the cans, the day beacons, and right red returning; it’s all gone, like you’ve stepped back to the 18th century. I can’t even fathom what boaters did there before loran and GPS; surely they were very religious people, as they must have been praying every time they went through a pass.

On a feisty passage from Nassau to Eleuthera, I approached the entrance to Alice Town and saw unbroken rock cliffs, no nav aids or distinguishing landmarks, only the waypoint from the chart which put me in a spot that magically revealed the narrow cut into Hatchet Bay and safety.

It was only after I set the hook I noticed a slender light pole near the cut that was placed there as the only aid to navigation.

At the local watering hole I met a couple fishermen and inquired how they navigate with no aids and, incredibly, no GPS or running lights on board. They just smiled and said, “Oh yeah mon, dat’s a Bahama ting. Dat ain’t gonna change.”

After dark, a white light shone above the cut, but the next night it was off and I looked closely at the chart to see that it was marked as “unreliable.” The next passage across Exuma Sound to Warderwick Wells Cay brought me to a pass with the evening sun in my eyes. Only the waypoints got me through the voluminous rocks and to the mooring field before dark. I guess that’s part of the allure of a place like this; if the Bahamas were easy to sail, there would be so many boats that it would look like one giant marina.

Even the perennially popular George Town with its large harbor and thousands of visiting boats has no approach markers to assist the mariner. Once inside, there are four unlit aids, all maintained by visiting boaters.

And so, to the thousands of you out there dreaming of a cruise across the Gulf Stream to these beautiful islands I can only say, “Go now!” Just don’t forget your current charts and GPS.

Robert Beringer is a college administrator and sails his Catalina 34 Ukiyo out of the St. John’s River in Florida. He is currently voyaging in the Bahamas. 

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