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Preparing for an Open-Water Passage

Boating to the Bahamas yields lessons for any open-water passage.

Boats near abandoned ship in the Bahamas
Crossing with other boats is fun and makes it a little bit safer. Craig Kotilinek

Having grown up boating in Wisconsin on inland lakes with seasonal docks and boatlifts, and nothing even close to resembling tides, Florida’s coastal boating fascinates me—especially when I think about what lies just beyond the coast. You mean I can boat to another country? And it’s not that far? This is wild. I’m in.

Sure enough, as soon as I had my own offshore-capable boat, the Florida-to-Bahamas crossing crept into my impressionable mind. From there, it was research time, a frenzied quest of information gathering on par with D-Day or moon-landing preparations. The difference, though, was that this trip was only a little over 50 miles and could be accomplished in a couple of hours on boats as small as personal watercraft, if the conditions were favorable. Fortunately, our craft was slightly larger for the crossing, a 1986 Mako named Keko roughly 28 feet in length. And while it had only a single engine, it was a reliable, well-maintained Mercury Verado only a few years old with low hours. The hull itself had been tested in some pretty nasty offshore squalls, and I was confident in its seaworthiness. Even so, I wasn’t in a hurry to test its mettle on the crossing with a mostly green crew of inshore boaters wearing prescription-grade motion-sickness patches.

Fortunately, we could find strength in numbers.

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We decided to cross to Bimini from Fort Lauderdale with a flotilla of other boats as part of an annual Boating Fling sponsored by the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. I had no idea what to expect, so we spent many a weekend evening during the pandemic researching how other (mostly Miami-based) boaters had prepped and taken the trip over to the Bahamas. With this foundation, we leaned on the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism to fill in our knowledge gaps until we felt prepared to take on the blue waters of the Gulf Stream. Here’s how it went.

Launching a boat in the dark
Getting on the water early in the morning is the best option. Craig Kotilinek

Weathering the Weather

One thing we learned from talking with experienced cruisers is if weather isn’t on your side, never attempt the crossing. Fortunately, there are plenty of tools at our disposal for predicting a smooth crossing. A boater named Marv Market made this clear to me. Market is a 78-year-old fellow Wisconsinite who has made 14 crossings to various locations. After suffering one particularly harrowing run from the Keys to Cuba in a 60-foot Viking that pitched 30 degrees in the sporty seas, he decided there has to be a better way. “Just about everything on the outside of the boat that could be ripped off was,” Market says. “I’d had enough, and I decided to start my weather service so others could have more positive experiences.”

Now marvsweather.com provides daily reports to help boaters looking to make either the upper crossing (Lake Worth to West End) or lower crossing (Miami to Bimini) as smoothly as possible. The gist is the lower the wind, wave height and period, the better. The most favorable conditions tend to present themselves from May to August because the Christmas winds usually die down in April. The crossing can be accomplished other times of the year given the right circumstances, of course, but the main thing to watch out for, besides hurricanes, is a northerly wind. This pits the ever-flowing 5.6-knot current of the Gulf Stream against the wind, which makes for treacherous standing waves that build in height and power as the wind increases in speed and fetch. It is doable to cross when winds are below 10 mph and have only a slight northerly component (east-northeast, west-northwest), but the take home is to wait for favorable conditions at least a few days before and after your crossing there and back. And as Market says: “Never boat on a schedule when weather is a concern.” Those are wise words that apply to all boaters.

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As far as time of day, morning is almost always your best option. Florida’s afternoon squalls are no joke and should be avoided whenever possible, so most boaters making the crossing do so in the early morning—just like we did with the flotilla.

Boat running in the open ocean
Fort Lauderdale to Bimini only takes a few hours. Craig Kotilinek

Crossing

After a mostly sleepless night for yours truly, we got up well before sunrise to complete last-minute provisioning. About seven boats strong, we idled out of the Bahia Mar Marina in Fort Lauderdale to a gorgeous sunrise and a remarkably calm inlet.

The beauty of crossing from Florida to the Bahamas is that it’s a day trip. In a capable powerboat, there’s only about 20 minutes in the middle of the crossing to Bimini where you can’t see land. The entire run takes a few hours.

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To say our day was decent would be an understatement. We ran about 30 mph all the way over, and the feeling was more like floating over waves rather than pounding through them. We hardly even threw chine spray in the middle of the sapphire-blue waters of the Gulf Stream. 

We had a large group of boats with a wide range of cruising speeds, so a group of three boats took the lead while a few slower boats and the Bahamian tourism boat brought up the rear. As tempting as it can be, don’t run away from your support boats in case you need them or they need you. We stuck within sight of our wingmen the whole way and navigated as a group around a small squall that would have made our trip considerably less pleasant, communicating via VHF radio.

When you arrive in Bahamian waters and see a shimmer of land on the horizon, it’s a feeling like no other. You’ve just successfully boated internationally. The color and clarity of the water welcoming you into Bimini Harbor will put your crew on island time.

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Boat anchored in the Bahamas
The surrounding waters are crystal clear. Craig Kotilinek

Why the Bahamas?

With all the preparation, planning and early mornings, you may wonder why people would bother making the crossing in the first place. The answer: It truly is a paradise with azure waters, which many boaters claim are some of the purest in the world.

We got in with a head full of steam and ready for adventure. After clearing Bahamian customs at the Bimini Big Game Club, we headed south to Honeymoon Harbour to swim with stingrays, nurse sharks and turtles, and had the beach to ourselves. From there, it was a quick jaunt down to Gun Cay to explore the abandoned lighthouse, and then on to snorkeling near the wreck of the Sapona. The history of the Sapona is a story in itself, but suffice it to say that this World War I-era concrete ship is now a wonderful destination for checking out wildlife and attempting some pulse-raising dives off the top deck. We rounded out the day with drinks and dinner at Big John’s overlooking the channel.

Boats beached in the Bahamas
Miles of beaches await in the Bahamas. Craig Kotilinek

The beauty of Bimini is there’s plenty to see when you’re not boating, as well. We rented golf carts and toured every inch of the island, chatting with locals on the way to and from restaurants and food stands. Shoreside highlights included fresh conch salad from Bonefish Eddie’s, where we learned how to clean conch while we waited. With a net full of live conch waiting to be harvested beside the restaurant, fresh doesn’t even begin to describe the taste of that conch salad. It was absolutely nothing like the texture or taste of the conch salad we have access to in central Florida, and I think we are ruined on the dish until we return to the Bahamas.

Boat near abandoned ship
The Sapona makes for an excellent snorkeling destination. Craig Kotilinek

A few of us woke up early each morning and further explored the island, getting fresh baked goods from Nate’s for the rest of our sun-kissed, rum-soaked crew. We also went to the world-famous Radio Beach, a stretch of powdery sand with waves lapping the shore. The purifying waters are perfect to while away the afternoon, playing beach games and soaking up sun. This truly made every bit of preparation worth it.

Safety Checklist

Making a crossing is all about preparation. Try to get 90 percent of the work done before your boat hits the water so you can have a nice, relaxing day with little to worry about other than keeping your captain’s hat from flying off on the run.

To prepare for our crossing, we trailered our old boat to our driveway and worked through a daunting checklist to get it ready for some real offshore adventure. The prospect of breaking down was a genuine concern, and we needed to prepare to either tow someone else dozens of miles or get towed. That meant plenty of safety equipment.

  • When it comes to safety gear, the old saying “if you got one, you got none” applies. The harsh combination of the jarring and pounding through waves and the corrosion that comes along with the marine environment means safety equipment needs to be in duplicate or triplicate. One of the most important pieces of safety equipment is a good VHF radio with a long-range antenna so you can call the US Coast Guard or a tow company in the event of an emergency, as well as communicate with marinas and nearby boats. Although I had installed mine years ago and it had never failed me, we picked up a handheld VHF to back it up.
  • An emergency position-indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) or personal locator beacon(PLB) is essential. Both fill a similar role, which is to notify search and rescue agencies in the event of an emergency. The difference is that an EPIRB mounts on the vessel, while a PLB is worn by a crewmember. For our situation, a PLB was the perfect solution. When registered with NOAA, it would allow us to signal for help from anywhere.
  • Next up, you need what the Coast Guard defines as an “efficient sound-producing device,” or what I call a whistle. That’s right, you need some way to signal other vessels in close proximity, and whether it’s a built-in horn, a PA system or a whistle, it has to be there.
  • A fire extinguisher is next. The humble fire extinguisher is something you hope you never have to use, but having it around can make the difference between an inconvenience and a tragedy. Make sure it’s charged and ready to go. Oh, and carry more than the minimum requirement for your boat type.
  • To navigate, we made sure the chart plotter was up to date. Sure, you can always use old-fashioned charts, but a modern chart plotter with a man-overboard function and charts installed for your chosen waters is the way to go. To back up your chart plotter, we recommend a good offshore compass as well. If all else fails, you know you can get home with that.
  • Also, carry a complement of flares and signaling devices, both electronic and pyrotechnic. Choose those manufactured to SOLAS (Safety of Life at Sea treaty) requirements.
  • And finally, life jackets. They are arguably the most important piece of safety equipment on your boat, and you need to have at least one well-fitting US Coast Guard-approved life jacket for each crewmember. It’s a good idea for all crewmembers to wear them when making a crossing, and it’s federal law for kids under 13 years of age aboard most types of boats while underway. Back up the life jackets with a throwable US Coast Guard-approved personal flotation device and you should be ready. If this all sounds redundant, how many sad stories have you heard that could have been avoided by running through this routine checklist?

Hurricane Awareness

When Hurricane Dorian slammed into the Bahamas as a Category 5 storm in fall 2019, it left a path of devastation from which the island nation is still recovering. All told, Hurricane Dorian did $3.4 billion worth of damage. When boating to the Bahamas, keep your eye on the Atlantic hurricane models, and don’t even consider a crossing if the projected path takes the hurricane anywhere close to the Bahamian archipelago. For the latest forecast, visit nhc.noaa.gov.

Playing on the beach in the Bahamas
From stingrays to sharks and turtles, the Bahamas has all manner of adventures. Craig Kotilinek

Customs Checklist

Clearing Bahamian Customs

Before disembarking from your boat anywhere in the Bahamas, you will need to clear customs. To do this, we docked at the Bimini Big Game Club in Bimini Harbor, and I (only the “master” of the vessel is allowed off) walked to the immigration office a block north on Queen’s Highway with health visas, Bahamas customs clearance forms, immigration cards, boat registration, negative PCR COVID-19 tests, vaccination cards and passports for each crewmember. A temporary cruising permit is required and runs $150 for a foreign pleasure boat up to 35 feet, or $300 for larger boats. Good for 90 days, this fee covers the cost of fishing permits for up to three people. Additional fishing permits can be purchased for $20 each for additional anglers. Every crewmember needs to fill out and sign a date-stamped immigration arrival card. To learn more, visit bahamascustoms.gov.bs/aircraft-and-vessels/cruising-inward-declaration-and-permit.

United States Reentry

After visiting a foreign country, US federal law requires pleasure boaters to immediately report their return to the United States to US Customs and Border Protection. The easiest way is via the CBP ROAM app (available from the App Store or Google Play), accessible via any smart mobile device. The boat owner inputs biographic information, and conveyance and trip details, then submits the trip for review. You’ll receive a push notification and an email with your clearance status as well as any required next steps, if applicable, once a CBP officer reviews the trip. For complete details, visit cbp.gov.

Read Next: Seamanship Lessons From a Yacht Captain

Relaxing in the Bahamas
Relaxation is on the menu. Craig Kotilinek

Group Chat

For a deep dive to plan your trip, the Facebook group “Miami to Bimini” is a great resource filled with friendly people who have answered just about any question you can think of on the crossing. It’s a great way to get yourself acquainted with the crossing and hook up with others interested to cross together. Here you can get feedback on changing rules and issues, such as COVID-19 protocols.

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