The sun had barely broken the horizon, and the mosquitoes were in full-forage mode as my friends and I made our way down the docks at the new Grove Harbour Marina. That historic old basin in Coconut Grove, south of Miami, that launched thousands of airborne adventures aboard Pan Am seaplanes served as our jumping-off point last summer for a long-range adventure to the outer reaches of the Bahamas.
As a former Keys charter captain and lifelong angler, I've spent a lot of time offshore in small boats. So I jumped at the chance to run one of a pair of center consoles to the very far end of the Bahamas at Long Island. Nearly 450 miles and two days later, as we saw the white bluffs of Cape Santa Maria come into view - despite horrendous weather on the second day of travel - I knew I'd made the right call.
With a little planning and an understanding of the Bahamian regulations and requirements for American fishermen and boaters, anyone can enjoy an island trek, whether you're navigating 50 miles to Bimini or hundreds of miles to more distant cays. Most importantly, take your time and be prepared. Following are six tips to plan your summer trip - or the adventure of a lifetime - to the fish-rich waters of the Bahamas.
1. Pick Your Crew Wisely
Anytime you take an extended trip, it's a good idea to carefully select your companions. This is particularly critical when traveling long distances on small boats through rough weather - people can get kind of edgy. Our party consisted of several close friends who are also industry insiders: Curt Jarson of Mako/Seacraft Boats and his son Lee, Bombardier's Glynn Austin and his son Jessie, Sport Fishing's associate publisher Scott Salyers and former senior editor John Brownlee, Boating Life editor Randy Vance and me. All are seasoned boaters and anglers, as well as frequent travelers, and you can count on them to stay cool-headed when tempers flare.
2. Take your time
Whether planning a weekend trip or a long-range excursion like ours, make sure you budget enough time to take full advantage of the fishing and other opportunities. Originally, our trip to Long Island was slated for 10 days, allowing two days coming and going to compensate for the possibility of bad weather. Because of professional commitments and business conflicts, we cut our time to six days - and for a journey of that length, it's just not enough. After running nearly 450 miles through 6-foot seas, you will want a full day to recover at your final destination. Factor in another day to get your bearings on what's happening fishwise. Bottom line: If you're going to Harbor Island, Bimini or a closer destination, you can get away with three or four days. For any place farther, I'd recommend a minimum of a week or more.
3. Plan Ahead - and Stick with the Plan
Navigating a long way through unfamiliar waters takes a great deal of planning. Try to put your head together with others who have been there and done that. That's exactly what we did in leaning on Brownlee's expertise. He and his family spend several months each year in the Bahamas.
For a month leading up to the trip, I talked with him frequently about different routes, trying to anticipate contingencies in various weather scenarios. Of course, all that went out the window on the second day of our trip, when we were confronted with a brutal 27-mile run from Nassau Harbor to the Exumas. We could take the 6-foot seas head-on into 25- to 30-knot winds or take a long detour. We opted to run nearly 70 miles out of our way, navigating some of the nastiest banks I've ever seen. My advice for the future: Take the shortest beating you - and your equipment - possibly can.
Also try to take advantage of the many little cuts that might not appear on charts but are easily navigated by sight. Just remember the old Bahamian adage: Blue, blue, run on through; brown, brown, run aground; white, white, you might. It will get you a long way. One word of caution: If you see a large yellow blob in the water ahead, maneuver to avoid a collision. Submerged coral heads can wreak havoc on outboards and fiberglass.
4. Think Double
Anytime you're talking about making a serious crossing in small boats, for both safety and comfort it's a good idea to think in twos. That's two engines and two boats, if possible. The reasons are obvious: You want to have two engines in case you have a problem with one. And regardless of how familiar you are with your boat, there is no substitute for having a buddy boat nearby if you encounter a problem.
Curt, Randy, Scott and I took a 32 Seacraft over, while Glynn and the kids ran over aboard a 284 Mako. Both boats were rigged with twin 250 Evinrude E-TEC engines. When we splashed the boats at the ramp in Miami, the Seacraft had less than an hour on the two engines. I'd heard that the new E-TECs didn't require a break-in period, but I'm always a little leery of such claims. I couldn't have been more pleasantly surprised. I turned the key, cranked the boat up to 5,000 rpm and ran the engines hard for a week, never missing a beat. It's something I wouldn't normally do, but the engines were definitely up to the task.
5. Break It Up
You really have to take the weather seriously. It's a huge limiting factor when traveling by recreational boat. Allow plenty of time to arrive at your final destination - and be flexible. Our run was more than 400 miles, and although we hoped to make the trip down in one day, we made arrangements to overnight in Nassau, just in case. As it turned out, the Bahamian weather gods were fickle, and a strong southeasterly kicked up late on the first day. That wasn't a problem on the initial crossing of the Gulf Stream; nearing Nassau, we were more and more in the lee of the island. However, continuing on and making the rest of the run would have been miserable for both the equipment and the crew. Instead, we opted for comfortable accommodations, a break and an early start on day two.
On our return, the weather gods smiled, and we were greeted with seas less than 2 feet. We cranked up the boats and blasted back at an average speed of 40 mph, with a short stop in Nassau for lunch. The next stop? Boat drinks in Coconut Grove.
Just remember that the weather does change from day to day, and it's possible to get socked in for multiple days at a time. If you have to plan a firm return date, it's not a bad idea to research the regularly scheduled flights or even the charters back stateside.
6. Anticipate Problems
Even though you may be staying in a luxury resort, think of your boat as your home away from home. Try anticipating major malfunctions that could ruin your trip and make it difficult to get home or, at the very least, back to the dock. Remember, particularly in the out islands, finding exactly what you need is often difficult - and expensive. Here's a good starting point for a list:
Spare propellers and a prop wrench (at least one if you have a single preferably two if running twins)
Spark plugs (at least a full set for one engine)
Hydraulic steering fluid (and a way to add it to your system)
Spare oil (figure what you would normally burn and add 25 percent)
Spare fuel filters
Basic tool kit (Phillips and slotted screwdrivers, filter wrench, adjustable wrench, socket set, funnel)
This assortment came in handy for us. Arriving in Nassau the first day, we were confronted with a steering problem while docking. Examining the system showed fluid loss due to chafing on the steering assembly at the motor. After a couple of turns of the wrench and a refill of fluid, we were ready to continue.
Our spare prop came in handy during the last hour of the trip as we approached the entrance to Stiltsville on Biscayne Bay in one of the worst thunderstorms I've ever run through. Midchannel, we spun a hub trying to outrun the advancing storm. A brief stop on the flat, a quick turn of the prop wrench and we were back at the dock and ready to clear customs, none the worse for wear.
The Bahamas are a boater's paradise within easy reach of south Florida. With proper planning and forethought, anybody can execute a trip to the islands on their own small, open boat. Give it a try. You'll be glad you did.
For more on this article pick up the June issue of Sport Fishing.