Cruising the Abacos

Published 22 years ago, updated 5 years ago

Great Abaco and Little Abaco islands with their surrounding reefs and cays are the northernmost islands of the Bahamas and form one of its most popular cruising grounds. Great Abaco is frequently referred to as the mainland forming the western border of the Sea of Abaco. The eastern border is defined by dozens of cays, reefs, and passes to the Atlantic Ocean. The Sea of Abaco is well protected from the Atlantic Ocean and provides an idyllic, lakelike, cruising area over the Little Bahama Bank. The Bank has an average water depth of only fifteen feet. The Abacos like the Exumas further south are favorite cruising areas in the Bahamas archipelago.

Because of the reefs and narrow ocean passages from the east, the preferred approaches to the Abacos are from the west and the U.S. mainland. The most direct routes are from southern Florida, anywhere from Ft. Pierce to Key Largo, Florida. Distances across the infamous Gulf Stream range from approximately 50 miles from West Palm Beach, 70 miles from Ft. Lauderdale, and 60 miles from Ft. Pierce. Landfall and Bahamian clearance can be made at West End, Grand Bahama Island or directly in the Abacos after an eighty-mile crossing over Little Bahama Bank. Flying the Q flag, it is permissible to sail and anchor in uninhabited cays on the Bank prior to reaching the Abacos for clearance.

A popular route for a passage to the Abacos is to start from West Palm Beach or further south and enter the Bahamas at West End, Grand Bahamas. The Old Bahama Bay Marina [BROKEN LINK] is well marked with red and green navigational lights at the entrance channel. The entrance is easily found even in a nighttime approach (U.S. rules apply, red-right-return). The GPS waypoint near the entrance to the marina is located at 26° 42.256’N 78° 59.818’W. Customs and Immigration are located directly in the modern, deep-water, 75-slip marina.

Aside from fuel, electricity, and water, there are limited provisioning opportunities in West End. However, a $5 mini-bus ride to Freeport, Grand Bahama Island, offers supermarkets, cyber cafe, restaurants, and gambling casino. On the return passage to Florida, Old Bahama Bay Marina affords an excellent stopover to wait for a weather window to cross the Gulf Stream. Continuous U.S. Department of Commerce NOAA weather forecasts can be heard for the offshore ocean area between Jupiter Inlet to Ocean Reef on VHF channels 1,2, and 3.

From West End (or for those making the eighty-mile Little Bahama Bank crossing to the Abacos directly from the USA without stopping at West End) there are many anchorage opportunities on the shallow Little Bahama Bank including Mangrove Cay, Great Sale Cay, and Hawksbill Cays. Once past Hawksbill Cays off Little Abaco, the popular Abaco cruising area stretches northwest to Walker’s Cay and southeast to Little Harbour. The premier destinations in this region include Green Turtle Cay, Guana Cay, Man-O-War Cay, Hope Town on Elbow Cay, and Marsh Harbour and Treasure Cay on Great Abaco Island.

Whale Cay, just south of Green Turtle Cay, is the dividing point between the relatively desolate northern Abacos and the more touristy southern Abacos. The short Whale Cay Passage into the Atlantic and back into the Sea of Abaco makes this a significant demarcation during bad weather. Also, the cruisers radio net, mentioned below, rarely reaches beyond Green Turtle Cay.

The Abacos can also be approached from the south after clearing in at Bimini or Nassau. However these are longer passages with more time spent in Atlantic Ocean waters rather than the peaceful Bahama banks.

Best beaches: Treasure and Guana cays. Quaint settlements: New Plymouth and Hope Town in Green Turtle and Elbow Cays. Best food provisioning, propane, and movie house in Marsh Harbour. Popular desolate anchorages (an oxymoron): Allans-Pensacola, Carters, Double Breasted, Moraine, Powell, and Manjack.

Marinas and fuel can be found on Walker’s, Grand, Spanish, Green Turtle, Guana, Man-O-War, Elbow, and Treasure cays as well as Marsh Harbour on Great Abaco Island. Sailboat charters from the Moorings are available at the Conch Harbour Marina in Marsh Harbour.

Due to the shallow waters, tide tables must be consulted, especially for entrances to anchorages with boats drawing more than four feet. Average tidal heights are between 2.5 and 3 feet. Bluewater Books and Charts in Ft. Lauderdale sells an inexpensive and excellent annual tide calendar for the Bahamas based on Nassau and Miami Harbor reference stations.

It is not advised to cruise at night in the Bahamas archipelago due to a shortage of navigational aids, or their operation. Eyeball navigation, especially the colour of the water and the various cays, reefs, coral heads, and rocks marked on charts, are the best clues, and these can only be seen in daylight.

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