(25⁰43.4580′ N by 079⁰17.8755 W - Mile 3250.64 - Bimini, Bahamas)
When you cross from Florida’s east coast to the Bahamas Bank you will encounter one of nature’s most formidable forces, the Gulf Stream. This stream of warm water runs northward along the American coast traveling from two knots up to four knots with a mean average of 2.5 knots.
In fact it is part of a much larger ecosystem which constantly circulates in a constant, clockwise rotation north along the Atlantic coastline past the US and Canadian eastern seaboard, north easterly past Greenland and Iceland touching Great Britain then turning southward along Europe’s western shoreline to the Azores then westward back to the Caribbean.
This constant clockwise rotation brings life to Bahamas steadily streaming warm water and plays a large role in determining the weather for the region.
For the cruising sailor several factors must be considered before attempting to cross from Florida to the Bahamas Bank.
Wind velocity and direction play a major role in determining the frequency and the height of the waves in the Gulf
Stream. Winds from the southwest (traveling with the Gulf Stream) typically tend to quell the height of the waves while winds from the northeast tend to “stack” the Gulf Stream waves making them higher and with shorter wave intervals. The higher the waves the rougher the crossing will be not only making the trip unpleasant but possibly dangerous as well.
Crossing the Gulf Stream in a slightly north bound direction will give you the advantage of a free push from the current. Remember, for every hour you are in the Gulf Stream the current will push you two or more miles north bound. Why not use it to your advantage? Conversely, taking a course with a south bound direction will only add more miles to your trip.
Plan to arrive on the Bahamas Bank during the day. If you are crossing from Florida to Bimini for example, the sun will be at your back and will give you excellent visibility of the bottom contours and obstructions.
Prior to leaving, purchase up-to-date charts (both paper and electronic) to help you avoid the hazards of Bahamas shallow waters. Experience tells us that Explorer Chart books are an excellent source of hard copy information. Nobeltec VNS charts as well as Garmin and C-Map charts provide a wealth of information while Navionics charts
(used by Raymarine on their latest chart plotters) leave vast sections of water with little or no information.
If possible, travel with another boat to ensure if difficulties arise assistance is near.
Ensure you have suitable safety gear on board with redundancy where practical. For example, take an extra GPS if you have one and include a 406 EPIRB in your emergency kit.
The Gulf Stream is 10 to 15 miles off the southern coast of Florida around Miami and Fort Lauderdale. While waves might be a moderate four to six feet off the American coastline seas in the Gulf Stream could be considerably higher. Watch NOAA weather reports or internet weather resources such as www.passageweather.com, www.buoyweather.com, www.hamweather.net or www.windguru.com . If you find wave and wind conditions are worse than forecast, don’t be afraid to return to shore and wait for a better day to cross.
On arrival in Bahamas territorial water you are required to display a solid yellow “quarantine flag” indicating to authorities that you have not cleared Bahamian Customs and Immigration. Once you land the dock master will either direct you to the local Customs and Immigration offices or the authorities will visit your boat.
It is a good idea to have the following ready to present.
a) Ship documentation with an extra copy to give to customs officials;
b) Passports, photo drivers license or birth certificate for each crew member;
c) If you have weapons the serial number for each along with a count and caliber of the rounds;
d) Documents for your dingy indicating the serial numbers;
e) Serial numbers for value items like computers, GPS, scooters or bicycles.
Once the lengthy forms are completed you will be cleared to Bahamas. The cruising permit for vessels 35 feet and under is $150 and for vessels over 35 feet the fee is $300. This fee covers the captain and up to three crew members with an additional $15 to be charged for each person in excess of the first four on board.
Normally, cruising permits are good for up to one year while immigration permits may vary from 90 days to 12
If you have safely crossed the Gulf Stream and negotiated your way through Customs and Immigration, “Welcome to the Bahamas!” Cruising in paradise is about to begin.