This was our second cruise through the Bahamas so we had a good idea of what to expect from the weather. For those of you who are not all that familiar with Bahamian weather patterns, here is a short primer, focusing on the Exumas.
In the winter months, the Bahamas are mostly blanketed by the easterly trade winds. Expect 15-20 knots from the NE through the SE. When the winds pick up, then 20-30 from the same direction. Sometimes for days at a time. If you are in the Exumas and on the banks, then you are anchoring in the lee of the islands, protected from the surf and swells out in Exuma sound. But not protected from the wind. Few of the islands have enough elevation to significantly reduce wind speeds. As the winds pick up, the area of protection in the lee of the islands grows bit, and if you can get in close enough to land you might get some protection from wind and chop, but for the most part, if the prevailing winds are 25-30 kts out in the sound, they will be nearly that strong in the anchorages so plan on it.
And then there are the cold fronts. They roll in from the US mainland every 5-10 days from Dec through February, with fewer and weaker ones as the season turns from winter to spring. As the fronts move SE through the chain, they weaken and stall. So usually they are strongest in the beginning of winter, say December and January, and stronger in the Abocos than in the Exumas. Much rarer in the T’s and C’s.
A strong front will cause the winds to first veer S to SW, then W to NW as the front passes, then return to NE trades when it is over. Figure 24-36 hrs. Assume the major shifts will occur at night. A weak cold front will bring the winds S at 25-30, then stall and back. A strong cold front will clock 360, with winds first in 30’s, gusting 40 from the S, then go nearly calm as the front comes overhead, then build to 40G45 from the west.
If you spend an entire winter season in the Exumas, figure on 8-10 fronts during that period. Most will stall out over you. A few will pass south and clock 360, and maybe one will be strong enough to bring on those gusts to 45 from the S and then W. So what do we do about all this commotion? If you take a cursory look at the Exumas chain, one thing is obvious. Plenty of places to hide in the lee of the islands when the trades are blowing. Few places to hide in the lee of anything when the winds are out of the S, or worse yet, the W. There are a few options, and my approach has been evolving.
On our first cruise we were on a heavy sailboat with good ground tackle. We rode out the weak fronts in place. We would swing to face south, deal with the fetch and wind, then swing back the next day. A little bouncy, no dinghy trips, but no big deal. We also ducked into a marina or two. This works well, but is expensive because you need to get there well in advance of the crowd, so will likely be tied up in your slip two days before the front arrives, then two days for the front to pass. So figure four days in a marina if you take that option.
Lastly, you can anchor in one of the few spots that provides protection from the west. This is one of the reasons Georgetown is such a popular place. They call it the G’town shuffle as 200 boats move from one side of the bay to the other with frontal passage. There are also a number of west facing coves and channels scattered throughout the chain. They are all well known, all obvious, and all very crowded during cold fronts. Personally, I would never go into one of these spots. Time for an aside (rant) here…
The Bahamas provide a wonderful cruising opportunity to to many sailors who do not have to deal with a significant offshore voyage such as a trip to the Caribbean requires. This can be good or bad. Other than the bare boaters in the Caribbean, everyone else has made a significant voyage to get there. Most likely they know how to sail, and anchor. Not so for the Bahamas. Motor down the ICW, day hop across the stream at Miami and you are here. Anyone can do it. And among those that make this trip are at least a few who shouldn’t. Either because their boat and gear are not up to the task or they aren’t. And some of them will anchor next to you. On a trade winds day, no problem. But in a tight anchorage filled with boats trying to ride out a 360 degree wind shift, big problem.
So here is my advice. If you are looking to hide from a strong cold front, do not go to a popular hidey hole anchorage. If Active Captain gives it a 4 or 5 star rating for cold front protection, say Bell Island for example, don’t go there. It will be too crowded and someone will most surely drag during the night. Better, take a look at the charts and find a spot that provides just some moderate protection from the fetch over the banks from a west wind. There will likely be no AC or anchor symbol there. There will also be no other boats there. Put out all the chain you want. maybe bounce a little in the chop. But relax.
Besides the anchoring and the marina option, there are also the park moorings. They are built to withstand most anything, to include hurricanes. We weathered a strong cold front on a Warderick Wells mooring this season. 40 knots from the south, then 45 from the west. The mooring field was full and all the boats survived just fine. But I am not sure my nerves could take that again. During the night of the 45 knots from the west our stern was no more than 100 feet from the rocks and I swear I could have stepped off the swim platform to the sand behind us. With just a half mile fetch across the horse shoe harbor the chop was two feet high. And our 600 lb dinghy, which i stupidly left tied out back, was going crazy.
Best bet for next time. The Hog Cay mooring field on the south end of Warderick Wells. Totally protected. Too small for any fetch. Or Cambridge Cay. Not protected from a west wind, but the shoals would cut the fetch. Or anchored out alone by myself. If you want to have a park mooring as an option on your list, then become a park supporter for 100$ a year. It gets you a 24 hr jump on moorings.
I remember listening to the radio while prepping for the front due later that day at Warderick Wells. A boat was calling for a possible mooring, only to be told that the field was full. It had been for two days. On hearing that the field was full, the “captain” came back with, “… but where should we go?” They likely went to Bell Island.