Map of our Passage South
Saturday, March 8
After carefully studding the charts, cruising guides, and weather forecasts, we begin the 260 nautical miles passage south from George Town, Bahamas to Luperon, Dominican Republic, a passage most of the thousands of sailors who cruise regularly in the Bahamas will never undertake.
260 nautical miles may sound like a few hours of driving distance for those who never sailed. For us, getting to Dominican Republic means 3 one-day (30-40 NM) ocean passages, 4 one to two-day (25-30 NM) island passages (along the shore and in shallow bank waters), and 1 two-day (100 NM) ocean passage. It also means waiting at anchor in-between passages for a weather window (favorable winds: force and direction) for as long as it takes.
That is, if everything goes well. Moreover, we tend to be slower than most other sailboats, as most other sailboats ‘motor-sail’; they go on engine all the time in order to get faster to their destination (before sunset), or to avoid tacking or heeling too much (tacking is when you zigzag towards destination instead of going in straight line, because the wind is blowing from the direction you want to go). Often, they don’t even bother hoisting the sails, motoring all day, their masts remaining bare like sad winter trees even when the wind is good, behind them. For us ‘motoring’ is ‘cheating’. We strictly sail; the engines are for emergency only, which saves us a lot of cash and hustle. Last time we fueled was in Key West Florida, about four months ago, and our fuel tanks are still full to the brim. We never motored in the Bahamas, and we don’t even know what the fuel price around here is… We even go in and out of anchorages and cuts through the reefs full-sail, often at night.
In our Bahamas Cruising Guide the part covering south of George Town is called Far Horizons. The Unexplored Bahamas. This is how the chapter starts:
“The generally perceived wisdom that it is different south of George Town is true. Below latitude 23 30N, the tropic of Cancer, you are in the real tropics and in a different game. You are exposed to the Atlantic, you have legendary passages to negotiate, there are almost no all-weather anchorages, and few settlements. You shouldn’t venture into these waters in a craft that isn’t well found and well equipped. If passage making or cruising in an area like this lies outside your experience think twice about going that way.”
As we lift the hook from the anchorage in George Town and set sail for Long Island, a first of four island passages, suspiciously too many other boats from all the anchorages around the harbor lift their hooks as well and start sailing in the same direction. We find ourselves in the middle of a spectacular procession of about one hundred sailboats, all sailing (none motoring) southeast with us! It is beautiful.
Our departure has coincided with the Long Island Rally. The rally is escorting us to Goat Cay for about two hours where our paths finally separate. The boats continue northeast to a waypoint from where they turn back northwest to George Town; we head south through Goat Cay Cut.
With the wind blowing from north at 10-15 knots, forecasted to turn from northeast the next day, we decide sailing south-southeast on the west lee side of Long Island would be best, as the island, 80 mi long north to south, will act as a shield from the Atlantic waves which tend to always come from the same direction as the wind.
The same cruising guide warns us about sailing on the west side of Long Island:
“The west coast of Long Island is a No-Go for the long-haul passage maker. (That’s us). The west coast is the Bank side, with sandbores and shoals which effectively bars that side as a cruising ground. A Bank transit path does not exist. Only local captains can safely cross the southeast corner of the Great Bahama Bank. Underline that word ‘local.’ It requires local knowledge.”
All we get from the previous paragraph is: ‘It’s shallow, but people do it’. Our very limited experience with cruising guides tells us that they should not always be trusted. Some of the information they provide is useful but passage making is ultimately dependent on weather conditions in relation to geography, sailing skills and experience, and boat specifics. There is no one general best way to go. Cruising guides are overprotective and I think they consider the average cruisers (for whom they are intended) to be semi-blind elderly people with no common sense aboard 7-8 feet draft vessels.
Many fellow-sailors we met in George Town told us not to even think of sailing south to Dominican Republic without following the exact steps described in Bruce Van Sant’s book with the suspicious sexist title The Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South. “Just read the book and do exactly what he says if you want to make it.” they told us, most of them never made the passage nor read the book. Luckily, we had The Book aboard. I think it came with the boat along with lots of other stuff left from the previous owners. Problem is, this book too had nothing to say about Long Island’s west bank, not an option according to Mr. Van Sant. He too insists on sailing on the east side of Long Island, covering more than a 130 NM from George Town to Clarence Town, three days of sailing, battling Atlantic waves and current.
We study the charts and the west Bank side looks shallow but doable with a distance of only 55 NM from George Town to Clarence Town (west side of the island), a real short cut. Our boat’s draft is less than four feet. We close the cruising guides which have nothing more to say about sailing on the side we chose: the west Bank of Long Island.
Around 10 a.m. we pass through the narrow shallow Goat Cay Cut between Great Exuma and Little Exuma at mid-tide. The starboard keel lightly touches the sand for a second once we are through the cut, but from then on we have no troubles sailing in the uncharted Bank along the west shores of Long Island. We keep away from the shoals and coral heads and always have enough water under the keels; the island stops the waves as we have expected and sailing is pleasure. We make a beautiful progress of 55 NM the first day with the wind behind us and the boat doing 6 to 8 kt. Evo catches 9 barracudas that day, I think this is a world record, and we keep the 3 smaller one to eat in the next few days. They are delicious.
After Stephenson Rock, we turn port; carefully approach a white-sand beach looking out for coral heads. The water surface is flat like a mirror. There is no sign of civilization. We drop anchor for the night just before sunset. Dean’s Blue Hole is right across on the other side of the island, a couple of miles north of Clarence Town. We’ll visit it the next day.
We sleep like babies and dream of cruising guides.
Fata Morgana anchored on the west side of Long Island, Bahamas