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Why Powerboaters Should Rethink the Bahamas as a Winter Destination

Despite the crowd visiting the Bahamas in the stormy season, few are willing to visit places such as Cat and Eleuthera islands because they lack harbors with all-around protection.

Pssssst! Hey you cruisers! You Canadians, Midwesterners, New Englanders, and Chesapeake Bay people—listen carefully. Florida has a secret to share.

Cruisers who come to the Bahamas during winter year after year are misguided, even if they are in the majority. They decide to visit these islands, not when the weather is best in the Bahamas, but when the weather is worst wherever they come from. Between December and March, the Bahamian islands are beset by “northers,” frontal passages with vigorous clocking winds that roll down the archipelago on a near weekly basis. (See the wind roses below.)



This is particularly unfortunate during the cruiser migration down the Exuma chain to George Town. I remember sitting out a frontal passage at Allen’s Cay with four other boats and thinking it was crowded. Twelve years later when I arrived there I counted 27. When a man with a shiny new Krogen trawler yacht arrived and tried to drop the hook, the latecomer was greeted by sailors showing their “bitch wings.” (That’s when someone stares at you intensely with fists balled up against his or her hips.) This icy welcome was reinforced by verbal abuse over the VHF radio until the trawler guy gave up and took a slip at Highbourne Cay Marina instead.

There are some okay all-weather anchorages in the Exumas, and a lot of competition for them, as boats head to George Town. By February about 400 boats—85 percent of them sailboats—have made it to George Town, where they have established a floating American suburb in its spacious roadsted. (See related story). There at least the northers have begun to moderate. The Abacos in Northwest Bahamas are just plain chilly much of the time.

Click here to read "Radio Games at George Town: Acting Badly in Paradise" for a closer look at the author's floating American suburbs.

Stormy weather is a regular feature in the Bahamanian winter, especially in the northern islands and cays.

Stormy weather is a regular feature in the Bahamanian winter, especially in the northern islands and cays.

The reason for the Krogen’s rude welcome is that powerboats tend to swing differently than sailboats at anchor. As a result, they are often viewed with hostility when they arrive at a place jammed with sailboats. But you would be wrong to interpret this as a rant against our canvas flying brethren. They would be better off here in the spring, too.

Take another look at the wind roses. The length of the arrow denotes the average percentage of time that winds flow in an arrow’s direction. The number of feathers denotes the average strength of the wind based on the Beaufort Scale. Two feathers are Force Two on the Beaufort Scale, three are Force Three, etc. Note that January’s pilot chart shows winds averaging Force Four. That is, 13¬–17 knots or a moderate breeze. The distribution of these winds is fairly even around the compass rose, an indication of those clocking northers.


During the months of April through July, the weather is settled. Winds diminish and come mainly from the east with only occasional squalls to break the pattern. This is the best time to be here—after the northers have ceased but before hurricane season reaches peak. Late October to early December is pretty good too. During these periods you can anchor just about anywhere. This is when we Florida boaters make the trek.

The worst part about the cruising culture: The crowd visiting the Bahamas in the stormy season is unwilling to visit places such as Cat and Eleuthera islands because they have even fewer well sheltered anchorages than the Exumas. However, during the spring and early summer when westerly winds are rare and weak, the western shores of these long islands become peaceful beach anchorages. Sitting in a lee protected from ocean swell, you will find the prevailing east winds are nevertheless brisk enough to keep cool the crew of any well-ventilated boat.

The Hermitage on Cat Island chapel contains just one pew.

The Hermitage on Cat Island chapel contains just one pew.

Note also the number in the middle of the roses. That’s the percentage of time that you can expect calm. You are at least twice as likely to see calm conditions in May, according to the pilot charts. Calmer winds also make for calmer seas, which means it is easier to move around to the less visited Out Islands of the Bahamas. It is also easier to cross he of the Bahamas that are closer to home such as the Abacos and the Berry Islands.

One of the best arguments for a spring cruise is Cat Island. (See the related story below.) Cat has one of the most unusual landmarks in the Bahamas—the Hermitage atop Mount Alvernia, the highest point in all the island nation. Once winter has passed, boats can anchor just about anywhere along the 45-mile western shore of Cat Island, sheltered from the prevailing easterlies.

Click here to read "Monument to a Remarkable Spirit: The Hermitage at Cat Island" and get up close with one of the Bahamas' many gems.

Thinking of a Bahamas cruise? Defy cruising culture and you will be rewarded. You will find space aplenty in the anchorages, the water will feel warmer for swimming and your passages will be less stressful.