Now that we’ve been back from the Bahamas for a few weeks, we’ve had a little time to review all of the lessons we learned on our trip. I can’t even begin to post them all here… So I will just throw out the 5 major items that really affected our first cruising adventure – and hopefully some of you wise folk learn from our mistakes!
We’ve had our girl for almost 4 years now. In October she survived Hurricane Matthew. She’s ridden out major thunderstorms, etc. We didn’t really even consider how much we DIDN’T know. (You will notice this theme recur here – we just didn’t know how much we didn’t know…)
Our first wakeup call was our crossing to the Bahamas, on Thanksgiving Day. We’d listened to weather and had what we thought was a Weather Window. The problem? We were listening to the weather via VHF radio. I thought it was standard protocol to use that weather source, so I spent the week leading up to our trip listening and learning how to understand the reports. What I didn’t understand? The consistently under-estimated winds. The report for our chosen crossing day was a wee bit higher than we wanted, at 15 knots out of the east with 3′ to 5′ seas. We were shooting for less than 15 knots, so this borderline report sounded good enough. I mean, we were ready to be in the Bahamas already, right!?!
We only used one weather source – as far as I recall. And it was wrong. We ended up with 20 knot winds out of the NE with gusts of 25+. You don’t want any sort of N component to your winds when heading East across the gulfstream. If I only knew to check MULTIPLE sources, I would likely have found conflicting data. In hindsight, we probably still would have pushed it. The islands were calling… (But in the future, we will wait to go from Fl to the Bahamas when there is no N component to the wind direction.)
So what are some of the things we’ve learned regarding weather? More is better! We now use the Windfinder and Pocket Grib apps, local weather usually via Accuweather of both our starting point and our ending point, and I often throw in some WindyTY just for good measure. We were unable to receive VHF weather in the Bahamas, but I still use it when I can. And watching the weather consistently provides insight into your area’s patterns. Trust me – there are patterns. The best sailing was often after we let the seas die down for a day or two after a strong blow – before the next front came through. Don’t just rush out immediately after the winds calm.
We also know now to not only look at the winds predictions, but also the wave patterns. Our girl likes a 1.5 or 2 ratio on wave height to seconds of delay. So for a smoother ride, we shoot for 3 foot seas with a 6 second delay between waves. Or 4′ to 5′ seas with a 7 to 10 second delay, etc. Does that mean we sometimes wait longer to go somewhere? Sure! But we have nothing right now, if not plenty of time to sit and chill in a beautiful anchorage.
Holy frijoles, did we learn a lot on this little topic. First of all guys, your anchor if freaking IMPORTANT. Sounds obvious, right? We try to live at anchor. Clearly our anchor should be top notch and suited for the bottom that it is being dug into. And it should DIG IN to that bottom. We never even thought about our anchor. Why?
⚓️ It came with the boat.
⚓️ The former owners cruised her for years, and surely they knew what they were doing…
⚓️ We never drug anchor in the States.
The first thing we did when we got to Bimini? Drug anchor. And we quickly preceded to drag our way throughout the Bahamas. Anywhere there was any hint of grass or a hard, limestone bottom, our 33lb Bruce did her happy little drag backward dance.
Anchors are apparently a huge debate topic among cruisers. I get it now. It’s a critical piece of equipment. Turns out a Bruce anchor doesn’t like grass. And while our 39′ boat is right between 2 size options (35lb or 45lb), we definitely needed to be on the heavier side – particularly during all of the fronts that came through the Bahamas this winter. We were often in 25+ knots of wind for days on end.
Bruce was also lazy. He just liked to kick it over on one of his 3 prongs, rather than dig in and get a good set. This often meant we needed to go down and adjust how he was sitting on the bottom.
We had 3 solutions – two temporary, and one permanent. Our first temporary solution was to score a free 44lb Bruce anchor in George Town. The extra weight put it at the top of the weight rating for our boat. But it was still a Bruce – and Bruce just doesn’t like grass! Fortunately, between the extra weight of the anchor, one of us often diving on the anchor to confirm it was set – and Mark occasionally having to pick up the anchor and move it to a sandy patch, we rarely drug. The second temporary solution? Try to NEVER anchor anywhere near grass! (In the Abacos that turned out to be much easier said than done.)
The permanent solution? Well, that was a no brainer. A Mantus Anchor was a must-have upgrade. Our other products from them (the bridle and headlamp) are high quality and never disappoint. And their anchor design is top notch. The problem? We couldn’t find one anywhere in the Bahamas! And I mean anywhere. Every time we hit land, that was on the top of the list. It would certainly cost more in the Bahamas, but our anchor is critical and we would have happily paid double the list price just to sleep well at night. We never did find a Mantus in the Bahamas – and the previous trouble we’d had shipping things over led us to wait until we got to Miami a few weeks ago. But let me tell you, within DAYS we had our shiny new Mantus 45 lb anchor up on the bow!
Cell Phone Coverage
I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before that we switched to TMobile before we left GA. We were Verizon customers for years, but rumor had it that TMobile had great coverage in the Bahamas – AND they’d just come out with their unlimited data plan! Score! Right…?
Did I mention we also cut down to just 1 phone? Yeah – because we had unlimited data, we could Hot Spot it to my laptop and Mark’s tablet. And we are together 24/7, so why pay for 2 phones…?
Cell Coverage Lessons
Cell coverage is pretty critical. You know all the weather apps I listed up there? Can’t really use them if you don’t have access to data… And we NEED weather. Especially with a new front coming through the Bahamas every week this winter. With plotting and planning to be done – that was all weather dependent, we were cell coverage dependent. (Some people receive weather via SSB, but that is a piece of equipment we don’t currently have) TMobile’s Unlimited plan throttles you down to 2G in the Bahamas. Guess what? 2G is not enough to use your phone as a Hot Spot. But it IS enough to use the BTC coverage (local Bahamian company) to check your crib files – IF there is a tower close enough to the remote island you happen to be visiting. So we proceeded to pass the phone begrudgingly back and forth for 4 months as we each got our inter webs fix. That, my friends, is why this blog has suffered so much. When we could get a signal on remote islands, it was often only just enough to get our weather updates. And maybe an Instagram post published.
The major lesson learned? We will unlock this phone before we leave in the Fall, then buy a BTC sim card, if we decide to head through the Bahamas on our way to Puerto Rico. BTC offers 3 and 4g coverage at reasonable rates. TMobile will let us suspend coverage temporarily, so we’ll be spending the same (maybe even less…) and can pick back up with our TMobile coverage in PR. Google’s Project Fi is also a consideration – but requires us to purchase a different phone and have a new phone number. I’m not sure which way we will go – but lean toward keeping the phone we have and using local SIM cards.
Canned veg/meat Lessons
I’m going to brag a bit here and say that I nailed the provisioning. We had loads of food for the trip – and still have some now. What we don’t have is loads of food we don’t eat – as my research prior to leaving showed that people often returned with piles of canned/processed foods they never eat at home – thus never ate on the boat.
I made a point of only buying stuff that we truly enjoy and use. It worked out well. So what’s the problem? Turns out we will actually will eat a few canned things – you know, when we are in the Exumas with no stores nearby. I got crafty with canned chicken and even an occasional can of green beans. While fresh potatoes, carrots and onions are fairly easily found (and affordable!), green things were lacking. Freeze dried spinach became a staple in the Out Islands. I’ll be sure and throw a couple of recipes up on the blog at some point. The Buffalo Chicken Pasta Salad uses canned chicken and is one of our new favorites! (Disclaimer: I’m using fresh chicken now that we are back in the States) But before we head out for our next big adventure, I will add a good amount of canned chicken and green beans, as well as more freeze dried spinach and corn.
There is just not enough wind in Savannah to really learn to sail a 39′ boat. Could we move our boat from Point A to Point B? Obviously. We made it down the coast, throughout the Bahamas, and back to Florida. While we took a few longer trips, including overnight sails, we still didn’t really know all that much about sailing well. And to clarify, we are still learning! But I rarely sailed the boat myself and when helping Mark, often grabbed the wrong line, etc.
We made a point of trying to use our engine as little as possible as soon as we set off in October. That forced us to learn how she likes to move. And we have nothing if not plenty of time to get somewhere these days! To be honest, we kind of just procrastinated on learning to really sail. We figured we would have time to do nothing but that as we traveled through the islands. Turns out, our learning curve was so steep with weather, anchoring, hiding from fronts, etc, that the true Learning to Sail didn’t really kick in until about 6 weeks into our 4 month trip.
Since then, Mark has learned to easily single hand, and I’ve begun to learn to handle this sailing nonsense as well. I’m not as far along as he is, but I’m getting there. I even managed to single hand (with him in the cockpit) from Big Major to Black Point in 27+knot winds. These days we are bobbing around Southern Florida and making a point of sailing as much as possible. Our goal is to be confident in each other’s skill level before we make that giant leap to Puerto Rico in the Fall!
Overall, we both consider our first season cruising to be wildly successful. Our faith in our boat has increased tremendously. Weather tracking skills continue to grow. Our anchor makes us happy and lets us sleep well at night. Cell coverage is rarely an issue, now that we are in the States again – and can use the Hot Spot (but TMobile IS trying to limit our Unlimited data to 28 gig at 3G…) Eating out has actually become an expensive chore that makes us feel unhealthy – and so we eat at home for the most part. And actual sailing is becoming a goal these days vs. just moving the boat from Point A to Point B.
Do we still have a lot to learn? You betcha! But that is what keeps life interesting, right?