Abacos - Bahamas Advice
About 8 years ago, we attended a TrawlerFest in Miami and heard Skipper Bob's seminar on travel to the Bahamas.  The only information I retained was "wait at Lake Worth for a convoy of boats to join to cross the Gulf Stream" and "bring lots of beef."  Before we left on this trip, we heard lots of advice, some good, some not so good.  Our advice is constrained to the Abacos and aimed at boats planning to anchor almost all of the time.  Most of this is stuff that is NOT in the cruising guides, or not in there in great detail.  Here's our take on the matter:

 

Customs and Immigration:  Have two flags, a Bahamian courtesy flag and a yellow Quarantine flag.  Register with the US Customs Service online months before you leave.  You will be sent a decal.  If you don't get it in time, call Customs and ask for your decal number.  Since you will check in by phone, the number is the important thing.  With the decal, you no longer have to go to a customs agent at an airport to check in.

Pre-register with your local Immigration office for the Pleasure boaters option.  This is a "lifetime" registration.  You have to show passports, boat documentation, etc.  You will be issued a number starting with BR000 and then 4 digits.  You must have a number for EACH person aboard.  

This is a wonderful system that works on paper but the government implementation leaves much to be desired.  The 800 numbers to check in by phone are obviously overwhelmed, as you will be put on hold for 30 minutes or more.  And each agent has his/her own interpretation of the rules, and none of them match.  One will say "you have to call the district where you registered.  That District will say you have to call the district your boat is in at the time of the call.  Another will say that setting an anchor is equal to setting foot on land!  But it's better than than taking a taxi to the airport to check in.

Money & credit cards: In 2008, the Bahamian and US dollars are equal.  You can use EITHER in the Bahamas.  But make sure you get rid of your Bahamas money before you return home, since the U.S. will NOT accept Bahamian!  

Credit cards are accepted at the larger groceries, liquor stores and marinas.  Make sure your credit card company does NOT charge a fee for foreign transactions.  Ours, Capital One, does not.  Friends have reported that they are charged 1% by their credit card companies.  ATM machines exist in the larger cities, but not all of them accept all the cards.

Bring about $1,000 cash for each month you plan to stay.  We divided our $2,000 into six parts, put each part into a ziploc sandwich bag, and hid them in different places.  Then we had a note, disguised as a shopping list, in a safe and easy to remember place.  The note gave short hints to the money locations, so Senior Moments would not cause us to forget where our money was hidden.  For example, "ice bag" meant just what it sounds like!    

Pets:  Go to the Bahamas website and print out an import permit from the Department of Agriculture for each dog or cat.  Get a money order for $15 (Wal-Mart has the cheapest fee).  There is an extra $5 fee if you want the permit faxed to you. Pay the five bucks; it's well worth it.  We applied two months in advance, NEVER received the permit by mail, and had to make several calls before the Office took pity on us and faxed it anyway.  The $5 eliminates the aggravation.  Also download the vet certificate (if you can find it; they had to fax that to me also.)  Take the certificate and your pet to the vet a week or so before leaving.  The vet must certify that all the shots are current and that the animal is in good health.  Store your vet certificate and the import permit in a Legal Documents folder to give to Bahamas customs.

There IS a pet groomer and a vet in Marsh Harbor.  If your pet needs premium food or medicines, however, bring them.

Firearms:  Rifles and shotguns are legal, but must be declared to Bahamian customs.  They also want a count of your bullets.

Water:  Water costs money in the Bahamas, between 20 and 50 cents a gallon, even if you are at a marina.  Some marinas charge by the day, so if you stay there and need a lot, it's worth paying the price.  Otherwise, buy  two to four 5 gallon foldable jugs in the camping section of Wal-Mart.  (They charge under $6; West Marine charges $19 for the same jug.) Also get a short length (10 to 15 feet) of hose with a female end to attach to a spigot. We found places at Port Lucaya, Marsh Harbor, and Treasure Cay where we could take the jugs in our dinghy (before 8 am or after 5 pm) and fill up.  With careful use, you should be able to manage to use under ten gallons a day.  That means showers where the water is on only to wet down and rinse off.  Dishwashing means trickling water into a stoppered sink, washing everything with soap, and then rinsing under the trickle.  

Heads:  Very few pump outs, and unnecessary unless you are in a marina for an extended time.  Use salt water to flush, if possible.  Pump out overboard when you are in OPEN water - not in a harbor.  

Garbage:  Most towns have trash cans.  The dinghy dock in Marsh Harbor has a dumpster.  Hope Town asks you to drop trash only on MWF before 9:30 am.  Food garbage can be dropped overboard in OPEN water.  Paper can be burned ashore.  We never threw plastic, bottles or cans overboard.  

Phones:  Verizon does NOT work, either phone or aircard.  Some cell phones do work, but be prepared to pay $2-3 a minute.  You can buy a Batelco phone card to use at scattered phone booths.  However, more than half the phones are out of order.  We suspended our Verizon service ($20 a line) when we left.  The money we saved over two months paid for most of the rental of a Iridium SatPhone, which we used only for emergencies.  The advantage was that our families or neighbors could reach us if they had to.  They could also send a text message to our Iridium number, free of charge.

Email & Computer:  The most cost effective method is to buy an external Wi-Fi card with an inexpensive cable antenna.  The internal cards just aren't powerful enough.  We had Internet access about a third of the time from our boat, especially in Man-O-War, Treasure Cay and Hope Town.  The local Wi-Fi service is provided by Out Island Internet, but it is EXPENSIVE.  We're talking over $120 a month. They do have good towers all over.  In Marsh Harbor, we bought the service for $40 one week.  We shared it with another boat by assigning odd and even hours for computer access.  Otherwise, you have to dinghy your laptop ashore and find a place where you can sit and hopefully read your screen in sunlight.  Ham operators can email (no attachments) from anywhere.

Shipping:  If you need something urgently, bring it with you, especially spare parts for your boat.  Remember, Murphy's Law of Cruising says that the part that breaks will be the one for which you don't have a spare.  If a friend is coming over, have them bring it.  Otherwise - do NOT use UPS.  It exists only in Nassau and the people are idiots.  FedEx is recommended by the locals.  Or, Yellow Air Taxi in Fort Lauderdale will arrange to fly your package over.  If engine parts are shipped, a copy of your cruising permit must be both inside and outside the package, along with a copy of the invoice, to avoid customs duty.  It cost us $80 to find that out.

Weather forecasts:  Miami NOAA can be heard as far east as Great Sale Cay.  Ham operators and those with Cirrus weather subscription can get weather anytime.  In the Abacos, weather forecasts are at 8 am on 93.5 FM, 8:15  and 9 am on Cruiser's Net on Channel 68, and on Weather or Not by Charles Parker on Channel 09 at 7:30 pm.  Barometerbob.com always has current weather, although we found the winds were usually higher than predicted.  If you're on the Internet, also try Miami Herald weather and wunderground.com.

Cruiser's Net:  A broadcast on Channel 68 at 8:15 each day.  It can be heard through the Abacos and sometimes even at Green Turtle.  Hosted by various emcees, the Net always starts with the weather forecast from Barometerbob.com.  It's followed by community announcements, restaurant and dive info, news, sports, open mic (where you can call in for any announcement), a trivia question and comings and goings.  We've heard announcements for found dinghies, lost oars, special ferry times, questions on heath facilities, towboats, and festivals, etc.  It's the Weather Channel, CNN and Larry King live, all mushed together.  

Spare parts:  Try other boaters and the local shipyards first.  Reach other boaters on Cruiser's Net.

Food:  The following are reasonable and wonderful and can be found at many places:  Pork chops, New Zealand lamb chops, rum, New Zealand butter in cans (no refrigeration), eggs, carrots, rum, celery, Irish cheddar cheese, rum, local bread (did I say rum?).  Bring with:  beef, paper goods, cereal, any snack foods, including crackers and chocolate, soda pop, fruit juice in cans, lunch meat.  (Publix sells a sliced, vacuum packed reduced fat Genoa salami, which keeps for three months in the refrigerator.  Rule of thumb is, anything imported from the States is expensive.  Anything local or from a former British possession is reasonable.  Anything else is available but costs more than in the States.  

The largest grocery stores we found were in Freeport and Maxwell's or Price Rite in Marsh Harbor.  There is a Cost Rite, a VERY scaled down warehouse club, in Marsh Harbor, but it's a long walk.

Fuel:  You don't want to know.  Come with FULL tanks, including dinghy gas.  When diesel was $3.26 in the US, we paid $4.75, and that was at the cheapest place we found.  Most were $5.00 and over.  We found good prices at Marsh Harbor Marina (Boat US discount) and at Treasure Cay.

Shopping:  NAPA and Ace Hardware are in Marsh Harbor, as is Subway's, KFC, and two drug stores..  Expect prices about 50% higher than the US.  So BRING your Gorilla glue and AA batteries, or expect to pay a premium.

Souvenirs:  If you want something inexpensive for the grandkids, forget it unless you stop at Port Lucaya marketplace, where t-shirts are 3 for $10.  Otherwise t-shirts are $20 and $25 all over.  We brought our grandkids lots of shells and Bahamian coins.  When we get home, we'll get them all kiddy snorkeling masks from Wal-Mart and tell them it came from the Bahamas.  Same stuff they sell here at one third the price.

Royal Marsh Harbour Yacht Club - If you join, you get special rates at Boat Harbor Marina and also, discounts at some Bahamian stores, including Bristol Liquors, the place for Rum in Marsh Harbor.  Membership is very reasonable - check out their website

Weather:  We were in the Abacos from late January through mid-March, and we won't return at that time.  It's OK if you get a marina for a month or more (Boat Harbor has fantastic 3 month rates and Orchid Bay has a one month deal) but not if you want to cruise around and snorkel.  We rarely saw winds of less than 15 knots, and Northers came through at least once a week.  The problem with the Northern is that the normally easterly wind clocks around to the south, southwest, and up through northeast, usually in a 24 to 48 hour period.  Where do you anchor if it's blowing 20 to 25 from every direction?  We returned to Marsh Harbor and Treasure Cay, three times each.  Man-O-War, Hope Town, and Great Guana are very protected but moorings are hard to find and there is no place to anchor inside the harbors.

Strictly Bahamian Stuff:

    JUNKANOO is a parade where the participants make and wear fantastic costumes, dance and make music, and have floats.  It can take a LONG time (the one we went to started late, around 8 pm, and didn't end until 3 in the morning). 

     CONCH is made into everything - cracked conch (which is deep fried), conch salad (which is ceviche) and conch fritters.  You can buy the conch frozen, either tenderized or not.  If you buy the Not Tenderized, prepare to bang it with a hammer for several hours.  In 2008 there was a 6 conch limit for foreigners, if you want to dive and catch your own. 

     CONCH HORNS are blown at sunset.  Takes practice! 

     BAREFOOT MAN:  A singer/guitarist who writes and sings lyrics pertaining to the Islands.  He gives two concerts a year, spring and summer, at Nipper's Bar in Great Guana.  Two thousand people show up in a place that can hold 200.

    FERRY:  There are six different ferry services in the Abacos, linking all the main islands   Their routes are listed in the Dodge guide and their schedules are found at the various harbors they visit.

Charts and Cruising Guides:  The two you can't do without are:

      The Cruising Guide to Abaco Bahamas by Steve Dodge.  Comes out annually.  List price is $24.95.  Has just about everything you need, including some great charts, tide tables, lunar calendar, and yellow pages. 

     Explorer Chartbook - Near Bahamas by Monty and Sarah Lewis.

    There are other books, such as Yachtsman's Guide to the Bahamas and Abaco Ports of Call and Anchorages (aerial photographs), but consider them as additions to your main two.