Cruising the Bahamas

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The Commonwealth of the Bahamasis a warm,  hospitable island nation as close as 42 miles from  Florida's coast. It offers a cornucopia of cruising opportunities, and a diminishing level of urbanization for  800 miles to the southeast, as it stretches to within 250 miles of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

As a result, the distances to be covered vary from a day trip for fishermen — who routinely run from Fort Lauderdale to West End or Bimini and back — to a major passage for those cruising to far islands like the Turks and Caicos. And destinations differ just as widely, ranging from posh, full-service marina resorts to serene, nearly isolated, and seemingly private anchorages (that are often as truly private as they seem).

Although they vary in size, the Islands are alike in that they are made of coral limestone and rise barely above sea level—the highest point anywhere in the islands is 206 feet above sea level, on Cat Island.

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Separating the shallow banks are channels of abyssal depths. Tongue of the Ocean, Northwest Providence Channel and Exuma Sound are all about a mile deep while Northeast Providence Channel has depths of over two miles. Yet on the banks themselves there is sometimes not enough water to get your pantlegs wet.

And therein lies the major difficulty in cruising the Bahamas: the water tends to be a bit thin in spots. Fortunately, given the crystal clarity of the island waters, eyeball piloting is easy (with a little practice). This may seem to say that Bahamas cruising is "iffy." It isn’t, although it still lacks the buoy-defined exactitude of piloting Stateside.

Prior to 1500, the islands were populated mostly by Lucayan Indians. Columbus, of course, “discovered” America by landing on San Salvador in the eastern Out Islands. Following closely were Spanish explorers  who found neither the gold nor silver they sought; but they did find the Indians, and promptly shipped them off as slaves to the mines on Hispaniola. Very soon there were no Indians in the Bahamas — or humans of any kind — until a band of English colonists calling themselves the Eleutheran Adventurers arrived from Bermuda and established themselves on the north end of Eleuthera in 1648.

Nassau was founded in 1670 and promptly attracted some of the worst pirates and scoundrels of the world — including Edward Teach, better known as Blackbeard — who came to prey on Spanish treasure ships and took lesser targets of opportunity as available. This lasted until Woodes Rogers, the first Royal Governor, arrived to hang a few, pardon others, and chase the rest out of the colony.

The American Revolution brought prosperity to the Bahamas for the first time. Some 8,000 Tories — Colonists loyal to the British Crown — came to the islands with all their worldly goods. Many were southern plantation owners who brought their slaves, but as the land proved  increasingly infertile, their hopes of wealth from planting  ended and slavery was abolished in 1838.

The American Civil War provided the next injection of wealth. With England on the side of the Confederacy, Nassau was a natural base for running the Union blockade. While it lasted, wealth poured into the vaults of Nassau’s Bay Street from a thousand Rhett Butlers.(Continue...)

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