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Explore the Bahamas – Tips for Running a Reef Break

Chad Jones at the bow of his Mason 44 Corrina Corrina heading into Man-o-War Channel in Marsh Harbor, Bahamas. Photo by Maria Karlsson
Chad Jones at the bow of his Mason 44 Corrina Corrina heading into Man-o-War Channel in Marsh Harbor, Bahamas. Photo by Maria Karlsson

In anticipation of the annual southerly migration of boats to the islands and beyond, this month we’ll explore the Bahamas. These low-lying islands just 60 miles off the coast of Florida provide fantastic cruising grounds for sail and power boats alike. But, unlike the relatively easy ins-and-outs on the ICW, many of the passages into and out of harbors in the Bahamas – especially the Abacos, the closest group of islands to Florida – are shallow, often unmarked and surrounded by reefs, making for some challenging pilotage.

Not to worry. The successful running of a reef break is a rewarding experience for your confidence as a mariner.

Follow these Tips for Running a Reef Break, practice in good conditions, and head south!

Negotiating a reef passage requires precise navigation and skilled seamanship. Detailed charts are essential, and always consult sailing directions. Glean local knowledge by broadcasting a request on the VHF – you’ll be surprised how eager others are to offer advice.

Attempt a cut only in daylight, ideally with the sun aft. Heave-to and wait for dawn if approaching at night. Even better, plan your passage to arrive just after sunup – most of the cuts in the Abacos are on the east side of the islands. You’d be approaching towards the west, with the morning sun shining behind you, giving the best visibility.

Plot precise compass bearings, confirm any visual aids, and program a series of waypoints in the GPS as backup. The helmsman should have a hand-bearing compass on hand. Establish a bail out point on approach that would allow room to safely turn around if something seems amiss.

In a sailboat, it’s actually easier to sail through a narrow channel (unless it’s dead upwind), especially with a sea running. Driving the boat at speed with sails flying helps to stop rolling and aids in directional stability. Keep the boat below hull speed, but sailing fast enough to respond instantly to the helm. Have the engine running, but in neutral. The anchor should be un-fastened, the rode ready to run free, and all halyards/sheets ready to let fly.

In a powerboat, keep some speed on for the same reasons, and keep that anchor ready in case of engine failure.

Station a crewmember at the bow to read the water – in coral, light patches indicate sand, brown patches danger. Deep blue means deep water. Know the charted depths and keep a sharp eye on the depth sounder.

Once past your established point-of-no-return, trust your visual bearings, check the instruments and hold a steady course on the helm. Now is not the time for indecision, so be sure to triple-check the plan before entering. The reward is often tranquil water and a cold beverage.

Dennis Schell is a USCG Master Mariner with a lifetime of sail- and powerboat experience in the southeast, the Bahamas and offshore. Contact him at dennis@fathersonsailing.com.

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