Small Boat to Bimini
Originally published in Florida Sportfishing Magazine
by Dave Kresge
“What, are you crazy?” That’s the usual response when I tell folks I run a 17 foot boat to the Bimini. This reaction is understandable of course, given the 50 miles of open ocean that lie between Florida and the historic Bahamian island, not to mention conventional wisdom that holds 22 to 25 foot as the smallest boat suitable for such a trip.
But as with any rule, there are exceptions...
During certain times of the year the seas between Florida and the Bahamas become glass calm, sometimes for days on end. This has prompted screwballs to head over to the islands in all sorts of contraptions — 13 foot whalers, pontoon boats and in one case, a 10-foot homebuilt sailboat. Obviously these trips fall into the category of stunts and I certainly wouldn’t advocate them to anyone.
However, when it comes to safety, boat length is just one factor in the equation. Experience, weather, mechanical condition, preparation and planning all play a part. The reality is that boats in the 18 to 22 foot range have been safely making the trip to Bimini for years. The key is to manage the other factors since you won’t have size or displacement on your side.
At Weech's Docks in Bimini - the author's 17-foot Cape Horn
First let’s state the obvious. A trip to the islands requires a rugged boat, one designed to handle the pounding of the ocean. It must have adequate range and be in good working order. Common sense dictates you travel as part of a larger group or with a buddy boat. Going solo is not an option in this size range. Always file a float plan and make sure to confirm arrival and departure with your float plan holder. Common sense dictates you travel as part of a larger group or with a buddy boat. Going solo is NEVER an option in this size range. Don't even think about it!"
The Gulfstream Horror Stories Are True
Stroll the docks for any length of time and you’re bound to hear horror stories of the Gulf Stream. Even taking into account the natural tendency to exaggerate, especially once the storyteller is safely back on land and seated at the bar, the underlying truth remains — crossing the Gulf Stream is serious business. Things can, and sometimes do, get quite ugly out there. Of all the variables, weather is the single most important factor in your crossing. Never trust the forecasts and never trust the Gulf Stream.
One of the world’s great ocean currents, the Gulf Stream runs roughly south to north as it squeezes between the U.S. and the Bahamas in the Straits of Florida. Whenever the winds are out of the north, northeast or northwest they run head on into the ‘Stream. The result is never pretty. Waves become large, steep and closely spaced — exactly the conditions mariners try to avoid. During strong northerly winds the Gulf Stream becomes impassable regardless of vessel size.
The Ideal Forecast
The ideal weather forecast for a crossing is calm to moderate winds out of a safe direction, i.e., not from the north, northwest or northeast. For obvious reasons, stable weather patterns are desired as approaching fronts often bring deteriorating conditions. From a calendar perspective, summer generally produces the best conditions for a small boat run to Bimini. An analysis of historical wind patterns off of Miami dramatically illustrates this point. Bottom line, summer is the season for small boats.
The importance of weather dictates you monitor it religiously. Check local TV, The Weather Channel and NOAA marine forecasts. During your trip keep a vigilant watch on the weather. If things don’t seem right, they probably aren’t. Always err on the conservative side. One last note regarding weather. Winds are typically calmer in the early morning and thunderstorms have not yet had a chance to develop. You may want to plan your crossings accordingly.
Try Not To Sink
One of the drawbacks to small boats is that they are, well, small. And all things being equal, small objects fill up with water faster than large objects. If you intend to keep the ocean on the outside of your craft, which is always a good idea, hull integrity and adequate bilge pump capacity are critical.
This is one case where an ounce of prevention is definitely worth of pound of cure. Make certain your vessel is as watertight as possible. Weak hatches, control cable cutouts, flimsy pie plates and low transoms are notorious problem areas. Replace, relocate or seal up as necessary. Deck lockers that drain into the bilge are another no-no. The goal is absolute watertight integrity.
To illustrate the importance of this, consider a small hole, just one inch in diameter two feet below the waterline. This tiny opening will pour almost 1,700 gallons per hour into your bilge! Unfortunately, most small boats are equipped with a single bilge pump rated at 500 to 750 gph hour. No rocket science is needed to determine the ultimate outcome. At best you’ll be totally swamped, at worst you’ll be treading water. There are simple things you can do to improve your bilge pump system. Add a second, larger pump to increase capacity - never rely on a single pump for obvious reasons. Replace constrictive corrugated hose will with smooth wall hose. Upgrade wiring with a heavier gauge to reduce voltage drop. Make all connections with proper crimps and seal with heat shrink tubing. Verify that your bilge discharge is high enough above the waterline to prevent siphoning into the bilge. If not, add a riser loop or relocate. To catch minor problems before they become major, add a bilge alarm which is nothing more than horn connected to a float switch set slightly higher than your regular float switches. Keep proper sized wood plugs handy.
Once you’ve upgraded your bilge system the weak link then becomes the batteries. Higher capacity bilge pumps require additional battery capacity. Redundancy demands dual batteries, at least one of which should be deep cycle. Get the largest capacity batteries that you can reasonably fit in your boat. Since outboard boats are often stern heavy, consider relocating batteries to the console. In any case, do not mount them low in the bilge – if water enters the hull they will short out just when you need them the most. To keep them from becoming airborne missiles in rough seas, use heavy-duty aftermarket battery boxes.
Safety Gear is More Important on Small Boats
The economic advantages of small boats are obvious — lower fuel, maintenance and insurance costs, not to mention smaller monthly payments. But don’t rush out and blow the entire windfall on a new set of Internationals. Plan on investing in safety equipment commensurate with the task at hand. Remember, if things go wrong on a smaller vessel, the ramification are likely to be greater.
Step one is to toss out those cheap square life jackets that come with every new boat. Their main purpose is to make a boat Coast Guard legal when it leaves the dealership. Upgrade to high quality, type I offshore life jackets and attach a whistle and strobe to each. Since life jackets work only if they’re worn, you may want to carry inflatables. Don’t forget to have a throwable flotation device at the ready, not because it’s required but because it makes sense.
Another common shortcoming is the standard emergency signaling kit on most boats. As with life jackets, just because something meets the Coast Guard requirements doesn’t mean it’s adequate for venturing offshore and to the islands. Many standard kits come with three aerial flares yielding a total burn time of just 18 seconds. That would be almost comical were it not for the fact that your life may depend on being located quickly. Here are the items aboard my boat, all of which are stored in a single watertight box (see required safety gear, at bottom).
My first boat on the way to Bimini, a Mako 22'
Like computer hard drives, it’s not a matter of if, but when your outboard will decide to play dead. Adequate spares and a basic tool kit will fix many of the common problems. At a minimum spares should include spark plugs, oil filters, fuel filters, thermostats, fuses, extra prop, cotter pins and primer bulb. For emergency repairs add duck tape, wire, electrical connectors, zip-ties, hose clamps, epoxy and rope. Before each trip you will want to charge the batteries and change spark plugs and filters. Perform a mechanical check on important systems.
When it comes to tools, you have to get creative. There’s nowhere near enough room on my 17 foot center console to carry a full set of dedicated tools. Where possible, I rely on multi-purpose tools such as crescent wrenches, pliers, channel locks and changeable bit screwdrivers.
Losing power offshore can result in your boat drifting in a dangerous orientation relative to the waves. Making matters worse, it will be difficult to fix the problem while rocking sickeningly from side to side. The solution is a simple drift fishing anchor. Deployed off the bow of the boat, it accomplishes three things. One, it holds your bow into the waves, generally the safest orientation. Two, it reduces boat motion allowing you to concentrate on getting the problem sorted out. And three, it reduces wind induced drift keeping you relatively stationary. Available for less than fifty bucks, no boat should be without one.
Screaming For Help
Given the space premium, communications and navigation choices should focus on functionality and reliability. Modestly priced GPS / fishfinder units are small, accurate and designed to withstand exposure to the elements. Fixed-mount VHF radio is still the gold standard in marine communications — it is the most effective means to communicate boat to boat. Because VHF is line of site, go with an 8 foot antenna and mount it as high as possible. With prices for handheld GPS and VHF units plummeting, there is simply no excuse not to carry one of each onboard as back-ups to fixed mount units. Don’t forget to purchase an antenna adaptor that allows your handheld VHF to connect to your main antenna for increased range.
It goes without saying, if you venture far from land, carry a 406 EPIRB. Starting at roughly $700, they’re not cheap but worth every penny. If cost is a barrier, you can rent one from BoatUS for $40 per week.
A recent development is the emergence of the handheld sat-phone, with prices dropping to less than $500 with reasonable per minute rate plans. Since satphones cannot broadcast a system wide emergency call, they do not take the place of VHF. However, the ability to communicate over long range has obvious safety benefits. I make it a habit on crossings to stop half way and call back to my float plan holder —this way I can give a quick update and let them know everything is going according to plan.
Know When To Say NO!
Know when to say no. It sounds simple but can be tough to do in practice, particularly when you’ve spent weeks planning and getting psyched. I would hazard a guess that the majority of bad crossings occur when enthusiasm gets in the way of good judgment. Before every trip my crew is treated to what I call “the speech”. It goes something like this, “The night before the trip we’ll have a pretty good idea of whether we’ll attempt the crossing. The morning of the trip is when we decide whether to leave the dock. And finally, when we’re 10 to 15 miles offshore, that’s when we’ll make the final decision to proceed across the Gulf Stream.”
If all goes well, you’ll be in Bimini and fishing by lunch.
Safety Gear Aboard my Boat, The VELVET ELVIS
Handheld flares (4)
Smoke flares (2)
Flare gun shells (14)
Handheld VHF radio
VHF antenna adapter
Personal strobes (3)
4AA batteries (24)
Wooden thu hull plug
Signal flag & mirror
Dave Kresge, Bimini 1994
This site is based on a series of books by Dave Kresge, an advertising and marketing consultant based in South Florida. Dave specializes in the boating industry.