Our Bahamas wrap-up is being published in two parts. The first part (below), is oriented more towards the mechanical and techie-type things that worked and didn’t work throughout the trip, and was written by Tom. Part 2, which will be published in a separate post, is from the Quartermaster’s point of view, covers the food and provisioning topics, and is written by Paula.
What worked well:
Cell Phone Signal Amplifier – This device is made for your car and purports to “boost” a weak cell phone signal when you are driving through fringe coverage areas. We thought it might be useful in the Bahamas when we were anchored near uninhabited islands in the Exumas and distant from any cell towers. It was a bit of a risky purchase since we needed to match it up with a special ($$) marine antenna (not the little car antenna it came with), and there was no information in the packaging indicating it would work with the Bahamian cell phone network. This turned out to be the best pre-departure purchase we made. It worked beautifully and was the main reason we could publish a blog post everyday no matter where we were. There were only two nights out of our entire 118 day trip that we didn’t have Internet access by way of the cell phone network.
Solar Panels – We’ve had our three solar panels for a while on the boat, but this was the first time we relied on them exclusively for all our energy needs for 30 consecutive days at anchor. They worked great. There was only one day we had to run our diesel generator to recharge batteries, and that was because we’d had two straight days of clouds and rain. As well as it all worked, we would like to add one more panel to the mix since we will be using the new watermaker a lot more which is a significant energy consumer.
Fridge/Freezer – We did a lot of upgrading to these 12 volts systems in the two years before this trip and it paid off. We had no problems at all, and the freezer stayed at or below 11 degrees the whole time – cold enough to keep ice cream.
Phone weather apps (Windy, Wind Finder, Predict Wind, Weather Underground) – These smartphone weather apps were excellent and generally very accurate. We had access to them nearly all the time because of how well the cell phone signal amplifier worked.
Chris Parker Email subscription – Before we left Florida, we bought a four-month email subscription to Chris Parker’s weather service. This got us a very comprehensive forecast each afternoon for all areas of the Bahamas, Gulf Stream and Florida coast. This subscription also gave us access to his live stream (via his website) weather report every morning at 6:30AM if we couldn’t receive it on SSB radio. The subscription was well worth it and had the side benefit of teaching us a lot about weather patterns.
Anchor Pro app – This is a smartphone app that will sound an alarm if our anchor was dragging. It worked great and is highly recommended.
Mantus Anchor – We had four different styles of anchors on board with us not knowing how many different bottom types we would encounter. As it turned out, we only ever used our Mantus anchor (a Rocna style anchor that can be disassembled). It held fast in every anchorage in the Bahamas and we never drug. Because of the clarity of the water, we could actually see it hit the bottom when it was lowered and watch how its “roll bar” worked and how the anchor dug in. It was very consistent.
Spot Tracker – This was an inexpensive tracking device that allowed our blog followers to see where we were at anytime on a Google map. It works exclusively via satellite and does not need cell phone, wifi, or VHF connectivity. It worked flawlessly wherever we were. It had the added benefit that its map and location data could easily be integrated into our blogging software (WordPress) making it very user friendly.
Garmin G2 Blue Charts – We had three types of electronic charts with us (Navionics, Garmin G2, C-Map). When we traveled down the US east coast on the ICW, the Navionics charts were generally the most accurate as regards the depths and location of the channels. However, everywhere we were in the Bahamas the Garmin G2 charts were king. In fact, the Navionic charts were sometimes dangerously inaccurate and therefore we rarely used them. The C-Map charts were also very accurate, and we used them to create all our routes on the laptop which we then transferred to our Garmin Chartplotter.
Kindles – The only way to read a book in bright sunshine.
WhatsApp – This is a smart phone instant messaging and voice calling app similar to Skype that exclusively uses Wi-Fi. It avoids the per-message cell phone charges that can pile up when using the phone’s native messaging app. It’s much simpler than Skype, worked quite well, and saved us a lot of money. This was another service that was greatly enhanced by our cell phone signal amplifier.
Crocs – Our footwear of choice for going ashore in the wet dinghy, walking on trails, and anywhere there was a chance of getting our feet wet.
Shorty wetsuit – Paula had one of these and Tommy wished he did. During February and March the air temperature in the Bahamas was perfect, but the water temps were a little on the chilly side. For short swims it didn’t matter, but when snorkeling for an hour or so it did and the shorty wetsuit was the ticket. Tommy has a full wetsuit, but that was too warm.
Cyper 8 bug spray – We used this on our dock lines when in marinas and it kept the crawly things off the boat.
Underwater Camera – Before we left Florida, we bought a small underwater camera at Walmart (Nikon Coolpix) for $100. It worked perfectly, and we got some great snorkeling pictures.
What didn’t work so well:
Dinghy – This was our biggest disappointment during the cruise. We purchased our dinghy 6 years ago in Maryland when we were cruising the Chesapeake Bay. It was perfect for that environment when all we needed was a small (8’6”), soft-bottomed dinghy with an electric 3HP motor. We never had to go more than ¼ mile to shore, there was no sharp coral to contend with, and there generally was no wave action in any of the anchorages. Also, we never had to carry snorkeling gear or make big grocery or trash runs. All of this was different (sometimes dramatically) in the Exumas, and our dinghy was wholly inadequate for longer distance exploring in rougher waters and less hospitable shore lines, all while needing to carry more stuff. A much better setup looked to be a 10 – 11 foot hard-bottomed inflatable with a 10 – 20Hp engine.
Watermaker – We were apparently one of an acknowledged few unlucky customers who had problems with their new watermaker from Spectra. We had no problems with the installation and everything tested out just fine before we left Florida. However, after only 1 month of use in the Bahamas, three problems occurred simultaneously with the system that rendered it unusable. We were able to contact a Spectra technician via email and got the system working again through a combination of field repairs and temporary workarounds. This was a very expensive addition to the boat from a highly-regarded manufacturer that we counted on using a lot. We expected much better. Spectra was very helpful, and agreed to replace the parts that failed free of charge so hopefully we will end up with a reliable system for our next cruise.
Sirius XM Weather – We have a Sirius XM satellite receiver on the boat and subscribed to the Sirius marine weather forecasting service before we left. The advantage to this weather service is that it is delivered via satellite and does not need a cell signal, Wi-Fi, or VHF radio to receive it. It was a complete waste of money. The forecasts were very slow in arriving, covered far too general an area, and were highly inaccurate. That wasn’t the worst part. When we tried to cancel the service from the Bahamas, we discovered that the Sirius website blocks all Internet access attempts from the Bahamas (they claim it’s a security measure). Since we had a limited pre-paid voice plan on the Bahamian SIM cards in our cell phones, waiting on “death hold” with Sirius customer service was also not an option. We ended up having to pay for this rather expensive service that we never used until we got back to Florida since there was no way to cancel it.
Fishing gear – We’ve never been big into fishing, but we were told by many how good the fishing was in the Bahamas and that we should give it a shot. We only had older and lighter gear, far more suited to catching small fish in a lake than big fish in the ocean. We did feel like we missed some good opportunities (especially Paula) since we weren’t properly prepared and are now motivated to equip ourselves much better for next time.
Autopilot – When we installed a new autopilot four years ago, we saved a lot of money by reusing the drive motor from the previous autopilot installation (circa 2001) and marrying it to the electronics of the new autopilot (circa 2014). At first, all seemed to work well. However, about one out of every three times we tried to engage the autopilot, it would display an error code and shut itself down. The only way to recover from this was to restart all the electronics that were integrated with the autopilot, including the Chartplotter. We knew this was related to the older drive motor not being entirely compatible with the newer electronics (in addition to being older, the motor was also from a different manufacturer), but thought we could muddle through by just restarting everything when necessary. It ended up becoming a real nuisance on this trip, particularly since there were several long passages where having a reliable autopilot made a huge difference in safety and comfort. We need to bite the bullet and get the proper drive motor.
Cockpit side shading – In addition to the early morning, the time of day we enjoyed most were the few hours before sunset. The angle of the sun at that time allowed it to shine directly into the side of the cockpit with no shade from our overhead canvas. We took to hanging makeshift shades using towels or other material and then constantly shifting them around to follow the swing of the boat at anchor and the sinking angle of the sun. We clearly needed a more permanent side-shading solution that is easier to deploy. This is one of Paula’s main projects for the summer.
Hot water bag – There are only two electrical items on the boat that cannot be run by our solar energy system, the air-conditioner and water heater (they draw far too much power). Since the temps were in the mid 70’s most of the time, there was no need for air-conditioning. However, life at anchor is much more pleasant if hot water is available each day. To this end, we went “old-school” and used a camping hot water bag we got from REI that laid out in the sun all day full of water. It yielded about 2 gallons of hot water each evening when we brought it in. We never figured out a good place to hang the bag, either in the shower or near the galley sink. Plus, it leaked, its hose kept kinking with the slightest bend, and the nozzle could not be open/closed with one hand. We clearly need a better bag, but we also should’ve tested out and setup good mounting locations before we left.
Credit cards – We were able to use credit cards in most places, but quite often there was a substantial “convenience fee” charged, especially in the Exumas. It was much better to use cash.