We set out from great Guana Cay for Green Turtle Cay one morning when we were cruising Abaco, Bahamas. This required going through the dreaded "Whale Passage" and a 5-mile stretch of open Atlantic Ocean that is traditionally rough, as the sea builds on the shallow water adjacent to the Cays.
"The Whale is doable" we heard a boater announce on the VHF in response to another boater’s inquiry. We figured it would be rough but had decided we’d be able to handle it. We did experience some extremely sharp waves from the Atlantic Ocean that were gaining a lot of energy rolling over the shallows adjacent to the passage--8 footers on the beam and stern quarter.
By the time we got through the Whale and around the corner to the protected water at Green Turtle, it was raining heavily and conditions were worsening. Our 41’ Motor Yacht was not intended for offshore cruising, was a bit top heavy and had a maximum speed of 10 knots as well as being rudder challenged. With a less experienced captain, The Whale would have won. It wouldn’t have been "doable" that morning.
As we waited it out on our mooring at Great Turtle, we became quite concerned about the earlier message on the VHF. What did "doable" really mean? What size was his boat? What type of boat was it? What was the captain’s skill level? Did he know the weather was worsening?
We felt that other boaters could be mislead and run into trouble if their boat type and size couldn’t handle the rough seas and more importantly, if the captain didn’t have the required skill level. I wouldn’t have called it "doable". On our two month cruise in the Bahamas, we’d seen and spoken to many boaters who weren’t expert boat handlers, who would have had a very frightening experience if they had attempted "The Whale" that morning because they thought it was "doable".
We would suggest that, when someone reports that a particular passage is "doable", before setting out to do it yourself on that unknown persons recommendation, it would be safest to get on the VHF and ask a few questions:
- What type and size of boat are you in?
- What is your skill level (compared to mine)?
- What is the size and direction of the seas?
You may learn that the passage is doable for him in his boat built for offshore running and that he’s been yachting forever. By comparison, you may be top heavy in your narrow beamed boat that was designed for calm waters with you as a novice at the wheel. That’s a whole different kettle of fish. The passage may have been "doable" for him but may definitely not be "doable" for you.
Just because Tiger Woods can sink a birdie one after the other and says it’s "doable", that doesn’t mean that you with your grandfather’s club can do the same.
If a snow plow operator goes out in a storm and can make it through treacherous roads with hip high snow banks, it doesn’t mean that it’s doable for you in your pick up truck with summer tires!
It’s no different on the water. What is doable for one boat and captain, isn’t necessarily doable for another.
Make your own decisions
The message here is, make your own boating decisions with knowledge. Don’t just blindly follow or you could get in serious trouble. Ask questions. Check the weather reports. Talk to the locals.
Know what your boat and crew are capable of handling and more importantly, what your skill level is. If you are nervous or hesitant about going out, then you probably shouldn’t. You should adopt the Bahamian philosophy "Sit back and wait for the weather". Or as Brenda says, "If in doubt, don’t". You can always enjoy a longer stay where you are and continue under safer conditions later.
It is far better that your family remembers the extra day on the beach rather than never forgets the terrifying bad weather experience.
If you want to improve your skill level, you may even want to consider some lessons on rough water handling.
Some of the highlights of our trip were published in Power Boating Canada Magazine in January 2008 - Paradise Found.
Some other interesting experiences on that same trip are covered in previous newsletters:
"What Would You Do If?" is about our Chart Plotter failing in the Atlantic Ocean.
"Medical Emergency" is about our medical emergency on the water.
Doug and Brenda Dawson