We first visited the Exuma cays back in 2018 on a bareboat charter and wow!! It is nothing like the Virgin Islands where we had done most of our prior sailing.
I mean this in a very very good way – shallow water sailing amidst unbelievable shades of blue, remote and pristine natural beauty, sandbars galore, solitude, and of course – serious fishing.
We are heading back in several weeks for another trip (update – here’s the trip report, with lots more pictures), so this seemed like the perfect time to collect my thoughts on this top-notch sailing destination.
To begin, it is not a place for beginner captains – weather, anchoring, tides, and cuts present unique challenges. It helps to have experience on the water. The British Virgin Islands, for example, is well-suited for a first time sailing trip.
Here’s what you need to know. After you get through the basics, I include a sample sailing itinerary that I would use for a first-time visit to the Exumas.
Let’s get to it.
Planning for your Exumas bareboat charter
One of the benefits of a yacht charter in the Exumas, Bahamas is the proximity to the U.S. mainland. All the major bareboat charter operators – Moorings, Sunsail, and Navtours (Dream Yacht Charter partner), are based in Palm Cay Marina in Nassau, New Providence. Many short, direct flights are available from cities such as Houston, Texas and Miami, Florida. You’ll be settled into your sailboat with a cocktail before the sun goes down.
It’s about a 45 minute trip to Palm Cay from the airport. You can either grab a taxi or arrange for a shuttle with your charter company. Palm Cay is conveniently located on the southeast side of the island – a perfect jumping off point to cross over to the Exumas island chain.
We recommend provisioning with your charter company. They can provide you with a food and beverage list that will have most of what you will need. Expect an occasional substitution as well. When you arrive, your food and beverages will already be aboard your yacht. What’s not to like about that!
If you prefer to do your own shopping, Solomon’s is a well-stocked supermarket located about a mile from Palm Cay. Cars are available from the marina to rent, or you can take a taxi.
Prices are expensive…as they are elsewhere in the Caribbean! Expect to pay ~$50 for a case of beer, for example. Rum is much cheaper though!
Provision well, since there are limited opportunities to re-stock as you head south. Staniel Cay is your best option. Marinas at Highbourne Cay and Compass Cay have smaller stores with more limited selections.
Exumas Bahamas cruising guide resources
The Navionics Boating App is great for planning. Sketch out and research potential routes, fishing spots, and anchorages. ActiveCaptain Community is part of it and is a helpful feature to get additional information direct from other cruisers.
Your charter yacht should come with a recent edition of the Explorer Chartbook – Exumas and Ragged Islands. It’s the gold standard as far as Bahamas charts go.
I often use it before to help plan our sailing itinerary. If you want to purchase it ahead of time, you can get it here:
This is the gold standard for charts in the Bahamas. There should be a copy on your yacht, but you can also pick one up ahead of time for planning.
Stephen Pavlidis puts out a cruising guide with some very valuable information. It has more commentary such as where to go fishing the drop in the Bahamas Sound (he recommends from Sail Rocks to Highbourne Cay).
He also includes his own chart sketches to help with navigation. Keep in mind though, that the most recent edition is from 2015. Better to trust the Explorer Chartbook and electronics. You can pick up a copy here:
Exumas cruising conditions
The Exumas are a long string of 365 islands, stretching over 100 miles from the Sail Rocks in the north all the way down to Great Exuma in the southeast.
That’s a long way to travel for a week long vacation! It is too far to go all the way down and back in a week. Here are your options:
- Explore the northern Exumas, turning around near Staniel Cay (this is what we recommend!). There is so much to explore that you won’t miss out by missing the southern Exumas.
- Do a one way trip from Great Exuma to Nassau. This takes advantage or the prevailing trade winds out of the east – enjoy that downwind sailing. It does, however, complicate provisioning since Great Exuma is not as well stocked. You will also need to coordinate extra logistics to travel to Georgetown for the start of your trip.
- One way from Nassau to Great Exuma. This makes provisioning easier, but you are more likely to sail to windward.
For the purposes of this cruising guide, we focus on the northern half of the Exumas.
When to sail in the Exumas?
My favorite time of year to go is April-May. Here’s why:
- Consistent trade winds blow out of the east to southeast, allowing for more settled cruising conditions
- Cold fronts are not as common. This means fewer squalls and potential exposure to westerly/northerly winds
- Days are longer, giving you more time for fun on the water
- Although early tropical activity can occur, it is far less likely
- It’s less busy since many of the full-time cruisers have begun to leave the area in preparation for hurricane season
November to December can also be a good time to go – the weather is often pleasant. Keep in mind that cold fronts do sweep down from the west. This can occur as early as October. You’ll need to pay close attention to the weather forecast and have some flexibility with your itinerary.
In the winter months (January to March) cold fronts march in like clockwork. Be prepared for squalls and winds in excess of 20 knots.
We would avoid the summer months since it can be very hot/humid, the winds are light, and there is always the risk of tropical activity and trip disruption.
Sailing conditions in the Exuma
Sailing in the Exumas is not for beginners – you need to understand tides, conduct weather planning, and navigate by reading the color of the water. Few mooring balls are available, so you should also be comfortable anchoring almost everywhere (the good news is that the holding is generally very good!).
The trade winds blow somewhat consistently unless interrupted by fall/winter cold fronts and tropical disturbances in the summer.
In the winter, the trades blow more from the NE. In the summer, they are more frequently from the SE.
Exuma Bank vs. Exuma Sound
You’ll likely spend most of your time cruising on the west side, on the Exuma Bank. Depths are ~20 feet making for incredible shades of turquoise blue. You also get great protection from the easterly trades, so even with fresh breezes – swells stay to a minimum!
Exuma Sound is the deep side to the east of the Exumas. Reefs mark the edge with many cuts allowing for passage in between. In some places, such as the Dog Cays in the north, the drop plunges to thousands of feet only a couple hundred feet off shore.
The Exuma Sound is where you want to go fishing for the pelagic fish – mahi, tuna, and wahoo. I recommend sailing NW (instead of SE) in the Exuma Sound due to the prevailing trades – you are less likely to encounter swells on your bow. Keep that crew happy!
Tides and Cuts
You will want to pay close attention to the tides due to many shallow anchorages and passages. In general, the tidal range is ~3.5 feet, but can be higher during, for example, Spring tides. In this case, depths at low tide could be below the ones indicated on the charts (MLLW).
I like to print off the latest prediction from NOAA, which provides the tides for Nassau.
- In the northern Exumas, the tides will be around 20 minutes later than Nassau
- Around Staniel Cay, you can expect the tides to be about 30 minutes later than Nassau
The numerous cuts between Exuma Sound and Exuma Bank can rip when the tide is flowing. They can be especially treacherous when the wind blows against the direction of the flow. Try and time any passages you make for a period of slack tide.
Charts, especially the Explorer Chart, should be studied carefully. They’ll provide good advice on the preferred cuts to pass through (some are much wider and easier than others).
The majority of anchorages are located with protection from the easterly trades. I’ve found that holding is generally very good with white sandy bottoms. Coral or rock bottoms can be found in areas more affected by the cuts/tidal flow, so keep that in mind.
Use of mooring balls is mainly limited to those available in the Exumas Land and Sea Park. Expect to anchor most everywhere else.
I talk about my favorite Exuma anchorages in this post.
Exumas sailing itinerary: the perfect plan for a week in the islands
Our itinerary plans for 7 days on the water and begins at Palm Cay. As we mentioned earlier, we’ll plan for a “there and back” route with the turnaround point at Staniel Cay.
Day 1: Overnight in Palm Cay Marina
After arriving at the airport, you should be at Palm Cay in under an hour. We usually plan to spend the first night on the boat, but you might also check out the villas that are available.
Unpack, finish your provisioning, and settle in for an enjoyable evening at the Marina. This might be a good chance to dine out since there are not many options available in the Exumas.
The Pink Octopus is a short walk from the marina where you can try some local Bahamian dishes. It’s also located next to the Beach Club where you can grab a cocktail. Check out the pool if you get in early enough!
Day 2: Yellow Banks crossing and Highbourne Cay
Get a start as early as you can! It’s a long day on the water (~35 nautical miles).
The Yellow Banks is a shallower area mid-way between Nassau and the northern Exumas with many coral heads. But, it’s scarier than it sounds.
With the sun overhead, the coral heads are very easily seen and avoided. Many are marked on charts. If you head for a waypoint south of Beacon Cay, you will also encounter far fewer coral heads. This works for us since we plan to stay at Highbourne Cay on our first night.
It the weather is settled, it’s fun to stop mid-way for lunch on the Yellow Banks. Toss out the anchor in 10-15 feet of water, and enjoy a snorkel of a nearby coral head. Perhaps you’ll find some Bahamian lobster for dinner (lobster season runs August 1 – March 31)! Snorkeling may be difficult if the tides are running – exercise caution.
Highbourne Cay is a convenient first night stop. I like the West Beach anchorage. Avoid the Highbourne Rocks reef on your approach, and anchor in 10-15 of sand.
Near your anchorage, the beach is beautiful and is great for an evening stroll. The Highbourne Rocks also offers great snorkeling.
Crack a beer and enjoy the view – it doesn’t get any better than this. You’ve arrived in paradise.
If you want to venture out farther, you can dinghy ~2 miles to Allen’s Cay to explore the local species of iguanas (this is also a great Day 3 morning activity).
Day 3: South to the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park
This is another day with a few hours on the water. It’s ~20-25 nautical miles south to the anchorages or mooring fields in the Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park.
If the weather is settled, consider using one of the cuts to enter the Exuma Sound for some deep water fishing. If you go in the fall, it’s a great time to catch some wahoo – my favorite eating fish. Check out our sailboat fishing guide for some advice or my more specific Exuma fishing tips post.
As you head south, be aware of the no-fishing zone that protects the park boundaries. The park is strictly a no take zone: no fishing, conching, shelling, or lobstering.
The Sea Park is huge, with over 170 square miles. It’s an ecological reserve and marine sanctuary – you won’t be disappointed by the snorkeling here.
We recommend grabbing a mooring ball in the Emerald Rock mooring field. When you are within range, call “Exuma Park” on channel 9 to check ball availability. Once you’ve taken one notify them.
You can pay the $35 (as of Nov-2021) mooring ball fee at the Visitor Center. They also might send around a boat to collect the fees.
The Emerald Rock area is near a couple beautiful white sand beaches and has trail access to the wonderful hiking on Warderick Wells. Make a quick dinghy ride over to the visitors center to snap a picture with the whale skeleton. They can give you a trail map too.
Boo Boo Hill is a popular destination and the highest point on the cay. It’s tradition for cruisers to leave a piece of driftwood behind with your boat’s name on it.
Day 4: Thunderball Grotto and swimming pigs
Continue making your way south towards the anchorage at Big Major Cay.
Sandy Cay is a fun lunch stop close by with one of my favorite sandbars. Anchor on the west side and head ashore for a picnic!
Big Major Cay is the location of the famous swimming pigs. Some words of caution: this is a busy anchorage, so if you’re looking for more solitude, check out Between the Majors anchorage (more advanced anchoring) or Bitter Guana Cay a bit farther south.
Pig beach is fun to see once, but it isn’t a place we’ll need to return. Go get your pictures while swimming with the pigs if you decide to stop here.
The other famous attraction in the area is Thunderball Grotto. It’s an amazing cave snorkel featured in the James Bond movie Thunderball. It’s a short dinghy ride over from Big Major Cay. Otherwise, there are several places to anchor your yacht nearby. Try and plan your visit for slack tide.
Don’t miss your chance to do some re-provisioning and dump some trash. Use the government dock to access two of the nearby grocery stores.
The Staniel Cay Yacht Club is the biggest establishment you’ll come across in this part of the Exumas. We like to plan a meal ashore here, for either lunch or dinner. At a minimum you’ll want to try out their SCYC original – the Peanut Colada.
Note: New as of March 2021, the SCYC now operates 21 mooring balls nearby. Check out the map here. Rates start at $40/night.
Day 5: Back north to Compass Cay
Again, if the weather is looking good – head out to the Exuma Sound and do some fishing as you head back north. If the trade winds are from the east, you should have some following seas to please the crew.
Compass cay is a short 1-2 hour sail. You have a few options for anchoring. I like the Compass Cay (Outer Anchorage) since it is less affected by the tides.
If you want more of a challenge, check out the many options at Pipe Cay. It’s a maze of sandbars and one of the most beautiful areas in the Exumas.
Compass Cay Marina is worth a visit. Get your pictures with the nurse sharks and check out the trails on the cay. Crescent Beach on the east side is said to be one of the finest beaches in the world. Note that you’ll have to pay a landing fee for your dinghy and crew.
Day 6: Shroud Cay and the magical river ride
Today is a longer day on the water – around 25 nautical miles or so. We are heading to Shroud Cay – one of my favorite stops!
You have a few options for anchoring – check out the charts. If you have a shallow draft vessel, try North Shroud Cay which puts you very close to Sanctuary Creek.
The Sanctuary Creek dinghy ride is an absolute must for any Exumas visit. The mangrove “river” is full of sea life such as turtles and rays. On other other side is the absolutely stunning Driftwood Beach and Camp Driftwood.
You are permitted to motor at idle-speed. PLEASE NOTE: you need to check the tides and begin this river ride on a mid, rising tide. This will give you time to explore and avoid being stranded. The river is only passable on a mid or high tide.
Beach your dinghy, and enjoy a ride or two on the water slide.
Camp Driftwood is worth exploring, so bring some walking shoes. It was built in the 1960s by a hermit who lived there with his sailboat. The camp was later used by the DEA to conduct reconnaissance on the drug kingpin Carlos Lehder’s operation at Norman Cay.
Make sure you don’t get stranded! Head back to your yacht on a flooding tide and enjoy another spectacular Bahamian sunset.
Note: depending on the tides, it may make more sense to ride the river the next morning, on Day 7.
Day 7: Final day optionality
You have a few options for a final day in the Exumas – each of these is a logical jumping off spot to make the crossing back to Nassau the next day.
The main attraction here is the sunken drug plane from Carlos Lehder’s activities in the 1970s. If you want to snorkel it, try and do so at slack tide.
Macduff’s is a quaint restaurant ashore which seems like it is in the middle or nowhere. You may want to radio ahead for reservations if you plan to eat there for dinner.
Anchoring is easy on the west side of the cay. You can also anchor in the cut closer to the sunken plane – you will swing on the tide, so be prepared.
Construction activity could be from a company that is doing a large-scale development of the island.
Check out the information under Day 2.
This is the location for the local species of iguanas. There are numerous anchorages marked on the charts. Be prepared to share the area with tour boats depending on when you arrive.
Sail Rocks North
This is a settled weather anchorage that we visited on our most recent trip. If you want to get away from the crowds and fish the northern drop, this is the place to be.
Day 8: Crossing back to Palm Cay
Hopefully the wind gods cooperate and give you some great, downwind sailing. The first time we made this crossing back to Nassau, we had 5 knots directly behind us – no fun!
If you weren’t able to have a lunch stop at a coral head, give it a shot.
You may either return to the Palm Cay marina and enjoy the amenities, or, head over to Rose Island if you prefer another night on the hook. Make sure you plan for time in the morning to return and go through check-out procedures – it’s about an hour’s motor.
Sandy Toes is a excursion-focused bar at Rose Island. There are mixed reports of whether they permit cruisers to come ashore.