Please select your home edition
Edition
Marine Resource 2016

Shallow Water sailing - Ten vital hints for roving sailors

by Paul Shard on 30 May 2014
Sheryl and Paul Shard, aboard their Southerly 49 S/V Distant Shores II crossing the Caicos Bank en route to the Bahamas. Paul Shard
Cruising sailor Paul Shard who, with his wife Sheryl, is an award-winning filmmaker, sailing author, and the fun-loving host of the Distant Shores sailing adventure TV, here offers some wise advice on his experiences sailing on their boat, Distant Shores II, in the shallow waters of the Bahamas:

Ahhh the Bahamas. Could this be the most beautiful water in the world? Tough to judge for the whole world, but for many people the Bahamas is best! Definitely for American and Canadian sailors on the East Coast, the Bahamas is the achievable paradise. Yet on any day you will see yachts flying ensigns from countries all around the globe. The secret is out.

But beautiful as they are, the same shallow seas (the name 'Bahamas' comes from the Spanish for shallow seas - baja mar) can be a concern for sailors new to the practice of shallow water piloting.


Sheryl and I have cruised these islands many times, probably a total of fourteen months altogether, over the past twenty-five years exploring the shallow seas of the Bahamas in boats of varying drafts from 6-feet to less than 3-feet. (Our current boat is a Southerly 49 with a variable-draft swing keel giving us a draft from 2-foot 10-inches to 10-feet.)

Navigation has changed here with the advent of pinpoint accurate GPS and plotters but most of the techniques for safely navigating here have not changed. There are few aids to navigation in the Bahamas. Sand bars shift and reef grow.


10 Navigation Tips for Successful Shallow Water Bahamas Piloting

1. Time your passage. It is easiest to judge water depth with the sun over your shoulder. High sun works best – 9:30 or 10:00 a.m until 3:00 or 3:30 p.m. will be best. Try not to come straight into the sun especially when it is lower on the horizon. Do not navigate at night! Rising tide means you can get off again if you get stuck.

2. Do not rely exclusively on waypoints. Cruising Guides have waypoints and they are useful but these are not designed to be used alone. Keep a lookout as well even when running point to point. For new places or routes we haven’t tried, Sheryl and I will check both our charts plus cruising guides for additional information when planning a trip.

3. Know your boat’s draft and tolerance to running aground. Can you afford to run aground? If you have exposed rudders or propellors be sure not to run aground. What is the calibrated offset of your depth sounder? Is the offset calibrated to the bottom of keel or to the water surface?


4. Wear polarized sunglasses. They cut the glare on the surface of the water so that you can see down into the water much better when wearing polarized glasses.

5. Keep a good watch. Height helps - have a lookout standing on the cabin top or other high point. Do not look through windows or cockpit enclosures. Keep a sharp lookout. Post a lookout at the bow. Do not rely completely on Electronics.

6. Slow down or stop when unsure.

7. Learn to judge the depth by the water-colour. Deep sapphire blue to swimming pool blue to pale yellow is all sand. Deep green or gray-black will be deeper water of 3-5 meters over grass or reef. Brown water will be quite shallow water over reef or rock - less than one meter. Judge depth over sand from sandy colour (less than 0.5 meter - two feet) very pale light blue (one meter) to deep blue. (I will go into this in more depth in my next Tech Blog, 'How to Read the Colour of the Water' since it is an important skill for skippers to develop to ensure a safe and happy cruise.).


8. Practice with your depth sounder. Judge the depth ahead (for example, picking a shallower sandy patch) and confirm your estimation as you pass over this patch. Explore ahead in the dinghy and confirm depths with a lead-line.

9.Try out a Lead-Line. On our first trip to the Bahamas in 1989 friends gave us a lead-line neatly designed for our boat (which drew six feet). It was a 20 foot piece of thin cord and had ribbons tied every two feet with a fishing sinker on the end. The ribbons at 2,4 and six feet were red indicating depths we couldn't go. 8,10 and 12 were yellow and 14,16 and 18 indicated we could easily anchor here. Great for scouting in the dinghy or for checking depth off the stern...

10. Be careful in cloudy conditions. The small trade-wind clouds common to the (otherwise) perfect sailing day in the Bahamas can cast a shadow on the water that look just like a black reef patch. The clue is to carefully watch the bearing - if the bearing changes then it’s a cloud. If you are unsure, head around it. When you get closer it’s easier to see if it’s really a reef. Not all clouds pose a problem. Soft clouds or on a high-cloud dull day it is still relatively easy to judge water colour.


We love the Bahamas and enjoy the challenge of piloting in the amazing blue waters here. A little preparation and practice will allow you to safely navigate this wonderful cruising ground.

Paul and Sheryl Shard are the authors of the bestselling book, 'Sail Away! A Guide to Outfitting and Provisioning for Cruising' which is currently being updated to a third edition and are the hosts of the award-winning sailing TV series, 'Distant Shores' which is also available on DVD and downloads. They are currently cruising aboard their Southerly 49 sailboat, Distant Shores II, in the Caribbean and Bahamas. Visit their website.

Musto AUS 2017 660x82 1X-Yachts AUS X4 - 660 - 1Ensign Bavaria C57 April 2017

Related Articles

Sixteenth blog from on board Perie Banou II - en route Panama
Still here, parked day or two, Cane Garden Bay BVI. Wonderful Bay, nice beach restaurants and bars. Still here, parked day or two, Cane Garden Bay BVI. Wonderful Bay, nice beach restaurants and bars. On the main Island Tortola. ‘Road Town’, the capital of British Virgin Islands is on the other side of the Island. To get from Cane Garden to Road Town (by taxi) is over hills. Big hills. With much vegetation.
Posted on 26 Apr
Debbie says the 8thP with Insurance is Patience (Pt.II)
We’re back to keep exploring the nature of TC Debbie and how she came to tell us about the eighth P of insurance We’re back to keep exploring the nature of TC Debbie and how she came to tell us about the eighth P of insurance. We looked at what it was like to come into a disaster zone and now we see the evidence of those that did the right thing, and how the area is already on the road to recovery.
Posted on 25 Apr
Fifteenth blog from on board Perie Banou II - BVIs
I am on the yacht. Back on air with the iridium. Paul Stratfold, with his partner Shiralee, plus owner and his friend I am on the yacht. Back on air with the iridium. Paul Stratfold, with his partner Shiralee, plus owner and his friend (another Paul from Hawaii). Are on the specially constructed 60ft catamaran named 'Gizmo'. Carbon fibre hull, carbon fibre mast, carbon fibre rigging, carbon fibre sails. There are no turnbuckles with the rigging (holding the mast up). Just Dyneema lashing.
Posted on 19 Apr
Debbie says the 8thP with Insurance is Patience
This all stems from the learnings in the widely read, ‘Debbie says there are 7 Ps and 1 C with insurance’. This all stems from the learnings in the widely read, ‘Debbie says there are 7 Ps and 1 C with insurance’. As time unfolds some more, we learn that indeed there are a lot of reasons you need to apply patience with both your dealings with your insurance company, and also all the many trades that are working feverishly to get all the jobs done.
Posted on 19 Apr
Fourteenth blog from on board Perie Banou II - British Virgin Isles
32 days back I departed the British Island of Saint Helena. Clearing port, customs, immigration simple. Jon has arrived in the BVI ahead of his estimated arrival. He had somehow managed to completely disconnect from the on-board communication system that they set up for him, and as a result we didn't have communication with him while he was at sea. of course, that is nothing strange for Jon, and perhaps he wanted it to be more like his circumnavigations of old? Hmmmm.... Accidentally on purpose?
Posted on 12 Apr
A very difficult day - Got fuel to Cape Town
Well after my dismasting I have spent the last two days motoring North towards Cape Town trying to collect myself Well after my dismasting I have spent the last two days motoring North towards Cape Town trying to collect myself and to intercept Hong Kong container ship M/V Far Eastern Mercury who had been diverted by Maritime Rescue Coordination Center Cape Town (MRCC Cape Town) when I had issued a Pan-Pan during my dismasting.
Posted on 8 Apr
Debbie says there are 7Ps and 1C with Insurance
Debbie says there are 7Ps and 1C with Insurance If you have been on the planet or around boats long enough, you’ll know all about the 7Ps. The one ‘C’ mentioned here refers to consequence, and in the legalese that surrounds insurance, it gets applied distinctly to consequential damage. We’ll come back to all of that in a while, but for now, our mission is to look at the consequences of actions prior to TC Debbie making landfall.
Posted on 5 Apr
Lisa Blair heads to Cape Town under motor following dismasting
A PAN PAN was called at 0300 (AET) / 1900 (SAST) signalling an urgent threat to her safety and this remains in place. Lisa Blair has assessed the damage to her yacht, Climate Action Now, after being dismasted 895 nm south of Cape Town in 40 knot winds and seven metre swells early in the morning of April 4, 2017. She made a PAN PAN call over the radio at approximately 0300 (AET) / 1900 (SAST) signalling an urgent threat to her safety and this remains in place.
Posted on 4 Apr
Queensland Cyclone – Hamilton Island faces massive five-month rebuild
Hamilton Island chief executive Glenn Bourke yesterday told almost 600 staff of the massive task ahead to clean-up Hamilton Island faces a massive five-month rebuild but will partly reopen for business next Saturday after “all hell broke loose”. Exclusive pictures obtained by The Sunday Mail shows the “apocalyptic” scale of destruction to privately owned homes, luxury hotels and yachts at ground zero in the cyclone-ravaged Whitsundays.
Posted on 2 Apr
Ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie tracking southwards today, bringing rain
Heavy rain and flooding is expected as Ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie moves south-east. Heavy rain and flooding is expected as Ex-Tropical Cyclone Debbie moves south-east. A Flood Watch has been issued for coastal catchments between Gladstone in Queensland and Bellingen in northern New South Wales. The Flood Watch extends inland to parts of the Central Highlands and Coalfields, Central West, Maranoa and Warrego, Darling Downs and Granite Belt forecast districts...
Posted on 29 Mar