There’s no better time to be a boater in Florida than during the balmy months of summer. Calm seas, light winds and clear skies are the norm this time of the year, providing increased opportunities to reach the crystal clear waters of the nearby Bahamas. While only a relatively short distance across the ‘Stream, you’ll literally feel a world away!
Crossing the Gulf Stream isn’t something you should be afraid of, with boaters from Palm Beach to Miami capable of reaching Bahamian customs offices within 70 miles. While jet skis, flats skiffs, and other single engine craft have successfully traversed the Gulf Stream on days with serene conditions, crossing shouldn’t be taken lightly no matter the size or seaworthiness of your vessel.
You’re likely boating to The Bahamas to capitalize on the incredible angling opportunities, although once you are within 12 nautical miles of the Bahamian coast you’ll have to forgo fishing until you clear customs and obtain your Bahamian fishing permit. With today’s high powered center consoles capable of reaching this island paradise in little over an hour, it is feasible to visit and fish Bahamian waters during a single day trip. However, be warned that Bahamian officials are on patrol and those who choose to fish without officially checking in will face stiff penalties. Even if you plan on chasing tuna in the Northwest Providence Channel or wahoo up along The Corner, you’ll definitely want to clear customs. And you can’t fish in the middle of the Northwest Providence Channel even though you can technically remain more than 12 nautical miles from the nearest landfall. You need to draw a straight line from West End south to Isaac’s and remain 12 nautical miles west of that threshold.
Once you cross the boundary you have officially entered Bahamian waters. When approaching your port of call you are required to fly a yellow quarantine flag until you’ve officially cleared customs. If this is your first visit to The Bahamas by boat you’ll have to visit the Customs & Immigration office to gather the appropriate documents, then return to the vessel to fill out the paperwork—one vessel clearance form and one immigration card per family, with a valid US passport required for each passenger onboard. Experienced anglers who routinely visit The Bahamas often acquire multiple copies of paperwork or they download the forms online so they can have them filled out and ready to go upon arrival. Simply Google “Bahamas Customs & Immigration Forms.”
All recreational vessels are subject to fees of $150 for boats under 30 feet in length and $300 for vessels over 30 feet in length. This fee covers cruising permits and fishing permits that are valid for 90 days. Each additional passenger above three persons will be charged $20. Firearms are allowed onboard, but they must be declared along with the exact number of rounds. Once your captain has cleared (passengers must remain onboard until the clearing process is complete), you’ll have to remove the yellow quarantine flag and replace it with a Bahamian courtesy flag. If you’re staying in a hotel be sure to carry all of your vessel registration documents, passports and immigration cards onboard whenever you’re fishing in the event your vessel is boarded at sea.
While the Royal Bahamas Defense Force patrols area waters, it’s not uncommon to see USCG vessels, which often have a Bahamian representative onboard. Contrary to popular belief, you can be boarded by the USCG while in The Bahamas. I know this because it has happened to me on several occasions. While searching for bird flocks and tuna schools we often run around in sporadic circles at 40 knots tracking down the smallest returns on the radar screen. From the perspective of the USCG it likely appears that we are go-fast smugglers looking for the latest drop. On other occasions we’ve been running home to Florida after sundown and have been lit up by the spotlight of a USCG helicopter. All in all, it’s never a bad thing when you get boarded unless you’re trying to hide something. It’s actually quite comforting to know the professionals are doing their best to protect the high seas.
After arriving back in Florida after a safe crossing, you have 24 hours to clear customs, which can be accomplished by visiting your local customs and immigration office. Visit uscis.gov for the location nearest you. If you frequently travel to The Bahamas by boat it will be in your best interest to apply for the Local Boaters Option program. This enables you to clear customs over the phone instead of having to report in person. This program is for boaters, not vessels, so there’s no reason not to enroll. No matter how you do it, failing to report your entry back into the U.S. can result in penalties ranging up to $10,000 in fines, seizure of your vessel, and possible jail time!
Visiting boaters need to understand that time in The Bahamas follows a much slower pace and calm weather windows and holiday weekends will see increased traffic to ports within easy reach of South Florida. Be patient and everything will be alright. You’re in The Bahamas!