Best route from Key West to Panama

Question: I have been hired to deliver a 65-foot sailing catamaran from Key West to Hawaii. She will be used in the day charter service. She is a new vessel, and has been built with large twin Yanmar turbocharged engines (165 hp each). We will be carrying 600 gallons of fuel in bladder tanks, plus 300 gallons in the ship’s twin aluminum tanks. We will have Inmarsat C e-mail capability plus a SSB transceiver, a 406 EPIRB, and laptop for weather. A hard bottom inflatable dinghy will be our raft, plus we have a watermaker, inverter, plenty of spare parts. The vessel has a new Uni-Rig, shortened for the high winds of Hawaii. The rudders are large and have also been reinforced. My question involves the best route to get to Panama from Key West. I have heard that the strong currents we can encounter going around the western end of Cuba, plus possible headwinds, lee shoals to starboard and possible piracy could make this shortest route unattractive. My second choice is to sail east along the north coast of Cuba, through the Old Bahama Channel and down the windward passage to Panama. According to your Nov./Dec. 1998 issue, it may be advisable to check in with the Coast Guard Maritime Intelligence Center (and let them know of our intentions). My third choice is to sail to Bimini, east across the banks, south down Exuma Sound and into the Atlantic Ocean at San Salvador and out the Caicos Passage to the Windward Passage. The fourth and last choice is to stay in deep water. Key West to Great Isaac north of Bimini, east toward the northern tip of Eleuthera and out in the ocean, then SE to Caicos Passage to the Windward passage. I will welcome your views on this subject.

Mark W. Clarke, Detroit, MI.


The last thing I would do to get from Key West to Panama is to go around the western end of Cuba. Unless you clear into Cuba and hug the Cuban coastline, you will be fighting the Gulf Stream/Yucatan Current all the way to Cabo San Antonio, and then have to make up several hundred miles to windward to round Cabo Gracias a Dios on the Honduran mainland. If you do go this route, I would work along the south side of Cuba until, maybe, Cayo Largo, to gain some easting, and then perhaps make a stop in the Cayman Islands. This would still leave you close to the Honduran coastline, which is not particularly well charted (charts are based on 19th century British surveys) and is not one of the safest voyaging areas at the present time.

The Windward Passage is the way to go. Speaking for myself, if I had the time I would cross the banks at Bimini and continue to the Exumas, spend some time running down the Exumas, and then work down to Great Inagua and see the flamingoes before jumping off for the Windward Passage. Alternatively, cross to Varadero on the Cuba coast, check in, and spend some time enjoying the NE coast of Cuba (which has some beautiful voyaging), but this does, of course, raise legal questions (I assume this is an American boat and crew). There are plenty of anchorages along this coastline.

The shortest route is straight down the Old Bahamas channel. In theory, there will be a one- to two-knot adverse current, but this is not nearly as consistent as the Gulf Stream. We have experienced it flowing in the wrong direction. In any event, with a boat of this size, and with either a favorable weather window or else under power, it should be possible to make the run to Cabo Maisi at the eastern tip of Cuba in a couple of days. From then on, assuming the NE trades are blowing, it should be a pretty fast reach all the way past Haiti and on to Panama, with maybe lay-overs in Jamaica, Providenci and/or San Andreas (I always tell Terrie, my wife, that we will be on a reach; but she’s long since given up believing me!).

By Ocean Navigator