Bahamas Poker Run

An image of boats in the sand at The Annual Bahamas Poker Run

The Annual Bahamas Poker run is changing the face of recreational boating in the Bahamas.

Recreational boating in The Bahamas is not exclusive to international boaters, but it is certainly sustained by tourists. In 2016, over 80,000 people visited The Bahamas on yachts or private boats to bask in the beauty and uniqueness of the archipelago. That’s almost a third of The Bahamas’ entire adult population.

Bahamians rarely see themselves in the ubiquitous marketing images of yachts, sailboats, and speedboats loving up the islands, and few young Bahamians dream of owning their own boat. The cost seems far too out of reach, and the world of boating seems like a place they don’t belong.

While Bahamians are involved in commercial fishing, vessel management, and boat chartering, there is a comparatively small population of recreational boaters.

Changing the Game

Recreational boating events like the annual Bahamas Poker Run challenge this representation. In just two years, the event has arguably become the biggest domestic boating event in The Bahamas according to participants and marina operators who host stops along the way.

Viral images of the poker run show a local boating community that actually exists; it’s much larger and more diverse than one might assume, and it’s active. The event demonstrates that Bahamian boaters are eager to explore their islands and play in their own aquatic backyard, and it supports the idea that a strong domestic boating industry is a good thing for the travel trade on the whole.

“When we came up with the idea, we were feeling like there was nothing to do recreationally with boats other than beaching on Rose Island: ninety percent of my boating experience is jumping on a boat and going to Rose Island,” says Shane Freeman, one of the founders of the Bahamas Poker Run. “It is certainly not something I take for granted. I mean Rose Island has amazing beaches, it is a lot of fun and only twenty minutes away from Nassau, but we have an entire archipelago available to us.”

Set for May 12, 2018, Bahamas Poker Run is expected to draw at least five dozen local boats to caravan cruise through the Exuma Cays. Last year the event had over 50 boats and 300 participants. It follows the standard poker run format: each boat draws a card at various stops along the route and compares hands at the end of the day. Winners receive cash and in-kind prizes. The winning hand received $500 cash last year. Organizers hope to grow the prize-winning pot with the jump in interest from sponsors.

“The run down through the cays is probably one of the things I enjoy the most; no matter how many times I do it, it always blows me away,” says Freeman. “You are running so close to the shore; the water is so blue, so clear and so shallow. It is not one straight shot like you are driving on a long highway. You are making curves to the left and right as you navigate the right path through the banks. That, for me, is one of the coolest things. A lot of people comment on that because they have never been able to do it before.”

Take it from the locals

It usually takes an experienced captain to navigate the labyrinth of shifting sands and shallow seas on the inside of the Exuma chain. Many private craft owners don’t trust
themselves to make this run alone. On the poker run, in just one day, local boaters get a guided tour on their own boat, and they get to see all of the marinas and popular
attractions, including the little-known Exuma Land and Sea National Park, a first of its kind.

2018 Bahamas Poker Run Dates
Wednesday, May 9
Captain’s Meeting
Friday, May 11
Pre-Poker Run Beach Party
Saturday, May 12
Poker Run Starting Point: Palm Cay Marina, Nassau
Sunday, May 13
Post-Poker Run Beach Party

Last year, the poker run started in Highbourne Cay and stopped in Norman’s Cay, Compass Cay and Warderick Wells, headquarters for Bahamas National Trust (BNT) park
wardens. Although they hope to expand the poker run to other islands, the directors say every year that there will be a poker run in the Exumas.

Carolyn Cartwright, the manager at Highbourne Cay, says the arrival of boats at the Highbourne Cay Marina creates an entertaining spectacle for marina and hotel guests. Boats of all shapes and sizes come in by the dozens, including last year’s standout boats: a 39-foot Cigarette with two 520-hp Mercury engines, a 39-foot Nortech boat with four 350-hp Mercury engines and a 38-foot Fountain with three 275-hp Mercury engines.

“We support the event because it supports the BNT and the Ranfurly Home for Children,” says Cartwright. “Kevin [Cartwright] is a council member on the BNT. They are really
underfunded even though they are responsible for managing all of the national parks. They rely on private donations, and anything that can be done to help them out is a good thing. We need to protect the environment down here. Our guests get curious about the event, so it brings to their attention that the Bahamas National Trust is a nonprofit organization that relies on donations,” she says. Last year, each organization received
a $2,500 cash donation.



More on Poker Runs

By Noelle Nicolls, Southern Boating April 2018

Photo Courtesy of the Bahamas Poker Run

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