16 April 2009
As you may recall from our blog entries when we came over to the Bahamas, the big deal is crossing the gulf stream, the river of water flowing along the coast of the US at around 3 knots. There are lots of things that can go wrong and in the least, it may be uncomfortable and at worst dangerous. Picking your time, conditions and weather for the crossing is critical for a safe, comfortable passage, and even so, there are lots of things that can happen to throw the proverbial spanner into the spokes - we encountered one of these monkey wrenches.....
As indicated in the last post, we left Nassau, finally, about mid day on Sunday, March 29 to start our multi-day journey back to the US. Our first leg is from Nassau, across the New Providence Channel to Frazier's Hog Cay in the Berry Islands. You may recall that we did this leg on our way down in January and had a pretty lumpy sail. This passage is in open water, very very deep and can be uncomfortable.
We leave around eleven in the morning when the tides are favourable to exit Nassau Harbour. The day starts off quite easy but as we move away from Nassau and get out of the protection of New Providence Island, it gets quite bouncy. Nonetheless, we are sailing and making great time. While we are travelling alone, there are numerous other boats out here, some of whom we know casually including a trawler called Margaret Lee. They are ahead of us and give us a sea state report. It is comforting to have some radio contact.
Anyway, after a brisk and exciting sail across the channel, some 35 miles we make it, just before dark to Frazier's Hog Cay where we anchor for the night. Several other boats are here, obviously planning a crossing like us.
Up early and underway the next morning just before daybreak. We talk to Margaret Lee and they agree to maintain radio contact from time to time. It had occurred to me that no one would know where we were or where we are going and given our long periods of communications silence, if anything happened to us it could be many days before we'd be reported missing and, even then, it would be difficult to determine our plans. Sounds a bit melodramatic, but this is serious sailing and lots of things can go wrong. So, we're happy that Margaret Lee is in relatively close proximity to us.
This is a very long day but also pleasant. We are heading west and will cross the Little Bahama Bank aiming for Bimini. As we leave, we are still in water that is thousands of feet deep, but when we get to the bank, it abruptly shoals to 10 to 15 feet and will remain at this depth all the way to Bimini (hence the name Bank - it essentially is a very large sand bar). There is little wind and I put the sails out a couple of times but they are more nuisance than good as they slat around. But, it is warm and comfortable. As we motor along, I stand on the bow in perfectly calm waters and can see the bottom as clear as a bell. It is really weird to be out of sight of land and be in such calm, shallow waters. After a long day, we arrive at Bimini at dusk and anchor on the east side of the Island. Margaret Lee arrived a half hour before us. We have a bit of a swell from left over seas but we're tired and go to bed early.
Up early again on Tuesday for the crossing to the States. The weather forecast looks good, although there's not likely to be enough wind to really sail. If you recall from my posts coming over, there is some navigational planning to do here because you have to consider the effects of the Gulf Stream which push you north at speed up to three and a half knots, half the forward speed we can maintain under full sail or motor. So the trick is to take this into consideration and aim somewhere lower (more south) than where you want to end up and let the stream "help" you get to your planned destination. The straight line distance from Bimini to Lake Worth entrance is about 65 miles and we expect to get a good "lift" from the Stream - and we do.
While we are travelling along with Margaret Lee, we hear many other cruising boats making the crossing, although we cannot see them. We do see many large freighters as this is a very busy shipping channel. But we track them on the radar and wend our way across.
When we started sailing in the Bay of Fundy and Gulf of Maine, it used to be unnerving if not down right scary to be sharing the waters with these behemoths but the combination of CPS courses, good electronics and lots of experience (much of it in pea soup fog back home) makes this now almost routine. In passages like this when we're likely to encounter large, manoeuvrability-restricted vessels, I have the radar on in standby mode. Every now and then, I'll have it scan and if I see a blip, which I can now recognize as a large vessel as opposed to a pleasure craft or land, I'll place an electronic point on it. To simplify, what you then do is monitor where it is relative to you over time and you can tell how it progresses compared to you. If it maintains the same bearing but the range closes in, you are on a collision course and you should do something, otherwise it'll pass in front or behind you.
If you are on a collision course, I usually try to call the vessel on our radio by citing it's position, which I know because my instruments not only show it on the screen but indicate it's latitude and longitude. Very often these huge vessels will not reply unless you know their name. There is a really nifty new device called Automatic Identification System (AIS), principally for identification and locating vessels. AIS provides a means for ships to electronically exchange ship data including: identification, position, course, and speed, with other nearby ships and VTS stations. This information can be displayed on a screen. Commercial vessels are required to have this but more and more pleasure vessels are getting it as it allows you to determine not just that there's a vessel out there but what she is, how big, her position and speed and course, etc.
Anyway, once you do make contact with the ship, you usually ask the Captain what their intentions are and if they would like you to alter course. Essentially, you make such arrangements with that ship so at to ensure it does not run you down. We've had some interesting discussions with boats in fog in the Bay of Fundy and have always found them to be extremely proficient (as they should be if they're responsible for boats up to 1000 feet long) and courteous.
But, I digress, while we had lots of large vessels around today, we came no closer than about a half mile from them. The seas were quite flat and the Gulf Stream benign. It is clear and bright and warm. We call a few boats on the radio every so often just to have aural company.
About mid-afternoon, we approach the coast of the US, and start to see the land features, mostly tall condominium buildings which clutter the entire coast line. Pretty soon, we start to be able to make out Palm Beach, where our entrance to Lake Worth is located. In standard progression the clear skies of the morning make way for the fluffy, cumulous clouds of mid day which start to stack up into the towering cumulous with their "anvil-flat tops) and, ultimately the storm clouds. As we approach Lake Worth entrance, on the horizon, is a huge, black, malevolent, storm cloud. See next post (and I'm glad to say not "last post" (you can take that both ways)) for the adventure....