Gulf Stream Crossing
01 December 2006 | Gulf Stream
We made it! We are anchored on a 10 foot deep sand bar about 200 yards off of the west coast of South Bimini with a nice east wind. The water is the most pure turquoise blue you can imagine. Anchoring has never been so easy. We have 50' of chain out and I can see the whole scope and the hook (or at least where it's buried). Just as advertised
You can skip the rest of this blog unless you are interested in a detailed account of our first passage as new cruisers.
The Gulf Stream was not as advertised.
The five boats staging near Pumpkin Key off of Key Largo were joined by Bombay Duck, another catamaran, late in the afternoon on the 30th. All of the boats were anchored in the serene setting of Card Sound and prepping to make their way out through Angelfish Cut into the North Atlantic at 0'Dark-Thirty.
It was a tight window. The original NWS forecast for the Gulf Stream was Southeast winds 10-15 knots and seas of 2-4 feet subsiding to less than 2 feet in the afternoon. As predicted the weather would come from the Southeast for one day and then go East and then North with an attitude (i.e. 13' waves) for some time. If we didn't make this window we were all going to be hanging out in Florida or cruising the Florida Keys for the foreseeable future. We were a bit nervous on Thursday night as we made our final preparations. I had been taking Roq to a nice little park at the end of an inlet on Key Largo and we left the dink in the water so I could take him ashore one last time before we made our way across the Gulf Stream. That meant a 4AM wake up call if we wanted to be ready to leave at 6AM with the rest of the boats.
4AM Friday. Hideko and I both had little sleep in anticipation of our first passage by ourselves in our new boat. I got up to take Roq ashore in the dark of night and though the moon was waxing full, the patchy clouds made it hard to find the entrance to the inlet amongst the Mangroves. As we rowed back to the boat I saw Bombay Duck weighing anchor. They apparently were not messing around and knew Angelfish well enough to make it through in the dark. We didn't see them again. We set about bringing the dinghy on deck and securing everything for sea. We had not had a chance to swap out our anchors so the 88 lbs Rocna was a menacing presence on deck. I secured it at the back of the cockpit with some line and towels, not knowing how troubling its presence was about to become.
We checked in at 6AM with VHF WX1 for NOAA weather and later at 6:30AM with Chris Parker on the SSB at 4.045MHZ. Things had taken a turn for the worse. The wind was now supposed to run 15-20 knots until late afternoon and the seas were supposed to be in the 6 foot range. Not great, but given the alternative, all of the boats in the anchorage were still a go. So at about 6AM, 50 minutes before sunrise, we all lined up to file through the Angelfish cut. Wind in the Willows, the smallest and therefore slowest boat at 37 feet, went first. Edelweiss, lone mono hull and thus carrying the deepest draft at close to 6 feet, went second. Ishmael was followed by Meridian and we brought up the rear. The pass had skinny water in spots, but Edelweiss had surveyed it the day before with a portable depth sounder in their dinghy and found nothing short of 7 feet center channel. We left close to high tide and the Card Sound tide table indicated we would have about a foot above soundings (which were fairly unreliable in the cut, but hey, an extra foot never hurts).
Meridian and Wind in the Willows raised their full main sails at anchor and made their way though the pass with the wind on their nose, having no problem. We considered this but decided to restrict the number of forces on the boat a bit until on the other side. Ishmael, Edelweiss and Swingin on a Star deployed sails as we neared the edge of the continental shelf and 30 feet or so of water. We all had to follow a careful track until we cleared a few outlying hazardous shoals.
As the boats made their way out of the outer channel we angled to the North trying to get as much wind toward the beam as possible. The depth dropped from 30, to 100, to "no bottom" and the swells began to mount. It was becoming obvious that the 6 foot prediction was not connected with the 10 foot reality. I was glad that our boat had come ready for ocean voyaging with jack lines fore and aft on both side decks. Hideko and I added a line from port to starboard at the mast to allow crew to jack in while working on the main. I made full use of this facility when raising our main sail. With the questionable conditions, Hideko and I decided to leave the 1st reef in for the day. This turned out to be a wise decision.
We never saw wind below 20 knots apparent and it averaged 27 knots. Gusts were over 30 knots and the seas were unpleasantly steep to say the least. All five boats were bashing through eight foot seas with ten foot rogues coming over the bow regularly. We were all motor sailing to point as high as possible. I think that many of the crews were persevering due to the hope that the calmer afternoon forecast would materialize during the 8 hour passage. It did... about 15 minutes before we reached the anchorage. Only three boats made the crossing.
Michael, the kindly old sailor with more experience than the entire group of us, was the first to radio in. He was single handing and taking too much water over the bow to continue. Smaller boats not only have less powerful rigs but they also have smaller motors, lower freeboard and several other attributes not beneficial to suffering seas of the nature we were faced with. Having the longest waterline and the largest motors and props, Swingin on a Star progressively moved ahead of the rest of the boats, beating our way through the steep swells. Ishmael, the 40 foot custom trimaran, headed south to power up their main in an attempt to break out of the worst of the chop. The remaining group of three boats continued to press as close to the wind as possible.
We were running both diesels through the channel to ensure maximum control of the boat. We had problems with the hydraulic steering on the way down from Fort Lauderdale and, although everything seemed fine on the sail down Biscayne Bay, we were still hesitant to place full faith in our hydraulic system bleeding skills. When we reached the final mark at the beginning of our 50 nautical mile route to Gun Cay we shut down the windward engine to see how she motor sailed with just the leeward diesel.
The wind and the waves kept coming on with 28 knots apparent, 35 degrees off of the starboard bow. Swingin on a Star did her best to stay on top of the water but she was not quite large enough to master some of the taller, tightly packed swells. I heard her slam for the first time ever as a particularly steep wall of water picked the boat up several feet and rudely dropped her into the growing trough of the next set. Forward buoyancy and bridge deck clearance were key criteria in our catamaran selection process. It seemed to be paying off as our boat was doing an amazing job given the conditions. Hideko, Roq and I had on our PFDs and harnesses but never got wet or too shaken up as we sailed through the turmoil.
Ishmael was the next boat to radio in to the group. Their 40 foot custom trimaran was having a hard time making way. The sea steals your speed each time you pound into a wave and, like Michael, they did not have enough motor or size to get through the swells easily. Karl and Pat, were veterans and gave us many valuable tips along the way, we were sorry to see them head for Miami.
Edelweiss was making their first crossing, just as we were. They were the lone mono hull in the group and while they had a large Hunter Legend 45, they were pressed with 25 to 30 knots of apparent wind, big swells and no spray hood. The skipper, Lowell, was using a hand held VHF in the cockpit so it was hard to stay in touch with them. We lost contact with them shortly after Ishmael radioed in their return. We were concerned that we could not raise them.
Meridian was staying close behind us. As we pulled out the entire jib and trimmed the sails with the traveler to windward we began to see 10 knots plus SOG. It was not long before we could only see Meridian behind us. After an hour fighting to stay as close to the wind as possible it became obvious that our rhumb line was not a sailing reality, the Gulf Stream and the wind were just too strong. I decided to shut down the last diesel to see how much speed we would lose. As the Yanmar rattled to a halt, the speed over ground dropped down to 9.5 knots, then as the wind picked back up, the prop folded and we moved right back to 10 plus. We had been running the diesel for the last hour to charge batteries I guess.
Our next significant VHF transmission came from Bombay Duck. They were somewhere ahead of us but being set North to the point that they were making for Hen and Chickens, some rocks substantially North of Bimini. They turned back for Miami as well.
Three votes were in and we had lost track of Edelweiss. It was starting to look like a quorum. While things weren't getting any better, they didn't seem to be getting too much worse. Swingin' on a Star had matters well in hand and although the 88 pound Rocna tied down in the cockpit gave me constant concern every time we piled over a tall wave, it really didn't move much. We decided that we should finish the crossing. Keeping in constant contact with Rick and Allison on Meridian made us feel better about the whole process.
We logged our GPS position, course over ground, speed over ground, PSC heading, engine status, wind speed and direction as well as the barometer every half hour. This put an order about things and helped minimize the impact of the seas mayhem all around us. Plotting our track DR versus EP versus GPS fixed was an interesting review of how intense the Gulf Stream effect is.
I was looking forward to a noon sight (using the sextant to get your latitude from the sun) just for fun as I have never taken one on a vessel underway. The conditions made things a little too hectic and given that we were only going 50 miles I decided to forego the opportunity. It made me think of Shackleton and his contemporaries taking shots in hurricane conditions, what amazing navigators. I do need to practice the celestial stuff or I'm sure I will lose it. Celestial navigation is rarely used these days (given the cruisers I've met) but it is your only backup to GPS on a multi-day blue water passage.
As we settled into the constant rise and fall of the boat and howling of the wind we noticed that there were fish flying out of the waves. They would burst out of the side of a swell and then flap their fins as fast as they could, skip across another frothy wave or two and then disappear back into the foam. As I poked my head out from behind our wind screen to watch these little acrobats my hat flew out to join them. In the Santa Monica Bay this would have called for a man overboard drill, but I didn't hesitate to say goodbye to it on this particular day.
As we reached the halfway point it became clear that we would not make Gun Cay. Not without a big old tack into the flow of the Gulf Stream. We and Meridian were both just trying to get across as fast as possible. Bimini looked like the appropriate alternative.
We began to see large shipping traffic out in the open ocean at this point. I thought about how glad I was that we were crossing during the day. These huge behemoths plough through any sea state at 20+ knots, around the clock. As early afternoon came upon us we spotted a south bound freighter pinned to a constant heading off of our port bow. I would always give way to shipping without thinking twice in a channel, or anywhere else in settled conditions. This was a tough situation however. If we fell off we would pick up speed and take the sharp swell on the beam, not to mention potentially doing nothing to reduce the collision risk due to increased speed. Other maneuvers were going to be interesting in the 8 foot surf with almost 30 knots apparent. After a few moments it began to look as if we would naturally pass in front of them but the bearing wasn't changing fast enough at this distance to make us anything but concerned. In the end we would need to get out of the way if it looked problematic. We called out a securite on channel 16 to make sure they saw the sailboat out in front of them. Believe it or not the captain veered a bit to starboard to make the tracks cross a comfortable margin apart. We may have had to maneuver soon after to keep the safety margin wide if he hadn't been so courteous. In the conditions, double handing, any maneuver aboard our boat would have reduce the safety factor. It was the press of a button for him to cut the corner a little yet it was a wonderful gesture.
Cruisers like to quote the gross tonnage right of way rule, "he with the gross tonnage has the right of way". In this situation, by International Rules of the Road, the sailing vessel has the right of way over an unrestricted power vessel. That said there is no guarantee a freighter has anyone on watch (although they should) or that they even see you from their bridge 100 feet above the thrashing water. If you have a collision with one of these guys they probably wouldn't even notice. We have a radar reflector and VHF radio to get the attention of shipping traffic but other than that, getting out of the way is our problem.
As the day wore on the waves began to move farter apart and the odd ten footers gave way to consistent 6 to 7 footers. The wind came down into the 24 knot range and the sailing got more enjoyable. Hideko, who had never been seasick on a catamaran before had to stay on deck for the trip and took a Stugeron (great seasickness medicine that for some reason you can not get in the US). Roq laid around in the cockpit the whole way, seemingly unconcerned once he was sure that he was going with us. I took a Stugeron with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich as we entered the Gulf Stream in the morning and other than being a little sleepy was fine the whole trip. It was interesting going below in these conditions of course. I especially recall going into one of the forward staterooms and watching the sea blasting by through the interior escape hatch. The hatch was under water a good bit of the time (don't leave these open when you head out for a sail!).
The day was bright and sunny. This does a lot to improve your spirits and safety on a wild passage. Darkness and rain make everything harder. I would much rather have fresh water on deck than salt, however. The salt water leaves a salty film that is slippery even when it dries. Everything forward of our cabin was wet, salty and slippery at this point. I bit the dust twice later in the day when accidentally stepping in a place where there was no non skid.
It was a bit after noon when we first spotted Bimini, a thin line of trees on the horizon. We were charging north of the little island but decided to shut down the sailing for the day once we reached the banks and motor our way back down south. We conferred with Meridian, who indicated we must be quite a bit ahead of them, both crews were too tired to run the full eight miles south to Gun, so we began looking for a Bimini anchorage on the charts.
Bimini has a harbor but the entrance is infamous. The charts show 5 feet in places. We only draw four foot seven or so but threading the needle was the last thing we wanted to do at this point. Though none of the other charts showed it, our Navionics electronic charts depicted an anchorage West of South Bimini in 10 feet of water. Close, sandy, shallow, fairly near shore but not too close, and no shoal water between us and it. What more could we ask for with the wind from the East?
As we motored down from the North toward the anchorage Meridian appeared on the horizon. To the South of us! They must have been using those demon boards of theirs to out point us because they had come in noticeably closer to the wind than we had. They were motor sailing but still surprised us with the time they made and the angle that they kept. We anchored and watched Meridian come in as we secured the boat and deployed the dinghy. It was only 3:30 in the afternoon when we were fully at rest. While we set about putting the boat away a familiar voice came over the radio, "Swingin on a Star, this is Edelweiss". A cheer went up.
The big mono hull had seen its crew safely across the Gulf Stream and they were motor sailing onto the horizon. We talked them into the anchorage where they happily set the hook. Unfortunately we hadn't done them a favor, more on this later.
I figured since we were here and it wasn't 5PM yet, we might as well try to clear in. I got the ships papers together and stopped by Meridian, to see if they wanted a ride in. They were already in sundowner mode! Lowell on Edelweiss was game however and within seconds of securing the anchor he hopped into the dinghy and we set off for North Bimini. It was 4:30 in the afternoon and the Bahamians are not known for staying at the office late. As we headed into the harbor we noticed that the new channel we had heard tales of was indeed in place. Ten feet deep or more all the way in and a fairly short shot from open water with a 90 degree turn to port in front of the beach just outside the harbor. Much better than the nightmare approach you read about in the cruising guides and charts.
Both Lowell and I were facing our first clear in experience. As we trolled into the harbor, trying to remember exactly where and what customs was supposed to look like, I saw a big pink building with a gnarly looking concrete dock out front. A dock guaranteed to ding up anything tied to it and a bright pink building, must be customs right? It was. We went ashore after paying a strange Biminite $2 for tying up our dink (which he insisted on somewhat forcibly). The immigration process was a breeze and the folks were very nice. It is $300 for the typical cruising boat permit and that includes your fishing permit. In my singular experience, Bimini is a great and fast place to clear in. Make sure to bring the serial number of any guns with you, along with the boat documentation and passports. As we walked back to the dinghy a couple of folks out front said, "Hey where are you going?" Worried that we were going to have to pay another $2 for something we responded hesitantly. "You have to clear customs mon!" Oh, that.
This clearing in bit is a two step process. The boat was in the country but apparently we weren't yet. When we went into customs (the other place was immigration) they asked us where the rest of the people were. "On the ship!" Obviously you can't clear customs if you're not at customs but everything we had both read indicated that only the captain could go ashore until you had cleared in. Well apparently the loose interpretation is that everyone comes ashore and sits around waiting for the captain to fill out forms, and then you all go through customs. So we just took the forms and went back to the boat to finish up the process the next day. Customs was also great, no funny fees, nice people, and all parties very understanding of two newbies who didn't really have the process down.
We motored back as the sun set over the ocean ahead with our boats anchored in the foreground. I have often questioned our decision to purchase a large cruising boat and a catamaran at that. After our Gulf Stream crossing, those questions are now gone. Our boat has the speed and size to make some fairly nasty stuff a non issue. Everything is heavier, bigger and more expensive, but that is not always a bad thing.