The Longest Day..(and post)
01 April 2009 | Palm Beach, Florida
Trust me.....go get a drink before you start reading.....you may be here a while. Its OK.....I'll wait. dum de dum de dum..... OK? Ready? Here we go!
Well......as they say, "The best laid plans of mice and men oft go astray." Our little flotilla evaporated right before my very eyes. One by one, mechanical troubles and bureaucratic snafu's eliminated everyone but me. And so it was, that I left Great Guana Cay alone at 0730 on the morning of March 30th.
I had some company going through the Whale and, with the exception of a brief downpour, it was a pretty uneventful passage. I stopped at Green Turtle Cay to top off the diesel before continuing west across the Little Bahama Bank.
By this time, it was nearly noon and I had some decisions to make:
A.) How far was I going to go?
2.) Where was I going to stop? And....
C.) When was I going to try to cross the Gulf Stream?
Well, I confess, I was captivated by the "Siren Song" of a favorable weather forecast for crossing the stream on Tuesday. After 2 weeks of screaming N/E winds and high seas, they were calling for "east winds 10-15 knots and seas of 2 feet or less." Conditions were supposed to deteriorate on Tuesday night and didn't look to improve again in the near future.
After much discussion amongst the crew (Wilson was no help whatsoever) I decided to go for it. So, with the sun setting just as I passed Great Sale Cay, I decided to keep going and sail straight through to Florida. At sunset, a pod of dolphins came to play in my bow wake again and stayed longer than any ever had before. (Saying goodbye?)
Even though sailing at night in the shallow and reef-strewn Bahama Banks is not recommended, I figured if I stayed on the same courses that I used crossing in the other direction, I'd be OK. Just stay glued to the chart plotter and GPS and I'm golden....and besides, there was a decent moon.
As I was passing Great Sale Cay, I had a brief radio conversation with my friend Pete from "Radical Jack." He and Heather had anchored there and were going on to West End to stage for a crossing at the next suitable weather window. When I told Pete what my plans were he told me that it's a long way to Florida. Thanks Pete! (just kidding....he was of course right.)
Not long after twilight, I noticed that I appeared to be the only boat out there. (Ulp!) I kept dividing my attention between the chart plotter and, since I was motor-sailing in the relatively light winds, the fuel gauge. I devised an alternate plan so that if I wasn't sure I would have enough fuel, I could alter course and be at West End to top off the tank when they came in to open for the day at 0700. Fortunately, this was not necessary.
I approached the Memory Rock Channel that leads out into the open Atlantic at about 0430 in the morning. Unfortunately, by this time, the moon had decided to check out the other side of the world for a while. Consequently, the brightest thing out there was Wilson, who had enough sense not to weigh in during my monumental decision to try this marathon. Ergo I had nobody to blame but myself.
As I approached the narrow rocky passage, I saw the anchor lights of several other boaters, who were smart enough to anchor and wait until daylight to go through. Not me, by George! Now, Captain Bob will tell you that my night vision, especially when I'm tired, is somewhat suspect. I tend to see things (like bridges) that aren't there....stuff like that. I turned on my radar and cautiously approached the channel. In the pitch darkness, I kept seeing unlighted boats anchored right in the channel, that weren't there. Sure they weren't showing up on my radar but maybe they had stealth capabilities...you never know!
Using my radar, chart plotter and GPS, I managed to sneak through the channel and into the Atlantic. I thought about putting Wilson on the bow to act as lookout but his night vision is even worse than mine. When that depth sounder started reading "infinity" I knew I had made it!
It was a little bumpier than they had forecast but it was manageable. When the sun finally came up about 3 hours later, I saw that it was cloudy and the seas were about 4 to 6 feet in the gulf stream, despite the relatively light winds. By this time, I had been up and at the helm for over 24 hours and I was getting a little punchy. Worse yet, I still had 53 nautical miles to go. The light winds were not helping my speed much but I kept my main up to ease the motion of the boat in the swells.
I wanted to go faster but resisted the urge to throttle the engine up higher because that would burn fuel faster and I was cutting it pretty close as it was. Sleep deprivation is a funny thing. It even alters your sense of time and space. When I zoomed my chart plotter way out, it made it look like Florida was right there. Yep, there's my boat right there in the middle and there's Florida a few inches away.... I'll be there any minute! Hey dummy look in the corner you've got the picture zoomed out to 64 nautical miles. That few inches is 35 nautical miles and at the blazing 4.7 knots that you're doing, you'll be there in about 8 more hours!
In the haze, I kept convincing myself that I could already see the outlines of the condos on the shore at Palm Beach..... again, until I remembered that I was still about 30 nautical miles off shore. If I could see that far from the surface of the ocean, I think the Defense Department would be offering me a job.
Well, about 3:30 in the afternoon, I was mustering all of my mental acuity and concentration (which might rival that of a raccoon with distemper) as I approached the Palm Beach Inlet. I've heard it said that Florida has perfected the "pop-up" thunderstorm. Well, I don't know if that's true but they could sure get a patent on the one that was about to hit. Unfortunately for me, I didn't notice it approaching until I was already in the inlet. The strong in-flow of wind racing toward the squall line was making big seas against the outgoing tide which was also slowing my progress through the inlet.
I briefly considered turning around to ride out the storm in the open water, which would have been preferable to doing so in the confined space of an unfamiliar inlet. However, the non-stop procession of sport fishing boats screaming into the approach channel like their skippers' hair was on fire made that too dangerous. So I kept going. I finally managed to get through the inlet and got the anchor down behind Peanut Island just as all hell broke loose.
Big winds, lots of lightning and then a downpour.... (I later learned that a tornado had reportedly touched down in West Palm.) For the first time in my life I actually smelled lightning. In case you're wondering, it has kind of a metallic odor, similar to when something electric is over-heating. I'll just say that I hope I never get that close to it again.
When the downpour was at its worst, the wind changed direction and my anchor started to drag. So there I was up on the bow in the rain and lightning trying to get the anchor up so I could keep Norma off of the rocks. I then decided to just circle and wait for the storm to pass. About thirty minutes later, it did and I was able to get to a marina and tie up. HOORAY!!! I was soaked and my dinghy was half-full of water but I was happy.
Anyway, after a 36 hour solo-sail from Great Guana Cay, I'm back. I checked in with Customs over the phone but had to physically go to the Immigration office to check in with the Border Patrol. Since I had 24 hours to do this, I waited until Wednesday. It was time for a shower, dinner and several beers before crashing. I actually fell asleep in the main salon with a full beer in front of me. I think that may be the first time I ever let a beer get warm!
So, long story short, (too late Mike!) I'm back!