To get to the Bahamas, we'd have to cross the Gulf Stream. It's no big deal to some, but for our first time, we had no idea what to expect. First published in Southwinds, a sailor's and cruiser's magazine ppublished in St. Petersburg, Florida. Read it, print it and share with a friend, but ask permission before publishing.
Southwinds Magazine, P.O. Box 1190, St. Petersburg, Florida 33731 (813) 825-0433,
Free at marinas and boating stores through the Southeast, by subscription for $15 a year.
Austin.sailor at yahoo.com
Of course, we'd heard of it years ago. Sometimes it was just mentioned in passing, "They crossed the Stream on the way to the Bahamas". Sometimes it was said like it was the foe to be reckoned with, "We got out in the Gulf Stream and it just beat the dickens out of us - it pounded the boat to the limits and everyone was seasick." We had even read of people who lost their boats trying to get across.
We had never given much thought to the Gulf Stream until we decided to go to the Bahamas. Then we knew Rainbow Chaser would have to cross it. We still didn't think about it much. The closer the time came to tackle it, though, the more it started to weigh on my mind. Were we being too casual about it? Was there anything we could do about it? After all, it was there, we had to get across, what more was there to think about? We had 5 more days to make it to Nassau to meet my nephew. We couldn't afford many delays.
When we were back in Biloxi it was still 500 miles or so away, so it wasn't really in the front of our minds. By the time we were sitting behind Plantation Key in the Florida Keys, it was just a few miles the other side of those little strips of land and started to weigh on my mind a bit more.
I'd wake up one morning and think "What the heck, we've been through 18 ft. seas on the Texas Coast, been dropped off waves, had them wash completely over the boat, what more could it do to us? We were worrying too much. I' ll bet most of the people who have trouble haven't sailed anywhere and it's just the first time they've seen any seas at all." The next day I'd wake up thinking "Damn, it's going to kick our butts and we're so naive we don't even know what to do about it!"
It was sort of like getting yourself reconciled to the time you'd meet your maker - you knew your time would come and there wouldn't be anything you could do about it. One day you'd accept your fate, thinking you'd made peace with it all, the next day you'd wake up screaming "No, I'm not going, you can't do this to me." In the end it was just time to go and we went.
We started our trip across with another first - we'd never been through a drawbridge before. Many of you readers do this all the time, but we don't have many drawbridges back in Texas and we thought it was sort of special , seeing all those commuters stop for our little sailboat! We left by the Snake Creek pass, going through the bridge and entering the crookedest pass I've encountered yet. Not only that, it was so darn shallow, we plowed ye t another furrow in the bottom of the ocean. After about a dozen twists and turns, we finally made it into somewhat deeper water and set our course for Bimini, some 95 miles NNE across the infamous Gulf Stream.
We had checked with Herb Hildebrand, the Cruiser's weatherman who gives personalized weather forecasts from his boat, Southbound 2, out of Canada every afternoon on the single sideband radio. We'd delayed our departure one day because Herb told us we'd have wind out of the East unless we waited. He told us that if we waited a day it should be ESE. He was right and I'm sure it helped. As we sailed into the Stream, our 150 degree heading on the compass became 120 on the GPS. As we tacked towards North, we were sailing hard on the wind at about 9 knots! The Gulf Stream had us right in it's grip.
Surprisingly, it was some of the smoothest sailing we've run into since we left Texas. It was not bad at all. With about 10 knots of wind, the seas were less than 2 feet and we were making very good time. We'd hoisted anchor about 3 PM expecting to get into Bimini around 10 in the morning. We'd heard that the overtime fees for clearing in when it wasn't normal working hours can be pretty steep and we wanted to avoid that. With the speed we were making, though, we were worried that we might still get there too early! It seemed to me this Gulf Stream business was overrated.
Soon our luck started to change. The wind picked up, staying at least 15 and hitting 20 much of the time. That made for a short, confused chop, which, in turn, made for a very wet ride. I can't say it was what we wanted, but it was what we'd become used to. There was one very noticeable improvement, though. I have a couple anchors I carry on the bow, including a 60 CQR. I normally have about 150 ft of chain up there on that anchor. On our passage from the Dry Tortugas to the Florida Keys we had way too much of a hobby horse effect and I'd come to believe all the chain was contributing to that. For this trip I'd put the chain in the bilge and it made a noticeable effect on our ride. Before, we'd plow into a wave. As the wave finally overcame all the mass of the chain, it would fling the bow much higher than it should have. Then it would usually drop very hard into the next wave, making each successive wave a little worse. This time, with the chain stowed, we nearly rode right over them. It made a lot of difference and I'll stow the chain before making any more extended passages.
About midnight we started seeing freighters. It was like an expressway going North, one following another. I needed to get farther East to get into the fastest part of the Gulf Stream for the ride North and stayed on a port tack right out into the freighter lane. I had no plans of tangling with those big guys, but I wanted to take advantage of the same boost they were getting. As I got close there was one large freighter on a collision course with me. I had no intentions of trying to take advantage of right of way or anything stupid like that, but I did sail fairly close to his path. I really thought he'd call me on the radio and warn me or have some words of wisdom. Even though I tacked a quarter mile from him, there was no response. I have to wonder if anyone was even up there driving!
We continued to sail through the night. On our port tacks heading Southeast, we'd make about 4 knots, on the starboard tacks, we'd make 9. We slowly made our way across and up. As daylight came our blazing speed had fallen off a little. We didn't make it as far East as we'd expected and found ourselves about 15 miles from Bimini, needing to go straight East. The Stream fought us all the way. The current was swift right up to the banks of Bimini.
As we finally got near the island, we tried to make sense of what we were looking at. We had the usual cruising guides and charts, but things never look the same. We tried our best to pick out the land marks mentioned and had very little luck. Oh, some of it seemed to match, but some of the prime pointers just didn't seem to be there. There was supposed to be a radio tower that could be seen 23 miles out. We were about 5 and just couldn't find it. We began to wonder if this was the right Island. Did the GPS lie to us? And there were supposed to be some range markers somewhere. I wasn't sure what exactly they would look like, but I couldn't find anything that would fit that description.
Finally, as we're wallowing around out there in the swells, Nellie suggested we try calling one of the marinas for help. Hmmm - I hate doing that - what would they tell us, the radio tower isn't there any more, we really are right where we think we are? I finally gave in and you know what? You got it, that's exactly what they told us!
We started our approach for the entrance, which takes a run at the beach and a left turn down the beach to the harbor. We were still a ways out with Nellie at the front as a lookout and the depth gauge reading 90 feet when she started yelling about the depth. I told her "90 feet!" She asked if I was sure. She could see the bottom quite well. I looked down and it was spooky for someone used to sailing in muddy Texas waters - the bottom was right down there for all the world to see. I think we arrived!
Now that we made it to Bimini, we had 3 days and 120 miles to go to meet my nephew. We're learning the pressure that committing to meet someone in a place your are not at can place on you.
So, now that we've done it, what's our opinion of the Gulf Stream? Obviously, our crossing was pretty mild. We didn't have the nasty component of wind out of the North. We did have some pretty uncomfortable chop, more than what would have been expected for the wind conditions. I'd say, bottom line, we were lucky to find a good weather window. I can see that it could be a formidable foe under the right (or wrong) conditions.