Crossing the Gulf Stream!
After a night in marine stadium we moved the boat to anchor outside of No Name Harbor, where we planned to wait for our weather window to cross the Gulf Stream. We spent our days getting a few more sails in around the protected waters of Biscayne Bay, we tried to wrap up whatever projects we could while living aboard/sailing the boat (organizing/tidying the ship, trying to teach the dog to do here business onboard, making a swim ramp to try and get her in and out of the water) but mostly we researched/prepped for and studied our pending crossing of the Stream.
We always knew the Gulf Stream existed...but never really knew what it was or cared to find out. Little did we know a few months ago that it would become very important indeed as we try to start this new lifestyle.
While the Caribbean sounds like mostly smooth/easy sailing, the Gulf Stream (essentially a giant river in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean) lies directly between us in FL and our goal of getting to the clear blue waters of the Caribbean.
We have never been much into watching the weather. Being from the Pacific Northwest, all you really need to know about the weather is that the forecasters truly have no clue. It’s going to be warm and sunny for about 4-5months and it’s going to be cold and rainy for most of the other 7-8months... that’s really about as detailed as is needed.
Now suddenly we spend most of our days reading forecasts, checking wind direction and wave height. Watching, and learning and waiting. The Gulf Stream and it’s significant current runs from south to north. It’s current needs to be factored in when crossing it the same as you would if putting a kayak into a river and planning where you’ll come out on the opposite side. The part that gets tricky about the Gulf Stream is that if the wind is flowing in the opposite direction (from anywhere north) it makes the Gulf Stream act wild and causes waves and rough seas that even the most seasoned sailors don’t want to be involved (and us rookies sailors clearly have no interest in).
We’ve made sure we’re signed up for every possible weather forecast available, that we can refresh our forecasts via satellite using our iridium go when at sea, and have been diving into watching them religiously. The problem is, that much like the forecasters in the PNW... they all seem to disagree. Even in our most often used app, the three prediction “models” all tell us something different, which makes trying to make a decision like when to make our first (and possibly hardest) crossing pretty difficult and very intimidating.
For the last week we’ve been watching what we thought looked like a good window for our crossing. It’s like trying to find a time to thread the needle as weather shifts between storms. The predominant wind direction the entire time we’ve been in FL has been from the north and only occasionally have we seen the winds turn to the desired/opposite direction (and usually not for long). Our trouble is that not only do we need the winds to come from the south for our crossing, we also need them to turn a day early so that the stream has a chance to “calm down”, and hopefully remain for at least a day after so that there is less chance of anything moving in faster than anticipated and catching us in the middle of the stream at the wrong time.
We had heard that many boats use No Name Harbor as a staging ground to make the crossing, and we came down here hoping to run into some more seasoned sailors and hear what window they were planning. We got in our new dinghy a few times and made our way into the bar/restaurant specifically hoping to meet others waiting on a window… but with no luck. We tried in vain to find a forum or Facebook group or some type of gathering of others looking to cross. We wrote out to everyone we could think of who sails to get their advice.
Sadly, we really don’t know anyone and didn’t really meet anyone that could help. We were stuck trusting our research and judgement and as the week came to a close we still kept our eyes on Saturday as it looked like our best chance in weeks. As anticipated… the winds shifted on Friday and the northerly blows began to come from the east and then southeast. A day for the stream to calm down just as we hoped.
Friday afternoon/night we finally got word back from another couple we saw sitting inside the harbor in our last ride in. They apparently own a charter business in the Bahamas and are in fact waiting on a window as well. Finally!!
But wait...they didn’t say that they are leaving tomorrow morning. What’s wrong with tomorrow morning?? Have we been looking at the wrong window??
We wrote back looking for more info and caught ourselves rereading every word from their last message. Nothing to help. We reached out hoping to get over there with them to chat but to no avail. We spent the evening prepping for our crossing but fear and doubt rose up quickly. What do they know that we don’t know? What have we missed??
We checked and double checked the forecasts and everything we saw told us we should go. Winds should be from the south-south west, maybe slightly stronger than we had hoped and there was definitely a passing storm that made us think we might be sailing at least part of the way in rain but otherwise everything still looked good based upon our (very limited) knowledge.
We prepped the boat and did all our final checks the night before. The ride across the stream to Bimini should take us most of a day and we certainly don’t want to pull in at dark, so we planned to leave before 4am to give ourselves plenty of time.
At 3:30 our alarms went off, we leapt out of bed and directly to update our weather forecasts. The storm looked a bit larger and now showed some possible lightning, but it also seemed to be a bit further north of us. Still a chance of hitting some of it midway across...but the winds were still where we needed and we still had some breathing room as they shouldn’t be shifting until sunday morning, hopefully long after our arrival into Bimini.
We did our final fluid checks, pulled up anchor barely whispering to each other through the headsets as though we didn’t want to wake whoever was on the other boats anchored outside the marina (and still wondering why no other boats seemed to be joining us) and pointed out to sea in complete darkness for not only our first crossing, but also our first sail under dark of night.
Jen was sitting at the helm and staring at the bright screen of our chartsplotter and I was up on the deck staring into darkness and unable to see even the lights of the bouys that are supposed to direct us out of the channel. I had almost forgotten...I run back to the salon and grabbed the Aurora night vision camera and turn it on. Immediately I feel a bit better as I suddenly have the ability to see in the dark. I can see the two boats at anchor as we pass safely by them, I can see the next few bouys and I whisper to Jen that all’s good. This thing is truly amazing, and while we don’t plan on sailing at night anytime we can help it, I can’t tell you how reassuring it was to have onboard as we made our way out into the darkness.
About halfway out the channel the seas started picking up. I have no idea how large they were but for a couple of rookie sailors beginning their first crossing in the middle of the night they felt huge. I’ve heard people describe pulling out and ‘looking for elephants on the ocean” before deciding whether to turn back or keep moving forward into the Gulf Stream. I peered ahead on the horizon looking for anything resembled an elephant as was so glad I didn’t see one...though I also still have no idea what I was supposed to be looking for.
What I did see through the night vision camera was a bunch of big waves. Jen maintained our course (pointing about 20degrees south of what our plotter told us was the direct route to Bimini...in hopes our math and accounting for the current would spit us out of the stream right at biminis channel) while I stood on deck, one hand clenching the stay and the other holding the camera to my eye and warning Jen before each wave crashed into our starboard bow. ‘Here comes a big one!’ I’d try to warn her just before it would crash water up onto deck and drench us. ‘And here comes its friends” as the set of waves would roll past us.
I’d be lying if I said we didn’t talk about turning back... but in all honestly it’s also exactly what we expected. It was unnerving, terrifying and for the next few hours we just keep telling each other that our research was good, that we were doing a good job and that things would be fine. I kept my eyes on the waves and Jen kept tracking the giant tankers and barges as they would come into our path to make sure we didn’t have any surprise encounters in the darkness.
About 1/5 of the way across the Gulf Stream the horizon finally began to show itself as the sun prepared to rise. We still didn’t see the sun for quite a while, but that glow on the horizon was so welcoming we didn’t care. As the sun actually started to rise the seas also began to calm...maybe in parts because we could now see them coming but they also simply started to lay down for a smoother ride.
We stated to feel more confident, and actually started to take deep enough breaths to enjoy ourselves and appreciate the sunrise over the water as we sailed.
About half way through our crossing my phone chimed, letting me know we had service and welcoming us to the Bahamas. Far from it we thought as we looked at open ocean...but took the opportunity to text friends and let them know we were fine. About half way across, sailing along at 6.9knots and doing great!
Then I checked my texts and saw a note from another sailor who we had written urgently in our time of doubt the evening before. She had offered to find/send us the Chris Parker forecast (the most respected sailor/meteorologist for FL and the Caribbean) and it had finally arrived, accompanied by the note:
“He says don’t leave. Wait for Sunday or Monday!”
I click through and read the actual forecast unsure whether to freak out or laugh hysterically.
Now you tell us?!
I read the forecast aloud to Jen as she looked out at the seas around us.
‘Conditions becoming inclement in advance of next front. Saturday15 will be closed to travel except for very salty East bound sailors amidst squalls.”
‘Very salty sailors” I repeated again as I read the forecast again and we both laughed out loud... We barely consider ourselves sailors and certainly have done nothing to earn such a title...but here we are half way across the Gulf Stream and apparently earning our stripes. Turns out Chris Parker is known to be pretty cautious in his forecasts... but we also thought we were being in ours!
We kept an eye on the horizon half expecting something new to build up out of nowhere, but otherwise kept our route as we sailed along until the island of Bimini finally came into view.
Our weather plans had held true, or route planning had delivered us precisely to our planned destination even with the current, and other than the first few hours of waves in the darkness we had a blast.... and to say we were excited to be entering the Bahamas and beginning this journey for real... would be among the most dramatic understatements!!