As always, it was hard to break free from the gravitational pull of the Palm Cay Marina, with its hot showers, friendly staff, and beautiful beach club. And each time we downloaded a new weather grib file, the forecast wasn’t clear and obvious. We were either doing the right thing; grabbing a four-day window of settled weather that would take us safely back to Florida. OR… We were sailing straight west into the first named tropical storm of the 2018 season. One thing was clear. We weren’t going to get any closer to home by remaining tied to the dock.
And since all good things must come to an end, after thirteen weeks in The Bahamas, we turned Sanitas’ bow toward home.
Day #1: 45 miles, 9 hours
We started out knowing full well that our safe weather window was pretty small. While our friends Orion and SE of Disorder had sailed straight from Highbourne Cay to Miami in 34 hours, Capt. Mike and I acknowledged our weaknesses and our lack of experience in making long overnight passages. And we decided to make the trip from Nassau to Key Largo in a series of four long days instead. That meant we’d be leaving before the high winds had completely laid down. And we needed to arrive before the next storm hit. Plan B, in case the storm forecast changed dramatically, would be to only make it as far as Bimini and wait out the weather there. But you know how once you get it in your mind that vacation is over, you just wanted it to be done? Yep. We were there.
Leaving the narrow channel from Palm Cay Marina, we were immediately headed straight into the wind with higher winds and higher seas than predicted. It was rough enough initially that I asked Capt. Mike, “Is this one of those times we should reconsider our plans and return to the harbor if it’s not safe?” It always seems so obvious when you read the disaster stories and scoff at the stupid people who made bad choices. It’s not as obvious in real life. But we knew we’d be making several heading changes to round the east side of New Providence Island, and each change would put us on a more comfortable point of sail than the crashing into waves, so we put off making a final decision and just kept going. Sure enough, once we were on a beam reach, the effects were less drastic. After much navigating around coral, course changes, and hand steering, we finally made it to the busy Nassau Harbor. This is where all of the other marinas are located, as well as the cruise ship docks and the working docks, and it is as busy and crowded as the streets of downtown. After only brief rubbernecking at the fancy resorts on Paradise Island, we negotiated a super narrow pass of just enough deep water, and we were free!
The navigating from here on out was much easier, with plenty of opportunity to set the autopilot and go. But the seas stayed large and from the starboard quarter all day, making things uncomfortably rolly and pitchy. Blech. The two boats that were at the anchorage when we arrived left at sunset to continue west overnight.
Day #2: 75 miles, 13.5 hours
We settled into our daily routine. Alarm set for an hour before sunrise. Get up, brush teeth, make coffee, put on sunblock. Make sure the course is plotted and waypoints entered. Secure items in the cabin and galley. Dress in boat shoes, safety gear, sun hat. Be in the cockpit before first light, and raise anchor and sail off at sunrise.
Once again the seas were larger than predicted. I now understand a bit better the mixed blessing of “Fair winds and following seas.” After an entire season of fighting against the prevailing easterlies, we are finally sailing west. That means, in theory, the wind is pushing us in the direction we want to go and we won’t be crashing into the waves. However, the waves build in the direction of the wind (and had been building through the big blow we waited out in Nassau) so these were some of the largest waves we’d experienced. And when they hit at a slight angle, the ride is very rolly.
I tried to capture a few pictures of the swells rising up behind Sanitas, but I don’t think I did them justice!
This little nondescript pole is the only thing marking the Northwest Channel; the place where the “tongue of the ocean” (at pretty much infinite depth) meets the Grand Bahama Banks (of 12 to 14 feet in depth). At any time of day, the tide is either pulling vast amounts of water from the banks into the ocean, or pushing vast amounts back onto the banks causing some pretty chaotic currents and swells. Belatedly, we realized we should have treated this final cut with a bit more respect and perhaps planned our timing of the channel accordingly. But it’s better to be lucky than good, and our timing worked out well enough. We dealt with about 3 knots of current pushing us through the channel and onto the banks, and kept a sharp eye out for all the other vessels traveling that small channel at the same time.
We don’t sail well directly down wind, preferring winds at a 90deg to 120 deg angle. So for the remainder of the day we tried every trick in our repertoire to harness the power of a downwind sail. For a while we attempted wing-on-wing (with the mainsail on one side of the boat and the jib on the opposite side) wrestling with the whisker pole to hold the job in place and keep it full. When winds faded to less than 10 knots, we abandoned that approach, and raised the asymmetrical spinnaker. This involves both Capt. Mike and I clipping in to our harnesses and moving forward to the bow to rig the sail and we haven’t exactly got the process down pat. By the time we got the asym in place today, the wind shifted and we had to do the whole thing in reverse to take it back down. Sigh.
Most cruisers stage to cross from the Bahamas to Florida at Bimini. However, our goal was to end up as far south as possible on the other side of the Gulf Stream, so we decided to improve our odds of success a bit by doing some southing on the Bahamas side. So we spent the night anchored in about 23 feet of water (deep!) in the middle of nowhere off the aptly named South Riding Rocks. Theoretically a good idea, but this spot is effected by a great deal of current and fetch. So while our super anchor kept us safe, we spent a terribly uncomfortable night bouncing and rolling in a very noisy boat. We slept only fitfully, and both of us were awake before the alarm went off ready to get the heck out of dodge.
Stay tuned for Operation Homeward Bound (Part 2)… Crossing the Gulf Stream!