Operation Homeward Bound (Part2) – The Gulf Stream

Here’s a link to Part 1: Starting our sail from Nassau in The Bahamas back to Florida.

Two days into our journey from Nassau back to the States, we were once again prepping to cross the Gulf Stream. I complained to Capt. Mike that I couldn’t find any information on the internet about crossing the Gulf Stream in this East to West direction. He said “That’s because you’ve already crossed it once, so you know how!” I guess that’s true. But I’m a planner, and I want details, charts, pictures, more details! We were complicating things a bit by attempting to make it to Boot Key Harbor in Marathon in the Florida Keys before Subtropical Storm Alberto hit. So we’d be fighting against the northward flow of the Gulf Stream rather than benefitting from its power and speed. So when in doubt, I turn to my favorite blog The Boat Galley, and learned from Carolyn’s approach of researching all of the cuts through the Florida reef, aiming for the southernmost cut until the Stream pushed us north of that destination, then adjusting for the next cut north, etc. Our realistic goal was to enter the reef at the northern end of Key Largo right at sunset.

The Boat Galley

Day #3: 68.9 miles, 12.5 hours

After a horrible night’s sleep at South Riding Rock, we raised anchor at first light. The uncomfortable anchorage would hopefully be worth it, because it allowed us to start our westbound crossing 30 miles south of Bimini. Our motto for the day was “Get our southing in early” before the power of the Gulf Stream pushed us north. Winds were extremely light all day so we motored to ensure we’d reach the coast before dark. Good thing the days are getting longer!

We started off heading southwest at a COG (course over ground) of 260 degrees in less than 10 knots of wind. Capt. Mike created a table to track our course, distance covered, and speed each hour so that we could see our progress. We compared to our GPS data on the chart plotter for a visual indicator of when the Gulf Stream current started pushing us sideways and slowing our southbound progress. Each time that our COG varied significantly from the heading we had set in the auto pilot, we knew that the Gulf Stream was having more effect on Sanitas’ forward progress than our Yanmar engine was, and we needed to point ourselves a few degrees further north. The bonus benefit of the table was that it kept Capt. Mike entertained with data gathering and math on an otherwise long and uneventful day.

Our navigation and course planning was spot on! But it was still a ridiculously long day, especially on top of the previous two, and we were completely spent by the time we spotted the coast of Key Largo. We slipped inside the Florida Reef (the third largest barrier reef in the world!) right at sunset, and dropped the hook about a half a mile off an uninhabited shore – basically as close to the middle of nowhere as you can be in the Florida Keys. A couple of cans of soup and a small celebratory glass of wine, and we were asleep before 9:00 pm.

Back in the United States after three and a half months in The Bahamas!

Looking at our course on the chart plotter, we really did manage to cross the Gulf Stream using the classic S-Curve pattern. I guess we knew what we were doing all along!

Day #4: 66 miles, 11.5 hours – Boot Key Harbor, Marathon

The last day of our journey home was supposed to be uneventful, if a little bit annoying. Something along the lines of, “I haven’t touched land for 4 days, and Florida is right over there, but we have to wait another 12 hours to touch it” kind of annoying. But it ended up being the most challenging day of our crossing.

Our goal was to make it safely to a mooring ball in Boot Key Harbor where we could wait out the high winds of Sub Tropical Storm Alberto. But the leading edge of the storm brought band after band of squalls with it. So even though we were traveling inside the Florida Reef and within sight of the Keys, we spent another sunrise to sunset day reacting to storms and going from motoring along with no wind to suddenly dealing with 30+ knots of wind. On the positive side, we got lots of practice reefing the main!

By the fourth mini storm of the day, Capt. Mike had the helm, and he sent me below to stay out of the cold driving rain. I sat at the bottom of the companionway, watching him like a hawk to make sure he wasn’t swept overboard. And shouting up every few minutes, “Are you ok? Do you need anything?”

We finally made it to Boot Key Harbor in Marathon just about half an hour after the marina closed for the night. Since we couldn’t reach anyone in the office to ask for a mooring ball, we took matters into our own hands! The last time we’d stayed in Boot Key before The Bahamas, we had moored on ball Romeo 5. We knew the way there, and knew the water was deep enough, so we just helped ourselves to the same ball four months later and settled in.

After four days we were finally home!

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