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!

Operation Homeward Bound (Part 1)

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!

Well that was exciting…

This one’s for the folks that are bored of beautiful beach and sunsets.

Our second day at the O’Briens Cay anchorage was a perfect Exuma day; a hike on Cambridge Cay, a swim at Rachel’s Bubble Bath, snorkeling a submerged plane wreck and the Sea Aquarium. After dinner we shared drinks and conversation on SV Orion. We watched flashes of lightning on the horizon and as the first raindrops fell, rushed back to Sanitas to batten down the hatches.

As we settled into our dry and cozy salon to watch a movie, Capt. Mike suddenly sat up straight, cocked his head, and said, “Something’s changed; the wind direction or current, and we’re starting to lean at the wrong angle.” At that moment the instrument panel started flashing and alarming, “Shallow Water! Shallow Water!” As Capt. Mike bounded up the companionway stairs, I asked what I should do and he said, “Grab the key for the motor. Turn on the windless. And get up here and help me figure out what the heck is going on.”

As we stepped out into the rain, we saw by flashes of lightning that sure enough – land looked much closer than it had before sunset. Mike started the motor without any of the usual safety checks and threw it into forward, aiming into the dark void in the opposite direction from shore. We couldn’t travel too far in that direction in the blind, because this portion of the Exuma chain is known for drifting sand bores, coral heads, and rocky washes. Also, we still had at least 100 feet of anchor chain out. We couldn’t immediately tell if our anchor had dragged, or if the change in wind direction that accompanied the squall simply caused it to reset in a new direction, bringing us into the shallows in the process. Perhaps a little of both? I hurried below to put on non-skid shoes, rain coat, and PFD, and to convince Mike to wear his foulie.

We decided that it was safer to keep the anchor set for the moment, rather than drifting in the darkness between flashes of lightning, and so Capt. Mike stood at the helm making small adjustment to throttle and wheel, basically attempting to keep Sanitas treading water. We’d watch the depth display go from 10 feet to 9 feet to 8 to 7, and then rev the engine and inch forward and to starboard back to deeper water. We we coming uncomfortably close to SE of Disorder, who had also swung in a different direction on her anchor in the squall. All four boats in the anchorage were now lit up as much as possible, with spreader lights and running lights as well as masthead lights, the better for Mike to see the boats and to avoid them.

After 15 minutes, the storm had not moved on but we had better bearings on the situation. We decided we needed to raise anchor and reset it further from shore and from the other anchored boats. Capt. Mike headed forward to handle the anchor and bridle, leaving me at the helm. Wait a minute! I didn’t really understand what kind of magic he’d been using to keep us firmly in place. A few hurried instructions later, and I accepted control of the helm.

We have worked to develop hand signals for raising the anchor, so that we can execute calmly and in conditions where wind makes it difficult to hear each other. But, we couldn’t see hand signals in the dark, so we had to resort to screaming our heads off at each other. The VHF kept squeaking as our friends asked how we were doing and how they could help. At one point Stan on SE of Disorder transmitted, “Are you ok Sanitas? I can hear you hollering.” Yep. That’s our new nighttime anchoring communication strategy. Note to self…. Buy the wireless headsets that are nicknamed “the marriage savers” before next season.

The rain continued to pour down, but we successfully dropped anchor, backed down on it hard to set it, and confirmed using GPS that we were now swinging in a new safe arc. We stripped off our soaking wet clothes down to the underwater (why on earth was I wearing cotton?) and went below. After telling our friends that Sanitas was secure, we sat down and stared at each other and tried to slow our racing hearts.

By now it was past midnight, and tough to calm down enough to sleep. Three more times during the night squalls hit us, complete with driving rain, gusts above 35knots, and currents fighting wind to bounce Sanitas at strange angles. Not much sleep to be had! But the anchor held, and we were safe the rest of the night, even if we were uncomfortable and hyper-alert.

Capt. Mike dove the boat in the morning and confirmed that the lowest 6-8 inches of the keel were scoured clean. We had definitely come to a rest in sand or soft mud when we felt Sanitas tip. But thank goodness, we did not hit rock or coral, and did not get stuck in the sand. Also the rudder hadn’t touched, which certainly could have been damaged with Sanitas going aground in reverse. I’m very impressed that Mike was so attuned to the feel of the boat that he noticed as soon as something felt wrong. Our cockpit was a disaster the next morning, with wet clothes and shoes and safety equipment everywhere (and permeated with the smell of mildew) but no permanent damage.

Pics of cockpit

An adventure is never fun while you are having it. And apparently, I never capture photos during an adventure. But here’s a screen shot from the chart plotter from that night. See the yellow squiggle on the right side of the screen that looks waaaayyyy too close to land. That’s were Sanitas was never supposed to be.

Worse Things Can Happen Than Running Aground

Or so Captain Bill said in our sailing classes five years ago. I think he was trying to teach us the difference between “Mayday” and “Pan Pan” in radio etiquette. Our friends from St Pete had similar advice. “You’re going to run aground in The Bahamas. Don’t let it devastate you.” Still, there’s an element of “It will never happen to me” about running aground.

Well, now we’ve gotten that out of the way!

We left Great Sale harbor in marginal wind conditions, because we thought we might go crazy if we stayed one more day. Winds 13 to 17 on the nose, and seas that built gradually over the day. We got a nice early start, so even with beating into the wind, we arrived at the entrance to the Foxtown Harbor on Little Abaco Island before 2:00 pm. Theoretically, that allowed for great mid-day light to allow us to see the changing water colors indicating rocks or coral heads while standing on the bow looking at the world through polarized sunglasses. Unfortunately, what really happened, was I stood at the bow in a driving rain squall with rain washing sunblock into my eyes, wiping my sunglasses on the hem of my t shirt, and the sun completely hidden by clouds, so the water looked a uniform shade of grey across the whole harbor.

Mike had done his homework, comparing the paper charts in the Explorer Chartbooks and the electronic charts in our chart plotter and using Navionics, and plotted a detailed series of waypoints through the shallow areas and rocks to a preferred anchorage. But it is one thing to see a series of lines and dots on the chart plotter, and another to orient them to the real world landmarks and features around you in less than perfect conditions. Our friends on SV Orion radioed that they had just crossed an extremely shallow spot, that wasn’t captured on any of the charts, and they got us slightly spooked. SV Disorder took a different line into the harbor than Mike had plotted, and they were calling out depths in the 6 foot range. So we continued to follow our plan to head south and get closer to land, and then to turn east toward the closest anchorage. I was on the bow (remember that rain?) and Mike was at the helm and we had to shout to hear each other over the wind. Mike called, ” is that dark water shallow? Or it is a shadow? Which way do I turn?” But there was no good direction to turn. We were essentially aiming straight at a horizontal band of rocks that, according to the charts, we had already safely passed. Mike went from calling out safe depths of 11’4″ and 10’8″ to a dead stop in less than a minute. We jammed Sanitas into reverse, we were well and truly stuck for about 15 seconds, and then the prop walk started a turn that allowed us to spin all the way around and head back the way we came. With no clear idea of how to enter the harbor, but without needing to radio for a tow boat.

After finding a safe anchorage, Mike dove the hull and found only a few scratches – nothing too heavily damaged. There may have been a few frayed nerves and short fuses on Sanitas that night as her crew recovered from the scare!

Recovering with cracked conch and rum at Da Valley restaurant in Foxtown.