Crossing the Gulf Stream Current

Sea Spirit is in the Bahamas! Ok, I understand that this is not exactly far flung, but for us it is a significant achievement to be here in Bimini at the Bimini Blue Water Resort. Why? Because it represents our first true passage in Sea Spirit, our first time out of sight of land and across a significant body of water. Everything up to now has been trial runs, but yesterday was the real thing.

 
 
We had positioned ourselves at the Miami Beach marina, which is literally right around the corner from the entrance to the Atlantic ocean at Miami's Government Cut inlet. Our plan was to depart at first light, and make the 42 NM crossing to Bimini. What makes this a significant passage is the presence of the Gulf Stream current between Miami and Bimini. This current is formidable, running as much as 3.5 knots northbound, depending on the season. At the moment, it is running about 2.5 knots northbound. Although we could have gone directly from Fort Lauderdale (where Sea Spirit has been for the last few months) to Bimini, that would involve taking a more southerly course against the Gulf Stream, and when we did the math, it made sense for us to pre-position ourselves in Miami and cut an easterly course to Alice Town on Bimini.

The Gulf Stream is significant for the passage in two ways. First, since we would be in the current for about 4 hours, we would be pushed north about 10 NM. Those who simply aim their boats in the direction of Bimini will miss it, possibly by enough to not even be able to see the island! With all her electronics, there was no chance of that happening on Sea Spirit, of course. Still, we felt it was a good navigational exercise to plan a corrected heading, and see whether the autopilot agreed with our assumptions. Alice Town is about 102 degrees from Miami. Our captain and I had a bet as to what course the autopilot would take up when asked to navigate directly to Bimini. My calculations said about 111 degrees magnetic. Her calculations said about 121 degrees. As we entered the Gulf Stream, the autopilot pointed Sea Spirit at 116 degrees, but when we got to the middle (with the strongest part of the current), the heading became 125 degrees. We decided that it might be a while before my insights are as good as hers.

 
 
The second way in which the Gulf Stream is significant to this crossing is in terms of waves. The current doesn't make its own waves, but when Gulf Stream is opposed by North or North East winds -- even only 10 knots or so -- the waves build up in height, and take on very steep edges, making for a very uncomfortable ride. The period of time between waves is also decreased. We wanted to make sure we crossed the Gulf Stream on a very good day, since we wanted our passage to be enjoyable. It looked like Friday February 11th might be such a day, which is why we positioned the boat at Miami Beach Marina for the night of the 10th.

We consulted many sources of weather, including NOAA, buoyweather.com, weatherunderground.com, and the weather channels on our VHF radio. We examined surface analyses and 500mb charts, and spent quite a bit of time trying to understand what was happening. Once we thought we had a reasonable understanding of the weather, we consulted with Bob Jones of Ocean Marine Navigation Inc., a weather router used by many offshore passage makers. We used each of these resources as input for our go/no-go decision, recognizing that none of these sources could give us a go/no-go answer. That answer could only come from us once we had evaluated the risks. 

By Thursday night, we had determined that there was a chance that we would go on Friday, but not a certainty. The situation was one where several highs and lows were competing against each other, and a stationary front was located a little North of our course. If the front moved south, we would have bad weather. If it didn't, we would have good weather. Even only 8 hours from our departure, it wasn't entirely clear what would happen to that stationary front, although we were getting comforting words from Weather Bob. We awoke at 5AM Friday to further assess the situation. If conditions matched the forecast, we would have a good passage, but the margin for error was slim, and we didn't want to get caught by a front moving through the middle of the Gulf Stream! We talked ourselves out of making the passage, and prepared to spend the next several days waiting for the next weather window.

But at 7:00AM, we phoned Weather Bob, and found some confidence in his forecast that the front would not move through our course until at least Friday night. We decided that we would attempt the passage, but would turn around within the first couple of hours if there was the slightest hint that conditions were worse than forecast. By 8:30AM we cast off, and entered the Atlantic. Here you can see the Garmin chart plotter display showing the front just North of Miami, but still pretty close!

 
 
Seas were only about 2 feet, with a light Northerly wind. After a few miles, the water temperature began to increase, and the autopilot started to point the boat in a more southerly direction. We were entering the Gulf Stream! We already knew about a secondary front that we would have to cross in order to make this passage, but this was considered a very weak front, and should not create significant wind for us. Nevertheless, as we approached that front, the seas increased to 4 - 6 feet, with an 8 second period. We decided that if the seas didn't calm down within the next few miles, we would turn around. However, we expected them to calm, and indeed they did. By the time we were at the half way point (21 miles offshore), we were confident that the weather would hold. Our only remaining concern was that the weather in Bimini might be rough if the front arrived, preventing us from entering the very narrow channel between North and South Bimini. We had a plan for what to do if we couldn't get in at Bimini, but it would have involved an unprotected anchorage during the passage of the front, which would be safe but unpleasant.

Even by the half way mark, we could still see Miami's skyscrapers. However, after another couple of miles, these disappeared, and we were truly at sea! Sea Spirit handled all of these conditions beautifully, just as we knew she would. We made about 9.5 knots of forward progress, and enjoyed a very comfortable ride. My 8 year old daughter, who sometimes gets motion sick in our motorhome, had a half hour of seasickness, and threw up. But she then felt 100% better, and even she had a good time of the passage. I'm very pleased to say that I had absolutely no mal de mer whatsoever, but I must disclose that I had applied a Transderm Scop patch, which presumably had something to do with it. As always, my son's only complaint was that we wouldn't let him put out his fishing poles to troll for big game (he's 10 years old).

The boat ran fine, which is as it should be after all the commissioning attention she has received! She is truly at home in the ocean. Amazingly, the previous day we had transited from Fort Lauderdale to Miami, and had forgotten to engage the stabilizers. We simply didn't notice any significant rocking, and today with the stabilizers on, the boat was upright in all but the steepest of waves. We did our hourly engine room checks, and found only one anomaly. There were a few drops of salt water at the top of our rudder post seal, but not enough to cause a drip. I will look more closely to see how it is getting in. Other than that, all our temperatures taken with a laser-guided thermometer (very useful) were normal, there were no strange smells, and so on.

Arrival into Alice Town was slightly stressful, since a minor squall happened to pass through right as we wanted to enter the channel. The channel is fairly narrow, with reefs on each side. However, the guide books say that the channel is dredged for megayachts, so as long as we stayed centered in the channel we thought we would be fine. And indeed we were. The red and green markers didn't quite match the charts in number (ie: there were more marker buoys on the chart than there were in the channel), but those that were present were at least in the right places. There are several places to dock in Alice Town, but we chose Bimini Blue Water Resort. Docking there was easy and uneventful. Our captain took our passports and forms to the local customs office, and a half hour later, we were checked in to the Bahamas! 

 
 
We strolled around Alice Town for a couple of hours when our captain insisted we leave her alone to wash down the boat. In so many ways, we are completely spoiled! We saw some tourist fishermen cleaning their day's catch of wahoo. The guts were tossed into the water, where three 250 pound bull sharks, a couple of spotted eagle rays, and many pelicans competed for the scraps. We saw one fisherman decide to go after one of the bull sharks (shown here), but it was dinner time before we saw the results. We found a wonderful bakery, and were introduced to the sweet taste of Bahamian bread. The locals seem extremely friendly. All in all, we feel we have finally been introduced to the cruising life!

 
 
Finally, let me mention one bit of excitement that occurred during our last shake down cruise to Biscayne Bay. My parents had come aboard, and we wanted to show them a nice gentle time for the week they were with us. The weather gods held, and we enjoyed a wonderful outside passage to Miami from Fort Lauderdale last week. We brought the dinghy down, and used it to explore the bay, and to shuttle us to the Miami Seaquarium. We also brought the sea kayaks down, and used them to explore too. It was idyllic. Then, when lowering the davit cable to pick up the dinghy, there was a horrible crunching sound, and the stainless steel davit cable broke! I'm told that this "can happen" to davits when the cable jumps off of the pulleys and gets munched up by the hydraulic ram in the davit arm. To prevent it, one must keep constant tension on the cable. Our davit cable has a large weight at the end of it, which is supposed to provide that tension. However, something went wrong, and the cable did indeed get munched by the ram. We came back to Fort Lauderdale a couple of days early, up the intracoastal waterway, with the dinghy in tow since we could not get it back aboard. It took two men from UMT International (highly recommended -- they know davits, and also are the people who installed our wonderful removable dinghy cradle) about 4 hours to remove and replace the davit arm, and restring a new cable, and inspect all the pulleys. Now, it is as good as new.

Once again, I hope I've managed to convey the good, the bad, and the ugly of our experiences. This whole cruising lifestyle is an experiment for my family and I. Over the next several weeks, we will be cruising the Bahamas, learning, exploring, experiencing, and generally trying to decide whether this is for us or not. I believe we have set things up as much as possible for success, surrounding ourselves with a great boat, a great captain, and a great support network (including you!).

Until the next entry, that's all for now.

Dan

Current Blog Article: Crossing the Gulf Stream Current

Comments

Thanks John. I'm glad the blog has been useful to you and your family. Even the process of writing it was useful to us. I use a service called www.talkspot.com to host the blog -- it's run by another avid boater. We live in Honolulu, so we're not too worried about the Bahamas in the summer. But the boat is back in Ft. Lauderdale right now, and we are likely not to be back aboard until labor day. Therefore, we're likely to stay in Florida and/or the Bahamas for our Fall cruising season. Dan

 Dan Freedman  5/16/2011

 Reply

Dan, I've come across scores of personal sailing Web Blogs over the years and I must say, your website is one of the best. Your insights, and your ability for honest self evaluation in dealing with everyday practical matters is quite refreshing. Most bloggers try to come off "all knowing" and are only able to write about what they had for dinner last night night. I am about a year behind you with a similar quest; to take the family out and explore the open seas. My wife and I are the same age as you and with about the same amount of experience. We have two recently adopted toddlers and are the excited new owners of a Fleming 55 so please keep'em coming. On a separate note, I'm not sure what your plans are but you may find the Bahamas a bit hot in the coming months and I'm not sure your insurance carrier will want you down there as well. My suggestion is that you travel up the east coast this summer ending with a tour of down-east Maine in August. There are wonderful spots all along the ICW to sharpen your skills and New England boating in July can't be beat. Just a suggestion….. Stay safe, John W m/v XANDO Boston , MA

 John W  5/16/2011

 Reply

Dan, Thanks for the update. Congratulations are in order on completing your first passage! We're following your tales on trawlerblogs.com and we thank you for brining us along for the ride. Looking forward to the next update!

 Jacob  2/15/2011

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Mark, thanks once again for the bottle of Dom and the matching glasses! -- Dan

 Dan Freedman  2/13/2011

 Reply

Hello Dan and family, Congratulations on the first crossing. Seems like a good time to crack a bottle and enjoy the true beginning of your journey.

 Mark Vultaggio  2/13/2011

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Dan, Bravo for making it across! I read your blog with great envy, as I dream of doing the same some day with my family (wife and 2 girls 8&4 yrs). While in the Bahamas if you come across the M/V Muddy Waters, say hello to the Samway family. They are doing the same thing you are, albeit aboard a slightly smaller but still very capable Kadey-Krogen 48. I've been reading both your blogs earnestly waiting for the next post. All the Best, Grant Tormey

 Grant T  2/12/2011

 Reply
Winter 2011: Training from Lauderdale to Georgetown and back!
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