The Gulf Stream, together with its northern extension towards Europe, the North Atlantic Drift, is a powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic Ocean current that originates at the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. All the sailing literature warns that a northerly component in the wind greater than force 3 against the Gulf Stream will create treacherous sailing conditions, with short, steep waves. Not something that I particularly wanted to experience. Every time I read the phrase ‘treacherous sailing conditions’, a picture of Ellen McArthur in the roaring forties sprang to mind. My most recent sailing has been in the familiar waters of the Solent and the Baltic so to say I was a little apprehensive is an understatement.
The winds had been northerlies for more than two weeks, largely due to the strangely S set of the jet stream which was providing the the rest of the USA with fairly wild winter weather. S Florida where we were had had some cold weather too (in the 50F) – all relative of course, but this is not common. We had been keeping a watchful eye on the forecast in order to hopefully take advantage of a weather window. We consulted the forecasts again and they all seemed to say that the wind would shift to the East through Monday night and stay there through Tuesday before moving back to the north for the next week. A window!
Standing on the windy beach the afternoon before our intended departure, watching the waves crashing and the ships anchored off all pointing determinedly to the NE, did not fill Stewart or myself with much confidence at all. However, if we did not take this opportunity now, we faced the real risk of being stuck in Fort Lauderdale for another week. Yes, the continued convenience of being in a big city certainly appealed. To be perfectly honest though, I am not sure I could have faced doing any more supermarket shops, wondering whether I had enough pasta or tinned tomatoes. It was definitely time to move on.
We moved down from Fun in the Sun on Sunrise Boulevard, our home to date, to top up with fuel and then park ourselves closer to the entrance to the Fort Lauderdale waterways at Las Olas bridge.
Leaving the girls in bed to sleep, we set off just after 0230 in torrential rain, in full oilies and with the kettle on the boil. The wind that had dropped the previous evening had picked up a little more than we would have liked. Once through 17th and Causeway bridge, the last bridge on the inland waterway, we set about hoisting the sails while we were still in the shelter of the harbour. Then we set out to sea……
With two reefs and a hanky up we headed out. Not too bad initially. A pretty steady 20-23 true wind, the seas a little mixed but at least with a 6 sec period that the forecasts said they would be. With a boat speed of 7.5 knts, we were charging along.
It didn’t last long. As we moved out from the coast to the deeper waters of the Straights of Florida, so we ran into the Gulf stream and the wind picked up. The good books say that the current can run in places to 3.5knts, averaging around 2.5knts. Watching us cream along then realising that our SOG had just dropped by more than 3 knts was disheartening to say the least. Stewart was double checking the wake to make sure we were sailing as he thought we were. “Ah well, that will be us in the Gulf stream then” was the comment!
As well as that, our course was being driven far more S than we had wanted mainly due to the sea slamming and stopping us near dead in the water if we pointed too high. Not much we could do about that.
By the time Eleanor joined us (couldn’t sleep and an initial wail about not feeling well), the wind had moved closer to the E we’d been promised and we had a steady actual F7 across the deck. Although we were being slammed regularly, I will say that Skylark handled beautifully. She was very light and responsive on the helm and she felt solid.
The sea once we hit the Gulf Stream was not good. Think St Catherine’s Point with wind over tide and then extend that for 30 miles. There was a short sea due to the wind over current and a long NE fetch which, when added together, simply made a horrible confused mess. Nothing that big (sea state 5 was as much as we saw – thankfully mostly 4) but just nothing with any rhythm that you could settle a course or steer into.
Stewart and I took turns on watch. We used the autohelm a lot of the time running with a COG of about 130, then 140 then 150 as we got knocked by the waves and wind moved further into the E. As the sun came up, Stewart ran out more of the foresail which allowed us to point a little higher. Hannah eventually joined us about 0800 having had a good nights sleep.
By late morning and still 20 miles W of Bimini, we realised that unless we used the engines we were going to miss Bimini to the S by some way, arriving most likely after dark on one of the Southern islands in the chain. Easy decision to make. Foresail away and engines on.
We tonked Eastwards under slowly clearing skies, seeing only one other ship on the way. We sighted land, the very low profile of Bimini, only about 7 miles off, to much excitement. The way in was uneventful other than a challenge by a USCG ship asking us who and what we were. Stewart took a certain amount of pleasure listening to a change in approach once he rattled off our UK registration number. All very polite and professional on both sides and they were good enough to go through the entrance instructions to N Bimini with us.
We arrived at Brown’s Marina with our Q flag up, one of the original fishing marinas written about and used by Ernest Hemmingway, at 1515hrs. We tied up behind another catamaran that we recognised as one of the school boats parked up near to us in Fort Lauderdale.
Stewart headed off to get us booked in to the Bahama’s with Customs and Immigration, which didn’t take long. The custom’s lady at the Big Game Marina, 1/4 of a mile N of us was pleasantly efficient. It seemed odd that we had to declare the girls’ scooters but I am sure there is a good reason for it! The immigration lady just wanted to get back to her TV show so passport checks and stamps took all of 90 seconds!
We finished the day pretty exhausted but pleased that we had finally made it out of the US and into the blue seas of the Caribbean! We’re looking forward to exploring Bimini over the next couple of days and really getting started on our adventure.