N Bimini

 

After crossing the Gulf Stream our first stop in the Caribbean is at Bimini.  Not quite the Abacos, which was the initial plan but having waited for weather to allow us to get up there for too long, Bimini seemed to be the next best thing.

Bimini itself is split into two small island – North and South – and has a total population of about 1600.  There is a huge very shallow area to the E of N Bimini where the water is never more than 3-4 feet deep and a deep channel with a very fast current running beside the island, giving access to the various villages and marinas.

S Bimini is a little different with one water taxi point on the N side connecting to N island, a made to measure posh resort with a deep water basin blown out of rock and a very small fishing port to the S side of the island.  It also has the airport.

We arrived in North Bimini and parked up at Brown’s Marina, famous (as it would seem most of the Marinas here would claim) for its association with Ernest Hemmingway and being one of the oldest on the island.  Certainly there is a big plaque with a quote from him referring to Browns just beside the bar.  Prices are reasonably high in the marinas.  Beer is $5 a bottle for the local brew, more for import brands and food starts at about $12-16 a main.  On the basis that we have stocked up and the fact that money is now tight, we won’t be wanting to spend anything like that – welcome to the life of a liveaboard!

We cleared in without issue.  The Customs post is now in the Big Game Marina building and I was processed by a lovely lady with a big smile and a very obvious grip on the male staff there.  I didn’t quite understand the requirement to declare my GPS type (I have three, we settled on one) and the girls mini scooters but saw no reason to query it – better just to smile.  I presume some legacy regulations in force!

Passport at the island’s Admin Centre (shared by the Police, post office, immigration and, I think, council equivalent) was even quicker. There was obviously a very good TV programme on and I was taking the lady away from it.  “Fill these with your names”, four thumps as she stamped the passports and about 60 seconds later I was marching out again.  Who said clearing in would be difficult?

North Island is not difficult to explore.  There are three nominal villages all in a row, each pretty much up against the other on the main road running N/S on the island, which is for the most part no more than a few hundred metres wide.  We walked along to see the sites.  We found and visited the museum – all about the settling of the islands but mainly to do with the rich big game fishing history the island has. Hannah had a lovely time reading everything out aloud to us, great for Lou and I to listen to but a bit wearing for big sister!

We also found the War memorial and another for the worst air crash that Bimini had just a few years ago.

It is obvious that the Island has been hit hard by the recent financial  woes. Most buildings and the marinas are tired and could do with a lick of paint.  Houses are old and most look a little decrepit.  Tourist shops are v few in number, mainly dealing in garishly coloured t-shirts. Restaurants amount to two conch salad bars.  Even though we are in the winter months and the tourist numbers will be a lot lower now, times are obviously difficult.

Perhaps the most telling of pictures was the number of young men and woman grouping together to drink hard through the day outside the one bank on the island.  It seemed to be an everyday occurrence.

No work to be had.

Saying that, it is a pretty place but not somewhere I would want to stay for any length of time.  Although it could be said the glory days of Bimini are behind it, the people here are v friendly and optimistic that they will return.

Crossing the Gulf Stream

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.