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Going with the flow on Gulf Stream crossing

Jan 1, 2003

To the editor:

Neon shore lights gleamed across the calm anchorage south of Fisher Island as I poked my weary head out the hatch. It had been hard to fall asleep, and it was even harder to wake up when the alarm went off at 0200. My wife, Leslie, and I quietly put on warmer clothes, ate a hasty breakfast, and then started the motor. Our children, Heather and Ian (ages one and four), slept soundly while we crept cautiously down the dark Miami channel.

Our planned course was across the Gulf Stream to Bimini in the Bahamas. The direct route was only 45 miles to the east, but the relentless, three-knot northward flow of the Gulf Stream would require us to angle well to the southeast to make our desired landfall. The predawn departure would hopefully allow us to reach Bimini in time to clear customs.

The weather was perfect in the harbora gentle to non-existent breeze, forecast to stay light. The lull was the first in many weeks of cold fronts, gales, and rough seas. All signals seemed to say go, except for a nagging thought in the back of my mind: settled weather in southern Florida usually means a return of the prevailing southeasterly breeze. But I was optimistic that we would have a period of calm sufficient for a motorsailing dash across the Stream.

Near the Miami sea buoy we encountered the first hint of trouble. Short, steep waves rolled in from the southeast, knocking our catamaran, Echo, back on her heels. I hoped things would smooth out once we escaped the strong current exiting Miami harbor.

By dawn we were motorsailing on course, but the breeze was building. Soon we were into the Gulf Stream. The direct magnetic course from Miami to Bimini is about 100°, but as the north-flowing Gulf Stream runs at a right angle to this course we had to steer well to the southeastthe exact direction the building wind was coming from. Fighting the wind and Stream like this, our speed over the ground began to drop to below three knots. As the day wore on we found ourselves tacking into a stiff Force 5 and lumpy seasnothing to worry about, but in combination with the three-knot northerly push of the Stream, not the best conditions for making Bimini.

Near sunset our GPS confirmed my seat-of-the-pants suspicion: though the distance remaining to Bimini was only 15 miles, the wind and the current had slowed our advance over the ground to a discouraging 1.5 knots. It would take more than 10 painful hours to cover the remaining 15 miles! A few quick calculations confirmed another suspicion: an escape route, north with the wind and the current to West End, would take about the same time even though the latter harbor was more than 80 miles away. We would be picking up a big boost from the Stream rather than fighting it.

With building seas, a bucking boat, a rapidly darkening sky, and two badly seasick children, the decision was easy. Helm down, sails eased, and our cat flattened right out. Echo boiled along at eight or nine knots over the bottom. The wind kept building, and I was just thinking about how glad I was that I'd replaced the steering cables when the steering wheel went limp.

Luckily, children sleep through almost anything. Heather and Ian lay curled up snugly below while Leslie and I peered into the bowels of our steering box with flashlights. The new cables had mysteriously slipped through the clamps, allowing the steering chain to run off the gear on the inside of the steering box. The cover of the box was held in place with more than a dozen screws, many of which had heads full of hardened paint.

After many hours of skinned knuckles and cursing we managed to get the thing apart and back together, only to discover the chain was crossed so that the wheel turned in the opposite direction to which it was supposed to. Back to the screwdriver and the endless reluctant screws.

Throughout the long repair, Echo jogged along peacefully with her rudders lashed amidships (via an accessible tiller bar at the stern) and the reefed mainsail sheeted loosely. This combination kept us moving slowly on a close reach, which was comfortable with a mild Force 6 blowing.

Finally, all was back in place, but I steered rather gingerly, not knowing why the cables had slipped in the first place. Unfortunately, the inevitable happened and the cables came undone again, but at least we were practiced in the repair sequence.

Despite the delays, we arrived off of West End at 0200 in the pitch black. The GPS told me we were in the right place, but, with poor visibility, plenty of wind, rough seas, and unreliable navigation aids, we decided to heave to until dawn. At first light we sailed toward the narrow, deepwater channel, only to have the cables go once more. I then steered from the stern platform using the tiller bar and ropes led to cleats while my wife called course corrections, since I could not see over the cabin top from where I stood. This crude system allowed us to find a shallow patch for the anchor, so we could once again repair the steering.

Finally, we motored up the narrow channel between two rocky breakwaters to the calm basin of the West End Marina. We were quickly cleared into the Bahamas and were soon washing our salt-soaked gear, and the detritus of two seasick children, in the laundry.

What should have been a pleasant 14-hour sail had turned into a trying 28 hours. But we were never in danger, the change of course allowed the children to sleep through most of it, and we had arrived in the Bahamas, though 80 miles to the north of our original destination. We should have planned our trip to take advantage of the prevailing winds and currents, rather than to place our hopes on an unusual calm spell, a lesson I must have beaten into me from time to time. The rest of our Bahamas cruise was tremendously rewarding, in part due to our diligence in taking advantage of favorable weather while waiting during bad spells. Our motto is now Wait for Weather.

We should have followed the advice I've given to many other cruisers. The best way to cross the north-flowing Gulf Stream is to head south on the ICW until you are assured you'll have the current aft of the beam. Even though you increase the distance to be sailed in the Stream, your speed over the ground will be so much better that the trip may actually take less time. In any case, avoid crossings like ours, where a course near due east necessitates steering to the southeast, which is right into the teeth of the prevailing wind. Try a run from Miami to West End (approximately 52° magnetic) or Key Largo to Bimini (approximately 67 degrees magnetic) and you'll have a better trip than we did.

Going with the flow sometimes delays a trip, but more often than not we find our average cruising speed is not much different from those who thrash into whatever nature brews up. We spend less time licking our wounds in port, and more time exploring while waiting for the good weather windows. Of course, if we didn't make rough passages now and again, the easy ones wouldn't seem half so good!