Before we left Canada we understood that making the jump from Florida to the Bahamas takes some patience. Unless you are a “Salty Sailor” you have to be ready to wait for the right weather window to cross the Gulf Stream. We are not Salty Sailors; at least I’m not! We’ve heard of people waiting for three weeks or more for the “right” weather to make the jump. We were confident that wouldn’t happen to us, I don’t know why we thought we were so special we wouldn’t have to wait long, but there you go. However, we were prepared to wait if we had to.
The cruising books all say that the “right” weather is when the wind is out of the south and has been for 24 hours prior to your crossing. Since the Gulf Stream runs from south to north, you want to ensure the wind and waves are travelling in the same direction (wind against waves can create dangerous standing waves, especially in the Gulf Stream). At this time of year (winter months) the wind is typically from the east, which makes it difficult to get across the stream as our boat would be heading directly into the wind, but the wind clocks round when a northerner blows through and makes sailing across possible. Simple enough right? Not so much. This year the weather has been horrible and through December & January there has been roughly one day a week that was acceptable for crossing the Gulf Stream. Notice I said “acceptable”? The windows have been short and sometimes without much notice. They also have not been textbook perfect – each window required compromise. Either the wind direction was not great, the waves a bit bigger than we might like or the conditions were good only for a night crossing. Not my first choice.
We listen to Chris Parker’s Marine Weather Forecast on our single sideband radio six days a week at 6:30am (he takes Sundays off and we do too!). We set our alarm for 6:15 in order to make sure we’re up and give us time to make coffee and tea before it starts. We then set up our iPhone to record the broadcast and settle in for what we call “The Chris Parker Show”. It’s an entertaining 1 hour program that can leave us on an high (good weather forecasts for what we want to do that day) or a crushing low and results in studying charts trying to find a safe harbour to ride out the nasty storm he has predicted for the coming days. We always follow up the broadcast by checking a number of online weather sites and apps to confirm or challenge the marine forecast Chris has given for the day and sometimes go back and re-listen to the broadcast as recoded on our iPhone to confirm the location/timing of storms and problem weather events.
We started listening for a possible weather window to cross the Gulf Stream about a week before Christmas. It sounded like there might be a small window possibly on Christmas Eve. We decided that crossing on Christmas Eve was not for us and we dismissed the window. Around the 26th of December, all our weather sources started to indicate that maybe Dec 30, 31 or Jan 1 could work. So we started to plan and make the boat ready to cross. How great it was that a good window came up just a week after we started looking for one! I knew we wouldn’t have to wait long!
Spoiler alert… In the end we missed or bailed on four “windows” before finally crossing on January 16th.
Weather Window #1 – January 1st
This was probably the best of the weather windows we were to see and later we were bummed we had bailed on our plans to cross this day. We were in West Palm Beach and had just taken possession of our, new to us, outboard engine. We bailed on our plans to make the crossing at 9:30pm on New Years Eve, because we felt unprepared. We were pinned to the town dock by the current with a huge Fireworks display due to begin in less than 3 hours just off our starboard side. To make the crossing, we needed to be in an anchorage an hour north of the town dock at 4:00 in the morning – that evening it did not look likely we could make this happen. Our next window appeared to be a week away. This time we vowed to be ready!
Weather Window #2 – January 8th
We continued to listen to weather reports and study our online sources. The afternoon of January 7th we moved the boat north to the Lake Worth anchorage near the inlet and made sure everything was stowed and ready to go. We found ourselves with some time on our hands so we decided to visit Peanut Island to give Poppy one last bathroom break before leaving the US – she wouldn’t be getting one at 4am prior to departure! We didn’t have long as the sun was setting, but the park was very cool and really beautiful. The island has a blast shelter that was built for JFK!
Sadly we didn’t have time to do a full tour. We got up at 3am the next morning (Jan 8th) and checked the weather, things had deteriorated overnight and it was now looking like we should have left at 7pm the night before and done a night crossing. The window was closing fast. We decided to go out into the ocean and have a look for ourselves, knowing if the conditions were not good, we could come back. On the way out we heard a Coast Guard weather announcement with a forecast worse than anything we had found in our other sources that morning. We aborted the plan and returned to our anchorage and dropped the hook once more. We went back to bed and when we got up, we made the bold decision to head further south rather than sit around for a week and wait for another window. At 8:10am we picked up our anchor and started for Fort Lauderdale.
Weather Window #3 – January 9th
There are a gazillion bridges in South Florida and they are all too low for our mast to sneak under, which means we have to wait for an opening. Some open on the hour and some on the half hour, a rare few open on demand.
Waiting for bridge openings slowed us down and we did not make it to Fort Lauderdale in one day as we had planned. So we called Lighthouse Point Marina and booked a luxury slip – laundry and showers here we come!
When we awoke the next morning we were listening to Chris Parker and he said today would be a good day to cross…. What?!? We had found no indication the night before that today could be a possibility for crossing, what did we miss in our weather research? We were landlocked and nowhere near an inlet to get out into the ocean. Shortly after this, we got an email from Mar-a-Largo who had left No Name Harbour in Miami at 6:15 am and was now headed for Bimini. Rats, opportunity number three – lost. I was really bummed, I was hoping to make it to Miami and cross the Gulf with Mar-A-Largo as I was worried about making the crossing on our own and crossing with friends would have been a big comfort. A few tears were shed.
Weather Window #4 – January 10th
We made it to Fort Lauderdale the same day as Mar-A-Largo crossed to Bimini (January 9th) and made our way to Lake Sylvia where they had recommended we stay. It is a perfect little harbour and there were many boats there when we arrived. Several more arrived before sunset and it was a crowded place overnight! The next morning we checked all our sources and it seemed another crossing was possible – TODAY. We scrambled to get the boat in order and headed out of the anchorage. A few boats had left ahead of us, but we were the only ones leaving around 8:30am. We did not time our arrival at the bridge properly and had to wait until 9:30 for it to open to allow us access to the inlet… Opportunity number 4, LOST! We were uncertain we could cross to West End, Bahamas and arrive before dark with such a late start so we decided to head for Miami on the outside instead.
Window #5 – January 16th
By this time, Tim was certain that I was somehow sabotaging our efforts to get to the Bahamas. Even my niece, Avery, told me her mother, my sister Joanne, said I liked it too much in Florida and she thought we’d end up spending the winter there instead! NO!!! I really wanted to get to the Bahamas, but the weather had to be good. I was willing to compromise, but not if it affected our safety – so sailing at night or trying to cross before bad weather struck in a tight window were off the table. (I know loads of people sail at night and it’s no big deal, but since we’ve not done this yet, crossing the Gulf Stream at night was not an option for us this time.) We sailed from Fort Lauderdale to Miami and entered via Government Cut – the boats were huge!! It’s a massive commercial shipping harbour with tons of Cruise ships – Toronto and Hamilton harbours have nothing on Miami! We spent a couple of nights at Stadium Harbour before moving to No Name Harbour.
No Name is a popular place for boats to stage their crossing to the Bahamas from. We decided to go and anchor four days before our crossing to ensure we had a spot in the small anchorage, since it costs $20 a night to anchor there, this was a tough decision. But, having easy access to the ocean and not having to worry about the current Florida anchoring conflicts made it the right choice and worth the expenditure.
We woke at 4:30 and wouldn’t you know it… the harbour was completely fogged in!!! We waited until 6:30 to pull up our anchor and the fog was not as dense, but still there. Other boats in the mist were pulling up their anchors and you could see navigation lights throughout the habour. We made our way very very slowly out of the harbour with our radar on and me at the bow as a lookout for the anchored boats that were in the bay outside the harbour. The crossing was exactly as forecast, wind was under 10 knots and waves were 4 to 6 feet on our beam, we motor sailed the entire way and the crossing took 8 hours anchor to dock!
By 2:30pm we were tied up at Brown’s Marina in Alice Town, Bimini. Brian & Jane from Mar-A-Largo were waiting on the dock to catch our lines! So fabulous to see them again.
Is it better in the Bahamas? We’ll see!