Passage to Bimini – The dirty details
The build-up to a Bahamas crossing, especially your first one, can be incredible. First there is the realization that you are so close to arriving in tropical waters, and although the distance to cover to get there may not be incredibly far, there is that dreaded Gulf Stream that must be crossed. With so much water moving through that river in the ocean, one apparently does need to take care and choose the right weather to traverse it.
As far as preparation goes, I think the two of us were as prepared as we would ever be. Although we hadn’t spent weeks studying our charts and reading the guidebooks, we knew where we were going and what we thought was the best route to take. We also had been watching the weather quite closely and felt that the wind direction was correct to not buck the gulf stream (a very bad thing — say NO to north winds) and the wind speed would make for a quick passage.
It was surprising to us though that given this weather, we were the only other cruising boat anchored in Hurricane Harbor, an anchorage commonly used by boats waiting to cross (there was one other sailboat there but I’m not convinced it was a cruiser). We assumed that everyone left the day before but it still seemed a tad eerie.
When deciding at what time to depart the US for the Bahamas, we needed to work backwards from the time we wished to arrive, taking into account what we feel is the worst speed that we would make. Using 5 knots for this calculation, we were anchor up at 2:00 AM hoping to arrive in Bimini by 1:00 PM. Although all the charts show routes departing from Government Cut in Miami, that would have taken us an additional hour to go around that way. Our charts showed that there was plenty of water on the southern end of Key Biscayne so we plodded our way between the marks under the light of a near full moon. Again we saw no other boats!
It would have been a beautiful sail if not for the waves.
It was 3:30 AM when we had sails raised, beyond the shallows of the bay and our boat had already started to hobby horse. I was smart enough to down some preventative Gravol when this began. Fortunately Rebecca does not seem to have any ill effects from rough seas. I, on the other hand do, not yet to the point of throwing up but it does make me feel unpleasantly queasy.
The route that we had intended on taking was to sail south of our course rhumb line, knowing that the Gulf Stream would ultimately carry us north. Once in the stream, we would sail at an angle across it and then sail back south any distance we overshot our destination once clear of its power. That was the plan anyway. Unfortunately, no one told the wind. To start, the wind was just under 20 knots when we set out and if we were to follow our planned southerly leg, it would be right on the nose. Are you noticing a trend here? We are. In fact, I am starting to feel a little jinxed about rigging our large Genoa. It seems that every time we do this we have winds directly on the nose. There may be one or two non-sailors reading this so in case that’s true, you can not sail directly at the wind. It just doesn’t work. You need to sail at an angle to it and depending on the boat and the sail, that angle could be 30 degrees or 45 degrees. With this large sail it is super fast off the wind but we can only point about 60 degrees to the wind. So for those following our Spot tracker’s “footprints” that would account for our northerly heading. We were trying to point up but it just wasn’t happening.
Wind right on the nose… typical!
We were partially convinced that the waves we were taking at the beginning of the journey were caused by the shallow waters surrounding Key Biscayne. When into 500+ foot depths well offshore and the waves were continuing to build, we knew that wasn’t the case.
A point or two about sailing in the dark… we have heard many people rave about how beautiful it is to sail in the dark of night. I am pretty sure they are referring to doing so on a glassy lake, not a bucking ocean. We have all heard how those who are visually impaired develop through necessity, a more keen sense of hearing. I have found that this is very true even while deprived of sight for a short period. Unable to see the waves, save for the random white crests breaking towards us, we became very aware of the sounds around us, especially the sound of our headsail flogging as we were pointing too high, knocked there by the waves. There was also that one WAY TO CLOSE experience with that large ship. A downside to our big headsail is that it totally blocks our vision from one side. We do love our AIS though and are very glad that the ship in question was transmitting. Even though we technically had the right of way, we hastily changed course and moved behind him.
In the book, An Embarrassment of Mangoes: A Caribbean Interlude (I sure hope that’s where I read it) the author states that she feels cruising has made her a better lateral thinker. This is no doubt due to the fact that there are always problems to solve on a boat. To start, we have still not perfected how our new dinghy is secured to our davits. Our previous one seemed to rest there almost perfectly while this one does not. The way that it was swinging to and fro was causing it to chafe on of the davits themselves and the new solar panel supports. This needed to be fixed and the easiest and most convenient solution was to grab a couple of handy T-shirts and tie them around the offending supports. Something more permanent will be rigged before departing next time.
As our bow buried itself in the water over and over, we could occasionally hear poor Rocky, our Rocna anchor, clanging against the bow roller. At one point though, Rebecca noticed that one of the two lines that I use to secure it was gone AWOL. This meant that, while bucking through the waves, I then needed to go forward, while clipped in to our jacklines of course, and re-secure it. Borrowing random pieces of line from other items not currently in use, I lashed it down twice as good, not wanting to repeat that procedure. I should point out that I took numerous waves in the face while completing this task and was completely soaked by the time I made my way back to the cockpit.
And then there were the sails. We were expecting (hoping? PRAYING!) that the wind would veer a bit but it never happened. It only strengthened and we endured 20-25 knots on the nose for much of the day. We were constantly tweaking the sails, trying to make better ground. When at one point we looked up and saw that our headsail had developed a fair sized rip in it from chafing on the spreaders, we knew that it was done for the day. Hopefully the rip is only on the protective sun layer along it’s rear edge. We’ll know today when we take it down and inspect it.
Our 1:00 ETA had long since come and gone and we were now fighting to just make it to our destination before sunset. The weather had not improved, quite the contrary actually. Our radio has a feature where it will start to beep really loudly when there is a weather alert. At least once per week this occurs when they test the system. Surprised or not, when it occurred yesterday afternoon it was not for a test. A ridge of thunderstorms were making their way eastward across the waters at a speed of about 20 knots. Yes, we were east of them and there was no way we were outrunning them. I did change course to try to move to where the clouds seemed lighter and apparently it worked. The sad part is that they were talking about water spouts developing (tornadoes on the water) and the best way to run away from them and I had just joked to Rebecca 30 minutes prior about a cloud that looked like a funnel (it wasn’t, but the colors looked that way).
With all sails down, we motored the last 2 hours directly at the channel entrance and made it there right at 4:00. It was only while negotiating this entrance channel that the question came to us, why didn’t anyone warn us about how sketchy this entrance is?!?! With breakers on both sides, we had to motor in towards (surf actually) the beach, turn 90 degrees and motor parallel to the beach, all the while surfing on waves pushing us in towards the shoreline? WTF? Will this day never end?
Yes, we made it without crashing on the rocks. Thank God our engines didn’t quit while in the middle of that! With all the bashing we had taken throughout the day, we decided to splurge on a night on the dock and radioed in to Weech’s Bimini Dock to secure a slip. It turns out this was the perfect thing to do as the marina is right beside the customs dock. After helping us tie up, Hank went and retrieved the customs and immigration papers that we needed. Rebecca quickly filled them in for us while I tried to tidy up our now disaster-area boat. At pretty much exactly 5:00 PM, I made my way in to the customs office and with the help of the nice lady behind the counter, we were made all legal. She was extra helpful in fact because the immigration people in the building next door had already left for the day. She was able to complete whatever paperwork they would have required so we didn’t have to wait and come back again the next day (or perhaps Monday as I don’t know if they are even open today).
Man, we sure needed this beer, obtained from CJ’s, a cool little beachside “Deli.”
A topic of much discussion on the radio nets as of late is how much time each boat checking in has been granted by immigration. It appears as if some new rules have been put in place which only allow the officers to grant 30 days when checking in. Captains can go to any customs office near the end of this period and get a free extension but because there are still ports giving longer stays right off the bat, many cruisers are choosing where they check in based on this information. We received only 30 days but in truth, it’s not such a big deal for us. We don’t even have any idea where we’ll be in 30 days!
PS: Although Rebecca and I made it through this passage unscathed, my Alfa Wi-Fi amplifier did not. It’s now being held together by duct tape. 🙁 I think I’m going to try to have our friends pick one up (or 2 perhaps) and bring it to us when they cross.
PPS: Our new solar charger is not working. 🙁 🙁 More troubleshooting fun.
The water where we are docked. That’s what I’m talkin’ about!