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Having just finished the chapter on crossing the gulf stream in Steven Pavlidis’ The Northern Bahamas Cruising Guide, I am reminded of the topic of dealing with currents that we covered in the Fast Track to Cruising course that we took last Christmas.

For the benefit of our Blog readers who are not up to speed on plotting courses, it is hardly ever as simple at steering a straight course from point A to point B. This is especially true when crossing the gulf stream, the world’s largest underwater “river.” If, when leaving Florida to travel to the Bahamas, one was to simply steer a straight course, you would likely find yourself some 10 hours later in the middle of the Atlantic with no land in sight. Because the gulf stream is moving northward at a considerable speed you instead need to take into account how much your boat will be pushed in that direction and thus actually set your course in a more southerly direction. How far south? To determine this involves calculations which factor in your starting point, planned destination, your boat’s speed and the speed of the current. Do we remember how to do all this? Ummmm… sort of. Fortunately the above mentioned book discusses the process, and a quick Google pulls up a bunch of resources too. By the time we get to the point where we are ready to cross we’ll have it all figured out.

Dealing with currents 101:

The two words in this post’s title, set and drift, “are characteristics of the current or the velocity of water over the ground in which a ship is sailing. Drift is the magnitude of the current (typically measured in knots) and set is the bearing in the direction the current is flowing. Bearing is measured in degrees clockwise from either magnetic or true (geographical) North.” (source: Wikipedia)

The way we were taught to remember which word is which is as follows:

Set has 3 letters = 000 (compass bearings have three digits)
Drift has 5 letters = Speed also has 5 letters

The one thing we have read over and over is that the number one factor in having a pleasant crossing to the Bahamas is weather. Specifically, waiting for the proper “weather window.” Even more specifically, you should never attempt to cross to the Bahamas when the wind has any northerly component (N, NE, NW, etc.). Because the gulf stream travels north any wind opposing it can kick up some very ugly waves. So the trick is to hang out in Florida and wait for a suitable forecast. Although this may take some time, if it will help us to avoid spending hours getting tossed around in vicious seas, we’ll be patient.


  1. Florida isn’t a bad place to w ait for a weather window! Besides, from Florida, you will actually sail NORTH to the Bahamas, so the Stream will help you on your way! You are doing the preparation and learning beforehand, which is good. You might also want to look into taking some of the Power Squadron courses, such as navigation, cruising, and outboard engine maintainence whilst you wait. I know that the Canadian Power Squadrons have the same courses as the US ones do. They are interesting, and you will meet lots of nice, helpful people at meetings, as well as in courses. Not all of them are powerboaters, it’s now the Sail and Power Squadrons!

    • We actually looked into participating in a navigation course with them just recently but they opted not to run it due to lack of participants. They have a couple of other courses, “Seamanship” and “Marine Maintenance,” that I may jump in on. They are scheduled to begin in January.

  2. They also have a cruise planning course, which is good. I hope you can find the navigation courses, though, because they would be an excellent extension of the one you had to take for your license in Canada. I would guess, from your comments about set and drift, that it was mostly an overview. Anyway, the Power Squadron courses are excellent. The weather one is also good, and much needed where forecasts are less frequent/accurate, or even where they are good! The weather around your boat is rarely exactly what is forecast for the larger area covered by the weather services!

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