Getting from the Bahamas to Florida, should, in theory, be a “piece of cake”. A little over 50 miles separate the two countries, the closest point of entry/exit, are the small islands of Bimini, and further south, Gun Cay and North and South Cat Cay. In between, in this small stretch of Atlantic Ocean, the Gulf Stream current brings warm water from the south, to cooler waters in the north, ripping at a rate of up to 3 knots. This makes it a stretch of water that needs to be crossed with care.
We left the Berry Islands on Memorial Day, May 28th, in rainy, overcast weather, the remnants of Tropical Storm Alberto still in the air. We had to cross the shallow Bahama Bank to get to Cat Cay, about 80 miles away. On a sunny day, it would probably have been beautiful, the shallower water always reflecting so blue on a clear day, but we had the far outer storm bands still moving north, resulting in fresh winds and grey, heavy skies. It was an uneventful day, a little bumpy at times, but roughly 12 hours later, we arrived at tiny North Cat Cay, to anchor for the night, and make the Gulf Stream crossing the following day.
|Arriving at Cat Cay|
Lighter wind was forecast, as often is the case after a storm passes, and we were OK with that. Heavy winds, even in the right direction, can whip up the waves, and with the strong Gulf Stream current, make for unpleasant, if not hazardous conditions. Wind in the wrong direction, fighting the strong current, make it an absolute “no-go” zone. Light, southerly winds were forecast, so we had wind with current, and were set to go. Leaving Cat Cay we still had a couple of squalls to negotiate, and we put a reef in the mail sail and furled the jib to 60%.
|A stormy start to the Gulf Stream crossing|
After a few hours, the storms passed, and the wind died. We shook out the reef and unfurled the jib, but it was still not enough to keep us going…and we started to feel the effects of the current. With no wind to help us, even motor sailing, we were starting to be swept sideways! We pointed further south than our intended destination of the bottom of Key Largo, but the current swept us to points north of Miami!
Gaby was the first to cry “Land Ahoy!” when she spotted the high rises of Miami sticking out like building blocks far on the horizon! We also knew we were back in US Waters when we heard the transmission on Channel 16, of Coast Guard Cutter 04, warning vessels in the area to stay clear. They were conducting live fire gunnery exercises, and after providing their position, gave a radius that had to be clear: 5,000 yards for vessels, 10,000 feet for any aircraft. We were passing to the north of them (we had a visual of the cutter, but they had turned off their AIS signal). Dave radioed them to make sure we didn’t have to change course. They said we were fine, but if we wanted to alter course slightly away from them, that they would appreciate it (increase the safety zone slightly, they said!). Soon we could see the plumes of smoke as they conducted their exercises.
|The Miami skyline appears on the horizon and plumes of smoke are seen as the Coast Guard Cutter conducts live fire exercises|
This went on for a few hours, and certainly kept us entertained and passed the time. In normal conditions, 50 miles, depending on our speed, would take anywhere from 6 – 8 hours for us to cover. Due to the current, we were, at times, making speeds of 2 – 3 knots VMG (velocity made good) to our destination. That means, although we were going 6 knots through the water, our calculated speed to get to our end point, was half, or less of that! In other words, it was taking forever!!!
We eventually managed to cut free of the current at about 6:00pm, about 12 hours after leaving the Bahamas! And we still had about 12 miles left to go to get to a channel that would allow us to get to the inside of Key Largo, where we could safely anchor for the night! We had daylight until about 8:00pm, so once free of the current, we motored south until we found the channel at Angelfish Creek, where we negotiated some shallow water, and saw some beautiful spotted eagle rays in the water, and stoic, white egrets standing like statues in the mangrove edge. This was all familiar. We were back in Florida. We were home.
|Our actual track across the Gulf Stream and down to Key West. The red dotted line shows the route we would normally have taken. The blue line shows our actual track, and how the current swept us sideways towards Miami!|