JOD bobs on her mooring ball at Dinner Key Marina in Biscayne Bay, just south of Miami, waiting on a window of good weather so we can sail across the Gulf Stream to Bimini. The Gulf Stream, that massive global conveyor belt moving warm water from the Gulf of Mexico northward up along the Eastern seaboard, factors heavily into the plans of cruisers and sailors heading to the Bahamas. Under the right conditions, crossing the Stream can be like sailing on a lake. But if strong winds build from the north, the opposition of wind and current stacks up massive waves, turning an easy sail unpleasant, scary or downright dangerous. And during the Fall and Winter months, nor’easters that can last for days blow up regularly.
Last year all the forecasts turned out to be wrong and in turn we got a good spanking crossing the Stream to Bimini. In retrospect, we were never in any real danger, but it certainly didn’t feel like it at the time. Sad thing is, we can’t prepare any better this year; we still must rely on the weather models, forecasts and reports, same as the year before.
We see a potential window opening up on Wed, Nov 30th and start focusing on that. Thing is, the forecasts can change daily (or hourly!) and we know the next nor’easter is blowing in sometime on Friday. The trick is to determine when the winds and the waves from the last blow have died down enough and if we can reach Bimini before the winds build from the next one.
We watch the ever-changing reports and settle on leaving at 2:00 am on Friday morning when the winds are still predicted to be out of the south-southeast, hoping to assure that we reach Brown’s Marina (who’s claim to fame is being mentioned in Hemingway’s novel Islands in The Stream) at Alice Town, North Bimini before the winds start picking up and clocking around to the north on Friday afternoon. This means leaving in the dark; it will take at least 9 hours to cross, so if we wait until daylight we’ll get caught in the building winds.
On Wednesday, we drop our mooring lines and head to the fuel dock to top off our diesel tanks, then motor across Biscayne Bay and anchor off Key Biscayne. We notice as we depart the fuel dock though is Otto, our autopilot, isn’t functioning. This has been an ongoing intermittent problem, one that neither we or the folks at Dunbar Yachts have been able to resolve.
The autopilot talks with our other instruments using a communications standard called SeaTalk and Otto is now indicating he can’t talk to the other instruments and get the info he needs to steer our boat. This in and of itself is not a disaster, it just means we will actively have to steer rather than pointing JOD in the right direction and letting Otto keep us on track. But on long treks like this one, actively steering will tire us out a lot more quickly.
Cindy and I rise at 2:00am in the pitch dark on Friday, groggy and more than a bit tense. We make preparations for pulling up the anchor and getting under way in the red glow of our headlamps (using white light will render us night blind). Fortunately, Otto comes right up this morning, something we take as a good omen. Almost immediately though, another problem arises; we can’t remember how to dim the display on our chart plotter and at its daytime brightness setting it will render whoever is at the helm night blind.
Not using the chart plotter, unlike missing Otto, is not an option. It displays our electronic navigation maps, shows our heading and speed, displays radar and AIS (Automatic Identification System) info and tracks our position via GPS. Yes, we could go old school and use our paper charts, binnacle compass and plotting tools, but by this point Cindy and I are spoiled enough that we don’t want to do that, especially at night.
We search the manual for dimming instructions but it’s a massive tome with no index and we don’t have the time to page through it looking for the right info. Cindy hits on the idea of covering the display with our clear blue plastic clipboard; this helps but it’s still too bright not to cause night blindness.
At this point we have a choice; we can stay put and figure the display issue out, though that means being pinned down for another week until the next nor’easter blows through or we can just go and deal with the night blindness issue until the sun comes up. For better or worse, we make the decision to go.
Now I’m up front on JOD’s bow in the pitch blackness, using our spotlight to search out and light up the channel markers leading from Key Biscayne out into the open waters of the Atlantic. We pick our way cautiously along the channel, spotting each marker in turn. Cindy is relying on me to locate and avoid any hazards as she is completely night blind. As we approach No Name Harbor (no really, that’s its name), we are forced to pick our way through the boats anchored on both sides of the channel outside the harbor. Its nerve-wracking.
Finally, though, we pass the Key Biscayne lighthouse and feel JOD picking up the swell from the open ocean. A couple of more markers to clear and then we’re sailing off into the darkness. It is a few hours until nautical twilight, the point in the sun’s rise when you can first make out the horizon, and we will have to sail by feel until then.
Shipping is another hazard in crossing the Stream; huge container ships regularly ply these waters hauling cargo along the Eastern seaboard and most of these ships would hardly even notice if they plowed over a small boat like JOD. We constantly search the horizon for lights, aided by JOD’s radar and her AIS. AIS was a safety feature we added to our electronics when we had the boat hauled out at Thunderbolt last year and now we don’t see how boats can function in open water without it.
All commercial boats are required to be equipped with AIS. AIS-equipped boats broadcast a signal which shows up as a boat icon on the chart plotters of other AIS-equipped boats. Touching the icon brings up information on the ship, including its name, size, speed, heading and an estimate of how close it will pass to us and when that will occur. Its invaluable when you’re crossing open water in the dark.
We spend the next three hours dodging ships and making headway toward Bimini. It’s a lonely feeling being out in the middle of the ocean, though Miami gives off a warm, reassuring glow to our stern. There aren’t many stars to see; it’s cloudy and we know that we may encounter rain showers along the way. We also note, much to our dismay, that contrary to the forecast, our wind is from the north, not the south as predicted.
The sun rising at around 6:30 is truly a welcome site for us both. With several miles of visibility, we can now relax a little bit. The north wind is only blowing at 5-10 knots, not strong enough to build up any bad waves yet, and the sea has an easy swell to it. Its cloudy but radar is not indicating any storms nearby. We track slightly to the southeast, letting Gulf Stream current push us northward toward Bimini.
So far, so good. I go down hourly and plot our position on our paper chart and measure the distance to Bimini. This is not strictly necessary since we have the chart plotter but its good practice anyway. We alter course a couple of times to dodge small storms but the weather is holding up nicely. Soon trees appear on the horizon.
We are forced to sail through one rain shower as we approach North Bimini. It pours a deluge on us for a solid 45 minutes but there’s no wind or lightning. It does force me to don rain gear to get out on deck and set up our lines and fenders for docking.
We hail the dockmaster at Brown’s Marina who tells us to tie up on the facedock. As we approach the marina though we notice he’s absent from the dock; turns out he’s staying dry in the tiki hut and letting us land JOD ourselves. Great! However, the current is running out of the bay and the wind is pushing us toward the dock so Cindy has little trouble easing us alongside. I jump off and tie us to the pilings just as the rain ends.
All in all, it was an uneventful crossing, a welcome relief after our previous trip across the Stream. Yes, the wind once again came out of the north when it was predicted to be mainly out of the south but its magnitude never amounted to anything dangerous.
The Sign at Brown’s Marina
Bimini consists of two islands: North Bimini, where most of the population of 2,000 live, and South Bimini which has one small settlement and mainly hosts a condo complex and an upscale marina. We enjoy Bimini; it’s a small community of friendly real Bahamians, a perfect place to re-acclimate to the slower pace of life in the Bahamas.
Located just 50 miles from the US and far removed from the rest of the Bahamian islands, it’s a unique place. Famed for fishing grounds that attracted the likes of Ernest Hemingway, it was long a favorite destination for folks from South Florida. A decent sized power boat could have you in Bimini in 2-3 hours, ready to enjoy a long weekend of hooking marlin and bonefish, sun and drinking.
A few years back though the Bahamian government instituted an increased entry fee that killed the weekend traffic. Businesses on Bimini have been struggling ever since, trying to survive on the fishing charters that run over from the US mainly during the summer months.
A foreign-owned casino and resort development on the north end of the island promised all sorts of benefits to the locals during the planning stages but the construction, service and concession jobs ended up going to cheaper Mexican and Dominican laborers. A concrete jetty that was built in an environmentally sensitive bay to accommodate the resort’s fast ferry now sits unused since the resort decided the ferry wasn’t economical.
The Seaplane From Miami Takes Off
On Saturday, we rent a golf cart (best way to get around on Bimini) and drive up to check out the resort and casino. Its grandiose, luxurious and mostly empty. The accompanying $3.50 per foot marina is likewise deserted, save for a few megayachts whose owners hardly care about docking costs. There’s a beautiful pool area, several upscale restaurants and the aforementioned casino; you might just as well be in Miami.
We spend about 45 minutes touring the place (Cindy winning a fast $20 at the penny slots) before heading south to Joe’s Conch Shack, where we enjoy our first conch salad in months. Joe’s is packed with tourists from the Carnival Fantasy, a cruise ship anchored off the south tip of the island. Turns out that the Fantasy has temporarily replaced its stop in Freeport, which was heavily damaged by Hurricane Matthew, with a stop in Bimini. This will help out the Biminians for a while, but we both wonder how folks on the island can continue to earn a living.