November 24, 2015
During the days since my last post, Cindy and I had worked our way from Palm Coast down to Biscayne Bay, spending most of our nights anchored out. From Ft Lauderdale we jumped to the outside to make the run down to Miami-Key Biscayne, enjoying a bouncy but uneventful 4 hour long run a couple of miles offshore with JOD’s sails up for the first time.
We anchored out for a couple of nights off of Key Biscayne and then crossed the bay and picked up a mooring ball at Dinner Key Marina to wait for a weather window to make the 8-9 hour crossing across the Gulf Stream to Bimini. One thing you want to avoid is crossing the Gulf Stream when the wind has a component coming down out of the north. The Gulf Stream current travels from south to north and when the wind direction and the current direction oppose each other, the waves stack up high and it gets ugly quickly. It pays to wait until the weather is right.
A steady 20-25 knot wind blew in from the east for several days but the outlook Thursday going into Friday was very promising. We use several different realtime apps to look at the weather forecast, wind direction, wind speeds and wave heights. In addition, we also talk to a guy named Chris Parker, a captain and weather forecaster who develops custom forecasts for you for a fee. We called Chris up on Wednesday afternoon and he agreed the weather looked good for our crossing on Friday. Winds dropping to 5-10 knots out of the south and south-southeast and waves 1-2 feet high. We might run into some pop-up rain showers but there should not be any significant winds associated with them. He just recommended not leaving too early, say between 6 and 7 to give the waves a chance to die down.
So Thursday afternoon we dropped off our mooring ball, made our way over to the fuel dock to fill up our tanks with diesel and then motored across Biscayne Bay to anchor off Key Biscayne. That way we could head straight into the channel and out into the Atlantic early the next morning.
We run up our main sail, pull up our anchor and push off a little before 7am the following morning. We had checked the weather reports again and everything still looked good for our crossing. The sky was clear but almost as soon as we come out of the channel and into the Atlantic we see dark clouds to the north of us. We’re expecting some rain though certainly not this early into the trip. We set our compass course to 120o to compensate for the Gulf Stream current running north. We also notice the wind and the waves are behind us, which isn’t where they’re supposed to be, but then rainstorms can cause local shifts in the winds.
About an hour out of Biscayne, the rain starts. Again, not unexpected and really just annoying. Our enclosure is down so we stay dry. Radar shows openings in the clouds ahead of us but these always seemed to close up before we get there. For the next two hours it rains a steady pour. The wind also shifts to where it’s on our port beam, meaning its coming out of the north, which was REALLY not supposed to happen. The rains let off and for another hour we motor-sail with grey clouds hanging low over us, making a little over 6 knots between our sail and the engines.
Four hours into the trip we see another dense area of rain in front of us. As we approach closer, we feel the cold blast of wind that precedes a squall line. The wind across our beam picks up rapidly and we decide to reef down our main to its first reefing point, reducing the amount of canvas exposed to the wind. I step outside the cockpit into the rain to winch down the reefing line as Cindy slowly pays out the halyard to allow the sail to lower. Soon we’re seeing steady 25 knot winds gusting up to 30 knots. This was not supposed to happen!
I am down in the salon plotting our latest position fix on the chart when Cindy calls down “we need to reef in more now!” The wind has gusted up to forty knots on the beam and we need to have less canvas exposed. I step outside the enclosure again, clipped in by my safety harness to the jacklines, put the second reefing line on the winch and start cranking the main down. Rain is pelting down on me steadily as I work to tighten the foot of the sail. Suddenly, something lets go and sail canvas is spilling onto the roof of the salon.
Crap!! Our first thought is, did we lose the sails? I work my way forward and to my relief see that no, the main sail is still up. However the port lazy jacks, which hold up the sailbag that the sail stacks into when it is lowered, has broken. What must have happened is that one of the sail battens (rods which stiffen and shape the sails) had gotten tangled in the lazy jacks and as I pulled the reefing line down the tension broke the line.
While this is not an unmanageable situation, it’s not good either. As the wind catches the now slack bottom part of the sail, it billows out and starts to cover the cockpit, making it impossible to see where we’re going. I tie a line to the first reefing pulley, toss the free end of the line over the cockpit to the starboard side of the boat, loop it around a cleat and then pull it tight. This pulls the loose canvas back off of the cockpit bimini top, clearing our view.
By now the seas have built to 4-6 feet and JOD is riding like a rollercoaster. Right now we’re concentrating less on steering the best course to the island and focusing on keeping the boat safe. We’re still 25 nautical miles from Bimini and the weather shows no sign of slacking off.
For the next four hours we continue on. We keep looking at the radar for a break in the weather, as well as for other ships. JOD pitches and heaves but moves steadily on at around 6 knots. Each time I plot our position I will for it to be closer to Bimini than it is. Still, we are maintaining a track south of our rhumb line, which is where we need to be to reach our destination and we’re getting about 6-7 miles closer every hour.
Finally we start seeing the weather clearing to the north of us, slowly making its way south towards us. The winds die down and the waves ease up. We are on edge and not ready to declare the storm over since we still have dark clouds ahead of us but inside I am hopeful. Soon we can see trees on the horizon as Bimini starts coming into view, truly a welcome sight after the day we’ve had. 30 minutes later the weather around us is even clearer and it feels like the storm never happened, though we can still look behind us and see the dark clouds pushing towards the horizon.
We decided to drop the main now so that I would have time to secure it with lines before we entered the harbor at North Bimini. I first laid a line across the cabin roof and then Cindy and I dropped the remainder of the main, stacking the sail in the saggy sailbag by hand as best we could. I then tossed one end of the line over the boom, then passed it back underneath the boom, repeating this several times to wrap the sail to the boom and then tied both ends of the line fast to the cabin handrail.
As I’m doing this, Cindy spots dolphins broaching out of the water ahead of us. These friendly sea creatures have always been a welcome sight, never more so than now. It’s like a sign from God that the storm is over. Soon Cindy is calling me excitedly to the front of the boat. I run to the bow to see a pod of at least a dozen of them swimming alongside, in front of us and between our hulls. These guys are huge, much larger than their American cousins that we saw on the ICW.
They broach the water in graceful arcs and with a few strokes of their powerful tails they pull ahead of us, then flip over and come swimming up alongside us again. They roll over onto their sides, looking up at us and flashing their built-in smiles. It feels like we’re being escorted the rest of the way in. I guess when angels are busy, God sends dolphins.
We work our way through the North Bimini channel and motor up to Brown’s Marina. Corderro, the dockmaster, is there to help us with our lines. We are arriving almost at high tide so there is little current running (as Cindy had planned it) and even though the slip is a bit of a tight squeeze, the docking goes off without a hitch.
Finally, 8 hours and 45 minutes after we pulled up anchor, we can relax and have a drink. Both of us are exhausted. As we always do, we did an after action review of what we did right and what we did wrong. We couldn’t come up with any real mistakes. We had consulted reliable up-to-date sources and the weather was supposed to be good. Once it really got rough, we were at the halfway point and it was too late to turn around and go back. Sometimes, you just get your ass handed to you and there is nothing you can do but ride it out.
The truth be told, we really didn’t have it so bad. We quickly met fellow cruisers at the marina who came over to Bimini on Friday and Saturday as well and their stories made ours look tame by comparison. One couple had their jib sail ripped to shreds by the wind AND lost their engine at the same time, then they crested a 10 foot wave only to have another much bigger wave break over their boat, nearly washing away their bimini top. Only the fact that they had a schooner with a mizzen sail allowed them to maintain control of the boat. Another skipper fought for 36 HOURS to make the crossing from a starting point further south from us before finally anchoring at Bimini, only to wake up during the night to his anchor dragging and his boat heading towards the shore. His buddy’s boat had lost its anchor entirely when the shackle broke and his boat was already aground (it floated free when the tide rose). These were very experienced sailors and every one of them had likewise been fooled by the supposedly “good weather window”.
We all watched another boat come into the marina on Sunday dragging its dinghy in a tangled mess behind it. The dinghy had filled with water until the weight of it broke the davits. Now they were trying to dock with 20 knot winds blowing and the current ripping through the marina while dragging a half-sunk dinghy behind them. It was a disaster. No one really knows how many times they hit the docks, backed over their dinghy and only missed hitting other boats by the grace of God. They finally managed to land it on a facedock at the next marina over, the crew of a fishing boat next to them scrambling to grab their lines and get them secured. I wanted to go over and offer them a Bloody Mary.
We’re now settled in at the marina to wait out the winds, which will be blowing for the next week. We’ve gone out and explored Alice Town, a small settlement of around 1100 people and socialized with our fellow cruisers. On Thursday we will have a Thanksgiving potluck on the dock.
It looks like we may have a window to sail over to Chub Cay early next week.
Of course, we’ve heard that before…