Waiting to cross the Gulf Stream at Biscayne Bay
Crossing the Gulf Stream
Waiting to Cross
I stayed a few days anchored in the really beautiful public basin on Key Biscayne (free when I was there but I heard they now charge a small fee.) I heard quite a few tales of crossing the stream from experienced sailors. The waves can be really mean if the wind is from the north against the current - a definite no-no. It was February when I was waiting to cross and the winds at this time of year are quite strong most of the time and usually from the north-east to south- east. The trick to crossing is to catch a frontal system at just the right time so you have about 24 hours of favourable winds with a south or westerly component. For myself, and several others waiting, this took 10 days to happen (never be in a hurry when you are cruising!) and I zoomed down to Key Largo to get a better angle on the Stream to get to Cat Cay.
I left just before dark so I would have most of the next day to find Cat Cay before the next night (it is too far for me to make it during daylight hours alone). The wind was about 12 knots and from the south. I calculated my course to compensate for the current with a good reserve thrown in so I would not get swept north of Cat Cay and set off. I had no GPS system so it was compass and log for navigation (both calibrated very precisely.) I also had a B&G depth sounder good for 600' which I intended to use to pick up the bank on the other side before I planned to sail north to Cat Cay.
All was going well with the self-steering gear set on the right course and the boat moving nicely into the somewhat rolling sea. It had just got dark and I saw a shape in the water almost dead-ahead. It turned out to be a powerboat with no lights but I could see a number of people on board. They did not seem, or indicate, to be in any distress, so I steered clear of them - it looked like a situation best avoided and I pretended I didn't see them.
Crossing the Stream
I turned on the engine later at night to maintain an exact speed of 4.5 knots and motor-sailed most of the night. It did feel pretty lonely out there knowing there was nothing ahead but a couple of tiny islands and the whole Atlantic Ocean and if I missed them I would be heading for Andros or Africa! Conditions remained pretty constant. In the morning winds picked up to about 20 knots and I sailed all day on a close reach. At the predetermined distance, and the depth sounder now occasionally indicating something around 800', I started to head north not knowing my real latitude but confident I was south of Cat Cay. A long time went by making me wonder if I really was north of Cat Cay but I stuck to the plan and soon enough I spotted land which was very exciting as this was really my first "offshore" voyage of any real distance. I knew I had to be quite close to the island as they are all so low so now I had to worry if it was Cat Cay or Bimini (if things were really out of whack). It again seemed like forever before I was able to identify some markings on the island but finally I was sure it was Cat Cay. It was quite rough by this time and I had to pass through a tricky gap to get to the other side of the Island. All went well and with great relief I got to the other, much calmer, side.
I checked into Bahamian customs and soon met, to be great friends, James and his wife Terry, and we anchored back on the east side of the island and had a few beers to celebrate. There were about 30 cruising boats anchored there, many having come from Miami the same day. The big thrill was the incredibly clear water under our keels - it was like we were suspended in space. I had never even seen pictures of water like this. It had an indescribable blue/green hue which really made it so appealing. I never did see water quite like it again.
Nightmare at Cat Cay
The thrill of the day turned into a nightmare at about 1:00 am in the morning. The forecast was for the wind to go from the west to the east during the night but only with light winds. Everyone stayed anchored on the east side as the Gulf Stream side was quite rough. At 2:00 am the wind really picked up to about 25 knots from the east and soon the anchorage was very bouncy. Much worse, the bottom was rock with just a thin layer of sand and everyone started dragging into the shore. Chains were let loose, extra anchors put down, flashlights and spotlights everywhere (it was pitch black and not a single light on the shore so it was impossible to tell where the shore was) and the bottom did not get any shallower as you got closer to the rocks. I could feel myself dragging and so I motored out carefully to find another spot. This went on for hours with the conditions getting worse. Everyone was constantly moving and trying to reset anchors, and avoid other boats and their anchor lines in the pitch black. I was not at all happy about the situation and I loathe being on a lee shore at any time. I figured it was only a matter of time before someone else dragged into me and tangled my anchor chain, or I got washed up on the rocks as by this time I had no idea where the shore was. I was also very tired not having slept while crossing the Stream.
I kept thinking what it would be like on the other side. The strong easterly wind would dampen the waves coming in off the Gulf Stream and the holding I knew was good. I also knew I would never sleep on this side and things would only get worse. I made the decision to cut through the channel to the other side using the Cat Cay lighthouse light and my depth sounder to guide me. I made a depth profile of the bottom all the way around through the channel and set off - I had a lot of experience doing this sort of thing on the Great Lakes in dense fog but here it was a very similar situation in the pitch black night. Everything went fine though a very scary scenario - I motored out far enough to be able to see the lighthouse light and get a good bearing and then using the depth sounder and my profile of the bottom got myself into the channel. From there it was quite easy as I used my powerful spotlight to pick out the rocky shore on one side of the channel. I had an incredible sense of relief getting into the calm water on the other side and feeling my anchor bite deep into the sand. I had a good five hours of sleep. Next morning I noticed no one else had come over. Later I headed over to the other side and James and Terry were ready to set off across the Bahamas Bank as the wind was now favourable to close reach across.
The next group of islands is too far to make in one day so everyone stops and anchors for the night in the middle of the Bank. It is really weird anchoring in shallow water when there is no land on the horizon all around you. It was quite bouncy there and I don't think anyone slept that well. Early next morning we set off and had a great sail to the nearest islands.