TO AND FROM THE BA­HAMAS

BUCK­ING THE GULF STREAM FROM PEN­SACOLA, FLORIDA, TO PEN­SACOLA CAY, BA­HAMAS, AND BACK

SAIL - - Contents - STORY AND PHO­TOS BY AN­NIE DIKE

For An­nie Dike a pair of Gulf Stream cross­ings brings a whole host of sur­prises

It’s like rid­ing a bronco with a fire hose spray­ing in your face: four un­re­lent­ing knots of cur­rent push­ing you into 4 to 6ft smack­ers. Lumpy. Bumpy. A rodeo. A mis­take. Any­thing but pleas­ant. When my part­ner, Phillip, and I were plan­ning our first voy­age to the Ba­hamas on our 1985 Ni­a­gara 35, Plain­tiff’s Rest, that’s what peo­ple told us cross­ing the Gulf Stream in any kind of north wind would feel like.

But we did it any­way, and our two pas­sages across the Gulf of Mex­ico and the Gulf Stream taught us many lessons. Iron­i­cally, cross­ing with a north wind was not the bull ride we an­tic­i­pated, and sur­pris­ingly, cross­ing back with a south wind was not the gal­lant trot we thought it would be ei­ther. All lessons (aka mis­takes) are free to­day. If you, too, are look­ing for tick­ets across the Gulf Stream, giddy up!

Un­for­tu­nately for us, liv­ing in Pen­sacola as we do, Phillip and I first have to sail across the en­tire Gulf of Mex­ico be­fore we can find our­selves in a suit­able place to jump across the Stream. By the time we’ve cov­ered the 500 miles it takes us to reach the tip of Florida, we’ve al­ready sailed as far off­shore as we will need to for the en­tire Ba­hamas trip and have al­ready given the Gulf a chance to thor­oughly pum­mel us be­fore we even have the op­por­tu­nity to bat­tle the Stream. We took our fair share of kicks and licks on the way to Key West, in par­tic­u­lar.

Specif­i­cally, around Tampa we found our­selves in some fun stuff that had us bash­ing around on a buck­ing bull for 24-or-so hours. The gale rat­tled the au­topi­lot loose, over­heated the en­gine and had us liv­ing per­ma­nently in foulies be­cause we were too tired or, more of­ten, too fre­quently needed top­side to doff them be­low. Once in a while we were pooped by a wave the size of Texas. When that hap­pened, all I could do was laugh, punch-drunk at the ridicu­lous amount of wa­ter in the cock­pit that pooled up to my thigh at the helm. Later, chas­ing a noise com­ing from be­neath the bin­na­cle, I jumped into the lazarette and found the steer­ing quad­rant had dropped and was vis­i­bly (and au­di­bly!) grind­ing its own notch into the fiber­glass rud­der sup­port. I ac­tu­ally re­mem­ber laugh­ing a lit­tle when I went down be­low to wake Phillip for his shift, flit­ting about like a rodeo clown try­ing to dis­tract him from the mess and noise that awaited top­side.

“No, that’s not the rud­der fall­ing out you hear, ev­ery­thing’s fine up there. Here, I made you tea.”

Thank­fully, once safely in Key West, we found the kicked-up seas had sim­ply rat­tled the rud­der post loose a few threads from its cap on the cock­pit floor and a quick tight­en­ing lifted the quad­rant back up and off of the fiber­glass. At the same time, though, we also knew that was just the round-pen, the pre­lim­i­nar­ies. We couldn’t even be­gin to fathom what the Stream had in store. De­spite what we had just faced in the Gulf, cross­ing the Stream was still the pas­sage we were wor­ried about most—and for good rea­son. Did you know the Gulf Stream car­ries four bil­lion (bil­lion!) cu­bic feet of wa­ter per sec­ond? I’m glad I didn’t know that when I crossed. I would have imag­ined our lit­tle boat, look­ing rather tippy and toy-like, be­ing car­ried along like one of those mon­keys rid­ing a herd dog dur­ing the break, bounc­ing and bob­bing and hold­ing on with two hands, two feet and a tail. We had read mul­ti­ple ac­counts of boats lit­er­ally be­ing bashed apart at the seams when caught in a north blow in the Stream. Dur­ing the time of year we’d de­cided to cross, De­cem­ber, northerly fronts also have a rep­u­ta­tion for build­ing fast and fierce in that part of the At­lantic, which would make it that much harder for us to find a safe 12 to 20-hour weather win­dow.

Once we’d fi­nally show­ered and shaved in Key West, though, Lady Luck was ap­peared to be with us. And when weather router Chris Parker re­ported “two days of glass” that matched our GRIBs, our gut in­stinct told us to go. While ev­ery­one had warned us against cross­ing the Stream in a north wind, a light and fluky one of less than 5 knots was too tempt­ing to re­sist, so we set off from Key West headed around the tip of Florida. Sure

enough, as soon as we got into the Stream it was like mak­ing that turn around the last bar­rel, whip­ping and kick­ing un­til your horse rips out from un­der you. We strapped onto a rocket! Un­der en­gine alone, our Ni­a­gara was now mak­ing 7 knots when our Wester­beke usu­ally maxes out around 4.5. None­the­less, de­spite all of our worry and prepa­ra­tion, it was a smooth, gal­lant lope to the Ba­hamas, with lights glow­ing from both Mi­ami and Freeport on ei­ther side. We left Key West around 1100 on a Fri­day and were in West End, Ba­hamas by 0900 the fol­low­ing Sun­day, where I was passed out in a ham­mock af­ter a sin­gle goom­bay smash two hours later. Best nap of my life.

ROUGH RIDE HOME

Of course, we hoped for a sim­i­larly smooth ride when it came time to head home again two months later. If cross­ing the Stream with a north wind is only rec­om­mended in less than 5 knots of wind with calm seas, then cross­ing with a southerly wind sounded like a fan­tas­tic idea. Turn­ing south into it too early, though, and then buck­ing along on the out­side in the Florida Straits? Def­i­nitely not rec­om­mended.

This be­ing our first time sail­ing back across to Florida, Phillip and I were hes­i­tant to nav­i­gate the en­trance and travel in Hawk’s Chan­nel—the nar­row water­way that runs be­tween the outer reefs of the Florida Straits and the Keys—es­pe­cially at night. Granted, Hawk’s Chan­nel of­fers calmer, more pro­tected wa­ters, but it also re­quires fo­cused nav­i­ga­tion along mark­ers to avoid the reefs. Phillip and I there­fore de­cided that trav­el­ing in the wide open strait and nav­i­gat­ing into Marathon the fol­low­ing day, would be a bet­ter strat­egy. Alas, as we soon found, sad­dling a buck­ing bronco would have been more com­fort­able.

“You went on the out­side?” I re­mem­ber a good friend and fel­low cap­tain in Marathon ask­ing af­ter the pas­sage, his face curled in con­fu­sion. Yep, we’re those peo­ple. It re­ally wasn’t the smartest move. The minute we turned south and started beat­ing into the cur­rent and wind, it be­came that “lumpy, bumpy, mis­take” folks had warned us about. Phillip and I both looked like beat-up bull riders the next day, bags un­der our eyes and big pur­ple bruises cov­er­ing our bony parts. We’ll know next time to get out of the arena and tuck into the chan­nel.

With an­other suc­cess­ful, al­beit un­com­fort­able, cross­ing of the Gulf Stream be­hind us, we still had the en­tire Gulf to nav­i­gate be­fore we could con­sider our­selves home, and she never disappoints. A beat­down out­side of Panama City ac­tu­ally opened the seal on our stuff­ing box and had us ter­ri­fied as we watched a stream of wa­ter spew out from un­der the trans­mis­sion. I swear I could hear that clown again, laugh­ing while spray­ing a seltzer bot­tle into our bilge. Ha, ha, ha! Thank­fully, a quick shimmy of the seal back into place, a snap of the reins and a cluck of the teeth, and we were trot­ting along again, like it had never hap­pened. Which is per­haps why we keep buy­ing tick­ets to this wild, crazy show. Much like a rodeo, it’s guar­an­teed to be a rough-and-tum­ble, story-wor­thy ad­ven­ture. If you’re set­ting out to cross the Gulf of Mex­ico or the Gulf Stream, buckle up. You just bought a ticket to the rodeo. s

An­nie Dike and her parter, Phillip, cruise on their 1985 Ni­a­gara 35; An­nie is an au­thor, blog­ger and film­maker at havewind­will­travel.com

The au­thor grips the reins as Plain­tiff’s Rest rises to a fol­low­ing sea

From the sub­lime to the ridicu­lous: lazy warm-weather sail­ing (top) to a bruis­ing wind-over-cur­rent Gulf Stream beat (bot­tom)

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