Goldilocks in the Gulf Stream

The night before crossing the Gulf Stream, Eric and I both had knots in our stomachs. We had done our homework—read and reread the cruising guides, grilled more experienced sailors for their advice, studied the charts, plotted our course. Most important, we monitored the weather reports. To cross the  Stream in the wrong wind and wave conditions is asking for a bashing, wind whipping you in the face, square waves slamming into your hull. You need just the right weather window, which means moderate southeast to southwest winds and a sea that is “laying down.” You need a Goldilocks moment.

Early on the morning of February 8, we had it. At this time of year the wind clocks around fairly predictably from north through east to south and back through west to north. How long and how strong it will blow from any one direction is another matter. So for the past two weeks, we and the other Bahama-bound sailors at Miami’s Dinner Key Marina had been diligently following and sharing weather forecasts. It gets to be like a buzz in the air. It’s coming, the weather window is coming, get ready to head out.

On the afternoon of February 7, we left the marina and motored to No Name Harbor at the entrance to Biscayne Bay, a staging ground for jumping off to the central Bahamas. Half a dozen yachts were already anchored there, and by sunset fifteen boats in all were waiting to go. But while it did reassure us to know we were on target with the weather, other worries crept to the surface.

What if our anchor didn’t hold overnight and we drifted into another boat or onto the rocky shore? Though we had practiced anchor drills in Salt Run in St. Augustine, we had never been on the hook overnight before.

Was our 3:00 a.m. departure time too early? Based on a speed of 4-5 knots and a distance of approximately 45 miles, we anticipated a crossing time to Bimini of 9-11 hours. Since you absolutely do not want to make a nighttime arrival in the Bahamas—where the channels are narrow and often unlighted and unmarked—leaving before sunup gave us extra hours of daylight to reach port even if the wind was light. Also, navigating out of well-lighted and well-marked Biscayne Bay should be straightforward enough. But distances and flashing lights can be hard to judge in the dark.

What if the engine conked out? Never mind that we are supposed to be a sailboat. The advice was adamant and unanimous: Don’t spend any more time crossing the Stream than you have to. Motorsail across! Having had more than one engine issue with Corroboree, and although her engine had been upgraded and twice vetted by a certified Yanmar mechanic, we fought nagging doubts.

Finally, what else could go wrong? Considering the long list of things that broke or malfunctioned on our shakedown cruise from St. Augustine, we girded ourselves for the worst.

Then we hoisted anchor and went, and our crossing was perfect. The only near miss was on leaving Biscayne Bay where, ironically, it was a US Coast Guard buoy that should have been lighted and wasn’t. By keeping a sharp lookout we spotted it in time and dodged it.

But the rest of the crossing—gorgeous! The sky was blue, the clouds billowy, the wind steady from the southeast at about 10 knots. The sea lay down almost the entire way. We had hardly any whitecaps. The channel into Bimini was indeed narrow, but the markers were easy to pick out. The engine performed without a single hiccup.

And the water, oh, the water. Sailors describe the “purple” Gulf Stream, and if you think of a deep violet, almost the color of a blackberry, that’s it. At the place where we crossed, the Gulf Stream is approximately 2500 feet deep, and it surges northward at up to 3.3 knots. To go due east, we had to sail southeast or we’d miss Bimini by 25 miles. According to NOAA, the Gulf Stream transports nearly four billion cubic feet of water per second, an amount greater than that carried by all of the world’s rivers combined. Now here we were skipping over it, an incredible natural force that shaped the history of the New World from the day Columbus stepped ashore.

At 20 miles out, we could look back and still faintly discern the skyscrapers of Miami. Then there was no land anywhere at all. We saw a freighter, a tanker and what might have been a research vessel. We saw about a dozen sail and power boats, spread out to the horizon. We saw a few birds that I would like to say were either Manx or Audubon shearwaters—either of which would have been a lifer for me—but impossible to identify from a moving boat as they winged past.

We didn’t expect to sight low-lying Bimini until we were almost on top of it, but 10 miles out, there it was. A beautiful sight, an island rising from the sea, a new place to go. When we came within the last mile the water went from purple to blue to brilliant turquoise so quickly it made us gasp. Then into Brown’s Marina at 1:00 p.m. where we are on island time now.

Passages don’t always go so smoothly, and when they do, you rejoice.

Thank you, wind and waves. Thank you, Gulf Stream. Thank you, Goldilocks.