Monday, May 30, 2016

The Crossing

Headed due east into the sunrise.

It all comes down to this:  “The Crossing”.  Much has been written in the various guide books, but “How you handle the crossing will determine whether this is a good trip or a bad one.” Skipper Bob, “Bahamas Bound”. 

There are several places along the south Florida coast from which to cross to the Bahamas. Many cruisers choose Fort Pierce or Palm Beach, as these provide the first opportunity for south bound cruisers to cross.  We decided to cross farther south and here’s why.  The ‘problem’ is the Gulf Stream, particularly for a slow vessel such as a sailboat like Layla.  The Gulf Stream will push your boat to the north, and you must steer to the southeast to compensate.  How much you compensate depends on the width and speed of the Stream.  This all sounds quite simple to calculate, but the Gulf Stream can be wider or narrower than its average width of 25 miles, and faster or slower than its average speed of 3 knots, depending on where you are relative to it.  Most honest boaters, no matter how seasoned they are, respect the Stream and will admit to some anxieties about a crossing. 

Weather also plays a role in the crossing conditions of the Stream.  Since the Stream is traveling north, any wind from the north, thereby opposing the north flow, will cause large short waves.  15 knot winds can cause 10 foot waves in the Gulf Stream!  Have you seen a ten foot wave in a small boat?  Therefore, boaters avoid a crossing when winds are from any combination of wind from the north.  Heading East to the Bahamas, a southwest to west wind direction is ideal for a sailboat, and less than 20 knots makes it a more comfortable ride.

And so we decided to head out from Fort Lauderdale and head to West End on the Grand Bahamas Island, with a rhumb line course of 64 degrees magnetic.  This is a slightly longer crossing than Palm Beach, but has more of a northerly course, and we could take advantage of the Stream rather than fighting it.  There are several ways to plot the course to account for the Gulf Stream.  We opted to use a method where we followed a fixed compass heading rather than having the GPS recalculate our course as we veered north.  At a boat speed of 5 knots, with 69 miles to West End, we steered a course of about 90 degrees magnetic, due east.  This compass heading results in an “S” shaped course as you are pushed north.

“S” curve of our course taken from Fort Lauderdale to West End, Grand Bahamas Island.

We had planned, provisioned, re-planned, re-provisioned, and repeated this scenario several more times.  We were ready to go.  Chris Parker, the noted weather guide for boaters on the single side band radio, forecasted southeast winds at 5-10 knots, not perfect, but manageable.  Our crossing began at 4 am.  We simply could not sleep anymore.  We pulled anchor and called to request an opening of the first bridge (Las Olas Bridge) at 4:45 am. We then meandered through the canals to the next bridge near the harbor inlet.  Tracy steered in the dark passing between the markers – green on the left (port), red on the right – Bud showed a spot light to help illuminate the markers.  As we waited for the bridge to open at 5:30 am, the current pushed us nearer and nearer to a marker.  And on the other side of the bridge, nearly the entire view ahead was filled with a ship.  A huge cruise ship was just arriving, like a high rise condo but on the water.  By the time the bridge opened and we passed through, the cruise ship was at the dock and no longer posed a threat.

We turned out the inlet as the first of dawn began to brighten the morning.  Ahead we could see more lights of another cruise ship coming through the channel.  Soon a pilot boat came along side of us attempting to hail us on the radio but his radio wasn’t working.  Now close enough to hear him shout, he said we must move now out of the way of the cruise ship – “There is no room for both of you in the channel and the ship, she is coming fast.  Move south now!”  And move we did.  The cruise ship up close is huge with maybe 15 decks towering above the water – a massive thing on the water.
The day now began with the calm. No winds.  We had to motor.  We set the autopilot to the compass course, steering 90 degrees due East.  As the sun rose, winds filled in from the northeast at 5-10 knots.  Yes, we crossed with winds having a northerly component.  But the seas were calm, maybe 2-3 feet.  It would be a good crossing.

About 5-10 miles out, we realized that the GPS and compass were differing by 30 degrees!  This was wacky.  Which one do we believe?  We reread the guide books on the crossing and realized that this wacky GPS was normal.  The GPS was showing course direction, while the compass showed our heading.  The Stream was pushing us sideways.  We were “crabbing” to the Bahamas.  We could see from the track through the day that we were making the distinctive “S” shaped curve.

Looking back (west) at Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

We lost sight of land and could no longer see the high rises of Fort Lauderdale and Miami further south.  We passed into the indescribable cobalt blue of the Gulf Stream – flying fish scattering ahead and to the side.  The winds shifted to the east.  We put the Genoa up (the most forward sail on the bow) and increased our speed about a knot.  We were going 5-6 knots and sustained that much of the day.

Several hours later we began to see land on the horizon – not much elevation but a water tower of West End.

We had made it!  We anchored around 7 pm only to find when we dove on the anchor, the entire ‘anchorage’ was hard coral covered with a dusting of sand.  We put out more chain and put on the anchor drag alarm.  We were fortunate that the winds were light and the seas calm, and stayed put all night.  A good end to a great day.

“Q” flag (quarantine) hoisted after anchoring outside West End.

Next:  Arrival in the Bahamas.  Remember, you can click on the map in the upper right hand side of the blog and see where we are anytime.

Friday, May 13, 2016

You know it is time to go….From West Palm Beach and on to Fort Lauderdale

When you stay so long in West Palm Beach, they give fireworks to celebrate your departure.  Actually, the fireworks were for a private party.

You can see a lot when you stay in one place, but at some point you realize that it may be time to move on.  We planned on staying in West Palm Beach for two days, and ended up spending two months.

Young sailors honing their skills at the Palm Beach Sailing Club.  We came here for showers, laundry, and internet.

When do you know it is time to go?
  1.  First and foremost, when the weather says, “go soon”, it may be time to go.
  2.  When you start to recognize all of the town “characters” on your walks to the library and grocery stores and they acknowledge you as a local not a tourist, it may be time to go.
  3.  When you have stocked up on the most essential food items and have replenished them multiple times, it may be time to go.
  4.  When you say, “We know West Palm Beach”, you know it must be time to go.
  5.  When you realize all of the things you did with extreme urgency, such as the passport renewal, could have been done without expedited service, it may be time to go.
  6.  When you realize with your “old timers status” in the anchorage that you can now suggest to new arrivals that they have anchored too close, it may be time to leave.
  7.  When you lose your lock to your dinghy at the same dock, not once but twice, it may be time to leave.
  8.  When you have a nickname for every boat owner in the anchorage – that ranges from the dead mans’ boat, the vultures boat, the howling dog boat, the Auzzies, the Brits, the sausage makers boat – it may be time to leave.
  9.  When you have checked out every episode of multiple seasons of “House of Cards” and “Orphan Black” from the library, it is time to leave.
  10.  When you find that most things work most of the time, it definitely is time to go.

We left West Palm Beach for Fort Lauderdale cruising on the outside (yes, sailing) with the intention to wait a few days for a good weather window to cross to the Bahamas.  As we have learned many times, cruising is less about schedules and more about intentions.

While we were in West Palm we helped rescue a wayward sailboat that had dragged anchor while the owners were ashore.  As a reward the owners offered us a couple of nights gratis at Pier 66 Marina in Fort Lauderdale.  We simply had to tell them when we wanted to stay.  We had access to all the luxuries including swimming pools (yes, 3 of them at the adjacent Hyatt Hotel), laundry, internet, and interesting neighbors (mostly the crew) on mega yachts.  We delayed our departure during one weather window to indulge ourselves with all those amenities.  We then returned to an anchorage nestled near the Las Olas Bridge in central Fort Lauderdale and near the canals with many extravagant estates (you just can’t call these homes).

Hanging out amidst the megayachts at sunset at the Pier 66 Marina.  What a nice treat.

Sunset at our anchorage just north of the Las Olas bridge.

Fort Lauderdale is all about boats, boats and more boats.  From the cruise ships, the countless mega yachts, the long distance sailors, and the weekend day cruisers, Fort Lauderdale is the center of a boating industry probably unrivalled anywhere on the east coast.  So if you want boat stuff, you can probably find it here.  Going ashore and leaving a dinghy is difficult in this area. Fortunately, Southport Raw Bar offers boaters a deal.  You can use their dock for $10 and if you eat there, you get that taken off your bill.  It was a pretty good deal.  We had ready access to many stores, virtually anything you could want.

The Southport Raw Bar dinghy dock.  Our access to land while in Fort Lauderdale.

One of the many yummy lunches we had at the Southport Raw Bar – an avocado burger with bacon mayonnaise.  Mmmmmm.  And Tracy ate the whole thing!
The negative side of shopping by dinghy is of course you have to carry all that stuff you are buying back to the dock.  We walked a lot.  We shopped the marine hardware stores (Sailorman, West Marine, Boat Owners Warehouse, and MacDonald’s hardware) several times, and stocked up on spare parts.  We needed a spare alternator belt and it made us walk more than we could have imagined.  Nobody carried it in stock and with ordering and returning the wrong part, and then re-ordering and picking it up from yet another store, we walked 12 miles for that damn belt!  But we kept saying, “think of how difficult it may be to find it at sea!”

Sometimes things are not in stock, and you have to walk 12 miles.

We finally tested our water maker (de-salination unit) and made our first gallons of water just like magic!  This will be a real treat in the islands.  We found a nifty rod holder for the fishing rods to secure them in the cabin and keep them from being lethal projectiles during the passage.  We re-stocked our food stores at the grocery stores several times.  We continue to think this is our last provisioning for a while.

Quiet times at anchor.  Tracy catching up on her journal.

Front row seats at the Ford Fort Lauderdale Air Show for two days over the anchorage.

We have again secured the dinghy to the deck and the outboard motor to the stern.  We are ready, Layla is full and it is now time for us to leave THIS anchorage.

Now we just wait for that elusive weather window…

Remember you can follow us from the link to the InReach Satellite tracker above.