What makes a window to cross the Gulf Stream

What makes a window to cross the Gulf Stream
Crossing the Gulf Stream from Florida

Crossing to the Bahamas

There are lots of ways across the Gulf Stream and lots of ways not to do it. This is a really important time to SAIL YOUR OWN BOAT. There are lots of “old timers” who love taking newbees across and showing them the “right” way to do it. Some of them are good and some are dangerous. Decide what conditions you need to feel comfortable on your boat. Some people think it is invigorating to sail hard on the wind with green water washing the deck and love it. Some of us (read that as ME) think they are insane and like to have a beam reach in 10-12 knots with seas of 2-4 feet as long as the period is more than 4 seconds. You have to decide what you’re willing to put up with. Choose your own window and if another group seems to be choosing another, look at it closely and decide if you agree with them or not. They may have a window that is ok for them but outside your tolerance level.

We also have developed some guidelines on our boat.

We don’t do a overnighter unless we have to and we don’t have to to get to the Bahamas. EARLY MORNING yes, all night NO.
We don’t leave when we are tired.
We never pass a safe anchorage.
The day we leave we are as close as we can be, and our only task is to up anchor and go. No waiting to check out of a marina, no last minute shopping, no …

We conceptually leave the day before. If we are heading toward West end from West Palm. We leave the Lake Worth anchorage and move to the anchorage within a quarter mile from the inlet the afternoon before and set a hook. We secure everything below for a rough passage, set the coffee pot on the stove full of water, go to bed at dark, and set the alarm for about 3:00. We get the weather forecast and listen for the current observations to make sure they match what the forecast says, both as the last thing we do before we go to bed, and the first thing we do when we wake up, before we leave.

Make sure you are looking at the right weather forecast. The coastal weather forecast is usually good out 20 nautical miles. The forecasts that we are looking for when we are crossing from the US to the Bahamas are the coastal forecasts from Jupiter Inlet to Ocean Reef out 20 nautical miles, and the waters from Jupiter Inlet to Ocean Reef out 60 nautical miles. Jupiter Inlet is at ICW Mile 1004 when you transited the Jupiter Federal Bridge you were at the Jupiter Inlet. Ocean Reef is just south of Angelfish Creek on the top end of Key Largo. These forecasts are typically broken up into sections going down the coast, a common split is “JUPITER INLET TO DEERFIELD BEACH” and then “DEERFIELD BEACH TO OCEAN REEF, FL”. Deerfield Beach is just south of Boca Raton near ICW 1050. How the NOAA decides to split it up is up to them but you need the forecast for the area you are crossing.

The Grib robot that will mail you gribs is another good source for weather data. They may give slightly different conditions depending on the model the forecaster uses to issue the forecast. They don’t always agree, especially toward the latter part of the forecast. The first 18 hours of any of the forecasts are usually very good but the reliability starts to fade after that.

If there is a window you may have others to go with you. We have done crossings on our own because we waited longer than the group and we have done crossings alone because we were ready and in position when the window opened and were across before the window closed on our tail. Some windows are very small. We’ve jumped at a small window and have done very well. We went at a good long window and got hammered. Not everything is as the forecast says.

One of the things that helps you decide where you jump from is where you want to go but that isn’t the most important thing. The first thing to note is that the first part of the winter in the Abacos is ugly. We want to go farther south for the first part of the winter. We head to the Exumas for January and early February and then head back toward the northern Exumas, Eluthera, Cat Island, and the Abacos in early March. The weather is better in the Abacos then.

If we were going to spend any time in the Abacos in the early winter I would seriously talk to Cat (a very nice woman) at the yellow marina on the NE side of Marsh Harbour(can’t remember the name at the moment) and take a slip for a month.

There are two gates we use to get into the Bahamas.
West end on Grand Bahama Island, almost straight across from West Palm/Lake Worth
Cat Cay/Gun Cay almost straight across from Miami.

If we get the window to West End and are heading to the Exumas we will jump across and then do the southern coast of Grand Bahama Is to Lucaya and then jump to Panton Cove on Great Stirrup Cay, then down to Whale Cay and Nassau.

In the early part of the winter it is better to get across where you can rather than getting across at the “right” place. Once you are across the Gulf Stream you have to be careful of individual cuts but those are usually minor compared to the Gulf Stream and may often be a matter of only waiting a few hours for a tide change.

Checking the weather forecast.

If the weather forecast says a front is coming in and you are supposed to be getting S winds and they are already at SW then the front has sped up and the window may have evaporated. You don’t want to be in the Gulf Stream when the frontal winds shift from SW to NW, that can happen really fast sometimes in a matter of minutes. The local weather forecast has a number of real time observations. Write down the weather forecast the night before you plan on leaving. When you get up, get the weather, and check that the current observations match what you expect to see if the weather forecast is good.

The last time we went across we rode a slow cold front across. The wind was north for several days and kicking up the Gulf Stream badly. As the front approached, the winds shifted to east and over the next two days clocked around to south allowing the Gulf Stream to flatten out. It is important to allow the Gulf Stream time to quiet down before jumping. Even if you have the best winds in the world if the Gulf Stream is riled up, don’t go. We were in position and the weather forecast was for S 10-15 going to SW 10-15 in the afternoon and NW 15-20 overnight and back to N 10-15 the next day. When we got up at 3:00 a.m. the winds were on forecast. We pulled up the anchor and left.

I don’t know why but the Lake Worth inlet is rough even in the best weather. You have to be at least a mile away before you know what the “real” conditions are like. That night was no different. The crossing was lumpy for the first couple miles and then we were able to relax and were well across before the sun started to rise. We aim at a waypoint about ten miles below West end for our arrival point. Once we are away from Lake Worth’s lumpiness we set the autopilot at the virtual waypoint and set the GPS at the entrance to West End. There are probably better ways to do it but we try hard not to get north of the rhumb line to West End. That will put us fighting the current quite hard and we will be down to 3ish knots at the worst of the current. We were in West End and cleared customs before the office closed at 4? 5? The winds were well on SW before we got across and the wind did go northly early that night.

The next day we left West End and stayed on the south side of Grand Bahama Island, the north winds coming off the island pushed us nicely down to Lucaya on basically a broad reach. The next several days were all north (actually they lasted almost a month) and we had a very nice run down to Nassau and the Exumas.

If you are heading to the Abacos you don’t have to do West End. and you could ride the Gulf Stream north and have an easier and faster ride There are a few heads to watch going onto the Little Bahama Banks (Consult your Explorer charts, not the old maptechs(new maptechs are reformated explorers)). You can clear customs at Green Turtle Cay. Green Turtle Cay is a wonderful island, one of our favorites in the whole Bahamas.

The Angles of Attack

When a boat crosses the Gulf Stream, the boat is pushed north by the current. How far north depends on how fast you are. Our boat is slow and we plan on being pushed approximately 1 mile north for every hour we are going to take to cross from anchor up to anchor down. We plan approximately 12 hours to cross from anchor up in Lake Worth to tie up at the marina in West End, so we aim at a spot 12 miles south of West End as soon as we are clear of the lumpiness of the Lake Worth Inlet. This means our course line is approximately 106 True.

If you are in the situation where you are looking at prolonged easterly to south easterly winds, the course you have to steer is almost nose to wind. In order to sail we would be looking at a winds from at least 160 degrees or more, or we can change where we leave from. If we leave from Port Everglades (Fort Lauderdale) and aim at our spot 12 miles south of West End our course is 67 degrees so sailing is possible with winds from about 110 degrees.

If we are considering a run into the Abacos then we would aim at a run from Lake Worth to Memory Rock (See the Explorer Near Bahamas Charts) We would aim about 10 miles south of the Memory Rock waypoint and as we approach we’d be careful we were near target as there are six or more miles of reef’s between your virtual target and the real one. This makes our course about 91 degrees allowing us to sail in winds south of 140 degrees.

A number of friends of ours will leave the Lake Worth Inlet and head south for two hours and then turn to West End. This is another method of changing your course angle so you can sail. We’ve never done it but know people who do it regularly.

If you are heading out toward the cut between Cat Cay and Gun Cay then there are three common places cruiser’s can jump from Government Cut, Biscayne Channel south of Cape Florida, and off Angelfish Creek. Aiming approximately 12 miles south of the Gun Cay waypoint gives course angles of approximately 120 from Government Cut, 115 from Biscayne Channel, and 87 from Angelfish Creek. To sail from Government cut or Biscayne Channel we need south winds. From Angelfish we need winds from the south south east.

There are other routes onto the Grand Bahama Bank. We have friends that leave Government Cut and aim at North Rock just north of Bimini a course of approx 85 degrees, making the entrance onto the bank in daylight so they can see the coral heads.

There are lots of ways to get there safely.

Waiting for weather

The most important thing we learned in six years of sailing south was to wait for weather. If your willing to wait you can sail in truly wonderful conditions. You won’t get them when you want them but you can have some beautiful days doing other things if your willing to wait.

One of our favorite places to wait for weather is in Vero Beach. Vero Beach is affectionately known as Velcro Beach, as it has a tendency to hold on to you longer than you expect. One of the great advantages of Velcro beach is that it is two days from the Lake Worth Inlet. With weather forecasts that are reasonably accurate 5 day forecasts they allow you to see window approach, position yourself and leave if it actually shows up. Suppose it is Monday and NOAA is saying Tuesday and Wednesday are East winds Thursday is SE 10-15 going S 10-15 and Friday is S to SW 10-15. We would finish our provisioning, fueling, and settle up with the marina on Monday. If the weather held we would move to Peck Lake on Tuesday. If the weather stays as predicted and the weather forecast continues, we will move to Lake Worth on Wednesday. If the weather looks good we may move directly to the Inlet or anchor a few miles north of the inlet at the anchorage. On Thursday we would move to the Inlet stopping to top up with fuel and then anchor near the inlet. Friday early we would be up at 3am and gone by 3:30am and having a celebratory glass of wine in the *bleep*pit by 3:30 pm in the Bahamas.

If you tire of Vero Beach and are looking for a place farther south, the next big jumping spot is from the Port Everglades Inlet at Ft Lauderdale. There are lots of marinas in Ft Lauderdale. There is a place to anchor in Lake Sylvia but the cops usually try to chase you off unless you can quote the federal anchoring rules. It is worth a try. Florida was trying to become more cruiser friendly but that would be a real change. You might be able to do an overnight in Lake Sylvia but you probably won’t be able to wait there for an extended period.

There is a good anchorage at ICW 1080 but it is more than ten miles south of the inlet. We have met a long time cruiser that waits there and then moves from there at midnight to make the trip up to the inlet and then to West End.

There are several good anchorages around Miami and Key Biscayne. We like leaving from the Cape Florida and heading toward North Rock. The channel is well marked and we have done it a few times. Beware if there has been a long backup waiting for a window. People have been known to anchor in the channel with no lights. We almost got a powerboat in the middle of the night that way.

Created on 12/28/2008 07:00 PM by mikemac


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