Crossing to Bimini, Our First Stop in The Bahamas
After some fun times around Florida we finally were ready to cross. We waited several days but the dreaded “schedule” intervened. We had a guest onboard so we didn’t want to wait any longer. We had a forecast that said if we leave by mid afternoon we’ll beat the winds that were shifting north. We did not beat that north wind and had a rough ride across.
What We Learned
Crossing the Gulfstream
Cruisers love to go to The Bahamas in the winter. Northerners and Canadians can escape the cold and spend the winter where the temperature is in the 80s most of the time. You’re also safe from hurricanes during this time. Crossing the gulf stream is the first challenge. The gulf stream moves north along the US east coast. It’s only a few miles from the coast of Florida where most of us depart. The current can be as much as 3 or 4 knots which has a huge affect on your course moving east or west. While the spring and summer months normally feature south or southeast winds, the winter season often means north winds. When wind from one direction meets a strong current from the opposing direction you get very rough choppy seas often called “confused seas” or the washing machine effect. Weather services such as Chris Parker offer daily emails to advise cruisers on the best times to cross. Apps such as Predict Wind or Windy with give you somewhat reliable wind information. The main thing you need to know is, don’t cross if the wind is out of the north or even partially as in north/north west or north/northeast. Sometimes that means waiting at anchor or at a port until conditions are right. The old saying, sail by the wind not by the calendar is very true. The reality is that so often we want to meet up with someone at a certain date or we get impatient, or some other scheduling factor means leaving at a less than optimal time.
We Crossed Anyway
We had a friend onboard and he had limited time so we did force this issue somewhat. We had advice that if we left by mid afternoon we could cross before the wind shifted north. We left even earlier than advised to get a jump on this weather. Midway across the gulf stream we got strong winds out of the north. The wind on the beam made our crossing a very rolly experience. We were motoring but a simple remedy would have been to raise the main sail to provide some stabilization. The problem was it was now dark the wind was high and the seas rough. I was just not willing to go up on deck to raise the sail. It seemed too dangerous. In hindsight I should have raised the main before this wind shifted just in case.
Using the Gulfstream to Your Advantage
The strong currents can push your boat off course if you’re sailing across it. The ideal situation is to start from a location south of where you want to arrive. Because Bimini and Freeport are locations with a customs office they are where cruisers usually make their first stop. Bimini is directly across from Miami and West End is about due east of West Palm Beach. We sailed from Marathon to Rodriquez Key, just south of Key Largo, anchored and made our crossing on a northeast heading. In good conditions you can expect an extra knot or two of speed you wouldn’t normally be able to reach but the current in this case is your friend. Just wait until the wind is from a southerly direction to avoid the rough seas.