Secrets To Cruising In Small Boats

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(Sketch by Matt Layden)

June 2001

The real dangers in crossing the Gulf Stream aren't the rough sea conditions that prevail when there is bad weather, they are the real day to day man-made menaces. You have to realize that there is a lot of commercial and pleasure boat traffic traveling up and down the coast of Florida at any given time, and the odds of you being hit by something big and fast are rather high if you don't stay out of their way. This is especially true when you consider that most of the large ships are on auto pilot, and they may not see you despite having radars. To complicate matters, even if they did see you, it's very unlikely that they could change course or stop in time to avoid a collision. Incidently, we personally know several competent sailors who have been run down by large ships, so this is a real threat.

In addition each year there is a growing number of pleasure craft piloted by inexperienced skippers making the crossing so you have to keep an eye for them too. We met a couple on our first trip to the Bahamas that actually got run down by another sailboat at night in the middle of the Gulfstream. Apparently, the other skipper had put his vessel on autopilot for a moment to brew up a cup of coffee; and shortly thereafter he ran into their sailboat . Apparently, he had shut his navigation lights off to save electricity, and the other boat despite having a watch on deck never saw him coming. Though LITTLE CRUISER has never been hit out in the Gulf Stream, she has been hit twice elsewhere. One time a 42 foot power boat hit us while leaving a marina in Bimini, and the other time we were hit in a creek by a fast running 17 foot skiff. Fortunately, we sustained minimal damage due to Little Cruiser's stout construction, but a lighter built craft might have sunk, which could have been serious out in the ocean.

Our strategy for avoiding other boats is prevention. We make our Gulf Stream crossings during daylight hours, and we constantly keep tract of the paths of other boats around us. It's important to realize that it can be hard to judge distance and speed at night, so your best bet is to sail when visibility is good and to make your crossing during the day when possible. We can't convey to you how terrified we felt one stormy night when got in between two large ships that were headed towards us from different directions. We couldn't tell exactly where they were until they were nearly on top of us! We have found that the best way to deal with oncoming traffic is to take a bearing on the boat with your hand compass, and then to repeatedly check to see if this bearing changes over time. If it stays the same, then you are likely to be on a collision course. Generally, if the ship is far away we keep on going. However, if the bearing remains the same we do alter our speed and heading so that we pass behind it. Remember, never try to race across a ship's bow since it is probably traveling upwards of 14 knots.

There are times however when it can be difficult to take a bearing on every ship that appears as was the case on our 1998 trip when we were headed back towards Fort Lauderdale. In this instance there were always around a dozen ships in view over the last few hours of the trip so we only took bearings on the ones that looked the most threatening. The chances are that if you sail a lot in the company of big ships, you can get good at eyeballing their direction and speed; but in our case, a year usually goes by before we are back on the water again.

Finally, if you do avoid the ships, you still have to watch out for the occasional submerged oil drum, log or container floating about. One of our friends, Chris Morejohn sank after hitting some obstruction in his sloop one night. From what he told us, floating North in the Gulf Stream for 24 hours with sharks about was not fun! Thank goodness some fishermen spotted him and picked him up.

10-31-2000 WEATHER

The weather in the winter plays an important role in making a safe and easy Gulf Stream crossing in a smaller boat. If you pick a day where the wind is blowing hard on your nose (East), then you are just asking for a really slow passage. On the other hand, if it is blowing out of the North the seas can get quite nasty since the wind will be blowing against the 3.5 knot plus current. So what is the ideal wind direction and strength to make a safe crossing? Well it depends. You have to remember that the prevailing winds are out of the East; however, when a cold front approaches the winds start clocking. First they tend to go SE, then S, W, NW and finally N. Obviously, when it is blowing out of the North the cold front has arrived. The trick is to leave at the right time. If it is a slow moving front, it is possible to leave when it is blowing out of the South. As you make your crossing the wind will be on your beam, and then it will clock favorably and be on your stern as you make your passage. Hopefully, you will reach a safe port before it goes North. Timing is of the essence. Also there is the real possibility that the wind will back to SE or E for a while before is swings quickly to the North.

Another strategy is to leave during a WEAK cold front. What! You just said that this was bad... Well, the truth is that during a cold front the winds tend to be steady (out of the North), unlike when it approaches and the wind tends to shift. Now if the winds are blowing lightly at 10 knots or less, things aren't going to get bad in the Gulf Stream and you have a nice beam wind. This is what we generally do. Of course there are days in the winter time when the wind is very light or even non existent. This is another good day to leave. We've found that during the months of January through March, we get one good Gulf Stream crossing day per week. However, we have waited as long as two weeks for the appropriate weather. Of course if you have a 60 footer you can go just about any time you want, but you still will get bounced around in those 10-14 foot seas when it's blowing 35 - 40 knots out of the North. And last of all, if you feel that the weather looks foreboding, don't be afraid to turn around even if you have already started. We've done this several times in the first ten miles of a crossing. Better yet, don't leave at all. Often times your gut instincts are right. Remember, in a few days the weather will probably look better.

Finally, where is the best place to leave from? If you look at a map you will see that the shortest distance to Bimini is from Miami. However, you have to remember that you will be side slipping in a Northerly direction at up to 3.5 knots when you are in the axis of the stream. If you figure that you will be making ground Northward at an average of 2.5 knots per hour and it takes you 12 hours to cross, then you had better start much farther South. You sure don't want to be bucking the stream in an attempt to head back South, especially if you are in a boat that does only 4 - 5 knots to begin with. What we do is start around Key Largo or a little farther North at Angelfish Creek. Make sure you stock up on your supplies while in Key Largo beforehand since there really isn't anything at Angelfish Creek. Then, when the weather looks right, get up at 6 a.m. and head dead East if you are under power. Don't adjust your course much until the last five miles to Bimini where the effects of the Gulf Stream are reduced. The return trip is pretty much the same, except that you will have the prevailing winds pushing you home. Chances are you will leave from Bimini and you will arrive somewhere around Fort Lauderdale. Then it's a long trip down "the ditch" (ICW) back to Key Largo.