Permission to Change Course

By Tom Neale, 1/7/2010


Tom Neale's logs have a new name and home on BoatUS Magazine. We know Tom has a loyal and devoted readership, so we wanted to share his tips and insights with an even bigger audience! For the latest articles, click here for Onboard With Tom Neale.

It was December 1999 and Melanie, our oldest daughter, was coming home from college for Christmas. “Coming Home for Christmas” is different when your home is a boat and the boat is underway. This December we were in South Florida. We all knew where we’d like to be for Christmas: the Bahamas. But getting to the Bahamas and then getting to a safe fun harbor for Christmas during that time of the year was often difficult if not dangerous. In the winter come the Northers which turn the Gulf Stream into cascading somersaulting mountains of water. There are periods of respite, when the weather is good, but sometimes you wait weeks for these, and then they may be only two or three days long. And even if you get across the stream, many of the anchorages are exposed to the strong westerly winds that follow cold fronts. We had only around two weeks before we would have to find a way for Melanie to get back to college—easy enough in the states, but often impossible from some of the harbors of refuge in the Bahamas. We made our plan: This year Key West. It wasn’t the Bahamas, but what the heck. It was tropical, funky and doable.

Course Change in Hawk Channel

We drew around 5 feet, and so planned to find our way through Angelfish Creek at Key Largo and then take Hawk Channel down and around to the Conch Republic. This “channel” isn’t what we usually think of when we use the word. It’s a passage down the outside of the keys which is somewhat protected by a long string of barrier reefs between it and the Atlantic. There are a few safe deep water passages through the reef, but the reef as a whole is far enough below the surface to allow huge seas to roll across, making a passage miserable in bad weather. But the odds of having a good safe time, with an easy safe trip back for Melanie, were good.

We had met up with another boat with kids, who were also looking for an easy Christmas harbor. We teamed up and headed south down Biscayne Bay. We anchored at Elliott Key and planned to leave in the first light of the next day. Wind was forecast to be from the north, but light. You go through Angelfish Creek carefully, because there’s a hard shallow spot near where it meets the waters of the Atlantic. After a short but beautiful trip through mangrove, you can come to a hard stop if you draw enough water and aren’t in the right place at the right tide. So we were nervous, as usual, as we headed out, but we’d done it before. Soon the creek opened before us and we were through. We could see the beautiful waters of the Atlantic beyond the reef. They were so very tempting. The forecast light northerly breeze was hardly noticeable and it was from the northwest. But we turned to starboard as planned, to head down the channel to Key West, with great mixed emotion. Everyone on our boat longed to cross over to the Bahamas. Those islands had become home to us over the years.

I called our friends on the other boat and said something like, “Hey, it looks mighty nice out there in the Atlantic.” They readily agreed; it was clear they’d been thinking the same thing. Then I said, “Well, there’s a short deep passage through the reef, right out there. What do you say we duck on out and see what it’s like?” They agreed in a flash. That’s always a tactic of committal on “Chez Nous,” because once we get out, we find it very tough to go back. And when we cleared the reef and saw and felt the gentle Atlantic around us, it was like all those other times before. We felt that we were free. It’s an overwhelming and beautiful sense of elation that we have when we clear an inlet or reef and get out to sea. And we knew that the western Bahamas were only around 50 miles away.

“Hey,” I called again on the VHF. “Well, what do you think? Want to go for it?”

“We’re changing course now,” was the reply and both boats headed east.

We cleared the Cat-Gun Cay inlet by mid afternoon and headed across the Great Bahama Banks. Christmas was coming, and we didn’t want to stop and tarry in the open anchorages of the Bimini Chain. Weather was coming, and it would reach before Christmas. But there was a completely protected marina on Chub Cay in the Berry Islands which we loved. Chub is a beautiful island surrounded by beaches, reef, deep ocean and good diving and fishing. Also, there were flights out of Chub back to the States, from time to time. In those days prices were lower, and we could afford it, if only barely. It would be a great Christmas present from us to ourselves. We headed there, making a long passage over the banks through most of the night, breaking through the encircling reefs into the deep Tongue of the Ocean for the last leg to this part of Paradise.

Tom’s Tips About Planning and Cruising

1. Successful cruising often requires careful planning and scheduling. When exercising your freedom to change plans, it’s important to pay attention to future contingencies.

Click Here for More Tips

I won’t describe our Christmas there, except to say that it was wonderful. I remember I got a big loud hailer from Santa Claus, and used it that morning to tell everyone in the marina. But as the day wore on, we realized we were faced with another issue. We had well over a week before Melanie had to get back. And during that week the century would change. It was to be a very special new year. And, to make matters more complex, the weather had changed for the good. Staniel Cay, one of our favorite spots, was within three days sail. Should we do it?

Probably not, but we did. And we celebrated the beginning of the new Millennium in this tiny out island, with friends, both Bahamian and cruisers, whom we’d known for years. One of those very good friends, a Bahamian and also a great pilot, agreed to give Melanie a ride back to the States, since he was flying some of his children over.

I’ve shared this with you because it illustrates one of the true essences of cruising. You have permission to change course. You don’t always have to follow your plans. Yes, there are plenty of caveats. Most are very important and most have to do with not taking unnecessary risks. Many involve the weather. You don’t mess with it and you never take it for granted. If you go to a harbor where weather can trap you, you must be prepared to be trapped (often not a bad thing in paradise). And you never assume that boat travel will coincide with airline schedules or any other schedules of civilization. You’re in another world—a different sphere of existence from that of the shoreside life on the continent. But, as long as you’re careful and pay attention to the rules of travel on the water, you have the freedom to change your mind. We hear of the beautiful sunsets and the Pina Coladas and reggae on the beach and all those other fine things of what cruising is supposed to be about. But this freedom to change course is, at least to me, one of the very best parts.

Boating and water sports involve risk.  Any comments herein should be followed at your own risk.  You assume all responsibility for risk or injury to yourself or others.  Any person or entity that uses this information in any way, as a condition of that use, agrees to waive and does waive and also hold authors harmless from any and all claims which may arise from or be related to that use.


Copyright 2004-2009 Tom Neale