October 15, 2003
Key West, Florida
24° 34.389 North
81° 48.162 West

Streaming Toward Florida

By Bernadette Bernon

We set out from Isla Mujeres in a stew of feelings – excitement and curiosity over the idea of coming home; trepidation about the Gulf Stream; and melancholy at all we were leaving behind. Sure, we’d flown home to the United States for a couple of trips since we sailed Ithaka away from American shores three years ago – for visits to our families, and for my surgery. But these visits had been quick and focused. We’d never really plugged in. Returning now, with Ithaka, felt completely different than those short hits. We’re going to stay awhile, through the winter, until springtime.

We were in Isla long enough to add three Hernandez hand-painted dishes to Ithakas galley.
Truth be told, Isla had been a disappointment. Douglas and I had been there three years ago, when cruising was new to us, and all had seemed fresh and interesting. The winter harbor we remembered had 60 anchored cruising boats; this time there were fewer than 10, and we had a clearer eye taking in the town. It seemed tackier than I’d remembered. So, itching to get going, on one busy day, Douglas and I loaded up on groceries, water, diesel, fresh tortillas, and good tequila; bought a couple of pieces of beautiful Mexican pottery; went to an internet café, checked our email, downloaded the daily graphic of the Gulf Stream’s current position; and grabbed what looked like a decent weather window. Not knowing when we’d get another, we set sail the next morning. We never even checked in or out with Customs and Immigration; they were closed the two times we walked by.

After clearing the first buoy outside Isla harbor, we hugged the shore, left the two green buoys marking a shoal to starboard, aimed north of Anvil Rock, and our depth went from 12 to 20 feet. We stayed in shallow depths — less than 100 feet -- for eight miles, and Ithaka romped along in the sunshine. In front of us was the mighty Gulf Stream, the infamous “river in the sea,” which we knew has a mind all its own, a temperature all its own (warm), self-created weather systems (turbulent), its own speed (three to five knots), and its own direction. In short, the Stream is temperamental, and we needed to traverse it with great care. (See accompanying sidebar on Gulf Stream strategies.)

Shauna and David Boughton from Zia Lucia
David and Shauna Boughton on Zia Lucia were one full day ahead of us out of Isla, also bound for Key West, Florida. Douglas and I checked in with them on the morning 8188 Northwest Caribbean Cruisers’ Net, compared our relative positions, and agreed to come up again on the single-sideband radio (SSB) that night at 10:00 p.m.. While we were on frequency, we also said good-bye to everyone on the net, and to that day’s net controller, Mel on Bigfoot, who’s our favorite – gentle, firm, funny, welcoming to new boats, but no nonsense. She runs a good show. Although our radio propagation was weakening as we began to leave the region, we could hear that very few boats were moving around today; in the entire Northwest Caribbean, from Mexico down through Belize, and all the way over to Honduras, only three other boats checked in with the net as “underway.”

Blankets, trinkets, shoulder bags, and souvenirs were for sale up and down every street in Isla.
All day we tore along. Seas were less than three feet; wind was 10 to 15 out of southwest, and predicted to remain from that direction and strength for 72 hours. Awesome. We continually compared the numbers on our speed indicator (indicating only speed through the water) and our GPS (indicating total speed over ground), to see how much velocity Ithaka was picking up as we were swept along by the Stream. We had two knots positive current. Then, ahead of us, suddenly, the water looked like someone had turned on the “heavy load” setting of a clothes-washing machine. The seas churned and sloshed, confused and dangerous looking. When we arrived in the area, we, too, sloshed and splashed from side to side as the wind changed direction abruptly. What a mess. We quickly readjusted the sails, and plowed onward for an hour or two, until we’d passed through the Gulf Stream’s axis, and things calmed down.

Ithaka flies along under full sail.
We remained wary as Ithaka bobbed and pitched along at eight knots, until, finally, the numbers on our knot-meter and GPS began to get closer together, showing that we were out of the main flow of the Stream, but still gaining from .5 to 1.5 knot of positive current. Squall lines began passing through, and we adjusted and readjusted the sails to deal with them.

At 10:00 p.m., we tuned in the SSB, and heard David as clear as a bell. He was beside himself. On radar that afternoon, he and Shauna had seen a target 12 miles away. But unlike a ship target, which we always track to determine headings and to avoid collision courses, and unlike land, which shows on the radar screen as a different shape altogether, this target wasn’t moving. Zia Lucia got closer and closer, until they saw it was a 30-foot sailboat with its sails draped over the boom! David hailed the boat on VHF, but got no answer. Closer still, they saw that fenders were out, the boom flogging, there were black scuff marks on the hull, and part of the rail was torn away. Fearing that someone was onboard, sick, or worse, David and Shauna deployed their dinghy, David motored over, armed with a fillet knife for protection against he knew not what, and Shauna circled warily in Zia Lucia.

“No one was aboard,” he said, still a bit panicked. “But the boat was trashed, like it had been through hell. I went below. There was food still in lockers, and dishes around. Whatever had occurred had happened very recently. We don’t know if it was a singlehander who fell overboard, or what, or when. We’ve tried calling the Coast Guard again and again, but they haven’t answered. We just couldn’t take her in tow for 150 miles. With the Stream, and these squalls, it would be too much strain on Zia. Eventually, we just had to leave the boat out there and carry on.”

“There’s not much else you could do,” Douglas told David, and we were all sobered by the thought of what might have happened to the boat’s crew. We’d find out much later, long after we’d arrived in Key West, and David and Shauna called the Coast Guard directly, that the sailors on the abandoned sailboat had been air-lifted off during a violent Gulf Stream storm not long before.

As the water turned from dark blue to turquoise, a school of dolphins joined us, playing in Ithaka’s bow wave, for the last miles into Key West. (Photo courtesy of m/v Gabrielle)
As we sailed toward home, we kept a close eye on the weather, the Stream, and the parade of commercial ships funneling through this channel around Cuba. When we passed through the area where the abandoned boat was floating along in the Stream, we reminisced about our own experiences and close calls over the past three years. Small dramas flickered across my mind, especially as I sat in the cockpit during my night watch, and Douglas slept below. As a thunder and lightening storm crashed and pounded overhead, I remembered the extraordinary shoot’m up bank robbery in Fronteras, Guatemala, which I narrowly escaped by seconds. And another one on the tiny island of Utilla, Honduras. The robbers had come from the mainland, held up the bank that had all the islanders’ money, then escaped into the hills. When police finally caught the men, they tied them, standing, in the back of a truck, and drove them through the village, where the islanders threw stones and jeered – a reminder that there’s no Dream Team in the wild, wild northwest Caribbean.

Utilla (Photo courtesy of s/v Victoria)
When the squalls passed and the weather softened, I had subtler memories, too, of the Peruvian peasant woman in Cuzco, wearing a traditional fedora on her head, woven manta over her shoulders, and long black braids, catching a snippet of an old Tina Turner performance on a hotel television. Thinking no one was watching, she swayed her hips, lip-singing perfectly with Tina: “Big wheels keep on turnin’, proud Mary keep on burnin’...” – for better or worse a stunning marriage of American pop culture and Andean mountain tradition.

A Peruvian Tina wannabe
My night watch ticked by, and I considered all the changes that had occurred in the United States since we’d been away. Thinking of the terrorist attacks in New York on September 11, 2001, I remembered walking by the wrought-iron fence and gates surrounding the American Embassy in Guatemala City and seeing them covered in hand-made bouquets and personal notes, expressions of sympathy from horror-struck Guatemalans, many of whom had lost so many of their own loved ones in their country’s recent civil war.

In the Lemon Cays, San Blas Islands, Panama (Photo courtesy of m/v Gabrielle)
I remembered the Kuna Indians with whom we’d become friends in the San Blas, particularly Pablo Nunez in Mamitupu, who told us so many stories of his people, and their struggle to maintain their culture, about Great Mother, who is the earth, and Great Father, who is the heavens, and the balance Kunas try to keep between the two. And Punabebe in the Lemon Cays, the tiny matriarch who, over several weeks, showed me how she sewed her intricate mola blouses, and before we sailed off, cried and called me “sister.”

Through the past three years, my most vivid memories have been about the cruising friends we’ve made, people such as Katie and Jim Coolbaugh on Asylum, with whom we shared a few intense months of cruising time in Cartagena and the San Blas, and who we hope to keep in our lives forever. “If you change your minds about going north,” Jim had said, as we waved good-bye in the Lemon Cays, “and want to come back next season, just let us know. We’ll wait for you in Panama!” With tears in our eyes, we knew he meant every word, even though their plans were to go through the Panama Canal this spring. Katie and Jim, and all the other wonderful cruisers with whom we’d spent time, are a reminder that the real joy of this lifestyle is more about the people than it is about boats or sailing.

Jim and Katie Coolbaugh from Asylum
Finally, on our third day out from Isla, on the endless blue horizon, Douglas and I thought we saw something, and we looked through the binoculars, and then we looked again, and then we were sure – yes! -- the first small smudge of gray. Land ho! The USA!

Ithaka sailed onward, and soon we began to see another boat or two, and finally, in the distance, the markers leading us to Key West. Coasting into the busy harbor, we anchored, dragged, then anchored again. And again. And again. It was not the homecoming performance – or the bottom (lasagna over rock) – we’d dreamed of, but there you are. We’d made it. When we did get the ground tackle settled, and the snubber on, we found ourselves laying to current, not wind, and everyone around us swinging every which way – a bit of a nightmare, but dealing with it got our minds off the culture shock that we suspected loomed ahead. Over the following days, we’d see at least one boat drag by us every single day, until one week later, when we’d drag again ourselves, in the middle of the night, in 30 knots. It never ends.

This chart shows the entrance and harbor of Key West
The next day, we dinghied ashore with David and Shauna to officially check into Our Country. (See accompanying sidebar.) As we walked up to the front entrance of the imposing art deco Customs Building, a car screeched up beside us onto the sidewalk.

“Y’all checking in?” a woman in a uniform called out the window of the car.

“Yes,” said David, “we were just going to.”

“Great timing. I’m the immigration officer and this guy is agriculture,” she said, pointing to the guy next to her. “We’re just heading out for lunch, so let’s do it all right here for you, right now. You’ll still need to get your Customs decal tomorrow, but I’ll phone you in.”

Key West architecture is distinctive – lots of big porches, and shuttered windows, all painted in wonderful colors
She checked our passports, stamped them, filled out some forms on the hood of her car, suggested a good place for a burger, said, “Welcome home, guys,” smiled, and took off. We felt wonderful to have been treated so well. Giddy and official, we loped off toward Duval Street to explore the town. There were colorful sex shops offering men’s cod pieces in the shape of red elephants (you supply the trunk), next door to pricey boutiques, and chic cafes. Shauna and I ogled all the shops, and I noticed for the first time in ages how much my clothes, suddenly, in this snazzy environment, seemed decidedly shabby, having been washed, bleached, and hung out to dry a million times in the tropical sun. Sticker shock was severe. Everything seemed loud.

Bernadette gets the washing machines started at the Margaret Truman Laundry.
The next day, we carried bags of our dirty clothes to the Margaret Truman Drop-Off Laundry, where Douglas asked the proprietor for directions to the Jackie Kennedy car wash. The fellow was unamused. Next we headed for the supermarket, and immediately noticed how cold it was inside – the air conditioning seemed to be turned up high, and the prices even higher. Note to self: Next time, bring a sweater, and more cash.

Jimmy Buffet’s restaurant is a fixture in Key West, and quite a pricey one.
So here we are. Back. We got our cell phone operational, and I caught up with my family, and on what old friends had been up to since we’d been gone. One had adopted a baby; another battled breast cancer; two were getting divorces. I’d known about all these things, of course, and had stayed in touch with these people, but it felt so good to hear the voices, to laugh and cry together.

Key-lime pie – every Key West restaurant claims to have the best.
Re-entry into the hustle bustle of the US, after three years of Central and South America’s more leisurely pace, is a constant series of mini-shocks. But it’s easier to deal with knowing Shauna and David are going through their adjustment too. Every evening we retreat to our cockpit or theirs -- compare notes, brainstorm, and noodle the changes in the country and in ourselves, and what to make of it all.

The Key West dinghy dock is always jam-packed with every make of inflatable.
Douglas and I are looking at a temporary sojourn on land for the winter, while we work on the boat, make a little money, and be with our families. David and Shauna have made a bigger move—from Sausolito, California, through the Panama Canal, and now to somewhere on the southeast coast that they can call home. They’re not sure where yet. As the four of us look ahead, all things seem possible.

Over the three years Douglas and I have been away, we’ve dealt with bank robberies and medical crises, with a new language, with boa constrictors in our cockpit and tarantulas in our bed, with massive storms that threatened our lives, and with the Gulf Stream in all its terrifying glory. Funny that coming home should be so exciting, and yet so scary.

How to Get A Cruising Decal

The bronze seal on the outside of the Customs/Immigration building.
The United States government requires returning pleasure yachts to display a “User Decal” that is supposed to be renewed every year. If you haven’t purchased one in advance, as we hadn’t, the Customs officials are happy to sell you a fresh one upon arrival.

Gulf Stream Strategies

Last year, Frank Cassidy, on the Alajuela 38 Simba, at the request of several friends, put together a series of notes about crossing the Gulf Stream from Isla Mujeres to the United States. Frank is a much-respected cruiser and long-time professional navigator. Within days his excellent work had been dubbed “The Simba Letter,” and was forwarded from cruiser to cruiser throughout the Northwest Carribean. Here are Frank’s clear and helpful ideas, in his words:

Frank and Lynda Cassidy from Simba
There are probably several "strategies" that can be used under different conditions when making the passage from Isla Mujeres, Mexico, to the Florida Keys. Consider the following:

1. The course from Isla to the Dry Tortugas is 295 NM at 51 degrees, to Key West it is 335 NM at 58 degrees.

2. The Yucatan current comes pouring through the Yucatan Channel, the bulk of it loops up into the Gulf of Mexico before turning back to the southeast into the Florida Straits and then up the east coast of Florida as the Gulf Stream.

This appears to be the axis of the current, but what is not shown on this plot are the numerous areas of eddy currents and counter currents that are generated by this Stream. On three trips through this area (one westbound and two eastbound) we have found the concentrated current (3 to 5 knots) consistently in only one place, and that is in the channel NE of Isla 30 to 70 miles out. For the rest of the area along the route from Isla to the Keys, the current seems much more dispersed and is variable (0 to 1.2 knots), sometimes favorable but very often an opposing counter current running to the west. We have consistently seen a west-bound counter current, 0.5 to 1 knot, along the Florida Keys all the way from Miami to the Dry Tortugas above the axis of the Loop Current/Gulf Stream. Below the axis towards NW Cuba, we have seen a westbound counter current, but its boundary seems more variable; this year it appears to be quite far offshore from Cuba. I don't doubt that the current along the axis of the flow is stronger; looking at the plot, the question is can you find it or even use it effectively?

3. With the present current distribution, a trip from Isla to the Mississippi Delta would be aided greatly, as would a trip from the Delta to the Florida Straits. However, getting to the Keys, the main current seems to be only marginally helpful. For a vessel not going to Tortugas or Key West but instead bound for Miami and north, getting on the axis at a convenient spot and riding the Gulf Stream up would be great, but for getting to the lower Keys a short ride on the axis might be possible, but all to soon you have to cross the axis and deal with the counter current between the axis and the Keys.

4. Most important in the decision process, perhaps, is the wind direction. If you are confident of the wind staying in the S to SSE direction for 2 or 3 days, it should be good to go north above the rhumb line holding favorable current and aim for the axis of the current, and then comfortably turn more east. If the wind ends up more E to ESE then you want to be careful not to let the current push you too far north, nor should you steer yourself too far north looking for the current, or to avoid the counter current along the Cuban coast. Two years ago, we found a counter current as far as 30 miles off the Cuban coast, this year we set a waypoint 40 miles off Cuba and still had 1.2 knots opposing. This current didn't become favorable until we were 50 miles off Cuba and then it was only 0 to 0.5 knots. In the meantime our SE wind became ESE, we were north of the rhumb line and we were struggling to hold our course to Key West.

So with S winds you get a double bonus: you can go north of the rhumb line and get positive current and current on the lee bow allowing you to steer more off the wind. With E winds you get a double penalty: you have to stay south and will probably have foul current on the weather bow requiring you to steer higher into the wind to hold course. Obviously you would want to avoid east winds if you can help it. Keep in mind too that strong E to NE winds can kick up a considerable sea and make the trip slow and uncomfortable (think of skiing moguls and missing most of the turns!)