February 15, 2005
Key Biscayne Island, Florida
25° 40.581 North
080° 09.723 West

NOTE TO READERS: Whenever we set off on an ocean passage — even a brief one — there are several calls to make. Bernadette phones her family in Rhode Island. I call a close friend, and my mother, in Ohio. But this time, as we prepare to leave Florida for the Bahamas, I made one fewer call. My mother died earlier this month. Bernadette and I were with her in Cleveland. Her passing, in the apartment she’s known for more than a quarter century, was peaceful and calm, assisted by Hospice, who understands so well that whenever possible life should not end in misery. I’m grateful to Hospice, and grateful to the many readers who emailed us with their support and good wishes. Thank you all. – Douglas

Saying Goodbye Is Always the Hardest Part

By Douglas Bernon

To leave the protective hive of any marina is difficult. The dilution of cruisers’ worries; the unlimited supply of turn-the-tap power and water; the access to high-quality ice cream; and the love you feel for some of your neighbors make breaking free a labor of the greatest effort. It was not just at our original departure four years ago that we had to propel through the gravitational pull of staying put. Although we rarely stay in marinas unless we need to leave Ithaka unattended for some reason, this emotional exercise is repeated each time we light somewhere for awhile.

Ithaka adorned with a birthday bow

Bernadette and I are rooting critters: give us a little time and comfort and soon we’re burrowing in deep to get a hold. That’s why we burn so much emotional and actual fuel taking off than we do underway. The longer we stay tied in a marina, the more obvious it is that life is easier when tied to a dock than it is on the hook. Over and over, the hardest part for us is saying goodbye to people we love, even though we anticipate seeing them again. I am especially conscious of this right now, having said goodbye for the last time to my mother.

Douglas's mother, Betty, who died last month in Cleveland, Ohio.

Cruising is not just about sailing or voyaging or foreign cultures. When we first left Newport, Michel Savage—a world cruiser and thoughtful man—suggested to me that cruising is much more about breaking free of self-imposed constraints than it is about boats. Cruising, he’d drum into me, is about vision and attitude, about what you can let yourself see and do. “Never measure cruising by speed or passport stamps,” he warned. “If you do, you’ll miss the trip.”

It’s with that head that I’m slowly adjusting to my mother’s death and the loss of the first protective harbor in my life; with each death I think we relive all deaths and losses and cling harder to what we “know.” Maybe that’s why it was especially wrenching to break loose from Dinner Key Marina, in Miami, where Ithaka has been tied up for some weeks while Bernadette and I commuted between Florida and Cleveland. I found myself blubbering on the dock the other morning when I said goodbye to David and Shauna on Zia Lucia. They’ve become brother and sister to us, and the mere thought of not having them in my daily life brought me to my knees. But they’re cruisers too, and knew it was time for us to leave. The only palliative was the knowledge that we’d separated before, and the four of us do find our way back together.

Bernadette and Shauna at the birthday gala on Zia Lucia. Guests included (L to R): Mel from Chez Nous, Sara and Carl from My Dream, Frank and Lynda from Simba

We would leave Miami with a trove of memories made with David and Shauna. They’d thrown the grandest of 50th birthday parties for Bernadette while we were neighbors at the dock. Cruising friends and new friends helped her celebrate in glory an event she’s been arguing we should ignore. But David and Shauna decorated Zia to the nines, and set their dining table with spectacular appetizers, candles, flowers, and sweets. David and I cooked dinner and mixed martinis and cosmopolitans. For someone who’d said to ignore the day, Bernadette beamed pretty happily that we hadn’t.

Bernadette blows out the candles (photo courtesy of Larry Budd)

When we slipped the lines from Pier 5 at Dinner Key, we did so without fuss, both of us quiet in our reveries; quietly, we wound our way out the channel, into the green waters of Biscayne Bay, and toward No Name Harbor, where we’d stage ourselves for the jump across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas first thing the following morning. While leaving these friends was painful, something powerfully transformative happened during that four-mile motor over to No Name. I felt freer than I had in many months. Somehow, untying ourselves from the dock had liberated some happiness in me, some glimmer of future sunrises. I thought to myself, “Even if the weather sours on us, I want to be on the hook again.” Also, No Name Harbor sings to us. During various trips to and from Miami, it’s been both refuge and launch pad. We’ve made forever-friends here, and felt totally safe nestled inside this perfect little hurricane hole.

The trip from Florida to the Bahamas is a brief one: the direct route from Miami to the closest entry point is a mere 47 miles, a distance we normally wouldn’t think much about. But between the start and finish line is the powerful Gulf Stream, running from south to north at about 10 degrees, with anywhere from two to four and a half knots of current.

NOAA's 48 hour-out prediction of wave size and the direction they are coming from. Downloaded through the SSB radio and Winlink.

The Gulf Stream is a cosmic force all its own, with its own weather systems, laws of nature and challenges. You’d never want to cross it with any serious opposing wind from the north. Conflict between the north-moving current and south-moving wind stirs up a monstrous chop, serious, close-together, square waves and great troubles. We’ve crossed the Gulf Stream a number of times, all but one of them peacefully; the exception was on our way to Mexico. When our perfect weather window closed against us, we pounded into 30 plus knots of square waves that looked and felt like stacked refrigerators. It was the worst night we’ve spent on this boat.

NOAA's full color frontal chart was downloaded directly from the internet on a high speed connection ashore.

Our plan this time was to leave No Name Harbor at sunrise, and slip through the shallow channel just south of Key Biscayne Island. Our rhumb line to just above North Rock on the Bahama Banks would be 75 degrees, but factoring the drift caused by the Gulf Stream, we planned to steer 090 or 095 to compensate for the northern push. From this part of Florida, there are two ways to enter the Bahamas. Some people cross the Gulf Stream, avoid the Great Bahamas Banks altogether by skirt north of them, turning east, and then heading either north to the Abaco Island Group or southeast towards Nassau and all points south. The shorter route, if you’re heading south, is to sail onto and across the Bahamas Banks, meaning you leave the 2,500-foot Gulf Stream and sail onto shallows. So, in addition to not wanting giant wind in front of you, you sure don’t want giant wind from directly behind you either, or you’re going to ride some serious breaking surf as the ocean bottom jumps up out of nowhere and is only a few feet under you.

Left to right, David, our friend Richard, and Douglas. Dean, Sammy, and Frank are on a wall-side mural at the Latino America restaurant in Coconut Grove

Most folks like a mild south wind or southwest wind to cross the Gulf Stream. The trouble is that when the wind is already west, this signals that there’s a low-pressure system on its way with potentially ugly northwest breeze behind it, as the winds clock around. In the winter, when the cold fronts march through on a regular basis, everyone looks for a window. The bigger the better.

Cruisers listen to some combination of the NOAA weather reports, Miami and Florida radio stations, the Waterway Net (7268 MHz at 1245 UTC), the Cruiseheimers Net (8152 MHz at 1330 Zulu), longtime weather guru Herb Hilgenberg on Southbound II (12359 MHz at 2000 Zulu) and of course, and most dangerously, each other. There’s nothing like collective nervousness to kindle macho fables and growing terrors.

Bernadette, David, and Shauna - the girls get dolled up for a party

One additional source of information is the eye-witness account. Because the Gulf Stream is so close to shore in south Florida, people in Miami, who are looking to cross, often call friends in Fort Lauderdale, who can, right from the beach, look out and tell you how the stream is behaving that day. We spoke with our friends Mel and Tom Neale there. They were close to the beach and know this trip like the back of their hands. “I’ve done this crossing too many times and seen too much trouble,” Tom told me. “Now we just wait for the right window so we don’t get beat up, and so the computer doesn’t fall off the table.” Tom looked out at the stream, and said he could see “little white skyscrapers popping out and falling down. I know there are no buildings out there, so if I were you, well….you gotta make up your own mind.” David, who was conducting a roof inspection in Lauderdale, called in to say it looked “Ugly. Real Ugly.”

Mel and Tom from Chez Nous

We had a low-pressure system approaching from the Gulf of Mexico. There was another one just south of Bermuda. The forecasters, both amateur and professional, who claim to know how weather systems play together, maintained that the northern low was the gorilla, and its southern cousin was smaller, but that their relative closeness could make for a greater threat. We’d definitely get some SW winds, but the speed with which the NW winds would fill in, and the predicted 10-12 foot seas in a growing swell from the NE meant our window was getting slammed shut.

Fine, we decided with disappointment. This is nothing to fool around with. Once you cross onto the banks, for more than 60 miles there’s no good place to hide from a norther, and no time for flat tires — either problems with the boat or a sudden acceleration and deterioration of already unstable weather. Despite the fact that Ithaka was already totally stocked with fresh veggies and fruit for the Bahamas, we decided to wait a little longer.

Larry and Linda, friends in Miami

I had to keep asking myself, WHAT’S THE HURRY? And I knew the answer. I could feel a psychological vacuum just behind me, pulling me from the hook to the dock, and I was fighting it.

I reminded myself that No Name Harbor is a sweet refuge for us, and I remembered a night in junior high school, after I’d been jilted by a girlfriend. My mother, who was forever a font of odd metaphors, attempted to console me: “Honey,” she said, “there’ll always be another bus.” She was right. And there’ll always be another window.