November 01, 2006
Key West , Florida
24 ° 34.224 North
081 ° 48.242 West

A Momentous Landfall In Key West

By Douglas Bernon

Tucked into the anchorage at Isla Guanaja, in the Honduran Bay Islands, you are so well shielded from the prevailing winds by a bowl of mountains, that until you’re outside its protective embrace you have no idea of actual conditions. It’s common there for the easterly trades to hammer in at 25 to 35 knots. So despite the fact that we were seeing only 10 knots where we were sitting, we folded in one reef before we left. As it turned out, we should have done two.

Guanaja runs from northeast to southwest, and Ithaka was anchored on the southern coast. To head north for Key West, which was roughly 570 miles away, we had first to beat for five or six miles into the teeth of the trades before rounding up. And sure enough the wind howled at us. Mercifully, Ithaka’s clipper bow cuts smoothly through most seas, but still it was a slow slog, and we were awfully glad to make that left turn and have gale force winds 65 degrees off the bow instead of right on the nose.

Our departure path took us from an anchorage on the southern shore of Guanaja around the northeast corner and then north to the western tip of Cuba.

As Ithaka romped north, the powerful winds we’d initially cursed became our new best friend; in two days’ time we tore off 330 miles, averaging just under 7 knots — all with that with two reefs in the main. Homer, our Monitor self-steering gear relishes wind ahead of the beam (all wind vanes do actually). We barely tweaked it, and never steered. With clear skies and plenty of moon we never saw total darkness on this trip, but we sure saw a load of big ships.

Homer, our Monitor wind vane, drives an awful lot more accurately than we can. Although Ithaka has a wheel for steering, we use a small stub tiller in our rudder and connect Homers guide lines there. It reduces the number of blocks needed, and gives us fewer restrictions in the cockpit.

Our course from Guanaja to the western-most tip of Cuba — Cabo San Antonio — was 008 degrees, nearly due north, and that’s pretty much the median strip on the highway north and south for the behemoths. As we eased toward Cuba, at one time we had five ships around us on radar, so to avoid them we sailed closer and closer to that gorgeous island; as we passed, we were only 1.5 miles offshore and could see people easily.

As the wind died, we were profoundly tempted to pull in and drop our hook just around the bend, on the northern shore, at the gorgeous all-weather anchorage of Los Cayos de la Leña. We had exquisite charts for the area -- produced by the Russians when they were funding Fidel — but we had cold feet about laying a course for the anchorage. The US government has been clamping down on cruisers stopping in Cuba, issuing humongous fines to those caught doing so, and we didn’t relish becoming a test case. We kept going.



Any close-up view of a tanker reminds us that no matter who has the right-of-way, its a technical point only. The law of greater tonnage is the one to which we pay the greatest attention. (Photo courtesy of Bill Band.)

Bernadette and I had expected this lessening of wind strength -- it had been predicted in our weather faxes – but the faxes had vastly understated the situation. As Ithaka passed Cuba, the wind died completely, which meant that on our third day we motored, mostly in a counter current, against the Gulf Stream, and made all of 85 miles in 24 hours – after such a sleigh ride to this point, our average speed through the foul current on our last day was about 3.5 knots. At one point we turned off the diesel, just to see what would happen, and we found ourselves going backwards at more than a knot. Still, no complaint. We cranked up Compay Segundo, Ibrahim Ferrer, and Eliades Ochoa, pretending we were in downtown Havana.

There are a slew of strategies for going from west to east when north of Cuba, but two tactics are common in all theories. First, go with mild weather that has some southern component to it, and second, avoid being seduced into too much northern progress in the Yucatan Channel, where the Gulf Stream has great gusto. If the speed becomes addictive and then the easterly trades build up, it’s awfully difficult to do much easting toward the Dry Tortugas, Key West or around the corner and up. One way to avoid this is by staying closer to Cuba than to Isla Mujeres (on the Yucatan peninsula), because the current is milder. That was our plan, but the cost was the west-moving counter current, the location of which varies from time to time but consistently runs from east to west parallel and close to the north shore of Cuba. Normally, once you’re 30 to 40 miles north of Cuba, you can ease comfortably into the Gulf Stream and get the push you want, but until then there’s likely to be some force against you.

Ithaka under full sail with a cruise ship behind her in the distance.

Our first waypoint after Guanaja was just two miles off Cuba’s westernmost point, Cabo San Antonio (21 ° 51.975 N and 085 °00.000 W). We took a course due north from there to a second waypoint 13 miles away (22 ° 05.000 N and 85 ° 00.000 W). There we bore slightly to the east, a course of 008 ° for 32 miles (to 22 ° 24.00 N and 084 ° 57.249 W.) Once there it was a Rhumb line to Key West, and increasingly good current most of the way -- anywhere from .5 to 3 knots.

The red boxes indicate our path from south to north as we rounded Cubas Cabo San Antonio and then headed northeast toward Key West, Florida.

For any cruiser with access to the internet there’s a terrific website that plots the Gulf Stream on a daily basis, and offers great help in anticipating what’s ahead: ( Click on the website, and then with your mouse draw a box around the area that interests you. Then, click on the “currents” box at the lower right-hand side of the screen. Wait a few seconds and up will come a stunning color depiction of where the current is moving on that particular day.

This graphic view of the Gulf Stream shows the enormous twists and turns that it takes in a relatively small area. Looking at the seas just north of the western end of Cuba, there are confused currents everywhere. For boats traveling to the States, theres no way of avoiding some foul current until entering the positive flow of the Gulf Stream.

Throughout this passage we had clear propagation and talked several times with Lisa and Cade, on Sand Dollar in Panama, and Dave on Belladonna in Honduras. But mostly we talked to each other. A lot.

This was a momentous passage for us. Not because of length or seas or some major mechanical difficulty. This was our return to the United States, the official acknowledgement to ourselves that we only had a few more months of cruising before returning to Rhode Island. The whole passage was a constant examination and re-consideration of what we are doing, where we are headed, who and what we’re leaving behind, what we want in life, how on earth we might accomplish it and how mixed we feel about selling Ithaka. We’re nervous and excited, of course, but quite wistful too.

Were grateful to have been well watched over by Neptune.

Six years of cruising is a mighty good run, and it’s far from over yet, but the loss now of an open-endedness fundamentally changes the trip. I kept thinking that in baseball the runner on first base has a much different head than the runner on third, and now, we’re close to the place we used to, and again will, call home.

We’ve been lucky throughout our cruising to enjoy good health without emergency or injuries, and we’re even more fortunate to return in better shape than when we left, excited about new adventures. But for all gains there are losses, and with each passing hour it seemed we could think of little but the tradeoffs we were making. As is our habit, we both made lists. I’m not sure we learned anything new, but writing it all down was a reassuring reminder that we’re doing what we want to do and feeling the inevitable sadness. Is there any big decision without its built-in downsides? Not so far it seems.

The traffic jam of dinghies at the Key West dock was the surest sign we were no longer in a remote area.

Not surprisingly, as the wind picked up and as we got out of the counter current — an appropriate place to be obsessing endlessly about a difficult decision — our spirits soared along with our speed. We laughed that now we were going too fast and would get to the States too quickly. There was just no satisfying us.

Our entry to Key West felt both sweetly successful but also anti-climactic. It’s the point from which we originally left the United States six years ago, and it’s our point of return now; being here closes a small but important circle for us — and I’m proud of that. But inside me, the town seems a different place; even though in reality it’s the same outrageous, over-the-top community it was then. Inside me, it represents something else now. And now, as we feel our way back into the United States, it’s my task to make sense of what that is. Over the next few months, as we make our way to RI, and wrestle with new definitions, I’ll write more about it.

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