December 15, 2006
A Windy Ride North
By Bernadette Bernon
There was no other word to describe the weather except “fluky.” Our goal had been to jump into the north-flowing Gulf Stream, and ride it from Florida as far as we could go – maybe all the way to Rhode Island. But, sitting in Ft. Lauderdale, every time we pulled down the weather faxes and listened to the forecasts, they were completely different than the predictions of the day before, and they rarely matched what we were seeing in reality.
Three times we made ready to lift off, hauled the dinghy up on deck, tied it down, stowed everything, and I cooked a couple of comfort-food meals in advance – my favorite being Chicken Marbella in the pressure cooker. Each time, departure day arrived, and the wind howled when it should have been gentle and steady. Three times we cancelled.
Finally, having eaten most of our most delectable foods, we woke up one morning to 20-knot easterlies, and a forecast for the winds to clock toward the southeast later in the day. OK, it wasn’t an ideal forecast, considering we’d have to beat out of the Ft. Lauderdale inlet, and then beat our way out to the Gulf Stream, but it was only a few miles offshore, and once we were out there, we reasoned, with the wind and the stream going in the same direction as we were, it would be a sleigh ride – every sailor’s dream situation. Antsy to be off, we set out into the teeth of it, figuring it was really a pretty good window after all.
Ithaka put her shoulder to the task, but the going was slow. As expected, the wind was on the nose, and grew from a gentle 15 to a hearty 25, and the gusts were higher. We crawled along at a snail’s pace, and revved the motor up, which helped us point higher, but the wind was clearly strengthening. Even though we were motor-sailing, we were barely making four knots and grousing constantly. Days like this, which start out with such high hopes, can end up being the bane of a sailor’s existence. And it was only going to get worse.
As hours ticked by, we inched our way out into the Gulf Stream, but the wind just increased more and had no resemblance at all to what was predicted. Ithaka’s speed dropped to three knots, and sometimes to an excruciating two. A handsome sailboat with what must have been a huge engine muscled slowly by a couple of miles off our starboard beam. We envied them their horsepower.
All during that morning, Douglas calculated and recalculated our position, an activity with which he likes to torture himself. Unfortunately, even though we were now into the Gulf Stream, the farther we went offshore, the more we distanced ourselves from the possibility of our fallback plan—making landfall somewhere by dark if the weather turned really ugly. And that’s how it was looking. By noon we’d been sailing for five hours, and didn’t have much distance to show for it.
And sure enough, instead of clocking to the southeast as forecast, the cursed wind was now truly out of the northeast, exactly what we didn’t want. When the wind opposes the Gulf Stream, it makes for a weather system all its own. At its best there are short, choppy seas that are uncomfortable. At its worst, when the wind and sea are at war, there can be monstrous square waves that are ugly, difficult to maneuver through, and dangerous. That’s where all this was headed.
To minimize both the hazards and discomfort, we decided to tack, which aimed us back toward land for a time, and we planned to stay on that tack for three hours before tacking back out to sea again. The idea was, with the wind now doing its own thing, that we needed to make some northing; we didn’t want to be caught in the stream with an opposing wind that was escalating in force. Of course, all during this time, we were kicking ourselves about the wisdom, or lack thereof, of leaving Ft. Lauderdale when we did. Such is the way of the cruising world.
Between thunderstorms, squalls, and a whipping wind, we had a wild ride through a night of little sleep. The idea that we’d been toying with—sailing all the way from Florida to Newport—seemed laughable now. All we wanted to do was to anchor in St. Augustine in one piece, get off the boat, go into town, and order a hot pizza and a couple of ice-cold beers. At this point, we’d had enough Chicken Marbella to last a lifetime.
With considerable relief we scooted into the St. Augustine inlet with a following sea that made for a vigorous arrival, but before we anchored, there was some business to attend to. We took Ithaka to the fuel dock to fill up with diesel and water, and pick up a newspaper and some ice. The day was bright, crisp, and sunny. As the diesel glugged into our tank, we heard the Coast Guard warn mariners on channel 16 that a freak squall would soon move across St. Augustine. Predicted to be packing winds of 40 to 50 knots, thunder, lightning, hale, and water spouts, we hurried about our business, pushed off the dock, and puttered over to the anchorage, where we tucked Ithaka’s anchor into the mud with not 30 minutes to spare. This time, of course, the weather prediction was dead on.
The squall came through with great fury, bringing with it a dark gloom. The St. Augustine harbor agitated like a washing machine, and the wind was everything that had been predicted. Three boats dragged around us. One was captained by a single-hander, a woman who desperately called for help on channel 16. Her boat was dragging toward the bridge. Her electric windlass was malfunctioning, and she was frantic.
“Go help her, Douglas,” I said, over the wind. “I’ll be fine.” Douglas hesitated, torn between helping the troubled sailboat, and protecting our boat and me. Ithaka was secure, and I had the motor on in light forward, both to keep us steady in the wind and in case I had to maneuver away from boats dragging toward us. We decided I’d stay at the helm, keeping things under control here, while Douglas jumped in the dinghy. Through the white-water waves and high winds he sped over, jumped aboard the other boat, and together he and the woman got the anchor aboard – hand over hand – then motored slowly to a better spot, and re-anchored. What a show! He arrived back to Ithaka exhausted and soaked, but pretty pleased with himself.
After an hour of this misery, the nasty weather expired, as quickly as it arrived. The squall passed; calm was restored in the historic harbor, and we could get back to our plans. Where the day had darkened to the point of dusk, the sun now came out blazing. The NOAA weather forecaster continued to maintain his automated composure, calling for light winds out of the southeast. Around us, in defiance, the winds howled out of the northeast.
For six years we’d been relying on our own weather research, friends, weather routers like Herb Hildenburg, and local cruising nets, but now back in the States we diligently listened to the Coast Guard. Sadly, though, so many of their forecasts this season were at such cross purposes and so far from reality that we began to distrust all the forecasts, expecting the worst all the time – not a comforting thought, especially for boats looking to make long-distance passages.
For the time being, though, we put thoughts of the fluky weather, and upcoming passages, out of our minds. We were safe and sound, happily anticipating a visit to a cozy restaurant in a great town, and grateful for being in a peaceful anchorage instead of out at sea.