Waiting For The Weather Window

By Douglas Bernon
January 12, 2001

In the rolly Key West harbor, we listened to four more weather reports, two NOAA forecasts on the VHF radio, and two more on the single-sideband (a kind of short wave radio). We watched half a dozen boats leave, noting that all were bigger than Ithaka. For three days, we saw the a chilly NW wind clock around the compass, and finally begin to drop from our normal 25 knots, down to 6 knots overnight. And then we heard it — the prediction of an ideal window — light northwest winds swinging overnight to 10 to 15 knots out of the northeast. Even with this, I could feel myself dithering. How much more perfect could conditions get?

We were fewer than 100 miles from Havana. Our goal was to leave Key West with light and favorable winds out of the west or northwest, which would be in concert with the easterly flow of the Gulf Stream, and therefore smooth it out somewhat. Even though our ultimate destination was just a little bit west of due south, our plan was to sail out Key West's Southwest Passage, then continue almost due west for a few hours before making the turn south and getting swept into the strong east-flowing current of the stream. In theory this course would limit the amount of time we were in the Stream and simultaneously compensate for its strong push east. Also, we needed to arrive at Marina Hemingway, where we're being hosted, in daytime, with anything but a strong northwest wind behind us, because a blow from that direction makes for a treacherous entry through the narrow 50-yard cut in the reef.

This overnight passage would take us across that sometimes-roaring warm river that serves as much as a psychological as a natural boundary. We had to cross it to untie our cord and enter our first foreign land. So in addition to being excited, we were frightened. Bernadette says there is little room on Ithaka for her to express her anxieties, as mine are so enormous — and, I'm afraid, so vocal — that they fill all available space. She's right. Indeed, in this instance, I'd worked myself into an even greater lather than usual, which is saying something.

So we dithered. We put off our departure for one more day. Even though Friday's weather window looked pretty sweet, we figured the prediction for Saturday sounded better yet. Here's how we thought it (rationalized it?) through. There was a moderate low-pressure system that was supposed to come through Friday night, although somewhat north of us and probably totally irrelevant to our situation. While predicted to be of little consequence, its arrival could add another variable to the Gulf Stream, where the clash of wind, current and varying air and water temperatures can create instant and wild weather systems independent of anything else nearby. (Hear that terror?) We figured that if we waited another day, after the alleged passage of the alleged front, there would be two advantages: less chance of surprise squalls, and fewer clouds with greater visibility courtesy of a still growing, nearly-full moon.

Improved visibility is all about tanker-spotting. (Those beasts truly terrify me, especially after our friends Kay and Per told us of being hit by one at night off the coast of San Francisco.) This stretch of ocean we were about to cross is a shipping highway, and a bright horizon is an ally in the face of sailboat-smashing behemoths. In the black of night, a dot of light, just barely visible on the horizon, can become a freighter that's on top of you within not very many minutes. With pedal to the metal, those crushers can honk at 20 knots.

What we were telling ourselves was that if we could just wait until the following day, even though we ran the risk of an already near-perfect window closing on us, the stream would be calmer the next night, and maybe I would be, too. Thank goodness Bernadette is more even-keeled than I. Aware I was wimping out but willing to do so, we waited the extra day.

We'd planned on crossing in company with our very experienced friends Diane and Harold Clapp, on Sea Camp, a Whitby 42. Harold, who approaches Buddhadidity in his calm demeanor about most things, said he could go or wait: "Both days look pretty good to me." Diane said she was in no hurry, that Saturday sounded easier than Friday, and she was all for easier. So, on Saturday morning, Bernadette hooked up the bow-to-stern jack-lines for our safety harnesses, stowed and secured everything below. I took one last dinghy trip to shore for some addictive kalamata olive bread from a local bakery, made three stops at various bathrooms, and a quick dash to a bait shop for a few more fish hooks. I called my friend Tom Gibbon to file our plan (as in, if you don't hear from us in two days, do something sensible). When I asked Tom how he was doing, he gave me our mutual stock answer, "Fine, as far as I know." By ten I was back on board. We deflated and lashed the dinghy on deck, called friends in the anchorage to say goodbye and reviewed the weather about a hundred more times. I checked and re-checked the latitude and longitude coordinates in the GPS, and then Bernadette turned to me and said that there was only one thing left to do.

"What's that?" I asked.

"Leave!" she said.

And so we did. Figuring on a 20 to 24-hour crossing, and wanting to arrive with plenty of daylight to spare, we weighed anchor by eleven. Sea Camp followed us out about a half-hour later.

By two o'clock, we were in deep water, out of lure-snagging, lobster-pot range, so it was time to troll for fish. We use a hand line on a plastic reel called a yo-yo. My serious fishing friends think it's a bush-league rig. They're right, but with three feet of stretchy bungee chord, and a 100 feet of 200-pound monofilament, a stainless-steel leader, a heavily weighted lure and a hook that could hold King Kong, that puppy's been catching us some meals. Several hours later I noticed the bungee was taut. It was hard to pull in — a good sign. Closer to the boat, we saw something on the line bouncing wildly, but thought it was too brightly colored to be a fish. "It looks like a big flip-flop," said Bernadette, about the fluorescent yellow color. As I pulled it in farther, I saw that we'd landed the most beautiful fish I'd ever seen. ("Break out the wasabi, honey!")

It was a dorado, 30 inches long, a deep, shimmering yellow from head to tail, with dark green flecks along its underside. Both Bernadette and I winced at its beauty and fate, and watched it change to duller colors as it died. This magnificent creature fed us a sushi snack, dinner and breakfast. If only I knew how to fillet more deftly, we might have gotten another couple of meals. We joked that once you catch a fish that early in the day, what are you supposed to do afterwards? The answer was evident quickly: Clean all the fish blood out of the cockpit. Our "fish-processing" skills need honing.

Waiting for the weather window proved wise. Our crossing was blessedly mild, even lacking in wind (fewer than 5 knots) over the course of the night. Our original plan, which we stuck to stubbornly, despite its over-compensation to westward, meant that we went too far in that direction. Harold and Diane, more seasoned and practical, and with an 85-horse engine, took into account the absence of wind, went more directly southwest on the rhumb line out of Key West, and arrived four hours before we did. Throughout the night we stayed in touch with them via VHF every two hours. It was a great way to stay awake and not feel quite as alone.

Photo of Cuban and quarantine flags

During most of our crossing, the Gulf Stream was a mill pond. Clouds were few, and the moon stayed with us until 4:30, when it quietly dipped below the horizon. Not until we were 18 miles from the Marina Hemingway sea buoy did the breeze strengthen quickly, clock around to the south-southwest, and hit us at 20 knots on the nose. We beat into it and made slow progress, all the while searching for the sea buoy, which is only one-quarter of a mile off the shore, and which marks the beginning fringe of breaking reefs standing between us and Cuba. As I write this, we've spotted the marker and hoisted the Cuban and quarantine flags. We are tired, proud, grimy — and excited. A new chapter is beginning.