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December 25, 2003

Happy holidays, from Little Gidding

So close yet so far. Grand Bahama Island is just over fifty miles due east of West Palm Beach -- only a few inches on our small scale chart of southeast Florida, a distance we would normally consider an easy day sail. And under the right conditions, it CAN be an easy crossing from Florida to the Bahamas. Under the wrong conditions, however, it can be pure hell. The big factor at play here is the Gulf Stream, churning northward off the Florida coast, intent upon sweeping the Bahama-bound boater to St. John’s, Newfoundland rather than Nassau. A second factor is the dominant wind direction, generally from the east (varying from northeast to southeast) -- just where you want to be heading. The combination of current and wind can do nasty things. Anything more than a light breeze acting against the flow of the Gulf Stream will kick up short, steep waves that will turn your immediate world into a giant washing machine. Not recommended.

Hundreds of boats each winter cross over to the Bahamas despite the forces of nature suggesting they shouldn’t. If you’re on slow boat like ours, to cross the Gulf Stream and not end up in Bermuda, you need to point your bow more to the south to compensate for the north setting current. At this time of the year, if the wind is from the east or southeast, that typically means you’re going to have fifteen knots right on the nose -- not a great point of sail. And if it’s from the northeast, it means you’re going to be bucking some fearsome seas. So, where does this leave you and your hopes for a Bahamian winter sojourn? In most cases, it leaves you with a bunch of other cruisers in a south Florida anchorage waiting for a break in the prevailing conditions.

We’ve crossed the Gulf Stream about a dozen times now and haven’t been clobbered yet. Our success rate isn’t due to great insight or skill or even luck. Mostly it’s due to cowardice. We have a great aversion to discomfort and prefer skulking in a sheltered harbour to plunging into the teeth of a brewing tempest. Our strategy is pretty simple. We pick a point of departure that’s south of our intended landfall and we wait for the wind to lighten and clock south of east. Sometimes we wait a long time.

Last Thursday, we arrived in Palm Beach, Florida, and anchored at the north end of Lake Worth. We weren’t lacking for company. There were at least fifty boats already there, most of them also intending to cross over to the Bahamas. The conditions were definitely NOT good; over 20 knots of wind from the northeast, seas in excess of 10 feet in the Stream. Eileen was not happy. Her brother Dennis and his wife Darcy thought they were meeting us in two weeks in Green Turtle Cay in the northern Bahamas. We’re pretty sure they wouldn’t be happy either if they arrived at Green Turtle and found out we were still in Florida.

The conditions remained pretty well the same over the weekend, but the weather reports promised a change. They predicted an approaching cold front would move off the US coast by Wednesday. If the forecasters had the timing right, this meant the winds would begin to clock to the southeast on Tuesday and remain southerly for most of the next day, before moving to the north. This could be the window we needed; not a big one, but big enough to get us across the Gulf Stream. It also meant we would probably be in the middle of nowhere for Christmas. Our planned landfall was Great Sale Cay on Little Bahama Bank, about a hundred miles from Lake Worth inlet, but still a good fifty miles short of Green Turtle Cay.

Monday morning, the little patch of beach at the northwest tip of Lake Worth by the PGA Highway bridge was crammed with dinghies. It’s the only scrap of public waterfront in North Palm Beach where you can land a tender, and just about everyone in the anchorage had come ashore to run last minute errands and hit the nearby stores. They had been listening to the same weather forecasts.

In a neighbourhood characterized by luxury condos, it was pretty easy to pick out the transient cruisers. They were the ones walking to the shopping plazas with day packs over their shoulders (no one who lives in south Florida walks anywhere, even a short distance -- a fact that’s evidenced by a general absence of sidewalks). On shore, we encountered several conspicuous clusters of cruisers; in the Publix supermarket, the West Marine store; the Kinkos copy shop (where there’s free Internet access). The conversations all revolved around the imminent weather window: when to weigh anchor, which route to take across the Stream, whom to buddy boat with.

Tuesday morning, our neighbours in the anchorage, Robert and Viviane Fleury on the Quebec sailboat “Varuna”, came over in their dinghy. Viviane handed up a paper plate decorated with a green bow. “They’re maple sugar candies that I just made,” she explained. “It’s a French Canadian tradition at this time of the year.” Eileen ducked below and emerged a moment later with a plate of shortbread cookies, still warm from the oven. “And this is our Scottish Canadian tradition,” she laughed. We exchanged goodies, wished each other a merry Christmas, and promised to connect again once we got across to the islands.

By 3 PM Tuesday we were motoring out of Lake Worth Inlet; by nightfall we were in the middle of the Gulf Stream. Our course on the compass was due east; our rhumb line course to White Sand Ridge, where we planned to cross onto the banks, was 50 degrees magnetic; the GPS indicated we were actually heading somewhere closer to 45 degrees. The wind wasn't far enough south of east for us to sail our course directly, so we motorsailed through the night. The seas were manageable and, with the lift from the current, we averaged over six knots. (Sailing purists would have tacked across the Gulf Stream. Taking longer to cross, they also would have been caught out when the wind clocked to the north. We're not sailing purists.)

It was a new moon. The running lights of several small boats pierced the blackness around us. Everyone was headed in the same general direction. There was a near continuous stream of calls on VHF channel 16 as vessels checked in with each other and compared progress. The flotilla was on the move.

We passed Great Sale Cay in the rain, not a very impressive landfall

We reached White Sand Ridge just after midnight, the only indication of our arrival being the depth meter, which went from off soundings to 20 feet in a matter of a few minutes. It was still 50 miles to the nearest chunk of land. Great Sale Cay emerged as a grey smudge on the horizon around 9 AM. By that time we were under sail; it was raining and the wind was getting lighter, typical conditions during a frontal passage. We decided to push on for another 20-odd miles to Hawksbill Cay, where we would have protection from the anticipated northwest wind. Our immediate problem was not having enough wind. Before starting the engine, David glanced behind us and saw a trailing black polypropylene line. We had snagged it during the night somewhere on the banks. We hove to and David went over the side to clear the prop. When he climbed back on board, Eileen commented, "I guess you just couldn't wait until we were anchored to go for a swim in the clean Bahamian water." We won't record David's reply.

Today is Christmas. We woke up to clear skies and a fresh northwesterly breeze. We're all alone at Hawksbill Cay. When we tuned in a local radio station, they were playing "White Christmas", not such an odd choice of carol if you assume "white" refers to the colour of the sand on shore. We took the dinghy ashore for a morning walk on the beach, our first encounter with terra firma in 48 hours. There wasn't a soul in sight. "I'm not missing Florida," Eileen confessed.

Our white Christmas at Hawksbill Cay

When we got back to the boat, David said, "All that exercise has made me hungry. Let's test some of Viviane's maple candy."

Eileen looked away. "We might have a slight problem. I needed some comfort during that long night watch when we were crossing the banks. Are you sure you wouldn't rather have some shortbread?"

David & Eileen