Where It's Warm

By Tom Neale

So you're sitting in a comfortable chair, a fire place warming you, listening to the winter wind blasting coldness into everything out doors and pushing its way through cracks and crevices, into your warm indoors. It's only natural that you think about "Going South."

Pink flamingo covered with snow

It's the stuff of dreams of all boaters. You have friends who've done it. You've read about it in the magazines. It's where you just "don't do" winter. And you know, that come hell or high water, you want to do it someday.

We've gone south on our boat for more years than I'd like to admit. It's part of our lifestyle. We recommend it if you do it right. But it's not always what it's cut up to be. And when it's not, you might wish you were back in that armchair in front of the fire.

Our first trip to "where it's warm" began in Virginia, a day after Christmas because we wanted our two young daughters to have Christmas with their Grandparents. So we enjoyed Christmas and took off to paradise. Except that we couldn't get the sails up. The knots securing the sheet lines were big balls of ice. We boiled water on the galley stove, brought it up in the steaming pot, poured it on the knot of the moment and began trying to free it, as one of us raced down to boil some more. It took a while, but soon all running rigging was free and the sails had stopped crinkling and were actually drawing. They got us down the Bay and into the Norfolk area where we tied on the south side of the Great Bridge locks. That night the water froze around us. This was not in the plan. But soon a smallish sport fish boat saved the day. They wanted lower latitudes too, so they'd just taken off and were nicely cutting through the ice, making a path for us. What they didn't know, because you can't see those things from up on a flying bridge, was that the ice was nicely cutting through their gelcoat.

We persevered and kept putting northern miles behind us. It was still cold. One morning our daughters built a snow man from the frost on the deck which was deep enough to call snow. But finally we reached what we thought was the paragon of winter warmth: Florida. The weather was getting better ... until we heard of a great cold front sweeping south bringing freezing weather all the way to the upper keys. We broke a cardinal rule of going south on a sailboat and spent some money in a marina. The norther howled, water froze on the dock, spray from the harbor froze on the side of the hull and we listened via SSB to friends, anchored where it's "always warm," in Biscayne Bay south of Miami. It was well below freezing at night and most of the boats had thin fiberglass hulls and very little insulation. People were miserable.

But the weather cleared and, as is usually true of Florida, warmer days came quickly. "Enough of this," we said, "We're Bahamas bound. We're going to the far side of the Gulf Stream which will warm the winds." We were soon there and loving it. But we loved it too much. We hung out in the Bimini chain, tasting our first conch and grouper. Then we headed over to Chub Cay where we found not only grouper and conch but lobster. It had happened. No more winter. But we soon heard of another cold front massively moving our way. Not wanting to spend money in a marina we found a place to anchor, protected from the northwest winds to come. But as the front roared through we found that northwest shifts to northeast in the progress of a front and this anchorage wasn't protected from the huge swell that wrapped around the point and rolled us from beam to beam. It was so cold that we had to bundle up. We moved our boat, picking our way through very dangerous reef in the gale and found a spot where we wouldn't roll but where we had to set two anchors to keep from swinging into hard bottom on either side of the narrow channel. In a couple days the northerly blew itself out but the SSB told us of another, far worse, sweeping south. We headed into the safe marina where we paid the price for almost a week.

And the fronts kept coming all winter long ... one after another, like roaring racing polar express freight trains. A strong cold front in the Bahamas is different from those we were accustomed to. These are low islands in the middle of a huge ocean. There's nothing to slow down the winds and although they cross some warm ocean in the Gulf Stream, this doesn't necessarily warm them up. And it's cold. Not like the bitter dry crinkling cold of the northeast, but still cold and wet as well as potentially dangerous.

We hastened to the Exumas, still farther south and east, where there were anchorages between strings of islands. Soon after arriving there the SSB told us of another front. In those days there were relatively few boats around and, unlike today, you could usually find anchorages with plenty of room. We found one, snug between islands. There was reef all around our protected spot, and some of the white sand there was really only a few inches deep over hard sandstone. So we spent hours setting our hooks, one north and one south. The current also ran basically north and south. That night the front hit like a moving brick wall express. We were at the helm with the engine running to relieve strain on the hooks, but we knew this was somewhat futile because there was no room to maneuver and we couldn't see.

That howling northwest wind began pushing all the water off the Bahamas banks. To reach the ocean the water had to course through the small channels between reef and islands to flee out the small inlets between the islands. Our controlling inlet was to our north and the tide swung our boat around mercilessly with first beam and then stern to the storm. And all the while it was terribly cold. Next morning we knew we'd survived. The chafing gear had done its job, the carefully planted hooks had remained true and the sun was shining through the cold crystal air. We knew our freezing and fear was justified when friends living on islands began to call to see if we were OK. We knew even more when we looked up at the strong two story cinderblock house that we'd noticed under construction as we came into the anchorage. Its cinderblock walls had blown down.

So maybe this sounds discouraging. It shouldn't be. I could tell of many more very good times we've had going south for the winter. We love it. But if you're sitting in front of your fire in your home, listening to the cold winds outside, be happy with your warmth and your dreams and your plans. Maybe someday you'll take your boat down. Or maybe you'll do it the easy way and charter. It's all good. 

Tom Neale is Technical Editor of BoatUS Magazine, with a lifetime of liveaboard and cruising experience. Read more of Tom Neale's articles here.

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— Published: January 2016


Tom's Tips About Staying Warm Going South

  • A cold front in the Bahamas or any island chain that's low and unprotected by high mainland can hit like a fast moving brick wall. But today you have plenty of warning if you keep up with good weather forecasts, and there's plenty of opportunity to do so.
  • The winds can suddenly change from strong southwesterly to flat calm to strong northwesterly, playing havoc with anchors.
  • Don't hang around to enjoy the sunshine when a front is on the way unless you're near a good marina which will take you or good anchorage.
  • Don't depend on secure anchorages because they may be full to the point they're dangerous in a front.
  • Be prepared to spend money in a secure marina when needed. This could save your boat, your cruise and maybe you from injury.

See www.tomneale.com

 

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