Gulf Stream Crossing: take 1

IMG_1268Our friendly Palm Beach area marina dock staff released our lines and we set off on Ariose for our long anticipated crossing of the Gulf Stream that would take us from Florida to the Bahamas. We responded to his “hope to see you soon” parting by letting him know that it wasn’t personal, but we hoped to not see him again for quite some time. Perhaps we should have been more specific. Had we known that a mere 18 hours later, his distressed face would be the first we would see upon awakening, we might have been less eager to leave. 

Dolphins & development.

And eager we were! This journey from Lake Ontario to Florida, en route to the Bahamas and perhaps beyond, has been filled with pleasure and pain, excitement and ennui, and lots and lots of learning. As much as our southward progress has brought far more agreeable cruising conditions weather-wise, it has conversely brought us into less agreeable surroundings. Others may find them appealing, but this part of the US is just not our thing. There are wall-to-wall condo and resort developments, and congested waterways with speedboats throwing potentially dangerous wakes (a fellow Canadian cruiser suffered 3rd degree burns a couple of weeks ago while making tea when unexpected wake caused the boiling water to spill). Most other boaters inhabit a completely foreign-to-us world of multi-million dollar mega-yachts. This is just not where we want to be. We were pleased to be putting the US behind us, quite fittingly, on the day of Trump’s inauguration. We were eager to tackle the Gulf Stream crossing.

We had done our research. Prior to setting things in motion for this adventure, our knowledge of the Gulf Stream was limited to remnants from primary school geography class. Now, we know a little more. It’s a powerful river-within-the-ocean, flowing north from the Gulf of Mexico, between Florida and the Bahamas, and onward up the Atlantic. People talk about it as a living creature, waxing and waning, boundaries shifting, heating the lands it passes by. Being about 10 degrees Celsius warmer than the surrounding water, it creates its own ecosystem and weather. When north winds set against that determined current, it can be a tempermental creature that shows its displeasure at being crossed, with waves kicking up a nasty battle between air and water. We have heard accounts of vessels caught in those conditions, where a good outcome is returning with scary stories to tell. We have also heard that those conditions don’t always leave survivors to tell the stories. On the other hand, when gentle southerlies blow allowing wind and water to flow in harmony, the Gulf Stream shows its tender side, presenting waters as placid as a backyard pool.

The Gulf Stream we were facing between the Palm Beach area and Grand Bahama is about 45 nautical miles wide. The distance of its walls from shore shifts, and the force of the current varies between about 2 and 6 knots but overall averages about 2.5. A three day weather window is advised to safely cross: yesterday’s winds should be southerly and not too strong (to calm the waters), today’s should be no more than 15 knot and of a south-easterly to south-westerly direction (to give some sail power for the crossing), and tomorrow’s should be similar (safety buffer in case the crossing is slower than anticipated). We have been watching the weather for weeks, even prior to arriving at our hop-off point, and have confirmed what we had read, that the prevailing winds at this time of year aren’t conducive to a crossing. When we saw the possibility of the right window arising, we sped up our journey through another overnight passage on the Atlantic. Tim blogged about that in our last post.

Provisioning. We need a bigger boat!

We had the perfect window. We provisioned well as some items are difficult to get in the Bahamas, or if available, would stress our budget.   We provisioned really well. We had enough food and water, and other essentials, like chocolate and wine, for a circumnavigation if we chose to bypass the Bahamas. Ariose sat low in the water under the extra load.

We plotted our course. Navigating from the Bahamas to the US is relatively easy. It’s impossible to miss landfall. Navigating from the US to the Bahamas on the other hand, has potentially more problematic results. If we miss landfall, next stop for us could be Iceland. As the pelican flies, we were directly across from Grand Bahama Island, our destination, We would sail about 20 miles due south along the Florida coast, then head directly east to cross, knowing the Gulf Stream would push us north-east, and then once we emerged from the current, we would correct as necessary to make landfall at West End. With all factors considered, we should be pretty much on target. All we would need to do is check in to Bahamas Customs and launch the next more leisurely phase of our journey. We topped up our fuel tank and jerry cans and were off.

A few minutes of motoring brought us out to the Atlantic. We’ve had disappointingly little sailing since leaving Canada, so we vowed to do our best this time to actually sail the entire way. Time, and we thought conditions, were on our side. We raised the sails, I took the helm as we headed off close hauled to the southerly wind, and Tim busied himself below. It was a splendid sail. Mild waves and swell, firm winds, blue sky, Florida coastline to our west and horizon to the east … perfect, I thought.

About 4:30pm, my cell rang. We mistook it for the hourly alarm reminding us to plot our position, and found it strange when another “alarm” went off a moment later. I thought Tim had just “snoozed” the alarm rather than turned it off. When I did later realize it had been a call, voice mail revealed an innocuous “Hello Ms Jones, just calling as we do with all our clients to check how their stay was at our marina.” Had we known what the call was really about, we would not have ignored it.

As we already mentioned, this part of Florida is highly developed. The coastline is lined with buildings. I watched them go by, one resembling the other, the shore looking unremarkably the same, as we headed south. I kept to a few miles out, mindful of not entering the Gulf Stream too early which would result in us being pushed north of the Bahamas, but the official forecast had indicated its west wall was about 9 miles out so we had a good margin to work within. Ariose doesn’t sail well tight to the wind – that’s our story – but most likely, it has something to do with the sailors as much as the boat. We wanted to head due south, 180 degrees, but needed to zig-zag in order to do so. Usually we check our position at least hourly, and plot it on our paper charts. If we ever lost our electronic navigation, this would be critical information. I continued on in my glory for a couple of hours, not bothering to check our position since my eyes told us we were on track. Then Tim pointed out that there did indeed seem to be a problem with our tablet or maybe the navigation software.


I tend to rely most on navigating by eye and paper; Tim is much more reliant on our electronic tools. I can’t quite trust something I don’t fully understand. Yes, I know, a signal goes from us to a satellite up there in the stars, and them back to our tablet to show us exactly where we are, but that just seems like magic to me. Our tablet was showing Ariose’s bow pointed north, and that we were pretty much at the point we started at 2 hours before. Clearly, it was malfunctioning. We were pointed south. Anyone could see that the coast was to starboard, and the sun was in the western sky. Definitely. I wasn’t going to believe the GPS data on latitude/longitude it was feeding us when it was obviously incorrect showing our orientation. Tim took over the helm, and I went below to go to check our other sources. I started with our hand-held GPS. Puzzling. It indicated the same latitude/longitude as our tablet. What was our VHF GPS showing? It was in on the conspiracy and was showing the same.   I plotted our fix on the paper chart, and sure enough, after 2 hours of lively sailing, we were within a mile or so of our starting point. What the heck?? There must be something amiss with the satellites. Was Trump already causing mayhem? Then Tim pointed out a distinctive building on shore. A building we had noted near the marina we had departed from. Oh.

Good-bye Florida coast-line.

We pieced the evidence together. The tablet does not know or care about the difference between our bow and stern. It, quite reasonably, assumes that if we are moving in a certain direction, the bow must be pointing that way and shows the boat accordingly on the screen. We, apparently, had been moving northward despite pointing southward. How’s that for a twilight-zone experience? The only error was in the Gulf Stream forecast. It was actually exerting its influence only 1-2 miles offshore, not the expected 9 miles. We were in it without even realizing it. Well, I guess while pointing fingers toward sources of error, I need to admit my mistake, too. I set aside reason and navigating vigilance while out there. The coastline is not as full of cloned buildings as I thought. As I tacked out and back, attempting to make headway into a south wind, I’d watch the infinite ocean on our starboard tack, and what I thought was another wall of buildings on our port tack. I didn’t recognition that we were actually “stuck” in front of the same strip, with the current countering any progress, kind of like walking in the wrong direction on an airport’s moving sidewalk. How full of myself can I be assuming the globally-trusted satellites were malfunctioning before I would consider that it might be me! There – I’ve eaten my piece of humble pie.

Well now. That was a little discouraging. We tossed out our “sail all the way” plan, fired up our engine, and at full steam, pointed south, but continued to move slowly north. Wow. That current is something that commands respect. So, as when caught in any current you don’t want to be in, we stopped fighting it and angled our way out and back toward the coast. As a little aside, complements of Wikipedia, we were in good company. Juan Ponce de León on his search in the early 1500s for the fountain of youth, noted in his ship’s log this “current such that, although they had great wind, they could not proceed forward, but backward.” We know the feeling, Juan.

DSC_2282We continued motoring southward, hugging the shore. This would be our 5th overnight passage, and we were getting into the routine. The sun set, and by about 8:30pm, I headed to bed to try to sleep and Tim started his official 3-hour shift. I find it hard to sleep this early. The pressure of knowing that I will be exhausted later and really need to get some rest now doesn’t help. What does help a little is the constant drone of the engine which blocks out other sounds. Our throttle needs to be held constantly, though, so if we move away for a moment to grab the water bottle or whatever we forgot to store within reach, the drop in engine’s rev’ing is obvious. To minimize this irritant, we have set-up our binnacle so that while tethered to it when at the helm we have almost everything we may need on a night shift at our fingertips.

To say I was becoming annoyed with Tim is an understatement. Every time I was on the verge of drifting off, he’d let go the throttle to do who knows what, then rev it again. Over and over. For goodness sake, plan what you need and gather it all up so that you don’t need to move away from the helm every 2 minutes, I thought. After an excruciating period of time, I finally poked my head up. I took a breath to refrain myself from expressing my true sentiments, and instead asked “Is everything ok out here?” The anxious look on Tim’s face answered the question. He wasn’t revving/releasing the throttle. The engine was doing this itself.

This could be serious. Our engine seemed to be dying. If we drifted back into the Gulf Stream, we could end up in Iceland or West Africa… 2 areas of the world we’d love to see, but not on this trip, thanks. At the same time, we knew that we were in no immediate danger. The Florida coast was in view, a review of the charts confirmed what we knew from our earlier plotting that there were no shoals or other dangers to be concerned about. There was some wind so we could sail. There was no panic. There was, though, a steep drop in morale. The enthusiasm that had carried us out early that day was gone.

We’ll end there for now, but promise to get the next Ariose Notes out shortly. We don’t want to leave anyone hanging for long.  Then again, we do get a bit of perverse pleasure, now that we’ve emerged unscathed from the predicament, from sharing some of the concern and uncertainty…from ruffling others feathers, so to speak!


8 thoughts on “Gulf Stream Crossing: take 1”

  1. One of my high school teachers would tell us of stories of airplane pilots who didn’t trust their instruments and then would crash their planes. I remember him saying to always trust your instruments…in our case that was our compass; he was a polar explorer before he became our geography teacher, and he had some entertaining tales.

    When at the mnr my coworker kept insisting the compass was wrong due to magnetic rocks. Strangely, these magnetic rocks were strewn wherever we went and she constantly was off course even though no-one else had difficulties. Then there was the guy who was convinced he didn’t need to rely on his compass to put in a 1 km long straight transact and ended up putting in a circular transect with the final plot only 75 m from the first plot (instead of a1 1000 m from the first and 250 m from any plot). No, that wasn’t Tim who did that…he could compass in a straight line.

    And then there was the person who trusted her compass but didn’t know how to use it properly. She would get quite upset when we told her she was way off; she insisted she’d followed her compass and we must be wrong. It was difficult for her to admit that she was the one in error…no matter how carefully you follow your compass it isn’t much use if you have declination wrong and also fail to hold it level when taking bearings.

    She also couldn’t do basic math, didn’t recognize the relationship of numbers to reality. Eg Redbridge was 778 km from North Bay according to her hand drawn map for our plots, instead of 30 km or so, and even when asked if she thought her distance was wrong she again insisted that she’d just added all the mile markers correctly and her math was correct.

    Her math was actually correct as she had used a calculator but her mile markers addition was wrong. Eg 6 km + 4 km = 10 km but when we went another 2 km she would mark it down as 12 km from the last mile marker rather than 12 km from the start.

    As you can imagine by the end of the travel we were doing a 100 km between mile markers only 2 or 3 km apart. Not once while she was keeping track as I called out mileage markers did she stop and think, wait, those numbers can’t be right.

    She did get me some work though. She had decided to proof excel data sheets to correct errors. MNR contacted me a short while later, after her contract was done, to give me a short contract so I could expunge every “corrected” excel file she had opened and start over again with the original data. They were in a bit of a panic as she had managed to render useless five years worth of data.

  2. re not believing your instruments- been there! more than once while
    in the bush i’ve looked at my compass, decided it just could NOT be working properly, and over-ruled it, only to get further lost.

    1. Hi Steve, working with a compass in the bush for so many years, I think it might have been my naturally poor sense of direction that helped convince me to trust my compass. In college I listened very closely to my instructors and then had lots of time to practise through work. More than once, I’ve had to overrule the GPS though, and triangulate using the compass to get myself out. This was Shirley’s first experiential lesson, though… good thing she’s a quick study!

    1. Hi Maurice,
      Always glad to have you along, Maurice! Every day is a new adventure. Hope you’re enjoying your Northern Ontario winter; Shirley and I both miss the beauty of the northern winter ( a little!). Cheers!

  3. What an adventure! Can’t say enough how wonderful it is that you’re sharing your experiences with us. As I read this on a cold February Ontario morning, it’s nice to see your fabulous pictures and imagine what it might be like to be there. Indeed, I cannot share your varied emotions as you meet (and deal admirably with) your challenges, but I’m certainly enjoying your ‘cliff-hanger’ accounts. This would make a great documentary!! Have you thought of publishing a book of your exploits? Both of your writing is as picturesque as your photos! I look forward to your next blog… Safe sailing!!

    1. Daria – thanks for the accolades! You never know, we might someday use this material. For now, we’ll just have fun documenting and enjoying! The irony about our travels through the warmth is that Shirley and I love playing around in our winter wilderness up North and miss all the feelings that snow and crisp air afford! We’re not complaining, though… we have plenty of winters ahead of us to enjoy.

  4. Wow, somehow I missed the last post and have been wondering about you two. What a journey it has been, and you both tell it so well. Enjoy the sun, sand and the odd swell. Safe travels.

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