Gulf Stream Gallop


The mighty stream showed its many moods on the passage from the Bahamas to Newport, R.I.  (published July 2013)

The afternoon we got away from West End, Grand Bahama, after clearing customs and immigration, the thunderclouds began to build ominously just as we sailed into the steamy waters of the Gulf Stream in the narrow Straits of Florida. The thunderstorm was sliding up the stream and giving the sky a menacing yellow hue so we shaped a course to the northeast, hoping to sail out of harm’s way. But it wasn’t to be.

George   First came the strangely cold gusts of wind and the dark swaths of disturbed water. Then, the rain. It spattered in huge drops on the water and on Lime’n, our Jeanneau 45.2, and then it grew into a torrent of rain and wind.

We had seen lightning for an hour before the storm hit us, off to the west, and it seemed to be moving up the stream and parallel to our course for a long time. But then, after dark, the inevitable happened. The rain reduced our visibility to yards instead of miles, the wind whipped the tops off the waves and then the lightning began to strike right beside us. We were deeply reefed and crashing along at eight knots and afraid to hang on to anything metal.

We altered course to the east toward the Bahamas but the storm followed us. We realized that steering this course put us in the flow of the storm’s path, which would prolong our exposure. So we altered course again to the west in the hope that we could sail right through the storm and out the other side.

Soon we were back in the stream, still amidst a violent thunderstorm and sailing fast through the teeming rain. It took hours for the lightning to abate, but eventually it did drift behind us. The sky began to get lighter. The wind calmed down. And then the inky black night was broken by the appearance of stars, one by one, flickering between the clouds.

We altered course again, this time to the north and the middle of the stream that was acting like a huge hot river carrying us homeward at 12 knots. We had survived the storm. But Lime’n’s electronics began to flicker and misbehave; we had been exposed to massive amounts of electricity and the circuits didn’t like it.

We still had 1,400 miles to go.

John   There were three of us onboard for the passage home to Newport, R.I., my boat partner Tony, my oldest friend John and myself. We had met up at Boston’s Logan airport to ride the direct Jet Blue flight to Nassau and we weren’t traveling light.

Knowing what provisioning is like in Nassau, my wife Rosie and Tony’s wife Judy had sent us off laden with groceries; Judy had prepared and frozen enough re-heatable dinners to get us home, all packed in super insulated pouches for the air trip and Rosie had filled a huge duffle bag with packaged goods, snacks and paper products. We also had our sea bags and, naturally, Tony was carrying a 17-foot spinnaker pole.

The big question in our minds as we retrieved our bags and pole from the carousel at Lynden Pindling International Airport in Nassau was, “What were Bahamian customs officials going to say about all of this prepared food, American products and the spinnaker pole being imported into their country?”

We got into the Customs line for tourists, even though we looked like refugees, and when our turns came and the officer asked the simple question, “Do you have anything to declare?” we each answered a simple “No” in return. Even Tony, who was carrying the 17-foot spinnaker pole, didn’t crack a smile.

And that was it. Our unopened bags and the pole were cleared and our passports stamped and we were home free.

We were met at the airport by our buddy Paul Baker in front of whose waterfront house Lime’n had been lying during our absence and soon we were aboard, getting the fridge cold and preparing the boat to go to sea. The next morning, we topped up the propane, fuel and water tanks, loaded on some final groceries and just after noon, unmoored and set off for the first overnight leg to West End.

We were a good crew. Tony has sailed all over the world and made dozens of trans-Atlantic runs. John has sailed all his life and made one trans-Atlantic and I’d made a circumnavigation among other voyages. We were all old school blue water sailors so we tended to do things the same way, which makes life much simpler for everyone.

By sunset, we were on the Bahama Bank with the Berry Islands to our east and West End about 80 miles to the northwest of us across the Northwest Providence Channel.  With the wind from the east and being in the lee of the Berries, the first night was a placid one of pleasant downwind sailing.

After heating up one of Judy’s dinners, we soon fell into a comfortable watch system of three hours on watch, three hours napping in the cockpit on call and three hours in a bunk getting some serious kip.

It would have been an uneventful night except that after midnight we began to see what looked like ship’s lights ahead of us, although it was hard to tell since whatever it was out there was lit up like an amusement park.

At first we thought it was fairly close but after an hour we realized that is wasn’t close at all, it was extremely large and just looked close. It took us two hours at eight knots to come abeam of the ship and it was hard to make out just what it might be since it was unlike anything we’d seen before and close to a thousand feet long. It was stationary and there were a lot of people onboard. It looked like a spy or NASA vessel since it had a huge dish antenna and several large antenna domes. We decided it was a spy ship. Who knows what the spooks are up to these days?

Dawn brought landfall on the southwest coast of Grand Bahama Island and soon we were sailing briskly up the channel to the well-protected yacht harbor at West End. We moored at the fuel dock so we could top off the fuel tanks before going to sea and then cleared out at the Customs and Immigration office. Lime’n had been in the Bahamas for most of the winter and we had found Bahamians to be courteous and helpful at every turn. The officers who sent us on our way did so with a smile and urged us to come back one day.

And, then, we were on our way home.

IMG_0341    The thunderstorm had been a bad beginning but we all agreed with the old sailors’ adage that great voyages usually have bad beginnings so we shaped our new course northward to make the best use of the stream. The dawn broke fair with a following breeze. The speedo was reading eight knots but the GPS was showing our speed over the ground between 11 and 12 knots. Go Gulf Stream.

For two days we rode the stream northward as we ticked off the miles at a rapid rate. Lime’n is a moderate displacement sloop with an in-mast furling mainsail and 125 percent genoa, so she is not over canvassed. She has a shoal draft fin keel with a huge bulb on it and a large spade rudder. She will sail at eight knots quite easily and even at that speed the autopilot rarely has trouble managing the helm. This was good sailing in lovely and fast conditions.

We have worked with weather guru Chris Parker in the Salty Dawg Rally and know he is a master at reading weather systems and shaping routes for cruisers making offshore passages, particularly in the western Atlantic, Bahamas and Caribbean. We had signed up with Chris for this trip and had rented an Iridium satellite phone from OCENS as well so we could call him to discuss our options.

As we sailed past Charleston we began to get concerned about a cold front that was rolling across the country and promising to meet us at about the time we would be rounding Cape Hatteras. After a call to Chris, we decided to shape our course half way between Hatteras and the Beaufort Inlet to the west where we could make our way north inside on the Intracoastal Waterway. That would be our plan B.

We passed Cape Fear and Frying Pan Shoals and as we did we seemed to sail out of the stream as our speed over the bottom dropped to eight knots. How slow that felt after 11s and 12s.

The cold front was forecast to be a strong one with 20-knot easterly winds in front of it and even stronger clearing northerlies behind it. It was big and powerful but moving more slowly across the country than most fronts do. By the time we were near Beaufort, we had worked our way fairly close inshore so we could make landfall if need be. In fact, we were having a hard time deciding on Plan A or Plan B.  None of us wanted to have Hatteras be a dangerous lee shore the whole way around the cape.

We called Chris one more time and he confirmed that the front would not move off the coast for 36 hours, which was enough time for us to get around the cape and make a beeline to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. So, Plan A it was. We altered course from Beaufort, rounded the sandy shoals off Cape Lookout and then set a close reaching course for Hatteras.

We arrived at the inside channel at Hatteras at sundown and in a failing breeze motorsailed around and then headed due north along the Outer Banks toward the Chesapeake. By dawn we had passed Kitty Hawk and by mid afternoon we had the highlands at Virginia Beach in sight so, if we wanted to seek shelter, we were very close to protected anchorages and marinas.

But the cold front had stalled and seemed to be dissipating. We spoke to Chris one more time and got the word that we had 18 hours before anything would happen and that would get us to the harbor of refuge at Cape Henlopen at the mouth of Delaware Bay. So, we headed north along the Maryland shore, motor sailing to keep up the speed in the light easterly breeze.

We had 500 miles to go.

We had been thinking about this approaching cold front for four days, so when the wind picked up from the east during the night and we saw squalls forming over Maryland and the occasional lightning bolt, we knew it was at last making its grand entrance. All night the wind backed and shifted but we were still reaching, the sea was fairly flat and we were making good time.

Dawn brought the sight of the cold front off to our west, a stark line of clouds in the sky and the building easterly that comes with it. All morning, as we passed Cape Henlopen and started to cross the wide, shallow entrance to Delaware Bay, the wind steadily increased and backed to the north-northeast. With half of the mainsail and a third of the genoa rolled up, Lime’n put her long waterline to good use by maintaining eight knots. It was blowing a steady 25 knots with higher gusts.

By afternoon, the wind had backed to the north so our course on port tack was taking us offshore. And the squalls you find in a cold front arrived with torrential rain and heavy gusts. The question was whether we should carry on or scurry for Cape May and hunker down in a marina for the night. It was an easy decision.

As soon as we could lay the entrance to Cape May on a close reach, we tacked over and trimmed for speed. Lime’n handled the building seas and now 30 knots of wind like a champion although the autopilot was not happy and could not hold a course. That was fine since it is better to hand steer in such conditions anyway.

Wet and windblown, we motored into the Cape May inlet and found a berth inside the stockade breakwater at Utsch’s Marina; and, we were glad we did. Overnight, as the full front trundled through, the wind howled in the rigging and blew the guard dogs off their chains. It was no night to be at sea.

Because the front was slow moving, the forecast next morning called for storm force winds between Cape May and Newport for the next 24 hours. Yet by midday the wind had moderated significantly. We taxied out to the ocean beach to have a look and saw by mid afternoon that the wind was down to 10 knots and had come around to the southeast.

It was time to go. Just before sunset we unmoored and headed out the cut to the open ocean and the last sprint home. We had a pleasant night sailing up the Jersey Shore as the seas moderated and Lime’n galloped along with a long stride.

Morning saw us in the Bight of New York with a choice to either go through the city to Long Island Sound or carry on at sea to Block Island and Newport. The first was longer and slower, the second more direct but fraught with the squalls of the lingering front. We chose the offshore route.

All night we sailed fast up the Long Island shore, dodging local squalls. Sometimes we would alter course 90 degrees for a while to miss an obvious downpour and lightning in a squall. We had a Spot onboard that was posting our position onto the Spot website for all to see. Late that evening Tony got a call on his cell phone—we were near enough to land to have signals—from his younger son in San Francisco.

“What’s going on out there?” Jeff asked. “You guys keep changing course.”

“Dodging squalls,” Tony explained.

So much for the splendid solitude of ocean passagemaking.

By the next morning we found Block Island ahead of us and fog rolling in as it does in spring. The wind had died so we motor sailed that last 15 miles to Narragansett Bay and the dock at Ida Lewis Yacht Club where we were met by Judy and Rosie.

It was an excellent passage. We sailed 1,500 miles in seven days of sailing. We’d met the Gulf Stream in its full glory, rounded Hatteras without incident, sailed through a good size cold front and aside from the electronics, arrived home in one piece. That’s the way it should be. And, yes, good voyages often have bad beginnings.