Mid-Life Cruising Sabbatical

Chapter 13

The Big Day

Well, itís almost time to go. You have long ago made the big decision to go cruising. You have quit your jobs, made arrangements for your house and belongings. You have gotten someone to look after your mail and investments. You have read every book and article you can get your hands on about cruising.

Like us, you probably quit work several months ago so you could work on getting the boat ready. In our case the boat was in Miami and we were living in Boston. We gave up our apartments and had our belongings moved to Miami and mostly put in storage. I say mostly because we actually rented a small apartment and some of our stuff went there. We had a friend then living in Cleveland who was going to share our apartment while we got ready to go and then continue living there after we left.

I guess we actually decided to go in July 1990. We started getting the boat ready in August. Weíve already talked about some of the things we did to the boat, but to reiterate: we built shelves in hanging lockers; installed a watermaker; bought a new SSB and GPS; added new ground tackle and line; added davits; serviced or had serviced everything mechanical on the boat.

We found a wonderful jack-of-all-boat-trades guy named Ron who helped us. "Down Time" had been berthed in a rented slip in a dockominium in Miami (well actually Coconut Grove) for some time and thatís where we did all the work. I am sure our neighbors did not appreciate all the sawing and other noise. The marina had rules against living aboard so it was a good thing we had the apartment. The boat was a mess anyway. We did actually spend enough nights on the boat to get angry notes from the manager. But who cared? In a few weeks we would be gone cruising anyway.

Over Labor Day weekend we took a little shake down cruise to Bimini to try out some of our modifications. A few weeks later we went down into the Keys to check out more stuff (like the watermaker) we had installed. All the while we worked on the boat every day. This is also the time when we began putting together the provision list you have already seen. Most weekends we would take the boat out sailing with friends who lived in Miami. One day we took her out and had the compass swung the old fashioned way Ė using a Peloris (sp?).

In November we took the boat up the Miami River to a boat yard and had her hauled. We had the bottom repainted and Spurs installed. Also had a few other things done (like servicing thru hulls) which are just easier to do out of the water.

In December we started actually storing provisions and spares aboard. We have already described how we went grocery shopping at 3:00am, got to the boat about 7:00am, stowed things away and then went to breakfast. As we stored each new load we would check the trim and rearrange things to make her sit on her lines.

We had said we were going to actually depart by Christmas, but we did not make it. We actually left the marina New Yearís Eve.

But enough of us for a while. Itís getting close to YOUR big day. The day you actually set sail for a foreign country and the adventure of a lifetime. Assuming you are following our path, you have gotten to south Florida and maybe Miami. Maybe you did your outfitting back home or maybe you did it in Miami. Youíve been to every marine supply place from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale. In any case you are in a Miami marina, maybe Dinner Key or Crandon Park or any of the others. Youíve done everything you can think of (or afford) to the boat. Youíve bought those last fresh provisions. The day is here. Itís time to go. Go pay your dock bill and shove off.

You have probably been in this marina several weeks at least and so you know some of your neighbors. As you skillfully pull out of your slip, one of you will be stowing lines and fenders. People will wave and point out to each other that you are headed "down island". Youíll be both thrilled and terrified. What have we done? Are we really ready? Do we know enough to sail in a real ocean? Will we ever get jobs when we have to return? The answer to all these is YES.

Youíve already identified your jumping off point and probably taken the boat over there to check it out. In our case it was No Name Harbor. No Name is an anchorage on the inside of Key Biscayne about half way down its length. For Miami, itís one of the primary jumping off spots for the Bahamas. The harbor itself is probably about two acres with a narrow entrance. At least until Andrew, it was surrounded by pine trees. It is actually a state park and you are charged to anchor there. It is also a very popular day anchorage for all sorts of boats. What makes it a good jumping off point is that it has a well marked and lighted channel out Biscayne Bay and into the ocean.

Youíll arrive at No Name in the early afternoon and start checking out the other boats. Whoís going to cross tonight? The cruisers will be in their dingys going from boat to boat. Hello, how are you? Weíre Jim and Diane and weíre crossing tonight, weather permitting. How far are we going? Weíre not sure. How long will we be gone? Oh, maybe 15 to 18 months?

Now letís stop right here and talk about this weather permitting stuff. You see, you are on the continent of North America and about 45 miles east of you is a huge shallow bank called the Grand Bahama Bank. Between you and there is the Gulf Stream. Now we all know what the Gulf Stream is, at least in theory. Itís a river in the ocean that starts in the Gulf of Mexico, swings around Florida, goes up the east coast of the US and out across the Atlantic (itís actually what gives England its relatively mild climate for its latitude). Anyway, it gets squeezed between Florida and the Bahamas. Millions and millions of gallons of water flow through here each day. Current speeds reach 3 knots. The Stream is flowing north, almost due north where you are. YOU DO NOT WANT WIND WITH ANY COMPONENT OF NORTH IN IT FOR YOUR CROSSING. Not N, not NW and not NE. You see, when the wind blows the opposite way from all that water moving north you get BIG, UGLY STEEP WAVES. A 15 - 20 kt N wind blowing for several days could easily produce 15 - 20 foot seas in the Stream. This is no way to start your adventure.

So you wait for weather. Ideally you would want a southerly wind. Nice beam reach across the Stream. Yeh, right, dream on. How about westerly? Thatís a good one too. Now donít get me wrong, the wind does blow from the south and west around here, but so infrequently and for such a few hours that it is impossible to catch. In the winter you could wait weeks or months for such a weather window and you might not recognize it when it comes.

The cruising guides talk about waiting for a cold front to come down which will cause the wind to swing around clockwise through 360 degree. Maybe and maybe not. In any case, you would need to be ready to go at a moments notice to take advantage of such a front. Like most of us, youíll probably take light SE winds and seas of 4 - 6 feet.

You were actually listening to the NOAA weather people while you were still in the marina and decided that tonight looked like it might be good. Donít be surprised if it isnít and you wait until tomorrow or the next day, or the nextÖ

I have crossed the Gulf Stream now five times, once in June, three times in September and once in February. Winter crossings are the roughest because the prevailing winds are stronger. My June crossing was flat calm, no wind. It all depends on when you go.

Letís see, where were we? Oh, yes, you were in No Name chatting up your fellow cruisers. You all will, of course, be looking down your noses at the day sailors occupying your harbor. What time are you leaving? Have you ever crossed before? From here? Are you going to Bimini or Gun?

The idea is to find someone who has actually left from No Name for the Bahamas so they can lead the parade out the channel. You see, even though the channel is marked, at night it is very difficult to tell which light is your next marker and which is that for another channel further down. I think itís actually prudent to take a little motor out the channel in daylight so youíll have seen it before you do it in the dark.

Did I say dark? Yes thatís right. Your big adventure starts with an overnight sail. There are actually only seven mandatory overnight sails between Florida and South America and the first leg of your trip is one of them. The logical landfalls in the Bahamas starting from Miami are Bimini and Gun Cay. If you were heading for West End your jumping off point would probably be Ft. Lauderdale. In either case, itís about 45 miles across. Now who knows what the conditions are going to be out there? You must arrive on the other side with good daylight. Neither Bimini nor Gun can be negotiated in anything other than good light. Both require eyeball navigation through channels.

Most sailboats leave around midnight. A fast crossing could get you here by 7:00am which has light enough at most times of the year. Worse case you should get there by noon. Even in horrible conditions you should still get there with plenty of daylight. If you are going to arrive too early just slow down. This is going to be a motorsail trip. Have you ever driven your engine hard for 7 to 12 or more hours?

OK, so by now youíve met all the cruisers in No Name. Someone has been across before and the flotilla has been formed. The departure time is decided on, depending, of course, on a last weather check. You pull your dingy up and lash it to your foredeck. Remember, no dingys on davits for ocean sailing. You secure everything and have an early dinner, maybe with new cruising friends. You try to get a little sleep.

About 11:00pm you all get up and make coffee for the thermos. You start chatting on the VHF. Do we really go? Yep, weather looks OK. Itís up anchors and single file out the harbor with the old hand leading the way. Now you see all those confusing lighted markers. It looks like Christmas. Good thing someone has done this before!

The channel twists and turns past the tip of Key Biscayne and the old lighthouse. You are intent on following the boat in front of you, but not too closely. Suddenly, there are no more markers. You are in the ocean. Now the adventure has really begun!

Back to us for a minute. We actually attempted to leave No Name three times. The first two times the ocean conditions were too rough for us and we went back to No Name. Each time we went in a flotilla and each time we were the leader. If you end up going by yourself or you are the leader, hereís what you do. You make a list of the marker numbers and their flashing sequences. One of you gets on the bow with your spotlight and holds the light on the marker so the helmsman knows where to steer. Remember harnesses and jacklines. You can get big swells even in the channel.

There is no sense setting up any sort of watch schedule for this first night. Both of you will be so excited that neither will want to sleep. Youíll spend the whole night chatting with your new friends on the VHF and watching out for freighters. Freighters? Did he say freighters? Yep.

As soon as you clear the channel from Biscayne Bay you are in the shipping lanes. The Gulf Stream meanders back and forth and the western edge will be between 3 and maybe 12 miles off the Florida coast. The south bound ships will be running between the western edge and the coast to avoid the current. The north bound ones will be out in the Stream itself. You might be able to see 5 or 6 at any one time. These guys move really fast Ė maybe 20 kts or more. And they are big! If you have Radar youíll now see what itís for. It is very difficult to judge distance, speed and direction at night. Radar does a cracker jack job of this.

In front of you there will be nothing but black ocean and all those freighters. Behind you all of Miami and Miami Beach will be a blaze of lights. Quite a contrast. Gradually the lights will recede below the horizon and soon all around you will be the darkness of a night at sea. If it itís clear with no moon youíll have spectacular stars, maybe the best youíve ever seen. If you are crossing in August you are sure to see shooting stars. Maybe there will be a space shuttle launching that will really light up the skies.

The night will pass very quickly and soon the first rays of dawn will appear at the eastern horizon. Time for a fresh pot of coffee. By now you will be well into the Gulf Stream. As the sun rises youíll see what you have been sailing in Ė the most gorgeous midnight blue water you have ever seen. As you approach the Bahamas youíll actually see a clearly defined edge of the Stream Ė midnight blue to turquoise. Spectacular! Time to run up the Q flag.

Assuming youíre headed for Gun, youíll follow the directions in the cruising guide and make the dog leg through the channel between Gun and Cat. If you have decided to clear customs at Cat youíll proceed to the dock there. Cat is a private island and they will charge you to tie up there even if it is only to clear customs. You will take your passports and ships papers to the customs and immigration people while your mate waits on board. For the first time in your life youíll be addressed as captain and youíll love it.

Jim & Diane

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This page last changed on: Monday, June 02, 2003