Crossing the Gulf Stream
West Palm Beach, Florida - West End, Bahamas
Journal entry by Jill Wynott
March 1, 2019
We knew that crossing the gulf stream comes with its challenges. During the last week of driving across the south from San Felipe, Mexico, to West Palm, Florida, there had been all of zero weather windows to make the crossing. Once we arrived in Florida, miraculously the forecast looked promising, and we saw a potential window.
On the morning of February 28th, the alarm went off at 3am to complete the crossing. To our dismay, we saw 15 knots of north wind in the forecast, which was not in the previous daily forecast. Everything we had read stipulated not to cross with any north wind, as the wind vs the current kicks up a vicious chop that can wreak havoc on small craft. Alas, we would wait to see what the next day would bring.
On the evening of the 28th, the wind completely died. I anxiously went to bed at 6pm only to relive all of the harrowing gulf stream stories we read during our week crossing the country. At 10pm, I could hear Francois rustling, and went to check on him. Without a wink of sleep, he wanted to go. I agreed. The windless air was quiet, and now was our chance.
We departed West Palm, and the lights of the city behind us lit the skyline, very different to our passages in Mexico which were a deep, lonely black. We prepared for the journey, filing our trip plan on the InReach, putting on our foulies and clipping onto the boat with our life jacket - a habit when travelling at night. Knowing our route crossed a very busy shipping channel, we alloted to both stay awake and assist on deck - two eyes are better than one.
After only 10 miles, we entered the stream. Immediately we felt TriOomph pull to the north, and we began crabbing in an attempt to keep him straight. We began peeling off our foulies, as the temperature of the water warmed the air, and for the first time on our journey, we felt tropical. Our speed dropped immediately to a whopping 3 knots, as TriOomph fought the current, and we knew we were in for a long night. Distance wise, the crossing is not far at only 55 nautical miles, however the current makes it feel more like 80, as the reduced speed feels more like a treadmill run then a trail run.
As the night progressed, we began to spot the freighters. The route crosses through a major shipping channel, which can present some navigational challenges for small craft. We had hoped to complete the crossing during the daytime for this reason, however when you have a weather window, you take it. TriOomph, equipped with only a radar reflector, left us feeling quite vulnerable against the large tankers travelling at 20 knots. For the first time that trip, we heard English on the VHF, which made us feel a sense of comfort. Francois rigged some lights around the boat and up the mast to make ourselves more visible. “Please let them see us” I thought. We played hopscotch with the ships for hours, reading their navigation lights and reacting. The cruise ships presented an extra challenge, as their navigation lights were often camouflaged with the disco lights onboard. Often, we would get a whiff of fuel, meaning a freighter was close. Our heightened awareness would leave our heads swirling in circles until the producer of the smell was spotted. Around 2am I went down below to make a pot of soup. When coming back on deck, the new visual angle allowed me to see the bow of a large freighter coming up directly behind us, camouflaged to us against the Florida skyline until that moment. It had spotted us, and slowed completely. We dodged out of it’s way, and it proceeded to pass us, resuming to it’s normal alarming speed, and sending us tossing in the wake. The size of the beast was alarming, and we felt a bit like David as Goliath roared past. I was glad he spotted us. Francois and I exchanged a “holy smokes, that was close” kind of look, and proceeded to eat our soup.
The night carried on, and we eventually reached the graveyard shift, 4am. At this point we were both beginning to feel exhausted, and my eyes and mind were beyond the point of playing tricks on me. Once the moon rose, we could see the outline of the north swell we had been bobbing in all night. The swell far exceeded our little boat, and looked like giant mountains in the night running towards us like a pack of clydesdales. The tossing and turning of the Gulf’s confused seas was something we would not miss.
As we crossed out of the shipping channel, the swell subsided as we pushed through the Stream. Slowly, the waters calmed as we reached the end of the Stream, and a light westerly breeze carried us at a comfortable 6 knots towards our destination. It was time to go back to shifts, and I took the first sleeping shift. I was mentally exhausted from our cat and mouse game all night.
6am came, and I woke for the sunrise. The red and yellow warmth flooded the curve of the earth, as far as our eye could see, and brought a calming feeling to the boat, as the sun always did on night passages. We played our ritual “here comes the sun” by the Beatles and smiled. With the rising light, the distant freighters now seemed to boast a nice presence, experiencing the same magical sunrise as us. The flying fish around the boat danced across the flatter waters, and we could almost feel the warm blue water and white beaches of the Bahamas.
Francois went below to sleep on his shift. I continued trimming to keep TriOomph on course for West End Bahamas. He was completely in sync with the breeze and flat water that had now settled around us. He was in his element, and we worked together to achieve 8 knots. It was one of those simple moments in life when everything felt perfect.
We arrived in West End, Bahamas at noon on the 1st of March, cleared customs, and were anchored and swimming for conch at 4pm. The next chapter of our adventure had begun.