It’s like riding a bronco with a fire hose spraying in your face: four unrelenting knots of current pushing you into 4 to 6ft smackers. Lumpy. Bumpy. A rodeo. A mistake. Anything but pleasant. When my partner, Phillip, and I were planning our first voyage to the Bahamas on our 1985 Niagara 35, Plaintiff’s Rest, that’s what people told us crossing the Gulf Stream in any kind of north wind would feel like.
But we did it anyway, and our two passages across the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Stream taught us many lessons. Ironically, crossing with a north wind was not the bull ride we anticipated, and surprisingly, crossing back with a south wind was not the gallant trot we thought it would be either. All lessons (aka mistakes) are free today. If you, too, are looking for tickets across the Gulf Stream, giddy up!
Unfortunately for us, living in Pensacola as we do, Phillip and I first have to sail across the entire Gulf of Mexico before we can find ourselves in a suitable place to jump across the Stream. By the time we’ve covered the 500 miles it takes us to reach the tip of Florida, we’ve already sailed as far offshore as we will need to for the entire Bahamas trip and have already given the Gulf a chance to thoroughly pummel us before we even have the opportunity to battle the Stream. We took our fair share of kicks and licks on the way to Key West, in particular.
Specifically, around Tampa, we found ourselves in some fun stuff that had us bashing around on a bucking bull for 24-or-so hours. The gale rattled the autopilot loose, overheated the engine and had us living permanently in foulies because we were too tired or, more often, too frequently needed topside to doff them below. Once in a while, we were pooped by a wave the size of Texas. When that happened, all I could do was laugh, punch-drunk at the ridiculous amount of water in the cockpit that pooled up to my thigh at the helm. Later, chasing a noise coming from beneath the binnacle, I jumped into the lazarette and found the steering quadrant had dropped and was visibly (and audibly!) grinding its own notch into the fiberglass rudder support. I actually remember laughing a little when I went down below to wake Phillip for his shift, flitting about like a rodeo clown trying to distract him from the mess and noise that awaited topside.
“No, that’s not the rudder falling out you hear, everything’s fine up there. Here, I made you tea.”
Thankfully, once safely in Key West, we found the kicked-up seas had simply rattled the rudder post loose a few threads from its cap on the cockpit floor and a quick tightening lifted the quadrant back up and off of the fiberglass. At the same time, though, we also knew that was just the round-pen, the preliminaries. We couldn’t even begin to fathom what the Stream had in store. Despite what we had just faced in the Gulf, crossing the Stream was still the passage we were worried about most—and for good reason. Did you know the Gulf Stream carries four billion (billion!) cubic feet of water per second? I’m glad I didn’t know that when I crossed. I would have imagined our little boat, looking rather tippy and toy-like, being carried along like one of those monkeys riding a herd dog during the break, bouncing and bobbing and holding on with two hands, two feet and a tail. We had read multiple accounts of boats literally being bashed apart at the seams when caught in a north blow in the Stream. During the time of year, we’d decided to cross, December, northerly fronts also have a reputation for building fast and fierce in that part of the Atlantic, which would make it that much harder for us to find a safe 12 to 20-hour weather window.
Once we’d finally showered and shaved in Key West, though, Lady Luck was appeared to be with us. And when weather router Chris Parker reported “two days of glass” that matched our GRIBs, our gut instinct told us to go. While everyone had warned us against crossing the Stream in a north wind, a light and fluky one of less than 5 knots was too tempting to resist, so we set off from Key West headed around the tip of Florida. Sure enough, as soon as we got into the Stream it was like making that turn around the last barrel, whipping and kicking until your horse rips out from under you. We strapped onto a rocket! Under engine alone, our Niagara was now making 7 knots when our Westerbeke usually maxes out around 4.5. Nonetheless, despite all of our worry and preparation, it was a smooth, gallant lope to the Bahamas, with lights glowing from both Miami and Freeport on either side. We left Key West around 1100 on a Friday and were in West End, Bahamas by 0900 the following Sunday, where I was passed out in a hammock after a single goombay smash two hours later. Best nap of my life.
Rough Ride Home
Of course, we hoped for a similarly smooth ride when it came time to head home again two months later. If crossing the Stream with a north wind is only recommended in less than 5 knots of wind with calm seas, then crossing with a southerly wind sounded like a fantastic idea. Turning south into it too early, though, and then bucking along on the outside in the Florida Straits? Definitely not recommended.
This being our first time sailing back across to Florida, Phillip and I were hesitant to navigate the entrance and travel in Hawk’s Channel—the narrow waterway that runs between the outer reefs of the Florida Straits and the Keys—especially at night. Granted, Hawk’s Channel offers calmer, more protected waters, but it also requires focused navigation along markers to avoid the reefs. Phillip and I, therefore, decided that traveling in the wide open strait and navigating into Marathon the following day, would be a better strategy. Alas, as we soon found, saddling a bucking bronco would have been more comfortable.
“You went on the outside?” I remember a good friend and fellow captain in Marathon asking after the passage, his face curled in confusion. Yep, we’re those people. It really wasn’t the smartest move. The minute we turned south and started beating into the current and wind, it became that “lumpy, bumpy, mistake” folks had warned us about. Phillip and I both looked like beat-up bull riders the next day, bags under our eyes and big purple bruises covering our bony parts. We’ll know next time to get out of the arena and tuck into the channel.
With another successful, albeit uncomfortable, crossing of the Gulf Stream behind us, we still had the entire Gulf to navigate before we could consider ourselves home, and she never disappoints. A beatdown outside of Panama City actually opened the seal on our stuffing box and had us terrified as we watched a stream of water spew out from under the transmission. I swear I could hear that clown again, laughing while spraying a seltzer bottle into our bilge. Ha, ha, ha! Thankfully, a quick shimmy of the seal back into place, a snap of the reins and a cluck of the teeth, and we were trotting along again like it had never happened. Which is perhaps why we keep buying tickets to this wild, crazy show. Much like a rodeo, it’s guaranteed to be a rough-and-tumble, story-worthy adventure. If you’re setting out to cross the Gulf of Mexico or the Gulf Stream, buckle up. You just bought a ticket to the rodeo.
Annie Dike and her partner, Phillip, cruise on their 1985 Niagara 35; Annie is an author, blogger and filmmaker at havewindwilltravel.com