The Gulf Stream – the Blue Goddess

The Gulf Stream, that mighty, fast moving, warm ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and flows into the Atlantic Ocean, squeezes between Florida and the Great Bahama Bank accelerating to over 3 knots at its centre.

If you’re crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas you need to take the Gulf Stream seriously for two reasons – it can carry you well north of your intended destination and it can be very rough in certain conditions.

The navigational issues are quite easily resolved with a bit of basic knowledge – when you set off from a port in Florida, say Miami, and aim for Gun Cay, Bahamas the course is 108⁰M. You’ll need to allow an average northerly set for the 45 mile journey of around 1.5 knots – I’ve used this figure successfully for departures from as far south as Rodriguez Key and as far north as Miami. Thus, if you take, say, 8 hours for the crossing you’ll be set 12 miles north of your destination. To compensate you’ll steer a course of around 120⁰M and should have a spot-on landfall. It’s as satisfying as holing a long putt on a green with a radical right to left slope.

When you first leave Florida you may find it a little odd that you’re being set south. Don’t panic, you’re in the counter-current; you’ll soon be out of it and into the Gulf Stream. Under some conditions you’ll see a change in water colour from green-blue to a deep purple-blue as you cross into the Gulf Stream, you’d find a marked change in water temperature and you might find yourself crossing a band of flotsam marking the edge of the Stream.

The weather issues are a bit trickier. Any wind over 15 knots with a northerly component is going to give wind-over-tide on an oceanic scale and a nasty sea will build. The wind in these parts swings between NE and SE so you’ll be looking for a wind that’s been from the SE for a couple of days and under 15 knots. Average waiting time for such conditions in the winter months is depressingly long – perhaps ten days.

A crossing opportunity presents itself on the approach of a cold front or ‘norther’ charging down from Canada. Before it arrives the wind goes light and you can sprint across under power, selecting the shortest route. The only snag with this method is that you will be on the Great Bahama Bank when the front arrives with strong winds. You’ll want to be in a marina or a snug anchorage before it arrives. With a fast boat you could get right across the bank to Chubb Cay but unless you’re sure of your timing better stay put at Gun Cay or Bimini until the fronts gone through – being caught on the shallow expanse of the Bank in a big blow in not something you want to contemplate.

So, wait for the right weather and get your navigation right and you’ll have a trouble-free crossing – perhaps the fist step on an island-hopping adventure to Kokomo!