Crossing the Gulf Stream

Gun Cay Lighthouse was silhouetted against the pink wash of dawn and the spicy aroma of exotic plants drifted on the warm breeze. Adriana tugged gently at her anchor chain as she bobbed in the slight swell rolling onto the Great Bahama Bank from the Florida Straits. I sat on deck and sipped my coffee, enjoying the magic of a new landfall.

Our journey from Key Largo across the mighty Gulf Stream had been carefully planned. The distance is only 80 miles or so but I knew it was important to pick the right conditions: The wind in these parts is mainly easterly which means an uncomfortable beat, and when the winter cold fronts march down from Canada they bring the blustery northers, giving wind-over-tide on an oceanic scale and a dangerous sea soon builds. Between the rock and the hard place there is a small window of opportunity – before the onset of a norther the wind goes light and switches to the south and the dash is on!

And so, one Friday evening in early December we hauled anchor and headed up the coast to Rodriguez Key, off Key Largo, to take advantage of a cold front on its way from the frozen north. By the next morning the wind had veered as expected and we set off, motor sailing through a moderate swell, the big mainsail damping the roll and the Yanmar chugging away at half revs, carrying us on the first leg of our Caribbean adventure.

The Gulf Stream pours relentlessly from southwest to northeast, a vast river in the ocean, its warm waters influencing the climate and eco-structure of whole continents.  This Blue God, as writer William MacLeish would have it, squeezes between Florida and the Bahamas, accelerating to over three knots at its axis, bearing flotsam and unwary navigators with it.  My vector triangle gave a course-to-steer that was fully fifteen degrees south of the rhumb line and my sums were right, it was a spot-on landfall, a very satisfying result akin to holing a long putt on a green with a radical right to left slope.

Now we’d need to get snugged down for the arrival of the norther which was hot on our heels before we could move on across the bank for Chubb Cay and Nassau.