We met Jamie and Jill on Monday evening. They’re a young couple from out west, cruising with their 7 year old daughter, Jessie on a 32ft Pearson Vanguard. They have two dogs like us, so we dinked on over to see if we could setup a doggie play date. They joined us for dinner later that night and brought over some friends from a Westsail 32 they were buddy boating with.
Enter Paul. Paul and Jamie are good friends. Paul recently bought Jamie’s old Westsail 32 and had been teaching himself how to sail by bringing the boat from Florida’s GulfCoast to the TreasureCoast – on his own. His buddy Mike, has joined him for the next leg of his journey – the Gulf Stream crossing to the Bahamas.
Both boats were planning on crossing the Gulf Stream the following night (Tuesday), sometime around 2am. The weather report called for S/SE winds, 10-15 knots with 3-4 ft. seas. That’s pretty darned perfect weather for a crossing. Their route seemed a bit dubious, though. They were leaving from Fort Pierce and heading to Walker’s Cay. It’s one of the longest crossing routes and one of the least travelled as you are crossing the longest section of the Gulf Stream. Best case scenario, it takes a total of 20 hours to complete. Our Explorer Charts for the Near Bahamas doesn’t even show the route. But, Jamie has been making this crossing every year from almost 30 years. He knows it like the back of his hand. And the weather is perfect – which is a rare thing.
“Hey, you’re welcome to join us…”
And there it was – the otherwise innocuous and passive gesture that plants a seed in your overactive imagination. The seed grows into a beanstalk of wild ideas and Bahamian imagery. You immediately reinforce your fantasies with days old stories of friends making smooth and gentle crossings. You start to day dream. And before the left side of your brain can pimp smack the right back in check, you say, “You’re leaving tomorrow? Sure, let’s do this.”
It was a 12 hour scramble the next morning. Prepping, installing, freaking out. Thinking of backing out. Manning up. Freaking out. And so on. I mean, come on! We JUST got the engine working semi-soundly. We JUST put our reefing lines in. We just installed the new jib control lines. We haven’t even tested or conditioned our Autopilot or Radar. How the hell could we be ready?
But here’s the thing… we were never going to be ready.
We had no idea when we were going to cross. From where or to where. We’d had a hard enough time getting the boat to even go down the ICW without some sort of incident. We could continue crawling south, thinking about crossing, talking about crossing, planning a crossing… but who the heck knows when it would have actually happened? And that says nothing about future weather windows. This seemed like the perfect opportunity: Jamie and Jill were skilled, planned and prepared to lead Paul and Mike who are relatively virgin cruisers, just like us.
Sooo… @#$% it. “Let’s do this.”
At 1am we pulled up anchor and followed our newly met and minted leader out of the Fort Piece inlet. Second thoughts, you ask? You betchya. Just an hour or so before entering the Gulf Stream, we listened to frantic chatter on the VHF. A sailboat was sinking off the coast of Sebastion, FL (a few miles north of us). Last known coordinates were given. Last known contact was stated. Status was still unknown. If that doesn’t leave an eerie feeling in your stomach and give your mind some pause, nothing will. Sure enough, roughly an hour later, the following happened:
- Winds picked up to 20mph with gusts of 25-30mph
- Seas became 6-8 feet with occasional 10ft breaks at 5-7 second intervals
- The Gulf Stream’s current roared at 4.5 knots.
- Our autopilot died. Yep. That’s right. DIED.
- Kelley began throwing up (and never stopped)
- I became fatigued and had difficulty fighting the seas to stay on course
- All three boats became separated and for long periods had lost radio contact with each other.
- I could not get ANYONE to respond to hails on ANY channel, not even the Coast Guard.
Fun right? Not so much. We sailed in that mess for 24 hours straight. For 26 of those 30 hours, I never left the helm, steering almost entirely by hand. My foul weather gear was just as wet inside as outside. A wet blanket kept me warm. My toilet was the cockpit drain, my sustenance was Coca Cola and peanut butter pretzels. Kelley was sicker than I’ve ever seen her. She couldn’t move other than to throw her head overboard. She spent the entire trip laying on the lee side of the cockpit in a state of vomitus delirium. Our poor dogs didn’t know what to do. We kept them clipped in to the cockpit and they spent much of the trip lying on the floor shaking their brains out. The cockpit was getting pounded by water and they would only get sick or hit by something flying off a shelf if we put them down below. THIS IS NOT WHAT WE SIGNED UP FOR.
We were not alone in our struggles. Autopilots on all three boats either struggled or failed. Jamie and Jill’s main sail shredded from luff to leach below their second reef point. Luckily they were able to reef down one point further. At least one crew member on each boat spent the trip with their head in bucket or over the rail. No one arrived when or where they intended.
After 12 hours of sailing this @#$% by hand, my arms couldn’t take it any more. I was no longer able to feel my arms much less hold course. I lost VHF contact with the other boats in my parts so I decided to break off and point us 20 degrees further North to ease the stress on the sails and steering. We gained 3.5 knots of speed (and were now rocking at 8.5knots!) but added 25+ miles to our crossing. When we finally reached the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream, I thought the current would let up… but of course was wrong. We tacked back south when we were north of the banks and the current was still ripping north at about 3 knots. All night, now our SECOND night, we tacked back and forth against the south wind and the northern current.
At 6am the next morning, we finally reached the calmer waters of the banks just west of Walkers. As the sun came up, we could start to see some semblance of land before us. Another 5 hours of tights turns through the banks got us into Walkers. If there were a curse word that I hadn’t already used or invented during our voyage, I would have used it when I collapsed after tying off the anchor and turning off the engine.
We were the first to arrive, though our new friends were not far behind us. In the 30 hours spent crossing the Gulf Stream, we had all made our own course changes. But, we all made it in. For our part we sailed for close to 30 hours and over 125 miles. We were sore, beat up, smelled like @#$%, tired, disheveled and just generally messed up. But… for all that, and although I could barely stand, I felt a little taller. We did it.