|Crossing the Gulfstream from Florida
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The following are some of the guidelines I use when crossing from Florida, which you may find helpful in determining your own crossing strategies.
Realize boats, skills, comfort levels and other factors can mean what is right for one person, isn't right for another. Study as much information as
you can, and make a knowledgeable decision that best suits your situation. Avoid making commitments that may encourage you to attempt the
crossing before you should.
Gulf Stream conditions:
Flowing between Florida and the Bahamas is one of the most powerful ocean surface currents in the world: the Gulf Stream, the axis of which tends to lie closer to Florida
than the Bahamas. In this area the stream flows mostly from south to north. When a northerly wind blows against this current, it creates large, steep seas which will keep
even many large commercial vessels in port waiting for better conditions. Northerly winds are usually associated with cold fronts and seldom light. However, when both
the wind and current come from the south, one venturing out into the stream will find themselves pushed far north. It's important to realize, that the shortest distance over
the surface of the earth, is not the shortest distance through the water when it comes to planning a crossing. When it comes to crossing the Gulf Stream, I've learned to
carefully think about weather and port of departure. Gulf Stream location, sea state and weather forecasts for mariners are given regularly by NOAA on the VHF weather
Crossing to West End, Grand Bahama:
This is my normal arrival point in the Bahamas and a common arrival point for those wishing to cruise the Abacos. When coming from the north, I'll always head down to
Palm Beach/Lake Worth, where there are plenty of places to anchor. What I do from here depends on the weather. The Gulf Stream gets very big and steep with even a
moderate north wind, so I would never cross from anywhere with any wind from the north at over 10 knots. If the forecast is for continued winds from any direction under 10
knots, I'll probably leave from the Lake Worth Inlet. If the conditions are favorable, I see no reason to spend a day motoring south down the ICW in order to save a couple
hours crossing. If however, the prevailing E-SE winds are strong and forecast to stay that way, I'll usually head south to Fort Lauderdale to get a better angle on the
current. I'll head outside if the wind is mostly east and down the ICW if it is more southerly. My experience has been when the wind is from the north, it is rare that it is
reliably under 10 knots, so often I'll wait until the cold front is moving through and ride the last of the northeast wind south, ocean side down to Fort Lauderdale and then
cross from there after the wind has clocked around to a southerly component. I'll also cross from Fort Worth on a westerly wind of almost any strength, but about the only
time I see a west wind is just before a cold front is coming through and I'll consider the implications of this coming sooner than expected as well as the implications this
wind will have on me at West End.
While north winds are often strong, sometimes they are under 10 knots. On one trip this was the best option for a week and I found crossing on a north wind of 8 knots to
be much easier than crossing on a SE wind of 25.. While the waves were a bit steeper, I had the benefit of sailing on a comfortable beam reach instead of a close reach.
In the Lake Worth area, one can land a dinghy at the park at the north end of the bridge, but I don't think it's very safe to leave one there much beyond dark. The beach, a
gas station, restaurants and grocery store are all a short walk east. Over the bridge to the west and then north there are a couple marine stores. There are also a couple
restaurants accessible by water with a dingy.
When to leave:
At first, I typically left the Fort Worth Inlet in the evening and sailed through the night to reach west end in the early morning. This has the advantage of possibly crossing on
lighter SE winds than during the day, leaves little chance of arriving too late and means one can get through customs and move on without having to stay at West End.
Alternatively one has plenty of daylight to continue onto the Little Bahama Bank and clear customs later. Personally, I don't like staying up all night and have found it's easy
to get out of the Lake Worth inlet at night, so more recently I've done day crossing both from Lake Worth and Fort Lauderdale. If there is a reliable forecast for continued SE
winds, I may even wait until first light to leave from either. The reason I'll do this, is that if the crossing should take longer than expected and I arrive at West End after dark, I
feel okay anchoring in Cross Bay, the wide, open bay on the NW tip of the island. At least one of the cruising guides refers to this as a day only anchorage, and I admit it
would be a bad place to be if the winds started clocking around to the west and northwest. However, I've anchored here many times under the prevailing SE conditions and
know many other boats do the same. I'll talk about other options I've used at West End later.
Leaving From Fort Lauderdale:
Fort Lauderdale offers few anchoring options and these are limited to 24 hours. If one needs to wait longer for the appropriate crossing weather, one needs to either move
to a marina or if lucky, pick up a mooring near the Las Olas bridge, operated by the Las Olas Municipal Mariana located to the east side of the bridge. Leaving from Fort
Lauderdale for West End however works more favorably with the current and prevailing winds. After the passage of a cold front, I find it's often good to wait a day after the
wind is south of east to let the sea state die down a bit. Frequently the wind will continue to clock to a more favorable, milder and southerly state. Get an accurate forecast.
The Marinas located on the ICW in Fort Lauderdale are an easy walk to the beach and all the restaurants, bars and shops located there.
Crossing to Cat or Bimini:
Many cruisers may be heading to Bimini or Cat instead of West End. This is a logical entrance point for anyone wanting to make their way to the Exumas or any point south.
While some cruisers depart by the Miami Harbour Entrance, many prefer the advantage of departing from a point a bit further south such as the Key Biscayne Channel. The
one time I crossed from this area, I rode the last of a cold front even further south and departed via Angelsfish Creek. This is not an option for deeper draft boats however.
When I did this, the winds picked which were predicted to be SE at 25, unexpectedly increased to 35 and I was unable to reach Bimini even from that far south. It was a long
night of sailing on a close reach in large seas and enforced upon me the value of waiting for lighter winds, even when leaving from points south.
On another occasion, when heading for the Exumas, I found myself in Palm Beach with a small window of beautiful weather to cross in. Instead of heading south and
possibly missing my weather window, I instead crossed to West End, then down to Port Lucya and then rode a mild cold front south to the Berry Islands. Had I headed
south down the ICW, I would have been waiting out the cold front in Florida instead of making progress toward my destination in the Bahamas. Another inlet I used one
time to get south of Palm Beach was the Hillsboro Inlet. I had a fairly shallow draft boat however and don't recommend this as a departure point for cruisers without local
Arriving at or near West End:
One has a few options when arriving at West End. One can stay for a night at Old Bahama Bay Marina which is where customs and immigration is located. I've also
anchored in the wide open bay when I feel very confident winds will remain E- SE. One can also anchor on the more protected bank side of west end by passing just north
of the entrance to Old Bahama Bay. Both of these allow a pre-dawn departure when heading back to Florida.
With the exception of the time I went directly to Walker's Cay, I've always cleared customs at West End and then headed through the Indian Cay Passage to spend the next
night at Mangrove, Great Sale or the Grand Cays/Double Breasted area. I know many cruisers prefer instead to move on and check in at Green Turtle. They report one can
anchor off and easily take the dinghy in to clear. This however means one can't legally spend any time on the half of the Abaco Cays located north of Green Turtle prior to
clearing in. I hope my images these islands give some indication as to how much they have to offer. Many cruisers also prefer to head further north and gain the bank at
Memory Rock instead of the Indian Cay Passage. (The passage via memory rock is deeper and carries less risk of being pushed out of the pass by current.)
Returning To Florida:
If heading north, one may wish to take advantage of the Gulf Stream and prevailing easterly or southerly winds and to a port further north than the above mentioned
departure points. I frequently entered the St. Lucie inlet near Stuart to head up the Okechobee Waterway, including one time under sail, when my engine failed. The St.
Lucie inlet course shifts a bit, but I've always found it well marked. Even after having been through it several times I would not feel comfortable entering the St. Lucie inlet at
night. Those heading further north, may wish to consider Fort Pierce instead. I understand it' s a more straight forward entrance with customs and immigration on site.
Arrival here also means that much less slogging back up the ICW.
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