Monday, April 6, 2009

To the Bahamas

After two nonconsecutive weeks at Jewfish creek, Patrick came down with a severe case of wanderlust. Comments like “we never go anywhere anymore, we do the same thing everyday,” and “I am so tired of waking up to the same view” were a good clue for me. So, although it was entirely unnecessary, as they could have easily taken a bus or a cab from Miami to Key Largo, Patrick and I made the day-long sail to Miami once more in order to pick up Ed and Karen in the Cape Dory ourselves.

More foul weather was predicted so we wasted no time getting to Miami. The morning we left Jewfish Creek, the wind was 25 knots. We started with a reef in the main but as we kept being knocked over by gusts, we dropped the sails entirely and Patrick put in the second reef for the first time. This made things much more comfortable and we found ourselves on a pleasant broad reach at 6 knots for most of the day until the winds died later in the afternoon. However by the time we were approaching Dinner Key, where we planned on anchoring for the next few nights, we had achieved a new state of grumpiness. The afternoon heat featuring 97% humidity was oppressive. All we wanted was to drop that anchor and get out of the sun. Naturally we were disappointed when we turned out of the channel towards the anchorage only to find ourselves in a near collision with a sunken ship. Patrick noticed the plummeting depths and had thrown the Cape Dory into reverse before we beached ourselves on top of a derelict vessel. Aside from a little bottom paint, nothing was lost.

We scooted back into the channel with no idea of what to do next. We had been sailing for close to eight hours at that point and really needed a rest. We stopped at the fuel dock simply for the sake of stopping and weighed our options. Slip prices at the marina were outrageous, and no one seemed to be able to tell us what the depths were for the local anchorages. We had no choice but to sail back out into Biscayne Bay where there was a good anchorage about an hour away. I was close to furious, but as it was no one’s fault I found no relief in expressing my anger at inanimate objects. As we pulled out of the fuel dock, we decided on a desperate hunch to try motoring behind a spoil island that protected the marina to see if there was access to the anchorage that way. A small sailboat had just entered the channel so we slowed down and I yelled to them that we needed to get into the anchorage without running aground first. The captain responded by pointing us towards a small creek through the spoil islands that led into a small stretch of deep water where we could anchor. We were so relieved. Within thirty minutes we had dropped two anchors and secured ourselves with a nice “Bahamian moor” which protects you from shifting winds and currents.

The anchorage was extremely sketch. It looked like everyone had either stolen their boats, or were waiting for their boats to sink out from under them. Occasionally, when I was in the cockpit adjusting lines or what have you, I would spot a pair of glowing, beady eyes staring from within the dark recesses of a barnacle-ridden boat. It was a little unnerving, so Patrick and I kept a careful watch over our boat and dinghy.

We had a day to kill at Dinner Key waiting for Ed and Karen’s plane to arrive. Unfortunately the weather was squally featuring perpetual rain and a late night display of lightening. The anchorage wasn’t very sheltered, and I was a little nervous as we bounced around in the building chop but we were snug all day and we squeezed in more reading than any other day up until that point. Patrick is nearly through with Gravity’s Rainbow and that is saying something.

(Relaxing just after a rain squall passed over us.)

The following morning, we scoured the boat (first impressions!) in preparation for Ed and Karen’s arrival. Patrick even “staged” the v-berth by arranging pillows and blankets in a Martha Stewart like fashion. The Cape Dory was fit for a very petite king.

We (and by that I mean Patrick, I tried to row once and we got caught in a rip-tide, but I thought I just had bad form, so I started beating the oar angrily on the side of the dingy…since then, I’ve been exempt from dinghy duty) rowed approximately 1.2 miles to the dinghy dock at Coconut Grove and wandered around the town in search of the local library. As it turns out, libraries are obscenely archaic. No one had the faintest notion of where it was. There were little signs everywhere of a stick figured man reading a book with an arrow, but when we would follow it we would end up at a dead end. At each dead end we would ask someone where the library was to no avail. We ended up at an American Apparel. For fun, I asked Patrick to go in with me and we could ask about the library there. After making my request to the two hip cashiers, one girl responded by staring at the flurescent lights repeating the word ‘library,’ slowly emphasizing each syllable as if she were trying it out for the very first time. The guy responded by showing off his colored “Tribe Called Quest” tattoo on his forearm. I thanked them and we continued on our quest alone. As it turned out, the library was on the same block as American Apparel, directly behind their building. If they had ever walked out the back door, they would have found themselves next to the entrance of the library.

Anyway. Ed and Karen arrived with full fanfare. We were very happy to see them and we had a fine time of dinghying back all four of us in our two person rowing dinghy without swamping or capsizing every time a powerboat passed. Since their arrival, Ed and Karen have been walking a mile in our shoes, literally. This includes rowing a mile, plunging a mile, and sleeping in three square feet in our shoes.

(Ed checking out the Cape Dory for the first time. Karen didn't let me take pictures of her.)

The four of us had an incredible sail from Dinner Key to Jewfish Creek where we planned on provisioning and waiting for the right weather to make our Bahamas crossing. We spent some time with our newest acquaintances Kim and Georgette, a cruising couple living on an enormous trimaran named “Calypso Poet” that Kim salvaged and had been rebuilding over the past several years. They had done a lot of sailing on Calypso including portions of Central America, the Caribbean and the Keys. They shared wonderful stories and kindly offered us much needed assistance.

Let’s turn our attention to the Gulf Stream crossing. The actual distance to Bimini from Florida is less than sixty miles. Theoretically is should only take our boat ten to eleven hours. However it is imperative that we make landfall in the afternoon while the sun is high overhead in order to navigate our way in from sea. Bimini doesn’t maintain its channel markers (nor does anywhere in the Bahamas) and they were washed away years ago. This means our piloting will be limited to our ability to read the water. Based on track record, this remains a poorly developed skill.

Thus we set our departure for early Thursday morning, between one and two. We would leave from the inlet Patrick and I had taken in from Hawk Channel several weeks ago. It was only an hour’s sail away from Jewfish Creek so after stocking up the boat, refueling and topping off water tanks, we made our way to the Angelfish inlet and ran the stretch carefully in daylight. This was going to be the first time we had attempted any trip that required careful navigation in darkness and I was filled with the sort of dread that arises from a mixture of acute pessimism and unchecked imagination.

We ran the inlet at low tide and took careful note of depths and terrain before anchoring inside one of the small tributary streams. The stream was fully enveloped by mangroves and boasted an array of sea life including stingrays, sharks and fish. The tidal current surged from the ocean through the little creek, sharply opposing the southerly wind. The two forces canceled each other out and we were held stationary in this isolated pseudo-vortex. This made it hard to maneuver the boat, and we were nervous about excessive shoaling. After noticing a curious whirlpool gurgling just off the bow we dropped anchor as a precautionary measure.

Patrick made fast use of his new crewmen by sending Ed out in the dinghy with the boathook to check out the depths. It turned out there was a two-foot deep bank lying in wait to welcome our keel into its grassy bottom. We needed to re-anchor in order to keep from swinging into it after the tide went out. Just as I was beginning to feel nervous, the swift current popped out our anchor before it had been given a proper opportunity to set. I held station by slowly throttling forward against the current. Meanwhile all hands were in a flustered panic. Pat and Ed rowed in vain against the raging current in an attempt to drop the second anchor in safe water. It was a fiasco. The oar was lost twice over and we had to scramble to retrieve it before it washed out to sea. We nearly lost the anchor overboard and at one point Patrick was convinced that we had in fact lost the anchor overboard. Overwhelmed by his theatrics, the rest of us were convinced that the anchor was lost, when in fact I had secured it only moments ago and knew otherwise. Karen was mutinous and I was feeling skeptical as to our ability to handle the Atlantic after being defeated by a saltwater stream. After a forty-minute struggle we had secured the cape Dory and settled down to conciliatory cocktails, dinner and a rest before embarking a few hours later.

Anchors were up by 1:30 am. We readied the boat for departure sans lights in order to develop our night vision. Unfortunately we were in remote enough of an area that I couldn’t even see from one side of the bank to the other, aside from shadowy amorphousness that I knew were mangroves. My confidence was quickly dissipating and even Captain Patrick seemed uneasy. As we exited the creek and entered Angelfish proper, nothing was intelligible. After studying the terrain in daylight I no longer had any perspective as to where we actually were. Kim and Georgette had given us a spotlight with which to pick out the few channel markers, but the majority of the run was unmarked and pitch black.

Slowly we picked our way through the milky blackness, winding carefully along the banks using the depthsounder to find the deep water. After fifteen agonizing minutes we rounded the final bend into the widening mouth of the creek opening up to the Atlantic. There is a very narrow channel that cuts sharply to the south east that was difficult to pick out in the darkness. I flashed the spotlight at intervals in order to preserve our night vision and while allowing us to angle into the channel. Ten minutes later we were clear and in the first gentle swells of the ocean.

The coastline of Key Largo is separated from the vastness of the Atlantic by a large barrier reef. We needed to head for a small channel marker a few miles south that would allow us to pass safely through the shallowest parts of the reef.

It just so happened that this course was dead into the wind so we were unable to raise the sails. Although the seas were predicted to be a mild two to four feet, the swells were growing larger and more unruly as we approached the shallower depths of the reef. The closer we were to the cut through the reef, the worse the seas became. The moon was completely obscured by clouds and it was difficult to see the waves until they were already breaking over the bow. The channel marker we were headed for was supposed to be a lighted beacon, but no one was able to spot its flashing green light. This was a frightening prospect. If the light was out, we wouldn’t be able to see the marker until we were right on top of it. In the rough waves it would be difficult to make any sharp evasive maneuvers. I stayed below plotting our course constantly with the utmost precision and we all held our breath as I plotted us passing directly between the supposed location of the marker and a submerged reef just to the north of it.

The waves had become violent. The Cape Dory was being tossed around unlike anything we had experienced before. We only had two harnesses so I stayed below while Patrick and Ed wrestled with the tiller in the cockpit. We were seriously considering turning back although none of us were thrilled with the idea of navigating back through the reef and into an inlet for the second time at night. Patrick believed that once we made it out past the continental shelf the waves would be friendlier. I wasn’t convinced that going from thirty foot depths to thousand foot depths would make the ride more comfortable, but I am not a quitter and Patrick’s the captain, so we continued on.

Within an hour we had entered the Gulf Stream. The waves unquestionably took on a different pattern. The current was so strong that while we were heading due east, we were making exactly as much progress northward as eastward. I have never been seasick since we moved onto the Cape Dory, however sitting below and trying to draw straight lines and exact points on a chart with the boat rolling and leaping in the sea challenged my stomach in new ways. It put carsickness to shame. At one point I had to give up my post and lay down for a while. With each wave I rolled off of the settee and I was considering strapping myself into bed when Patrick called me. We were passing through shipping lanes and he saw several large ships glowing in the distance. They move so quickly, and our boat is too small to show up on radar so we can’t waste anytime in announcing our presence or, if necessary, change course.
I got on the VHF and hailed the nearest ship. “Vessel over 50 meters, vessel over 50 meters, this is sailing vessel Swift Ranger over.” Nothing. I repeat my call. So I started doing a radio check. Ten minutes later someone responded that I was coming in loud in clear, but it wasn’t the vessel I hailed. Apparently they weren’t monitoring their radios. Ten minutes later it was clear we were on a collision course, so Patrick changed course entirely until we were well clear. After the mystery vessel vanished over the horizon we had one cruise ship after another to contend with. I would hail them, “Cruise Ship Cruise Ship” and give our lat and long. Nothing. So I started getting sassy. “Giant Pleasure Cruise, Giant Pleasure Cruise, this sailing vessel Swift Ranger. We won’t show up on your radar (I gave him our GPS coordinates and our compass course). We are going to alter course behind you so don’t make any sudden movements because we are slow and you will run us over.” No one ever said anything to that.

We continued being hammered by the Gulf Stream until dawn. Patrick and Ed still hadn’t put up the sails because is was so dark and rough. No one wanted to send Patrick forward where he might fall overboard while hoisting the mainsail. At dawn they gave it a shot. Patrick put one reef in the main and was doing his share of bouncing as the bow collided with waves. Finally the sails were set, the Cape Dory heeled over and then took off like a shot. We went from five to seven knots within moments. She cut through the waves like a champ under sail. Patrick regretted all those hours of discomfort just because we had been nervous to raise the sails at night. The Cape Dory is not meant to be motored. She needs the wind.

The morning was calm and bright. A pod of dolphins surfaced to say “good morning” to Patrick and Ed. The ocean was settled enough for Karen and I to clamor up from below and get some fresh air. We were only a few hours away from the Bahamas.

By eleven in the morning we spotted land. It was an exhilarating feeling. I imagined what it must have been like for early explorers to go days without seeing land, while facing the real possibility of never seeing it again. The deep ocean was a profound blue, unlike any water I had seen before. It was so clean and dark. It was hard to imagine it went down so many thousands of feet when it felt so close, immanent.

As we drew nearer to land into shallower water the color changed to a bright turquoise. The water was so clear and vibrant I could see the sand at the bottom. We all had a little apprehension about the unmarked inlet to Bimini. Fortunately, the sea was mild and we could easily spot the shoals that lined the entrance. Twenty minutes later we were docked and clearing in customs.

Our first international passage. We will stay in the Bahamas for the month of April. It’s too beautiful to leave quickly behind.


  1. HI!! What an adventure! When do you think you two will be back in the keys? Drummond and I are planning to come out to key largo either in late june, or the beginning of july and stay there for pretty much the whole month. Alaina, my email is, you should write me!! This blog has been an amazing read! Give Patrick an "ahoy" for me! *kara