Don’t Worry, Be Happy!
The Gulf Stream is the elephant in the room for everybody sailing the East Coast of the United States. If you are heading from the south toward the north, it can be your best friend, taking days off your passage time if you can stay in the fastest moving water. Of course, for those heading south, the key is to avoid the current as much as possible.
In addition to being a source of “free” extra boat speed, the Gulf Stream is the source of a HUGE amount of what we consider to be unnecessary angst among sailors. Especially sailors looking to cross from Florida to the Bahamas who have been indoctrinated with what seems to be an almost irrational fear of this patch of water.
Certainly, conditions in the Gulf Steam can be very uncomfortable, and even dangerous, for small boats when the wind blows hard from the north. And the longer the wind blows the nastier it gets. Certainly in a strong Northeast gale NOBODY wants to be in the Gulf Steam. But…
Here’s the thing: if you are on the Florida coast between Port St Lucie and the Keys you don’t need a crystal ball or a professional meteorologist to tell what conditions in the Gulf Stream are like, you go down to the beach and you LOOK! See for yourself. It’s right there! You can see it!
If you see a horizon line that is rough and lumpy and looks like there is a herd of elephants marching along, wait another day. If you are not sure, do not dither and fuss, waiting for “perfect,” but pull up your anchor and start sailing. If it gets too rough for you TURN BACK! The water behind you (that you have already sailed through!) is just as calm as it was before. Consider it a training sail, or just a fun day on the water.
This past spring we had done our own weather analysis, and saw what we considered to be a good window to head north. We left the harbor in West End, Bahamas and jumped right into the middle of the Gulf Stream and were having a great time cranking out the miles. On the radio there was endless chatter about the Gulf Stream forecast from the best known and most respected meteorologist and weather routing guru in the area. (All you sailors in the Bahamas and Caribbean KNOW who I am talking about.) His recommendation was, “Absolutely do not cross the Gulf Stream today! The next good window will be next week.”
We are sitting in the middle of the Stream having a great sail, looking around us, and thinking, “What the…???? I am glad I am not paying for that forecast!”
The moral of this story is: If you are there, you know better than ANYBODY who is NOT there.
Avoid “Group Think.” We have seen this come up on the radio nets where a group of boats waiting to cross chat every morning about the weather forecast. It is amazing how ONE forceful personality insisting that the weather is SO bad NOBODY should be out there can poison the whole group. We watched a whole rally full of boats stay in harbor instead of grabbing a perfect weather window. As a result they spent DAYS longer than they needed to at sea in windless conditions instead of sailing.
It is understandable that new and inexperienced sailors will be tentative, but do not let itget to the point of paralysis. It is your boat, it is your decision. If you head out into the Gulf Stream, you can ALWAYS turn around and come home. The absolute worst that might happen is somebody will say, “I told you so.” On the other hand you might get to Bimini and radio back, “Wish y’all were here!”
Always, Be Safe.
We totally understand that comfort and safety are not just important, they are vital. We NEVER intentionally sail into water that will be uncomfortable, we sail for fun. However, new sailors hear so much about the terrors of the Gulf Stream and they have no real background with which to sort out the reality from the hype. If you are sitting on one place, waiting for weeks to cross, you are doing something wrong.
So many people seem to not understand that you can poke your bow out there, have a look, and come back if you do not like what you find, without endangering your crew or your boat. It is really the only way you can learn for yourself what conditions YOU and your boat are comfortable sailing in.