The Gulf Stream is the elephant in the room for everybody sailing the East Coast of the United States. If you are head from south toward the north, it can be your best friend, taking days off your passage time if 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 certainly 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! It’s right there! 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.
This past spring we had done our weather analysis, and saw a good window to head north. We left the harbor in West End, Bahamas and jumped into 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 sailing 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!”
We totally understand that comfort and safety are not just important, they are vital. 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. 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.