Out Thinking a SuperComputer

The computer models that generate the data used by our weather routing program are run on some of the largest super computers in the world, but no matter how super they might be, they are not the real world. When you rely on computer simulations, you ALWAYS have to leave room for questions and doubt.

It’s a very pretty picture of the northward flowing current along the South Florida coast, but some of the important details are just wrong, or at least missing from the data.

For our trip south from Fort Lauderdale to Key Biscayne the model was forecasting about a 6 hour run in front of a brisk North to Northeast wind. The wind was pretty much exactly as forecast, yet we arrived in a bit over 4 hours. Why the large discrepancy?

The issue is the forecasts for the local ocean currents are not very precise. From Miami to Fort Lauderdale the Gulf Stream dominates the ocean, roaring northward at speeds of 3.5 to 4 knots. If you try to sail against it it can slow you down dramatically. Here is were the models fall apart.

All the models predict a strong North-bound current right in to the beach. That, however, is not reality. In the shallow water (less than 100 feet) close to the shoreline, the current is not 2 knots toward the North, but instead it is 1 knot toward the SOUTH. The net difference of 3 knots in total boat speed over the ground was the difference between an average predicted speed of 4.5 knots, compared to what we actually saw of close to 7.5 knots.

Figuring this out as you sail is a challenge without a full suite of instruments. We have both a mechanically measured speed through the water and a GPS measured speed over the ground. Using these data, our instruments present to us the actual speed and direction of the current. This lets us know in real time if we have sailed a bit too far away from the shore, and are getting into a contrary current.

A few hundred yards in the position of the boat make a HUGE difference in total trip time while making your way down the coast. It’s not too often that the difference can be this dramatic, but the speed and direction of the current is always an important input to the smart navigator.

While some of the computer models can have issues, overall they are hugely important to us. Right now we are waiting here in Key Biscayne for the wind to switch around to the south. All the models agree that Wednesday will give us the perfect chance to leapfrog out to the central Bahamas in one long, easy, 36 hour sail. Here is to hoping they are right!

In the meantime, we are exploring the wealthy enclave of Key Biscayne. Packed full of exclusive condos, gated communities, and even more exclusive waterfront estates. There are a couple of delightful state parks, but otherwise there isn’t a lot to attract us to this spot except for the grocery store and the anchorage which is well positioned to wait out north and east winds before jumping off to the islands.

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Done…

Our “quick haul” went smoothly! The only source of drama was at the very end. The yard splashed one boat and then brought the lift around to pick up Harmonie, a good hour AHEAD of schedule. (When was the last time THAT happened on a boat project??) Unfortunately, the boat ahead of us was having problems and couldn’t get their engines running to pull out of the liftpit! Harmonie ended up hanging for an hour until the disabled boat was dragged out of the way with a forklift. (You had to be there…)

The whole process took just a few hours. It was 6 years ago, almost to the day, Harmonie was hauled at the same boat yard, for the same repair, as part of our purchase. It’s always interesting when such an anniversary is noted how it can seem like this has been our life forever, and it also seems like we just started!

We have pretty much everything back under control, and ready to go. Today is Friday, tomorrow a strong cold front is forecast to sweep down with quite strong winds. We are going to hang here until that passes, then use the North wind on the back side of that front on Sunday to sail down to Key Biscayne, where we will regroup, and wait for the next weather window to sail East.

Hopefully we can be back underway by the middle of next week!

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Back in the USA

We had an uneventful crossing from Bimini back to Fort Lauderdale. Despite forecasts, we ended up with winds that were fairly light, and we motored most of the way. It was a bit lumpy and rolly, but never scary, and I don’t think we ever had water on the deck.

We are currently anchored in South Lake, Hollywood, Florida and are processing a lot of purchases and logistics as we wait for our haul date next week. This is a place we know well, and it almost feels like “home”.

One of the problems we have run into is the City of Hollywood is restricting dinghies tied up to the local launching ramp. They do this because they have problems with derelict boats in some of the local anchorages, and they are trying (with a TOTAL lack of success) to force the deadbeats out of Dodge.

We sympathize with this (kind of). The accumulation of junk boats in an anchorage is a real problem in Florida. But, we are here to spend money and we have a boat that is the very opposite of “derelict.”

Somehow we manage to take the brunt of these rules because we try to actually FOLLOW them. While the derelict boats just continue on and on because they just ignore the rules and the local authorities can’t or won’t enforce the rules they create with an even hand. It seems if you are crazy, stupid, or ignorant enough you just get a pass on the rules because nobody wants to deal with your antisocial behavior.

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Back to Bimini

We had a quick passage back to the Bimini area over the past couple days. We left Half Moon Cay with great wind, and barreled along at 8 knots for most of 24 hours. Then, pretty much as predicted, the wind began to die down, and before long it COMPLETELY went away. So we spent half our time sailing along fast, and half motoring.

We anchored south of Bimini at sunrise this morning, took the afternoon to do some boat work. Tomorrow we will take a serious fishing day. Then check out of the Bahamas, and head over to Fort Lauderdale to prep for our quick haul in a week.

We are sharing the anchorage with the wreck of the Sapona which has been since being driven aground in a hurricane in 1936. Built during WWI when steel was in short supply, it had a concrete hull and a long history being everything from a casino, to an oil storage tank, to a rum warehouse for rum runners during prohibition, to a target for the US military during WWII. Now it is a famous local navigation marker and snorkeling site.

It used to be that checking out of the Bahamas was optional, and was basically only done by people who were traveling on to a country that wanted to see your checkout papers. This actually made sense, since all the records were only kept on paper, so there really wasn’t any way to confirm that someone actually HAD checked out. Now that all the immigration data is fully computerized, the local authorities required formal checkout, with a BSD$5000 fine if the requirement is ignored.

For you sailor types who love a good argument, while on a late night watch I had an idea for a fun experiment. Are catamarans really faster than monohulls? Or not? The answer surprised me…

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The Call of Duty

It is worth planning your spares carefully as you travel. I had the handle of a fishing reel break the other day. No big deal, replacements are easy to get. As I was shopping for the part, one website noticed that I was logged in from the Bahamas, and conveniently calculated the estimated import duty that would be due after shipping the part here.

On a part that cost BSD$50 the duty due was estimated to be BSD$114!!! Wow… From past experience we know that the Bahamas allow duty free import of boat parts, but ONLY if those parts are required to make the boat move. So engine parts, and sail/rigging parts. Everything else, you pay.

Fortunately for us, we’re headed back to Florida for a quick job that needs us out of the water. We are scheduled to lift on March 8th, at 8AM and splash back at 3PM. Then we’re back underway, headed east as soon as the weather allows.

The beach at Half Moon Bay

For the past few days we have been based out of Half Moon Bay, at an island that is historically called Little San Salvador, but has been renamed by the Carnival Cruise line as Half Moon Cay. It is blessed with one of the best beaches around. The only downside is that the population of the island changes from about six every night, to about six thousand when the cruise ship arrives almost every morning. There is a complete faux village that is populated every morning by a boat coming over from Eleuthera.

Tomorrow morning we will begin moving again in earnest, back toward North Bimini where we will check out of the Bahamas, and jump off toward Florida.

It’s a hassle going backwards, but there are always things you forget, that are a lot harder (and more expensive) to source in the islands than they are in the States. So we will make the best of it and rush around getting things we missed.

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Fun… and (Minor) Problems.

For the past few days we have been anchored in Black Point Harbour next to another Super Maramu, Gleam, home to our friends Paul and Ashley Fry and their two boys.

I took Paul and his son Cason out fishing on Harmonie, to show them a couple tricks and tips. I showed them all right. We fished hard all day and we got:

SKUNKED!!!

We did managed to find fish, unfortunately the fish managed to take more from us in terms of tackle and hardware than we managed to take from them. It’s been a long time since I fished that long and hard with nothing to add to the freezers. But fun was had by all!

An unfortunate discovery while I was doing some routine work in the engine room: The oil in our drive system is contaminated with water. This means that the seals on the propeller shaft under the boat are leaking. This is not an urgent emergency, but is something that needs attending to. Unfortunately, that attention means the boat needs to be out of the water for a few hours.

The next place down our planned track we know of that can reliably haul a boat the size of Harmonie is in Puerto Rico, at least two weeks, maybe four, away. Our alternative is a 4 day trip back to Florida and make arrangements there. Right now, that is looking like our best plan.

We look to have an excellent weather window back to Bimini or West End in two days, and another day to check out and make our way back to Florida. Hopefully we can find a place to lift us out on a quick turnaround somewhere between Miami and Palm Beach in a week to ten days, and then back to travels…

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Lucky? or Good?

Yesterday morning we left Bimini and started sailing in conditions that really could only be called “idyllic.” Winds were light, but more than enough to keep the boat moving at 5 knots. Sunny. Calm seas. Perfect temperatures. Pretty much reminding us exactly why we love to travel this way.

Just north of the island, the wind faded a bit, and we started to slow down. At the same time on the sonar I noticed some large lumps and holes 600 feet under the boat, with a cloud of fish suspended above them. I promised Karen I would stop JUST long enough to catch ONE fish for dinner. I have to be a bit selective at the beginning of a voyage. Since our freezers are full with purchased provisions, there isn’t a lot of room left for fish, but this looked like prime territory for deep water snapper, absolutely delicious fish.

I positioned the boat, and set up a drift across the area that looked interesting, and rigged up with a 300 gram vertical jig, and sent the lure off into the depths.

Reaching the bottom in these depths can take a while, but eventually the lure stopped falling, and I tensioned up on the line. Hmmm…. That’s odd… Oh! I’m bit! Fish on! I was expecting a queen snapper, but this was a blackfin tuna. It was surely the shortest fishing stop I have ever had! We cleaned him, and squeezed most of him into the freezer, saving out a some to make tuna poke for dinner. Fresh! Tasty!

The rest of our 36 hour trip was about evenly divided between motoring in nearly none existent winds , and a “boisterous” sail into North Eleuthera where we anchored in a sheltered harbor to wait out tonight’s frontal passage.

There is ONE exception to the full freezer rule: Karen has stated she will ALWAYS find a way to put away wahoo fillets. So whenever conditions allow we are dragging lines for these large torpedoes of the sea with large lures (10+ inches long). Just as we were getting ready to pull our lines in for the evening, we hooked ANOTHER Blackfin tuna. A really ambitious little blackfin, attacking a lure that was probably 1/3 of his body length! Not wahoo, but fresh tuna is a very close second, so we squeezed him into the freezer too.

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The Island in the Stream

We are now fully, and officially, out cruising again. We checked into the Alicetown on Bimini, Bahamas yesterday, uneventfully. We now have a 90 day cruising permit for the country of the Bahamas, and are working on more specific plans for our route south and east. A

As we have in the past, we tied up at Brown’s Marina on North Bimini. It is reasonable in cost, close to the harbor entrance, friendly, and a short walk to customs and immigration. In one of those rule changes that only a true paper-pusher could understand the procedure is now reversed from before: Immigration FIRST then Customs. Who knew that had it backwards for all those years??

The view from Harmonie’s cockpit At Brown’s Marina, North Bimini.

Our next planned stop is in Royal Harbor near Spanish Wells at the north end of Eleuthera. We’ll likely spend a day or two there waiting out some strong winds before we progress down toward the Exumas.

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The Paper Chase

The Bahamas has instituted a relatively new online check-in procedure. You enter all the data they need, make payments, pretty much everything except get the final approval stamps which we still have to do in person.

After we got the negative results from our COVID tests, we entered that information and within an hour or two got our Health Entry Visas approved. That information has to be moved over to the Customs forms, along with all the boat and personal information for all people on board. The whole process took about 2 hours to sort through the pages, pay the various fees, and print the various forms we’ll need to hand to Customs officials when we arrive in Bimini. When this was done on paper forms at the Customs office it took 20 minutes. And it will STILL take at least 20 minutes at the office to get our final approvals! Progress. 🙄 Note to our fellow cruisers: More and more of the world’s bureaucracy works with the assumption that you WILL have access to working printer on board. What used to be a handy tool is not QUITE to the level of necessity YET, but it is getting close.

We have been staying anchored outside “Noname Harbor” at the southern tip of Key Biscayne. This island, although a separate political entity, is actually the most southeast of Miami’s neighborhoods. Very exclusive, with multiple gated communities and expensive condos and apartments. We managed to get our last shopping done, and stock up our medicine chest with prescriptions that we figured will be easy to get here, and might (or might not!) be easy to get along our way.

This is a popular place for boats to wait for the perfect weather to cross over to the Bahamas, being about as close to Bimini as you can get. Many boats wait here a LONG time, missing the point that the perfect can be the enemy of the good. Tomorrow will not be a perfect day for our crossing, but it will be good enough! And by this time tomorrow we’ll be tied up at Brown’s Marina in North Bimini.

About 2 miles further south, out in the bay, are the remains of one of Florida’s more unusual communities, Stiltsville. As you would guess from the name, houses were built over the water on pilings. There is no land anywhere nearby. Although dramatically reduced by Hurricane Andrew years ago, there are a few of the original structures still standing in the shallow water on either side of the Biscayne Channel. A few of them are ruins, but a few still look habitable. Once a thriving community of eccentrics and artists, it is now little more than a curiosity for local history buffs.

One of the remaining homes in “Stiltsville.”
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On the road again!

We are done! The boat is ready, and we are ready to sail off. Our time in Florida is drawing to a close in the next few days. Our immediate plans are to head back to the Bahamas and visit places both new to us and places with which we have a good deal of experience.

Our longer term plans have finally firmed up. Yesterday we received confirmations from our insurance carrier and from the marina which we will be using as a basis of operations that will allow us to spend the summer in Grenada based out of Port Louis Marina. Grenada is a popular spot with cruising boats for the summer months since it has a reputation of being friendly, beautiful, and at low risk for hurricanes.

To get there we will have to pass pretty much every island in the Caribbean, so we will have a lot of opportunities to linger, explore, catch fish, find seashells, take pictures, and write stories. If you have been to Grenada and have recommendations or suggestions, let us know!

We need to be down to Grenada by the middle of June so we have five months to explore. We have gotten many favorable reviews from people who have spent time in Grenada, and we are very much looking forward both to our journey, and to the time at our summer destination. It feels a bit odd… it has been a while since we have had such a long range plan for our travels!

It is now Saturday evening. We’ll be packing the last things into place on the boat tomorrow, and then casting off lines on Monday morning and heading south on a short day sail to Key Biscane. We will anchor there, and wait for our weather window to cross to the islands. It is about 1400 miles as the seagull flies from Fort Lauderdale to Grenada, although we will likely do well over 2000 before we get there.

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