Miami to St Petersburg, FL - Night Sailing The Gulf Stream

This post will be a bit more technical and clinical of the Hanse 43 Yacht delivery than that previously written by the crew. I deliberately waited to write my post so that the judgement and opinions of the crew would not be influenced. Thanks to crew members Dr Bill Smith and Andy Smith for their colorful recount of the voyage as well as their "do anything" attitudes. Thanks to first mate, Lana Nelson for being there with her dedication and experience to help us all make a safe passage.

We were in a bit of a dilemma as to when to leave the Miami City Marina which hosted the Strictly Sail portion of the Miami International Boat Show. Our first port of call after leaving Miami would be Boot Key and the city of Marathon, FL. We estimated it to take 12 - 16 hours to reach Boot Key from Miami via the government cut channel. Marathon harbor has a very narrow channel and is not a good approach in the dark. If we wanted to make Boot Key before sunset then the latest we could leave would be 0300. I consulted with the crew, Phil Crane (Yacht Owner), the National Weather Service and my own comfort level as to the best time to depart Miami. The weather service was calling for 4 - 6 foot seas and 10 - 15 knots of wind from the northeast. I also looked at weather patterns for the rest of the trip and knew we would be racing a cold front to St Petersburg. A quick check of the extended area indicated gale warnings in the Atlantic but far from our expected course. Collectively we decided to leave as soon as possible after the closing of the show and head for Boot Key. This would give us a good cushion of time to make a daylight landfall.

We had an obstacle to our departure before we left the dock. Just a mere 25 feet off the bow was a multi million dollar luxury catamaran tied along side the other dock. There was little room for error as we had to swing the Hanse 43 out of her slip. Another sailing yacht had a mooring line tied to our port side which had to be manipulated over our bow as we shoved off and backed past the catamaran. I felt more comfortable in directing dock hands and line handlers than manning the wheel as we slipped our lines from this unusually tight docking configuration. I asked Hanse the boat owner, Phil Crane, to take the helm while myself, the crew and others managed the dock lines and made a very controlled departure from the dock. A short distance away we dropped Phil off at a finger pier and we were off to glide through Government Cut to the open Atlantic.

Now remember that just a few days earlier I had delivered a Jeanneau 50 foot deck salon luxury sailing yacht for Yacht Sales of Florida through this very same channel. I headed for the exact previous track using dead reckoning navigation and soon discovered that the previous trip though the channel was at high tide and I could feel we were dragging on a mud bottom during our low tide departure. We were going slow and did not have any problems backing out and continued safely as we honored the navigation markers and stayed in the channel.

We passed dozens of small shrimp boats in the shipping channel next to the docks and soon we were a couple of miles away from our point of departure with the Government Cut marker beacon in sight. Our planned route was in the Atlantic, outside of the reef that marks the southerly boundary for the Hawk Channel. Here is a link for a map of the Hawk Channel.

The Hawk Channel is between the reef and the Florida Keys which would have been our preferred route. However, sailboats and the Hawk Channel do not mix well after dark. The channel is dotted with thousands of crab traps that have lines attached to floating buoys. Invisible lines at night are like magnets for sailboat keels and propeller shafts. Thus, we were forced to stay well to the outside of Fowey Rocks light and sail in the Atlantic against adverse effects of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is not always in the exact same place and varies a bit in speed but the general location, direction and speed are highly predicable. Another attribute of the Gulf Stream is that the waves get very large and very steep when the wind direction opposes it. The stronger the wind the larger and steeper the waves. The waves take on what is referred to as a "square wave." configuration. Close your eyes and visualize a graceful sensuously swept sailing yacht attempting to make way through square waves. I think you get the picture.

We were within ten miles of our point of departure when the waves and wind began to increase well beyond our expectations based on the forecast we received. At one point Lana said, "look at that, Miami just disappeared." I turned around and it was there. I told Lana she was silly and she said "no way" look again. I turned and sure enough the Miami Skyline was absorbed by the cresting waves that were now following us in the Atlantic. It is difficult to make an exact gauge of the wave heights in complete darkness but I am certain that these waves approached over 15 feet from trough to top. I made sure that everyone knew that it would be a bit rough and repeated that no one would be topsides without a Personal Floatation Device (PFD) aka life jacket and tethered to a jackline to prevent a Man Over Board (MOB) situation. I think that anxiety levels raised a bit and soon we had some crew members that were being hit with bouts of sea sickness. I am extremely fortunate that my constitution allows me to endure some wicked conditions and remain nausea free as long as I stay task focused and do not go below deck.

I remained at the wheel as the most experienced helmsman on board. It was very dark as the moon would not rise until about 0230. Steering under power was not too difficult as our course put the waves on the starboard corner of our stern. The auto pilot was useless due to the height and strength of the seas so it I knew I was in for a long watch of hand steering until conditions improved. The greatest danger we faced was broaching or pitch polling but we never came close to losing control. At times we would catch a wave and surf down it's face and bury the nose under the wave ahead of us only to have the following wave catch up with us and ship some water over the open transom. We altered course to a more westerly direction as we made progress along the keys. The further we got away from Miami the more the conditions improved. It appears that the gale that was blowing in the Atlantic was the cause for the big waves setting on us that evening. As we made way along the keys they worked as a block to shield us from the huge waves and give us shelter. There were several times that a rouge wave would slam us midships on the port side and cause us to pitch and roll to the point that Andy was rudely ejected from his cockpit nesting area. There were more than a few times that we met other traffic that was headed for Miami. I thought to myself....we are the lucky ones tonight as we are not pounding head on into these enormous seas. We watched as the other boats disappeared into the trough of the waves only to reappear through a spray as they burst through the onslaught of waves over their bow. Andy and I had a good discussion on ships navigation lights and judging their speed, distance and direction of travel.

Andy and I were chatting around 0230 when we were treated to a spectacular moon rise that blazed a crescent orange on the horizon as it emerged through a bank of high thin clouds. By then the seas had calmed to the forecasted 4 -6 feet and the moonlight gave depth and dimension to the waves. The winds were steady at 12 - 15 kts with minor gusts and remained consistent in direction.

I choose not set sails until daybreak for several reasons. This was the first time I had sailed this boat or one like it. None of the crew had any experience on this boat or one like it. Fifty percent of the crew suffered from extreme sea sickness. There was no good reason to subject anyone to the hazards of leaving the safety of the cockpit in the dark in marginal conditions. We had plenty of fuel and the engine was performing well. By sunrise the conditions were favorable and we sailed and motor sailed the rest of the way to Boot Key. We charted a course that allowed us to cut through the reef and head into the Hawk Channel about 15 miles Northeast of Boot key. This saved us valuable time and also placed us right in the middle of the most beautiful turquoise tropical water you will ever see in the good ol' USA. The dolphins came to great us, the flying fish danced for us and the crew had regained their composure and we were all discussing dinner plans at Porky's BBQ in Marathon.

My sincere compliments to the crew on their performance as we squeezed the Hanse 43 into a slip that left very little clearance for her broad beam. The crew worked in unison and brought her to rest for the evening with grace that would make any professional delivery crew envious. Captain was beat and headed for a hot shower before dinner.

On the way to dinner, I noticed a big "yeller dog" that had been at the same marina on the trip down to Miami a week earlier. Only this time the dog was headed straight for me with a determined gate and a plastic lunch box style cooler in it's mouth. The big "yeller dog" had it's lower jaw through the hand hold and was headed right for me. I paused as the dog approached and said, "hey big yeller dog whatcha got there?" I joked to the crew how he must think that he is a St Bernard and carries cold beer in a cooler to save tired sailors. Just ahead was a dockside open air cabana with a TV, bar, fridge and all the necessary stuff to keep a dockside sailor entertained. It was occupied by a sole male working on a small wooden project. He confirmed that this was indeed his "yeller dog." I inquired as to what was up with the plastic cooler and he invited me to open it up. I opened the cooler and inside was a note that said......."Please Feed Me A Treat!" The bottom of the cooler was laden with gourmet K-9 treats. So big yeller dog scored again! I still laugh when I think of this event and the yeller dog carrying the cooler to greet me.

We headed out the next morning with intentions of docking in Key West for the night and then on to St Petersburg the following day. The Hawk Channel is deep and wide between Boot Key and Key West and with daylight we could run the gauntlet of crab pots as we made way. We took turns on watch so everyone was able to get some much needed rest and recovery as we sailed. Along the way, Phil Crane called and updated the forecast for the St Petersburg area. As expected a cold front was steaming toward St Pete with breakneck speed and we would be sailing in cold wet weather for the duration if we spent the night in Key West. With little discussion we decided to keep the sails up and sail through the channel that leads from the Atlantic to the Gulf on the west end of Key West.

We established watches for all crew members and set a course for Egmont Key at the mouth of Tampa Bay. The rest of the voyage is well documented by Bill and Andy Smith. We had a wonderful time together and only a bit of a sail plan modification as the front rolled through. I will be writing a post in the near future on the subject of "How it all began!" You will learn more about Bill Smith, Mike Degeorge, Shane Montgomery, Admiral Nelson and others as I revisit the birthplace of the dream that I am now living.

My night watch was with Lana and we had a memorable time as we skipped along watching the starlight dance on the waves. It caused each of us to pause and recap our first night voyage across the Gulf of Mexico just fourteen months earlier. We enjoyed the star filled sky, talked about our future voyages, shared some thoughts on family and friends and then the Captain entertained with some sea shanties and classic country ballads.

I am proud of Bill, Andy and Lana as each one did what was asked and never once was there any overtone of disagreement or argumentative attitudes. Those of you that have sailed multi day passages know that this is not always the case and can appreciate this description. I hope we are all able to do this again in the near future and share more stories of wanderlust on the high sea!