Ile a Vache, Haiti to Marathon, FL|Windward Passage|Old Bahama Channel|Gulf Stream Crossing

This blog entry will document the sailing experience of our passage from Ile a Vache, Haiti to Marathon, FL through the Windward Passage, The Old Bahama Channel and across the Gulf Stream. The passage required seven days of continuous sailing on the open sea. We encountered winds over 40 knots and seas in excess of 12 feet. We caught fish almost every day and were well fed. We maintained alternating watches so we were rested as well. This is only a recount of our sailing experience and we do not suggest that this is the best method to make this passage; it is only our experience that we share, not advice.

We departed Ile a Vache at noon on 5-15-10 with a return trip odometer reading of 625 nautical miles under sunny skies and with a fresh and favorable breeze. We arrived at the southwest tip of Haiti as the sun was setting. We turned north into the Windward Passage and noticed several bands of thunder storms that were sparking off of the Haiti mainland into the Windward Passage. We were fortunate in that our arrival in the passage was such that the thunder storms would pass from east to west well ahead of us. We noted this for future passages so that we could avoid the frequent thunder storms that form almost daily in this passage in the evening due to the cooling of the air over Hispaniola. Our rumb line for the Windward Passage was from the southwest tip of Haiti to the Northwest tip of Cuba maintaining at least ten miles of margin from any land masses. The winds were too close to our rumb line to allow us to make it on one tack so we were forced to tack back and forth to make progress to the north. A starboard tack was the favored tack and it put us on track to sail close to Guantomano Bay. This seemed like a good idea from a security standpoint so we proceeded in a Northwesterly direction. We sailed through the night and into the next day before the favored tack changed to a port tack so we tacked off and headed in the direction of the Northwest tip of Haiti. The day went well with strong winds and medium seas. We always reef our main before nightfall and we did just that and were getting settled in for our night watch schedule when the winds began to strengthen. The winds were howling so loud it was almost impossible to speak above them on the topsides. Along with winds in excess of 40 knots the seas also began to build. The waves grew steeper than we had seen on any previous passage. We were smack in the middle of a full blown gale according to the Beaufort Scale. We decided to put in a second reef, bring in the head sail and hoist the staysail. Conditions continued to build to the point that we felt we would be better off putting our boat into a “hove to” position, lashing the tiller over and going below for the night. So below we went and turned the radar screen so we could watch it from the dinette. We turned on the sentry alarm on the radar so that we would be alerted when another vessel came within eight nautical miles of our boat. When the alarm went off we would hail the oncoming vessel on the VHF radio and make them aware of our position and that we were unable to maneuver due to being “hove to”. Essentially we were adrift at the mercy of the wind and waves. We were safe and dry and Mary Rose handled the heavy weather very well. Our drift was about 2 knots to the NNW back toward Cuba. We were able to begin sailing again at about 6:30 AM in moderate conditions. I made the assumption that the same conditions could or would occur again later this evening and took action to make this evening safer and more comfortable. We sailed on a port tack away from Cuba toward the northwestern tip of Haiti. My rationale was that the gale force winds were coming from the northeast and we would be able to get behind the high mountains on the northern peninsula of Haiti. We could avoid the high winds and heavy seas there and then sail directly out of the north end of the Windward Passage early the next morning. As the evening approached the winds began to build and the waves grew just as they had the night before. Except this time we were only a few miles from the leeward protection of the northern peninsula of Haiti. We fell off the wind a bit to make the sailing in the high winds a bit more tolerable and within an hour we were in water as smooth as a mill pond tucked in for the night, safe and sound. We still “hove to” to stop our progress away from our intended destination and established alternate watches for the night. This time we were not in the shipping channel and we only had one vessel come within eight miles the entire night. We resumed sailing at 6:00 AM on Tuesday morning (5-18-10) in 10-15 knots of wind and 2-3 ft seas. We were within striking distance of making our way out of the Windward Passage before this day was over. Even with the extraordinary conditions, the Admiral prepared 5 Star high quality meals with the fresh fish that gave us good energy and endurance throughout the experience. I am still not sure how she manages to do this. I am in awe and admire her capabilities. Just as we were nearing the north end of the Windward Passage the main fishing pole began to sing as the line was being stripped off the reel. I grabbed it and set the hook and then tried to slow the run by tightening the drag very slowly. Then to our amazement a White Marlin broke the surface and began to dance along sideways behind the boat, first one way and then the next. It was a sight to behold. The fish was at least 6-8 feet long and was still stripping line. After a few minutes this wonderful creature threw the hook and was on his way. I was relieved as there was no way we could land a fish this size on Mary Rose. After the initial thrill wore off I reflected on the story, The Old Man and The Sea. It was about in this area off the coast of Cuba the Old Man and his boat was pulled for days by a huge fish. Thank you Hemmingway!

Note to self: The next time I make the Windward Passage I will stay closer to Haiti so that I am in the leeward protection from the Northeasterly Gales that pipe up in this passage in the evening.

At 3:15 PM on Tuesday, 5-18-10 we officially exited the North end of the Windward Passage and we were now headed northwest along the North coast of Cuba through the Old Bahama Channel. The passage through the old Bahama Channel was uneventful and we were on a beam reach, starboard tack the entire passage. There were a few times that the winds fell off a bit and we flew the spinnaker for additional speed. We averaged over 130 nautical miles per day through the old Bahama Channel.

As we approached the end of the Old Bahama Channel and the west end of the Cay Sal Bank we began to make plans for the crossing of the Gulf Stream. The winds were forecast to strengthen and turn to the east. This would be perfect for a beam reach across the Gulf Stream. The problem with this scenario is that the current of the Gulf Stream runs from west to east. So with the winds blowing from east to west there would be an effect of piling the water up as the wind blows against the current. It did exactly that as the waves were in the 10 – 12 foot range and very steep as well as close together. To our good fortune we were able to make this crossing on a beam reach and fly across the wave tops with little resistance. The automatic tiller pilot held a perfect course. We set up our initial course several degrees to the west of our destination and we were over four mile west of the rumb line when we entered the drift of the Gulf Stream. By the time the Gulf Stream let go of us we were right back on the rumb line and within 10 miles of the Sombrero Key Light just off the coast of Marathon, FL. I came up to the cockpit after my rest period and the Admiral had Mary Rose making over 7 Knots and was having a ball racing over the tops of the huge steep waves. We made 151 nautical miles in 24 hours on the Gulf Stream crossing. WooHoo! The total passage took seven days and two hours and we traveled 829 nautical miles. That is an amazing average of 4.9 nautical miles per hour even though we were in a “hove to” position for two nights with zero forward progress. The time flew by as we were always doing something during the entire passage. We were navigating, reading, fishing, cooking, eating, sleeping or on watch. Did I mention the food was off the charts! Thank you, Admiral Nelson for sharing your amazing culinary skills when you were not driving the boat at breakneck speeds across the open ocean. I am proud to have you as my Admiral!

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