The weather report gave us a tight, but doable weather window to sail from Great Sale Cay, Bahamas to St. Augustine, Florida, a 240 nautical mile trip, taking 28-30 hours. The preceding week had been full of squalls and rain as we moved from Marsh Harbour, stopping at some not yet visited cays, into position for the crossing. The week after the window, starting Saturday predicted big winds, squalls and rough seas across the gulf. We had done our planning and preparation, felt confident, relaxed and looked forward to pulling the anchor about 8:00 AM on Thursday, April 26 to arrive in St. Augustine the next day, Friday, between 1:00 PM and 3:00 PM. We would anchor one night, then move to a slip at the Municipal Marina on Saturday.
Wednesday night’s sunset gave us red skies, a sailor’s delight. The morning greeted us with a light and variable wind, clear skies and sunshine. Our 45 mile northwesterly trip across the Bahama Bank to the Gulf Stream’s edge would be easy and keep us on schedule, if we motored sailed. When we pulled anchor, our electronics went out briefly then flashed to life again. We attributed the disruption to too much pull on the batteries after all night without shore power and using the electric windlass to take up the anchor. No problem we thought. We were on our way.
About an hour into the sail, a second electrical disruption hiccuped our electronics. Cindy got the GPS and chart display and other instruments working again, but the radar refused to cooperate. Cindy and I, seasoned sailors, were still not worried. We’ve ocean sailed with paper charts and just GPS readings from a handheld VHF with no radar multiple times. True, my experience was 30 years ago with a Loran system and not a GPS system, but, like riding a bicycle, it’s a skill you don’t forget.
We didn’t want to go back. There was no place to get repairs on the Bahama Bank within 100 miles. Nor could we make a closer east coast port before dark. The weather window was predicted to close, bringing nasty weather, starting Saturday. The good news was that the moon would be out, we had binoculars and good eyes to spy navigation lights at least five miles away. Additionally, the auto pilot was working well to keep our stress level down, our paper charts were up to date, and we had multiple sources for GPS readings (a handheld VHF and Ipad Navionics software, both independent of the boat’s electronic navigation and communications systems). Even if our electronic chart display died, Cindy and I both have the skills to make it to port.
John, the not so seasoned sailor, did not look convinced, gave me the evil eye for about an hour, but, in the end, decided to trust my decision as captain. And, in a matter of hours, he was once again comfortable, enjoying the sail whether he was on watch at the helm or down below resting. It was still light out.
As we crossed from the Bahama Bank into the Gulf Stream’s edge about 3:30 PM, we put on our safety gear, preparing ourselves for the night’s sail. Once again John was nervous, but he trusted us because we’d never be alone at the helm. Our three-hour watches were always two person affairs.
The wind and seas behaved as predicted. As the evening descended, we ate and then settled into our watch schedule. As the sun set, we killed the engine to sail for a couple of hours with a wind pushing us north and west into the Gulf Stream. All should be easy. We were making 7 knots, knowing that once we got into the heart of the Gulf our speed would increase to 9, even 12 knots for 4-6 hours.
But sometimes, sh*t happens. The wind unexpectedly escalated to 22-25 knots (it was supposed to be 5-10) and shifted to come from the northwest hours before predicted. The Gulf current coming from the south at 3.5 – 4.0 knots/hour and a strong wind with a north component created a collision of elements — heavy seas of 4-6 feet across our bow. (Think of a hundred water balloons thrown at a wall all at the same time to get a visual). We took in the Genoa leaving the main out as a stabilizing force, restarted the engine and adjusted our course to the north to calm things down a bit.
Around 8:00 PM, again, an electrical disruption took out the electronics momentarily. Five minutes later, all were back up except for the autopilot. This forced Cindy and I to steer manually (John doesn’t have the heavy sea steering skills) at 2500 RPMs for seven hours, struggling in the heavy seas. Now, with the seas at their height, having the main sail up just increased the boat’s instability, so we dropped it into the stack pack (the sail’s canvas cradle ). Cindy, safely hooked into the jackline with her harness and life vest, went to the mast to secure the halyard. Suddenly, Dolce Vento took a big wave. Cindy held onto the mast successfully and returned to the cockpit for high fives and hugs. It was a stunning moment! How bad was it, you might ask? Well, as Cindy said after catching her breath, “It’s one of those moments you shouldn’t tell your risk averse family about.”
Even with the moon lighting the sea, we were no longer having fun. This was serious business. We had to stay awake and stay focused, encouraging each other that we would make it. John supported us helm women with spot on “radar like” skills, sighting lights on the horizon before either of us could see them. However, if we had to keep this up for another 14 hours, we’d be, not only physically beat up, but also mentally exhausted. We both know people who have been alone at the helm in such weather for 7 to 24 hours. We were a team so we knew we could do it. We just had to prepare ourselves for it.
I was into the first 1/2 hour of our seventh hour of manual helm, when I impulsively hit the “on” button for the autopilot. IT WORKED and, most importantly, stayed operational for the rest of the trip, even when we had a third electrical disruption at 4:00 AM. We relaxed. Being physically tired, but mentally energized was a whole lot easier.
Throughout the night, we maintained Dolce Vento’s stability and course, but our expected increase in speed from the Gulf’s current was short-lived due to the strong northwest winds creating heavy cross current seas. We had to continue north until the winds subsided. Colder air came in with the northwest winds. I suited up into my winter foul weather gear. By 8:00 AM, the winds were still at 22 knots, but we had light which relieved not only John, but Cindy and I as well. We could now see the kettle of fish we found ourselves in.
The seas were now at a different angle so we opened the Genoa halfway to increase speed. It helped. As the winds settled, FINALLY, I opened it full-out so to maintain seven to eight knots/hour. If we didn’t make decent speed, it looked like we’d get to St. Augustine after sunset, something we would not do. Our only alternative would be to heave-to off shore and wait another 12 hours for sunlight.
In the end, those light and variable winds finally did arrive to settle the seas at 11:00 AM allowing us to maintain our speed. By 2:00 PM our wind indicator was spinning around (no wind) so we took in the Genoa in and continued with the engine power alone across a boring flat sea. We didn’t care. Boring was good as we each had gotten just 4 hours of disjointed sleep over a 25 hour period.
At 6:15 PM, I turned Dolce Vento into the St. Augustine inlet to put the setting sun directly in my eyes. It was a beautiful sight as we motored past a huge dredger in the channel. The trip had taken an extra four hours to total 34 hours. We dropped the anchor just south of the St. Augustine Bridge of Lions. We hoisted our yellow quarantine flag, celebrated with a beer, collapsed for ten hours, then greeted the Saturday morning sun after it was well up in the sky. I cleared us through Customs & Homeland Protection using the phone and video chat, we took down that yellow flag, and headed for our slip at the municipal marina. There, Cindy was able to retrieve a long-awaited birthday present from her parents — a three foot color coded crimping tool, a gift only a certified marine electrical technician could love. And she does!
Guess what — the Friday weather report published at 10:00 PM (which we did not access while underway) changed the storm predictions. Saturday and Sunday were now scheduled to be good days for crossing the Gulf. If we had only known earlier, but then, we’d never have earned our Salty Sailor badges, would have we?