Our first coast sailing was from Georgetown, SC to Charleston, SC. Although plagued with cold, overcast weather with wind from the north, we much preferred it to to the tiresome Intracoastal Waterway (ICW). We jumped out again from St. Simon’s Island, GA to St. John’s Inlet, Florida, then St. John’s Inlet to St. Augustine, FL. After more stressful time on the ICW with its high water and low bridges, we went out at Fort Pierce to Rivera Beach (Lake Worth), Lake Worth to Fort Lauderdale and finally from Fort Lauderdale to Biscayne Bay. From there we entered Hawk Channel, taking it all the way to Key West, the half way point on our journey. We did some sailing along with quite a bit of motoring, but in all cases, we enjoy coastal sailing, now that we have seen it and done it.
Lesson learned: Use the Gulf Stream to your advantage
The Gulf Stream is a warm and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and stretches to the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastline of the United States. The farther south on the U.S. east coast, the closer the Gulf Stream is to the shore. When moving southward, you should stay as close to shore as possible to avoid the northward current of the Gulf Stream as it can slow you down 2-3 knots because the current is against you.
Our recommendations and that of others we have met on our journal is to stay within one mile or less of the shore, especially after you enter Florida waters. We found that within this distance, there is actually a counter current which can speed travel when heading south. Of course, when heading north, getting out into the Gulf Stream, away from shore three miles or more is an advantage as the current will add speed to your boat.
Lesson Learned: Choose the time leave and enter channels carefully
Our choice while traveling south was day sailing. We’d never plied these waters before and our night sailing experience was limited. This meant we had to ensure we could travel, not only the distance between two ports in one day, but also navigate the exit and entrance channels within the day. If not, we could get caught off shore at night time when buoy/marker lights are lost again the lights on shore. Therefore, we set a minimum speed we would maintain (6 knots in our case), calculated the hours to traverse the distance, then added the distance and time it would take to leave one port and reach the dock or anchorage at the other end. Our bottom line was a total of 65 miles or 10 hours, whichever came first.
We learned very quickly hard way that long, deep channels such at Charleston, SC have fearsome currents and cross winds. Therefore, we tried to leave dock at slack tide (no current), go on an outgoing (ebb) tide and enter on an incoming tide. It saved us a hour many times. Narrow channels also exhibit these characteristics, but less so or at least for shorter stretches of time. But, sometimes weather gets in the way of good planning and you end up battling 25 knot cross winds while entering a channel with the tide against you. It’s a battle stations kind of experience.