Friday, June 8, 2012

UPDATE: What’s This Dark Cloud Over Our Heads?

To cruising sailors, weather forecast and conditions are a big concern. Knowing what’s coming is critical to and directly proportional to how much fun you have on the water. If you sit around not paying attention or caring about the weather Mother Nature will soon send you a little reminder of who’s Boss. Hopefully the reminder is not too severe.

While in the Bahamas, we have to constantly keep an eye on the major cold fronts as they roll across the United States. These cold fronts can drastically affect the weather in the Bahamas and especially in the Northwest Bahamas (Abaco). This season we have been hiding from fronts about every three to four days as they roll through. This year the fronts seemed to penetrate deeper into the Bahamas than other years.  Some really “Rocked the House” with winds sustained in the Gale Force range. Some lasted for days creating uncomfortable and or sometimes downright dangerous conditions to get off the boat. That’s when we break out the books or movies for a marathon ride out the blow party.
Last season we didn’t spend much time in Green Turtle Cay, so we decided to catch up this year. We took advantage of a special offer from the Bluff House in White Sound called “Docking for Dollars”. This is a program where you get food and beverages equal to your docking fee. For example, if your dock fee was $50 you could eat and drink $50 worth of food and beverages at their restaurant without paying. It’s a great deal and especially at the Bluff House where the food is excellent.

We sat out two fronts at the Bluff House and one strong cold front on the hook across the Sea of Abaco from Green Turtle, where we saw our 1st water spout. We staged our crossing back to Florida on our second stay at the Bluff House. The weather pattern we were dealing with had winds coming out of the south, which was good for a return trip to Florida. The downside,  south wind brought with it lots of moisture. Chris Parker (Forecaster for many Cruisers) had been saying the unstable patterns may create conditions favorable for Tropical Cyclones the last two weeks of May. 
The Face of the Wind
With Chris’s red flag and mild conditions forecast for crossing the Gulf Stream, we planned our departure for Monday, May 14. High tide was around 4:30 pm and we needed as much water as we could get to transit the White Sound Channel. The Bluff House allowed us a late checkout and our plan was to leave the dock around 1:00 pm and drop the hook until the tide was higher. As it turned out, a nasty set of thunderstorms came in around 12:30 and lasted for a couple hours. During that wait, we met Bill and Ann on s/v “Wind Spirit” a 38’ Island Packet who were heading to Ft. Pierce too. I discussed our plan with Bill and he liked our approach, so we became instant cruising buddies for the crossing. While we have made the crossing alone several times, it’s nice to have a buddy boat for the long trip back.
1st Water Spout over Green Turtle
Once the rain and wind settled a bit, we shoved off the dock just after 2:00 pm. I made the decision to try to transit the White Sound channel instead of waiting another 2 hours for maximum tide. It was a good decision and we were on our way to our 1st anchorage early. As we exited the channel “Wind Spirit” called to let us know they were through the channel and ready to hit the road for our 180 nautical mile trip to Vero Beach (207 statute miles). 

This may not seem like a long trip especially if you think about it in terms of highway miles. Our average cruising speed is 6 knots (6.9 mph), so were looking at a 30 hour trip, with the last 60 nautical miles crossing the infamous Gulf Stream.
Since we got an early start out of White Sound, we pushed on another hour to Crab Cay and dropped the hook. Crab Cay provided protection from the ESE wind and we had a good night on the hook. The next morning we weighed anchor and headed for Great Sale Cay. Our plan was to drop the hook at Great Sale around 2:00 pm and get a few hours rest before shoving off for Ft. Pierce, around 9:00 pm. The plan would have us crossing the Little Bahama Bank at night and hitting the Gulf Stream around dawn and into Ft. Pierce around 3:00 pm with a rising tide.

The passage to Great Sale was rainy and overcast with a light ESE wind. About two hours out of Great Sale, a set of nasty squalls came at us from the southwest. As one of the squalls approached, we watched a huge water spout form. This was the second water spout we had seen form in a week. Behind us were a parade of boats that seemed to be in the path of the water spout. As it developed, the VHF radio exploded with chatter of the spout and evasive action needed. Most sailing vessels lowered their sails as we did and continued on course. Some of the power vessels pumped more fuel through their engines to try to get the hell out of dodge. As luck would have it, no vessel was hit by the powerful water spout. It was a close call.

2nd Water Spout forming east of Great Sale Cay
2nd Water Spout fully formed
We were listening to the chatter of the water spout on the VHF radio when the drag on our reel went off. Crap, we caught a fish. Not exactly the best timing when you are running from a water spout. Since it appeared we had dodged the spout, we chopped the throttle and reeled the fish in. As I reeled the fish closer I 1st thought I had caught another Mahi. A minute later, I realized I had caught a 3 and a half foot Barracuda. One look at those teeth and I said no way am I bringing him on board. So we dragged him behind the boat to the anchorage.

We anchored on the west side of Great Sale, instead of the south anchorage, so we could save an hour or so off the trip. On our approach with “Wind Spirit” there were no other boats in the anchorage. After setting the hook, I went back to remove Mr. Cudda and he was gone. It was ok with me, cause those teeth can do some real damage if the fish is playing possum.

Within an hour or so, we went from 2 boats in the anchorage to over twenty. We took a nap for a couple hours and when I woke up there was a trawler sitting over our anchor. Can’t even begin to believe there’s some idiot with enough money to buy a 60 ft. Fleming trawler but not enough sense to anchor outside of our swing radius. Our plan was to weigh anchor around 8:30 pm and now this A-hole is sitting over our anchor when there’s enough room to anchor fifty battleships here. I flagged this guy down when he got in his dinghy and told him he was over our anchor and we were leaving in three hours. No problem Captain he says, the wind is going to shift to the north in an hour or so and this will swing our boat off your anchor. If not, he says he will move up on his anchor. Not sure where this idiot got his weather report from but I’m pretty sure it’s the same place where he learned to anchor. Every weather report this side of China was calling for south wind and this idiot is saying just the opposite. If he thought the wind was going to shift north, why did he anchor here? I guess maybe I should just chill and bite my lip, let the blood trickle down my chin until I pass out and get some much needed rest. NOT.  

The guys who anchor on top of you (when there’s a world to anchor in) never want to move.  These buttheads seem to come from the same place and speak the same language and it’s not English. They have a huge reputation (in the cruising community) for not knowing how to anchor and always wanting to anchor too close to other boats who were there first. (Note to Self) Develop a weapon that will ward these bastards off.

Anyway, after the wind shifted from the east southeast to the southwest (earlier than forecast and not from the North) it was enough to swing “Wind Dust” over the buttheads anchor. If we didn’t have to get back to the States I may have sat there just to piss this guy off when he was ready to leave. After a couple of light squalls passed, I could see a seam in the thunderstorms coming off Florida (on our XM Weather Radar) and we shoved off for Ft. Pierce with our buddy boat around 8:30 pm.

We had 55 nautical miles (9 hrs) of the Little Bahama Bank (in the dark) ahead of us. We planned to hit the exit point around 5 am. I was not looking forward to this portion of the trip home, as our autopilot died before we started back. This meant 19 hours of hand steering “Wind Dust” to Vero Beach. We chatted with our buddy boat “Wind Spirit” throughout the night on the VHF and they hung about a quarter to half mile off our stern quarter as we motored all night through calm seas. Most of the night we could see lightening off to the south, southwest and west towards Florida. The thunderstorms rolled off south Florida towards our position however dissipated before reaching us as we thought they would.

Around 4:30 am, we began to see white lights off our starboard bow. We could not pickup the vessel on radar or on AIS, nor were they displaying running lights. As we approached our Little Bahama Bank waypoint, we could begin to see the vessel which appeared to be a Trawler anchored just inside of the bank. A few minutes later, I saw a cargo ship pop up on our AIS system. I queried the system for the ship’s status and it contained conflicting information. We looked for the vessels running lights and could not see any. The ship “Pacific Pearl” was steaming towards us at 12 kts and our CPA was 1 nautical mile. I began hailing “Pacific Pearl” on the VHF to insure they could see us and our buddy boat. No response. I waited a few minutes and hailed them again. No response. What concerned me was the ship was not displaying any lights, would not answer their radio, and was steaming towards us at a pretty good clip. This is the first time I have encountered a commercial vessel with AIS (underway making way) without running lights (or any other lights) that did not respond to a radio call. I called our buddies on “Wind Spirit” and asked them to hail the ship. I figured if there was something illegal going on that at least the US Coast Guard would hear two of us hailing the ship. On “Wind Spirit’s” second try “Pacific Pearl” responded and acknowledged that they could see us both and were changing course to pass our stern. As sunrise approached, we could see “Pacific Pearl” approaching us and we confirmed no running lights. Very odd, odd indeed. As stated, they passed to our stern and we were glad the light of day was upon us.

An hour or so after dawn the wind picked up from the south and we were able to put up sail for most of the morning. The sky was overcast with mild squally conditions. I kept an  eye on the XM Weather Radar as there were some significant thunderstorms off of Jupiter Florida and others just to the north of our track. Around 11:00 am, a large cargo ship crossed our route approximately three miles off. As they moved north, we could see a fairly large squall developing, but it seemed to be stationary on the radar. A few minutes later I heard an unfamiliar voice hailing “Wind Dust”. It was the ship which had just passed a few minutes before. He got our name from our AIS. The captain said he wanted to warn us of the squall and told us it looked pretty ugly and was coming to get us. I thanked the captain and proceeded to closely monitor the radar. Yep, the captain was right. The squall had started to move our way and it was building into a storm we wanted to avoid if possible. We first dropped the sails and while doing so the third water spout of the week appeared. It’s part of the squall that’s headed for us. Ok it’s time to take evasive action if possible. We determined we could turn southwest and if lucky miss the worst part of the squall. I radioed “Wind Spirit” to tell them what we doing. By this time they were several miles behind us. They took the same evasive action and the worst part of the 12 mile wide storm missed both of us. Heavy rain did pass over but we missed the heavy wind. The rest of the trip to Ft. Pierce was uneventful and comfortable.
Around 3:30pm with a southwest wind and halfway through the flood tide we transited the Ft. Pierce inlet at 10 knots. The water was as smooth as a babies behind and we were hauling some serious butt. Not often does “Wind Dust” hit 10 knots over ground and it's always fun to use mother nature to your advantage. As we approached the ICW we hailed the Ft. Pierce North Bridge and requested an opening. Perfect, the tender opened the bridge and we barely had to slow down. With the rising tide giving us a nice push we moved north towards Vero Beach at 7.5 to 8 knots. We arrived at Vero Beach City Marina around 5:30 pm. We picked up our assigned mooring, promptly had several celebratory drinks and hit the sack for some serious sleep. It was good to be home. Another safe crossing behind us and ZZZZZZZeeeeee.        

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jesse. Now I don't have to actually see a waterspout, your descriptions will suffice.


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