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Remembering the First Crossing

Walkabout at Cat Cay, thunder storm coming in.
Walkabout at Cat Cay, thunder storm coming in.

The NOAA weather forecast indicated that a cold front approaching South Florida was weakening and a weather window for crossing the Gulf Stream might slide open. Being an optimist, the next morning I paid our bill at the Dinner Key Marina and we motored over to the Crandon Park Marina fuel dock on Key Biscayne to fill the fuel and the water tanks and buy several blocks of ice. We then moved to No Name Harbor in Bill Baggs State Park at the southern tip of the key, joining the other hopefuls already at anchor.

We had jumped a little early. The leading edge of the “weakening” cold front did not arrive for five days, by which time there was a mix of 19 power and sail boats anchored in that tight, well sheltered little basin: some on one anchor, some on two, some on all-chain rode, some on mixed chain and nylon, and a few on all nylon (there’s always one or two).

As the front approached, the wind increased instead of decreasing. The general messiness along the leading edge came through that night. In the early hours, two strong thunderstorms hit, one right behind the other, and every anchored boat swung a full 360 degrees in each. As dawn approached, the sky cleared and the actual front passed. The wind clocked west, then northwest and increased dramatically. Inside No Name Harbor we had a steady 20-25 knot northwest wind with occasional higher gusts.

The day after the frontal passage, the morning forecast was depressing. It indicated that we were going to be in No Name Harbor for a while with small-craft advisories from Key West to north of Cape Canaveral. Twelve days after our arrival, we had run out of clean clothes and had taken a large bag of laundry, by bus, to Dinner Key. We had hauled 65 gallons of water back to the boat, five gallons (fifty-eight pounds) per trip. These days, No Name Harbor has a holding tank pump-out, laundry, toilets and a (cold) shower and the Boaters’ Grill, a good Cuban restaurant, but there is still nowhere to fill your water tanks.

Twice we rented bicycles from a local shop and spent the day riding the length and breadth of Key Biscayne and visiting the Winn Dixie. Key Biscayne is beautiful and Bill Baggs is a lovely park, but we were tiring of both. However, as is generally the case, another cold front – this one forecast to be weaker than the one we had just enjoyed – was coming.

Maybe this front would open the magical crossing window? NOAA’s forecast called for the front to stall just north of the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area, southeast winds at 10-15 knots and three- to five-foot seas overnight and through the next day. We wanted southeast to south winds at less than ten knots. A group of us gathered on a large Morgan named Good Turn for an evening social hour and a weather discussion. The crew of Good Turn and several others decided to leave that night. Those of us with less experience – or maybe just less self-confidence – decided to wait and see what the morning brought.

At midnight Good Turn left for the West End of Grand Bahama Island. Three hours later several of us talked to them via VHF. Good Turn was a powerful boat. They were on a course to the West End of Grand Bahama Island so they were going with the Gulf Stream, had the seas behind them, and the wind was on their starboard quarter. They reported that they were doing well and moving fast.

After the radio call, two more boats decided to leave for Gun Cay. I called one just after sunrise. They were barely 10 miles past the Florida Reef and, while able to hold their course, were having a slow, wet and lumpy ride. Neither boat was large and they were bound almost due east, straight across the Gulf Stream, which put the seas on their beam and the apparent wind on their starboard bow.

The cold front stayed just to the north and the wind dropped all day. By sunset it was calm in No Name Harbor, and the marine weather reef report indicated calm conditions at Fowey Rock. We decided to get the dinghy aboard, have dinner, and leave for Gun Cay. At 10 p.m. we started taking in the anchor. Dave and Becky aboard the Whitby 42 White Wings yelled over that they would be right behind us, and a Canadian single-hander named Stan aboard Fred C. Watts, an interesting and rather attractive steel boat he built in his backyard, hollered that he was coming too.

With Walkabout in the lead, the three of us – all first-time crossers – crept like three blind mice out into the Cape Florida Channel. Walkabout got to be the lead or, depending on how you feel about these things, the sacrificial boat because we had been through the Cape Florida Channel twice before, once in and once out. Neither of the others had ever done it. We may have done it twice, but both trips had been on clear days in the full light of the sun. Do things ever look and sound different at night!

The Cape Florida Channel is narrow, crooked, and not excessively deep. It is also not well-marked until the point where it joins the deeper, broader Biscayne Channel, just before the combined channels reach the sea. White Wings and Fred C. Watts, trying to make sure that they followed our exact route, followed too closely. Twice Betty called them on the radio and asked them to back off a bit; if we had run aground one or both of them might have hit us. We all reached the seaward mouth of the combined channels without any unfortunate events, crossed the reef, and found calm wind and an almost flat sea.

Eight hours of motoring and motor-sailing later we had crossed the Gulf Stream and were off the Great Bahama Bank, loitering around in front of Gun Cay waiting for full sun. After all the waiting and anxiety, our first crossing to the Bahamas was as a good crossing should be. We had no close encounters with commercial shipping. The largest wave we saw might have been over a foot high, and most of the trip was calm with no wind at all.  Two thunderstorms passed well to the north, far enough from us that we could see the flashes from the high cloud-to-cloud lightning but we heard no thunder. There just was nothing that could be slightly expanded into a good sea story.

After sunrise, we filed through the Gun Cay Cut and down the banks side of Cat Cay to the private Cat Cay Club’s marina to clear Bahamian Customs and Immigration. The club charged non-members $50 for the use of their dock when clearing in, but they would apply that as a credit toward the cost of overnight transient dockage. By pure coincidence, a night’s transient dockage and the use of all of the marina’s facilities was – yes – $50!

The three of us decided, as did a number of other boats that were either already in the marina when we arrived or came in after us, to enjoy the pleasant surroundings and stay put for a day or three. By 10 a.m. everyone had finished clearing in and we were crowding the marina’s Tiki Bar enjoying cold Kaliks and the incredible views east across the Great Bahama Bank and north past Gun Cay to Bimini.

Excerpted from chapter 9 of “Into the Land of Coconut Dreams – A Travel Log, A Sea Story and a Passage in Time; Mostly True” by Bill Hezlep. Available from Amazon in print and e-book editions.

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