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Old 12-09-2012, 07:02   #1
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Gulf stream. Educate me

M trying to learn a little about the gulf stream crossing from FL to and from the Bahamas. Although I will look elsewhere for more "official and expanded info", I would appreciate some practical info on it. Characteristics, timing, effects, how it relates to weather/wind and crossing in a sailboat, etc.
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Old 12-09-2012, 09:17   #2
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

Big subject area, lots of info here and on the net. See many discussions here of crossing from FL to Bahamas for practical discussion of the effects. A few key points below.

The axis of the stream flows roughly N at about 2-3 knots through this area. The most significant effects for cruisers relate to navigation and weather.

Navigation: you must plot a course which compensates for the the fact that you be pushed N by the axis of the stream (basic traditional coastal navigation skills are used to do this).

Weather: Wind blowing contrary to current compresses the wave period and results in shorter period steeper seas. In stronger wind conditions, this can create uncomfortable, and possibly dangerous, sea states within the stream. So, don't set out to cross the stream in this area with any significant winds from the N-NE. Also, the stream is warmer than the surrounding water, this warms surface air which then rises, this can create localized rain and squalls along the axis of the stream -- more pronounced effect further north in colder waters.

Jennifer Clark is a professional gulf stream guru. Here web site is at Jenifer Clark's Gulfstream. Good info here including lots of links to other stream related sites.
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Old 12-09-2012, 09:53   #3
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

The Gulf Stream is a current that runs through the Florida Straights and then turns North along the Florida coast and then turns slightly to the East running along the East coast of the US. Temperature and wind can combine to increase or decrease the speed and location of this current.

Navigation across the Gulf Stream can be easy or hard depending on how well assumptions about the Gulf Stream's speed and location match the reality on the water. It is often assumed the speed is ~3kn but it can be much less. There are also eddies that sometimes form along the edge of the Gulf Stream that can have small effects as they are traversed.

As a general rule if you wait for the right window to cross from Florida to the Bahamas it is for the most part a non event, especially if you have a good GPS and understand basic navigation. It is also very common to find other boats of similar speed to yours waiting for a window and crossing with others is a good idea. There are several locations from Stuart, Florida South to the Keys where you can find boats gathering for a group crossing. This is a good idea especially if it is your first crossing.

Most of the problems folks have crossing are due to not waiting (or knowing they should) wait for a good weather window. I am not trying to ignore navigation, but it is hard to miss the Bahamas even if once you get there you have to sail a while to hit the location you were aiming for. Even a hand held GPS will get you close enough to where you want to go that you can find it by line of sight.

You can also get good information about where the best places to cross are in cruising guides. Another issue is where you want to land and where you are leaving from. West End is often the choice if you are leaving North of Ft. Lauderdale and Bimini from South of Ft. Lauderdale. Sometimes more experienced sailors will chose other landings in the Bahamas for various reasons, some of them very good.

Bottom line is get your boat to Lake Worth, anchor there and get on CH 16 and find someone who is heading to West End and go with them.
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Old 12-09-2012, 11:14   #4
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

More information about where you would like to leave from in FL and arrive in BAH would be helpful. In general, the further south you go, the more options you have for crossing because you can compensate for the effects of the stream, which will average 2.5 kt almost due N (all-year, coast-to-coast average). For instance, FLL to West End is doable a large proportion of the time, while Lake Worth to West End you are restricted to leaving ahead of a front (wind clocking CW). My boat lives in Miami but my primary jumping off point for Bimini is Angelfish Ck (N end of Key Largo), because it's far enough S that all I really have to worry about is the wind.

As I've said in response to a number of similar posts in the past, a lot also depends on your boat and crew. You have a lot more options with a big boat and a great crew than you do with a small boat and unskilled crew.

Of course, you can also motor across, MIA to BIM is ~49nm. Personally, I'd rather stay home.

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Old 12-09-2012, 11:51   #5
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

Just bought our first significant sailboat and made our first crossing a few months ago. I worried and plotted and fretted, and in the end it was a piece of cake.

Two bits of advice. First, watch the weather closely. When people tell you to pick a weather window, my advice would be to make sure that window is about two or three days wide. In other words, if the forecast is good for one day, that's not enough. I would want a calm day on the day before I crossed, too.

And really all you have to worry about is wind from the north, or severe storms. And even a wind from the north that is less than ten knots would be workable for a reasonable sized boat. But ideally, you want a window where the wind is clocking around from the east to the south to the SW, etc.

As far as the navigation, just figure you're going to be pushed sideways to the north at around 2 and a half knots. Take the distance you are travelling, divide by the boat speed you expect to average, and that is how long you'll be in the stream, roughly. I just picked a spot about 20 miles south of where I wanted to make landfall ( West End of GBI, the Old Bahama Bay marina) and picked that course from the beginning. We spotted that big water tank right on schedule.

You should read up on the navigation. Your boat actually goes through a big S turn kind of route as the effects of the stream affect your actual position. What you do NOT want is an autopilot that keeps adjusting your heading. You want a constant heading.
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Old 12-09-2012, 12:27   #6
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

wait for good weather. that can sometimes be the hardest part - we once sat in north lake (west palm beach) for two weeks with about forty other boats waiting for a break in the weather. this happens more frequently in the winter when north winds tend to predominate.

if you can possibly leave south of your destination you will get a nice boost from the gulf stream, otherwise you'll be fighting it. for instance, miami to bimini is a bit easier than fort lauderdale to bimini.

be sure to have a good working vhf - the coast guard can pick up your calls all the way across the stream.

if you don't already know it, brush up on your navigation skills. gps makes it easier but it's good to have basic nav skills so you can understand what the gps is telling you.

and, if you like beer, bring lots of it. it's darned expensive in the bahamas....
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Old 12-09-2012, 12:48   #7
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

Just a few more thoughts. Motoring across is common even for sailboats with small outboards. I know a guy who does it in a C24 and a 6hp outboard. There are also guys who have gone from Miami to Bimini on jet skis and in Hobie 16s. Of course small boats like these need a good weather window and most likely at least let others know they are going and if they are smart go with others.

A lot of the posts here have offered good tips, but so far my earlier post is the only one I have seen suggesting you try and go with a group. Even for an experienced sailor there is an additional safety margin in a group and for someone crossing the first time the reduction in worry is worth the effort.

There is no real agreement on the best place to leave from and arrive at. Leaving from points South is a double edge sword. It is usually an easier but longer trip and many folks dislike Ft. Lauderdale/Miami due to the crowds and high prices. Places North of Miami often have much lower prices, smaller or no crowds, and if you are coming from the Gulf closer access to the canal that cuts across Florida.

This is just my personal opinion based on a small sample but Lake Worth seems to have friendly folks who are nicer to wait around for the weather window with and form a group for crossing.

There is no right answer to this question, just personal choice.
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Old 12-09-2012, 12:58   #8
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

Just went across from Ft L to Freeport last Friday night. Winds were light from the SE, so the sea was very flat. We had about 95 miles to cover, so we opted to leave around 5pm so as to arrive in daylight the following morning. I think we had a rhumb line course of roughly 74 degrees for which we typically needed to steer ~105-110 degrees to make our COG match up (but frankly we paid little to no attention to our actual heading and simply adjusted the autopilot to maintain our proper COG as the current strength changed). Had to keep watch for some of the cruise ships and freighters in the area, but night time made it actually easier to spot these at a distance. Only odd thing was what we could only hypothesize as a long-line fishing set that was about 30 miles into the trip- lots of small floats spaced 300 yards apart each topped with a green light. Initially it looked like a small fleet of boats all heading the same direction as we couldn't see the floats and believed we were seeing a bow light.

http://passageweather.com/ has a good Gulf Stream forecast. Pretty much just avoid any significant winds with a northerly component and you should be fine.
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Old 12-09-2012, 13:12   #9
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

My most common landfall in the Bahamas is West End, Grand Bahama. Often I leave from Palm Beach/Lake Worth. If the winds are predicted be be blowing more than 15 knots out of the ESE through SSE, I may head down the ditch and leave from Fort Lauderdale instead.

The worse was leaving from Angelfish creek bound for Bimini when predicted 25 knots winds turned into 35. Close hauled sailing all night in a 26-footer was no fun. My last crossing to the Bahamas was during a prolonged period of northerly winds, the one day, the winds dropped to 8-10. A little lumpy in those conditions, but not too bad on a Hunter 30.

Personally, I prefer not to buddy boat as that means altering what I think is best for me - when to leave, my comfortable rate of travel, etc. I feel there's usually someone with in VHF range without the need buddy boat.

My first couple times, I did night crossings to have slightly less wind to insure a morning arrival. More recently I've opted for 4 am starts, so I can get some sleep, knowing I can anchor out if I were to arrive after dark.

Obviously what is comfortable for one crew or one boat, may not be comfortable for another.
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Old 12-09-2012, 14:22   #10
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

I don't see the thinking in waiting for a group to cross with. I'm asocial, don't like crowds, don't like radio chatter, and I tend to steer away from other sails. I go to the bathroom alone, too. Different strokes for different folks I guess.
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Old 12-09-2012, 16:11   #11
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

There is no right or wrong answer about looking for a group or making the passage alone.

The point I was trying to make is that for your first time going across the Gulf Stream being in a group might reduce the worry somewhat. Once you have made the crossing and feel more comfortable things change.

I can see both sides of the issue. Some groups are more attractive than others. I would always join a group composed of the Swedish Bikini Team but probably not a group composed of Iran's weight lifting team.

YMMV
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Old 12-09-2012, 16:35   #12
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

We can give you more informed information if you let us know what kind of boat you have. For example, a fast power boat can make it across in a couple of hours while trawlers and sails may take 8-14 hours in good weather. The most important factor is the weather. I would NEVER attempt a crossing if the wind has a north component. I'm not in favor of group crossings. I make my own decisions about my safety and do not follow the crowd.
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Old 12-09-2012, 16:44   #13
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Canibul
I don't see the thinking in waiting for a group to cross with. I'm asocial, don't like crowds, don't like radio chatter, and I tend to steer away from other sails. I go to the bathroom alone, too. Different strokes for different folks I guess.
I'm with you Canibal, that's one of the reasons I started sailing! Use your head and the crossing is enjoyable.....
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Old 12-09-2012, 18:13   #14
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

Quote:
Originally Posted by tomfl View Post
...
Most of the problems folks have crossing are due to not waiting (or knowing they should) wait for a good weather window....
Yes, and the wait can be significant sometimes. I spent over a month in the Keys once waiting for a window -- honking NE winds and cold fronts that Feb that would just not let up.

Of course, there are worse fates in life than hanging out in the Keys for a month...

And, someone else may have mentioned I think, but there is lots of commercial traffic in the Straights of Florida....a bit like playing in the highway.
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Old 12-09-2012, 18:41   #15
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Re: Gulf stream. Educate me

So this North wind issue, what type of wave action does it generate? Is it similar to Lake Erie in a storm? 4-8 in short chop? Worse? Obviously it's the ocean, so it could be really worse, but I'm trying to tie it to something this mid-west sailor can relate to. Thx.
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