Florida to Bahamas – 3rd time
It was a great feeling to release the lines at Marathon and make our way out the channel just after 3pm on Saturday afternoon. We had cleared out with US Customs and Border Patrol the previous day, giving us 48 hours to be out of US waters. My 6 month US visa was due to expire the following week, which aligned with the end of our month at the marina, and amazingly a decent weather window.
The ocean was flat with little wind as we made our course through the reef and out into the ocean. This continued for the first few hours as we watched a great sunset behind us while we cruised east. I had the first night watch, from 7pm just after sunset through till 11pm. Conditions were still good, there was no moon so lots of stars, with the glow from Miami away to the northwest.
At night we run our two radars, one at a long range – I set it for 16 miles as we were passing through heavy shipping areas that night. The second one I like to set at 3 miles, with 1 mile increments in the hope that it is more likely to pick up smaller vessels and markers close in, that might be missed by the larger radar on a longer range. The large radar links to our navigation system and our Automatic Identification System, so that on my navigation computer chart I can see vessels in relation to my position. I can also click on any vessel and get their name, length, speed, course, closest point of approach (CPA), and in some cases their destination. But not all vessels are equipped with AIS, and some smaller boats are missed by radar, and some boats run with no lights at night, so despite all the tools and information that Southern Star has, I still go outside at night to scan the waters, in case there is something in front or close by that my electronics can’t see.
Sometimes during a four watch, in fact quite often, I will see nothing on my radar screen, no lights on the water, and it feels like we are the only boat in the ocean. Or there will be a large freighter or fishing boat a long way off, showing on radar but which I never see. Four hours passes slowly on nights like that.
But on this night, I was surrounded by boats, or rather ships. At one point I had six large vessels within 8 miles of me. This might sound manageable, but when it is night, and they are large and moving at up to four times the speed we are, we have to be alert and ready to react. There were tankers and freighters heading to Miami, Ft Lauderdale, Jacksonville and West Palm. These can be huge – 300 feet plus, and moving surprisingly fast, with multiple lights so they often look like two or three boats. Cruise ships running overnight to exotic locations – Key West, Cozumel, Grand Cayman in the south, and Nassau, Norfolk and Boston in the north. Those ones are riding the Gulf Stream, as are we, getting that extra 3 knots of push for part of our 200 mile passage which will take us south of Bimini and across the Bahama Banks to Chub Cay at the southern point of the Berry Islands where we planned to clear into the Bahamas.
The cruise ships are unmistakeable at night –glowing when far away, lit up on all levels. And we have learned that they often don’t travel long distances at night, but stay at sea to avoid paying overnight charges, choosing to arrive at their next port of call at sunrise, and departing late afternoon. So while some of them might pass by at 16 knots on their way to Boston, I had others who were not travelling much faster than us, tracking in broadly the same direction. This is when knowing their destination is very useful, as it gives a clue as to why they might appear to be turning circles in the ocean or running very much slower than you might expect. I saw the Disney cruise ship pass on its way south – with the recognizable mouse ears illuminated. I cannot imagine anything worse, but I’m sure it is probably booked out every journey.
So my four hour watch passed quickly with so much going on – I had to alter course sometimes to stay at least a mile from large ships. Usually we like at least two miles between us and anything large, but the area was just too crowded to do that. I had to make one call to a freighter who was approaching very fast from behind, just to make sure he had seen me, and I agreed to maintain my course and speed as he glided by on my starboard side, just over a mile away.
I handed off to Ted at 11pm with conditions still comfortable, and went down to the master cabin to try to sleep. But soon after that, we started to really get into the strongest part of the Gulf Stream, and the south east wind also picked up much stronger than had been predicted. Although it is a southerly wind that really creates havoc in the Gulf Stream, this particular direction got pretty uncomfortable as the night wore on and made sleep impossible. At one point Ted hit 10.5 knots of speed which is flying for us, but made the ride even worse, and he pulled back to around 8.5 knots to try to get a better motion.
My next watch started at 3am, and Ted tried to rest but we were still bouncing around which while not unsafe or concerning, makes for a noisy and tiring passage. I had timed our departure from Marathon to put us close to the Bahama Banks just after sunrise, as we would otherwise need to slow and wait for daylight to cross into the shallower water. As it turned out, our timing was good, and the sun rose about an hour before we crossed from 700 metres depth, to 40 metres, to 8 meters to 4 meters as we passed just south of Riding Rocks. This also coincided with conditions calming significantly as we had exited the Gulf Stream, and we had a surprisingly comfortable daytime run across the Banks, in a steady depth of 4 meters.
We try to spend as little time and money as possible in marinas while in the Bahamas, but on the recommendation of our good friends on Roam, we had booked a night at Chub Cay Marina and Resort to recover after the passage, and to clear into the Bahamas. There was a bit of wind as we made our approach, and when the channel widened we found ourselves in a large basin obviously designed for superyachts to manouvre. We had followed a Nordhavn 63 in, and had to stand off while they docked. With the wind pushing us, and not great directions as to where to go, we had some stressful moments as we nudged in beside a large sportfish boat. As usual though, Ted controlled Southern Star beautifully, and once we got a bow line to the dockmaster, I was able to step off with spring and stern lines and get us secured.
We walked along the lines of huge sportfish boats and through gorgeous manicured grounds up to the clubhouse and learned that our 5.30pm arrival meant we wouldn’t be going to Customs till the next morning. The Clubhouse felt like a five star hotel with a huge bar, classy restaurant and large staircase leading presumably to beautiful accommodations.
But we were exhausted, and after stopping briefly to meet N63 Northern Sky, we had drinks and burritos on board, and collapsed into bed around 8pm.
The next morning we were taken by golf cart to the small airport where our passports were stamped and we got our cruising licence to allow us and our boat to be in the Bahamas for the next few months. We then treated ourselves to a wonderful breakfast back at the hotel restaurant, overlooking the infinity pool and pool bar. Sadly we were not going to be there long enough to enjoy it.
We took advantage of good water pressure to wash Southern Star, topped up the water tanks, paid the $300 bill (dockage, power and water- ouch) and left the marina just before mid day for the 30 mile run across to West Bay at the southern end of New Providence. With the Bahamas cruising permit we also get a licence to fish and Ted hung out some lures behind us. Chub Cay is situated at a great sport fishing location and we were hopeful we might catch something but that wasn’t the day.
The trip from Chub to West Bay went easily. Unfortunately despite steaming along the deep ‘Tongue of the Ocean’, it did not yield any fish.
We settled in our first anchorage in the Bahamas, took a quick swim in the ocean off the back of the boat, rinsed and watched the sunset. It is really nice to be back in the Bahamas.
The next morning we were up early as we had a full day ahead of us across the banks to Long Cay, just south of Highbourne Cay to meet up with Roam. This run takes us into deep water again for about 15 miles, before we cross over to the banks again, and over to the beginning of the Exuma Cays. We planned to fish in the deep water as long as possible, as once on the banks, the only thing we catch are barracuda.
We trolled alongside the drop off, meander along it, and then pulling away into deeper water. Nothing seemed interested. This is fishing. Lots of time just running along, looking for any hints of fish life; birds circling, bait fish, weed lines. There was nothing for the first couple of hours of trolling. We changed course toward a corner of the wall, closed in to the waypoint, just prior to leaving the deep water and climbing up on the banks.
Jenny said , “this should be it.”
30 seconds later the starboard side reel begins to scream, as the line peels off against the drag. I run over to the starboard side rod holder, located on the portuguese deck, remove the rod from the holder and walk aft to the cockpit.
The line continues to scream off the reel. I tighten the drag slowly to arrest the run. I finally stop the run, I pull hard on the rod to make sure the hook is set. Jenny has now slowed the boat to just keep it going in a straight line, and she finds my fighting belt in the cockpit locker. She slips it around my waist and snaps the fastener, to hold it in place on my waist. The rod butt goes into the pocket, and now I can work the fishing rod with full leverage, without having to worry about keeping it planted.
The fish is strong, he stays deep. I haul on the rod hard, and wind the reel on the down cycle to gain my line back. I pull and dip the rod tip, winding frantically to get more line back on the reel.
The fish makes a couple of runs again, peeling off the line that I have labored to gain. Finally, I start to gain on him. Thinking he is a Mahi, I keep expecting to see him leap, to try to shake the hook. But he stays deep. I now think he is a Tuna, as they often run deep and never come up.
I keep on pumping the rod, and reeling the line, until he is behind the boat. Luckily the sea is pretty calm, and we are not getting tossed around too much.
Finally, I see him under the transom. He is deep blue color, I can see vertical stripes on his body, he has a bit of a peak and lots of teeth. NO. NOT A BARACUDDA. I think to myself.
Jenny gets the big net out, two tries and he is not going to fit the net. He must be 5 feet long.
“The gaff, get the gaff,” I yell at Jenny. She grabs it out of its mount and asks me what to do with it.
“Strike up with it near his head,” I direct.
And she does, one quick pull and she has the big fish gaffed and pulling it toward the swim platform. I let our some line and put the rod into a rod holder, and take the gaff from her. I haul the fish into the cockpit. He is a beautiful, big, Wahoo; A big mouth full of sharp teeth, and a big thick body.
I quickly dispatch the fish, and start to filet him into smaller pieces, so that we can get him into the fridge.
We start along the banks to complete our trip to Long Cay, Jenny is piloting , as I spend the next hour or so cleaning the fish, and the cockpit.
The fish filled the freezer space, and we got over 20 meals out of him. I am guessing he was 60 pounds.
That evening we caught up with ‘Roam’ and ‘Work Not’ in Long Cay, and we brought some fish fingers for happy hour.