Sailing Trip #1: Marathon, Florida Keys to Bimini, The Bahamas
Nautical Miles: 130 NM (didn't follow the initial route)
Departure: Sunday 25th February - 11:00
Arrival: Monday 26th February - 16:00
After spending most of the morning making final preparations and fixing a last-minute wiring problem with the Garmin chart plotter, we finally let go the lines from the mooring ball and made our way out of the harbor. Winds were about 15 knots from the ESE with 3 to 4-foot waves at short enough periods to be choppy as we exited the channel toward Sombrero lighthouse.
I was at the helm while Kach was at the bow signaling the positions of the crab pots which litter the area and can easily get caught up the propeller. For this reason as well as the wind direction we decided to motor out past Sombrero reef until we reached deeper water.
While our destination was Bimini to the northeast we had planned to head ESE for about 12 miles until we found the position of the Gulf Stream, then turn northeast until sail. The extra 3 to 4 knots of speed afforded us by the current would easily make up for the time spent motoring in the ‘wrong direction.’
Unfortunately, due to departing at low tide our progress was considerably slowed by the rising tide and waves on the nose that came with it. On this course and with the engine running at its most comfortable 2000rpm we were only making around 3 knots, so as soon as we passed Sombrero lighthouse we decided to turn head ENE, giving us a more comfortable approach angle and what felt like more progress in the ‘right direction.’ In hindsight, we had already made two mistakes - 1. Departing against a rising tide; 2. Deviating from our course to find a smoother ride.
Now on our new heading of ENE we raised the mainsail and working jib, having difficulty pointing into the wind which felt a little more easterly than east-northeast. Still, we continued like this for several hours until a couple of hours before sunset, by which time we had still seen no increase in speed to indicate that we had found the Gulf Stream. That’s because we were nowhere near it and making our turn to the NE so early simply resulted in us cruising up the coastline somewhere along the outside of Hawk Channel which has its own fairly slow north to south current, against the ESE winds and giving us a pretty rough ride as a result. Noticing that we were still a way to the far west I pulled down the jib and sheeted the main tight while we motored further east, which is where I made mistake number three - 3. Ignoring the badly flogging mainsail for long enough for a tear to develop in the leach which worsened into a messy horizontal slice through the many layers of material right below the third reefing point.
By the time I put us back on the wind again and looked up around the hard top to check the sail shape I had also caused a vertical tear about 6 inches long in the panel above the second reef point. The mainsail came down shortly ahead of the sun and we continued motoring northeast.
Far from the decreasing winds which had been forecast for that night they actually seemed to pick up and we were being slapped by waves which seemed to be coming from both sides. Empress was rolling heavily and the interior contents of the boat which we thought were well-secured were all over the floor. It was while I was at the helm and Kach was lying on the cockpit floor that we got a call from a friend, “Where are you? You should be way out of cell phone reception by now!” It was our friend Captain Mike calling because he and Vicky had seen Kach posting about our departure on Facebook just a few minutes before. After a quick conversation about our approximate position and how we had arrived there, he confirmed that we should be way further offshore by now and that the confused seas we were experiencing were probably due to being in between the opposing currents of the Gulf Stream and Hawk Channel. He also confirmed to us that we wouldn’t be near the Gulf Stream until we had passed the 600+ feet depth contour. We were still in around 350 to 400 feet of water and a good one to two hours west of the approximate position of the Gulf Stream. We said thanks, agreed to call as soon as we arrived in the Bahamas and changed our heading straight east to get into deeper water and ultimately into the Gulf Stream.
The rough ride continued and the height of the waves increased to 4 to 6 feet, sending the fridge (bolted to a fixed shelf) onto the floor. It had taken the shelf with it. Kach took the helm while I went below and picked it up, wedging it and the shelf in place as tightly as I could. It was right then that I noticed my feet felt cold, probably because they were wet. My first thought was that the fridge has spilled some water, but I don’t like to assume things so I licked my hand - salty. I flicked on the cabin light switch to find that the whole floor was wet, but I hadn’t noticed as most of it was covered in our personal belongings.
This was a big “OH SHIT” moment for me, possibly the biggest I’ve experienced and I even briefly considered finding a route back to land. That would have been a big mistake though and much more dangerous than finding the problem and fixing it. Kach also had the strange advantage of not knowing enough about the technical stuff for it to worry her, so she also dismissed the idea straight off! I quickly reminded myself that I had, with lots of help from Don, personally changed every through-hull fitting and valve on the boat, fibreglassed in three unnecessary ones, had the cutlass bearing and rudder post inspected and repacked the stuffing box - If there was a leak somewhere, it had to be a manageable one. Pulling the companionway steps aside and opening the panel to the bilge I pointed the flashlight down there to find nothing, it was empty and the bilge pump was silent. So why was the floor covered in salt water? I pulled open the next panel which covers the stuffing box and got sprayed in the face by a fountain of cold sea water. The packing nut was totally loose and spinning away quite happily on the prop shaft!
Here was mistake number 4: When I had loosened the nut slightly by hand, as per usual to allow it to slow drip, I must not have tightened the backing nut enough or at all. I grabbed the nut on the spinning shaft and screwed it tightly back on where it belonged, holding it until I felt it heat up then backing it off a touch until it cooled before properly tightening the backing nut behind it. With the floor panels up I also noted that the engine drip tray had several inches of brown water sloshing around, but with the water temp gauge and the FLIR camera on my phone both reading well within tolerance I decided to leave well enough alone for the time being! As I put the floor back together Diesel Dons’ concerned advice a few weeks earlier repeated in my head, “You gotta run that motor for a good ten hours straight to shake it down properly before you leave, or you’re gonna have problems out there!” I knew he was right at the time, but I had a lot of other projects to finish and I’m stubborn enough that I can justify most decisions to myself if I really want to. “Just a little water leak, I’ll find it when we arrive,” I told myself!
So with that, I returned to the helm while Kach laid a blanket and pillows out on the cockpit floor. We were still heading east in search of the Gulf Stream and approaching the 600 feet depth contour on the chart plotter.
What I haven’t mentioned yet is that our four-month-old cat, Captain Ahab, had also been finding the journey so far less than comfortable and was hiding in his favorite hole under the v-berth, which is full of blankets and cushions just for him. The problem was I didn’t want him to come out of there only to be hit by anything that was on the floor, so I went back inside to bring him out and tether him in the cockpit with us.
He wasn’t exactly keen on the idea but once out in the fresh air and in his bed on the floor he settled down and went to sleep. The cockpit is a much more comfortable place to be than the v-berth while underway in rolling seas!
With that series of minor screw-ups out of the way, we settled into the flow of the journey, confident that once we hit the Gulf Stream we would see ourselves tracking north over east, then turn northeast to ride the current all the way up to Bimini. Kach was actually enjoying being on the helm and had gotten to grips with the constant minor adjustments needed to keep the autopilot on course, so she suggested I get a couple of hours sleep on the floor and she would wake me once she notices any change in our course over ground. I had been awake since 5 am and was feeling it so I agreed.
I woke up more than four hours later to find her still at the helm, our bow pointed northeast and GPS speed showing over 7.5 knots at only 1800rpm. She had figured out for herself when we had hit the stream, pointed us in the right direction and decided not to wake me up, amazing! The engine was also still holding temperature and oil pressure perfectly. At about 2am I took over so she could rest and I stayed there until sunrise.
As the sun rose the seas calmed and at about 8am have we raised the jib and shut off the engine so we could actually enjoy sailing in the Gulf Stream without the constant noise of the diesel. The rest of the day was fairly uneventful all the way to just outside Bimini, at which point we had the engine running for the last few miles to the channel entrance. About 2 miles from the channel, the engine suddenly revved up slightly of its own accord, a sign of either running out of fuel or an airlock. I quickly put it in idle and shut it down. Here’s where we come to our (or rather my) fifth and final mistake of the journey: 5. Never trust your fuel gauge! It was reading just over half full which made sense at nearly 30 hours of run time at 0.5 to 0.75 gallons per hour. I don't like to fill the tank over three quarters to keep the level below the tank filler neck, minimizing the chance of seepage around the hose. But the gauge was lying and had obviously been lying for quite a while, or the engine had consumed far more than it should have, or both. Either way, we had 20 extra gallons in jerry cans on deck, more than enough for the whole journey, so I poured two of them in and she fired right back up again without having to bleed the system. We were very lucky that happened 2 miles out and not in the entrance channel close to shore!
There was no more drama after that and we made our way into a slip at Bimini Bluewater Marina, which at only $1 a foot ($37/night + tax for us)was the perfect place for us to put the boat back together, put ourselves back together and learn from the mistakes we’d made in our first substantial sea trial since buying Empress over 8 months earlier - riding and crossing the Gulf Stream. It might not have been particularly graceful, but we had made it!