Monday, June 11, 2012

Northwest Passage to Bimini

 Alright, this one might not be for the faint of hearts (the Moms). You ladies might be happier just knowing that we made it safely to Bimini.  You’ve been warned!

Our usual regime when we’re getting ready to move, is to listen to Chris Parker. We can usually (though often times not well enough) hear him through our SSB receiver (single sideband radio). He broadcasts meteorological reports for cruisers.  We woke up at the usual time, 6:30am, to listen in. Parker said it would be mild and clear, no real chance of storm activity. He even specified, “Anyone heading from the Berry’s to Bimini today would have a good crossing”.

When we’re able to get internet, we also check weather ourselves from multiple sources. We prefer,, and sometimes a miscellaneous fourth reference depending location and circumstance. All the sites we looked at said we were in for good conditions for several days. Great day to cross.

Our plan was to leave in midday, sail the long and barren bank for approx. 20 hours straight through the night and reach Bimini sometime in the morning when we could easily dock up.

So, we left the Berry’s at 11am. We saw our first big front dead ahead of where we were going just as we got into the shallow water of the Grand Bahama Bank. With baited breath, we watched it inch north, just out of our rhumbline (our direct path). Right as we passed it, I said, “God, that looks terrible, I’m so glad we didn’t get caught in that!” No more than a minute past, the sky right on top of us started to darken. Terribly. Then we saw the first signs of a front hitting us.

When you’re about to be smacked with a big storm, there are a few telltale signs that give you a couple minutes to prepare. Naturally, the clouds are the first. However, often times you can’t tell which direction the storm is moving. Is it headed toward you, away from you, with you? The most abrasive way to tell that it’s heading towards you is a sudden drop of all winds. The flags will stop flapping, and the winds will cease altogether. You’ll get maybe a few minutes of these conditions, then you’ll see the water around you start to ripple. After that, you have maybe a minute tops, until you’re blasted with wind. Sometimes, it’s not such a terrible gust. Other times, it heels your boat over enough for the lifelines to touch the water.

This particular front hit us with 30-35 knot winds, instantly. Poured on us. Our saving grace was that we had pushed through underneath most of it before the cell had completely collapsed on itself. We skirted out of it in 15 minutes, to watch the world disappear in the dark rain and clouds behind us.

We figured this would be an isolated event. Forecast called for good conditions. We pushed along carefree in the beautiful Bahamas sun, for a few hours. Just as it began to set, we saw our second front, once again dead ahead of us. We were at the stage of trying to figure out which direction it might be headed, when we heard the U.S. Coast Guard send out an alert over VHF warning of severe weather. We were far enough from Miami, where it’s broadcasted, that we couldn’t really get the whole message. We thought we heard it was pushing north, but we couldn’t make out much more.

We fretted for an hour over the darkness in front of us, hoping this wasn’t part of the severe weather warning, and if so, hoping it would push north soon.  This was about 8pm. We were sailing toward a front, maybe a severe one, and the sun was nearly down. We had no way of knowing which direction it was heading. It was almost like walking blind on a trail through a canyon.

Sailing at night is often more comfortable. There are fewer distractions. You just sail. Watch for lights, and follow the GPS. It takes a lot of the other ‘stressers’ out of day to day sailing. You’re still in the same conditions, but somehow, it feels more peaceful. Tonight, was not one of those nights.

To clarify, determining which direction these fronts move rarely means that we’ll be able to avoid it. Sailboats are slow, usually much slower than storms. If you’re lucky, you can skirt out of a storms’ way, if you’re in the right place with the right speed. Usually, it’s just a way of preparing for a fight.

We heard another Coast Guard hail on the VHF. We were able to hear more this time (which may have been a bad thing). Severe storm alert. Winds up to 60mph. Hail ¼” thick. Dangerous lightning. Seriously bad news for a 27’ boat.

Way off in the distance, probably Cuba, we began to make out some electrical activity. We’ve seen storms hunker over Cuba while we were in the Keys that have been scary strong. We watched this one, it must have stretched for miles, light up like a bomb. The entire cell was exploding with energy. Multiple ground strikes simultaneously, spider-webbed lighting, the thunderheads erupting with fractured light. I grew up in the desert southwest, where monsoons are a normal occasion. I’ve seen some really impressive ones, but I have never seen a storm like this in all my life. I didn’t’ know one cell could produce so much electricity. It was utterly humbling. I doubt many people have seen what we watched last night, if we hadn’t been sailing next to it in a small boat, it probably would have been the most beautiful things I’d ever seen. Instead, it was one of the most dreadfully awesome. It was still far enough in the distance that we weren’t overly worried, but we watched it with awe and woe. Dave would try counting ‘one-one thousand’ and he couldn’t do it without seeing multiple lighting strikes across the entire front.

A couple hours passed, and we were starting to feel confident that we weren’t going to get hit. I closed my eyes for half an hour, then it was Dave’s turn. While he lay sleeping, I noticed some lightning off our port side.  Close. Too close. And big. All I could think of was that damned weather warning. I sat there, watching it get closer. I felt my body begin to tremble with fear, with the anticipation of such a threat. It was probably the worse I’ve ever felt in my life.

Then Dave wakes up. He asks me how things are, and I point the storm out, and tell him it’s coming our way. We both instantly knew to prep for severe weather. Dave began to get the storm anchor ready and started to jot down our GPS location every 15 minutes in case we needed to hail for assistance. I began to get our ditch-kit set up incase of the worse, and hailed for a radio check to see if anyone was in distance, and disturbingly, heard nothing.

Most storms, you just ride them out. You get wet, you get scared, you get the hell beat out of you, but a boat can handle a lot. 60 mph winds, with large hail and endless lightning strikes means there is a good probability that you could loose all of your electronic devices due to a lightning strike on the mast. It will fry everything in the boat that is hardwired. We won’t have a GPS chart plotter, VHF radio, lights, nothing. The lightning also means that it’s not safe for us in the cockpit as there is too great of a risk of strike to the helmsman. So we’d have to throw the anchor and sit inside, hoping for the best. 60mph winds mean that we can’t overpower it.  It means high waves and chop.  It means we’ll probably be dragged on anchor, whatever direction the storm is moving, just hoping to doesn’t push you onto rocks. Shy of a hurricane, it’s truly the worst conditions you could ask for in such a small craft as ours.  Thankfully we were in a location where if we had to drop anchor, we could.

Prepping, I felt better. I felt more focused and in tune with my rational thoughts. The waiting, the anxiety of potential impending doom, was wreaking havoc on my nerves.  It felt like being shut into a small room, in utter darkness, waiting for a dangerous blow to your body. Not knowing where, or when, or how bad. I was holding on by a thread. Dave was doing a great job of calming me down as he has been in stressful situations (or ‘sporty’ as he likes to call them) before.

At this point, there was lighting to the south of us, behind us, in front of us. We were in a little pocket of calm weather with stars above us, moving along over a large body of water, in our little boat. Waiting for the blow while all hell was breaking loose around us.

This is an image from NOAA of part of the system we went through, as it crossed over Florida towards us. 

Nothing came.

It’s 2:30am, and we’re drained. The constant anxiety and alertness for 15 hours is catching up to us. We’re ready for it, if it hits us, but the endless ‘what if’ from any which direction was torture.

We were finally getting closer to land. We found an anchorage south of our original destination that was much closer. We watched the lightning in front of us build in strength, and seem to loom over us. We figured it was better to get some kind of block from the direction of wind, than drop anchor in the middle of an open bank. Granted, land can be your worst enemy in a storm, but it looked like the one most likely to hit us might be partially blocked from the shore. We wouldn’t, hopefully, be on the leeward shore (the side the wind is blowing into, pushing you to shore).

We slowly made our way closer in, waiting for any instant where the wind was going to pick up and we were going to lose the race.

Compliments of The U.S. National Weather Service.

Finally, at 4am we dropped anchor. Not a great place to anchor, but it offered some kind of reduction of wind and waves. Going straight into Bimini was too much of a risk, too many coral heads and breakers, and definitely too much time to expose our little boat to the havoc. We’d certainly wreck if a storm hit us there. All we could do was wait and hope. So we went to sleep watching the boat light up from the outside in, without any more worry, because there was nothing more we could do.

We woke up at 7am, unscathed. Strung out. Tired. Fried. We pulled up anchor to finish the few remaining hours to Bimini. Over the VHF, we heard the Coast Guard announce two sunken vessels in the channel that we had passed through the day before and alerted boaters to keep a sharp eye for anyone in distress.  I think we may have dodged a bullet.  I don’t even like to think that could have been us, if we hadn’t been so damned lucky.

NOAA radar image. The white areas are concentrations of moisture.

I’m not looking forward to our Gulf Stream crossing to say the least. We had the fortune of being in shallow water last night, which will prevent too much sea building up on you. The waves will max out in height, half the depth. So, us sailing in 20 feet of water meant waves no higher than 10 feet between peak and trough. Still, not a good size, but at least they’re not 40 feet or more. In the Gulf Stream, getting caught in something like that, would be nightmarish. We’ve had faith in our multiple weather forecasts, until now. Big crossings weren’t any issue, because we felt that if we left in the right conditions, it’d be a breeze. Last night wasn’t in any forecast, it seems to develop from nowhere. It’s weather. It’s unpredictable and it’s powerful. This has been an abrasive reminder of this fact. 


  1. Holy crap! I just want to hug you guys right now! So glad you made it across safely (if a little damply). Get some rest, and calm your nerves before you cross the stream. Unfortunately, all you can do is go when the forecast is excellent, and hope it's the best.

    Good luck! We'll be thinking about you.

  2. Thanks, guys! We're looking forward to getting off the boat for a bit, to say the least. :-)

    Hope all is well with you two!