From The Bahamas Back To The USA


We left the small harbor on the south end of Manjack Cay with the idea that we would go to Great Sale Cay and then on to West End to stage for our crossing back to the U.S. The anchor was up and we were underway at 7:00 am after the weather guru assured everyone that winds would be light but out of the west, the direction we needed to travel. As we crossed over to the shores of Great Abaco, it was apparent that the light westerlies were more in the 15-knot range, and given our boat speed of at least 7 knots, the apparent wind was 22 knots. We have a hard rule - no transits in wind speeds that are 20 or higher. In the distance, we counted over a dozen other boats that had left Green Turtle and were all heading off to Great Sale. By the time we were underway for less than an hour, we knew this wasn't going to be a day we wanted to travel. But the forecast from the weather guru also said the winds would begin dropping about midday and become light and variable.


The decision was made to drop the anchor off Cooperstown to wait and see if the winds did in fact lay down. This is an open roadstead with very little protection from wind and chop, but is wasn't too bad. We were anchored very close in to shore and near a rock ledge just under water. After about 2 hours it was becoming obvious that things were not settling down but after all, the weather guru said it would. So being the optimists we are, up came the anchor and we decided to press on because, after all, the winds would start to die down and it would be light and variable. By the time we reached the northeast tip of Great Abaco, it was very obvious that not only were they not settling down, but building. How could that be, the weather guru said....


This is the point where we ask if we're having fun yet and if the answer is no, we turn around. That's exactly what we did and we spent the next hour and a half cruising back to Manjack Cay very comfortably in the following winds and seas. This time we would anchor in the wide area between Manjack Cay and Crab Cay. We had sat out a pretty good blow in our sailboat Sea Trek several years ago, in this very same anchorage. There were already about 5 or 6 other boats at anchor when we arrived, including 2 we had met earlier. In westerly winds, the protection isn't great unless the boat can get way into the cove near a beach and a few houses. On our first attempt to get the anchor set it dragged, so we had to move back into a bit more exposed water. It was still okay so we spent a very quiet night with only a small surge working its way in.


The next morning the winds shifted to the southeast and it was time to go. This would be our last anchorage in the Bahamas that was not just a spot to stop for the night as we moved closer to staging for our crossing of the Gulf Stream and a return to the U.S. Those kind of moments bring up a lot of mixed emotions. There is the sadness in leaving the Bahamas after such a wonderful cruise, the anxiety of making a long open water passage in the Gulf Stream, which can be exciting under light conditions, and looking forward to returning to the United States and having good cell phone service, fast internet again and large, fully-stocked grocery stores. We were also looking forward to getting up the east coast to the Chesapeake and spending time with family and friends. The crossing of the Little Bahama Bank to Great Sale went smoothly this time. As we rounded the western end of Great Abaco, the winds and seas switched on us and once again came from the west and southwest. This time they were much lighter so we pressed on to our anchorage at Great Sale, about 20 miles away.


With west winds, we took a route off the normal course across the Banks which kept us much closer to Little Abaco. It would also bring us to the southern end of Great Sale rather than the more traveled route around the north end and into the small harbor on the west side. Beach House would anchor on the west side of the Cay as close in as our draft would allow to give us wind protection. The western side offers about 2-3 miles of anchoring possibilities, so there would be no problems with crowding if many other boats arrived to make the crossing the same day. As things turned out, there were a few boats anchored as we arrived and a few more came later. We anchored about halfway up the shoreline far away from everyone else. The anchorage was perfectly smooth and the night passed very peacefully.


The next morning we would have 40 miles to cover to West End, Grand Bahama. This would be our jump off point to head back to Florida. The weather forecast from all of our sources, including the weather guru, was for light winds out of the southeast and seas of 2 feet or less. The weather guru even forecast the possibility of flat seas. Keep this in mind as our story progresses. It all sounded like the makings for a perfect crossing. Once we arrived near West End, we would have to go through a very shallow, unmarked channel past Barracuda Shoals. The end of the channel passes into the Atlantic between a small rocky island and a reef that is submerged even at low tide. This isn't a passage you want to make in poor light or less than ideal conditions. But we do have some ideas on how to make this passage a bit easier at sunrise when the visibility isn't very good and the sea conditions might be questionable.



At about 3:30 in the afternoon, we arrived at Indian Cay and the passage through the reef near West End. In these good conditions, we continued through the channel and out into the deeper waters of the Atlantic, well clear of the reef. This left a track or "bread crumbs" on our chartplotter that we can easily follow, in almost any conditions, to get out. We then turned around and headed back in the channel to the spot where we planned to anchor. It is an area called Goodwill Channel which is nothing more than a deeper channel in a large shallow bank. To the east there is nothing but open water and the Little Bahama Bank, and to the west, other than the rock called Indian Cay, there is the open Atlantic to the coast of Florida. Shortly after the anchor was set, we were entertained by a very large thunderstorm building over the Banks to the east of our location.


Fortunately, the thunderstorm was stationary and rained itself out in a short time. We turned in for the night with calm winds and flat seas. Given our location, we were thankful and turned in early since we planned to leave at first light. We didn't need the sun high for visibility since we had our outbound track on the plotter already. Sometime around 3:00 am, the winds changed direction and picked up. It's always obvious in Beach House since we can hear the wavelets slapping the hull at the bow. This was kind of a surprise, but more surprises were in store.


The next morning didn't break sunny or windless. Checking the weather radar, we found we had large storms to the south of us, east of us and north of us. Crossing the Gulf Stream in thunderstorms is not something we will ever do on purpose. At this point we had two choices. Make the crossing and hope for the best, or head into the very expensive, $3.00 per foot per day plus electric and water marina, and wait, which could be another week. For about 2 hours we watched the movement, or lack there of, and the strengthening of the storms. They appeared to be stationary and there was nothing directly between us and the Florida coast. There were also signs of weakening, so we made the decision to go for it. The winds had been holding steady at about 8 to 10 knots and there was some chop on the open water. We followed our track out into the deeper water and pointed the boat toward Lake Worth Inlet. Very quickly it was obvious that this course was going to be very, very uncomfortable for the next 7 to 8 hours as the 3- to 4-foot swells, that were supposed to be almost nonexistent, rolled us from side to side. Once again decisions - turn back or reconsider our course.


There was no way we were going to deal with the motion of the boat for hours, but a slight course adjustment would put the swells more on our stern quarter, and although not ideal, much more acceptable. Lake Worth Inlet was out of the question on the new course so plans changed to cross to St. Lucie Inlet at Stuart. The distance increased another 12 miles and the time in the Gulf Stream would be another 1-2 hours. Comfort won out over time and distance. At about midday, the Coast Guard began making announcements for severe weather forecasts along the Florida coast from Sebastian Inlet to Ocean Reef near Key Largo. By this time we were committed and there was no place to go except to push on and hope for the best. The winds continued to build during the day and the cross swells coming from the southeast and the south made for another day of rolling and the occasional slalom were not our idea of a good crossing. It rated up there with our worst crossing which was between Spanish Wells and Little Harbor. This went on for the next 8 hours and the winds continued to build.


As we approached the outer buoy at St. Lucie Inlet, the tide was falling and running out against seas which were building due to a severe thunderstorm just inland. The threat of these thunderstorms had been in the back of our minds all day, and now we were facing a very large one directly in front of us. Sportfishing boats were running full speed into the inlet with no regard for other vessels, making the entrance even more precarious. We held our breaths and drove Beach House between the jetties and fought to maintain control as the boat was tossed in all directions from the large waves being pushed into the inlet. Eventually we crossed into calmer waters and breathed a sigh of relief. Manatee Pocket's protected water was a welcome sight, and with storms looming all around, we headed for the first marina we could find and securely tied up to a dock. Anchoring overnight surrounded by thunderstorms was not our idea of fun on our first night back and after a somewhat stressful crossing. So we are safely tucked back in to the ICW in Florida and will begin the trek north very soon.

4 comments:

  1. Hey Chuck, it's Randy Hondros from Atlantic Beach NC aboard the 32' Grand Banks LOON. Went to Abacos last Feb via Lake Worth and West End and had a great time for 3 months over there. would like to visit Berrys, Exumas, Eleuthera next Jan leaving from Miami area and heading back to FL in late May via West End. Would like your advice, comments, etc. is this trip safe and doable on a GB 32?

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    1. No problem at all Randy. Just pick your weather doing the open water passages. In January the fronts are in full swing so be patient and wait.We have been held up for two weeks waiting for a window. be prepared. But most of all, have fun.

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  2. Know exactly what you mean. We waited in Lake Worth for 3 weeks for a perfect weather window. Beautiful trip over and back. What is the best departure point for going to Berrys first and what's the first place to clear customs?

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    1. Randy, We posted our last route for that trip here on the blog so you can find all of the details. There are a couple of options, but we prefer to cross from Key Biscayne to Bimini and clear in there. Then check or wait for weather to cross from north of Bimini to Great Harbor, Berry's. It's a long trip, 90 miles I believe, but can be done after dark if need be. We go to Great Harbor, Berry's and if you arrive after dark, just find a place close to the cay and drop the hook. Lots to do and see around the Berry's. We then head south for Nassau or Rose Island. From there you can work your way down the Exuma chain. Then come north to Wardrick Wells and cross over to Eleuthera.

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