We started watching for a weather window to cross the Gulf Stream a couple of weeks ago. Our crossing to the Bahamas was perfect; we wanted our return trip to be just as gentle. But the weather was anything but settled—big bands of squalls were spinning off the coast of Florida each afternoon, intensifying over the Gulf Stream. Not good. And conditions were going to deteriorate over the next week.
Then suddenly we saw an opening: a 48-hour period without squalls and with gentle winds from the south. Maybe a bit too gentle. We knew we’d have to motor all the way across but if we didn’t leave then, we’d be pinned down in the Bahamas for who knows how long. So we decided to make a run for it.
Now Monark is a slow boat at the best of times—6 knots is about our top speed; under motor, we’re lucky if we can hold 4—but we couldn’t get it above 3 knots as we motorsailed west through the Northeast Providence Channel. Turns out that a current runs through the channel, which we never really noticed before. Clearly it was against us. But by late afternoon it had reversed and we were making a steady 4 to 5 knots.
The night sail was incredibly beautiful. The moon was almost full but the sky was full of witchy clouds which would drift in front of it, then clear again. Not that we had much time to watch the moon. So much ship traffic! Rarely were we tracking fewer than a dozen ships on the AIS–cruise ships, oil tankers, cargo ships. No other sailboats, curiously, though we could hear them chattering on the radio from time to time, bored I think—where are you now? and where are you?
Around midnight we left the Northeast Providence Channel and headed out into the strait between the Bahamas and Florida. Suddenly the cruise ships bound for Miami were crossing our bow, leaving a respectful distance though, so no problem. The 1,000-foot cargo ship heading straight for us was more of a problem. It’s the first time we’ve ever seen both the port and starboard running lights of a big ship.
Chris grabbed the mike and hailed the captain.
“This is the sailboat Monark, off your bow. I just wanted to make sure you saw us.”
A long pause.
“Yes, I see you.” Had he seen us before we called? “I’ll alter course to pass your stern.”
Slowly the green light disappeared leaving only the red light visible. We watched as an enormous boat, empty so riding high, passed behind us. Not very far behind us, but far enough.
Then we entered the Gulf Stream and the winds picked up. We spanked along at 6 knots much of the night—with the engine running. We wanted to get across the Gulf Stream as quickly as possible. And as it turns out, every minute gained was a good thing. And I mean every minute. They were wrong about the 48 squall-free hours.
By noon the next day we were out the other side of the Gulf Stream and pretty much on target for Lake Worth Inlet, a bit earlier than we’d expected, in fact. We had to stand off, waiting for the current flowing out of the inlet to slow a little, but around 2:30 the skies to the south of us started to darken and we decided to make a run for it.
We had no problem with the current, but being bounced around by the wake from all the power boats running for shelter was a challenge. What’s going on, we wondered. Then we switched our phone on and it emitted a loud siren sound and flashed a big red alert—TORNADO WATCH. Yes, watch, not warning. We ran for the safety of the anchorage, which was a couple miles in, at our top speed under motor…which isn’t very fast at all. By the time we got there, we were the only boat moving on the waterway. We dropped the hook and closed up the canvas, and then the squall was on us.
The torrential rains weren’t the problem—it was kind of nice getting the salt washed off the boat. But the wall of wind that hit us was stronger than anything we’d ever experienced, greater even than the 60-knot winds we survived in the big gale in the North Atlantic. The boat lurched to port and heeled so far the rail was almost in the water. We had to brace ourselves to keep from falling over. Of course the anchor, which had barely set, couldn’t withstand that kind of force and started to drag. Chris started the engine and turned us into the wind, enough to take the sideways pressure off the poor Rocna, which immediately reset.
Fortunately, it was over as quickly as it came up—the wind, anyway. The tornado watch was lifted but the heavy rain continued for some time. We sat in the cockpit getting drenched as water found its way in every seam and opening, dribbled in, actually.
When it was over, the temperature had dropped 10 degrees and the air was crisp and clear, the smothering humidity of the afternoon completely gone. Most of it was in our cockpit, I think.
Over the past couple of days, the weather out in the ocean has deteriorated as predicted, big winds from the northeast and huge seas, rip currents along the coast. So now we’re motoring peacefully, tediously north in the intracoastal waterway.
But I’ll tell you one thing: we keep a close eye on the sky in the late afternoons.