Weather has rhythms and patterns. In a land-based life, the usual rhythms and patterns are more of a convenience or inconvenience, for cruisers the patterns command our lives. We were moored in Hope Town in the far northeastern corner of the Bahamas when we decided to begin our journey back to Lake Ontario. For the next week or two we would have to weave our plans into the patterns of the weather.
Before setting sail for home we would have to traverse over 125 nautical miles to the northwestern corner of the Little Bahamas Bank. Prior to leaving it would be necessary to clear customs and immigration, the Bahamians want to know when we leave, refuel, and prepare for a 400-mile offshore passage in the Gulf Stream, our longest passage yet. The passage would take 48 to 60 hours on a course as much as 100 miles offshore; a passage not to be taken lightly.
We committed to the crossing on April 26 with a forecast for a weather window later that week, one which we could not make, and another early the next week. We would leave the Bahamas in the second window, one month after our arrival.
As good fortune would have it, we found two other boats, a 54’ Amel Super Maramu and a 40’ Beneteau with similar departure and destination plans. On the way out of our respective anchorages we made radio contact and we were aware of each other’s presence. With our AIS’s broadcasting we could keep track of each other as long as we were within range. Although no one would admit it, the race to Charleston was on!
The Amel: Amel is a French high-end builder of cruising boats. They are designed and equipped for long distance live-a-aboard cruising. At 54’ it was the longest of the three competitors and as such should have greater speed. If you follow the Sailing SV-Delos YouTube channel you are familiar with the Super Maramu, Delos is an example. With its longer waterline I expected the Amel to finish long before we did.
The Beneteau: Beneteaus are a popular boats built by a French company which command a large market share. Three feet longer than Second Star, the Bene should have a slightly faster turn of speed.
The Sabre: Second Star is a Sabre 362, at 36 feet she is the shortest of the three boats and in theory the slowest. Designed by Jim Taylor the 362 won a Cruising World Boat of the Year after being introduced. Sabres were built as high-end production sailboats, well built, well-appointed and with a reputation for being both quick and comfortable.
The course was simple, sail from Great Sale Cay on the Little Bahama Bank to Charleston Harbor, roughly 385 miles north. However, things are not always simple. Lying between the two points were cays, reefs, and shoals. Adding to the excitement is the Gulf Stream, an ocean current sometimes referred to as the conveyor belt, it flows north at speeds up to 3+ knots. Hopping a ride on the Gulf Stream is the goal of every northbound sailor from the Bahamas.
Several days prior to departure, I had obtained the coordinates of the east and west edges of the Stream as well as the center and fastest portion of the stream. With this information a course was plotted on a paper chart based on the predicted wind direction, SE to S. Our planned course was sailing 53 miles due west to leave the Little Bahama Bank, then to angle northwest to intercept the Gulf Stream, continuing NW until we reached the fastest section which we would ride until reaching the exit point near Charleston.
By 0700 on Monday, May 2 all three boats were underway and in communication with each other no mention of a race was made. In the lead with an early start the Amel was about 12 miles ahead of the Sabre. Close behind the Sabre was the Bene. The Amel was clear, it was motor sailing to reach the Gulf Stream as quick as possible. We all expected to arrive sometime on Wednesday in good weather, however, the forecast suggested the possibility of isolated squalls or thunderstorms late Wednesday afternoon adding some urgency to an earlier rather than later arrival.
The first hour saw the Sabre motor sailing to fully charge its batteries and to assess the sailing conditions. The Bene was sailing westward wing and wing, sails spread out birdlike. The SE winds forecast had not materialized, the winds had a strong easterly component. It was this component luring the Bene into sailing wing and wing, a picturesque yet slow point of sail.
It was clear to the Sabre crew sailing dead downwind would be slow and painstaking. Sailing with both sails spread out requires a lot of concentration and a deft helm, qualities the Sabre crew was short on. Falling off to port, heading in a southwesterly direction the Sabre began a series of gybes from one broad reach to another working its way westward to the Gulf Stream. Sailing deep to left of the planned course the Sabre gybed, heading to the northwest. It was immediately apparent the starboard gybe was favored, it was smoother, faster, and closer to the rhumb line for Charleston. The experience from years of sailboat racing began to take hold, we were no longer cruising and following a planned route, we were looking for the fastest shortest course to Charleston and it was no longer the one we planned. To reach Charleston as quickly as possible racing tactics must prevail.
The New Strategy
When sailing the shortest route to a destination, be it a race mark or port, is not always the fastest route. Likewise, the route the boat must take to go the fastest may actually be longer and thus ultimately slower than a shorter route at a slower speed. This is learned quickly on the racecourse. The art of navigating on passage is finding the sweet spot, the point of sail that yields the fastest passage; navigators call this Velocity Made Good, VMG. VMG is the actual speed the boat is traveling towards its destination.
On our second gybe out to the NW it became apparent that our planned course would be neither short nor fast, an undesirable circumstance with nearly 350 miles of ocean ahead. Reviewing the charts showed we could continue a starboard gybe off the north side of the Bank, intercepting the Gulf Stream further north than we had planned, however in a shorter time because of the shorter sailing distance. The speed advantage we would gain by an early Gulf Stream entry would not make up for the added distance sailed. Simply, we cut the corner of our planned course. As we neared the passage’s end, we were again able to shave some distance off by cutting a corner.
Along the Way
Once again, the dolphins must not have received the memo. We had hoped for the iconic image of dolphins frolicking in the bow wake, leaping from the navy-blue water as white foam flew from the bow under bright sunny skies. Nonetheless, the sailing was remarkable, for 24 hours we sailed on one tack with main and genoa, blue skies, navy water, swells and wind hitting speeds of 9+ knots over ground. It was passage making at its best.
Sailing off the Bank presented conditions familiar to those who sail on Lake Ontario, lumpy random seas with square waves dominated for the first few miles. The seas were caused by three intersecting wave trains meeting where the Bank rises sharply from several thousand feet deep to just 20 or 30 feet. The dominant train came from the northeast, running at 3-5 feet or greater. A second train came along more or less parallel to the bank. These waves were from the first train and had met the Bank several miles to the east and then rolled parallel along the bank. The third train was smaller running at 2-3 feet and were wind-blown waves from the Bank. As we sailed away from the Bank the waves became swells and the seas less chaotic, it was fun.
We sailed off the bank a few hours before sunset and began to settle into the routine we would have for the next day or two. Our watches run about four hours on, four off. For the initial watch we tried to match our normal sleep patterns, Susan usually goes to bed early, so she took the first off watch and I the first on. The watches were not carved in stone, if one of us needed a little more sleep during the day they got it. The watch clock reset at 2000.
During the Tuesday morning watch the wind began to fade and become variable in direction. This was not promising as I watched the speed over ground gradually decline from 8s and 9s to 5s and 6s, to 4s and 5s. We still had almost 200 miles to go, at this rate it would take several more days to reach Charleston. The impending approach of a cold front made this an untenable proposition. The decision was easy, fire up the diesel. For the next 30 hours we were serenaded with the diesel’s drone as we motor-sailed over the 3-5-foot ocean swells.
For the rest of the second day we took turns sleeping. On passage, we try to get as much rest as possible as we never know when sleep will be interrupted. That, and sleeping in 3-4-hour stretches is not ideal for good rest. At midnight Susan came on watch and I lay down. Because we would be arriving the next morning and I would not go off watch until we were docked, she allowed me some extra time. After five hours I awoke refreshed and was reminded that waking naturally is far better than to an alarm.
At 0500 we were about 35 miles out from the entrance to Charleston Harbor. For most of the passage we were alone, there were no boats on the horizon and no boats on the AIS. Overnight boats started to converge. Several of the boat names were familiar, they too had been in the Bahamas a few days ago. But one name stood out, it was the Amel. After 48 hours we were only 10 miles apart on a converging course, closer than when we last saw her! As we motored th Charleston the gap continued to close, when we reached our anchorage she was less than 3 miles ahead. Second Star had done well in the race to Charleston.
By lunch time we had anchored, cleared customs, and were looking for a dock at the City marina. As we pulled into the dock a large thunderstorm was brewing just a short distance away.
Epilogue: Writing this a few days after arriving in Charleston we are fortunate to be here. A large low pressure system stalled off the east coast bring unfavorable winds well into Florida and the Bahamas. Further north the coast is getting hammered by the Nor’Easter. Had we not left when we did it would be more than a week before a weather window opened again.
Also, during our stay in Charleston we ran into the Bene’s crew. It was indeed a race.
Note: If you would like a copy of the .gpx files for the route and track, drop me an email or use the contact form to request them. The links below lead to a charting program (C-Map) that will allow you to see and explore the planned route and Second Star’s track. Click on the “open the website” button on the landing page, unless you want to download the app.
The planned route is here.
Second Star's track, the route we actually sailed is here.