The Romance of the Gulfstream in Winter, Marc Kraft
“To follow the road to Nirvana, it is analogous to climbing up many steep, narrow, and jagged mountain ridges while it’s storming. You wind back and forth and at times it may seem like you will never get to where you are heading, continually getting knocked down along the way. If, when following this road, it was sunny, flat, and perfectly straight, there would be no Nirvana to reach…”
A Vietnamese Buddhist Monk
Many years ago I took a break from college and my job with the intent to challenge the USCG Captain’s License. Having this license would permit me to take out passengers for hire on larger yachts. I had been instructing and skippering small boats as a youth.
Fortunately, I was offered a scholarship to Crawford Nautical in San Francisco to prepare me for the Coast Guard License. After many hours of committed studying, leading to taking the challenging exams, I passed. The Coast Guard License is also called a ticket, which can help get you a job worldwide.
Winter in Northern California is not the best place to be a Captain, so I hopped in my beat up convertible Karmen Ghia that resembled a WWII fighter plane after many battles, and drove straight across the country to Florida. I took the southern route in 3 days with the top down most of the way.
Within a week, I was hired as a Skipper out of Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to take people to the Bahamas and the Florida Keys. Most of the skippers back then didn’t have the Coast Guard License, and some had an attitude towards those that did: ” It was just a glorified credential.” The other skippers had far more time at sea then I had. That winter, I learned more than I’d ever imagined about being at sea and skippering.
I really didn’t know what I was getting into. My fears of docking (back there it’s just pilings, no floating slips) and navigating, caused me to really study up, now that I was going to be a skipper in a new area. I felt they hired me a little too easily. I really hadn’t spent too much time docking a 43-55 foot boats, single-handed, between pilings before. I had never navigated across any open ocean segment either, especially with variable currents. I figured I’d just simulate it the best that I could.
As the winter proceeded, I would always offer the charterers’ instruction as a free addition to their week long vacations. I was actually teaching and confirming the skills to myself. At times I felt challenged, wanting to do everything to perfection. I would experience staying up all night, worrying that our anchor would drag in a Bahamian monsoon; going aground in Stilts Ville (a bay of shallow water off Miami) and waving down drug dealers to give us a tow off a sand bar with their expensive Banana Boat, only to have the charter customer throw the tow line in our turning prop. Charter after charter; I spent that winter loving my job and getting a good foundation in the skippering business. I truly got to discover the ultimate beauty of the Bahamian Islands and the Florida Keys.
Spring season arrived and something was telling me that my heart was still back in California where the people seemed to be more ahead, consciously speaking. I knew that I’d be returning to the West Coast as soon as the charters slowed down in Florida. Florida was a bit wild at the time because the previous President had let many of the Cuban desperados into the country. Miami was seemed like the Wild West. You could get shot if you walked into a bar, drove on the freeway, or even sailed to the Bahamas. On the ocean some of the desperados would pretend that they were stranded on a raft, have a gun hidden, shoot you, take the yacht, do a drug deal, and then sink the boat. I read this in Newsweek magazine and heard about it all of the time from the other skippers. I figured that this would never happen to me.
Before one of my last charters, I was walking down the stairs of my sister’s condo at 6 in the morning and I ran into her roommate. He was just coming home from the police station. Apparently a couple of thieves walked into an up-scale Bar & Restaurant and began shooting. He showed me his bullet pierced ear lobe. “They didn’t kill anyone. Just made everyone give them all of their money and jewelry,” he said. He was happy to be alive. Now this was getting too close to home for me.
The Bahamas were so quiet and calm, compared to Florida’s chaos. You merely had to make it across the Gulf Stream to get to the tropical oasis. I had a charter that morning for 7 days from Florida to the outer islands of the Bahamas. My job description was to take people to these tropical islands and play with them all week in the warm, turquoise waters: fishing, sailing, diving, eating, etc….. I was looking forward to going to some of my favorite islands, finding a private cove with water so clear you could see the white sand and coral below massive schools of tropical fish. My passengers would work very hard deepening their tropical suntan (burns), thereby proving their vacation fun to their friends back home. I’d disappear to my favorite private spots with my writing pad to work on my unfinished adventure novel. Occasionally, I would imagine Earnest Hemmingway writing or dreaming up scenes right where I was sitting and doing the same thing. (He had a home there in the Bahamas where he was a drunken legend).
The Gulf Stream section of the Atlantic has swallowed many a vessel and airplane. When you leave Florida, the Atlantic starts out mildly, with less than a half-knot current going north towards Greenland. In the middle of the Gulf Stream, the current can reach over 3.5 knots. A seasoned navigator can determine position by testing the water temperature. You have to really know your set and drift formulas with this changing current coming across your beam. You may also experience confused seas when the Gulf Stream and winds are going in opposite directions. Back then; all we used for electronic navigation was a Radio Direction Finder, now obsolete.
I met my crew: 6 college students from Bowling Green, Ohio; five girls and one lanky guy, all pasty white and feeble from a long winter inside studying and finding protection from the bitter East coast cold. They were bubbly and excited for a wild week of sunning, swimming, and partying in the Bahamas. Of course, their reaction to seeing such a young skipper was a little ambivalent, to say the least. I some how eased their fears after a bit of humor and the fact that I had been doing the trip all winter.
Our destination is about 9 hours from Ft. Lauderdale at 6 knots. I told them that we’d be leaving at 2100 hrs. Most prudent skippers leave at night so when you arrive in the morning you can observe the reefs and shallows better. The charts are not as precise as the U.S. and shallow water is constant in the Bahamas. The best way to navigate is to watch the color change from dark blue, to turquoise, to almost clear white (the sand). Buoys and lighthouses on the first tiny island of Bimini aren’t maintained like in the U.S.A., thus they may not be where the chart says they are.
Before departure, I went to have a beer with one of the old time skippers while we were waiting for evening to fall. Somewhere in the conversation he asked what kind of gun I was carrying on board. I bluntly told him that I didn’t have one and didn’t know it was a requirement. His advise was to keep my flare gun loaded at all times and show all of the crew how to use it. The drug trade was flourishing and many boats were being pursued by these bandits. I thought back on the bullet pierced ear lobe of my friend from that morning, and again I told myself that this was not my fate (though I do recall double checking the dates on the flares and pointing it out to a couple of the crew).
Fortunately my youthful optimism gave me the unreal thinking that I had an invisible protective bubble, keeping danger far away from me. We departed Ft. Lauderdale at 2100 hrs. as scheduled. The weather forecast was for 10-15 knot winds and 2 to 4 foot seas, perfect for our voyage. Out the intercoastal waterway, left turn, and straight to Bimini. We all were sitting in the cockpit on our O’day 38, “Molly Brown”. The moon was full and my crew looked a little better because they all lay in the hot Florida sun burning their skin, prepping it to become even more burned in the Bahamas. I remember saying to myself: ” Woooa, here I am surrounded by 5 college girls, off to the Bahamas for a week. Life is all right. Thank you, God….
Swoosh, right then a soft, magical spray found it’s way up into the cockpit. It’s so warm at night that it is actually refreshing. Under the moonlight we talked for hours about our lives, families and what we all wanted to be or do some day. My ego was burning a mile a minute. Eventually most of them ventured down below to the coziness of the interior to get some sleep. I was enjoying the full moon and the time to myself to contemplate and think about some new scenes to add to the adventure novel I was creating.
About midnight the swell picked up to 12 feet, with 25 knots on our nose. This wasn’t predicted, but what the heck, what you see is what you deal with.
Everyone now was down below. I put my follies on over my t-shirt and shorts just to keep the salt spray off. An hour later, the winds picked up even more to a steady 45 knots with swells over 20 feet. I hadn’t ever experienced anything like this in my life. I just kept struggling to follow my compass course the best I could. I taught the eager, lanky college young man how to use the hand held radio direction finder. Loran and GPS wasn’t available back then. We were motoring at about 3 to 5 knots, straight into the wind and swells. Luckily that was the way to Bimini as well.
By 0200, I was getting weary but the conditions were getting even more severe. I couldn’t let anyone take over the helm because it was a struggle even for me to keep on course. I thought about all of the rotting Spanish Galleons sitting comfortably on the ocean bottom, with skeletons coming to life, draped in gold and jewels, displaying eerie smiles, inviting us to come join them in their comfortable underwater world. I prayed that we would make it safely through the storm.
The swells built up to over 50 feet (beyond the masthead) and winds, now steady over 80 knots. It was beyond frightening. The motion could be compared to being inside a giant washing machine with no way out. You are at the extreme mercy of Mother Nature. Neptune was raging mad about something and letting us know it. The companionway hatch was closed tight to keep the white foam from pouring into the cabin. The boat would surge almost 45 degrees up and then dive back down, free falling, gaining the speed to make it up the next swell (I chose not to use a drogue because we needed speed & rudder control up the next swell).
In the troughs, we would dive under the emerald green sea with those skeletons reaching for us trying pull us down before our Molly girl would lift her bow for air and gallop up as hard as possible. The crest of the next wave would break with such tremendous force over the doghouse that it seemed like the power could crumble the boat to pieces. It was as if you were actually on the beach looking up at a 25-30 foot wall of foam. I’d have to duck my head, and hold my breath until it’d fall behind us. Luckily, the cockpit scuppers were somewhat efficient, draining the water to just below my knees before the next wave would come and drench me. As soon as we’d head back up to another crest, I would barely lift my head only to see another huge one coming.
After over 8 hours of this tremendous abuse (imagine what it was like down below), one of the girls opened the hatch and said she couldn’t take it any more and just had to come up. Yelling at the top of my lungs, I tried to politely say:” NO WAY.”
I had the wheel to hold on to (we had no harnesses) and if she went overboard it would be near impossible to turn around. Not heeding my advice, she came topsides with a lifejacket on. The amusement park interior that constantly churned like a 360 degree rolling fun house didn’t help anyone’s delicate stomach down below.
With one arm on the wheel, I tied a bowline around her waist and to the binnacle. She could barely open her eyes because of the wind and salt spray. A slight smile of freedom from being in the cabin engulfed her. I now had to concentrate on steering the vessel, holding my course, hitting each swell just right, and now keeping an eye on her. She was only on deck a couple of minutes when she looked forward, only to see a King Kong sized wave 50 feet above us. After it broke over the doghouse, she let out the most fearful shriek. Within seconds she untied herself, pushed the companionway open, and flew down below, dripping wet with absolute fear.
It’s not only the incredible swell and wind that is beyond a roller coaster ride; it’s the phenomenal noise racing through the rigging. The roaring and pounding on the deck is like lying down in the middle of a wild Buffalo stampede. You reevaluate the insurmountable forces of Mother Nature and her powers. It humbles you- if she let’s you survive it.
I pinched myself and said:” This is a dream right? I’m not really going through this.” I wanted to wake up in a cozy bed and say to myself, “I’d never be in that type of predicament, would I? I haven’t lived long enough, neither have these college students. I wanted God’s huge hand to pick us up out of this dishwasher and place us in a safe, calm, harbor. Swish, reality slapped me in the face with salty sandpaper. I didn’t duck quick enough and cool salt water poured down my chest. Ahhhhh.
For hours and hours we pounded into the weather system. I wondered if the weight of the waves crashing on the doghouse would cause the hull to deck seam to split. Staring into the mountainous swells, I thought about turning back to Florida, but I didn’t think the vessel could turn quick enough. We would surely roll if I put the “Molly Brown” beam to the seas. I thought about the story of the unsinkable Molly Brown and how her spirit must be with us on this vessel, keeping us alive and afloat. I kept praying to see the Bimini Light, which should have appeared many hours ago. (Later, I realized that even though our knot meter said 4-6 knots constantly, we were only moving on an average of 1.5-2 knots over the ground). My set and drift formulas had worked so many times before. Could I be getting thrown off course by this wind and swell, even though I was heading almost right into it?
About 0600 I had been at the helm 9 hours and there was no sight of the Bimini Light. I had the young man do another RDF check and he heard the proper signal, weak but correct. The conditions were stronger than ever. My body was past beat up and half drowned; I was on the survival mode. Thoughts that we were blown off course raced through my mind. Could we be heading for Greenland? I was questioning my confidence in navigating by having so much confused motion around us. I never expected to be blown off course. I would just keep heading on my course. I wasn’t going to be responsible for anyone losing his or her lives at sea. I was determined to beat this devil’s triangle with all it’s voodoo magic.
Whoosh… another crest rushed over the doghouse into the cockpit, trying to pull me away from the wheel. I’d duck down at the lit compass, struggling to keep control and holding on for dear life. Dawn’s first light gave me a shimmer of hope, except for the fact that we had no sign of Bimini. Around 0800 we got a call on the radio from another vessel that was on the trip to Bimini as well. These college students were from the same group from Bowling Green. They were bareboat certified. One of the girls cracked the companionway and said that the vessel was having engine trouble and they could see us off of their port. It gave me hope and brought me back to my semi-dazed state of wrestling with sea serpents all night long. We were here on this merciless ocean with another boat.
“Tell them to put up a double reefed main,” I shouted down below. “I’ll keep an eye on them but it’ll be near impossible to give them a tow, let alone get near them in these conditions.” Apparently, someone threw the sail cover in the lazarette and it had worked its way around the transmission shaft, consequently torking it to bend and not turn.
We spotted them and knew it was going to be challenging just to climb up on deck to pull up their main. It would have been very difficult if I had been in this situation because I had no crew that had any idea of what to do. I suppose we would’ve made due, if we had to.
They were sailing close reach into these conditions, taking long tacks and were almost able to keep up with us. I would give them advise, via yelling down the half closed companionway to a girl talking on the VHF. I assured them we would standby them until we reached Bimini. The conditions were still severe, however the swell would go up and down between 30-40 ft. and the howling winds would occasionally let up to 50-60 knots.
Then, like a mirage on a desert, we thought we spotted a glimpse of Bimini. We were all in heaven when we realized that it wasn’t our imagination, but the nearly flat island. However, it was still a very trying experience to sight land and not arrive at the Bimini Reef break for another 6-7 hours. The pot of gold under the rainbow seemed almost unreachable. Gradually one or two of the girls would pop out of the companionway, only to rush down below in a short period. The breaking surf in the cockpit was too irritating. You couldn’t look up long enough before getting blasted by Neptune’s sword of salt water by the barrel-full.
Finally, when we reached the coastline of Bimini, our last and most challenging situation was yet to come. There is a reef that parallels the shore and you have to go inside it to reach the protected harbor of Bimini. The direction that the storm was blowing and waves breaking didn’t favor entering the Bimini channel. You must parallel the coastline for almost a half a mile between a reef break and the beach before you reach the harbor entrance. The waves were actually breaking over the reef and building back up to 20 feet before they would crash on the beach. We would be taking the risk of getting beam to one of these waves, being lifted up and set right beside the wrecked airplane that must have crashed there from a drug deal a long time ago. We all stared at the waves washing in and out of the cockpit of the small plane while disheartening thoughts passed through our silent minds.
We were all so beat, so exhausted, that we almost didn’t care. I was determined to make it, even if it meant finding a protected anchorage on the leeward side of the island. But with the way it was still blowing, I figured there might not be any protected anchorages. While we were still motoring into the swell, we saw a powerboat actually zoom into the entrance at over 15 knots. They made it just fine. I told the crew to hold on as tight as possible because we’re going for it. The only problem with a large sailing yacht is that you can’t speed up. I did a quick Hail Mary, studied the wave system, and pushed on through.
Our little Molly Brown got tossed and turned and I struggled to hold the wheel because it gets more difficult in shallow water. For about 10 minutes we rode these waves like the pro surfers of Santa Cruz. My adrenalin at this point was peeking. We made it! It was awesome to motor into a calm, safe, protected harbor. We immediately anchored. My body was numb, in partial shock, and beyond exhaustion. I gradually peeled off my salt encrusted foul weather gear.
I probably looked like Neptune himself; my brown hair, eyebrows and lashes, crusted with a fine white salt. I needed to lay down, however as the captain, I had to row ashore and check everyone’s passport in with customs officials before the rest of the crew were allowed onshore. I carefully rowed the inflatable to the nearby docks, barely able to function, but loving the calm and protection we were surrounded by. I pulled ashore and kissed the ground.
The customs office was a 2-mile walk. I entered the office and the proud Bahamian officers immediately knew that I’d been through the storm. “Son, you’re lucky you made it across. There are a number of boats that didn’t.”
These elder Afro-Bahamian gentlemen knew me pretty well now because I had been coming in all winter. The first time I came in to their office they made me turn around and walk the 2 miles or so back to the boat because I didn’t have a shirt on. (Since the Bahaman’s are based on the British culture, they are quite Victorian). I was a bit disgruntled at the time but actually started to become friends with most of the natives, including these fellows. I used to run through their shantytowns where no tourists would go. The elder people would encourage me and appreciate my spirit, always cheering me on. The local younger people would think I was crazy for running in the heat. The fact that I brought in passengers that were spending money to help the locals earn a living, gave them even a fonder feeling towards me.
I wasn’t fully listening because my head was spinning. I looked up at an old style 50’s radio surrounded by cobwebs on the windowsill. News’s flash came on interrupting the Bob Marley music playing: “President Reagan was shot today.” Both the President and I survived near death at the same time, I thought. How ironic.
I pulled my sore, stiff body back to the boat. It felt so good to have quiet, peace, and calmness around me. I gave all of the girls their stamped passports back, and to my surprise they were already primping up for a night on the town. I told them I’d catch up with them later. I lay down in the cockpit watching some yellow tiger fish swim by in the clear harbor water.
The sun was nearing sunset. My body was barely in and out of consciousness. I couldn’t sleep, looking up, ready for another wave to pounce my face, only to get the relief of the warm, Bahamian sun….