Saturday, April 2, 2011

Back to the U.S.A.

Posted: March 28, 7:16 pm | (permalink) | (0 comments)

Hanging our boat sign in “Making Our Mark” was to be the last time we would set foot on Bahamas soil; early the next morning we started the passage back to Florida. I’d been stressing about the navigation for the crossing of the Gulf Stream and the night passage for a week – were my numbers correct? The trip we had planned would involve a daysail of seven or eight hours, then anchoring overnight, and then starting early the next morning, a day and a night and a day across the Tongue of the Ocean, the Great Bahama Bank and the Gulf Stream and into Florida. On the way to the Bahamas, we were piggybacking on James and Ellen’s greater experience – they’d made this crossing a dozen times – and we were not out of each others’ sight the whole way. This time, though, we were on our own. I got little sleep that night.

Weirdly, the afternoon before we had heard another boat hail for James and Ellen on the VHF. We had not been in radio contact since we parted at Allen’s Cay before Xmas, and now, just as we were leaving the Bahamas almost 3 months later, NOW, they were finally in range again! No fair! After missing each other in different parts of the Bahamas for 3 months, now, on the last day, it was a wild coincidence that we were in nearly the same place on the last day. They had independently chosen the same weather window we had to cross back to Florida, giving us confidence in our analysis of weather and sea conditions, and the security of having another boat within range if something went wrong. I was suddenly feeling a lot more assured about the whole thing.

The beginning few hours of the trip were discouragingly rough and chill and windy and not what the forecast predicted. I groaned to think we were going to be in this for the next 3 days. Once we got in the wind shelter of New Providence island, things became quite pleasant. We anchored near the southwest corner of New Providence in late afternoon and relished setting the anchor in water so clear you could see the bottom for the last time this trip. We poured a glass of wine and toasted the sunset.

At first light the next morning we were off. It was rough again as soon as we cleared the end of New Providence, deep blue waves splashing salt water on the decks, and the uncomfortable sounds of things shifting and sliding in the lockers below. The seas settled down slowly as we entered the more sheltered waters of the Northwest Channel. We were able to relay this bit of good news to James and Ellen and the two boats they were traveling with, who were all a few hours behind us. “Cheer up! It gets calmer as you go further.” By late afternoon we were on the Bank and the sea bottom went from a mile or more below us to less than twenty feet of flat, featureless sand. With absolutely nothing we could hit, and no significant waves, it was safe and easy to cross at night. We checked in by VHF every few hours; since we were in the lead we relayed information back to the other boats about the conditions they’d face. “Be advised, when you get up here, the lighthouse at North Rock is not working;” or “Watch out! We’re sending you an eastbound powerboat who’s not answering his radio;” or “We just saw a shooting star! There have been about a half-dozen of them, off our starboard beam.” It was a mild night. We took turns catnapping in the cockpit while the other stayed awake, watching for traffic, monitoring the radio, and the autopilot pointed us westward, homeward. At about 3 A.M. we exited the Bank, back into deep water of the Straits of Florida. The wind was behind us and there was a weird yellow glow on the western sky – the lume of Miami, about 70 miles away. We relayed our position and status back to James and Ellen in what would probably be our last chance. From here, our positions would diverge and we would rapidly go out of radio range. When they passed North Rock they would turn south toward the Florida Keys, and we would ride the Gulf Stream north to Lake Worth (West Palm Beach).

We heard the Coast Guard on the VHF hailing a boat that unfortunately was dealing with some kind of medical emergency … but we looked at each other and smiled. We were still in the middle of the ocean, nothing to see but water and air and empty horizon, but we heard an American voice. The U.S. Coast Guard. We were getting close to home.

The sky behind us faded from inky black to charcoal then at a slow, stately pace took on golds and oranges of dawn. Another few hours and we saw signs of land. This was different than the landfalls we’d made in the Bahamas, gray-green smudges on the horizon and green reflections in the clouds. Florida first made itself known while the land itself was still below the horizon as a jumble of boxy shapes, beige and white and brick – the taller high-rises of the coastal cities. After the empty ocean the nearshore area was crowded with fishing boats and pleasure yachts and we flinched, thinking at any minute they were so close we’d have a collision. There was a comic moment when I tried to hail a barge coming out of Lake Worth inlet, and instead received a response from the Coast Guard at Lake Worth inlet. But finally we entered, motored a few miles to the north end of Lake Worth, to an anchorage we’d stayed at on the journey south, and dropped anchor. We phoned our arrival in to Customs & Border Protection, and looked at each other in triumph, exhausted but too exhilarated for sleep. It had been an absolutely fabulous trip … and it was absolutely fabulous to be back.

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