Having spent only a very short time at only one of many of the Bahama islands I can see why they are such a popular cruising ground. Lovely beaches, crystal clear waters and friendly locals. One could easily spend months cruising the chain provided one had time and deep pockets. However, I had neither and needed to move on for my rendezvous with Tom in Bermuda (another expensive location I had been warned). He arrives in Bermuda on the 14th May and has a flight booked from the Azores on 3rd June so that he can make his daughter’s High School Graduation. We will therefore need to leave Bermuda as soon as possible after the 14th May and I want to have as much time there as possible to rest up and undertake the inevitable jobs on the boat before we depart. It’s going to be a bit tough on him though, he’s going to have the long ocean passage without the holiday stuff at either end.
After a great deal of consideration/faffing, I finally decided the route I would take from West End would be across the Little Bahama Bank to Great Sale Cay and then though Strangers Channel into the Atlantic Ocean. The alternatives I considered were either to go North and leave the entire island chain to the West, or to cross the bank and finish crossing the bank North West of Grand Cay. I perhaps should have also considered other alternatives further to the South East in order to get a better angle on to the forecast South East/East wind for the crossing. I didn’t because at the time they seemed too much of a detour. I was nervous about crossing the bank at all due to the risks of running aground in the shallow waters, but having talked to Scott and Laurie who very kindly invited me to dinner on the Tuesday evening, and who had crossed the bank a few days ago from Grand Cay, I was persuaded that crossing the bank was doable provided I was careful. The route involved a short leg of a mile or so up the Western edge of the Bank from West End and then North Westwards through a narrow channel for 3 miles or so with about 1.5 metres under the keel before arriving in slightly deeper water (about 2.5 metres under the keel) for the 40 mile North Westwards leg to Great Sale Cay via Mangrove Cay.
The passage coming up would be new territory for me; approximately 800 miles and if I was lucky, perhaps 8 days of Atlantic Ocean on my own. To date the longest solo passage I had completed on was the previous one from Havana to West End, Bahamas, that was 3 days and 2 nights. That was of course in the coastal (and therefore fairly crowded waters of the Florida Straights); the passage to Bermuda would be in the open ocean. Yes, I felt rather apprehensive at the prospect but it was also a challenge I had (sort of) hoped I would face sooner or later. Prior to that I’d completed a number of day & night passages around the coast of Cuba and of course the crossing from Jamaica. During these previous passages I had experienced most conditions I was likely to encounter short of a full blown gale, including calms, thunder and lightening and strong winds requiring three reefs.
The forecast for the week/route ahead was for strong winds from the East/South East easing to probable light airs nearer to Bermuda with high pressure sitting over the island. My main concern on leaving - apart from the need to complete our crossing of the Little Bahama Bank without incident – was therefore the prospect of having to get through those calms. In theory, Arctic Smoke carries enough fuel for about 36 hours of motoring (that includes use of 15 Litres of fuel in spare cans). That’s at 4 knots in calm conditions. Any significant chop and her 10 hp Bukh can’t push her along at much more than 2k! However, I’ve never pushed the little Bukh for that long and would be reluctant to motor for more than 12 hours at a stretch without undertaking an oil check (requiring the engine to cool down). I’d probably need to re-fill the stern gland greaser with grease around then too. That all adds up to getting within 100 miles before resorting to the engine. Unless that is I get hold of good weather data indicating a that a few hours motoring in a specific direction will get me into winds. I’ll be therefore be quite content if we make the passage within 8 days which is about a hundred miles a day. Short of really bad weather, no/little wind with sloppy seas are the conditions I most dislike. The sails bang and crash all over the place placing an extra strain on the rigging and little if any progress can be made under power.
Thursday 27th April
I left the berth at 0700 on Thursday morning and went over to the fuel dock to top up (2.5 gallons) with fuel and settle my account - $350 for three nights (plus the previous $150 for the compulsory 6 month Cruising Permit) made Old Bahama Bay the most expensive marina yet!
Things went more or less to plan except that a lapse in concentration saw us wander outside the narrow channel early on and the depth went down to 0.5 metres. I had chosen a rising tide to get through the channel but the last thing I wanted was to ground in unfamiliar waters. The wind was light to moderate from the SE byE for most of the leg to Great Sale Cay and so we were able to lay our course on a close reach/close hauled but there were a couple of periods when the wind died and where I used the engine for an hour or so in order to keep our average speed up and therefore ensure arrival at Great Sale Cay in daylight. For some reason, I expected a deserted anchorage but there were quite a few boats there including a number I recognised from the marina. Most had left before us but one overhauled us about half way there. I dropped the hook at about 1830 outside most of the others in about 3 metres of water an went for a quick swim. In doing so I noticed a pretty thick growth of weed along the water line and decided I would have to scrub the bottom in the morning before leaving. I had worked out that I would need to leave at about 1400 the next day in order to catch the latter part of the ebb to the mouth of Strangers Cay Channel and therefore pass through the cut in the reef at around low water.
Friday 28th April
In the morning before leaving I oiled the very neglected tiller and Angus and spent a couple of hours scrubbing the bottom of the boat which thankfully was not as bad as I had feared following my initial inspection the previous day.
Anchor up at 1400.
My charts showed a minimum of 9 metres in the cut and my guide warned of the risk of lumpy seas in the cuts when wind was over tide. My timing was bang on – we arrived at the cut just before low water but the depths outside the cut were a good few metres lower than charted and once outside the swell built considerably and I had an anxious 20 minutes or so in the large swell with the echo sounder registering only 4 metres whereas I was expecting 7 or 8. However we got through safely and I trimmed Angus and the sails to set us close hauled on the Starboard tack. We couldn’t lay Bermuda at about 065ᵒM, 045ᵒwas as good as we could make. As a precaution,
I had earlier rigged the emergency forestay which would make tacking rather a faff (I would either have to remove it before tacking each time or completely furl the genoa before unfurling it on the other tack) and so I hoped the wind would eventually veer further south to enable us to lay our preferred course. I had also set two reefs in the main on the basis of the forecasted 15-20 knots of wind from the E/SE. I was glad I did because once out of the sheltered waters of the bank the wind increased significantly in strength.
We carried on for the rest of the day and night on roughly the same course. Our speed over the ground was down to 4 knots and because it felt like we were sailing rather faster I concluded we must be in an eddy of the North Atlantic Current, which I was pretty sure should be giving us a slight lift.
I ‘settled’ down into my night time routine with the Alarm set every hour when I would poke my head up top to check for shipping before returning to bed with the Alarm reset. I figured that in this empty patch of ocean, and with the AIS CPA (Closest Point of Approach) alarm set for 2 nautical miles that should be sufficient. I did manage to get a reasonable amount of sleep. No shipping appeared.
Saturday 29th April
The wind did indeed veer southwards during the early hours of the morning and we were able to lay Bermuda for quite a few hours. Around 0730 our speed went up a couple of knots so that we were now making around 6 knots with 722 miles to go to our Way Point off SE Bermuda. During the afternoon the wind backed for a few hours to push us off course further North once again but then veered again and at the time of writing this section – 1800 local we are heading slightly East of Bermuda. It’s tempting to ease the sheets but we are still West of our rum line and with High Pressure over Bermuda the winds seem likely to remain in the East for the foreseeable future.
The rest of the afternoon and night passed without incident. The wind stayed fresh but backed further Eastwards preventing us from laying Burmuda. I wasn’t in the best of spirits. Not sea-sick – I’m lucky not to suffer that; just not enjoying the conditions and feeling a bit anxious. We were taking regular splashes into the cockpit which kept me down below most of the time and required both hatches to be tightly closed making conditions rather muggy below and we were being thrown around a fair bit. As we came off the bigger waves I could hear the Anchor banging about in the roller and knew that additional lashings were really required. The thought of going right up to the bow and getting a good soaking on the bouncing foredeck was not an attractive one and I figured that no damage was likely to occur and so left it until conditions moderated.
I saw our first ship of the passage around 1000; initially heading directly for us but he took avoiding action before I needed to call him up to make sure he knew we were here!
As at 1815 we have 665 miles to run to our Approach Waypoint. The GPS is predicting arrival on the morning of May 5th but that’s pretty meaningless at this stage especially with High Pressure sitting over Bermuda. Our speed may slow considerably over the second half of the passage if not before.
Sunday 30th April
The wind gradually eased over night but by the morning although going slower we were still making around 4.5k and still had water occasionally breaking over the boat and into the cockpit and I therefore left the reefs in the main and stayed down below as much as possible, still rather fed-up!
At midday we 581 miles to go to our waypoint. By 1530 – 48 hours after exiting Strangers Cay Channel it was down to 565, 207 miles nearer to our destination.
At 1400 I noticed that the Starboard tiller line to Angus had worn through its outer covering at the block and so I replaced both lines. By 1600 the wind had eased further and our speed was down to 3.5k. It was now time to shake out the reefs. The seas were down too and therefore it was a reasonably easy operation. I took the opportunity offered by the calmer conditions to replace the sail batten that had gone missing. Mind you I had to hunt high and low for the spare battens. I had forgotten that I had stowed them in the bottom of one of the cockpit lockers when previously they were stowed on the quarter berth. I also put an extra lashing on the Anchor which had been bouncing around in the earlier more lively conditions. A little later I also noticed one of the struts supporting the solar panels had worked loose. A nut had come undone and so I replaced that too.
The calmer conditions made for very pleasant sailing and we were still making 5 knots and I was at last able to open the skylight in the Saloon without getting drenched. I felt much perkier. The enforced activity after a long period of slouching about probably helped too.
On average we appear to be tracking at 060ᵒrather than the 070ᵒneeded to lay our Waypoint off SE Bermuda. It’s too early to consider tacking however. If high pressure is sitting over Bermuda for the next few days, which was forecasted when we left, the wind is likely to ease further as we get nearer and we will probably have to use the engine to get us through calms.
Unlike last night when I had no appetite and made do with just a couple of slices of Jamaican spiced bun, tonight I was quite peckish and therefore after enjoying a rum cocktail in the cockpit watching the sun set, I cooked a basic supper of fried eggs, fried yam left over from Thursday night and Baked Beans. Nothing fancy but it did the job.
The night hours passed without incident and we continued more or less on track for our Waypoint under full sail.
Monday 1st May
A new month but apart from being a little closer to Bermuda everything else was thankfully much the same. The wind veered somewhat during the early hours – so much so that we were actually tracking South of East until I decided to adjust Angus and ease the sheets. When I looked around at 0400, the Ocean was a little crowded. One ship a few miles off our Port bow was crossing us happily at a safe distance – the AIS confirmed it would not get closer than 2.5 miles. The other on the Starboard bow seemed nearer and also appeared to be crossing in front of us, but we were getting no AIS signal at all. It was also extremely long, so long in fact that it had me checking the charts to make sure there wasn’t an island out there that I had overlooked. I think it must have been a giant tanker – the deck lights weren’t the sort of thing you see on cruise liners. Perhaps it was one vessel towing another, that would have accounted for the extreme length of lights but it would be most unusual for such a combination not to broadcasting on AIS. Mind you it was odd that anything of that size especially in these waters was not so doing. Thankfully it crossed us some miles ahead and disappeared over the horizon.
By midday we had 469 nautical miles left to go to our Waypoint and were 112 nautical miles closer than the same time the previous day. I was quite pleased with that given that much of the previous night we seemed to be pushing a foul current once again. The boat felt like she was sailing at least at 5.5 knots but only 4.5 was registering on the GPS. Our speed now was back up to 6+ knots and the wind had moderated. I continued to feel in good spirits, so much so that I decided to have another go at making bread. Just in the frying pan – I didn’t want to use too much gas having discovered a couple of days ago that I had left the gas on low for a while without realising it. I had one round of bread fresh from the pan with lunch of fried egg, fried plantin and the baked beans left over from last night. It was OK and certainly made a pleasant change from the white fluffy Cuban rolls that I had finished off yesterday. They did keep very well it has to be said. Indeed, rather better than the much more recent bread I bought in West End that had already turned moldy. I’ll be trying some of the rest of it a little later for tea!
At 1700 we had another odd encounter with largish vessel not transmitting an AIS signal. It crossed us from East to West but it’s course and speed was very erratic and occasionally it was omitting large amounts of black smoke. At its closest it was probably about a mile off and it looked like it might have been a large deep sea trawler but I couldn’t make out sufficient details to be sure. It occurred to me that it might have been in some difficulty but I received no hail on the VHF and just in case they were up to no good I decided not to hail them. It was very unlikely that I could have provided any assistance in any case. At 2000 I saw another ship with no AIS signal a few miles of the starboard bow. I began wondering if there was something amiss with the AIS transceiver but there’s a separate receiver in the VHF set and that wasn’t picking up any signal either.
The night hours passed without anything of note occurring. I managed to get a few hours sleep with my routine of an Alarm every hour. The wind remained more or less constant from South of South East and we continued broadly on course for our Waypoint on about 070ᵒM.
Tuesday 2nd May
The wind gradually increased during the second half of the night and by dawn I was considering reefing but laziness got the better of me for a few of hours. By 0930 it was becoming increasingly difficult to find the right balance of the various Angus adjustments and the sheet tensions to steer a steady course and I finally put two reefs in the main. That made matters much easier. At noon we were 142 nautical nearer our Bermuda Waypoint which inevitably meant we’d sailed an even greater distance. Not bad at all.
The wind gradually eased after midday day and at 1530 after an afternoon nap I shook out the reefs from the main. The wind continued to rise and fall somewhat in strength such that a couple of times we wandered off course a couple of times when Angus got confused (he needs adjusting when the amount of weather helm changes a lot – and that happens with significant changes in wind strength) and I was fearful of it dying to inconsequential levels. Happily, however, as at the time of writing -1940 - that did not happen and we continued to sail more or less on course at around 5 knots give or take.
Dinner comprised frankfurters from West End,fried with onions and garlic (from Havana) and green pepper (from West End) and sweet potatoes from Havana and the last of the Yellow Yam from Jamaica – that certainly keeps well – cooked in the pressure cooker. It was all quite tastey!
The night passed without note or shipping.
Wednesday 3rd May
At 0730 I noticed we had exactly 200 NM to go to our Way Point. A little later I also noticed that the new tiller line to Angus on the Starboard side was already fraying where it went through the cockpit block. I’d used a slightly thicker line than the previous one and it was clearly rubbing on the frame of the block. I therefore replaced both the Starboard and the Port the blocks (which had been showing signs of wear for some time) with the two new ones which were slightly larger and which I’d bought at great expense in Fort De France, Martinique.
For some time I’d been puzzled that our bearing to the next Way Point on the main GPS did not match with our projected track on the tablet with the Navionics software. I had set the Way Point on the Tablet and entered the co-ordinates into the GPS. After doubling checking everything I noticed one of the co-ordinates was a degree out but even after correcting that they did not match up. Suddenly it dawned on me – I was entering ‘True’ co-ordinates from Navionics into the GPS which was set to Magnetic – a difference of some 12ᵒ at our current location increasing to 14ᵒaround Bermuda. I decided the simplest thing to do was to set the GPS unit to ‘True’ and take the difference into account when steering my compass – which is not often.
By midday we were 152 NMs closer to our Waypoint since midday yesterday. Another record for Arctic Smoke (albeit I am sure, current assisted). The previous best I recall was during the Atlantic crossing which we equalled yesterday.
Good news too with respect to both an antique piece of boat equipment and the weather. When I bought Arctic Smoke, built in 1974, she came complete with a 1970/80s NAVTEX unit. The system is still operational today and allows one to receive weather and other information in text format over VHF frequencies. Most of the world’s coastlines are covered and some ocean areas within 300 or so miles of a transmitter. Today’s units however are all solid state. Arctic Smoke’s unit is very similar to the first Word-processor screens and displays green text. I had in the past had it working intermittently but had more or less given up on it prior to the Atlantic crossing. Prior to the crossing I had to either remove or re-site the Antenna because it fouled Angus’s wind vane on certain points of sailing. I decided to re-site it “just in case” and unsurprisingly given it’s age discovered that the cable to the antenna was severely corroded along a significant length. By removing as much as possible from the antenna end of the cable I uncovered cable that looked like it might just be capable of carrying a signal. Mick was very dubious at the time but I re-assembled it all and hoped for the best. Well we never received anything! After Mick had left Jamaica, I had another ferret around and noticed that the connection between the receiver and the other end of the cable was loose. Without any great confidence I tightened it up. Much to my surprise that did the trick and I started to receive transmissions. They were patchy until I got to Cuba’s north coast but then pretty regular. Geography probably being the main reason. From Havana into and leaving the Bahamas I recieved regular transmissions from the USA’s Miami transmitter. This covered the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and 200 miles off Florida’s East Coast. I was still receiving these yesterday despite being more than 300 miles off shore and outside the area covered. Then to my surprise, today I started receiving transmissions from a new transmitter – St George’s which up to now I had assumed was a USA station somewhere on the Eastern Seaboard - covering the offshore area I was in. Close study of the content revealed it was from Bermuda Radio. Then the penny dropped – St George’s is the principle Port in Bermuda to which I was headed! The even better news was the weather ahead was forecast to be more of the same – South Easterly winds of 10-15 knots for the next few days (turning South West nearer the island). It seemed that the dreaded calms forecast earlier had moved off to the East and less settled weather was due to arrive at the weekend. By that time, I should be safely tucked up in St George’s Harbour.
I spent a couple of hours this afternoon examining the route options from Bermuda to the Azores. I had three sources of information on board. The first and the oldest I consulted, recommended heading North East to avoid the calms caused by the Azores High to pick up the prevailing Westerlies and the East flowing Atlantic current. The down side was that it’s longer with a significant chance of encountering shitty weather (and possibly even ice)! The second discussed two further options, the direct Great Circle route with an increased likelihood of calms due to the proximity of the Azores High, and an intermediate route. The last and most recent source, referencing 2014 data showed that ‘in fact’ there was little chance of calms along the direct Great Circle route in May in a typical year. I finished my research feeling slightly re-assured but of course what really counts is the weather prevailing at the time. We’ll just have to wait and see!
The temperatures have certainly dropped as we’ve progressed North East. I’m now wearing a T-Shirt during the day and using a light sleeping bag to cover myself during at least the early hours of the mornings.
I’m finishing up for now at around 2115 and will shortly start my 1 hour Alarm regime for the night.
I might as well not have bothered because shortly after writing the above the wind started playing silly buggers and continued to do so all night. The effects of the high pressure to the North East of Bermuda were clearly now being felt despite the earlier forecast I had received over the NAVTEX. I was up and down all night trying to get the boat to sail in little wind and sloppy seas with the sails crashing and banging as the swell from starboard continuously rolled the wind out of the sails. We crawled along roughly in the right direction at around 2 knots, my hopes of getting into St George’s tomorrow evening in the daylight completely dashed.
Thursday 4th May
The breeze steadied around dawn however and we were once again sailing smoothly in the right direction at around 5 knots – I suspect we were still being helped on our way by a knot of current. I noted that once at Bermuda we will be 1100 miles North of our Christmas Eve landfall in Martinique. I’m not sure how many nautical miles we will have travelled since then, but perhaps another 500 or so. I will have to check it out.
By noon and despite the slow night we were nearer by another 120 nautical miles.
Shortly after noon I began considering the logistics of our approach. It was beginning to look like a speed of around 4-5k would mean arriving in the dark which was not ideal although my Pilot book stated the narrow approach channel was well lit and that entry in the dark in good weather was entirely feasible. The other factors to take into account were the state of the tide and approaching bad weather. From the information available on the Navionics navigation App, it looked as if HW would be about 0500. Ideally, I would like to enter in daylight and on the flood – I wasn’t sure how fast the ebb would run and it looked as if it would be against the wind which was forecast to strengthen. That could create a nasty chop and I didn’t fancy a repeat of the experience getting into Hemingway. I therefore decided that catching the tide and good weather were more important than daylight. At that time, no further action was required, we just needed to carry on at around the same speed. My early afternoon however we were completely becalmed once again. After waiting for a couple of hours I got the engine on and under half revs we carried on with the current at about 4 knots.
During the afternoon, with a night entrance all but assured, I tackled a job I should have done in Havana, which was to try and get the stern light working again. The light fitting was on it’s last legs and once again salt water had corroded the connections. I fought with it for a couple of hours and then gave up. Later I realised I had blown a fuse in the process and may well have repaired the connection but by that time I had taken it all apart again! We would just have to make do with the mast-head tricolour (white pointing backwards, green to starboard and red to port) which is only supposed to be used whilst sailing. Under power, a yacht is supposed to display separate navigation lights below a steaming light and with a stern light. With the stern light not working the other lights were redundant.
At 1730 local time (which it turned out was an hour ahead of thought I thought because of the use of summer daylight saving time which was not mentioned in the Pilot Book) we had about 30 miles and so as required I called up Bermuda Radio to inform them of our coming arrival and warned them that we would only be displaying our tricolour light.
The wind returned in fits and starts from about 2030 with us sailing for a short spells and then motoring. Finally, around 2300 it filled in properly and we had a very pleasant night sail up the South East coast of Bermuda.
Friday 5th May
The wind died again at around 0230. I would have been turning it on for our final approach at about 0330 anyway and therefore it was no great frustration to do so an hour earlier. The approach was well lit and so coupled with being able to ‘see’ the boat on the Navionics chart plotter, the entrance was reasonably straight forward. It did seem very narrow however! I cleared with Customs and Immigration around 0500 and got the Anchor down at 0530 and headed for my bunk.