The slate grey clouds hang dense and low over the Gulf of Mexico. I’d forgotten just how green these waters are. In the distance, I can just make out the silhouette of Florida pines dotting the beach dunes. The south wind picked up just after dawn and the sails are at full hoist and drawing nicely. We have just begun our ninth consecutive day at sea. What seems like a very long time ago, we weighed anchor in Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. We stocked the fridge, buttoned up the boat, and sailed off without fanfare. What had become the very familiar landscape of the harbor slipped from view as we turned homeward. The plotter calculates that was 1170 nautical miles ago. Fifty miles to go.
This most recent hop was our longest sail ever, and neither of us feels like we’re likely to ever top it. In my more cynical moments, I ask why I would ever want to. After all, it’s a long damn trip from the eastern Caribbean to the Gulf Coast of Florida when you’re travelling slower than you would on a leisurely bike ride.
The Virgin Islands gave way to the Spanish Virgins and the sight of the sun setting over the towering green hills of Puerto Rico. Traversing this bank, the seas were tame and the winds brisk – a perfect day for a few hours’ sail. As every voyager knows, the ocean makes false promises. The docile bank sailing soon gave way to the open Atlantic and the deep water delivered a long, rolling swell that made me grateful for seasick pills. We had left the friendly confines behind for a while. The wind built behind us and the seas stacked up high against the rugged Puerto Rican coast. We gave each other a look that said, “how many more days of this?”
As we transited north of the Mona Passage, the haze allowed the briefest glimpse of the Dominican Republic to our south. The wind built some more, sails were reefed, harnesses clipped in. We settled into our watch schedule. By day we napped when we could in anticipation of nights interrupted by sail changes and higher winds. A natural phenomenon in these waters is the diurnal pattern of higher wind and seas at night than during the day. A waning moon guaranteed that we wouldn’t be able to see the giant seas bearing down upon our stern. Fantastic.
By now, whenever the wind dropped below 25 knots, it felt like a vacation. It didn’t happen often. Every now and again, the waves and swell would conspire to send a couple of dozen gallons of water leaping into the cockpit. The weatherman said tonight would be even worse. By sunset, the seas approached ten feet and we surfed the waves under a tiny scrap of sail – a triple-reefed mainsail with the boom lashed down tight. A dark, overcast night of 30 knots sustained winds with gusts in the high 30s. Relaxing.
The next morning as we approached the southern Bahamas, I radioed the weather guru in Florida to inquire if stopping for 12 or 24 hours to hide behind an island would improve our lot. I paraphrase: “St. Somewhere, as you head west things will get better, but for the next two days things are a bit salty. You’ll have wind of 20-25 knots if you like that kind of thing. Based on where you’ve been sailing for the last two days though, I don’t see a problem.” Splendid.
The Great Bahama Bank finally welcomed us with a white sand bottom and depths measured in tens of feet instead of thousands. The shallow water behaved as the laws of physics demand and gave us some peace. We spied the island of Great Inagua low on the horizon and exhaled. A couple of days of turquoise sea and sunshine with perfect sailing conditions reminded us why we did this instead of flying coach in the first place. Nights were filled with a canopy of stars uncountable and bioluminescence in our wake. Unforgettable.
We emerged into the deep water once again, and I slept through most of the Gulf Stream crossing. After a week at sea, we had stared giving each other longer stretches of sleep, and I must have needed some. I now define “deep sleep” as the ability to not notice that the boat is rolling 30 degrees to each side while a diesel engine is started 30 inches from my ear.
We’ve been racing a cold front to central Florida. Thanks to spot-on forecasting, we’ve been aware of it since Saturday evening and have kept our speed up. The leading edge of that front looks to be filled with heavy squalls and strong thunderstorms, so it’s not really a fair fight for us if we meet head on. But the winds have been fair and it looks like we will win the race to St. Pete Beach by several hours. I have seen the future, and this evening it looks like a couch and Thai take-out.
It has been nearly two years since we began this voyage and at this moment I am unable to put the emotions I feel at its conclusion into words. I’m also not at all certain that I have any interest in sharing those thoughts or whether anyone would care to listen to them. Wordsworth once said that poetry takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility. While I am certainly no poet, I’m counting on the tranquility of home to sort that out.
Until then, I wish you fair winds from the crew of St. Somewhere.