Sailing to Panama: Georgia to Bahamas via Florida

It took an insane amount of work to get to the starting point. In hindsight everything could have been done with a faster pace, but to be fair we really did the best we could especially considering that we were in Brunswick and not in some inhospitable and hostile place. Around us friends and familiar place pampered us making leaving a heart breaking business.

Provisioning before departure

After 4 years though we had grown very tired of the East Coast of USA and that offered an important motivating factor to get going, and do what we planned for so long.

Brunswick Landing Marina: the Chaos before departure

AS first step we relocated from Brunswick Landing Marina,where we made all final preparation, to the Frederica River, in the anchorage close to the Frederica Yacht Club. The yacht club is currently under reconstruction after tropical storm Hermine damaged docks and boats pretty badly in 2016. Tranquility was moored there for over two years while we were making her the boat she is now, and we had great time in the beautiful marsh with the fantastic people we met during those time.

Leaving downtown Brunswick

Before undertaking a longer sailing passage we like to spend the last hours at anchor, to get a little more used to the motion of the boat and the ocean. Usually that’s the time when we stowe everything and get the boat ready. Then we sit on weather watch, waiting for the right wind and the right tide to have a good start.

LOG: 00 nm – April 24th 10:30 AM We departed Frederica River anchorage with very gusty westerlies brought by a cold front. We saw it as a good opportunity to make progress south, as during spring the prevailing winds blow from the south-east or south. We were hoping to get past Cape Canaveral before turning to cross the Gulf Stream and make the Bahamas from there.

Well, as I wrote in a previous post, things changed as usual.

LOG: 130 nm – April 25th 8:30 PM we pulled into New Smyrna Beach right at sunset dropping anchor just off the ICW exhausted and not feeling well. The gusty westerlies created choppy waves that tested our guts and heads. It’s always trying to go offshore after a period spent in calm waters.

Anchorages and City Marina in New Smyrna Beach

 

The next morning we moved to what we thought it was a better anchorage, bumped our keel here and there on sand banks till we finally got a decent spot. At least that was what we thought.

The anchorage was really affected by the current and the wind was sometimes blowing strong from the South which make it a bit uncomfortable. Even if we were at the very beginning of our trip we really got some cruising vibes, after all we were in a new place, for no particular reason. After a little bit of self loathing about our poor sailing shape, we regained enthusiasm and started to relax and enjoy visiting the area.

Even if we sailed only a little more than 100 miles our trip had technically begun and we were voyaging.

First we went for a three mile row to town on our dinghy (assisted by the tide). We visited the local library, shopped in a supermarket for fresh provisions and snoop around the downtown area. Then Kate decided to do like the locals, which means enjoy the sandbars that come out at low tide. She brought Beta along for some training.

After the recon we decided to pull in New Smyrna Beach City Marina for two nights, to do some resupply, including water, propane and groceries. We finally learned where Rockhouse anchorage (the good one)  was and moved there on weather watch. The westerlies were coming back and we felt ready to give it another try.

May 6th 10 AM: We departed NSB toward the end of the passing front. From the anchorage we couldn’t tell how strong it was blowing and once out of the anchorage we felt all the power of the gusts, but it was just a matter of holding on for few hours before the wind would become more manageable, once out in the ocean the northern component of the westerlies was prevailing and we could sail a more comfortable broad reach.

LOG: 260NM – May 7th  The wind gradually decreased and when light air threatened our progress south we used St.Lucie Inlet and the rising tide to tuck in the ICW again.

It’s funny how user generated content on the Internet tend to be extreme and therefore basically useless. On Active Captain (that we use as a research tool among other sources) the inlet is described as following:

St. Lucie Inlet is dangerous and particularly hazardous to small boats not designed to the open seas. Persons using the inlet should be experienced boatmen and have local knowledge”. Another source states that “The St. Lucie Inlet has a reputation for being one of the most treacherous in Florida.”

We read those type of warning for many inlets all over the East Coast. Move from inland waters to the open ocean could brings risks and can be dangerous under the right circumstances. Precautions and safety should be used every time we are out on the water. However, I find that excessive alarmism does not provide an accurate and informative picture of the situation.

This may be a peculiar character of American culture, that I find found in other circumstances. Author David Sedaris, in his very funny and intelligent book ME TALK PRETTY ONE DAY, describes it in a very trenchant way:

“At the San Diego Zoo, right near the primates habitats, there’s a display featuring a dozen life-size gorillas made out of bronze. Posted nearby is a sign reading CAUTION: GORILLAS STATUES MAY BE HOT. Everywhere you turn, the obvious is being stated. CANNON MAY BE LOUD. SIDEWALK IS ABOUT TO END. To people who don’t run around suing one another, such signs suggest a crippling lack of intelligence. Place bronze statues beneath the southern California sun, and of course they’re going to get hot. Cannons are supposed to be loud, that’s their claim to fame, and – like it or not – the moving sidewalk is bound to end sooner or later. It’s hard to explain a country whose motto has become you can’t claim I din’t warn you.”

The warning from ActiveCaptain made us a little more anxious than necessary as we proceeded to the inlet. We had very good weather conditions, and the transit didn’t pose any hazard to our vessel and our well being. The inlet is wide and well marked and with enough depth even for bigger vessels. The trickiest part was to endure the wakes from insolent powerboaters, which, considering the habits of the population, give legitimacy to the alarmist warning.

The “treacherous” St.Lucie Inlet

After surviving the Inlet, we sailed pushed by a good sea breeze and with a little help from the current. We kept sailing until we found a nice spot to anchor in Peck Lake, right off the ICW just south of Stuart, FL. We found it to be a quiet anchorage with no wake and we had a very restful night.

Peck Lake Anchorage

LOG 268NM – May 8th The next morning we continued south on the ICW sailing by the millionaires’ mansions. It was just a short trip to a new anchorage called Hell Gate, by the village of Tequesta,FL. The entrance to the anchorage is very shallow (5 ft. at MLW) and about 7 feet in the actual basin, but our small vessel had no trouble sneaking in.

Hell Gate anchorage in Jupiter, FL

 

 

 

 

 

 

We were the only vessel there and the location was perfect for a quick trip ashore to West Marine (we dropped a winch handle in the drink leaving New Smyrna), Publix, the Post Office, and a very well deserved burger with fries in a local diner. Without refrigeration on board meat is a luxury that we rarely enjoy, and this was a pleasurable exception.

LOG:283 nm – May 9th We waited for slack low tide to proceed across another dangerous inlet (Jupiter Inlet) without adverse current. Instead of sailing out in the ocean we asked to break a sweat to our electric motor, especially because there was little or no wind. While we waited for the tide to change we rowed across the ICW to Blowing Rock Natural Reserve, the very first place where we started to perceive Caribbean vibes. Here we took advantage of a nice cold shower.

The motor-sailing down the ICW to the Palm Beach area was nothing special, something we did already many times,but the North Palm Beach anchorage was calm and quiet, despite being in the middle of the a very populated area. Beta went to the doctor for a quick check on his tooth that was removed in Brunswick and he was discharged. All good for him to leave.

North Palm Beach

 

LOG: 286nm – May 10th and 11th We moved to the starting line, right by West Palm Beach  near the inlet. To be honest, a horrible place. If we needed more motivation to leave the US for good, this was the perfect spot to be: crammed with boats at anchor and on moorings, with barges and commercial ships moving in and out, surrounded by a horrible landscape made of condominiums and warehouses, noisy and filled with bad odors.

Luckily we had a nice neighbor, a young diver living aboard his sailboat who filled us up with all the rumors of this crazy place and its politics. Besides the nice chatting we just waited, and napped, with Tranquility ready to leave at any time, whenever the winds picked up and following an ebbing tide.

Finally the moment arrived at 11pm, we weighed anchor and got flushed out of Florida for good.

Bye bye Florida, it’s been real.

 

Sailing to Panama: the route

When you find yourself in the situation of having a fine sailing vessel, equipped and provisioned for long voyages and when you finally severed the ties that bind you to a specific geographical location, you could incur in the trouble of having to decide where to go.

It may sounds a silly “first world problem” but the world is big and there are so many beautiful places to visit. If you have the goal of circumnavigating the planet then at least you know that you will leave from point A to return to point A. The route then becomes a matter of preference in regard of type of sailing (warm vs. cold), budget and geopolitical situation en route.

We never had a circumnavigation as our main goal, so we faced a very open ended problem. Our only requirements were to stay out of the Hurricane tracks and, possibly, not spend too much money.

After long discussions, numerous changes and endless planning Kate and I agreed to point Tranquility towards Panama.

The reasons in favor of the central American country are the following:

  • This is were we first met six years ago and we haven’t been back since. We still have friends there that we regularly speak to and we want to hug them.
  • It is outside of hurricanes and tropical storms range.
  • Panama is a beautiful and very biodiverse country, touched by two oceans, with hills and mountains covered by rain forest, and surrounded by numerous tropical islands. All packed in a small, accessible territory.
  • Fruit and vegetables taste good, fish and seafood is abundant and not affected by ciguatera.
  • We have an option to continue towards the Pacific if we decide to, or alternatively, to explore the Caribbean side of Central America

THE WINDWARD PASSAGE ROUTE

Once picked our destination, we had to figure out which way to go. If you know something about sailing you understand that the obstacles involved are not only the visible ones. Weather patterns have a paramount influence over the possible routes, and they have to be taken into account to foresee which type of trip to expect.

The first important call to make was wether passing Cuba to the east or the west. Panama lies due south of Florida and the long and tall island of Cuba sits right in the way.  Predominant winds and currents flow E to W fueled by the Atlantic trade winds, making it inevitable to beat upwind: you can either do it earlier, through the Bahamas all the way to the Windward passage, or later, once past the western tip of Cuba; you can face the fierce but steady Atlantic Ocean or try your chances with the capricious Caribbean Sea.

We opted for the Windward Passage route even if the one along the south of Cuba had its attractive and advantages. We thought the Bahamas way could be faster, and considering that it was already that the end of April and we were approaching the beginning of Hurricane season time was a factor to take into account.

Over time we had learned that we prefer to make longer stops and visit places in a relaxed way in between longer sailing passages, rather than keep moving in small sections.

Finally with a destination in mind we started to feel excited about this new chapter. The only thing left was to wrap up the long process that we started one year earlier and sail to the Bahamas.