By “The Unknown Sailor” 

This time of year, especially for those who want to escape to warmer weather, head South. I’ve always wondered what it would be like to traverse the waterways by boat through South Florida and arrive at a tropical Bahama destination. I’ve heard of many who’ve done it, with trepidation at crossing the Gulf Stream. It can be a harrowing experience. Here is one such tale and we hope it conjures up a Parrothead version worthy of Jimmy Buffett. 

Lake Okeechobee Waterway

My husband and I recently returned from a Winter trip of what some call “The Crossing,” going from the Gulf of Mexico across the Sunshine State (west to east) via the Lake Okeechobee Waterway, and on to the Bahamas. For those who have never made the trek by boat, here are some of my observations learned from this first-timer.

The Waterway is, in places, very narrow (barely wide enough for two vessels with 15-foot beams each) and then other places quite wide (34 miles). Anglers have great luck in these waters, as it is known for its excellent fishing, especially for those pursuing bass and bream. 

For those sailors who are susceptible to allergies, however, it is also infamous for its persistent algal blooms. These blooms can cause respiratory irritation, so carry any medications that might help. For such a long body of water (154 miles), the Waterway is also rather shallow, with an average depth of 9 feet. 

In crossing the Waterway, boaters will find they must pass through five locks to get to the eastern part of coastal Florida. The first lock in Franklin, Florida, had only about a two-foot drop in water level. The attendants at this one were most helpful, offering very clear instructions and brochures with all the lock numbers, hours, and marinas, so boaters could call ahead. 

Other helpful advice was this: every sailor, from captain to the crew, is to follow all lock operator’s instructions. Under the auspices of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the lock operators have full authority. They are in charge of you and your vessel while you are locking through. They do have the authority to deny passage to any vessel. So you must maintain good manners, be patient, announce your presence (by radio) outside the lock, await orders, and do exactly as the lock operators say. 

Everyone on board is required to wear a life jacket when locking through, and gloves are recommended as the lines inside the lock can be coated with grasses and/or slime (the lines hang at about 6-foot intervals, so a boat hook is advised). Of the five locks on the Okeechobee Waterway, the water differential is anywhere from two feet to 14 feet, so it’s important to pay attention to keep people and vessels safe (for those visual learners, you can also watch videos on YouTube on locking through). 

The last lock (heading east) is at Port St. Lucie, and most boaters seek refuge at marinas nearby (such as one in Stuart, Florida), where they watch weather reports and wait for the best day to make the crossing across the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas.

Crossing the Gulf Stream

The power of water cannot be emphasized enough here. Smart and cautious boaters and sailors know to keep a constant eye on reports from the Coast Guard, NOAA, and buoy reports. The Gulf Stream can be life-threatening for those who cross it—even on a so-called “good day.” 

The current of the Gulf Stream can push a vessel north when it’s headed east, making the journey even longer. Furthermore, wind from the north can push against the current; this can create dangerous wave conditions. There have been some accounts of Gulf Stream waves as high as five stories tall, which can sink even large ships very quickly.

After looking over all wind, weather, and current conditions, we set out to cross the Gulf Stream on a day that all predictions were said to have little winds and only 1-2 foot seas. But, as anyone who has listened to a fair weather forecast, even those predictions can be off. On what was supposed to be the best day to cross in three weeks, the waves turned out to be 5-6 feet coming at us on our port side, with a strong, gusty north wind off the bow. Needless to say, these conditions obliged us to wear our life vests and hold on.

These conditions didn’t last unbearably long: the worst of it only lasted about three hours and we made the last five hours in relatively calm conditions. As we approached Spanish Cay (just south of Walker’s Cay), we hoisted the yellow “quarantine” flag as required by the Bahamian government.

When you first enter the Bahamas, you must fly this flag. It tells the authorities “We need to clear Customs.” After you have cleared Customs, you then hoist the Bahamian (national) flag, right under your country’s flag. This tells the authorities that you have cleared Customs and are legally in the Bahamas (and you can purchase these flags via Amazon before your trip). 

When you first arrive in the Bahamas, no one but the captain is supposed to leave the boat until Customs has approved your entry. Not every island has a Customs official, so it’s up to the captain to check on this before departure. The one Customs official at Spanish Cay was supposed to be off duty at 4, but she stayed until 4:30 to process our passports, boat registration, and immigration cards.

When staying on your vessel in the Bahamas, there is an additional form to fill out, stating how long you will have her moored in the islands and where you plan to go (a tentative itinerary). You must also complete and have approved a vessel manifest.

Once legally and safely here, it’s island-hopping time! 

When asked, the Unknown Sailor said “Yes, I would do it again.” That’s a powerful statement considering I’ve heard from others who would hesitate. I think I’d like to experience The Crossing, at least once. I just need a bigger boat!

Feb 7, 2024
Day Trippin'

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