Even though it's a little bit delayed (we crossed on January 1st), we thought we'd share a little bit with you about crossing the Gulfstream and clearing into a new country on a boat. Our fellow sailors probably won't find this very interesting, but there is a fun video at the end! For our non-sailing friends - perhaps you will learn something!
What is the Gulfstream?
First things first, if you don't already know what the Gulfstream is - let me tell you. You've probably deduced yourself that it is a stream of sorts, likely running along the gulf... great job! That's correct.
You also might note that it originates in the Gulf of Mexico, and extends northbound along the east coast of North America until somewhere around Newfoundland, where it turns into the North Atlantic Current and branches off northeastward towards northern Africa and northwestern Europe... It seriously affects the climate of these places (they'd be notably colder if it weren't for this phenomenon). Pretty cool! I'm fairly certain it even reaches the Arctic Ocean eventually, but now we're drifting away from the topic at hand (hehe...).
Why is it a hazard to small boats?
It is less of a navigational hazard today, what with GPS being a common piece of equipment on most boats... but both Trevor's and my parents have told stories of almost "missing" the Bahamas due to it's strong northward push in the days of paper charts and dead reckoning.
Most small boats need to consider the unfavourable sea conditions that can develop quickly in the Gulfstream. Large, hazardous waves can develop more easily in the stream than in the surrounding ocean. Not only is it still exposed to Atlantic, but no matter what the wind and sea conditions are, the additional force of the current plays aggressively into the equation... The most important thing for us, being in a small sailboat, was waiting for the right wind direction.
The "Perfect" Conditions
For the second half of December, we were faced with the worst possible conditions: strong north winds. If you have wind blowing from the north onto a strong current coming from the south, you get massive, steep waves that would eat a boat like ours alive. Someone once told me to think of it like petting a cat from back to front... Don't get me wrong, there's nothing like standing in water up to your knees while struggling to hand steer your boat and dodge the ocean's big waves shooting up many feet above your boat... but we decided to wait.
The wind finally started to veer just after boxing day, but stopped in the Bahamas and blew right at us from the east for a few days. This is also non-ideal, less because of sea state, and more just because you can't sail a boat directly into the wind. The extra miles we'd tack on by zig-zagging our way to the Caribbean was tiring to think about...
A few more days and the wind died suddenly on New Years Eve... although still from the east, it blew at only about 4 knots. It wasn't forecast to pick up until the following afternoon, when a nasty cold front was to move in. Many of our fellow cruisers opted not to take this small window, citing (valid) reasons such as: the need to motor instead of sail to make miles in such light winds, the lack of an exit strategy should the engine fail (sailing across in 4 knots would take much longer than the allotted 16 hour window), and the fear that large swell might still be lingering from the last few days of gnarly weather...
We took their advice seriously, but were both firm in taking this window. Although, we didn't deflate and deck-mount our dinghy, incase we needed it for a tow in the unlikely event that our inboard engine failed.
What were we faced with when we got out there? A calm, serene, perfect Gulfstream. Check it out!
Clearing into the Bahamas
Step 1: As you saw in the video, step one is to replace your courtesy flag with the Q-flag. In my (limited) experience with flag etiquette, I've come to understand that your starboard (right hand) rigging is the place to fly such things. Your "courtesy flag" is the national flag of the country who's waters you are sailing in. The Q-flag, otherwise known as the quarantine flag, replaces the courtesy flag of your previous port until such a time that you clear customs of the new country. It's official meaning, as per the ICS (International Code of Signals), is "my vessel is healthy and i request free pratique". If you're curious, you can find the entire phonetic alphabet with corresponding flags and meanings here.
Typically, you also fly the flag of your hailing country (in our case, the Canadian flag), from the stern or the leech (back) of the aftermost (farthest back) sail. But, moving on!
Step 2: Arrive at the dock only to find... well, nobody. As a pilot, I'm trained that means "sit there and wait... and do not even think about stepping foot outside of your vessel until customs arrives and gives you permission to enter their country". But in this scenario, that is not the case. What you're actually supposed to do is come ashore at your own leisure, do whatever you want for as long as you want. For example: make breakfast, take a nap, wander over to the marina office, finally get told that if you want to clear customs you have to take the bus to the airport, and no you don't both need to go if you don't want...
Step 3: Don't worry, the bus will go to every other building on the island before it gets to the airport so you'll have plenty of time to fill out the forms for you and your Captain (who is taking a nap).
Step 4: Realize upon arrival that it is supposed to be the Captain that comes to clear his/her vessel and crew into the country... get new forms and fill them out again. Hehe - you are the Captain now. (Sorry Trev).
Step 5: Sketchily walk through some restricted areas to get airside and find the door to customs and immigration. Get asked 3 questions: do you have any weapons? What fishing gear do you have? Would you like a fishing permit?
Step 6: Pay the $150.00 fee for a cruising and fishing permit... Then, STAMP. They won't board your boat, don't want to meet the rest of the crew, and wish you a lovely time exploring their beautiful country. Run along now!