Avoiding mischievous dolphins and weather on a Miami-to-Bimini run

Wham! A dolphin shot out of the water. Aimed straight for the boat’s windshield, I didn’t even have time to duck. I just stared like a deer caught in a car’s headlights. But he was only fooling with me. He dove right back under the sea’s surface and passed under the keel. I swear that the dolphin smiled broadly upon seeing my shock. He was probably just a youngster playing a joke on me.

But what if?… There were no other boats in sight. No land visible in the distance. Nothing. I was alone on the Atlantic Ocean about 14 miles from South Florida’s coast, heading to the Bahamian Islands of Bimini. The boat’s sounder had stopped reading the water depth (about 400 feet down) long ago. My cellphone no longer had a signal. The VHF was tuned to Channel 16 and I heard other boaters, but they were over the horizon, somewhere. I was very, very happy if also rattled.

I had initially planned on cruising up the Intra-Coastal Waterway to the Chesapeake Bay, but had suddenly seized an opportunity and pointed the runabout’s bow east. A Bimini Islands adventure was a long-held dream of mine. I’d been to the Bahamas several times, but always on other peoples’ boats. This time the good ship was mine. I’d also tested it for over 10 hours on short trips around the greater Miami area while closely following the weather forecast, awaiting the right day.

On my departure’s eve, NOAA’s marine forecast indicated nearly perfect sea and wind conditions for a Bahamian crossing. I checked out of my hotel, dropped off my rental car and prepared to sleep aboard the runabout in a comforter so I could get an early start.

I wasn’t nervous. I’ve been boating for nearly 50 years and logged several thousand miles cruising. I passed the first of four CG courses before I was a teenager. I’ve owned many boats and experienced a variety of waterways across the country. So I was cautious, but confident in my boat and myself.

As predicted, the waves were not bad at all. They afforded a rather gentle but spirited runabout cruise to the islands due to the broad spacing between the five-foot-high swells. The boat slowly rose and fell as the waves marched northward under the keel. The chop was acceptable for this dayboat’s hull shape.

I used Richardson’s chartbook, Florida Keys and Bimini, as well as Maptech’s Florida’s East Coast Chartkit for navigation. Although both had pre-printed course headings overlaid on their charts, one must also allow for the Gulf Stream drift.

Think of the Gulf Stream as a “river”, running north within the Atlantic Ocean between South Florida’s coast and Bimini Island. It drags all boats northward as they try to cross East-West between Florida and the Islands. The slower the boat travels, the longer it’s in this current, and the more off-course any compass heading becomes.

What is Bimini like? It’s two low-lying islands. There’s hurricane damage to some buildings, but the water is every bit as magnificent as it looks in the commercials: Turquoise – an unbelievable, deep turquoise color. You can see bottom even when it’s fairly deep. Experienced islanders can navigate by looking at the water’s colors and tones.

By the time I reached the islands and cruised around locally, the weather forecast for the next few days became far worse than I had expected. Most likely I would have to wait at least three days to get good crossing weather again—maybe longer. Since it was still early on this picture-perfect morning, and I had plenty of fuel for a quick run back to Miami, this trip turned out to be an “over-and-back” in the same day.

And it was a good decision, dolphins not withstanding. A center-console fishing boat sank near Florida’s coast the next day. If I hadn’t paid attention to the forecast and just got caught up in that morning’s splendor, I could have been caught out there in those sea and wind conditions, too.

Regarding the original plan to cruise northward: Although I’d made the 1,000-mile cruise before in a cabin cruiser, this runabout had no head, shower, or berth. It proved do-able, but that’s a different story.

Disclaimer and Editor’s note: Hagerty Insurance does not cover international runs and Mr. Brown’s policy wouldn’t have covered him in the event of a loss. Shame on you Mr. Brown.

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