Conditions: Sunny and warm. Winds from the east/southeast 5 – 10 mph. Seas less than 2 feet.
Distance traveled: 99 nautical miles (114 statute miles)
Time underway: 9 hours 14 minutes
Average Speed: 10.7 knots
Max Speed: 18 knots
Fuel used: 156 gallons
The big day was finally upon us – our crossing of the southeast corner of the Gulf Of Mexico from Marco Island to Key West. A lot of planning, preparation, and energy had gone into this “event.” Why was it such an event for us? After all, people make this trip every day. In fact, we made the trip once before when we brought Soggy Dog IV from Marco to Key West back in 2011. But the longer we have been boating the more cautious and careful we have become. Over the years we’ve learned that being thorough with our due-diligence about any travel day is important, but especially one that will take us forty miles away from land. Some people think we’d become more relaxed with time, but the more miles you have under your keel the more you have experienced the variety of what mother nature, Neptune and all of the other boating powers can throw at you and there is no such thing as being too prepared. We learn something new every time we are on the water, no matter how perfect the passage.
First, the weather. Other than our last, easy run from Captiva to Marco Island, this was going to be the first time we were offshore since our extremely unpleasant leg in the Atlantic from Brunswick, GA to Fernandina, Florida in early January. That experience definitely made us trepidatious and we were not going to head out for this relatively long day so far from land without carefully evaluating the weather and picking what looked like the best possible day based on lots of available information. As we all know, the forecasts aren’t always right and the Gulf is known to change in an instant, but you can study patterns and really come to understand what creates what should be the best set of circumstances for an ideal forecast. And that’s what we wanted. And as much as we know about evaluating our trove of weather data, it always helps to consult with someone who is particularly familiar with the nuances of the weather in a specific area. That’s why we didn’t hesitate to reach out to our dear friend Pete who has spent years in these cruising grounds and has traveled on his boats to the Keys many times. He was thrilled to help and had a great summary of what we should expect/be looking for. We took the liberty of posting his notes here as we think this is super-helpful for newbies to this trip or even seasoned travelers:
For crossing to Key West there are a couple of things to keep in mind that the weather forecasts don’t tend to reflect. The prevailing winds this time of the year are almost always out of the E/SE. That said, the wind direction changes as the day progresses and the further south you go into open water. In the morning, the wind is likely to be from the east, blowing offshore with calm to minimal following seas. As the sun heats up the air, the sea breeze increases and begins shift more to the south, even turning onshore (on your nose) late in the day. As a result, the conditions you have at the start will almost assuredly be different when you arrive. Not necessarily worse, just different.Unlike the Atlantic, the Gulf “swells” are very mild and shallow but close together so don’t let the frequency scare you. It’s the wind waves that can present the problem — close together, choppy and often confused. The good news is you have the entire Florida peninsula and the barrier islands of the keys to help keep the sea fetch down with east winds right now. Your best option would be to find a window with a defined high pressure system over your route of travel. Those tend to be more stable and easier to predict sea conditions from start to finish.
So the good news for us is that high pressure had ruled the area for the entire week and was forecast to continue beyond our planned travel day. The forecast for the day we picked was for winds out of the east and southeast at 5-10 mph along our entire travel route except for the very last several miles where it was predicted to clock around a bit more from the south. Seas were forecast to be less than 2 feet with a period of 3 seconds – in other words, virtually flat.
With the forecast as good as we could hope for we focused our pre-travel day on prepping the boat. We did thorough engine room checks, looking for anything that seemed abnormal, topping off fluids where necessary and generally putting our hands on everything on our 825 hp power plants. Same for the generator, thrusters and steering system. We deployed our anchor to confirm that our windlass (the motorized system that lowers and raises our anchor) was in good working order. The nice thing about crossing this section of the Gulf is even though you are far offshore, you are rarely in more than fifty feet of water so you can drop the anchor if you need to hold your position.
We inspected our life raft and placed it in a good position for deployment. We inspected our PFD’s (lifejackets) and positioned them “at the ready.” We unpacked and repacked our “ditch bag.” This is a small, water-resistant, floating bag in which we stash, among other things, a personal locator beacon that can be activated to aid in search and rescue, a fully-charged handheld VHF radio, a first aid kit, flares, a mirror (for reflecting the sun to draw attention to one’s location), an air horn and whistle, lines, a variety of very sharp knives, water, boat paperwork and even our computers’ backup hard drives. We discussed various scenarios and revisited our emergency protocols. Again, you simply cannot be too prepared.
Now that we were ready to go, our biggest hope was that we would wake up to a clear morning. There was heavy fog to start the day before we left and we had no interest in beginning our travel day in the soup, particularly because we would be transiting the somewhat tricky Big Marco Pass, the inlet to get back onto the Gulf, one hour before low tide.
When we awoke at 5:45am (I should say ‘got out of bed’ because of course, we were awake long before that in anticipation of our day), there was no apparent fog and it was still very dark. We had done most every last bit of prep the night before including putting away our boarding stairs so there wasn’t much to do other than one final look through the engine rooms, a final check of the weather, unplug OLOH from shore power and, of course, walk Jasper. He had a ten hour day without grass ahead of him.
We were off the docks at 6:35am, just as the first light of dawn began to appear to the east. Dockmaster Captain Richard came down early to see us off and toss us our lines.
After clearing the inlet without incident just before the sun started to rise we were greeted by a pod of dolphins playing ahead of us – a sign of good luck!
Then, after clearing the sea buoy, we turned OLOH to a heading of 191 degrees which would be our course for the next approximately 80 nautical miles – a direct line to the sea buoy at the entrance to Key West’s northwest channel.
The forecast was spot-on. The sun quickly warmed the morning and at 9:15am we moved up to the bridge to enjoy the ride under a cloudless sky with temps at around 75 degrees. We saw very few pleasure boats along our route and none closer than five or so miles away.
While our auto-pilot kept us on course, it is imperative along this route to keep a vigilant watch for crab pots which, at times, are seemingly everywhere. Fortunately, traveling at around ten knots, we can pick them out pretty easily, but some of them lurk just below the surface or are painted a color that’s harder to spot. It is most certainly not a stress-free, set-it-and-forget-it kind of ride. We brought our travel time down a bit by running our speed up for a spell every hour or so but then you really have to be on your toes for the pots. Pots are probably the biggest negative of this trip.
While we had the Gulf seemingly to ourselves for many miles, it was suddenly odd to see around a dozen boats show up on our radar and AIS (vessel transponder system) when we were around forty miles out with no land in sight, just about due-west from the southern edge of Cape Sable (see map at the beginning of this post). From the AIS data, we could see that these were fishing vessels and they were all congregating within an area of about three or four square miles that our plotted course took us directly through. We adjusted our heading a bit to give them all a very wide berth and wondered how long those seamen had been or would be out there. Those are not fast moving vessels and they were far from, well, anything (but fish).
And then, after what can only be described as a perfect crossing, we made our turn at the Key West sea buoy at 2:25 PM and pointed OLOH directly towards the contiguous United States’ southernmost city. It’s a magical moment we remember from our last and only other time through here by water – when you turn to the east and the waters begin to shallow-up, the color begins to glow that turquoise blue you’ve been dreaming about. Despite the 80 degree, sunny weather, it was easy to get the chills at this moment.
When we rounded the westernmost tip of the southernmost town we crossed the point where the Gulf meets the Atlantic en route to our marina. That’s when the heavier seas driven by the strong southeast wind started to build but it was only for a few miles and completely manageable. There was an instant energy not only emanating from shore but from the water all around us. Parasails were in the air behind small power boats, sport-fish boats were returning from their day at sea and watercraft of all kinds buzzed about. We had arrived in Key West!
The approach to the marina was straight-forward, our alongside tie to a floating dock was as easy as it gets and we felt like we were home. And that’s what it shall be for at least, well, who knows?! Time for that arrival OLOH-Rita. CHEERS!!
Please be sure to subscribe to the blog on the top right of this page to get notified when updates are posted. And please leave any comments or questions below – we love to hear from you & know that you’re along for the ride! You can also follow us on Twitter at @MYOLOH and for plenty more pictures and video find us on Instagram. And the M/Y OLOH Facebook Page is live so please like us & follow us there as well.