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Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Dolphins' Dance: A Gulf Stream Crossing

Sailing across Little Bahama Bank

It was our intent to travel as far north up the U.S. East Coast as possible when we left the Bahamas.  That is, as far north as our weather window would allow, before landing on U.S. soil.  In preparation, we traveled to the north end of the Sea of Abaco and positioned ourselves off a tiny island called Great Sale Cay on the Little Bahama Bank.  It was a long day’s sail to reach that point but once there, we were ready for the good weather window as predicted.  
Leaving Great Sale Cay.  Only three boats left here out of ~30.

Thirty boats, give or take, were already at Great Sale Cay when we arrived there Monday evening.  By early next morning, the pack had started to thin.  The wind was good and the sailboats were heading north for the U.S. and Canada.  We needed just a bit of time to rest however.  
Little Bahama Bank is not little.   An area of approx. 160 square miles.

By the time we were ready to depart Tuesday afternoon, the winds had died significantly.  Sailing was “okay” for a while, but then we were obligated to resort to the “iron jenny”” once again—a sailor’s reference to running the engine because the sail (genoa, or “jenny”) was not adequate to make headway.  Carl had calculated that if we traveled at an average of 6 knots the entire way, we would make Charleston, S.C. in 63 hours.  Sixty three hours from Great Sale Cay, that is.  
Might as well make cookies on calm passage.

Sigh.  Apparently, our weather window was “too” good.  We had so little wind that we had to motor much of the way.  We kept our mains’l up which helped to stabilize the boat’s rocking, but often times, did not help us much for speed.  
Late afternoon with rain approaching.

Because we were using more fuel than wind to make it across the Gulf Stream, we decided to abandon the goal of Charleston, and instead headed toward landfall at Fernandina Beach, Florida.   We arrived today, a trip of 48 hours.  As luck would have it, just as we left the ocean and entered the channel leading to the St. Mary’s River at Fernandina Beach, the wind that we had so hoped for during our Gulf Stream crossing, arrived at last.  Aughhh.   
Approaching the Gulf Stream at sunset.  

Two other sailboats departed Great Sale Cay at about the same time we did.  As is common practice, the boats were in contact with one another during the passage.  The boats introduce themselves to one another by VHF radio, share our respective planned destinations and blatantly admit our appreciation for the presence of the others out there, three little boats on a big ocean, separated by a few miles of Atlantic.  At night, we could see two steaming lights on the horizon.  Four other people, just like us, out on the Atlantic, heading in the same direction.  There’s something reassuring about that.  
Clouds and moonlight on the ocean.

We set our course for the middle of the Gulf Stream, just where Chris Parker, our weather router had said it would be—at Lat 29 N, and Long 079.45 W, and once in it, had quite a ride.  We enjoyed speeds of 10 to 11 knots for several hours heading north mid-Gulf Stream.  That in spite of very little wind.  
Pair of dolphins with one directly below the other.
The most memorable part of the Crossing however, was the complimentary dolphin escorts both Tuesday and Wednesday evenings just before sunset.  

Two to four dolphins would lead just ahead of our bow.
On Tuesday evening, we were still on the Little Bahama Bank with water only 18 to 22 feet deep.  Suddenly, there were dolphins surrounding us, swimming parallel with the boat and seemingly eager to lead us onward.  They raced for the bow of the boat where they took turns being in the lead, one after another showing us the way forward, while the others of them feinted to the left and to the right, leaving another of their entourage to be the point man at the bow.  
Dolphins taking turns at the bow.  These two will go around to the stern and then return to the bow for another turn as lead.

They played in this manner with our sailboat for twenty minutes or more, as the sun closed the distance to the horizon.  And then they were gone.
These two are next "in line" to lead the vessel forward.

Wednesday late afternoon, mid Gulf Stream, thousands of feet of water beneath us, there they were again….not the same dolphins, of course, but a whole new squadron of them.  They surrounded the boat, while other newer recruits came flying and leaping through the water from behind to catch up.  

Three, four, five... up to six dolphins would join us at a time.
Another group came from the west, all of them eager to be part of the choreography.  Some sort of communication between them must provide them with the rules of the play—the prime directive, no doubt, being to escort our big, slow vessel toward the west while demonstrating the dolphins’ obvious superior skills.  
The dolphins really seem to enjoy the role of escorting Northern Star
Our boat was no competition for the dolphin’s ability to slice cleanly through the water, to leap and twist out of the water, and in synchronized fashion, to maneuver up, down and alongside their companions.  It was a well-rehearsed dance wherein each knew what the other’s next move would be.  
I began to recognize some of the dolphins as they took turns.

As if carefully choreographed, two or three dolphins would take the lead below our bow, then one by one peel off to the rear, so that another two or three could take their turn at the bow.  An egalitarian equal-opportunity set of rules which they played perfectly.   Good friends will play that role for you as well. 
Young dolphins playing in the water near one of our anchorages on the Sea of Abaco.

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