Crossings on the Great Loop
One of the challenges of the Great Loop in a trawler, travelling at seven miles an hour, is crossing large bodies of water, sometimes overnight. Crossings of 30, 50, 80 or 172 miles are required to cross Lake Ontario, Lake Michigan, the Gulf of Mexico and the Gulf Stream to get to the Bahamas.
Lake Ontario was a breeze. We had light winds and made good time. We crossed north from St. Catharines, where we put in, to Toronto and after a few days of storms, travelled east along the north shore of Lake Ontario to Trenton, via the Murray Canal, to the beginning of the Trent Severn Waterway.
On Lake Michigan we followed the east shore south from Mackinac Island on Lake Huron to Michigan City and then made our crossing west across the bottom of Lake Michigan to Chicago within sight of land.
The challenge is that on large bodies of waters winds can come up quickly with waves coming from many directions at a time, making it difficult to navigate. You are forced to tack like a sailboat so that the waves hit your boat on the front quarters ( right or left of the bow), or directly on the bow to make cruising possible.
Our boat does not like following seas (winds directly behind us) because it makes it difficult to steer. The worst is the beam sea which causes us to toss from side to side. This wave action makes it difficult to stand or move around the boat and things shift in the lockers and closets. Beam seas also happen when we get “waked” by another boat passing us too close and too fast in the Intracoastal Waterways or canals. When this happens we turn our bow into the waves to ride the wake.
In storms big waves may come from many directions at a time and the issues are compounded. It is difficult to move around the cabin, it’s impossible to cook and you need to brace yourself constantly. In the dark it’s hard to be prepared for the direction of the waves so we never travel at night unless unavoidable.
Of course, there is always the fear when you are out in rough water that the waves will get worse than predicted. On a short two-hour crossing from Petosky to Charlevoix on the east coast of Lake Michigan the average wave height was predicted to be 2-3 feet, which we thought we could handle.
Later we learned that NOAA (National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration) uses data to predict average wave height with the proviso that the highest waves will be average height times two! So even though most waves should be 2-3 feet, waves of six feet should be expected. The local knowledge is to double NOAA’s prediction.
When the waves were 4-6 feet we tacked, heading the bow into the waves and rode the crest of the waves. Although this method increased our time on the water, so the journey took three hours, it made us more comfortable, and it was a good lesson that has had implications for the future. We had waited for good weather in Petosky for three days and quickly learned that we should have waited four days, when the winds lessened.
By the time we got to the south end of Lake Michigan we found an app on Roger’s iPhone called Sailflow and we were able to determine what time of day the winds would be strongest and avoided them arriving safely in daylight in Chicago.
We are now very careful to watch and discuss the weather apps (Sailflow, Passageweather, Windfinder and Weather Underground) and the government site (NOAA), many times a day that give wind direction and speed, wave height, tide, currents, temperature, precipitation and weather warnings for days before a big crossing to ensure good weather remains stable.
The weather map shows us at the blue dot looking south east to cross the Gulf of Mexico to Dunedin and the colours indicate the wind strength (see colour chart at top of page) and the arrows give the wind direction. Directly from the east is not good as it gives waves that hit the boat on the beam. Acceptable colours for us are grey to green but really we prefer blue for most of the trip. You can see it’s much calmer closer to shore.
This chart indicates the weather, temperature, precipitation and the wind speed including direction. Not a good day to cross. Look at the wind speeds on the bottom row.
Weather buoys are located in appropriate locations for mariners out in the Gulf of Mexico and the data they provide is locally important. We can check a number of them on the routes we need to travel. 42036 was the number of the NOAA buoy off the coast of St. Petersburg. We used another just south of Dog Island at the entrance to East Pass where we anchored in a protected bay the night before we were hoping to cross the Gulf of Mexico.
Then if the weather apps and the government predictions agree and the weather has been stable for a while we are convinced it’s safe to attempt a crossing.
I also plan, purchase and prepare meals and snacks and drinks in advance and we wear our lifejackets. We study the charts to familiarize ourselves with the channels we will enter when we get to shore and access the marina.
Gulf of Mexico
The next crossing was the Gulf of Mexico from Carrabelle on Florida’s panhandle to Tarpon Springs, Dunedin or Clearwater on the west coast of Florida. “Go-slow” loopers like us may avoid that by following the swampy shoreline which is called the Big Bend. This route takes them from Carrabelle on the panhandle east to Steinhatchie, then south to Cedar Key and south again to Tarpon Springs.
The problem is that that route takes three consecutive good days of travel weather, and as we learned at our Looper Rendevous, this is unlikely to happen. The upshot is that you may be stuck for days or weeks, in a tiny fishing village partway, and winds may prevent you from leaving. We decided to go straight across from Carrabelle to Dunedin where we had free marina accommodation as we had won a two-week free stay at Marker One Marina.
Our other source of information was Eddie we met at the Rendevous, who is an expert volunteer with the America’s Great Loop Cruiser’s Association (AGLCA). Eddie looks at all the weather apps, NOAA and probably a lot of other information. He posts a comment each morning called Eddie’s Weather Wag and lets us know if a crossing is going to be safe for fast boats to do a daytime crossing or an overnight crossing for slow boats like us. It was reassuring to see his “wag” to let us know when we should go and when we should stay.
We used all of our new knowledge and Eddie’s Weather Wag and waited 16 days, 15 days in Appalachicola and one night at Dog Island near Carabelle, for an acceptable crossing. We weathered high winds, three inches of rain and cold. Interestingly Appalachicola is the sunniest part of the state but they were having unseasonably cold, wet, windy weather.
Appalachicola was recommended as a place to wait by Eddie because it is a charming quaint town with many historic homes and museums, restaurants and areas of natural beauty.
A window opened during the waiting time but winds of 20 knots were forecast so we decided to not go as that was not going to be comfortable for us on our smaller boat. We have an agreement that if either of us is uncomfortable with the weather predictions (or any other matter) that we won’t go and both of us decided that we wouldn’t go until the winds were less than a maximum of 15 knots (preferably five knots) and waves less than two feet.
The boats that did go said we were wise to stay put. One Looper reported she had to crawl around her boat to move safely through the heavy seas. The other boats left them, so they didn’t have help if they needed it. It was dark the entire night as they had no moonlight and they got “beat up.” When we caught up to them in Dunedin she said she was still recovering. Another rumour said that one wife (Admiral) wanted to sell their boat. We have met a number of men cruising alone over the years whose wives will no longer cruise with them after being scared, so although we didn’t like to wait, we felt that we had made the right decision for us.
To ensure our safety we planned to travel with buddy boats. We had a number of meetings with our friends on Serenity Now, Mara Beel and Sea Horse and agreed to travel at our slower speed, stay in radio contact over the trip and offer support if it was needed. We decided when to leave from Dog Island off Carrabelle and when to arrive in Dunedin in daylight to avoid the hundreds of crab traps that could entangle our propellers. We also decided where each boat would be in our parade owing to their size, and whether they had AIS (automated identification system) which allow them to identify other boats should they be in range. Roger and I agreed on shifts when we drove the boat and when we slept and this worked for the most part on the 24 hour crossing.
A fifth boat Perfect Balance was anchored at Dog Island with us and they decided to join our group at the last minute.
TA TA was in the third position behind a larger boat Mara Beel which took the tops off the waves for us.
During the voyage we followed each other on the radar screen and constantly monitored marine radio channels 16 and 68. Channel 16 is for the Coast Guard and weather alerts and channel 68 is for general communication for boaters. We organized half hour radio contact to ensure everyone was alright and awake. By 4 AM Dan was telling us jokes on the radio.
Surprisingly someone played bagpipe music over the marine radio on channel 68 at sun down so Roger played Here comes the Sun by the Beatles at daybreak. It was magical.
Roger complained he couldn’t sleep in the bow when he got “air.” I found I could wedge myself with pillows and I had three refreshing naps over the course of the night. Some couples stayed up all night.
On our crossing, winds were less than 15 knots and much less than that most of the time and waves were less than two feet. We had a half moon until midnight (the moon was filled on the bottom half ) and timed our arrival to be in daylight when we could expect to find crab-pots. Thanks Eddie!!
Our Looper friends who had done the previous rough crossing welcomed us (they were relieved at our safe crossing) and hosted a Looper dinner on the docks of the Marina as we were pretty tired.
Here are the happy and satisfied and tired Loopers we crossed with including: Dan and Angie on Sea Horse, Mimi and Jim on Perfect Balance, Roger and I on TA TA, Kathy and John on Serenity Now, and Becky and Mark on Mara Beel.
The last couple Jean and Mel did the crossing on a boat but not with us.
Our next crossing will be much shorter from Flamingo on the south coast of Florida south to the Keys, (after we exit the Wilderness Waterway through the Everglades and pass under a ten foot bridge). Crossing the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas
After that the next crossing is scheduled for mid January as we leave the Florida Keys and travel to the Bahamas.