I’m trying to think back on each and every one of them. How can they have slipped by so quickly? Sure, I spent some sleeping (not many, though), but the rest were spent gloriously lounging in the cockpit watching the water go by, devouring books (devouring food!), and counting a billion stars. While you’re out there, and it’s sometimes a little rough and uncomfortable, you can catch yourself wishing the time away. But, once the voyage is behind you—that incredible experience is tucked away merely as a memory in your mind—you want every hour back. All 96 of them. Photos and video from our Gulf-crossing for you all below!
Phillip and I have crossed the Gulf now, on a five-day, four-night non-stop run, three times on our boat. It is always a passage we plan well in advance for, watching weather windows religiously as well as re-checking and double-checking all of the systems on the boat before we leave, because the Gulf is no freaking joke. Having crossed the Atlantic twice now, Phillip and I always readily agree the Gulf is still one of the most gnarly bodies of water we have ever crossed. Although the Bay of Biscay is now right up there with it! But, the Gulf never fails to throw a challenge at us. It certainly did this time, right out of the gate.
Now that I’ve shared the turmoil we were dealing with in the days before we left when Auto would turn notto, you know it was a stressful time for us for sure, wondering whether we were going to be able to leave or not and—if we did—whether the systems would perform consistently. But, that’s a risk that is always present in offshore sailing. Once everything is working as best as it can, the chance of something going wrong is no reason not to leave. Once our auto-pilot, Lord Nelson, was cleaned and calibrated and performing perfectly and our GPS was restored after a B&G update, our boat was once again back in high-caliber condition, ready to romp. While it was stressful dealing with these hiccups in the days before we left, Phillip and I were still grateful all the pieces came together right before a decent weather window opened up.
And, I say ‘decent’ because the Gulf rarely offers five full straight days of perfect weather. You’re usually going to get into some kind of stuff (think 4-6 foot seas and winds of 20+) somewhere along the journey for some stretch of time. It’s often just deciding whether you want it on the front end or the back end. And, there’s often an equally good chance of wind shifting on to your nose, or dying altogether. The Gulf is like a variety show. You never know what it’s truly going to feel like until you get waaaay the heck out there and, by then, you’re already there. No turning back. Just sit down, buckle in, and endure the show.
In the last weeks of April when we were planning to shove off, Phillip and I were looking at a stretch of nice winds in the Gulf. In the high teens and mid-twenties, mind you, but on the stern. Downwind sailing is my favorite kind of sailing. We were planning to let a front pass through Pensacola, bringing some rain and storms, then ride the back end of that out into the Gulf with some great north wind pushing us out. While we knew the seas would be a bit kicked up from the storm, on PassageWeather.com it looked like once we got about five or six hours off the coast, they would start to lay down. Looked like …
I’m not going to lie, our first day on passage was pretty intense. I’m confident we were bucking our way through steady 7-footers with the occasional 9 or 10-foot wave that would send us careening. I recall many times Phillip and I would be talking and we both would stop mid-sentence when we saw a monster building on the stern that blocked out the sun. Not a word would be spoken until we watched the mighty wave pick up our seemingly light-as-a-feather boat and shove her stern hard over, the bow lunging the opposite direction in response. Phillip and I would hold our breath as our horizon spun 90 degrees and Lord Nelson squealed out trying to get the boat back on course. I am grateful to say, even with some of the biggest following waves he’s steered in yet, Lord Nelson held every time. No matter how hard we were shoved and tossed, he would emit his mighty whiiieeerrrrr and bring us back on course. When Phillip and I would regain our breath after these moments and continue where we’d left off, it always included a sentiment to Lord Nelson. He worked so hard below-decks during that passage, steering us all 96 hours across the Gulf.
Thankfully those rough seas only lasted the first 24-or-so hours. Well into our second day, the Gulf laid down to 3-5 footers with following winds in the upper teens and Phillip and I were glad we left when we did (even with the bumpy start) because the winds pushed us comfortably the next two days and the boat practically sailed herself most of the way down to the Keys. We had to motor for 20-or-so hours the last stretch when the winds laid down but with all of the attention we had given Westie (our 30 hp Westerbeke diesel engine) this past summer, we knew he was eager for the spotlight and ready to run as long as we needed him. And, he certainly did, without a hiccup.
Honestly, the best part about our last voyage across the Gulf was the immense feeling of pride it gave Phillip and me in our capable, comfortable boat. The phrase “dialed in” I don’t even believe can do it justice. Plaintiff’s Rest was not just dialed in, she was performing the best we had ever seen her, while setting her own personal record (a speed of 10.2 kts surfing down a wave), while crossing one of the toughest bodies of water in some of the biggest seas we’ve sailed her in. Through all of that, it was like she was telling us it was … easy. All of the work we had put into her—replacing the rigging, reinforcing the mast, the rudder, the keel, all of that engine work, digging out rot anywhere we saw it, and repairing everything we knew was an issue as soon as we could—had made her so incredibly capable and strong. And yet so simple and comfortable.
While there were, of course, dolphins—which make us (me) squeal uncontrollably, still, every time—and there was phosphorescence at night, brilliant turquoise horizons, shooting stars, the joy of peeling off foul foulies, and all of the things that make offshore sailing so mind-altering for us (no fish though, those wily bastards!), I think the best part about this voyage, for me and Phillip, was the ease and comfort of it. Not because the sea state and winds made it easy or comfortable—they did not—but because the boat did.