Baltimore To Key West
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Chicago to Mackinaw Island
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Ft Lauderdale to Bimini
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Key West To Dry Tortugas
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Ft. Lauderdale to Bimini, Bahamas – January 24, 2006
by James Wolf President & CEO
When Doug Haskell of North Shore Marine called last November to suggest we take a pontoon boat from Ft. Lauderdale Florida to the Island of Bimini in the Bahamas I thought he was joking, or perhaps he’d gotten an early start on the holiday egg nog. Cross an exposed piece of the Atlantic on a 27 foot pontoon boat? Yeah, right! While we’ve had a few successful journeys in the last few years – Baltimore to Key West in four days; Chicago to Mackinaw in 12 hours; and 300 miles down the Mississippi, the notion of a jaunt through the Bermuda Triangle did not appeal to my sensible side and I suggested he find another crew.
Then, later that week, I saw a show on the Discovery Channel about the perils of the Bermuda Triangle and those who’ve vanished trying to navigate in, over, through, and around that mysterious part of the Atlantic. The show reconfirmed my initial response. However, my adventurous side was intrigued and I started to reconsider – what if we did it? What if we attempted it and failed? What if we attempted it and succeeded?
My adventurous side won over and in late November of 2005 we put the plan in action to conquer the Bermuda Triangle in an Avalon pontoon boat. Our first obstacle was to put aside the unknown and mysterious aspects of the Triangle and focus on the facts:
1). We had successfully completed other challenging expeditions in a pontoon boat.
2). Other boaters had effectively made the crossing (but we’d never heard of anyone doing it in a pontoon boat).
3). A direct course from Ft. Lauderdale to Bimini was approximately 50 nautical miles.
4). We already had a great boat capable of making the trip – a 27 foot triple with 27″ open water edition pontoons, two extra built in fuel tanks for significant range and a 300 HP Yamaha EFI 2 stroke for power. This was the same boat that we took from Chicago to Mackinac Island on Lake Michigan, and down a big stretch of the Mississippi. The boat was essentially stock and a true representation of any other boat that rolls off of the Avalon production line.
5). We would be going straight through the “Bermuda or Devil’s Triangle” which is an area located off the southeastern Atlantic coast of the United States. The Triangle is noted for a high incidence of unexplained losses of ships, small boats, and aircraft. The apexes of the triangle are generally accepted to be Bermuda, Miami, Fla., and San Juan, Puerto Rico.
6). The Bermuda Triangle legend began on Dec. 5th, 1945, with the famed disappearance of Flight 19. Five Navy Avenger bombers mysteriously vanished while on a routine training mission. The rescue plane that was sent to search for them also disappeared.
7). The Bermuda Triangle is famous for the disappearance of over 66 airplanes and ships, and at least 200 other documented incidents have been attributed to the inherent strangeness of the area.
8). The weather and quick building storms in the Gulf Stream have surprised even the most seasoned captains and experienced crews. The Gulf Stream is extremely swift and turbulent and can quickly erase any evidence of a disaster.
9). Safety of the crew was of utmost importance. However, how safe can a crew really be on a pontoon boat in the middle of the Bermuda Triangle?
10). A trip of this nature would further solidify the fact that Avalon stands behind the quality and reliability of the product we build. It would drive home the point that we push ourselves and our boats further than typical consumers would. Therefore, the buying public should feel even more comfortable about the safety and reliability of an Avalon pontoon boat as we do. We test it and we trust it.
Our plan still seemed a little on the crazy side. But what the heck, life is too short not to try crazy things, right? A little adventure never hurt anyone and we were now hell bent on getting this trip done. We started to look at crew and schedule. We agreed that it would be nice to take along a few other Avalon Dealers to provide them with a great boating experience while continuing to build upon our solid dealer relationships. As a manufacturer we regularly solicit ideas for improvement from our dealer base and what better venue to do this in than on the open water. We also wanted documentation, so we’d need a photographer. Our final crew ended up being Doug Haskell (Avalon Boat Dealer from Michigan), Rich Currier (Avalon Boat Dealer from South Carolina), Bruce England (Avalon Boat Dealer from Atlanta Georgia) and John Linn (Professional Photographer from Minnesota). Doug volunteered to drive the boat down from Michigan and the others would all fly into Ft. Lauderdale. We needed a window of a few days in case of weather delays so we targeted an arrival date of Tuesday, January 17th with a departure of late Friday January 20th. We figured that January was just as good as any other month and it was after the official hurricane season, so how bad could the weather really be during that time of the year?
As it turns out, the weather can be extremely difficult and bad at any time of the year. We began to keep a close eye on the weather about two weeks prior to our launch date. As the time drew near the weather showed no signs of improvement. A low pressure system had developed and was sitting directly over the entire Caribbean. The week of January 10th proved to be a very tough week for maritime vessels traveling the South Atlantic. Two cruise ships were so badly damaged from rough seas that they had to return to port for repairs. The Acura Key West Sailboat Regatta off the Southern Coast of Florida was punished by the weather, snapping off masts and severely damaging several sailboats. The website of the NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) on Sunday, January 15th forecasted a rough week. (See the attached sample weather report) Most days were showing steady winds of 25 – 35 knots and seas anywhere from 10 to 30 feet. We scrubbed the mission for that week and decided that everyone should move their travel plans forward one week when we would try again.
The weather on Saturday January 21st showed that Wed. January 25th and Thursday January 26th would be mild with 1 – 3 foot waves. Doug departed Michigan on the morning of Sunday January 22nd for the long journey south. The remaining crew had their flight arrangements made for a Tuesday evening arrival.
On Sunday afternoon another check of the weather revealed a different story. It now appeared that a second low pressure system was going to move into the area on Wednesday morning and the high winds and surf were going to return. Winds were going to die down Monday afternoon and further dissipate during the evening. Tuesday showed 10 – 15 knot winds with waves 2 feet or less close to shore and 1 – 3 feet in the Gulf Stream. Wednesday morning it showed winds building to 20 – 25 knots and seas, once again, building in the Gulf Stream from 3 – 5 feet to 7 – 9 feet. Our window of opportunity had significantly decreased from 2 – 3 days to one day. Tuesday January 24th was our only chance and we all changed plans to meet the evening of Monday January 23rd. with a target departure of dawn on Tuesday. We all scurried to change our plans and congratulated ourselves on our “A Team” like adaptability when we assembled at the Best Western on 17th street in Ft. Lauderdale late on Monday evening. We gassed up the boat at a convenience station, tore off the shrink wrap and launched our vessel at the 15th street boat ramp. We tied the boat up in the Marina behind the Best Western under the large 17th street bridge and grabbed a few hours of much needed shut eye.
We reconvened at the boat at 6:30 am on Tuesday morning and stocked the boat with provisions. We also loaded the necessary safety supplies which consisted of: Lifejackets (Type V PFD), a Flare Kit, Strobe Lights, Submersible VHF Radios, Anchor and line, Handheld GPS units, Compass, 3 handheld spotlights and an EPIRB (Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon). Hopefully none of the safety equipment would be necessary, but always requirement when taking any type of boat trip – particularly a trip through the heart of the Bermuda Triangle!
We departed the Marina a few minutes before 7 AM as the light of day was starting to appear. The ride to the Port Everglades Inlet was less than a mile where we saw the first few glimpses of the Atlantic Ocean. We also saw a very large cruise ship, flanked by tug boats, passing through the inlet and heading straight towards us. The ship was heading to the turning basin and cruise ship terminal located on the West side of the Inter Coastal Waterway. We obviously gave the MS Zaandam cruise ship (operated by Holland America Cruise Line) the right of way and waved to the passengers as the eight stories of steel passed us on our port side. The ship threw off a nice sized wake and we had to maneuver through the swells, taking on only a slight spray of water. As we moved through and out of the inlet my first thought was that the waves were larger than I had expected from the weather reports. The storms over the past few days had left the Atlantic full of choppy waves. The wind was light and variable, our course was set, and we motored on a straight line going due east away from the mainland. The most comfortable speed was approximately 15 knots – at this rate we were looking at a 4 hour or so ride to our destination. After cruising for 30 minutes or so we watched the sun rise from behind some puffy cumulus clouds – the sight was truly amazing. The sun and clouds in front of us and the southern Florida shoreline behind us with only a hand held GPS and compass indicating we were on the right track. It was a clear day with good visibility and we were all surprised that the shoreline stayed in view for a good hour of continuous cruising. The Miami sky scrapers were the last peek at civilization we saw before delving further into the horizon.
The waves started building a little larger as the winds started to kick up at around 9 am – as the miles passed we saw nothing but an occasional flying fish or a passing freighter far off on the horizon. We had the GPS with the Navtronic map set of the Southern Atlantic waters – essentially a hand held map showing our position, direction, and speed. According to the GPS and compass we were indeed in the Atlantic crossing through the Bermuda Triangle and heading for Bimini in the Bahamas. Were it not for the electronic map and compass we would be lost. With no land in sight and the sun flying straight overhead I wondered how the explorers managed devoid of the navigational tools we have today – particularly the safety equipment and communication devices. Even with all of these modern conveniences, we were still on high alert for any sort of engine or vessel trouble. We passed the time telling stories and jokes trying to one-up each other. You know, the stuff like: “on one trip the waves got so large that they started to tower over the entire boat, or, the whale was so close that we touched it”.
When we were 15 miles out, we saw land for the first time in 2 hours. The wave height decreased and we increased our speed to 25 knots anxious to reach the shore. The water was a deep dark blue and the land mass grew as we approached. There were no sky-scrapers or prominent landmarks on the horizon; however we did see a few pleasure boats off in the distance and birds flying overhead. At approximately one-half mile from shore the water changed from the deep dark blue to a brilliant light blue in color indicating that we were moving off of the Continental Shelf whose depths reach 33,000 feet – the world’s deepest. It was now approximately 11:30 am and the sun was bright and warm. We just stayed the course and let the GPS guide us into the cut between North and South Bimini. As we pulled into the channel we were taken aback by the condition of the homes.
The scars of poverty and the sea’s wrath were everywhere – blown apart tin roofs, upturned boats and shattered windows. We moved down the shoreline toward our destination which was a hotel, restaurant, & marina called “Bimini Big Game Club”. This club is famous for its annual big marlin tournaments, but, this being off-season, the 100 slip marina was nearly vacant. The bright yellow paint of the buildings sparkled in stark contrast to the rest of what we’d seen of the island so far. We pulled right up to the break wall that paralleled the facility and tied up. The second floor open air restaurant looked inviting but that would have to wait – a security guard greeted us and gave us the lowdown on proper protocol and delivered a stack of paperwork to fill out.
All vessels arriving into Bahamian waters must register immediately with both customs and immigration officials at the nearest port of entry. If, for any reason, you fail to report for clearance within 24 hours of arrival into Bahamian waters, you will be subject to penalties and the vessel is liable to seizure and forfeiture. No goods may be unloaded, and no contact may be made with the shore other than tying up, until the vessel has been granted admission by custom and immigration officials. Each passenger had to fill out immigration cards and provide proof of citizenship. The Captain of the vessel must complete customs and immigration forms as well as fill out a crew manifest. The documents and manifests for the boat required essentially the same information as the individual and also required specific information about the vessel. Once all of the paperwork was filled out, I, as the Captain, was required to take the documents downtown to be reviewed by the Customs Department and then the Immigration Department. It was approximately a ½ mile walk into town. Walking through town, it was apparent that I was the only tourist in town that day although none of the locals on foot, bicycle or golf cart took notice of me. I made it to the pink building which housed the customs office and opened the sticky door with a hard shove. Inside the small room was a large islander in uniform playing checkers with a friend and a blaring television set in the corner. The uniformed man asked a few questions, corrected a few typos, filled out some internal documents, signed some documents, stamped our passports and then directed me to go next door to immigration. The immigration office next door was more like a bank with a teller window and the three to four employees were behind security glass. They were chatting away and barely noticed that I was waiting for them to process my documents. I was required to pay a $165 fee to receive a cruising permit and was told that I could return unlimited to the island with my vessel anytime over the next 12 months. The gentlemen processing the paperwork took notice of the fact that we were on a 27 foot pontoon boat and started asking some questions. He wanted to know what the weather was like on the way over, how long it took, why we were on a pontoon boat, what size engine we had, were any other boaters coming this way, etc….. He then proceeded to ask about different kinds of motors and what horse power would work best on the boat that he was refurbishing. After having a nice chat and paying the fees, I was free to go back to the vessel to release the crew from quarantine.
It was now approximately 12:30 in the afternoon and we were all glad that our quarantine period was over and that we were free to move about the island. We grabbed our cameras and valuables and set off on foot. I gave the security guard a $20 bill and asked him to keep an eye on our boat. We considered stopping at the Bimini Breeze Bar & Restaurant for lunch, but decided to continue walking. We passed a schoolyard teeming with kids and an abandoned 24 foot boat that we assumed had gotten there via a passing hurricane. The kids’ matching school uniforms looked ironically crisp compared to the run down school building. We were walking on the main road along the bay with the sun sparkling off of the crystal blue water. After strolling for a while, we wandered into a somewhat questionable residential area and decided to turn back to the main drag which was a better option for staying out of harm’s way. We proceed back towards the Big Game Club. Bruce was pulling John’s camera bag, which looked like a carry on suitcase. A passing Islander kindly offered that the Laundromat was right down the street. We thanked him, laughed and proceeded down the road. We popped into a few of the small shops and bought a few souvenirs. It was now a little after 1:00 PM and we decided that the open air restaurant near the boat looked like the safest bet for lunch.
We entered the Tackle Box Restaurant & Bar and grabbed a table for five. There were plenty of open tables, yet the walls were standing room only adorned with photos of sunburned happy fishermen proudly displaying their catch of the day. Some of the marlin in the photos were 1000 pounds or greater. The waitress told us that the house specialty was Conch. We ordered conch sandwiches, conch fritters and one of our crew opted for a good old fashioned burger. It was a nice relaxing lunch with the sounds of Bob Marley floating over the warm tropical breeze. We played credit card roulette to pay for lunch and had the waitress pick one of the five cards. It was now about 2:30 PM and we decided that it was time to get rolling on our long trip back to the mainland.
On the way out of the channel we noticed an inlet near a new condo development. We entered the inlet and putted through a very large and new development with a deep water marina. It appeared to be near completion with 5 or 6 very nice 50+ feet fishing boats docked in the marina. We departed as quickly as we entered and headed due west on a course that would take us back to Ft. Lauderdale. The sun was high in the sky and the seas pretty calm near the shore. We decided that we would go all out for as long as we could to get some distance behind us. Everything was going perfectly smooth and we were now 6 – 7 miles from the island that was growing smaller in the distance. We were trimming the motor trying to find that optimal position for the prop when we heard the engine rev. I quickly backed off of the throttle thinking that it was nothing more than some cavitation due to trimming the engine. I put the engine all the way down and hit the throttle only to experience the same high rev with little to no forward propulsion. We knew then that we had spun the hub on the prop and would have to change the prop before we could proceed. The prop still grabbed at idle speed and we were limping along at 6 MPH down from 35MPH a minute ago. It was at that point that I looked at Doug and Doug looked at me and we realized that in all of our planning and preparation we had failed to put a secondary prop in the boat. We were still moving, but slow and we turned the boat around to head back to Bimini. We were about 6 miles from shore and started calling on the hand held radio to reach someone who could help us out of our predicament. As we putted back, trying to reach someone on the handheld we considered some questions: What if we were in the middle of the Atlantic when this happened? What if we had completely spun the hub whereas the boat would not move? What if we can’t find a replacement prop? What if we find a prop but it takes too long? We knew that another storm system was due to move into the area later that night. We listened to the marine weather and late that evening the waves in the Gulf Stream were expected to pick up to 9 – 12 feet. We knew that if we didn’t get a replacement prop in time that we would not make it back to the mainland. We kept trying the radio; however we could not get through to anyone. We then pulled out the 12 foot whip antenna and the fixed mounted radio. It wasn’t hooked up so Doug had to manually hold the contact wires under the dash while Bruce worked the radio. We were able to reach a few folks on the island; however nobody had any solution. We kept calling for the Bimini Game Club Marina, but no one answered.
We pulled back into the new marina development at 3:45 PM and quickly went to work. We spoke to the dock hand and told him that we needed a Yamaha prop with a 19 – 21″ pitch ASAP. He made a few calls to see what he could find. While he was trying to find a prop, we took the prop off so that we would be ready if and when a new one showed up. The “no see ‘em” bugs were bad and we were getting eaten alive under the pounding hot sun. We decided that we should also gas up on fuel just in case. A native on a moped showed up with a used prop. We put it on and it worked. We paid $300 cash for the prop and headed out of the marina which we now knew was called “Bimini Sands Beach Club & Condominiums”.
It was now 4:45 PM and I was mentally preparing myself for some night time driving. Crossing the Atlantic on a pontoon boat is difficult enough, crossing the Atlantic at night with pending storms is, well, some might say, not smart. We had almost two hours of daylight remaining and wanted to get some miles behind us ASAP before we encountered any inclement weather. We started out for the second time on a due west course heading straight towards Ft. Lauderdale with 51 miles to go. The boat ran well with a very used and expensive prop. We were going wide open at 5100 RPMs and 35 – 37 MPH. We had plenty of fuel and the seas were pretty calm with only a slight chop. The boat ran great and the miles clicked away. Before we knew it we had reached the half way mark and had not encountered the Gulf Stream waves that we had anticipated. The ocean was much more forgiving than it was on the way over. We continued at wide open throttle and we were having a blast. We did not see a single boat once we left Bimini. We were dashing across the Atlantic on a 27 foot pontoon boat trying to out run bad weather and darkness. We had a smooth ride most of the way back. At approx. 6:15 PM we spotted the shoreline and started to see a few boats here and there. We were still 10 – 15 miles out as the sun was setting behind some large, ominous clouds. We stopped for some pictures and then continued on. Approx. 7 – 8 miles from land the waves started to kick up and we were forced to slow it down a bit. We continued on at a nice clip and worked our way towards shore. There were now many boats around and we knew that we were out of harms way.
In that stretch of water once you get 10 or so miles from shore when radio and cell phone contact starts to black out, the landmarks disappear, and it is just you and the open ocean that you begin to wonder, what if? Now, back in a zone of safety we were feeling a great sense of accomplishment. We continued on course towards the inlet and as daylight faded to black we were within a few miles of the inlet. The glow of the shoreline was a welcome sight. Our reliable hand held GPS had guided us right back to the inlet from which we had departed some 12 hours earlier. On the way in we started to race a 26 – 28 foot “V” hull fishing boat. We were going wide open at 36MPH, hitting the waves in the channel. We were only 20 – 30 yards from the other boat and we could see them being tossed around like rag dolls. Our triple toon pontoon boat was steady as she goes and we could only imagine the conversation that the crew in the other boat must have been having. Is that a pontoon boat keeping up with us? Little did they know that we were just returning from a little cruise to Bimini!