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Boating in southern climes: Comfort with a splash of reality

So you’re sitting in a comfortable chair, a fireplace warming you, listening to the winter wind blasting cold into everything outdoors and pushing its way through cracks and crevices into your warm indoors.

There’s nothing wrong with being an armchair sailor when it’s freezing cold outside.

You know that when you leave for work tomorrow, your nose and hands will start to freeze as soon as you step out the door. You’ll have to scrape ice off the car windows unless you want to wait for the car’s heater to slowly do it, making you late for work. Then again the car may not start, and if it does it’s going to be a long time before that fan starts blowing warm air instead of frigid chill.

It’s only natural that you think about “going south.” It’s the stuff of dreams for many boaters. You have friends who’ve done it. You’ve read about it for years in magazines. It’s where you stay warm. It’s where you don’t “do winter.” And you know that come hell or high water, you will go someday.

We’ve gone south on our boat for more years than I’d like to admit. It’s part of our lifestyle. We recommend it … if you do it right. But it’s not always what it’s cut out to be. And when it’s not, you might wish you were back in that armchair in front of the fire.

Our first trip to where it’s warm began in Virginia on the day after Christmas because we wanted our two young daughters to have Christmas with their grandparents. I spent the day before Christmas chasing around our small rural town, trying to find fittings that would work with what they’d used for freshwater plumbing when they built that boat in Florida. What they’d used had frozen and burst in more than one place, and what they’d used was nowhere to be found in Tidewater, Virginia. So I cobbled stuff together, enjoyed Christmas, and we took off.

You know the story. When you head south in a sailboat you just put your sails up, right? Well, we tried. But the knots securing the sheets were big balls of ice. We boiled water on the galley stove, brought it up in the steaming pot, poured it on the knot of the moment and began trying to free it as one of us raced down to boil more water. It took awhile, but soon all of the running rigging was free, and the sails had stopped crinkling and were actually drawing. They got us down Chesapeake Bay and into the Norfolk, Virginia, area, where we tied on the south side of the Great Bridge locks.

“South side” sounded good, full of promises of paradise to come. That night the water froze around us. This wasn’t high up on my familiarity scale. But soon a smallish sportfishing boat saved the day. They wanted lower latitudes, too, so they’d just taken off and were nicely cutting through the ice, making a path for us. What they didn’t know, because you can’t see these things from up on a flybridge, was that the ice was nicely cutting through their gelcoat.

We persevered and kept putting northern miles behind us. It was still cold. It was so cold that one morning our daughters built a snowman from deck frost that was deep enough to call snow. Eventually we reached what we thought was the paragon of winter warmth: Florida. We were still cold, but it was getting better — until we heard of a great cold front sweeping south and bringing freezing weather all the way to the upper Keys. A local television talking head was broadcasting a winter warning: “Bring in your plants, pets and old people.”

We didn’t qualify for any of those (I do now — I’m an “old people,” and I’d make a great pet), but we knew we wanted to be “in.” So we broke a cardinal rule of going south on a sailboat and spent some money in a marina. The norther howled, water froze on the dock, and spray from the harbor froze on the side of the hull. We listened on the SSB to friends who were anchored where it’s “always warm,” in Biscayne Bay south of Miami. It was well below freezing at night, and most of the boats had thin fiberglass hulls and very little insulation. After all, they were boats meant for following the sun. People were miserable.

But the weather cleared, and as is usually true of Florida, warmer days came quickly. Enough of this, we said. We’re Bahamas-bound. We’re going to the far side of the Gulf Stream, which will warm the winds. We were soon there and loving it. But we loved it too much. We hung out in the Bimini chain, tasting our first conch and grouper. We headed to Chub Cay, where we found not only grouper and conch, but also lobster. It had happened. No more winter. Only a cruising paradise.

Put the cold weather astern if you and your boat are prepared for all that the trip entails.

We knew we could get used to this, but we soon heard about another cold front moving our way. Not wanting to spend money in a marina — we’ve long since gotten over that folly — we found a place to anchor, protected from the northwest winds to come. But as the front roared through we found that northwest shifts to northeast in the progress of a front, and this anchorage wasn’t protected from the huge swell that wrapped around the point.

Rolling beam to beam isn’t fun, no matter the temperature, which incidentally was cold enough to make us bundle up. We moved the boat, picking our way through dangerous reef in the gale. We found a spot where we wouldn’t roll, but we had to set two anchors to keep from swinging into hard bottom on both sides of the narrow channel. I dove into the cold water to check our stern anchor and almost couldn’t make it back to the boat because of the current.

In a couple of days the northerly blew itself out, but the SSB told us of another that was far worse, sweeping south. We headed into the safe marina, where we paid the price for almost a week. We realized that you don’t hang around to enjoy the sunshine unless you’re near a good anchorage to hang on while you’re enjoying the fronts. And the fronts came all winter long — one after another, like roaring, racing polar express freight trains.

A strong cold front in the Bahamas is different from those we were accustomed to. These are low islands in the middle of the ocean. There’s nothing to slow the winds, and although they cross some warm ocean in the Gulf Stream, that does not necessarily warm them up.

The prequel is humid winds from the southwest. You look at the weather maps, see what’s coming and find a hole because often the front hits like a brick wall. And it hits while you’re still hanging from the southwesterly wind, but this brick wall is coming in from the northwest. Your boat veers around, and your anchor, if only set for a southwesterly breeze, is likely to be jerked out of the bottom like a toothpick from an olive. And although it’s possible you may drag onto a sandy shoal or beach, it’s more likely that you’ll drag onto a reef or rock bottom. Or you may be “saved” by snagging another boat downwind, crashing into it with damage and perhaps injury, likely wresting its anchor from the bottom so that you both end up on the reef. It’s not a good way to make friends.

Of course, that other boat, which had been downwind from you during the prefrontal southwesterly, may now fly down on you from upwind on the northwesterly, causing the same sort of catastrophe. And it’s cold, not like the bitter, dry cold of the Northeast, but still frigid and wet, as well as dangerous.

We hastened to the Exumas, still farther south and east, where there were anchorages between strings of islands. Soon after we arrived, the SSB told us of another front. In those days there were relatively few boats around, and unlike today, you usually could find anchorages with plenty of room. We found one, snug between islands. There was reef all around our protected spot, and some of the white sand there was really only a few inches deep over hard sandstone. So we spent hours setting our hooks, one north and one south. The current also ran basically north and south.

That night the front hit like that brick wall. We were at the helm with the engine running to relieve strain on the hooks, but we knew this was somewhat futile. There was no room to maneuver, we couldn’t see, and when your anchor starts dragging you slide sideways, trapped to its tether, helpless and out of control until you get the anchor free and can swing your bow. By then, we’d be on the rocks.

That howling northwest wind began pushing all of the water off the Bahamas banks. To reach the ocean, the water had to course through the small channels between reef and islands to flee out the small inlets between the islands. Our controlling inlet was to our north, and the tide swung our boat around mercilessly, with beam and then stern to the storm. And all the while it was terribly cold. Next morning we knew we’d survived. The chafing gear had done its job, the carefully planted hooks had remained true, and the sun was shining through the cold crystal air.

We knew our freezing and fear were justified when friends living on islands began to call to see if we were OK. We knew even more when we saw the two-story cinderblock house that we noticed was under construction as we came into the anchorage. Its cinderblock walls had blown down.

Chartering with The Moorings or another firm lets you run from the cold without taking your own boat.

Looking at it from another angle, I can’t help but mention that over the years we’ve heard on the SSB and VHF cries of help from people “going south” the quick and easy way. It seems there’s this brilliant concept that you can “ride a cold front down” at sea. It’s quick and cheap and quite an adventure — if you survive. Plenty of people have, and of that I’m very glad. But too many people haven’t. A winter cold front at sea can be a monster that few appreciate until they’ve been there.

I’ll never forget talking to a single-hander who was busily preparing to go to sea and ride a coming front. The forecast was so bad that we’d taken shelter in a marina at Morehead City, North Carolina. He was there to provision and prepare. “Don’t do it,” I said. “Wait.”

He did it, taking off in the late afternoon after the winds had shifted to those “free ride” winds from the north. We heard him talking to the Coast Guard that night on the VHF. He had lashed himself to the pedestal. The cold seas were sweeping his boat. He was helpless. They never found him or the boat.

So if this sounds discouraging, it shouldn’t. I could tell of many more very good times we’ve had going south for the winter. We love it. But if you’re sitting in front of the fire in your home, listening to the cold winds outside, be happy with your warmth and your dreams and your plans. Maybe someday you’ll take your boat down. Or maybe you’ll do it the easy way and charter. It’s all good.

This article originally appeared in the January 2016 issue.