“It sounds like you killed your heat exchanger. You’re probably chucking coolant straight out your boat. You’re gonna need a new one,” was the unrequested diagnosis from a stranger standing on the foredeck of a neighboring boat with an over-flowing goblet of Chardonnay in his hand.
“Yep. He knows his engines,” his wife said, nodding.
Ryan and I didn’t ask anyone for their opinion, but we seemed to attract a few while we talked through our mechanical diagnoses on deck, analyzing why the engine might be over-heating while idle.
We figured the problem had to be related to the heat exchanger since I’d just replaced the zinc and drained the coolant the day before. But we’d replaced the coolant and didn’t appear to be losing any coolant now. So we were a little puzzled. In six years, our engine only ever over-heated once. And that was because we’d sucked some reeds up through our intake in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.
“Shit. A new heat exchanger? Does that mean we can’t leave?” I asked.
Ryan shook his head, ignoring our neighbors, and said, “We probably just need to bleed the system since we changed the coolant.”
“You shouldn’t need to bleed the coolant,” piped our neighbor again. “Whaddya got there? A gas engine?”
Normally, we like chatting to other cruisers, and we welcome advice from handy boaters when we’re doing repairs. But Ryan was looking up at me from the engine compartment with daggers in his eyes. It was the look of a man determined to cross the Gulf Stream in T minus five hours and he wasn’t in the mood for any negativity. Least of all from a stranger who’d never seen our engine and hadn’t been invited over to help.
According to the weather gribs we’d been studying, a 24-hour weather window of 3-5 knot northerly winds had opened up and we planned to ride those glassy seas all the way to Bimini without turning back this time. But to do that, we needed to know our engine was fully functioning and that we weren’t going to find a puddle of hot water on the floor.
Thankfully, after a few more engine starts, the temperature dropped and the coolant and heat exchanger seemed to be doing their jobs again. So, we sighed with relief and said good-night to our neighbors before they could say anything more to upset Ryan.
“We’re off to the Bahamas!” I exclaimed, and high-fived a happier, more relaxed-looking captain.
And that we were.
Once out of Fort Everglades inlet, we were relieved to find that, unlike the washing machine of waves and wind we experienced when we went out three days earlier, this time we had a northerly breeze of 5 knots and calm, flat seas for the first few miles out of Fort Lauderdale at 2:45 am. Exactly as predicted. So we motor-sailed towards Bimini at 6 knots and set a course for 148 degrees, as recommended by Skipper Bob to compensate for being pushed north by the Gulf Stream‘s 5-knot flow.
We’d agreed to check the engine an hour into our journey, and as long as we weren’t leaking water, we’d carry on. We still weren’t completely sure we knew what happened to the engine during our last passage attempt, but the problem didn’t repeat itself this time around. So, onward we motor-sailed.
Normally, on overnight passages, we do watches of 2 hours on and 2 hours off. But Ryan had thrown back a Red Bull and felt perky enough to take on the first 5 hours without a break. So I went down below and slept like a baby while he set out in what looked like calm seas.
It was only when I came up into the cockpit after sunrise that I found Ryan in his foul-weather gear, drenched in rain and hand-steering because the auto-pilot had failed in 20-knot gusts while he surfed down steep waves in northerly winds. Which is exactly the kind of weather they say you shouldn’t cross the Gulf Stream in. And it was exactly the opposite of what was predicted in the weather forecasts.
Luckily for me, when I took over the helm around 7 am, the wind had calmed down and calmer seas had returned to provide a less eventful journey. That is, until the 20-knot winds and sheets of rain returned about two hours from Bimini, despite the fact that the forecasts showed no more than 5-knot winds and clear skies the whole way to the Bahamas. I wondered then, since this was the second time the forecasts were wrong, if weather around the Gulf Stream is simply too fickle for predictions to be accurate even 6 hours in advance.
When I first spotted trees in the distance, Ryan was fast asleep down below, so I shouted “Land Ho!” to the cats, who’d crawled up into the cockpit to escape the nausea that comes from being down below in rolling seas.
And just as we’d read, as we pulled up to Bimini, the depth dropped from 1000 feet to 10 feet within minutes and the water turned from a dark, navy blue to the clearest, sharpest aquamarine.
Hundreds of tiny fish jumped out of the water as we pulled into the north channel, as if to get out of the way of the boat, probably trying to dodge our hull as we bucked from side to side in some worryingly choppy waves.
We’d been told to enter the Bimini inlet with caution, as it had shifting sands and a narrow channel. But when we called the marinas the day before for local advice, they all said the markers were abundant and clear, there was 14 feet of water in the channel and, “There’s nothing to worry about, m0n. Come right in.”
In reality, however, there were only two markers – a red and a green – marking the entrance to the channel and then nothing more. We ended up staring at our charts, studying the change in water color for depth and following the reverse paths of boats we saw coming out of the channel in order to feel our way in through depths that dropped as low as 8 feet while the waves threw us from side to side, not really knowing how far we were from the shallows.
For this reason, we were glad to be arriving at 1:30 pm in broad daylight. If we’d arrived in the dark, I’d never have been comfortable navigating blindly up that channel, no matter how many times the locals said, “Don’t worry, mon.”
But we made it in, despite the lack of markers, and before we knew it we were docked in the Bahamas, at the Bimini Big Game Club.
3 months. 1500 miles. Years of dreaming. This was Hideaway’s first international landfall and we were positively giddy. We knew we’d put our boat under a lot of stress, but she always just took it and carried on.
“This is why I couldn’t listen to that guy,” Ryan said. “We know our boat. And we know our engine. She’s not failed us yet.”
And with that, Ryan put on some smart clothes, checked us and the cats in to customs, and got us a 130-day cruising permit. It was official: we were in!
So, we popped the bottle of Prosecco we’d been saving for this occasion and raised our Bahamian courtesy flag while grinning from ear to ear.
We’d put Hideaway to the ultimate test and she passed with flying colors.
And as far as we could tell, this was just the beginning.