Preface: This is a particularly long blog that I wrote for reasons of personal recollection and has very little spearfishing content. What can I say? Ownership has it’s privileges.
My first crossing to Bimini, Cat Cay to be specific, and what a day we pick to do it. After planning and weather watching for the past few weeks (quite the exercise in futility as it turns out), hoping for a smooth crossing, prayers were answered, unfortunately they must have been someone else’s prayers because I was paying my dues on a 55 mile crossing with terribly frequent 6-7 footers for the first 30 miles of the trip.
We departed Miami via the Stiltsville channel Saturday morning at 8:45am, at which time I turned to my wife and foretold “I have a feeling you’re going to wish you had gone with them” (referring to our friends on the other, larger boat that we were following) and we arrived at Gun Cay Channel at approximately 11:30am, and while that may sound like a quick trip, the entire trip is about 53 miles, but the portion of the trip I timed was about 10 miles less than that so we only averaged about 15 mph and believe me, that speed was not without its price. Throughout the trip, we followed our friend’s 48’ Sunseeker as best as I could keep up, thinking to myself the entire time that I am probably making it out to be worse that it really is since this is my first crossing. As it turned out, my assessment of the conditions was only too accurate.
By the time we arrived at the marina, my hands were numb from gripping the steering wheel and handling the throttles to keep the boat’s attitude in the waves. Luckily I had gotten a reprieve for the last 15 miles or so as the seas had calmed down to about 3 feet and I was able to get on a smooth plane to give my wife and my hands a much deserved break. Much to my chagrin, upon our much anticipated arrival at the Cat Cay Yacht Club marina, we were greeted by our friends with wide-eyed accounts of the numerous times they were able to see nothing but the blue anti-fouling paint that covers the bottom of my 31’ Island Runner. Personally, I had lost count of the number of times I heard my twin 225hp OptiMax motors cavitating as they broke free of the surf, forcing me to back down on the throttles while bracing for the inevitably hard landing on the back of the next wave throughout the trip. That scenario repeated more times than I cared to consider during the first 30 miles of that 50+ mile trek. There were so many times that I considered turning tail and heading for home, but I was carrying the bulk of the meat for the trip and my kids were on the other boat, so Bimini-bound we continued.
Not too much the worse for wear, we arrived and the island was beautiful. As we approached the island, the deep water was a beautiful deep cobalt blue that turned to a crystal clear view of the bottom as we neared the island and shallower water. Coming around the North end of North Cat Cay (sounds redundant, I know) at the Southern tip of Gun Cay we could see the old Gun Cay light house that looked like something out of an old maritime movie. Even from the boat you could see that the homes on this island were absolutely beautiful and we were looking forward to unloading and getting settled in for what should have been the first half of our vacation (more on that later).
Our midday arrival on Saturday meant that we would spend a good portion of the day unloading and carting nearly a week’s (probably closer to 2) worth of supplies to the house where we would be staying. Of course the first thing that was unpacked was the rum so we could settle into our surroundings in proper fashion. For those that may not know (as I didn’t before my first exposure), Cat Cay is a private membership island and visitors must be sponsored by existing members. We are fortunate enough to have friends that were sponsored by members and therefore enjoyed the benefits of sponsorship by proxy. Many of the members are property owners on the island as is the case with our sponsoring family. Our host members are a wonderful family who I just met on this trip and their hospitality was unequaled by anyone else that I have ever met (especially having known for less than 24 hours).
I was the only diver in the group so I figured I wouldn’t be getting too much time in the water, but it was still an amazing place to behold. Driving around the island reminds me of being on the road on a motorcycle, because no one passes by on another golf cart without waving and giving a pleasant salutation or reciprocating with the same, if it’s given.
Our plan was to spend the first half our vacation on the island and then head back to Miami and the Keys on Wednesday to finish out our time off from the drudgery that is working for a living. I got to fish on two of our days on the island and was invited to dive at the Gingerbreads with some friends of our host family. Unfortunately, the weather turned sour on Thursday (pay attention... I was supposed to leave on Wednesday) and the trip was cancelled due to a tropical wave that was coming up from Cuba.
The spots I dove on my own (as I’ve mentioned before, diving and fishing by one’s self is not something I recommend doing as it can result in very dangerous situations) were as beautiful as they were varied. On Tuesday, I dove at a buoy off the SouthWest end of Cat Cay in over 50’ of water. This spot was littered with very large crevices (and sharks I had been told) and an incredible amount of life. If you followed the reef to the ocean side, it would drop off into very deep blue water. I swam and dove the reef for quite a while hoping to see something worthy of taking a shot with my new Hawaiian sling from hawaiiansling.net (my review of this sling to be posted in the near future in SpearViews), but I was very worried about missing and having to chase my shaft to depths at the maximum of my capability (or beyond) so I was incredibly choosy. So choosy in fact that I didn’t see anything I would consider worthy of shooting, even by South Florida standards.
After spending time there, we headed over to some large rocks that jut out of the water beyond the South end of Cat Cay. The water I dove here was anywhere from 10 to 30 feet deep and a little less clean due to the constant wave action against the nearby rocks. There I saw a legal Black Grouper as well as a Mutton snapper that was probably about 10lbs, but missed the former and couldn’t close the gap on the latter to take a shot. Nonetheless, it was still a fun afternoon. Later that afternoon, I would return to the water just off the beach on the West side of the island in plain view of our friends and family on the beach to fish about ¾ mile out in about 30 feet of water. There I was able to land a couple of nice Muttons, a Hogfish and my personal best Ocean Tally (Gray Trigger) along with a couple of other fish for dinner that evening.
Wednesday morning came and with it some winds that didn’t appear too friendly. With the return trip being my first potential solo crossing (as well as having the kids along), I was a little cautious and even though the winds laid down in the afternoon, I decided to wait for Thursday to leave as the forecast was the best of the week. Just so the extra stay (the first of a few) wouldn't be a total waste, I headed back to the area I dove the day before off the beach to see if I could land some more fish for dinner. I have a feeling that the areas I dove would be much more prolific at high tide instead of the raging outgoing tide I was diving, but I was seeing and landing fish, so it wasn't all for nought. Tonight the dinner menu would read slightly differently with Margate replacing the Mutton snapper from yesterday and yet another very large Tally as well.
Thursday morning I woke at first light to see the trees swaying in what were probably already 20-25mph winds and completely overcast skies. As it turned out, I passed on what would ultimately be my best window for departure on Wednesday and would remain island-locked for the duration thanks to remnant storms from that tropical wave. After Thursday, it seemed fruitless to leave alone on Friday as opposed to staying one more day and be able to leave with at least one more boat for security on the crossing on Saturday, so we endured and stayed to enjoy even more good company and hospitality.
We would finally make our crossing home on Saturday morning. We loaded up as much as possible the night before and awoke that morning to check more weather radars online and pack up the remaining items on the boats. There were storm cells moving from South to North along our path, but we wouldn't be deterred this morning. After checking the last radar image, we discussed how we would have to live by the imagery from my friends radar on his Sunseeker since we knew we probably wouldn't be able to visually avoid these storm cells. The trip starts out smooth with both of us making way between 25-28 mph. This pace continued on for what I would estimate to have been about 25-30 miles until we started getting extremely close to one of the cells. Navigational sense teaches you to not try and outrun a storm in the direction it's heading. Although they seem to be moving slowly, if you run into rough seas and your progress is impeded you will get caught by the storm because it doesn't care about heavy seas as it lumbers along. With this in mind we start heading South to try and come around the tail end of the storm cell we are facing (which in my mind makes perfect sense) so the storm is moving away from us as we come around behind it. As we are making way towards the South and what I believe is safe passage around the storm, my friend waves me off urging me to turn almost perfectly due North (in the direction the storm is moving).
Right away, I realize this doesn't make nautical sense, but I assume and trust that he has seen something on the radar that I cannot and has made this executive decision for all the right reasons. We keep heading North until we can start changing our heading to WNW as we come around the head of the storm with the wall of rain from the storm no more than a few hundred yards to our South. We carefully skirt the edge of the storm as I watch on my GPS and we slowly start to turn in a more SW direction back towards the direction of Biscayne Bay and home. At the end of the trip we traveled an extra 15 miles but stayed almost completely dry and made excellent time (beating our previous crossing by about 30 minutes) as well as saving a considerable amount of gas compared to our initial crossing to Cat Cay thanks to the heads up navigation of our friend and his radar system.
At the dock behind his house, he explained to me how he saw the gap he was shooting for close between two cells and a third had moved up rapidly making the storm extremely large so our best chance of getting around was by outrunning the storm to the North. A feat we could have only accomplished with the assistance of his radar. If anything was learned it's that you can only make your decisions based on the facts you have and perceive, but depending on the depth of those facts, making all the right decisions for all the right reasons can still get you into a heap of trouble on the ocean. So never take anything for granted and always err on the side of caution, because no trip and no schedule is worth getting you or your loved ones hurt. Safe travels.