Crossing the Gulf Stream by boat from Florida to the Bahamas takes more planning than most routes. Figuring where you should leave from, how long the trip will take, what course to steer and other details can seem overwhelming.
I remember that well from planning our crossing in 2016 — I was so confused by what all I read. Luckily, a friend who has made many, many crossings took pity on me and explained it in a way that I did understand.
Understanding the Gulf Stream
The Gulf Stream is literally a river of water in the Atlantic Ocean that runs north between Florida and the Bahamas (or east between Florida and Cuba). It typically averages between 2 and 2.5 knots. You can learn how to get the exact location and speed of the Gulf Stream here.
If you leave Florida and head due east (90 degrees), every hour that you travel you’ll go eastward whatever your speed is AND north 2 to 2.5 miles. Now, that north amount is an average. Some hours you’ll go more north and some less, depending on whether you’re at the edge of the Gulf Stream or right in the center. The average is the important thing for route planning.
The Gulf Stream has considerably warmer water than the ocean around it, and that means that thunderstorms are more likely as you cross it. It is also very busy with lots of large cargo ships heading up and down the east coast and many small to medium-sized boats going between Florida and the Bahamas. Crossing the Gulf Stream as quickly as possible will decrease the danger from both of these.
Three Things to Know for Route Planning
There are two important concepts to know in planning this route. First, your heading is where you are pointing the boat. It’s what your ship’s compass will show or your autopilot heading. Second, your course (or course over ground) is the direction that the boat as a whole is actually moving and what is reflected on your chart plotter course. With the Gulf Stream, your heading and course will never be the same. Your course over ground will always be north of your heading.
I’m going to discuss crossing the Gulf Stream from Florida to the Bahamas (and return) in this article. The same principles apply for Florida to Cuba and return. But while the stream exerts influence on almost the entire trip to/from the Bahamas, it does not cover the entire Florida Straits between the Keys and Cuba and thus you can get some westing on either side of the stream.
For crossing the Gulf Stream as fast as possible, your heading should never be any amount south of due east on the way to the Bahamas or south of due west on the return. It was very eye-opening to us to turn literally two degrees south of due east and see our speed over ground drop over half a knot — a few degrees more and it dropped nearly a knot!
Planning the Best Route for Your Boat
For quickly crossing the Gulf Stream, then, you must leave from a point south of your intended destination. But what’s the minimum amount south?
To figure this with a real-life example of leaving from Angelfish Creek:
- Measure the east-west distance between where you think you might leave from and your destination. Don’t measure the actual distance between the two points, but just the east-west component. In this example, we’re thinking of leaving from Angelfish Creek and going to Gun Cay — 53.2 miles. (Note that Angelfish Creek is suitable for shallow draft vessels only — we draw just 3 feet.)
- Divide the east-west distance by your average speed to figure out how long it will take you to make the east-west distance. Our average speed, without current, is about 6 knots, so we know it will take about 9 hours (6 x 9 = 54 which is close enough for estimating).
- Multiply the hours by the estimated speed of the Gulf Stream to get the amount you can expect to be set north — I use 2.5 for this, which generally works well as an average — but look at the current Gulf Stream maps (read how to get to the map you need from the overview) to get a feel for the conditions when you are planning to travel. So for our example, 9 hours x 2.5 knots = 22.5 miles.
- So, our starting point needs to be about 22 miles south of Gun Cay.
- Hmm, I discovered that Angelfish Creek is more like 15 miles south of Gun Cay. Even if the Gulf Stream is averaging 2 knots, that’s 18 miles of northing. That might not work . . . time to look at alternatives.
- There really aren’t nearby alternate “starting points” on the Florida side, so I look on the Bahamas side . . . yes, there are several other anchorages up to as much as 28 miles north. So I investigate them all and mark the ones we like the most as possible stops, depending on how much northing we really do get (also, if we travel faster than our estimated 6 knots, it’ll be fewer hours and thus we won’t be swept as far north).
I always plan for alternate “destinations” on the crossing so that if we get swept more or less than expected we have options already plotted and examined. I think this is really important, especially if the weather turns snotty or the trip takes longer than expected and sunset is close . . . or past.
The result? We had a fast trip and made better than expected time, so we came in right at Gun Cay (a bit of counter-current on the Bahamas side helped, too).
Tips for Crossing the Gulf Stream
Somewhere as you’re crossing the Gulf Stream, it’s likely that you’ll have to cross, duck or wait for a ship to pass. Be very, very cautious of trying to cross in front of another vessel — speeds are deceiving in the stream. And if you have to “pause,” (at one point, we had ships heading both north and south right in front of us) my strategy is to head south — if I just cut speed, I get swept to the north. Those ships are typically traveling 20 to 25 knots and pass me by pretty quickly.
The faster you get across the Gulf Stream, the less you’ll get swept north. One key to faster speed is making sure the bottom of your boat is clean. Another is to motor or motor-sail at your max cruising speed. Many of us dream of “pure sailing” across the Gulf Stream but it’s rare to get conditions that allow for a fast crossing under sail alone.
Should you have engine problems on the crossing and have to sail at slower speeds, be aware that you’re almost certainly going to end up further north than you had expected. Have some alternate destinations in mind.
Crossing the Gulf Stream from Miami-Ft. Lauderdale to Bimini
I know that a lot of cruisers start at the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area and head for Bimini, but Bimini is actually south of Miami. This means that you’re going to have to do one of two things: (1) fight current all day, which will cut your speed considerably or (2) allow the Gulf Stream to sweep you north by heading due east, then turning and heading south once you get on the far side of stream (with luck, you’ll find a counter-current to help you).
Either option is going to add hours to your trip. You’re better off with what might be called the third option. Take a day as you’re waiting for your weather window and head south to a different anchorage — which one you choose will be determined by your draft.
If heading south first isn’t practical, my personal preference is the second option, making any necessary southing on the Bahamas side of the Gulf Stream. The stream usually doesn’t run right up to the islands. There is often even a counter-current on the east side. In this case, head due east across the stream and then turn for your destination once across. You will not follow the rhumb line and your chart plotter will keep showing you being further off course until you make that turn on the far side of the stream.
If you decide to do the “fight the current” route, you can simply set your waypoints as usual and steer to follow the rhumb line across (your heading will change as the stream is stronger in some places than others). Be aware, however, that your speed over ground is likely to be at least a knot less than you typically average and plan accordingly.
Heading to the Bahamas from the Keys
If you are planning to start further south, say at Rodriguez Key (Key Largo) and head for Bimini or Gun Cay, you’d start the planning in the same way.
First, figure the east-west mileage and then divide it by your average speed to know how far north you are likely to be swept. Either on a paper or electronic chart, mark a point this number of miles due south of your intended destination.
Then figure the steering course for this route. It should be less than 90 This is your heading to steer and should — on average — keep you near the rhumb line course to your actual destination (you will probably be north of the rhumb line in the middle of the trip, where the stream is the strongest, then come back towards the rhumb line in the second half).
Because the trip is longer and you’re in the stream longer, the estimated steering heading is less likely to be “perfect” and may need a little tweaking as you see how conditions are actually developing.
Westbound Route Planning
For the return trip from Bimini to Florida, the planning was similar to our eastbound crossing. We knew we couldn’t really start as far south as would be ideal — the Bimini chain doesn’t extend that far south.
Our options were to either fight the current or get across and then make our southing inside Hawk Channel. Because weather in the Gulf Stream is potentially squally, we opted to get across the stream as quickly as possible.
The basic plan, therefore, was that we’d head straight across — due west — and then deal with however far north we’d been swept. But we were able to add a bit of a twist on this by using a day with northeast winds (not good for making the crossing) to head south along the Bimini chain to Riding Rock — taking advantage of a counter current as well. That got us about 15 miles further south than just leaving from Gun Cay — but only about 4 miles south of Angelfish Creek, our target on the Florida side (we were heading back to Marathon, in the Keys).
Creating Routes for Crossing the Gulf Stream Westbound
I created a series of potential routes for the various places where we could cross the reef on the Florida side and enter Hawk Channel, including ones that I thought were unrealistically south and north “just in case.” We steered due west as we crossed. Our chart plotter will only show one route at a time, so I began the day with the southernmost route. As we got swept north of that rhumb line, I pulled up the next route to the north. And so on, until we got to the reef and made our way into Hawk Channel, where we had a glorious sail south — out of the Gulf Stream — down to Angelfish Creek. Admittedly, we would have traveled fewer miles had we just fought the stream. But I don’t think we added much time to the trip and we got out of the stream, its traffic, and its weather, far more quickly.
This article was originally written on January 18, 2018. It was substantially updated and republished on January 4, 2019.
Pat Harris says
Carolyn — thanks thanks thank! I loved this article, very helpful for first-timers!
Keith & Nicki, s/v Sionna says
Such a simple, straightforward and USEFUL description of the planning process! Thanks Carolyn!
Peter Tarantola says
The Boat Galley says
Thanks so much!
Jason Diesel says
I was hoping you would add a little about a northerly wind component, washing machine, or easterly, etc. and waiting for a window that is more favorable than another. All this is really only gleaned from experience.
The Boat Galley says
Weather is a different component. I really wanted to keep this discussion to simply routing and how you have to plan for the offset to the north. Weather is another big component, but everyone’s tolerance for conditions is different!
John Casey says
Another great article Carolyn.
Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious) says
It is worth noting that “conventional wisdom” is often unwise. Fighting the Gulf Stream is, to put it bluntly, a sucker bet. That means Lake Worth to West End is a bad idea. If your crossing the Gulf Stream in a six knot boat you should pick a destination 25 nm North of where you start, in both directions.
S/V. ZIG~ZAG says
I think we have crossed the stream about 10 times, and it is always different. However- the formula remains the same. Don’t fight mother nature. Excellent article.
Carolyn Shearlock says
Having done the crossing dozens of times in our Dufour 34, I can tell you the best and easiest way to get to Bimini is to leave from Cape Florida…. There used to be a well known light there, called BUG LIGHT. We always left at around 8pm or so…. not long after dark… sail all night and plan on arriving in Bimini as the sun rose in the east. You dont want to try to enter the harbor in Bimini in the dark! If we arrived early, we would wait till the sun started to show in the east before attempting the entry. Then again, we drew 6’6″… and would frequently bump on the way in.
We, of course would compensate for the Gulf Stream…stearing somewhere around 120 degrees magnetic if memory serves me…it’s been a long time since the last trip ….you can’t get lost if the weather is decent…you can see the glow of the lights in Bimini most of the way! Our club frequently held overnight races to Bimini or to West End.
Carolyn Shearlock says
Leaving from that far north, you will be fighting the Gulf Stream the whole way, as I discussed. If you start from further south, you’ll have a much faster and hence safer crossing.
We actually would always leave from Cape Florida….at the southern tip of Key Biscayne. It’s perfect as you progress across the stream, you wash northwards toward Bimini. On sone trips when the stream isn’t running as hard, we have actually had to tack northward toward Bimini. As I said, in goid weather you won’t get lost as you can see the glow of Bimini from about half way there.
Carolyn Shearlock says
Oops! I accidentally put my comment on yours instead of the one I meant to. It was supposed to be in reply to the one about trying to cross from Lake Worth to West End. Lake Worth is too far north to have a good crossing to West End. Your route is great. Sorry for the confusion there.
J McGrath says
Really enjoy reading your articles …. thank you …..
Would love information crossing from lake Worth to the West End ~
Carolyn Shearlock says
I haven’t done that crossing but 8d analyze it the same way. I know a lot of people make that crossing but I think that it’s an easier and faster trip if you start a little further south.
Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious) says
Lake Worth is too far North to cross to West End. Go to Hillsboro or Fort Lauderdale.
Unless you are familiar with Hillsboro, go down to Ft. Lauderdale. If you can, avoid the weekend. Ft. Lauderdale can be a madhouse on weekends…..not to mention the cruise ship traffic.
Dave Skolnick (S/V Auspicious) says
I agree with Fred on the merits, importantly that provisioning opportunities near Ft Lauderdale are better than Hillsboro. *grin*
The cruise ship traffic in Ft Lauderdale doesn’t worry me. It’s the recreational weekend warriors I worry about.
Rod Halpert says
I would love to hear more about “not fighting Mother Nature”. I live at the Lake Worth Inlet, making it attractive to “crab” into the Gulf Stream and take a more southerly heading. Using a 3 it gulfstream I need to travel south approximately 27 NM for my crossing if i want minimal time in the stream. In my 6kt boat this is a 4.5 hour trip added on to my approx. 9 hour crossing for a total time of 13.5 hours. If i choose to just sail a more southerly heading it lengthens the mileage sailed and lowers my speed over ground. With a 3 kt stream it makes my 56 NM direct distance approx 62 NM sailed. Even if my speed over ground drops to 5 knots my trip time for the 62NM covered is just over 12 hours.
I’m not advocating for one method over the other. I can see why minimizing my time in the stream is important if the stream is rough that day, but if thats the case I’m probably not going. I would love to hear people’s reasons for minimizing the time in stream.
Carolyn Shearlock says
We like to minimize time in the stream because of the extremely high traffic there and also the fact that the GS generates squalls. Since we live aboard the boat, it’s no trouble to use a day that isn’t good to cross (generally due to north winds) to move to a more southerly jump-off place!
Kent Trompeter says
We have crossed the Gulf Stream many times in both power and sail. Sail was the most fun as we left from Marathon , jumped into the Gulf Stream and rode that puppy North. We left the Keys around 4:00 pm and were in West End around 2:00 pm. The only down side was leaving on Sunday, lots of. Cruise ships leaving Port Canaveral that evening, talked with most of them via VHF, they had us on radar and turned to avoid us. The last thing cruise ships want is to run into sailboats. Heading North from the Keys, use the Gulf Stream, if there is a Northerly component in the wind, STAY OUT OF THE GULF STREAM!!!
Barry Vecchioni says
Excellent info on making the crossing by sailboat! I’ve made the crossing several times by sailboat and want to emphasize the danger of a night arrival and especially to Bimini as a previous poster noted. The tidal flow between North Bimini and South Bimini is quite strong. In the ‘winter’ you only have about 10 hours of daylight and as the author explained a 9 hour trip is normal. A late start in the morning and you’re ariving at night. Every crossing I made was begun in the evening so that we would be arriving in the Bahamas in full daylight. It’s also not a bad idea to go as a group. (One time a member of our flotilla decided to leave mid day as they were on vacation. Destination was Bimini, but they ran aground in the dark between the islands). You also definitely want to pay attention to the weather forecast as a northernly component to the wind will turn the GS into a washing machine. Very confused seas as the current fights the wind.
Greg Smith says
Hi, Enjoyed the article. I would add that there is a route with nearly 6′ at low through Angelfish Creek. I sounded a route with my dinghy, then confirmed it the next day with the big boat at low tide. It has been tested a number of times since by friends. See the soundings, below.
Also, I agree in general with your GS crossing info. At 6 knots or less, crabbing into the current makes for a long trip, especially if you are trying to cross as a day hop. But if you can travel at 8 knots or more, then there may be better tactics, especially if you are not trying to stop in Bimini or West End and are wiling to go overnight to Chub, Great Harbour Cay or New Providence. You can look at my November 19 blog post, “Gulf Stream Crossing” at mvprivateer.com.
Angelfish Creek Soundings:
Starting at Card Sound:
R14 100′ off 6.5′
R12 50′ off 9′
Mouth of creek, visual center 8′
R12-R10 visual center 9′
R10 visual center 14′
R8 to G5 to R 6 visual center 10-12′
R2a 75′ off 6.2′
G3a center channel 5.9′
G3a to G3 center channel 5.7′
Between G1 and R2 center channel 6.0′ No obstruction found
Directly out to Hawk Channel 6.5′ increasing