Crossing the Gulf Stream: Coast Guard Auxiliary Training Diminishes Danger on the High Seas

Friday, April 27, 2012

The date was Friday the 13th of April 2012.  The sun was shinning and a moderate east wind was blowing off the Bahama Banks across the Atlantic Ocean’s Gulf Stream toward the Florida peninsula.  Seas in the Gulf Stream were forecast at 3-5 feet.

Article by Auxiliarist Christopher Todd, Miami, FL

ATLANTIC OCEAN – The vessel crossing the Gulf Stream back from Bimini, Bahamas to Miami, Fl. across the Gulf Stream on Sunday, April 15, 2012. Photo courtesy of Auxiliarist Christopher Todd.

We departed Miami Beach Marina at about 10:00 a.m. for the approximate 46 nautical mile crossing to Bimini, Bahamas.  Nine people set out in a 40-foot express cruiser with twin diesel 350 horsepower engines built by Cranchi boat works (of Italy) in 2006.  As Master, I was the only person aboard with any practical boating experience.

I have made this crossing several times, but usually later in the year when the trade winds have diminished and the seas were calmer.  Regardless, the forecast was certainly something a 40-ft. cruiser should be able to handle.

The journey started well as we departed the Port of Miami and headed out to Government Cut, with the waypoint for Bimini plotted into the chart plotter and the autopilot engaged.  My friends were at ease and played their iPod over the sound system.  I knew this was a just a teaser for what lay ahead, but stayed silent to let them enjoy the moment while it lasted.

Gradually, the east wind increased, as did the seas.  About 45 minutes into the crossing three of the crew were showing signs of seasickness.  We were heading straight into the wind, and the boat was taking some hard hits even though I had substantially reduced our speed.

We were in the middle of the Gulf Stream, with no land in sight, when we suddenly hit one of those waves that send a shockwave through your spine and a shutter through your heart.  The boat lost all electronics.

“What happened to the music?” my friend Gil asked.

“We just lost all electronics on the boat,” I replied.

“Is that bad?” one of the girls asked.

“Well, it means we don’t have any music right now,” I responded — not wanting to induce panic.

How bad was our situation?  Immediately I thought of the scene in Apollo 13 where the space ship declares a problem and mission control begins to assess what systems were actually still working.

In our case, we still had propulsion and steering.  This was good news.  We had lost our primary navigation systems in the chart plotter and autopilot.  However, I still had a working compass on the helm, and a hand-held GPS system that I always brought along as a back up when I made this crossing.

Our primary VHF marine radio was still working and I had a hand-held backup VHF and personal EPIRB emergency-signaling device aboard as well.

I slowed the vessel to a crawl, noted the compass heading, and placed Gil at the helm while I investigated what may have caused the electronics to fail.  The slow speed made those passengers who were seasick feel even worse, so I decided to proceed without any underway repairs.

Upon reassuming the helm, Gil informed me that he forgot what compass heading I had given him and the boat got spun around.  He was not sure what direction we were heading in at this point.

“Don’t worry,” I told him.  “Bimini is due east of Miami.  We will get there by steering a compass course of 090.”

Gil seemed relieved.

We picked up speed once again and headed east, into an ever increasing east wind with higher seas.

Soon, North Bimini Island was in sight and tensions lightened.  We arrived in port at about noon, approximately two hours after departing Miami.  After clearing customs, I repaired the boat’s electronics, and we found a local restaurant on the beach and celebrated our arrival.

At breakfast the next morning, Gil asked me how serious our situation really was on the crossing when the electronic systems went down.

“Not that serious,” I responded.  “I knew how to handle the situation.”

“But HOW did you know how to handle the situation?”  Gil replied.  “We have a lot of friends who would have freaked out if that happened to them with no land in sight and not knowing what direction to head.”

I thought for a moment and it suddenly hit me.  “I learned how to handle that situation primarily because of the training I received from the Coast Guard Auxiliary,” I said.

It was true.

–          Course plotting

–          Understanding weather, tides, and current

–          Recognizing signs of seasickness

–          Remaining calm under pressure

–          Carrying along redundant systems and emergency communications

–          Compass navigation and piloting

I had learned all off these things during the Coast Guard Auxiliary training I received from the time I took my first Boating Skills and Seamanship course, through my boat crew and coxswain training, leadership schools, and Team Coordination Training refresher workshops.  The Auxiliary had provided me with insight on how to manage the situation effectively and safely.

Nothing is a substitute for actual experience received during voyages on the high-seas.  However, Coast Guard Auxiliary recreational boating safety and seamanship training is a great way for boating enthusiasts to learn how to manage unexpected situations that have the potential to become life and death problems for inexperienced boaters.

For more information on the U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, please visit

Christopher Todd is a member of Coast Guard Auxiliary based in Miami, FL.  Mr. Todd has been certified as a boat coxswain, PWC operator, search and rescue training instructor, and presently serves as the deputy director of government and public affairs for the organization.

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  1. Mike Zweifel says:

    Excellent story! Semper Paratus!

  2. Curtis Low says:

    Excellent article and very good advertisement for people to take CG Aux courses. Cudos!!

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