Cheryl and Dudley's Sailbatical Adventure

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El Niño, Lake Okeechobee, and Our Big Decision (Day 137)

El Niño, Lake Okeechobee, and Our Big Decision (Day 137)

Back on August 13, 2015, Discover Magazine advised, “A new El Niño forecast is out, and while it may not be terribly surprising, it’s still worth noting: El Niño will almost certainly be hanging around for at least the next seven months, and probably more. But not only that. It continues to look very likely that this El Niño will peak in winter as one of the strongest — if not the strongest — on record.”

That was a good “heads up” about a weather pattern we’ve experienced before in Maryland, but never had we been living on the water during an El Niño year. Nor had we been traveling in Florida, with plans to cross the Gulf Stream to the Bahamas.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. The 1997 data (left) are from the NASA/CNES Topex/Poseidon mission; the current data (right) are from the NASA/CNES/NOAA/EUMETSAT Jason-2 mission.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech. The 1997 data (left) are from the NASA/CNES Topex/Poseidon mission; the 2015 data (right) are from the NASA/CNES/NOAA/EUMETSAT Jason-2 mission.

A few months ago, when we were blissfully enjoying Thanksgiving in South Carolina, the Orlando Sentinel warned, “Floridians should brace themselves for a wet and wild winter, all thanks to El Nino. The weather pattern happens every few years when the Pacific Ocean warms up around the equator. This year’s is one of the strongest El Niños on record.”

Hindsight is certainly 20/20 and that prediction was spot on. We’ve been in Florida since December 5 and experienced a very wet January—the wettest on Florida’s record books in 80 years. That’s one of several reasons why our brightwork project was delayed. You simply can’t varnish when it’s raining, or even if rain is in the forecast.

Wet decks on Belle Bateau in January.
Wet decks on Belle Bateau in January.

Furthermore, we were reading blog posts from our sailing friends in the Bahamas, who were ecstatic for one day out of seven when the rains and/or winds let up enough for them to get off the boat or take a day trip to a nearby beach ( and Their reports didn’t sound like the paradise of previous winters in the islands. A few told us we chose a very good year to delay a crossing. Some have said that they may not ever venture to the Bahamas again in an El Niño year.

Image credit:
Image credit:

By mid-February, when we left New Smyrna Beach to head further south, we still had plans to go as far south as Stuart FL, and cross to the Bahamas, weather permitting of course. Certainly by the end of the month, the weather would improve for a crossing, and if not, we could continue south to Miami, and then to the Keys. We had heard fabulous stories about Marathon, and from there we could take a bus to Key West for a day. And who wouldn’t enjoy that?

But then, we were warned by cruisers in Stuart, FL that water quality there was poor due to the draining of Lake Okeechobee. What??? Here’s what the Sun Sentinel reported on February 4 about the second largest body of fresh water in the contiguous United States: “Lake Okeechobee has risen to its highest point in a decade, triggering maximum-level lake water draining out to sea to protect the troubled dike that guards against South Florida flooding…’That influx of lake water threatens to have a devastating effect on coastal waterways,’ said Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society in Stuart…. If El Niño conditions continue into the spring, the lake draining to the coasts could linger for months.”

Image credit: NASA. Taken during the STS-95 mission on April 21, 2010. It's easy to spot Lake Okeechobee.
Image credit: NASA. Taken during the STS-95 mission, April 21, 2010. It’s easy to spot Lake Okeechobee, which is that big spot of blue.

Months??? Okay, maybe we’ll bypass Stuart, and head for Marathon. So we made a few inquiries with friends and cruisers there. The water quality in Marathon was also being affected by the draining of the big lake. What??? Seriously??? We wanted to go snorkeling in clear water, but were told that the water had turned a murky turquoise since early February. Still beautiful, but not clear. Plus, Marathon was very crowded, with folks who had planned to cross to the Bahamas, but had decided not to go this year. Mooring balls and marinas were booked, and anchorages were very crowded. This did not sound like fun.

Sunrise in Ft. Pierce, as seen through a waterside sculpture.
Sunrise in Ft. Pierce, as seen through a waterside sculpture.

Okay then. Perhaps we should be content with the idea that our first cruising expedition went as far south as Fort Pierce, FL, and that’s okay. After all, this adventure has been more about the journey, and less about the destination. By turning around at 27°26′20″N 80°20′8″W, we can begin a more leisurely trip north. We’ll have time to linger longer in our favorite towns, and have the opportunity to visit a few places that we missed in the autumn.

And so, the big decision was made. On Day 137, we departed Fort Pierce, with a compass heading looking quite different than it did for the previous four months.

Compass heading near zero means we are heading north!
Compass heading near zero degrees means we are heading north!

No Bahamas or turquoise waters this time. But that’s okay. We’ve had toes in the sand instead of shovels in the snow, and that’s quite good in an El Niño year. We’ll take it!

Toes in the sand, Wrightsville Beach NC
Toes in the sand, rather than shovels in the snow.

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Cheryl Duvall and Dudley Whitney

3 Church Circle, Unit #138

Annapolis, MD 21401

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