Missing aircraft, vanished ships, and empty life rafts. These are just some of the mysterious events that occur within the so-called Bermuda Triangle. Speculation as to why this region of the ocean causes such calamities range from the supernatural to the aliens from outer space.
The boundaries of the Bermuda Triangle roughly extend from Miami to Puerto Rico and north to Bermuda, with some proponents extending the area to New Jersey. The strange occurrences have been recounted in hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles over the years, and several books including Limbo of the Lost and Invisible Horizons. While no one will ever know for sure what happened to the missing vessels and aircraft, the reason for their loss may be caused by something we are familiar with: the Gulf Stream.
In the course of writing two books about disasters in the Gulf Stream, I learned that during a storm this river of water can be quite dangerous. Its warm waters create its own micro-climate, especially when there are downdrafts of cold air, causing hazards for low-flying aircraft. Boats large and small face another hazard in or near the Gulf Stream when storms funneling winds out of a northerly direction create waves that run counter to the current. As Gulf Stream experts and meteorologists Dane and Jennifer Clark point out, this can lead to the dreaded rogue wave. They believe extreme waves in the Gulf Stream are more common than previously thought and some of the strong storms happen even before hurricane season. “Some of the most intense storms we’ve ever seen happened in April and May. And waves that come up suddenly and have not traveled far over the open ocean (the fetch) can be deadly. When you have big waves with little fetch, they are really dangerous because the wave period is shorter, meaning they are close together. One potential problem is that as your bow comes down off one wave it doesn’t have a chance to start riding up the next wave because the trough is so small, and instead gets buried by green water.
THE GULF STREAM
The warm waters of the Gulf Stream are a result of its origination in the Gulf of Mexico. Its current shoots through the 50-mile wide Florida Straights passing between the tip of Florida and Cuba, sending the flow northward along Florida’s eastern seaboard. Here the Stream is narrow, deep, and quick moving, just like a high-speed river in a well-defined path, with only an occasional eddy forming at its margins. Approximately 40 miles wide, a quarter mile deep, and traveling at a clip of 4–5 knots, this beginning section of the Gulf Stream carries a volume of water more than 25 times greater than all the rivers in the world combined. When it reaches Cape Hatteras, it curves to the northeast, losing a bit of its power as more warm water eddies detach and reform, while the Stream itself broadens and slows. Most of the warm water eddies spin north out of the core of the Gulf Stream, rotating in clockwise current, and some of these separate completely, spinning off on their own meandering path. Further north the Stream flows eastward forming the North Atlantic Drift, slowly heading across the Atlantic and ultimately traveling past the British Isles. Although its temperatures are not as warm as they were off Florida, the Gulf Stream still moderates the climate off Western Europe and is said to be the reason why palm trees grow on the southern end of Great Britain.
Mariners use the Gulf Stream to their advantage if they are heading north along the eastern seaboard, traveling directly in it to help carry them along. The Gulf Stream, however, poses its own set of challenges. Its waters warm the air directly above it, helping to produce its own micro-climate. Sailors can often see the location of this saltwater river long before they arrive. Low clouds often hover above the Gulf Stream due to rising warm air and water vapor. If the warm air collides with a cold front, violent thunderstorms erupt with severe localized wind, rain, lightning, and even the occasional waterspout. Yet forecasting when these thunderstorms will occur is difficult due to the quickness of their formation.
Even worse than the thunderstorms are existing weather systems that intensify above the Gulf Stream when they feed off the warm ocean below. Tropical storms passing over the Stream often explode into full-fledged hurricanes, and sailors are especially wary during the height of hurricane season in late August and September. In addition, the Gulf Stream is not the place to be caught in a storm due to the size of the waves that occur there. When winds come out from the northeast they produce waves surging toward the southwest, and these waves become larger and steeper when they run into the Gulf Stream’s current flowing in the opposite direction. Steep waves often mean breaking waves, and these avalanching combers can cause havoc to boats.
There is no need to avoid the Gulf Stream during an ocean voyage. In fact, many mariners use the stream to their advantage when heading north from Florida by simply using the current to help propel them on their way. For safe boating the thing to keep in mind is that if a storm is coming, it’s best to exit the stream before the bad weather hits. Knowing that the Gulf Stream has the possibility to generate extreme waves in a storm, even during a period of relatively low wind speeds of 20–25 knots, means that smart boaters should avoid it during rough weather.
So forget the Bermuda Triangle, be wary when voyaging in the Gulf Stream, and enjoy your outing on the ocean.
Michael Tougias is the author of several true survival-at-sea books including Overboard!, Fatal Forecast, The Finest Hours (which is being made into a Disney movie) and his upcoming book A Storm Too Soon. He lectures about what he has learned to groups across the country. For more information visit www.michaeltougias.com.