Saturday, February 21, 2009

Long Boat Key

(The Little Dory at anchor)

After spending exorbitant amounts of money outfitting our boat, we are looking forward to leaving the marina and commencing our first attempt at pseudo-asceticism. 

That being said, the pressure is on as far as basic skill mastery is concerned. Therefore we planned our most ambitious trip yet to Long Boat Key which is a good place to test your seamanship. We left early Monday morning expecting 15 knot winds, only to be met with 20 knots and even stronger gusts. Instead of its usual light chop, Tampa Bay looked like a washing machine for God's laundry (I haven't outgrown the tendency to analogize things in relation to God's hypothetical domestic use of them, ie: rain is still "God's pee"). For the first time ever, the wind and waves were too strong for us to steer our compass course, so we had to recalculate and tack back and forth along our course until the winds died down and we could steer more directly. We really got to know the Cape Dory. For only being 30 feet, she can hold her own in rough seas. My confidence in her seaworthiness increases daily. 

After being pummeled for hours in Tampa Bay we decided to stop at a midpoint- our old stomping grounds- Manatee River for the night. Once we had anchored, Patrick settled down to do a little fishing. Neither of us expected to catch anything, so we were surprised when he had a bite within 15 minutes. Rather than going into detail here, I posted these videos below which do a much better job of explaining our collective shock and unpreparedness. And please, don't judge me for being so squealy. I've already confessed that I am mortified by aquatic life and prefer all encounters between such species and myself to take place on opposite sides of a layer of glass. 

Day 2: Long Boat Key 

There are two ways in and out of Long Boat Key. One takes you through a narrow inland channel on the Intra-Coastal Waterway, the other follows along the coast on the Gulf of Mexico. We decided on the latter because the elements were conducive for good sailing. After navigating along a 7 mile stretch of coast, we had to "tuck in" (sailor term for you) through Long Boat Pass to get to our anchorage. This required passing under a bridge that we couldn't clear unless it was open. 

Allow me to regale you on basic bridge protocol: one must hail the bridge tender on the VHF radio and request its next opening. Patrick was at the helm so it was up to me to make our first VHF call. Drawing on years of voice lessons, employing my most articulate, captainly voice I said: "Long Boat Pass Bridge, Long Boat Pass Bridge, This is sailing vessel Swift Ranger requesting your next available opening, Over." (I can't tell you how silly I feel saying "over" and "roger that") The bridge tender promptly responded that he would open once traffic cleared, so Patrick and I start tentatively making our approach. Being novices in every sense of the word, we didn't think to plan our bridge crossing at slack tide, so naturally there was a strong current driving us straight into the bridge. The channel was so narrow there way almost no room to maneuver around the bridge while waiting for it to open. 

The bridge pilings were coming steadily closer and the bridge had only begun to raise. We knew that we couldn't hold position against the current until the bridge was fully raised, so I got back on the VHF (feeling very embarrassed): "Long Boat Pass Bridge, we've been caught in the current and aren't going to make the opening." To this he replied, "Swift Ranger, circle around and I'll hold the bridge for you." "Roger that." By which point there was an audience of swimmers and fishermen gathered around the bridge watching our painstaking progress. At the peak of personal anxiety, I did as I always do at the most demanding moments: imagine a friendly dolphin swimming alongside us, taking a line from our boat in its little smiley mouth and towing us to safety. But alas. After placing a safe distance between ourselves and the pilings Patrick made the turn and slid through the bridge.     

Safely through the pass, reveling in our combination of quick-thinking, fancy-maneuvering, and luck, we promptly misread a channel marker and slid into another sand bar. No tears this time. I know the drill. We got out the chart, mumbling things under our breath like "college degrees schmollege degrees" but before we even attempted to dislodge ourselves, a friendly Floridian in an inflatable with an outboard engine volunteered to nudge us out of the sand back into the channel. With punctilious attention and no small amount of self-loathing, we found our way into the anchorage practically flinging the god-forsaken anchor overboard, desperate to have done with the whole day. Patrick took his good boyfriend cue and started opening beers while we exchanged delirious confession-type apologies for everything we had blamed on each other over the last hour and a half. 

-This quick aside: If anyone wants to test their relationship before they decide to get married, I could think of a few scenarios that will indubitably show you what your love is made of in less than a month. 

One beer later, we were suddenly able to notice the serene beauty of Long Boat anchorage. It was quiet, with turquoise water. Pelicans were dropping out of the sky busy with their sunset fishing while dolphins surfaced intermittently along shoreline. After a quick phone call to Ed and Karen (Pat's parents), we were in the dinghy rowing to the shore-side restaurant Mar Vista for dinner compliments of the Riley's. From our table, we had a rewarding view of the Cape Dory, resting obediently at anchor. 

(View from our table)

During dinner, we had the opportunity to observe another sailboat attempt to anchor nearby. It had run aground only a hundred yards off, and was towed into the anchorage by a little tugboat. The man at the helm proceeded to drop anchor way to close to a neighboring boat, and in the entirely wrong direction. The towboat actually had to go back, tell the boat to stop what it was doing and towed it into a new position at a safer distance that would allow it to anchor. This provided the perfect amount of consolation. We weren't nearly all that bad. We can at least anchor ourselves. 

We crashed by 10pm only to be jarred awake four hours later by a strange new motion of the boat. The wind had shifted and increased speed dramatically. Patrick went outside to assess our situation. We had swung so that the stern of the boat was now facing the dock at Mar Vista, we had sufficient room between ourselves and the dock, however if the anchor was to slip even the slightest bit we would be driven into the dock before we would have a chance to correct ourselves. This being a terrifying possibility, we decided to put out a second anchor at a 45 degree angle to the other one. We loaded up the dinghy and Patrick rowed out a considerable distance against wind and current and tossed the anchor over the side. He rowed back to the boat paying out rode as he went. He passed the bitter end to me on the bow and I used a fancy sailor's knot to secure it to the anchor bridle. We didn't have a good way of "setting" the second anchor, so we went below to make some tea while we took turns checking the anchor hoping it would set on its own.  

Let me tell you, this was all very unpleasant as we were sleep-deprived and still flustered from the events of the day. However it felt more like a sailor's right of passage than anything we had done up to that point. An hour later, it was obvious our second anchor was holding and the boat had stopped swinging as much. Problem Solving Challenge '09 had come to a successful end. Just as we turned off the cabin lights to get some sleep, we heard the power boat next to us fire up its engine. We peaked out of the window just in time to see it drifting dangerously close to the dock. It's anchor had slipped and they had to reset their anchor all over again. We were proud that we had taken the initiative to correct things before we were in any real danger. 

We made the long, arduous trip through the Intra-Coastal Waterway back to our Marina in one leg the following morning, through two bridges without much struggle. For the first time ever, we were able to dock against strong winds without having to journey through the nine circles of hell first. We really are getting this. 


  1. This year at sea will be an incredible memoir. I can't wait to tell everyone that I know the peeps who wrote it.

  2. "Somebody just back of you while you are fishing is as bad as someone looking over your shoulder while you write a letter to your girl." -Ernest Hemingway

    "A noble craft, but somehow a most melancholy! All noble things are touched with that." - Herman Melville, Moby Dick

    "My confidence in her seaworthiness increases daily." - Alaina

    The android fish joke made me laugh. So did the friendly dolphin one.

    Congrats on all the successes. Very impressed etc.


    Hearing your voices in videos makes me miserable that I can never see you but the idea of other people seeing what you're up to instead of me is unacceptable to say the least so I watch them anyway.

    This particular one reminds me of some wisdom imparted to me my by my Austrailian friend while he was drunk. I told him I've only been fising once and hated it because I was the only one who never cought anything and he said between swigs of beer:
    "That's why I love fishing!...sitting next to some poor bloke who isn't catching a thing... that's all you can ask from life...always catching a bigger fish than the next guy..."

    so there's a little gift for you. enriched.