Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Manatee River

 The goal for the past week has been to improve our boat handling skills, and begin making small passages. The former requires vigilance, fortitude, and trial and error. The latter involves careful planning and navigation rather than making a few loops outside of our marina and calling it a day. The boat-handling skills, if they have been improving at all, have done so imperceptibly. For example, out of the 6 times we have so far docked and left the slip, 50% of those times have been near disastrous-- I have considered on occasion renaming the boat "Student Driver Keep Safe Distance" or "Caution: Amateurs at Helm". The other 50% of the time however, things go so smoothly as to supply us with a fresh reserve of optimism. I think it is a sign of improvement when your anxieties begin to branch out and become well-rounded. Rather than only being afraid of storms (which honestly can be carefully avoided) I am terrified of crashing into one of the children's dinghy-racing classes (there are literally hundreds of them!! Flailing about! Making erratic turns and then capsizing right in front of you! And where are there parents?!), or getting the propellor fouled in one of the ten million crab traps or, my new favorite: running aground.

 Let me explain. We decided on our first mini-passage. The destination: Manatee River (for reasons that are so self-explanatory). Only around 30 nautical miles from our marina, we weren't expecting anything too demanding. A pleasure cruise really, culminating with a long-anticipated first night at anchor. The morning of the passage, we got started a little late (noon instead of 8am). We excitedly motored out into Tampa Bay only to be met with 4 knots of wind instead of the predicted 10. This means that our sails forego all intended purpose and become decorative banners, curtains really. Preferring the wind over motor, we stick it out for like 2 hours before we realize that even floating heaps of kelp are beating us to our midpoint the Skyway Bridge. We power up and start making up time, it's already late in the day and we're both getting anxious to make it to our anchorage before sunset. 
(Going under Skyway bridge.)

 Still relatively illiterate in the language of buoys and navigation aids, we found ourselves a little overwhelmed by the random smattering of barely visible green and red markers in the distance. Which one marks the entrance to Manatee river? What course are we on? Which patch of Mangrove is Rattlesnake Key? Meanwhile Patrick is concerned with getting the anchor and its respective parts in order so we can anchor as soon as we arrive. Before leaving, when we examined the charts we divided navigation responsibilities in half (I had three charts and he had one--the Manatee River chart). In other words, I was unfamiliar with the area. Out of the assortment of red markers, Patrick tells me to head for one while he tends to the anchor. Filled with nervous excitement, I make progress towards the marker. We are getting close, when suddenly I feel the boat jump. This is a strange feeling, because the boat weighs 10,000 lbs and shouldn't make sudden leaping movements. I look at the depth finder. The depth which was only a moment ago 15 feet is now 4'8", now 4'5", 4'2"--exactly the draft of the Cape Dory. Suddenly we bump to a complete stop, the propellor still spinning madly. I look over the side into crystalline water, the sandy bottom so close I can make out the individual granules of sand. How could this happen we exclaim! We looked at the charts...mostly...we promised ourselves we would never be one of those careless boaters who run aground. 
(The sand bar that nearly claimed us.)

 First things first: assess damage. Luckily we were in soft sand so there wasn't much to worry about there. Now we have to figure out how to get unstuck. At this point we are attentive enough to notice that there is a distinct channel cut out through this sandy shoal, which is what that smattering of markers I mentioned previously were all about. We watched in a state of utter humility as sailboat after sailboat safely and calmly drifted by, using the markers as we should have done. We were only 10 yards away from safe water. 10 yards!! If only we could slunk along the shallow ground enough to slip back into the channel. We tried this with methods of varied intensity and desperation for about 45 minutes. The sun was preparing to set. I started imagining us being stuck for weeks, run out of provisions, no water, and our batteries dead. We had such bad luck fishing I just knew that eventually one of us would have to eat the other. 
 Realizing we were defeated by shifty sand, Patrick said we would have to wait for high tide because we couldn't afford a tow-boat. As fate would have it, high tide was at midnight (7 hours away), which would require us getting back into deep water and then navigating back through the narrow channel at night and finding an anchorage and setting our anchor in pitch blackness. 
 So, I'm crying. Patrick, who hates tears sends me down below angrily vowing to "figure everything out, just go below and calm down". Then, a miracle. A tow-boat on his way to rescue another boat in a similar situation happens upon us and decides to tow us privately for a low price. Unfortunately we have no cash. This kind angel of a power-boater decides to tow us for free! In five minutes he had us safely in deep water. I was quaking with joy, Patrick actually bowed to the man from the bow-sprit and tipped an imaginary hat while I saluted him. That kind, brave soldier. 
     We made it safely and timidly through the channel and threw down the anchor in the first suitable spot just as the sun went down. It was a full moon and the water was still, glass-like. We were floating in a big pool of moon. It was exactly what you imagine when you fantasize about sailing. 
  Because we worked so hard to get there, we decided to stay at anchor for an additional day and do absolutely nothing but read, nap, fish and sunbathe.
The journey back from Manatee River was utopic. We had ten knots of wind coming right over the beam of the boat. We were speeding at five and half knots through gentle unruffled waves making incredible time. The sails were so perfectly trimmed we hardly needed to steer the boat. Patrick, exultant, did yoga on the bow-sprit. We made it home to Dock 3 Slip 106 in half the time feeling both successful and wizened. 
We are in the marina now re-provisioning and planning the next trip.    


  1. Hi Laine and Patrick! (well, mostly laine face, but you can read it too patrick) Just got your post card today, love the hot dog with eyes...are you kidding me??? that's hilarious! I'm thoroughly enjoying reading your blogs, by far the most captivating blog I've followed. Maybe it's your writing style or the precarious sailing adventures that have got my attention, either way you rock my face off. So, I love hearing all the sailing lingo; my dad has told me more stories than I can even begin to count and they are all filled with sailor jargon. I can relate to the docking disasters... pretty much every time we've put our sail boat in the water and attempted to peacefully sail to our buoy it turns into total chaos, combined with tears and yelling and usually my mom still on the pier holding the line looking at us as we sail away... (she gets afraid to jump on sometimes) haha. Anyway, I'm so excited for you and love all the adventures. live it up. sailing is the coolest thing that will ever happen to you, I'm sure of it. hearts and dolphins! ~g

  2. Loved ones,

    you really don't understand how much it means for me to say I'm jealous of you in light of how unspeakably happy I am down here... but i think that would be the case even if you weren't living like gyptians having dangerous yet glamorous adventures (or misadventures??) because you're each with the other which is enough to make me envy either of you dispite the realization of so long deffered dreams...it'll be nice to stop looking forward to living with you two, but in the meantime, your wish is my command dear sister, and i've posted an exerpt from my journal just for the two of you since no one else reads it.
    love and kisses,
    ps- don't forget to send me pictures when you catch animals and drag them behind the cape dory!