Thursday, March 26, 2009

Water Birds

We are currently nestled near a band of mangroves which comprises the eastern wall of Jewfish Creek. In light of the fact that most boats in this narrow anchorage are stationary and home to the most intriguing faction of northern Key Largo’s minimum wage work force, anchoring here demands an unusual proximity to one’s neighbors. Thus we find ourselves quite hemmed in with a houseboat to starboard, a trimaran off the bow, and two dilapidated monohulls off each side of the stern. The “coziness” of this area required a composite of our most scrupulous anchoring techniques, and more than a few disagreements as to whether or not when the wind shifted we would find ourselves swinging right onto the foredeck of another boat.

After some “problem solving”, and Patrick’s rowing twice out with the dinghy to re-lay our second anchor we seem to be quite secure and ready to ride out the next few days’ strong north-easterly breezes.

 Four days of relentless northern winds are the precursor to the southerly that is our golden sun-bathed ticket to the Bahamas. In the meantime we have suffered more than a few sleepless nights, enduring the persistent howling of 25 knot winds that squeeze over the tops of the mangroves and catch the top of our mast, causing us to sway abominably and hit the halyards against the mast with a loud, rhythmic clattering. After so many hours, the howling, whistling and clamoring begins to grate on one’s nerves; i.e., reminiscent of a low-budget “Stomp” performance over one’s head.

To make things all the more insufferable, the springy nylon of the rode that attaches us to anchor works like a rubber band in strong winds so that we pivot from one anchor to the other bouncing back and forth. There is nothing more disorienting than waking up in the blackness of night and seeing the stars swiveling madly, or the city-scape suddenly replaced by a darkened wood.

However fate has smiled upon us, and sent us a guardian blowfish that Patrick named John Wayne Gacy to protect us from unfavorable winds. He lives in a nook between the two chains that lead off to each anchor. At night we sit on the bow illuminating him with a handcrank flashlight telling ghost stories (holy ghost stories of course) while he swells enormously with what I assume is pleasure. I love you, John Wayne Gacy, you celestial scaly orb.

We have learned a great deal from our month-long stint of living “on the hook.” Most importantly anchor watches, or the more extreme, abandoning the anchorage entirely because one has been blown out of it are not unusual circumstances. In fact these scenarios happen often, and the way one handles them is a distinguishing mark of an experienced sailor.

Surprisingly as my knowledge of the sea increases so does my fear of it. Conversely, the more I blindly embrace each passage or night at anchor the more confidence I gain. There is something about sailing that elicits a combination of intuition and naiveté along with a respect for the elements and an awareness of one’s limitations that seems to make a good sailor. 

Friday, March 20, 2009

On the Run from Inclement Weather

So the whole spring-break-Miami experience didn't pan out. The morning we left Blackwater Sound Patrick and I indulged in our usual routine of 30 minutes with NOAA's robot broadcasted weather radio report. A cold front was settling in, and I mean settling in, with no intentions of moving before punishing all of southern Florida's inhabitants with 5 days of inclement weather. 

Despite the day's forecasted thunderstorms--not ideal sailing conditions--we didn't have the luxury of sitting tight on our anchor. Connor had a flight to make and he at least needed to get to Miami. We were intimidated by the prospect of sailing for the first time through lightning and torrential rain, but we were comforted by the small flotilla of Blue Water Sailing School boats (one of which was captained by Uncle C.J.) who were all on there way to the same anchorage in south Miami. We would be in visual range of at least one of their boats all day and could hail them at any time if had a serious problem. Because storms at sea are ultimately inevitable, we decided to take the chance and put our storm tactics to good use. 

It was overcast with a 15 knot north-easterly wind so we were close-hauled all day, which means the wind and waves pounded us in the face the whole time. By mid-afternoon I could actually scrape handfuls of salt-granules off of my face from all the sea-spray making its way into the cockpit.

By late-afternoon, only 6 miles from our intended anchorage Hurricane Harbor, we noticed large amorphous heaps of cumulous clouds developing just north-east of Miami. From the water, you have the most incredible view of developing weather; the perspective allows you to see everything. I never realized how enormous and low lying storm systems could be, or how quickly they develop. It seemed like the sky was ready to cave in over Miami. Rather than continuing to heap up and form a thunderhead, the wind spread the storm system westward and within minutes a squall line had formed and as our good fortune would have it, it was originating directly over the anchorage we were heading for which provided the only good shelter within miles. At this point, scenes from films like The Perfect Storm and less relevant, but just as disconcerting, Jaws begin flashing through my mind and I am suddenly, deeply overwhelmed by thought of the Cape Dory being dashed to bits at sea.   

With no alternative, we continued sailing tentatively onward hoping that it would have blown over by the time we arrived. Half an hour later it was obvious we wouldn't be so lucky. The squall began to join with every other cumulonimbus cloud in the general area until it had spread across the bay completely obscuring Miami. We were only a mile behind two of the other Blue Water Sailing School Boats, another mono-hull and a catamaran, and we watched closely to see what they would do. Suddenly the catamaran entered the outer edge of the squall and completely disappeared. From the surface of the water to the clouds, we could only see a thick impenetrable grey. Within minutes we would be overtaken ourselves and we were beginning to feel strong blasts of cold air. 

We were only sailing with 75% of sail up as a precautionary measure for the hazardous weather. This came in handy when a sudden gust of wind knocked us suddenly over on our side completely submerging the port side deck in water. Patrick was at the helm while I let out the sails allowing them to spill all the air out of them so that we could right ourselves. We reduced our sails again and made the split second decision as we neared the southerly perimeter of the squall: adjust course and run away. 

We sailed as fast as we could southeast, while the front moved southwest at shocking speeds. After only placing a mile between ourselves and the squall it had disappeared over coastal Florida. We fixed our position and plotted a new course for Hurricane Harbor. Ominous clouds were continuing to develop over the Atlantic and we did not want to try navigating into a foreign anchorage without good visibility. 

We arrived without any misadventure and anchored amongst the Blue Water Sailing School Boats. I could help feeling show-offy to both the captains and their crew as we motored up nonchalantly after the squall and anchoring like it was nothing. Of course, Uncle C.J. knew better. He knew I had been terrified for the last 8 hours by the numerous phone calls I had made to him for advice throughout the day.

Shortly after settling in at the anchorage we discovered that the next three days would bring even worse weather, so much so that sailing at all would be ill-advised. However the storms would be hitting the worst over Miami so we didn't have the option of riding it out in Hurricane Harbor. We needed to get back Blackwater Sound before the following afternoon when the worst of the storms were expected to develop. 

(Just after arriving at Hurricane Harbor)

Patrick and I made plans to drop Connor of at a Marina five miles across Biscayne Bay and head from there to Key Largo. We were gone the next morning at first light and dropped Connor of at a fuel dock by 8 am. We felt like horrible hosts dropping our guest off on an arbitrary dock in south Miami, tossing him his bags and leaving him to his own devices. His plane wasn't even scheduled to leave until the following morning. But Connor was a good sport and understood that we could be in some serious danger if we didn't make it to shelter soon. 

(Connor as we left him to his own devices on some dock, somewhere south of Miami.) 

From the time we pulled out of the fuel dock to the moment we dropped our anchor later that day in Blackwater Sound, we watched storm cells develop and dissipate cyclically from every direction. There was no course we could set that wouldn't eventually take us into a storm. Luckily there were no squalls and the worst storm of the morning hit Miami just as we were leaving it. 

We did our best to dodge the foulest of weather. At one point two storm clouds converged upon us and reduced our visibility to approximately a mile. It rained hard and I was soaked through as it was my turn at the helm. Patrick of course got to navigate and remained dry below until the worst of it was over.

We were still wary of our near knock down the previous day so we sailed with only the Jib and the stay sail instead of using the main. We had to motor a lot but we maintained excellent speed and arrived at Jewfish Creek, a canal cut into the mangroves, which marks the entrance to Blackwater Sound. 

I couldn't believe how essentially purposeless these two days were. After two laborious days of sailing we didn't even step ashore much less explore Miami with Connor. Ironically, once we had returned to Blackwater, a local sailor told us he was driving that day to Miami airport and would have taken Connor if he had known about it. 

On the bright side, Patrick and I were able to spend more time with our favorite C.J., and became amateur meteorologists. Also, we were able to familiarize ourselves with the area from which we will likely be leaving from for the Bahamas which will be our next passage.  

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Hawk Channel

Two days after Connor joined us in Marathon we exchanged the sheltered anchorage of Boot Key Harbor for the reef-lined waters of Hawk Channel. Hawk Channel is utilized almost exclusively by crabbers and cruisers whose draw too much to sail comfortably, or at all, through the ridiculously shoaled Florida Bay. 

Our biggest concern with Hawk Channel was that once you enter it, you are fully committed. There are very few inlets once you leave Marathon and most of them are, yet again, too shallow for our boat to fit through (I don't know how Florida got its reputation for being such great sailing...). 

The morning we left, Patrick and I were up at dawn to ready the boat for departure and retrieve the anchors. It was way too early for Connor so we didn't bother waking him. Hawk Channel was rough all morning. It was so hard to steer against the wind and waves that the hydraulic steering failed on our wheel, forcing us to use the tiller. The tiller, lacking the mechanical advantage of the wheel was too hard for one person to operate, so we had to steer for about six hours together muscling the tiller back and forth, one of us escaping occasionally to plot us on the chart. Sailing was exhausting. Meanwhile, our "crew member" Connor slept until 3 in the afternoon completely oblivious to the fiasco on deck. 

After eleven laborious hours we arrived at Rodriguez Key, which is the only anchorage off of Hawk Channel. Unfortunately, it provides little to no shelter from winds over 10 knots. We were so tired when we pulled up, we didn't give it much thought but the moment we crawled into our v-berth to get some sleep the winds kicked up to around 20 knots. How perfect! Waves rolled right in from the ocean and flung the bow around all night while wind gusted until the boat was vibrating. Patrick and I were too worried to sleep, which was unfortunate because we had been up since 5 that morning. 

Somehow that blessed anchor of ours held against the adverse elements over the night, however we awoke grumpy and bleary eyed after only an hour or two of sleep. We felt so uncomfortable at the anchorage we were actually relieved to be sailing in the open water again. 

Despite our exhaustion, we were pleasantly surprised by strong favorable winds that morning. The Cape Dory sailed beautifully between 6 and 7 knots all morning and we arrived at Angelfish Creek, the first passable inlet by noon. 

We had heard conflicting reports about shoaling in the area. Patrick was so nervous to attempt entering the poorly marked, narrow inlet that he made me decide. Either we attempt Angelfish Creek and risk running aground, or we play it safe and sail 40 miles out of the way and enter through Biscayne Bay. I was not in the mood to sail another day from sunrise to sunset so I decided to take the risk. We asked Connor if he would be willing to snorkel ahead and explore the inlet so we would know where the deep water was. When we made our approach however, the water was so clear we could see the shallow areas and made it through the creek in less than ten minutes. We were making such great time, and having so much success (ie: not running aground) we made it all the way to Blackwater Sound, the northernmost part of Key Largo which hosts a quaint little community of liveaboard sailors. 

Within a day anchored in Blackwater Sound, we met another cruising couple our age living on a 21 foot sailboat. The Cape Dory looks like a luxury yacht in comparison. The don't even have a toilet on board; or they do, it's a bucket. This made us feel rich for the first time. 

By Tuesday Uncle C.J. arrived with his class from Blue Water Sailing School. This anchorage was precisely the same stop we made with our sailing school only two months ago. It was an incredible moment sailing in to the same spot we learned how to sail on our own boat. C.J. has been an incredible help over the past couple months, and our greatest source of encouragement besides Ed and Karen. We have been looking forward to celebrating our inaugural sail with him at a favorite local sailors bar, Gilbert's. 

Connor seems to have been enjoying himself, even though the Cape Dory is almost too small for him to stand up in, and just too small for him to stretch out completely when he lays down. 

In an attempt to fully embrace the cruisers' lifestyle, we did our laundry by hand, soaking it first in saltwater and then rinsing it in a mixture of freshwater and ammonia. Reportedly this is an effective method, however after an hour of scrubbing, wringing and hang-drying, our laundry came out somehow dirtier than before and we were forced to row it all to shore and pay three dollars to use the laundry mat. 

Tomorrow we are heading for Miami to give Connor a more authentic "spring break" experience. Hanging out with 50 year old sailors just doesn't seem to cut it for everyone. 


Thursday, March 12, 2009

From Cabbage Key to Marathon

After spending two glorious days at Cabbage Key, Patrick and I were confronted with a tough decision. Do we continue south along the coast towards Marathon, which will require a night sail through the open ocean? Or do we cut east and take the Okachobee Waterway through numerous locks and bridges in order to get to the Atlantic side? The waterway would be less dangerous, cover a shorter distance, but be unsailable due its narrow channels and canals. The Gulf would be more beautiful, and allow us to sail, but leave us vulnerable to potential hazards that many more experienced sailors chose to avoid. 

The evening was filled with intense deliberation, but finally we came to the conclusion that no matter what, Patrick wanted to cross to the Bahamas. This would in fact be more difficult than the crossing to Marathon. If we were unable to contend with relatively innocuous seas of the Gulf of Mexico, then we would have no business crossing the Gulf Stream. So the decision was made: Marathon. 

We had originally entertained the idea of sailing straight from Cabbage Key to Marathon. We had the good fortune however of receiving the advice of an experienced friend, who explained to us the significance of "staging." Staging is when one strategically pre-arranges one's position in relation to one's intended destination. If were to sail straight from Cabbage Key, ten miles of that trip alone would have been spent exiting the anchorage and getting back out into the open ocean. When one plans a long passage such as ours, one must pick an anchorage based on its easy accessibility to and from the sea. 

So we set a course for Little Marco Island, approximately 70 miles south of Cabbage Key. It was the most arduous journey we had made up to that point. The opening leg was a 20 mile stretch through narrow, poorly marked Intra-coastal Waterway, complete with the usual shoals and boiling tidal currents. 

Patrick put his newly acquired navigation skills to the test over those 20 miles. There were a few turns in the channel that were entirely unmarked, thereby requiring him to keep a careful log of our speed, compass heading and time, in order to deduce where we were in the channel and predict at which point we should turn. My having to blindly steer the course Patrick demanded was maybe the biggest challenge in our relationship thus far. But the Captain came through! After a few nerve-racking hours we made it out of the ICW and into the bay waters of Sanibel Island. 

It was several more hours of sailing from Sanibel to Little Marco Island. We were pulling into the inlet just as the sun was preparing to set. Patrick was at his usual place on the bow with binoculars and chart in hand, pointing out markers and directing me towards them. Once inside the channel, approaching a dilapidated pair of red and green markers, Patrick got that look in his eyes. It is a look that could be rightfully described as malaise. This is the look he gets when something isn't right and he is equally sure and unsure about the situation. Those 50/50's really get you. Either the chart is right and the markers on wrong, or the markers are right and the chart is wrong. Regardless, Patrick didn't know how to enter the anchorage...or even where the anchorage was. Meanwhile I am playing good helmsmen, and steering the original course which is now setting us dead into a jetty protecting luxurious shore-side condominiums. 

"Patrick," I say. "I don't mean to be a 'nag' or anything, but when exactly should I turn."
"Do you want to be the navigator?"
"No. That's why I'm steering."
"Well then let me navigate!"
"So navigate then!"

At this point it was obvious that the chart was wrong. I decided to steer away from the condos. Using the depth finder, I navigated us into the deepest water we could find. There turned out to be a nice stretch of 12-14 foot depths perfect for anchoring. We dropped the anchor and settled back just in time to toast the sunset with a warm cocktail, that was mostly just a shot of tequila with water in it (isn't sailing glamorous?).   

The plan was to spend the following day catching up on sleep, and preparing for the passage to Marathon. We would leave at sunset. We were both mildly apprehensive about getting back out of the anchorage because we could see in the strong afternoon sunlight that extensive shoaling had corroded the better part of the anchorage. In fact we could not tell if there was deep water that led back into the channel. As it turned out, we were lucky enough to arrive the night before at high tide, which was the only way we had managed to avoid running aground before we found the 12 foot depths. We plotted our course as normal however and shoved this fear into the backs of our minds. 

(Relaxing at anchor off of Little Marco. Right after taking this picture, this kind man had to walk out into the knee deep water to pull us in our dinghy out of a rip tide we had been struggling in vain to row against.) 

Around 5 o'clock that evening, we pulled up the anchor and prepared the sails. I started motoring us out of the anchorage, Patrick on the bow trying to point us towards the deepest water. I followed his directions until I noticed the depth finder plummeting. I immediately turned around and motored in the opposite direction. He tried a different angle, again depths went from 12 to 5 feet in half a boat length. I turned around again, but this time too late. We were run aground in seconds. 

Tension already ran high between the two of us, with our collective anticipation for the looong night we had ahead of us. Running aground before we even started the trip did not help at all. Captain Pat decided right away to try kedging off. For back up, I called the tow boat to see how soon they could get to us. Apparently half the sailboats in that line of latitude had run aground late in the afternoon and they were so swamped no one could get to us for an hour. We didn't have time for that, we needed to be safely out in open water before dark. Kedging off proved to be difficult, as neither of us knew where the shoals ended and the deep water started. Patrick rowed around frantically dropping the anchor in three different locations before I told him to set the anchor back where we had come from originally. If we could just get unstuck we could hopefully start over...of course we were both skeptical. 

After only slicing his hand open on the anchor twice, Patrick managed to set the anchor and feed me the line. Using mechanical advantage, I was able to winch the line in and gradually pull the boat into sufficient depths. Patrick got back onboard, pulled in the anchor, and we motored over to a local power-boater who used local knowledge to get us out of the channel. Apparently you had to hug the shore, like dangerously close, in order to remain in 10 foot depths. Thank you American marine chart makers!!! Overpriced, and inaccurate!    

We had never been so relieved to be out in the middle of the ocean with no land anywhere. We were an hour late in leaving, but we made it onto our course line before the sunlight had dissipated.  

The winds were predicted to be southeast becoming east, at 10-15 knots, with a nearly full moon. So naturally, the winds were dead south at 20 knots and the sky was completely overcast. The different between 15 knots and 20 knots is enough to make you not even want to sail, and south winds meant we couldn't sail at all because it was dead on our nose. Once again we found ourselves motoring instead of sailing and it is noisy, uncomfortable and inefficient. But we had no time to waste tacking back in forth in poor winds if we wanted to ensure daytime arrival in Marathon. 

Meanwhile the clouds grew increasingly black. For a while it looked like a storm front was rolling in and I started listening frantically to the NOAA weather broadcasts. There were no updates about storms, but I was far from comforted. Within the next hour, the seas went from a light chop to 5 foot swells. It was too dark to actually see the waves. What I could see was the moonlight glimmering on the crest of waves off in the distance. Every once in a while I could see one crest reflecting light much higher than the others. I would sit at the helm and count down the seconds until the big one would hit. Within another hour the winds and seas had gone from surely to tumultuous. We were still unable to sail, and we were being bashed around by waves that were invisible until the broke over the bow of the boat and sprayed freezing saltwater into our faces. In the last two hours we had gone from wearing light sweaters and jeans, to full on foul-weather gear and long underwear. 

Right when we thought the Florida weather couldn't be more incorrigible, it out did itself by becoming foggy. Fog! In Florida! By this point we were soaking wet, uncomfortable, and wondering whether or not we should turn around. 

Finally, the western Florida coastal waters decided to quit being a vindictive child and obey the weatherman's forecast. The wind suddenly shifted from directly in our faces, to coming over the beam. An easterly at last! Patrick excitedly raised the sails and cut the engine. Within 30 minutes, the winds slowed to a comfortable 15 knots and we cruised at a very impressive speed of 5.5 knots for the next four hours. Patrick had the sails trimmed so precisely the Cape Dory actually sailed herself. All he had to do was point her on course and then lounge near the helm catching glimpses of stars through the billowing clouds. 

We tried to sleep and steer in shifts, but it turned out to be too difficult. We were both nervous, sailing for hours and hours into pitch blackness was beyond unnerving. We actually had to reason with ourselves that our compass and GPS were correct, that we were too far from the confounding effects of the Bermuda triangle, that we were not going to collide with land, and that the sun would in fact rise again in a few hours. 

We made it to Marathon by noon the following day. We dropped the sails on our approach and motored under the historic seven mile bridge. As we rounded up towards the west side of the island, delirious with exhaustion we were surprised to encounter more of the 5-foot breaking friendly/overbearing waves rather than increasing shelter which is what one would expect when one nears an anchorage. We were being tossed relentlessly by a confused sea, and our poor little engine that had been coerced all night long finally decided to call it a day. With no warning it sputtered and stopped. We were broad sided by the wind and completely vulnerable. Once again we were forced to recall that chapter in our sailing textbook, "when everything goes wrong and you wished you had stayed home that day." We used the genoa to gain enough speed for me to point the boat into the wind, then Patrick hoisted the mainsail while I furled the genoa. I was not in the mood to fully harness 20 knots of wind by throwing up full sails in a channel bordering an anchorage. Using the main only, we sailed into the anchorage and at the last moment I pointed the bow into the wind allowing the sail to flap uselessly in the wind while Patrick dropped the anchor. I did my best to drop the sail and steer the boat simultaneously while Patrick made sure the anchor had set. Fortunately, everything went smoothly and within a few minutes were sitting quietly at anchor as if the last 20 hours hadn't just happened. 

We fell asleep instantly. Patrick was so tired, he didn't even indulge in his usual nervous routines of constant anchor checks. The following morning we discovered that an air pocket had made its way into the fuel line thusly killing the engine. Patrick consulted his books, and bled the engine himself. The engine was up and running again, however the batteries had died in the process of repeatedly started the engine. We were powerless, and it was too dangerous to sail into the harbor from where we were. Luckily there was enough cell phone battery to call a towboat who subsequently towed us to a local marina, Pancho's. 

We were able to recharge the batteries, clean and refuel the boat and get some much needed rest. Our neighbors at the dock were amazing. One man, Marty, offered us two of his bikes within the first hour of our arrival enabling us to run our errands in two days instead of the usual four. When we tried to thank him by buying him wine, he somehow ended up cooking us dinner and giving us beer while introducing to two of his cruising friends also living on boats. We have had the pleasure of enjoying the company of salty seaman, wise and benevolent men. They are full of advice and anecdotes. Last night, we all took our dinghies into the middle of Boot Key Harbor to mourn the passing of the city bridge, which was supposedly legendary for the local boaters. There was a flotilla of over thirty dinghies, complete with conch-shell blowers and one bagpiper toasting the bridge and trading stories as the sun set. 

(The early formations of the dinghy flotilla.)

The following evening, we were joined by one of Patrick's good friends, Connie F. He will help us crew the Cape Dory from Marathon to the Bahamas. We welcome the change of pace in our little microcosm of a life. Although I think Captain Patrick is already driving him crazy with rules about what he can and can't do on the boat. The power might be going to his increasingly blonding head. 

(Boot Key Harbor Bridge.)

This should be a great trip. We spent the day provisioning, and set sail tomorrow. Thanks to all of you who check in. We will be back with more updates later this week from, we hope, the other side of Florida.  

("Lovin' Life")

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Being an all time fanatic of Jimmy Buffet and his lifestyle, we figured Cabbage Key was a good place for us. For all of you uninformed idiots, Cabbage Key is where J.B. wrote Cheeseburger in Paradise. And just to be thorough, he also happened to have left his picture signed and framed on the wall. What a great man. 

Apparently the Great Depression was pretty bad. One strong man swore he would never be without a drink. "I'm leaving this dollar here, on the wall, with my name on it and a small picture of a coconut tree. If I lose everything, I'm coming back to this place for that dollar and I'm buying a drink." So the story goes and for the next 80-90 years, people have been taking the same Applied Economics to heart and attaching dollar bills to the wall. Writing will never do this justice: there is over $70,000.00 attached to the walls of this settlement...

We have come to the conclusion that only we can dock our boat. We have our system, though unorthodox and clumsy, we have our system. The second any individual attempts to help us out, our system changes from unorthodox to full blown pit stains.  Dockmasters will never suit us. You can fill in the blank from here, I've given you all the details you need; we didn't break anything though. 

F. Scott Fitzgerald found inspiration in this very area. Sailing in we found exactly 341, million dollar "Gatsby" mansions. The islands are small here and the community is even smaller. The few people that live around Cabbage Key have tradition built into the soles of their shoes. Everything is hand-me-down or "my grandfather built that." In a sense, there hasn't been anything new here in 70 years. Faultless. 

Our time here was good enough to postpone our perfect weather window down to Marathon (Florida Keys). We met a cruising couple and enjoyed the next couple of afternoons talking, learning everything we can from the experience of others. Patty and Bill gave us a lot of confidence and continue, to this day, to help us out with weather forecasts and good phone conversation. I can't help but question how many more good people we can meet; every sailor is your favorite uncle that just so happens to be extremely knowledgeable and into philanthropy. 

Our last night was fading and our next day was making its way into our plans. Every sail, every trip takes at least 3 hours of careful planning; 10 if you want to sail comfortably. We look forward to the day we can tow all the good people we meet with out 30 footer and sail to the next cheeseburger in paradise. 

Well, we gotta go, we just got a new Bruce Springsteen album and it needs to be played 4 times tonight. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

"Time Crisis"

After a long respite from the blogging world, due to a sudden and forcibly imposed few weeks of luddism, we are back with updates. Given that I have only half an hour to recount two weeks and six stops along the western Florida coastline, I will have to resort to short installations over the next few days. Allow me to begin at the beginning. Engine problems. Back at our marina we begged a mechanic to stop by on short notice. He and Patrick spent the morning covered in grease and surrounded by diesel paraphernalia. Patrick, being desperate, concocted a brilliant way to patch up the engine and together they had it running, against all odds in less than a few hours. It was a beautiful day and a cold front was scheduled to come through in the next two days. We knew if we didn't take the opportunity to leave immediately we would be stuck in St. Pete for the rest of our lives. So we took the chance packed everything up and were out in less than an hour, sailing our hearts out to our favorite, misnomered, near-byanchorage Manatee River. We had a beautiful night there and were up before dawn so we could leave the moment the sun rose.  

(Double Moonset not unlike the one in Star Wars)

It was a calm beautiful morning, we made our way through the Bay and into a small unmarked channel called Passage Key Inlet where we would merge with the Gulf. We wanted to make it all the way to Venice that day, and it was a long haul if we wanted to make it before sunset. 
Halfway through passage key inlet, our plans were forcibly changed. I couldn't help noticing as we passed between to small islands, the Gulf opening wide before us, that the depth finder was mysteriously decreasing rather than increasing. Within minutes it went from 14 to 6 feet. Before I could even say "Sweet Lord in Heaven" we had collided with a submerged sandbar. Being as used to running aground as we were, we refused to panic. However, this time was different as it was the first time we had run aground in exposed, unprotected waters. Rather than coming to a complete stop, big rolling waves from the gulf would sweep in, pick up the boat and then thump her violently back down into the shallows. It was terrifying. We tried to motor off but the incoming tide was far too strong. With no other choice, Patrick rowed out in our little dinghy and dropped an anchor that we could use to stabilize the boat and hopefully pull ourselves into deeper water. It didn't work. Within minutes we had washed so far up onto shore that half of the keel was exposed. We hailed Towboat US on the VHF actually begging someone to come help us. 

Ironically (literally), the very same do-gooder who we were unable to pay who towed us the first time from Manatee River worked for Towboat US and was sent to our rescue. Being a miracle worker, he dragged us off the sandbar and had us back in deep water within 30 minutes. For once we had cash, and towing insurance. Not only did he get paid this time, we were able to tip him for being our hero. 

This fiasco took two entire hours. It was clear by then that we wouldn't make it to Venice by nightfall, so we were forced to resort to our old nemesis LongBoat Key with its impassable bridge. Unlikely as it might seem the wind and current were actually worse than the last time we took the bridge we worked to cancel out the experience we had gained since then. It was just as ugly, and involved several frightened shouts, but we made into that tiny little anchorage by late afternoon. The cold front (compliments of Georgia) arrived that evening. We woke up early that morning expecting to change our anchors because the wind was forecasted to shift 180 degrees. I am not kidding, the second we emerged onto the deck with cups of tea in hand, the wind shifted, enormous black clouds rolled in and our anchor broke. I was right at the helm, motoring full throttle away from the power boat we were drifting into. The owner of that boat was on his deck fully expecting us to hit him. We powered away just in time, while Patrick frantically pulled up the anchor. The wind was a staggering 25 knots but we managed to reset the anchor at a safe distance from the other boats.

For some reason we gloated over our finely tuned "instincts" that led us to check the anchor right as it slipped, but we knew deep down it was pure luck. We proceeded to prepare the boat for "storm conditions" which entailed battening down hatches, securing sails, increasing scope etc. From 9am till 9am the next morning, the wind blew madly. Late at night it grew to such intensity that we could feel the entire boat vibrating against the strain of the anchor rode. Never has the howling wind been such a frightening sound. We set up anchor watches in order to allow one person to sleep at a time, but we were both so nervous we ended up spending 12 hours with our faces up against the port hole waiting for that moment when the wind might blow just a little too hard. 

By around 5am, I wanted off that boat. I even cried a little but is was mostly out of self-pity. As it turned out, we had to reset the anchor twice that day, in gale force winds but all through the night we didn't budge. Those little anchors that were soooo expensive payed for themselves ten times over that night. 

The next day the winds were dying off but there was still a "small craft advisory" in effect. Since we were delirious from "Anchor Crisis '09" we spent the whole day sleeping. 
("Spending whole day sleeping")

We left Longboat Key bright and early the next morning planning to cover some ground by reaching Venice. I was nervous because we had to exit through that godforsaken bridge again. Patrick, who is becoming quite good at orchestrating bridge openings with the tenders managed to time it so that the bridge opened precisely upon our approach so I was able to steer directly out of the channel rather than do crazy figure-eights between sandbars. 

As we motored out from under the bridge into the inlet that leads to the Gulf, we were greeted by a friendly but over-bearing array of 5 foot breaking waves. It looked like the continental shelf was rupturing, and I wouldn't have been surprised if a volcano emerged out from under the water. The waves came from every direction, each one doing its best to throw us out of the channel onto one of the 1 foot shoals that surrounded us. The traumatic experience at Passage Key Inlet was still vivid in our minds and I think I would have died of fright if there had been someone else there to steer the boat for me. Patrick was clinging to the bow frantically directing me towards the channel and in this way we made painstaking progress while I steered at right angles keeping us off the shoals. 

Once clear and full of adrenalin we were disappointed to see that the waves in deep water were hardly improved from the violent shallows of the inlet. I was too traumatized to continue on at the helm so Patrick took over for the entire way to Venice. The wind blew hard but we made good time and Patrick enjoyed that challenge of maneuvering through the waves. By late afternoon we arrived at Venice inlet. I would like to take this moment to thank the city planners, who possessed the foresight to implement jetties into the mouth of the inlet in order to break the waves. Entering Venice was not nearly as unpleasant as leaving Longboat and it felt very good to be out of the gulf waters. 

We had heard rumors of a public dock hidden somewhere nearby the Venice Yacht Club...but we weren't exactly sure how to get there. We asked the dock attendant at the local marina who gave us general directions. I was hesitant because we had no idea what the depths would be like at the dock and sometimes they can be absurdly shallow. But Patrick, forever the ambitious optimist refused to listen to me and spotted with his binoculars a vacant place at the dock. For the first time ever I had to "parallel park" a boat in an unfavorable current. This resulted in our learning the following bits of information. 1) I know that I cannot use reverse to make the stern of the boat swing to port (the left). 2) "Docking" means getting your boat to stop at a given location without breaking it. 3) When kind old men offer to help, don't let them because they will only make it worse by swinging the bow head on into the dock. 

We scuffed the boat a little and it wasn't graceful, but it felt like success after being beaten around in the gulf all day. Once we were secured at the dock, I couldn't help noticing the depth sounder which read 6'. I knew we were at high tide so I consulted the tide tables to see what low tide would be: 2' less. This meant we would most certainly bottom out during the night. Patrick used tape to mark the boat hook and ran along the dock measuring the depths of the water. Of course, it was much deeper a few boat lengths behind us where a power boat which drew only 3' was docked. This was all very frustrating for me, as I agonize over docking and hate having to do it twice, or worse, find out it was all for nothing and we have to leave and go anchor. Patrick talked to a few cruisers who assured him that they had rested on their keels at low tides before and as long as you tie up properly there's nothing to worry about. We busied ourselves putting out fenders and strengthening docklines and then decided to go to town which we hadn't done in over a week. 

As it turned out, for the very first time our naivety was to our advantage. After speaking with a few other sailors about the odious journey of the day, we found out that the winds were twice the forecasted strength and the waves were actually 6-8 feet. No one could believe that we had been brave enough to sail through Gulf-waters that day. It suddenly made sense why we hadn't seen a single other sailboat while we were out that day. We were pretty pleased with ourselves. Not only have we gained experience in adverse conditions, but we did so without even needing to be pushed to our furthest limit of discomfort. We are tougher than we had credited ourselves.  

It felt like a christmas miracle to be on land again and Venice was charming. We were the only two people under 50 but since we spent most of our time hanging out with Ed and Karen back in Denver, this wasn't unusual. We found this great bar with an awesome cover band that reminded me a lot of Ed's band "Boo Daddy." Everyone was dancing their senior-discounted hearts out and we had a blast (sharing one beer of course, because of Captain Scrooge.) 


Alaina has outlined a wonderful night with Generation "Walking in Memphis", but it could not end without some hardship, confusion, or excitement. Strolling back from my future retirement community - still looking for a way to wear cardigans and slacks for the rest of my life - we happened to notice our mast was ever so slightly off center. We were happily sunk into about 12 inches of mud. Nothing to worry about, just something to disrupt anything we might have thought was normal about our night. 

Waking up with crossed fingers, we placed bets on whether or not we were still embedded in good old Venice mud. We were free. It was time to prepare ourselves for our next journey down to Jimmy Buffet's paradise.