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.