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. 


  1. "You party-boat captains always have the same line. Either it's too early or too late or the wind isn't right or the moon is wrong. But you take the money just the same."

    "Well," I told him, "the hell of it is that it usually is too early or too late and plenty of time the wind is wrong. Then when you get a day that's perfect you're ashore without a party."

    -from To Have and Have Not by Ernest Hemingway

    So, I'm willing to put it on the line that 5 feet is the standard universal length for "friendly but overbearing." The nearer a thing approximates that particular measurement of linear space, the more friendly & overbearing that thing will inevitably prove to be. Thus your problem with the aforementioned waves, and why I'll probably marry Asian. Discuss!

  2. PS. "Changes in Attitude Changes in Latitude." Nice.

  3. I think we should translate the relation between proximity and friendliness/overbearingness to a line graph in order to facilitate this discussion. I will work on that for the next post.