Or Captain Greenhorn and the First Voyage
Part One: The Chosen Route
I flung the damp, sticky sheet off of me and reached up to turn on the little 12 volt fan at the foot of the bed. The temperature was bearable, but the humidity was relentless. I’d been tossing and turning for two hours and was still nowhere close to slumber. Deep inside I knew it was not the not the weather keeping me awake - it was fear.
Tomorrow would be the culmination of the last 13 months of preparation, research, study, and training. More than half of what I needed to know to pull this voyage off had been learned from a book or a video. Actual practical experience was limited.
Sure we had been working on our sailing skills during our time here at Harbortown Marina, but those were daytime sails in waters that we had become familiar with under the guidance of more experienced sailors. We had never been more than 10 nautical miles from the safety of our marina. This next step was something much different from that. We would sail over 300 miles from Cape Canaveral to Marathon in the Middle Keys. It would be a non-stop sail through two very dark nights and past some major shipping channels.
There were those who were excited for us and those who said we were crazy, but that’s been the case for over 13 months now, so I’ve learned to let the chorus of naysayers go unheeded. Not that I don’t hear them, they just don’t usually carry much weight. Unless one of them is Amy – that carries weight.
Part of the fear was stemming from the sudden last minute change in our plan . We knew we wanted to be at Boot Key Harbor before Thanksgiving because we'd heard they fill up very quickly after that. I’d been watching wind, weather, and sea state for a couple weeks, and after an initial delay from Hurricane Eta to the south of us, I came up with a weather window and voyage plan that made good sense. But first, let me share some background on the choices we faced.
The Inter-Coastal Waterway, or ICW as its commonly called, is a protected waterway that runs all the way down the east coast of the U.S. It’s within a few miles of the Atlantic Ocean most of the way and there are inlets spaced out at various intervals to get in and out of the waterway from the ocean. The majority of pleasure boats traveling north and south along the east coast do so on the ICW. They are said to be “taking the inside”. Those who go out to the Atlantic are said to be “on the outside”.
There are advantages and disadvantages to both. The ICW is the safer way. It’s protected and you could swim to shore if you had to from just about any point along its path. There are a myriad of places to anchor or dock if you have any sort of problem with boat or person. The drawbacks are that you really have to motor down the ICW. We’re a sailboat – we want to sail. And while it’s not impossible to sail certain stretches of the ICW if the wind is agreeable, I would not feel comfortable doing it.
Then there’s the bridges. Up near Canaveral where we were starting from, most of the bridges are 65 feet above the water. That allows us to pass underneath with four feet to spare. But as you head farther south, there are more and more bridges that a sailboat cannot fit under, so they have made them draw bridges. Many of them only open on a certain schedule so as not to inconvenience motorists. So as you get down towards Ft. Lauderdale and parts south, you are getting more and more boat traffic, and more and more draw bridges. That is the point for me at which the disadvantages of taking the inside begin to outweigh the advantages.
On the outside, there is the peace and beauty of being away from land. There is the deep, indescribable blue of the sea all around you. You can put your sails up and harness the wind rather than rumbling along burning diesel fuel. There is essentially nothing to run into if you have charted your course carefully. Most of the time, it’s the faster choice. The price for all that is that you are much more at the mercy of God’s oftentimes ferocious creation, and you are further from help if you need it.
My initial plan was a hybrid. We would leave at about 14:00 on Friday November 13 (Yes, I noticed we were planning our first major voyage to begin on Friday the 13th. No, it never gave me any concern.) We would motor down the ICW until sunset, then anchor for the night. At dawn we would weigh anchor and continue motoring down to Fort Pierce where we would anchor again. The following day, we would go out the Fort Pierce inlet and sail on the outside to the Lake Worth Inlet near West Palm Beach. We would go in, anchor for the night, wake up, head back to the Atlantic and complete the journey on the outside. If anything changed along the way, we would adjust accordingly.
This plan avoided all but one of the draw bridges on the ICW, allowed for a full night’s sleep every night but one, and worked perfectly with the forecast wind and seas. Perhaps I would not have been so sleepless that night, if that had still been the plan, but it wasn’t.
When I awoke Thursday morning, I grabbed my computer to check the forecast. I fully expected to see the same thing I had been seeing for the last five days, but no, there had been a significant change.
I’ll spare you all the details, but suffice it to say that the change left us with two reasonable options: We could either take the ICW the entire way, or go straight to the outside at Canaveral and stay outside for the entire trip. There was some unpleasant weather on the way, but we could get to Marathon ahead of the weather if we sailed straight through in the Atlantic. Inside, we would anchor every night and be in protected waters, but be dealing with bridges, boat congestion, and motoring the whole way. Outside, we had a perfect weather window to sail non-stop and be there in 43 hours (so we thought), but there’d be no stopping to sleep, and we’d be at the mercy of the mighty Atlantic Ocean.
It didn’t take long for me to decide on the outside route. It was a big step to be sure, but one that had to be taken sooner or later. The experience on the outside was much more the kind of experience I thought we needed for our future plans, and by getting there sooner, we increased our chances of finding availability in Boot Key Harbor. We’d be sailing instead of motoring, thus saving money. I presented all of the information to Amy and told her which direction I wanted to go. I could tell she was nervous about it, but she agreed it was the best choice.
Eventually, exhaustion overtook anxiety and I got some sleep that night, but it would be another four days before I got a full night’s sleep.
Part Two: Serenity
It was almost exactly 14:00 when we pulled away from the fuel dock at Harbortown Marina for the last time. We had prayed fervently about the voyage, we had said farewell to our friends, and we had prepared ourselves in every way we could think of for the journey ahead. Our hearts fluttering with excitement and anxiety, we motored across the Banana River, through the Canaveral Locks, and out the channel one last time.
About a half a mile offshore, we raised the main, unfurled the genoa, and cut the motor. I always love that part: cutting the motor and letting the wind and sails take over. There’s something magical about that moment when the rumbling and vibration of the diesel stops, but the vessel doesn’t. We took off on a beam reach and to my delight, immediately reached seven knots.
After talking with Amy, I had decided that four hour watches would work well for us. At about 16:00, Amy asked if she should go down and try to get some sleep. I knew I was too wired to lay still, so I agreed to take the first watch.
The first couple hours were uneventful, and through waters that we had already sailed, so my mind wandered to what Boot Key Harbor would be like. It wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be headed. I wanted to be headed to the Bahamas and points beyond, but there were a myriad of reasons why Boot Key Harbor made more sense at this point. (See the post Onward and Southward for those reasons.) But even though we weren’t even leaving the state of Florida, let alone the country, there were going to be some major differences in how we were living.
There would be no more 120 volt shore power to connect to. Life on a mooring ball meant most of our power would have to be supplied by our battery bank, which meant no more air conditioning, and power conservation would become extremely important. There would be no stepping off the boat onto dry land. Every trip to shore would require a ride in our very unstable dinghy. That meant a lot more work was involved in things like laundry and grocery shopping. Our home would not be tied to a dock and would be subject to a lot more bobbing around than we were accustomed to. The extra work necessary to keep Griffin comfortable was completely unknown at this point. And of course it was a whole new community that a couple of introverts needed to try to build into. This was a big step towards what we could expect the next couple years of our lives to look like.
As I pondered these things, the waters we plied turned from the greenish coastal waters that most people see, to the incomparable, deep sapphire blue that few ever experience. And the huge orange ball in the sky began to drop behind the sandy Florida beaches four miles to the west. As much as I relished the incredible setting of the sun, I was keenly aware of what its setting meant: black. Pitch Black. For many hours to come.
It was just then that I turned to look behind me and saw that one of the Space X rockets had just launched a satellite from Cape Canaveral. The setting sun was illuminating its trail of smoke in brilliant reds, pinks, and yellows, and I thought of it as a farewell from the Space Coast to Born Again as we continued southward into the night. Later that night, a sliver of a moon would appear, but not enough to bring any light onto the scene. There was a struggle that first night not to let my imagination run away from me. Your mind can come up with all kinds of terrifying scenarios as you slip through the black water in the black night.
There are of course lights. You can easily see the lights of shore from five miles, but they don’t shed any light on you. They bring a sense of comfort on one hand, but difficulty on the other, because it’s hard to differentiate a light on shore from the light of another vessel that’s between you and the shore. It is almost impossible to tell how far away a light is on a dark night at sea. Is it a big, bright light 10 miles out, or a small light at 500 yards?
Shortly before it was time to wake Amy for her watch, the VHF radio crackled to life.
“Southbound sailing vessel 25 miles south of Canaveral. Southbound sailing vessel 25 miles south of Canaveral. Do you copy?”
Hey! That’s probably me! How many other idiots could there be out here in the pitch black night?
I grabbed the mic and keyed it: “This is Born Again. Switch and answer six-eight please.”
“Roger” was the reply.
(Channel 16 is the hailing and distress channel that sailors are required to monitor on the VHF radio, but it is not for conversations that are not of an urgent nature. When one vessel hails another, they promptly go to a channel meant for non-emergency use. In this case, I chose channel 68 which is a common choice.)
After switching to channel 68, the voice broke through again: “Hey Born Again, this is Lost Cat. I’m sailing about a mile behind you. Where you headed?”
I scanned the sea behind me and didn’t see any vessels. “We’re headed to the Keys. Sailing straight through.”
“Ok, well we’re only going as far as Lake Worth Inlet, but we’ll be out here with you all night. If you need anything, feel free to hail us.”
We chatted for a while longer about our respective voyages, then signed off and went back to monitoring channel 16. I never did see his vessel, but it was a real comfort to know there was someone else nearby heading the same direction.
At 20:00, I woke Amy and gave her all the information I could think of to help with her watch. We were slightly off course, but it was by design. The wind had clocked around to a very broad reach and was shifting a bit. I was a little worried about an accidental gybe so I had altered course a few degrees, I cautioned her to watch out for that. I also reminded her of our rules about not leaving the cockpit when on watch alone and to feel free to wake me for anything she was unsure of. My greatest fear is that she will one day get too confident, or decide she doesn’t want to bother me, and rather than wake me, she will leave the cockpit on her own, fall overboard and I’ll never know it until I get up for my watch, collide with another vessel, or run aground.
She woke me twice during that watch. Once because there was a light off the port bow that she thought might be coming towards us (it wasn’t) and frankly, I don’t remember what the other one was for. She later shared that she too spent some time that first night keeping her imagination in check.
Our sea berth (the bed for sleeping while under way) is just about as wide as we are, with both sides enclosed. In other words…it’s an open coffin. It sounds terrible, but it’s really the best solution for sleeping in a vessel that pitching and rolling this way and that. It just kind of holds you in place regardless what the movement of the boat is. That first night, the movement was pretty gentle anyway, but that was not to last.
At midnight, Amy got me up for the 00:00 to 04:00 watch. I recorded our position, course, and speed in the ship’s log and settled in for what I thought would be a brutally difficult watch, but actually ended out be tolerable and uneventful. Peaceful even.
On a vessel at sea, it takes 20 minutes from the time another vessel appears on the horizon, until they reach your vessel. That’s worst-case scenario: A fast vessel heading directly at your bow as you head directly at it. Single handed sailors learn to sleep in 20 minute increments. Theoretically, if you scan the horizon and see no vessels, you have 20 minutes before you can be in danger, so they scan the horizon, and if it’s void of any potential hazards, they set an alarm for 18 minutes. They get up, scan the horizon, and do it again.
We aren’t single handed and we were only doing 4 hour watches, so we played it a little safer. I set my alarm for 10 minutes. Every 10 minutes I got up, scanned the horizon, checked the sail trim, checked our course and position on the plotter, and then got comfortable again. Most of the time, I did not fall asleep during those 10 minutes stretches, but if I did happen to doze off, at least I knew the alarm would wake me well before danger would be imminent.
When that watch was over, all was well. We were still making 6 ½ to 7 knots, we were right on course, we were on a beam reach with 10-15 knots winds and 4 foot seas. I handed the helm off to Amy and had the best four hours of sleep I would have on the whole voyage.
Part Three: The First Sign of Trouble
The ocean is not just waves and wind. There are currents. Some of them wide and strong. One such current is the Gulf Stream. It can be 50 miles wide and it frequently flows along at 5 knots. It originates in the Gulf of Mexico, comes around the south tip of Florida and heads north along the east coast. There are places along the Florida coast where it stays 40 or more miles offshore and other places where it runs quite close. As it turns out, closer than I had been led to believe.
An old sailor who had been plying the Florida coast for decades was asking me about our journey before we left. He wanted to know how far offshore we intended to stay, and I told him 3-5 miles. He agreed that was a good distance. Far enough out not to be dealing with shoals, but not far enough to get out into the Gulf Stream. 10 miles out, he said, was the closest the Gulf Stream came to shore. That was good to know. I would not be dealing with the Gulf Stream at all on this trip, so I promptly put it out of my mind.
One of the navigation tools I use calculates the time it should take you to sail from point A to point B. It considers many factors including: Your vessels sailing characteristics, the forecast wind speed and direction, how slow you’re willing to sail before you give up and start your motor, and a few other factors. The prediction was that we could sail the whole thing in 43 hours averaging 6.3 knots and never starting the motor. Born Again is a wonderful vessel, but she was not built for speed, and 6.3 knots seemed a bit optimistic to me. It was all good though, 43 hours would put us there at 11:00, and as long as we arrived before dark, I would be happy.
That is why, when I awoke for my watch at 08:00 and found us doing just four knots, I wasn’t too worried about it. We had been averaging well over the 6.3 predicted, so if we were in lighter winds for a while, it was certainly nothing to get excited about. I chalked up the fact that the wind didn’t seem to have died down to me, as my mistake – obviously it had because my sails were properly trimmed, and we were going slower. I raised the mizzen sail to coax more speed out of her.
As the day progressed, we remained at around 4 knots, and as the amount of time we spent at the slower speed increased, I began to feel a bit of trepidation. We had some wiggle room with our speed, but if we stayed at this speed for the rest of the voyage, we would not make it to Marathon before dark the next day, nor would we stay ahead of the ugly weather following about 12 hours behind us. I wasn’t actually worried at that point, but there was a little concern starting to develop. I could always fire up the motor if I had to, but that was not my preference. Mostly, I was reveling in a beautiful day at sea aboard our beautiful sailing vessel.
Part Four: The Highlight
At 12:00, I turned the watch back over to Amy, but chose not to go down and sleep yet. It was too beautiful of a day to be sleeping it away, so I grabbed a snack and relaxed in the cockpit with Amy. That was when it happened. The thing I’d been anticipating for a year. The thing I knew would happen at some point, but didn’t know when.
The sound of something breaking the surface drew my attention to the starboard side. I scanned the clear, blue water but saw nothing. It was probably just a small wave breaking. Then it happened again, but closer to the bow. This time I saw something. Just a glimpse of a dark shadow disappearing under the hull. Was that a dolphin?! Yes! There it is! On the port side now, up at the bow!
I threw on my life jacket and scrambled out of the cockpit as fast as I could. My heart raced with the thrill of it. Seeing a dolphin cross our path in the marina or the barge canal was one thing, but having one swim in the wake of our bow, far offshore, in the crystal clear waters of the Atlantic – this was something very different.
By the time I reached the bow, there were not one, but two dolphins, and within a couple more minutes, there were at least six. They were so fast and agile, I could not tell exactly how many there were. I was breathless as I watched them criss-crossing back and forth under the boat. Sometimes one would drop back 20 or 30 feet, and then with seemingly no effort, accelerate instantly back up to the rest of the pod. They stayed close to the surface to get the most benefit from the wake we created, and came up for a breath only every few minutes. It seemed their only intent was to frolic about for our benefit. I was left in absolute awe and wonder of them and the God that created them. They stayed with us, darting this way and that, for about 20 minutes, and then slowly started falling behind. A few more minutes and they were gone.
I know this is something that sailors get to experience with some regularity, but I pray that this never becomes anything less than thrilling for me. I really don’t think it will. And I know I will never forget this first time, on our first voyage, 5 miles offshore, somewhere between West Palm and Fort Lauderdale. Cross one off the bucket list!
When I was certain the dolphins weren’t going to return, I headed back to the cockpit, removed my life jacket and thanked God for the beautiful display he had allowed me to witness. After enjoying a bottle of my favorite non-alcoholic beer, I headed down to the coffin for a couple hours of sleep before my next watch.
Part Five: The Fray
When I returned to the cockpit at 16:00 for my watch, I found our speed had decreased further to between two and three knots. At that point, I was concerned. We had spent the majority of the day at a speed well below the projected average. We needed to get back up to at least six knots and remain there for the rest of the journey if we were going to keep our schedule and stay ahead of the weather. I didn’t want to do it, but I chose to fire up the diesel and motor-sail.
Motor-sailing is when you use the sails and the motor together, and it seemed to be working out well. The sails were still full, and the motor rumbled along at 2000 RPMs. But what I didn’t understand was why our speed had only increased to four or five knots. Normally under motor alone, we would do six knots at 2000 RPMs. And looking back on it, I cannot figure out why it never dawned on me that we had sailed part way into the Gulf Stream and were fighting a strong north current. I suppose I was preoccupied with the fact that the seas were getting much more uncomfortable.
When a wind out of the north blows up against the north flowing Gulf Stream, it makes for some pretty rough conditions. The wind for the entire trip so far had had a northerly component and we were starting to take a beating. At about six feet, the seas were not particularly big, but the swells were close together and directly on our beam (the side). Books and some smaller items in the cabin were starting to fall off of shelves, any work on deck was difficult and required a harness and tether, and I was starting to fight off the beginnings of seasickness. When the sun set and darkness fell that evening, I was not feeling very great about our situation.
I turned the watch over to Amy again at 20:00 and told her to just keep motor-sailing on our current course. Our speed remained well below what it needed to be, and the sea state was continuing to deteriorate. My attempt to sleep was futile, but so was trying to do anything other than lie in the coffin. Just trying to use the bathroom required the sort of acrobatics normally reserved for circus entertainers. Cooking was out of the question, and even making a sandwich was more work that it was worth. Pretzels dipped in peanut butter was the food of the day. Trips up and down the companionway were treacherous if you didn’t have both hands free. I was taking Meclizine every four hours at that point to keep the seasickness at bay and it was mostly working.
The four hours off-watch seemed un-ending, but would be a joy compared to the following four hours on watch. When I returned to the cockpit to take over, I found that the rolling had continued to increase and the toe rail was now being submerged every few rolls. Trying to operate the buttons on the auto-pilot or chart plotter took a herculean effort. Setting anything down on deck was to lose it instantly. It was exhausting just trying to stay in the seat behind the helm. Our speed was still unchanged, and by about 01:00, a new issue began to present itself.
A sailboat cannot sail directly at the wind, or about 45 degrees either side of the wind. The wind had clocked around and I was just on the edge of that 90 degree angle called the no-sail zone. As a result, the sails were beginning to luff in the wind every few minutes. A gentle luff every few minutes was not a big deal, but over the next hour, the intensity and frequency of the luffing increased considerably. Something had to be done. The sails would be in shreds if this kept up for too long.
I had a choice at that point. I could change course, head further out to sea, and start tacking back and forth towards our destination. That would take me out of the no-sail zone and make the ride more comfortable, as we would no longer be taking the waves directly on the beam. If I did that, I would be giving up any hope of arriving in Marathon before sunset the following day. I would shut down the motor, resign myself to an extra night at sea, and allow the high winds that we were trying to stay ahead of to catch up to us.
The other option was to go out on deck in these brutal conditions, and try to haul the sails down without dying in the process. The problem with this option, other than the risk to life and limb, was that there was still no guarantee that we would make it to the harbor before dark the following day. In fact, if our speed didn’t increase dramatically, and soon, it just plain wasn’t going to happen.
Ultimately, If there was still a chance of dropping anchor at Boot Key Harbor the following day, that was the option I wanted to go with. I was exhausted, beat up, and my confidence was low. I wanted the journey to be over. I could take another night at sea if I had to, but I sure didn’t want to. And I knew Amy was about done. So I called down to her to come up and help me.
We started with the headsail because it’s on a roller furling, and can be furled without leaving the cockpit. It also meant I could be up by the mast taking down the main without getting slapped around by flying Dacron and jib sheets. Next, we took down the mizzen. Amy was able to stay in the cockpit for this one. It was insanely difficult to remain on my feet, hold onto something with one hand, and have only one hand left for the job, but within about 15 minutes, we had it down and stowed neatly on the boom in the sail cover. I later realized that the topping lift had got caught around the back side of one of the spreaders, but that could wait till morning.
The main sail was the big job. This was going to really test us. And to top it off, I realized that we foolishly only had one tether, and this was going to require both of us to be out on deck. I removed my tether and tossed it to Amy.
“Put this on and stay clipped in!” I shouted over the noise of wind, waves and flapping sails.
I anticipated her objection and before she even got it out, I repeated my instructions. The tone in my voice told her not to bother trying to object again. We were not operating as husband and wife at this point – it was captain and first mate. Most of the time, even when we’re under way, we manage to stay in both rolls, but when things get intense and our safety is at stake, there can be no discussion.
You could definitely make an argument that I should have kept the tether. If Amy fell in, the chances of me getting the boat back to retrieve her would have been far greater than her trying to retrieve me. My decision was based on a deeply ingrained chivalry instilled by my dad, the fact that I felt my chances of staying aboard without the safety tether were greater, and because I’m the stronger swimmer.
An even greater argument could be made that I should have taken the time to cut a six foot piece off of a spare dock line and secured myself to one of the hand-holds with a bowline at each end. My failure to do so can be added to the list of mistakes made by a rookie skipper on his first major passage. Fortunately, God protects us even when I’m an idiot, and we both remained on the boat throughout the ordeal.
There are a couple things that make bringing our mainsail down difficult. The first is that it doesn’t slide up and down the track on the mast very well. It gets frequently hung up at various points. A little jiggling, or backtracking and trying again is usually all it takes. Lubrication of the track is one of those things that has been on the to-do list that resides in the back of my mind for some time, and writing about it now has reminded me to put it on the list that resides on the dry erase board in the salon where it actually stands a chance of getting done.
The other difficulty we have with lowering our mainsail is that it is at the very top of my reach. The first 10 or 20 percent of the sail isn’t too bad, but as the sail begins piling up on the boom, it gets higher, and soon I’m on my tip toes. For the last bit, I’m usually having to climb up the mast a few feet to reach it.
So on a good day in calm waters, when we’re well rested and focused, pulling our mainsail down is a challenge. Add our exhaustion, the pitch black night, and a rolling motion so severe that it took most of our strength just to stay on deck, and you can imagine the campaign we waged against vessel and sea.
Every time I was about to accomplish some little task in the bigger project, a wave would violently roll the boat, requiring me to abandon the task and use both hands to remain upright and on the vessel. One mis-step and I would fall overboard. If I fell overboard, my chances of survival were slim.