Canaveral to the Keys

Sunset on the first night.

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.

The beauty of taking the outside. Captured in the afternoon of the second day.

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.

Smoke trail from a Space X rocket launch.

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?”