Dry Tortugas

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This page last updated on 08/27/2017.

Copyright © 2001-2017 by Russ Meyer


 

"Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures and just enough doubt of himself to enjoy them."  - G. K. Chesterton

"The sea is selective, slow at recognition of effort and aptitude, but fast in sinking the unfit."  - Admiral Felix Riesenberg

 

Introduction

First off check out the following video synopsis of the trip.  The trip was much more difficult than this dreamy video might imply.

 

Another shorter video collage.  The further in the past the voyage, the more enchanting it seems:

 

After several years of sailing my ComPac 23, "Sundog," around Lake Texoma, the thought of taking it on a little ocean going cruise sounded marvelous.  The first place that came to mind was the Florida keys.  I'd been out there a couple of times and really enjoyed it.  The keys are a boater's paradise, so many things to see and do.  However, as wonderful as aimlessly bobbing about the keys sounded, an even better vacation would be to take a cruise with a destination in mind.  One in particular seemed obvious:  the Bahamas.  Sailing to the Bahamas would be a fabulous adventure.  The only problem was, the more I thought about it, the more it seemed like too much to take on for my first ocean voyage.  Some strikes against it:

  •   Time pressure.  The Bahamas are such a candy store, a one week cruise would barely scratch the surface.  A month or two is more like it.
  •   Checking in and out of the Bahamas adds a layer of bureaucratic hassle.  I gather it's not a big deal, but it's one more thing to worry about.
  •   The availability of Coast Guard and rescue services is a point of concern.
  •   Dodging freighter traffic in the Florida straights could be exciting.
  •   Contending with the Gulf Stream.  Crossing with a north wind makes the sea very rough.  I could easily become stranded waiting for a weather window.

The Bahamas didn't seem like the best idea for a first off-shore cruise.  It was probably better to get some experience and work up to that kind of thing.

Another challenging destination in the keys are the Dry Tortugas.  A Tortugas cruise had none of the draw-backs of the Bahamas.  The entire trip could be accomplished in two weeks, would provide some real ocean cruising experience, should be challenging but not excessively so, and there were a lot of great things to see and do out there.  The more I thought about it, the more the Dry Tortugas seemed like a worthy destination.  I began planning for the trip in mid-2013.

Through 2013 and 2014, a lot of work was done to prepare for the voyage.  A RADAR reflector, autopilot, EPIRB, and AIS system were added to the boat.  I decided to not take along another person but go solo.  Lists of provisions and gear were made and refined.  I cogitated on weather patterns and found March through May were a sweet spot where the weather should be fairly settled...at least historically that was the case.  The details that went into figuring these things out are described here.

The Tortugas are only 75 miles west of Key West and that makes Key West the obvious launch point.  However, the prevailing wind at the end of April is from the southeast.  A southeast wind makes the run to the Tortugas a downwind sleigh ride; fast and smooth.  The problem is the return trip.  It's a slow, brutal, upwind beat all the way back to Key West.  My little boat is not very good at making progress upwind.  If the sail is reefed to any degree, the boat will only sail when it is pointed more than 60° away from the wind.  That means progress upwind is slow and involves many tacks.  In fact, it would probably take 2-3 days to make it back to Key West.  The longer on the water, the more likely an encounter with foul weather.

The boat sails well when the wind is blowing directly over the side.  Sailing like that is called a beam reach.  With a southeast wind, the only way to sail TO and FROM the Tortugas on a beam reach was to depart from Fort Myers.  That increased the trip distance to 150 miles, one-way.  Despite this, it seemed faster and easier compared to a 75 mile upwind beat to Key West.  The departure point became Fort Myers.  The map below shows the course line from Fort Myers to the Dry Tortugas. 

Route Between Fort Myers and Dry Tortugas

Trip Log

  • Friday, April 24 – Worked on the trailer wheel bearings then pulled the boat 75 miles from the marina at Lake Texoma to an empty parking lot about ½ mile from my home.  That was the first time in two years the trailer had been pulled any appreciable distance, and the wheel bearings made it the whole way nice and cool.  Later that night, I took out the two rear seats of the Suburban then loaded the kayak, mast raising apparatus, boat batteries, and all the other big items.  I took one last shower before I hit the road; probably my last shower for quite a while.

  • Saturday, April 25 – Last minute packing of little items took much longer than expected.  By 11:30 AM, the trailer was hitched and I was on the road headed to Fort Myers, Florida.  I expected a 20 hour drive with fuel and rest stops.

    Driving Route Between Plano and Fort Myers

    I punched through 15 hours of driving before pulling over at a rest stop just past Pensacola at 2:30 AM.  I parked next to a row of semi-trailers, climbed into the boat, and zonked out in my berth.  The boat is great on the road.  It has a bed, galley, and everything else I need.  Like a travel trailer, though it is more awkward.  I have to climb a ladder to get into the boat when it's on the trailer.  If you fall off, it's a long way down to the concrete.  However, once snug inside, I have the happy thought of not spending money on motel bills.  Gee...I love my boat!
     
  • Sunday, April 26 – I awoke just before dawn and headed for the restroom.  Washed my face and brushed my teeth.  Bought some orange juice and a pack of bite size donuts from a vending machine.  Climbed back into the car and hit the road at 6:30 AM.

    About 100 miles north of Fort Myers, there was an abrupt shudder.  I looked in the side mirrors and found the mast had fallen off the pulpit where it had been tied down.  I slowed and edged off onto the shoulder of the highway.  I climbed up on the boat and went to work lashing the mast down.  While I was up there, cars and trucks raced by at 70 MPH just a few feet away.  I had visions of one of them side-swiping or rear-ending me.  I shuddered at the thought and worked faster to get the job done.  In a few minutes I had the mast strapped down and was edging back out into traffic.  Other than this, the trip was incident-free.  On previous trips, I'd had tires blow out three times, wheel bearings overheat twice, and brakes overheat twice.  I think I'm slowly getting the trailer bugs resolved, knock-on-wood.

    I had made arrangements with a marina in Fort Myers to use their boat lift to put the boat in the water.  I didn't want to launch at a boat ramp and get the trailer in salt water.  The trailer is galvanized, but the salt water would do a number on lights, wiring, brakes, wheels, etc.  I just got this trailer working right.  I didn't need to start a battle with rust and corrosion.  It's worth paying a couple hundred dollars to avoid it.

    Over the phone, I discovered the marina would not permit me to park my trailer in their parking lot, even though they had a lot of room.  However, I discovered a self-service storage business located next door to the marina.  The gal that runs the place, Laurie, said I could store my trailer there for $25 provided it was less than 26 feet.  What a deal...perfect!  I finally arrived in Fort Myers around noon and drove down to locate the marina.  The marina was closed, but I found someone at their boat.  They pointed me to the office where I was to check in the next day.



    I also found the trailer storage lot next door; no one there.



    I headed into town and got lunch.  Found a Home Depot and bought an extra diesel can.  Pulled into a gas station to top off the diesel tank in the boat and my two spare fuel cans.   Drove around a bit looking for a secluded parking lot to spend the night and found an inconspicuous corner near Walmart.

    Overnighting in Walmart Parking Lot

    I checked the NOAA weather forecast, and it didn't seem promising.  Winds from the southwest, seas to 6 feet, and isolated thunderstorms.  I was worried.  It's a proven fact that I'm a chicken when it comes to lightning.  Also, I have only been in waves 4-5 feet one time on Lake Texoma during a terrific thunderstorm.  However those were steep, fast moving waves kicked up by 40-60 MPH winds.  The swells out in the gulf were theoretically more benign.  Still, I was beginning to sweat.

    My friend, Dave, called for an update.  I told him I was worried about the weather.  He encouraged me to not turn back, because sooner or later, if I wanted to do open ocean sailing, I would have to become accustom to conditions like these.  His comments made sense, however, he wasn't the one risking his neck.  In the end, I had to gauge the risk for myself and make my own decision.  Nevertheless, my talk with Dave gave me courage and helped me see the situation with a less pessimistic eye.

    After talking with Dave, I walked over to Walmart and bought some perishable items; a watermelon, some apples, oranges, cheese, and ice.  I rounded out the evening by transferring all the gear from the back of the Suburban to the boat.  Tomorrow the marina would use their lift to take the boat off the trailer and put it in the water.  I climbed into the boat to rest until morning.  Amazingly there were almost no mosquitoes.  I expected to be eaten alive; what a pleasant surprise.

  • Monday, April 27 – I made it to the marina at 7:20 AM and talked to the fork lift operator.  By 8:00 AM, the boat had been lifted off the trailer and put in the water.  I pulled the trailer over to the storage lot next door.  The gal that runs the place, Laurie, was very kind and helpful.  She helped me fill out paperwork and find a good place to park the trailer.

    It took all day to launch the boat, raise the mast, adjust rigging, load gear and provisions, install batteries, and everything else required to get the boat ready for sea.  Man, was it hot; 90 degrees and high humidity.  From 2-4 PM, I couldn’t do anything but lay prostrate below deck with the fans on.  The heat really took it out of me, but by 5:30 PM everything was set.

    Boat launched, about to begin raising the mast.


After all the hard work getting the boat ready, I headed into town for a bite to eat at Wendy's.  The air conditioning inside sure felt good and I was really tired.  After eating something and winding down, I felt ready to zonk out.  It took almost all the energy I had left to haul my carcass back to the boat for the night.

In the evening, I listened to the NOAA forecast on the radio and pondered.  The forecast called for two days of rain and isolated thunderstorms, seas 3-5 feet, and wind from the SW at 20-25 knots.  Darn it!  The wind would be right on the nose the whole way.  After that, the winds were supposed to swing around to the NW and strengthen to 35 knots with strong thunderstorms and seas 6-8 feet.  Man, it was going to be rough.  For Pete's sake.  For the last six weeks, seas had been 1-2 feet, wind from the SE at 10 knots.  Perfect for my boat but now all this.  That blew the plan of sailing on a beam reach.  I thought briefly of pulling the boat out and heading to Key West, but even if I launched from Key West, the wind would still be broad off the port bow.  I wouldn't be able to sail west without tacking to some degree.  Also, by the time I got the boat down there and launched, the nasty weather with high NW winds would be arriving.  Due to time constraints, the best plan, really the only practical plan, was to just proceed out of Fort Myers.  I would have to motor (inboard diesel) as fast as possible all the way to the Tortugas, directly into the SW wind and waves.  If I didn't leave in the next 12 hours, the bad weather would trap me in port for 3-4 days.  The trip would be a bust.  It didn't seem wise to leave while it was dark because I was unfamiliar with Charlotte Harbor and its many navigation hazards.  Rather than worry about it, I decided turn in and check the forecast in the morning.  What else could I do?

The marina night watchman, a young guy named Zach, stopped by and helped me move my kayak from the suburban to the boat.  He looked at my boat and asked, “Are you going to the Tortugas in THAT?!”  Well yeah, so what.  Zach made it known that he would never venture off shore in a boat that small.  For a second, I felt kind of stupid for even thinking I could tackle a trip like this in my little boat.  Hey, wait a minute!  I've spent hundreds of hours thinking this through, critically evaluating my ability to complete this voyage, and came to the conclusion the risk was acceptable.  I mean, did I trust my own thinking about this or not?  I shouldn't let Zach's dramatically framed comments sway my thinking too much.

  • Tuesday, April 28 – Up at 6:30 AM, checking the forecast.  It seemed better, seas 2-3 feet then working up to 3-5 feet by dusk.  Winds 10-15 from the SW.  Scattered thunderstorms all day and into the night.  The winds would build to 35 knots from the NW by dusk Wednesday, 36 hours from now.  I figured it would take 28-40 hours to get to the Tortugas motoring against the SW wind.  I could do it but timing would be tight.  I really didn't want to be caught out in open water when the bad weather hit.  If I was going to go, I would have to leave immediately.  I sat in the cockpit pondering all this when Zach walked up.  “End of my shift.  You still planning to go,” asked Zach.  I told him I was still trying to make up my mind.  “I’d sure hate to be caught in a storm at sea in that little boat.  They’re predicting tornados this afternoon,” Zach exclaimed.  Ugh...Zach is well meaning but witheringly pessimistic.  I checked the marine forecast again.  No tornados there just isolated thunderstorms.

It would be a shame to just sit here tied to the dock all week because I was allowing my imagination run away with me about the weather.  I should at least motor around Charlotte Harbor and maybe poke my nose out into the Gulf to see how things looked.  If conditions were uncertain, I could just sail south down the coast to Naples.  If bad weather blew in, I could run for a sheltered harbor.  If things looked good, I could take up a heading to the Tortugas.  The coastal cruise would peel a few miles off the route so it wouldn't be a pointless maneuver.  This sounded like a decent plan.  I hitched the kayak tow rope to a cleat, fired up the engine, and headed out.  I had to motor about 7 miles amongst condominiums and mangrove swamps before I was near the harbor entrance.  Saw a couple of dolphins swimming near my boat.  Lots of tiny little islets.

As I motored along, I checked my chart plotter.  Well glory be.  My AIS system was working!  Back in Texas, I had carefully wired it up and turned it on.  Nothing showed up on the chart plotter, so I shut it down and meticulously went back over the wiring.  I couldn't find anything wrong.  I tentatively concluded that nothing was appearing on the chart plotter, because no one in the area was transmitting AIS position reports.  I had the AIS installed for almost a year and no AIS target ever appear on the plotter.  I also could not find a way to set-up a test for the AIS system to verify it was working.  So, when I went out into Charlotte harbor and suddenly picked up a gaggle of AIS targets, I was amazed.  So THAT'S what an AIS target looks like.  I can't believe this thing really works.  What do you know!  It took me a couple of days of fiddling with the chart plotter to fully understand what the AIS was trying to tell me.  What a useful system; I am so glad I installed it.  It was completely worth it for peace of mind alone.

After navigating the harbor, I finally motored out into the Gulf proper and found it not bad.  Seas were 1-3 feet and the wind was steady from the SW at about 15 knots.  Into this, the boat was maintaining about 4½ knots over the ground.  I looked around and although there was some rain distant ahead at sea and behind over land, it didn’t look threatening.  I considered pressing on.  After a lot of internal debate, weighing the risks, my own lack of experience, the weather reports, Dave's exhortation, visions of fatherless children, and Zach's foreboding omens, I decided to just go for it.  I programmed a heading for the Dry Tortugas into the chart plotter, set the autopilot to follow the course, and pressed on.  To make the sheltered harbor at the Tortugas ahead of bad weather, I would have to motor the whole way against the wind.  Putting up sails and tacking would take much longer, placing me squarely in nasty weather Wednesday evening.  Even if the weather put the kibosh on my plan and caught me in high seas, I had a sea anchor and could deploy that.  Riding on the sea anchor, I could (theoretically) tough out the bad weather at sea for a couple of days, if I really had to, but I sure didn’t want to.

Fifteen miles out from Fort Myers.  Rain ahead.

Everything was going well.  Ten miles off-shore, the last of the skyscrapers disappeared below the horizon.  A casino boat was steaming in circles about 12 miles out.  They turned and headed back for harbor as I motored past.  After a little while, I was alone; nothing but waves to the horizon in every direction, not even any other boats.  In fact, I didn’t see another boat again until entering harbor at the Tortugas.  I felt a wave of vulnerability.  I was really on my own now.  My ¼ inch thick hull suddenly seemed terribly fragile; a paper thin barrier between my little pink body and the sea.  I couldn't take my eyes off the depth sounder, 80 feet deep.  It would get much deeper hour-by-hour as the safety of land receded astern.  For all practical purposes, land was out of reach, even now.  I had some solace in that I could call the Coast Guard with the radio.  I figure they could make it to the scene in a hour or two.  What would it be like when I was 75 miles out in the middle of the night?  The coast guard would be out of radio range.  Uh yeah, I had been thinking about that for the last 4 months.  I didn't know whether it would be frightening or not.  I definitely felt concern.

Tired, I went below for a nap.  I awoke about 11:30 AM, slid the hatch back, and looked ahead.  Uh-oh, dark clouds and rain.  Well, this would be the baptism by thunderstorm; a test to see how bad it would get.  After 30 minutes, lightning flashed ahead.  Thunder rumbled over the sound of the engine, waves, and spray.  Oh great, lightning…the only thing I’m really scared of is lightning.  All my internal doubts surged to the fore again and I considered turning back.  Suddenly, it began to rain.  When the rain started, for some reason, I felt my immediate course of action was committed.  I was going to press through the squall to see what it was like.

A wind began blowing from the center of the squall, the rain increased, and lightning began flashing overhead.  However, most of the lightning was cloud-to-cloud; only a few bolts were cloud-to-water.  That made me feel much better.  In the middle of the squall the rain was so heavy I could only see about 50 feet around the boat.  I had visions of a black steel wall emerging from the grey mist of rain at 20 knots; the freighter crushing me without even slowing down.  I was reassured to find no AIS targets on the chart plotter.  Now the heavy rain was beating the smaller waves down leaving only a 5 foot swell.  Big swells are no problem, as long as they aren’t breaking…you just float up and over them.  Normally, when the seas are 5 feet, you get waves of every height from 0-5 feet all riding on top of one another.  It’s total wave chaos superimposed on a 5 foot swell; a rough ride for a boat my size and weight.  Anyway, the rain was beating everything down flat except the swell, so the ride was smooth…kind of fun actually.

At one point, I pushed myself up a little bit using my left foot, so I could see over the bow of the boat.  The salt spray had made the cockpit floor very slippery.  My foot slipped out from under me, slid across the cockpit floor, and rammed into the cockpit wall.  My toes were completely mashed and my left foot folded under.  Wow, did that hurt!  I saw stars for a couple of minutes after that.  I looked at my foot.  My big toe took the brunt of the impact.  All toes were a little red, but everything seemed intact.  Ow.

As I crossed through the center of the squall, the wind slacked off for about 10 minutes.  However, coming out the other side, the wind blew like snot from behind.  This following wind built rapidly to about 25 knots.  It generated its own 4 foot waves from the NE.  These interacted with the main wave train from the SW and the resulting sea got up to 5-7 feet.  I was concerned; the waves looked aggressive and powerful, but the boat seemed happy to ride up and over them.  The conflicting wave trains created a chaotic motion in the boat.  The boat was being tossed around unpredictably and I had to be careful to hang on.

I was temporarily relieved when the rain subsided; I had made it through a squall and it didn't seem that bad.  However, without the heavy rain all the intermediate size waves quickly returned, riding on the conflicting swells.  The sea became very confused.  AaaahhhHHH!  The resulting crazy wave pattern just beat the CR*P out of me.  The boat still appeared to handle the sea OK but it was like an insane carnival ride.  Body punches coming from all directions, like being surrounded by a gang of big guys randomly shoving you as hard as they can.  I made the mistake of loosening my white knuckled grip on the hand-holds for a second and was thrown across the cockpit, my face smacking against the cockpit coaming, just missing a steel winch.  I thought, “I could have busted my teeth out!”  Thereafter, I made doubly sure to hang on as best I could.  Visions of Zach's face, uttering prophetic warnings, drifted through my mind.  "You might have been right buddy," I murmured under my breath.

I pushed myself up to reach another hand-hold and my left foot slipped out from under me again, crunching against the cockpit wall.  Blinding pain.  I can't believe I mashed my left foot in exactly the same way as before.  Stars blurred my vision again for a couple of minutes as I let out a little scream.

In the high seas, the wind managed to get under the kayak and lift it into the air.  The kayak twirled around a couple of times and landed upside down, dragging through the water.  I crawled back to the stern and hauled on the tow rope.  I pulled the kayak up to the stern and lifted it partly out of the water.  It flipped back upright and I let it go back on tow.  A few minutes later, the wind sent it kiting through the air again.  Once again, I hauled it in but this time tied the bow of the kayak up on the stern railing.  That did the trick; no more problems.  Overall, the squall seemed more bark than bite.  It looked bad coming up on it, but the lightning, wind, and seas were tolerable, if uncomfortable.

 

After about two hours, the wind from the squall died down and the prevailing wind from the SW re-asserted its dominance.  The confused sea settled down and it was back to plowing through plain ol’ 3-5 foot head-seas.  Gee, I was really relieved to ONLY have to deal with simple 5 foot seas!  They were balmy by comparison.  I looked below deck and found everything had been thrown out of the lockers into a giant heap on the cabin sole.  Heavy sigh.  I went down and repacked everything and made sure all locker doors were secure.  After that I went back on deck and took it easy for a while.

Getting all the gear organized.

When about 25 miles off-shore, a little brown and yellow bird, looked like a finch, came winging over the waves.  It circled the boat again and again, flying only about 1 foot above the seas.  I thought he looked kind of tired.  “You can land on my boat and rest, if you like,” I offered.  He flew by very slowly, turning his head to look at me curiously.  After about 10 minutes he flew away.  Guess he wasn’t so tired after all.  Maybe he flies out this far all the time, but I don’t know what for.  There doesn’t seem to be anything for a bird like him to eat out here, and there are no other birds around.

As I got further off-shore, I noticed a change in the color of the water.  The water out in the Gulf has this deep blue color to it, like blueberry Jell-O or something.  Once away from the surf churned sand on the coast, you can see about 20 feet down when the sun is high overhead.  It’s gorgeous; almost seems like you could eat it...it just looks so scrumptious.

In late afternoon, I discovered that the starboard shroud appeared a bit loose.  It would slack up just slightly every time the boat rolled to starboard.  That's funny, I thought I had tightened the shrouds and stays.  After another 20 minutes, I could swear the shroud had loosened even more.  Maybe it was my imagination, but I had to check it.  If I ignored it, it would be dark in a few hours and trying to fix it at night seemed almost mission-impossible given the sea state.  So, with my harness on and clipped to the jackline, I inched out on the pitching deck to have a look. There was a distinct possibility of being thrown overboard.  Should this happen and my harness or jackline fail, the boat would merrily sail on without me, following the autopilot all the way to the Tortugas.  The thought of bobbing in the waves, watching my boat sail away without me was quite exhilarating and cleared the mind wonderfully.

I reached the main starboard turnbuckle, raised the PVC shield, and discovered the ring pins missing!  I looked at the two secondary starboard shrouds and found the identical condition!  The ring pins are put in after tightening the turnbuckles to prevent them from loosening.  Without the ring pins, the turnbuckles had slowly backed off until the shrouds were loose.



I'm such an idiot.  I must have forgotten to put the pins in; there's no way they could have fallen out on their own.  I had better check the port turnbuckles too.  That meant moving up to the forward deck and back down the port side of the boat.  Standing on the plunging deck in these 5 foot seas was suicidal, so I laid down on my belly and inched my way along.  A larger than average wave broke over the bow and sent sheets of water and foam across the deck.  The water picked me up, and washed me over the starboard side of the boat.  I grabbed a lifeline and stanchion just as my legs slid off deck.  I pulled my legs back up and continued scooting along.  It was just crazy...you couldn't do much on deck in these conditions.  I finally made it to the port turnbuckles and found only one ring pin missing.  I worked my way back to the safety of the cockpit.  Whew, what a work-out!  Back in Charlotte Harbor, I must have started the job of putting in ring pins but didn't finish.  I wasn't surprised...I was so dazed with being overheated.

I pushed myself up to take a look at the shrouds again.  A blinding flash of pain shot through my left foot and I saw stars.  I screamed loud before even knowing what happened.  My left foot had slipped AGAIN on the slimy salt water in the cockpit, slid across the cockpit floor, and rammed into the cockpit wall.  My toes were like hamburger now, especially my big toe.  Holy cow.  I needed to stop doing this.

Now what to do about the ring pins.  I couldn't let the turnbuckles go like they were, I had to try to get some ring pins in to lock them down.  Otherwise, they'd unscrew in the middle of the night, maybe in the middle of a squall.  It was going to be a very difficult job in these conditions, but I had to try.  I went below and got an adjustable wrench, pliers, and some ring pins.  Back out in the cockpit, I clipped my harness to the jackline and headed forward on the starboard side.  To work on the turnbuckles, I had to lay down on deck with my feet facing toward the bow.  I used the adjustable wrench to tighten the turnbuckle and the pliers to thread the ring pin through a tiny turnbuckle hole to lock it in place.  Each turnbuckle requires the insertion of two ring pins.

At the dock, inserting a ring pin might take 30 seconds.  On a pitching, wave swept deck, it takes more like 5 minutes.  Waves sweeping the deck almost washed me overboard 3 or 4 times, but I managed to wedge myself between the cabin roof and the lifeline stanchions.  Still there were a couple of panicked moments when I had  to grab a lifeline.  I almost dropped the tools and ring pins a half dozen times.  It was crazy:  tools flying, sliding all over deck, water cascading down, pitching and bobbing, coughing up water that flooded into my nose and mouth when I tried to breath.  It was so absurdly difficult that I just had to laugh.  As I started laughing I couldn't help but open my mouth, choking on spray and foam.  The only things that could have made it harder were sharks and meteorites!

After 25 minutes, the job was done, and I inched my way back to the cockpit.  I was deeply impressed by how bloody impossible it is to do anything on deck when the waves get up.  And this wasn't even the worst of it.  Trying to do anything up there in storm conditions, like setting the sea anchor, seemed beyond reasonable human effort.  I honestly wondered what I would do, if I encountered difficult storm conditions and tried to deploy the sea anchor.  I'm not certain that could be successfully accomplished.  The probability of being washed overboard seemed high.

Though I hadn’t felt sea sick yet, I thought I should probably chuck back a sea sick pill, just to be on the safe side.  I dug around in my boxes of supplies and couldn’t find them!  I also noticed I was missing flashlights, duct tape, and a bunch of other little items.  Darn it, I know I packed all those things in a box.  I must have left the box in the Suburban or back home in the garage.  Arrrrrgh…my sea sick pills.  What a gaffe.  I SURE didn’t want to get sick and puke my guts out all the way to the Tortugas; 30 hours of retching, no way!  Around 5 PM I thought it might be good to eat something, even though I wasn't really hungry.  I chanced eating a tortilla.  It went down and stayed down, but I was afraid to eat much else.  I decided to not eat any more than absolutely necessary, to avoid tasting it again later.

I returned to the cockpit and sat down.  I began to climb forward a bit to take a look at the shrouds to verify they were properly tensioned when I abruptly found myself screaming.  I had rammed my left foot AGAIN.  I screamed loud and long and saw stars for a minute or two.  My poor left foot.  The toes, especially the big one, were a red mass of hamburger.  Oh, how had this happened again!  I couldn't believe my toenails weren't ripped off.  Oh man that hurt.  It felt like a bone was going to poke out the front of my big toe.  After this last incident, I became very, very cautious with my left foot.  I was sure I had broken the nail on my big toe under the skin at the base.  Chances are I broke one or more of my toe bones too.  My toes swelled up but ceased throbbing after a few hours.  Hmmmm.  Maybe it wasn't as bad as I thought.  They remained very sensitive to touch.  I couldn't bear to wear socks and putting on my sandals was an ordeal.

Soon, the sun set ahead and the moon rose astern.  The waves remained 3-5 feet; a rough ride but the view was nice.  The moon sparkled off the sea as scattered little clouds drifted by.  I stared at the horizon for a long time.  Then I began to notice a couple of weird effects.  It seemed like every once in a while, I would get a little glimpse of a tiny light on the horizon.  Was it a ship in the far distance?  No, I was seeing occasional little sparkles of tiny pinpoint lights in every direction.  There couldn’t be that many ships in every quadrant, especially since I hadn’t seen any boats all day.  Was I seeing the lights of Fort Myers somehow?  No, because I was seeing points of light far ahead too, and there was nothing but water for a hundred miles in that direction.  I eventually concluded that it was either my eyes playing tricks on me or the moon reflecting off waves in the far distance.  It made me think about Columbus.  When he was a few hours from landfall in the new world, he noted in his log that he and another member of the crew had seen a light in the distance.  Columbus thought it might be a small candle or camp fire on a beach.  I wondered if maybe he had seen something like these little pinpoint light illusions I was seeing.  Hmmmm.  Probably not, but I do wonder what he saw.  Later, when the moon was far overhead, the whole sea was brightly illuminated all around to the horizon.  As I stared at the horizon, I could swear there was a regular line of telephone poles or masts in the far distance.  Could they be oil rigs or oil field masts like you see off the Texas coast?  This puzzled me for a while, but I ultimately dismissed it as my eyes playing tricks on me.  I was 40 miles off shore in 150 feet of water.  There was no way there was a line of poles or towers way out here.  No oil fields either.  Weird how your eyes and mind can play tricks on you.

Around 11 PM, the scattered clouds got thicker and bigger.  They began blocking a lot of the moonlight.  Rain started coming out of some of them.  I motored through a couple small squalls.  No lightning, but some wind and short duration heavy rain.

When I got to the other side, the sky was filled with torn hunks of cloud with small moonlit patches between them.  It looked like the weather might get worse.  Then, about midnight, I came up on a patch of little thunderstorms, widely scattered.  Occasional bolts of lightning would flash inside the clouds ahead.  However, I could see moonlit sea beyond them.

I noticed they were slowly growing larger.  The biggest thunderstorm was dead ahead.  I was a little intimidated, so I altered course about 45° starboard to pass to the right of the squall.  After about 15 minutes, I realized the squalls were drifting on a northerly heading and were moving back into my path.  OK, bad call, I changed course 90° to port to pass to the left of the squalls.  After another 15 minutes, it became apparent that all this maneuvering was futile.  I could not dodge the squalls with a ground speed of 4½ knots on any reasonable heading.  I prayed and asked God what to do.  "Proceed on course," was the answer.  Resigned to my fate, I went back on course through the heart of the squalls; hopefully it would be more bark than bite, like the first squall.  I entered the storm and was lashed by torrential rain, wind, and contrary waves.  It was a lot like the first squall and only lasted about an hour.  Not too bad.  If this is all there is to these squalls, no sweat.

I began to relax and let the weather worry unwind a bit.  It was clear ahead and I was putting the thunderstorms on my stern.  No problems.  I went below to zonk out for a while.  As I was turning in, I noticed a drop of water falling from the main forward hatch.  I turned on a light and looked closer.  It was almost a steady dribble of water.  The sleeping bag and seats were soaked under the hatch.  Darn!  I replaced the old leaky hatch just a few months ago with a fancy, solidly constructed hatch to avoid this very situation.  Now, that excessively expensive hatch was somehow letting in the sea.  I looked at it closely and couldn’t tell where it was leaking.  There wasn’t much I could do, so I just went to bed. 

  • Wednesday, April 29 – I woke up, it was still night.  I checked the time, 2:23 AM; I‘d only slept about 2 hours.  The wind was up, whistling through the rigging, and the boat was rolling aggressively back and forth.  The ride was rough.  I got out of my berth, slid the hatch back, and stood up, careful to keep a kung-fu grip on a hand-hold.  It was raining moderately hard with a 25 knot wind quartering off the starboard stern.  I was startled by the blackness outside, like being inside a black painted ping-pong ball.  Only the faint flicker of navigation lights reflecting on an inky sea.  I scrambled out on deck and looked aft.  Those little thunderstorms I passed earlier had continued to grow.  They were now much larger, more numerous, and merging together into a giant thunderstorm complex.  Wind and waves radiated from its heart.  In occasional lightning flashes I could see the seas had increased to around 6 feet.  Soon it became apparent the thunderstorms were going to overtake me.  I was going to take a pasting alright.

Forty minutes later, the thunderstorms overtook the boat.  The wind rose to about 35 knots.  The rain and waves increased dramatically.  After about 25 minutes, I began to see lightning not just off the stern, but also from far ahead and along the entire starboard side of the boat.  I assumed the thunderstorm amoeba had simply continued to envelop me.  However, the atmosphere cleared for a few minutes and I could see this was not the case.  Lightning blazing up and down a towering, black line stretching horizon to horizon off the starboard side.  Uh oh, this wasn't like my friendly thunderstorm pals.  There was sense of menace and foreboding.  I hunkered down, waiting for Thor's hammer to fall.  He didn't keep me waiting long.  In minutes the black line roared and thundered overhead.

The whistle of the wind in the rigging jumped an octave and the rain just poured down...torrential is not the word; like a waterfall.  Even protected by the bimini, the rain filled my mouth in seconds, if I dared open it.  I breathed through my nose and still had to snort water out every few breaths.  At least the rain was washing all the salt off the boat.  The air seemed filled not only with rain but also a dense haze of spray and mist from the sea.  It was so blinding I could not see the mast 10 feet away.  My eyes started to hurt after a few minutes, and I realized the furious torrent was washing the tears out of my eyes.  I donned some goggles which helped a lot.  How in the world do dolphins and porpoises manage to breath when the waves and rain are like this?

I looked down and suddenly realized there was 3 to 5 inches of water sloshing around my feet on the cockpit sole.  I had never seen any amount of water collect in the cockpit before.  Where was this water coming from?  For a moment, I had a sick feeling in my stomach.  I slid the main hatch back and looked into the cabin, half expecting it to be full of water.  It was nice and dry inside.  I slid the hatch closed, but didn't feel very re-assured.  Could the waves on the stern be pushing water back up through the scuppers, filling the cockpit?  That seemed unlikely.  After another 10 minutes, the water seemed even higher.  I was getting worried again.  I peeked through the main hatch and found the cabin still dry.  It seemed clear the boat wasn't filling with water.  I tried to pushed the worry out of my mind.  After about an hour, the water level subsided.  I couldn't figure it out at the time, but in retrospect, I think it was raining so hard it was filling the cockpit with water.  The cockpit has two 1 inch diameter scuppers, but they were not able to keep up with the rain rate.

The wind was causing the boat to heal to port about 15-20°, even under bare poles.  As the wave height increased, so too did the rolling motion of the boat.  The roll was becoming excessive, so I turned 30° to port putting the wind and waves directly on the stern.  The boat speed increased to 7-9 knots.  Anything above 6 knots is cause for concern as the boat can become hard to control.  The boat could easily broach and get rolled in the heavy sea.  I throttled back to just above idle and was able to bring the speed down to a more reasonable 4-6 knots.

After about an hour, over the din of wind, sea, and heavy rain, I heard something that sounded like a “beep.”  What was that?  A GPS alarm?  Nope, no alarms on the GPS.  I heard it again...then again.  What WAS that?  Maybe the rigging was squeaking as the boat bucked the rough weather.  There were a bunch more squeaks.  No, it’s not the rigging, it’s coming from around the boat.  Maybe it’s a dolphin squeaking.  Even though the rain was still torrential, for some reason, the heavy mist and spray had abated somewhat and I could now see maybe 100 feet around the boat in lightning flashes.  Finally, during a lightning flash, I spotted what looked like a tern flying circles around the boat.  Funny to see a bird out here 75 miles from the nearest land in a torrential downpour.  Maybe he wanted to land on the boat for a rest.  He circled for 15 minutes before flying off who knows where.  A while later, in the dim illumination of the navigation lights, I saw splashes ahead in the sea.  I looked closely and saw that the boat was scaring up schools of flying fish.  They were popping out of the water and flying away.  Once in a while, one or two would flash by the navigation lights.  I was glad I had my goggles on.  I would hate to get jabbed in the eye with one of those flying torpedoes.

The VHF radio began to crackle and hiss.  This crackling became more and more frequent over the course of about 3 minutes until lightning flashed nearby.  After that, the radio was silent for a while.  This pattern repeated itself about a dozen times.  I suddenly realized what was causing the radio to act up.  Static electricity was building up on the VHF aerial at the top of the mast.  When a lightning strike occurred, it would neutralize the local electric charge for a while.  This actually indicated a dangerous probability of lightning striking the boat.  I looked up at the boom and the aluminum bimini frame and felt very vulnerable.  I shrunk away from them but found myself in contact with the pushpit railing, metallic lifelines, and winches.  There was no where to retreat.  I just had to tough it out.  I was relieved when this crackle and hiss on the radio faded away after about 90 minutes.

The intensity of the storm continued to build.  The wind and waves had risen to the point where the autopilot was struggling to keep the stern to weather.  The stern wallowed around ±30° off the programmed heading.  When that happened, the waves would induce a heavy rolling motion in the boat.  The rolling became significant enough to worry me.  Eventually, I had to disengage the autopilot and steer manually to keep the stern pointed into the oncoming waves.

I noticed that the the rain had started out fairly warm.  After about 45 minutes, the temperature of the rain flipped back and forth between warm and cold.  It would cycle from warm to cold and back again every couple of minutes.  However, the actual change in temperature took only seconds.  After about 30 minutes of this flip-flopping, the rain became cold and stayed cold the rest of the night.  In retrospect, I think this temperature flipping was probably a sign of frontal passage rather than isolated thunderstorms.

In the heavy rain, I became very cold, shivering all over.  I just had to get out of my wet clothes and into foul weather gear.  I was afraid to turn the tiller over to the autopilot, but I just had to do something.  I put the autopilot back on and rushed down below.  I stripped off my T-shirt and shorts then jumped into my foulies.  I pounced back out on deck and grabbed the tiller.  Whew, made it!  My foulies worked great, keeping me warm and (moderately) dry all night.  Lesson learned:  get your foulies on BEFORE the waves get high.

Lightning crackled overhead and it rained buckets and buckets.  The higher the seas got, the more fussy the boat became about course keeping.  If I allowed the waves to strike the stern more than 20° off the boat centerline, the boat would roll heavily.  The most stable course was 190°.  If the heading got to 210° or 170°, the boat got real squirrelly.  I worked hard to stay on 190°, steering by GPS magnetic heading.  As the waves continued to build I was getting squeezed down into this tight corner where the demands of course keeping were becoming beyond what could be reasonably expected in this sea state.  The situation eventually arrived at the point where I had to keep the stern perpendicular to the waves within ±15° to keep the rolling motion tolerable.

Occasionally, the wind speed would decrease for a few minutes.  Then, suddenly and unpredictably, the wind would change direction, usually 20° to 40°, and blow full force again.  I think this was caused by the dissipation of different thunderstorm cells.  As each cell began to die, down drafts would spread out radially over the sea, giving rise to outflow winds; a gust front.  Eventually the cell faded away and the wind slacked a bit.  Then another cell close by would enter the dissipating stage and the cycle would repeat.  I was buffeted by maybe 15 of these gust fronts throughout the night.  Each time, I would have to adjust boat heading rapidly to keep the wind and waves at a safe angle off the stern.  Sometimes the wind would blow from a different direction than the dominant waves.  When this happened, a new, secondary wave train would build up.  The dominant and secondary wave trains would interact, causing a confused sea.  In these conditions, course keeping became especially tricky (as if it weren't hard enough already).  This occurred about four times, and keeping the boat in a safe orientation was a struggle.  I found the best solution was to keep the stern to the largest wave train, but add a slight heading adjustment for the wind and secondary wave train.  If an especially large wave from the secondary wave train appeared or a large gust of wind occurred, the heading had to be quickly adjusted to meet the challenge.  The timing had to be right, so anticipating these events was paramount.  It looked to me that about 20% of the time, in these specific conditions, there was no safe orientation and I just took my chances that no additional circumstance would occur to roll the boat.

As the bow plunged into a wave trough, the bow sprit regularly kissed the water.  If the sprit were to dig in very much, it could cause the boat to pitchpole.  I wasn't sure how far the boat could go with this before a pitchpole was imminent, but the risk was obviously developing.  I kept an eye on it.

At the worst of it, I was afraid.  I tried looking aft during lightning flashes to see if I could gauge the angle of arrival of the waves.  What I saw through the rain, mist, and gloom were scores of waves as high as a bus.  And it wasn't just the sight of waves this high; the sea was alive with great power.  You just don't see waves or anything else this big every day, aggressively shouldering each other about as if jockeying for position.  Seeing only glimpses of it in lightning flashes was even more terrifying.  I felt my heart melt within me.  I sort of locked-up there for about 10 minutes; I suppose it was panic.  I don't know.  I didn't seem to be able to reason things through.  Usually, if I think about a situation, I can see that everything is OK and really there is nothing to worry about.  That usually settles the nerves.  But this time, that thinking was like a cup of water on a raging fire of instinct.  All my delicate logic disappeared in a puff of vapor.  I really wished I was somewhere else.  What was I doing way out here in this weather?  I was totally isolated, 75 miles from the nearest land.  If I broached or pitchpoled, the end would come swiftly and I doubted I'd have time to get off an SOS.  I tried to think of what to do if the boat got rolled.  Sitting here, nice and safe, it's easy:  activate EPIRB, attempt SOS transmission, get ditch bag, get on kayak, etc.  However, I couldn't seem to get my mind to function; it just would not come out of the chocks.  I found this exceedingly disturbing.  I could not even think enough to identify the items I'd need when ditching and figure out how to set them in order for a possible abandon ship.  On the old sailing ships, a canvas would sometimes be rigged behind the helmsman to prevent him from seeing the waves approaching from astern.  I completely understand that now.

At about this point, a number of unusual symbols appeared on the chart plotter.  I looked closely and found these symbols marked a rash of sunken vessels.  Strange to have these wrecks appear right in the heart of this storm.  It made me wonder if this was some kind of area of air mass convergence.  That maybe thunderstorms liked this area and these vessels were less fortunate victims.  There is no evidence for that, of course, but I couldn't stop thinking about it.  The depth sounder showed 175 feet...it might as well have been a mile.

I prayed and told God that I would be glad to see Him, if He liked.  And that if that is what He had planned, to please make it as painless as possible.  However, if He planned to spare me, I would certainly appreciate His protection.  I immediately felt that God answered and said, "You will be OK and will see the dawn."  That made me feel much better and although I felt shaken, my courage returned.  I tried not to look at the sea very much after that, but focused on just keeping course.  I do think that if the seas had built another 3-5 feet, I probably would have lost control of the boat or pitchpoled down the front of a wave.  I had debated about buying a drogue for just such a situation, but decided against it.  I thought it unlikely I would ever use it; besides I could drag warps, if it came to that.  Now I've changed my mind.  If the waves had continued getting higher, a drogue would have been very helpful, even lifesaving.  I'm putting that on my "gotta-have-it" list.  In another 45 minutes, the storm began to ease off and the seas started subsiding about 45 minutes after that.  I was greatly relieved.



In retrospect, it seems clear that had the seas become larger, I would have been compelled to do something to save the boat (and me).  My ace in the hole was the sea anchor.  However, I now see that in all likelihood an attempt to deploy it would have failed.  The seas were high enough that piloting the boat took my undivided attention.  The conditions were well beyond what the autopilot could handle.  If I had left the tiller for any length of time, the boat would have been in jeopardy.  I would not be able to go below, grab the sea anchor bag, haul it up to the pitching bow under assault from the waves, tie it to the bow cleat, and feed the anchor and bridle over the side.  In addition, it wasn't clear to me that the boat could be safely turned to face the weather.  Alternatively, if I had continued heading downwind while deploying the sea anchor, when the anchor rode pulled taunt, it would have yanked the bow around to face the weather.  This would have presented the side of the boat to oncoming waves.  If the timing was unfortunate, a wave could have dangerously rolled the boat.  One way to avoid this scenario is to deploy the sea anchor before conditions get bad.  However, this seems impractical, because you sail along doing your best, without knowing just how bad the storm is going to get.  I mean, when do you deploy the anchor?  It would mean you would have to deploy it any time there was threat of bad weather in rising 5-6 foot seas.  That occurs frequently.  You would double your time at sea, just riding the bloody sea anchor.  Besides being inefficient, it keeps the boat out in open water much longer, potentially exposing it to even more bad weather.  Another way to do it (maybe) is have the sea anchor all set up and ready to go.  Route the anchor lines outside the shrouds along the hull and lead them to the sea anchor stored in its bag in the cockpit.  That way, you could deploy the sea anchor from the safety of the cockpit.  The only down side of this approach is the risk of fouling the sea anchor lines.  Also, a passing wave could yank on the anchor line and pull the whole assemblage overboard, prematurely deploying it.  While these things could happen, the risk might be worth it.  Something like this is probably the right answer because trying to rig the sea anchor while forward on deck in high seas seems impossible, especially when single handed.

Anyway, back in the storm.  Suddenly, I heard a loud burst of noise; gahhh, what was that.  I heard it again, it sounded like garbled voices wafting over the wind.  I looked around for another boat.  Then another burst of garbled voice.  I realized it was someone calling over the VHF radio.  Could someone be in trouble in the squall (I mean, besides me)?  I turned the squelch down, but wasn't able to make out what they were saying.  The bursts of garbled voices continued for about 45 minutes.  I could only make out an occasional word; I couldn't understand what they were talking about.  It sounded like English words mixed together with gibberish or some strange language.  Shortly after, I heard the sound of jets passing fast and low overhead.  I looked out from under the bimini but only saw black ragged clouds in the lightning flashes.  No navigation lights of passing aircraft.  There is a navy bombing range out by Rebecca Shoals, about 25 miles east of the Tortugas, but I was still pretty far away from that.  I heard jets passing overhead on three occasions in a 90 minute period, but never saw anything.  I wondered where they were going and why they were flying in this weather.  I thought that perhaps the VHF radio chatter and the arrival of the jets could be related.  Maybe search and rescue?  I asked a friend of mine, Dave, about it later.  Dave, a former Guard pilot who trained in this area, said they never flew training missions at night.  He had no suggestion as to the purpose of these jet flights.  After thinking about it a lot, it occurred to me that this roaring sound might have been nearby waterspouts spawned by the storm.  It is also possible that the sounds were due to especially large breaking waves.  However, I rather doubt these explanations.  It sounded like a jet to me.

I hung on the tiller through the night, keeping the stern to the waves.  I dozed, semi-conscious, for a couple of hours.  A few times, I snapped awake as my chin hit my chest.  Hours passed in this strange trance.  Rain poured down, the roar of the waves, the moan of the wind through the rigging, tumbled and knocked side-to-side, fore-and-aft.  Sitting immobile, turned to stone by the Medusa of rain and cold.  The glow of the chart plotter and flicker of lightning.  They all blended together in a weird, exhausted, dream-like stupor.

Finally, at dawn, the wind ease off to about 20 knots, seas were down to 6 feet.  It was still raining pretty hard.  I turned the autopilot back on and set course once again for the Tortugas.  Running with the wind half the night pushed the boat 12-16 miles off course but also increased average speed.  I had been trucking along at 5-7 knots for long periods and that helped advance my arrival time in the Tortugas to something between 10 AM and noon.  Whoohoo!  It seemed clear I had dodged the really bad weather due to arrive later that night.

I finally tried to move from my statuesque pose.  Ouch!  My joints and muscles were stiff and sore.  I straightened my arms and legs, working them back and forth, until the pain subsided.  What a night.  When I rubbed my eyes, there was a sort of sand-paper sound and a bunch of white powder was left on my hands.  I felt all around my head and found my eyebrows, hair, and especially the outside of my ear canals covered with salt crystals.  Apparently, the spray from the sea had dried and left behind this dusting of crystals.

As the dawn brightened, I was able to see across the waves.  The heavy rain beat the sea down into slick 6 foot swells.  The boat rode smoothly over them.  There was a bluish-white mist about 2½ feet deep, hovering 8 inches above the surface of the water.  As the swells rolled by, this coverlet rode up and over the swells, contouring their passage with a graceful, fluid undulation.  This peculiar phenomenon riveted my attention.  For some reason, it reminded me of fruit slice candy.  Weird huh?  I watched it for about 40 minutes until it gradually faded away.  I don't know if it faded because of a change in lighting, sea state, temperature, or because the rain slacked a bit.  Strangely, it was one of the most memorable things I saw during the whole trip.  Looking at a photo of fruit slice candy, I can see the sea swell in there with a diffuse white mist riding on top.  Maybe that's why I made the association...maybe I was just hungry...maybe a little of both.

Rain poured all morning and lightning continued to snap overhead occasionally, but I was happy.  Things were looking up.  I had weathered the worst of the storm, AND I hadn’t puked; icing on the cake, man!  I didn't worry about or even pay attention to the lightning anymore.  What could I do about it anyway?  Che sarà sarà.

I saw a wooden hatch from a sailing vessel floating on the waves ahead.  As I passed by, I wondered how that hatch came to be separated from someone's boat.  Perhaps somewhere out here a sailing vessel had faired poorly in the storm.  Maybe that explained the garbled VHF transmissions and low flying jets last night.  I thought of all those sunken vessels that had appeared on the chart plotter during the storm.  How strange they were all clustered together where I happen to hit bad weather.

The sound of jet engines again roared overhead.  I looked out from under the bimini and sighted two F-18 Hornets at about 3500 feet, one following in trail behind the lead.  They or perhaps another flight of two made two more passes that morning.  The engines sounded just like the jet sounds in the middle of the storm last night.  Could the night jets have been F-18s too?

I motored along for hours, thinking of things, and keeping an eye ahead.  For no particular reason, I turned around and looked aft.  MY KAYAK!  It was gone.  What happened to it?  I stood up, braced against the aft railing, straining to see past waves and mist.  I finally spotted the kayak about a quarter mile behind; it would sporadically pop into view when both the boat and kayak rose to the top of a swell.  What luck I notice it missing before it drifted out of sight.  I turned the boat around and headed back.

When I caught up with the kayak, I noticed the tow strap had broken, probably due to rough weather.  I couldn’t fix it at the moment, so I tried to haul the kayak up on deck.  I lassoed it and pulled it up next to the waist of the boat then led it forward to the bow.  It was difficult to pull the kayak out of the water and onto the pitching deck, but I managed it.  That kayak was brand new and cost a lot of money; there was no way I was going to lose it!  I lashed it down and crawled back to the cockpit.

At about 9:30 AM, I found marker “I.” One of a dozen floating buoys marking the boundary of the Dry Tortugas National Park.  Marker I is the northernmost buoy.  My plan was to hang a left at Marker I, motor south about 10 miles, dodging reefs and shallow spots, then enter Fort Jefferson harbor on Garden Key...and that’s what I did.  About 4 miles out I spotted the fort low on the water.  The rain and lightning continued unabated until I entered the channel leading to the protected harbor at Garden Key.

 

Here's what the outbound route ended up looking like:

 

As I was navigating the channel coming around the south side of the fort, I saw a bunch of commotion in the water between the fort and the boat.  Looking closer, there was a school of about 50 fish on the surface, swimming directly toward the boat, only about 200 feet off the port side.  The fish were three feet long, silver in color, and only about 5-6 inches in diameter.  The way they were swimming struck me as unusual, because they were undulating up and down, not side to side like swishing a tail.  They looked like a group of greyhounds or porpoises when they swam and they were kicking up a continuous, vigorous splashing of water and spray as they went.  They submerged about 75 feet from the boat.  I've been trying to figure out what they were.  They looked something like a gigantic version of a ballyhoo or maybe a great barracuda.  I don't know what they were, but they seemed quite unique and unusual.

When I entered the harbor, the rain stopped and the sun broke out.  Wouldn’t you know it...weather chaos through the whole passage then as soon as I’m in harbor it all clears up.  Ain’t that just the way!?  I didn't get rained on again the rest of the trip, though there were frequently thunderstorms in the vicinity.

Fort Jefferson and Garden Key harbor.

As I pulled into Garden Key harbor, I was surprised to see so many boats.  I counted 13 boats crammed into the tiny harbor with about 6 more anchored in sheltered waters a mile away.  Apparently, many boats in the area were seeking shelter from the unsettled weather.  Mine was the smallest boat around.  The next smallest boat was at least 10 feet longer.  I motored amongst the anchored boats and found a nice little spot.  I threw out my anchor with a sigh of relief.  Wow...what a beating!

I went below and stripped off my foulies.  I was shocked to see that I was covered in salt water boils from my waist to my upper thighs, scores of them.  It was a little disturbing.  I dried off as best I could and put on some dry clothes.  Most things were wet or damp inside the cabin, so I got everything out to dry and opened the main hatch to let some air through.  I repaired the tow line on the kayak, threw the kayak overboard, and tied it to the stern.  Then I went out and sat on deck for a while, just marveling that I had really made it.

Airing things out.
Cushions, towels, clothes drying out on deck.

I arrived in harbor at ~11:30 AM, a 28 hour passage.  Not bad for a little, low-speed boat.  150 miles ÷ 28 hours = 5 MPH.  That’s really kickin’ it for my boat, but I’m sure the thunderstorm winds on my stern helped.  Cooked up some hotdogs and had a Pepsi.  They sure tasted great after 28 hours eating only one tortilla and three pretzels.  By the way, DON'T eat pretzels if you are in rough weather.  I was doing fine with tortillas, but as soon as I ate the pretzels, I was burping on an acidic stomach the rest of the night.  Very bland foods only.

Back on deck, there was another roar of jet engines.  This time a C-130 flew by followed, a minute later, by two F-18s.  Another flight of two F-18s roared past about three minutes after that.  For about 20 minutes there was intermittent jet engine noise, but I only caught brief glimpses of the aircraft maneuvering overhead.  This was the last time the jets appeared during the trip.

I felt pretty tired and fell asleep down below.  Woke up at sun down and marveled at the beauty of the sunset.  Had to pinch myself again to really be sure I was actually here.  I can’t believe I made it.  It’s taken 18 months of planning and work to get this far.  Baked some pizza and threw back another diet Pepsi.  It seemed the height of decadence.  Called Jane on the Iridium satellite phone and left a message.  (No cell phone coverage this far out.)

 

  • Thursday, April 30 – Awoke at dawn.  The weather was clear with a 15 knot breeze from the NW.  So much for the apocalyptic weather forecast, but a front has definitely come through because the wind has shifted.  I wonder if the bad weather I endured yesterday was the weather that had been forecast for today.  Maybe it arrived early and I sailed through it.  Could it be?

    My boat is the wee little one on the right.
    The little one is mine.  I was the smallest boat in the harbor all week.

    I warmed up a few more hotdogs for breakfast; for some reason, hotdogs seemed the perfect sea food at the time.  Later that morning, I boarded the kayak and paddled to shore at the fort.  I walked around a bit, found the park bookstore, and went in for a look.  I saw a Dry Tortugas T-shirt and instantly knew it was for me.  They had one in my size and I immediately bought it.  Strolled down to the docks and found a self-registration box for anchored boats.  Filled out a registration card.  A $5 per week anchoring fee, so I stuffed a bill into the envelope and dropped it in the slot.



    I stopped by the Ranger's Office and a ranger named Dan gave me the low down on the park.  He told me about an old sailing ship west of Loggerhead Key that wrecked back in the 1900s.  Good snorkeling he says, so I put that on my list of things to do.  A tourist boat comes from Key West every day and does a fort tour.  Meet at 10:45 AM out by the dock for the tour.  I plan to do that too.

    Ranger Dan and I really hit it off.  We had a lot in common and were instant pals.  He served in the Army as an artillery officer.  He even brought up the W54 Davy Crocket nuclear device, with which I am familiar.  He’s the first guy I’ve ever met that knew anything about it.  That was really cool.  I'm afraid I talked his ear off about the W54, but I was excited to meet someone who even knew what it was.

    I told Dan I wanted to explore Loggerhead Key, at the western extremity of the park, about 3 miles distant.  Dan told me about a two kayakers that tried to paddle over to Loggerhead a few years ago.  They only mentioned where they were going to a woman at an adjacent camp site; didn’t inform the rangers.  Off they went.  After dark, they hadn’t returned, so the woman got worried and told the rangers.  Because it was dark, there wasn’t much they could do, but at first light the rangers took off in boats looking for the missing guys.  They found one in his kayak drifting about 3 miles west of Loggerhead Key.  He was dehydrated and suffering from exposure, but basically OK.  The other guy was later found another mile west.  Well, actually, they only found the top half of him.  Something had bitten him in half.  Apparently, the kayak capsized on the way to Loggerhead.  One guy managed to get back aboard but the other couldn’t re-board the kayak and slipped away during the night.  Something got him.  I asked Dan if it was a Great White shark, they’re out in the Gulf and are pretty common.  Dan didn't want to answer.  He said he didn't know what it was.  I asked him what else it could be.  He seemed uncomfortable with the question, but told me to keep my eyes peeled when out on the reef west of Loggerhead.  Point well taken!  Anyway, it wasn’t clear whether this kayaker was alive or already dead when bitten in half.  There is another story posted on various news websites that talk about the death of a kayaker out in the Tortugas.  I think this must be the same incident Dan was relating to me, although his story and the news articles differ on several points.

    Dan cautioned me to avoid fire coral while snorkeling.  He asked if I knew what it was.  No, I have no idea.  He said it was yellow and if touched, feels like putting your head in a vat of boiling oil.  Hurts for days afterwards.  OK, point well taken; I'll try to avoid it, but having never seen it before, I don't feel too confident.

I strolled around the fort for a while then headed back to my kayak.  I paddled around the harbor then headed back to the boat.  As I was rummaging around looking for my snorkeling gear, I found a box of supplies I had packed in the bow.  I opened it and guess what.  My seasick pills!  I finally found them.  I also found my flashlight, duct tape, and all the other "missing" items.  I was very happy.

I donned my snorkel and paddled around the boat for over an hour.  Saw some interesting coral and fish.  By 4 PM I was bushed and got back aboard.  Ate some canned tamales, watched the sunset then the moonrise, later lightning on the horizon.

I only have about 16 gallons of fresh water aboard and no water is available in the park.  That’s the “Dry” in “Dry Tortugas,” see?  So, I couldn’t shower or sponge off when I got out of the salt water.  If you let the salt water dry on your body, you end up covered with a fine salt powder.  The salt always feels damp because it absorbs moisture from your skin and the air.  I found a way to deal with it though.  As soon as you get out of the water, towel off as much as you can.  Next, let yourself air dry.  Follow that up with a dusting of talcum powder.  The talc makes you feel dry and clean.  I used these talc showers to get ready for bed.  Worked great. 

  • Friday, May 1 – I popped out of bed and ate a can of chili.  Today was wreck day.  The plan was to pull up anchor, sail over to the old Windjammer ship wreck on the southwest end of Loggerhead Key and do some snorkeling.  After that, I would head to the east side of the key, tie the boat to a mooring ball there, paddle the kayak to the beach, and explore the island.  All that should take the better part of a day.  Ranger Dan said I needed a diver-down flag to snorkel on the wreck.  I didn’t have one, so I made one out of an old, red, plastic rain poncho and some duct tape.  I cut out a flag, beefed it up with duct tape, used the tape to make a diagonal stripe, and taped it to a broom handle.  Voila, it worked great!

    Making a Diver Down flag from duct tape and a rain pancho.

At 9:45 AM, I pulled up the anchor and headed out.  It was about a 7 mile trek to the wreck.  I pulled out of the harbor and motored down the seaway headed south on the east side of Loggerhead Key.  There was a large green research vessel anchored there, the University of Miami Walton-Smith, doing surveys on coral and marine fauna.  I gave them a wide berth.

While underway, I tied my chili pot to a rope and tossed it over the stern.  It's my automatic dishwasher.  As the pot is pulled through the water, it's thoroughly cleaned.  After about 20 minutes, just reel in the pot and dry it off.  No fuss, muss, or dishwashing liquid.

 

Eventually, I made it down to the south end of Loggerhead and passed a reef named “The Maze.”  There was a mooring ball there and I motored up near it thinking I might tie off and do some snorkeling, but the depth sounder indicated 30 feet.  A 20 knot wind from the NW was kicking up 3-4 foot swells, churning up the sandy bottom making visibility poor.  Bah, conditions were not good.  I dropped that idea and turned north towards the wreck on the west side of Loggerhead.

I had to deviate pretty far west to get around the shallows at the south end of Loggerhead.  I finally spotted the mooring ball near the wreck and headed for it.  When I got there, I found the situation tricky.  To tie up to the mooring ball, I had to approach from down-wind, but the mooring ball was only about 75 feet from the wreck...which was also directly down-wind of the ball.  If something went wrong and I missed the mooring ball, the wind could blow me back onto the wreck in seconds.  Ugh.  I rehearsed the sequence of actions needed to maneuver and pick up the ball a few times in my head.  I got all the lines and boat hook arranged just so and cleared junk out of the way.  I positioned the boat upwind of the ball then idled downwind, passing it on my left.  Then I swung the boat around into the wind, between the mooring ball and the wreck.  Idling upwind, I approached the ball slowly.  When the mooring ball was passing on my right bow, I put on the autopilot, jumped up, grabbed the boat hook, raced to the bow, used the hook to snatch the mooring pendant, and pulled it aboard.  I quickly tied off and raced back to put the engine in neutral.  Whew, everything worked out great!  I shut off the engine and bobbed there for a while, suspiciously eyeing the lines tying the boat to the ball.  If they let go while I was out snorkeling, the boat would end up on the same reef that wrecked this sailing vessel in the 1900s.  Then what would I do...I’d be dead.  My life probably depended on these lines not letting go.  After 5 minutes, they looked OK.  I went up there and pulled and tugged on them again, just to be sure.  I finally convinced myself I was being overly cautious. 

I got back in the cockpit, taped my diver down flag to the stern railing, and donned the snorkel.  I threw my leg over the aft rail and descended the swim ladder.  I was worried about wind driven current sluicing through the wreck since there was no protection from the NW wind.  I had asked Ranger Dan about this specific situation earlier, but he didn’t have much to say.  Well, if the current was strong, I might not be able to swim against it.  If I just jumped in and swam to the wreck, the current could grab me, and the next landfall was Cuba about a hundred miles SE.  I shuddered as I thought about that kayaker bitten in half, just about where I was right now.  I floated in the water with one hand on the swim ladder.  I could feel the current, but it wasn’t very strong.  I let go of the swim ladder and swam a little circle around the stern of the boat.  No problem, the current was pretty weak.  I tried swimming to the end of the 50 foot kayak tow line.  Still no problem.  Hanging on to the kayak, I looked down at the bottom.  I was just on the edge of the wreck and could see bits and pieces.  Well, the current and waves seemed manageable, so I let go. 

Floating on the surface in 20 feet of water, I let the current slowly carry me over the wreck.  It was really cool.  The wheel house was still intact, and you could see down into the hold through a couple of deck hatches.  I floated over broken masts and big pulleys.  Lots of colorful reef fish and coral too.  It started getting shallower, now about 12 feet deep.  I noticed I was drifting a bit faster, but no worries.  Finally I had drifted over the whole wreck and decided to swim back over it, taking a closer look.  I was in about 8 feet of water when I turned around and started swimming back to the boat...about 150 feet away.  I started doing a breast stroke with frog kicks, but I was still drifting away from the boat.  I did that stroke as hard as I could and was just holding position over the reef.  Uh oh!  The current had increased a lot.  What in the world...how did that happen?!  In a flash, I comprehended the situation.  When I had checked the current by the boat, I was in 20 feet of water.  Now I was in 8 feet of water and that whole 20 foot water column was being squeezed over the top of the reef shallows.  It had to speed up to pass over the reef.  Doh!  It’s the Bernoulli principle man!  I instantly realized that this was the swim of my life.  If I was unsuccessful in reaching the boat, I would be swept over the reef into open sea, headed for Cuba...or hungry sharks with nothing but my snorkel and swim trunks.

I transitioned to a forward crawl and really started pulling.  At 90% power, I was able to make slow progress against the current.  I swam and swam.  After 3 minutes, I had covered about 50 feet and made it into water 12 feet deep.  The current slacked off so that it only took about 70% power to make headway, but I was getting tired.  Then my leg and forearm muscles started to cramp.  There was no way I was going to let stupid muscle cramps kill me.  I told my muscles to stop foolin’ around, this was serious; stop cramping NOW...and the cramps stopped.  I kept pulling.  Two more minutes and the water was 16 feet deep.  I was almost at the kayak and picking up speed.  Another minute and I had my hand on the kayak.  I pulled myself the rest of the way using the tow line.  I grabbed the swim ladder and paused for a few minutes.  I was breathing hard and was exhausted.  It had been a 6 minute, 100 foot swim to the kayak.  I think I could have made it further if I had to, but that’s as close as I ever want to come to being swept out to sea.

After a few minutes, I had recovered enough to climb the ladder.  I got aboard and collapsed in the cockpit.  I bobbed there for about 10 minutes still breathing hard.  I really couldn’t do anything here, the current was treacherous.  Disappointed, I started the engine, dropped the mooring pendant, and motored off.  Well, guess I’ll head over to the east side of Loggerhead and pick up the mooring ball there then explore the island.

Sheltered east side of Loggerhead Key.

I motored around to the sheltered side of Loggerhead where the current and waves were minimal.  Picked up the ball, about 450 feet off-shore, no problem.  Jumped in the kayak and paddled in.  There were a few visitors on the island.  After about 5 minutes, they boarded a boat and headed back to Garden Key, leaving me all alone on the island.  The island is about a mile long and 700 feet wide, brilliant white sand, a couple of dozen palm trees, palmetto plants, hermit crabs and that’s about it.  There are two little ranger cabins on the island and an old decommissioned lighthouse.  The cabins have a big solar array for electric power.  I walked around the cabins; no one home.  I found a little path through the dunes and followed it to the other side of the island.  I jumped off the dunes down onto the western beach and felt like a castaway, like Robinson Crusoe.  This has to be the most isolated island in the lower 48.  I sat down and just listened to the surf and the wind through the palms.  Gee...it would be really cool to live on this island for a few weeks.  Those rangers have it good.  A long stay might drive you bonkers, but a few weeks would be restful.


 

One of my favorite photos.
My kayak, beached on Loggerhead Key.
 

Sundog anchored about 450 feet off Loggerhead Key.
On the mooring ball at Loggerhead Key.

I walked around the southern half of the island.  Found a giant conch shell that I really wanted to keep, Cobiabut its prohibited to take anything like that out of the park.  I tossed it amongst a few others near the ranger quarters.  There was a 125 foot pier on the beach for use by the rangers.  It was covered with sea gulls.  I thought it would be interesting to walk out on the pier and see what was in the water.  As soon as I stepped off the sand onto the pier, about half the sea gulls flew off.  The rest turned to face me, squawking suspiciously.  I took a step forward and the gulls let out a nervous squawk-squawk-squawk.  I stopped and the squawking quieted down.  I took another step forward which caused another uproar.  OK, OK fellas...never mind, I won’t bother you.  I jumped off the pier and looked underneath.  There were a lot of really colorful fish down there.  I grabbed my snorkel and headed in.  Hundreds of fish of different varieties were gathered under the pier.  It was really cool swimming through clouds of yellow and blue fish.  I thought it would be just perfect to swim directly under the pier between the pilings.  When I swam up to the piers I found them rather closely spaced.  I could snorkel between them with a couple of feet clearance on either side.  However, with the wave action, I wasn't sure I could avoid brushing up against them.  Visions of fire coral and heads in boiling oil flashed through my mind.  Nah, I think I'll swim around the outside.  I swam along the pier then turned to follow the shoreline back to where the kayak was beached.  Paddling along, I saw a big log lying on the bottom in the sand.  On closer examination, it turned out the be a huge fish.  It was about 18 inches in diameter, 6 feet long, and looked exactly like a giant trout.  I looked at photos of fish after returning from the trip and I think it might have been a cobia.  He was looking at me as I swam past.  He didn’t seem to have any big teeth so I just continued on my way, trying not to worry.  I climbed out onto the beach, packed up my kayak, and paddled to the boat.  Back at the boat, sails hoisted, I dropped the mooring pendant, and sailed back to the fort.

 

It had been a fun day, but after I was safely back at anchor, I felt really tired; almost sick-to-my-stomach tired.  The sun, wind, long walk on Loggerhead, and the swim-of-my-life had taken it out of me.  I went horizontal the rest of the afternoon.  Got up around sundown and ate some rice, green beans, and some Rice-a-Roni.  Watched the moon and lightning in the evening then turned in.

Safely back at anchor, watching the sunset.  A cool sun pillar.
 

  • Saturday, May 2 – Fort day.  I awoke still feeling wiped out from the day before.  I thought it might be good to take it easy today, just to recover.  Touring Fort Jefferson and paddling my kayak around sounded like all the activity I could handle.  At about 10:15 AM, I paddled onto the beach at the fort and started my walk-about.  The fort is large and there is a lot to look at.



    The fort has three stories.  A typical gallery along the fort walls.

    Occasionally, a boat load of Cuban refugees washes up in the Tortugas.  The park service gives them something to eat and puts them up in a sheltered open-air room until the INS picks them up.  The park service had a few home made Cuban boats there at the fort.  They were really amazing examples of improvisation.  Oars carved from old palm trees, motorcycle and tractor engines adapted to drive a propeller, sheet metal hulls reinforced with wooden longerons.  The ingenuity that went into those boats was impressive.  Most of them appeared quite seaworthy.

    View from the top of the fort wall.

At about 10:45 the tour group assembled in front of the fort.  Our tour guide was very colorful.  He knew a LOT about the fort and the history of the area.  He was also a self-professed, pot smokin’, acid droppin’, island bum and he sure looked the part.  He was an awesome tour guide.  Well, two or three times at the beginning of the tour, he warned us that there were no railings around the fort and you could easily fall and kill yourself.  He also warned that the floor was very uneven and to watch our step everywhere we went.  “Yeah, yeah,” a few people murmured, “get on with the tour!”  OK, so we’re walking along and come to a stop near a certain point of interest.  “Ohhh...ahhh,” came a voice from the rear of the group.  There was a flurried murmur of whispers.  Our tour guide sprinted to the back of the group.  “...murmur...murmur...you alright?”  “I think I hit my head on that,” came a young woman’s voice.  “Don’t get up too fast, just lay still for a few minutes.”  Our tour guide came back forward and told us to wait a minute because he was going to summon Ranger Ed, who had the first aid kit.  He jogged off towards the Ranger’s Office.  Five minutes later, the guide came back and said Ranger Ed was on his way.  He moved the tour group away from the woman that had fallen to give her some privacy and continued the tour.  Finally, about 10 minutes later, here came Ranger Ed toting a big first aid kit.  He plodded along slowly with a tired, slightly annoyed look on his face.  It was really hard to focus on what our tour guide was saying with the unfolding medical drama going on behind us.  More murmuring then, “Are you ready to sit up?”  “Yes, I think I’m ready to try.”  “Ah, slowly...ah, ah, AIEEE!  Ow, ow, ow, owwwwww.  My hip, my hip, my hip!  Put me down, put me down, put me...OWWW!  Oh, oh, oh....ow, oh, oh, ow....”  Oh man, I bet that lady busted her hip!  Ranger Ed streaked by headed for the Ranger’s Office.  About 2 minutes later, here come running about six rangers and a golf cart with a stretcher on it.  Our tour group moved on.

The tour was over after another 90 minutes.  If you're curious, here's a very nice photo-tour of the Fort.  I strolled around various levels of the fort taking photos.  Then, off in the distance, a low whine and wop, wop, wop.  It got closer and I realized it was a helicopter.  I bet they called a medical helicopter out of Key West.  Sure enough, in a few minutes, a helicopter hovered overhead then landed on an old slab of concrete.  Out from the fort came the golf cart with the ailing woman strapped to a stretcher, escorted by about 16 rangers.  They loaded her on the helicopter and off it went, headed toward Key West.  Her husband wasn’t permitted to ride along.  He had to take the ferry back.  Bummer.

 


I spent another two hours exploring the fort and watching the antics of the hermit crabs and many varieties of colorful little birds.  The bird in the photo below was constantly meandering around my feet as I sat at a picnic table.  I believe it's a Ruddy Turnstone.  A small, yellow warbler with black legs caught my eye.  I think it might have been a Prothonotary Warbler.  Very cute little guy.  He was flitting about so energetically I couldn't snap a good photo of him.  There were a number of bird spotting enthusiasts scouring the island.  They appeared to be having a lot of fun.  There were many colorful species.

One of many species of birds on the islands.





I got back on my kayak and paddled around the harbor.  Headed back to the boat for an early supper.  Listened to the weather forecast and found they were predicting 25-35 knot winds from the east and seas 6-8 feet the next two days.  Hmmm...when the winds came up, I would not be able to go anywhere.  At first, I was a little concerned because the harbor is not well protected from SE winds.  However, after looking at the anchoring situation a bit, I decided it would be OK.

I considered departing on the return trip immediately.  If high winds persisted for more than 2-3 days, I might get stuck in the Tortugas and end up days late getting back to Dallas.  I eventually decided an early departure was too risky.  The chances of being caught in open water when the winds came up was high.  A high east wind could blow me far out into the gulf.  Also, with my rate of water and food consumption, I could afford to loiter here a couple of weeks.  Nope, it wasn't worth the risk.  I could sit tight.  Besides, with the way the winds had been shifting, in a couple of days it would be a totally different story.  I puttered around all day listening to my iPod, reading a book, and lounging on deck.  In the evening I watched the moon, nightly lightning, and clouds float along.  Gave Jane a call on the Iridium phone and went to bed.

I discovered I could receive NOAA weather forecasts over VHF radio in the Tortugas.  This was an unexpected gift.  Due to the distance, I didn't think I would be able to receive anything from the mainland over VHF.  For this reason, I had brought along a short wave radio to get weather forecasts.  Over VHF I could hear the Naples, Fort Myers, Miami, and Key West forecasts.  Signals were weak and sometimes faded in and out, but they were fairly readable.  For a while, I couldn't figure out how this was possible.  VHF radio works only line-of-sight and the aerial at the top of my mast, 30 feet above the water, should only be able to see the horizon out to maybe 15 miles.  One thing I noticed though:  the signals completely faded away at sunset.  Overnight there was nothing but static.  Shortly after dawn, the signals would return.  I surmised that there must be a set of solar powered VHF repeaters between the Tortugas and Key West.  I wondered if it were possible for there to be just one repeater on the Marquesas.  Then I realized a single repeater would require the antenna to be at least 600 feet high to achieve line-of-sight with both Key West and the Tortugas.  I'm pretty sure there is no large tower like that on the Marquesas.  It was almost certain that multiple repeaters were relaying a signal from Key West.  To bridge the gap between the Marquesas and the Tortugas, there would have to be at least one other repeater mounted on a mast in the open ocean, probably in the vicinity of Rebecca Shoals or maybe on the Pulaski Shoal Light.  I suppose there could be some kind of diurnal tropospheric ducting taking place.  Don't know.  Intriguing.

  • Sunday, May 3 – The wind shifted east late in the night, and now the boat was bobbing aggressively in 2 foot harbor waves.  At least it was mostly sunny out.  I nibbled on a pop tart and tried to figure out what to do today.  The wind and waves were high enough that kayaking would be uncomfortable.  Sigh.  Well, there was still my leaky hatch.  I could tear that apart and see what could be done.  I got out some tools, 3M 4200 sealant, and went to work.  Finding and fixing the source of the leak took maybe 90 minutes.

    It was time to do laundry.  I got out a large zip-lock bag and a small bag of Woolite detergent.  I stuffed my dirty clothes in the bag, filled it half-way with salt water, added Woolite and zipped it shut.  An hour rolling around on the cockpit sole agitated the clothes very well.  I dumped out the salt water and added some fresh for a rinse cycle.  Got the clothes out and hung them on the lifelines to dry.  Worked like a champ!

    After that, I just lounged on deck, watching the tour boat and float planes come and go.  Looked at the fort and other boats at anchor with my binoculars.  Read more of my book.  Listened to my iPod.  Took several naps.  Cooked up some rice and vegetables.  Listened to the weather forecast and shortwave radio.  Called my buddy Dave on the Iridium phone.  Just generally took it easy.

    I hoped the wind would let up tomorrow, because I wanted to kayak out to a shallow, sandy area known as Bird Key Bank about a mile away.  Good snorkeling says Ranger Dan, and the current probably won’t get me there.  I’ll need my diver down flag though.  Bird Key Bank used to be a full-fledged island, but the great Labor Day hurricane of 1935 washed it away.  Now it's just a sandy, shallow spot.  This category 5 hurricane is mentioned in the Humphrey Bogart movie Key Largo.  It held the record for the lowest atmospheric pressure ever recorded in North America, 892 millibars, until hurricane Gilbert in 1988 at 888 millibars.  A category 3 hurricane also passed over the Tortugas on September 13th, 1887, wiping Booby Island, Sand Key, and Southwest Key off the map.  Man, I bet it's pretty scary out here when big hurricanes like that blow through.  One other incident of note; back in September of 1759, an intense northeastern gale so greatly impeded the Florida Current that water backed up submerging the Tortugas.  Can you imagine?  No gale like that has occurred since, but could happen again.  Funny how the historically significant blows come bustling through in September.


     
  • Monday, May 4 – My last full day in the Tortugas.  I had planned on snorkeling around the fort and maybe paddling over to Bird Key Bank.  Well, the wind was still blowing like snot, but had shifted to the northeast overnight.  It blew all day without letting up a bit.  Seas were high outside the harbor 4-6 feet.  I was stuck.  I even bailed out on kayaking to the fort.



    I was worried about the weather.  The forecast called for the wind to die down to 20-25 knots tomorrow morning, the seas dropping to 3-5 feet.  That would make the voyage to Fort Myers rough, but doable.  If possible, I needed to depart the next morning.  I could conceivably wait another day and depart Wednesday morning, but that could cause some schedule trouble down the line.  After fretting about it for a couple of hours, I decided to just forget it and take another look tomorrow morning.

    I puttered around the boat, fixing a few things.  Ran the engine to charge batteries.  Nibbled on snacks all day.  Called Jane on the Iridium phone.  Napped for hours at a time; good to rest up before the passage back to Fort Myers.  It looked like it would be a rough one, but nothing like what I came through on the way out.  I was a little disappointed my last two days in the Tortugas were a bust.

    The Iridium phone is really cool.  It's a satellite phone that signals up to a constellation of low Earth orbit satellites.  The satellites relay the phone signal between each other and ground stations.  It's like a telephony switching system in the sky.  The only problem is it doesn't work very well.  My rented Iridium phone dropped calls about every 3-4 minutes.  To even hang on to a call for that long requires a completely unobstructed view of the sky.  If there is any obstruction at all, like standing rigging or the Bimini frame, I usually cannot even place a call.  The longest call I ever made was 7 minutes before it dropped.  Perhaps with a good external antenna the Iridium phone might work OK.  I might give the Iridium phone one last chance, but if it louses up again, forget it.  Too unreliable.  Maybe try an Inmarsat phone or SPOT device after that.

    In the evening, I made the boat ready for sea.  This involved getting everything put away below, securing things on deck, inspecting the rigging, checking the rudder, checking lights, etc.  I decided to carry the kayak on the forward deck for the return trip due to the excess drama associated with towing it on the outbound leg.



    The salt water boils that afflicted me on the outbound leg had almost completely healed.  I didn't want to risk getting any more boils on the return leg.  They're as horrible as they sound.  As far as I can tell, salt water boils tend to appear on skin that is continually wet and being worked around all the time.  I was in wet shorts at least half the time on the outbound leg and those boils appeared everywhere the shorts contacted my skin.  I was determined to stay as dry as possible on the return leg to avoid a second bout.
     
  • Tuesday, May 5 – Up at dawn.  Listened to the forecast.  Winds from the east at 25 knots, seas 4-6 feet in the morning.  Wind 15-20 knots and seas down to 3-5 feet by noon.  Afternoon and evening, wind NE at 10-15 knots, seas 3 feet.  Overnight, winds N at 10-15, seas 1-2 feet.  OK, it’s a go for Fort Myers, but I’m going to take a beating in the waves this morning.

    I pulled on my foulies then pulled up anchor and sailed out of the harbor, headed north.  When I got outside protected waters, I really felt the force of the waves.  I had two reefs in because of the rather high east wind.  With the sails reduced that much, I had to point away from the wind about 60°.  That put me on a northerly heading, and with the wind drift and wave action, my actual course over the ground was NNW.  So, I was slowly drifting away from the Florida coast and out into the open Gulf, but I WAS making good headway north.  With any luck, by the time the wind swung around to the north, I would be up at about the same latitude as Fort Myers.  I could then turn east and sail straight to Charlotte Harbor; an L shaped course.  It would take a lot of time, but at least I was underway.  I set the autopilot and watched the sea. 

About 15 miles north of marker “I,” there was a splash in the water ahead of the boat.  It was a porpoise!  Soon another three joined the first.  They frolicked in the waves ahead.  They were so playful, it made me smile and really brightened my spirits.  I wanted to get the camera, but there was so much spray on deck from the waves, I dare not get it out.  Ha...those porpoises were a lot of fun.  They left abruptly after 20 minutes, headed east.  Good-bye little fellas!

A few hours went by and it was about noon.  The morning clouds had burned off and it was mostly sunny.  Something big and black suddenly appeared, just under the waves, about 150 feet ahead.  It disappeared behind a wave, but re-appeared when the wave passed.  Hey, it looks like the body of a man floating face down in the water.  I could swear it was a man; black hair, white button down shirt, black slacks.  He disappeared behind another wave.  Nah, it couldn’t be a body floating in the ocean way out here!  When he re-appeared after the wave passed, I realized I was about to run right over him.  I turned off the autopilot and altered course to port.  I’ll be darned...it IS a dead guy!  What in the world am I going to do.  I could just imagine trying to haul a 200 pound, rotting, dead body up on deck and then sailing all the way to Fort Myers with it.  Another wave went by, and I could really see the body clearly.  Ugh!  Maybe I could just call the coast guard and tell them his coordinates so they could come pick him up.  Sheesh, I don’t know WHAT to do!  Another wave passed and I got and even closer look at this gruesome scene.  Hey, what?  It’s not a dead body after all!  What a relief.  It was a log, about 10 feet long and 2 feet in diameter.  It was covered in little clams on one small part of it...that’s what looked like a button-down white shirt.  Wow, what an optical illusion.  Hey, what if I had been sailing along, like in that storm, and had rammed this thing.  It could have easily put a hole in the hull.  I wonder how many things like this I passed in the night, without knowing it.  I shuddered at the thought, but there was nothing that could be done about it.  I’m sure glad I was above deck in bright sunlight when I came across this log.  If I hadn’t taken over from the autopilot, I probably would have hit it.  Wow, what a crazy illusion.  The mind can really play tricks on you. 

It was well past noon, and the wind and sea hadn’t diminished as forecast.  Seas stayed 3-5 feet, wind 25 knots from the east.  It’s fatiguing to sail close-hauled against the wind in these conditions.  It’s about as hard as sailing gets.  Pounding, spray, heeling, twisting and snaking over the high seas.  It’s a burn out, even with the autopilot doing most of the work. 

Mid-afternoon, and I was staring off the right side of the boat, drinking in the deep blue color of the water.  Hey, what’s that...a Portuguese man o’ war.  All purple with his sail up, drifting with the wind, bobbing on the waves.  I goggled as it went by.  Any life spotted out here is a celebration, a great gift to break up the monotony.  I stare like a kid, like it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a creature like this.  My eyes search all over this little jellyfish form and then it’s lost astern in the waves.  Bye little guy.  Watch out for turtles!  They like to eat critters like you. 

A little later the boat was scaring up schools of flying fish about every 5 minutes.  They jump out of the water and flash over the waves.  They are able to maneuver and contour the swells as the waves move up and down.  I noticed every once in a while, one of the fish would dip its tail in the top of a wave and give it a swish.  It picks up a burst of speed and glides even further.  Fascinating.  Then I saw a flying fish come out of a wave.  He was bigger than the others I’d seen.  He flew over the waves, dipping his tail in and getting a burst of speed.  He was flying a long way.  Then he started flapping his wings (fins).  He fluttered his wings and kept flying.  He wasn’t just gliding, he was flying like a bird!  He flew on and on.  I finally lost sight of him in the waves about 250 feet distant.  Wow, I had no idea flying fish could do that, flap their wings like that and sustain flight.  What’s to keep them from flying up into the sky?!

Late in the afternoon, I noticed a large round object moving SE just under the water in the waves ahead.  It was about three feet long and two feet wide, oval shaped.  As I got closer, the thing surfaced and a turtle head appeared.  He saw me, gave a startled jumped, and dove straight down.  When I passed by, he was 15 feet down and swimming hard.  Guess I scared him.  He was basically all yellow with a slight green tint.  After returning home, I scoured photos of sea turtles trying to find out what kind of turtle I had seen.  As near as I can tell I believe it was an olive Ridley sea turtle.  The little guy was sure far from land.  I must have been 40 miles north of the Tortugas at that point.

Olive Ridley Sea Turtle

At dusk, the waves settled down to about 2-3 feet, and the wind came down to 15-20 knots.  I shook out a reef and trimmed the sails.  The boat was hustling right along, making 5-6 knots.  Pretty good for this boat.  With a little more sail out, I was able to steer another 10-15 degrees closer to the wind.  Only trouble was the wind was still from the east and I was basically still going north.

 

As evening descended, I saw lightning distant off the port bow and back off the starboard stern.  No biggie, I didn’t think those squalls would affect me.  They had forecast widely scattered thunderstorms and here they were.  The seas continued to diminish until they were 1-2 feet at 10 PM.  Man, I was cruising in comfort now but was still a long way from Fort Myers.  At this rate, it could take three days to get back, due to adverse winds.  Funny how on the outbound leg the winds were blowing straight at me from my destination.  Now, on the inbound leg, guess what:  the stupid winds shifted 180° to blow straight at me from my destination.  Heavy sigh.  At least it's consistent.  I went below and fell asleep.

When asleep underway, there is a risk of collision with ships.  The freighters run 18-20 knots and I can only see about 6 miles in any direction.  So, when a freighter appears on the horizon, it can take as little as 15 minutes before a collision is possible, if closing bow-to-bow.  I knew, single-handing the boat, I could not keep a continuous watch.  I’d have to grab some sleep once in a while.  So, I took a number of measures to avoid any unfortunate encounters.

I installed a RADAR reflector high on the mast, to help the RADAR on the freighter see me.  He could slow down, speed up, or change course to avoid hitting me.  I also kept the navigation lights on all night to make the boat more visible through the gloom.  One last thing, I installed an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver in the boat.  It is connected to the electronic chart plotter.  The chart plotter can see freighters out to about 16 miles with the AIS.  When out at sea, I program an alarm radius around the boat.  If the chart plotter thinks a freighter will enter that keep-out zone, it will sound an alarm and wake me up.  I can get up, take a look, call the freighter on the radio, and do whatever else I need to do to avoid a collision.  It’s a great safety help.  However, once out of harbor, either in the Tortugas or at Fort Myers, I never saw another boat.  It’s still nice to know the AIS system is on the job.  Anyway, with all this anti-collision stuff working, I don’t feel too threatened to take my eyes off the sea and go below for a while.  If my electrical system failed, I could revert to a continuous watch.  If I got really tired I could go below and rest, but I'd have to poke my head out and scan the horizon for ships every 15 or 20 minutes.  I brought along a wind-up kitchen timer, just in case.  I could set it to wake me every 15 minutes for a look around.  It wouldn't be very restful, but I think I could tolerate that regimen for a couple of days. 

  • Wednesday, May 6 - I woke up at about 2:30 in the morning.  The wind and waves were benign and the boat was happily cruising along on course.  All was well.  The wind was still from the east, but was due to swing around to the north any time now, in fact, it was late in doing so.  I was paralleling the Florida coast, about 60 miles off shore.  Well, I could wait for the wind to shift north, or I could take advantage of the benign sea, turn east and use the motor to close the coast.  I hated the idea that after all this sailing I was still so far off shore, so I decided to take advantage of the calm conditions to punch east as far as I could.  I should be in a better position at dawn and could turn back north then.  This measure would also put me in VHF radio range of the coast, should something unfortunate happen.  I pulled down the sails, cranked up the engine, and reprogrammed the autopilot to hold an easterly heading.  I stayed in the cockpit for a couple of hours, watching distant lightning and the play of moonlight on the waves.  It was so relaxing.  I felt tired again and zonked out below.

    I awoke about 40 minutes before dawn.  I sat in the cockpit as the sky got brighter and brighter.  Soon it was bright enough to see pretty clearly.  I looked down and right near my hand was a flying fish.  I hadn’t seen it earlier in the dawn gloom.  I picked it up.  It was cold and dead.  I looked at it carefully.  It’s body was a curious blend of sleek fish and aerodynamic bird-like lines.  It was dark turquoise in color, very beautiful, almost a metallic blue.  I pulled open the fins.  Little fin bones covered with thin skin, like a delicate bat wing.  The tail was vertical, like a rudder.  After careful examination I tossed it overboard thinking some denizen of the deep would make a meal of it.  To end up in the cockpit it had to fly at least 3 feet above the water.  I wonder how high they can fly?  Aren't God's creatures amazing?

When it was well and truly light out, I pulled the access cover off the fuel tank.  It was almost empty.  I wrestled a spare diesel can from the forward deck and refilled the tank.  Thus far, 9 gallons of fuel had propelled the boat about 200 miles.  Not bad, that’s about 22 miles per gallon.  Diesel engines are great!

I continued motoring along until 9:30 AM.  I was close enough to land to receive a weather forecast.  Winds were supposed to be out of the north at 10-15 knots until late afternoon when they would shift to the NW.  Darn it! I had to turn back north pretty soon and the stupid wind was just going to follow me through the turn to stay right on my nose.  I can’t catch a break.  I decided to just motor on against the wind and, if I was lucky, catch that NW wind to go back on sail power.  For cryin’ out loud.  I droned on with the iron wind.

I began to get glimpses of the coast; tops of high skyscrapers off Naples.  Then I saw a boat or two.  I was about 15 miles off shore.  I gradually closed with the coast and saw more buildings and boats.  Then, about 11:30, a wind sprang up from the NW and I went back to sailing.  The sea was placid with very tiny waves.  The breeze freshened, pushing the boat along at 5 knots on a direct course for Charlotte harbor.  I whiled away the afternoon just rolling along like this.  Great sailing.  A couple of times, I passed through a patch of sea where the surface roiled with little fish, some jumping out of the water.  I wondered if some dolphins or barracuda were after them though I didn't see anything.

 

In early afternoon, I noticed a thumping noise coming from the rudder.  Upon close examination, I found the lower bracket bolts on my RudderCraft rudder had loosened just enough to allow the rudder to shift back and forth.  The thumping became more frequent as the afternoon wore on.  These bolts had loosened before after sailing in rough weather.  I had tightened them and that had seemed to fix the problem.  I got out some tools to tighten those bolts again.  I leaned over the stern and suddenly realized I couldn't do it.  The rudder bolts are stainless steel, button head bolts with allen cap sockets.  I didn't have a set of allen wrenches on-board.  I hoped the situation wouldn't become serious.  I figured if the rudder failed, I could either rig a paddle to use as a rudder or steer by dragging something behind on a rope.  By moving the rope from side-to-side on the stern I could point the boat where I wanted it to go.  Sigh.  Another thing to worry about.  I had considered bringing a spare rudder with me but decided against it.  "I'm being excessively cautious.  Besides, the unwieldy thing weighs 30 pounds," I reasoned.  It would have given me peace of mind had it been aboard.  At the very least, I should test my theory of dragging something on a rope as back-up steering.

Finally, in late afternoon, I was close to the inlet of Charlotte harbor.  I pulled down the sails and started motoring.  I was right at the harbor entrance in 15 feet of turbid water when I heard a “Puwuhhh” right next to me.  I looked off the port side of the boat and there were two dolphins swimming slowly and coming up for air.  They took a breath and went back under.  After about 20 seconds, they again came up for a breath of air, only about 5 feet from the side of the boat.  Their blow holes opened and they exhaled with another “Puwuhhh.” Suddenly the dolphin on the right came up short and stuck his head out of the water looking at me and the boat.  I think the boat startled him.  They both turned and swam away.  I somehow got the impression they were older dolphins and that the one that looked at me was escorting the other dolphin.  I don’t know why that thought came to mind.  Maybe it was the slow, rather tired way they moved, especially the one on the left.  That one seemed really weak and tired.  Not like the exuberant porpoises I saw north of the Tortugas.  The back of the dolphins seemed mottled and peeling; something like age spots.  The dolphin on the right didn’t even notice the boat, even with the engine running, until he was 5 feet from it; that didn’t seem normal.  Don’t know; I somehow felt a bit sorry for them.

Here's what the return route ended up looking like:

Man, the boat traffic was heavy.  I weaved my way through all manner of craft, bucking the outgoing tide.  I finally got to the inner part of Charlotte harbor where the water turned the color of tea and you could only see down a few feet.  As I motored along, I passed a floating house that had been made into a convenience store/bait shop.  It was absurdly decorated.  I really wanted to stop and have a look around, but I was just too tired.

I navigated back to the marina and tied to the dock.  It was sundown, 39 hours since I left the Dry Tortugas.  The marina was closed and I was beat.  When I stepped out on the dock, I nearly fell over a few times.  If I stood still, it felt like the dock was swaying around.  I was just so used to being on a moving deck for 9 days.

Whew, back in Charlotte harbor.

I couldn’t bear the thought of sleeping in that damp boat overnight.  I grabbed my wallet and my clothes bag, walked over to the suburban, and headed for a motel.  On the way, I stopped by a Dominos and picked up a pizza.  I’m sure I was a sight...and smell too!  I found a La Quinta motel and got a room for the night.  Watched TV, ate pizza, and took my first shower since I left home 14 days earlier.  I think that’s the longest I’ve ever gone without a bath.  My skin was in great shape; it felt smooth and soft.  My hair felt a little greasy, but not that bad.  Overall, I think skipping showers was actually really good for my skin.  After the shower, my hair was fabulously soft, like baby hair.  I think it liked the break from being shampooed all the time.  Felt great.  Called Jane on the cell phone and zonked out.  Man the bed felt like a cloud. 

  • Thursday, May 7 - Up at dawn, threw on some clothes, checked out of the motel, and headed to the marina.  I had to unload all the junk from the boat and move it to the suburban.  Then I had to get the mast down and have the holding tank pumped out.  After that, the boat lift would take the boat out of the water and place it on the trailer.  I worked my tail off all day and finally had the suburban loaded and the boat on the trailer by 4:30 PM.  I had planned to leave Fort Myers the next morning, but I thought, “Well, I’m ready to go and I can get a good jump on the trip back home.  I can sleep in the boat tonight.  I’ll just go for it.” So, I pulled out of Fort Myers headed for home.  I drove until 2:30 AM that night when I pulled over at a rest stop in Alabama for some shut-eye.
     
  • Friday, May 8 – After about 5 hours sleep, I hit the road again and drove straight through to Plano, arriving at 6:25 PM.  The boat is too big to park on my street or in the driveway, so I drove to a nearby parking lot, unhitched it there, then drove the last half mile home.  Man, it was good to be home.  I ate dinner with Jane and the kids, telling them some of my tale.  I relaxed for a while then went to bed.
     
  • Saturday, May 9 – About noon, Nick and I picked up the boat in the parking lot and towed it back up to Lake Texoma.  We dropped it at the marina there then drove back home.  Thus ended my marine odyssey.

Conclusion

Well, the trip was rough.  I think a larger, heavier boat with a deep keel would make the trip more comfortable.  However, something like a Compac 16 could easily make the trip, provided it was properly equipped (sea anchor, drogue) and the skipper was prepared to take a beating.

There is merit taking the shorter route from Key West.  There are islands along the way where you can seek shelter, adventure, and scenic views.  The route is well traveled by sea planes and ferries; help is not far away.  You'll have NOAA and coast guard VHF coverage the whole way.  Going from Fort Myers, as I did, puts you in a pretty remote stretch of water, far from help.  No other boats, no VHF coverage, and no safe harbors where you could seek shelter.  You are much more exposed.

It's probably best to just assume adverse winds will be encountered on large segments of a voyage.  However, there doesn't seem to be any alternative but to rely on historical wind data when planning.

I over provisioned on food and water by a wide margin.  I could have taken a fifth of the food and come out alright.  I only used about 6 gallons of water on the trip; that's about rds of a gallon per day.  I was not dehydrated.  I returned to port having used all 6 gallons from my water jug, but with the 10 gallon boat tank still full.

I stayed pretty dry on the return leg by wearing my foulies all the time.  This appeared to head off another bout of salt water boils.  Lesson learned.

Would I do it again?  You bet!

 

Epilogue

When I put the boat back in the water at Lake Texoma and sailed it again, I just had to laugh.  It was so mellow and unchallenging.  Even with heavy winds and storms, the lake was like a Sunday drive in the country.  Ha!  You call THIS a blow?  'Tis as nothing!  Conditions that used to make my adrenal gland flip-flop were now much less exciting.  I just laughed and shook my head a dozen times.  I guess it's all relative.  You gauge conditions based on the worst you've seen before.  I concluded that prior to the Tortugas trip, I hadn't seen much.  Sure, a couple of times there were rough conditions.  Like the time I was caught out in the lake when a fast-moving, spring cold front swept through.  Lightning, rain, sleet, and hail blown by 40 MPH winds with gusts to 60.  I can testify that sleet driven at 50 MPH really hurts!  It scours the face clean and would probably remove the skin altogether given time.  Then there was that dark and stormy night when I was running before a 30 MPH wind and high waves.  I was thrown across the cockpit and pooped by a couple of very large, breaking waves.  The boat rolled over 50° and the wind tore the main sail away from where it was lashed to the boom.  These are heart stopping events, but the indescribable rain and high seas on the way to the Tortugas equal or surpass these.  It's actually worse because it lasted many hours and I was far out at sea.

I am astounded at how hard it rained when that black line of weather passed over.  I have never experienced rain like that before.  It is indescribable; there are no words.  Water rose 3 to 5 inches on the cockpit sole, despite two 1 inch diameter scuppers draining water at a prodigious rate.  For a minute I thought I might be sinking.  I had never seen water of any depth on the cockpit sole before that night.  I did some calculations and it looks to me that the two 1 inch scuppers could drain water at a combined rate of 62 gallons per minute.  To fill the cockpit, the inflow rate would have to be higher than that.  Hmm, 63 to 70 gallons per minute?  Yeah, I could see that much water raining into the area drained by the scuppers.  It's a torrent man!

This experience made me think about the ways in which the cockpit might actually be a safety hazard.  About 30% the deck area ultimately drains into the cockpit.  If the cockpit were swamped by a breaking wave, boarding seas, or due to blockage of the scuppers, the boat would be in real trouble.  There are multiple paths that could allow water to pour from the cockpit into the hull, if the depth exceeded 5 inches.  The existing scuppers are clearly barely adequate to handle torrential rain, let alone more catastrophic events.  The moral of the story is that I must take measures to protect the cockpit from being pooped in heavy seas.  Specifically, I need to heave to or otherwise orient the boat to keep breaking seas on the bow.  The boat won't endure a cockpit flooding safely.  The cockpit is big and will hold an enormous weight of water, dragging down the stern.  With the stern deep in the water, it will drain too slowly and could become a sitting duck for more waves to board over the stern.  Its many openings to the hull will admit copious quantities of water compounding the problem.  It's a catastrophe waiting to happen, especially with no way to dog down the lazerette lids.  To continue sailing off shore, I need to make some changes.  Larger/more scuppers, more bilge pump capacity, locks for the lazarette lids, improved water resistance for cockpit-to-hull openings, adjust storm tactics to reduce the chance of being pooped, etc.

The ultimate truth is that the ComPac 23 is just not a blue water boat.  Besides the swamped cockpit issue, there are other things.  It's stability, while excellent for a trailer boat, is not adequate for the open ocean.  The shoal keel and low ballast to displacement ratio make it marginally stable in heavy weather.  At the very least, its a bucking bronco in moderate seas.  When the waves get up, you are dependent on the stability and sea keeping of the boat itself.  There are some measures you can take to secure the boat, but the innate safety of the design itself is invaluable.  The ComPac 23 was intended for day sailing and a little bit of coastal cruising.  It's good for that.  Bad weather in open seas is testing its limits.  Sure it can be done, blah, blah, blah.  You can also fly a slab of concrete given enough thrust.  But wouldn't it be even better to actually sail a vessel designed to handle such conditions?  I can testify the correct answer is YES!  All that being said, I still plan on sailing the ComPac 23 over the ocean.  Maybe I haven't learned my lesson yet.  At least I am more cautious now.

As it turns out, I injured my left foot more than I realized.  After returning to Dallas, my entire left foot became swollen and painful to walk on.  The toes were very sensitive for two months and I had to be careful when putting on socks.  I discovered later that the nail on my big toe had sheared off under the skin at the base.  It eventually departed my foot peacefully.  It took 9 months for the pain to subside and the foot to return to almost normal.  My toenail fully grew back after 14 months.

After thinking about the "swim-for-life" event, I considered the value of taking a VHF hand-held radio and a personal locator beacon when swimming alone.  If you were incapacitated or swept out to sea, you could use those devices to signal for help.

It occurred to me that when working on deck, I should heave to.  This stabilizes the boat and if I fall overboard, it won't sail over the horizon without me.  I should have done this when inserting ring pins in the turnbuckles on the outbound leg.  It would have made the job easier and safer.  The value of trailing a 100-200 foot length of rope behind the boat while underway is now very apparent.  If you fall overboard, you can grab the trailing line and pull yourself back to the boat.  The line generates minimal drag and is cheap life insurance.  It provides one last chance to save yourself.

Every metallic tool that came within 1 foot of sea water was ruined by rust, even after thorough drying.  I now keep my boat tools in water tight boxes containing bags of desiccant.  When I use a tool, I rinse it in fresh water and towel it off before putting it back in the box.  At least the tools have a fighting chance now.

I discovered that with my boat, I can tolerate beating into 3-5 foot seas with a good deal of discomfort.  Beating into seas 4-6 feet borders on intolerably brutal; I can take it for 10-12 hours, but it wears me down.  Seas 6-8 feet and above make life on the boat downright dangerous, throwing people and objects around.  When seas get that big, I start paying much closer attention to how the boat is handling the conditions.  I think it quite possible the boat could be rolled dangerously or experience a boarding sea.  This is probably the threshold where serious consideration should be given to heaving to with a sea anchor.  Smooth swells up to at least 10 feet are no big deal.  I think the boat would afford a perfectly smooth ride even with 20 foot swells.  It's the large, short period, steep waves that are hard to endure, especially when beating upwind.

I became much more interested in proper use of sea anchors after the rough weather experience.  I realize now that conditions were definitely bad enough to warrant deploying the sea anchor.  In addition, I discovered that many people set-up the sea anchor before embarking on an off-shore voyage.  The anchor rode is led along the hull to the cockpit, affixed by break-away plastic wire-ties.  When conditions warrant, the anchor is deployed from the safety of the cockpit.  No need to risk going forward to the bow.

I also pondered the outcome of the 1979 Fastnet race, a 605 mile oceanic competition involving 306 yachts.  Rough weather overtook the fleet and many boats were disabled or sunk resulting in 15 fatalities.  Here are some pertinent statistics:

  •   26 vessels hove to under sail alone.  All of these vessels weathered the conditions well.  None were damaged or sank.
  •   275 other vessels did not heave to with the following outcomes:
    •   100 knockdowns
    •   76 capsized
    •   5 sunk
    •   70 disabled and towed
    •   24 abandon
       
  •   Of the 275 vessels in distress, the following measures had been taken:
    •   86 lay ahull
    •   46 ran with the wind and trailed warps
       
  •   No vessels used a sea anchor or drogue
     
  •   The shortest boat to actually finish the race was 32 feet in length
     
  •   All fatalities occurred on boats less than 39 feet in length
     
  •   All boats lost or abandon were less than 37 feet in length
     
  •   Search and rescue aircrews estimated winds at 60-65 knots, seas 50-60 feet

These statistics suggest to me that lying ahull or running off is not the safest tactic.  Rather, heaving to should be the favored method.  A sea anchor can be of great assistance in holding the boat in a hove to configuration, especially when used with a Pardey bridle.  Use of a drogue implies running with the wind.  With a sea state near the boat/sailor limits this tactic could be risky.  It seems reasonable to me that a boat would take heavy seas better on the bow, not over the side or on the stern.  Heaving to configures the boat to take seas this way.  This video is a good analysis of storm tactics as they relate to sea anchors.  This short document describes proper sea anchor deployment.  Another great paper on heavy weather tactics.

When I returned to Dallas, I went back and dug up the weather RADAR images over my outbound route.  I discovered the NOAA marine forecasts had been way off.  Instead of scattered thunderstorms during the first half of the outbound leg, a nearly solid band of thunderstorms marched through the area.  That wasn't the worst of it though, rather it was the early arrival of the cold front.  The front was forecast to arrive Wednesday evening but instead arrived 18 hours early.  The front caught me right in the middle of the outbound leg.  How could the NOAA forecast have been so far off the mark?  After the front passed, the weather was pretty good.  The NOAA was wrong about that too.  They had forecast high winds and seas following the front.  In retrospect, if I had simply waited one day to depart, the weather would have been fine for the outbound journey.  The accuracy of these marine forecasts is paramount to safety.  It's a marvel the NOAA got it so wrong.

Below is a snapshot of the weather RADAR every thirty minutes during the outbound leg.  My location is marked with a red cross.