"Man must have just enough faith in himself to have adventures and just
enough doubt of himself to enjoy them." -
"The sea is selective, slow at recognition of effort and
aptitude, but fast in sinking the unfit." - Admiral Felix Riesenberg
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
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.
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
Dodging freighter traffic in the Florida straights could be
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,
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
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
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.
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
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.
found the trailer storage lot next door; no one there.
I headed into town and got lunch. Found a Home Depot and bought an
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.
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
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.
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 to 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
In late afternoon, I discovered that the starboard
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
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.
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
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
The only things that could have made it harder were sharks
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
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 blazed 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 a 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
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
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
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
the waves within ±15° to keep the rolling
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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? Que
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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 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
I strolled around the fort, paddled the kayak around the harbor for a
while 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
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.
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.
Voilà, it worked great!
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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, palmettos, 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.
Sundog anchored about 450 feet off Loggerhead Key.
I walked around the southern half of the island. Found a giant conch
shell that I really wanted to keep, but 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 coral encrusted pilings. When I swam up to the
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
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
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
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.
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 muttered, “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
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.
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
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
I got back
on my kayak and paddled around the harbor. Headed back to the boat for
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
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
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
hurricane of 1935 washed it away. Now it's just a sandy, shallow
spot. This category 5 hurricane is mentioned in the Humphrey Bogart
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
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
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, but I WAS making good headway
at 5-6 knots. 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
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
sawed off piling, 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.
Seeing it at a low angle foreshortened its appearance; I couldn't see its
true length. Wow,
what an optical illusion. Hey, what if I had been sailing along, like in
that storm, and had rammed something like this? 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 thing. 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
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
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
sea turtle. The little guy was sure far from land. I must have been
40 miles north of the Tortugas at that point.
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
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
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.
early afternoon, I noticed a thumping noise coming from the rudder.
Upon close examination, I found the lower bracket bolts on my
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
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
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 for 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
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
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 ⅔rds
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
Would I do it again? You bet!
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
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 was 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
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 11 months for the pain to subside and the foot to return to almost normal.
My toenail fully grew back after 17 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 these devices to signal for help.
It occurred to me that when working on deck, I should heave
to. This stabilizes the boat and should 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
70 disabled and towed
Of the 275 vessels in distress, the following measures had
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.
is a good analysis of storm tactics as they relate to sea anchors.
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
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
Below is a snapshot of the weather RADAR every thirty minutes during the
outbound leg. My location is marked with a red cross.