When we left the mouth of the Anclote River there was a stiff north wind blowing 15-20 knots. It was 1100. Emily steered us through the narrow channel that leads through the grass flats on the east side of the bay as I hoisted the jib and mainsail. Once the sails were made I came back to take the tiller.
Emily and I made a deal on this crossing. She wasn’t feeling well, and I didn’t want to sit at our anchorage another day, so I decided to do all the work. I would sail the entire passage from Anclote to Marathon or Marco Island — or wherever I got too tired and needed to duck into a harbor to rest.
I fervently watched the Anclote Key lighthouse rush by us as we sailed out the pass. I have an emotional response to lighthouses now that I’ve stood watch, waiting and hoping to spot a light on the approaching, unseen shore. Searching for some indication that we were close to safety. And here we were once again, saying goodbye to the safety of land.
The waves picked up to 2-3 feet once we got out of the lee of the island, and we felt the full force of the north breeze. We were cruising at 6.5 knots with our full genoa up and a single reef in the main. The waves started rolling us on our broad reach. Emily held the tiller for a moment while I set up a sheet-to-tiller steering system.
The broad reach is really finicky when it comes to sheet-to-tiller self steering systems, but I’m getting a pretty good feel for what our boat wants. I got it rigged and the boat immediately turned downwind. As intended, she immediately corrected herself — the mainsail started to block the genoa, the sheet tied to the clew of the genoa went slack, and the bungee on the opposing side of the tiller tugged on the boat — and in just moments, she softly rounded back up, bringing us back on track. She scooped out gentle slow S-curves, nosing fully downwind and coming up, nosing downwind and coming up. I set it right on the first try. Nice.
Emily went to sleep under the shade of our new dodger, nestled into one of our new beanbags. I sat on the other beanbag, up on the stern behind the mainsheet. I watched our little boat sail itself on a broad reach for two hours as we cruised southwest along the coast, slowly leaving Clearwater and St. Petersburg behind us. It was mesmerizing to watch her turn and surf down the waves. Just as she would threaten to broach, the self-steering system would tug her at the crest, setting us up perfectly to surf the next wave. More than ever before, I felt like her caretaker. As long as I did my job right, setting her up and maintaining her correctly, she would do all the work: sailing us wherever the wind could take us.
We lost sight of land six hours into our passage. As the last pink buildings on the beach disappeared over the horizon and the water started turning a deep blue, I saw two flying fish pop out of a wave and soar through the air. The way they moved was unnatural. Any fish I have ever seen would have dropped into the back of the next wave, but this one flapped its fins and and hovered itself off over the horizon.
Thirty minutes later I spotted a sea turtle about fifty yards away. It must have been six feet long. It poked its head up then dove back down. I woke up Emily. “Sea turtle!” “Where?” She asked sleepily. “Over there! It’s gone now though.” “Oh…” she said. She said her head was pounding and went below to rest. I started to regret taking us out when she was feeling under the weather, but she seemed happy just to be on the boat as long as I didn’t need much from her.
I was happy taking care of the boat myself. Since we started this trip, I had wondered what it would feel like to single-hand the boat on a passage. I’d heard about people sailing Cape Dory 25s around the world by themselves. This was my chance to see what it feels like, at least for a little while. Just before sunset I enlisted Emily’s help swapping the genoa for the working jib and setting the second reef point. Then she went back to sleep. From that point on I let Emily rest as much as she wanted. I was on my own with the boat and I felt good.
We jibed around and started to head back towards land. The wind was forecast to shift to the east later that evening and we wanted to be a couple of miles offshore when it shifted. Then we’d be able to run on a beam reach through the night. I heated up some chicken noodle soup and watched the sunset. It’s amazing how much more pleasant it is to sail when the air is 60 degrees — it was 40 on our last passage. I was also pleased that I was comfortable enough on the boat to operate the stove and hang out below deck while it was rolling without getting too sick.
As night set and we grew closer to the Tampa shipping channel, I started to get nervous. I was on high alert looking for ships that might cross in front of us when we got into the channel. Far off on the horizon was a ship that seemed too far away to worry about, but I monitored its motion carefully. As we crossed the channel safely, I saw a massive container ship leaving Tampa. I watched it heading out into the Gulf as we sailed on our merry way. Well, there’s no missing that ship out there, I thought to myself. It looked like a house decked out with Christmas lights. I could see it miles and miles away over the next couple of hours until we each sailed over our respective horizons.
When we were 3 miles offshore, just south of Egmont Key, the wind shifted to east and picked up to 20 knots. I set up the sheet-to-tiller steering system for our beam reach and marveled at our speed. We were clipping along at 5.5 knots. I had to let the mainsail luff considerably in order to get the self steering system to cooperate, and it seemed unhappy at times, banging away in the hard wind. I hope to God I’m not hurting this sail, I thought. I allowed myself to relax on the beanbag, watching the stars, as the pounding of the sails and the waves crashing over the bow receded into the background of my consciousness. At midnight I had been on watch for 14 hours and I was getting tired. The beating of the sails and waves crashing over the side of the boat was starting to take its toll on my psyche. I trimmed the sails properly and hand steered for a little while. We picked up speed, cruising at 6.5 knots, but the waves started to really crash over the bow.
At 0100 Emily emerged from below deck. She seemed refreshed. “Whoa, we’re really getting pounded, aren’t we,” she said. She went back below and turned on the cabin light. She lifted the bilge cover and hollered, “we’ve taken on a lot of water!” The bilge was 3/4 full. A lot more than we’d like. She started the bilge pump and we started wondering why we were taking on so much water. We decided to heave to and check out the seals we had installed on the lazarette hatches. We’d taken on water that way before, and we suspected them again. Sure enough, the lazarette seals had come unglued. Waves had been pouring into the cockpit, draining through the seat hatches into the lazarettes, and dumping into our small bilge. I made the command decision to stay hove-to for a couple of hours so that I could rest without Emily having to take a watch in such difficult conditions.
I sat for a moment and watched the boat, hove-to in 20 knots of wind, with our main reefed at the second point and our full working jib up, waiting to see any sign that she might come about and send us on a wild ride. But she seemed happy, hove-to, drifting sideways at 1.5 knots. Emily took one of the bunks and I took the vee-birth. The boat was heeling about 20 degrees, so we were both nestled hard against the inside of the downwind hull.
The sounds of our boat moving through the water while being hove-to were bizarre. From time to time, we would hear a massive plowing sound from the bow, as though the boat were pitch polling into a wave and water were rushing up over the bow. When I first heard it, I hopped out of the bunk and went on deck to see what was going on — and the boat seemed fine, just as I’d left it, gently letting the two- to three-foot seas roll beneath. I decided that I would just have to let the boat make noises as she pleased until I heard the sails start to luff. Then I would know we were no longer hove-to. I lay in bed and tried to sleep, imagining that every toss and shift of the boat was her bearing off the wind and starting to run on her own. It was a strange feeling. I was able to get a little rest.
At 0500, I got up and decided to get the boat running again. It hurt to let too much of that good wind go to waste. Just as easy as we’d hove to we were back at it, plowing through the waves at 5.5 knots. Besides the little sideways jag on our GPS track, it was as if the Gulf had waited while I slept, right where we’d left off.
Emily got up at 0700 and watched the sunrise with me, then offered to take watch so that I could get some sleep. I went below and slept for two hours. When I got up, we hand bailed the bilge, which luckily hadn’t taken on too much more water. The seas started to settle a little and the wind started to let up. It felt like such a gift to have the stiff wind relax enough for us to sit in the cockpit without getting a wave in the face. But no sooner had morale begun to lift than the wind died out from under us. Damn! We had only fifteen minutes in perfect conditions — seas 1-2 feet and an easy 10 knots of wind. But it just couldn’t last. I’ve given up on hoping that the conditions will improve. Usually you end up getting what you asked for and it’s not what you wanted. I’d rather have 20 knots and be uncomfortable than be sitting in near glassy conditions with no wind.
On the other hand, no wind means that jumping off the boat and swimming in the incredible 60 foot deep water is an option. I jubilantly leapt off the top of our new dodger. With a mask and snorkel, I dove down to inspect the boat in the crystal clear water. The full keel is beautiful from underneath, encapsulated by the blue-green of the Gulf, haloed in the light of the sun shining above. I almost got vertigo looking down into the clear deep blue. My interest in free diving was further piqued. How long would I have to hold my breath to dive to sixty feet without air?
Emily and I have loved working on this boat, and our adventures so far have been fantastic life experiences. We started sailing in the waterways of North Florida — the Florida I love because it’s where I grew up. Where dark tanic waters of the deep water bayous wait under live oaks. Now it feels like we’ve entered a new realm — one of crystal clear waters and coconut trees. I’m researching breathing techniques for free diving while Emily reads up on remote keys that we want to explore around the Dry Tortugas. Spirits are high on the Hard A Lee.