* * A version of this was published in the Sept/Oct 2012 issue of Small Craft Advisor. * *
"We are plain quiet folk and have no use for
adventures. Nasty disturbing
uncomfortable things! Make you late for
dinner! I can't think what anybody sees
in them," said Mr. Baggins.
Sailing off Naples
The 2012 Everglades Challenge will be one for the history books. Over 80 boats sat on the beach at Fort DeSoto in St. Petersburg, Florida for the start. 8 boats decided not to leave the beach at the start. 15 boats were in the Ultramarathon, the 67 mile first leg (only 3 finished). 60 Boats were in the 300 Mile Everglades Challenge (St. Petersburg to Key Largo) and 17 finished. 11 were entered in the 1200 mile Ultimate Florida Challenge and 7 made it as far as Key Largo (the Everglades Challenge finish), and 4 boats finished the whole circumnavigation. I'll do another post with pictures and more tales of that.
Friday was the gathering time. All 86 boats were put on the beach at Fort DeSoto, and equipment inspections made for the safety requirements. Old friends were reunited while new friends were made. I was racing with Greybeard*, my partner in five previous Everglades Challenges and the veteran of three other WaterTribe Challenges with his son before we teamed up.
Saturday morning at 0 dark thirty, competitors gathered with headlamps to make final adjustments, go to the roll call, and prepare for the 7 AM start. There was some apprehension in the air: the winds of around 15 with gusts to 20 were blowing straight onshore. Eight competitors decided to abort their race right there, and one mother-son team (Sandy Bottom and SonOfSandy - SOS*) decided to wait 36 hours before launch (they ended up winning the Ultimate Florida!). When the air horn sounded, the rest pushed off into the surf.
It was a wet ride, beating into the wind the four miles across Tampa Bay, four foot waves breaking over the bow and dodger of our boat. The boat, a Core Sound 20 designed by Graham Byrnes (see my February 6 post for pictures), is very capable, and my racing partner, Greybeard, and I are finally getting to the point where we trust her in big seas and high winds. It was rough going for the whole fleet.
Part of the Everglades Challenge is making choices about routes. You can go inside down the Intercoastal Waterway (ICW), or you can go outside in the open Gulf. Every previous year, Greybeard and I have gone outside, but this year would be different. With the exception of a few very capable multi-hulls and one monohull (a Lightning open sailboat), everybody decided to avoid the predicted 5-7 foot waves on the outside and seek the protection of the ICW.
What we encountered inside was a foul tidal current which, coupled with a wind on the nose and draw bridges, really slowed us down. We were the second monohull off of Tampa Bay, but it took 2 1/2 hours to get around the first bridge and 45 minutes to get around the next one. From there, we had more room to tack and, with the exception of very light winds behind the island (Jewfish Key?) at Longboat Pass, we made good time down to Sarasota Bay. Tacking across the bay itself was a pound into steep 2-3 foot waves. We reached the big Sarasota bridge about an hour after dark.
Even though the moon was up, the cloudy sky blocked most of the light, and we were tacking though twisting channels in residential canals. When we got to the Siesta Key Bridge, we tied up to the bulkhead in the lee of the causeway. We were expecting a wind shift to the West and then North with 30-40 kt speeds. There we devised a plan to get some rest, wait for the wind shift, then quickly move the boat to the other side of the bridge and causeway for protection from the new winds.
At about 5:30 AM, old friends Dudley and Priscilla Fort woke us up to warn us of the winds and take us to breakfast. We had to turn down the invitation because the wind shift was starting. We were able to sail off the bulkhead, through the bridge, and back onto the bulkhead on the other side. We tied up and quickly returned to help fellow competitor, Mr. Moon, get his Core Sound 17 around to the new lee side. After that, we all fixed breakfast and discussed what to do next.
The Frontal Passage at the South end of Sarasota Bay
The decision was to call a weather hold. When we went over to the North side of the bridge, we could not even stand against the wind. The video above gives a good idea of what we saw.
After watching several competitors pass (many spent the night at and around the Sarasota Sailing Squadron),we joined Mr. Moon pushing off around 1:30 PM.
Sailing down Little Sarasota Bay after the storm and weather hold (that's Mr. Moon in the background)
After that, we made ourselves look like absolute beginners fighting wind and current pushing us into the next three draw bridges, but we somehow made it. The dogleg around the Venice Airport was a bit slow, but the rest of the ride into Checkpoint 1 at Placida was fast. We signed in at 11:19, and immediately went back you to sail down Pine Island Sound in the moonlight. We were sailing on unreefed sails, and we needed all of that power to get us across the mouth of Boca Grande because the tide was draining out of the Sound and Charlotte Harbor, trying to carry us with it into the open Gulf. We felt that the seas and wind were still too big to do that at night.
Dawn found us at the west bridge on the Sanibel causeway, where we anchored, ate breakfast, and reefed sails for the trip outside. We decided to sail close to the beach (about 1 mile out) rather than the straight line route to Marco. The wind was still strong, but it had an easterly component so that the seas were not too high. During the day, the winds had lightened some, and we arrived at Caxambus Pass below Marco Island mid afternoon.
We made it successfully through the shallow passage to Gullivans Bay and were sailing into Indian Key at 5:30, right at low tide. There was a beautiful sunset and we would have help from the tide going in to Checkpoint 2 at Chokoloskee.
Greybeard (my sailing partner) at the helm at sunset at Indian Key
Right as we neared Indian Key, SewSew emerged from behind out sails (we didn't see him coming). He had gone on the outside in enormous seas (they looked like mountains from our sail along the beach where we were sailing), and it took him 20 miles below Indian Key. He had just finished tacking back.
We tacked into Chokoloskee Bay with the tide and light, fluky winds, then had a nice run down the bay with board up. I called Ann on the way in and she told us we were in 4th place and first in our class (monohull sailboats - all those ahead of us were multihulls). We signed in, then got a hundred yards off shore to eat and get a nap until we had a falling tide to ride out.
At about 1 AM we sailed out Rabbit Key Pass in the moonlight and had a great, fast broad reach down the coast in about 15-20 kts. of wind. Below is a short film of the dawn off Highland Beach.
Dawn off Highland Beach in the Everglades
Aftern filming this, I listened to the marine weather on the VHF. Overnight, they had added an easterly shift and a prediction of Gale Force winds (30-40 kts). As we rounded Northwest Cape of Cape Sable (where mainland Florida ends in the remote Everglades), I woke Greybeard up and told him we were going to pull into the beach and reef.
We pulled up about 150 yards from the beautiful crescent beach between Northwest Cape and Middle Cape and hove to. We both went to the foredeck to reef the main. As we were tying in the reefing points and moving the sprit boom, a strong gust hit us at about 90 degrees to the 15-20 kt. winds we were in. Park headquarters recorded that gust at 40 kts. We were over in an instant!
The flat bottom of the boat was perpendicular to the wind, the sails and masts being pushed downward, and the wind was now howling at over 30. I swam around to unsheet the mizzen and Greybeard climbed onto the centerboard. When I joined him on the centerboard, the boat came slowly upright with water at the level of the seats. We climbers aboard and bailed like crazy while we were being pushed out to sea. That finished, we saw that the main mast and sail were still in the water. I thought at first that the main mast had come out of its step, but it was broken off.
We radioed the Coast Guard to have them send Tow Boat US, but they kept trying to turn it into a rescue, and Tow Boat US was unwilling to come out in that weather. The Coast Guard dispatched a Civil Air Patrol plane to stay overhead and relay our messages.
By now we were west of the park boundary markers a couple of miles offshore and blowing toward Mexico. The anchor was gone overboard. We rigged the mizzen in the middle step, pulled the main mast with sail and rigging aboard, and sailed slowly into the steep and building waves back to the beach. (The Coast Guard asked us not to sail into the beach. I guess they thought we were a bigger keel boat. But, if they rescued us, they would leave the boat abandoned, and I was not going to do that.)
We got to the beach, still talking to the plane, and a Park Ranger arrived. He said he could only tow us to safety, so we set up the crutches, lowered the mizzen, and rigged her for towing. A Coast Guard RIB arrived at the Park Boundary, but did not come in. Since the Park Ranger did not have the channel (22A) that we were using to talk with the Coats Guard, he motored out to them to talk, but the wind was too high for them to talk with one another.
The boat was towed into a mangrove creek off the canal to Lake Ingram and tied into the mangroves, and the Ranger gave us a ride the 20 miles back to Flamingo. The Ranger was very pleasant, complimentary of our preparation, and there was no charge for this cheerful help. A real pro! The Park Service is s shining light!
A map of our track during the knockdown and recovery
This was all Tuesday morning. Tow Boat US waited until Friday morning for the seas and winds to die down enough to tow the boat in. We lost the anchor, sleeping pads, and one of the floorboards I built to make it into a sleeping platform. The main was broken, and where it was against the side the boat was pretty well gouged up. Repair work ahead!
I'll post more pictures of the other Watertribers and their boats and stories later.
Damage to the end of the mast where it broke
gouging on the side of the boat from the mast end
Discussions with the designer of the Core Sound series of boats, Graham Byrnes, may lend some insight into our knockdown. He thinks that when both of us moved to the bow, it may have lifted the transom, compromising the boat's strong form stability. He said that he was knocked down in the EC 22 when he went forward to fix something.
*I will use WaterTribe names in this article. This will allow those who are interested to go to the watertribe.org web site and get more details.