The story of an open water crossing of a small boat in heavy weather
I know this story will be both admired and ridiculed. Some will read with interest and others with scorn. Some might look at it with an eye towards criticism, pointing out the lack of preparation, proper safety gear and all round lack of regard for human safety associated with taking a small boat to sea. Others, with larger boats, might make light of such a short crossing. A few might smile with admiration and cheer the fact that a small boat was able to make such a voyage. Small boat sailors may take heart in the fact that a boat the size of their own can sail in the open seas in the conditions we experienced. Still, it’s a story worth telling. It has a message for many of those who love to sail. It’s a simple account of a small boat crossing a large body of water in heavy weather.
I’ve always thought it wise to push the envelope a little when it comes to sailing in heavy weather under known conditions, and in local waters. I reasoned that if one had experience under somewhat controlled conditions they might be more prepared when heavy weather conditions couldn’t be avoided. Controlled conditions; meaning that you know the weather forecast and have taken the appropriate measures to make the outing a relatively safe one, and having an alternate plan in place in case the conditions are more pronounced than expected. Often we would plan a trip out into the gulf through the Pensacola pass. We would have several miles of sailing prior to actually leaving the sheltered waters of the bay and a nice wide pass to enter the Gulf through. If things got bad it would generally be an evolution from mild to bad and enough time to call off the excursion and return to the bay. Often we would plan an overnight trip and then return in the middle of the night
I will be the first to admit the voyage in this story was more adventurous than any of us had bargained for. The tale though, reminds us that long before the era of GPS, radio, EPIRBs, autopilots and seemingly limitless budgets and safety equipment, small boats were crossing oceans with little more than a hull and simple sailing rigs. The men who sailed in those days were willing to sail by the seat of their pants with navigational and safety gear that consisted of little more than using their eyes to look at the heavens and having a thorough knowledge of their boat and how to sail it. Certainly those sailors were more closely bound to the sea than those of us that are in constant communications with others through radios, cell phones, TV, radar and GPS. The sailors I’m talking about knew far more about how to deal with adversity at sea than most of us today. There are lessons that can only be learned when there are serious challenges to be met and there is no chance of outside help. Generally, sailors are more self-reliant than the majority of the modern world, but even we use our electronics, engines and wallets to get us out of many circumstances that might cause us discomfort or fear.
So take what you will from the account that follows. If you can’t learn something worthwhile from it, I hope you will at least be entertained by the story of “three men in a tub”!
The “three men in a tub”…“Tom”, a friend of mine from work, my dad “Jim” and myself. Tom had some sailing experience on small boats. He had bought my old 22 foot Chrysler sailboat a few years earlier and could sail it well enough to get where he wanted to go in the bay. Tom is in his mid 40s and in pretty decent physical shape. My dad, who was in his early 70s, is in better shape than Tom or me. He’s probably got more adventure in him than the law allows. He’s used to activities that require physical endurance. He regularly bicycles several miles with an inflatable raft on the back and then paddles the raft with the bike across the front, back home. He’s been boating with me for several years but hasn’t had any experience to speak of, with the actual sailing of the boat. I am in my late forties and in decent shape. I have been sailing and boating for about 20 years. I read anything related to sailing that I get my hands on and routinely sail in moderate to rough conditions in and around the Pensacola area. I currently own, and sail, a Swedish designed “International Folkboat”. The Folkboats were designed for open water sailing in the North Atlantic and many of these little boats have been circumnavigated. She’s sturdy enough to allow for my abuse while keeping me safe all the while. Tom and Dad had both sailed with me previously on the Folkboat for short excursions into the Gulf during moderately heavy weather conditions and at night.
The boat in the story…The 1968 23-foot O’Day Tempest has a fixed keel and 3’9” draft. The cockpit is enormous with more than 7 feet of seating on each side with a large lazzerette on the stern. That leaves little more than a cuddy cabin in front of the cockpit. There is a combination V-berth and bench seating in the bow. Two small 20-inch wide boxes sit just aft of both the V-berth benches. One contains the virtually useless sink and the other a porta-poti. There are the typical storage areas and accessories associated with boat of its size and age. This particular boat had been fitted with roller furling for the 110% headsail and it also had a four-stroke Yamaha electric-start 9.9hp engine mounted on an after market mount that hung on the transom.
I won’t go into too much detail about the history of the purchase, but the boat was bought for two basic purposes. First, the price was too good to be true. $1500 for both boat and motor was an obvious bargain. The motor probably cost $2500 when new, and it was nearly unused. After a thorough cleaning and inspection, I discovered the boat, though old, was in surprisingly good condition structurally and cosmetically. Roller furling on the $1500 boat was another bonus. Basically, the boat and motor would sell easily for nearly double what I paid for them (I actually got $2700). The second and most important reason for buying the boat was for the trip that would be required to get it back to Pensacola from Hudson Florida where I bought it. It’s roughly 425 miles by highway to Hudson from Pensacola but the open water route is only 320. The longest distance between possible landfalls would only be about 150 miles between Hudson and the pass at the east end of Apalachicola Bay. All my crew had some time/vacation, and we were all ready for a little adventure, so a 4-5 day sailing trip sounded like a lot of fun.
I had been to Hudson twice to look at the boat and to do some cleaning before the trip and had seen the boat a couple times before that (it belonged to a friend of mine). I had cleaned it and scrubbed the bottom using my friend’s scuba gear. After cleaning, I had inspected everything as well as possible without stepping the mast and everything looked great. We took plenty of supplies & equipment for a 4 or 5-day trip. Besides the obvious we had 2 handheld GPS’s, 2 handheld VHF radios, a rubber raft, 15 gallons of gas, and a long list of extra gear and equipment that might be needed. We had watched the weather reports and had all the latest Internet wind and wave models for the following 3 days. As it turns out, we had everything we would need for the trip plus more.
The weather forecast called for 15 to 20 knot winds from the northeast gradually moving to the southeast over the three days. The wave models for the same three days showed 3 to 4 foot seas moving in the same direction as the wind. Our shortest route and rumbline course was 299 degrees northwest to Pensacola. It was a little more wind that I would have liked for a small, untested, boat crossing. Still, the wind would be on our beam, or aft of it, for the entire trip and there was over a thousand of miles of open water to leeward. I had enough experience in open waters to know that being able to go a thousand miles downwind without hitting anything meant almost everything with regard to safety at sea. Consequently, we decided this was the date for the trip. We had a friend drive us down and we provisioned the boat and checked into a nearby hotel for a little sleep before the departure. The following is the story/log of the trip.
March 6th Saturday – 9:30
We had checked out of the hotel and driven to Thom’s dock where the boat was moored. Thom provided a case of beer as a bon voyage gift just before we cast off. After stowing the beer in the cockpit locker and a few last minute tweaks we were on our way. We left Hudson Florida (Near Tarpon Springs) and motored out the mile long canal and into the narrow channel into the Gulf. We enjoyed the sunshine and gentle breeze from the north as we motored out. After reaching the end of the channel we raised the sails and motor-sailed on our course (299 degrees northwest) directly towards Pensacola. We thought it would be best to use the motor to maximize our speed. Before dark, we wanted to be past all the crab traps that litter the water for several miles out in the shallow water off the west coast of Florida.
March 6th Saturday – Noon
After about 3 hours of motor sailing we shut the motor off and continued sailing with the 10-knot winds off our starboard beam. A picnic lunch of beef jerky, chips and assorted junk food was eaten as we discussed our strategy for trying to alternate time for resting and keeping watch. We knew it would be difficult for any of us to sleep on the first few hours of the trip but we also knew it was going to be a long night. We agreed that one of us should rest in the cabin lying down while the other two went about the chores of sailing and keeping watch. Using the Magellan 330-M handheld GPS, we monitored our position every couple hours. We used the Navico auto tiller rigged with a makeshift mount and set back to enjoy the ride. The winds had picked up to 10 – 15 knots from the north and we were on a beam reach to the West/Northwest. The ride was very comfortable and the boat seemed very sea kindly. We talked about a very pleasant crossing with perfect conditions.
March 6th Saturday – 3:30 PM
The wind had increased to 15 to 20 knots and the seas had built to 3 to 4 feet. Both were coming from the aft starboard quarter. We decided to reef the mainsail since we were making hull speed and wanted to be prepared for possible higher winds. We had planned to reef at night anyway, for safety consideration and because we were in no great hurry. The winds were just about all the little boat could handle without being uncomfortable and wet. According the GPS we were making about 6 knots on a rumbline for Pensacola. We disconnected the auto tiller because it was working itself to death trying to compensate for the yawing and pitching the boat was doing in the short choppy waves of the shallow side of the Gulf of Mexico. I was easily hand steering.
March 6th Saturday – 8:00 PM
The winds had increased to a steady 20 knots and there were whitecaps on nearly all the waves. It was well past twilight and getting very dark. We were uncomfortable in cooling nighttime temperatures and because of the spray coming off the top of the waves as they caught up to the boat from our starboard quarter. The wave height just before dark seemed to be about 5 feet and obviously growing. The temperature had dropped to just above 50 degrees. We all had on ponchos or raincoats to keep us warm and semi-dry. Although the sky was still clear with the stars just emerging, it was obviously becoming more of the adventure we had hoped for. We kidded each other about not having to make up a sea story after all.
All hell broke loose. The backstay
masthead swage fitting and the mast
dangerously towards the bow.
March 6th Saturday – 8:20 PM
All hell broke loose. The backstay parted at the masthead swage fitting and the mast swayed dangerously towards the bow. Everyone was immediately aware that something had gone wrong. I yelled that the whole rig might go as I grabbed the mainsheet to pull the mainsail in tight as an emergency backstay. Tom grabbed the roller furling line and quickly furled the headsail. At the same time I turned the boat into the wind in an effort to use the wind to help hold the mast from falling forward. Dad was in the companionway observing the effects on the mast and communicating the results to both Tom and myself. It was almost immediately apparent that sheeting in the mainsail had worked and that the mast was going to stand as long as the mainsail was sheeted in hard. After close examination with the flashlights and searchlight, it seemed as though no damage had been done other than the broken backstay. After a brief discussion and assessing the situation, we cautiously turned off the wind and resumed our course. After bringing in the trailing wire backstay and coiling it and securing it to the stern, everyone relaxed a bit. All of the activity had taken less than a couple minutes but had seemed much longer and we were exhausted from the adrenalin rush.
March 6th Saturday – 8:30 PM
As everyone calmed down, we continued to watch the rigging. We listened to every moan and grown the boat made as though something else might break at any moment. After nearly an hour of vigilant scrutiny we became more confident that the mast was going to hold up just fine unless something else happened. We thanked our lucky stars we had reefed early and hadn’t had the mainsail winged out so far as to allow the forward motion of the mast to move more than had occurred. We decided to leave the jib furled and use the sheeted in, reefed, mainsail alone for the remainder of the night. We had been discussing our options and had decided to continue on. We were more than 50 miles offshore and returning to Tarpon Springs with the wind and waves shifting to the eastward was out of the question. Besides, it seemed like we had things under control and no one was overly concerned about our ultimate safety. The wind seemed to have eased up a bit and it looked as though the worse had passed. Exhausted, I took a turn in the cabin while Dad took the tiller. Although the winds had indeed shifted more to the east, the noise from the wind and motion of the boat was so much that I couldn’t get much rest. Dad was using the big dipper to steer by and making small talk with Tom. I couldn’t sleep but was content to lay in the relative comfort of the cabin. Sometime around 9:30pm I heard the sound of a pop-top can being opened and realized Tom and dad were drinking a beer in celebration of the calming conditions and having dealt with the worst of the trip. I yelled to them to make sure we didn’t end up in Mexico or Cuba while they were celebrating. In hindsight their celebration turned out to be grossly premature.
March 6th Saturday – 11:00 PM
The winds had returned and were even stronger than before. We estimated the strength at 25 knots and gusty. The noise from the wind in the rigging caused a steady shrieking sound. The increased motion and the concern in Tom and Dad’s voices awakened me from my feeble attempt at sleep. I crawled out of the cabin to see what was going on. The seas were difficult to see but had undoubtedly grown even larger than before. We guessed they were between 5 to 6 feet (10 to 12 feet from top of the swell to bottom of the trough). Luckily, the winds and waves were beginning to move even more to the east like the forecasts had said they would. Our experience over the previous few hours helped us feel like we were able to cope with the conditions and we bravely pressed on.
March 6th Sunday 2:30am
Many of the white-capping waves were producing a spray over the stern as they passed. We checked the GPS and were still making 5mph with sheeted and reefed mainsail alone. We were miserably cold and wet, but having a good time of it. Steering in the heavy seas was very tiring and we were taking 1 to 2 hours shifts at the tiller. Tom took a turn in the cabin while Dad steered and I lay down in the cockpit floor. There was nearly and inch of water in the cockpit floor sloshing around me as I lay there, but I was exhausted and it seemed relatively comfortable.
March 7th Sunday – 4:30 AM
Dad had taken his turn on the cockpit floor around 3:30am and was resting while I steered. Around 4:30 it began to get light enough to see. The winds had eased a little and we had become accustomed to the conditions. With the dawn approaching we could begin to see the sea conditions we had been sailing in. The gray waves looked awesome with the white foam whipping off their tops making them look even more ferocious as they rolled past us. Still, the daylight had brought everyone’s spirits up and we were confident that we were going to be just fine. We were more than half way across the 150-mile distance to the closest landfall where we could enter a pass into the safety of the Intracoastal Waterway. The Rumbline to Pensacola would take us with 20 miles of the Apalachicola Pass and we had planned to use it as an escape route if things got rough. As of Sunday morning though, we were still planning to continue on to Pensacola in the open waters of the Gulf. Surely the worse was passed and things would only get better as we continued.
March 7th Sunday – Noon
The daylight sailing was much more pleasant than the previous night had been. The seas had continued to build throughout the morning and were between 7 & 8 feet by noon. The temperature had warmed to the mid 70s and we began to feel pretty comfortable as long as we kept the plastic rain suits on. We munched on more beef jerky and junk food since it was still much too rough to cook or even make coffee. The wind in the rigging was even louder than before. Nearly all the waves were white capping and many of the whitecaps were being blown into spray off the tops of the waves. The little boat continued to earn our respect for its sea-kindly motion and seaworthiness. We were beginning to get concerned that we were in for another long night. The winds were obviously well above the 20 to 25 knot range and the waves just kept getting bigger all the time. It seemed strange to have the high winds last so long. Usually the northern Gulf of Mexico it is strange to have winds in excess of 15 to 20 knots for any prolonged periods of time. Strong winds in a rainstorm are more the norm for heavy weather other than during hurricane season. Still, they say March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb! Knowing that we would pass the Apalachicola Pass “escape route” in the coming night unless we make a decision to use it before hand, we discussed it. Although our emergency repairs are holding up well, the weather seemed to be continuing to deteriorate rather than get better. Approaching a lee shore, and its shallower water, would be dangerous even if we decided to use the pass. Sailing past Apalachicola meant the next pass would be Panama City 50 miles further to the west. We didn’t even consider Saint Joe because of the shallow water and the fact that we would have to sail around the point and then back into the wind to enter the pass. Beyond Panama City would be Destin’s narrow pass. Destin would be scary at best with its 100-yard wide pass. It would call for a “do or die” approach and we weren’t about to try that. The prudent thing to do was to enter the eastern pass of Apalachicola between Dog Island and St. George Island. The pass is nearly half a mile wide and deep enough for most of that width for a small boat to enter. We would have lots of room for error and that made it the unanimous choice for all three of us.
The weather seemed to be continuing to
deteriorate rather than get better. Approaching
a lee shore, and its shallower water, would be
dangerous even if we decided to use the pass.
With the decision made, we set a “go to” into the GPS that would take us directly to the outermost buoy of the Apalachicola pass. Now we needed to figure out how to slow down. With the reefed mainsail still holding the mast up, we couldn’t shorten sail. We were already sailing nearly dead away form the wind with the mainsheet hauled tight. That meant the sail was catching as little wind as possible while still up. Still, we were making more than 5 knots. At 5 knots we would reach the pass in the middle of the night. There was no way we wanted to enter a strange pass in the middle of the night with monstrous seas getting worse & worse as we get into the shallower waters of the pass. We decided to continue sailing but to jibe back & forth in an effort to have to cover more miles before arriving at the pass. Jibing is inherently dangerous in heavy weather and we were concerned with our emergency repairs on the backstay. Without a headsail, if we turned too far one-way or the other, the off balanced sail plan might allow the wind to spin us around so that we would face the oncoming waves. Regardless, we couldn’t come up with a better plan and decided to try the jibing plan. Tom and Dad were doing a good job and there didn’t seem to be any fear or apprehension among the crew other than my own internal thoughts regarding the pass. I knew the waves were going to be much steeper as we approached the shallower waters. I was concerned that they might be breaking well out from the pass. With the low freeboard of the O’Day and the 7-foot long cockpit and 3-inch bridge-deck, being swamped from a wave was a real possibility and a potentially disastrous one. I kept my thoughts to myself since sharing them wouldn’t have served any useful purpose and could only cause more concern about something we had little control of.
March 7th Sunday –6:00pm
By nighttime the winds had begun to howl instead of whistle. We were all exhausted from taking turns on the dreaded arm-killing tiller. Keeping the boat on course with the yawing from the passing waves and unbalanced rig was very demanding. The skies were still clear and Dad’s “Big Dipper” continued to show us the way as we sailing on into the night. I took the tiller at midnight. We checked our position on the GPS and were only 20 miles southeast of the pass. Although this was the perfect position for entering the pass, it was way too early to get there. Luckily, the jibing back & forth had slowed us way down with respect to our speed directly towards the pass. We were close enough to receive radio signals on the VHF radio and the weather band was reporting small craft advisories with winds at a 30 knots and gusty with 9-foot choppy seas (18 feet from the bottom of the swell to the crest of the wave). In addition, there was no chance of the winds subsiding before we got to the pass. It was not good news.
March 8th Monday – 1:00am
By 1:00am on Monday morning I could hardly keep my eyes open. Dad was in the cabin resting and Tom lay in the cockpit sole with his eyes shut. I told Tom I needed him to relieve me and he muttered “just another minute or two”. It was obvious that we were all dead tired and needed to do something to relieve some of the danger associated with what we were doing. I yelled to Dad to wake up and for all hands to man their stations. I explained that we needed to get the mainsail down without losing the mast in the process. With the reefed mainsail holding the mast up we were sailing towards a lee shore at a speed that would get us there before daylight. We were making well above 5 knots with the reefed mainsail sheeted as tight as possible and catching as little wind as possible. After a few minutes of discussion we decided we would throw a line over the spreaders and cleat it off to the aft cleats. That should hold the mast from moving forward when we lowered the sail. When the sail was lowered, we would reattach the mainsail halyard to the end of the boom and sheet the boom down to assist in holding the mast aft. We knew it was easier said than done on a small, rolling, pitching platform in the dark that we would be trying it on. Tom was elected to throw the line and miraculously he got it over the spreader the first toss. We tightened the line down in a similar fashion to a running backstay and all agreed it looked like it would do the job. With the mast supported by the running backstay we formulated a plan for lowering the mainsail. Tom took the tiller and was going to turn us into the wind for just long enough to yank down the sail. I tied myself to a line attached to the boat and was standing on the cabin roof holding onto the mast for balance. My job was to help pull the sail down the mast track when Dad slackened the mainsail halyard. Dad was standing in the companionway with the mainsail halyard and would drop the sail when ready and then use the bitter end to lash the sail to the mast when it was lowered. Turing into the wind and waves was a bit scary but we were able to get the sail down as planned and turn back off the wind immediately afterwards. The effect of lowering all sails and sailing under bare poles was dramatic. The weather seemed to have decreased significantly, the motion of the boat became more comfortable and even the wind seemed not to be howling so loud. On the down side, we were still making 2.5knots towards a lee shore with limited ability to steer anywhere but straight away from the wind. Without the wind’s steady pressure on the sail the boat rolled and pitched more violently.
March 8th Monday – 2:30am
At 2:30am on Monday morning we saw a large well-lit ship to our northeast. As it approached we decided it was a commercial fishing craft of some sort. It was huge, much larger than the shrimp trawlers we were used to seeing in Pensacola area. It looked as though it had every light on and lit up the ship so well it was easy to see as it appeared on the horizon. We tried to hail the ship on the VHF radio for several minutes but it became obvious that they were not monitoring channel 16. We were concerned that he might not see us and could possibly run us down. Regardless of whether he couldn’t or wouldn’t respond, he passed more than a mile ahead of us and was undoubtedly headed for the same pass as we were. We knew we were to the west of the pass and the ship’s course validated that. We were going to have to get further east in order to be lined up with the pass entrance when we reached land, but without the sail we couldn’t get the boat to steer the course needed. We knew we would eventually have to make a decision to enter the more dangerous narrow western pass to the Apalachicola Bay or use the motor to help us get further east.
March 8th Monday – 4-30
Land ho! As the dawn’s earliest lights revealed the horizon we saw the shoreline west of the pass. We were still way too far west; the pass is nearly as far to the east as the shoreline is to the north. We know we can’t go northeast under bare poles and will have to try to lower the outboard and try to use it. We hadn’t used the motor since Saturday and don’t know how it will respond after all the water that has poured over it in the last couple days. After carefully sliding out onto the lazzerette with Dad holding onto my legs and lowered the heavy 9.9hp four-stroke into the water we pushed the starter button. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief as the engine started right up. An engine never sounded so good as that little outboard did that cold morning in March. Now we could make good speed in any direction. The challenge now would be how to avoid being swamped by the steep waves as we turned broadside to them to get to the east. After a brief discussion it was decided that I would take the tiller and Dad and Tom would stand by with buckets ready to bail if the needed. We would head east as much as possible. As we motored eastward and broadside to the waves, we would ride up the side of the steep oncoming swells and then drop sharply off the backside. Just as we would reach the tops of the waves the foaming froth from the nearly breaking waves would spill into the large cockpit and Tom and Dad would frantically bail the water back out. Occasionally, a larger wave with a boiling crest of white water would half fill the cockpit and I would turn away form the wind to give Tom and Dad a chance to catch up with the water slopping around inside the cockpit. We would surf down a couple waves and then turn back to the east and do it all over again. Steering and keeping an eye on the waves and shoreline I could only catch glimpses of Tom and Dad frantically bailing the water out. As we angled towards the pass the waves became steeper and steeper with some actually breaking. The motor stayed in the water most of the time. We were surprised that it didn’t cavitate as we crested the waves but the little boat continued to earn our respect as a seaworthy vessel. Even though this was potentially the most dangerous part of the trip to date, we were all pretty confident that we would be able to make it to shore even if we were swamped and had to float to shore. After all, the wind and waves would carry us along towards the sandy shoreline without any effort at all.
When we finally were far enough to the east to make the “do or die” commitment to enter the pass we pointed the boat towards the middle of the pass and began surfing the waves in. Although the waves got steeper and many were breaking, they got smaller and smaller as the water’s depth diminished. By the time we were actually in the channel, the waves seemed tame and posed little threat compared to the monsters out in the gulf. Still, we were careful to take them on our quarter and surf down their steep breaking slopes on the way in. As soon as we got past the end of St. George Island, we turned west behind the land mass and the protection it offered from the wind and waves.
As it turns out, it was a good thing we opted for the Apalachicola escape route. The winds continued for another day and it rained cats and dogs. The conditions would have been nearly unbearable with the rain, cold and little shelter on the boat. Steering without the aid of the stars would have been much more difficult. After gaining the shelter St. George Island offered we were able to motor along in a relatively peaceful manner with only the choppy Apalachicola Bay to contend with. We motored for several hours following the markers to the entrance of the ICW (Intracoastal Waterway). We stopped at the marina near the entrance and stepped off the little boat for the first time in over fifty hours of rocking and rolling. We were giddy with our accomplishment and our survival. We took advantage of the warm restrooms and facilities then topped off the gas before continuing.
I won’t bother telling you about the pleasantries of motoring from Apalachicola to Pensacola on the ICW but even with the accompanying rain it was a wonderful trip. The lessons were learned during the time at sea and that’s the part I was anxious to share. I hope you found the story of “Three Men In A Tub” entertaining if not enlightening. I can’t imagine 2 better mates to sail with. By the way, whenever I ask Tom and Dad if they want to go sailing they take a great deal more interest in the planning, equipment and provisions involved in the proposed trip!